“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 so.”
“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.