Charles Dickens, David Copperfield: Ch. 1

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The word was appropriate to the moment. My mother was so much worse that Peggotty, coming in with the teaboardw and candles, and seeing at a glance how ill she was,—as Miss Betsey might have done sooner if there had been light enough,—conveyed her upstairs to her own room with all speed; and immediately dispatched Hamh Peggotty, her nephew, who had been for some days past secreted in the house, unknown to my mother, as a special messenger in case of emergency, to fetch the nurse and doctor.

Those allied powers were considerably astonished, when they arrived within a few minutes of each other, to find an unknown lady of portentousw appearance, sitting before the fire, with her bonnet tied over her left arm, stopping her ears with jewellers' cotton.h Peggotty knowing nothing about her, and my mother saying nothing about her, she was quite a mystery in the parlour; and the fact of her having a magazine of jewellers' cotton in her pocket, and sticking the article in her ears in that way, did not detract from the solemnity of her presence.

The doctor having been upstairs and come down again, and having satisfied himself, I suppose, that there was a probability of this unknown lady and himself having to sit there, face to face, for some hours, laid himself out to be polite and social. He was the meekest of his sex, the mildest of little men. He sidled in and out of a room, to take up the less space. He walked as softly as the Ghost in Hamlet,d and more slowly. He carried his head on one side, partly in modest depreciation of himself, partly in modest propitiationw of everybody else. It is nothing to say that he hadn't a word to throw at a dog. He couldn't have thrown a word at a mad dog. He might have offered him one gently, or half a one, or a fragment of one; for he spoke as slowly as he walked; but he wouldn't have been rude to him, and he couldn't have been quick with him, for any earthly consideration.

Mr. Chillip, looking mildly at my aunt with his head on one side, and making her a little bow, said, in allusion to the jewellers' cotton, as he softly touched his left ear:

'Some local irritation, ma'am?'

'What!' replied my aunt, pulling the cotton out of one ear like a cork.

Mr. Chillip was so alarmed by her abruptness—as he told my mother afterwards—that it was a mercy he didn't lose his presence of mind. But he repeated sweetly:

'Some local irritation, ma'am?'

'Nonsense!' replied my aunt, and corked herself again, at one blow.

Mr. Chillip could do nothing after this, but sit and look at her feebly, as she sat and looked at the fire, until he was called upstairs again. After some quarter of an hour's absence, he returned.

'Well?' said my aunt, taking the cotton out of the ear nearest to him.

'Well, ma'am,' returned Mr. Chillip, 'we are—we are progressing slowly, ma'am.'

'Ba—a—ah!' said my aunt, with a perfect shake on the contemptuous interjection. And corked herself as before.

Really—really—as Mr. Chillip told my mother, he was almost shocked; speaking in a professional point of view alone, he was almost shocked. But he sat and looked at her, notwithstanding, for nearly two hours, as she sat looking at the fire, until he was again called out. After another absence, he again returned.

'Well?' said my aunt, taking out the cotton on that side again.

'Well, ma'am,' returned Mr. Chillip, 'we are—we are progressing slowly, ma'am.'

'Ya—a—ah!' said my aunt. With such a snarl at him, that Mr. Chillip absolutely could not bear it. It was really calculated to break his spirit, he said afterwards. He preferred to go and sit upon the stairs, in the dark and a strong draught, until he was again sent for.

X [w] teaboard

Things

Tea tray, usually of wood.

X [h] Ham

Religion

One of the three sons of Noah, "and of them was the whole earth overspread" (Genesis 9: 19).

After the flood waters receded—and the Ark and the ocean govern Dickens's use of the name—Noah became a farmer. What then follows has nothing to do with the Ham in the novel. Noah planted a vineyard and one night became drunk. Ham accidentally came upon his father naked, breaking a taboo am…

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X [w] portentous

Impressive to the point of ominous, a "portent" being a sign of something in the future; threatening.

X [h] stopping her ears with jewellers' cotton.

So as not to hear the cries of giving birth. 

X [d] the Ghost in Hamlet,

Writing & Reading

The ghost—another reference to the paranormal—is, more importantly, that of Hamlet's father, who appears at the play's opening to inform Hamlet that he had been murdered by his uncle with the connivance of King Hamlet's wife, the queen.

X [w] propitiation

A strong word indicating his meekness, for propitiation can mean, in addition to appeasement, expiation or atonement.