Agnes Wickfield by Kate Dickinson Sweetser

Story type: Literature

When I became the adopted son of my aunt, Miss Betsy Trotwood, my new clothes were marked Trotwood Copperfield, instead of the old familiar David of my childhood; and I began my new life, not only in the new name, but with everything new about me, and felt for many days like one in a dream, until I had proved the happy reality to be a fact.

My aunt’s first desire was to place me in a good school at Canterbury, and, lack of education having been my chief source of anxiety, this resolve gave me unbounded delight. So it was with a flutter of joyful anticipation that I accompanied her to Canterbury to call upon her agent and friend Mr. Wickfield, and to confer with him upon the all-important subject of schools and boarding places.

Arriving at Canterbury, we stopped before a very old house, bulging out over the road, with long low latticed windows bulging out still further, and beams with carved heads on the ends bulging out too; so that I fancied the whole house was leaning forward, trying to see who was passing on the pavement below. It was quite spotless in its cleanliness. The old-fashioned brass knocker on the low arched door, ornamented with carved garlands of fruit and flowers, twinkled like a star; the two stone steps descending to the door were as white as if they had been covered with fair linen, and all the angles, and corners, and carvings, and mouldings, and quaint little panes of glass, and quainter little windows, were as pure as any snow that ever fell upon the hills.

When the pony chaise stopped at the door, we alighted and had a long conference with Mr. Wickfield, an elderly gentleman with grey hair and black eyebrows. He approved of my aunt’s selection of Dr. Strong’s school, and in regard to a home for me, made the following proposal:

“Leave your nephew here for the present. He’s a quiet fellow. He won’t disturb me at all. It’s a capital house for study. As quiet as a monastery, and almost as roomy. Leave him here.”

My aunt evidently liked the offer, but was delicate of accepting it, until Mr. Wickfield cried, “Come! I know how you feel, you shall not be oppressed by the receipt of favors, Miss Trotwood. You may pay for him if you like.”

“On that understanding,” said my aunt, “though it doesn’t lessen the real obligation, I shall be very glad to leave him.”

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“Then come and see my little housekeeper,” said Mr. Wickfield.

We accordingly went up a wonderful old staircase, with a balustrade so broad that we might have gone up that, almost as easily, and into a shady old drawing-room, lighted by three or four quaint windows which had old oak seats in them, that seemed to have come of the same trees as the shining oak floor, and the great beams in the ceiling. It was a prettily furnished room, with a piano, and some lively furniture in red and green, and some flowers. It seemed to be all odd nooks and corners; and in every nook and corner there was some queer little table, or cupboard, or bookcase, or seat, or something or other, that made me think there was not such another corner in the room, until I looked at the next one and found it equal to it if not better. On everything there was the same air of refinement and cleanliness that marked the house outside.

Mr. Wickfield tapped at a door in a corner of the panelled wall, and a girl of about my own age came quickly out and kissed him. On her face, I saw immediately the placid and sweet expression of a lady whose portrait I had seen downstairs. It seemed to my imagination as if the portrait had grown womanly, and the original had remained a child. Although her face was quite bright and happy, there was a tranquillity about it, and about her–a quiet, good, calm, spirit–that I never have forgotten; that I never shall forget.

This was his little housekeeper, his daughter Agnes, Mr. Wickfield said. When I heard how he said it, and saw how he held her hand, I guessed what the one motive of his life was.

She had a little basket-trifle hanging at her side with keys in it; and she looked as staid and discreet a housekeeper as the old house could have. She listened to her father as he told her about me, with a pleasant face; and when he had concluded, proposed to my aunt that we should go upstairs, and see my room. We all went together, she before us. A glorious old room it was, with more oak beams, and diamond panes; and the broad balustrade going all the way up to it.

I cannot call to mind where or when, in my childhood, I had seen a stained-glass window in a church. Nor do I recollect its subject. But I know that when I saw her turn round, in the grave light of the old staircase, and wait for us above, I thought of that window; and I associated something of its tranquil brightness with Agnes Wickfield ever afterwards.

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My aunt was as happy as I was, in the arrangement made for me, and we went down to the drawing-room again, well pleased and gratified, and shortly after this my aunt took her departure, in consequence of which for some hours I was very much dejected. But by five o’clock, which was Mr. Wickfield’s dinner hour, I had mustered up my spirits again, and was ready for my knife and fork. The cloth was only laid for us two; but Agnes was waiting in the drawing-room before dinner, and went down with her father, and sat opposite to him at table. I doubted whether he could have dined without her.

We did not stay there after dinner, but came upstairs into the drawing-room again, in one snug corner of which Agnes set glasses for her father, and a decanter of port wine. There he sat, taking his wine, while Agnes played on the piano, worked, and talked to him and me. Later Agnes made the tea, and presided over it; and the time passed away after it as after dinner, until she went to bed; when her father took her in his arms and kissed her, and, she being gone, ordered candles in his office. Then I went to bed too.

Next morning I entered on my new school life at Dr. Strong’s, and began a happy existence in an excellent establishment, the character and dignity of which we each felt it our duty to maintain. We felt that we had a part in the management of the school, and learned with a good will, desiring to do it credit. We had noble games out of hours, and plenty of liberty; but were well spoken of in the town, and rarely did any disgrace by our appearance or manner, to the reputation of Dr. Strong or Dr. Strong’s boys, and the Doctor himself was the idol of the whole school.

On that first day when I returned home from school, Agnes was in the drawing-room, waiting for her father. She met me with her pleasant smile, and asked me how I liked the school. I told her I should like it very much, I hoped; but I was a little strange to it at first.

“You have never been to school,” I said, “have you?”

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“Oh yes! every day.”

“Ah, but you mean here, at your own home?”

“Papa couldn’t spare me to go anywhere else,” she answered smiling and shaking her head, “His housekeeper must be in his house, you know.”

“He’s very fond of you, I am sure,” I said.

She nodded, “Yes,” and went to the door to listen for his coming up, that she might meet him on the stairs. But as he was not there, she came back again.

“Mamma has been dead ever since I was born,” she said in her quiet way. “I only know her picture, downstairs. I saw you looking at it yesterday. Did you think whose it was?”

I told her yes, because it was so like herself.

“Papa says so, too,” said Agnes, pleased. “Hark! that’s Papa now!”

Her bright calm face lighted up with pleasure as she went to meet him, and as they came in, hand in hand; and from that time as I watched her day by day, I saw no trace in Agnes of anything but single-hearted devotion to that father, whose wants she cared for so untiringly in her beautiful quiet way.

When we had dined that night, we went upstairs again, where everything went on exactly as on the previous day. Agnes set the glasses and decanters in the same corner, and Mr. Wickfield sat down to drink. Agnes played the piano to him, sat by him, and worked and talked, and played some games at dominoes with me. In good time she made tea; and afterwards, when I brought down my books, looked into them, and showed me what she knew of them (which was no slight matter, though she said it was), and what was the best way to learn and understand them. I see her, with her modest, orderly, placid, manner, and I hear her beautiful, calm voice, as I write these words. The influence for all good, which she came to exercise over me at a later time begins already to descend upon my breast. I love little Emily, and I don’t love Agnes–no, not at all in that way–but I feel that there are goodness, peace, and truth wherever Agnes is; and that the soft light of the colored window in the church, seen long ago, falls on her always, and on me when I am near her, and on everything around.

The time having come for her withdrawal for the night, as I gave Mr. Wickfield my hand, preparatory to going away myself, he checked me and said; “Should you like to stay with us, Trotwood, or go elsewhere?”

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“To stay,” I answered quickly.

“You are sure?”

“If you please. If I may.”

“Why, it’s but a dull life that we lead here, boy, I’m afraid,” he said.

“Not more dull for me than Agnes, sir. Not dull at all!”

“Than Agnes,” he repeated, walking slowly to the great chimney-piece, and leaning against it. “Than Agnes! Now I wonder,” he muttered, “whether my Agnes tires of me. When should I ever tire of her? But that’s different, that’s quite different.”

He was musing, not speaking to me; so I remained quiet.

“A dull, old house,” he said, “and a monotonous life, Stay with us, Trotwood, eh?” he added in his usual manner, and as if he were answering something I had just said. “I’m glad of it. You are company to us both. It is wholesome to have you here. Wholesome for me, wholesome for Agnes wholesome perhaps for all of us.”

“I’m sure it is for me, sir,” I said, “I’m so glad to be here.”

“That’s a fine fellow!” said Mr. Wickfield. “As long as you are glad to be here, you shall stay here.”

And so I lived at Mr. Wickfield’s through the remainder of my schooldays, and to Agnes, as the months went by, I turned more and more often for advice and counsel.

We saw a good deal of Dr. Strong’s wife, both because she had taken a liking to me, and because she was very fond of Agnes, and was often backwards and forwards at our house, and we had pleasant evenings at the doctor’s too, with other guests, when we had merry round games of cards, or music–for both Mrs. Strong and Agnes sang sweetly–and so, with weekly visits from my aunt, and walks and talks with Agnes, and the events and phases of feeling too numerous to chronicle, which make up a boy’s existence, my schooldays glided all too swiftly by.

Time has stolen on unobserved. I am higher in the school and no one breaks my peace. Dr. Strong refers to me in public as a promising young scholar, and my aunt remits me a guinea by next post. And what comes now? I am the head boy! I look down on the line of boys below me, with a condescending interest in such of them as bring to my mind the boy I was myself, when I first came there. That little fellow seems to be no part of me; I remember him as something left behind upon the road of life–and almost think of him as of some one else.

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What other changes have come upon me, beside the changes in my growth and looks, and in the knowledge I have garnered all this while? I wear a gold watch and chain, a ring upon my little finger, and a long-tailed coat; and twice have I been desperately in love with a fair damsel, and have twice recovered.

And the little girl I saw on that first day at Mr. Wickfield’s, where is she? Gone also. In her stead, the perfect likeness of the picture, a child’s likeness no more, moves about the house; and Agnes, my sweet sister, as I call her in my thoughts, my counsellor and friend, the better angel of the lives of all who come within her calm, good, self-denying influence–is quite a woman.

When the time came to take leave of Agnes and her father, though it saddened me, my mind was so filled with thoughts of self that I paid little heed to Agnes and her brave farewell, nor did I realize what her loneliness would be when the old and silent house was made doubly silent by the removal of a boy’s presence. I did not then understand what her devotion to the elderly father and his interests held of sacrifice for one so young, nor of what fine clay the girl was moulded. But in later years I realized it fully, and looking back, I always saw her as when on that first day, in the grave light of the old staircase, I thought of the stained-glass window, associating something of its tranquil brightness with her ever afterwards.

With Agnes the woman, and the influence for all good which she came to exercise over me at a later time, this story does not deal. It need only record the simple details of the girl’s quiet life,–of the girl’s calm strong nature,–that there were goodness, peace and truth wherever Agnes was,–Agnes, my boyhood’s sister, counsellor and friend.

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