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Charles Dickens >> Oliver Twist (page 47)


But struggling with these better feelings was pride,--the vice ofthe lowest and most debased creatures no less than of the highand self-assured. The miserable companion of thieves andruffians, the fallen outcast of low haunts, the associate of thescourings of the jails and hulks, living within the shadow of thegallows itself,--even this degraded being felt too proud tobetray a feeble gleam of the womanly feeling which she thought aweakness, but which alone connected her with that humanity, ofwhich her wasting life had obliterated so many, many traces whena very child.

She raised her eyes sufficiently to observe that the figure whichpresented itself was that of a slight and beautiful girl; then,bending them on the ground, she tossed her head with affectedcarelessness as she said:

'It's a hard matter to get to see you, lady. If I had takenoffence, and gone away, as many would have done, you'd have beensorry for it one day, and not without reason either.'

'I am very sorry if any one has behaved harshly to you,' repliedRose. 'Do not think of that. Tell me why you wished to see me. I am the person you inquired for.'

The kind tone of this answer, the sweet voice, the gentle manner,the absence of any accent of haughtiness or displeasure, took thegirl completely by surprise, and she burst into tears.

'Oh, lady, lady!' she said, clasping her hands passionatelybefore her face, 'if there was more like you, there would befewer like me,--there would--there would!'

'Sit down,' said Rose, earnestly. 'If you are in poverty oraffliction I shall be truly glad to relieve you if I can,--Ishall indeed. Sit down.'

'Let me stand, lady,' said the girl, still weeping, 'and do notspeak to me so kindly till you know me better. It is growinglate. Is--is--that door shut?'

'Yes,' said Rose, recoiling a few steps, as if to be nearerassistance in case she should require it. 'Why?'

'Because,' said the girl, 'I am about to put my life and thelives of others in your hands. I am the girl that dragged littleOliver back to old Fagin's on the night he went out from thehouse in Pentonville.'

'You!' said Rose Maylie.

'I, lady!' replied the girl. 'I am the infamous creature youhave heard of, that lives among the thieves, and that never fromthe first moment I can recollect my eyes and senses opening onLondon streets have known any better life, or kinder words thanthey have given me, so help me God! Do not mind shrinking openlyfrom me, lady. I am younger than you would think, to look at me,but I am well used to it. The poorest women fall back, as I makemy way along the crowded pavement.'

'What dreadful things are these!' said Rose, involuntarilyfalling from her strange companion.

'Thank Heaven upon your knees, dear lady,' cried the girl, 'thatyou had friends to care for and keep you in your childhood, andthat you were never in the midst of cold and hunger, and riot anddrunkenness, and--and--something worse than all--as I have beenfrom my cradle. I may use the word, for the alley and the gutterwere mine, as they will be my deathbed.'

'I pity you!' said Rose, in a broken voice. 'It wrings my heartto hear you!'

'Heaven bless you for your goodness!' rejoined the girl. 'If youknew what I am sometimes, you would pity me, indeed. But I havestolen away from those who would surely murder me, if they knew Ihad been here, to tell you what I have overheard. Do you know aman named Monks?'

'No,' said Rose.

'He knows you,' replied the girl; 'and knew you were here, for itwas by hearing him tell the place that I found you out.'

'I never heard the name,' said Rose.

'Then he goes by some other amongst us,' rejoined the girl,'which I more than thought before. Some time ago, and soon afterOliver was put into your house on the night of the robbery,I--suspecting this man--listened to a conversation held betweenhim and Fagin in the dark. I found out, from what I heard, thatMonks--the man I asked you about, you know--'

'Yes,' said Rose, 'I understand.'

'--That Monks,' pursued the girl, 'had seen him accidently withtwo of our boys on the day we first lost him, and had known himdirectly to be the same child that he was watching for, though Icouldn't make out why. A bargain was struck with Fagin, that ifOliver was got back he should have a certain sum; and he was tohave more for making him a thief, which this Monks wanted forsome purpose of his own.

'For what purpose?' asked Rose.

'He caught sight of my shadow on the wall as I listened, in thehope of finding out,' said the girl; 'and there are not manypeople besides me that could have got out of their way in time toescape discovery. But I did; and I saw him no more till lastnight.'

'And what occurred then?'

'I'll tell you, lady. Last night he came again. Again they wentupstairs, and I, wrapping myself up so that my shadow would notbetray me, again listened at the door. The first words I heardMonks say were these: "So the only proofs of the boy's identitylie at the bottom of the river, and the old hag that receivedthem from the mother is rotting in her coffin." They laughed,and talked of his success in doing this; and Monks, talking onabout the boy, and getting very wild, said that though he had gotthe young devil's money safely know, he'd rather have had it theother way; for, what a game it would have been to have broughtdown the boast of the father's will, by driving him through everyjail in town, and then hauling him up for some capital felonywhich Fagin could easily manage, after having made a good profitof him besides.'

'What is all this!' said Rose.

'The truth, lady, though it comes from my lips,' replied thegirl. 'Then, he said, with oaths common enough in my ears, butstrange to yours, that if he could gratify his hatred by takingthe boy's life without bringing his own neck in danger, he would;but, as he couldn't, he'd be upon the watch to meet him at everyturn in life; and if he took advantage of his birth and history,he might harm him yet. "In short, Fagin," he says, "Jew as youare, you never laid such snares as I'll contrive for my youngbrother, Oliver."'

'His brother!' exclaimed Rose.

'Those were his words,' said Nancy, glancing uneasily round, asshe had scarcely ceased to do, since she began to speak, for avision of Sikes haunted her perpetually. 'And more. When hespoke of you and the other lady, and said it seemed contrived byHeaven, or the devil, against him, that Oliver should come intoyour hands, he laughed, and said there was some comfort in thattoo, for how many thousands and hundreds of thousands of poundswould you not give, if you had them, to know who your two-leggedspaniel was.'

'You do not mean,' said Rose, turning very pale, 'to tell me thatthis was said in earnest?'

'He spoke in hard and angry earnest, if a man ever did,' repliedthe girl, shaking her head. 'He is an earnest man when hishatred is up. I know many who do worse things; but I'd ratherlisten to them all a dozen times, than to that Monks once. It isgrowing late, and I have to reach home without suspicion ofhaving been on such an errand as this. I must get back quickly.'

'But what can I do?' said Rose. 'To what use can I turn thiscommunication without you? Back! Why do you wish to return tocompanions you paint in such terrible colors? If you repeat thisinformation to a gentleman whom I can summon in an instant fromthe next room, you can be consigned to some place of safetywithout half an hour's delay.'

'I wish to go back,' said the girl. 'I must go back,because--how can I tell such things to an innocent lady likeyou?--because among the men I have told you of, there is one: the most desperate among them all; that I can't leave: no, noteven to be saved from the life I am leading now.'

'Your having interfered in this dear boy's behalf before,' saidRose; 'your coming here, at so great a risk, to tell me what youhave heard; your manner, which convinces me of the truth of whatyou say; your evident contrition, and sense of shame; all lead meto believe that you might yet be reclaimed. Oh!' said theearnest girl, folding her hands as the tears coursed down herface, 'do not turn a deaf ear to the entreaties of one of yourown sex; the first--the first, I do believe, who ever appealed toyou in the voice of pity and compassion. Do hear my words, andlet me save you yet, for better things.'

'Lady,' cried the girl, sinking on her knees, 'dear, sweet, angellady, you ARE the first that ever blessed me with such words asthese, and if I had heard them years ago, they might have turnedme from a life of sin and sorrow; but it is too late, it is toolate!'

'It is never too late,' said Rose, 'for penitence and atonement.'

'It is,' cried the girl, writhing in agony of her mind; 'I cannotleave him now! I could not be his death.'

'Why should you be?' asked Rose.

'Nothing could save him,' cried the girl. 'If I told others whatI have told you, and led to their being taken, he would be sureto die. He is the boldest, and has been so cruel!'

'Is it possible,' cried Rose, 'that for such a man as this, youcan resign every future hope, and the certainty of immediaterescue? It is madness.'

'I don't know what it is,' answered the girl; 'I only know thatit is so, and not with me alone, but with hundreds of others asbad and wretched as myself. I must go back. Whether it is God'swrath for the wrong I have done, I do not know; but I am drawnback to him through every suffering and ill usage; and I shouldbe, I believe, if I knew that I was to die by his hand at last.'

'What am I to do?' said Rose. 'I should not let you depart fromme thus.'

'You should, lady, and I know you will,' rejoined the girl,rising. 'You will not stop my going because I have trusted inyour goodness, and forced no promise from you, as I might havedone.'

'Of what use, then, is the communication you have made?' saidRose. 'This mystery must be investigated, or how will itsdisclosure to me, benefit Oliver, whom you are anxious to serve?'

'You must have some kind gentleman about you that will hear it asa secret, and advise you what to do,' rejoined the girl.

'But where can I find you again when it is necessary?' askedRose. 'I do not seek to know where these dreadful people live,but where will you be walking or passing at any settled periodfrom this time?'

'Will you promise me that you will have my secret strictly kept,and come alone, or with the only other person that knows it; andthat I shall not be watched or followed?' asked the girl.

'I promise you solemnly,' answered Rose.

'Every Sunday night, from eleven until the clock strikes twelve,'said the girl without hesitation, 'I will walk on London Bridgeif I am alive.'

'Stay another moment,' interposed Rose, as the girl movedhurriedly towards the door. 'Think once again on your owncondition, and the opportunity you have of escaping from it. Youhave a claim on me: not only as the voluntary bearer of thisintelligence, but as a woman lost almost beyond redemption. Willyou return to this gang of robbers, and to this man, when a wordcan save you? What fascination is it that can take you back, andmake you cling to wickedness and misery? Oh! is there no chordin your heart that I can touch! Is there nothing left, to whichI can appeal against this terrible infatuation!'

'When ladies as young, and good, and beautiful as you are,'replied the girl steadily, 'give away your hearts, love willcarry you all lengths--even such as you, who have home, friends,other admirers, everything, to fill them. When such as I, whohave no certain roof but the coffinlid, and no friend in sicknessor death but the hospital nurse, set our rotten hearts on anyman, and let him fill the place that has been a blank through allour wretched lives, who can hope to cure us? Pity us, lady--pityus for having only one feeling of the woman left, and for havingthat turned, by a heavy judgment, from a comfort and a pride,into a new means of violence and suffering.'

'You will,' said Rose, after a pause, 'take some money from me,which may enable you to live without dishonesty--at all eventsuntil we meet again?'

'Not a penny,' replied the girl, waving her hand.

'Do not close your heart against all my efforts to help you,'said Rose, stepping gently forward. 'I wish to serve youindeed.'

'You would serve me best, lady,' replied the girl, wringing herhands, 'if you could take my life at once; for I have felt moregrief to think of what I am, to-night, than I ever did before,and it would be something not to die in the hell in which I havelived. God bless you, sweet lady, and send as much happiness onyour head as I have brought shame on mine!'

Thus speaking, and sobbing aloud, the unhappy creature turnedaway; while Rose Maylie, overpowered by this extraordinaryinterview, which had more the semblance of a rapid dream than anactual occurance, sank into a chair, and endeavoured to collecther wandering thoughts.

CHAPTER XLI

CONTAINING FRESH DISCOVERIES, AND SHOWING THAT SUPRISES, LIKEMISFORTUNES, SELDOM COME ALONE

Her situation was, indeed, one of no common trial and difficulty.

While she felt the most eager and burning desire to penetrate themystery in which Oliver's history was enveloped, she could notbut hold sacred the confidence which the miserable woman withwhom she had just conversed, had reposed in her, as a young andguileless girl. Her words and manner had touched Rose Maylie'sheart; and, mingled with her love for her young charge, andscarcely less intense in its truth and fervour, was her fond wishto win the outcast back to repentance and hope.

Title: Oliver Twist
Author: Charles Dickens
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