Charles Dickens >> Oliver Twist (page 2)

'Ah, bless 'em, that I do, dear as it is,' replied the nurse. 'Icouldn't see 'em suffer before my very eyes, you know sir.'

'No'; said Mr. Bumble approvingly; 'no, you could not. You are ahumane woman, Mrs. Mann.' (Here she set down the glass.) 'Ishall take a early opportunity of mentioning it to the board,Mrs. Mann.' (He drew it towards him.) 'You feel as a mother,Mrs. Mann.' (He stirred the gin-and-water.) 'I--I drink yourhealth with cheerfulness, Mrs. Mann'; and he swallowed half ofit.

'And now about business,' said the beadle, taking out a leathernpocket-book. 'The child that was half-baptized Oliver Twist, isnine year old to-day.;

'Bless him!' interposed Mrs. Mann, inflaming her left eye withthe corner of her apron.

'And notwithstanding a offered reward of ten pound, which wasafterwards increased to twenty pound. Notwithstanding the mostsuperlative, and, I may say, supernat'ral exertions on the partof this parish,' said Bumble, 'we have never been able todiscover who is his father, or what was his mother's settlement,name, or con--dition.'

Mrs Mann raised her hands in astonishment; but added, after amoment's reflection, 'How comes he to have any name at all,then?'

The beadle drew himself up with great pride, and said, 'Iinwented it.'

'You, Mr. Bumble!'

'I, Mrs. Mann. We name our fondlings in alphabetical order. Thelast was a S,--Swubble, I named him. This was a T,--Twist, Inamed HIM. The next one comes will be Unwin, and the nextVilkins. I have got names ready made to the end of the alphabet,and all the way through it again, when we come to Z.'

'Why, you're quite a literary character, sir!' said Mrs. Mann.

'Well, well,' said the beadle, evidently gratified with thecompliment; 'perhaps I may be. Perhaps I may be, Mrs. Mann.' Hefinished the gin-and-water, and added, 'Oliver being now too oldto remain here, the board have determined to have him back intothe house. I have come out myself to take him there. So let mesee him at once.'

'I'll fetch him directly,' said Mrs. Mann, leaving the room forthat purpose. Oliver, having had by this time as much of theouter coat of dirt which encrusted his face and hands, removed,as could be scrubbed off in one washing, was led into the room byhis benevolent protectress.

'Make a bow to the gentleman, Oliver,' said Mrs. Mann.

Oliver made a bow, which was divided between the beadle on thechair, and the cocked hat on the table.

'Will you go along with me, Oliver?' said Mr. Bumble, in amajestic voice.

Oliver was about to say that he would go along with anybody withgreat readiness, when, glancing upward, he caught sight of Mrs.Mann, who had got behind the beadle's chair, and was shaking herfist at him with a furious countenance. He took the hint atonce, for the fist had been too often impressed upon his body notto be deeply impressed upon his recollection.

'Will she go with me?' inquired poor Oliver.

'No, she can't,' replied Mr. Bumble. 'But she'll come and seeyou sometimes.'

This was no very great consolation to the child. Young as hewas, however, he had sense enough to make a feint of feelinggreat regret at going away. It was no very difficult matter forthe boy to call tears into his eyes. Hunger and recent ill-usageare great assistants if you want to cry; and Oliver cried verynaturally indeed. Mrs. Mann gave him a thousand embraces, andwhat Oliver wanted a great deal more, a piece of bread andbutter, less he should seem too hungry when he got to theworkhouse. With the slice of bread in his hand, and the littlebrown-cloth parish cap on his head, Oliver was then led away byMr. Bumble from the wretched home where one kind word or look hadnever lighted the gloom of his infant years. And yet he burstinto an agony of childish grief, as the cottage-gate closed afterhim. Wretched as were the little companions in misery he wasleaving behind, they were the only friends he had ever known; anda sense of his loneliness in the great wide world, sank into thechild's heart for the first time.

Mr. Bumble walked on with long strides; little Oliver, firmlygrasping his gold-laced cuff, trotted beside him, inquiring atthe end of every quarter of a mile whether they were 'nearlythere.' To these interrogations Mr. Bumble returned very briefand snappish replies; for the temporary blandness whichgin-and-water awakens in some bosoms had by this time evaporated;and he was once again a beadle.

Oliver had not been within the walls of the workhouse a quarterof an hour, and had scarcely completed the demolition of a secondslice of bread, when Mr. Bumble, who had handed him over to thecare of an old woman, returned; and, telling him it was a boardnight, informed him that the board had said he was to appearbefore it forthwith.

Not having a very clearly defined notion of what a live boardwas, Oliver was rather astounded by this intelligence, and wasnot quite certain whether he ought to laugh or cry. He had notime to think about the matter, however; for Mr. Bumble gave hima tap on the head, with his cane, to wake him up: and another onthe back to make him lively: and bidding him to follow,conducted him into a large white-washed room, where eight or tenfat gentlemen were sitting round a table. At the top of thetable, seated in an arm-chair rather higher than the rest, was aparticularly fat gentleman with a very round, red face.

'Bow to the board,' said Bumble. Oliver brushed away two orthree tears that were lingering in his eyes; and seeing no boardbut the table, fortunately bowed to that.

'What's your name, boy?' said the gentleman in the high chair.

Oliver was frightened at the sight of so many gentlemen, whichmade him tremble: and the beadle gave him another tap behind,which made him cry. These two causes made him answer in a verylow and hesitating voice; whereupon a gentleman in a whitewaistcoat said he was a fool. Which was a capital way of raisinghis spirits, and putting him quite at his ease.

'Boy,' said the gentleman in the high chair, 'listen to me. Youknow you're an orphan, I suppose?'

'What's that, sir?' inquired poor Oliver.

'The boy IS a fool--I thought he was,' said the gentleman in thewhite waistcoat.

'Hush!' said the gentleman who had spoken first. 'You knowyou've got no father or mother, and that you were brought up bythe parish, don't you?'

'Yes, sir,' replied Oliver, weeping bitterly.

'What are you crying for?' inquired the gentleman in the whitewaistcoat. And to be sure it was very extraordinary. What COULDthe boy be crying for?

'I hope you say your prayers every night,' said another gentlemanin a gruff voice; 'and pray for the people who feed you, and takecare of you--like a Christian.'

'Yes, sir,' stammered the boy. The gentleman who spoke last wasunconsciously right. It would have been very like a Christian,and a marvellously good Christian too, if Oliver had prayed forthe people who fed and took care of HIM. But he hadn't, becausenobody had taught him.

'Well! You have come here to be educated, and taught a usefultrade,' said the red-faced gentleman in the high chair.

'So you'll begin to pick oakum to-morrow morning at six o'clock,'added the surly one in the white waistcoat.

For the combination of both these blessings in the one simpleprocess of picking oakum, Oliver bowed low by the direction ofthe beadle, and was then hurried away to a large ward; where, ona rough, hard bed, he sobbed himself to sleep. What a novelillustration of the tender laws of England! They let the paupersgo to sleep!

Poor Oliver! He little thought, as he lay sleeping in happyunconsciousness of all around him, that the board had that veryday arrived at a decision which would exercise the most materialinfluence over all his future fortunes. But they had. And thiswas it:

The members of this board were very sage, deep, philosophicalmen; and when they came to turn their attention to the workhouse,they found out at once, what ordinary folks would nver havediscovered--the poor people liked it! It was a regular place ofpublic entertainment for the poorer classes; a tavern where therewas nothing to pay; a public breakfast, dinner, tea, and supperall the year round; a brick and mortar elysium, where it was allplay and no work. 'Oho!' said the board, looking very knowing;'we are the fellows to set this to rights; we'll stop it all, inno time.' So, they established the rule, that all poor peopleshould have the alternative (for they would compel nobody, notthey), of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or bya quick one out of it. With this view, they contracted with thewater-works to lay on an unlimited supply of water; and with acorn-factor to supply periodically small quantities of oatmeal;and issued three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice aweek, and half a roll of Sundays. They made a great many otherwise and humane regulations, having reference to the ladies,which it is not necessary to repeat; kindly undertook to divorcepoor married people, in consequence of the great expense of asuit in Doctors' Commons; and, instead of compelling a man tosupport his family, as they had theretofore done, took his familyaway from him, and made him a bachelor! There is no saying howmany applicants for relief, under these last two heads, mighthave started up in all classes of society, if it had not beencoupled with the workhouse; but the board were long-headed men,and had provided for this difficulty. The relief was inseparablefrom the workhouse and the gruel; and that frightened people.

For the first six months after Oliver Twist was removed, thesystem was in full operation. It was rather expensive at first,in consequence of the increase in the undertaker's bill, and thenecessity of taking in the clothes of all the paupers, whichfluttered loosely on their wasted, shrunken forms, after a weekor two's gruel. But the number of workhouse inmates got thin aswell as the paupers; and the board were in ecstasies.

The room in which the boys were fed, was a large stone hall, witha copper at one end: out of which the master, dressed in anapron for the purpose, and assisted by one or two women, ladledthe gruel at mealtimes. Of this festive composition each boy hadone porringer, and no more--except on occasions of great publicrejoicing, when he had two ounces and a quarter of bread besides.

The bowls never wanted washing. The boys polished them withtheir spoons till they shone again; and when they had performedthis operation (which never took very long, the spoons beingnearly as large as the bowls), they would sit staring at thecopper, with such eager eyes, as if they could have devoured thevery bricks of which it was composed; employing themselves,meanwhile, in sucking their fingers most assiduously, with theview of catching up any stray splashes of gruel that might havebeen cast thereon. Boys have generally excellent appetites. Oliver Twist and his companions suffered the tortures of slowstarvation for three months: at last they got so voracious andwild with hunger, that one boy, who was tall for his age, andhadn't been used to that sort of thing (for his father had kept asmall cook-shop), hinted darkly to his companions, that unless hehad another basin of gruel per diem, he was afraid he might somenight happen to eat the boy who slept next him, who happened tobe a weakly youth of tender age. He had a wild, hungry eye; andthey implicitly believed him. A council was held; lots were castwho should walk up to the master after supper that evening, andask for more; and it fell to Oliver Twist.

The evening arrived; the boys took their places. The master, inhis cook's uniform, stationed himself at the copper; his pauperassistants ranged themselves behind him; the gruel was servedout; and a long grace was said over the short commons. The grueldisappeared; the boys whispered each other, and winked at Oliver;while his next neighbours nudged him. Child as he was, he wasdesperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose fromthe table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand,said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity:

'Please, sir, I want some more.'

The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. Hegazed in stupified astonishment on the small rebel for someseconds, and then clung for support to the copper. Theassistants were paralysed with wonder; the boys with fear.

'What!' said the master at length, in a faint voice.

'Please, sir,' replied Oliver, 'I want some more.'

The master aimed a blow at Oliver's head with the ladle; pinionedhim in his arm; and shrieked aloud for the beadle.

The board were sitting in solemn conclave, when Mr. Bumble rushedinto the room in great excitement, and addressing the gentlemanin the high chair, said,

'Mr. Limbkins, I beg your pardon, sir! Oliver Twist has askedfor more!'

There was a general start. Horror was depicted on everycountenance.

'For MORE!' said Mr. Limbkins. 'Compose yourself, Bumble, andanswer me distinctly. Do I understand that he asked for more,after he had eaten the supper allotted by the dietary?'

'He did, sir,' replied Bumble.

'That boy will be hung,' said the gentleman in the whitewaistcoat. 'I know that boy will be hung.'

Nobody controverted the prophetic gentleman's opinion. Ananimated discussion took place. Oliver was ordered into instantconfinement; and a bill was next morning pasted on the outside ofthe gate, offering a reward of five pounds to anybody who wouldtake Oliver Twist off the hands of the parish. In other words,five pounds and Oliver Twist were offered to any man or woman whowanted an apprentice to any trade, business, or calling.

'I never was more convinced of anything in my life,' said thegentleman in the white waistcoat, as he knocked at the gate andread the bill next morning: 'I never was more convinced ofanything in my life, than I am that that boy will come to behung.'

Title: Oliver Twist
Author: Charles Dickens
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