Charles Dickens >> Oliver Twist (page 59)

'Drive straight to the office and you will be in time,' repliedMr. Losberne. 'I will remain here.'

The two gentlemen hastily separated; each in a fever ofexcitement wholly uncontrollable.



Near to that part of the Thames on which the church atRotherhithe abuts, where the buildings on the banks are dirtiestand the vessels on the river blackest with the dust of colliersand the smoke of close-built low-roofed houses, there exists thefilthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the manylocalities that are hidden in London, wholly unknown, even byname, to the great mass of its inhabitants.

To reach this place, the visitor has to penetrate through a mazeof close, narrow, and muddy streets, thronged by the rougest andpoorest of waterside people, and devoted to the traffic they maybe supposed to occasion. The cheapest and least delicateprovisions are heaped in the shops; the coarsest and commonestarticles of wearing apparel dangle at the salesman's door, andstream from the house-parapet and windows. Jostling withunemployed labourers of the lowest class, ballast-heavers,coal-whippers, brazen women, ragged children, and the raff andrefuse of the river, he makes his way with difficulty along,assailed by offensive sights and smells from the narrow alleyswhich branch off on the right and left, and deafened by the clashof ponderous waggons that bear great piles of merchandise fromthe stacks of warehouses that rise from every corner. Arriving,at length, in streets remoter and less-frequented than thosethrough which he has passed, he walks beneath totteringhouse-fronts projecting over the pavement, dismantled walls thatseem to totter as he passes, chimneys half crushed halfhesitating to fall, windows guarded by rusty iron bars that timeand dirt have almost eaten away, every imaginable sign ofdesolation and neglect.

In such a neighborhood, beyond Dockhead in the Borough ofSouthwark, stands Jacob's Island, surrounded by a muddy ditch,six or eight feet deep and fifteen or twenty wide when the tideis in, once called Mill Pond, but known in the days of this storyas Folly Ditch. It is a creek or inlet from the Thames, and canalways be filled at high water by opening the sluices at the LeadMills from which it took its old name. At such times, astranger, looking from one of the wooden bridges thrown across itat Mill Lane, will see the inhabitants of the houses on eitherside lowering from their back doors and windows, buckets, pails,domestic utensils of all kinds, in which to haul the water up;and when his eye is turned from these operations to the housesthemselves, his utmost astonishment will be excited by the scenebefore him. Crazy wooden galleries common to the backs of half adozen houses, with holes from which to look upon the slimebeneath; windows, broken and patched, with poles thrust out, onwhich to dry the linen that is never there; rooms so small, sofilthy, so confined, that the air would seem too tainted even forthe dirt and squalor which they shelter; wooden chambersthrusting themselves out above the mud, and threatening to fallinto it--as some have done; dirt-besmeared walls and decayingfoundations; every repulsive lineament of poverty, everyloathsome indication of filth, rot, and garbage; all theseornament the banks of Folly Ditch.

In Jacob's Island, the warehouses are roofless and empty; thewalls are crumbling down; the windows are windows no more; thedoors are falling into the streets; the chimneys are blackened,but they yield no smoke. Thirty or forty years ago, beforelosses and chancery suits came upon it, it was a thriving place;but now it is a desolate island indeed. The houses have noowners; they are broken open, and entered upon by those who havethe courage; and there they live, and there they die. They musthave powerful motives for a secret residence, or be reduced to adestitute condition indeed, who seek a refuge in Jacob's Island.

In an upper room of one of these houses--a detached house of fairsize, ruinous in other respects, but strongly defended at doorand window: of which house the back commanded the ditch inmanner already described--there were assembled three men, who,regarding each other every now and then with looks expressive ofperplexity and expectation, sat for some time in profound andgloomy silence. One of these was Toby Crackit, another Mr.Chitling, and the third a robber of fifty years, whose nose hadbeen almost beaten in, in some old scuffle, and whose face bore afrightful scar which might probably be traced to the sameoccasion. This man was a returned transport, and his name wasKags.

'I wish,' said Toby turning to Mr. Chitling, 'that you had pickedout some other crig when the two old ones got too warm, and hadnot come here, my fine feller.'

'Why didn't you, blunder-head!' said Kags.

'Well, I thought you'd have been a little more glad to see methan this,' replied Mr. Chitling, with a melancholy air.

'Why, look'e, young gentleman,' said Toby, 'when a man keepshimself so very ex-clusive as I have done, and by that means hasa snug house over his head with nobody a prying and smellingabout it, it's rather a startling thing to have the honour of awisit from a young gentleman (however respectable and pleasant aperson he may be to play cards with at conweniency) circumstancedas you are.'

'Especially, when the exclusive young man has got a friendstopping with him, that's arrived sooner than was expected fromforeign parts, and is too modest to want to be presented to theJudges on his return,' added Mr. Kags.

There was a short silence, after which Toby Crackit, seeming toabandon as hopeless any further effort to maintain his usualdevil-may-care swagger, turned to Chitling and said,

'When was Fagin took then?'

'Just at dinner-time--two o'clock this afternoon. Charley and Imade our lucky up the wash-us chimney, and Bolter got into theempty water-butt, head downwards; but his legs were so preciouslong that they stuck out at the top, and so they took him too.'

'And Bet?'

'Poor Bet! She went to see the Body, to speak to who it was,'replied Chitling, his countenance falling more and more, 'andwent off mad, screaming and raving, and beating her head againstthe boards; so they put a strait-weskut on her and took her tothe hospital--and there she is.'

'Wot's come of young Bates?' demanded Kags.

'He hung about, not to come over here afore dark, but he'll behere soon,' replied Chitling. 'There's nowhere else to go tonow, for the people at the Cripples are all in custody, and thebar of the ken--I went up there and see it with my own eyes--isfilled with traps.'

'This is a smash,' observed Toby, biting his lips. 'There's morethan one will go with this.'

'The sessions are on,' said Kags: 'if they get the inquest over,and Bolter turns King's evidence: as of course he will, fromwhat he's said already: they can prove Fagin an accessory beforethe fact, and get the trial on on Friday, and he'll swing in sixdays from this, by G--!'

'You should have heard the people groan,' said Chitling; 'theofficers fought like devils, or they'd have torn him away. Hewas down once, but they made a ring round him, and fought theirway along. You should have seen how he looked about him, allmuddy and bleeding, and clung to them as if they were his dearestfriends. I can see 'em now, not able to stand upright with thepressing of the mob, and draggin him along amongst 'em; I can seethe people jumping up, one behind another, and snarling withtheir teeth and making at him; I can see the blood upon his hairand beard, and hear the cries with which the women workedthemselves into the centre of the crowd at the street corner, andswore they'd tear his heart out!'

The horror-stricken witness of this scene pressed his hands uponhis ears, and with his eyes closed got up and paced violently toand fro, like one distracted.

While he was thus engaged, and the two men sat by in silence withtheir eyes fixed upon the floor, a pattering noise was heard uponthe stairs, and Sikes's dog bounded into the room. They ran tothe window, downstairs, and into the street. The dog had jumpedin at an open window; he made no attempt to follow them, nor washis master to be seen.

'What's the meaning of this?' said Toby when they had returned. 'He can't be coming here. I--I--hope not.'

'If he was coming here, he'd have come with the dog,' said Kags,stooping down to examine the animal, who lay panting on thefloor. 'Here! Give us some water for him; he has run himselffaint.'

'He's drunk it all up, every drop,' said Chitling after watchingthe dog some time in silence. 'Covered with mud--lame--halfblind--he must have come a long way.'

'Where can he have come from!' exclaimed Toby. 'He's been to theother kens of course, and finding them filled with strangers comeon here, where he's been many a time and often. But where can hehave come from first, and how comes he here alone without theother!'

'He'--(none of them called the murderer by his old name)--'Hecan't have made away with himself. What do you think?' saidChitling.

Toby shook his head.

'If he had,' said Kags, 'the dog 'ud want to lead us away towhere he did it. No. I think he's got out of the country, andleft the dog behind. He must have given him the slip somehow, orhe wouldn't be so easy.'

This solution, appearing the most probable one, was adopted asthe right; the dog, creeping under a chair, coiled himself up tosleep, without more notice from anybody.

It being now dark, the shutter was closed, and a candle lightedand placed upon the table. The terrible events of the last twodays had made a deep impression on all three, increased by thedanger and uncertainty of their own position. They drew theirchairs closer together, starting at every sound. They spokelittle, and that in whispers, and were as silent and awe-strickenas if the remains of the murdered woman lay in the next room.

They had sat thus, some time, when suddenly was heard a hurriedknocking at the door below.

'Young Bates,' said Kags, looking angrily round, to check thefear he felt himself.

The knocking came again. No, it wasn't he. He never knockedlike that.

Crackit went to the window, and shaking all over, drew in hishead. There was no need to tell them who it was; his pale facewas enough. The dog too was on the alert in an instant, and ranwhining to the door.

'We must let him in,' he said, taking up the candle.

'Isn't there any help for it?' asked the other man in a hoarsevoice.

'None. He MUST come in.'

'Don't leave us in the dark,' said Kags, taking down a candlefrom the chimney-piece, and lighting it, with such a tremblinghand that the knocking was twice repeated before he had finished.

Crackit went down to the door, and returned followed by a manwith the lower part of his face buried in a handkerchief, andanother tied over his head under his hat. He drew them slowlyoff. Blanched face, sunken eyes, hollow cheeks, beard of threedays' growth, wasted flesh, short thick breath; it was the veryghost of Sikes.

He laid his hand upon a chair which stood in the middle of theroom, but shuddering as he was about to drop into it, and seemingto glance over his shoulder, dragged it back close to thewall--as close as it would go--and ground it against it--and satdown.

Not a word had been exchanged. He looked from one to another insilence. If an eye were furtively raised and met his, it wasinstantly averted. When his hollow voice broke silence, they allthree started. They seemed never to have heard its tones before.

'How came that dog here?' he asked.

'Alone. Three hours ago.'

'To-night's paper says that Fagin's took. Is it true, or a lie?'


They were silent again.

'Damn you all!' said Sikes, passing his hand across his forehead.

'Have you nothing to say to me?'

There was an uneasy movement among them, but nobody spoke.

'You that keep this house,' said Sikes, turning his face toCrackit, 'do you mean to sell me, or to let me lie here till thishunt is over?'

'You may stop here, if you think it safe,' returned the personaddressed, after some hesitation.

Sikes carried his eyes slowly up the wall behind him: rathertrying to turn his head than actually doing it: and said,'Is--it--the body--is it buried?'

They shook their heads.

'Why isn't it!' he retorted with the same glance behind him. 'Wot do they keep such ugly things above the ground for?--Who'sthat knocking?'

Crackit intimated, by a motion of his hand as he left the room,that there was nothing to fear; and directly came back withCharley Bates behind him. Sikes sat opposite the door, so thatthe moment the boy entered the room he encountered his figure.

'Toby,' said the boy falling back, as Sikes turned his eyestowards him, 'why didn't you tell me this, downstairs?'

There had been something so tremendous in the shrinking off ofthe three, that the wretched man was willing to propitiate eventhis lad. Accordingly he nodded, and made as though he wouldshake hands with him.

'Let me go into some other room,' said the boy, retreating stillfarther.

'Charley!' said Sikes, stepping forward. 'Don't you--don't youknow me?'

'Don't come nearer me,' answered the boy, still retreating, andlooking, with horror in his eyes, upon the murderer's face. 'Youmonster!'

The man stopped half-way, and they looked at each other; butSikes's eyes sunk gradually to the ground.

'Witness you three,' cried the boy shaking his clenched fist, andbecoming more and more excited as he spoke. 'Witness youthree--I'm not afraid of him--if they come here after him, I'llgive him up; I will. I tell you out at once. He may kill me forit if he likes, or if he dares, but if I am here I'll give himup. I'd give him up if he was to be boiled alive. Murder! Help! If there's the pluck of a man among you three, you'll helpme. Murder! Help! Down with him!'

Title: Oliver Twist
Author: Charles Dickens
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