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Charles Dickens >> Great Expectations (page 13)


I heard the mice too, rattling behind the panels, as if the sameoccurrence were important to their interests. But, the blackbeetlestook no notice of the agitation, and groped about the hearth in aponderous elderly way, as if they were short-sighted and hard ofhearing, and not on terms with one another.

These crawling things had fascinated my attention and I waswatching them from a distance, when Miss Havisham laid a hand uponmy shoulder. In her other hand she had a crutch-headed stick onwhich she leaned, and she looked like the Witch of the place.

"This," said she, pointing to the long table with her stick, "iswhere I will be laid when I am dead. They shall come and look at mehere."

With some vague misgiving that she might get upon the table thenand there and die at once, the complete realization of the ghastlywaxwork at the Fair, I shrank under her touch.

"What do you think that is?" she asked me, again pointing with herstick; "that, where those cobwebs are?"

"I can't guess what it is, ma'am."

"It's a great cake. A bride-cake. Mine!"

She looked all round the room in a glaring manner, and then said,leaning on me while her hand twitched my shoulder, "Come, come,come! Walk me, walk me!"

I made out from this, that the work I had to do, was to walk MissHavisham round and round the room. Accordingly, I started at once,and she leaned upon my shoulder, and we went away at a pace thatmight have been an imitation (founded on my first impulse underthat roof) of Mr. Pumblechook's chaise-cart.

She was not physically strong, and after a little time said,"Slower!" Still, we went at an impatient fitful speed, and as wewent, she twitched the hand upon my shoulder, and worked her mouth,and led me to believe that we were going fast because her thoughtswent fast. After a while she said, "Call Estella!" so I went out onthe landing and roared that name as I had done on the previousoccasion. When her light appeared, I returned to Miss Havisham, andwe started away again round and round the room.

If only Estella had come to be a spectator of our proceedings, Ishould have felt sufficiently discontented; but, as she broughtwith her the three ladies and the gentleman whom I had seen below,I didn't know what to do. In my politeness, I would have stopped;but, Miss Havisham twitched my shoulder, and we posted on - with ashame-faced consciousness on my part that they would think it wasall my doing.

"Dear Miss Havisham," said Miss Sarah Pocket. "How well you look!"

"I do not," returned Miss Havisham. "I am yellow skin and bone."

Camilla brightened when Miss Pocket met with this rebuff; and shemurmured, as she plaintively contemplated Miss Havisham, "Poor dearsoul! Certainly not to be expected to look well, poor thing. Theidea!"

"And how are you?" said Miss Havisham to Camilla. As we were closeto Camilla then, I would have stopped as a matter of course, onlyMiss Havisham wouldn't stop. We swept on, and I felt that I washighly obnoxious to Camilla.

"Thank you, Miss Havisham," she returned, "I am as well as can beexpected."

"Why, what's the matter with you?" asked Miss Havisham, withexceeding sharpness.

"Nothing worth mentioning," replied Camilla. "I don't wish to makea display of my feelings, but I have habitually thought of you morein the night than I am quite equal to."

"Then don't think of me," retorted Miss Havisham.

"Very easily said!" remarked Camilla, amiably repressing a sob,while a hitch came into her upper lip, and her tears overflowed."Raymond is a witness what ginger and sal volatile I am obliged totake in the night. Raymond is a witness what nervous jerkings Ihave in my legs. Chokings and nervous jerkings, however, arenothing new to me when I think with anxiety of those I love. If Icould be less affectionate and sensitive, I should have a betterdigestion and an iron set of nerves. I am sure I wish it could beso. But as to not thinking of you in the night - The idea!" Here, aburst of tears.

The Raymond referred to, I understood to be the gentleman present,and him I understood to be Mr. Camilla. He came to the rescue atthis point, and said in a consolatory and complimentary voice,"Camilla, my dear, it is well known that your family feelings aregradually undermining you to the extent of making one of your legsshorter than the other."

"I am not aware," observed the grave lady whose voice I had heardbut once, "that to think of any person is to make a great claimupon that person, my dear."

Miss Sarah Pocket, whom I now saw to be a little dry browncorrugated old woman, with a small face that might have been madeof walnut shells, and a large mouth like a cat's without thewhiskers, supported this position by saying, "No, indeed, my dear.Hem!"

"Thinking is easy enough," said the grave lady.

"What is easier, you know?" assented Miss Sarah Pocket.

"Oh, yes, yes!" cried Camilla, whose fermenting feelings appearedto rise from her legs to her bosom. "It's all very true! It's aweakness to be so affectionate, but I can't help it. No doubt myhealth would be much better if it was otherwise, still I wouldn'tchange my disposition if I could. It's the cause of much suffering,but it's a consolation to know I posses it, when I wake up in thenight." Here another burst of feeling.

Miss Havisham and I had never stopped all this time, but kept goinground and round the room: now, brushing against the skirts of thevisitors: now, giving them the whole length of the dismal chamber.

"There's Matthew!" said Camilla. "Never mixing with any naturalties, never coming here to see how Miss Havisham is! I have takento the sofa with my staylace cut, and have lain there hours,insensible, with my head over the side, and my hair all down, andmy feet I don't know where--"

("Much higher than your head, my love," said Mr. Camilla.)

"I have gone off into that state, hours and hours, on account ofMatthew's strange and inexplicable conduct, and nobody has thankedme."

"Really I must say I should think not!" interposed the grave lady.

"You see, my dear," added Miss Sarah Pocket (a blandly viciouspersonage), "the question to put to yourself is, who did you expectto thank you, my love?"

"Without expecting any thanks, or anything of the sort," resumedCamilla, "I have remained in that state, hours and hours, andRaymond is a witness of the extent to which I have choked, and whatthe total inefficacy of ginger has been, and I have been heard atthe pianoforte-tuner's across the street, where the poor mistakenchildren have even supposed it to be pigeons cooing at adistance-and now to be told--." Here Camilla put her hand to herthroat, and began to be quite chemical as to the formation of newcombinations there.

When this same Matthew was mentioned, Miss Havisham stopped me andherself, and stood looking at the speaker. This change had a greatinfluence in bringing Camilla's chemistry to a sudden end.

"Matthew will come and see me at last," said Miss Havisham,sternly, when I am laid on that table. That will be his place -there," striking the table with her stick, "at my head! And yourswill be there! And your husband's there! And Sarah Pocket's there!And Georgiana's there! Now you all know where to take your stationswhen you come to feast upon me. And now go!"

At the mention of each name, she had struck the table with herstick in a new place. She now said, "Walk me, walk me!" and we wenton again.

"I suppose there's nothing to be done," exclaimed Camilla, "butcomply and depart. It's something to have seen the object of one'slove and duty, for even so short a time. I shall think of it with amelancholy satisfaction when I wake up in the night. I wish Matthewcould have that comfort, but he sets it at defiance. I amdetermined not to make a display of my feelings, but it's very hardto be told one wants to feast on one's relations - as if one was aGiant - and to be told to go. The bare idea!"

Mr. Camilla interposing, as Mrs. Camilla laid her hand upon herheaving bosom, that lady assumed an unnatural fortitude of mannerwhich I supposed to be expressive of an intention to drop and chokewhen out of view, and kissing her hand to Miss Havisham, wasescorted forth. Sarah Pocket and Georgiana contended who shouldremain last; but, Sarah was too knowing to be outdone, and ambledround Georgiana with that artful slipperiness, that the latter wasobliged to take precedence. Sarah Pocket then made her separateeffect of departing with "Bless you, Miss Havisham dear!" and witha smile of forgiving pity on her walnut-shell countenance for theweaknesses of the rest.

While Estella was away lighting them down, Miss Havisham stillwalked with her hand on my shoulder, but more and more slowly. Atlast she stopped before the fire, and said, after muttering andlooking at it some seconds:

"This is my birthday, Pip."

I was going to wish her many happy returns, when she lifted herstick.

"I don't suffer it to be spoken of. I don't suffer those who werehere just now, or any one, to speak of it. They come here on theday, but they dare not refer to it."

Of course I made no further effort to refer to it.

"On this day of the year, long before you were born, this heap ofdecay," stabbing with her crutched stick at the pile of cobwebs onthe table but not touching it, "was brought here. It and I haveworn away together. The mice have gnawed at it, and sharper teeththan teeth of mice have gnawed at me."

She held the head of her stick against her heart as she stoodlooking at the table; she in her once white dress, all yellow andwithered; the once white cloth all yellow and withered; everythingaround, in a state to crumble under a touch.

"When the ruin is complete," said she, with a ghastly look, "andwhen they lay me dead, in my bride's dress on the bride's table -which shall be done, and which will be the finished curse upon him- so much the better if it is done on this day!"

She stood looking at the table as if she stood looking at her ownfigure lying there. I remained quiet. Estella returned, and she tooremained quiet. It seemed to me that we continued thus for a longtime. In the heavy air of the room, and the heavy darkness thatbrooded in its remoter corners, I even had an alarming fancy thatEstella and I might presently begin to decay.

At length, not coming out of her distraught state by degrees, butin an instant, Miss Havisham said, "Let me see you two play cards;why have you not begun?" With that, we returned to her room, andsat down as before; I was beggared, as before; and again, asbefore, Miss Havisham watched us all the time, directed myattention to Estella's beauty, and made me notice it the more bytrying her jewels on Estella's breast and hair.

Estella, for her part, likewise treated me as before; except thatshe did not condescend to speak. When we had played some halfdozengames, a day was appointed for my return, and I was taken down intothe yard to be fed in the former dog-like manner. There, too, I wasagain left to wander about as I liked.

It is not much to the purpose whether a gate in that garden wallwhich I had scrambled up to peep over on the last occasion was, onthat last occasion, open or shut. Enough that I saw no gate them,and that I saw one now. As it stood open, and as I knew thatEstella had let the visitors out - for, she had returned with thekeys in her hand - I strolled into the garden and strolled all overit. It was quite a wilderness, and there were old melon-frames andcucumber-frames in it, which seemed in their decline to haveproduced a spontaneous growth of weak attempts at pieces of oldhats and boots, with now and then a weedy offshoot into thelikeness of a battered saucepan.

When I had exhausted the garden, and a greenhouse with nothing init but a fallen-down grape-vine and some bottles, I found myself inthe dismal corner upon which I had looked out of the window. Neverquestioning for a moment that the house was now empty, I looked inat another window, and found myself, to my great surprise,exchanging a broad stare with a pale young gentleman with redeyelids and light hair.

This pale young gentleman quickly disappeared, and re-appearedbeside me. He had been at his books when I had found myself staringat him, and I now saw that he was inky.

"Halloa!" said he, "young fellow!"

Halloa being a general observation which I had usually observed tobe best answered by itself, I said, "Halloa!" politely omittingyoung fellow.

"Who let you in?" said he.

"Miss Estella."

"Who gave you leave to prowl about?"

"Miss Estella."

"Come and fight," said the pale young gentleman.

What could I do but follow him? I have often asked myself thequestion since: but, what else could I do? His manner was so finaland I was so astonished, that I followed where he led, as if I hadbeen under a spell.

"Stop a minute, though," he said, wheeling round before we had gonemany paces. "I ought to give you a reason for fighting, too. Thereit is!" In a most irritating manner he instantly slapped his handsagainst one another, daintily flung one of his legs up behind him,pulled my hair, slapped his hands again, dipped his head, andbutted it into my stomach.

The bull-like proceeding last mentioned, besides that it wasunquestionably to be regarded in the light of a liberty, wasparticularly disagreeable just after bread and meat. I thereforehit out at him and was going to hit out again, when he said,"Aha! Would you?" and began dancing backwards and forwards in amanner quite unparalleled within my limited experience.

"Laws of the game!" said he. Here, he skipped from his left leg onto his right. "Regular rules!" Here, he skipped from his right legon to his left. "Come to the ground, and go through thepreliminaries!" Here, he dodged backwards and forwards, and did allsorts of things while I looked helplessly at him.

Title: Great Expectations
Author: Charles Dickens
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