But I could make nothing of the word.
"Mrs. Joe," said I, as a last resort, "I should like to know - if
you wouldn't much mind - where the firing comes from?"
"Lord bless the boy!" exclaimed my sister, as if she didn't quite
mean that, but rather the contrary. "From the Hulks!"
"Oh-h!" said I, looking at Joe. "Hulks!"
Joe gave a reproachful cough, as much as to say, "Well, I told you
"And please what's Hulks?" said I.
"That's the way with this boy!" exclaimed my sister, pointing me
out with her needle and thread, and shaking her head at me. "Answer
him one question, and he'll ask you a dozen directly. Hulks are
prison-ships, right 'cross th' meshes." We always used that name
for marshes, in our country.
"I wonder who's put into prison-ships, and why they're put there?"
said I, in a general way, and with quiet desperation.
It was too much for Mrs. Joe, who immediately rose. "I tell you
what, young fellow," said she, "I didn't bring you up by hand to
badger people's lives out. It would be blame to me, and not praise,
if I had. People are put in the Hulks because they murder, and
because they rob, and forge, and do all sorts of bad; and they
always begin by asking questions. Now, you get along to bed!"
I was never allowed a candle to light me to bed, and, as I went
upstairs in the dark, with my head tingling - from Mrs. Joe's
thimble having played the tambourine upon it, to accompany her last
words - I felt fearfully sensible of the great convenience that the
Hulks were handy for me. I was clearly on my way there. I had begun
by asking questions, and I was going to rob Mrs. Joe.
Since that time, which is far enough away now, I have often thought
that few people know what secrecy there is in the young, under
terror. No matter how unreasonable the terror, so that it be
terror. I was in mortal terror of the young man who wanted my heart
and liver; I was in mortal terror of my interlocutor with the
ironed leg; I was in mortal terror of myself, from whom an awful
promise had been extracted; I had no hope of deliverance through my
all-powerful sister, who repulsed me at every turn; I am afraid to
think of what I might have done, on requirement, in the secrecy of
If I slept at all that night, it was only to imagine myself
drifting down the river on a strong spring-tide, to the Hulks; a
ghostly pirate calling out to me through a speaking-trumpet, as I
passed the gibbet-station, that I had better come ashore and be
hanged there at once, and not put it off. I was afraid to sleep,
even if I had been inclined, for I knew that at the first faint
dawn of morning I must rob the pantry. There was no doing it in the
night, for there was no getting a light by easy friction then; to
have got one, I must have struck it out of flint and steel, and
have made a noise like the very pirate himself rattling his chains.
As soon as the great black velvet pall outside my little window was
shot with grey, I got up and went down stairs; every board upon the
way, and every crack in every board, calling after me, "Stop
thief!" and "Get up, Mrs. Joe!" In the pantry, which was far more
abundantly supplied than usual, owing to the season, I was very
much alarmed, by a hare hanging up by the heels, whom I rather
thought I caught, when my back was half turned, winking. I had no
time for verification, no time for selection, no time for anything,
for I had no time to spare. I stole some bread, some rind of
cheese, about half a jar of mincemeat (which I tied up in my
pocket-handkerchief with my last night's slice), some brandy from a
stone bottle (which I decanted into a glass bottle I had secretly
used for making that intoxicating fluid, Spanish-liquorice-water,
up in my room: diluting the stone bottle from a jug in the kitchen
cupboard), a meat bone with very little on it, and a beautiful
round compact pork pie.