Charles Dickens >> Great Expectations (page 31)

The piece of ordnance referred to, was mounted in a separatefortress, constructed of lattice-work. It was protected from theweather by an ingenious little tarpaulin contrivance in the natureof an umbrella.

"Then, at the back," said Wemmick, "out of sight, so as not toimpede the idea of fortifications - for it's a principle with me,if you have an idea, carry it out and keep it up - I don't knowwhether that's your opinion--"

I said, decidedly.

" - At the back, there's a pig, and there are fowls and rabbits;then, I knock together my own little frame, you see, and growcucumbers; and you'll judge at supper what sort of a salad I canraise. So, sir," said Wemmick, smiling again, but seriously too, ashe shook his head, "if you can suppose the little place besieged,it would hold out a devil of a time in point of provisions."

Then, he conducted me to a bower about a dozen yards off, but whichwas approached by such ingenious twists of path that it took quitea long time to get at; and in this retreat our glasses were alreadyset forth. Our punch was cooling in an ornamental lake, on whosemargin the bower was raised. This piece of water (with an island inthe middle which might have been the salad for supper) was of acircular form, and he had constructed a fountain in it, which, whenyou set a little mill going and took a cork out of a pipe, playedto that powerful extent that it made the back of your hand quitewet.

"I am my own engineer, and my own carpenter, and my own plumber,and my own gardener, and my own Jack of all Trades," said Wemmick,in acknowledging my compliments. "Well; it's a good thing, youknow. It brushes the Newgate cobwebs away, and pleases the Aged.You wouldn't mind being at once introduced to the Aged, would you?It wouldn't put you out?"

I expressed the readiness I felt, and we went into the castle.There, we found, sitting by a fire, a very old man in a flannelcoat: clean, cheerful, comfortable, and well cared for, butintensely deaf.

"Well aged parent," said Wemmick, shaking hands with him in acordial and jocose way, "how am you?"

"All right, John; all right!" replied the old man.

"Here's Mr. Pip, aged parent," said Wemmick, "and I wish you couldhear his name. Nod away at him, Mr. Pip; that's what he likes. Nodaway at him, if you please, like winking!"

"This is a fine place of my son's, sir," cried the old man, while Inodded as hard as I possibly could. "This is a prettypleasure-ground, sir. This spot and these beautiful works upon itought to be kept together by the Nation, after my son's time, forthe people's enjoyment."

"You're as proud of it as Punch; ain't you, Aged?" said Wemmick,contemplating the old man, with his hard face really softened;"there's a nod for you;" giving him a tremendous one; "there'sanother for you;" giving him a still more tremendous one; "you likethat, don't you? If you're not tired, Mr. Pip - though I know it'stiring to strangers - will you tip him one more? You can't thinkhow it pleases him."

I tipped him several more, and he was in great spirits. We left himbestirring himself to feed the fowls, and we sat down to our punchin the arbour; where Wemmick told me as he smoked a pipe that ithad taken him a good many years to bring the property up to itspresent pitch of perfection.

"Is it your own, Mr. Wemmick?"

"O yes," said Wemmick, "I have got hold of it, a bit at a time.It's a freehold, by George!"

"Is it, indeed? I hope Mr. Jaggers admires it?"

"Never seen it," said Wemmick. "Never heard of it. Never seen theAged. Never heard of him. No; the office is one thing, and privatelife is another. When I go into the office, I leave the Castlebehind me, and when I come into the Castle, I leave the officebehind me. If it's not in any way disagreeable to you, you'lloblige me by doing the same. I don't wish it professionally spokenabout."

Of course I felt my good faith involved in the observance of hisrequest. The punch being very nice, we sat there drinking it andtalking, until it was almost nine o'clock. "Getting near gun-fire,"said Wemmick then, as he laid down his pipe; "it's the Aged'streat."

Proceeding into the Castle again, we found the Aged heating thepoker, with expectant eyes, as a preliminary to the performance ofthis great nightly ceremony. Wemmick stood with his watch in hishand, until the moment was come for him to take the red-hot pokerfrom the Aged, and repair to the battery. He took it, and went out,and presently the Stinger went off with a Bang that shook the crazylittle box of a cottage as if it must fall to pieces, and madeevery glass and teacup in it ring. Upon this, the Aged - who Ibelieve would have been blown out of his arm-chair but for holdingon by the elbows - cried out exultingly, "He's fired! I heerd him!"and I nodded at the old gentleman until it is no figure of speechto declare that I absolutely could not see him.

The interval between that time and supper, Wemmick devoted toshowing me his collection of curiosities. They were mostly of afelonious character; comprising the pen with which a celebratedforgery had been committed, a distinguished razor or two, somelocks of hair, and several manuscript confessions written undercondemnation - upon which Mr. Wemmick set particular value as being,to use his own words, "every one of 'em Lies, sir." These wereagreeably dispersed among small specimens of china and glass,various neat trifles made by the proprietor of the museum, and sometobacco-stoppers carved by the Aged. They were all displayed inthat chamber of the Castle into which I had been first inducted,and which served, not only as the general sitting-room but as thekitchen too, if I might judge from a saucepan on the hob, and abrazen bijou over the fireplace designed for the suspension of aroasting-jack.

There was a neat little girl in attendance, who looked after theAged in the day. When she had laid the supper-cloth, the bridge waslowered to give her means of egress, and she withdrew for thenight. The supper was excellent; and though the Castle was rathersubject to dry-rot insomuch that it tasted like a bad nut, andthough the pig might have been farther off, I was heartily pleasedwith my whole entertainment. Nor was there any drawback on mylittle turret bedroom, beyond there being such a very thin ceilingbetween me and the flagstaff, that when I lay down on my back inbed, it seemed as if I had to balance that pole on my forehead allnight.

Wemmick was up early in the morning, and I am afraid I heard himcleaning my boots. After that, he fell to gardening, and I saw himfrom my gothic window pretending to employ the Aged, and nodding athim in a most devoted manner. Our breakfast was as good as thesupper, and at half-past eight precisely we started for LittleBritain. By degrees, Wemmick got dryer and harder as we went along,and his mouth tightened into a post-office again. At last, when wegot to his place of business and he pulled out his key from hiscoat-collar, he looked as unconscious of his Walworth property asif the Castle and the drawbridge and the arbour and the lake andthe fountain and the Aged, had all been blown into space togetherby the last discharge of the Stinger.

Chapter 26

It fell out as Wemmick had told me it would, that I had an earlyopportunity of comparing my guardian's establishment with that ofhis cashier and clerk. My guardian was in his room, washing hishands with his scented soap, when I went into the office fromWalworth; and he called me to him, and gave me the invitation formyself and friends which Wemmick had prepared me to receive. "Noceremony," he stipulated, "and no dinner dress, and say tomorrow."I asked him where we should come to (for I had no idea where helived), and I believe it was in his general objection to makeanything like an admission, that he replied, "Come here, and I'lltake you home with me." I embrace this opportunity of remarkingthat he washed his clients off, as if he were a surgeon or adentist. He had a closet in his room, fitted up for the purpose,which smelt of the scented soap like a perfumer's shop. It had anunusually large jack-towel on a roller inside the door, and hewould wash his hands, and wipe them and dry them all over thistowel, whenever he came in from a police-court or dismissed aclient from his room. When I and my friends repaired to him at sixo'clock next day, he seemed to have been engaged on a case of adarker complexion than usual, for, we found him with his headbutted into this closet, not only washing his hands, but laving hisface and gargling his throat. And even when he had done all that,and had gone all round the jack-towel, he took out his penknife andscraped the case out of his nails before he put his coat on.

There were some people slinking about as usual when we passed outinto the street, who were evidently anxious to speak with him; butthere was something so conclusive in the halo of scented soap whichencircled his presence, that they gave it up for that day. As wewalked along westward, he was recognized ever and again by someface in the crowd of the streets, and whenever that happened hetalked louder to me; but he never otherwise recognized anybody, ortook notice that anybody recognized him.

He conducted us to Gerrard-street, Soho, to a house on the southside of that street. Rather a stately house of its kind, butdolefully in want of painting, and with dirty windows. He took outhis key and opened the door, and we all went into a stone hall,bare, gloomy, and little used. So, up a dark brown staircase into aseries of three dark brown rooms on the first floor. There werecarved garlands on the panelled walls, and as he stood among themgiving us welcome, I know what kind of loops I thought they lookedlike.

Dinner was laid in the best of these rooms; the second was hisdressing-room; the third, his bedroom. He told us that he held thewhole house, but rarely used more of it than we saw. The table wascomfortably laid - no silver in the service, of course - and at theside of his chair was a capacious dumb-waiter, with a variety ofbottles and decanters on it, and four dishes of fruit for dessert.I noticed throughout, that he kept everything under his own hand,and distributed everything himself.

There was a bookcase in the room; I saw, from the backs of thebooks, that they were about evidence, criminal law, criminalbiography, trials, acts of parliament, and such things. Thefurniture was all very solid and good, like his watch-chain. It hadan official look, however, and there was nothing merely ornamentalto be seen. In a corner, was a little table of papers with a shadedlamp: so that he seemed to bring the office home with him in thatrespect too, and to wheel it out of an evening and fall to work.

As he had scarcely seen my three companions until now - for, he andI had walked together - he stood on the hearth-rug, after ringingthe bell, and took a searching look at them. To my surprise, heseemed at once to be principally if not solely interested inDrummle.

"Pip," said he, putting his large hand on my shoulder and moving meto the window, "I don't know one from the other. Who's the Spider?"

"The spider?" said I.

"The blotchy, sprawly, sulky fellow."

"That's Bentley Drummle," I replied; "the one with the delicateface is Startop."

Not making the least account of "the one with the delicate face,"he returned, "Bentley Drummle is his name, is it? I like the lookof that fellow."

He immediately began to talk to Drummle: not at all deterred by hisreplying in his heavy reticent way, but apparently led on by it toscrew discourse out of him. I was looking at the two, when therecame between me and them, the housekeeper, with the first dish forthe table.

She was a woman of about forty, I supposed - but I may have thoughther younger than she was. Rather tall, of a lithe nimble figure,extremely pale, with large faded eyes, and a quantity of streaminghair. I cannot say whether any diseased affection of the heartcaused her lips to be parted as if she were panting, and her faceto bear a curious expression of suddenness and flutter; but I knowthat I had been to see Macbeth at the theatre, a night or twobefore, and that her face looked to me as if it were all disturbedby fiery air, like the faces I had seen rise out of the Witches'caldron.

She set the dish on, touched my guardian quietly on the arm with afinger to notify that dinner was ready, and vanished. We took ourseats at the round table, and my guardian kept Drummle on one sideof him, while Startop sat on the other. It was a noble dish of fishthat the housekeeper had put on table, and we had a joint ofequally choice mutton afterwards, and then an equally choice bird.Sauces, wines, all the accessories we wanted, and all of the best,were given out by our host from his dumb-waiter; and when they hadmade the circuit of the table, he always put them back again.Similarly, he dealt us clean plates and knives and forks, for eachcourse, and dropped those just disused into two baskets on theground by his chair. No other attendant than the housekeeperappeared. She set on every dish; and I always saw in her face, aface rising out of the caldron. Years afterwards, I made a dreadfullikeness of that woman, by causing a face that had no other naturalresemblance to it than it derived from flowing hair, to pass behinda bowl of flaming spirits in a dark room.

Induced to take particular notice of the housekeeper, both by herown striking appearance and by Wemmick's preparation, I observedthat whenever she was in the room, she kept her eyes attentively onmy guardian, and that she would remove her hands from any dish sheput before him, hesitatingly, as if she dreaded his calling herback, and wanted him to speak when she was nigh, if he had anythingto say. I fancied that I could detect in his manner a consciousnessof this, and a purpose of always holding her in suspense.

Dinner went off gaily, and, although my guardian seemed to followrather than originate subjects, I knew that he wrenched the weakestpart of our dispositions out of us. For myself, I found that I wasexpressing my tendency to lavish expenditure, and to patronizeHerbert, and to boast of my great prospects, before I quite knewthat I had opened my lips. It was so with all of us, but with noone more than Drummle: the development of whose inclination to girdin a grudging and suspicious way at the rest, was screwed out ofhim before the fish was taken off.

Title: Great Expectations
Author: Charles Dickens
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