Charles Dickens >> Great Expectations (page 28)

"Well!" she cried, picking up the pocket handkerchief, "if thatdon't make seven times! What ARE you a-doing of this afternoon,Mum!" Mrs. Pocket received her property, at first with a look ofunutterable surprise as if she had never seen it before, and thenwith a laugh of recognition, and said, "Thank you, Flopson," andforgot me, and went on reading.

I found, now I had leisure to count them, that there were no fewerthan six little Pockets present, in various stages of tumbling up.I had scarcely arrived at the total when a seventh was heard, as inthe region of air, wailing dolefully.

"If there ain't Baby!" said Flopson, appearing to think it mostsurprising. "Make haste up, Millers."

Millers, who was the other nurse, retired into the house, and bydegrees the child's wailing was hushed and stopped, as if it were ayoung ventriloquist with something in its mouth. Mrs. Pocket readall the time, and I was curious to know what the book could be.

We were waiting, I supposed, for Mr. Pocket to come out to us; atany rate we waited there, and so I had an opportunity of observingthe remarkable family phenomenon that whenever any of the childrenstrayed near Mrs. Pocket in their play, they always trippedthemselves up and tumbled over her - always very much to hermomentary astonishment, and their own more enduring lamentation. Iwas at a loss to account for this surprising circumstance, andcould not help giving my mind to speculations about it, untilby-and-by Millers came down with the baby, which baby was handed toFlopson, which Flopson was handing it to Mrs. Pocket, when she toowent fairly head foremost over Mrs. Pocket, baby and all, and wascaught by Herbert and myself.

"Gracious me, Flopson!" said Mrs. Pocket, looking off her book for amoment, "everybody's tumbling!"

"Gracious you, indeed, Mum!" returned Flopson, very red in theface; "what have you got there?"

"I got here, Flopson?" asked Mrs. Pocket.

"Why, if it ain't your footstool!" cried Flopson. "And if you keepit under your skirts like that, who's to help tumbling? Here! Takethe baby, Mum, and give me your book."

Mrs. Pocket acted on the advice, and inexpertly danced the infant alittle in her lap, while the other children played about it. Thishad lasted but a very short time, when Mrs. Pocket issued summaryorders that they were all to be taken into the house for a nap.Thus I made the second discovery on that first occasion, that thenurture of the little Pockets consisted of alternately tumbling upand lying down.

Under these circumstances, when Flopson and Millers had got thechildren into the house, like a little flock of sheep, and Mr.Pocket came out of it to make my acquaintance, I was not muchsurprised to find that Mr. Pocket was a gentleman with a ratherperplexed expression of face, and with his very grey hairdisordered on his head, as if he didn't quite see his way toputting anything straight.

Chapter 23

Mr. Pocket said he was glad to see me, and he hoped I was not sorryto see him. "For, I really am not," he added, with his son's smile,"an alarming personage." He was a young-looking man, in spite ofhis perplexities and his very grey hair, and his manner seemedquite natural. I use the word natural, in the sense of its beingunaffected; there was something comic in his distraught way, asthough it would have been downright ludicrous but for his ownperception that it was very near being so. When he had talked withme a little, he said to Mrs. Pocket, with a rather anxiouscontraction of his eyebrows, which were black and handsome,"Belinda, I hope you have welcomed Mr. Pip?" And she looked up fromher book, and said, "Yes." She then smiled upon me in an absentstate of mind, and asked me if I liked the taste of orange-flowerwater? As the question had no bearing, near or remote, on anyforegone or subsequent transaction, I consider it to have beenthrown out, like her previous approaches, in general conversationalcondescension.

I found out within a few hours, and may mention at once, that Mrs.Pocket was the only daughter of a certain quite accidental deceasedKnight, who had invented for himself a conviction that his deceasedfather would have been made a Baronet but for somebody's determinedopposition arising out of entirely personal motives - I forgetwhose, if I ever knew - the Sovereign's, the Prime Minister's, theLord Chancellor's, the Archbishop of Canterbury's, anybody's - andhad tacked himself on to the nobles of the earth in right of thisquite supposititious fact. I believe he had been knighted himselffor storming the English grammar at the point of the pen, in adesperate address engrossed on vellum, on the occasion of thelaying of the first stone of some building or other, and forhanding some Royal Personage either the trowel or the mortar. Bethat as it may, he had directed Mrs. Pocket to be brought up fromher cradle as one who in the nature of things must marry a title,and who was to be guarded from the acquisition of plebeian domesticknowledge.

So successful a watch and ward had been established over the younglady by this judicious parent, that she had grown up highlyornamental, but perfectly helpless and useless. With her characterthus happily formed, in the first bloom of her youth she hadencountered Mr. Pocket: who was also in the first bloom of youth,and not quite decided whether to mount to the Woolsack, or to roofhimself in with a mitre. As his doing the one or the other was amere question of time, he and Mrs. Pocket had taken Time by theforelock (when, to judge from its length, it would seem to havewanted cutting), and had married without the knowledge of thejudicious parent. The judicious parent, having nothing to bestow orwithhold but his blessing, had handsomely settled that dower uponthem after a short struggle, and had informed Mr. Pocket that hiswife was "a treasure for a Prince." Mr. Pocket had invested thePrince's treasure in the ways of the world ever since, and it wassupposed to have brought him in but indifferent interest. Still,Mrs. Pocket was in general the object of a queer sort of respectfulpity, because she had not married a title; while Mr. Pocket was theobject of a queer sort of forgiving reproach, because he had nevergot one.

Mr. Pocket took me into the house and showed me my room: which was apleasant one, and so furnished as that I could use it with comfortfor my own private sitting-room. He then knocked at the doors oftwo other similar rooms, and introduced me to their occupants, byname Drummle and Startop. Drummle, an old-looking young man of aheavy order of architecture, was whistling. Startop, younger inyears and appearance, was reading and holding his head, as if hethought himself in danger of exploding it with too strong a chargeof knowledge.

Both Mr. and Mrs. Pocket had such a noticeable air of being insomebody else's hands, that I wondered who really was in possessionof the house and let them live there, until I found this unknownpower to be the servants. It was a smooth way of going on, perhaps,in respect of saving trouble; but it had the appearance of beingexpensive, for the servants felt it a duty they owed to themselvesto be nice in their eating and drinking, and to keep a deal ofcompany down stairs. They allowed a very liberal table to Mr. andMrs. Pocket, yet it always appeared to me that by far the best partof the house to have boarded in, would have been the kitchen -always supposing the boarder capable of self-defence, for, before Ihad been there a week, a neighbouring lady with whom the familywere personally unacquainted, wrote in to say that she had seenMillers slapping the baby. This greatly distressed Mrs. Pocket, whoburst into tears on receiving the note, and said that it was anextraordinary thing that the neighbours couldn't mind their ownbusiness.

By degrees I learnt, and chiefly from Herbert, that Mr. Pocket hadbeen educated at Harrow and at Cambridge, where he haddistinguished himself; but that when he had had the happiness ofmarrying Mrs. Pocket very early in life, he had impaired hisprospects and taken up the calling of a Grinder. After grinding anumber of dull blades - of whom it was remarkable that theirfathers, when influential, were always going to help him topreferment, but always forgot to do it when the blades had left theGrindstone - he had wearied of that poor work and had come toLondon. Here, after gradually failing in loftier hopes, he had"read" with divers who had lacked opportunities or neglected them,and had refurbished divers others for special occasions, and hadturned his acquirements to the account of literary compilation andcorrection, and on such means, added to some very moderate privateresources, still maintained the house I saw.

Mr. and Mrs. Pocket had a toady neighbour; a widow lady of thathighly sympathetic nature that she agreed with everybody, blessedeverybody, and shed smiles and tears on everybody, according tocircumstances. This lady's name was Mrs. Coiler, and I had thehonour of taking her down to dinner on the day of my installation.She gave me to understand on the stairs, that it was a blow to dearMrs. Pocket that dear Mr. Pocket should be under the necessity ofreceiving gentlemen to read with him. That did not extend to me,she told me in a gush of love and confidence (at that time, I hadknown her something less than five minutes); if they were all likeMe, it would be quite another thing.

"But dear Mrs. Pocket," said Mrs. Coiler, "after her earlydisappointment (not that dear Mr. Pocket was to blame in that),requires so much luxury and elegance--"

"Yes, ma'am," I said, to stop her, for I was afraid she was goingto cry.

"And she is of so aristocratic a disposition--"

"Yes, ma'am," I said again, with the same object as before.

" - that it is hard," said Mrs. Coiler, "to have dear Mr. Pocket'stime and attention diverted from dear Mrs. Pocket."

I could not help thinking that it might be harder if the butcher'stime and attention were diverted from dear Mrs. Pocket; but I saidnothing, and indeed had enough to do in keeping a bashful watchupon my company-manners.

It came to my knowledge, through what passed between Mrs. Pocket andDrummle while I was attentive to my knife and fork, spoon, glasses,and other instruments of self-destruction, that Drummle, whoseChristian name was Bentley, was actually the next heir but one to abaronetcy. It further appeared that the book I had seen Mrs. Pocketreading in the garden, was all about titles, and that she knew theexact date at which her grandpapa would have come into the book, ifhe ever had come at all. Drummle didn't say much, but in hislimited way (he struck me as a sulky kind of fellow) he spoke asone of the elect, and recognized Mrs. Pocket as a woman and asister. No one but themselves and Mrs. Coiler the toady neighbourshowed any interest in this part of the conversation, and itappeared to me that it was painful to Herbert; but it promised tolast a long time, when the page came in with the announcement of adomestic affliction. It was, in effect, that the cook had mislaidthe beef. To my unutterable amazement, I now, for the first time,saw Mr. Pocket relieve his mind by going through a performance thatstruck me as very extraordinary, but which made no impression onanybody else, and with which I soon became as familiar as the rest.He laid down the carving-knife and fork - being engaged in carving,at the moment - put his two hands into his disturbed hair, andappeared to make an extraordinary effort to lift himself up by it.When he had done this, and had not lifted himself up at all, hequietly went on with what he was about.

Mrs. Coiler then changed the subject, and began to flatter me. Iliked it for a few moments, but she flattered me so very grosslythat the pleasure was soon over. She had a serpentine way of comingclose at me when she pretended to be vitally interested in thefriends and localities I had left, which was altogether snaky andfork-tongued; and when she made an occasional bounce upon Startop(who said very little to her), or upon Drummle (who said less), Irather envied them for being on the opposite side of the table.

After dinner the children were introduced, and Mrs. Coiler madeadmiring comments on their eyes, noses, and legs - a sagacious wayof improving their minds. There were four little girls, and twolittle boys, besides the baby who might have been either, and thebaby's next successor who was as yet neither. They were brought inby Flopson and Millers, much as though those two noncommissionedofficers had been recruiting somewhere for children and hadenlisted these: while Mrs. Pocket looked at the young Nobles thatought to have been, as if she rather thought she had had thepleasure of inspecting them before, but didn't quite know what tomake of them.

"Here! Give me your fork, Mum, and take the baby," said Flopson."Don't take it that way, or you'll get its head under the table."

Thus advised, Mrs. Pocket took it the other way, and got its headupon the table; which was announced to all present by a prodigiousconcussion.

"Dear, dear! Give it me back, Mum," said Flopson; "and Miss Jane,come and dance to baby, do!"

One of the little girls, a mere mite who seemed to have prematurelytaken upon herself some charge of the others, stepped out of herplace by me, and danced to and from the baby until it left offcrying, and laughed. Then, all the children laughed, and Mr. Pocket(who in the meantime had twice endeavoured to lift himself up bythe hair) laughed, and we all laughed and were glad.

Flopson, by dint of doubling the baby at the joints like a Dutchdoll, then got it safely into Mrs. Pocket's lap, and gave it thenutcrackers to play with: at the same time recommending Mrs. Pocketto take notice that the handles of that instrument were not likelyto agree with its eyes, and sharply charging Miss Jane to lookafter the same. Then, the two nurses left the room, and had alively scuffle on the staircase with a dissipated page who hadwaited at dinner, and who had clearly lost half his buttons at thegamingtable.

Title: Great Expectations
Author: Charles Dickens
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