Charles Dickens >> Oliver Twist (page 54)

A mist hung over the river, deepening the red glare of the firesthat burnt upon the small craft moored off the different wharfs,and rendering darker and more indistinct the murky buildings onthe banks. The old smoke-stained storehouses on either side,rose heavy and dull from the dense mass of roofs and gables, andfrowned sternly upon water too black to reflect even theirlumbering shapes. The tower of old Saint Saviour's Church, andthe spire of Saint Magnus, so long the giant-warders of theancient bridge, were visible in the gloom; but the forest ofshipping below bridge, and the thickly scattered spires ofchurches above, were nearly all hidden from sight.

The girl had taken a few restless turns to and fro--closelywatched meanwhile by her hidden observer--when the heavy bell ofSt. Paul's tolled for the death of another day. Midnight hadcome upon the crowded city. The palace, the night-cellar, thejail, the madhouse: the chambers of birth and death, of healthand sickness, the rigid face of the corpse and the calm sleep ofthe child: midnight was upon them all.

The hour had not struck two minutes, when a young lady,accompanied by a grey-haired gentleman, alighted from ahackney-carriage within a short distance of the bridge, and,having dismissed the vehicle, walked straight towards it. Theyhad scarcely set foot upon its pavement, when the girl started,and immediately made towards them.

They walked onward, looking about them with the air of personswho entertained some very slight expectation which had littlechance of being realised, when they were suddenly joined by thisnew associate. They halted with an exclamation of surprise, butsuppressed it immediately; for a man in the garments of acountryman came close up--brushed against them, indeed--at thatprecise moment.

'Not here,' said Nancy hurriedly, 'I am afraid to speak to youhere. Come away--out of the public road--down the steps yonder!'

As she uttered these words, and indicated, with her hand, thedirection in which she wished them to proceed, the countrymanlooked round, and roughly asking what they took up the wholepavement for, passed on.

The steps to which the girl had pointed, were those which, on theSurrey bank, and on the same side of the bridge as SaintSaviour's Church, form a landing-stairs from the river. To thisspot, the man bearing the appearance of a countryman, hastenedunobserved; and after a moment's survey of the place, he began todescend.

These stairs are a part of the bridge; they consist of threeflights. Just below the end of the second, going down, the stonewall on the left terminates in an ornamental pilaster facingtowards the Thames. At this point the lower steps widen: sothat a person turning that angle of the wall, is necessarilyunseen by any others on the stairs who chance to be above him, ifonly a step. The countryman looked hastily round, when he reachedthis point; and as there seemed no better place of concealment,and, the tide being out, there was plenty of room, he slippedaside, with his back to the pilaster, and there waited: prettycertain that they would come no lower, and that even if he couldnot hear what was said, he could follow them again, with safety.

So tardily stole the time in this lonely place, and so eager wasthe spy to penetrate the motives of an interview so differentfrom what he had been led to expect, that he more than once gavethe matter up for lost, and persuaded himself, either that theyhad stopped far above, or had resorted to some entirely differentspot to hold their mysterious conversation. He was on the pointof emerging from his hiding-place, and regaining the road above,when he heard the sound of footsteps, and directly afterwards ofvoices almost close at his ear.

He drew himself straight upright against the wall, and, scarcelybreathing, listened attentively.

'This is far enough,' said a voice, which was evidently that ofthe gentleman. 'I will not suffer the young lady to go anyfarther. Many people would have distrusted you too much to havecome even so far, but you see I am willing to humour you.'

'To humour me!' cried the voice of the girl whom he had followed.

'You're considerate, indeed, sir. To humour me! Well, well,it's no matter.'

'Why, for what,' said the gentleman in a kinder tone, 'for whatpurpose can you have brought us to this strange place? Why nothave let me speak to you, above there, where it is light, andthere is something stirring, instead of bringing us to this darkand dismal hole?'

'I told you before,' replied Nancy, 'that I was afraid to speakto you there. I don't know why it is,' said the girl,shuddering, 'but I have such a fear and dread upon me to-nightthat I can hardly stand.'

'A fear of what?' asked the gentleman, who seemed to pity her.

'I scarcely know of what,' replied the girl. 'I wish I did. Horrible thoughts of death, and shrouds with blood upon them, anda fear that has made me burn as if I was on fire, have been uponme all day. I was reading a book to-night, to wile the timeaway, and the same things came into the print.'

'Imagination,' said the gentleman, soothing her.

'No imagination,' replied the girl in a hoarse voice. 'I'll swearI saw "coffin" written in every page of the book in large blackletters,--aye, and they carried one close to me, in the streetsto-night.'

'There is nothing unusual in that,' said the gentleman. 'Theyhave passed me often.'

'REAL ONES,' rejoined the girl. 'This was not.'

There was something so uncommon in her manner, that the flesh ofthe concealed listener crept as he heard the girl utter thesewords, and the blood chilled within him. He had neverexperienced a greater relief than in hearing the sweet voice ofthe young lady as she begged her to be calm, and not allowherself to become the prey of such fearful fancies.

'Speak to her kindly,' said the young lady to her companion. 'Poor creature! She seems to need it.'

'Your haughty religious people would have held their heads up tosee me as I am to-night, and preached of flames and vengeance,'cried the girl. 'Oh, dear lady, why ar'n't those who claim to beGod's own folks as gentle and as kind to us poor wretches as you,who, having youth, and beauty, and all that they have lost, mightbe a little proud instead of so much humbler?'

'Ah!' said the gentleman. 'A Turk turns his face, after washingit well, to the East, when he says his prayers; these goodpeople, after giving their faces such a rub against the World asto take the smiles off, turn with no less regularity, to thedarkest side of Heaven. Between the Mussulman and the Pharisee,commend me to the first!'

These words appeared to be addressed to the young lady, and wereperhaps uttered with the view of afffording Nancy time to recoverherself. The gentleman, shortly afterwards, addressed himself toher.

'You were not here last Sunday night,' he said.

'I couldn't come,' replied Nancy; 'I was kept by force.'

'By whom?'

'Him that I told the young lady of before.'

'You were not suspected of holding any communication with anybodyon the subject which has brought us here to-night, I hope?' askedthe old gentleman.

'No,' replied the girl, shaking her head. 'It's not very easyfor me to leave him unless he knows why; I couldn't give him adrink of laudanum before I came away.'

'Did he awake before you returned?' inquired the gentleman.

'No; and neither he nor any of them suspect me.'

'Good,' said the gentleman. 'Now listen to me.'

'I am ready,' replied the girl, as he paused for a moment.

'This young lady,' the gentleman began, 'has communicated to me,and to some other friends who can be safely trusted, what youtold her nearly a fortnight since. I confess to you that I haddoubts, at first, whether you were to be implicitly relied upon,but now I firmly believe you are.'

'I am,' said the girl earnestly.

'I repeat that I firmly believe it. To prove to you that I amdisposed to trust you, I tell you without reserve, that wepropose to extort the secret, whatever it may be, from the fearof this man Monks. But if--if--' said the gentleman, 'he cannotbe secured, or, if secured, cannot be acted upon as we wish, youmust deliver up the Jew.'

'Fagin,' cried the girl, recoiling.

'That man must be delivered up by you,' said the gentleman.

'I will not do it! I will never do it!' replied the girl. 'Devilthat he is, and worse than devil as he has been to me, I willnever do that.'

'You will not?' said the gentleman, who seemed fully prepared forthis answer.

'Never!' returned the girl.

'Tell me why?'

'For one reason,' rejoined the girl firmly, 'for one reason, thatthe lady knows and will stand by me in, I know she will, for Ihave her promise: and for this other reason, besides, that, badlife as he has led, I have led a bad life too; there are many ofus who have kept the same courses together, and I'll not turnupon them, who might--any of them--have turned upon me, butdidn't, bad as they are.'

'Then,' said the gentleman, quickly, as if this had been thepoint he had been aiming to attain; 'put Monks into my hands, andleave him to me to deal with.'

'What if he turns against the others?'

'I promise you that in that case, if the truth is forced fromhim, there the matter will rest; there must be circumstances inOliver's little history which it would be painful to drag beforethe public eye, and if the truth is once elicited, they shall goscot free.'

'And if it is not?' suggested the girl.

'Then,' pursued the gentleman, 'this Fagin shall not be broughtto justice without your consent. In such a case I could show youreasons, I think, which would induce you to yield it.'

'Have I the lady's promise for that?' asked the girl.

'You have,' replied Rose. 'My true and faithful pledge.'

'Monks would never learn how you knew what you do?' said thegirl, after a short pause.

'Never,' replied the gentleman. 'The intelligence should bebrought to bear upon him, that he could never even guess.'

'I have been a liar, and among liars from a little child,' saidthe girl after another interval of silence, 'but I will take yourwords.'

After receving an assurance from both, that she might safely doso, she proceeded in a voice so low that it was often difficultfor the listener to discover even the purport of what she said,to describe, by name and situation, the public-house whence shehad been followed that night. From the manner in which sheoccasionally paused, it appeared as if the gentleman were makingsome hasty notes of the information she communicated. When shehad thoroughly explained the localities of the place, the bestposition from which to watch it without exciting observation, andthe night and hour on which Monks was most in the habit offrequenting it, she seemed to consider for a few moments, for thepurpose of recalling his features and appearances more forciblyto her recollection.

'He is tall,' said the girl, 'and a strongly made man, but notstout; he has a lurking walk; and as he walks, constantly looksover his shoulder, first on one side, and then on the other. Don't forget that, for his eyes are sunk in his head so muchdeeper than any other man's, that you might almost tell him bythat alone. His face is dark, like his hair and eyes; and,although he can't be more than six or eight and twenty, witheredand haggard. His lips are often discoloured and disfigured withthe marks of teeth; for he has desperate fits, and sometimes evenbites his hands and covers them with wounds--why did you start?'said the girl, stopping suddenly.

The gentleman replied, in a hurried manner, that he was notconscious of having done so, and begged her to proceed.

'Part of this,' said the girl, 'I have drawn out from otherpeople at the house I tell you of, for I have only seen himtwice, and both times he was covered up in a large cloak. Ithink that's all I can give you to know him by. Stay though,'she added. 'Upon his throat: so high that you can see a part ofit below his neckerchief when he turns his face: there is--'

'A broad red mark, like a burn or scald?' cried the gentleman.

'How's this?' said the girl. 'You know him!'

The young lady uttered a cry of surprise, and for a few momentsthey were so still that the listener could distinctly hear thembreathe.

'I think I do,' said the gentleman, breaking silence. 'I shouldby your description. We shall see. Many people are singularlylike each other. It may not be the same.'

As he expressed himself to this effect, with assumedcarelessness, he took a step or two nearer the concealed spy, asthe latter could tell from the distinctness with which he heardhim mutter, 'It must be he!'

'Now,' he said, returning: so it seemed by the sound: to thespot where he had stood before, 'you have given us most valuableassistance, young woman, and I wish you to be the better for it. What can I do to serve you?'

'Nothing,' replied Nancy.

'You will not persist in saying that,' rejoined the gentleman,with a voice and emphasis of kindness that might have touched amuch harder and more obdurate heart. 'Think now. Tell me.'

'Nothing, sir,' rejoined the girl, weeping. 'You can do nothingto help me. I am past all hope, indeed.'

'You put yourself beyond its pale,' said the gentleman. 'The pasthas been a dreary waste with you, of youthful energies mis-spent,and such priceless treasures lavished, as the Creator bestows butonce and never grants again, but, for the future, you may hope. I do not say that it is in our power to offer you peace of heartand mind, for that must come as you seek it; but a quiet asylum,either in England, or, if you fear to remain here, in someforeign country, it is not only within the compass of our abilitybut our most anxious wish to secure you. Before the dawn ofmorning, before this river wakes to the first glimpse ofday-light, you shall be placed as entirely beyond the reach ofyour former associates, and leave as utter an absence of alltrace behind you, as if you were to disappear from the earth thismoment. Come! I would not have you go back to exchange one wordwith any old companion, or take one look at any old haunt, orbreathe the very air which is pestilence and death to you. Quitthem all, while there is time and opportunity!'

Title: Oliver Twist
Author: Charles Dickens
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