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Charles Dickens >> Oliver Twist (page 38)


'Oh! God forbid!' exclaimed Oliver, hastily.

'Amen to that, my child!' said the old lady, wringing her hands.

'Surely there is no danger of anything so dreadful?' said Oliver.

'Two hours ago, she was quite well.'

'She is very ill now,' rejoined Mrs. Maylies; 'and will be worse,I am sure. My dear, dear Rose! Oh, what shall I do withouther!'

She gave way to such great grief, that Oliver, suppressing hisown emotion, ventured to remonstrate with her; and to beg,earnestly, that, for the sake of the dear young lady herself, shewould be more calm.

'And consider, ma'am,' said Oliver, as the tears forcedthemselves into his eyes, despite of his efforts to the contrary.

'Oh! consider how young and good she is, and what pleasure andcomfort she gives to all about her. I am sure--certain--quitecertain--that, for your sake, who are so good yourself; and forher own; and for the sake of all she makes so happy; she will notdie. Heaven will never let her die so young.'

'Hush!' said Mrs. Maylie, laying her hand on Oliver's head. 'Youthink like a child, poor boy. But you teach me my duty,notwithstanding. I had forgotten it for a moment, Oliver, but Ihope I may be pardoned, for I am old, and have seen enough ofillness and death to know the agony of separation from theobjects of our love. I have seen enough, too, to know that it isnot always the youngest and best who are spared to those thatlove them; but this should give us comfort in our sorrow; forHeaven is just; and such things teach us, impressively, thatthere is a brighter world than this; and that the passage to itis speedy. God's will be done! I love her; and He know howwell!'

Oliver was surprised to see that as Mrs. Maylie said these words,she checked her lamentations as though by one effort; and drawingherself up as she spoke, became composed and firm. He was stillmore astonished to find that this firmness lasted; and that,under all the care and watching which ensued, Mrs. Maylie wasevery ready and collected: performing all the duties which haddevolved upon her, steadily, and, to all external appearances,even cheerfully. But he was young, and did not know what strongminds are capable of, under trying circumstances. How should he,when their possessors so seldom know themselves?

An anxious night ensued. When morning came, Mrs. Maylie'spredictions were but too well verified. Rose was in the firststage of a high and dangerous fever.

'We must be active, Oliver, and not give way to useless grief,'said Mrs. Maylie, laying her finger on her lip, as she lookedsteadily into his face; 'this letter must be sent, with allpossible expedition, to Mr. Losberne. It must be carried to themarket-town: which is not more than four miles off, by thefootpath across the field: and thence dispatched, by an expresson horseback, straight to Chertsey. The people at the inn willundertake to do this: and I can trust to you to see it done, Iknow.'

Oliver could make no reply, but looked his anxiety to be gone atonce.

'Here is another letter,' said Mrs. Maylie, pausing to reflect;'but whether to send it now, or wait until I see how Rose goeson, I scarcely know. I would not forward it, unless I feared theworst.'

'Is it for Chertsey, too, ma'am?' inquired Oliver; impatient toexecute his commission, and holding out his trembling hand forthe letter.

'No,' replied the old lady, giving it to him mechanically. Oliver glanced at it, and saw that it was directed to HarryMaylie, Esquire, at some great lord's house in the country;where, he could not make out.

'Shall it go, ma'am?' asked Oliver, looking up, impatiently.

'I think not,' replied Mrs. Maylie, taking it back. 'I will waituntil to-morrow.'

With these words, she gave Oliver her purse, and he started off,without more delay, at the greatest speed he could muster.

Swiftly he ran across the fields, and down the little lanes whichsometimes divided them: now almost hidden by the high corn oneither side, and now emerging on an open field, where the mowersand haymakers were busy at their work: nor did he stop once,save now and then, for a few seconds, to recover breath, until hecame, in a great heat, and covered with dust, on the littlemarket-place of the market-town.

Here he paused, and looked about for the inn. There were a whitebank, and a red brewery, and a yellow town-hall; and in onecorner there was a large house, with all the wood about itpainted green: before which was the sign of 'The George.' Tothis he hastened, as soon as it caught his eye.

He spoke to a postboy who was dozing under the gateway; and who,after hearing what he wanted, referred him to the ostler; whoafter hearing all he had to say again, referred him to thelandlord; who was a tall gentleman in a blue neckcloth, a whitehat, drab breeches, and boots with tops to match, leaning againsta pump by the stable-door, picking his teeth with a silvertoothpick.

This gentleman walked with much deliberation into the bar to makeout the bill: which took a long time making out: and after itwas ready, and paid, a horse had to be saddled, and a man to bedressed, which took up ten good minutes more. Meanwhile Oliverwas in such a desperate state of impatience and anxiety, that hefelt as if he could have jumped upon the horse himself, andgalloped away, full tear, to the next stage. At length, all wasready; and the little parcel having been handed up, with manyinjunctions and entreaties for its speedy delivery, the man setspurs to his horse, and rattling over the uneven paving of themarket-place, was out of the town, and galloping along theturnpike-road, in a couple of minutes.

As it was something to feel certain that assistance was sent for,and that no time had been lost, Oliver hurried up the inn-yard,with a somewhat lighter heart. He was turning out of the gatewaywhen he accidently stumbled against a tall man wrapped in acloak, who was at that moment coming out of the inn door.

'Hah!' cried the man, fixing his eyes on Oliver, and suddenlyrecoiling. 'What the devil's this?'

'I beg your pardon, sir,' said Oliver; 'I was in a great hurry toget home, and didn't see you were coming.'

'Death!' muttered the man to himself, glaring at the boy with hislarge dark eyes. 'Who would have thought it! Grind him to ashes!

He'd start up from a stone coffin, to come in my way!'

'I am sorry,' stammered Oliver, confused by the strange man'swild look. 'I hope I have not hurt you!'

'Rot you!' murmured the man, in a horrible passion; between hisclenched teeth; 'if I had only had the courage to say the word, Imight have been free of you in a night. Curses on your head, andblack death on your heart, you imp! What are you doing here?'

The man shook his fist, as he uttered these words incoherently. He advanced towards Oliver, as if with the intention of aiming ablow at him, but fell violently on the ground: writhing andfoaming, in a fit.

Oliver gazed, for a moment, at the struggles of the madman (forsuch he supposed him to be); and then darted into the house forhelp. Having seen him safely carried into the hotel, he turnedhis face homewards, running as fast as he could, to make up forlost time: and recalling with a great deal of astonishment andsome fear, the extraordinary behaviour of the person from whom hehad just parted.

The circumstance did not dwell in his recollection long, however:

for when he reached the cottage, there was enough to occupy hismind, and to drive all considerations of self completely from hismemory.

Rose Maylie had rapidly grown worse; before mid-night she wasdelirious. A medical practitioner, who resided on the spot, wasin constant attendance upon her; and after first seeing thepatient, he had taken Mrs. Maylie aside, and pronounced herdisorder to be one of a most alarming nature. 'In fact,' he said,'it would be little short of a miracle, if she recovered.'

How often did Oliver start from his bed that night, and stealingout, with noiseless footstep, to the staircase, listen for theslightest sound from the sick chamber! How often did a trembleshake his frame, and cold drops of terror start upon his brow,when a sudden trampling of feet caused him to fear that somethingtoo dreadful to think of, had even then occurred! And what hadbeen the fervency of all the prayers he had ever muttered,compared with those he poured forth, now, in the agony andpassion of his supplication for the life and health of the gentlecreature, who was tottering on the deep grave's verge!

Oh! the suspense, the fearful, acute suspense, of standing idlyby while the life of one we dearly love, is trembling in thebalance! Oh! the racking thoughts that crowd upon the mind, andmake the heart beat violently, and the breath come thick, by theforce of the images they conjure up before it; the DESPERATEANXIETY TO BE DOING SOMETHING to relieve the pain, or lessen thedanger, which we have no power to alleviate; the sinking of souland spirit, which the sad remembrance of our helplessnessproduces; what tortures can equal these; what reflections orendeavours can, in the full tide and fever of the time, allaythem!

Morning came; and the little cottage was lonely and still. Peoplespoke in whispers; anxious faces appeared at the gate, from timeto time; women and children went away in tears. All the livelongday, and for hours after it had grown dark, Oliver paced softlyup and down the garden, raising his eyes every instant to thesick chamber, and shuddering to see the darkened window, lookingas if death lay stretched inside. Late that night, Mr. Losbernearrived. 'It is hard,' said the good doctor, turning away as hespoke; 'so young; so much beloved; but there is very littlehope.'

Another morning. The sun shone brightly; as brightly as if itlooked upon no misery or care; and, with every leaf and flower infull bloom about her; with life, and health, and sounds andsights of joy, surrounding her on every side: the fair youngcreature lay, wasting fast. Oliver crept away to the oldchurchyard, and sitting down on one of the green mounds, wept andprayed for her, in silence.

There was such peace and beauty in the scene; so much ofbrightness and mirth in the sunny landscape; such blithesomemusic in the songs of the summer birds; such freedom in the rapidflight of the rook, careering overhead; so much of life andjoyousness in all; that, when the boy raised his aching eyes, andlooked about, the thought instinctively occurred to him, thatthis was not a time for death; that Rose could surely never diewhen humbler things were all so glad and gay; that graves werefor cold and cheerless winter: not for sunlight and fragrance. He almost thought that shrouds were for the old and shrunken; andthat they never wrapped the young and graceful form in theirghastly folds.

A knell from the church bell broke harshly on these youthfulthoughts. Another! Again! It was tolling for the funeralservice. A group of humble mourners entered the gate: wearingwhite favours; for the corpse was young. They stood uncovered bya grave; and there was a mother--a mother once--among the weepingtrain. But the sun shone brightly, and the birds sang on.

Oliver turned homeward, thinking on the many kindnesses he hadreceived from the young lady, and wishing that the time couldcome again, that he might never cease showing her how gratefuland attached he was. He had no cause for self-reproach on thescore of neglect, or want of thought, for he had been devoted toher service; and yet a hundred little occasions rose up beforehim, on which he fancied he might have been more zealous, andmore earnest, and wished he had been. We need be careful how wedeal with those about us, when every death carries to some smallcircle of survivors, thoughts of so much omitted, and so littledone--of so many things forgotten, and so many more which mighthave been repaired! There is no remorse so deep as that which isunavailing; if we would be spared its tortures, let us rememberthis, in time.

When he reached home Mrs. Maylie was sitting in the littleparlour. Oliver's heart sand at sight of her; for she had neverleft the bedside of her niece; and he trembled to think whatchange could have driven her away. He learnt that she had falleninto a deep sleep, from which she would waken, either to recoveryand life, or to bid them farewell, and die.

They sat, listening, and afraid to speak, for hours. Theuntasted meal was removed, with looks which showed that theirthoughts were elsewhere, they watched the sun as he sank lowerand lower, and, at length, cast over sky and earth thosebrilliant hues which herald his departure. Their quick earscaught the sound of an approaching footstep. They bothinvoluntarily darted to the door, as Mr. Losberne entered.

'What of Rose?' cried the old lady. 'Tell me at once! I canbear it; anything but suspense! Oh!, tell me! in the name ofHeaven!'

'You must compose yourself,' said the doctor supporting her. 'Becalm, my dear ma'am, pray.'

'Let me go, in God's name! My dear child! She is dead! She isdying!'

'No!' cried the doctor, passionately. 'As He is good andmerciful, she will live to bless us all, for years to come.'

The lady fell upon her knees, and tried to fold her handstogether; but the energy which had supported her so long, fled upto Heaven with her first thanksgiving; and she sank into thefriendly arms which were extended to receive her.

CHAPTER XXIV

CONTAINS SOME INTRODUCTORY PARTICULARS RELATIVE TO A YOUNGGENTLEMAN WHO NOW ARRIVES UPON THE SCENE; AND A NEW ADVENTUREWHICH HAPPENED TO OLIVER

It was almost too much happiness to bear. Oliver felt stunnedand stupefied by the unexpected intelligence; he could not weep,or speak, or rest. He had scarcely the power of understandinganything that had passed, until, after a long ramble in the quietevening air, a burst of tears came to his relief, and he seemedto awaken, all at once, to a full sense of the joyful change thathad occurred, and the almost insupportable load of anguish whichhad been taken from his breast.

Title: Oliver Twist
Author: Charles Dickens
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