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Charles Dickens >> Great Expectations (page 5)


But, I ran no further than the house door, for there I ran headforemost into a party of soldiers with their muskets: one of whomheld out a pair of handcuffs to me, saying, "Here you are, looksharp, come on!"

Chapter 5

The apparition of a file of soldiers ringing down the butt-ends oftheir loaded muskets on our door-step, caused the dinner-party torise from table in confusion, and caused Mrs. Joe re-entering thekitchen empty-handed, to stop short and stare, in her wonderinglament of "Gracious goodness gracious me, what's gone - with the -pie!"

The sergeant and I were in the kitchen when Mrs. Joe stood staring;at which crisis I partially recovered the use of my senses. It wasthe sergeant who had spoken to me, and he was now looking round atthe company, with his handcuffs invitingly extended towards them inhis right hand, and his left on my shoulder.

"Excuse me, ladies and gentleman," said the sergeant, "but as Ihave mentioned at the door to this smart young shaver" (which hehadn't), "I am on a chase in the name of the king, and I want theblacksmith."

"And pray what might you want with him?" retorted my sister, quickto resent his being wanted at all.

"Missis," returned the gallant sergeant, "speaking for myself, Ishould reply, the honour and pleasure of his fine wife'sacquaintance; speaking for the king, I answer, a little job done."

This was received as rather neat in the sergeant; insomuch that MrPumblechook cried audibly, "Good again!"

"You see, blacksmith," said the sergeant, who had by this timepicked out Joe with his eye, "we have had an accident with these,and I find the lock of one of 'em goes wrong, and the couplingdon't act pretty. As they are wanted for immediate service, willyou throw your eye over them?"

Joe threw his eye over them, and pronounced that the job wouldnecessitate the lighting of his forge fire, and would take nearertwo hours than one, "Will it? Then will you set about it at once,blacksmith?" said the off-hand sergeant, "as it's on his Majesty'sservice. And if my men can beat a hand anywhere, they'll makethemselves useful." With that, he called to his men, who cametrooping into the kitchen one after another, and piled their armsin a corner. And then they stood about, as soldiers do; now, withtheir hands loosely clasped before them; now, resting a knee or ashoulder; now, easing a belt or a pouch; now, opening the door tospit stiffly over their high stocks, out into the yard.

All these things I saw without then knowing that I saw them, for Iwas in an agony of apprehension. But, beginning to perceive thatthe handcuffs were not for me, and that the military had so far gotthe better of the pie as to put it in the background, I collected alittle more of my scattered wits.

"Would you give me the Time?" said the sergeant, addressing himselfto Mr. Pumblechook, as to a man whose appreciative powers justifiedthe inference that he was equal to the time.

"It's just gone half-past two."

"That's not so bad," said the sergeant, reflecting; "even if I wasforced to halt here nigh two hours, that'll do. How far might youcall yourselves from the marshes, hereabouts? Not above a mile, Ireckon?"

"Just a mile," said Mrs. Joe.

"That'll do. We begin to close in upon 'em about dusk. A littlebefore dusk, my orders are. That'll do."

"Convicts, sergeant?" asked Mr. Wopsle, in a matter-of-course way.

"Ay!" returned the sergeant, "two. They're pretty well known to beout on the marshes still, and they won't try to get clear of 'embefore dusk. Anybody here seen anything of any such game?"

Everybody, myself excepted, said no, with confidence. Nobodythought of me.

"Well!" said the sergeant, "they'll find themselves trapped in acircle, I expect, sooner than they count on. Now, blacksmith! Ifyou're ready, his Majesty the King is."

Joe had got his coat and waistcoat and cravat off, and his leatherapron on, and passed into the forge. One of the soldiers opened itswooden windows, another lighted the fire, another turned to atthe bellows, the rest stood round the blaze, which was soonroaring. Then Joe began to hammer and clink, hammer and clink, andwe all looked on.

The interest of the impending pursuit not only absorbed the generalattention, but even made my sister liberal. She drew a pitcher ofbeer from the cask, for the soldiers, and invited the sergeant totake a glass of brandy. But Mr. Pumblechook said, sharply, "Give himwine, Mum. I'll engage there's no Tar in that:" so, the sergeantthanked him and said that as he preferred his drink without tar, hewould take wine, if it was equally convenient. When it was givenhim, he drank his Majesty's health and Compliments of the Season,and took it all at a mouthful and smacked his lips.

"Good stuff, eh, sergeant?" said Mr. Pumblechook.

"I'll tell you something," returned the sergeant; "I suspect thatstuff's of your providing."

Mr. Pumblechook, with a fat sort of laugh, said, "Ay, ay? Why?"

"Because," returned the sergeant, clapping him on the shoulder,"you're a man that knows what's what."

"D'ye think so?" said Mr. Pumblechook, with his former laugh. "Haveanother glass!"

"With you. Hob and nob," returned the sergeant. "The top of mine tothe foot of yours - the foot of yours to the top of mine - Ringonce, ring twice - the best tune on the Musical Glasses! Yourhealth. May you live a thousand years, and never be a worse judgeof the right sort than you are at the present moment of your life!"

The sergeant tossed off his glass again and seemed quite ready foranother glass. I noticed that Mr. Pumblechook in his hospitalityappeared to forget that he had made a present of the wine, but tookthe bottle from Mrs. Joe and had all the credit of handing it aboutin a gush of joviality. Even I got some. And he was so very free ofthe wine that he even called for the other bottle, and handed thatabout with the same liberality, when the first was gone.

As I watched them while they all stood clustering about the forge,enjoying themselves so much, I thought what terrible good sauce fora dinner my fugitive friend on the marshes was. They had notenjoyed themselves a quarter so much, before the entertainment wasbrightened with the excitement he furnished. And now, when theywere all in lively anticipation of "the two villains" being taken,and when the bellows seemed to roar for the fugitives, the fire toflare for them, the smoke to hurry away in pursuit of them, Joe tohammer and clink for them, and all the murky shadows on the wall toshake at them in menace as the blaze rose and sank and the red-hotsparks dropped and died, the pale after-noon outside, almost seemedin my pitying young fancy to have turned pale on their account,poor wretches.

At last, Joe's job was done, and the ringing and roaring stopped.As Joe got on his coat, he mustered courage to propose that some ofus should go down with the soldiers and see what came of the hunt.Mr. Pumblechook and Mr. Hubble declined, on the plea of a pipe andladies' society; but Mr. Wopsle said he would go, if Joe would. Joesaid he was agreeable, and would take me, if Mrs. Joe approved. Wenever should have got leave to go, I am sure, but for Mrs. Joe'scuriosity to know all about it and how it ended. As it was, shemerely stipulated, "If you bring the boy back with his head blownto bits by a musket, don't look to me to put it together again."

The sergeant took a polite leave of the ladies, and parted from Mr.Pumblechook as from a comrade; though I doubt if he were quite asfully sensible of that gentleman's merits under arid conditions, aswhen something moist was going. His men resumed their muskets andfell in. Mr. Wopsle, Joe, and I, received strict charge to keep inthe rear, and to speak no word after we reached the marshes. Whenwe were all out in the raw air and were steadily moving towards ourbusiness, I treasonably whispered to Joe, "I hope, Joe, we shan'tfind them." and Joe whispered to me, "I'd give a shilling if theyhad cut and run, Pip."

We were joined by no stragglers from the village, for the weatherwas cold and threatening, the way dreary, the footing bad, darknesscoming on, and the people had good fires in-doors and were keepingthe day. A few faces hurried to glowing windows and looked afterus, but none came out. We passed the finger-post, and held straighton to the churchyard. There, we were stopped a few minutes by asignal from the sergeant's hand, while two or three of his mendispersed themselves among the graves, and also examined the porch.They came in again without finding anything, and then we struck outon the open marshes, through the gate at the side of thechurchyard. A bitter sleet came rattling against us here on theeast wind, and Joe took me on his back.

Now that we were out upon the dismal wilderness where they littlethought I had been within eight or nine hours and had seen both menhiding, I considered for the first time, with great dread, if weshould come upon them, would my particular convict suppose that itwas I who had brought the soldiers there? He had asked me if I wasa deceiving imp, and he had said I should be a fierce young houndif I joined the hunt against him. Would he believe that I was bothimp and hound in treacherous earnest, and had betrayed him?

It was of no use asking myself this question now. There I was, onJoe's back, and there was Joe beneath me, charging at the ditcheslike a hunter, and stimulating Mr. Wopsle not to tumble on his Romannose, and to keep up with us. The soldiers were in front of us,extending into a pretty wide line with an interval between man andman. We were taking the course I had begun with, and from which Ihad diverged in the mist. Either the mist was not out again yet, orthe wind had dispelled it. Under the low red glare of sunset, thebeacon, and the gibbet, and the mound of the Battery, and theopposite shore of the river, were plain, though all of a waterylead colour.

With my heart thumping like a blacksmith at Joe's broad shoulder, Ilooked all about for any sign of the convicts. I could see none, Icould hear none. Mr. Wopsle had greatly alarmed me more than once,by his blowing and hard breathing; but I knew the sounds by thistime, and could dissociate them from the object of pursuit. I got adreadful start, when I thought I heard the file still going; but itwas only a sheep bell. The sheep stopped in their eating and lookedtimidly at us; and the cattle, their heads turned from the wind andsleet, stared angrily as if they held us responsible for bothannoyances; but, except these things, and the shudder of the dyingday in every blade of grass, there was no break in the bleakstillness of the marshes.

The soldiers were moving on in the direction of the old Battery,and we were moving on a little way behind them, when, all of asudden, we all stopped. For, there had reached us on the wings ofthe wind and rain, a long shout. It was repeated. It was at adistance towards the east, but it was long and loud. Nay, thereseemed to be two or more shouts raised together - if one mightjudge from a confusion in the sound.

To this effect the sergeant and the nearest men were speaking undertheir breath, when Joe and I came up. After another moment'slistening, Joe (who was a good judge) agreed, and Mr. Wopsle (whowas a bad judge) agreed. The sergeant, a decisive man, ordered thatthe sound should not be answered, but that the course should bechanged, and that his men should make towards it "at the double."So we slanted to the right (where the East was), and Joe poundedaway so wonderfully, that I had to hold on tight to keep my seat.

It was a run indeed now, and what Joe called, in the only two wordshe spoke all the time, "a Winder." Down banks and up banks, andover gates, and splashing into dykes, and breaking among coarserushes: no man cared where he went. As we came nearer to theshouting, it became more and more apparent that it was made by morethan one voice. Sometimes, it seemed to stop altogether, and thenthe soldiers stopped. When it broke out again, the soldiers madefor it at a greater rate than ever, and we after them. After awhile, we had so run it down, that we could hear one voice calling"Murder!" and another voice, "Convicts! Runaways! Guard! This wayfor the runaway convicts!" Then both voices would seem to bestifled in a struggle, and then would break out again. And when ithad come to this, the soldiers ran like deer, and Joe too.

The sergeant ran in first, when we had run the noise quite down,and two of his men ran in close upon him. Their pieces were cockedand levelled when we all ran in.

"Here are both men!" panted the sergeant, struggling at the bottomof a ditch. "Surrender, you two! and confound you for two wildbeasts! Come asunder!"

Water was splashing, and mud was flying, and oaths were beingsworn, and blows were being struck, when some more men went downinto the ditch to help the sergeant, and dragged out, separately,my convict and the other one. Both were bleeding and panting andexecrating and struggling; but of course I knew them both directly.

"Mind!" said my convict, wiping blood from his face with his raggedsleeves, and shaking torn hair from his fingers: "I took him! I givehim up to you! Mind that!"

"It's not much to be particular about," said the sergeant; "it'll doyou small good, my man, being in the same plight yourself.Handcuffs there!"

"I don't expect it to do me any good. I don't want it to do me moregood than it does now," said my convict, with a greedy laugh. "Itook him. He knows it. That's enough for me."

The other convict was livid to look at, and, in addition to the oldbruised left side of his face, seemed to be bruised and torn allover. He could not so much as get his breath to speak, until theywere both separately handcuffed, but leaned upon a soldier to keephimself from falling.

Title: Great Expectations
Author: Charles Dickens
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