About one year into his marriage, David happens to walk by Mrs. Steerforth's house. As usual, it looks dark and uninhabited, and David continues on. He finds he can't stop thinking about the house, though, in part because he had already been mulling over "childish recollections and later fancies" in preparation for a novel he is working on.
The fact that David makes professional use of his memories is very significant. Memory is often a threat to characters' agency in David Copperfield, both because it can overwhelm and incapacitate, and because it often dates back to a time when characters were less in control of their own lives. By consciously drawing on his memories, and especially by using them as a way to further his career, David demonstrates that he is the master of his experiences and recollections.
Suddenly, David hears a woman's voice, which turns out to be Mrs. Steerforth's maid asking him to come in and talk to Rosa Dartle. David agrees, and learns from the maid as they walk back that Mrs. Steerforth is unwell and unhappy. The maid then leaves David in the garden with Rosa, whom he notices looks thinner and paler.
Steerforth's elopement with little Em'ly has effectively torn apart his own family as well as the Peggottys. In every other respect, however, the experience of the two families is very different, not only because the consequences of the affair are much more serious for Emily than for Steerforth, but also because Mrs. Steerforth's separation from her son is self-imposed— the result of both her class snobbery and her insistence that her son love her exclusively.
Rosa asks whether anyone has found little Em'ly (although she does not refer to her by name). David says that no one has, and Rosa explains, with obvious pleasure, that Emily has run away from Steerforth and may even be dead. David says that since Emily would probably be better off dead, he will take Rosa's "wish" as a sign that she has "softened" since they last spoke. Rosa, however, simply laughs and asks whether David wants to know what she can tell him. When David says that he does, she leads him to a different section of the garden, making him promise not to grow violent. She then brings out Mr. Littimer and gloatingly orders him to tell his story to David.
Being in love with Steerforth herself, Rosa clearly has her own reasons for hoping that Emily is dead, and for taunting any friend of Emily's as she does here. David's deliberate minsconstrual of Rosa's wish is striking, however; despite not knowing anything about where Emily is or what she's doing, David assumes that she would be better off dead. This is in keeping with the idea that a fallen woman could never again lead a happy or respectable life.
Littimer explains that he traveled with Steerforth and Emily to a number of places, including France, Switzerland, and Italy. Steerforth was unusually attached to little Em'ly, who quickly learned the native languages and passed for a lady. Despite this, Emily was prone to bouts of depression that annoyed Steerforth and made him "restless." The relationship eventually deteriorated so much that Steerforth simply left Emily at a villa in Naples one day. Littimer insists, however, that Steerforth behaved "honorably," because he arranged for Emily to marry a "respectable person"—Littimer himself, as David realizes. When Littimer broke the news of Steerforth's departure to Emily, she threatened to kill herself and then, when she learned of the proposed marriage, to kill Littimer. Littimer says that he was therefore forced to lock her inside the villa, but that she nevertheless managed to escape.
Although Emily outwardly took to her new station in life, she never quite becomes the lady she had aspired to be. Her fits of depression presumably stem partly from guilt, but also, the novel suggests, from her awareness of the precariousness of her position. Littimer says that Steerforth's restlessness only deepened Emily's gloom, probably because she feared what would happen to her if Steerforth left her; as his mistress, Emily has no official standing in society. Steerforth's proposal that Emily marry Littimer is therefore "honorable," because it assures her a respectable life going forward. Clearly, however, the arrangement completely ignored Emily's feelings, treating her more like a piece of property than a person and unintentionally mocking her dreams of being upper-class.
Rosa and Littimer speculate on Emily's fate: Rosa suggests that she is dead, but Littimer says she might have gotten help from some of the boatmen she used to talk to, much to Steerforth's annoyance. David finds the thought of Emily talking to families so similar to her own extremely painful, but Rosa simply orders Littimer to finish his story. Accordingly, Littimer explains that Steerforth was angry when he found out that Emily had escaped, and that Littimer therefore left Steerforth's service (or, more likely, was fired). Littimer says he came to England in the hopes of mending the rift between Steerforth and Mrs. Steerforth, but Rosa reminds him that she paid him to come.
Littimer's story suggests that Emily struck up friendships with the local fisherman out of longing for her own family. These friendships are completely unacceptable to Steerforth, because they threaten to expose Emily's real class background; although Steerforth himself is willing to dabble in friendships with working-class families, he ultimately views them as inferior. It's less clear why Emily's escape upset Steerforth as much as it did; although he might have felt lingering concern for her safety, it seems equally likely that he simply wanted to avoid a scandal.
David attempts to ask, through Rosa, whether Littimer or Steerforth intercepted any letters sent to little Em'ly. Littimer refuses to speak unless David addresses him directly, however, and David manages to suppress his anger long enough to do so. Even then, Littimer is cagey, ostensibly out of loyalty to Steerforth. He hints, however, that Steerforth wouldn't have allowed Emily to receive anything that might "increase low spirits and unpleasantness." David then announces he has nothing more to say to Littimer, except that he intends to tell Mr. Peggotty the role Littimer played in Emily's flight, and that Littimer should be on his guard. Littimer retorts that people are not allowed to take the law into their own hands, and that he will go where he likes. He then leaves Rosa and David alone.
As in the scenes involving Uriah, the conversation between David and Littimer blurs together questions of morality and class. David clearly dislikes Littimer for the way he has treated Emily, and the role he played in her departure. Littimer, however, implies that David is too proud to talk to him and defends his respectability before reminding him that "there are neither slaves nor slave-drivers in this country." This is largely a way for Littimer to deflect from the questionable things he's done, but it also perhaps suggests that some of those actions are driven by class resentment.
Rosa says that Littimer also told her that Steerforth is currently sailing off the coast of Spain. She explains that the rift between him and Mrs. Steerforth has not been mended, and that any chance of reconciliation hinges on Steerforth not seeing little Em'ly again. She therefore says that she has sent for David in spite of her own hatred for Emily, in the hopes that Littimer's information will help him find her.
Once again, the novel depicts Mrs. Steerforth and little Em'ly as rivals for Steerforth's affection, underscoring the unhealthy, jealous family dynamic at play.
At that moment, Mrs. Steerforth approaches, and David sees that she looks much older. She asks whether David has heard Littimer's story, and says that she hopes Mr. Peggotty will be able to find little Em'ly in order to prevent Steerforth from "again falling into the snares of a designing enemy." David assures her that he understands her motives but protests against her characterization of Emily. Mrs. Steerforth agrees to let the matter drop, and congratulates David on his marriage and professional success, saying that if he had a mother, she would be proud of him. David then says goodbye to Mrs. Steerforth and Rosa and, as he looks back at them, imagines that the rising mist is a "sea" preparing to engulf them. Later, he says, he had reason to remember this impression.
By suggesting that it was Emily who seduced Steerforth rather than vice versa, Mrs. Steerforth can maintain the fiction that her son didn't willingly choose Emily over his mother. The fact that Rosa, who is in love with Steerforth, also depicts Emily as a seductress highlights how borderline incestuous Mrs. Steerforth's feelings for her son are. Despite this, Mrs. Steerforth comes across as a pitiful and tragic figure in this scene. In complimenting David on his success, it sounds as though Mrs. Steerforth would like to be able to take similar pride in her own son, but is unable to see how her own actions have contributed to making him the spoiled and shallow man that he is. It's fitting, then, that it's David rather than Mrs. Steerforth or Rosa who senses the danger the family is in: his vision of the sea rising over them foreshadows Steerforth's impending death and the final destruction of the family.
The next evening, David goes to the rooms Mr. Peggotty keeps in London. Mr. Peggotty welcomes him in, and David notices that he keeps the apartment ready for little Em'ly's arrival. David tells Mr. Peggotty what he knows of Emily's whereabouts, and Mr. Peggotty is silent and thoughtful. Finally, he asks David what he thinks, and David says he believes little Em'ly is alive. Mr. Peggotty, however, is anxious, and wonders whether his niece's childhood fascination with the sea was a warning that she would drown herself. Nevertheless, he says he has a firm sense that she is still alive: in fact, he has been "told as she's alive." To David, Mr. Peggotty looks like "a man inspired" when he says this.
In contrast to the Steerforths' house, which no longer looks inhabited, Mr. Peggotty has maintained a home while waiting for Emily's return. This underscores the two family's opposite reactions to Steerforth and Emily's elopement; whereas Mrs. Steerforth selfishly sees her son's actions as a rejection of her and retaliates by disowning him, Mr. Peggotty's only concern is for his niece's well-being. Meanwhile, Mr. Peggotty's memories Emily's childhood serve as a form of foreshadowing; although Emily does die at sea as Mr. Peggotty fears, she does eventually travel across the sea to begin a new life elsewhere.
David raises a practical issue that has been troubling him, explaining that little Em’ly is likely to come to London, but not to seek out Mr. Peggotty. Instead, he says, she will try to lose herself in the city, which Mr. Peggotty sorrowfully agrees is true. David therefore suggests that Martha might be able to find little Em'ly, explaining how Emily had helped Martha in the past, and how Martha had listened in on their conversation at the public house. Since Mr. Peggotty has already mentioned seeing Martha in London, David asks whether he might be able to find her. Mr. Peggotty says that he thinks he knows where she is, and the two men prepare to leave. As they walk downstairs, Mr. Peggotty admits that he once thought Martha "like the dirt underneath […] Emily's feet."
The shame attached to little Em'ly's actions is so great that David suspects she will be unwilling to seek out her family even in repentance. For that reason, David says, the only person Emily might be willing to speak to is Martha—a woman similarly tainted by sexual misconduct. Interestingly, Mr. Peggotty admits that he once shared society's prejudices toward fallen women; it is only now that he has been personally affected by the issue that he realizes he was unfair to Martha.
As they walk, David asks Mr. Peggotty about Ham, who is much the same: kind and uncomplaining, but uninterested in life. When David asks whether Ham might prove "dangerous" if he ever happened to meet Steerforth again, Mr. Peggotty admits that he doesn't know. David then reminds Mr. Peggotty of the conversation in which Ham talked about the "end of it" while looking out at the sea. Mr. Peggotty, however, says that while he has thought about the remark many times, he can't work out what Ham meant. He also doesn't want to ask Ham, because he senses that he would be disturbing "deep" thoughts best left alone. Mr. Peggotty agrees with David that Ham's demeanor is troubling, and that it would be better for him not to see Steerforth again.
Ham's mysterious remark about the "end of it" taking place at sea foreshadows the storm that will eventually kill both him and Steerforth. It's ironic, however, that David brings this episode up in the context of wondering whether Ham would try to hurt Steerforth if he saw him; ultimately, Ham dies trying to save Steerforth, not knowing who he is.
David and Mr. Peggotty are approaching Blackfriars Bridge, and Mr. Peggotty is on the lookout for any sign of Martha. Eventually, they see a woman on the opposite side of the road and begin to approach her, only for David to realize she might want to speak somewhere more private. David and Mr. Peggotty follow where she leads. Finally, they reach a "dull, dark street" and approach her.
Presumably, David thinks Martha might be reluctant to talk about her fallen state somewhere where she might be overheard, and her reputation further damaged.