Charles Dickens >> Oliver Twist (page 7)

Oliver wondered, in his own mind, whether it had taken a verylong time to get Mr. Sowerberry used to it. But he thought itbetter not to ask the question; and walked back to the shop: thinking over all he had seen and heard.



The month's trial over, Oliver was formally apprenticed. It wasa nice sickly season just at this time. In commercial phrase,coffins were looking up; and, in the course of a few weeks,Oliver acquired a great deal of experience. The success of Mr.Sowerberry's ingenious speculation, exceeded even his mostsanguine hopes. The oldest inhabitants recollected no period atwhich measles had been so prevalent, or so fatal to infantexistence; and many were the mournful processions which littleOliver headed, in a hat-band reaching down to his knees, to theindescribable admiration and emotion of all the mothers in thetown. As Oliver accompanied his master in most of his adultexpeditions too, in order that he might acquire that equanimityof demeanour and full command of nerve which was essential to afinished undertaker, he had many opportunities of observing thebeautiful resignation and fortitude with which some strong-mindedpeople bear their trials and losses.

For instance; when Sowerberry had an order for the burial of somerich old lady or gentleman, who was surrounded by a great numberof nephews and nieces, who had been perfectly inconsolable duringthe previous illness, and whose grief had been whollyirrepressible even on the most public occasions, they would be ashappy among themselves as need be--quite cheerful andcontented--conversing together with as much freedom and gaiety,as if nothing whatever had happened to disturb them. Husbands,too, bore the loss of their wives with the most heroic calmness. Wives, again, put on weeds for their husbands, as if, so far fromgrieving in the garb of sorrow, they had made up their minds torender it as becoming and attractive as possible. It wasobservable, too, that ladies and gentlemen who were in passionsof anguish during the ceremony of interment, recovered almost assoon as they reached home, and became quite composed before thetea-drinking was over. All this was very pleasant and improvingto see; and Oliver beheld it with great admiration.

That Oliver Twist was moved to resignation by the example ofthese good people, I cannot, although I am his biographer,undertake to affirm with any degree of confidence; but I can mostdistinctly say, that for many months he continued meekly tosubmit to the domination and ill-treatment of Noah Claypole: whoused him far worse than before, now that his jealousy was rousedby seeing the new boy promoted to the black stick and hatband,while he, the old one, remained stationary in the muffin-cap andleathers. Charlotte treated him ill, because Noah did; and Mrs.Sowerberry was his decided enemy, because Mr. Sowerberry wasdisposed to be his friend; so, between these three on one side,and a glut of funerals on the other, Oliver was not altogether ascomfortable as the hungry pig was, when he was shut up, bymistake, in the grain department of a brewery.

And now, I come to a very important passage in Oliver's history;for I have to record an act, slight and unimportant perhaps inappearance, but which indirectly produced a material change inall his future prospects and proceedings.

One day, Oliver and Noah had descended into the kitchen at theusual dinner-hour, to banquet upon a small joint of mutton--apound and a half of the worst end of the neck--when Charlottebeing called out of the way, there ensued a brief interval oftime, which Noah Claypole, being hungry and vicious, consideredhe could not possibly devote to a worthier purpose thanaggravating and tantalising young Oliver Twist.

Intent upon this innocent amusement, Noah put his feet on thetable-cloth; and pulled Oliver's hair; and twitched his ears; andexpressed his opinion that he was a 'sneak'; and furthermoreannounced his intention of coming to see him hanged, wheneverthat desirable event should take place; and entered upon varioustopics of petty annoyance, like a malicious and ill-conditionedcharity-boy as he was. But, making Oliver cry, Noah attempted tobe more facetious still; and in his attempt, did what manysometimes do to this day, when they want to be funny. He gotrather personal.

'Work'us,' said Noah, 'how's your mother?'

'She's dead,' replied Oliver; 'don't you say anything about herto me!'

Oliver's colour rose as he said this; he breathed quickly; andthere was a curious working of the mouth and nostrils, which Mr.Claypole thought must be the immediate precursor of a violent fitof crying. Under this impression he returned to the charge.

'What did she die of, Work'us?' said Noah.

'Of a broken heart, some of our old nurses told me,' repliedOliver: more as if he were talking to himself, than answeringNoah. 'I think I know what it must be to die of that!'

'Tol de rol lol lol, right fol lairy, Work'us,' said Noah, as atear rolled down Oliver's cheek. 'What's set you a snivellingnow?'

'Not YOU,' replied Oliver, sharply. 'There; that's enough. Don'tsay anything more to me about her; you'd better not!'

'Better not!' exclaimed Noah. 'Well! Better not! Work'us,don't be impudent. YOUR mother, too! She was a nice 'un shewas. Oh, Lor!' And here, Noah nodded his head expressively; andcurled up as much of his small red nose as muscular action couldcollect together, for the occasion.

'Yer know, Work'us,' continued Noah, emboldened by Oliver'ssilence, and speaking in a jeering tone of affected pity: of alltones the most annoying: 'Yer know, Work'us, it can't be helpednow; and of course yer couldn't help it then; and I am very sorryfor it; and I'm sure we all are, and pity yer very much. But yermust know, Work'us, yer mother was a regular right-down bad 'un.'

'What did you say?' inquired Oliver, looking up very quickly.

'A regular right-down bad 'un, Work'us,' replied Noah, coolly.'And it's a great deal better, Work'us, that she died when shedid, or else she'd have been hard labouring in Bridewell, ortransported, or hung; which is more likely than either, isn'tit?'

Crimson with fury, Oliver started up; overthrew the chair andtable; seized Noah by the throat; shook him, in the violence ofhis rage, till his teeth chattered in his head; and collectinghis whole force into one heavy blow, felled him to the ground.

A minute ago, the boy had looked the quiet child, mild, dejectedcreature that harsh treatment had made him. But his spirit wasroused at last; the cruel insult to his dead mother had set hisblood on fire. His breast heaved; his attitude was erect; hiseye bright and vivid; his whole person changed, as he stoodglaring over the cowardly tormentor who now lay crouching at hisfeet; and defied him with an energy he had never known before.

'He'll murder me!' blubbered Noah. 'Charlotte! missis! Here'sthe new boy a murdering of me! Help! help! Oliver's gone mad! Char--lotte!'

Noah's shouts were responded to, by a loud scream from Charlotte,and a louder from Mrs. Sowerberry; the former of whom rushed intothe kitchen by a side-door, while the latter paused on thestaircase till she was quite certain that it was consistent withthe preservation of human life, to come further down.

'Oh, you little wretch!' screamed Charlotte: seizing Oliver withher utmost force, which was about equal to that of a moderatelystrong man in particularly good training. 'Oh, you littleun-grate-ful, mur-de-rous, hor-rid villain!' And between everysyllable, Charlotte gave Oliver a blow with all her might: accompanying it with a scream, for the benefit of society.

Charlotte's fist was by no means a light one; but, lest it shouldnot be effectual in calming Oliver's wrath, Mrs. Sowerberryplunged into the kitchen, and assisted to hold him with one hand,while she scratched his face with the other. In this favourableposition of affairs, Noah rose from the ground, and pommelled himbehind.

This was rather too violent exercise to last long. When theywere all wearied out, and could tear and beat no longer, theydragged Oliver, struggling and shouting, but nothing daunted,into the dust-cellar, and there locked him up. This being done,Mrs. Sowerberry sunk into a chair, and burst into tears.

'Bless her, she's going off!' said Charlotte. 'A glass of water,Noah, dear. Make haste!'

'Oh! Charlotte,' said Mrs. Sowerberry: speaking as well as shecould, through a deficiency of breath, and a sufficiency of coldwater, which Noah had poured over her head and shoulders. 'Oh!Charlotte, what a mercy we have not all been murdered in ourbeds!'

'Ah! mercy indeed, ma'am,' was the reply. I only hope this'llteach master not to have any more of these dreadful creatures,that are born to be murderers and robbers from their very cradle.

Poor Noah! He was all but killed, ma'am, when I come in.'

'Poor fellow!' said Mrs. Sowerberry: looking piteously on thecharity-boy.

Noah, whose top waistcoat-button might have been somewhere on alevel with the crown of Oliver's head, rubbed his eyes with theinside of his wrists while this commiseration was bestowed uponhim, and performed some affecting tears and sniffs.

'What's to be done!' exclaimed Mrs. Sowerberry. 'Your master'snot at home; there's not a man in the house, and he'll kick thatdoor down in ten minutes.' Oliver's vigorous plunges against thebit of timber in question, rendered this occurance highlyprobable.

'Dear, dear! I don't know, ma'am,' said Charlotte, 'unless wesend for the police-officers.'

'Or the millingtary,' suggested Mr. Claypole.

'No, no,' said Mrs. Sowerberry: bethinking herself of Oliver'sold friend. 'Run to Mr. Bumble, Noah, and tell him to come heredirectly, and not to lose a minute; never mind your cap! Makehaste! You can hold a knife to that black eye, as you run along.

It'll keep the swelling down.'

Noah stopped to make no reply, but started off at his fullestspeed; and very much it astonished the people who were outwalking, to see a charity-boy tearing through the streetspell-mell, with no cap on his head, and a clasp-knife at his eye.



Noah Claypole ran along the streets at his swiftest pace, andpaused not once for breath, until he reached the workhouse-gate. Having rested here, for a minute or so, to collect a good burstof sobs and an imposing show of tears and terror, he knockedloudly at the wicket; and presented such a rueful face to theaged pauper who opened it, that even he, who saw nothing butrueful faces about him at the best of times, started back inastonishment.

'Why, what's the matter with the boy!' said the old pauper.

'Mr. Bumble! Mr. Bumble!' cried Noah, wit well-affected dismay: and in tones so loud and agitated, that they not only caught theear of Mr. Bumble himself, who happened to be hard by, butalarmed him so much that he rushed into the yard without hiscocked hat, --which is a very curious and remarkablecircumstance: as showing that even a beadle, acted upon a suddenand powerful impulse, may be afflicted with a momentaryvisitation of loss of self-possession, and forgetfulness ofpersonal dignity.

'Oh, Mr. Bumble, sir!' said Noah: 'Oliver, sir, --Oliver has--'

'What? What?' interposed Mr. Bumble: with a gleam of pleasurein his metallic eyes. 'Not run away; he hasn't run away, has he,Noah?'

'No, sir, no. Not run away, sir, but he's turned wicious,'replied Noah. 'He tried to murder me, sir; and then he tried tomurder Charlotte; and then missis. Oh! what dreadful pain it is!

Such agony, please, sir!' And here, Noah writhed and twisted hisbody into an extensive variety of eel-like positions; therebygiving Mr. Bumble to understand that, from the violent andsanguinary onset of Oliver Twist, he had sustained severeinternal injury and damage, from which he was at that momentsuffering the acutest torture.

When Noah saw that the intelligence he communicated perfectlyparalysed Mr. Bumble, he imparted additional effect thereunto, bybewailing his dreadful wounds ten times louder than before; andwhen he observed a gentleman in a white waistcoat crossing theyard, he was more tragic in his lamentations than ever: rightlyconceiving it highly expedient to attract the notice, and rousethe indignation, of the gentleman aforesaid.

The gentleman's notice was very soon attracted; for he had notwalked three paces, when he turned angrily round, and inquiredwhat that young cur was howling for, and why Mr. Bumble did notfavour him with something which would render the series ofvocular exclamations so designated, an involuntary process?

'It's a poor boy from the free-school, sir,' replied Mr. Bumble,'who has been nearly murdered--all but murdered, sir, --by youngTwist.'

'By Jove!' exclaimed the gentleman in the white waistcoat,stopping short. 'I knew it! I felt a strange presentiment fromthe very first, that that audacious young savage would come to behung!'

'He has likewise attempted, sir, to murder the female servant,'said Mr. Bumble, with a face of ashy paleness.

'And his missis,' interposed Mr. Claypole.

'And his master, too, I think you said, Noah?' added Mr. Bumble.

'No! he's out, or he would have murdered him,' replied Noah. 'Hesaid he wanted to.'

'Ah! Said he wanted to, did he, my boy?' inquired the gentlemanin the white waistcoat.

'Yes, sir,' replied Noah. 'And please, sir, missis wants to knowwhether Mr. Bumble can spare time to step up there, directly, andflog him-- 'cause master's out.'

'Certainly, my boy; certainly,' said the gentleman in the whitewaistcoat: smiling benignly, and patting Noah's head, which wasabout three inches higher than his own. 'You're a good boy--avery good boy. Here's a penny for you. Bumble, just step up toSowerberry's with your cane, and seed what's best to be done. Don't spare him, Bumble.'

Title: Oliver Twist
Author: Charles Dickens
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