This part of the Course was usually lightened by
several single combats between Biddy and refractory students. When
the fights were over, Biddy gave out the number of a page, and then
we all read aloud what we could - or what we couldn't - in a
frightful chorus; Biddy leading with a high shrill monotonous
voice, and none of us having the least notion of, or reverence for,
what we were reading about. When this horrible din had lasted a
certain time, it mechanically awoke Mr. Wopsle's great-aunt, who
staggered at a boy fortuitously, and pulled his ears. This was
understood to terminate the Course for the evening, and we emerged
into the air with shrieks of intellectual victory. It is fair to
remark that there was no prohibition against any pupil's
entertaining himself with a slate or even with the ink (when there
was any), but that it was not easy to pursue that branch of study
in the winter season, on account of the little general shop in
which the classes were holden - and which was also Mr. Wopsle's
great-aunt's sitting-room and bed-chamber - being but faintly
illuminated through the agency of one low-spirited dip-candle and
It appeared to me that it would take time, to become uncommon under
these circumstances: nevertheless, I resolved to try it, and that
very evening Biddy entered on our special agreement, by imparting
some information from her little catalogue of Prices, under the
head of moist sugar, and lending me, to copy at home, a large old
English D which she had imitated from the heading of some
newspaper, and which I supposed, until she told me what it was, to
be a design for a buckle.
Of course there was a public-house in the village, and of course
Joe liked sometimes to smoke his pipe there. I had received strict
orders from my sister to call for him at the Three Jolly Bargemen,
that evening, on my way from school, and bring him home at my
peril. To the Three Jolly Bargemen, therefore, I directed my steps.
There was a bar at the Jolly Bargemen, with some alarmingly long
chalk scores in it on the wall at the side of the door, which
seemed to me to be never paid off. They had been there ever since I
could remember, and had grown more than I had. But there was a
quantity of chalk about our country, and perhaps the people
neglected no opportunity of turning it to account.
It being Saturday night, I found the landlord looking rather grimly
at these records, but as my business was with Joe and not with him,
I merely wished him good evening, and passed into the common room
at the end of the passage, where there was a bright large kitchen
fire, and where Joe was smoking his pipe in company with Mr. Wopsle
and a stranger. Joe greeted me as usual with "Halloa, Pip, old
chap!" and the moment he said that, the stranger turned his head
and looked at me.
He was a secret-looking man whom I had never seen before. His head
was all on one side, and one of his eyes was half shut up, as if he
were taking aim at something with an invisible gun. He had a pipe
in his mouth, and he took it out, and, after slowly blowing all his
smoke away and looking hard at me all the time, nodded. So, I
nodded, and then he nodded again, and made room on the settle
beside him that I might sit down there.
But, as I was used to sit beside Joe whenever I entered that place
of resort, I said "No, thank you, sir," and fell into the space Joe
made for me on the opposite settle. The strange man, after glancing
at Joe, and seeing that his attention was otherwise engaged, nodded
to me again when I had taken my seat, and then rubbed his leg - in
a very odd way, as it struck me.
"You was saying," said the strange man, turning to Joe, "that you
was a blacksmith."
"Yes. I said it, you know," said Joe.
"What'll you drink, Mr. - ? You didn't mention your name,
Joe mentioned it now, and the strange man called him by it.