Fandom: Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (plus a bit of A Tale of Two Cities)
Prompt: Let us not fear the hidden. Or each other. – Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980), poet, political activist, reporter, playwright, translator, and president of the American branch of International PEN, a world-wide association of writers dedicated to freedom of expression and to opposing political censorship and speaking for writers who have been silenced, harassed, attacked, or killed for what they’ve written.
Summary: Estella searches for information about her parentage.
Author’s Notes: Estella’s story takes place in December, 1842, the latest plausible date for the last chapter of Great Expectations (the mentions of “old London Bridge” establish 1831 as the terminus ad quem for the novel’s climax).
I am greatly indebted to the maintainers of the Victorian Dictionary, an invaluable resource. Also to the National Museum of Australia, where I learned about convict tokens.
As will be evident, I have taken Dickens’s revised ending (in which it is implied that Estella and Pip have a romantic future together) as my canon. Despite the conventionally romantic closure, this ending grants Estella quite a bit more agency and independence than Dickens’s original version, in which she remarries “a Shropshire doctor” after Bentley Drummle’s death and evidently retains her own property without having to mount the “determined resistance” she mentions in the revised version.
I don’t really believe that Lucie Darnay ever had a sexual relationship with Sydney Carton, but I suspect her children must have wondered whether she did.
At the time when my story takes place, I had been a widow for two years, my husband, Bentley Drummle, having died after being kicked by one of his hunters (for horses have this advantage over wives: nobody blames them if they kill the man who beats them).
I had gone back to the market-town in Kent where I had lived as a child to visit some property I owned there, and to pay my last respects to its ghosts – for my new tenant intended to build a cement-factory on the land, and I imagined that any self-respecting ghost would quit the place rather than be smothered under a vast flow of cement, and exorcised morning, noon, and night by the factory bell. I had signed the papers with some regret, but more relief. The rent would be sufficient to secure my independence; and I was by then old enough, and experienced enough in the world, to understand the meaning of satis. In any case, I have never been one to place much value on ghosts, especially since I now knew that they were not my ghosts.
Among the ghosts I found one living man, whom I had known since we were children. He was then a blacksmith’s boy, called Pip, who had been sent up from the village as a sort of playmate (it would be more accurate to say plaything) for me. Who he was as a man, and what part he was to play in this story, these pages will show; I did not yet know these things myself, though we sat and talked for some time, until the mists were rising and the moon lit the ruins of Satis House.
* * *
Satis House was a vast, rambling, wreck of a place when I was a child. There was a deserted brewery, and a deserted woman; the place seemed always to have been the same, and I seemed always to have been a part of it. And always, I had vaguely supposed myself to be the daughter of Miss Havisham and her false lover Compeyson – for children, even girl children, are not so innocent in these matters as adults like to imagine, and my mother-by-adoption’s bitterness toward Compeyson was such that I could readily imagine he had ruined her as well as deserted her. Even her insistence that I call her “mother-by-adoption” and nothing else seemed to testify, in its own way, that she was something else indeed; and her relations’ whispered insinuations that I had Bad Blood, and was likely to grow up into they knew not what, seemed to seal the case (although I am sure that they would have whispered much the same things if I had been born a royal princess).
I had heard Miss Havisham’s story from her own lips; no one in that house else ever dared to speak of it directly, not even the poisonous relations. She was a woman who had little to do with time, for time had stopped long ago in Satis House, and had gone on without her. As a consequence, though she had told me in precise detail how her brother and Compeyson had wronged her, she had never troubled to mention when.
Therefore, it was not until just before the time of which I speak that I had any reason to doubt my earliest conjecture about my parentage. As I prepared to relinquish my property to my new tenant, I had occasion to inspect a number of family documents related to its history, from which I learned that the marriage between Miss Havisham and Compeyson was to have taken place in January of 1799. This threw a new light upon the question, for I was, as I believed, about thirty-five years old; I might have been thirty-four, or thirty-six; but at any rate, I was fairly certain that I was not forty-three. And to anyone who knew my mother by adoption, it was wholly impossible to believe that she could have allowed Compeyson back into her life years after he had jilted her.
I thought then of Arthur Havisham, who had died in greatly distressed circumstances when I was, I think, about four years old. Word of his death had reached Satis House, and had plunged the place into deeper gloom than usual, for a few of the servants had been fond of him. I remembered that Miss Havisham had forbidden his name to be spoken, and had dismissed one of the housemaids for weeping. It seemed improbable, though not impossible, that I was his daughter.
I thought, also, of a curious object I had possessed for as long as I could remember. It lay at the bottom of my jewel-box still; Miss Havisham had been used to say that it was my first jewel, and that I would have much finer ones when I grew older – as indeed I had. It was the size of one of the "cartwheel" pennies of old King George’s day, and might well have been a penny once, but it had been worn, or ground, until its surface was perfectly smooth. Some hand had then marked a pattern on it, as if with a thousand pinpricks: a heart on one side, a five-pointed star on the reverse.
So long as I had supposed Miss Havisham to be my natural mother, I had been able to make nothing of this token, save that she must have given it to me to gratify some obscure whim. Now, I wondered whether the object might hold some clue to my parentage.
Therefore I took it with me when I went to see Mr. Jaggers the lawyer. I will not say that I liked Mr. Jaggers – I am not sure that anyone has ever precisely liked Mr. Jaggers – but I trusted him implicitly. He had done much to secure my separation from my husband, and to ensure that I kept at least the bit of land where Satis House had once stood, though by law married women have no property of their own, and virtually everything else had been sold to pay Bentley’s debts. He had, moreover, handled my adopted mother’s affairs since before I was born. And so it was to London, and to Mr. Jaggers, that I brought my questions.
* * *
When I was a girl, London was a half-day’s journey away by coach. It was now faster to travel to Tunbridge, and take the train from there; and I was no longer slowed by Miss Havisham’s insistence that I have a suitable escort, and that I rest a while after my journey. I intended to go to Mr. Jaggers at once, and then to Mrs. Brandley’s house in Richmond, where I had lived for some five or six years after my education had been completed (which is to say, after I had I learned how to talk charmingly, and to dance, and to play the pianoforte tolerably, for there was little enough in this education that was worth the name, save a reasonable command of the French language and a smattering of German and Italian).
I had no sooner alighted from the train at London Bridge Station when I heard a voice calling “Estella!”
I turned. It took me a moment to recognize the man. My cousin, Herbert Pocket (I shall go on calling him my cousin for convenience) had been a pale young gentleman when I saw him last; he was a very brown gentleman now, and somewhat older. Like Pip, he was a partner in Clarriker’s House, and had been in Egypt for the last eleven years when he was not traveling to Turkey or India.
I was surprised to see him in England, although perhaps I should not have been. I had already seen Pip, and I recalled that where Pip went, Herbert generally went also, and vice versa.
Herbert, I should explain, is the eldest son of my adopted mother’s cousin, Matthew Pocket. There were a great many Pocket children, and the entire family was notorious among the rest of the clan for their improvidence and impracticality – which is another way of saying that they refused to recognize Mammon as the only true god, and stubbornly persisted in their idolatry despite their relations’ best efforts to browbeat them into recanting. Matthew, in particular, was remarkable for his probity and lack of self-interest, and received the usual reward of the disinterested man; that is, the privilege of acting as executor for various wills in which he and his children received nothing. (My adopted mother’s will was the sole exception, and even there, I think, he was an afterthought.)
As for Herbert, he was the only man I knew in my youth who was entirely impervious to my charms, which suggests that he, at least, was practical enough to possess a keen sense of self-preservation.
“How are you, Herbert? Have you come home for good?”
He nodded. “I’m to manage the London office. Clarriker’s, you see, sends its junior clerks abroad to weather them; there is nothing like ten or twelve years in the Sahara for making a man able to bear the dryness and dust of the London office. They can’t take on green young men directly; their constitutions can’t stand it. Besides, learning to sit a camel is most excellent practice for the chairs at Clarriker’s.”
Herbert said this with a rather rueful laugh, and I asked him whether he missed Egypt.
“A little. Sometimes. For the most part, I am glad to be back in England. Home and hearth for me. Should you like to spend all of your life abroad?”
“I cannot say. I think I might.”
“You might have better luck with Pip. He means to go back to Egypt, if he can’t persuade Clarriker to open a branch in Australia. He’s always been keen to see Australia.”
For the next few minutes, I was so absorbed in wondering what on earth Pip had to do with Australia, that I forgot to demand of Herbert what he thought I had to do with Pip.
Upon hearing that I did not live in London, but had come because I had business with Mr. Jaggers, Herbert promptly invited me to stay with his family – to which I assented gladly, as I had no real desire to see Mrs. Brandley, and I knew she was no more desirous of seeing me.
* * *
Mr. Jaggers’s premises in Little Britain were surrounded by a great throng of people, all of them waiting to see the great man; but when I had battled my way through this disreputable-looking crowd and made myself known to his clerk, Mr. Wemmick, I was ushered into the Presence at once. The lawyer’s chamber was a gloomy little room, filled with a peculiar collection of objects – a pair of dueling-pistols, and a deck of cards, and several mourning brooches with locks of hair in various colors, and two casts of faces that must surely have belonged to the most hardened criminals in the Empire, and I don’t know what else.
“Ah. Mrs. Drummle. What can I do for you?”
“You can tell me, Mr. Jaggers, whether I am Arthur Havisham’s daughter.”
Mr. Jaggers was so averse to making anything in the nature of an admission that I thought it best to make a direct frontal attack, and take him by surprise. Even so, he did not precisely say whether I was Arthur Havisham’s daughter, but in his expression I read no, or at least a distinct absence of yes.
“Who am I, then?”
“Estella Drummle, unless you have remarried since I saw you last.”
“I mean, who were my mother and father?”
“That,” he said, “can make very little difference now.”
“Then there cannot be any harm in telling me the truth.”
“What is truth?” said Mr. Jaggers, for all the world like jesting Pilate, and like that worthy, he did not stay for an answer. “I can tell you your position in law, which ought to serve. In law, you understand, you are considered to be the daughter of Miss Havisham and no-one else.”
“Many things are considered true in law that may not be true in fact. For example, in law a husband may help himself to his wife’s property without being considered a thief, and to her body without being considered a –”
“Let me put a case to you,” interrupted Mr. Jaggers. He looked positively distressed – insofar as that dark, bushy-browed, sunken-eyed face was capable of distress. He was aware, of course, of everything that had happened in my marriage to Bentley, but he would have preferred that I never spoke of the matter again. “I admit nothing, you understand. Suppose a man, in the course of his work, hears a great many private confidences, some of which concern persons now dead, some of which may – or may not – concern the living. Suppose he has given his word, at various times, to keep these confidences. After how many years, would you say, should that man regard those promises as no longer binding? Thirty? Forty-seven? Twelve? Three?”
“Are we playing parlor games, Mr. Jaggers?”
“Come, you must have some exact number of years in mind, if you are so certain that enough time has passed by now.”
“Let us say any number of years, or none, if the secret was never yours to keep in the first place.”
Mr. Jaggers gave me a reproachful look. “I said nothing of myself, Mrs. Drummle; I only put a case to you. Let me put another question to you: for whose benefit do you seek to learn what you call truth? For your own? What possible difference could it make to your way of life or your future? For your parents’ sake? If they are living – which they may not be – is it not likely enough that the discovery, after so many years, would cause them more pain than pleasure?”
“I think that was four or five questions, not a question. I shall not try to answer them all. I will say only that the truth matters to me, and I give you my word that I will not disclose it to anyone who is likely to suffer pain by it.”
“Let me put another thing to you –”
“I am heartily sick of men putting things to me without so much as asking my leave. Even the flower girls in Covent Garden generally hear a few pleasantries first.”
Mr. Wemmick stifled a cough that might – if it had not seemed so unlikely – have hidden a little choke of laughter. Mr. Jaggers looked still more distressed. (Widows, unlike young girls, are generally permitted to know about such matters; but on no account are they to jest about them, however bitterly.)
“I fear that I can be of little more assistance to you in this matter, Mrs. Drummle. Mr. Wemmick will show you out, unless you have other business?”
“Just one question,” I said, and produced the token. “Have you ever seen this object before?”
“Have you any idea what the signs on it mean?”
But I had noticed several tokens very like it among the other strange objects in the room, and I could only conclude that he was lying.
* * *
As Mr. Wemmick showed me to the door (which I was quite capable of finding for myself, having passed through it only half-an-hour before), he said, in a voice too low for Jaggers to overhear, “Mrs. Wemmick and I would be very pleased if you would join us for tea tomorrow. The Castle, at Walworth. You’ll know it when you see it.”
It came to me, as I was thinking over this strange invitation, that I was certainly not capable of finding Walworth by myself. Though I had lived for several years at Richmond, I knew little enough of London, having seen little more of the city than its ballrooms and theatres.
I confessed my ignorance to Herbert that evening, after I had greeted his wife Clara, and admired the children (of which there were some four or five – they did not sit still long enough to be counted).
He frowned slightly. “If Wemmick has invited you to tea at the Castle, depend upon it, he has something particular to say to you that he won’t say in front of Mr. Jaggers. May I ask whether your business in London concerns your late husband?”
“It concerns no one except myself.”
“In other words, I may not ask. Very well.” Herbert spoke cheerfully enough, but I felt immediately that I had been churlish.
“I beg your pardon. It is only that I had rather not speak of it.” I could not then have said precisely why I had rather not; but perhaps, already, I felt some intimation that my errand was likely to meet with dubious success, and if I did discover the truth, it was apt to be a shameful one.
“Well, as to finding your way to Walworth, it’s easy enough,” said Herbert. “I’ll walk there with you tomorrow; we haven’t much to do at the office just now.”
* * *
Mr. Wemmick was right; I would have known the Castle even if Herbert had not pointed it out to me. It was the strangest and most delightful little house I had ever seen, a perfect miniature Gothic castle, down to the banners on the turrets. I was later to learn that it was fully prepared to withstand an invasion of Normans, should any decide to besiege London in these unromantic times: there were kitchen gardens in the courtyard, and chickens and rabbits and even a pig.
The season then being near Christmas, a great quantity of holly and ivy had been cut from the garden, and Mrs. Wemmick, a lady in the most determinedly orange gown I had ever seen, was sitting at a table making garlands. I offered to help her, and we passed the afternoon quite merrily until Mr. Wemmick arrived from the office.
A little servant girl made tea, and Mrs. Wemmick set about making an enormous quantity of toast, but still nobody said anything about why I had been invited.
“Halloa!” exclaimed Mr. Wemmick, glancing out of one of the narrow, arched windows. “Here’s Mr. Justice Darnay, and just in time for tea!”
I had read of Mr. Justice Darnay in the newspapers, but had never met him before. He was a man of about fifty, still handsome, but with a certain general air of disarray about his dress, though I could not identify any particular article that created the impression. Mrs. Wemmick hastened to put out a bottle of sherry; I gathered he was not the sort of man who took tea when anything stronger was available.
The conversation turned to the great actors of the day, and somehow – I don’t know how – it was agreed that all of us, Mr. and Mrs. Wemmick, and Mr. Justice Darnay, and Mr. Jaggers, and I, and Herbert and Clara, should go to the theatre on the following night. Mr. Wemmick seemed so determined to throw me into the company of Mr. Justice Darnay, that I began to wonder whether he was expecting me to make a second marriage with him; but a chance mention of his wife, who was then visiting a married daughter in Gloucestershire, reassured me on this score.
Mr. Justice Darnay helped himself to another piece of toast. “Did you see Miss Tree’s Juliet, Mrs. Drummle? Well, I must call her Mrs. Kean now.”
“No, I have been in London very seldom these past few years. And please, call me Estella.” Feeling suddenly that I was being rather forward, I found myself launching into an explanation that only seemed to make things worse. “Drummle is my late husband’s name, I – I have never felt it to be mine. I was Miss Havisham before I married, but that is not my true name either. I was an adopted child, you see. I do not know who my parents were.”
Mr. Justice Darnay smiled. “We have something in common, then. I have never been certain of my true name either, but it is not Darnay. I was christened Sydney, after a man I never knew, a man who gave his life for my father’s. The story is a strange one, as my mother and my sister told it to me...”
The story of Mr. Justice Darnay’s family was certainly a remarkable one; I believe it might well have served for the plot of a novel. “But surely,” I said when he had finished, “the cases are not the same; you know your true name to be Evrémonde –” I stopped short, realizing that one could, in fact, put a very different construction on the story as Darnay had told it.
“Just so,” said Darnay, responding to the expression on my face rather than anything I had said. “I have never been certain, nor has my sister, who knew the man and loved him as a favorite uncle. Does it matter? I have always striven to make the name of Darnay mean honor and probity, and I am satisfied in my own mind that I know who I am and what my name stands for. I resolved long ago that I would not seek to know more; I could see no good that might come from prying into a secret that was not mine, and was bound to cause my mother and father pain.”
“It is harder for a woman,” I said. “We cannot distinguish ourselves in the law, nor in business; we must, as a rule, accept the names that are put upon us. And I know well enough what name society gives to women like my mother – or even yours, if what you suppose is true.”
“That is one reason why I never asked her. I do know – if what I have sometimes supposed is true – that society is wrong. She could not have done it with any thought of payment or compensation. She did it because she loved them both, and because she never thought to see her husband alive again.”
I said nothing – though I wondered. Men often underestimate how calculating women can be, especially their own mothers, sisters, and daughters. But then, men are calculating too. Herbert’s words came back to me as we sat by the hearth sipping our tea, and I began to suspect that Mr. Wemmick had invited me to his house with the sole object of making me hear Darnay’s tale, and of persuading me that my questions were better left unanswered. Well, I had heard, but I was not yet persuaded.
I had no further opportunity of asking any questions until Mr. Justice Darnay had departed, and Mr. Wemmick offered to see me home.
“Would you say that Mr. Jaggers was an honest man?” I asked him once we were alone.
“I would say,” said Mr. Wemmick, with a general air of unwillingness to commit himself, “that he’s an honest lawyer.”
“He wouldn’t lie, then, to someone who consulted his advice on a matter of importance?”
“Never known him to. Why?”
I produced the token. “He told me yesterday he didn’t know the meaning of this, but I saw several others like it upon his shelves.”
“Oh,” said Mr. Wemmick, “he was truthful enough when he told you he didn’t know what it meant. But if you’d asked him whether he knew what it was, or where it came from, he’d say Yes. That’s what I mean by an honest lawyer. Always put a question at least three different ways when you’re dealing with one.”
“Do you know what it is?”
“To be sure I do. I’ve seen a thousand of them. Considered as portable property, of course, they’re worth nothing. They’re called leaden hearts. Convicts make ‘em – ones facing transportation – and they give them to their sweethearts, or their family, as a sort of keepsake.”
“Do you know what the star on this one means?”
“No. But I can tell you it’s not a professional job – you see how the two halves of the heart don’t quite match? – and the man who made it was most likely illiterate. Most of them have a name and a date, sometimes a message of some sort. It’s easy enough to have one made for you, so I’d venture he was probably destitute as well.”
“I think it was given to me by my parents.”
“That may be so.”
“Do you know anything of them?”
“I might,” said Mr. Wemmick, “but I want you to consider everything our guest said today, and to consider further that you may not like the answers you’re looking for. I’ll give you a hint tomorrow night at the play, if you are still certain you want to know.”
I could get nothing more out of him, and waited with impatience for tomorrow.
* * *
The play was Hamlet. I think it was well acted; I cannot say for certain; my mind was elsewhere. At the interval, Mr. Wemmick and I were briefly left alone in our box.
“Are you enjoying the play?” he asked.
“Very well,” I said, because that is what one says, although I scarcely knew whether I had enjoyed it or not. If he asked me any more questions about the performance, I resolved to answer them all with “massive and concrete,” a phrase which Herbert claimed would serve for any occasion when one was called upon to express an opinion about one of Shakespeare’s tragedies.
“Some might say,” Mr. Wemmick remarked, “that Hamlet is the tragedy of a man who asks too many questions.”
“And some might say that it is a play that shows the truth will out, however deeply a man may seek to bury it,” I replied.
He looked intently at me for a moment, and then said, “Very well. It is likely that Mr. Jaggers will invite you to dinner within a few days, for I’ve given him the impression, without positively saying so, that this evening is Herbert’s treat. When he does, look closely at his housekeeper – if he allows you to see her.”
At this point, the other gentlemen returned with lemonade and ices, so that I had no opportunity to ask him what he meant by this cryptic speech.
* * *
As Mr. Wemmick had foretold, Herbert and Clara and I were invited to dine at Mr. Jaggers’s house a few days later. He lived in Gerrard Street in Soho, a once-respectable neighborhood now much gone to seed. As we drove past music halls and cheap eating-houses, I wondered whether Mr. Jaggers was motivated by a commendable desire to live among the people he represented in court, or whether he wished to make himself visible in the neighborhood as a cheap form of advertisement.
We were served at dinner by a man servant; I saw nothing of the housekeeper, and I was reminded of Mr. Wemmick’s curious hint that I might not be allowed to see her. But when Clara and I left the table, I caught a glimpse of a woman at the far end of a corridor: a woman with a pale face and a quantity of flowing ash-grey hair; a woman who started as if we frightened her, and vanished silently. She struck me as a curious sort of housekeeper; but then nearly everything about Mr. Jaggers’s establishment was curious.
I learned from one of the other servants that she was never called Mrs. Anything, as is the custom with housekeepers, but seemed have no name but Molly; that she had been in Mr. Jaggers’s service for more than thirty years; and that she scarcely ever left the house, save when she went out to buy certain household necessities (which she did at no particular hour, and not every day), and to church with the other servants on Sunday.
Church with the other servants, I thought, would not serve my turn at all; I must speak with her alone. There was nothing for it but to haunt Gerrard Street while Mr. Jaggers was at his office, and hope that the need to buy things for Christmas would draw Molly out of doors sooner rather than later. And so I told Clara on Monday morning that I was going to visit Mrs. Brandley at Richmond, and might not be back for some hours.
* * *
The cabman seemed reluctant to take a solitary lady to Gerrard Street, until I claimed to be the president of a Society for the Relief of Unfortunate Girls, and proceeded to rattle off statistics about the great social evil until my powers of invention gave out. After that he was, I think, so afraid of having to listen to them again that he asked no more questions, and we made excellent time.
I stationed myself across the street from Mr. Jaggers’s house, and waited.
Though I had taken care to dress both respectably and inconspicuously, and though the darkness and fog were on my side, I could not shake off the impression that faces were watching me from behind every window. Once I heard the regular tread of a policeman, and ducked into the nearest alley. I was sure that if he saw me, he would suppose me to be a prostitute, or a lady burglar, or both. Some time later, a group of men stumbled out of one of the public-houses in a state of inebriety, and I hastened to hide myself again. I thought that after all, I would rather have the policeman back again.
I was beginning to think that I had come on a fool’s errand, and to wonder how on earth I would find my way back to Herbert’s house, when at last I saw a woman’s figure emerge from Mr. Jaggers’s house.
I crossed the street. “Molly,” I called softly.
She turned. She looked like a frightened deer in the fog.
“Molly, don’t be alarmed. I must speak with you about a private matter. I was one of Mr. Jaggers’s dinner-guests on Friday; you may have seen me then.”
I was now near enough for us to see one another clearly. Whether she saw in my countenance what I saw in hers, I do not know. I only know that now that I had seen her face to face, I wanted desperately to hear her story.
“Gin,” she said. “I’ll want gin if I’m to answer any questions, and to get out of the damp.”
It was not a London voice. I could not place the accent – it seemed to have traces of more than one region – but it made me think of open country, moorland and mountain and heath.
Molly led me through a maze of streets, which quickly became narrower and fouler-smelling. These streets, I was beginning to suspect, were my birthright, and I tried not to shrink from them. At last we came to a door beneath a sign which read, optimistically, LADY’S SALOON BAR. I doubted that any lady had entered there in twenty years, even in the singular quantity implied by the sign; but after the dingy, shadowy world outside, I was half-dazed by the splendor within. All was gilt-paint and ornament, brass and glass and mirrors doubling or trebling the dazzle of the gas-lights. We were served by a girl in ostrich-feathers and a large paste necklace.
“Gin punch for both of us,” said my companion. “This lady pays.”
I tried to protest that I did not want any gin punch, but it was plain that Molly would take offense if I did not keep pace with her, and I needed to keep her in a good humor. There was a flash of fire in her black eyes that spoke of temper, now that the fear had left them – for seldom have I seen such a quick transformation in any human creature, as I saw in Molly when she perceived herself to have slipped Mr. Jaggers’s bonds. All of the mystery seemed to have gone out of her; she was an ordinary, common woman, with coarser speech and manners than one would have expected of a gentleman’s housekeeper.
My companion took a gulp of her drink and smacked her lips. “Ah, that’s good. Warms a body, it does. It’s been an age since I was in a gin-shop. He don’t allow it, so I’ll thank you to be quiet about this meeting.”
I did not have to ask who he was. “How did you come to be in his service?”
“I owed him my life, didn’t I? He owns my life; it’s mine no more since the day I was tried. But there are days I think I’d as soon have hanged, if I’d known then all that I know now.” Molly finished her gin and signaled to the girl for another; she brought a second glass for me as well, although I had taken only a sip of my first.
“Tried for what crime?”
Molly leaned forward. “Murder,” she said in a hoarse whisper.
I felt a sudden chill, and thought that perhaps I did need more gin, after all.
“I knew I’d hang, if Jaggers wasn’t for me; and half his fee was that I’d go into his service and do whatever he asked of me, for I had but two things to give him, and he took them both. Well, he was a bachelor then, as he is now, and I thought it might be that he wanted someone to warm his bed, though he didn’t look like that sort, and I’d consider my life cheaply bought at that price.”
I tried to conceal a rising feeling of revulsion. Could this be my mother speaking? And then it came to me that I had sold myself to Bentley Drummle for far less, for little more than spite, and I supposed there could be little question that I was her daughter, after all.
Molly noticed nothing of my disgust. She was talking feverishly now, as if she had not been free to talk in years. “But that wasn’t what he asked of me, oh no. ‘Twas my life itself he wanted, not my body.”
“The other thing that he asked of you...” I thought I knew already, but I felt that I must pursue this thread, wherever it led. I found myself reaching for my gin-glass; Dutch courage, didn’t they call it?
“My child,” said Molly. “My little child, as I told Abel I meant to kill.”
The room seemed to rock on its foundations at these last words. I told myself it was only the gin-fumes. “Who is Abel?”
“Abel was my man. I don’t know if he’s dead or living. We was married when I was very young, over the broomstick – and we had some good times together, for all that he turned out worthless in the end. I was a pretty girl in those days, though you might not think it now, and we led the tramping life. Slept in barns, most nights, or out on the heath. Ah, I can see those stars shining still. You don’t see stars like that in London, there’s too many lights and too much smoke.”
“No.” I doubted that you could see the stars over Gerrard Street one night in ten.
“I named my baby after them stars. They were the prettiest things I knew, and they shone on the poor as on the rich. I liked that. Star, she was called, and eyes like stars she had.”
Star? It seemed a queer, heathenish sort of name, although – Why, “Estella” meant the same thing, didn’t it? Suddenly I found my head full of strange notions about fate, and the hopelessness of escaping it.
“So we got on well enough for two years or three, and then it all went wrong. Abel found hisself another woman. I knew he loved that child better than he ever loved me, so I told him I’d kill her and he’d never see her again, for ‘twas the only thing I had that could hurt him as much as he and that d—d minx had hurt me. And he believed me! Went pale as a ghost, he did, though he never said another word to me about her, then nor ever.”
So, I thought, before I ever laid eyes on Miss Havisham, before I knew I was myself, I had been another instrument of vengeance for another woman. Herbert, who liked to sprinkle his conversation with bits of Eastern languages, would have called it kismet. “Don’t you think it was cruel to let him think his daughter was dead?” I ventured.
“No crueler than he’d been to me,” said Molly stubbornly. “And don’t you start asking them questions, questions that lead you round to an answer before you know what’s what. You remind me of him when you do that. ‘Now, Molly,’ he says, ‘you want your little girl to have a better life than you could give her.’ As if he could read my mind, and tell me what I did or didn’t want! ‘She’s gone to a rich lady,’ he says, ‘with no children of her own, who means to care for her as if she were her own little girl, and bring her up to be a lady herself. You’d rather see her dressed in silks and satins than rags, wouldn’t you?’ But I never saw her again at all, not from that day to this.”
I looked up at this last turn of phrase, but Molly’s face was impassive; if she knew me, she gave no sign. She had another grievance, and was now well launched on it. “And he held that time over me ever afterward, he did – always making me show my wrists to gentlemen at his table, as a curiosity, and boasting of them – always making me remember...”
I saw that she had some curious scars on the back of one wrist, but it seemed inconceivable that Mr. Jaggers could have inflicted them, and I could make no other sense of her remark that he had boasted of them. It seemed to me that Molly was on the verge of becoming incoherent – for the girl, you must understand, had been keeping our gin-glasses filled all this while. I thought that I must ask her about the token while she was still capable of giving me a sensible response. Reckless of the consequences of revealing myself, I produced it.
“Do you know this token, Molly?”
“Oh, aye. Abel made it when he was in prison. He was took up for thieving once – a coat to keep us warm and a pair of boots, nothing more! – but they threatened him with transportation, and he made that for the babe to remember him by in case he never saw her again. Well, he wasn’t transported, not that time. I don’t know what became of him – I never saw him after I told him the child was dead. But I sewed it into her clothes before I gave her to Mr. Jaggers. I reckoned it was hers, and I had no right to keep it from her, whatever he done to me.” Molly went silent abruptly; she looked from the coin to me. At last she said, “Well, I reckon Mr. Jaggers didn’t lie. You have had a better life, ha’nt you?”
“I suppose so.” I was certainly grateful not to have been brought up in a gin-shop, or on a heath under the open stars. And yet – Abel, it came to me, had loved me. I could not tell if Molly had; she spoke as if there were little feeling or compassion in her, but I judged thirty years with Mr. Jaggers to be as likely to obliterate these qualities as twenty with Miss Havisham.
“Not so good, then?” asked Molly, with more shrewdness than I would have expected.
I shrugged. “It’s been as good as any other, I suppose.” I was feeling profoundly weary, and had no desire to discuss the subject. The coincidence of my name, and of certain other circumstances, had half-convinced me that some impish fate had marked the course of my life at birth, and it was futile to avoid or change it.
“You’re married? He said you were like to marry well.”
“I was. He’s dead now.”
“Was he good to you?”
“I’d thought you might lead a different sort of life, if you was a lady. They always say that gentlemen treat ladies well, whatever they might do to the likes of me.”
“Men are men,” I said. “They’ll treat a lady as badly as any other woman, if they think they can get away with it.” (This was not wholly just to Herbert, or to Pip, or even to Mr. Wemmick; but I was not in the mood to be just.) “The only advantage to being a lady is that sometimes you can make them pay.”
“What was your man’s name?”
“Bentley. Bentley Drummle.”
To my surprise, I saw that the name meant something to Molly. The fear had been almost gone from her face, but it was back now. No, it was not fear but horror. She had become something weird and uncanny – even to my eyes, and I had grown up with so much weirdness and uncanniness that I had become almost inured to it. It flashed upon me, first, that she looked very like Miss Havisham; and then that she was not really like Miss Havisham at all, and that one possible advantage to not being a lady was that one might do almost anything.
She rose, drained her gin-glass, and shook her head when the girl came back to offer her more. By the time I had paid the girl, she was almost at the door. “You’ve given me courage, and I’ve not had that since I was a girl. Farewell. What I do now, I do alone.”