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Chapter 28

It was clear that I must repair to our town next day, and in the
first flow of my repentance it was equally clear that I must stay
at Joe's. But, when I had secured my box-place by to-morrow's coach
and had been down to Mr. Pocket's and back, I was not by any means
convinced on the last point, and began to invent reasons and make
excuses for putting up at the Blue Boar. I should be an
inconvenience at Joe's; I was not expected, and my bed would not be
ready; I should be too far from Miss Havisham's, and she was
exacting and mightn't like it. All other swindlers upon earth are
nothing to the self-swindlers, and with such pretences did I cheat
myself. Surely a curious thing. That I should innocently take a bad
half-crown of somebody else's manufacture, is reasonable enough;
but that I should knowingly reckon the spurious coin of my own
make, as good money! An obliging stranger, under pretence of
compactly folding up my bank-notes for security's sake, abstracts
the notes and gives me nutshells; but what is his sleight of hand
to mine, when I fold up my own nutshells and pass them on myself as
notes!

Having settled that I must go to the Blue Boar, my mind was much
disturbed by indecision whether or not to take the Avenger. It was
tempting to think of that expensive Mercenary publicly airing his
boots in the archway of the Blue Boar's posting-yard; it was almost
solemn to imagine him casually produced in the tailor's shop and
confounding the disrespectful senses of Trabb's boy. On the other
hand, Trabb's boy might worm himself into his intimacy and tell him
things; or, reckless and desperate wretch as I knew he could be,
might hoot him in the High-street, My patroness, too, might hear of
him, and not approve. On the whole, I resolved to leave the Avenger
behind.

It was the afternoon coach by which I had taken my place, and, as
winter had now come round, I should not arrive at my destination
until two or three hours after dark. Our time of starting from the
Cross Keys was two o'clock. I arrived on the ground with a quarter
of an hour to spare, attended by the Avenger - if I may connect
that expression with one who never attended on me if he could
possibly help it.

At that time it was customary to carry Convicts down to the
dockyards by stage-coach. As I had often heard of them in the
capacity of outside passengers, and had more than once seen them on
the high road dangling their ironed legs over the coach roof, I had
no cause to be surprised when Herbert, meeting me in the yard, came
up and told me there were two convicts going down with me. But I
had a reason that was an old reason now, for constitutionally
faltering whenever I heard the word convict.

"You don't mind them, Handel?" said Herbert.

"Oh no!"

"I thought you seemed as if you didn't like them?"

"I can't pretend that I do like them, and I suppose you don't
particularly. But I don't mind them."

"See! There they are," said Herbert, "coming out of the Tap. What a
degraded and vile sight it is!"

They had been treating their guard, I suppose, for they had a
gaoler with them, and all three came out wiping their mouths on
their hands. The two convicts were handcuffed together, and had
irons on their legs - irons of a pattern that I knew well. They
wore the dress that I likewise knew well. Their keeper had a brace
of pistols, and carried a thick-knobbed bludgeon under his arm; but
he was on terms of good understanding with them, and stood, with
them beside him, looking on at the putting-to of the horses, rather
with an air as if the convicts were an interesting Exhibition not
formally open at the moment, and he the Curator. One was a taller
and stouter man than the other, and appeared as a matter of course,
according to the mysterious ways of the world both convict and
free, to have had allotted to him the smaller suit of clothes. His
arms and legs were like great pincushions of those shapes, and his
attire disguised him absurdly; but I knew his half-closed eye at
one glance. There stood the man whom I had seen on the settle at
the Three Jolly Bargemen on a Saturday night, and who had brought
me down with his invisible gun!

It was easy to make sure that as yet he knew me no more than if he
had never seen me in his life. He looked across at me, and his eye
appraised my watch-chain, and then he incidentally spat and said
something to the other convict, and they laughed and slued
themselves round with a clink of their coupling manacle, and looked
at something else. The great numbers on their backs, as if they
were street doors; their coarse mangy ungainly outer surface, as if
they were lower animals; their ironed legs, apologetically
garlanded with pocket-handkerchiefs; and the way in which all
present looked at them and kept from them; made them (as Herbert
had said) a most disagreeable and degraded spectacle.

But this was not the worst of it. It came out that the whole of the
back of the coach had been taken by a family removing from London,
and that there were no places for the two prisoners but on the seat
in front, behind the coachman. Hereupon, a choleric gentleman, who
had taken the fourth place on that seat, flew into a most violent
passion, and said that it was a breach of contract to mix him up
with such villainous company, and that it was poisonous and
pernicious and infamous and shameful, and I don't know what else.
At this time the coach was ready and the coachman impatient, and we
were all preparing to get up, and the prisoners had come over with
their keeper - bringing with them that curious flavour of
bread-poultice, baize, rope-yarn, and hearthstone, which attends
the convict presence.

"Don't take it so much amiss. sir," pleaded the keeper to the angry
passenger; "I'll sit next you myself. I'll put 'em on the outside
of the row. They won't interfere with you, sir. You needn't know
they're there."

"And don't blame me," growled the convict I had recognized. "I
don't want to go. I am quite ready to stay behind. As fur as I am
concerned any one's welcome to my place."

"Or mine," said the other, gruffly. "I wouldn't have incommoded
none of you, if I'd had my way." Then, they both laughed, and began
cracking nuts, and spitting the shells about. - As I really think I
should have liked to do myself, if I had been in their place and so
despised.

At length, it was voted that there was no help for the angry
gentleman, and that he must either go in his chance company or
remain behind. So, he got into his place, still making complaints,
and the keeper got into the place next him, and the convicts hauled
themselves up as well as they could, and the convict I had
recognized sat behind me with his breath on the hair of my head.

"Good-bye, Handel!" Herbert called out as we started. I thought
what a blessed fortune it was, that he had found another name for
me than Pip.

It is impossible to express with what acuteness I felt the
convict's breathing, not only on the back of my head, but all along
my spine. The sensation was like being touched in the marrow with
some pungent and searching acid, it set my very teeth on edge. He
seemed to have more breathing business to do than another man, and
to make more noise in doing it; and I was conscious of growing
high-shoulderd on one side, in my shrinking endeavours to fend him
off.

The weather was miserably raw, and the two cursed the cold. It made
us all lethargic before we had gone far, and when we had left the
Half-way House behind, we habitually dozed and shivered and were
silent. I dozed off, myself, in considering the question whether I
ought to restore a couple of pounds sterling to this creature
before losing sight of him, and how it could best be done. In the
act of dipping forward as if I were going to bathe among the
horses, I woke in a fright and took the question up again.

But I must have lost it longer than I had thought, since, although
I could recognize nothing in the darkness and the fitful lights and
shadows of our lamps, I traced marsh country in the cold damp wind
that blew at us. Cowering forward for warmth and to make me a
screen against the wind, the convicts were closer to me than
before. They very first words I heard them interchange as I became
conscious were the words of my own thought, "Two One Pound notes."

"How did he get 'em?" said the convict I had never seen.

"How should I know?" returned the other. "He had 'em stowed away
somehows. Giv him by friends, I expect."

"I wish," said the other, with a bitter curse upon the cold, "that
I had 'em here."

"Two one pound notes, or friends?"

"Two one pound notes. I'd sell all the friends I ever had, for one,
and think it a blessed good bargain. Well? So he says - ?"

"So he says," resumed the convict I had recognized - "it was all
said and done in half a minute, behind a pile of timber in the
Dockyard - 'You're a-going to be discharged?' Yes, I was. Would I
find out that boy that had fed him and kep his secret, and give him
them two one pound notes? Yes, I would. And I did."

"More fool you," growled the other. "I'd have spent 'em on a Man,
in wittles and drink. He must have been a green one. Mean to say he
knowed nothing of you?"

"Not a ha'porth. Different gangs and different ships. He was tried
again for prison breaking, and got made a Lifer."

"And was that - Honour! - the only time you worked out, in this
part of the country?"

"The only time."

"What might have been your opinion of the place?"

"A most beastly place. Mudbank, mist, swamp, and work; work, swamp,
mist, and mudbank."

They both execrated the place in very strong language, and
gradually growled themselves out, and had nothing left to say.

After overhearing this dialogue, I should assuredly have got down
and been left in the solitude and darkness of the highway, but for
feeling certain that the man had no suspicion of my identity.
Indeed, I was not only so changed in the course of nature, but so
differently dressed and so differently circumstanced, that it was
not at all likely he could have known me without accidental help.
Still, the coincidence of our being together on the coach, was
sufficiently strange to fill me with a dread that some other
coincidence might at any moment connect me, in his hearing, with my
name. For this reason, I resolved to alight as soon as we touched
the town, and put myself out of his hearing. This device I executed
successfully. My little portmanteau was in the boot under my feet;
I had but to turn a hinge to get it out: I threw it down before me,
got down after it, and was left at the first lamp on the first
stones of the town pavement. As to the convicts, they went their
way with the coach, and I knew at what point they would be spirited
off to the river. In my fancy, I saw the boat with its convict crew
waiting for them at the slime-washed stairs, - again heard the
gruff "Give way, you!" like and order to dogs - again saw the
wicked Noah's Ark lying out on the black water.

I could not have said what I was afraid of, for my fear was
altogether undefined and vague, but there was great fear upon me.
As I walked on to the hotel, I felt that a dread, much exceeding
the mere apprehension of a painful or disagreeable recognition,
made me tremble. I am confident that it took no distinctness of
shape, and that it was the revival for a few minutes of the terror
of childhood.

The coffee-room at the Blue Boar was empty, and I had not only
ordered my dinner there, but had sat down to it, before the waiter
knew me. As soon as he had apologized for the remissness of his
memory, he asked me if he should send Boots for Mr. Pumblechook?

"No," said I, "certainly not."

The waiter (it was he who had brought up the Great Remonstrance
from the Commercials, on the day when I was bound) appeared
surprised, and took the earliest opportunity of putting a dirty old
copy of a local newspaper so directly in my way, that I took it up
and read this paragraph:

Our readers will learn, not altogether without interest, in
reference to the recent romantic rise in fortune of a young
artificer in iron of this neighbourhood (what a theme, by the way,
for the magic pen of our as yet not universally acknowledged
townsman TOOBY, the poet of our columns!) that the youth's earliest
patron, companion, and friend, was a highly-respected individual
not entirely unconnected with the corn and seed trade, and whose
eminently convenient and commodious business premises are situate
within a hundred miles of the High-street. It is not wholly
irrespective of our personal feelings that we record HIM as the
Mentor of our young Telemachus, for it is good to know that our
town produced the founder of the latter's fortunes. Does the
thoughtcontracted brow of the local Sage or the lustrous eye of
local Beauty inquire whose fortunes? We believe that Quintin Matsys
was the BLACKSMITH of Antwerp. VERB. SAP.

I entertain a conviction, based upon large experience, that if in
the days of my prosperity I had gone to the North Pole, I should
have met somebody there, wandering Esquimaux or civilized man, who
would have told me that Pumblechook was my earliest patron and the
founder of my fortunes.



Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Category:
General Fiction - English literature
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