Charles Dickens >> Oliver Twist (page 18)

The girl burst into a laugh; drew her shawl more closely roundher; and they walked away. But Oliver felt her hand tremble,and, looking up in her face as they passed a gas-lamp, saw thatit had turned a deadly white.

They walked on, by little-frequented and dirty ways, for a fullhalf-hour: meeting very few people, and those appearing fromtheir looks to hold much the same position in society as Mr.Sikes himself. At length they turned into a very filthy narrowstreet, nearly full of old-clothes shops; the dog runningforward, as if conscious that there was no further occasion forhis keeping on guard, stopped before the door of a shop that wasclosed and apparently untenanted; the house was in a ruinouscondition, and on the door was nailed a board, intimating that itwas to let: which looked as if it had hung there for many years.

'All right,' cried Sikes, glancing cautiously about.

Nancy stooped below the shutters, and Oliver heard the sound of abell. They crossed to the opposite side of the street, and stoodfor a few moments under a lamp. A noise, as if a sash windowwere gently raised, was heard; and soon afterwards the doorsoftly opened. Mr. Sikes then seized the terrified boy by thecollar with very little ceremony; and all three were quicklyinside the house.

The passage was perfectly dark. They waited, while the personwho had let them in, chained and barred the door.

'Anybody here?' inquired Sikes.

'No,' replied a voice, which Oliver thought he had heard before.

'Is the old 'un here?' asked the robber.

'Yes,' replied the voice, 'and precious down in the mouth he hasbeen. Won't he be glad to see you? Oh, no!'

The style of this reply, as well as the voice which delivered it,seemed familiar to Oliver's ears: but it was impossible todistinguish even the form of the speaker in the darkness.

'Let's have a glim,' said Sikes, 'or we shall go breaking ournecks, or treading on the dog. Look after your legs if you do!'

'Stand still a moment, and I'll get you one,' replied the voice. The receding footsteps of the speaker were heard; and, in anotherminute, the form of Mr. John Dawkins, otherwise the ArtfulDodger, appeared. He bore in his right hand a tallow candlestuck in the end of a cleft stick.

The young gentleman did not stop to bestow any other mark ofrecognition upon Oliver than a humourous grin; but, turning away,beckoned the visitors to follow him down a flight of stairs. They crossed an empty kitchen; and, opening the door of a lowearthy-smelling room, which seemed to have been built in a smallback-yard, were received with a shout of laughter.

'Oh, my wig, my wig!' cried Master Charles Bates, from whoselungs the laughter had proceeded: 'here he is! oh, cry, here heis! Oh, Fagin, look at him! Fagin, do look at him! I can't bearit; it is such a jolly game, I cant' bear it. Hold me, somebody,while I laugh it out.'

With this irrepressible ebullition of mirth, Master Bates laidhimself flat on the floor: and kicked convulsively for fiveminutes, in an ectasy of facetious joy. Then jumping to hisfeet, he snatched the cleft stick from the Dodger; and, advancingto Oliver, viewed him round and round; while the Jew, taking offhis nightcap, made a great number of low bows to the bewilderedboy. The Artful, meantime, who was of a rather saturninedisposition, and seldom gave way to merriment when it interferedwith business, rifled Oliver's pockets with steady assiduity.

'Look at his togs, Fagin!' said Charley, putting the light soclose to his new jacket as nearly to set him on fire. 'Look athis togs! Superfine cloth, and the heavy swell cut! Oh, my eye,what a game! And his books, too! Nothing but a gentleman,Fagin!'

'Delighted to see you looking so well, my dear,' said the Jew,bowing with mock humility. 'The Artful shall give you anothersuit, my dear, for fear you should spoil that Sunday one. Whydidn't you write, my dear, and say you were coming? We'd havegot something warm for supper.'

At his, Master Bates roared again: so loud, that Fagin himselfrelaxed, and even the Dodger smiled; but as the Artful drew forththe five-pound note at that instant, it is doubtful whether thesally of the discovery awakened his merriment.

'Hallo, what's that?' inquired Sikes, stepping forward as the Jewseized the note. 'That's mine, Fagin.'

'No, no, my dear,' said the Jew. 'Mine, Bill, mine. You shallhave the books.'

'If that ain't mine!' said Bill Sikes, putting on his hat with adetermined air; 'mine and Nancy's that is; I'll take the boy backagain.'

The Jew started. Oliver started too, though from a verydifferent cause; for he hoped that the dispute might really endin his being taken back.

'Come! Hand over, will you?' said Sikes.

'This is hardly fair, Bill; hardly fair, is it, Nancy?' inquiredthe Jew.

'Fair, or not fair,' retorted Sikes, 'hand over, I tell you! Doyou think Nancy and me has got nothing else to do with ourprecious time but to spend it in scouting arter, and kidnapping,every young boy as gets grabbed through you? Give it here, youavaricious old skeleton, give it here!'

With this gentle remonstrance, Mr. Sikes plucked the note frombetween the Jew's finger and thumb; and looking the old mancoolly in the face, folded it up small, and tied it in hisneckerchief.

'That's for our share of the trouble,' said Sikes; 'and not halfenough, neither. You may keep the books, if you're fond ofreading. If you ain't, sell 'em.'

'They're very pretty,' said Charley Bates: who, with sundrygrimaces, had been affecting to read one of the volumes inquestion; 'beautiful writing, isn't is, Oliver?' At sight of thedismayed look with which Oliver regarded his tormentors, MasterBates, who was blessed with a lively sense of the ludicrous, fellinto another ectasy, more boisterous than the first.

'They belong to the old gentleman,' said Oliver, wringing hishands; 'to the good, kind, old gentleman who took me into hishouse, and had me nursed, when I was near dying of the fever. Oh, pray send them back; send him back the books and money. Keepme here all my life long; but pray, pray send them back. He'llthink I stole them; the old lady: all of them who were so kindto me: will think I stole them. Oh, do have mercy upon me, andsend them back!'

With these words, which were uttered with all the energy ofpassionate grief, Oliver fell upon his knees at the Jew's feet;and beat his hands together, in perfect desperation.

'The boy's right,' remarked Fagin, looking covertly round, andknitting his shaggy eyebrows into a hard knot. 'You're right,Oliver, you're right; they WILL think you have stolen 'em. Ha!ha!' chuckled the Jew, rubbing his hands, 'it couldn't havehappened better, if we had chosen our time!'

'Of course it couldn't,' replied Sikes; 'I know'd that, directlyI see him coming through Clerkenwell, with the books under hisarm. It's all right enough. They're soft-hearted psalm-singers,or they wouldn't have taken him in at all; and they'll ask noquestions after him, fear they should be obliged to prosecute,and so get him lagged. He's safe enough.'

Oliver had looked from one to the other, while these words werebeing spoken, as if he were bewildered, and could scarecelyunderstand what passed; but when Bill Sikes concluded, he jumpedsuddenly to his feet, and tore wildly from the room: utteringshrieks for help, which made the bare old house echo to the roof.

'Keep back the dog, Bill!' cried Nancy, springing before thedoor, and closing it, as the Jew and his two pupils darted out inpursuit. 'Keep back the dog; he'll tear the boy to pieces.'

'Serve him right!' cried Sikes, struggling to disengage himselffrom the girl's grasp. 'Stand off from me, or I'll split yourhead against the wall.'

'I don't care for that, Bill, I don't care for that,' screamedthe girl, struggling violently with the man, 'the child shan't betorn down by the dog, unless you kill me first.'

'Shan't he!' said Sikes, setting his teeth. 'I'll soon do that,if you don't keep off.'

The housebreaker flung the girl from him to the further end ofthe room, just as the Jew and the two boys returned, draggingOliver among them.

'What's the matter here!' said Fagin, looking round.

'The girl's gone mad, I think,' replied Sikes, savagely.

'No, she hasn't,' said Nancy, pale and breathless from thescuffle; 'no, she hasn't, Fagin; don't think it.'

'Then keep quiet, will you?' said the Jew, with a threateninglook.

'No, I won't do that, neither,' replied Nancy, speaking veryloud. 'Come! What do you think of that?'

Mr. Fagin was sufficiently well acquainted with the manners andcustoms of that particular species of humanity to which Nancybelonged, to feel tolerably certain that it would be ratherunsafe to prolong any conversation with her, at present. Withthe view of diverting the attention of the company, he turned toOliver.

'So you wanted to get away, my dear, did you?' said the Jew,taking up a jagged and knotted club which law in a corner of thefireplace; 'eh?'

Oliver made no reply. But he watched the Jew's motions, andbreathed quickly.

'Wanted to get assistance; called for the police; did you?'sneered the Jew, catching the boy by the arm. 'We'll cure you ofthat, my young master.'

The Jew inflicted a smart blow on Oliver's shoulders with theclub; and was raising it for a second, when the girl, rushingforward, wrested it from his hand. She flung it into the fire,with a force that brought some of the glowing coals whirling outinto the room.

'I won't stand by and see it done, Fagin,' cried the girl.'You've got the boy, and what more would you have?--Let himbe--let him be--or I shall put that mark on some of you, thatwill bring me to the gallows before my time.'

The girl stamped her foot violently on the floor as she ventedthis threat; and with her lips compressed, and her handsclenched, looked alternately at the Jew and the other robber: her face quite colourless from the passion of rage into which shehad gradually worked herself.

'Why, Nancy!' said the Jew, in a soothing tone; after a pause,during which he and Mr. Sikes had stared at one another in adisconcerted manner; 'you,--you're more clever than everto-night. Ha! ha! my dear, you are acting beautifully.'

'Am I!' said the girl. 'Take care I don't overdo it. You willbe the worse for it, Fagin, if I do; and so I tell you in goodtime to keep clear of me.'

There is something about a roused woman: especially if she add toall her other strong passions, the fierce impulses ofrecklessness and despair; which few men like to provoke. The Jewsaw that it would be hopeless to affect any further mistakeregarding the reality of Miss Nancy's rage; and, shrinkinginvoluntarily back a few paces, cast a glance, half imploring andhalf cowardly, at Sikes: as if to hint that he was the fittestperson to pursue the dialogue.

Mr. Sikes, thus mutely appealed to; and possibly feeling hispersonal pride and influence interested in the immediatereduction of Miss Nancy to reason; gave utterance to about acouple of score of curses and threats, the rapid production ofwhich reflected great credit on the fertility of his invention. As they produced no visible effect on the object against whomthey were discharged, however, he resorted to more tangiblearguments.

'What do you mean by this?' said Sikes; backing the inquiry witha very common imprecation concerning the most beautiful of humanfeatures: which, if it were heard above, only once out of everyfifty thousand times that it is uttered below, would renderblindness as common a disorder as measles: 'what do you mean byit? Burn my body! Do you know who you are, and what you are?'

'Oh, yes, I know all about it,' replied the girl, laughinghysterically; and shaking her head from side to side, with a poorassumption of indifference.

'Well, then, keep quiet,' rejoined Sikes, with a growl like thathe was accustomed to use when addressing his dog, 'or I'll quietyou for a good long time to come.'

The girl laughed again: even less composedly than before; and,darting a hasty look at Sikes, turned her face aside, and bit herlip till the blood came.

'You're a nice one,' added Sikes, as he surveyed her with acontemptuous air, 'to take up the humane and gen--teel side! Apretty subject for the child, as you call him, to make a friendof!'

'God Almighty help me, I am!' cried the girl passionately; 'and Iwish I had been struck dead in the street, or had changed placeswith them we passed so near to-night, before I had lent a hand inbringing him here. He's a thief, a liar, a devil, all that'sbad, from this night forth. Isn't that enough for the oldwretch, without blows?'

'Come, come, Sikes,' said the Jew appealing to him in aremonstratory tone, and motioning towards the boys, who wereeagerly attentive to all that passed; 'we must have civil words;civil words, Bill.'

'Civil words!' cried the girl, whose passion was frightful tosee. 'Civil words, you villain! Yes, you deserve 'em from me. I thieved for you when I was a child not half as old as this!'pointing to Oliver. 'I have been in the same trade, and in thesame service, for twelve years since. Don't you know it? Speakout! Don't you know it?'

'Well, well,' replied the Jew, with an attempt at pacification;'and, if you have, it's your living!'

'Aye, it is!' returned the girl; not speaking, but pouring outthe words in one continuous and vehement scream. 'It is myliving; and the cold, wet, dirty streets are my home; and you'rethe wretch that drove me to them long ago, and that'll keep methere, day and night, day and night, till I die!'

Title: Oliver Twist
Author: Charles Dickens
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