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Charles Dickens > Great Expectations > Chapter 28

Great Expectations

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


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


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


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


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.

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