Her flight into the night had been successful, but over a year passed before Emily set foot on English soil again. First, she'd remained with the wife of a fisherman whom she'd previously made friends with while walking on the beach; then, she'd found some work as a maid for travelling Englishwomen, who had brought her as far as Calais. When they asked her for her name, she said "Clara" in honour of her aunt, not that Aunt Clara had any reason to be proud of her, and hoped the name would also prevent anyone she'd ever known from finding her.
It was a strange thing, living when both past and future were gone. Sometimes she thought she only lived to mock her own certainty of destruction, and sometimes she thought she did because she still owed a debt. He'd been a coward, stealing away without telling her what he planned to her face, but then, she had been guilty of the same sin, leaving Ham and Uncle Dan with nothing more than a letter. There was nothing she could do to atone for breaking their hearts. What she could do was to take responsibility and accept judgment from the only people who had a right to pronounce it on her.
What she would do then, she did not know.
Being a maid was both easier and harder than she'd thought it would be, growing up with Aunt Clara's stories of service. Being silent except when spoken to but always alert to hear a command was harder than the tasks themselves, as her mind found it hard not to wander and circle when having nothing definite to do. Then there was the way they thought nothing of reducing the money they'd agreed to give, or not to pay at all. "And whom would you complain to, my girl?" another maid, who'd hired Emily as undermaid to assist her, asked. "Those Frenchies here? You're a runaway, aren't you, so be grateful we don't complain about you."
Thus she was still at Calais when she heard a familiar voice from a new arrival at the inn. Littimer didn't see her at all; he was too busy talking to the innkeeper, enquiring whether there were open positions among travelling gentlemen of British origin. "For a temporary or a permanent position?" the innkeeper returned, and Littimer said it might be either. "My previous employment," he added, "has unfortunately come to an abrupt ending."
"Did the gentleman die? Hope it wasn't sickness. We don't hold with that."
"As far as I know," Littimer said disdainfully, "Mr. James is in excellent health, coasting Spain. His manner, alas, could bear improvement. I felt it due to my character to leave him. I could bear much from any gentleman, and I have borne a great deal from Mr. James. But some insults go too far."
Her heartbeat grew slower again, as she crept away and heard no more. She still did not want to breathe the same air with Littimer if she could avoid it, and thus used what little money she'd saved to take the boat to Dover. This left her penniless once she'd touched British soil, and still shaken from the encounter that almost happened, for it brought back all her wildness. She imagined the coast of Spain looking much like that of Naples had. During the night of her escape, she'd told the sea to take Steerforth, meaning every word, but she'd been more than a little mad then, and thus it did not weigh heavily on her compared with her other sins. Now, when time had passed, there was no such excuse, and yet her mouth repeated the words just as her treacherous body remembered what it had been like to be with him.
No, she was not yet fit to face her family's judgment. Instead of heading home, Emily went to London, and sought to find employment, mayhap someone who could make enquiries as to how the Peggottys of Yarmouth were faring. She did not find employment. Instead, Martha found her.
It was a wonder, seeing her, that familiar face, no longer a girl but a woman, white and hurried. The last time they had spoken seemed a lifetime ago, and Emily could still remember Martha crying "oh, I was once like you". Now, there were no tears; they were alike again.
"Come with me," Martha said, and brought Emily to a house swarming with inmates, like a run down, overcrowded beehive, where she'd rented a small room. She'd lived in London ever since leaving Yarmouth, it turned out, and said she'd been on the lookout for Emily ever since hearing of her fate. They were sitting together on the bed, for there was only one chair in the room.
"Then you cannot tell me of them," Emily said, torn apart by the mixture of gratitude for Martha being alive, being there, and of shame that for her part she'd not thought of looking for Martha, had sent no one after her when Steerforth was still providing her the means to do so, "of those I hurt. Oh Martha, I do not even know who of my family is alive, and who might be dead!"
Martha put her hand on Emily's. "They all live. Your uncle loves you and forgives you." After a pause, she added: "He told me this himself, he did."
This did not sound like the uncle who'd called Martha, with no hesitation, a fallen, wicked woman, declaring Emily should not see her again, and yet Martha had never lied to Emily. Upon further prodding, she said that David Copperfield had sought and found her, had brought her and Uncle Dan together.
For a while, Emily sat in silence. She hadn't realised how deeply her conviction that her uncle would never forgive her had been rooted in her until Martha had shaken it, just now.
"But do you want to be forgiven?" Martha asked slowly, watching her.
"How do you mean?"
"When I had nothing else to hate, not even him who brought me to this state," Martha said, "I still hated myself. Good people, they don't understand, but it can be strength, that feeling. It burns, and crackles, and at least that's something when all else in you is dead, and so you do go on. But it also means you never try to change. Why would you, if you are so much of a wretch? Do you remember the baker at home who broke his left leg? It healed all wrong, and caused him pain each time he took a step, but when they told him it would have to be broken once more so it could heal properly, he was too afraid. He didn't want to go through that again."
Emily did remember. The baker had turned his constant pain into spite, had beaten his wife, which everyone knew, and had never given anyone a good word.
"You helped me when no one else would," Martha said. "I still remember all the names they called me. But you said I was still your friend, and that it was your friend you saw when you looked at me. Will you believe me when I say these words to you?"
"But you and I are the same," Emily whispered. "We were then, too. The others simply didn't know it of me then. Uncle Dan is good."
Martha sighed, and repeated: "Do you want to be forgiven?"
Emily opened her mouth to say she wanted none of this to ever have happened, and swallowed the words, unspoken, because they were not true and became less so the more she thought about them. She wished she'd never caused her family pain, that much was certain. But she would not have made Ham a good wife, and because he loved her, he would have noticed, sooner or later, that she did not love him in the same way. She wished she had not run away like a coward, but the running itself, she did not regret. Much of what she'd seen and what she'd learned since leaving her home she'd treasured, and to travel, to seek out foreign lands had fulfilled something in her she thought the seamen must feel as well.
Trying the worst, Emily conjured up James Steerforth in her mind the way she was half certain she'd conjured him from the sea, the way the fairy tales taught, crying seven tears to summon a lover from another world who'd never be true. She heard him ask: "Would you be happy, if I left and you never saw me again?" And heard herself reply: "I would be dead within the week."
She'd meant it, as she had meant it, much later, when she'd asked the sea to take him. She'd never see him again in this life if she'd anything to do with it, that much was certain. But if she were to say she wished she'd never known him at all, it would be a lie.
Maybe that was her broken leg, so wrongly healed. Or maybe facing this truth was the second breaking the baker had refused.
"I want to live," Emily said, crumbling, put her head into Martha's lap while Martha held her tight. "God help me, but I want to live."
Martha stroked her hair the way she'd sometimes done when they were girls, the way Emily had done that last night when Martha had lain prostrate and sobbing with despair.
"Then you do want to be forgiven." After a while, she rose. "Stay here," she said. "I'll be back soon."
When Martha had gone, Emily rose from the bed. She felt worn out and spent; and yet, renewed. So much she had not known until this hour: that Martha was there, and had made a new life; that Uncle Dan still loved her; and that she was truly done with seeking out destruction.
She still was not sure about forgiveness, though. Not to receive, and not to give. But maybe wanting to live would teach her how to do both, for she could not live as the girl she'd been before, the one they'd all undeservedly adored without knowing her. And she could not live in any of the guises she'd sought after running away, for she was done with these. She would need to find a new self to be, and that one undisguised and known.
There were steps on the stairs, and someone knocked. As Emily went to open the door, it seemed to her she was moving towards her past, present and future.