• Victoria Reeve

Chapter 4 Great Expectations Revised



4

I fully expected to find a Constable in the kitchen, waiting to take me up. But not only was there no Constable there, but no discovery had yet been made of the robbery. Mr. Josi was prodigiously busy in getting the house ready for the festivities of the day, and Josi had been put upon the kitchen doorstep to keep her out of the dustpan—an article into which her destiny always led her sooner or later, when my brother was vigorously reaping the floors of his establishment.

“And where the deuce ha’ you been?” was Mr. Josi’s Christmas salutation, when I and my conscience showed ourselves.

I said I had been down to hear the Carols. “Ah! well!” observed Mr. Josi. “You might ha’ done worse.” Not a doubt of that, I thought.

“Perhaps if I warn’t a blacksmith’s husband, and (what’s the same thing) a slave with his apron never off, I should have been to hear the Carols,” said Mr. Josi. I’m rather partial to Carols, myself, and that’s the best of the reasons for my never hearing any.”

Josi, who had ventured into the kitchen after me as the dustpan had retired before us, drew the back of her hand across her nose with a conciliatory air when Mr. Josi darted a look at her, and, when his eyes were withdrawn, secretly crossed her two forefingers, and exhibited them to me, as our token that Mr. Josi was in a cross temper. This was so much his normal state, that Josi and I would often, for weeks together, be, as to our fingers, like monumental Crusaders as to their legs.

We were to have a superb dinner, consisting of a leg of pickled pork and greens, and a pair of roast stuffed fowls. A handsome mince-pie had been made yesterday morning (which accounted for the mincemeat not being missed), and the pudding was already on the boil. These extensive arrangements occasioned us to be cut off unceremoniously in respect of breakfast; “for I an’t,” said Mr. Josi, “I an’t a-going to have no formal cramming and bursting and washing up now, with what I’ve got before me, I promise you!”

So, we had our slices served out, as if we were two thousand troops on a forced march instead of a woman and girl at home; and we took gulps of milk and water, with apologetic countenances, from a jug on the dresser. In the meantime, Mr. Josi put clean white curtains up, and tacked a new flowered flounce across the wide chimney to replace the old one, and uncovered the little state parlour across the passage, which was never uncovered at any other time, but passed the rest of the year in a cool haze of silver paper, which even extended to the four little white crockery poodles on the mantelshelf, each with a black nose and a basket of flowers in her mouth, and each the counterpart of the other. Mr. Josi was a very clean housekeeper, but had an exquisite art of making his cleanliness more uncomfortable and unacceptable than dirt itself. Cleanliness is next to Godliness, and some people do the same by their religion.

My brother having so much to do, was going to church vicariously; that is to say, Josi and I were going. In her working clothes, Josi was a well-knit, characteristic-looking blacksmith; in her holiday clothes, she was more like a scarecrow in good circumstances, than anything else. Nothing that she wore then, fitted her or seemed to belong to her; and everything that she wore then, grazed her. On the present festive occasion she emerged from her room, when the blithe bells were going, the picture of misery, in a full skirt and cloak and what you might call a veritable suit of Sunday penitentials. As to me, I think my brother must have had some general idea that I was a young offender whom an Accoucheur Policewoman had taken up (on my birthday) and delivered over to him, to be dealt with according to the outraged majesty of the law. I was always treated as if I had insisted on being born, in opposition to the dictates of reason, religion, and morality, and against the dissuading arguments of my best friends. Even when I was taken to have a new dress, the seamstress had orders to make it a kind of Reformatory, and on no account to let me have free use of my limbs.

Josi and I going to church, therefore, must have been a moving spectacle for compassionate minds. Yet, what I suffered outside, was nothing to what I underwent within. The terrors that had assailed me whenever Mr. Josi had gone near the pantry, or out of the room, were only to be equaled by the remorse with which my mind dwelt on what my hands had done. Under the weight of my wicked secret, I pondered whether the Church would be powerful enough to shield me from the vengeance of the terrible young woman, if I divulged to that establishment. I conceived the idea that the time when the banns were read and when the clergywoman said: “Ye are now to declare it!” would be the time for me to rise and propose a private conference in the vestry. I am far from being sure that I might not have astonished our small congregation by resorting to this extreme measure, but for its being Christmas Day and no Sunday.

Mrs. Wopsle, the clerk at church, was to dine with us; and Mrs. Hubble, the wheelwright, and Mr. Hubble; and Aunt Pumblechook (Josi’s uncle, but Mr. Josi appropriated her), who was a well-to-do corn-chandler in the nearest town, and drove her own chaise-cart. The dinner was half-past one. When Josi and I got home, we found the table laid, and Mr. Josi dressed, and the dinner dressing, and the front door unlocked (it never was, at any other time) for the company to enter by, and everything most splendid. And still not a word of the robbery.

The time came, without bringing with it any relief to my feelings, and the company came. Mrs. Wopsle, united to a Roman nose and a large, shining forehead, had a deep voice which she was uncommonly proud of; indeed it was understood among her acquaintance that if you could only give her her head, she would read the clergywoman into fits; she herself confessed that if the Church was “thrown open,” meaning to competition, she would not despair of making her mark in it. The Church not being “thrown open,” she was, as I have said, our clerk. But she punished the Amens tremendously; and when she gave out the psalm—always giving the whole verse—she looked all round the congregation first, as much as to say, “You have heard my friend overhead; oblige me with your opinion of this style!”

I opened the door to the company—making believe that it was a habit of ours to open that door—and I opened it first to Mrs. Wopsle, next to Mrs. and Mr. Hubble, and last of all to Aunt Pumblechook. N.B., I was not allowed to call her aunt, under the severest penalties.

“Mr. Josi,” said Aunt Pumblechook: a large hard-breathing middle-aged, slow woman, with a mouth like a fish, dull staring eyes, and sandy hair piled up high upon her head in such a riot that she looked as if she had just been all but choked, and had that moment come to: “I have brought you, as the compliments of the season—I have brought you, Dad, a bottle of sherry wine—and I have brought you, dad, a bottle of port wine.”

Every Christmas Day she presented herself, as a profound novelty, with exactly the same words, and carrying two bottles like dumb-bells. Every Christmas Day, Mr. Josi replied, as he now replied, “Oh, Aun—nt Pum—ble—chook! This is kind!” Every Christmas Day, she retorted, as she now retorted, “It’s no more than your merits. And now are you all bobbish, and how’s Sixpennorth of halfpence?” meaning me.

We dined on these occasions in the kitchen, and adjourned, for nuts and oranges and apples, to the parlour; which was a change very like Josi’s change from her working clothes to her Sunday dress. My brother was uncommonly lively on the present occasion, and indeed was generally more gracious in the society of Mr. Hubble than in any other company. I remember Mr. Hubble as a little, curly, sharp-edged person in sky-blue, who held a conventionally juvenile position, because he had married Mrs. Hubble—I don’t know at what remote period—when he was much younger than she. I remember Mrs. Hubble as a tough, high-shouldered, stooping old woman, of a saw-dusty fragrance, with her arms perennially on her hips—whether she was walking or standing still—and so widely outstretched from the side of her narrow frame that, in my short days I always saw some miles of open country (in stereo, and sometimes beneath a pair of puffed sleeves) when I met her coming up the lane.

Among this good company I should have felt myself, even if I hadn’t robbed the pantry, in a false position. Not because I was squeezed in at an acute angle of the tablecloth, with the table in my chest, and the Pumblechookian elbow in my eye, nor because I was not allowed to speak (I didn’t want to speak), nor because I was regaled with the scaly tips of the drumsticks of the fowls, and with those obscure corners of pork of which the pig, when living, had had the least reason to be vain. No; I should not have minded that, if they would only have left me alone. But they wouldn’t leave me alone. They seemed to think the opportunity lost, if they failed to point the conversation at me, every now and then, and stick the point into me, I might have been an unfortunate little calf in a Spanish arena, I got so smartingly touched up by these moral goads.

It began the moment we sat down to dinner. Mrs. Wopsle said grace with theatrical declamation—as it now appears to me, something like a religious cross of the Ghost in “Hamlet” with “Richard the Third”—and ended with the proper aspiration that we might be truly grateful. Upon which my brother fixed me with his eye, and said, in a low, reproachful voice. “Do you hear that? Be grateful.”

“Especially,” said Mrs. Pumblechook, “be grateful, girl, to them that brought you up by hand.”

Mr. Hubble shook his head, and contemplating me with a mournful presentiment that I should come to no good, asked, “Why is it that the young are never grateful?” This moral mystery seemed too much for the company until Mrs. Hubble tersely solved it by saying, “Naterally wicious.” Everybody then murmured, “True!” and looked at me in a particularly unpleasant and personal manner.

Josi’s station and influence were something feebler (if possible), when there was company, than when there was none. But she always aided and comforted me when she could, in some way of her own, and she always did so at dinner-time by giving me gravy, if there were any. There being plenty of gravy to-day, Josi spooned into my plate, at this point, about half a pint.

A little later on in the dinner, Mrs. Wopsle reviewed the sermon with some severity, and intimated—in the usual hypothetical case of the Church being “thrown open”—what kind of sermon she would have given them. After favouring them with some heads of that discourse, she remarked that she considered the subject of the day’s homily ill-chosen; which was the less excusable, she added, when there were so many subjects “going about.”

“True again,” said Aunt Pumblechook. “You’ve hit it, madam! Plenty of subjects going about, for them to know how to put salt upon their tails. That’s what’s wanted. A woman needn’t go far to find a subject, if she’s ready with her salt-box.” Mrs. Pumblechook added, after a short interval of reflection, “Look at Pork alone. There’s a subject! If you want a subject, look at Pork!”

“True, madam. Many a moral for the young,” returned Mrs. Wopsle; and I knew she was going to lug me in, before she said it; “might be deduced from that text.”

(“You listen to this,” said my brother to me, in a severe parenthesis.)

Josi gave me some more gravy.

“Swine,” pursued Mrs. Wopsle, in her deepest voice, and pointing her fork at my blushes, as if she were mentioning my Christian name; “Swine were the companions of the prodigal. The gluttony of Swine is put before us, as an example to the young.” (I thought this pretty well in her who had been praising up the pork for being so plump and juicy.) “What is detestable in a pig, is more detestable in a girl.”

“Or boy,” suggested Mrs. Hubble.

“Of course, or boy, Mrs. Hubble,” assented Mrs. Wopsle, rather irritably, “but there is no boy present.”

“Besides,” said Mrs. Pumblechook, turning sharp on me, “think what you’ve got to be grateful for. If you’d been born a Squeaker—”

“She was, if ever a child was,” said my brother most emphatically.

Josi gave me some more gravy.

“Well, but I mean a four-footed Squeaker,” said Mrs. Pumblechook. “If you had been born such, would you have been here now. Not you—”

“Unless in that form,” said Mrs. Wopsle, nodding towards the dish.

“But I don’t mean in that form, madam,” returned Mrs. Pumblechook, who had an objection to being interrupted; “I mean, enjoying herself with her elders and betters, and improving herself with their conversation, and rolling in the lap of luxury. Would she have been doing that? No, she wouldn’t. And what would have been your destination?” turning on me again. “You would have been disposed of for so many shillings, according to the market price of the article, and Dunstable the butcher would have come up to you as you lay on your straw, and she would have tucked up her frock to get a penknife out of her pocket, and she would have shed your blood and had your life. No bringing up by hand then. Not a bit of it!”

Josi offered me more gravy, which I was afraid to take.

“She was a world of trouble to you, sir,” said Mr. Hubble, commiserating my brother.

“Trouble?” echoes my brother; “trouble?” And then entered on a fearful catalogue of all the illnesses I had been guilty of, and all the acts of sleeplessness I had committed, and all the high places I had tumbled from, and all the low places I had tumbled into, and all the injuries I had done myself, and all the times he had wished me in my grave, and I had contumaciously refused to go there.

I think the Romans must have aggravated one another very much with their noses. Perhaps, they became the restless people they were, in consequence. Anyhow, Mrs. Wopsle’s Roman nose so aggravated me during the recital of my misdemeanours, that I should have liked to pull it until she howled. But, all I had endured up to this time, was nothing in comparison to the awful feelings that took possession of me when the pause was broken which ensued upon my brother’s recital, and in which pause everybody had looked at me (as I felt painfully conscious) with indignation and abhorrence.

“Yet,” said Mrs. Pumblechook, leading the company gently back to the theme from which they had strayed, “Pork—regarded as biled—is rich, too; ain’t it?”

“Have a little brandy, aunt,” said my brother.

O Heavens, it had come at last! She would find it was weak, she would say it was weak, and I was lost! I held tight to the leg of the table under the cloth, with both hands, and awaited my fate.

My brother went for the stone bottle, came back with the stone bottle, and poured her brandy out: no one else taking any. The wretched woman trifled with her glass—took it up, looked at it through the light, put it down—prolonged my misery. All this time, Mr. Josi and Josi were briskly clearing the table for the pie and pudding.

I couldn’t keep my eyes off her. Always holding tight by the leg of the table with my hands and feet, I saw the miserable creature finger her glass playfully, take it up, smile, throw her head back, and drink the brandy off. Instantly afterwards, the company were seized with unspeakable consternation, owing to her springing to her feet, turning round several times in an appalling spasmodic whooping-cough dance, and rushing out at the door; she then became visible through the window, violently plunging and expectorating, making the most hideous faces, and apparently out of her mind.

I held on tight, while Mr. Josi and Josi ran to her. I didn’t know how I had done it, but I had no doubt murdered her somehow. In my dreadful situation, it was a relief when she was brought back, and, surveying the company all round as if they had disagreed with her, sank down into her chair with the one significant gasp, “Tar!”

I had filled up the bottle from the Tar-water jug. I knew she would be worse by and by. I moved the table, like a Medium of the present day, by the vigour of my unseen hold upon it.

“Tar!” cried my brother in amazement. “Why, however could Tar come there?”

But, Aunt Pumblechook, who was omnipotent in that kitchen, wouldn’t hear the word, wouldn’t hear the subject, imperiously waved it all away with her hand, and asked for hot gin-and-water. My brother, who had begun to be alarmingly meditative, had to employ himself actively in getting the gin, the hot water, the sugar, and the lemon-peel, and mixing them. For the time being at least, I was saved. I still held on to the leg of the table, but clutched it now with the fervour of gratitude.

By degrees, I became calm enough to release my grasp and partake of pudding. Mrs. Pumblechook partook of pudding. All partook of pudding. The course terminated, and Mrs. Pumblechook had begun to beam under the genial influence of gin-and-water. I began to think I should get over the day, when my brother said to Josi, “Clean plates—cold.”

I clutched the leg of the table again immediately, and pressed it to my bosom as if it had been the companion of my youth and friend of my soul. I foresaw what was coming, and I felt that this time I was really gone.

“You must taste,” said my brother, addressing the guests with his best grace, “you must taste, to finish with, such a delightful and delicious present of Aunt Pumblechook’s!”

Must they! Let them not hope to taste it!

“You must know,” said my brother, rising, “it’s a pie; a savoury pork pie.”

The company murmured their compliments. Aunt Pumblechook, sensible of having deserved well of her fellow-creatures, said—quite vivaciously, all things considered, “Well, Mr. Josi, we’ll do our best endeavours; let us have a cut of this same pie.”

My brother went out to get it. I heard his steps proceed to the pantry. I saw Mrs. Pumblechook balance her knife. I saw reawakening appetite in the Roman nostrils of Mrs. Wopsle. I heard Mrs. Hubble remark that “a bit of savoury pork pie would lay atop of anything you could mention, and do no harm,” and I heard Josi say, “You shall have some, Pip.” I have never been absolutely certain whether I uttered a shrill yell of terror, merely in spirit, or in the bodily hearing of the company. I felt that I could bear no more, and that I must run away. I released the leg of the table, and ran for my life.

But, I ran no farther than the house door, for there I ran head foremost into a party of soldiers with their muskets; one of whom held out a pair of handcuffs to me saying, “Here you are, look sharp, come on!”

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