Charles Dickens >> Oliver Twist (page 46)

'Bah!' he whispered, as though nettled by the interruption; 'it'sthe man I expected before; he's coming downstairs. Not a wordabout the money while he's here, Nance. He won't stop long. Notten minutes, my dear.'

Laying his skinny forefinger upon his lip, the Jew carried acandle to the door, as a man's step was heard upon the stairswithout. He reached it, at the same moment as the visitor, who,coming hastily into the room, was close upon the girl before heobserved her.

It was Monks.

'Only one of my young people,' said Fagin, observing that Monksdrew back, on beholding a stranger. 'Don't move, Nancy.'

The girl drew closer to the table, and glancing at Monks with anair of careless levity, withdrew her eyes; but as he turnedtowards Fagin, she stole another look; so keen and searching, andfull of purpose, that if there had been any bystander to observethe change, he could hardly have believed the two looks to haveproceeded from the same person.

'Any news?' inquired Fagin.


'And--and--good?' asked Fagin, hesitating as though he feared tovex the other man by being too sanguine.

'Not bad, any way,' replied Monks with a smile. 'I have beenprompt enough this time. Let me have a word with you.'

The girl drew closer to the table, and made no offer to leave theroom, although she could see that Monks was pointing to her. TheJew: perhaps fearing she might say something aloud about themoney, if he endeavoured to get rid of her: pointed upward, andtook Monks out of the room.

'Not that infernal hole we were in before,' she could hear theman say as they went upstairs. Fagin laughed; and making somereply which did not reach her, seemed, by the creaking of theboards, to lead his companion to the second story.

Before the sound of their footsteps had ceased to echo throughthe house, the girl had slipped off her shoes; and drawing hergown loosely over her head, and muffling her arms in it, stood atthe door, listening with breathless interest. The moment thenoise ceased, she glided from the room; ascended the stairs withincredible softness and silence; and was lost in the gloom above.

The room remained deserted for a quarter of an hour or more; thegirl glided back with the same unearthly tread; and, immediatelyafterwards, the two men were heard descending. Monks went atonce into the street; and the Jew crawled upstairs again for themoney. When he returned, the girl was adjusting her shawl andbonnet, as if preparing to be gone.

'Why, Nance!,' exclaimed the Jew, starting back as he put downthe candle, 'how pale you are!'

'Pale!' echoed the girl, shading her eyes with her hands, as ifto look steadily at him.

'Quite horrible. What have you been doing to yourself?'

'Nothing that I know of, except sitting in this close place for Idon't know how long and all,' replied the girl carelessly. 'Come! Let me get back; that's a dear.'

With a sigh for every piece of money, Fagin told the amount intoher hand. They parted without more conversation, merelyinterchanging a 'good-night.'

When the girl got into the open street, she sat down upon adoorstep; and seemed, for a few moments, wholly bewildered andunable to pursue her way. Suddenly she arose; and hurrying on,in a direction quite opposite to that in which Sikes was awaitingher returned, quickened her pace, until it gradually resolvedinto a violent run. After completely exhausting herself, shestopped to take breath: and, as if suddenly recollectingherself, and deploring her inability to do something she was bentupon, wrung her hands, and burst into tears.

It might be that her tears relieved her, or that she felt thefull hopelessness of her condition; but she turned back; andhurrying with nearly as great rapidity in the contrary direction;partly to recover lost time, and partly to keep pace with theviolent current of her own thoughts: soon reached the dwellingwhere she had left the housebreaker.

If she betrayed any agitation, when she presented herself to Mr.Sikes, he did not observe it; for merely inquiring if she hadbrought the money, and receiving a reply in the affirmative, heuttered a growl of satisfaction, and replacing his head upon thepillow, resumed the slumbers which her arrival had interrupted.

It was fortunate for her that the possession of money occasionedhim so much employment next day in the way of eating anddrinking; and withal had so beneficial an effect in smoothingdown the asperities of his temper; that he had neither time norinclination to be very critical upon her behaviour anddeportment. That she had all the abstracted and nervous mannerof one who is on the eve of some bold and hazardous step, whichit has required no common struggle to resolve upon, would havebeen obvious to the lynx-eyed Fagin, who would most probably havetaken the alarm at once; but Mr. Sikes lacking the niceties ofdiscrimination, and being troubled with no more subtle misgivingsthan those which resolve themselves into a dogged roughness ofbehaviour towards everybody; and being, furthermore, in anunusually amiable condition, as has been already observed; sawnothing unusual in her demeanor, and indeed, troubled himself solittle about her, that, had her agitation been far moreperceptible than it was, it would have been very unlikely to haveawakened his suspicions.

As that day closed in, the girl's excitement increased; and, whennight came on, and she sat by, watching until the housebreakershould drink himself asleep, there was an unusual paleness in hercheek, and a fire in her eye, that even Sikes observed withastonishment.

Mr. Sikes being weak from the fever, was lying in bed, taking hotwater with his gin to render it less inflammatory; and had pushedhis glass towards Nancy to be replenished for the third or fourthtime, when these symptoms first struck him.

'Why, burn my body!' said the man, raising himself on his handsas he stared the girl in the face. 'You look like a corpse cometo life again. What's the matter?'

'Matter!' replied the girl. 'Nothing. What do you look at me sohard for?'

'What foolery is this?' demanded Sikes, grasping her by the arm,and shaking her roughly. 'What is it? What do you mean? Whatare you thinking of?'

'Of many things, Bill,' replied the girl, shivering, and as shedid so, pressing her hands upon her eyes. 'But, Lord! What oddsin that?'

The tone of forced gaiety in which the last words were spoken,seemd to produce a deeper impression on Sikes than the wild andrigid look which had preceded them.

'I tell you wot it is,' said Sikes; 'if you haven't caught thefever, and got it comin' on, now, there's something more thanusual in the wind, and something dangerous too. You're nota-going to--. No, damme! you wouldn't do that!'

'Do what?' asked the girl.

'There ain't,' said Sikes, fixing his eyes upon her, andmuttering the words to himself; 'there ain't a stauncher-heartedgal going, or I'd have cut her throat three months ago. She'sgot the fever coming on; that's it.'

Fortifying himself with this assurance, Sikes drained the glassto the bottom, and then, with many grumbling oaths, called forhis physic. The girl jumped up, with great alacrity; poured itquickly out, but with her back towards him; and held the vesselto his lips, while he drank off the contents.

'Now,' said the robber, 'come and sit aside of me, and put onyour own face; or I'll alter it so, that you won't know it aginwhen you do want it.'

The girl obeyed. Sikes, locking her hand in his, fell back uponthe pillow: turning his eyes upon her face. They closed; openedagain; closed once more; again opened. He shifted his positionrestlessly; and, after dozing again, and again, for two or threeminutes, and as often springing up with a look of terror, andgazing vacantly about him, was suddenly stricken, as it were,while in the very attitude of rising, into a deep and heavysleep. The grasp of his hand relaxed; the upraised arm felllanguidly by his side; and he lay like one in a profound trance.

'The laudanum has taken effect at last,' murmured the girl, asshe rose from the bedside. 'I may be too late, even now.'

She hastily dressed herself in her bonnet and shawl: lookingfearfully round, from time to time, as if, despite the sleepingdraught, she expected every moment to feel the pressure ofSikes's heavy hand upon her shoulder; then, stooping softly overthe bed, she kissed the robber's lips; and then opening andclosing the room-door with noiseless touch, hurried from thehouse.

A watchman was crying half-past nine, down a dark passage throughwhich she had to pass, in gaining the main thoroughfare.

'Has it long gone the half-hour?' asked the girl.

'It'll strike the hour in another quarter,' said the man: raising his lantern to her face.

'And I cannot get there in less than an hour or more,' mutteredNancy: brushing swiftly past him, and gliding rapidly down thestreet.

Many of the shops were already closing in the back lanes andavenues through which she tracked her way, in making fromSpitalfields towards the West-End of London. The clock struckten, increasing her impatience. She tore along the narrowpavement: elbowing the passengers from side to side; and dartingalmost under the horses' heads, crossed crowded streets, whereclusters of persons were eagerly watching their opportunity to dothe like.

'The woman is mad!' said the people, turning to look after her asshe rushed away.

When she reached the more wealthy quarter of the town, thestreets were comparatively deserted; and here her headlongprogress excited a still greater curiosity in the stragglers whomshe hurried past. Some quickened their pace behind, as though tosee whither she was hastening at such an unusual rate; and a fewmade head upon her, and looked back, surprised at herundiminished speed; but they fell off one by one; and when sheneared her place of destination, she was alone.

It was a family hotel in a quiet but handsome street near HydePark. As the brilliant light of the lamp which burnt before itsdoor, guided her to the spot, the clock struck eleven. She hadloitered for a few paces as though irresolute, and making up hermind to advance; but the sound determined her, and she steppedinto the hall. The porter's seat was vacant. She looked roundwith an air of incertitude, and advanced towards the stairs.

'Now, young woman!' said a smartly-dressed female, looking outfrom a door behind her, 'who do you want here?'

'A lady who is stopping in this house,' answered the girl.

'A lady!' was the reply, accompanied with a scornful look. 'Whatlady?'

'Miss Maylie,' said Nancy.

The young woman, who had by this time, noted her appearance,replied only by a look of virtuous disdain; and summoned a man toanswer her. To him, Nancy repeated her request.

'What name am I to say?' asked the waiter.

'It's of no use saying any,' replied Nancy.

'Nor business?' said the man.

'No, nor that neither,' rejoined the girl. 'I must see thelady.'

'Come!' said the man, pushing her towards the door. 'None ofthis. Take yourself off.'

'I shall be carried out if I go!' said the girl violently; 'and Ican make that a job that two of you won't like to do. Isn'tthere anybody here,' she said, looking round, 'that will see asimple message carried for a poor wretch like me?'

This appeal produced an effect on a good-tempered-faced man-cook,who with some of the other servants was looking on, and whostepped forward to interfere.

'Take it up for her, Joe; can't you?' said this person.

'What's the good?' replied the man. 'You don't suppose the younglady will see such as her; do you?'

This allusion to Nancy's doubtful character, raised a vastquantity of chaste wrath in the bosoms of four housemaids, whoremarked, with great fervour, that the creature was a disgrace toher sex; and strongly advocated her being thrown, ruthlessly,into the kennel.

'Do what you like with me,' said the girl, turning to the menagain; 'but do what I ask you first, and I ask you to give thismessage for God Almighty's sake.'

The soft-hearted cook added his intercession, and the result wasthat the man who had first appeared undertook its delivery.

'What's it to be?' said the man, with one foot on the stairs.

'That a young woman earnestly asks to speak to Miss Mayliealone,' said Nancy; 'and that if the lady will only hear thefirst word she has to say, she will know whether to hear herbusiness, or to have her turned out of doors as an impostor.'

'I say,' said the man, 'you're coming it strong!'

'You give the message,' said the girl firmly; 'and let me hearthe answer.'

The man ran upstairs. Nancy remained, pale and almostbreathless, listening with quivering lip to the very audibleexpressions of scorn, of which the chaste housemaids were veryprolific; and of which they became still more so, when the manreturned, and said the young woman was to walk upstairs.

'It's no good being proper in this world,' said the firsthousemaid.

'Brass can do better than the gold what has stood the fire,' saidthe second.

The third contented herself with wondering 'what ladies was madeof'; and the fourth took the first in a quartette of 'Shameful!'with which the Dianas concluded.

Regardless of all this: for she had weightier matters at heart:Nancy followed the man, with trembling limbs, to a smallante-chamber, lighted by a lamp from the ceiling. Here he lefther, and retired.



The girl's life had been squandered in the streets, and among themost noisome of the stews and dens of London, but there wassomething of the woman's original nature left in her still; andwhen she heard a light step approaching the door opposite to thatby which she had entered, and thought of the wide contrast whichthe small room would in another moment contain, she felt burdenedwith the sense of her own deep shame, and shrunk as though shecould scarcely bear the presence of her with whom she had soughtthis interview.

Title: Oliver Twist
Author: Charles Dickens
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