Charles Dickens >> Oliver Twist (page 3)

As I purpose to show in the sequel whether the white waistcoatedgentleman was right or not, I should perhaps mar the interest ofthis narrative (supposing it to possess any at all), if Iventured to hint just yet, whether the life of Oliver Twist hadthis violent termination or no.



For a week after the commission of the impious and profaneoffence of asking for more, Oliver remained a close prisoner inthe dark and solitary room to which he had been consigned by thewisdom and mercy of the board. It appears, at first sight notunreasonable to suppose, that, if he had entertained a becomingfeeling of respect for the prediction of the gentleman in thewhite waistcoat, he would have established that sage individual'sprophetic character, once and for ever, by tying one end of hispocket-handkerchief to a hook in the wall, and attaching himselfto the other. To the performance of this feat, however, therewas one obstacle: namely, that pocket-handkerchiefs beingdecided articles of luxury, had been, for all future times andages, removed from the noses of paupers by the express order ofthe board, in council assembled: solemnly given and pronouncedunder their hands and seals. There was a still greater obstaclein Oliver's youth and childishness. He only cried bitterly allday; and, when the long, dismal night came on, spread his littlehands before his eyes to shut out the darkness, and crouching inthe corner, tried to sleep: ever and anon waking with a startand tremble, and drawing himself closer and closer to the wall,as if to feel even its cold hard surface were a protection in thegloom and loneliness which surrounded him.

Let it not be supposed by the enemies of 'the system,' that,during the period of his solitary incarceration, Oliver wasdenied the benefit of exercise, the pleasure of society, or theadvantages of religious consolation. As for exercise, it wasnice cold weather, and he was allowed to perform his ablutionsevery morning under the pump, in a stone yard, in the presence ofMr. Bumble, who prevented his catching cold, and caused atingling sensation to pervade his frame, by repeated applicationsof the cane. As for society, he was carried every other day intothe hall where the boys dined, and there sociably flogged as apublic warning and example. And so for from being denied theadvantages of religious consolation, he was kicked into the sameapartment every evening at prayer-time, and there permitted tolisten to, and console his mind with, a general supplication ofthe boys, containing a special clause, therein inserted byauthority of the board, in which they entreated to be made good,virtuous, contented, and obedient, and to be guarded from thesins and vices of Oliver Twist: whom the supplication distinctlyset forth to be under the exclusive patronage and protection ofthe powers of wickedness, and an article direct from themanufactory of the very Devil himself.

It chanced one morning, while Oliver's affairs were in thisauspicious and confortable state, that Mr. Gamfield,chimney-sweep, went his way down the High Street, deeplycogitating in his mind his ways and means of paying certainarrears of rent, for which his landlord had become ratherpressing. Mr. Gamfield's most sanguine estimate of his financescould not raise them within full five pounds of the desiredamount; and, in a species of arthimetical desperation, he wasalternately cudgelling his brains and his donkey, when passingthe workhouse, his eyes encountered the bill on the gate.

'Wo--o!' said Mr. Gamfield to the donkey.

The donkey was in a state of profound abstraction: wondering,probably, whether he was destined to be regaled with acabbage-stalk or two when he had disposed of the two sacks ofsoot with which the little cart was laden; so, without noticingthe word of command, he jogged onward.

Mr. Gamfield growled a fierce imprecation on the donkeygenerally, but more particularly on his eyes; and, running afterhim, bestowed a blow on his head, which would inevitably havebeaten in any skull but a donkey's. Then, catching hold of thebridle, he gave his jaw a sharp wrench, by way of gentle reminderthat he was not his own master; and by these means turned himround. He then gave him another blow on the head, just to stunhim till he came back again. Having completed thesearrangements, he walked up to the gate, to read the bill.

The gentleman with the white waistcoat was standing at the gatewith his hands behind him, after having delivered himself of someprofound sentiments in the board-room. Having witnessed thelittle dispute between Mr. Gamfield and the donkey, he smiledjoyously when that person came up to read the bill, for he saw atonce that Mr. Gamfield was exactly the sort of master OliverTwist wanted. Mr. Gamfield smiled, too, as he perused thedocument; for five pounds was just the sum he had been wishingfor; and, as to the boy with which it was encumbered, Mr.Gamfield, knowing what the dietary of the workhouse was, wellknew he would be a nice small pattern, just the very thing forregister stoves. So, he spelt the bill through again, frombeginning to end; and then, touching his fur cap in token ofhumility, accosted the gentleman in the white waistcoat.

'This here boy, sir, wot the parish wants to 'prentis,' said Mr.Gamfield.

'Ay, my man,' said the gentleman in the white waistcoat, with acondescending smile. 'What of him?'

'If the parish vould like him to learn a right pleasant trade, ina good 'spectable chimbley-sweepin' bisness,' said Mr. Gamfield,'I wants a 'prentis, and I am ready to take him.'

'Walk in,' said the gentleman in the white waistcoat. Mr.Gamfield having lingered behind, to give the donkey another blowon the head, and another wrench of the jaw, as a caution not torun away in his absence, followed the gentleman with the whitewaistcoat into the room where Oliver had first seen him.

'It's a nasty trade,' said Mr. Limbkins, when Gamfield had againstated his wish.

'Young boys have been smothered in chimneys before now,' saidanother gentleman.

'That's acause they damped the straw afore they lit it in thechimbley to make 'em come down again,' said Gamfield; 'that's allsmoke, and no blaze; vereas smoke ain't o' no use at all inmaking a boy come down, for it only sinds him to sleep, andthat's wot he likes. Boys is wery obstinit, and wery lazy,Gen'l'men, and there's nothink like a good hot blaze to make 'emcome down vith a run. It's humane too, gen'l'men, acause, evenif they've stuck in the chimbley, roasting their feet makes 'emstruggle to hextricate theirselves.'

The gentleman in the white waistcoat appeared very much amused bythis explanation; but his mirth was speedily checked by a lookfrom Mr. Limbkins. The board then procedded to converse amongthemselves for a few minutes, but in so low a tone, that thewords 'saving of expenditure,' 'looked well in the accounts,''have a printed report published,' were alone audible. Theseonly chanced to be heard, indeed, or account of their being veryfrequently repeated with great emphasis.

At length the whispering ceased; and the members of the board,having resumed their seats and their solemnity, Mr. Limbkinssaid:

'We have considered your proposition, and we don't approve ofit.'

'Not at all,' said the gentleman in the white waistcoat.

'Decidedly not,' added the other members.

As Mr. Gamfield did happen to labour under the slight imputationof having bruised three or four boys to death already, itoccurred to him that the board had, perhaps, in someunaccountable freak, taken it into their heads that thisextraneous circumstance ought to influence their proceedings. Itwas very unlike their general mode of doing business, if theyhad; but still, as he had no particular wish to revive therumour, he twisted his cap in his hands, and walked slowly fromthe table.

'So you won't let me have him, gen'l'men?' said Mr. Gamfield,pausing near the door.

'No,' replied Mr. Limbkins; 'at least, as it's a nasty business,we think you ought to take something less than the premium weoffered.'

Mr. Gamfield's countenance brightened, as, with a quick step, hereturned to the table, and said,

'What'll you give, gen'l'men? Come! Don't be too hard on a poorman. What'll you give?'

'I should say, three pound ten was plenty,' said Mr. Limbkins.

'Ten shillings too much,' said the gentleman in the whitewaistcoat.

'Come!' said Gamfield; 'say four pound, gen'l'men. Say fourpound, and you've got rid of him for good and all. There!'

'Three pound ten,' repeated Mr. Limbkins, firmly.

'Come! I'll split the diff'erence, gen'l'men, urged Gamfield.'Three pound fifteen.'

'Not a farthing more,' was the firm reply of Mr. Limbkins.

'You're desperate hard upon me, gen'l'men, said Gamfield,wavering.

'Pooh! pooh! nonsense!' said the gentleman in the whitewaistcoat. 'He'd be cheap with nothing at all, as a premium.Take him, you silly fellow! He's just the boy for you. He wantsthe stick, now and then: it'll do him good; and his boardneedn't come very expensive, for he hasn't been overfed since hewas born. Ha! ha! ha!'

Mr. Gamfield gave an arch look at the faces round the table, and,observing a smile on all of them, gradually broke into a smilehimself. The bargain was made. Mr. Bumble, was at onceinstructed that Oliver Twist and his indentures were to beconveyed before the magistrate, for signature and approval, thatvery afternoon.

In pursuance of this determination, little Oliver, to hisexcessive astonishment, was released from bondage, and ordered toput himself into a clean shirt. He had hardly achieved this veryunusual gymnastic performance, when Mr. Bumble brought him, withhis own hands, a basin of gruel, and the holiday allowance of twoounces and a quarter of bread. At this tremendous sight, Oliverbegan to cry very piteously: thinking, not unaturally, that theboard must have determined to kill him for some useful purpose,or they never would have begun to fatten him up in that way.

'Don't make your eyes red, Oliver, but eat your food and bethankful,' said Mr. Bumble, in a tone of impressive pomposity.'You're a going to be made a 'prentice of, Oliver.'

'A prentice, sir!' said the child, trembling.

'Yes, Oliver,' said Mr. Bumble. 'The kind and blessed gentlemanwhich is so amny parents to you, Oliver, when you have none ofyour own: are a going to 'prentice you: and to set you up inlife, and make a man of you: although the expense to the parishis three pound ten!--three pound ten, Oliver!--seventyshillins--one hundred and forty sixpences!--and all for a naughtyorphan which noboday can't love.'

As Mr. Bumble paused to take breath, after delivering thisaddress in an awful voice, the tears rolled down the poor child'sface, and he sobbed bitterly.

'Come,' said Mr. Bumble, somewhat less pompously, for it wasgratifying to his feelings to observe the effect his eloquencehad produced; 'Come, Oliver! Wipe your eyes with the cuffs ofyour jacket, and don't cry into your gruel; that's a very foolishaction, Oliver.' It certainly was, for there was quite enoughwater in it already.

On their way to the magistrate, Mr. Bumble instructed Oliver thatall he would have to do, would be to look very happy, and say,when the gentleman asked him if he wanted to be apprenticed, thathe should like it very much indeed; both of which injunctionsOliver promised to obey: the rather as Mr. Bumble threw in agentle hint, that if he failed in either particular, there was notelling what would be done to him. When they arrived at theoffice, he was shut up in a little room by himself, andadmonished by Mr. Bumble to stay there, until he came back tofetch him.

There the boy remained, with a palpitating heart, for half anhour. At the expiration of which time Mr. Bumble thrust in hishead, unadorned with the cocked hat, and said aloud:

'Now, Oliver, my dear, come to the gentleman.' As Mr. Bumblesaid this, he put on a grim and threatening look, and added, in alow voice, 'Mind what I told you, you young rascal!'

Oliver stared innocently in Mr. Bumble's face at this somewhatcontradictory style of address; but that gentleman prevented hisoffering any remark thereupon, by leading him at once into anadjoining room: the door of which was open. It was a large room,with a great window. Behind a desk, sat two old gentleman withpowdered heads: one of whom was reading the newspaper; while theother was perusing, with the aid of a pair of tortoise-shellspectacles, a small piece of parchment which lay before him. Mr.Limbkins was standing in front of the desk on one side; and Mr.Gamfield, with a partially washed face, on the other; while twoor three bluff-looking men, in top-boots, were lounging about.

The old gentleman with the spectacles gradually dozed off, overthe little bit of parchment; and there was a short pause, afterOliver had been stationed by Mr. Bumble in front of the desk.

'This is the boy, your worship,' said Mr. Bumble.

The old gentleman who was reading the newspaper raised his headfor a moment, and pulled the other old gentleman by the sleeve;whereupon, the last-mentioned old gentleman woke up.

'Oh, is this the boy?' said the old gentleman.

'This is him, sir,' replied Mr. Bumble. 'Bow to the magistrate,my dear.'

Oliver roused himself, and made his best obeisance. He had beenwondering, with his eyes fixed on the magistrates' powder,whether all boards were born with that white stuff on theirheads, and were boards from thenceforth on that account.

'Well,' said the old gentleman, 'I suppose he's fond ofchimney-sweeping?'

'He doats on it, your worship,' replied Bumble; giving Oliver asly pinch, to intimate that he had better not say he didn't.

Title: Oliver Twist
Author: Charles Dickens
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