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Charles Dickens >> Great Expectations (page 19)


Imperceptibly I became conscious of a change in Biddy, however. Hershoes came up at the heel, her hair grew bright and neat, her handswere always clean. She was not beautiful - she was common, andcould not be like Estella - but she was pleasant and wholesome andsweet-tempered. She had not been with us more than a year (Iremember her being newly out of mourning at the time it struck me),when I observed to myself one evening that she had curiouslythoughtful and attentive eyes; eyes that were very pretty and verygood.

It came of my lifting up my own eyes from a task I was poring at -writing some passages from a book, to improve myself in two ways atonce by a sort of stratagem - and seeing Biddy observant of what Iwas about. I laid down my pen, and Biddy stopped in her needleworkwithout laying it down.

"Biddy," said I, "how do you manage it? Either I am very stupid, oryou are very clever."

"What is it that I manage? I don't know," returned Biddy, smiling.

She managed our whole domestic life, and wonderfully too; but I didnot mean that, though that made what I did mean, more surprising.

"How do you manage, Biddy," said I, "to learn everything that Ilearn, and always to keep up with me?" I was beginning to be rathervain of my knowledge, for I spent my birthday guineas on it, andset aside the greater part of my pocket-money for similarinvestment; though I have no doubt, now, that the little I knew wasextremely dear at the price.

"I might as well ask you," said Biddy, "how you manage?"

"No; because when I come in from the forge of a night, any one cansee me turning to at it. But you never turn to at it, Biddy."

"I suppose I must catch it - like a cough," said Biddy, quietly;and went on with her sewing.

Pursuing my idea as I leaned back in my wooden chair and looked atBiddy sewing away with her head on one side, I began to think herrather an extraordinary girl. For, I called to mind now, that shewas equally accomplished in the terms of our trade, and the namesof our different sorts of work, and our various tools. In short,whatever I knew, Biddy knew. Theoretically, she was already as gooda blacksmith as I, or better.

"You are one of those, Biddy," said I, "who make the most of everychance. You never had a chance before you came here, and see howimproved you are!"

Biddy looked at me for an instant, and went on with her sewing. "Iwas your first teacher though; wasn't I?" said she, as she sewed.

"Biddy!" I exclaimed, in amazement. "Why, you are crying!"

"No I am not," said Biddy, looking up and laughing. "What put thatin your head?"

What could have put it in my head, but the glistening of a tear asit dropped on her work? I sat silent, recalling what a drudge shehad been until Mr. Wopsle's great-aunt successfully overcame thatbad habit of living, so highly desirable to be got rid of by somepeople. I recalled the hopeless circumstances by which she had beensurrounded in the miserable little shop and the miserable littlenoisy evening school, with that miserable old bundle ofincompetence always to be dragged and shouldered. I reflected thateven in those untoward times there must have been latent in Biddywhat was now developing, for, in my first uneasiness and discontentI had turned to her for help, as a matter of course. Biddy satquietly sewing, shedding no more tears, and while I looked at herand thought about it all, it occurred to me that perhaps I had notbeen sufficiently grateful to Biddy. I might have been tooreserved, and should have patronized her more (though I did not usethat precise word in my meditations), with my confidence.

"Yes, Biddy," I observed, when I had done turning it over, "youwere my first teacher, and that at a time when we little thought ofever being together like this, in this kitchen."

"Ah, poor thing!" replied Biddy. It was like herself-forgetfulness, to transfer the remark to my sister, and to getup and be busy about her, making her more comfortable; "that'ssadly true!"

"Well!" said I, "we must talk together a little more, as we used todo. And I must consult you a little more, as I used to do. Let ushave a quiet walk on the marshes next Sunday, Biddy, and a longchat."

My sister was never left alone now; but Joe more than readilyundertook the care of her on that Sunday afternoon, and Biddy and Iwent out together. It was summer-time, and lovely weather. When wehad passed the village and the church and the churchyard, and wereout on the marshes and began to see the sails of the ships as theysailed on, I began to combine Miss Havisham and Estella with theprospect, in my usual way. When we came to the river-side and satdown on the bank, with the water rippling at our feet, making itall more quiet than it would have been without that sound, Iresolved that it was a good time and place for the admission ofBiddy into my inner confidence.

"Biddy," said I, after binding her to secrecy, "I want to be agentleman."

"Oh, I wouldn't, if I was you!" she returned. "I don't think itwould answer."

"Biddy," said I, with some severity, "I have particular reasons forwanting to be a gentleman."

"You know best, Pip; but don't you think you are happier as youare?"

"Biddy," I exclaimed, impatiently, "I am not at all happy as I am.I am disgusted with my calling and with my life. I have never takento either, since I was bound. Don't be absurd."

"Was I absurd?" said Biddy, quietly raising her eyebrows; "I amsorry for that; I didn't mean to be. I only want you to do well,and to be comfortable."

"Well then, understand once for all that I never shall or can becomfortable - or anything but miserable - there, Biddy! - unless Ican lead a very different sort of life from the life I lead now."

"That's a pity!" said Biddy, shaking her head with a sorrowful air.

Now, I too had so often thought it a pity, that, in the singularkind of quarrel with myself which I was always carrying on, I washalf inclined to shed tears of vexation and distress when Biddygave utterance to her sentiment and my own. I told her she wasright, and I knew it was much to be regretted, but still it was notto be helped.

"If I could have settled down," I said to Biddy, plucking up theshort grass within reach, much as I had once upon a time pulled myfeelings out of my hair and kicked them into the brewery wall: "ifI could have settled down and been but half as fond of the forge asI was when I was little, I know it would have been much better forme. You and I and Joe would have wanted nothing then, and Joe and Iwould perhaps have gone partners when I was out of my time, and Imight even have grown up to keep company with you, and we mighthave sat on this very bank on a fine Sunday, quite differentpeople. I should have been good enough for you; shouldn't I,Biddy?"

Biddy sighed as she looked at the ships sailing on, and returnedfor answer, "Yes; I am not over-particular." It scarcely soundedflattering, but I knew she meant well.

"Instead of that," said I, plucking up more grass and chewing ablade or two, "see how I am going on. Dissatisfied, anduncomfortable, and - what would it signify to me, being coarse andcommon, if nobody had told me so!"

Biddy turned her face suddenly towards mine, and looked far moreattentively at me than she had looked at the sailing ships.

"It was neither a very true nor a very polite thing to say," sheremarked, directing her eyes to the ships again. "Who said it?"

I was disconcerted, for I had broken away without quite seeingwhere I was going to. It was not to be shuffled off now, however,and I answered, "The beautiful young lady at Miss Havisham's, andshe's more beautiful than anybody ever was, and I admire herdreadfully, and I want to be a gentleman on her account." Havingmade this lunatic confession, I began to throw my torn-up grassinto the river, as if I had some thoughts of following it.

"Do you want to be a gentleman, to spite her or to gain her over?"Biddy quietly asked me, after a pause.

"I don't know," I moodily answered.

"Because, if it is to spite her," Biddy pursued, "I should think -but you know best - that might be better and more independentlydone by caring nothing for her words. And if it is to gain herover, I should think - but you know best - she was not worthgaining over."

Exactly what I myself had thought, many times. Exactly what wasperfectly manifest to me at the moment. But how could I, a poordazed village lad, avoid that wonderful inconsistency into whichthe best and wisest of men fall every day?

"It may be all quite true," said I to Biddy, "but I admire herdreadfully."

In short, I turned over on my face when I came to that, and got agood grasp on the hair on each side of my head, and wrenched itwell. All the while knowing the madness of my heart to be so verymad and misplaced, that I was quite conscious it would have servedmy face right, if I had lifted it up by my hair, and knocked itagainst the pebbles as a punishment for belonging to such an idiot.

Biddy was the wisest of girls, and she tried to reason no more withme. She put her hand, which was a comfortable hand though roughenedby work, upon my hands, one after another, and gently took them outof my hair. Then she softly patted my shoulder in a soothing way,while with my face upon my sleeve I cried a little - exactly as Ihad done in the brewery yard - and felt vaguely convinced that Iwas very much ill-used by somebody, or by everybody; I can't saywhich.

"I am glad of one thing," said Biddy, "and that is, that you havefelt you could give me your confidence, Pip. And I am glad ofanother thing, and that is, that of course you know you may dependupon my keeping it and always so far deserving it. If your firstteacher (dear! such a poor one, and so much in need of being taughtherself!) had been your teacher at the present time, she thinks sheknows what lesson she would set. But It would be a hard one tolearn, and you have got beyond her, and it's of no use now." So,with a quiet sigh for me, Biddy rose from the bank, and said, witha fresh and pleasant change of voice, "Shall we walk a littlefurther, or go home?"

"Biddy," I cried, getting up, putting my arm round her neck, andgiving her a kiss, "I shall always tell you everything."

"Till you're a gentleman," said Biddy.

"You know I never shall be, so that's always. Not that I have anyoccasion to tell you anything, for you know everything I know - asI told you at home the other night."

"Ah!" said Biddy, quite in a whisper, as she looked away at theships. And then repeated, with her former pleasant change; "shallwe walk a little further, or go home?"

I said to Biddy we would walk a little further, and we did so, andthe summer afternoon toned down into the summer evening, and it wasvery beautiful. I began to consider whether I was not morenaturally and wholesomely situated, after all, in thesecircumstances, than playing beggar my neighbour by candlelight inthe room with the stopped clocks, and being despised by Estella. Ithought it would be very good for me if I could get her out of myhead, with all the rest of those remembrances and fancies, andcould go to work determined to relish what I had to do, and stickto it, and make the best of it. I asked myself the question whetherI did not surely know that if Estella were beside me at that momentinstead of Biddy, she would make me miserable? I was obliged toadmit that I did know it for a certainty, and I said to myself,"Pip, what a fool you are!"

We talked a good deal as we walked, and all that Biddy said seemedright. Biddy was never insulting, or capricious, or Biddy to-dayand somebody else to-morrow; she would have derived only pain, andno pleasure, from giving me pain; she would far rather have woundedher own breast than mine. How could it be, then, that I did notlike her much the better of the two?

"Biddy," said I, when we were walking homeward, "I wish you couldput me right."

"I wish I could!" said Biddy.

"If I could only get myself to fall in love with you - you don'tmind my speaking so openly to such an old acquaintance?"

"Oh dear, not at all!" said Biddy. "Don't mind me."

"If I could only get myself to do it, that would be the thing forme."

"But you never will, you see," said Biddy.

It did not appear quite so unlikely to me that evening, as it wouldhave done if we had discussed it a few hours before. I thereforeobserved I was not quite sure of that. But Biddy said she was, andshe said it decisively. In my heart I believed her to be right; andyet I took it rather ill, too, that she should be so positive onthe point.

When we came near the churchyard, we had to cross an embankment,and get over a stile near a sluice gate. There started up, from thegate, or from the rushes, or from the ooze (which was quite in hisstagnant way), Old Orlick.

"Halloa!" he growled, "where are you two going?"

"Where should we be going, but home?"

"Well then," said he, "I'm jiggered if I don't see you home!"

This penalty of being jiggered was a favourite supposititious caseof his. He attached no definite meaning to the word that I am awareof, but used it, like his own pretended Christian name, to affrontmankind, and convey an idea of something savagely damaging. When Iwas younger, I had had a general belief that if he had jiggered mepersonally, he would have done it with a sharp and twisted hook.

Biddy was much against his going with us, and said to me in awhisper, "Don't let him come; I don't like him." As I did not likehim either, I took the liberty of saying that we thanked him, butwe didn't want seeing home. He received that piece of informationwith a yell of laughter, and dropped back, but came slouching afterus at a little distance.

Title: Great Expectations
Author: Charles Dickens
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