Charles Dickens >> Oliver Twist (page 5)

'Oliver!' said Mr. Bumble.

'Yes, sir,' replied Oliver, in a low, tremulous voice.

'Pull that cap off your eyes, and hold up your head, sir.'

Although Oliver did as he was desired, at once; and passed theback of his unoccupied hand briskly across his eyes, he left atear in them when he looked up at his conductor. As Mr. Bumblegazed sternly upon him, it rolled down his cheek. It was followedby another, and another. The child made a strong effort, but itwas an unsuccessful one. Withdrawing his other hand from Mr.Bumble's he covered his face with both; and wept until the tearssprung out from between his chin and bony fingers.

'Well!' exclaimed Mr. Bumble, stopping short, and darting at hislittle charge a look of intense malignity. 'Well! Of ALL theungratefullest, and worst-disposed boys as ever I see, Oliver,you are the--'

'No, no, sir,' sobbed Oliver, clinging to the hand which held thewell-known cane; 'no, no, sir; I will be good indeed; indeed,indeed I will, sir! I am a very little boy, sir; and it isso--so--'

'So what?' inquired Mr. Bumble in amazement.

'So lonely, sir! So very lonely!' cried the child. 'Everybodyhates me. Oh! sir, don't, don't pray be cross to me!' The childbeat his hand upon his heart; and looked in his companion's face,with tears of real agony.

Mr. Bumble regarded Oliver's piteous and helpless look, with someastonishment, for a few seconds; hemmed three or four times in ahusky manner; and after muttering something about 'thattroublesome cough,' bade Oliver dry his eyes and be a good boy. Then once more taking his hand, he walked on with him in silence.

The undertaker, who had just putup the shutters of his shop, wasmaking some entries in his day-book by the light of a mostappropriate dismal candle, when Mr. Bumble entered.

'Aha!' said the undertaker; looking up from the book, and pausingin the middle of a word; 'is that you, Bumble?'

'No one else, Mr. Sowerberry,' replied the beadle. 'Here! I'vebrought the boy.' Oliver made a bow.

'Oh! that's the boy, is it?' said the undertaker: raising thecandle above his head, to get a better view of Oliver. 'Mrs.Sowerberry, will you have the goodness to come here a moment, mydear?'

Mrs. Sowerberry emerged from a little room behind the shop, andpresented the form of a short, then, squeezed-up woman, with avixenish countenance.

'My dear,' said Mr. Sowerberry, deferentially, 'this is the boyfrom the workhouse that I told you of.' Oliver bowed again.

'Dear me!' said the undertaker's wife, 'he's very small.'

'Why, he IS rather small,' replied Mr. Bumble: looking at Oliveras if it were his fault that he was no bigger; 'he is small. There's no denying it. But he'll grow, Mrs. Sowerberry--he'llgrow.'

'Ah! I dare say he will,' replied the lady pettishly, 'on ourvictuals and our drink. I see no saving in parish children, notI; for they always cost more to keep, than they're worth. However, men always think they know best. There! Get downstairs,little bag o' bones.' With this, the undertaker's wife opened aside door, and pushed Oliver down a steep flight of stairs into astone cell, damp and dark: forming the ante-room to thecoal-cellar, and denominated 'kitchen'; wherein sat a slatternlygirl, in shoes down at heel, and blue worsted stockings very muchout of repair.

'Here, Charlotte,' said Mr. Sowerberry, who had followed Oliverdown, 'give this boy some of the cold bits that were put by forTrip. He hasn't come home since the morning, so he may gowithout 'em. I dare say the boy isn't too dainty to eat 'em--areyou, boy?'

Oliver, whose eyes had glistened at the mention of meat, and whowas trembling with eagerness to devour it, replied in thenegative; and a plateful of coarse broken victuals was set beforehim.

I wish some well-fed philosopher, whose meat and drink turn togall within him; whose blood is ice, whose heart is iron; couldhave seen Oliver Twist clutching at the dainty viands that thedog had neglected. I wish he could have witnessed the horribleavidity with which Oliver tore the bits asunder with all theferocity of famine. There is only one thing I should likebetter; and that would be to see the Philosopher making the samesort of meal himself, with the same relish.

'Well,' said the undertaker's wife, when Oliver had finished hissupper: which she had regarded in silent horror, and withfearful auguries of his future appetite: 'have you done?'

There being nothing eatable within his reach, Oliver replied inthe affirmative.

'Then come with me,' said Mrs. Sowerberry: taking up a dim anddirty lamp, and leading the way upstairs; 'your bed's under thecounter. You don't mind sleeping among the coffins, I suppose? But it doesn't much matter whether you do or don't, for you can'tsleep anywhere else. Come; don't keep me here all night!'

Oliver lingered no longer, but meekly followed his new mistress.



Oliver, being left to himself in the undertaker's shop, set thelamp down on a workman's bench, and gazed timidly about him witha feeling of awe and dread, which many people a good deal olderthan he will be at no loss to understand. An unfinished coffinon black tressels, which stood in the middle of the shop, lookedso gloomy and death-like that a cold tremble came over him, everytime his eyes wandered in the direction of the dismal object: from which he almost expected to see some frightful form slowlyrear its head, to drive him mad with terror. Against the wallwere ranged, in regular array, a long row of elm boards cut inthe same shape: looking in the dim light, like high-shoulderedghosts with their hands in their breeches pockets. Coffin-plates, elm-chips, bright-headed nails, and shreds ofblack cloth, lay scattered on the floor; and the wall behind thecounter was ornamented with a lively representation of two mutesin very stiff neckcloths, on duty at a large private door, with ahearse drawn by four black steeds, approaching in the distance. The shop was close and hot. The atmosphere seemed tainted withthe smell of coffins. The recess beneath the counter in whichhis flock mattress was thrust, looked like a grave.

Nor were these the only dismal feelings which depressed Oliver.He was alone in a strange place; and we all know how chilled anddesolate the best of us will sometimes feel in such a situation. The boy had no friends to care for, or to care for him. Theregret of no recent separation was fresh in his mind; the absenceof no loved and well-remembered face sank heavily into his heart.

But his heart was heavy, notwithstanding; and he wished, as hecrept into his narrow bed, that that were his coffin, and that hecould be lain in a calm and lasting sleep in the churchyardground, with the tall grass waving gently above his head, and thesound of the old deep bell to soothe him in his sleep.

Oliver was awakened in the morning, by a loud kicking at theoutside of the shop-door: which, before he could huddle on hisclothes, was repeated, in an angry and impetuous manner, abouttwenty-five times. When he began to undo the chain, the legsdesisted, and a voice began.

'Open the door, will yer?' cried the voice which belonged to thelegs which had kicked at the door.

'I will, directly, sir,' replied Oliver: undoing the chain, andturning the key.

'I suppose yer the new boy, ain't yer?' said the voice throughthe key-hole.

'Yes, sir,' replied Oliver.

'How old are yer?' inquired the voice.

'Ten, sir,' replied Oliver.

'Then I'll whop yer when I get in,' said the voice; 'you just seeif I don't, that's all, my work'us brat!' and having made thisobliging promise, the voice began to whistle.

Oliver had been too often subjected to the process to which thevery expressive monosyllable just recorded bears reference, toentertain the smallest doubt that the owner of the voice, whoeverhe might be, would redeem his pledge, most honourably. He drewback the bolts with a trembling hand, and opened the door.

For a second or two, Oliver glanced up the street, and down thestreet, and over the way: impressed with the belief that theunknown, who had addressed him through the key-hole, had walked afew paces off, to warm himself; for nobody did he see but a bigcharity-boy, sitting on a post in front of the house, eating aslice of bread and butter: which he cut into wedges, the size ofhis mouth, with a clasp-knife, and then consumed with greatdexterity.

'I beg your pardon, sir,' said Oliver at length: seeing that noother visitor made his appearance; 'did you knock?'

'I kicked,' replied the charity-boy.

'Did you want a coffin, sir?' inquired Oliver, innocently.

At this, the charity-boy looked monstrous fierce; and said thatOliver would want one before long, if he cut jokes with hissuperiors in that way.

'Yer don't know who I am, I suppose, Work'us?' said thecharity-boy, in continuation: descending from the top of thepost, meanwhile, with edifying gravity.

'No, sir,' rejoined Oliver.

'I'm Mister Noah Claypole,' said the charity-boy, 'and you'reunder me. Take down the shutters, yer idle young ruffian!' Withthis, Mr. Claypole administered a kick to Oliver, and entered theshop with a dignified air, which did him great credit. It isdifficult for a large-headed, small-eyed youth, of lumbering makeand heavy countenance, to look dignified under any circumstances;but it is more especially so, when superadded to these personalattractions are a red nose and yellow smalls.

Oliver, having taken down the shutters, and broken a pane ofglass in his effort to stagger away beneath the weight of thefirst one to a small court at the side of the house in which theywere kept during the day, was graciously assisted by Noah: whohaving consoled him with the assurance that 'he'd catch it,'condescended to help him. Mr. Sowerberry came down soon after. Shortly afterwards, Mrs. Sowerberry appeared. Oliver having'caught it,' in fulfilment of Noah's prediction, followed thatyoung gentleman down the stairs to breakfast.

'Come near the fire, Noah,' said Charlotte. 'I saved a nicelittle bit of bacon for you from master's breakfast. Oliver,shut that door at Mister Noah's back, and take them bits thatI've put out on the cover of the bread-pan. There's your tea;take it away to that box, and drink it there, and make haste, forthey'll want you to mind the shop. D'ye hear?'

'D'ye hear, Work'us?' said Noah Claypole.

'Lor, Noah!' said Charlotte, 'what a rum creature you are! Whydon't you let the boy alone?'

'Let him alone!' said Noah. 'Why everybody lets him aloneenough, for the matter of that. Neither his father nor hismother will ever interfere with him. All his relations let himhave his own way pretty well. Eh, Charlotte? He! he! he!'

'Oh, you queer soul!' said Charlotte, bursting into a heartylaugh, in which she was joined by Noah; after which they bothlooked scornfully at poor Oliver Twist, as he sat shivering onthe box in the coldest corner of the room, and ate the stalepieces which had been specially reserved for him.

Noah was a charity-boy, but not a workhouse orphan. Nochance-child was he, for he could trace his genealogy all the wayback to his parents, who lived hard by; his mother being awasherwoman, and his father a drunken soldier, discharged with awooden leg, and a diurnal pension of twopence-halfpenny and anunstateable fraction. The shop-boys in the neighbourhood hadlong been in the habit of branding Noah in the public streets,with the ignominious epithets of 'leathers,' 'charity,' and thelike; and Noah had bourne them without reply. But, now thatfortune had cast in his way a nameless orphan, at whom even themeanest could point the finger of scorn, he retorted on him withinterest. This affords charming food for contemplation. Itshows us what a beautiful thing human nature may be made to be;and how impartially the same amiable qualities are developed inthe finest lord and the dirtiest charity-boy.

Oliver had been sojourning at the undertaker's some three weeksor a month. Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry--the shop being shutup--were taking their supper in the little back-parlour, when Mr.Sowerberry, after several deferential glances at his wife, said,

'My dear--' He was going to say more; but, Mrs. Sowerberrylooking up, with a peculiarly unpropitious aspect, he stoppedshort.

'Well,' said Mrs. Sowerberry, sharply.

'Nothing, my dear, nothing,' said Mr. Sowerberry.

'Ugh, you brute!' said Mrs. Sowerberry.

'Not at all, my dear,' said Mr. Sowerberry humbly. 'I thoughtyou didn't want to hear, my dear. I was only going to say--'

'Oh, don't tell me what you were going to say,' interposed Mrs.Sowerberry. 'I am nobody; don't consult me, pray. _I_ don'twant to intrude upon your secrets.' As Mrs. Sowerberry saidthis, she gave an hysterical laugh, which threatened violentconsequences.

'But, my dear,' said Sowerberry, 'I want to ask your advice.'

'No, no, don't ask mine,' replied Mrs. Sowerberry, in anaffecting manner: 'ask somebody else's.' Here, there wasanother hysterical laugh, which frightened Mr. Sowerberry verymuch. This is a very common and much-approved matrimonial courseof treatment, which is often very effective It at once reducedMr. Sowerberry to begging, as a special favour, to be allowed tosay what Mrs. Sowerberry was most curious to hear. After a shortduration, the permission was most graciously conceded.

'It's only about young Twist, my dear,' said Mr. Sowerberry. 'Avery good-looking boy, that, my dear.'

Title: Oliver Twist
Author: Charles Dickens
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