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Charles Dickens >> Great Expectations (page 2)


My thoughts strayed from that question as I looked disconsolatelyat the fire. For, the fugitive out on the marshes with the ironedleg, the mysterious young man, the file, the food, and the dreadfulpledge I was under to commit a larceny on those shelteringpremises, rose before me in the avenging coals.

"Hah!" said Mrs. Joe, restoring Tickler to his station. "Churchyard,indeed! You may well say churchyard, you two." One of us,by-the-bye, had not said it at all. "You'll drive me to thechurchyard betwixt you, one of these days, and oh, a pr-r-reciouspair you'd be without me!"

As she applied herself to set the tea-things, Joe peeped down at meover his leg, as if he were mentally casting me and himself up, andcalculating what kind of pair we practically should make, under thegrievous circumstances foreshadowed. After that, he sat feeling hisright-side flaxen curls and whisker, and following Mrs. Joe aboutwith his blue eyes, as his manner always was at squally times.

My sister had a trenchant way of cutting our bread-and-butter forus, that never varied. First, with her left hand she jammed theloaf hard and fast against her bib - where it sometimes got a pininto it, and sometimes a needle, which we afterwards got into ourmouths. Then she took some butter (not too much) on a knife andspread it on the loaf, in an apothecary kind of way, as if she weremaking a plaister - using both sides of the knife with a slappingdexterity, and trimming and moulding the butter off round thecrust. Then, she gave the knife a final smart wipe on the edge ofthe plaister, and then sawed a very thick round off the loaf: whichshe finally, before separating from the loaf, hewed into twohalves, of which Joe got one, and I the other.

On the present occasion, though I was hungry, I dared not eat myslice. I felt that I must have something in reserve for my dreadfulacquaintance, and his ally the still more dreadful young man. Iknew Mrs. Joe's housekeeping to be of the strictest kind, and thatmy larcenous researches might find nothing available in the safe.Therefore I resolved to put my hunk of bread-and-butter down theleg of my trousers.

The effort of resolution necessary to the achievement of thispurpose, I found to be quite awful. It was as if I had to make upmy mind to leap from the top of a high house, or plunge into agreat depth of water. And it was made the more difficult by theunconscious Joe. In our already-mentioned freemasonry asfellow-sufferers, and in his good-natured companionship with me, itwas our evening habit to compare the way we bit through our slices,by silently holding them up to each other's admiration now and then- which stimulated us to new exertions. To-night, Joe several timesinvited me, by the display of his fast-diminishing slice, to enterupon our usual friendly competition; but he found me, each time,with my yellow mug of tea on one knee, and my untouchedbread-and-butter on the other. At last, I desperately consideredthat the thing I contemplated must be done, and that it had best bedone in the least improbable manner consistent with thecircumstances. I took advantage of a moment when Joe had justlooked at me, and got my bread-and-butter down my leg.

Joe was evidently made uncomfortable by what he supposed to be myloss of appetite, and took a thoughtful bite out of his slice,which he didn't seem to enjoy. He turned it about in his mouth muchlonger than usual, pondering over it a good deal, and after allgulped it down like a pill. He was about to take another bite, andhad just got his head on one side for a good purchase on it, whenhis eye fell on me, and he saw that my bread-and-butter was gone.

The wonder and consternation with which Joe stopped on thethreshold of his bite and stared at me, were too evident to escapemy sister's observation.

"What's the matter now?" said she, smartly, as she put down hercup.

"I say, you know!" muttered Joe, shaking his head at me in veryserious remonstrance. "Pip, old chap! You'll do yourself amischief. It'll stick somewhere. You can't have chawed it, Pip."

"What's the matter now?" repeated my sister, more sharply thanbefore.

"If you can cough any trifle on it up, Pip, I'd recommend you to doit," said Joe, all aghast. "Manners is manners, but still yourelth's your elth."

By this time, my sister was quite desperate, so she pounced on Joe,and, taking him by the two whiskers, knocked his head for a littlewhile against the wall behind him: while I sat in the corner,looking guiltily on.

"Now, perhaps you'll mention what's the matter," said my sister,out of breath, "you staring great stuck pig."

Joe looked at her in a helpless way; then took a helpless bite, andlooked at me again.

"You know, Pip," said Joe, solemnly, with his last bite in hischeek and speaking in a confidential voice, as if we two were quitealone, "you and me is always friends, and I'd be the last to tellupon you, any time. But such a--" he moved his chair and lookedabout the floor between us, and then again at me - "such a mostoncommon Bolt as that!"

"Been bolting his food, has he?" cried my sister.

"You know, old chap," said Joe, looking at me, and not at Mrs. Joe,with his bite still in his cheek, "I Bolted, myself, when I wasyour age - frequent - and as a boy I've been among a many Bolters;but I never see your Bolting equal yet, Pip, and it's a mercy youain't Bolted dead."

My sister made a dive at me, and fished me up by the hair: sayingnothing more than the awful words, "You come along and be dosed."

Some medical beast had revived Tar-water in those days as a finemedicine, and Mrs. Joe always kept a supply of it in the cupboard;having a belief in its virtues correspondent to its nastiness. Atthe best of times, so much of this elixir was administered to me asa choice restorative, that I was conscious of going about, smellinglike a new fence. On this particular evening the urgency of my casedemanded a pint of this mixture, which was poured down my throat,for my greater comfort, while Mrs. Joe held my head under her arm,as a boot would be held in a boot-jack. Joe got off with half apint; but was made to swallow that (much to his disturbance, as hesat slowly munching and meditating before the fire), "because he hadhad a turn." Judging from myself, I should say he certainly had aturn afterwards, if he had had none before.

Conscience is a dreadful thing when it accuses man or boy; butwhen, in the case of a boy, that secret burden co-operates withanother secret burden down the leg of his trousers, it is (as I cantestify) a great punishment. The guilty knowledge that I was goingto rob Mrs. Joe - I never thought I was going to rob Joe, for Inever thought of any of the housekeeping property as his - unitedto the necessity of always keeping one hand on my bread-and-butteras I sat, or when I was ordered about the kitchen on any smallerrand, almost drove me out of my mind. Then, as the marsh windsmade the fire glow and flare, I thought I heard the voice outside,of the man with the iron on his leg who had sworn me to secrecy,declaring that he couldn't and wouldn't starve until to-morrow, butmust be fed now. At other times, I thought, What if the young manwho was with so much difficulty restrained from imbruing his handsin me, should yield to a constitutional impatience, or shouldmistake the time, and should think himself accredited to my heartand liver to-night, instead of to-morrow! If ever anybody's hairstood on end with terror, mine must have done so then. But,perhaps, nobody's ever did?

It was Christmas Eve, and I had to stir the pudding for next day,with a copper-stick, from seven to eight by the Dutch clock. Itried it with the load upon my leg (and that made me think afreshof the man with the load on his leg), and found the tendency ofexercise to bring the bread-and-butter out at my ankle, quiteunmanageable. Happily, I slipped away, and deposited that part ofmy conscience in my garret bedroom.

"Hark!" said I, when I had done my stirring, and was taking a finalwarm in the chimney corner before being sent up to bed; "was thatgreat guns, Joe?"

"Ah!" said Joe. "There's another conwict off."

"What does that mean, Joe?" said I.

Mrs. Joe, who always took explanations upon herself, said,snappishly, "Escaped. Escaped." Administering the definition likeTar-water.

While Mrs. Joe sat with her head bending over her needlework, I putmy mouth into the forms of saying to Joe, "What's a convict?" Joeput his mouth into the forms of returning such a highly elaborateanswer, that I could make out nothing of it but the single word"Pip."

"There was a conwict off last night," said Joe, aloud, "aftersun-set-gun. And they fired warning of him. And now, it appearsthey're firing warning of another."

"Who's firing?" said I.

"Drat that boy," interposed my sister, frowning at me over herwork, "what a questioner he is. Ask no questions, and you'll betold no lies."

It was not very polite to herself, I thought, to imply that I shouldbe told lies by her, even if I did ask questions. But she never waspolite, unless there was company.

At this point, Joe greatly augmented my curiosity by taking theutmost pains to open his mouth very wide, and to put it into theform of a word that looked to me like "sulks." Therefore, Inaturally pointed to Mrs. Joe, and put my mouth into the form ofsaying "her?" But Joe wouldn't hear of that, at all, and againopened his mouth very wide, and shook the form of a most emphaticword out of it. But I could make nothing of the word.

"Mrs. Joe," said I, as a last resort, "I should like to know - ifyou wouldn't much mind - where the firing comes from?"

"Lord bless the boy!" exclaimed my sister, as if she didn't quitemean that, but rather the contrary. "From the Hulks!"

"Oh-h!" said I, looking at Joe. "Hulks!"

Joe gave a reproachful cough, as much as to say, "Well, I told youso."

"And please what's Hulks?" said I.

"That's the way with this boy!" exclaimed my sister, pointing meout with her needle and thread, and shaking her head at me. "Answerhim one question, and he'll ask you a dozen directly. Hulks areprison-ships, right 'cross th' meshes." We always used that namefor marshes, in our country.

"I wonder who's put into prison-ships, and why they're put there?"said I, in a general way, and with quiet desperation.

It was too much for Mrs. Joe, who immediately rose. "I tell youwhat, young fellow," said she, "I didn't bring you up by hand tobadger people's lives out. It would be blame to me, and not praise,if I had. People are put in the Hulks because they murder, andbecause they rob, and forge, and do all sorts of bad; and theyalways begin by asking questions. Now, you get along to bed!"

I was never allowed a candle to light me to bed, and, as I wentupstairs in the dark, with my head tingling - from Mrs. Joe'sthimble having played the tambourine upon it, to accompany her lastwords - I felt fearfully sensible of the great convenience that theHulks were handy for me. I was clearly on my way there. I had begunby asking questions, and I was going to rob Mrs. Joe.

Since that time, which is far enough away now, I have often thoughtthat few people know what secrecy there is in the young, underterror. No matter how unreasonable the terror, so that it beterror. I was in mortal terror of the young man who wanted my heartand liver; I was in mortal terror of my interlocutor with theironed leg; I was in mortal terror of myself, from whom an awfulpromise had been extracted; I had no hope of deliverance through myall-powerful sister, who repulsed me at every turn; I am afraid tothink of what I might have done, on requirement, in the secrecy ofmy terror.

If I slept at all that night, it was only to imagine myselfdrifting down the river on a strong spring-tide, to the Hulks; aghostly pirate calling out to me through a speaking-trumpet, as Ipassed the gibbet-station, that I had better come ashore and behanged there at once, and not put it off. I was afraid to sleep,even if I had been inclined, for I knew that at the first faintdawn of morning I must rob the pantry. There was no doing it in thenight, for there was no getting a light by easy friction then; tohave got one, I must have struck it out of flint and steel, andhave made a noise like the very pirate himself rattling his chains.

As soon as the great black velvet pall outside my little window wasshot with grey, I got up and went down stairs; every board upon theway, and every crack in every board, calling after me, "Stopthief!" and "Get up, Mrs. Joe!" In the pantry, which was far moreabundantly supplied than usual, owing to the season, I was verymuch alarmed, by a hare hanging up by the heels, whom I ratherthought I caught, when my back was half turned, winking. I had notime for verification, no time for selection, no time for anything,for I had no time to spare. I stole some bread, some rind ofcheese, about half a jar of mincemeat (which I tied up in mypocket-handkerchief with my last night's slice), some brandy from astone bottle (which I decanted into a glass bottle I had secretlyused for making that intoxicating fluid, Spanish-liquorice-water,up in my room: diluting the stone bottle from a jug in the kitchencupboard), a meat bone with very little on it, and a beautifulround compact pork pie. I was nearly going away without the pie,but I was tempted to mount upon a shelf, to look what it was thatwas put away so carefully in a covered earthen ware dish in acorner, and I found it was the pie, and I took it, in the hope thatit was not intended for early use, and would not be missed for sometime.

There was a door in the kitchen, communicating with the forge; Iunlocked and unbolted that door, and got a file from among Joe'stools. Then, I put the fastenings as I had found them, opened thedoor at which I had entered when I ran home last night, shut it,and ran for the misty marshes.

Title: Great Expectations
Author: Charles Dickens
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