‘No, I have not been intimate with Mr. Wickfield,’ returned Traddles; ‘or I might perhaps have waited on you long ago, Mr. Heep.’
There was something in the tone of this reply, which made Uriah look at the speaker again, with a very sinister and suspicious expression. But, seeing only Traddles, with his good-natured face, simple manner, and hair on end, he dismissed it as he replied, with a jerk of his whole body, but especially his throat:
‘I am sorry for that, Mr. Traddles. You would have admired him as much as we all do. His little failings would only have endeared him to you the more. But if you would like to hear my fellow-partner eloquently spoken of, I should refer you to Copperfield. The family is a subject he’s very strong upon, if you never heard him.’
I was prevented from disclaiming the compliment (if I should have done so, in any case), by the entrance of Agnes, now ushered in by Mr. Micawber. She was not quite so self-possessed as usual, I thought; and had evidently undergone anxiety and fatigue. But her earnest cordiality, and her quiet beauty, shone with the gentler lustre for it.
I saw Uriah watch her while she greeted us; and he reminded me of an ugly and rebellious genie watching a good spirit. In the meanwhile, some slight sign passed between Mr. Micawber and Traddles; and Traddles, unobserved except by me, went out.
‘Don’t wait, Micawber,’ said Uriah.
Mr. Micawber, with his hand upon the ruler in his breast, stood erect before the door, most unmistakably contemplating one of his fellow-men, and that man his employer.
‘What are you waiting for?’ said Uriah. ‘Micawber! did you hear me tell you not to wait?’
‘Yes!’ replied the immovable Mr. Micawber.
‘Then why DO you wait?’ said Uriah.
‘Because I—in short, choose,’ replied Mr. Micawber, with a burst.
Uriah’s cheeks lost colour, and an unwholesome paleness, still faintly tinged by his pervading red, overspread them. He looked at Mr. Micawber attentively, with his whole face breathing short and quick in every feature.
‘You are a dissipated fellow, as all the world knows,’ he said, with an effort at a smile, ‘and I am afraid you’ll oblige me to get rid of you. Go along! I’ll talk to you presently.’
‘If there is a scoundrel on this earth,’ said Mr. Micawber, suddenly breaking out again with the utmost vehemence, ‘with whom I have already talked too much, that scoundrel’s name is—HEEP!’
Uriah fell back, as if he had been struck or stung. Looking slowly round upon us with the darkest and wickedest expression that his face could wear, he said, in a lower voice:
‘Oho! This is a conspiracy! You have met here by appointment! You are playing Booty with my clerk, are you, Copperfield? Now, take care. You’ll make nothing of this. We understand each other, you and me. There’s no love between us. You were always a puppy with a proud stomach, from your first coming here; and you envy me my rise, do you? None of your plots against me; I’ll counterplot you! Micawber, you be off. I’ll talk to you presently.’
‘Mr. Micawber,’ said I, ‘there is a sudden change in this fellow, in more respects than the extraordinary one of his speaking the truth in one particular, which assures me that he is brought to bay. Deal with him as he deserves!’
‘You are a precious set of people, ain’t you?’ said Uriah, in the same low voice, and breaking out into a clammy heat, which he wiped from his forehead, with his long lean hand, ‘to buy over my clerk, who is the very scum of society,—as you yourself were, Copperfield, you know it, before anyone had charity on you,—to defame me with his lies? Miss Trotwood, you had better stop this; or I’ll stop your husband shorter than will be pleasant to you. I won’t know your story professionally, for nothing, old lady! Miss Wickfield, if you have any love for your father, you had better not join that gang. I’ll ruin him, if you do. Now, come! I have got some of you under the harrow. Think twice, before it goes over you. Think twice, you, Micawber, if you don’t want to be crushed. I recommend you to take yourself off, and be talked to presently, you fool! while there’s time to retreat. Where’s mother?’ he said, suddenly appearing to notice, with alarm, the absence of Traddles, and pulling down the bell-rope. ‘Fine doings in a person’s own house!’
‘Mrs. Heep is here, sir,’ said Traddles, returning with that worthy mother of a worthy son. ‘I have taken the liberty of making myself known to her.’
‘Who are you to make yourself known?’ retorted Uriah. ‘And what do you want here?’
‘I am the agent and friend of Mr. Wickfield, sir,’ said Traddles, in a composed and business-like way. ‘And I have a power of attorney from him in my pocket, to act for him in all matters.’
‘The old ass has drunk himself into a state of dotage,’ said Uriah, turning uglier than before, ‘and it has been got from him by fraud!’
‘Something has been got from him by fraud, I know,’ returned Traddles quietly; ‘and so do you, Mr. Heep. We will refer that question, if you please, to Mr. Micawber.’
‘Ury—!’ Mrs. Heep began, with an anxious gesture.
‘YOU hold your tongue, mother,’ he returned; ‘least said, soonest mended.’
‘But, my Ury—’
‘Will you hold your tongue, mother, and leave it to me?’
Though I had long known that his servility was false, and all his pretences knavish and hollow, I had had no adequate conception of the extent of his hypocrisy, until I now saw him with his mask off. The suddenness with which he dropped it, when he perceived that it was useless to him; the malice, insolence, and hatred, he revealed; the leer with which he exulted, even at this moment, in the evil he had done—all this time being desperate too, and at his wits’ end for the means of getting the better of us—though perfectly consistent with the experience I had of him, at first took even me by surprise, who had known him so long, and disliked him so heartily.
I say nothing of the look he conferred on me, as he stood eyeing us, one after another; for I had always understood that he hated me, and I remembered the marks of my hand upon his cheek. But when his eyes passed on to Agnes, and I saw the rage with which he felt his power over her slipping away, and the exhibition, in their disappointment, of the odious passions that had led him to aspire to one whose virtues he could never appreciate or care for, I was shocked by the mere thought of her having lived, an hour, within sight of such a man.
After some rubbing of the lower part of his face, and some looking at us with those bad eyes, over his grisly fingers, he made one more address to me, half whining, and half abusive.
‘You think it justifiable, do you, Copperfield, you who pride yourself so much on your honour and all the rest of it, to sneak about my place, eaves-dropping with my clerk? If it had been ME, I shouldn’t have wondered; for I don’t make myself out a gentleman (though I never was in the streets either, as you were, according to Micawber), but being you!—And you’re not afraid of doing this, either? You don’t think at all of what I shall do, in return; or of getting yourself into trouble for conspiracy and so forth? Very well. We shall see! Mr. What’s-your-name, you were going to refer some question to Micawber. There’s your referee. Why don’t you make him speak? He has learnt his lesson, I see.’
Seeing that what he said had no effect on me or any of us, he sat on the edge of his table with his hands in his pockets, and one of his splay feet twisted round the other leg, waiting doggedly for what might follow.
Mr. Micawber, whose impetuosity I had restrained thus far with the greatest difficulty, and who had repeatedly interposed with the first syllable of SCOUN-drel! without getting to the second, now burst forward, drew the ruler from his breast (apparently as a defensive weapon), and produced from his pocket a foolscap document, folded in the form of a large letter. Opening this packet, with his old flourish, and glancing at the contents, as if he cherished an artistic admiration of their style of composition, he began to read as follows:
‘“Dear Miss Trotwood and gentlemen—“’
‘Bless and save the man!’ exclaimed my aunt in a low voice. ‘He’d write letters by the ream, if it was a capital offence!’
Mr. Micawber, without hearing her, went on.
‘“In appearing before you to denounce probably the most consummate Villain that has ever existed,”’ Mr. Micawber, without looking off the letter, pointed the ruler, like a ghostly truncheon, at Uriah Heep, ‘“I ask no consideration for myself. The victim, from my cradle, of pecuniary liabilities to which I have been unable to respond, I have ever been the sport and toy of debasing circumstances. Ignominy, Want, Despair, and Madness, have, collectively or separately, been the attendants of my career.”’
The relish with which Mr. Micawber described himself as a prey to these dismal calamities, was only to be equalled by the emphasis with which he read his letter; and the kind of homage he rendered to it with a roll of his head, when he thought he had hit a sentence very hard indeed.
‘“In an accumulation of Ignominy, Want, Despair, and Madness, I entered the office—or, as our lively neighbour the Gaul would term it, the Bureau—of the Firm, nominally conducted under the appellation of Wickfield and—HEEP, but in reality, wielded by—HEEP alone. HEEP, and only HEEP, is the mainspring of that machine. HEEP, and only HEEP, is the Forger and the Cheat.”’
Uriah, more blue than white at these words, made a dart at the letter, as if to tear it in pieces. Mr. Micawber, with a perfect miracle of dexterity or luck, caught his advancing knuckles with the ruler, and disabled his right hand. It dropped at the wrist, as if it were broken. The blow sounded as if it had fallen on wood.
‘The Devil take you!’ said Uriah, writhing in a new way with pain. ‘I’ll be even with you.’
‘Approach me again, you—you—you HEEP of infamy,’ gasped Mr. Micawber, ‘and if your head is human, I’ll break it. Come on, come on!’
I think I never saw anything more ridiculous—I was sensible of it, even at the time—than Mr. Micawber making broad-sword guards with the ruler, and crying, ‘Come on!’ while Traddles and I pushed him back into a corner, from which, as often as we got him into it, he persisted in emerging again.
His enemy, muttering to himself, after wringing his wounded hand for sometime, slowly drew off his neck-kerchief and bound it up; then held it in his other hand, and sat upon his table with his sullen face looking down.
Mr. Micawber, when he was sufficiently cool, proceeded with his letter.
‘“The stipendiary emoluments in consideration of which I entered into the service of—HEEP,”’ always pausing before that word and uttering it with astonishing vigour, ‘“were not defined, beyond the pittance of twenty-two shillings and six per week. The rest was left contingent on the value of my professional exertions; in other and more expressive words, on the baseness of my nature, the cupidity of my motives, the poverty of my family, the general moral (or rather immoral) resemblance between myself and—HEEP. Need I say, that it soon became necessary for me to solicit from—HEEP—pecuniary advances towards the support of Mrs. Micawber, and our blighted but rising family? Need I say that this necessity had been foreseen by—HEEP? That those advances were secured by I.O.U.‘s and other similar acknowledgements, known to the legal institutions of this country? And that I thus became immeshed in the web he had spun for my reception?”’
Mr. Micawber’s enjoyment of his epistolary powers, in describing this unfortunate state of things, really seemed to outweigh any pain or anxiety that the reality could have caused him. He read on:
‘“Then it was that—HEEP—began to favour me with just so much of his confidence, as was necessary to the discharge of his infernal business. Then it was that I began, if I may so Shakespearianly express myself, to dwindle, peak, and pine. I found that my services were constantly called into requisition for the falsification of business, and the mystification of an individual whom I will designate as Mr. W. That Mr. W. was imposed upon, kept in ignorance, and deluded, in every possible way; yet, that all this while, the ruffian—HEEP—was professing unbounded gratitude to, and unbounded friendship for, that much-abused gentleman. This was bad enough; but, as the philosophic Dane observes, with that universal applicability which distinguishes the illustrious ornament of the Elizabethan Era, worse remains behind!”’
Mr. Micawber was so very much struck by this happy rounding off with a quotation, that he indulged himself, and us, with a second reading of the sentence, under pretence of having lost his place.
‘“It is not my intention,”’ he continued reading on, ‘“to enter on a detailed list, within the compass of the present epistle (though it is ready elsewhere), of the various malpractices of a minor nature, affecting the individual whom I have denominated Mr. W., to which I have been a tacitly consenting party. My object, when the contest within myself between stipend and no stipend, baker and no baker, existence and non-existence, ceased, was to take advantage of my opportunities to discover and expose the major malpractices committed, to that gentleman’s grievous wrong and injury, by—HEEP. Stimulated by the silent monitor within, and by a no less touching and appealing monitor without—to whom I will briefly refer as Miss W.—I entered on a not unlaborious task of clandestine investigation, protracted—now, to the best of my knowledge, information, and belief, over a period exceeding twelve calendar months.”’
He read this passage as if it were from an Act of Parliament; and appeared majestically refreshed by the sound of the words.
‘“My charges against—HEEP,”’ he read on, glancing at him, and drawing the ruler into a convenient position under his left arm, in case of need, ‘“are as follows.”’
We all held our breath, I think. I am sure Uriah held his.
‘“First,”’ said Mr. Micawber, ‘“When Mr. W.‘s faculties and memory for business became, through causes into which it is not necessary or expedient for me to enter, weakened and confused,—HEEP—designedly perplexed and complicated the whole of the official transactions. When Mr. W. was least fit to enter on business,—HEEP was always at hand to force him to enter on it. He obtained Mr. W.‘s signature under such circumstances to documents of importance, representing them to be other documents of no importance. He induced Mr. W. to empower him to draw out, thus, one particular sum of trust-money, amounting to twelve six fourteen, two and nine, and employed it to meet pretended business charges and deficiencies which were either already provided for, or had never really existed. He gave this proceeding, throughout, the appearance of having originated in Mr. W.‘s own dishonest intention, and of having been accomplished by Mr. W.‘s own dishonest act; and has used it, ever since, to torture and constrain him.”’
‘You shall prove this, you Copperfield!’ said Uriah, with a threatening shake of the head. ‘All in good time!’
‘Ask—HEEP—Mr. Traddles, who lived in his house after him,’ said Mr. Micawber, breaking off from the letter; ‘will you?’
‘The fool himself—and lives there now,’ said Uriah, disdainfully.
‘Ask—HEEP—if he ever kept a pocket-book in that house,’ said Mr. Micawber; ‘will you?’
I saw Uriah’s lank hand stop, involuntarily, in the scraping of his chin.
‘Or ask him,’ said Mr. Micawber, ‘if he ever burnt one there. If he says yes, and asks you where the ashes are, refer him to Wilkins Micawber, and he will hear of something not at all to his advantage!’
The triumphant flourish with which Mr. Micawber delivered himself of these words, had a powerful effect in alarming the mother; who cried out, in much agitation:
‘Ury, Ury! Be umble, and make terms, my dear!’
‘Mother!’ he retorted, ‘will you keep quiet? You’re in a fright, and don’t know what you say or mean. Umble!’ he repeated, looking at me, with a snarl; ‘I’ve umbled some of ‘em for a pretty long time back, umble as I was!’
Mr. Micawber, genteelly adjusting his chin in his cravat, presently proceeded with his composition.
‘“Second. HEEP has, on several occasions, to the best of my knowledge, information, and belief—“’
‘But that won’t do,’ muttered Uriah, relieved. ‘Mother, you keep quiet.’
‘We will endeavour to provide something that WILL do, and do for you finally, sir, very shortly,’ replied Mr. Micawber.
‘“Second. HEEP has, on several occasions, to the best of my knowledge, information, and belief, systematically forged, to various entries, books, and documents, the signature of Mr. W.; and has distinctly done so in one instance, capable of proof by me. To wit, in manner following, that is to say:”’