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Charles Dickens >> Oliver Twist (page 11)


They were just emerging from a narrow court not far from the opensquare in Clerkenwell, which is yet called, by some strangeperversion of terms, 'The Green': when the Dodger made a suddenstop; and, laying his finger on his lip, drew his companions backagain, with the greatest caution and circumspection.

'What's the matter?' demanded Oliver.

'Hush!' replied the Dodger. 'Do you see that old cove at thebook-stall?'

'The old gentleman over the way?' said Oliver. 'Yes, I see him.'

'He'll do,' said the Doger.

'A prime plant,' observed Master Charley Bates.

Oliver looked from one to the other, with the greatest surprise;but he was not permitted to make any inquiries; for the two boyswalked stealthily across the road, and slunk close behind the oldgentleman towards whom his attention had been directed. Oliverwalked a few paces after them; and, not knowing whether toadvance or retire, stood looking on in silent amazement.

The old gentleman was a very respectable-looking personage, witha powdered head and gold spectacles. He was dressed in abottle-green coat with a black velvet collar; wore whitetrousers; and carried a smart bamboo cane under his arm. He hadtaken up a book from the stall, and there he stood, reading away,as hard as if he were in his elbow-chair, in his own study. Itis very possible that he fancied himself there, indeed; for itwas plain, from his abstraction, that he saw not the book-stall,nor the street, nor the boys, nor, in short, anything but thebook itself: which he was reading straight through: turningover the leaf when he got to the bottom of a page, beginning atthe top line of the next one, and going regularly on, with thegreatest interest and eagerness.

What was Oliver's horror and alarm as he stood a few paces off,looking on with his eyelids as wide open as they would possiblygo, to see the Dodger plunge his hand into the old gentleman'spocket, and draw from thence a handkerchief! To see him hand thesame to Charley Bates; and finally to behold them, both runningaway round the corner at full speed!

In an instant the whole mystery of the hankerchiefs, and thewatches, and the jewels, and the Jew, rushed upon the boy's mind.

He stood, for a moment, with the blood so tingling through allhis veins from terror, that he felt as if he were in a burningfire; then, confused and frightened, he took to his heels; and,not knowing what he did, made off as fast as he could lay hisfeet to the ground.

This was all done in a minute's space. In the very instant whenOliver began to run, the old gentleman, putting his hand to hispocket, and missing his handkerchief, turned sharp round. Seeingthe boy scudding away at such a rapid pace, he very naturallyconcluded him to be the depredator; and shouting 'Stop thief!'with all his might, made off after him, book in hand.

But the old gentleman was not the only person who raised thehue-and-cry. The Dodger and Master Bates, unwilling to attractpublic attention by running down the open street, had merelyretured into the very first doorway round the corner. They nosooner heard the cry, and saw Oliver running, than, guessingexactly how the matter stood, they issued forth with greatpromptitude; and, shouting 'Stop thief!' too, joined in thepursuit like good citizens.

Although Oliver had been brought up by philosophers, he was nottheoretically acquainted with the beautiful axiom thatself-preservation is the first law of nature. If he had been,perhaps he would have been prepared for this. Not beingprepared, however, it alarmed him the more; so away he went likethe wind, with the old gentleman and the two boys roaring andshouting behind him.

'Stop thief! Stop thief!' There is a magic in the sound. Thetradesman leaves his counter, and the car-man his waggon; thebutcher throws down his tray; the baker his basket; the milkmanhis pail; the errand-boy his parcels; the school-boy his marbles;the paviour his pickaxe; the child his battledore. Away theyrun, pell-mell, helter-skelter, slap-dash: tearing, yelling,screaming, knocking down the passengers as they turn the corners,rousing up the dogs, and astonishing the fowls: and streets,squares, and courts, re-echo with the sound.

'Stop thief! Stop thief!' The cry is taken up by a hundredvoices, and the crowd accumulate at every turning. Away theyfly, splashing through the mud, and rattling along the pavements:

up go the windows, out run the people, onward bear the mob, awhole audience desert Punch in the very thickest of the plot,and, joining the rushing throng, swell the shout, and lend freshvigour to the cry, 'Stop thief! Stop thief!'

'Stop thief! Stop thief!' There is a passion FOR HUNTINGSOMETHING deeply implanted in the human breast. One wretchedbreathless child, panting with exhaustion; terror in his looks;agaony in his eyes; large drops of perspiration streaming downhis face; strains every nerve to make head upon his pursuers; andas they follow on his track, and gain upon him every instant,they hail his decreasing strength with joy. 'Stop thief!' Ay,stop him for God's sake, were it only in mercy!

Stopped at last! A clever blow. He is down upon the pavement;and the crowd eagerly gather round him: each new comer, jostlingand struggling with the others to catch a glimpse. 'Standaside!' 'Give him a little air!' 'Nonsense! he don't deserveit.' 'Where's the gentleman?' 'Here his is, coming down thestreet.' 'Make room there for the gentleman!' 'Is this the boy,sir!' 'Yes.'

Oliver lay, covered with mud and dust, and bleeding from themouth, looking wildly round upon the heap of faces thatsurrounded him, when the old gentleman was officiously draggedand pushed into the circle by the foremost of the pursuers.

'Yes,' said the gentleman, 'I am afraid it is the boy.'

'Afraid!' murmured the crowd. 'That's a good 'un!'

'Poor fellow!' said the gentleman, 'he has hurt himself.'

'_I_ did that, sir,' said a great lubberly fellow, steppingforward; 'and preciously I cut my knuckle agin' his mouth. Istopped him, sir.'

The follow touched his hat with a grin, expecting something forhis pains; but, the old gentleman, eyeing him with an expressionof dislike, look anxiously round, as if he contemplated runningaway himself: which it is very possible he might have attemptedto do, and thus have afforded another chase, had not a policeofficer (who is generally the last person to arrive in suchcases) at that moment made his way through the crowd, and seizedOliver by the collar.

'Come, get up,' said the man, roughly.

'It wasn't me indeed, sir. Indeed, indeed, it was two otherboys,' said Oliver, clasping his hands passionately, and lookinground. 'They are here somewhere.'

'Oh no, they ain't,' said the officer. He meant this to beironical, but it was true besides; for the Dodger and CharleyBates had filed off down the first convenient court they came to.

'Come, get up!'

'Don't hurt him,' said the old gentleman, compassionately.

'Oh no, I won't hurt him,' replied the officer, tearing hisjacket half off his back, in proof thereof. 'Come, I know you;it won't do. Will you stand upon your legs, you young devil?'

Oliver, who could hardly stand, made a shift to raise himself onhis feet, and was at once lugged along the streets by thejacket-collar, at a rapid pace. The gentleman walked on withthem by the officer's side; and as many of the crowd as couldachieve the feat, got a little ahead, and stared back at Oliverfrom time to time. The boys shouted in triumph; and on theywent.

CHAPTER XI

TREATS OF MR. FANG THE POLICE MAGISTRATE; AND FURNISHES A SLIGHTSPECIMEN OF HIS MODE OF ADMINISTERING JUSTICE

The offence had been committed within the district, and indeed inthe immediate neighborhood of, a very notorious metropolitanpolice office. The crowd had only the satisfaction ofaccompanying Oliver through two or three streets, and down aplace called Mutton Hill, when he was led beneath a low archway,and up a dirty court, into this dispensary of summary justice, bythe back way. It was a small paved yard into which they turned;and here they encountered a stout man with a bunch of whiskers onhis face, and a bunch of keys in his hand.

'What's the matter now?' said the man carelessly.

'A young fogle-hunter,' replied the man who had Oliver in charge.

'Are you the party that's been robbed, sir?' inquired the manwith the keys.

'Yes, I am,' replied the old gentleman; 'but I am not sure thatthis boy actually took the handkerchief. I--I would rather notpress the case.'

'Must go before the magistrate now, sir,' replied the man. 'Hisworship will be disengaged in half a minute. Now, younggallows!'

This was an invitation for Oliver to enter through a door whichhe unlocked as he spoke, and which led into a stone cell. Herehe was searched; and nothing being found upon him, locked up.

This cell was in shape and size something like an area cellar,only not so light. It was most intolably dirty; for it wasMonday morning; and it had been tenanted by six drunken people,who had been locked up, elsewhere, since Saturday night. Butthis is little. In our station-houses, men and women are everynight confined on the most trivial charges--the word is worthnoting--in dungeons, compared with which, those in Newgate,occupied by the most atrocious felons, tried, found guilty, andunder sentence of death, are palaces. Let any one who doubtsthis, compare the two.

The old gentleman looked almost as rueful as Oliver when the keygrated in the lock. He turned with a sigh to the book, which hadbeen the innocent cause of all this disturbance.

'There is something in that boy's face,' said the old gentlemanto himself as he walked slowly away, tapping his chin with thecover of the book, in a thoughtful manner; 'something thattouches and interests me. CAN he be innocent? He lookedlike--Bye the bye,' exclaimed the old gentleman, halting veryabruptly, and staring up into the sky, 'Bless my soul!--wherehave I seen something like that look before?'

After musing for some minutes, the old gentleman walked, with thesame meditative face, into a back anteroom opening from the yard;and there, retiring into a corner, called up before his mind'seye a vast amphitheatre of faces over which a dusky curtain hadhung for many years. 'No,' said the old gentleman, shaking hishead; 'it must be imagination.

He wandered over them again. He had called them into view, andit was not easy to replace the shroud that had so long concealedthem. There were the faces of friends, and foes, and of manythat had been almost strangers peering intrusively from thecrowd; there were the faces of young and blooming girls that werenow old women; there were faces that the grave had changed andclosed upon, but which the mind, superior to its power, stilldressed in their old freshness and beauty, calling back thelustre of the eyes, the brightness of the smile, the beaming ofthe soul through its mask of clay, and whispering of beautybeyond the tomb, changed but to be heightened, and taken fromearth only to be set up as a light, to shed a soft and gentleglow upon the path to Heaven.

But the old gentleman could recall no one countenance of whichOliver's features bore a trace. So, he heaved a sigh over therecollections he awakened; and being, happily for himself, anabsent old gentleman, buried them again in the pages of the mustybook.

He was roused by a touch on the shoulder, and a request from theman with the keys to follow him into the office. He closed hisbook hastily; and was at once ushered into the imposing presenceof the renowned Mr. Fang.

The office was a front parlour, with a panelled wall. Mr. Fangsat behind a bar, at the upper end; and on one side the door wasa sort of wooden pen in which poor little Oliver was alreadydeposited; trembling very much at the awfulness of the scene.

Mr. Fang was a lean, long-backed, stiff-necked, middle-sized man,with no great quantity of hair, and what he had, growing on theback and sides of his head. His face was stern, and muchflushed. If he were really not in the habit of drinking rathermore than was exactly good for him, he might have brought actionagainst his countenance for libel, and have recovered heavydamages.

The old gentleman bowed respectfully; and advancing to themagistrate's desk, said suiting the action to the word, 'That ismy name and address, sir.' He then withdrew a pace or two; and,with another polite and gentlemanly inclination of the head,waited to be questioned.

Now, it so happened that Mr. Fang was at that moment perusing aleading article in a newspaper of the morning, adverting to somerecent decision of his, and commending him, for the three hundredand fiftieth time, to the special and particular notice of theSecretary of State for the Home Department. He was out oftemper; and he looked up with an angry scowl.

'Who are you?' said Mr. Fang.

The old gentleman pointed, with some surprise, to his card.

'Officer!' said Mr. Fang, tossing the card contemptuously awaywith the newspaper. 'Who is this fellow?'

'My name, sir,' said the old gentleman, speaking LIKE agentleman, 'my name, sir, is Brownlow. Permit me to inquire thename of the magistrate who offers a gratuitous and unprovokedinsult to a respectable person, under the protection of thebench.' Saying this, Mr. Brownlow looked around the office as ifin search of some person who would afford him the requiredinformation.

'Officer!' said Mr. Fang, throwing the paper on one side, 'what'sthis fellow charged with?'

'He's not charged at all, your worship,' replied the officer. 'Heappears against this boy, your worship.'

His worshp knew this perfectly well; but it was a good annoyance,and a safe one.

'Appears against the boy, does he?' said Mr. Fang, surveying Mr.Brownlow contemptuously from head to foot. 'Swear him!'

Title: Oliver Twist
Author: Charles Dickens
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