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Charles Dickens >> Oliver Twist (page 60)


Pouring out these cries, and accompanying them with violentgesticulation, the boy actually threw himself, single-handed,upon the strong man, and in the intensity of his energy and thesuddenness of his surprise, brought him heavily to the ground.

The three spectators seemed quite stupefied. They offered nointerference, and the boy and man rolled on the ground together;the former, heedless of the blows that showered upon him,wrenching his hands tighter and tighter in the garments about themurderer's breast, and never ceasing to call for help with allhis might.

The contest, however, was too unequal to last long. Sikes hadhim down, and his knee was on his throat, when Crackit pulled himback with a look of alarm, and pointed to the window. There werelights gleaming below, voices in loud and earnest conversation,the tramp of hurried footsteps--endless they seemed innumber--crossing the nearest wooden bridge. One man on horsebackseemed to be among the crowd; for there was the noise of hoofsrattling on the uneven pavement. The gleam of lights increased;the footsteps came more thickly and noisily on. Then, came aloud knocking at the door, and then a hoarse murmur from such amultitude of angry voices as would have made the boldest quail.

'Help!' shrieked the boy in a voice that rent the air.

'He's here! Break down the door!'

'In the King's name,' cried the voices without; and the hoarsecry arose again, but louder.

'Break down the door!' screamed the boy. 'I tell you they'llnever open it. Run straight to the room where the light is. Break down the door!'

Strokes, thick and heavy, rattled upon the door and lowerwindow-shutters as he ceased to speak, and a loud huzzah burstfrom the crowd; giving the listener, for the first time, someadequate idea of its immense extent.

'Open the door of some place where I can lock this screechingHell-babe,' cried Sikes fiercely; running to and fro, anddragging the boy, now, as easily as if he were an empty sack. 'That door. Quick!' He flung him in, bolted it, and turned thekey. 'Is the downstairs door fast?'

'Double-locked and chained,' replied Crackit, who, with the othertwo men, still remained quite helpless and bewildered.

'The panels--are they strong?'

'Lined with sheet-iron.'

'And the windows too?'

'Yes, and the windows.'

'Damn you!' cried the desperate ruffian, throwing up the sash andmenacing the crowd. 'Do your worst! I'll cheat you yet!'

Of all the terrific yells that ever fell on mortal ears, nonecould exceed the cry of the infuriated throng. Some shouted tothose who were nearest to set the house on fire; others roared tothe officers to shoot him dead. Among them all, none showed suchfury as the man on horseback, who, throwing himself out of thesaddle, and bursting through the crowd as if he were partingwater, cried, beneath the window, in a voice that rose above allothers, 'Twenty guineas to the man who brings a ladder!'

The nearest voices took up the cry, and hundreds echoed it. Somecalled for ladders, some for sledge-hammers; some ran withtorches to and fro as if to seek them, and still came back androared again; some spent their breath in impotent curses andexecrations; some pressed forward with the ecstasy of madmen, andthus impeded the progress of those below; some among the boldestattempted to climb up by the water-spout and crevices in thewall; and all waved to and fro, in the darkness beneath, like afield of corn moved by an angry wind: and joined from time totime in one loud furious roar.

'The tide,' cried the murderer, as he staggered back into theroom, and shut the faces out, 'the tide was in as I came up. Give me a rope, a long rope. They're all in front. I may dropinto the Folly Ditch, and clear off that way. Give me a rope, orI shall do three more murders and kill myself.

The panic-stricken men pointed to where such articles were kept;the murderer, hastily selecting the longest and strongest cord,hurried up to the house-top.

All the window in the rear of the house had been long ago brickedup, except one small trap in the room where the boy was locked,and that was too small even for the passage of his body. But,from this aperture, he had never ceased to call on those without,to guard the back; and thus, when the murderer emerged at last onthe house-top by the door in the roof, a loud shout proclaimedthe fact to those in front, who immediately began to pour round,pressing upon each other in an unbroken stream.

He planted a board, which he had carried up with him for thepurpose, so firmly against the door that it must be matter ofgreat difficulty to open it from the inside; and creeping overthe tiles, looked over the low parapet.

The water was out, and the ditch a bed of mud.

The crowd had been hushed during these few moments, watching hismotions and doubtful of his purpose, but the instant theyperceived it and knew it was defeated, they raised a cry oftriumphant execration to which all their previous shouting hadbeen whispers. Again and again it rose. Those who were at toogreat a distance to know its meaning, took up the sound; itechoed and re-echoed; it seemed as though the whole city hadpoured its population out to curse him.

On pressed the people from the front--on, on, on, in a strongstruggling current of angry faces, with here and there a glaringtorch to lighten them up, and show them out in all their wrathand passion. The houses on the opposite side of the ditch hadbeen entered by the mob; sashes were thrown up, or torn bodilyout; there were tiers and tiers of faces in every window; clusterupon cluster of people clinging to every house-top. Each littlebridge (and there were three in sight) bent beneath the weight ofthe crowd upon it. Still the current poured on to find some nookor hole from which to vent their shouts, and only for an instantsee the wretch.

'They have him now,' cried a man on the nearest bridge. 'Hurrah!'

The crowd grew light with uncovered heads; and again the shoutuprose.

'I will give fifty pounds,' cried an old gentleman from the samequarter, 'to the man who takes him alive. I will remain here,till he come to ask me for it.'

There was another roar. At this moment the word was passed amongthe crowd that the door was forced at last, and that he who hadfirst called for the ladder had mounted into the room. Thestream abruptly turned, as this intelligence ran from mouth tomouth; and the people at the windows, seeing those upon thebridges pouring back, quitted their stations, and running intothe street, joined the concourse that now thronged pell-mell tothe spot they had left: each man crushing and striving with hisneighbor, and all panting with impatience to get near the door,and look upon the criminal as the officers brought him out. Thecries and shrieks of those who were pressed almost tosuffocation, or trampled down and trodden under foot in theconfusion, were dreadful; the narrow ways were completely blockedup; and at this time, between the rush of some to regain thespace in front of the house, and the unavailing struggles ofothers to extricate themselves from the mass, the immediateattention was distracted from the murderer, although theuniversal eagerness for his capture was, if possible, increased.

The man had shrunk down, thoroughly quelled by the ferocity ofthe crowd, and the impossibility of escape; but seeing thissudden change with no less rapidity than it had occurred, hesprang upon his feet, determined to make one last effort for hislife by dropping into the ditch, and, at the risk of beingstifled, endeavouring to creep away in the darkness andconfusion.

Roused into new strength and energy, and stimulated by the noisewithin the house which announced that an entrance had really beeneffected, he set his foot against the stack of chimneys, fastenedone end of the rope tightly and firmly round it, and with theother made a strong running noose by the aid of his hands andteeth almost in a second. He could let himself down by the cordto within a less distance of the ground than his own height, andhad his knife ready in his hand to cut it then and drop.

At the very instant when he brought the loop over his headprevious to slipping it beneath his arm-pits, and when the oldgentleman before-mentioned (who had clung so tight to the railingof the bridge as to resist the force of the crowd, and retain hisposition) earnestly warned those about him that the man was aboutto lower himself down--at that very instant the murderer, lookingbehind him on the roof, threw his arms above his head, anduttered a yell of terror.

'The eyes again!' he cried in an unearthly screech.

Staggering as if struck by lightning, he lost his balance andtumbled over the parapet. The noose was on his neck. It ran upwith his weight, tight as a bow-string, and swift as the arrow itspeeds. He fell for five-and-thirty feet. There was a suddenjerk, a terrific convulsion of the limbs; and there he hung, withthe open knife clenched in his stiffening hand.

The old chimney quivered with the shock, but stood it bravely. The murderer swung lifeless against the wall; and the boy,thrusting aside the dangling body which obscured his view, calledto the people to come and take him out, for God's sake.

A dog, which had lain concealed till now, ran backwards andforwards on the parapet with a dismal howl, and collectinghimself for a spring, jumped for the dead man's shoulders. Missing his aim, he fell into the ditch, turning completely overas he went; and striking his head against a stone, dashed out hisbrains.

CHAPTER LI

AFFORDING AN EXPLANATION OF MORE MYSTERIES THAN ONE, ANDCOMPREHENDING A PROPOSAL OF MARRIAGE WITH NO WORD OF SETTLEMENTOR PIN-MONEY

The events narrated in the last chapter were yet but two daysold, when Oliver found himself, at three o'clock in theafternoon, in a travelling-carriage rolling fast towards hisnative town. Mrs. Maylie, and Rose, and Mrs. Bedwin, and thegood doctor were with him: and Mr. Brownlow followed in apost-chaise, accompanied by one other person whose name had notbeen mentioned.

They had not talked much upon the way; for Oliver was in aflutter of agitation and uncertainty which deprived him of thepower of collecting his thoughts, and almost of speech, andappeared to have scarcely less effect on his companions, whoshared it, in at least an equal degree. He and the two ladieshad been very carefully made acquainted by Mr. Brownlow with thenature of the admissions which had been forced from Monks; andalthough they knew that the object of their present journey wasto complete the work which had been so well begun, still thewhole matter was enveloped in enough of doubt and mystery toleave them in endurance of the most intense suspense.

The same kind friend had, with Mr. Losberne's assistance,cautiously stopped all channels of communication through whichthey could receive intelligence of the dreadful occurrences thatso recently taken place. 'It was quite true,' he said, 'thatthey must know them before long, but it might be at a better timethan the present, and it could not be at a worse.' So, theytravelled on in silence: each busied with reflections on theobject which had brought them together: and no one disposed togive utterance to the thoughts which crowded upon all.

But if Oliver, under these influences, had remained silent whilethey journeyed towards his birth-place by a road he had neverseen, how the whole current of his recollections ran back to oldtimes, and what a crowd of emotions were wakened up in hisbreast, when they turned into that which he had traversed onfoot: a poor houseless, wandering boy, without a friend to helphim, or a roof to shelter his head.

'See there, there!' cried Oliver, eagerly clasping the hand ofRose, and pointing out at the carriage window; 'that's the stileI came over; there are the hedges I crept behind, for fear anyone should overtake me and force me back! Yonder is the pathacross the fields, leading to the old house where I was a littlechild! Oh Dick, Dick, my dear old friend, if I could only seeyou now!'

'You will see him soon,' replied Rose, gently taking his foldedhands between her own. 'You shall tell him how happy you are,and how rich you have grown, and that in all your happiness youhave none so great as the coming back to make him happy too.'

'Yes, yes,' said Oliver, 'and we'll--we'll take him away fromhere, and have him clothed and taught, and send him to some quietcountry place where he may grow strong and well,--shall we?'

Rose nodded 'yes,' for the boy was smiling through such happytears that she could not speak.

'You will be kind and good to him, for you are to every one,'said Oliver. 'It will make you cry, I know, to hear what he cantell; but never mind, never mind, it will be all over, and youwill smile again--I know that too--to think how changed he is;you did the same with me. He said "God bless you" to me when Iran away,' cried the boy with a burst of affectionate emotion;'and I will say "God bless you" now, and show him how I love himfor it!'

As they approached the town, and at length drove through itsnarrow streets, it became matter of no small difficulty torestrain the boy within reasonable bounds. There wasSowerberry's the undertaker's just as it used to be, only smallerand less imposing in appearance than he remembered it--there wereall the well-known shops and houses, with almost every one ofwhich he had some slight incident connected--there was Gamfield'scart, the very cart he used to have, standing at the oldpublic-house door--there was the workhouse, the dreary prison ofhis youthful days, with its dismal windows frowning on thestreet--there was the same lean porter standing at the gate, atsight of whom Oliver involuntarily shrunk back, and then laughedat himself for being so foolish, then cried, then laughedagain--there were scores of faces at the doors and windows thathe knew quite well--there was nearly everything as if he had leftit but yesterday, and all his recent life had been but a happydream.

Title: Oliver Twist
Author: Charles Dickens
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