Charles Dickens >> Oliver Twist (page 1)

Oliver Twist

by Charles Dickens



Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for manyreasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and towhich I will assign no fictitious name, there is one ancientlycommon to most towns, great or small: to wit, a workhouse; andin this workhouse was born; on a day and date which I need nottrouble myself to repeat, inasmuch as it can be of no possibleconsequence to the reader, in this stage of the business at allevents; the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the headof this chapter.

For a long time after it was ushered into this world of sorrowand trouble, by the parish surgeon, it remained a matter ofconsiderable doubt whether the child would survive to bear anyname at all; in which case it is somewhat more than probable thatthese memoirs would never have appeared; or, if they had, thatbeing comprised within a couple of pages, they would havepossessed the inestimable merit of being the most concise andfaithful specimen of biography, extant in the literature of anyage or country.

Although I am not disposed to maintain that the being born in aworkhouse, is in itself the most fortunate and enviablecircumstance that can possibly befall a human being, I do mean tosay that in this particular instance, it was the best thing forOliver Twist that could by possibility have occurred. The factis, that there was considerable difficulty in inducing Oliver totake upon himself the office of respiration,--a troublesomepractice, but one which custom has rendered necessary to our easyexistence; and for some time he lay gasping on a little flockmattress, rather unequally poised between this world and thenext: the balance being decidedly in favour of the latter. Now,if, during this brief period, Oliver had been surrounded bycareful grandmothers, anxious aunts, experienced nurses, anddoctors of profound wisdom, he would most inevitably andindubitably have been killed in no time. There being nobody by,however, but a pauper old woman, who was rendered rather misty byan unwonted allowance of beer; and a parish surgeon who did suchmatters by contract; Oliver and Nature fought out the pointbetween them. The result was, that, after a few struggles,Oliver breathed, sneezed, and proceeded to advertise to theinmates of the workhouse the fact of a new burden having beenimposed upon the parish, by setting up as loud a cry as couldreasonably have been expected from a male infant who had not beenpossessed of that very useful appendage, a voice, for a muchlonger space of time than three minutes and a quarter.

As Oliver gave this first proof of the free and proper action ofhis lungs, the patchwork coverlet which was carelessly flung overthe iron bedstead, rustled; the pale face of a young woman wasraised feebly from the pillow; and a faint voice imperfectlyarticulated the words, 'Let me see the child, and die.'

The surgeon had been sitting with his face turned towards thefire: giving the palms of his hands a warm and a rubalternately. As the young woman spoke, he rose, and advancing tothe bed's head, said, with more kindness than might have beenexpected of him:

'Oh, you must not talk about dying yet.'

'Lor bless her dear heart, no!' interposed the nurse, hastilydepositing in her pocket a green glass bottle, the contents ofwhich she had been tasting in a corner with evident satisfaction.

'Lor bless her dear heart, when she has lived as long as I have,sir, and had thirteen children of her own, and all on 'em deadexcept two, and them in the wurkus with me, she'll know betterthan to take on in that way, bless her dear heart! Think what itis to be a mother, there's a dear young lamb do.'

Apparently this consolatory perspective of a mother's prospectsfailed in producing its due effect. The patient shook her head,and stretched out her hand towards the child.

The surgeon deposited it in her arms. She imprinted her coldwhite lips passionately on its forehead; passed her hands overher face; gazed wildly round; shuddered; fell back--and died. They chafed her breast, hands, and temples; but the blood hadstopped forever. They talked of hope and comfort. They had beenstrangers too long.

'It's all over, Mrs. Thingummy!' said the surgeon at last.

'Ah, poor dear, so it is!' said the nurse, picking up the cork ofthe green bottle, which had fallen out on the pillow, as shestooped to take up the child. 'Poor dear!'

'You needn't mind sending up to me, if the child cries, nurse,'said the surgeon, putting on his gloves with great deliberation. 'It's very likely it WILL be troublesome. Give it a little gruelif it is.' He put on his hat, and, pausing by the bed-side onhis way to the door, added, 'She was a good-looking girl, too;where did she come from?'

'She was brought here last night,' replied the old woman, 'by theoverseer's order. She was found lying in the street. She hadwalked some distance, for her shoes were worn to pieces; butwhere she came from, or where she was going to, nobody knows.'

The surgeon leaned over the body, and raised the left hand. 'Theold story,' he said, shaking his head: 'no wedding-ring, I see. Ah! Good-night!'

The medical gentleman walked away to dinner; and the nurse,having once more applied herself to the green bottle, sat down ona low chair before the fire, and proceeded to dress the infant.

What an excellent example of the power of dress, young OliverTwist was! Wrapped in the blanket which had hitherto formed hisonly covering, he might have been the child of a nobleman or abeggar; it would have been hard for the haughtiest stranger tohave assigned him his proper station in society. But now that hewas enveloped in the old calico robes which had grown yellow inthe same service, he was badged and ticketed, and fell into hisplace at once--a parish child--the orphan of a workhouse--thehumble, half-starved drudge--to be cuffed and buffeted throughthe world--despised by all, and pitied by none.

Oliver cried lustily. If he could have known that he was anorphan, left to the tender mercies of church-wardens andoverseers, perhaps he would have cried the louder.



For the next eight or ten months, Oliver was the victim of asystematic course of treachery and deception. He was brought upby hand. The hungry and destitute situation of the infant orphanwas duly reported by the workhouse authorities to the parishauthorities. The parish authorities inquired with dignity of theworkhouse authorities, whether there was no female then domiciledin 'the house' who was in a situation to impart to Oliver Twist,the consolation and nourishment of which he stood in need. Theworkhouse authorities replied with humility, that there was not. Upon this, the parish authorities magnanimously and humanelyresolved, that Oliver should be 'farmed,' or, in other words,that he should be dispatched to a branch-workhouse some threemiles off, where twenty or thirty other juvenile offendersagainst the poor-laws, rolled about the floor all day, withoutthe inconvenience of too much food or too much clothing, underthe parental superintendence of an elderly female, who receivedthe culprits at and for the consideration of sevenpence-halfpennyper small head per week. Sevenpence-halfpenny's worth per weekis a good round diet for a child; a great deal may be got forsevenpence-halfpenny, quite enough to overload its stomach, andmake it uncomfortable. The elderly female was a woman of wisdomand experience; she knew what was good for children; and she hada very accurate perception of what was good for herself. So, sheappropriated the greater part of the weekly stipend to her ownuse, and consigned the rising parochial generation to even ashorter allowance than was originally provided for them. Therebyfinding in the lowest depth a deeper still; and proving herself avery great experimental philosopher.

Everybody knows the story of another experimental philosopher whohad a great theory about a horse being able to live withouteating, and who demonstrated it so well, that he had got his ownhorse down to a straw a day, and would unquestionably haverendered him a very spirited and rampacious animal on nothing atall, if he had not died, four-and-twenty hours before he was tohave had his first comfortable bait of air. Unfortunately for,the experimenal philosophy of the female to whose protecting careOliver Twist was delivered over, a similar result usuallyattended the operation of HER system; for at the very moment whenthe child had contrived to exist upon the smallest possibleportion of the weakest possible food, it did perversely happen ineight and a half cases out of ten, either that it sickened fromwant and cold, or fell into the fire from neglect, or gothalf-smothered by accident; in any one of which cases, themiserable little being was usually summoned into another world,and there gathered to the fathers it had never known in this.

Occasionally, when there was some more than usually interestinginquest upon a parish child who had been overlooked in turning upa bedstead, or inadvertently scalded to death when there happenedto be a washing--though the latter accident was very scarce,anything approaching to a washing being of rare occurance in thefarm--the jury would take it into their heads to ask troublesomequestions, or the parishioners would rebelliously affix theirsignatures to a remonstrance. But these impertinences werespeedily checked by the evidence of the surgeon, and thetestimony of the beadle; the former of whom had always opened thebody and found nothing inside (which was very probable indeed),and the latter of whom invariably swore whatever the parishwanted; which was very self-devotional. Besides, the board madeperiodical pilgrimages to the farm, and always sent the beadlethe day before, to say they were going. The children were neatand clean to behold, when THEY went; and what more would thepeople have!

It cannot be expected that this system of farming would produceany very extraordinary or luxuriant crop. Oliver Twist's ninthbirthday found him a pale thin child, somewhat diminutive instature, and decidely small in circumference. But nature orinheritance had implanted a good sturdy spirit in Oliver'sbreast. It had had plenty of room to expand, thanks to the sparediet of the establishment; and perhaps to this circumstance maybe attributed his having any ninth birth-day at all. Be this asit may, however, it was his ninth birthday; and he was keeping itin the coal-cellar with a select party of two other younggentleman, who, after participating with him in a soundthrashing, had been locked up for atrociously presuming to behungry, when Mrs. Mann, the good lady of the house, wasunexpectedly startled by the apparition of Mr. Bumble, thebeadle, striving to undo the wicket of the garden-gate.

'Goodness gracious! Is that you, Mr. Bumble, sir?' said Mrs.Mann, thrusting her head out of the window in well-affectedecstasies of joy. '(Susan, take Oliver and them two bratsupstairs, and wash 'em directly.)--My heart alive! Mr. Bumble,how glad I am to see you, sure-ly!'

Now, Mr. Bumble was a fat man, and a choleric; so, instead ofresponding to this open-hearted salutation in a kindred spirit,he gave the little wicket a tremendous shake, and then bestowedupon it a kick which could have emanated from no leg but abeadle's.

'Lor, only think,' said Mrs. Mann, running out,--for the threeboys had been removed by this time,--'only think of that! That Ishould have forgotten that the gate was bolted on the inside, onaccount of them dear children! Walk in sir; walk in, pray, Mr.Bumble, do, sir.'

Although this invitation was accompanied with a curtsey thatmight have softened the heart of a church-warden, it by no meansmollified the beadle.

'Do you think this respectful or proper conduct, Mrs. Mann,'inquired Mr. Bumble, grasping his cane, 'to keep the parishofficers a waiting at your garden-gate, when they come here uponporochial business with the porochial orphans? Are you aweer,Mrs. Mann, that you are, as I may say, a porochial delegate, anda stipendiary?'

'I'm sure Mr. Bumble, that I was only a telling one or two of thedear children as is so fond of you, that it was you a coming,'replied Mrs. Mann with great humility.

Mr. Bumble had a great idea of his oratorical powers and hisimportance. He had displayed the one, and vindicated the other. He relaxed.

'Well, well, Mrs. Mann,' he replied in a calmer tone; 'it may beas you say; it may be. Lead the way in, Mrs. Mann, for I come onbusiness, and have something to say.'

Mrs. Mann ushered the beadle into a small parlour with a brickfloor; placed a seat for him; and officiously deposited hiscocked hat and can on the table before him. Mr. Bumble wipedfrom his forehead the perspiration which his walk had engendered,glanced complacently at the cocked hat, and smiled. Yes, hesmiled. Beadles are but men: and Mr. Bumble smiled.

'Now don't you be offended at what I'm a going to say,' observedMrs. Mann, with captivating sweetness. 'You've had a long walk,you know, or I wouldn't mention it. Now, will you take a littledrop of somethink, Mr. Bumble?'

'Not a drop. Nor a drop,' said Mr. Bumble, waving his right handin a dignified, but placid manner.

'I think you will,' said Mrs. Mann, who had noticed the tone ofthe refusal, and the gesture that had accompanied it. 'Just aleetle drop, with a little cold water, and a lump of sugar.'

Mr. Bumble coughed.

'Now, just a leetle drop,' said Mrs. Mann persuasively.

'What is it?' inquired the beadle.

'Why, it's what I'm obliged to keep a little of in the house, toput into the blessed infants' Daffy, when they ain't well, Mr.Bumble,' replied Mrs. Mann as she opened a corner cupboard, andtook down a bottle and glass. 'It's gin. I'll not deceive you,Mr. B. It's gin.'

'Do you give the children Daffy, Mrs. Mann?' inquired Bumble,following with this eyes the interesting process of mixing.

Title: Oliver Twist
Author: Charles Dickens
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