Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens

Chapter 7

At the time when I stood in the churchyard reading the family tombstones, I had just enough learning to be able to spell them out. My construction even of their simple meaning was not very correct, for I read “wife of the Above” as a complimentary reference to my father’s exaltation to a better world; and if any one of my deceased relations had been referred to as “Below,” I have no doubt I should have formed the worst opinions of that member of the family. Neither were my notions of the theological positions to which my Catechism bound me, at all accurate; for, I have a lively remembrance that I supposed my declaration that I was to “walk in the same all the days of my life,” laid me under an obligation always to go through the village from our house in one particular direction, and never to vary it by turning down by the wheelwright’s or up by the mill.

When I was old enough, I was to be apprenticed to Joe, and until I could assume that dignity I was not to be what Mrs. Joe called “Pompeyed,” or (as I render it) pampered. Therefore, I was not only odd-boy about the forge, but if any neighbor happened to want an extra boy to frighten birds, or pick up stones, or do any such job, I was favored with the employment. In order, however, that our superior position might not be compromised thereby, a money-box was kept on the kitchen mantel-shelf, in to which it was publicly made known that all my earnings were dropped. I have an impression that they were to be contributed eventually towards the liquidation of the National Debt, but I know I had no hope of any personal participation in the treasure.

Mr. Wopsle’s great-aunt kept an evening school in the village; that is to say, she was a ridiculous old woman of limited means and unlimited infirmity, who used to go to sleep from six to seven every evening, in the society of youth who paid two pence per week each, for the improving opportunity of seeing her do it. She rented a small cottage, and Mr. Wopsle had the room up stairs, where we students used to overhear him reading aloud in a most dignified and terrific manner, and occasionally bumping on the ceiling. There was a fiction that Mr. Wopsle “examined” the scholars once a quarter. What he did on those occasions was to turn up his cuffs, stick up his hair, and give us Mark Antony’s oration over the body of Caesar. This was always followed by Collins’s Ode on the Passions, wherein I particularly venerated Mr. Wopsle as Revenge throwing his blood-stained sword in thunder down, and taking the War-denouncing trumpet with a withering look. It was not with me then, as it was in later life, when I fell into the society of the Passions, and compared them with Collins and Wopsle, rather to the disadvantage of both gentlemen.

Mr. Wopsle’s great-aunt, besides keeping this Educational Institution, kept in the same room — a little general shop. She had no idea what stock she had, or what the price of anything in it was; but there was a little greasy memorandum-book kept in a drawer, which served as a Catalogue of Prices, and by this oracle Biddy arranged all the shop transaction. Biddy was Mr. Wopsle’s great-aunt’s granddaughter; I confess myself quiet unequal to the working out of the problem, what relation she was to Mr. Wopsle. She was an orphan like myself; like me, too, had been brought up by hand. She was most noticeable, I thought, in respect of her extremities; for, her hair always wanted brushing, her hands always wanted washing, and her shoes always wanted mending and pulling up at heel. This description must be received with a week-day limitation. On Sundays, she went to church elaborated.

Much of my unassisted self, and more by the help of Biddy than of Mr. Wopsle’s great-aunt, I struggled through the alphabet as if it had been a bramble-bush; getting considerably worried and scratched by every letter. After that I fell among those thieves, the nine figures, who seemed every evening to do something new to disguise themselves and baffle recognition. But, at last I began, in a purblind groping way, to read, write, and cipher, on the very smallest scale.

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

“MI DEER JO i OPE U R KR WITE WELL i OPE i SHAL SON B HABELL 4 2 TEEDGE U JO AN THEN WE SHORL B SO GLODD AN WEN i M PRENGTD 2 U JO WOT LARX AN BLEVE ME INF XN PIP.”

There was no indispensable necessity for my communicating with Joe by letter, inasmuch as he sat beside me and we were alone. But I delivered this written communication (slate and all) with my own hand, 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 J and a O, Pip, and a J–O, Joe.”

I had never heard Joe read aloud to any greater extent than this monosyllable, and I had observed at church last Sunday, when I accidentally held our Prayer–Book upside down, that it seemed to suit his convenience quite as well as if it had been all right. Wishing to embrace the present occasion of finding out whether in teaching Joe, I should have to begin quite at the beginning, I said, “Ah! But read the rest, Jo.”

“The rest, eh, Pip?” said Joe, looking at it with a slow, searching eye, “One, two, three. Why, here’s three Js, and three Os, and three J–O, Joes in it, Pip!”

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

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

“How do you spell Gargery, Joe?” I asked him, with a modest patronage.

“I don’t spell it at all,” said Joe.

“But supposing you did?”

“It can’t be supposed,” said Joe. “Tho’ I’m uncommon fond of reading, 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!” he continued, after rubbing his knees a little, “when you do come to a J and a O, and says you, “Here, at last, is a J–O, Joe,” how interesting reading is!”

I derived from this, that Joe’s education, like Steam, was yet in 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 as me?”

“Well, Pip,” said Joe, taking up the poker, and settling himself to his usual occupation when he was thoughtful, of slowly raking the fire between the lower bars; “I’ll tell you. My father, Pip, he were given to drink, and when he were overtook with drink, he hammered away at my mother, most onmerciful. It were a’most the only hammering he did, indeed, ’xcepting at myself. And he hammered at me with a wigor only to be equalled by the wigor with which he didn’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’d say, ‘Joe,’ she’d say, ‘now, please God, you shall have some schooling, child,’ and she’d put me to school. But my father were that 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 the doors of the houses where we was, that they used to be obligated to have no more to do with us and to give us up to him. And then he took 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 of the poker on the top bar, “rendering unto all their doo, and maintaining equal justice betwixt man and man, my father were that good 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, or the pot won’t bile, don’t you know?”

I saw that, and said so.

“’Consequence, my father didn’t make objections to my going to work; so I went to work to work at my present calling, which were his 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 kep him till he went off in a purple leptic fit. And it were my intentions to have had put upon his tombstone that, Whatsume’er the failings on his part, Remember reader he were that good in his heart.”

Joe recited this couplet with such manifest pride and careful perspicuity, 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 was like striking out a horseshoe complete, in a single blow. I never was 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 was saying, Pip, it were my intentions to have had it cut over him; but poetry costs money, cut it how you will, small or large, and it were not done. Not to mention bearers, all the money that could be spared were wanted for my mother. She were in poor elth, and quite broke. She weren’t long of following, poor soul, and her share of peace come round at last.”

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

“It were but lonesome then,” said Joe, “living here alone, and I got acquainted with your sister. Now, Pip,”— Joe looked firmly at me as if he knew I was not going to agree with him; —“your sister is 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, on that subject may be, Pip, your sister is,” Joe tapped the top bar with 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 think so, 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 it signify?

“Certainly!” assented Joe. “That’s it. You’re right, old chap! When I got acquainted with your sister, it were the talk how she was bringing 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 with a countenance expressive of seeing something very nasty indeed, “if you could have been aware how small and flabby and mean you was, dear me, you’d have formed the most contemptible opinion of yourself!”

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 in church at such times as she was willing and ready to come to the forge, I said to her, ‘And bring the poor little child. God bless the poor little child,’ I said to your sister, ‘there’s room for him at the forge!’”

I broke out crying and begging pardon, and hugged Joe round the neck: who dropped the poker to hug me, and to say, “Ever the best of 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 (and I tell you beforehand I am awful dull, most awful dull), Mrs. Joe mustn’t see too much of what we’re up to. It must be done, as I may say, 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 could have proceeded in his demonstration.

“Your sister is given to government.”

“Given to government, Joe?” I was startled, for I had some shadowy idea (and I am afraid I must add, hope) that Joe had divorced her in a favor of the Lords of the Admiralty, or Treasury.

“Given to government,” said Joe. “Which I meantersay the government of you and myself.”

“Oh!”

“And she an’t over partial to having scholars on the premises,” Joe continued, “and in partickler would not be over partial to my being a scholar, for fear as I might rise. Like a sort or rebel, don’t you 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! I don’t deny that your sister comes the Mo-gul over us, now and again. I don’t deny that she do throw us back-falls, and that she do drop down upon us heavy. At such times as when your sister is on the Ram-page, Pip,” Joe sank his voice to a whisper and glanced at the door, “candor compels fur to admit that she is a Buster.”

Joe pronounced this word, as if it began with at least twelve capital 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 he might feel his whisker; and I had no hope of him whenever he took to that placid occupation; “your sister’s a master-mind. A master-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, and completely stopped me by arguing circularly, and answering with a fixed look, “Her.”

“And I ain’t a master-mind,” Joe resumed, when he had unfixed his look, and got back to his whisker. “And last of all, Pip — and this I want to say very serious to you, old chap — I see so much in my poor mother, of a woman drudging and slaving and breaking her honest hart and never getting no peace in her mortal days, that I’m dead afeerd of going wrong in the way of not doing what’s right by a 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 that got 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 the up-and-down-and-straight on it, Pip, and I hope you’ll overlook shortcomings.”

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

“However,” said Joe, rising to replenish the fire; “here’s the Dutch-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 mare mayn’t have set a forefoot on a piece o’ ice, and gone down.”

Mrs. Joe made occasional trips with Uncle Pumblechook on market-days, to assist him in buying such household stuffs and goods as required a woman’s judgment; Uncle Pumblechook being a bachelor and reposing no confidences in his domestic servant. This was market-day, and Mrs. Joe was out on one of these expeditions.

Joe made the fire and swept the hearth, and then we went to the door to listen for the chaise-cart. It was a dry cold night, and the wind blew keenly, and the frost was white and hard. A man would die to-night of lying out on the marshes, I thought. And then I looked at the stars, and considered how awful if would be for a man to turn his face up to them as he froze to death, and see no help or pity in all the glittering multitude.

“Here comes the mare,” said Joe, “ringing like a peal of bells!”

The sound of her iron shoes upon the hard road was quite musical, as she came along at a much brisker trot than usual. We got a chair out, ready for Mrs. Joe’s alighting, and stirred up the fire that they might see a bright window, and took a final survey of the kitchen that nothing might be out of its place. When we had completed these preparations, they drove up, wrapped to the eyes. Mrs. Joe was soon landed, and Uncle Pumblechook was soon down too, covering the mare with a cloth, and we were soon all in the kitchen, carrying so much cold air in with us that it seemed to drive all the heat out of the fire.

“Now,” said Mrs. Joe, unwrapping herself with haste and excitement, and throwing her bonnet back on her shoulders where it hung by the strings, “if this boy ain’t grateful this night, he never will be!”

I looked as grateful as any boy possibly could, who was wholly uninformed why he ought to assume that expression.

“It’s only to be hoped,” said my sister, “that he won’t be Pompeyed. But I have my fears.”

“She ain’t in that line, Mum,” said Mr. Pumblechook. “She knows better.”

She? I looked at Joe, making the motion with my lips and eyebrows, “She?” Joe looked at me, making the motion with his lips and eyebrows, “She?” My sister catching him in the act, he drew the back of his hand across his nose with his usual conciliatory air on such occasions, and looked at her.

“Well?” said my sister, in her snappish way. “What are you staring at? Is the house afire?”

“— Which some individual,” Joe politely hinted, “mentioned — she.”

“And she is a she, I suppose?” said my sister. “Unless you call Miss Havisham a he. And I doubt if even you’ll go so far as that.”

“Miss Havisham, up town?” said Joe.

“Is there any Miss Havisham down town?” returned my sister.

“She wants this boy to go and play there. And of course he’s going. And he had better play there,” said my sister, shaking her head at me as an encouragement to be extremely light and sportive, “or I’ll work him.”

I had heard of Miss Havisham up town — everybody for miles round had heard of Miss Havisham up town — as an immensely rich and grim lady who lived in a large and dismal house barricaded against robbers, and who led a life of seclusion.

“Well to be sure!” said Joe, astounded. “I wonder how she come to know Pip!”

“Noodle!” cried my sister. “Who said she knew him?”

“— Which some individual,” Joe again politely hinted, “mentioned that she wanted him to go and play there.”

“And couldn’t she ask Uncle Pumblechook if he knew of a boy to go and play there? Isn’t it just barely possible that Uncle Pumblechook may be a tenant of hers, and that he may sometimes — we won’t say quarterly or half-yearly, for that would be requiring too much of you — but sometimes — go there to pay his rent? And couldn’t she then ask Uncle Pumblechook if he knew of a boy to go and play there? And couldn’t Uncle Pumblechook, being always considerate and thoughtful for us — though you may not think it, Joseph,” in a tone of the deepest reproach, as if he were the most callous of nephews, “then mention this boy, standing Prancing here” — which I solemnly declare I was not doing —“that I have for ever been a willing slave to?”

“Good again!” cried Uncle Pumblechook. “Well put! Prettily pointed! Good indeed! Now Joseph, you know the case.”

“No, Joseph,” said my sister, still in a reproachful manner, while Joe apologetically drew the back of his hand across and across his nose, “you do not yet — though you may not think it — know the case. You may consider that you do, but you do not, Joseph. For you do not know that Uncle Pumblechook, being sensible that for anything we can tell, this boy’s fortune may be made by his going to Miss Havisham’s, has offered to take him into town to-night in his own chaise-cart, and to keep him to-night, and to take him with his own hands to Miss Havisham’s to-morrow morning. And Lor-a-mussy me!” cried my sister, casting off her bonnet in sudden desperation, “here I stand talking to mere Mooncalfs, with Uncle Pumblechook waiting, and the mare catching cold at the door, and the boy grimed with crock and dirt from the hair of his head to the sole of his foot!”

With that, she pounced upon me, like an eagle on a lamb, and my face was squeezed into wooden bowls in sinks, and my head was put under taps of water-butts, and I was soaped, and kneaded, and towelled, and thumped, and harrowed, and rasped, until I really was quite beside myself. (I may here remark that I suppose myself to be better acquainted than any living authority, with the ridgy effect of a wedding-ring, passing unsympathetically over the human countenance.)

When my ablutions were completed, I was put into clean linen of the stiffest character, like a young penitent into sackcloth, and was trussed up in my tightest and fearfullest suit. I was then delivered over to Mr. Pumblechook, who formally received me as if he were the Sheriff, and who let off upon me the speech that I knew he had been dying to make all along: “Boy, be forever grateful to all friends, but especially unto them which brought you up by hand!”

“Good-bye, Joe!”

“God bless you, Pip, old chap!”

I had never parted from him before, and what with my feelings and what with soapsuds, I could at first see no stars from the chaise-cart. But they twinkled out one by one, without throwing any light on the questions why on earth I was going to play at Miss Havisham’s, and what on earth I was expected to play at.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:30