Charles Dickens >> Oliver Twist (page 6)

'He need be, for he eats enough,' observed the lady.

'There's an expression of melancholy in his face, my dear,'resumed Mr. Sowerberry, 'which is very interesting. He wouldmake a delightful mute, my love.'

Mrs. Sowerberry looked up with an expression of considerablewonderment. Mr. Sowerberry remarked it and, without allowingtime for any observation on the good lady's part, proceeded.

'I don't mean a regular mute to attend grown-up people, my dear,but only for children's practice. It would be very new to have amute in proportion, my dear. You may depend upon it, it wouldhave a superb effect.'

Mrs. Sowerberry, who had a good deal of taste in the undertakingway, was much struck by the novelty of this idea; but, as itwould have been compromising her dignity to have said so, underexisting circumstances, she merely inquired, with much sharpness,why such an obvious suggestion had not presented itself to herhusband's mind before? Mr. Sowerberry rightly construed this, asan acquiescence in his proposition; it was speedily determined,therefore, that Oliver should be at once initiated into themysteries of the trade; and, with this view, that he shouldaccompany his master on the very next occasion of his servicesbeing required.

The occasion was not long in coming. Half an hour afterbreakfast next morning, Mr. Bumble entered the shop; andsupporting his cane against the counter, drew forth his largeleathern pocket-book: from which he selected a small scrap ofpaper, which he handed over to Sowerberry.

'Aha!' said the undertaker, glancing over it with a livelycountenance; 'an order for a coffin, eh?'

'For a coffin first, and a porochial funeral afterwards,' repliedMr. Bumble, fastening the strap of the leathern pocket-book: which, like himself, was very corpulent.

'Bayton,' said the undertaker, looking from the scrap of paper toMr. Bumble. 'I never heard the name before.'

Bumble shook his head, as he replied, 'Obstinate people, Mr.Sowerberry; very obstinate. Proud, too, I'm afraid, sir.'

'Proud, eh?' exclaimed Mr. Sowerberry with a sneer. 'Come,that's too much.'

'Oh, it's sickening,' replied the beadle. 'Antimonial, Mr.Sowerberry!'

'So it is,' asquiesced the undertaker.

'We only heard of the family the night before last,' said thebeadle; 'and we shouldn't have known anything about them, then,only a woman who lodges in the same house made an application tothe porochial committee for them to send the porochial surgeon tosee a woman as was very bad. He had gone out to dinner; but his'prentice (which is a very clever lad) sent 'em some medicine ina blacking-bottle, offhand.'

'Ah, there's promptness,' said the undertaker.

'Promptness, indeed!' replied the beadle. 'But what's theconsequence; what's the ungrateful behaviour of these rebels,sir? Why, the husband sends back word that the medicine won'tsuit his wife's complaint, and so she shan't take it--says sheshan't take it, sir! Good, strong, wholesome medicine, as wasgiven with great success to two Irish labourers and acoal-heaver, ony a week before--sent 'em for nothing, with ablackin'-bottle in,--and he sends back word that she shan't takeit, sir!'

As the atrocity presented itself to Mr. Bumble's mind in fullforce, he struck the counter sharply with his cane, and becameflushed with indignation.

'Well,' said the undertaker, 'I ne--ver--did--'

'Never did, sir!' ejaculated the beadle. 'No, nor nobody neverdid; but now she's dead, we've got to bury her; and that's thedirection; and the sooner it's done, the better.'

Thus saying, Mr. Bumble put on his cocked hat wrong side first,in a fever of parochial excietment; and flounced out of the shop.

'Why, he was so angry, Oliver, that he forgot even to ask afteryou!' said Mr. Sowerberry, looking after the beadle as he strodedown the street.

'Yes, sir,' replied Oliver, who had carefully kept himself out ofsight, during the interview; and who was shaking from head tofoot at the mere recollection of the sound of Mr. Bumble's voice.

He needn't haven taken the trouble to shrink from Mr. Bumble'sglance, however; for that functionary, on whom the prediction ofthe gentleman in the white waistcoat had made a very strongimpression, thought that now the undertaker had got Oliver upontrial the subject was better avoided, until such time as heshould be firmly bound for seven years, and all danger of hisbeing returned upon the hands of the parish should be thuseffectually and legally overcome.

'Well,' said Mr. Sowerberry, taking up his hat. 'the sooner thisjob is done, the better. Noah, look after the shop. Oliver, puton your cap, and come with me.' Oliver obeyed, and followed hismaster on his professional mission.

They walked on, for some time, through the most crowded anddensely inhabited part of the town; and then, striking down anarrow street more dirty and miserable than any they had yetpassed through, paused to look for the house which was the objectof their search. The houses on either side were high and large,but very old, and tenanted by people of the poorest class: astheir neglected appearance would have sufficiently dentoed,without the concurrent testimony afforded by the squalid looks ofthe few men and women who, with folded arms and bodies halfdoubled, occasionally skulked along. A great many of thetenements had shop-fronts; but these were fast closed, andmouldering away; only the upper rooms being inhabited. Somehouses which had become insecure from age and decay, wereprevented from falling into the street, by huge beams of woodreared against the walls, and firmly planted in the road; buteven these crazy dens seemed to have been selected as the nightlyhaunts of some houseless wretches, for many of the rough boardswhich supplied the place of door and window, were wrenched fromtheir positions, to afford an aperture wide enough for thepassage of a human body. The kennel was stagnant and filthy. The very rats, which here and there lay putrefying in itsrottenness, were hideous with famine.

There was neither knocker nor bell-handle at the open door whereOliver and his master stopped; so, groping his way cautiouslythrough the dark passage, and bidding Oliver keep close to himand not be afraid the undertaker mounted to the top of the firstflight of stairs. Stumbling against a door on the landing, herapped at it with his knuckles.

It was opened by a young girl of thirteen or fourteen. Theundertaker at once saw enough of what the room contained, to knowit was the apartment to which he had been directed. He steppedin; Oliver followed him.

There was no fire in the room; but a man was crouching,mechanically, over the empty stove. An old woman, too, had drawna low stool to the cold hearth, and was sitting beside him. There were some ragged children in another corner; and in a smallrecess, opposite the door, there lay upon the ground, somethingcovered with an old blanket. Oliver shuddered as he cast hiseyes toward the place, and crept involuntarily closer to hismaster; for though it was covered up, the boy felt that it was acorpse.

The man's face was thin and very pale; his hair and beard weregrizzly; his eyes were blookshot. The old woman's face waswrinkled; her two remaining teeth protruded over her under lip;and her eyes were bright and piercing. Oliver was afriad to lookat either her or the man. They seemed so like the rats he hadseen outside.

'Nobody shall go near her,' said the man, starting fiercely up,as the undertaker approached the recess. 'Keep back! Damn you,keep back, if you've a life to lose!'

'Nonsense, my good man,' said the undertaker, who was pretty wellused to misery in all its shapes. 'Nonsense!'

'I tell you,' said the man: clenching his hands, and stampingfuriously on the floor,--'I tell you I won't have her put intothe ground. She couldn't rest there. The worms would worryher--not eat her--she is so worn away.'

The undertaker offered no reply to this raving; but producing atape from his pocket, knelt down for a moment by the side of thebody.

'Ah!' said the man: bursting into tears, and sinking on hisknees at the feet of the dead woman; 'kneel down, kneel down--kneel round her, every one of you, and mark my words! I sayshe was starved to death. I never knew how bad she was, till thefever came upon her; and then her bones were starting through theskin. There was neither fire nor candle; she died in thedark--in the dark! She couldn't even see her children's faces,though we heard her gasping out their names. I begged for her inthe streets: and they sent me to prison. When I came back, shewas dying; and all the blood in my heart has dried up, for theystarved her to death. I swear it before the God that saw it! They starved her!' He twined his hands in his hair; and, with aloud scream, rolled grovelling upon the floor: his eyes fixed,and the foam covering his lips.

The terrified children cried bitterly; but the old woman, who hadhitherto remained as quiet as if she had been wholly deaf to allthat passed, menaced them into silence. Having unloosened thecravat of the man who still remained extended on the ground, shetottered towards the undertaker.

'She was my daughter,' said the old woman, nodding her head inthe direction of the corpse; and speaking with an idiotic leer,more ghastly than even the presence of death in such a place. 'Lord, Lord! Well, it IS strange that I who gave birth to her,and was a woman then, should be alive and merry now, and shelying ther: so cold and stiff! Lord, Lord!--to think of it;it's as good as a play--as good as a play!'

As the wretched creature mumbled and chuckled in her hideousmerriment, the undertaker turned to go away.

'Stop, stop!' said the old woman in a loud whisper. 'Will she beburied to-morrow, or next day, or to-night? I laid her out; andI must walk, you know. Send me a large cloak: a good warm one: for it is bitter cold. We should have cake and wine, too, beforewe go! Never mind; send some bread--only a loaf of bread and acup of water. Shall we have some bread, dear?' she said eagerly:

catching at the undertaker's coat, as he once more moved towardsthe door.

'Yes, yes,' said the undertaker,'of course. Anything you like!' He disengaged himself from the old woman's grasp; and, drawingOliver after him, hurried away.

The next day, (the family having been meanwhile relieved with ahalf-quartern loaf and a piece of cheese, left with them by Mr.Bumble himself,) Oliver and his master returned to the miserableabode; where Mr. Bumble had already arrived, accompanied by fourmen from the workhouse, who were to act as bearers. An old blackcloak had been thrown over the rags of the old woman and the man;and the bare coffin having been screwed down, was hoisted on theshoulders of the bearers, and carried into the street.

'Now, you must put your best leg foremost, old lady!' whisperedSowerberry in the old woman's ear; 'we are rather late; and itwon't do, to keep the clergyman waiting. Move on, my men,--asquick as you like!'

Thus directed, the bearers trotted on under their light burden;and the two mourners kept as near them, as they could. Mr.Bumble and Sowerberry walked at a good smart pace in front; andOliver, whose legs were not so long as his master's, ran by theside.

There was not so great a necessity for hurrying as Mr. Sowerberryhad anticipated, however; for when they reached the obscurecorner of the churchyard in which the nettles grew, and where theparish graves were made, the clergyman had not arrived; and theclerk, who was sitting by the vestry-room fire, seemed to thinkit by no means improbable that it might be an hour or so, beforehe came. So, they put the bier on the brink of the grave; andthe two mourners waited patiently in the damp clay, with a coldrain drizzling down, while the ragged boys whom the spectacle hadattracted into the churchyard played a noisy game athide-and-seek among the tombstones, or varied their amusements byjumping backwards and forwards over the coffin. Mr. Sowerberryand Bumble, being personal friends of the clerk, sat by the firewith him, and read the paper.

At length, after a lapse of something more than an hour, Mr.Bumble, and Sowerberry, and the clerk, were seen running towardsthe grave. Immediately afterwards, the clergyman appeared: putting on his surplice as he came along. Mr. Bumble thenthrashed a boy or two, to keep up appearances; and the reverendgentleman, having read as much of the burial service as could becompressed into four minutes, gave his surplice to the clerk, andwalked away again.

'Now, Bill!' said Sowerberry to the grave-digger. 'Fill up!'

It was no very difficult task, for the grave was so full, thatthe uppermost coffin was within a few feet of the surface. Thegrave-digger shovelled in the earth; stamped it loosely down withhis feet: shouldered his spade; and walked off, followed by theboys, who murmured very loud complaints at the fun being over sosoon.

'Come, my good fellow!' said Bumble, tapping the man on the back.

'They want to shut up the yard.'

The man who had never once moved, since he had taken his stationby the grave side, started, raised his head, stared at the personwho had addressed him, walked forward for a few paces; and felldown in a swoon. The crazy old woman was too much occupied inbewailing the loss of her cloak (which the undertaker had takenoff), to pay him any attention; so they threw a can of cold waterover him; and when he came to, saw him safely out of thechurchyard, locked the gate, and departed on their differentways.

'Well, Oliver,' said Sowerberry, as they walked home, 'how do youlike it?'

'Pretty well, thank you, sir' replied Oliver, with considerablehesitation. 'Not very much, sir.'

'Ah, you'll get used to it in time, Oliver,' said Sowerberry.'Nothing when you ARE used to it, my boy.'

Title: Oliver Twist
Author: Charles Dickens
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