Charles Dickens >> Oliver Twist (page 32)

'Ho, ho, there!' cried a tremulous voice in the rear. 'Pincher!Neptune! Come here, come here!'

The dogs, who, in common with their masters, seemed to have noparticular relish for the sport in which they were engaged,readily answered to the command. Three men, who had by this timeadvanced some distance into the field, stopped to take counseltogether.

'My advice, or, leastways, I should say, my ORDERS, is,' said thefattest man of the party, 'that we 'mediately go home again.'

'I am agreeable to anything which is agreeable to Mr. Giles,'said a shorter man; who was by no means of a slim figure, and whowas very pale in the face, and very polite: as frightened menfrequently are.

'I shouldn't wish to appear ill-mannered, gentlemen,' said thethird, who had called the dogs back, 'Mr. Giles ought to know.'

'Certainly,' replied the shorter man; 'and whatever Mr. Gilessays, it isn't our place to contradict him. No, no, I know mysitiwation! Thank my stars, I know my sitiwation.' To tell thetruth, the little man DID seem to know his situation, and to knowperfectly well that it was by no means a desirable one; for histeeth chattered in his head as he spoke.

'You are afraid, Brittles,' said Mr. Giles.

'I an't,' said Brittles.

'You are,' said Giles.

'You're a falsehood, Mr. Giles,' said Brittles.

'You're a lie, Brittles,' said Mr. Giles.

Now, these four retorts arose from Mr. Giles's taunt; and Mr.Giles's taunt had arisen from his indignation at having theresponsibility of going home again, imposed upon himself undercover of a compliment. The third man brought the dispute to aclose, most philosophically.

'I'll tell you what it is, gentlemen,' said he, 'we're allafraid.'

'Speak for yourself, sir,' said Mr. Giles, who was the palest ofthe party.

'So I do,' replied the man. 'It's natural and proper to beafraid, under such circumstances. I am.'

'So am I,' said Brittles; 'only there's no call to tell a man heis, so bounceably.'

These frank admissions softened Mr. Giles, who at once owned thatHE was afraid; upon which, they all three faced about, and ranback again with the completest unanimity, until Mr. Giles (whohad the shortest wind of the party, as was encumbered with apitchfork) most handsomely insisted on stopping, to make anapology for his hastiness of speech.

'But it's wonderful,' said Mr. Giles, when he had explained,'what a man will do, when his blood is up. I should havecommitted murder--I know I should--if we'd caught one of themrascals.'

As the other two were impressed with a similar presentiment; andas their blood, like his, had all gone down again; somespeculation ensued upon the cause of this sudden change in theirtemperament.

'I know what it was,' said Mr. Giles; 'it was the gate.'

'I shouldn't wonder if it was,' exclaimed Brittles, catching atthe idea.

'You may depend upon it,' said Giles, 'that that gate stopped theflow of the excitement. I felt all mine suddenly going away, asI was climbing over it.'

By a remarkable coincidence, the other two had been visited withthe same unpleasant sensation at that precise moment. It wasquite obvious, therefore, that it was the gate; especially asthere was no doubt regarding the time at which the change hadtaken place, because all three remembered that they had come insight of the robbers at the instant of its occurance.

This dialogue was held between the two men who had surprised theburglars, and a travelling tinker who had been sleeping in anouthouse, and who had been roused, together with his two mongrelcurs, to join in the pursuit. Mr. Giles acted in the doublecapacity of butler and steward to the old lady of the mansion;Brittles was a lad of all-work: who, having entered her service amere child, was treated as a promising young boy still, though hewas something past thirty.

Encouraging each other with such converse as this; but, keepingvery close together, notwithstanding, and looking apprehensivelyround, whenever a fresh gust rattled through the boughs; thethree men hurried back to a tree, behind which they had lefttheir lantern, lest its light should inform the thieves in whatdirection to fire. Catching up the light, they made the best oftheir way home, at a good round trot; and long after their duskyforms had ceased to be discernible, the light might have beenseen twinkling and dancing in the distance, like some exhalationof the damp and gloomy atmosphere through which it was swiftlyborne.

The air grew colder, as day came slowly on; and the mist rolledalong the ground like a dense cloud of smoke. The grass was wet;the pathways, and low places, were all mire and water; the dampbreath of an unwholesome wind went languidly by, with a hollowmoaning. Still, Oliver lay motionless and insensible on the spotwhere Sikes had left him.

Morning drew on apace. The air become more sharp and piercing,as its first dull hue--the death of night, rather than the birthof day--glimmered faintly in the sky. The objects which hadlooked dim and terrible in the darkness, grew more and moredefined, and gradually resolved into their familiar shapes. Therain came down, thick and fast, and pattered noisily among theleafless bushes. But, Oliver felt it not, as it beat againsthim; for he still lay stretched, helpless and unconscious, on hisbed of clay.

At length, a low cry of pain broke the stillness that prevailed;and uttering it, the boy awoke. His left arm, rudely bandaged ina shawl, hung heavy and useless at his side; the bandage wassaturated with blood. He was so weak, that he could scarcelyraise himself into a sitting posture; when he had done so, helooked feebly round for help, and groaned with pain. Tremblingin every joint, from cold and exhaustion, he made an effort tostand upright; but, shuddering from head to foot, fell prostrateon the ground.

After a short return of the stupor in which he had been so longplunged, Oliver: urged by a creeping sickness at his heart,which seemed to warn him that if he lay there, he must surelydie: got upon his feet, and essayed to walk. His head was dizzy,and he staggered to and from like a drunken man. But he kept up,nevertheless, and, with his head drooping languidly on hisbreast, went stumbling onward, he knew not whither.

And now, hosts of bewildering and confused ideas came crowding onhis mind. He seemed to be still walking between Sikes andCrackit, who were angrily disputing--for the very words theysaid, sounded in his ears; and when he caught his own attention,as it were, by making some violent effort to save himself fromfalling, he found that he was talking to them. Then, he was alonewith Sikes, plodding on as on the previous day; and as shadowypeople passed them, he felt the robber's grasp upon his wrist. Suddenly, he started back at the report of firearms; there roseinto the air, loud cries and shouts; lights gleamed before hiseyes; all was noise and tumult, as some unseen hand bore himhurriedly away. Through all these rapid visions, there ran anundefined, uneasy conscious of pain, which wearied and tormentedhim incessantly.

Thus he staggered on, creeping, almost mechanically, between thebars of gates, or through hedge-gaps as they came in his way,until he reached a road. Here the rain began to fall so heavily,that it roused him.

He looked about, and saw that at no great distance there was ahouse, which perhaps he could reach. Pitying his condition, theymight have compassion on him; and if they did not, it would bebetter, he thought, to die near human beings, than in the lonelyopen fields. He summoned up all his strength for one last trial,and bent his faltering steps towards it.

As he drew nearer to this house, a feeling come over him that hehad seen it before. He remembered nothing of its details; butthe shape and aspect of the building seemed familiar to him.

That garden wall! On the grass inside, he had fallen on hisknees last night, and prayed the two men's mercy. It was thevery house they had attempted to rob.

Oliver felt such fear come over him when he recognised the place,that, for the instant, he forgot the agony of his wound, andthought only of flight. Flight! He could scarcely stand: andif he were in full possession of all the best powers of hisslight and youthful frame, whither could he fly? He pushedagainst the garden-gate; it was unlocked, and swung open on itshinges. He tottered across the lawn; climbed the steps; knockedfaintly at the door; and, his whole strength failing him, sunkdown against one of the pillars of the little portico.

It happened that about this time, Mr. Giles, Brittles, and thetinker, were recruiting themselves, after the fatigues andterrors of the night, with tea and sundries, in the kitchen. Notthat it was Mr. Giles's habit to admit to too great familiaritythe humbler servants: towards whom it was rather his wont todeport himself with a lofty affability, which, while itgratified, could not fail to remind them of his superior positionin society. But, death, fires, and burglary, make all menequals; so Mr. Giles sat with his legs stretched out before thekitchen fender, leaning his left arm on the table, while, withhis right, he illustrated a circumstantial and minute account ofthe robbery, to which his bearers (but especially the cook andhousemaid, who were of the party) listened with breathlessinterest.

'It was about half-past tow,' said Mr. Giles, 'or I wouldn'tswear that it mightn't have been a little nearer three, when Iwoke up, and, turning round in my bed, as it might be so, (hereMr. Giles turned round in his chair, and pulled the corner of thetable-cloth over him to imitate bed-clothes,) I fancied I heerd anoise.'

At this point of the narrative the cook turned pale, and askedthe housemaid to shut the door: who asked Brittles, who asked thetinker, who pretended not to hear.

'--Heerd a noise,' continued Mr. Giles. 'I says, at first, "Thisis illusion"; and was composing myself off to sleep, when I heerdthe noise again, distinct.'

'What sort of a noise?' asked the cook.

'A kind of a busting noise,' replied Mr. Giles, looking roundhim.

'More like the noise of powdering a iron bar on a nutmeg-grater,'suggested Brittles.

'It was, when you HEERD it, sir,' rejoined Mr. Giles; 'but, atthis time, it had a busting sound. I turned down the clothes';continued Giles, rolling back the table-cloth, 'sat up in bed;and listened.'

The cook and housemaid simultaneously ejaculated 'Lor!' and drewtheir chairs closer together.

'I heerd it now, quite apparent,' resumed Mr. Giles. '"Somebody,"I says, "is forcing of a door, or window; what's to be done? I'll call up that poor lad, Brittles, and save him from beingmurdered in his bed; or his throat," I says, "may be cut from hisright ear to his left, without his ever knowing it."'

Here, all eyes were turned upon Brittles, who fixed his upon thespeaker, and stared at him, with his mouth wide open, and hisface expressive of the most unmitigated horror.

'I tossed off the clothes,' said Giles, throwing away thetable-cloth, and looking very hard at the cook and housemaid,'got softly out of bed; drew on a pair of--'

'Ladies present, Mr. Giles,' murmured the tinker.

'--Of SHOES, sir,' said Giles, turning upon him, and laying greatemphasis on the word; 'seized the loaded pistol that always goesupstairs with the plate-basket; and walked on tiptoes to hisroom. "Brittles," I says, when I had woke him, "don't befrightened!"'

'So you did,' observed Brittles, in a low voice.

'"We're dead men, I think, Brittles," I says,' continued Giles;'"but don't be frightened."'

'WAS he frightened?' asked the cook.

'Not a bit of it,' replied Mr. Giles. 'He was as firm--ah!pretty near as firm as I was.'

'I should have died at once, I'm sure, if it had been me,'observed the housemaid.

'You're a woman,' retorted Brittles, plucking up a little.

'Brittles is right,' said Mr. Giles, nodding his head,approvingly; 'from a woman, nothing else was to be expected. We,being men, took a dark lantern that was standing on Brittle'shob, and groped our way downstairs in the pitch dark,--as itmight be so.'

Mr. Giles had risen from his seat, and taken two steps with hiseyes shut, to accompany his description with appropriate action,when he started violently, in common with the rest of thecompany, and hurried back to his chair. The cook and housemaidscreamed.

'It was a knock,' said Mr. Giles, assuming perfect serenity.'Open the door, somebody.'

Nobody moved.

'It seems a strange sort of a thing, a knock coming at such atime in the morning,' said Mr. Giles, surveying the pale faceswhich surrounded him, and looking very blank himself; 'but thedoor must be opened. Do you hear, somebody?'

Mr. Giles, as he spoke, looked at Brittles; but that young man,being naturally modest, probably considered himself nobody, andso held that the inquiry could not have any application to him;at all events, he tendered no reply. Mr. Giles directed anappealing glance at the tinker; but he had suddenly fallenasleep. The women were out of the question.

'If Brittles would rather open the door, in the presence ofwitnesses,' said Mr. Giles, after a short silence, 'I am ready tomake one.'

'So am I,' said the tinker, waking up, as suddenly as he hadfallen asleep.

Brittles capitualated on these terms; and the party beingsomewhat re-assured by the discovery (made on throwing open theshutters) that it was now broad day, took their way upstairs;with the dogs in front. The two women, who were afraid to staybelow, brought up the rear. By the advice of Mr. Giles, they alltalked very loud, to warn any evil-disposed person outside, thatthey were strong in numbers; and by a master-stoke of policy,originating in the brain of the same ingenious gentleman, thedogs' tails were well pinched, in the hall, to make them barksavagely.

Title: Oliver Twist
Author: Charles Dickens
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