On the day of her engagement, Emily Peggotty was ready to drown herself. Instead, she encountered James Steerforth and started to fall in love, or at any rate in lust, and her life took another path. For the rest of her life, she would be uncertain whether choosing to follow her original design would have been more painful for her family, or less so, but she always knew the future all of them envisaged for her would never have been hers.
She knew herself to be wicked before the world knew her as such. Only a wicked, ungrateful girl would shudder at the thought of marrying a man such as Ham, devoted, loving and kind, who cherished the dust she stepped on and never questioned a single whim she had. „The best of men, our Ham is,“ their aunt Clara sighed, and if Emily disputed this, it was only because this title was owned by Uncle Dan, who had raised both Ham and herself, children of his dead brothers. Uncle Dan, who had made it clear to her with every glance and indulgent chuckle that he wished her to to marry her cousin. When he’d first raised the subject, she’d tried to laugh him out of it and told him she would not have Ham, who was like a brother to her, and her Uncle had told her she was of course free to choose, free as a bird. Those were the words his lips spoke, but his eyes told another tale. There was such longing in his looks, in every fond glance he directed at Ham, at herself, at both of them together. Once, Emily had dreamt of becoming a lady and showering Uncle Dan with riches for all he’d done for her. Shedding childhood, she had learned this was not a goal she would ever achieve, or should even desire. Yet here was something she could do for her uncle, and the very fact it took her months and months to agree to it marked her as unworthy.
It was not that she did not love Ham. She always had; why wouldn’t she? He was steady and true as oak, and if he could not follow her wild fancies as she spun them, transforming the beaches of Yarmouth into magical places in far away realms, he never mocked them, either. Emily knew he would have died for her, and when a girl at school called Ham an oaf, Emily scratched her face and did not mind the thrashing she received from the teacher one bit. But that was when her body was still a child’s, and Ham her brother in all but name.
Becoming a woman meant he started to look at her differently. It meant he touched her differently, if he touched her at all. His hand, that strong and true hand she’d always taken for granted, was covered in sweat now and trembled if she as much as laid a finger on his arm. In former times, she’d run into the waves to help pulling the small boats on shore, but now, when her wet dresses clung to her, he looked at her as if they’d turned her into something less than Emily, some woman-shaped assemblage of flesh instead, and he a starving prisoner.
Ham was not the only one to look at her this way. But she did not mind it from the others, for they had no claim to her, and Ham did. At first, Emily hoped he would change back and be the Ham of old again to her, but after Uncle Dan spoke of marriage and she’d told him she did not want it, it grew worse, not better. Now she imagined she saw hurt as well as hunger in Ham’s eyes, as if she’d dealt him a wound which would not heal, dear Ham, her cousin-brother. Selfish, she knew she’d been selfish, and cruel. Why not say yes, and make all those she loved happy again?
Because to be Ham‘s wife would mean to destroy the last, hidden hope that her old dreams might still come true, and lead her to those sun-kissed lands Davy Copperfield had earnestly read about to her when he‘d first come to stay with them, those lands where there were creatures made of scales and where once heathen gods had walked. Because to be Ham‘s wife would not mean her old life continuing as it was, which Emily would not have minded, it would mean sharing his bed, bearing his children, and this she did not want. „Well, no good woman does,“ Mrs. Gummidge sniffed when Emily tried to explain in the vaguest of terms, „because men are as beasts, all but a few. Yet it is our duty, Eve‘s curse, not meant to be joy.“
This to Emily affirmed that she was even wickeder than she‘d supposed, because it was not the idea of the marital act as such that repelled her. When her best friend Martha had told her about kissing, giggling and blushing, ahead of Emily for the first time in learning something new, Emily had made her demonstrate and tell her more. Martha’s lips pressing on her own, her whispery breath on Emily’s skin, and those stories; all these did not make Emily feel afraid. The slipped into her dreams instead, enticing as the expensive silk she’d rarely touched. Yet imagining Ham, Ham of all the people touching her this way only induced a faint sense of sickness and disgust, and yet more guilt.
At last, Emily snapped. She’d say yes to Ham and make them all happy, she decided, and then she would let the sea have her. The sea had taken her father, and Ham’s father, too, and many others in Yarmouth. She‘d always known it was waiting for one more of her family; and this sometimes made her afraid, and sometimes wonder what it would feel like. At any rate, it would cause grief, yet not surprise, not truly. She‘d make it look like an accident, so they could bury her in holy ground. Having decided this, she felt free for the first time in years, giddily so, and even Ham’s awkward embrace when she told him she would marry him did not matter anymore.
In that moment of joy and liberation, with everyone she loved glowing with happiness and united in celebration, a dream of her past blew into her home and brought the gale of her future with him. Emily hadn‘t seen David Copperfield, Mas‘r Davy as Ham and Uncle Dan still called him, for years. They‘d once been children running on the beach together, but she‘d always known he was above her station, and if she hadn‘t, Mrs. Gummidge would have told her clear enough. Still, even Mrs. Gummidge had not minded the boy Davy kissing her and swearing his love, though she did not chuckle and pinch her and Davy’s cheeks the way Aunt Clara did, who was in service to Davy’s mother and had brought him with her for some mysterious adult reason nobody ever told Emily about. Uncle Dan seemed similarly amused, when he’d scowled at everyone else not Ham who as much as looked in Emily’s direction. Later, Emily understood the reason, and it wasn’t simply that she and Davy were children and all vows of devotion understood to be child’s play, but that they were so far removed in station that the very idea of the two of them actually sharing a future was unthinkable. This made her cross, and that was why she ran away from Davy the second time Aunt Clara brought him to visit, for he seemed part of this conspiracy, listening to her dreams yet never mentioning they could not be fulfilled because he, too, took it for granted they could not.
She had not seen him for some years by now. That he‘d turned into a fine young gentleman, she knew; Aunt Clara mentioned it often enough. What brought him for a visit on the very night she‘d decided to end her life she did not know, and did not care, but it seemed fitting that he came, so she could bid that part of her childhood farewell, too, with fondness, not regret. The giddiness was still in her, and a devilish urge to tease, and so Emily said: „You must set me free, Davy, or else I cannot marry Ham, for you have the older claim. Do you remember how you asked me for my heart on the beach, and gave me yours?“
She should have addressed him as Mr. Copperfield now that he was a gentleman and she was still a fisherman’s daughter, or Mas’r Davy, as Uncle Dan and Ham did, but the sense of freedom that filled her now would not permit it, and so she did not. He appeared not to mind, blushed, laughed and acknowledged the truth of her words. The man he’d brought with him, his friend, looked at them both with interest and declared: „Ah, so that’s where you’ve kept your heart all these years, Daisy. If I’d known, I’d have come here sooner to fight its fair thief for its possession, for I’m a jealous fellow, and I’ve fancied myself the sole owner of it.“
There was much laughter at this jest, and David Copperfield blushed even further, but Emily, for once in her life, did not. She remembered now that Uncle Dan and Ham had spoken of this friend of David‘s, whom they had met when visiting him at his gentlemen‘s school, and that David, too, had talked of him years ago, the last time he‘d been here. Had praised him to the skies, like one of the heroes in the stories they would act out on the beach, and the name his friend bore sounded suitable heroic: Steerforth. So she‘d imagined this friend to be somewhat like Ham, only more refined, square of jaw and tall of stature. This he was not.
Steerforth, it turned out, was only tall when compared to her, but otherwise not only Uncle Dan and Ham but even David were of greater height. He was more slim than muscular, his dark hair was rich enough that if you‘d pulled it straight and combed it, you could have made a knot out of it and pinned it up like Martha wore hers, and the generous mouth, his sharp cheekbones and clean shaven chin were more what she‘d expect of a woman than a man, as were the long, dark lashes of his eyes. Those eyes, though, had nothing soft in them. They were dark pools only reflecting firelights that danced on them. Emily looked back at him, and said: „Did you truly, Sir? Then he has played us both false, has he, and we should punish him for it.“
That, she later thought, was when it happened. At that moment, when she was not herself and spoke boldly to a stranger, because she did not expect to live for much longer, and so all shame and guilt and fear for once were kept away. Or maybe she was herself, that self Uncle Dan and Ham did not know about, the wicked girl who hated what all these men who loved her so had planned for her, and would do anything to prevent it. That girl looked at a man, saw there was darkness there as well as beauty and something to fall into that would destroy just as well as the sea could, and she did not run from it.
„Now there‘s a thought I won‘t forget,“ Steerforth said to her, and while his tone remained light and cheerful, there was no laughter in his eyes, „and if you‘ll let me, I‘ll hold you to it.“
He then asked for another mug of ale, received and gave a toast to the happy couple, and all his other jests for the rest of the evening were addressed to everyone, as were his stories and words of praise. But Emily had heard what she had heard, had seen what she had seen. And she knew she‘d live. It wasn‘t that she‘d been saved from drowning in the sea, but that she‘d caught the glimpse of something else to drown in.