By Laura Schiller
Based on: David Copperfield
Copyright: Charles Dickens' estate
Author's Note: I know eleven seems young for Uriah to go to work, especially for a modern reader, but the first time David meets him, he is described as "a youth of fifteen" and mentions having been with Mr. Wickfield "going on four year". You do the math.
The first time they met, she was six years old and he was eleven. She looked up at him with wide, brown, innocent eyes, smiled at him, and dropped a curtsey. He blushed as only a redhead can blush as he bowed over her tiny hand.
"How do you do, Mr. Heep?"
"'Heep' will do, my child," Mr. Wickfield corrected, frowning. "Or 'Uriah'. He is only my clerk, you know."
"To be sure, sir," he said, hunching his shoulders into another humble bow. "Only your clerk, and very grateful. Uriah suits me fine, Miss Wickfield."
"Good!" She smiled. "Then you can call me Agnes and we'll be friends, won't we, Uriah? I never had a friend before."
One look at Wickfield's horrified face, however, was enough to convince Uriah of the impossibility of that idea. Without so much as an apology or a nod for leaving, Wickfield put a hand on his daughter's shoulder and led her into the next room for privacy.
"My dearest child, how can you have the heart to say that?" Uriah heard his employer exclaim. "Have I not been a friend to you? Am I such a bad father that you feel lonesome and neglected in my company?"
"Oh no, Papa, no! Please don't - "
The rest of Agnes' answer was too quiet, and too choked with sobs, for Uriah to hear from behind the door.
Lord, what a fool! he thought, sneering at the empty room. If I hadn't Mother to support, I shouldn't stop here a moment longer. At least the child is different …
He thought of her calm smile, her unflinching acceptance of him as an equal – ugly, awkward and poor as he knew he was. Mr. Heep, indeed.
If only everyone would look at me like that.
She was ten, he was fifteen, and she was looking at someone else.
He felt ridiculous for even noticing, but when the ten-year-old in question was the closest thing he had to a friend – the only pure, bright spot he had in a life of tedium and servitude – he did not like to see how her eyes slipped right past him, as if he didn't even exist, to beam at Mr. Wickfield's gentleman lodger.
Standing next to young Master Copperfield by the window, both watching her swing in the garden outside, her white dress shining against the green, Uriah barely knew what he was saying, except that it had to do with Agnes and admiration.
"Everyone must admire her," said Copperfield, drinking her in with eager blue eyes.
That set Uriah's teeth on edge – Agnes was not public property – but it was rather satisfying, all the same, to have someone appreciate her at last. Even if it was only an arrogant little boy, who had never worked a day in his life and knew nothing about those who did. Wickfield and Heep, indeed. As if such a partnership were not wildly improbable, to the point of being impossible … unless …
Unless he became the cleverest, most hardworking professional in the history of lawyers. Unless he made himself so indispensable that Wickfield had to promote him. Unless he could simply leap over the class barrier, the way he used to vault over the fence of his detested charity school at the end of every day.
Equal to Wickfield. Equal to Agnes. She would have to see him then.
"Oh, thank you, Master Copperfield, for that remark. It is so true!"
She was twenty-one, he was twenty-six, and her looks were making him nervous.
In the absence of any real difficulties from which to rescue the firm, he had decided to create some. Wickfield's drinking habits made him a disturbingly simple man to manipulate, and after every coup, Uriah swung back and forth between despising his so-called partner and himself. Power, to him, was like wine to Wickfield. Every time he resolved to give it up, he found himself more intoxicated than ever.
From the way Agnes was scrutinizing him across the dinner table, from her seat right next to the obnoxious Copperfield's, he knew that she knew, and it sickened him.
I always knew she was a sharp one, but not this sharp. How much does she know? If I ask her that, will I convict myself? If I told her it was all done on her behalf, would she even understand? Or would she despise me with all her righteous heart, as her precious 'brother' already does?
His feelings for her had shifted alarmingly over the years. The child who had once brightened his soul was now a woman who could set his blood on fire. The way the candlelight made her hair shine like mahagony and her necklace sparkle against her bare throat was driving him to distraction. He would sell his soul for one of the smiles she was so lightly wasting on Copperfield. Except, of course, that he already had.
After she left, and her peacemaking influence left with her, the pressure in the room reached a boiling point. Uriah would never forgive himself for so recklessly proposing that toast. Still, he hadn't expected his partner to scream and lunge for him, with an intent to violence prevented only by Copperfield's physically holding him back.
"You have not gone mad, I hope, Mr. Wickfield? If I say I've a wish to make your Agnes my Agnes, I have as good a right to it as any other man. I have a better right!"
I never used her as you do, weighing her down with a woman's worries before she was old enough to turn up her hair. I never took her for her granted as Copperfield does.
"Look at my torturer!" Wickfield sobbed, pointing a shaking finger, as if he were the wronged innocent and his partner in crime the incarnation of evil. As if it weren't partly his own fault, for letting himself and his business go so thoroughly to seed.
"Before him I have step by step abandoned name and reputation, peace and quiet, house and home – "
"I have kept your name and reputation for you, and your peace and quiet, and your house and home too! Don't be foolish, Mr. Wickfield. If I have gone a little beyond what you were prepared for, I can go back, I suppose? I tell you, if I've gone too far, I'm sorry. What would you have, sir?"
But even as he spoke, he knew he could never take this back. He could see it in their faces – Wickfield's crimson with wine and fury, Copperfield's ash-pale. He could see it in Agnes' face as she came back into the room, drawn by her father's distress, to take his arm and lead him away to bed. The three of them, Agnes and Copperfield supporting the exhausted old man between them, looked like a family – a close-knit, loving group which excluded Uriah altogether, as it had always done.
For a moment, Agnes' eyes met his over the top of her father's bowed grey head. I see right through you, their expression seemed to say. I see past all of your pretensions, to the mean and sordid nature underneath. Once I pitied you, but you no longer deserve it. Your machinations may win you body someday, but you will never have my heart.
He was left alone at the foot of the empty table, his face buried in his long-fingered hands, her dark eyes burning a trail to the depths of his hungry soul. He did not cry, but it might have been better for him if he had.
The conclusion he came to was simple: he needed her. And if she would not have him of her own free will, he would take her on any terms.
That would teach her not to look at him like that.
"I suppose, Master Copperfield, you have sometimes plucked a pear before it was ripe?" he asked his rival the next morning – having recovered his poise, and with it, thrown away the last few fragments of his conscience.
"I did that last night … but it'll ripen yet. It only wants attending to. I can wait!"