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Charles Dickens >> Great Expectations (page 18)


"Ay! There's some of the birds flown from the cages. The guns havebeen going since dark, about. You'll hear one presently."

In effect, we had not walked many yards further, when thewellremembered boom came towards us, deadened by the mist, andheavily rolled away along the low grounds by the river, as if itwere pursuing and threatening the fugitives.

"A good night for cutting off in," said Orlick. "We'd be puzzledhow to bring down a jail-bird on the wing, to-night."

The subject was a suggestive one to me, and I thought about it insilence. Mr. Wopsle, as the ill-requited uncle of the evening'stragedy, fell to meditating aloud in his garden at Camberwell.Orlick, with his hands in his pockets, slouched heavily at my side.It was very dark, very wet, very muddy, and so we splashed along.Now and then, the sound of the signal cannon broke upon us again,and again rolled sulkily along the course of the river. I keptmyself to myself and my thoughts. Mr. Wopsle died amiably atCamberwell, and exceedingly game on Bosworth Field, and in thegreatest agonies at Glastonbury. Orlick sometimes growled, "Beat itout, beat it out - Old Clem! With a clink for the stout - OldClem!" I thought he had been drinking, but he was not drunk.

Thus, we came to the village. The way by which we approached it,took us past the Three Jolly Bargemen, which we were surprised tofind - it being eleven o'clock - in a state of commotion, with thedoor wide open, and unwonted lights that had been hastily caught upand put down, scattered about. Mr. Wopsle dropped in to ask what wasthe matter (surmising that a convict had been taken), but camerunning out in a great hurry.

"There's something wrong," said he, without stopping, "up at yourplace, Pip. Run all!"

"What is it?" I asked, keeping up with him. So did Orlick, at myside.

"I can't quite understand. The house seems to have been violentlyentered when Joe Gargery was out. Supposed by convicts. Somebodyhas been attacked and hurt."

We were running too fast to admit of more being said, and we madeno stop until we got into our kitchen. It was full of people; thewhole village was there, or in the yard; and there was a surgeon,and there was Joe, and there was a group of women, all on the floorin the midst of the kitchen. The unemployed bystanders drew backwhen they saw me, and so I became aware of my sister - lyingwithout sense or movement on the bare boards where she had beenknocked down by a tremendous blow on the back of the head, dealt bysome unknown hand when her face was turned towards the fire -destined never to be on the Rampage again, while she was the wifeof Joe.

Chapter 16

With my head full of George Barnwell, I was at first disposed tobelieve that I must have had some hand in the attack upon mysister, or at all events that as her near relation, popularly knownto be under obligations to her, I was a more legitimate object ofsuspicion than any one else. But when, in the clearer light of nextmorning, I began to reconsider the matter and to hear it discussedaround me on all sides, I took another view of the case, which wasmore reasonable.

Joe had been at the Three Jolly Bargemen, smoking his pipe, from aquarter after eight o'clock to a quarter before ten. While he wasthere, my sister had been seen standing at the kitchen door, andhad exchanged Good Night with a farm-labourer going home. The mancould not be more particular as to the time at which he saw her (hegot into dense confusion when he tried to be), than that it musthave been before nine. When Joe went home at five minutes beforeten, he found her struck down on the floor, and promptly called inassistance. The fire had not then burnt unusually low, nor was thesnuff of the candle very long; the candle, however, had been blownout.

Nothing had been taken away from any part of the house. Neither,beyond the blowing out of the candle - which stood on a tablebetween the door and my sister, and was behind her when she stoodfacing the fire and was struck - was there any disarrangement ofthe kitchen, excepting such as she herself had made, in falling andbleeding. But, there was one remarkable piece of evidence on thespot. She had been struck with something blunt and heavy, on thehead and spine; after the blows were dealt, something heavy hadbeen thrown down at her with considerable violence, as she lay onher face. And on the ground beside her, when Joe picked her up, wasa convict's leg-iron which had been filed asunder.

Now, Joe, examining this iron with a smith's eye, declared it tohave been filed asunder some time ago. The hue and cry going off tothe Hulks, and people coming thence to examine the iron, Joe'sopinion was corroborated. They did not undertake to say when it hadleft the prison-ships to which it undoubtedly had once belonged;but they claimed to know for certain that that particular manaclehad not been worn by either of the two convicts who had escaped lastnight. Further, one of those two was already re-taken, and had notfreed himself of his iron.

Knowing what I knew, I set up an inference of my own here. Ibelieved the iron to be my convict's iron - the iron I had seen andheard him filing at, on the marshes - but my mind did not accusehim of having put it to its latest use. For, I believed one of twoother persons to have become possessed of it, and to have turned itto this cruel account. Either Orlick, or the strange man who hadshown me the file.

Now, as to Orlick; he had gone to town exactly as he told us whenwe picked him up at the turnpike, he had been seen about town allthe evening, he had been in divers companies in severalpublic-houses, and he had come back with myself and Mr. Wopsle.There was nothing against him, save the quarrel; and my sister hadquarrelled with him, and with everybody else about her, tenthousand times. As to the strange man; if he had come back for histwo bank-notes there could have been no dispute about them, becausemy sister was fully prepared to restore them. Besides, there hadbeen no altercation; the assailant had come in so silently andsuddenly, that she had been felled before she could look round.

It was horrible to think that I had provided the weapon, howeverundesignedly, but I could hardly think otherwise. I sufferedunspeakable trouble while I considered and reconsidered whether Ishould at last dissolve that spell of my childhood, and tell Joeall the story. For months afterwards, I every day settled thequestion finally in the negative, and reopened and reargued it nextmorning. The contention came, after all, to this; - the secret wassuch an old one now, had so grown into me and become a part ofmyself, that I could not tear it away. In addition to the dreadthat, having led up to so much mischief, it would be now morelikely than ever to alienate Joe from me if he believed it, I had afurther restraining dread that he would not believe it, but wouldassort it with the fabulous dogs and veal-cutlets as a monstrousinvention. However, I temporized with myself, of course - for, wasI not wavering between right and wrong, when the thing is alwaysdone? - and resolved to make a full disclosure if I should see anysuch new occasion as a new chance of helping in the discovery ofthe assailant.

The Constables, and the Bow Street men from London - for, thishappened in the days of the extinct red-waistcoated police - wereabout the house for a week or two, and did pretty much what I haveheard and read of like authorities doing in other such cases. Theytook up several obviously wrong people, and they ran their headsvery hard against wrong ideas, and persisted in trying to fit thecircumstances to the ideas, instead of trying to extract ideas fromthe circumstances. Also, they stood about the door of the JollyBargemen, with knowing and reserved looks that filled the wholeneighbourhood with admiration; and they had a mysterious manner oftaking their drink, that was almost as good as taking the culprit.But not quite, for they never did it.

Long after these constitutional powers had dispersed, my sister layvery ill in bed. Her sight was disturbed, so that she saw objectsmultiplied, and grasped at visionary teacups and wine-glassesinstead of the realities; her hearing was greatly impaired; hermemory also; and her speech was unintelligible. When, at last, shecame round so far as to be helped down-stairs, it was stillnecessary to keep my slate always by her, that she might indicatein writing what she could not indicate in speech. As she was (verybad handwriting apart) a more than indifferent speller, and as Joewas a more than indifferent reader, extraordinary complicationsarose between them, which I was always called in to solve. Theadministration of mutton instead of medicine, the substitution ofTea for Joe, and the baker for bacon, were among the mildest of myown mistakes.

However, her temper was greatly improved, and she was patient. Atremulous uncertainty of the action of all her limbs soon became apart of her regular state, and afterwards, at intervals of two orthree months, she would often put her hands to her head, and wouldthen remain for about a week at a time in some gloomy aberration ofmind. We were at a loss to find a suitable attendant for her, untila circumstance happened conveniently to relieve us. Mr. Wopsle'sgreat-aunt conquered a confirmed habit of living into which she hadfallen, and Biddy became a part of our establishment.

It may have been about a month after my sister's reappearance inthe kitchen, when Biddy came to us with a small speckled boxcontaining the whole of her worldly effects, and became a blessingto the household. Above all, she was a blessing to Joe, for thedear old fellow was sadly cut up by the constant contemplation ofthe wreck of his wife, and had been accustomed, while attending onher of an evening, to turn to me every now and then and say, withhis blue eyes moistened, "Such a fine figure of a woman as she oncewere, Pip!" Biddy instantly taking the cleverest charge of her asthough she had studied her from infancy, Joe became able in somesort to appreciate the greater quiet of his life, and to get downto the Jolly Bargemen now and then for a change that did him good.It was characteristic of the police people that they had all moreor less suspected poor Joe (though he never knew it), and that theyhad to a man concurred in regarding him as one of the deepestspirits they had ever encountered.

Biddy's first triumph in her new office, was to solve a difficultythat had completely vanquished me. I had tried hard at it, but hadmade nothing of it. Thus it was:

Again and again and again, my sister had traced upon the slate, acharacter that looked like a curious T, and then with the utmosteagerness had called our attention to it as something sheparticularly wanted. I had in vain tried everything producible thatbegan with a T, from tar to toast and tub. At length it had comeinto my head that the sign looked like a hammer, and on my lustilycalling that word in my sister's ear, she had begun to hammer onthe table and had expressed a qualified assent. Thereupon, I hadbrought in all our hammers, one after another, but without avail.Then I bethought me of a crutch, the shape being much the same, andI borrowed one in the village, and displayed it to my sister withconsiderable confidence. But she shook her head to that extent whenshe was shown it, that we were terrified lest in her weak andshattered state she should dislocate her neck.

When my sister found that Biddy was very quick to understand her,this mysterious sign reappeared on the slate. Biddy lookedthoughtfully at it, heard my explanation, looked thoughtfully at mysister, looked thoughtfully at Joe (who was always represented onthe slate by his initial letter), and ran into the forge, followedby Joe and me.

"Why, of course!" cried Biddy, with an exultant face. "Don't yousee? It's him!"

Orlick, without a doubt! She had lost his name, and could onlysignify him by his hammer. We told him why we wanted him to comeinto the kitchen, and he slowly laid down his hammer, wiped hisbrow with his arm, took another wipe at it with his apron, and cameslouching out, with a curious loose vagabond bend in the knees thatstrongly distinguished him.

I confess that I expected to see my sister denounce him, and that Iwas disappointed by the different result. She manifested thegreatest anxiety to be on good terms with him, was evidently muchpleased by his being at length produced, and motioned that shewould have him given something to drink. She watched hiscountenance as if she were particularly wishful to be assured thathe took kindly to his reception, she showed every possible desireto conciliate him, and there was an air of humble propitiation inall she did, such as I have seen pervade the bearing of a childtowards a hard master. After that day, a day rarely passed withouther drawing the hammer on her slate, and without Orlick's slouchingin and standing doggedly before her, as if he knew no more than Idid what to make of it.

Chapter 17

I now fell into a regular routine of apprenticeship life, which wasvaried, beyond the limits of the village and the marshes, by nomore remarkable circumstance than the arrival of my birthday and mypaying another visit to Miss Havisham. I found Miss Sarah Pocketstill on duty at the gate, I found Miss Havisham just as I had lefther, and she spoke of Estella in the very same way, if not in thevery same words. The interview lasted but a few minutes, and shegave me a guinea when I was going, and told me to come again on mynext birthday. I may mention at once that this became an annualcustom. I tried to decline taking the guinea on the first occasion,but with no better effect than causing her to ask me very angrily,if I expected more? Then, and after that, I took it.

So unchanging was the dull old house, the yellow light in thedarkened room, the faded spectre in the chair by the dressing-tableglass, that I felt as if the stopping of the clocks had stoppedTime in that mysterious place, and, while I and everything elseoutside it grew older, it stood still. Daylight never entered thehouse as to my thoughts and remembrances of it, any more than as tothe actual fact. It bewildered me, and under its influence Icontinued at heart to hate my trade and to be ashamed of home.

Title: Great Expectations
Author: Charles Dickens
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