Charles Dickens >> Oliver Twist (page 29)

The old man had gained the street corner, before he began torecover the effect of Toby Crackit's intelligence. He hadrelaxed nothing of his unusual speed; but was still pressingonward, in the same wild and disordered manner, when the suddendashing past of a carriage: and a boisterous cry from the footpassengers, who saw his danger: drove him back upon thepavement. Avoiding, as much as was possible, all the mainstreets, and skulking only through the by-ways and alleys, he atlength emerged on Snow Hill. Here he walked even faster thanbefore; nor did he linger until he had again turned into a court;when, as if conscious that he was now in his proper element, hefell into his usual shuffling pace, and seemed to breathe morefreely.

Near to the spot on which Snow Hill and Holborn Hill meet, opens,upon the right hand as you come out of the City, a narrow anddismal alley, leading to Saffron Hill. In its filthy shops areexposed for sale huge bunches of second-hand silk handkerchiefs,of all sizes and patterns; for here reside the traders whopurchase them from pick-pockets. Hundreds of these handkerchiefshang dangling from pegs outside the windows or flaunting from thedoor-posts; and the shelves, within, are piled with them. Confined as the limits of Field Lane are, it has its barber, itscoffee-shop, its beer-shop, and its fried-fish warehouse. It isa commercial colony of itself: the emporium of petty larceny:visited at early morning, and setting-in of dusk, by silentmerchants, who traffic in dark back-parlours, and who go asstrangely as they come. Here, the clothesman, the shoe-vamper,and the rag-merchant, display their goods, as sign-boards to thepetty thief; here, stores of old iron and bones, and heaps ofmildewy fragments of woollen-stuff and linen, rust and rot in thegrimy cellars.

It was into this place that the Jew turned. He was well known tothe sallow denizens of the lane; for such of them as were on thelook-out to buy or sell, nodded, familiarly, as he passed along. He replied to their salutations in the same way; but bestowed nocloser recognition until he reached the further end of the alley;when he stopped, to address a salesman of small stature, who hadsqueezed as much of his person into a child's chair as the chairwould hold, and was smoking a pipe at his warehouse door.

'Why, the sight of you, Mr. Fagin, would cure the hoptalymy!'said this respectable trader, in acknowledgment of the Jew'sinquiry after his health.

'The neighbourhood was a little too hot, Lively,' said Fagin,elevating his eyebrows, and crossing his hands upon hisshoulders.

'Well, I've heerd that complaint of it, once or twice before,'replied the trader; 'but it soon cools down again; don't you findit so?'

Fagin nodded in the affirmative. Pointing in the direction ofSaffron Hill, he inquired whether any one was up yonder to-night.

'At the Cripples?' inquired the man.

The Jew nodded.

'Let me see,' pursued the merchant, reflecting.

'Yes, there's some half-dozen of 'em gone in, that I knows. Idon't think your friend's there.'

'Sikes is not, I suppose?' inquired the Jew, with a disappointedcountenance.

'Non istwentus, as the lawyers say,' replied the little man,shaking his head, and looking amazingly sly. 'Have you gotanything in my line to-night?'

'Nothing to-night,' said the Jew, turning away.

'Are you going up to the Cripples, Fagin?' cried the little man,calling after him. 'Stop! I don't mind if I have a drop therewith you!'

But as the Jew, looking back, waved his hand to intimate that hepreferred being alone; and, moreover, as the little man could notvery easily disengage himself from the chair; the sign of theCripples was, for a time, bereft of the advantage of Mr. Lively'spresence. By the time he had got upon his legs, the Jew haddisappeared; so Mr. Lively, after ineffectually standing ontiptoe, in the hope of catching sight of him, again forcedhimself into the little chair, and, exchanging a shake of thehead with a lady in the opposite shop, in which doubt andmistrust were plainly mingled, resumed his pipe with a gravedemeanour.

The Three Cripples, or rather the Cripples; which was the sign bywhich the establishment was familiarly known to its patrons: wasthe public-house in which Mr. Sikes and his dog have alreadyfigured. Merely making a sign to a man at the bar, Fagin walkedstraight upstairs, and opening the door of a room, and softlyinsinuating himself into the chamber, looked anxiously about: shading his eyes with his hand, as if in search of someparticular person.

The room was illuminated by two gas-lights; the glare of whichwas prevented by the barred shutters, and closely-drawn curtainsof faded red, from being visible outside. The ceiling wasblackened, to prevent its colour from being injured by theflaring of the lamps; and the place was so full of dense tobaccosmoke, that at first it was scarcely possible to discern anythingmore. By degrees, however, as some of it cleared away throughthe open door, an assemblage of heads, as confused as the noisesthat greeted the ear, might be made out; and as the eye grew moreaccustomed to the scene, the spectator gradually became aware ofthe presence of a numerous company, male and female, crowdedround a long table: at the upper end of which, sat a chairmanwith a hammer of office in his hand; while a professionalgentleman with a bluish nose, and his face tied up for thebenefit of a toothache, presided at a jingling piano in a remotecorner.

As Fagin stepped softly in, the professional gentleman, runningover the keys by way of prelude, occasioned a general cry oforder for a song; which having subsided, a young lady proceededto entertain the company with a ballad in four verses, betweeneach of which the accompanyist played the melody all through, asloud as he could. When this was over, the chairman gave asentiment, after which, the professional gentleman on thechairman's right and left volunteered a duet, and sang it, withgreat applause.

It was curious to observe some faces which stood out prominentlyfrom among the group. There was the chairman himself, (thelandlord of the house,) a coarse, rough, heavy built fellow, who,while the songs were proceeding, rolled his eyes hither andthither, and, seeming to give himself up to joviality, had an eyefor everything that was done, and an ear for everything that wassaid--and sharp ones, too. Near him were the singers: receiving, with professional indifference, the compliments of thecompany, and applying themselves, in turn, to a dozen profferedglasses of spirits and water, tendered by their more boisterousadmirers; whose countenances, expressive of almost every vice inalmost every grade, irresistibly attracted the attention, bytheir very repulsiveness. Cunning, ferocity, and drunkeness inall its stages, were there, in their strongest aspect; and women:

some with the last lingering tinge of their early freshnessalmost fading as you looked: others with every mark and stamp oftheir sex utterly beaten out, and presenting but one loathsomeblank of profligacy and crime; some mere girls, others but youngwomen, and none past the prime of life; formed the darkest andsaddest portion of this dreary picture.

Fagin, troubled by no grave emotions, looked eagerly from face toface while these proceedings were in progress; but apparentlywithout meeting that of which he was in search. Succeeding, atlength, in catching the eye of the man who occupied the chair, hebeckoned to him slightly, and left the room, as quietly as he hadentered it.

'What can I do for you, Mr. Fagin?' inquired the man, as hefollowed him out to the landing. 'Won't you join us? They'll bedelighted, every one of 'em.'

The Jew shook his head impatiently, and said in a whisper, 'Is HEhere?'

'No,' replied the man.

'And no news of Barney?' inquired Fagin.

'None,' replied the landlord of the Cripples; for it was he. 'Hewon't stir till it's all safe. Depend on it, they're on thescent down there; and that if he moved, he'd blow upon the thingat once. He's all right enough, Barney is, else I should haveheard of him. I'll pound it, that Barney's managing properly. Let him alone for that.'

'Will HE be here to-night?' asked the Jew, laying the sameemphasis on the pronoun as before.

'Monks, do you mean?' inquired the landlord, hesitating.

'Hush!' said the Jew. 'Yes.'

'Certain,' replied the man, drawing a gold watch from his fob; 'Iexpected him here before now. If you'll wait ten minutes, he'llbe--'

'No, no,' said the Jew, hastily; as though, however desirous hemight be to see the person in question, he was neverthelessrelieved by his absence. 'Tell him I came here to see him; andthat he must come to me to-night. No, say to-morrow. As he isnot here, to-morrow will be time enough.'

'Good!' said the man. 'Nothing more?'

'Not a word now,' said the Jew, descending the stairs.

'I say,' said the other, looking over the rails, and speaking ina hoarse whisper; 'what a time this would be for a sell! I'vegot Phil Barker here: so drunk, that a boy might take him!'

'Ah! But it's not Phil Barker's time,' said the Jew, looking up.

'Phil has something more to do, before we can afford to part withhim; so go back to the company, my dear, and tell them to leadmerry lives--WHILE THEY LAST. Ha! ha! ha!'

The landlord reciprocated the old man's laugh; and returned tohis guests. The Jew was no sooner alone, than his countenanceresumed its former expression of anxiety and thought. After abrief reflection, he called a hack-cabriolet, and bade the mandrive towards Bethnal Green. He dismissed him within some quarterof a mile of Mr. Sikes's residence, and performed the shortremainder of the distance, on foot.

'Now,' muttered the Jew, as he knocked at the door, 'if there isany deep play here, I shall have it out of you, my girl, cunningas you are.'

She was in her room, the woman said. Fagin crept softlyupstairs, and entered it without any previous ceremony. The girlwas alone; lying with her head upon the table, and her hairstraggling over it.

'She has been drinking,' thought the Jew, cooly, 'or perhaps sheis only miserable.'

The old man turned to close the door, as he made this reflection;the noise thus occasioned, roused the girl. She eyed his craftyface narrowly, as she inquired to his recital of Toby Crackit'sstory. When it was concluded, she sank into her former attitude,but spoke not a word. She pushed the candle impatiently away;and once or twice as she feverishly changed her position,shuffled her feet upon the ground; but this was all.

During the silence, the Jew looked restlessly about the room, asif to assure himself that there were no appearances of Sikeshaving covertly returned. Apparently satisfied with hisinspection, he coughed twice or thrice, and made as many effortsto open a conversation; but the girl heeded him no more than ifhe had been made of stone. At length he made another attempt;and rubbing his hands together, said, in his most concilitorytone,

'And where should you think Bill was now, my dear?'

The girl moaned out some half intelligible reply, that she couldnot tell; and seemed, from the smothered noise that escaped her,to be crying.

'And the boy, too,' said the Jew, straining his eyes to catch aglimpse of her face. 'Poor leetle child! Left in a ditch,Nance; only think!'

'The child,' said the girl, suddenly looking up, 'is better wherehe is, than among us; and if no harm comes to Bill from it, Ihope he lies dead in the ditch and that his young bones may rotthere.'

'What!' cried the Jew, in amazement.

'Ay, I do,' returned the girl, meeting his gaze. 'I shall beglad to have him away from my eyes, and to know that the worst isover. I can't bear to have him about me. The sight of him turnsme against myself, and all of you.'

'Pooh!' said the Jew, scornfully. 'You're drunk.'

'Am I?' cried the girl bitterly. 'It's no fault of yours, if Iam not! You'd never have me anything else, if you had your will,except now;--the humour doesn't suit you, doesn't it?'

'No!' rejoined the Jew, furiously. 'It does not.'

'Change it, then!' responded the girl, with a laugh.

'Change it!' exclaimed the Jew, exasperated beyond all bounds byhis companion's unexpected obstinacy, and the vexation of thenight, 'I WILL change it! Listen to me, you drab. Listen to me,who with six words, can strangle Sikes as surely as if I had hisbull's throat between my fingers now. If he comes back, andleaves the boy behind him; if he gets off free, and dead oralive, fails to restore him to me; murder him yourself if youwould have him escape Jack Ketch. And do it the moment he setsfoot in this room, or mind me, it will be too late!'

'What is all this?' cried the girl involuntarily.

'What is it?' pursued Fagin, mad with rage. 'When the boy'sworth hundreds of pounds to me, am I to lose what chance threw mein the way of getting safely, through the whims of a drunken gangthat I could whistle away the lives of! And me bound, too, to aborn devil that only wants the will, and has the power to, to--'

Panting for breath, the old man stammered for a word; and in thatinstant checked the torrent of his wrath, and changed his wholedemeanour. A moment before, his clenched hands had grasped theair; his eyes had dilated; and his face grown livid with passion;but now, he shrunk into a chair, and, cowering together, trembledwith the apprehension of having himself disclosed some hiddenvillainy. After a short silence, he ventured to look round athis companion. He appeared somewhat reassured, on beholding herin the same listless attitude from which he had first roused her.

'Nancy, dear!' croaked the Jew, in his usual voice. 'Did youmind me, dear?'

Title: Oliver Twist
Author: Charles Dickens
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