Charles Dickens >> Oliver Twist (page 57)

'Coming!' cried the office keeper, running out.

'Coming,' growled the guard. 'Ah, and so's the young 'ooman ofproperty that's going to take a fancy to me, but I don't knowwhen. Here, give hold. All ri--ight!'

The horn sounded a few cheerful notes, and the coach was gone.

Sikes remained standing in the street, apparently unmoved by whathe had just heard, and agitated by no stronger feeling than adoubt where to go. At length he went back again, and took theroad which leads from Hatfield to St. Albans.

He went on doggedly; but as he left the town behind him, andplunged into the solitude and darkness of the road, he felt adread and awe creeping upon him which shook him to the core. Every object before him, substance or shadow, still or moving,took the semblance of some fearful thing; but these fears werenothing compared to the sense that haunted him of that morning'sghastly figure following at his heels. He could trace its shadowin the gloom, supply the smallest item of the outline, and notehow stiff and solemn it seemed to stalk along. He could hear itsgarments rustling in the leaves, and every breath of wind cameladen with that last low cry. If he stopped it did the same. Ifhe ran, it followed--not running too: that would have been arelief: but like a corpse endowed with the mere machinery oflife, and borne on one slow melancholy wind that never rose orfell.

At times, he turned, with desperate determination, resolved tobeat this phantom off, though it should look him dead; but thehair rose on his head, and his blood stood still, for it hadturned with him and was behind him then. He had kept it beforehim that morning, but it was behind now--always. He leaned hisback against a bank, and felt that it stood above him, visiblyout against the cold night-sky. He threw himself upon theroad--on his back upon the road. At his head it stood, silent,erect, and still--a living grave-stone, with its epitaph inblood.

Let no man talk of murderers escaping justice, and hint thatProvidence must sleep. There were twenty score of violent deathsin one long minute of that agony of fear.

There was a shed in a field he passed, that offered shelter forthe night. Before the door, were three tall poplar trees, whichmade it very dark within; and the wind moaned through them with adismal wail. He COULD NOT walk on, till daylight came again; andhere he stretched himself close to the wall--to undergo newtorture.

For now, a vision came before him, as constant and more terriblethan that from which he had escaped. Those widely staring eyes,so lustreless and so glassy, that he had better borne to see themthan think upon them, appeared in the midst of the darkness: light in themselves, but giving light to nothing. There were buttwo, but they were everywhere. If he shut out the sight, therecame the room with every well-known object--some, indeed, that hewould have forgotten, if he had gone over its contents frommemory--each in its accustomed place. The body was in ITS place,and its eyes were as he saw them when he stole away. He got up,and rushed into the field without. The figure was behind him. He re-entered the shed, and shrunk down once more. The eyes werethere, before he had laid himself along.

And here he remained in such terror as none but he can know,trembling in every limb, and the cold sweat starting from everypore, when suddenly there arose upon the night-wind the noise ofdistant shouting, and the roar of voices mingled in alarm andwonder. Any sound of men in that lonely place, even though itconveyed a real cause of alarm, was something to him. Heregained his strength and energy at the prospect of personaldanger; and springing to his feet, rushed into the open air.

The broad sky seemed on fire. Rising into the air with showersof sparks, and rolling one above the other, were sheets of flame,lighting the atmosphere for miles round, and driving clouds ofsmoke in the direction where he stood. The shouts grew louder asnew voices swelled the roar, and he could hear the cry of Fire!mingled with the ringing of an alarm-bell, the fall of heavybodies, and the crackling of flames as they twined round some newobstacle, and shot aloft as though refreshed by food. The noiseincreased as he looked. There were people there--men andwomen--light, bustle. It was like new life to him. He dartedonward--straight, headlong--dashing through brier and brake, andleaping gate and fence as madly as his dog, who careered withloud and sounding bark before him.

He came upon the spot. There were half-dressed figures tearingto and fro, some endeavouring to drag the frightened horses fromthe stables, others driving the cattle from the yard andout-houses, and others coming laden from the burning pile, amidsta shower of falling sparks, and the tumbling down of red-hotbeams. The apertures, where doors and windows stood an hour ago,disclosed a mass of raging fire; walls rocked and crumbled intothe burning well; the molten lead and iron poured down, whitehot, upon the ground. Women and children shrieked, and menencouraged each other with noisy shouts and cheers. The clankingof the engine-pumps, and the spirting and hissing of the water asit fell upon the blazing wood, added to the tremendous roar. Heshouted, too, till he was hoarse; and flying from memory andhimself, plunged into the thickest of the throng. Hither andthither he dived that night: now working at the pumps, and nowhurrying through the smoke and flame, but never ceasing to engagehimself wherever noise and men were thickest. Up and down theladders, upon the roofs of buildings, over floors that quaked andtrembled with his weight, under the lee of falling bricks andstones, in every part of that great fire was he; but he bore acharmed life, and had neither scratch nor bruise, nor wearinessnor thought, till morning dawned again, and only smoke andblackened ruins remained.

This mad excitement over, there returned, with ten-fold force,the dreadful consciousness of his crime. He looked suspiciouslyabout him, for the men were conversing in groups, and he fearedto be the subject of their talk. The dog obeyed the significantbeck of his finger, and they drew off, stealthily, together. Hepassed near an engine where some men were seated, and they calledto him to share in their refreshment. He took some bread andmeat; and as he drank a draught of beer, heard the firemen, whowere from London, talking about the murder. 'He has gone toBirmingham, they say,' said one: 'but they'll have him yet, forthe scouts are out, and by to-morrow night there'll be a cry allthrough the country.'

He hurried off, and walked till he almost dropped upon theground; then lay down in a lane, and had a long, but broken anduneasy sleep. He wandered on again, irresolute and undecided,and oppressed with the fear of another solitary night.

Suddenly, he took the desperate resolution to going back toLondon.

'There's somebody to speak to there, at all event,' he thought. 'A good hiding-place, too. They'll never expect to nab me there,after this country scent. Why can't I lie by for a week or so,and, forcing blunt from Fagin, get abroad to France? Damme, I'llrisk it.'

He acted upon this impluse without delay, and choosing the leastfrequented roads began his journey back, resolved to lieconcealed within a short distance of the metropolis, and,entering it at dusk by a circuitous route, to proceed straight tothat part of it which he had fixed on for his destination.

The dog, though. If any description of him were out, it wouldnot be forgotten that the dog was missing, and had probably gonewith him. This might lead to his apprehension as he passed alongthe streets. He resolved to drown him, and walked on, lookingabout for a pond: picking up a heavy stone and tying it to hishanderkerchief as he went.

The animal looked up into his master's face while thesepreparations were making; whether his instinct apprehendedsomething of their purpose, or the robber's sidelong look at himwas sterner than ordinary, he skulked a little farther in therear than usual, and cowered as he came more slowly along. Whenhis master halted at the brink of a pool, and looked round tocall him, he stopped outright.

'Do you hear me call? Come here!' cried Sikes.

The animal came up from the very force of habit; but as Sikesstooped to attach the handkerchief to his throat, he uttered alow growl and started back.

'Come back!' said the robber.

The dog wagged his tail, but moved not. Sikes made a runningnoose and called him again.

The dog advanced, retreated, paused an instant, and scoured awayat his hardest speed.

The man whistled again and again, and sat down and waited in theexpectation that he would return. But no dog appeared, and atlength he resumed his journey.



The twilight was beginning to close in, when Mr. Brownlowalighted from a hackney-coach at his own door, and knockedsoftly. The door being opened, a sturdy man got out of the coachand stationed himself on one side of the steps, while anotherman, who had been seated on the box, dismounted too, and stoodupon the other side. At a sign from Mr. Brownlow, they helpedout a third man, and taking him between them, hurried him intothe house. This man was Monks.

They walked in the same manner up the stairs without speaking,and Mr. Brownlow, preceding them, led the way into a back-room. At the door of this apartment, Monks, who had ascended withevident reluctance, stopped. The two men looked at the oldgentleman as if for instructions.

'He knows the alternative,' said Mr. Browlow. 'If he hesitatesor moves a finger but as you bid him, drag him into the street,call for the aid of the police, and impeach him as a felon in myname.'

'How dare you say this of me?' asked Monks.

'How dare you urge me to it, young man?' replied Mr. Brownlow,confronting him with a steady look. 'Are you mad enough to leavethis house? Unhand him. There, sir. You are free to go, and weto follow. But I warn you, by all I hold most solemn and mostsacred, that instant will have you apprehended on a charge offraud and robbery. I am resolute and immoveable. If you aredetermined to be the same, your blood be upon your own head!'

'By what authority am I kidnapped in the street, and brought hereby these dogs?' asked Monks, looking from one to the other of themen who stood beside him.

'By mine,' replied Mr. Brownlow. 'Those persons are indemnifiedby me. If you complain of being deprived of your liberty--youhad power and opportunity to retrieve it as you came along, butyou deemed it advisable to remain quiet--I say again, throwyourself for protection on the law. I will appeal to the lawtoo; but when you have gone too far to recede, do not sue to mefor leniency, when the power will have passed into other hands;and do not say I plunged you down the gulf into which you rushed,yourself.'

Monks was plainly disconcerted, and alarmed besides. Hehesitated.

'You will decide quickly,' said Mr. Brownlow, with perfectfirmness and composure. 'If you wish me to prefer my chargespublicly, and consign you to a punishment the extent of which,although I can, with a shudder, foresee, I cannot control, oncemore, I say, for you know the way. If not, and you appeal to myforbearance, and the mercy of those you have deeply injured, seatyourself, without a word, in that chair. It has waited for youtwo whole days.'

Monks muttered some unintelligible words, but wavered still.

'You will be prompt,' said Mr. Brownlow. 'A word from me, andthe alternative has gone for ever.'

Still the man hesitated.

'I have not the inclination to parley,' said Mr. Brownlow, 'and,as I advocate the dearest interests of others, I have not theright.'

'Is there--' demanded Monks with a faltering tongue,--'isthere--no middle course?'


Monks looked at the old gentleman, with an anxious eye; but,reading in his countenance nothing but severity anddetermination, walked into the room, and, shrugging hisshoulders, sat down.

'Lock the door on the outside,' said Mr. Brownlow to theattendants, 'and come when I ring.'

The men obeyed, and the two were left alone together.

'This is pretty treatment, sir,' said Monks, throwing down hishat and cloak, 'from my father's oldest friend.'

'It is because I was your father's oldest friend, young man,'returned Mr. Brownlow; 'it is because the hopes and wishes ofyoung and happy years were bound up with him, and that faircreature of his blood and kindred who rejoined her God in youth,and left me here a solitary, lonely man: it is because he kneltwith me beside his only sisters' death-bed when he was yet a boy,on the morning that would--but Heaven willed otherwise--have madeher my young wife; it is because my seared heart clung to him,from that time forth, through all his trials and errors, till hedied; it is because old recollections and associations filled myheart, and even the sight of you brings with it old thoughts ofhim; it is because of all these things that I am moved to treatyou gently now--yes, Edward Leeford, even now--and blush for yourunworthiness who bear the name.'

'What has the name to do with it?' asked the other, aftercontemplating, half in silence, and half in dogged wonder, theagitation of his companion. 'What is the name to me?'

'Nothing,' replied Mr. Brownlow, 'nothing to you. But it wasHERS, and even at this distance of time brings back to me, an oldman, the glow and thrill which I once felt, only to hear itrepeated by a stranger. I am very glad you have changedit--very--very.'

'This is all mighty fine,' said Monks (to retain his assumeddesignation) after a long silence, during which he had jerkedhimself in sullen defiance to and fro, and Mr. Brownlow had sat,shading his face with his hand. 'But what do you want with me?'

'You have a brother,' said Mr. Brownlow, rousing himself: 'abrother, the whisper of whose name in your ear when I came behindyou in the street, was, in itself, almost enough to make youaccompany me hither, in wonder and alarm.'

Title: Oliver Twist
Author: Charles Dickens
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