Charles Dickens >> Great Expectations (page 7)

Mr. Wopsle's great-aunt kept an evening school in the village; thatis to say, she was a ridiculous old woman of limited means andunlimited infirmity, who used to go to sleep from six to sevenevery evening, in the society of youth who paid twopence per weekeach, for the improving opportunity of seeing her do it. She renteda small cottage, and Mr. Wopsle had the room up-stairs, where westudents used to overhear him reading aloud in a most dignified andterrific manner, and occasionally bumping on the ceiling. There wasa fiction that Mr. Wopsle "examined" the scholars, once a quarter.What he did on those occasions was to turn up his cuffs, stick uphis hair, and give us Mark Antony's oration over the body ofCaesar. This was always followed by Collins's Ode on the Passions,wherein I particularly venerated Mr. Wopsle as Revenge, throwing hisblood-stained sword in thunder down, and taking the War-denouncingtrumpet with a withering look. It was not with me then, as it wasin later life, when I fell into the society of the Passions, andcompared them with Collins and Wopsle, rather to the disadvantageof both gentlemen.

Mr. Wopsle's great-aunt, besides keeping this EducationalInstitution, kept - in the same room - a little general shop. Shehad no idea what stock she had, or what the price of anything in itwas; but there was a little greasy memorandum-book kept in adrawer, which served as a Catalogue of Prices, and by this oracleBiddy arranged all the shop transaction. Biddy was Mr. Wopsle'sgreat-aunt's granddaughter; I confess myself quiet unequal to theworking out of the problem, what relation she was to Mr. Wopsle. Shewas an orphan like myself; like me, too, had been brought up byhand. She was most noticeable, I thought, in respect of herextremities; for, her hair always wanted brushing, her hands alwayswanted washing, and her shoes always wanted mending and pulling upat heel. This description must be received with a week-daylimitation. On Sundays, she went to church elaborated.

Much of my unassisted self, and more by the help of Biddy than ofMr. Wopsle's great-aunt, I struggled through the alphabet as if ithad been a bramble-bush; getting considerably worried and scratchedby every letter. After that, I fell among those thieves, the ninefigures, who seemed every evening to do something new to disguisethemselves and baffle recognition. But, at last I began, in apurblind groping way, to read, write, and cipher, on the verysmallest scale.

One night, I was sitting in the chimney-corner with my slate,expending great efforts on the production of a letter to Joe. Ithink it must have been a fully year after our hunt upon themarshes, for it was a long time after, and it was winter and a hardfrost. With an alphabet on the hearth at my feet for reference, Icontrived in an hour or two to print and smear this epistle:


There was no indispensable necessity for my communicating with Joeby letter, inasmuch as he sat beside me and we were alone. But, Idelivered this written communication (slate and all) with my ownhand, and Joe received it as a miracle of erudition.

"I say, Pip, old chap!" cried Joe, opening his blue eyes wide,"what a scholar you are! An't you?"

"I should like to be," said I, glancing at the slate as he held it:with a misgiving that the writing was rather hilly.

"Why, here's a J," said Joe, "and a O equal to anythink! Here's a Jand a O, Pip, and a J-O, Joe."

I had never heard Joe read aloud to any greater extent than thismonosyllable, and I had observed at church last Sunday when Iaccidentally held our Prayer-Book upside down, that it seemed tosuit his convenience quite as well as if it had been all right.Wishing to embrace the present occasion of finding out whether inteaching Joe, I should have to begin quite at the beginning, Isaid, "Ah! But read the rest, Jo."

"The rest, eh, Pip?" said Joe, looking at it with a slowlysearching eye, "One, two, three. Why, here's three Js, and threeOs, and three J-O, Joes in it, Pip!"

I leaned over Joe, and, with the aid of my forefinger, read him thewhole letter.

"Astonishing!" said Joe, when I had finished. "You ARE a scholar."

"How do you spell Gargery, Joe?" I asked him, with a modestpatronage.

"I don't spell it at all," said Joe.

"But supposing you did?"

"It can't be supposed," said Joe. "Tho' I'm oncommon fond ofreading, too."

"Are you, Joe?"

"On-common. Give me," said Joe, "a good book, or a good newspaper,and sit me down afore a good fire, and I ask no better. Lord!" hecontinued, after rubbing his knees a little, "when you do come to aJ and a O, and says you, "Here, at last, is a J-O, Joe," howinteresting reading is!"

I derived from this last, that Joe's education, like Steam, was yetin its infancy, Pursuing the subject, I inquired:

"Didn't you ever go to school, Joe, when you were as little as me?"

"No, Pip."

"Why didn't you ever go to school, Joe, when you were as little asme?"

"Well, Pip," said Joe, taking up the poker, and settling himself tohis usual occupation when he was thoughtful, of slowly raking thefire between the lower bars: "I'll tell you. My father, Pip, hewere given to drink, and when he were overtook with drink, hehammered away at my mother, most onmerciful. It were a'most theonly hammering he did, indeed, 'xcepting at myself. And he hammeredat me with a wigour only to be equalled by the wigour with which hedidn't hammer at his anwil. - You're a-listening and understanding,Pip?"

"Yes, Joe."

"'Consequence, my mother and me we ran away from my father,several times; and then my mother she'd go out to work, and she'dsay, "Joe," she'd say, "now, please God, you shall have someschooling, child," and she'd put me to school. But my father werethat good in his hart that he couldn't abear to be without us. So,he'd come with a most tremenjous crowd and make such a row at thedoors of the houses where we was, that they used to be obligated tohave no more to do with us and to give us up to him. And then hetook us home and hammered us. Which, you see, Pip," said Joe,pausing in his meditative raking of the fire, and looking at me,"were a drawback on my learning."

"Certainly, poor Joe!"

"Though mind you, Pip," said Joe, with a judicial touch or two ofthe poker on the top bar, "rendering unto all their doo, andmaintaining equal justice betwixt man and man, my father were thatgood in his hart, don't you see?"

I didn't see; but I didn't say so.

"Well!" Joe pursued, "somebody must keep the pot a biling, Pip, orthe pot won't bile, don't you know?"

I saw that, and said so.

"'Consequence, my father didn't make objections to my going towork; so I went to work to work at my present calling, which werehis too, if he would have followed it, and I worked tolerable hard,I assure you, Pip. In time I were able to keep him, and I kept himtill he went off in a purple leptic fit. And it were my intentionsto have had put upon his tombstone that Whatsume'er the failings onhis part, Remember reader he were that good in his hart."

Joe recited this couplet with such manifest pride and carefulperspicuity, that I asked him if he had made it himself.

"I made it," said Joe, "my own self. I made it in a moment. It waslike striking out a horseshoe complete, in a single blow. I neverwas so much surprised in all my life - couldn't credit my own ed -to tell you the truth, hardly believed it were my own ed. As I wassaying, Pip, it were my intentions to have had it cut over him; butpoetry costs money, cut it how you will, small or large, and itwere not done. Not to mention bearers, all the money that could bespared were wanted for my mother. She were in poor elth, and quitebroke. She weren't long of following, poor soul, and her share ofpeace come round at last."

Joe's blue eyes turned a little watery; he rubbed, first one ofthem, and then the other, in a most uncongenial and uncomfortablemanner, with the round knob on the top of the poker.

"It were but lonesome then," said Joe, "living here alone, and Igot acquainted with your sister. Now, Pip;" Joe looked firmly atme, as if he knew I was not going to agree with him; "your sisteris a fine figure of a woman."

I could not help looking at the fire, in an obvious state of doubt.

"Whatever family opinions, or whatever the world's opinions, onthat subject may be, Pip, your sister is," Joe tapped the top barwith the poker after every word following, "a - fine - figure - of- a - woman!"

I could think of nothing better to say than "I am glad you thinkso, Joe."

"So am I," returned Joe, catching me up. "I am glad I think so,Pip. A little redness or a little matter of Bone, here or there,what does it signify to Me?"

I sagaciously observed, if it didn't signify to him, to whom did itsignify?

"Certainly!" assented Joe. "That's it. You're right, old chap! WhenI got acquainted with your sister, it were the talk how she wasbringing you up by hand. Very kind of her too, all the folks said,and I said, along with all the folks. As to you," Joe pursued witha countenance expressive of seeing something very nasty indeed: "ifyou could have been aware how small and flabby and mean you was,dear me, you'd have formed the most contemptible opinion ofyourself!"

Not exactly relishing this, I said, "Never mind me, Joe."

"But I did mind you, Pip," he returned with tender simplicity."When I offered to your sister to keep company, and to be asked inchurch at such times as she was willing and ready to come to theforge, I said to her, 'And bring the poor little child. God blessthe poor little child,' I said to your sister, 'there's room forhim at the forge!'"

I broke out crying and begging pardon, and hugged Joe round theneck: who dropped the poker to hug me, and to say, "Ever the bestof friends; an't us, Pip? Don't cry, old chap!"

When this little interruption was over, Joe resumed:

"Well, you see, Pip, and here we are! That's about where it lights;here we are! Now, when you take me in hand in my learning, Pip (andI tell you beforehand I am awful dull, most awful dull), Mrs. Joemustn't see too much of what we're up to. It must be done, as I maysay, on the sly. And why on the sly? I'll tell you why, Pip."

He had taken up the poker again; without which, I doubt if he couldhave proceeded in his demonstration.

"Your sister is given to government."

"Given to government, Joe?" I was startled, for I had some shadowyidea (and I am afraid I must add, hope) that Joe had divorced herin a favour of the Lords of the Admiralty, or Treasury.

"Given to government," said Joe. "Which I meantersay the governmentof you and myself."


"And she an't over partial to having scholars on the premises," Joecontinued, "and in partickler would not be over partial to my beinga scholar, for fear as I might rise. Like a sort or rebel, don'tyou see?"

I was going to retort with an inquiry, and had got as far as"Why--" when Joe stopped me.

"Stay a bit. I know what you're a-going to say, Pip; stay a bit! Idon't deny that your sister comes the Mo-gul over us, now andagain. I don't deny that she do throw us back-falls, and that shedo drop down upon us heavy. At such times as when your sister is onthe Ram-page, Pip," Joe sank his voice to a whisper and glanced atthe door, "candour compels fur to admit that she is a Buster."

Joe pronounced this word, as if it began with at least twelvecapital Bs.

"Why don't I rise? That were your observation when I broke it off,Pip?"

"Yes, Joe."

"Well," said Joe, passing the poker into his left hand, that hemight feel his whisker; and I had no hope of him whenever he tookto that placid occupation; "your sister's a master-mind. Amaster-mind."

"What's that?" I asked, in some hope of bringing him to a stand.But, Joe was readier with his definition than I had expected, andcompletely stopped me by arguing circularly, and answering with afixed look, "Her."

"And I an't a master-mind," Joe resumed, when he had unfixed hislook, and got back to his whisker. "And last of all, Pip - and thisI want to say very serious to you, old chap - I see so much in mypoor mother, of a woman drudging and slaving and breaking herhonest hart and never getting no peace in her mortal days, that I'mdead afeerd of going wrong in the way of not doing what's right bya woman, and I'd fur rather of the two go wrong the t'other way,and be a little ill-conwenienced myself. I wish it was only me thatgot put out, Pip; I wish there warn't no Tickler for you, old chap;I wish I could take it all on myself; but this is theup-and-down-and-straight on it, Pip, and I hope you'll overlookshortcomings."

Young as I was, I believe that I dated a new admiration of Joe fromthat night. We were equals afterwards, as we had been before; but,afterwards at quiet times when I sat looking at Joe and thinkingabout him, I had a new sensation of feeling conscious that I waslooking up to Joe in my heart.

"However," said Joe, rising to replenish the fire; "here's theDutch-clock a working himself up to being equal to strike Eight of'em, and she's not come home yet! I hope Uncle Pumblechook's maremayn't have set a fore-foot on a piece o' ice, and gone down."

Title: Great Expectations
Author: Charles Dickens
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