Charles Dickens

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

my terror.

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.