Charles Dickens.

Oliver Twist, Illustrated online

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bit of bacon for you from master’s breakfast. Oliver, shut that door
at Mister Noah’s back, and take them bits that I’ve put out on the
cover of the bread-pan. There’s your tea; take it away to that box,
and drink it there, and make haste, for they’ll want you to mind the
shop. D’ye hear?’

‘D’ye hear, Work’us?’ said Noah Claypole.

‘Lor, Noah!’ said Charlotte, ‘what a rum creature you are! Why don’t
you let the boy alone?’

‘Let him alone!’ said Noah. ‘Why everybody lets him alone enough,
for the matter of that. Neither his father nor his mother will
ever interfere with him. All his relations let him have his own way
pretty well. Eh, Charlotte? He! he! he!’

‘Oh, you queer soul!’ said Charlotte, bursting into a hearty laugh,
in which she was joined by Noah; after which they both looked
scornfully at poor Oliver Twist, as he sat shivering on the box in
the coldest corner of the room, and ate the stale pieces which had
been specially reserved for him.

Noah was a charity-boy, but not a workhouse orphan. No chance-child
was he, for he could trace his genealogy all the way back to his
parents, who lived hard by; his mother being a washerwoman, and
his father a drunken soldier, discharged with a wooden leg, and a
diurnal pension of twopence-halfpenny and an unstateable fraction.
The shop-boys in the neighbourhood had long been in the habit of
branding Noah in the public streets, with the ignominious epithets
of ‘leathers,’ ‘charity,’ and the like; and Noah had bourne them
without reply. But, now that fortune had cast in his way a nameless
orphan, at whom even the meanest could point the finger of scorn,
he retorted on him with interest. This affords charming food for
contemplation. It shows us what a beautiful thing human nature may
be made to be; and how impartially the same amiable qualities are
developed in the finest lord and the dirtiest charity-boy.

Oliver had been sojourning at the undertaker’s some three weeks or a
month. Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry - the shop being shut up - were taking
their supper in the little back-parlour, when Mr. Sowerberry, after
several deferential glances at his wife, said,

‘My dear - ’ He was going to say more; but, Mrs. Sowerberry looking
up, with a peculiarly unpropitious aspect, he stopped short.

‘Well,’ said Mrs. Sowerberry, sharply.

‘Nothing, my dear, nothing,’ said Mr. Sowerberry.

‘Ugh, you brute!’ said Mrs. Sowerberry.

‘Not at all, my dear,’ said Mr. Sowerberry humbly. ‘I thought you
didn’t want to hear, my dear. I was only going to say - ’

‘Oh, don’t tell me what you were going to say,’ interposed Mrs.
Sowerberry. ‘I am nobody; don’t consult me, pray. _I_ don’t want to
intrude upon your secrets.’ As Mrs. Sowerberry said this, she gave
an hysterical laugh, which threatened violent consequences.

‘But, my dear,’ said Sowerberry, ‘I want to ask your advice.’

‘No, no, don’t ask mine,’ replied Mrs. Sowerberry, in an affecting
manner: ‘ask somebody else’s.’ Here, there was another hysterical
laugh, which frightened Mr. Sowerberry very much. This is a very
common and much-approved matrimonial course of treatment, which is
often very effective. It at once reduced Mr. Sowerberry to begging,
as a special favour, to be allowed to say what Mrs. Sowerberry was
most curious to hear. After a short duration, the permission was
most graciously conceded.

‘It’s only about young Twist, my dear,’ said Mr. Sowerberry. ‘A very
good-looking boy, that, my dear.’

‘He need be, for he eats enough,’ observed the lady.

‘There’s an expression of melancholy in his face, my dear,’
resumed Mr. Sowerberry, ‘which is very interesting. He would make a
delightful mute, my love.’

Mrs. Sowerberry looked up with an expression of considerable
wonderment. Mr. Sowerberry remarked it and, without allowing time
for any observation on the good lady’s part, proceeded.

‘I don’t mean a regular mute to attend grown-up people, my dear, but
only for children’s practice. It would be very new to have a mute in
proportion, my dear. You may depend upon it, it would have a superb
effect.’

Mrs. Sowerberry, who had a good deal of taste in the undertaking
way, was much struck by the novelty of this idea; but, as it would
have been compromising her dignity to have said so, under existing
circumstances, she merely inquired, with much sharpness, why such
an obvious suggestion had not presented itself to her husband’s mind
before? Mr. Sowerberry rightly construed this, as an acquiescence in
his proposition; it was speedily determined, therefore, that Oliver
should be at once initiated into the mysteries of the trade; and,
with this view, that he should accompany his master on the very next
occasion of his services being required.

The occasion was not long in coming. Half an hour after breakfast
next morning, Mr. Bumble entered the shop; and supporting his cane
against the counter, drew forth his large leathern pocket-book: from
which he selected a small scrap of paper, which he handed over to
Sowerberry.

‘Aha!’ said the undertaker, glancing over it with a lively
countenance; ‘an order for a coffin, eh?’

‘For a coffin first, and a porochial funeral afterwards,’ replied
Mr. Bumble, fastening the strap of the leathern pocket-book: which,
like himself, was very corpulent.

‘Bayton,’ said the undertaker, looking from the scrap of paper to
Mr. Bumble. ‘I never heard the name before.’

Bumble shook his head, as he replied, ‘Obstinate people, Mr.
Sowerberry; very obstinate. Proud, too, I’m afraid, sir.’

‘Proud, eh?’ exclaimed Mr. Sowerberry with a sneer. ‘Come, that’s
too much.’

‘Oh, it’s sickening,’ replied the beadle. ‘Antimonial, Mr.
Sowerberry!’

‘So it is,’ acquiesced the undertaker.

‘We only heard of the family the night before last,’ said the
beadle; ‘and we shouldn’t have known anything about them, then,
only a woman who lodges in the same house made an application to the
porochial committee for them to send the porochial surgeon to see a
woman as was very bad. He had gone out to dinner; but his
‘prentice (which is a very clever lad) sent ‘em some medicine in a
blacking-bottle, offhand.’

‘Ah, there’s promptness,’ said the undertaker.

‘Promptness, indeed!’ replied the beadle. ‘But what’s the
consequence; what’s the ungrateful behaviour of these rebels, sir?
Why, the husband sends back word that the medicine won’t suit his
wife’s complaint, and so she shan’t take it - says she shan’t take
it, sir! Good, strong, wholesome medicine, as was given with great
success to two Irish labourers and a coal-heaver, only a week
before - sent ‘em for nothing, with a blackin’-bottle in, - and he
sends back word that she shan’t take it, sir!’

As the atrocity presented itself to Mr. Bumble’s mind in full force,
he struck the counter sharply with his cane, and became flushed with
indignation.

‘Well,’ said the undertaker, ‘I ne - ver - did - ’

‘Never did, sir!’ ejaculated the beadle. ‘No, nor nobody never did;
but now she’s dead, we’ve got to bury her; and that’s the direction;
and the sooner it’s done, the better.’

Thus saying, Mr. Bumble put on his cocked hat wrong side first, in a
fever of parochial excitement; and flounced out of the shop.

‘Why, he was so angry, Oliver, that he forgot even to ask after
you!’ said Mr. Sowerberry, looking after the beadle as he strode
down the street.

‘Yes, sir,’ replied Oliver, who had carefully kept himself out of
sight, during the interview; and who was shaking from head to foot
at the mere recollection of the sound of Mr. Bumble’s voice.

He needn’t haven taken the trouble to shrink from Mr. Bumble’s
glance, however; for that functionary, on whom the prediction of the
gentleman in the white waistcoat had made a very strong impression,
thought that now the undertaker had got Oliver upon trial the
subject was better avoided, until such time as he should be firmly
bound for seven years, and all danger of his being returned upon the
hands of the parish should be thus effectually and legally overcome.

‘Well,’ said Mr. Sowerberry, taking up his hat, ‘the sooner this job
is done, the better. Noah, look after the shop. Oliver, put on your
cap, and come with me.’ Oliver obeyed, and followed his master on
his professional mission.

They walked on, for some time, through the most crowded and densely
inhabited part of the town; and then, striking down a narrow street
more dirty and miserable than any they had yet passed through,
paused to look for the house which was the object of their search.
The houses on either side were high and large, but very old,
and tenanted by people of the poorest class: as their neglected
appearance would have sufficiently denoted, without the concurrent
testimony afforded by the squalid looks of the few men and women
who, with folded arms and bodies half doubled, occasionally skulked
along. A great many of the tenements had shop-fronts; but these
were fast closed, and mouldering away; only the upper rooms being
inhabited. Some houses which had become insecure from age and decay,
were prevented from falling into the street, by huge beams of wood
reared against the walls, and firmly planted in the road; but even
these crazy dens seemed to have been selected as the nightly haunts
of some houseless wretches, for many of the rough boards which
supplied the place of door and window, were wrenched from their
positions, to afford an aperture wide enough for the passage of a
human body. The kennel was stagnant and filthy. The very rats, which
here and there lay putrefying in its rottenness, were hideous with
famine.

There was neither knocker nor bell-handle at the open door where
Oliver and his master stopped; so, groping his way cautiously
through the dark passage, and bidding Oliver keep close to him and
not be afraid the undertaker mounted to the top of the first flight
of stairs. Stumbling against a door on the landing, he rapped at it
with his knuckles.

It was opened by a young girl of thirteen or fourteen. The
undertaker at once saw enough of what the room contained, to know
it was the apartment to which he had been directed. He stepped in;
Oliver followed him.

There was no fire in the room; but a man was crouching,
mechanically, over the empty stove. An old woman, too, had drawn a
low stool to the cold hearth, and was sitting beside him. There
were some ragged children in another corner; and in a small recess,
opposite the door, there lay upon the ground, something covered
with an old blanket. Oliver shuddered as he cast his eyes toward the
place, and crept involuntarily closer to his master; for though it
was covered up, the boy felt that it was a corpse.

The man’s face was thin and very pale; his hair and beard were
grizzly; his eyes were bloodshot. The old woman’s face was wrinkled;
her two remaining teeth protruded over her under lip; and her eyes
were bright and piercing. Oliver was afraid to look at either her or
the man. They seemed so like the rats he had seen outside.

‘Nobody shall go near her,’ said the man, starting fiercely up, as
the undertaker approached the recess. ‘Keep back! Damn you, keep
back, if you’ve a life to lose!’

‘Nonsense, my good man,’ said the undertaker, who was pretty well
used to misery in all its shapes. ‘Nonsense!’

‘I tell you,’ said the man: clenching his hands, and stamping
furiously on the floor, - ‘I tell you I won’t have her put into the
ground. She couldn’t rest there. The worms would worry her - not eat
her - she is so worn away.’

The undertaker offered no reply to this raving; but producing a tape
from his pocket, knelt down for a moment by the side of the body.

‘Ah!’ said the man: bursting into tears, and sinking on his knees
at the feet of the dead woman; ‘kneel down, kneel down - kneel round
her, every one of you, and mark my words! I say she was starved to
death. I never knew how bad she was, till the fever came upon her;
and then her bones were starting through the skin. There was neither
fire nor candle; she died in the dark - in the dark! She couldn’t
even see her children’s faces, though we heard her gasping out their
names. I begged for her in the streets: and they sent me to prison.
When I came back, she was dying; and all the blood in my heart has
dried up, for they starved her to death. I swear it before the God
that saw it! They starved her!’ He twined his hands in his hair;
and, with a loud scream, rolled grovelling upon the floor: his eyes
fixed, and the foam covering his lips.

The terrified children cried bitterly; but the old woman, who had
hitherto remained as quiet as if she had been wholly deaf to all
that passed, menaced them into silence. Having unloosened the cravat
of the man who still remained extended on the ground, she tottered
towards the undertaker.

‘She was my daughter,’ said the old woman, nodding her head in the
direction of the corpse; and speaking with an idiotic leer, more
ghastly than even the presence of death in such a place. ‘Lord,
Lord! Well, it _is_ strange that I who gave birth to her, and was a
woman then, should be alive and merry now, and she lying there:
so cold and stiff! Lord, Lord! - to think of it; it’s as good as a
play - as good as a play!’

As the wretched creature mumbled and chuckled in her hideous
merriment, the undertaker turned to go away.

‘Stop, stop!’ said the old woman in a loud whisper. ‘Will she be
buried to-morrow, or next day, or to-night? I laid her out; and I
must walk, you know. Send me a large cloak: a good warm one: for
it is bitter cold. We should have cake and wine, too, before we
go! Never mind; send some bread - only a loaf of bread and a cup of
water. Shall we have some bread, dear?’ she said eagerly: catching
at the undertaker’s coat, as he once more moved towards the door.

‘Yes, yes,’ said the undertaker, ‘of course. Anything you like!’ He
disengaged himself from the old woman’s grasp; and, drawing Oliver
after him, hurried away.

The next day, (the family having been meanwhile relieved with a
half-quartern loaf and a piece of cheese, left with them by Mr.
Bumble himself,) Oliver and his master returned to the miserable
abode; where Mr. Bumble had already arrived, accompanied by four men
from the workhouse, who were to act as bearers. An old black cloak
had been thrown over the rags of the old woman and the man; and the
bare coffin having been screwed down, was hoisted on the shoulders
of the bearers, and carried into the street.

‘Now, you must put your best leg foremost, old lady!’ whispered
Sowerberry in the old woman’s ear; ‘we are rather late; and it won’t
do, to keep the clergyman waiting. Move on, my men, - as quick as you
like!’

Thus directed, the bearers trotted on under their light burden; and
the two mourners kept as near them, as they could. Mr. Bumble and
Sowerberry walked at a good smart pace in front; and Oliver, whose
legs were not so long as his master’s, ran by the side.

There was not so great a necessity for hurrying as Mr. Sowerberry
had anticipated, however; for when they reached the obscure corner
of the churchyard in which the nettles grew, and where the parish
graves were made, the clergyman had not arrived; and the clerk, who
was sitting by the vestry-room fire, seemed to think it by no means
improbable that it might be an hour or so, before he came. So, they
put the bier on the brink of the grave; and the two mourners waited
patiently in the damp clay, with a cold rain drizzling down, while
the ragged boys whom the spectacle had attracted into the churchyard
played a noisy game at hide-and-seek among the tombstones, or varied
their amusements by jumping backwards and forwards over the coffin.
Mr. Sowerberry and Bumble, being personal friends of the clerk, sat
by the fire with him, and read the paper.

At length, after a lapse of something more than an hour, Mr. Bumble,
and Sowerberry, and the clerk, were seen running towards the grave.
Immediately afterwards, the clergyman appeared: putting on his
surplice as he came along. Mr. Bumble then thrashed a boy or two, to
keep up appearances; and the reverend gentleman, having read as much
of the burial service as could be compressed into four minutes, gave
his surplice to the clerk, and walked away again.

‘Now, Bill!’ said Sowerberry to the grave-digger. ‘Fill up!’

It was no very difficult task, for the grave was so full, that
the uppermost coffin was within a few feet of the surface. The
grave-digger shovelled in the earth; stamped it loosely down with
his feet: shouldered his spade; and walked off, followed by the
boys, who murmured very loud complaints at the fun being over so
soon.

‘Come, my good fellow!’ said Bumble, tapping the man on the back.
‘They want to shut up the yard.’

The man who had never once moved, since he had taken his station by
the grave side, started, raised his head, stared at the person who
had addressed him, walked forward for a few paces; and fell down in
a swoon. The crazy old woman was too much occupied in bewailing the
loss of her cloak (which the undertaker had taken off), to pay him
any attention; so they threw a can of cold water over him; and when
he came to, saw him safely out of the churchyard, locked the gate,
and departed on their different ways.

‘Well, Oliver,’ said Sowerberry, as they walked home, ‘how do you
like it?’

‘Pretty well, thank you, sir’ replied Oliver, with considerable
hesitation. ‘Not very much, sir.’

‘Ah, you’ll get used to it in time, Oliver,’ said Sowerberry.
‘Nothing when you _are_ used to it, my boy.’

Oliver wondered, in his own mind, whether it had taken a very long
time to get Mr. Sowerberry used to it. But he thought it better not
to ask the question; and walked back to the shop: thinking over all
he had seen and heard.



CHAPTER VI - OLIVER, BEING GOADED BY THE TAUNTS OF NOAH, ROUSES
INTO ACTION, AND RATHER ASTONISHES HIM

The month’s trial over, Oliver was formally apprenticed. It was a
nice sickly season just at this time. In commercial phrase, coffins
were looking up; and, in the course of a few weeks, Oliver acquired
a great deal of experience. The success of Mr. Sowerberry’s
ingenious speculation, exceeded even his most sanguine hopes. The
oldest inhabitants recollected no period at which measles had been
so prevalent, or so fatal to infant existence; and many were the
mournful processions which little Oliver headed, in a hat-band
reaching down to his knees, to the indescribable admiration and
emotion of all the mothers in the town. As Oliver accompanied his
master in most of his adult expeditions too, in order that he might
acquire that equanimity of demeanour and full command of nerve which
was essential to a finished undertaker, he had many opportunities
of observing the beautiful resignation and fortitude with which some
strong-minded people bear their trials and losses.

For instance; when Sowerberry had an order for the burial of some
rich old lady or gentleman, who was surrounded by a great number of
nephews and nieces, who had been perfectly inconsolable during the
previous illness, and whose grief had been wholly irrepressible
even on the most public occasions, they would be as happy among
themselves as need be - quite cheerful and contented - conversing
together with as much freedom and gaiety, as if nothing whatever
had happened to disturb them. Husbands, too, bore the loss of their
wives with the most heroic calmness. Wives, again, put on weeds for
their husbands, as if, so far from grieving in the garb of sorrow,
they had made up their minds to render it as becoming and attractive
as possible. It was observable, too, that ladies and gentlemen
who were in passions of anguish during the ceremony of interment,
recovered almost as soon as they reached home, and became quite
composed before the tea-drinking was over. All this was very
pleasant and improving to see; and Oliver beheld it with great
admiration.

That Oliver Twist was moved to resignation by the example of these
good people, I cannot, although I am his biographer, undertake to
affirm with any degree of confidence; but I can most distinctly say,
that for many months he continued meekly to submit to the domination
and ill-treatment of Noah Claypole: who used him far worse than
before, now that his jealousy was roused by seeing the new boy
promoted to the black stick and hatband, while he, the old one,
remained stationary in the muffin-cap and leathers. Charlotte
treated him ill, because Noah did; and Mrs. Sowerberry was his
decided enemy, because Mr. Sowerberry was disposed to be his friend;
so, between these three on one side, and a glut of funerals on the
other, Oliver was not altogether as comfortable as the hungry pig
was, when he was shut up, by mistake, in the grain department of a
brewery.

And now, I come to a very important passage in Oliver’s history;
for I have to record an act, slight and unimportant perhaps in
appearance, but which indirectly produced a material change in all
his future prospects and proceedings.

One day, Oliver and Noah had descended into the kitchen at the usual
dinner-hour, to banquet upon a small joint of mutton - a pound and a
half of the worst end of the neck - when Charlotte being called
out of the way, there ensued a brief interval of time, which Noah
Claypole, being hungry and vicious, considered he could not possibly
devote to a worthier purpose than aggravating and tantalising young
Oliver Twist.

Intent upon this innocent amusement, Noah put his feet on the
table-cloth; and pulled Oliver’s hair; and twitched his ears;
and expressed his opinion that he was a ‘sneak’; and furthermore
announced his intention of coming to see him hanged, whenever that
desirable event should take place; and entered upon various topics
of petty annoyance, like a malicious and ill-conditioned charity-boy
as he was. But, making Oliver cry, Noah attempted to be more
facetious still; and in his attempt, did what many sometimes do to
this day, when they want to be funny. He got rather personal.

‘Work’us,’ said Noah, ‘how’s your mother?’

‘She’s dead,’ replied Oliver; ‘don’t you say anything about her to
me!’

Oliver’s colour rose as he said this; he breathed quickly; and there
was a curious working of the mouth and nostrils, which Mr. Claypole
thought must be the immediate precursor of a violent fit of crying.
Under this impression he returned to the charge.

‘What did she die of, Work’us?’ said Noah.

‘Of a broken heart, some of our old nurses told me,’ replied Oliver:
more as if he were talking to himself, than answering Noah. ‘I think
I know what it must be to die of that!’

‘Tol de rol lol lol, right fol lairy, Work’us,’ said Noah, as a tear
rolled down Oliver’s cheek. ‘What’s set you a snivelling now?’

‘Not _you_,’ replied Oliver, sharply. ‘There; that’s enough. Don’t
say anything more to me about her; you’d better not!’

‘Better not!’ exclaimed Noah. ‘Well! Better not! Work’us, don’t be
impudent. _Your_ mother, too! She was a nice ‘un she was. Oh, Lor!’
And here, Noah nodded his head expressively; and curled up as much
of his small red nose as muscular action could collect together, for
the occasion.

‘Yer know, Work’us,’ continued Noah, emboldened by Oliver’s silence,
and speaking in a jeering tone of affected pity: of all tones the
most annoying: ‘Yer know, Work’us, it can’t be helped now; and of
course yer couldn’t help it then; and I am very sorry for it; and
I’m sure we all are, and pity yer very much. But yer must know,
Work’us, yer mother was a regular right-down bad ‘un.’

‘What did you say?’ inquired Oliver, looking up very quickly.

‘A regular right-down bad ‘un, Work’us,’ replied Noah, coolly. ‘And
it’s a great deal better, Work’us, that she died when she did, or
else she’d have been hard labouring in Bridewell, or transported, or
hung; which is more likely than either, isn’t it?’

Crimson with fury, Oliver started up; overthrew the chair and table;
seized Noah by the throat; shook him, in the violence of his rage,
till his teeth chattered in his head; and collecting his whole force
into one heavy blow, felled him to the ground.



Online LibraryCharles DickensOliver Twist, Illustrated → online text (page 4 of 25)