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Charles Dickens >> Great Expectations (page 3)


Chapter 3

It was a rimy morning, and very damp. I had seen the damp lying onthe outside of my little window, as if some goblin had been cryingthere all night, and using the window for a pocket-handkerchief.Now, I saw the damp lying on the bare hedges and spare grass, likea coarser sort of spiders' webs; hanging itself from twig to twigand blade to blade. On every rail and gate, wet lay clammy; and themarsh-mist was so thick, that the wooden finger on the postdirecting people to our village - a direction which they neveraccepted, for they never came there - was invisible to me until Iwas quite close under it. Then, as I looked up at it, while itdripped, it seemed to my oppressed conscience like a phantomdevoting me to the Hulks.

The mist was heavier yet when I got out upon the marshes, so thatinstead of my running at everything, everything seemed to run atme. This was very disagreeable to a guilty mind. The gates anddykes and banks came bursting at me through the mist, as if theycried as plainly as could be, "A boy with Somebody-else's pork pie!Stop him!" The cattle came upon me with like suddenness, staringout of their eyes, and steaming out of their nostrils, "Holloa,young thief!" One black ox, with a white cravat on - who even hadto my awakened conscience something of a clerical air - fixed me soobstinately with his eyes, and moved his blunt head round in suchan accusatory manner as I moved round, that I blubbered out to him,"I couldn't help it, sir! It wasn't for myself I took it!" Uponwhich he put down his head, blew a cloud of smoke out of his nose,and vanished with a kick-up of his hind-legs and a flourish of histail.

All this time, I was getting on towards the river; but however fastI went, I couldn't warm my feet, to which the damp cold seemedriveted, as the iron was riveted to the leg of the man I wasrunning to meet. I knew my way to the Battery, pretty straight, forI had been down there on a Sunday with Joe, and Joe, sitting on anold gun, had told me that when I was 'prentice to him regularlybound, we would have such Larks there! However, in the confusion ofthe mist, I found myself at last too far to the right, andconsequently had to try back along the river-side, on the bank ofloose stones above the mud and the stakes that staked the tide out.Making my way along here with all despatch, I had just crossed aditch which I knew to be very near the Battery, and had justscrambled up the mound beyond the ditch, when I saw the man sittingbefore me. His back was towards me, and he had his arms folded, andwas nodding forward, heavy with sleep.

I thought he would be more glad if I came upon him with hisbreakfast, in that unexpected manner, so I went forward softly andtouched him on the shoulder. He instantly jumped up, and it was notthe same man, but another man!

And yet this man was dressed in coarse grey, too, and had a greatiron on his leg, and was lame, and hoarse, and cold, and waseverything that the other man was; except that he had not the sameface, and had a flat broad-brimmed low-crowned felt that on. Allthis, I saw in a moment, for I had only a moment to see it in: heswore an oath at me, made a hit at me - it was a round weak blowthat missed me and almost knocked himself down, for it made himstumble - and then he ran into the mist, stumbling twice as he went,and I lost him.

"It's the young man!" I thought, feeling my heart shoot as Iidentified him. I dare say I should have felt a pain in my liver,too, if I had known where it was.

I was soon at the Battery, after that, and there was the rightman-hugging himself and limping to and fro, as if he had never allnight left off hugging and limping - waiting for me. He was awfullycold, to be sure. I half expected to see him drop down before myface and die of deadly cold. His eyes looked so awfully hungry,too, that when I handed him the file and he laid it down on thegrass, it occurred to me he would have tried to eat it, if he hadnot seen my bundle. He did not turn me upside down, this time, toget at what I had, but left me right side upwards while I openedthe bundle and emptied my pockets.

"What's in the bottle, boy?" said he.

"Brandy," said I.

He was already handing mincemeat down his throat in the mostcurious manner - more like a man who was putting it away somewherein a violent hurry, than a man who was eating it - but he left offto take some of the liquor. He shivered all the while, soviolently, that it was quite as much as he could do to keep theneck of the bottle between his teeth, without biting it off.

"I think you have got the ague," said I.

"I'm much of your opinion, boy," said he.

"It's bad about here," I told him. "You've been lying out on themeshes, and they're dreadful aguish. Rheumatic too."

"I'll eat my breakfast afore they're the death of me," said he."I'd do that, if I was going to be strung up to that there gallowsas there is over there, directly afterwards. I'll beat the shiversso far, I'll bet you."

He was gobbling mincemeat, meatbone, bread, cheese, and pork pie,all at once: staring distrustfully while he did so at the mist allround us, and often stopping - even stopping his jaws - to listen.Some real or fancied sound, some clink upon the river or breathingof beast upon the marsh, now gave him a start, and he said,suddenly:

"You're not a deceiving imp? You brought no one with you?"

"No, sir! No!"

"Nor giv' no one the office to follow you?"

"No!"

"Well," said he, "I believe you. You'd be but a fierce young houndindeed, if at your time of life you could help to hunt a wretchedwarmint, hunted as near death and dunghill as this poor wretchedwarmint is!"

Something clicked in his throat, as if he had works in him like aclock, and was going to strike. And he smeared his ragged roughsleeve over his eyes.

Pitying his desolation, and watching him as he gradually settleddown upon the pie, I made bold to say, "I am glad you enjoy it."

"Did you speak?"

"I said I was glad you enjoyed it."

"Thankee, my boy. I do."

I had often watched a large dog of ours eating his food; and I nownoticed a decided similarity between the dog's way of eating, andthe man's. The man took strong sharp sudden bites, just like thedog. He swallowed, or rather snapped up, every mouthful, too soonand too fast; and he looked sideways here and there while he ate,as if he thought there was danger in every direction, of somebody'scoming to take the pie away. He was altogether too unsettled in hismind over it, to appreciate it comfortably, I thought, or to haveanybody to dine with him, without making a chop with his jaws atthe visitor. In all of which particulars he was very like the dog.

"I am afraid you won't leave any of it for him," said I, timidly;after a silence during which I had hesitated as to the politenessof making the remark. "There's no more to be got where that camefrom." It was the certainty of this fact that impelled me to offerthe hint.

"Leave any for him? Who's him?" said my friend, stopping in hiscrunching of pie-crust.

"The young man. That you spoke of. That was hid with you."

"Oh ah!" he returned, with something like a gruff laugh. "Him? Yes,yes! He don't want no wittles."

"I thought he looked as if he did," said I.

The man stopped eating, and regarded me with the keenest scrutinyand the greatest surprise.

"Looked? When?"

"Just now."

"Where?"

"Yonder," said I, pointing; "over there, where I found him noddingasleep, and thought it was you."

He held me by the collar and stared at me so, that I began to thinkhis first idea about cutting my throat had revived.

"Dressed like you, you know, only with a hat," I explained,trembling; "and - and" - I was very anxious to put this delicately- "and with - the same reason for wanting to borrow a file. Didn'tyou hear the cannon last night?"

"Then, there was firing!" he said to himself.

"I wonder you shouldn't have been sure of that," I returned, "forwe heard it up at home, and that's further away, and we were shutin besides."

"Why, see now!" said he. "When a man's alone on these flats, with alight head and a light stomach, perishing of cold and want, hehears nothin' all night, but guns firing, and voices calling.Hears? He sees the soldiers, with their red coats lighted up by thetorches carried afore, closing in round him. Hears his numbercalled, hears himself challenged, hears the rattle of the muskets,hears the orders 'Make ready! Present! Cover him steady, men!' andis laid hands on - and there's nothin'! Why, if I see one pursuingparty last night - coming up in order, Damn 'em, with their tramp,tramp - I see a hundred. And as to firing! Why, I see the mistshake with the cannon, arter it was broad day - But this man;" hehad said all the rest, as if he had forgotten my being there; "didyou notice anything in him?"

"He had a badly bruised face," said I, recalling what I hardly knewI knew.

"Not here?" exclaimed the man, striking his left cheek mercilessly,with the flat of his hand.

"Yes, there!"

"Where is he?" He crammed what little food was left, into thebreast of his grey jacket. "Show me the way he went. I'll pull himdown, like a bloodhound. Curse this iron on my sore leg! Give ushold of the file, boy."

I indicated in what direction the mist had shrouded the other man,and he looked up at it for an instant. But he was down on the rankwet grass, filing at his iron like a madman, and not minding me orminding his own leg, which had an old chafe upon it and was bloody,but which he handled as roughly as if it had no more feeling in itthan the file. I was very much afraid of him again, now that he hadworked himself into this fierce hurry, and I was likewise very muchafraid of keeping away from home any longer. I told him I must go,but he took no notice, so I thought the best thing I could do wasto slip off. The last I saw of him, his head was bent over his kneeand he was working hard at his fetter, muttering impatientimprecations at it and at his leg. The last I heard of him, Istopped in the mist to listen, and the file was still going.

Chapter 4

I fully expected to find a Constable in the kitchen, waiting totake me up. But not only was there no Constable there, but nodiscovery had yet been made of the robbery. Mrs. Joe wasprodigiously busy in getting the house ready for the festivities ofthe day, and Joe had been put upon the kitchen door-step to keephim out of the dust-pan - an article into which his destiny alwaysled him sooner or later, when my sister was vigorously reaping thefloors of her establishment.

"And where the deuce ha' you been?" was Mrs. Joe's Christmassalutation, when I and my conscience showed ourselves.

I said I had been down to hear the Carols. "Ah! well!" observed Mrs.Joe. "You might ha' done worse." Not a doubt of that, I thought.

"Perhaps if I warn't a blacksmith's wife, and (what's the samething) a slave with her apron never off, I should have been to hearthe Carols," said Mrs. Joe. "I'm rather partial to Carols, myself,and that's the best of reasons for my never hearing any."

Joe, who had ventured into the kitchen after me as the dust-pan hadretired before us, drew the back of his hand across his nose with aconciliatory air when Mrs. Joe darted a look at him, and, when hereyes were withdrawn, secretly crossed his two forefingers, andexhibited them to me, as our token that Mrs. Joe was in a crosstemper. This was so much her normal state, that Joe and I wouldoften, for weeks together, be, as to our fingers, like monumentalCrusaders as to their legs.

We were to have a superb dinner, consisting of a leg of pickledpork and greens, and a pair of roast stuffed fowls. A handsomemince-pie had been made yesterday morning (which accounted for themincemeat not being missed), and the pudding was already on theboil. These extensive arrangements occasioned us to be cut offunceremoniously in respect of breakfast; "for I an't," said Mrs.Joe, "I an't a-going to have no formal cramming and busting andwashing up now, with what I've got before me, I promise you!"

So, we had our slices served out, as if we were two thousand troopson a forced march instead of a man and boy at home; and we tookgulps of milk and water, with apologetic countenances, from a jugon the dresser. In the meantime, Mrs. Joe put clean white curtainsup, and tacked a new flowered-flounce across the wide chimney toreplace the old one, and uncovered the little state parlour acrossthe passage, which was never uncovered at any other time, butpassed the rest of the year in a cool haze of silver paper, whicheven extended to the four little white crockery poodles on themantelshelf, each with a black nose and a basket of flowers in hismouth, and each the counterpart of the other. Mrs. Joe was a veryclean housekeeper, but had an exquisite art of making hercleanliness more uncomfortable and unacceptable than dirt itself.Cleanliness is next to Godliness, and some people do the same bytheir religion.

My sister having so much to do, was going to church vicariously;that is to say, Joe and I were going. In his working clothes, Joewas a well-knit characteristic-looking blacksmith; in his holidayclothes, he was more like a scarecrow in good circumstances, thananything else. Nothing that he wore then, fitted him or seemed tobelong to him; and everything that he wore then, grazed him. On thepresent festive occasion he emerged from his room, when the blithebells were going, the picture of misery, in a full suit of Sundaypenitentials. As to me, I think my sister must have had somegeneral idea that I was a young offender whom an AccoucheurPolicemen had taken up (on my birthday) and delivered over to her,to be dealt with according to the outraged majesty of the law. Iwas always treated as if I had insisted on being born, inopposition to the dictates of reason, religion, and morality, andagainst the dissuading arguments of my best friends. Even when Iwas taken to have a new suit of clothes, the tailor had orders tomake them like a kind of Reformatory, and on no account to let mehave the free use of my limbs.

Title: Great Expectations
Author: Charles Dickens
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