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by [?]

“Mrs. Joe has been out a dozen times looking for you, Pip, and she’s out now, and what’s more, she’s got Tickler with her.”

At this dismal intelligence I looked with great depression at the fire. Tickler was a wax-ended piece of cane, worn smooth by contact with my tickled frame.

“She sot down,” said Joe, “and she got up, and she made a grab at Tickler, and she rampaged out. Now she’s a-coming! Go behind the door, old chap!”

I took the advice, but my sister, throwing the door wide open, and finding an obstruction behind it, guessed the cause, and applied Tickler to its further investigation.

“Where have you been, you young monkey?” she asked, stamping her foot; “Tell me directly what you’ve been doing to wear me away with fret and fright and worrit?”

“I have only been in the church-yard,” said I, crying and rubbing myself, but my answer did not satisfy my sister, who kept on scolding and applying Tickler to my person until she was obliged to see to the tea things. Though I was very hungry, I dared not eat my bread and butter, for I felt that I must have something in reserve to take my dreadful acquaintance in case I could find nothing else. Therefore, at a moment when no one was looking, I put a hunk of bread and butter down the leg of my trousers. Joe thought I had eaten it in one gulp, which greatly distressed him, and I was borne off and dosed with tar water.

Conscience is a dreadful thing when it accuses man or boy. The guilty knowledge that I was going to rob Mrs. Joe, united to the necessity of keeping one hand on my bread and butter as I sat or moved about, almost drove me out of my mind, but as it was Christmas Eve, I was obliged to stir the pudding for next day for one whole hour. I tried to do it with the load on my leg, and found the tendency of exercise was to bring the bread out at my ankle, so I managed to slip away and deposit it in my garret room. Later there was a sound of firing in the distance. “Ah,” said Joe, “there’s another convict off!”

“What does that mean, Joe,” said I.

Mrs. Joe answered, “Escaped, escaped,” and Joe added,–“There was one off last night, and they fired warning of him. And now it appears they’re firing warning of another.”

“Who’s firing?” said I.

“Drat that boy,” said my sister, frowning. “What a questioner he is! Ask no questions and you’ll be told no lies!”

I waited a while, and then as a last resort, I said,–“Mrs. Joe, I should like to know–if you wouldn’t much mind–where the firing comes from?”

“Lord bless the boy!” she exclaimed, “from the Hulks!”

“Oh-h,” said I, looking at Joe, “Hulks! And please what’s Hulks?”

“That’s the way with this boy,” exclaimed my sister, “answer him one question, and he’ll ask you a dozen directly. Hulks are prison ships right ‘cross the meshes.” (We always used that name for marshes in our country.)

“I wonder who’s put in prison ships, and why they’re put there,” said I.

This was too much for Mrs. Joe, who immediately rose. “I tell ye what, young fellow,” said she, “I didn’t bring you up by hand to badger people’s lives out. People are put in the Hulks because they murder and 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 and as I crept up in the dark I felt fearfully sensible that the Hulks were handy for me. I was clearly on the way there. I had begun by asking questions and I was going to rob Mrs. Joe. I was also in mortal terror of the young man who wanted my heart and liver, and of my acquaintance with the iron on his leg, and 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 that I had better come ashore and be hanged there at once. I was afraid to sleep even if I could have, for I knew that at the first dawn of morning I must rob the pantry and be off.