Tuesday, March 4, 2008


An Alternative Ending To

Estella. Since our first meeting, she had been my inspiration, my dearest dream. Through all those days of self-deception when I was sure Miss Haversham intended us for each other, and those later hopeless days after Magwitch’s dread revelations, I carried her in my heart. I dreamed and longed and hoped and feared. Estella’s marriage to Bentley Drummle devastated me but did not obliterate her from my thoughts. When I learned her parentage it seemed she came a little closer, became in some way more accessible, yet those were such dark days, with Magwitch’s fate hanging over us. After his death, and my illness, my longing for her receded a little and seemed part of a dreamlike, innocent past. My departure for Egypt, with that best of all friends, Herbert Pocket, took me as far from her in distance as she already was in life.

I worked overseas for Clarriker Camp Co., first as a clerk, later as a partner. We did well. We were not rich, but we earned a respectable living. Clara, sweet Clara, now married to Herbert, was a frugal little woman. She kept house for us all and made a place in Cairo (exotic, corrupt city), that was for ever England. Her china teapot, painted with rosebuds, symbolized for me all that was good and pure in marriage. Then, after eleven years, I came back to England for a holiday in a more temperate clime. I wished to see Joe and Biddy in their married happiness (forever denied to me, as I thought). They had named their son Pip after me and, when I first saw him, fenced into a corner by the fire by Joe’s leg, it was as if I looked through the wrong end of a telescope to find myself a child again.

It was on this visit that once more I met Estella. I knew she was widowed, freed from her brutal, hard-drinking husband when he was thrown by a horse he was mistreating, and killed. He had gambled away most of her fortune, abused her, and spent his time with other women. When I thought of her, it was with sadness. One late autumnal afternoon, I walked down to the garden that was all that remained of Satis House (it and the brewery long demolished), for a last look at this repository of memories. A cold silvery mist veiled the day and through it I beheld a solitary figure, its long cloak falling in folds to the ground in a manner oddly reminiscent of the robes worn in Egypt. I looked, and looked again. It was Estella.

Estella was changed, softened and made vulnerable, I thought, by those years of hardship. Her face was unutterably weary, but still lovely to my gaze. It seemed to me she reached out hungrily for some glimmer of human warmth, a friendly word, companionship. The silvery mist was touched with the first rays of moonlight, and the same rays touched the tears that shone in her eyes.

And so we met at last, and talked and walked together, and agreed to meet again. I took her hand in mine and led her back to the inn and the mists cleared and, in all the broad expanse of tranquil moonlight, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.

* * * * *

I was right. We did not part. Meeting followed meeting and, after some weeks of courtship, I persuaded Estella to become my wife, my Mrs. Pip. Oh, happy day! Oh, radiant day! Oh, day of all joy!

Estella returned with me to Cairo, that town of white-robed figures, beggars, cruelly-laden donkeys and mosques, where the cries of the muezzin were echoed in the mews of the brown kites flying overhead. We found a white, flat-roofed house, its courtyard shaded by date palms, not far from Herbert and Clara. Clara loved Estella from the start and how could Estella not love Clara, dear little thing that she was? Estella had lived a life of luxury, marred by her husband’s violence. From Clara she would learn housewifery and economy, the woman’s pleasant task of making a home for her husband. I looked forward to hearing her household keys jingling at her slender waist.

I should not wish to dwell on the most private side of marriage, yet something must be said. Estella was reserved, wary, and I was patient and gentle with her. She seemed to me like some beautiful highly-bred mare, spurred and beaten by a ruthless rider. I did not thrust myself on her. I had to teach her to trust. But it was hard to wait, to contain my passion. I loved her so much. I was sure that in time she would turn to me with a warm and open heart and make my life her own, submerging her desires in mine, as a true wife should. I longed for her touch, for a spontaneous burst of affection. Oh, how I longed! It seemed I had waited all my life for this. I thought of my mother, Georgiana, cold in her grave from my birth; her chill fingers had never caressed her infant son. I thought of my sister, Mrs. Joe, so hard and unloving. I thought of Biddy, that true country girl, wifely and tender, lost to me and bound to Joe. Estella, I knew, would one day be my wife in more than name. In her all womanhood would be united.

It was not to be. The months passed. Still Estella lay aloof, rigid, ignoring my presence beside her in the wide white bed beneath the mosquito net. Sometimes, despite the tropic heat, I seemed to see in the net’s shadowy folds the cold and silvery mist arising from the marshes, separating us once more. Estella took to walking through the town, escorted by a small brown boy with a scarlet fez. She showed an un-English, unwomanly, fascination for the dark humid rat-infested alleys of the native bazaars that both caused me anxiety and inflamed my blood. That there was passion in her, I never doubted. The curl of her exquisite mouth, the proud stare of her dark and liquid eyes, the curve of her deep womanly bosom ... At times I would steal from my work and try to follow her, as she picked her way through the camel dung and rubbish of the streets, wondering what she sought in this outlandish, fetid place that she could not find in the tranquil domestication of her home. I neglected my work, and Herbert watched me with anxious eyes, but said nothing.

She brought home silver bracelets for her wrists and ankles, and native robes, both opaque and filmy, garments that covered her from head to toe, with a yashmak veiling her nose and mouth. Above the veil her eyes were haunting in their beauty and despair. She bought a parrot in the bazaar, which she called Pip. She talked to it some evenings as she never talked to me. I asked her why she gave it my name; it seemed a disparaging thing for her to do.

“It is no name for a man,” she said. “Or a wife.”

Something ended for me that night. I called my bearer and had him make up a bed for me in my study.

Next day she was gone. Rumors in the native quarter established her as the mistress of a wealthy Sheik, a man known for his love of horseflesh. He was often to be seen riding the fringes of the desert, where the great pyramids dominated the horizon and the Sphinx stared at nothing. His beautiful spirited horses — usually mares — would be lathered with sweat and foam, their sides marked by his spurs. It was said, later, that she rode at his side.

I left Egypt and returned to England to work in our London office.

Oh, my dead mother, my lost love, my Goddess, my Sphinx. My Estella. My Mrs. Pip.

* * * * *

Numbed by events, caring little where I lived, with Wemmick’s help I found rooms in Bloomsbury in a boarding house for men only. My landlady, Mrs. Pennipinch, was a respectable widow, rigidly corseted, who wore, day after day, a sucession of black satin dresses with an icy sheen. She conversed with me in a small cold parlor, lined with upright, rigid chairs. With some pride, Mrs. Pennipinch showed me the dining-room, where the table was embellished with a lavish display of cut-glass condiment containers as shiny and waisted as she (I noticed a particular likeness in the vinegar bottle), and silver napkin rings. “Relics of former splendors,” said Mrs. Pennipinch, “in the long lost days of Pennipinch.” The plates were ringed with a band of gold, but the portions she served were meager. The whole house was embalmed in a genteel odor of lavender polish and boiled cod.

This spartan establishment suited my mood. I sent my new address to Herbert and Jo; there was no-one else with whom I wished to communicate. I lived a solitary duty-filled life, making my way each day to and from my office, and reading to myself late into the night till my eyes closed from weariness and I tumbled into my bed, hoping not to dream. But often I would wake in the small hours, a well-loved face hovering before my eyes and even my very dressing-gown, hanging shadow-like on my bedroom door, would take a well-remembered shape. Then I would roll over and clench my pillow over my head, burying my face.

I led this plodding, weary life for some weeks or months (I did not count the days). Sunday was the one day I did not set out for my office. When it rained, I sat in my room and read. When it was dry, I took long walks through the London streets. I liked to cross the Thames at one bridge and return on the next. The murky waters, in which so many miserable lives had ended, drew my eyes. I spoke to no-one on these walks.

And then one wet Sunday, as I sat at my window, listening to the church bells tolling for the dead and staring at a gray and rain-washed street where drops depended like tears from the roof and the only sign of life was a bedraggled cat huddled in a doorway, licking itself dry with a wet tongue, a small figure turned the corner and came toward me, half eclipsed by a large black umbrella. The skirts, splashed at the hem and held up with only partial success by a little gloved hand, donated a woman. Little laced boots twinkled in and out from under those skirts. I watched her approach with dull eyes; woman to me meant only one, tall, erect and beautiful. As she neared my abode, she tilted back that great black protector to inspect the street numbers and I saw her face, framed by a plain blue bonnet. It was rosy with rain and exercise. A few tendrils of fine brown hair, mischievously escaping confinement, caressed her forehead. Her chin was pointed, like a china doll, and her eyes were wide. Surely I knew that face, different in feature yet so like in expression to that of my dear friend Herbert? It must be—it was—Jane Pocket.

As the doorbell rang, I started up. Moments later, Mrs. Pennipinch rapped at my door. Her face pregnant with disapproval and curiosity, she announced the arrival of a young person. “I have placed her in the parlor, Mr. Pip,” she said. “Never let it be said that Pennipinch’s widow allowed a person of a certain sex to mount her stairs!”

Energy returned to my languid legs. I ran down those sacred stairs and entered the parlor. Jane stood by the window, a shy smile trembling on her lips. As I looked at her sweet face, so young, so pure and yet so womanly, I felt the weight of my years, my troubles, my disappointments, begin to lift. I remembered her as I first saw her, at the age of six, struggling so hard to play a mother’s role. Now she was grown, not so very high, perhaps, but with all the soft warm promise of womanhood.

“Herbert asked me to come, dear Mr. Pip,” she said. “He thought you might need me.”

I did.



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