Charles Dickens >> Oliver Twist (page 14)

'Why, how's this?' muttered the Jew: changing countenance; 'onlytwo of 'em? Where's the third? They can't have got intotrouble. Hark!'

The footsteps approached nearer; they reached the landing. Thedoor was slowly opened; and the Dodger and Charley Bates entered,closing it behind them.



'Where's Oliver?' said the Jew, rising with a menacing look.'Where's the boy?'

The young thieves eyed their preceptor as if they were alarmed athis violence; and looked uneasily at each other. But they madeno reply.

'What's become of the boy?' said the Jew, seizing the Dodgertightly by the collar, and threatening him with horridimprecations. 'Speak out, or I'll throttle you!'

Mr. Fagin looked so very much in earnest, that Charley Bates, whodeemed it prudent in all cases to be on the safe side, and whoconceived it by no means improbable that it might be his turn tobe throttled second, dropped upon his knees, and raised a loud,well-sustained, and continuous roar--something between a mad bulland a speaking trumpet.

'Will you speak?' thundered the Jew: shaking the Dodger so muchthat his keeping in the big coat at all, seemed perfectlymiraculous.

'Why, the traps have got him, and that's all about it,' said theDodger, sullenly. 'Come, let go o' me, will you!' And, swinging himself, at one jerk, clean out of the big coat, whichhe left in the Jew's hands, the Dodger snatched up the toastingfork, and made a pass at the merry old gentleman's waistcoat;which, if it had taken effect, would have let a little moremerriment out, than could have been easily replaced.

The Jew stepped back in this emergency, with more agility thancould have been anticipated in a man of his apparent decrepitude;and, seizing up the pot, prepared to hurl it at his assailant'shead. But Charley Bates, at this moment, calling his attentionby a perfectly terrific howl, he suddenly altered itsdestination, and flung it full at that young gentleman.

'Why, what the blazes is in the wind now!' growled a deep voice. 'Who pitched that 'ere at me? It's well it's the beer, and notthe pot, as hit me, or I'd have settled somebody. I might haveknow'd, as nobody but an infernal, rich, plundering, thunderingold Jew could afford to throw away any drink but water--and notthat, unless he done the River Company every quarter. Wot's itall about, Fagin? D--me, if my neck-handkercher an't lined withbeer! Come in, you sneaking warmint; wot are you stoppingoutside for, as if you was ashamed of your master! Come in!'

The man who growled out these words, was a stoutly-built fellowof about five-and-thirty, in a black velveteen coat, very soileddrab breeches, lace-up half boots, and grey cotton stockingswhich inclosed a bulky pair of legs, with large swellingcalves;--the kind of legs, which in such costume, always look inan unfinished and incomplete state without a set of fetters togarnish them. He had a brown hat on his head, and a dirtybelcher handkerchief round his neck: with the long frayed endsof which he smeared the beer from his face as he spoke. Hedisclosed, when he had done so, a broad heavy countenance with abeard of three days' growth, and two scowling eyes; one of whichdisplayed various parti-coloured symptoms of having been recentlydamaged by a blow.

'Come in, d'ye hear?' growled this engaging ruffian.

A white shaggy dog, with his face scratched and torn in twentydifferent places, skulked into the room.

'Why didn't you come in afore?' said the man. 'You're gettingtoo proud to own me afore company, are you? Lie down!'

This command was accompanied with a kick, which sent the animalto the other end of the room. He appeared well used to it,however; for he coiled himself up in a corner very quietly,without uttering a sound, and winking his very ill-looking eyestwenty times in a minute, appeared to occupy himself in taking asurvey of the apartment.

'What are you up to? Ill-treating the boys, you covetous,avaricious, in-sa-ti-a-ble old fence?' said the man, seatinghimself deliberately. 'I wonder they don't murder you! I wouldif I was them. If I'd been your 'prentice, I'd have done it longago, and--no, I couldn't have sold you afterwards, for you're fitfor nothing but keeping as a curiousity of ugliness in a glassbottle, and I suppose they don't blow glass bottles largeenough.'

'Hush! hush! Mr. Sikes,' said the Jew, trembling; 'don't speak soloud!'

'None of your mistering,' replied the ruffian; 'you always meanmischief when you come that. You know my name: out with it! Ishan't disgrace it when the time comes.'

'Well, well, then--Bill Sikes,' said the Jew, with abjecthumility. 'You seem out of humour, Bill.'

'Perhaps I am,' replied Sikes; 'I should think you was rather outof sorts too, unless you mean as little harm when you throwpewter pots about, as you do when you blab and--'

'Are you mad?' said the Jew, catching the man by the sleeve, andpointing towards the boys.

Mr. Sikes contented himself with tying an imaginary knot underhis left ear, and jerking his head over on the right shoulder; apiece of dumb show which the Jew appeared to understandperfectly. He then, in cant terms, with which his wholeconversation was plentifully besprinkled, but which would bequite unintelligible if they were recorded here, demanded a glassof liquor.

'And mind you don't poison it,' said Mr. Sikes, laying his hatupon the table.

This was said in jest; but if the speaker could have seen theevil leer with which the Jew bit his pale lip as he turned roundto the cupboard, he might have thought the caution not whollyunnecessary, or the wish (at all events) to improve upon thedistiller's ingenuity not very far from the old gentleman's merryheart.

After swallowing two of three glasses of spirits, Mr. Sikescondescended to take some notice of the young gentlemen; whichgracious act led to a conversation, in which the cause and mannerof Oliver's capture were circumstantially detailed, with suchalterations and improvements on the truth, as to the Dodgerappeared most advisable under the circumstances.

'I'm afraid,' said the Jew, 'that he may say something which willget us into trouble.'

'That's very likely,' returned Sikes with a malicious grin.'You're blowed upon, Fagin.'

'And I'm afraid, you see, added the Jew, speaking as if he hadnot noticed the interruption; and regarding the other closely ashe did so,--'I'm afraid that, if the game was up with us, itmight be up with a good many more, and that it would come outrather worse for you than it would for me, my dear.'

The man started, and turned round upon the Jew. But the oldgentleman's shoulders were shrugged up to his ears; and his eyeswere vacantly staring on the opposite wall.

There was a long pause. Every member of the respectable coterieappeared plunged in his own reflections; not excepting the dog,who by a certain malicious licking of his lips seemed to bemeditating an attack upon the legs of the first gentleman or ladyhe might encounter in the streets when he went out.

'Somebody must find out wot's been done at the office,' said Mr.Sikes in a much lower tone than he had taken since he came in.

The Jew nodded assent.

'If he hasn't peached, and is committed, there's no fear till hecomes out again,' said Mr. Sikes, 'and then he must be taken careon. You must get hold of him somehow.'

Again the Jew nodded.

The prudence of this line of action, indeed, was obvious; but,unfortunately, there was one very strong objection to its beingadopted. This was, that the Dodger, and Charley Bates, andFagin, and Mr. William Sikes, happened, one and all, to entertaina violent and deeply-rooted antipathy to going near apolice-office on any ground or pretext whatever.

How long they might have sat and looked at each other, in a stateof uncertainty not the most pleasant of its kind, it is difficultto guess. It is not necessary to make any guesses on thesubject, however; for the sudden entrance of the two young ladieswhom Oliver had seen on a former occasion, caused theconversation to flow afresh.

'The very thing!' said the Jew. 'Bet will go; won't you, mydear?'

'Wheres?' inquired the young lady.

'Only just up to the office, my dear,' said the Jew coaxingly.

It is due to the young lady to say that she did not positivelyaffirm that she would not, but that she merely expressed anemphatic and earnest desire to be 'blessed' if she would; apolite and delicate evasion of the request, which shows the younglady to have been possessed of that natural good breeding whichcannot bear to inflict upon a fellow-creature, the pain of adirect and pointed refusal.

The Jew's countenance fell. He turned from this young lady, whowas gaily, not to say gorgeously attired, in a red gown, greenboots, and yellow curl-papers, to the other female.

'Nancy, my dear,' said the Jew in a soothing manner, 'what do YOUsay?'

'That it won't do; so it's no use a-trying it on, Fagin,' repliedNancy.

'What do you mean by that?' said Mr. Sikes, looking up in a surlymanner.

'What I say, Bill,' replied the lady collectedly.

'Why, you're just the very person for it,' reasoned Mr. Sikes:'nobody about here knows anything of you.'

'And as I don't want 'em to, neither,' replied Nancy in the samecomposed manner, 'it's rather more no than yes with me, Bill.'

'She'll go, Fagin,' said Sikes.

'No, she won't, Fagin,' said Nancy.

'Yes, she will, Fagin,' said Sikes.

And Mr. Sikes was right. By dint of alternate threats, promises,and bribes, the lady in question was ultimately prevailed upon toundertake the commission. She was not, indeed, withheld by thesame considerations as her agreeable friend; for, having recentlyremoved into the neighborhood of Field Lane from the remote butgenteel suburb of Ratcliffe, she was not under the sameapprehension of being recognised by any of her numerousacquaintance.

Accordingly, with a clean white apron tied over her gown, and hercurl-papers tucked up under a straw bonnet,--both articles ofdress being provided from the Jew's inexhaustible stock,--MissNancy prepared to issue forth on her errand.

'Stop a minute, my dear,' said the Jew, producing, a littlecovered basket. 'Carry that in one hand. It looks morerespectable, my dear.'

'Give her a door-key to carry in her t'other one, Fagin,' saidSikes; 'it looks real and genivine like.'

'Yes, yes, my dear, so it does,' said the Jew, hanging a largestreet-door key on the forefinger of the young lady's right hand.

'There; very good! Very good indeed, my dear!' said the Jew,rubbing his hands.

'Oh, my brother! My poor, dear, sweet, innocent little brother!'exclaimed Nancy, bursting into tears, and wringing the littlebasket and the street-door key in an agony of distress. 'Whathas become of him! Where have they taken him to! Oh, do havepity, and tell me what's been done with the dear boy, gentlemen;do, gentlemen, if you please, gentlemen!'

Having uttered those words in a most lamentable and heart-brokentone: to the immeasurable delight of her hearers: Miss Nancypaused, winked to the company, nodded smilingly round, anddisappeared.

'Ah, she's a clever girl, my dears,' said the Jew, turning roundto his young friends, and shaking his head gravely, as if in muteadmonition to them to follow the bright example they had justbeheld.

'She's a honour to her sex,' said Mr. Sikes, filling his glass,and smiting the table with his enormous fist. 'Here's herhealth, and wishing they was all like her!'

While these, and many other encomiums, were being passed on theaccomplished Nancy, that young lady made the best of her way tothe police-office; whither, notwithstanding a little naturaltimidity consequent upon walking through the streets alone andunprotected, she arrived in perfect safety shortly afterwards.

Entering by the back way, she tapped softly with the key at oneof the cell-doors, and listened. There was no sound within: soshe coughed and listened again. Still there was no reply: soshe spoke.

'Nolly, dear?' murmured Nancy in a gentle voice; 'Nolly?'

There was nobody inside but a miserable shoeless criminal, whohad been taken up for playing the flute, and who, the offenceagainst society having been clearly proved, had been veryproperly committed by Mr. Fang to the House of Correction for onemonth; with the appropriate and amusing remark that since he hadso much breath to spare, it would be more wholesomely expended onthe treadmill than in a musical instrument. He made no answer: being occupied mentally bewailing the loss of the flute, whichhad been confiscated for the use of the county: so Nancy passedon to the next cell, and knocked there.

'Well!' cried a faint and feeble voice.

'Is there a little boy here?' inquired Nancy, with a preliminarysob.

'No,' replied the voice; 'God forbid.'

This was a vagrant of sixty-five, who was going to prison for NOTplaying the flute; or, in other words, for begging in thestreets, and doing nothing for his livelihood. In the next cellwas another man, who was going to the same prison for hawking tinsaucepans without license; thereby doing something for hisliving, in defiance of the Stamp-office.

But, as neither of these criminals answered to the name ofOliver, or knew anything about him, Nancy made straight up to thebluff officer in the striped waistcoat; and with the most piteouswailings and lamentations, rendered more piteous by a prompt andefficient use of the street-door key and the little basket,demanded her own dear brother.

Title: Oliver Twist
Author: Charles Dickens
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