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Charles Dickens >> Oliver Twist (page 23)


'Good-night, Nancy,' said the Jew, muffling himself up as before.

'Good-night.'

Their eyes met, and the Jew scrutinised her, narrowly. There wasno flinching about the girl. She was as true and earnest in thematter as Toby Crackit himself could be.

The Jew again bade her good-night, and, bestowing a sly kick uponthe prostrate form of Mr. Sikes while her back was turned, gropeddownstairs.

'Always the way!' muttered the Jew to himself as he turnedhomeward. 'The worst of these women is, that a very little thingserves to call up some long-forgotten feeling; and, the best ofthem is, that it never lasts. Ha! ha! The man against thechild, for a bag of gold!'

Beguiling the time with these pleasant reflections, Mr. Faginwended his way, through mud and mire, to his gloomy abode: wherethe Dodger was sitting up, impatiently awaiting his return.

'Is Oliver a-bed? I want to speak to him,' was his first remarkas they descended the stairs.

'Hours ago,' replied the Dodger, throwing open a door. 'Here heis!'

The boy was lying, fast asleep, on a rude bed upon the floor; sopale with anxiety, and sadness, and the closeness of his prison,that he looked like death; not death as it shows in shroud andcoffin, but in the guise it wears when life has just departed;when a young and gentle spirit has, but an instant, fled toHeaven, and the gross air of the world has not had time tobreathe upon the changing dust it hallowed.

'Not now,' said the Jew, turning softly away. 'To-morrow.To-morrow.'

CHAPTER XX

WHEREIN OLVER IS DELIVERED OVER TO MR. WILLIAM SIKES

When Oliver awoke in the morning, he was a good deal surprised tofind that a new pair of shoes, with strong thick soles, had beenplaced at his bedside; and that his old shoes had been removed. At first, he was pleased with the discovery: hoping that it mightbe the forerunner of his release; but such thoughts were quicklydispelled, on his sitting down to breakfast along with the Jew,who told him, in a tone and manner which increased his alarm,that he was to be taken to the residence of Bill Sikes thatnight.

'To--to--stop there, sir?' asked Oliver, anxiously.

'No, no, my dear. Not to stop there,' replied the Jew. 'Weshouldn't like to lose you. Don't be afraid, Oliver, you shallcome back to us again. Ha! ha! ha! We won't be so cruel as tosend you away, my dear. Oh no, no!'

The old man, who was stooping over the fire toasting a piece ofbread, looked round as he bantered Oliver thus; and chuckled asif to show that he knew he would still be very glad to get awayif he could.

'I suppose,' said the Jew, fixing his eyes on Oliver, 'you wantto know what you're going to Bill's for---eh, my dear?'

Oliver coloured, involuntarily, to find that the old thief hadbeen reading his thoughts; but boldly said, Yes, he did want toknow.

'Why, do you think?' inquired Fagin, parrying the question.

'Indeed I don't know, sir,' replied Oliver.

'Bah!' said the Jew, turning away with a disappointed countenancefrom a close perusal of the boy's face. 'Wait till Bill tellsyou, then.'

The Jew seemed much vexed by Oliver's not expressing any greatercuriosity on the subject; but the truth is, that, although Oliverfelt very anxious, he was too much confused by the earnestcunning of Fagin's looks, and his own speculations, to make anyfurther inquiries just then. He had no other opportunity: forthe Jew remained very surly and silent till night: when heprepared to go abroad.

'You may burn a candle,' said the Jew, putting one upon thetable. 'And here's a book for you to read, till they come tofetch you. Good-night!'

'Good-night!' replied Oliver, softly.

The Jew walked to the door: looking over his shoulder at the boyas he went. Suddenly stopping, he called him by his name.

Oliver looked up; the Jew, pointing to the candle, motioned himto light it. He did so; and, as he placed the candlestick uponthe table, saw that the Jew was gazing fixedly at him, withlowering and contracted brows, from the dark end of the room.

'Take heed, Oliver! take heed!' said the old man, shaking hisright hand before him in a warning manner. 'He's a rough man,and thinks nothing of blood when his own is up. W hatever fallsout, say nothing; and do what he bids you. Mind!' Placing astrong emphasis on the last word, he suffered his featuresgradually to resolve themselves into a ghastly grin, and, noddinghis head, left the room.

Oliver leaned his head upon his hand when the old mandisappeared, and pondered, with a trembling heart, on the wordshe had just heard. The more he thought of the Jew's admonition,the more he was at a loss to divine its real purpose and meaning.

He could think of no bad object to be attained by sending him toSikes, which would not be equally well answered by his remainingwith Fagin; and after meditating for a long time, concluded thathe had been selected to perform some ordinary menial offices forthe housebreaker, until another boy, better suited for hispurpose could be engaged. He was too well accustomed tosuffering, and had suffered too much where he was, to bewail theprospect of change very severely. He remained lost in thoughtfor some minutes; and then, with a heavy sigh, snuffed thecandle, and, taking up the book which the Jew had left with him,began to read.

He turned over the leaves. Carelessly at first; but, lighting ona passage which attracted his attention, he soon became intentupon the volume. It was a history of the lives and trials ofgreat criminals; and the pages were soiled and thumbed with use. Here, he read of dreadful crimes that made the blood run cold; ofsecret murders that had been committed by the lonely wayside; ofbodies hidden from the eye of man in deep pits and wells: whichwould not keep them down, deep as they were, but had yielded themup at last, after many years, and so maddened the murderers withthe sight, that in their horror they had confessed their guilt,and yelled for the gibbet to end their agony. Here, too, he readof men who, lying in their beds at dead of night, had beentempted (so they said) and led on, by their own bad thoughts, tosuch dreadful bloodshed as it made the flesh creep, and the limbsquail, to think of. The terrible descriptions were so real andvivid, that the sallow pages seemed to turn red with gore; andthe words upon them, to be sounded in his ears, as if they werewhispered, in hollow murmers, by the spirits of the dead.

In a paroxysm of fear, the boy closed the book, and thrust itfrom him. Then, falling upon his knees, he prayed Heaven tospare him from such deeds; and rather to will that he should dieat once, than be reserved for crimes, so fearful and appaling. By degrees, he grew more calm, and besought, in a low and brokenvoice, that he might be rescued from his present dangers; andthat if any aid were to be raised up for a poor outcast boy whohad never known the love of friends or kindred, it might come tohim now, when, desolate and deserted, he stood alone in the midstof wickedness and guilt.

He had concluded his prayer, but still remained with his headburied in his hands, when a rustling noise aroused him.

'What's that!' he cried, starting up, and catching sight of afigure standing by the door. 'Who's there?'

'Me. Only me,' replied a tremulous voice.

Oliver raised the candle above his head: and looked towards thedoor. It was Nancy.

'Put down the light,' said the girl, turning away her head. 'Ithurts my eyes.'

Oliver saw that she was very pale, and gently inquired if shewere ill. The girl threw herself into a chair, with her backtowards him: and wrung her hands; but made no reply.

'God forgive me!' she cried after a while, 'I never thought ofthis.'

'Has anything happened?' asked Oliver. 'Can I help you? I willif I can. I will, indeed.'

She rocked herself to and fro; caught her throat; and, uttering agurgling sound, gasped for breath.

'Nancy!' cried Oliver, 'What is it?'

The girl beat her hands upon her knees, and her feet upon theground; and, suddenly stopping, drew her shawl close round her:and shivered with cold.

Oliver stirred the fire. Drawing her chair close to it, she satthere, for a little time, without speaking; but at length sheraised her head, and looked round.

'I don't know what comes over me sometimes,' said she, affectingto busy herself in arranging her dress; 'it's this damp dirtyroom, I think. Now, Nolly, dear, are you ready?'

'Am I to go with you?' asked Oliver.

'Yes. I have come from Bill,' replied the girl. 'You are to gowith me.'

'What for?' asked Oliver, recoiling.

'What for?' echoed the girl, raising her eyes, and averting themagain, the moment they encountered the boy's face. 'Oh! For noharm.'

'I don't believe it,' said Oliver: who had watched her closely.

'Have it your own way,' rejoined the girl, affecting to laugh. 'For no good, then.'

Oliver could see that he had some power over the girl's betterfeelings, and, for an instant, thought of appealing to hercompassion for his helpless state. But, then, the thought dartedacross his mind that it was barely eleven o'clock; and that manypeople were still in the streets: of whom surely some might befound to give credence to his tale. As the reflection occured tohim, he stepped forward: and said, somewhat hastily, that he wasready.

Neither his brief consideration, nor its purport, was lost on hiscompanion. She eyed him narrowly, while he spoke; and cast uponhim a look of intelligence which sufficiently showed that sheguessed what had been passing in his thoughts.

'Hush!' said the girl, stooping over him, and pointing to thedoor as she looked cautiously round. 'You can't help yourself. Ihave tried hard for you, but all to no purpose. You are hedgedround and round. If ever you are to get loose from here, this isnot the time.'

Struck by the energy of her manner, Oliver looked up in her facewith great surprise. She seemed to speak the truth; hercountenance was white and agitated; and she trembled with veryearnestness.

'I have saved you from being ill-used once, and I will again, andI do now,' continued the girl aloud; 'for those who would havefetched you, if I had not, would have been far more rough thanme. I have promised for your being quiet and silent; if you arenot, you will only do harm to yourself and me too, and perhaps bemy death. See here! I have borne all this for you already, astrue as God sees me show it.'

She pointed, hastily, to some livid bruises on her neck and arms;and continued, with great rapidity:

'Remember this! And don't let me suffer more for you, just now. If I could help you, I would; but I have not the power. Theydon't mean to harm you; whatever they make you do, is no fault ofyours. Hush! Every word from you is a blow for me. Give meyour hand. Make haste! Your hand!

She caught the hand which Oliver instinctively placed in hers,and, blowing out the light, drew him after her up the stairs. Thedoor was opened, quickly, by some one shrouded in the darkness,and was as quickly closed, when they had passed out. Ahackney-cabriolet was in waiting; with the same vehemence whichshe had exhibited in addressing Oliver, the girl pulled him inwith her, and drew the curtains close. The driver wanted nodirections, but lashed his horse into full speed, without thedelay of an instant.

The girl still held Oliver fast by the hand, and continued topour into his ear, the warnings and assurances she had alreadyimparted. All was so quick and hurried, that he had scarcelytime to recollect where he was, or how he came there, when tocarriage stopped at the house to which the Jew's steps had beendirected on the previous evening.

For one brief moment, Oliver cast a hurried glance along theempty street, and a cry for help hung upon his lips. But thegirl's voice was in his ear, beseeching him in such tones ofagony to remember her, that he had not the heart to utter it. While he hesitated, the opportunity was gone; he was already inthe house, and the door was shut.

'This way,' said the girl, releasing her hold for the first time.

'Bill!'

'Hallo!' replied Sikes: appearing at the head of the stairs, witha candle. 'Oh! That's the time of day. Come on!'

This was a very strong expression of approbation, an uncommonlyhearty welcome, from a person of Mr. Sikes' temperament. Nancy,appearing much gratified thereby, saluted him cordially.

'Bull's-eye's gone home with Tom,' observed Sikes, as he lightedthem up. 'He'd have been in the way.'

'That's right,' rejoined Nancy.

'So you've got the kid,' said Sikes when they had all reached theroom: closing the door as he spoke.

'Yes, here he is,' replied Nancy.

'Did he come quiet?' inquired Sikes.

'Like a lamb,' rejoined Nancy.

'I'm glad to hear it,' said Sikes, looking grimly at Oliver; 'forthe sake of his young carcase: as would otherways have sufferedfor it. Come here, young 'un; and let me read you a lectur',which is as well got over at once.'

Thus addressing his new pupil, Mr. Sikes pulled off Oliver's capand threw it into a corner; and then, taking him by the shoulder,sat himself down by the table, and stood the boy in front of him.

'Now, first: do you know wot this is?' inquired Sikes, taking upa pocket-pistol which lay on the table.

Oliver replied in the affirmative.

'Well, then, look here,' continued Sikes. 'This is powder; that'ere's a bullet; and this is a little bit of a old hat forwaddin'.'

Oliver murmured his comprehension of the different bodiesreferred to; and Mr. Sikes proceeded to load the pistol, withgreat nicety and deliberation.

'Now it's loaded,' said Mr. Sikes, when he had finished.

Title: Oliver Twist
Author: Charles Dickens
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