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Charles Dickens > Great Expectations > Chapter 56

Great Expectations

Chapter 56

He lay in prison very ill, during the whole interval between his

committal for trial, and the coming round of the Sessions. He had

broken two ribs, they had wounded one of his lungs, and he breathed

with great pain and difficulty, which increased daily. It was a

consequence of his hurt, that he spoke so low as to be scarcely

audible; therefore, he spoke very little. But, he was ever ready to

listen to me, and it became the first duty of my life to say to

him, and read to him, what I knew he ought to hear.

Being far too ill to remain in the common prison, he was removed,

after the first day or so, into the infirmary. This gave me

opportunities of being with him that I could not otherwise have

had. And but for his illness he would have been put in irons, for

he was regarded as a determined prison-breaker, and I know not what


Although I saw him every day, it was for only a short time; hence,

the regularly recurring spaces of our separation were long enough

to record on his face any slight changes that occurred in his

physical state. I do not recollect that I once saw any change in it

for the better; he wasted, and became slowly weaker and worse, day

by day, from the day when the prison door closed upon him.

The kind of submission or resignation that he showed, was that of a

man who was tired out. I sometimes derived an impression, from his

manner or from a whispered word or two which escaped him, that he

pondered over the question whether he might have been a better man

under better circumstances. But, he never justified himself by a

hint tending that way, or tried to bend the past out of its eternal


It happened on two or three occasions in my presence, that his

desperate reputation was alluded to by one or other of the people

in attendance on him. A smile crossed his face then, and he turned

his eyes on me with a trustful look, as if he were confident that I

had seen some small redeeming touch in him, even so long ago as when

I was a little child. As to all the rest, he was humble and

contrite, and I never knew him complain.

When the Sessions came round, Mr. Jaggers caused an application to

be made for the postponement of his trial until the following

Sessions. It was obviously made with the assurance that he could

not live so long, and was refused. The trial came on at once, and,

when he was put to the bar, he was seated in a chair. No objection

was made to my getting close to the dock, on the outside of it, and

holding the hand that he stretched forth to me.

The trial was very short and very clear. Such things as could be

said for him, were said - how he had taken to industrious habits,

and had thriven lawfully and reputably. But, nothing could unsay

the fact that he had returned, and was there in presence of the

Judge and Jury. It was impossible to try him for that, and do

otherwise than find him guilty.

At that time, it was the custom (as I learnt from my terrible

experience of that Sessions) to devote a concluding day to the

passing of Sentences, and to make a finishing effect with the

Sentence of Death. But for the indelible picture that my

remembrance now holds before me, I could scarcely believe, even as

I write these words, that I saw two-and-thirty men and women put

before the Judge to receive that sentence together. Foremost among

the two-and-thirty, was he; seated, that he might get breath enough

to keep life in him.

The whole scene starts out again in the vivid colours of the

moment, down to the drops of April rain on the windows of the

court, glittering in the rays of April sun. Penned in the dock, as

I again stood outside it at the corner with his hand in mine, were

the two-and-thirty men and women; some defiant, some stricken with

terror, some sobbing and weeping, some covering their faces, some

staring gloomily about. There had been shrieks from among the women

convicts, but they had been stilled, a hush had succeeded. The

sheriffs with their great chains and nosegays, other civic gewgaws

and monsters, criers, ushers, a great gallery full of people - a

large theatrical audience - looked on, as the two-and-thirty and

the Judge were solemnly confronted. Then, the Judge addressed them.

Among the wretched creatures before him whom he must single out for

special address, was one who almost from his infancy had been an

offender against the laws; who, after repeated imprisonments and

punishments, had been at length sentenced to exile for a term of

years; and who, under circumstances of great violence and daring

had made his escape and been re-sentenced to exile for life. That

miserable man would seem for a time to have become convinced of his

errors, when far removed from the scenes of his old offences, and

to have lived a peaceable and honest life. But in a fatal moment,

yielding to those propensities and passions, the indulgence of

which had so long rendered him a scourge to society, he had quitted

his haven of rest and repentance, and had come back to the country

where he was proscribed. Being here presently denounced, he had for

a time succeeded in evading the officers of Justice, but being at

length seized while in the act of flight, he had resisted them, and

had - he best knew whether by express design, or in the blindness

of his hardihood - caused the death of his denouncer, to whom his

whole career was known. The appointed punishment for his return to

the land that had cast him out, being Death, and his case being

this aggravated case, he must prepare himself to Die.

The sun was striking in at the great windows of the court, through

the glittering drops of rain upon the glass, and it made a broad

shaft of light between the two-and-thirty and the Judge, linking

both together, and perhaps reminding some among the audience, how

both were passing on, with absolute equality, to the greater

Judgment that knoweth all things and cannot err. Rising for a

moment, a distinct speck of face in this way of light, the prisoner

said, "My Lord, I have received my sentence of Death from the

Almighty, but I bow to yours," and sat down again. There was some

hushing, and the Judge went on with what he had to say to the rest.

Then, they were all formally doomed, and some of them were

supported out, and some of them sauntered out with a haggard look

of bravery, and a few nodded to the gallery, and two or three shook

hands, and others went out chewing the fragments of herb they had

taken from the sweet herbs lying about. He went last of all,

because of having to be helped from his chair and to go very

slowly; and he held my hand while all the others were removed, and

while the audience got up (putting their dresses right, as they

might at church or elsewhere) and pointed down at this criminal or

at that, and most of all at him and me.

I earnestly hoped and prayed that he might die before the

Recorder's Report was made, but, in the dread of his lingering on,

I began that night to write out a petition to the Home Secretary of

State, setting forth my knowledge of him, and how it was that he

had come back for my sake. I wrote it as fervently and pathetically

as I could, and when I had finished it and sent it in, I wrote out

other petitions to such men in authority as I hoped were the most

merciful, and drew up one to the Crown itself. For several days and

nights after he was sentenced I took no rest except when I fell

asleep in my chair, but was wholly absorbed in these appeals. And

after I had sent them in, I could not keep away from the places

where they were, but felt as if they were more hopeful and less

desperate when I was near them. In this unreasonable restlessness

and pain of mind, I would roam the streets of an evening, wandering

by those offices and houses where I had left the petitions. To the

present hour, the weary western streets of London on a cold dusty

spring night, with their ranges of stern shut-up mansions and their

long rows of lamps, are melancholy to me from this association.

The daily visits I could make him were shortened now, and he was

more strictly kept. Seeing, or fancying, that I was suspected of an

intention of carrying poison to him, I asked to be searched before

I sat down at his bedside, and told the officer who was always

there, that I was willing to do anything that would assure him of

the singleness of my designs. Nobody was hard with him, or with me.

There was duty to be done, and it was done, but not harshly. The

officer always gave me the assurance that he was worse, and some

other sick prisoners in the room, and some other prisoners who

attended on them as sick nurses (malefactors, but not incapable of

kindness, God be thanked!), always joined in the same report.

As the days went on, I noticed more and more that he would lie

placidly looking at the white ceiling, with an absence of light in

his face, until some word of mine brightened it for an instant, and

then it would subside again. Sometimes he was almost, or quite,

unable to speak; then, he would answer me with slight pressures on

my hand, and I grew to understand his meaning very well.

The number of the days had risen to ten, when I saw a greater

change in him than I had seen yet. His eyes were turned towards the

door, and lighted up as I entered.

"Dear boy," he said, as I sat down by his bed: "I thought you was

late. But I knowed you couldn't be that."

"It is just the time," said I. "I waited for it at the gate."

"You always waits at the gate; don't you, dear boy?"

"Yes. Not to lose a moment of the time."

"Thank'ee dear boy, thank'ee. God bless you! You've never deserted

me, dear boy."

I pressed his hand in silence, for I could not forget that I had

once meant to desert him.

"And what's the best of all," he said, "you've been more

comfortable alonger me, since I was under a dark cloud, than when

the sun shone. That's best of all."

He lay on his back, breathing with great difficulty. Do what he

would, and love me though he did, the light left his face ever and

again, and a film came over the placid look at the white ceiling.

"Are you in much pain to-day?"

"I don't complain of none, dear boy."

"You never do complain."

He had spoken his last words. He smiled, and I understood his touch

to mean that he wished to lift my hand, and lay it on his breast. I

laid it there, and he smiled again, and put both his hands upon it.

The allotted time ran out, while we were thus; but, looking round,

I found the governor of the prison standing near me, and he

whispered, "You needn't go yet." I thanked him gratefully, and

asked, "Might I speak to him, if he can hear me?"

The governor stepped aside, and beckoned the officer away. The

change, though it was made without noise, drew back the film from

the placid look at the white ceiling, and he looked most

affectionately at me.

"Dear Magwitch, I must tell you, now at last. You understand what I


A gentle pressure on my hand.

"You had a child once, whom you loved and lost."

A stronger pressure on my hand.

"She lived and found powerful friends. She is living now. She is a

lady and very beautiful. And I love her!"

With a last faint effort, which would have been powerless but for

my yielding to it and assisting it, he raised my hand to his lips.

Then, he gently let it sink upon his breast again, with his own

hands lying on it. The placid look at the white ceiling came back,

and passed away, and his head dropped quietly on his breast.

Mindful, then, of what we had read together, I thought of the two

men who went up into the Temple to pray, and I knew there were no

better words that I could say beside his bed, than "O Lord, be

merciful to him, a sinner!"

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