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Charles Dickens > Great Expectations > Chapter 17

Great Expectations

Chapter 17

I now fell into a regular routine of apprenticeship life, which was

varied, beyond the limits of the village and the marshes, by no

more remarkable circumstance than the arrival of my birthday and my

paying another visit to Miss Havisham. I found Miss Sarah Pocket

still on duty at the gate, I found Miss Havisham just as I had left

her, and she spoke of Estella in the very same way, if not in the

very same words. The interview lasted but a few minutes, and she

gave me a guinea when I was going, and told me to come again on my

next birthday. I may mention at once that this became an annual

custom. I tried to decline taking the guinea on the first occasion,

but with no better effect than causing her to ask me very angrily,

if I expected more? Then, and after that, I took it.

So unchanging was the dull old house, the yellow light in the

darkened room, the faded spectre in the chair by the dressing-table

glass, that I felt as if the stopping of the clocks had stopped

Time in that mysterious place, and, while I and everything else

outside it grew older, it stood still. Daylight never entered the

house as to my thoughts and remembrances of it, any more than as to

the actual fact. It bewildered me, and under its influence I

continued at heart to hate my trade and to be ashamed of home.

Imperceptibly I became conscious of a change in Biddy, however. Her

shoes came up at the heel, her hair grew bright and neat, her hands

were always clean. She was not beautiful - she was common, and

could not be like Estella - but she was pleasant and wholesome and

sweet-tempered. She had not been with us more than a year (I

remember her being newly out of mourning at the time it struck me),

when I observed to myself one evening that she had curiously

thoughtful and attentive eyes; eyes that were very pretty and very


It came of my lifting up my own eyes from a task I was poring at -

writing some passages from a book, to improve myself in two ways at

once by a sort of stratagem - and seeing Biddy observant of what I

was about. I laid down my pen, and Biddy stopped in her needlework

without laying it down.

"Biddy," said I, "how do you manage it? Either I am very stupid, or

you are very clever."

"What is it that I manage? I don't know," returned Biddy, smiling.

She managed our whole domestic life, and wonderfully too; but I did

not mean that, though that made what I did mean, more surprising.

"How do you manage, Biddy," said I, "to learn everything that I

learn, and always to keep up with me?" I was beginning to be rather

vain of my knowledge, for I spent my birthday guineas on it, and

set aside the greater part of my pocket-money for similar

investment; though I have no doubt, now, that the little I knew was

extremely dear at the price.

"I might as well ask you," said Biddy, "how you manage?"

"No; because when I come in from the forge of a night, any one can

see me turning to at it. But you never turn to at it, Biddy."

"I suppose I must catch it - like a cough," said Biddy, quietly;

and went on with her sewing.

Pursuing my idea as I leaned back in my wooden chair and looked at

Biddy sewing away with her head on one side, I began to think her

rather an extraordinary girl. For, I called to mind now, that she

was equally accomplished in the terms of our trade, and the names

of our different sorts of work, and our various tools. In short,

whatever I knew, Biddy knew. Theoretically, she was already as good

a blacksmith as I, or better.

"You are one of those, Biddy," said I, "who make the most of every

chance. You never had a chance before you came here, and see how

improved you are!"

Biddy looked at me for an instant, and went on with her sewing. "I

was your first teacher though; wasn't I?" said she, as she sewed.

"Biddy!" I exclaimed, in amazement. "Why, you are crying!"

"No I am not," said Biddy, looking up and laughing. "What put that

in your head?"

What could have put it in my head, but the glistening of a tear as

it dropped on her work? I sat silent, recalling what a drudge she

had been until Mr. Wopsle's great-aunt successfully overcame that

bad habit of living, so highly desirable to be got rid of by some

people. I recalled the hopeless circumstances by which she had been

surrounded in the miserable little shop and the miserable little

noisy evening school, with that miserable old bundle of

incompetence always to be dragged and shouldered. I reflected that

even in those untoward times there must have been latent in Biddy

what was now developing, for, in my first uneasiness and discontent

I had turned to her for help, as a matter of course. Biddy sat

quietly sewing, shedding no more tears, and while I looked at her

and thought about it all, it occurred to me that perhaps I had not

been sufficiently grateful to Biddy. I might have been too

reserved, and should have patronized her more (though I did not use

that precise word in my meditations), with my confidence.

"Yes, Biddy," I observed, when I had done turning it over, "you

were my first teacher, and that at a time when we little thought of

ever being together like this, in this kitchen."

"Ah, poor thing!" replied Biddy. It was like her

self-forgetfulness, to transfer the remark to my sister, and to get

up and be busy about her, making her more comfortable; "that's

sadly true!"

"Well!" said I, "we must talk together a little more, as we used to

do. And I must consult you a little more, as I used to do. Let us

have a quiet walk on the marshes next Sunday, Biddy, and a long


My sister was never left alone now; but Joe more than readily

undertook the care of her on that Sunday afternoon, and Biddy and I

went out together. It was summer-time, and lovely weather. When we

had passed the village and the church and the churchyard, and were

out on the marshes and began to see the sails of the ships as they

sailed on, I began to combine Miss Havisham and Estella with the

prospect, in my usual way. When we came to the river-side and sat

down on the bank, with the water rippling at our feet, making it

all more quiet than it would have been without that sound, I

resolved that it was a good time and place for the admission of

Biddy into my inner confidence.

"Biddy," said I, after binding her to secrecy, "I want to be a


"Oh, I wouldn't, if I was you!" she returned. "I don't think it

would answer."

"Biddy," said I, with some severity, "I have particular reasons for

wanting to be a gentleman."

"You know best, Pip; but don't you think you are happier as you


"Biddy," I exclaimed, impatiently, "I am not at all happy as I am.

I am disgusted with my calling and with my life. I have never taken

to either, since I was bound. Don't be absurd."

"Was I absurd?" said Biddy, quietly raising her eyebrows; "I am

sorry for that; I didn't mean to be. I only want you to do well,

and to be comfortable."

"Well then, understand once for all that I never shall or can be

comfortable - or anything but miserable - there, Biddy! - unless I

can lead a very different sort of life from the life I lead now."

"That's a pity!" said Biddy, shaking her head with a sorrowful air.

Now, I too had so often thought it a pity, that, in the singular

kind of quarrel with myself which I was always carrying on, I was

half inclined to shed tears of vexation and distress when Biddy

gave utterance to her sentiment and my own. I told her she was

right, and I knew it was much to be regretted, but still it was not

to be helped.

"If I could have settled down," I said to Biddy, plucking up the

short grass within reach, much as I had once upon a time pulled my

feelings out of my hair and kicked them into the brewery wall: "if

I could have settled down and been but half as fond of the forge as

I was when I was little, I know it would have been much better for

me. You and I and Joe would have wanted nothing then, and Joe and I

would perhaps have gone partners when I was out of my time, and I

might even have grown up to keep company with you, and we might

have sat on this very bank on a fine Sunday, quite different

people. I should have been good enough for you; shouldn't I,


Biddy sighed as she looked at the ships sailing on, and returned

for answer, "Yes; I am not over-particular." It scarcely sounded

flattering, but I knew she meant well.

"Instead of that," said I, plucking up more grass and chewing a

blade or two, "see how I am going on. Dissatisfied, and

uncomfortable, and - what would it signify to me, being coarse and

common, if nobody had told me so!"

Biddy turned her face suddenly towards mine, and looked far more

attentively at me than she had looked at the sailing ships.

"It was neither a very true nor a very polite thing to say," she

remarked, directing her eyes to the ships again. "Who said it?"

I was disconcerted, for I had broken away without quite seeing

where I was going to. It was not to be shuffled off now, however,

and I answered, "The beautiful young lady at Miss Havisham's, and

she's more beautiful than anybody ever was, and I admire her

dreadfully, and I want to be a gentleman on her account." Having

made this lunatic confession, I began to throw my torn-up grass

into the river, as if I had some thoughts of following it.

"Do you want to be a gentleman, to spite her or to gain her over?"

Biddy quietly asked me, after a pause.

"I don't know," I moodily answered.

"Because, if it is to spite her," Biddy pursued, "I should think -

but you know best - that might be better and more independently

done by caring nothing for her words. And if it is to gain her

over, I should think - but you know best - she was not worth

gaining over."

Exactly what I myself had thought, many times. Exactly what was

perfectly manifest to me at the moment. But how could I, a poor

dazed village lad, avoid that wonderful inconsistency into which

the best and wisest of men fall every day?

"It may be all quite true," said I to Biddy, "but I admire her


In short, I turned over on my face when I came to that, and got a

good grasp on the hair on each side of my head, and wrenched it

well. All the while knowing the madness of my heart to be so very

mad and misplaced, that I was quite conscious it would have served

my face right, if I had lifted it up by my hair, and knocked it

against the pebbles as a punishment for belonging to such an idiot.

Biddy was the wisest of girls, and she tried to reason no more with

me. She put her hand, which was a comfortable hand though roughened

by work, upon my hands, one after another, and gently took them out

of my hair. Then she softly patted my shoulder in a soothing way,

while with my face upon my sleeve I cried a little - exactly as I

had done in the brewery yard - and felt vaguely convinced that I

was very much ill-used by somebody, or by everybody; I can't say


"I am glad of one thing," said Biddy, "and that is, that you have

felt you could give me your confidence, Pip. And I am glad of

another thing, and that is, that of course you know you may depend

upon my keeping it and always so far deserving it. If your first

teacher (dear! such a poor one, and so much in need of being taught

herself!) had been your teacher at the present time, she thinks she

knows what lesson she would set. But It would be a hard one to

learn, and you have got beyond her, and it's of no use now." So,

with a quiet sigh for me, Biddy rose from the bank, and said, with

a fresh and pleasant change of voice, "Shall we walk a little

further, or go home?"

"Biddy," I cried, getting up, putting my arm round her neck, and

giving her a kiss, "I shall always tell you everything."

"Till you're a gentleman," said Biddy.

"You know I never shall be, so that's always. Not that I have any

occasion to tell you anything, for you know everything I know - as

I told you at home the other night."

"Ah!" said Biddy, quite in a whisper, as she looked away at the

ships. And then repeated, with her former pleasant change; "shall

we walk a little further, or go home?"

I said to Biddy we would walk a little further, and we did so, and

the summer afternoon toned down into the summer evening, and it was

very beautiful. I began to consider whether I was not more

naturally and wholesomely situated, after all, in these

circumstances, than playing beggar my neighbour by candlelight in

the room with the stopped clocks, and being despised by Estella. I

thought it would be very good for me if I could get her out of my

head, with all the rest of those remembrances and fancies, and

could go to work determined to relish what I had to do, and stick

to it, and make the best of it. I asked myself the question whether

I did not surely know that if Estella were beside me at that moment

instead of Biddy, she would make me miserable? I was obliged to

admit that I did know it for a certainty, and I said to myself,

"Pip, what a fool you are!"

We talked a good deal as we walked, and all that Biddy said seemed

right. Biddy was never insulting, or capricious, or Biddy to-day

and somebody else to-morrow; she would have derived only pain, and

no pleasure, from giving me pain; she would far rather have wounded

her own breast than mine. How could it be, then, that I did not

like her much the better of the two?

"Biddy," said I, when we were walking homeward, "I wish you could

put me right."

"I wish I could!" said Biddy.

"If I could only get myself to fall in love with you - you don't

mind my speaking so openly to such an old acquaintance?"

"Oh dear, not at all!" said Biddy. "Don't mind me."

"If I could only get myself to do it, that would be the thing for


"But you never will, you see," said Biddy.

It did not appear quite so unlikely to me that evening, as it would

have done if we had discussed it a few hours before. I therefore

observed I was not quite sure of that. But Biddy said she was, and

she said it decisively. In my heart I believed her to be right; and

yet I took it rather ill, too, that she should be so positive on

the point.

When we came near the churchyard, we had to cross an embankment,

and get over a stile near a sluice gate. There started up, from the

gate, or from the rushes, or from the ooze (which was quite in his

stagnant way), Old Orlick.

"Halloa!" he growled, "where are you two going?"

"Where should we be going, but home?"

"Well then," said he, "I'm jiggered if I don't see you home!"

This penalty of being jiggered was a favourite supposititious case

of his. He attached no definite meaning to the word that I am aware

of, but used it, like his own pretended Christian name, to affront

mankind, and convey an idea of something savagely damaging. When I

was younger, I had had a general belief that if he had jiggered me

personally, he would have done it with a sharp and twisted hook.

Biddy was much against his going with us, and said to me in a

whisper, "Don't let him come; I don't like him." As I did not like

him either, I took the liberty of saying that we thanked him, but

we didn't want seeing home. He received that piece of information

with a yell of laughter, and dropped back, but came slouching after

us at a little distance.

Curious to know whether Biddy suspected him of having had a hand in

that murderous attack of which my sister had never been able to

give any account, I asked her why she did not like him.

"Oh!" she replied, glancing over her shoulder as he slouched after

us, "because I - I am afraid he likes me."

"Did he ever tell you he liked you?" I asked, indignantly.

"No," said Biddy, glancing over her shoulder again, "he never told

me so; but he dances at me, whenever he can catch my eye."

However novel and peculiar this testimony of attachment, I did not

doubt the accuracy of the interpretation. I was very hot indeed

upon Old Orlick's daring to admire her; as hot as if it were an

outrage on myself.

"But it makes no difference to you, you know," said Biddy, calmly.

"No, Biddy, it makes no difference to me; only I don't like it; I

don't approve of it."

"Nor I neither," said Biddy. "Though that makes no difference to


"Exactly," said I; "but I must tell you I should have no opinion of

you, Biddy, if he danced at you with your own consent."

I kept an eye on Orlick after that night, and, whenever

circumstances were favourable to his dancing at Biddy, got before

him, to obscure that demonstration. He had struck root in Joe's

establishment, by reason of my sister's sudden fancy for him, or I

should have tried to get him dismissed. He quite understood and

reciprocated my good intentions, as I had reason to know


And now, because my mind was not confused enough before, I

complicated its confusion fifty thousand-fold, by having states and

seasons when I was clear that Biddy was immeasurably better than

Estella, and that the plain honest working life to which I was

born, had nothing in it to be ashamed of, but offered me sufficient

means of self-respect and happiness. At those times, I would decide

conclusively that my disaffection to dear old Joe and the forge,

was gone, and that I was growing up in a fair way to be partners

with Joe and to keep company with Biddy - when all in a moment some

confounding remembrance of the Havisham days would fall upon me,

like a destructive missile, and scatter my wits again. Scattered

wits take a long time picking up; and often, before I had got them

well together, they would be dispersed in all directions by one

stray thought, that perhaps after all Miss Havisham was going to

make my fortune when my time was out.

If my time had run out, it would have left me still at the height

of my perplexities, I dare say. It never did run out, however, but

was brought to a premature end, as I proceed to relate.

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