Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens

Chapter 46

The Appointment kept

The church clocks chimed three quarters past eleven, as two figures emerged on London Bridge. One, which advanced with a swift and rapid step, was that of a woman who looked eagerly about her as though in quest of some expected object; the other figure was that of a man, who slunk along in the deepest shadow he could find, and, at some distance, accommodated his pace to hers: stopping when she stopped: and as she moved again, creeping stealthily on: but never allowing himself, in the ardour of his pursuit, to gain upon her footsteps. Thus, they crossed the bridge, from the Middlesex to the Surrey shore, when the woman, apparently disappointed in her anxious scrutiny of the foot-passengers, turned back. The movement was sudden; but he who watched her, was not thrown off his guard by it; for, shrinking into one of the recesses which surmount the piers of the bridge, and leaning over the parapet the better to conceal his figure, he suffered her to pass on the opposite pavement. When she was about the same distance in advance as she had been before, he slipped quietly down, and followed her again. At nearly the centre of the bridge, she stopped. The man stopped too.

It was a very dark night. The day had been unfavourable, and at that hour and place there were few people stirring. Such as there were, hurried quickly past: very possibly without seeing, but certainly without noticing, either the woman, or the man who kept her in view. Their appearance was not calculated to attract the importunate regards of such of London’s destitute population, as chanced to take their way over the bridge that night in search of some cold arch or doorless hovel wherein to lay their heads; they stood there in silence: neither speaking nor spoken to, by any one who passed.

A mist hung over the river, deepening the red glare of the fires that burnt upon the small craft moored off the different wharfs, and rendering darker and more indistinct the murky buildings on the banks. The old smoke-stained storehouses on either side, rose heavy and dull from the dense mass of roofs and gables, and frowned sternly upon water too black to reflect even their lumbering shapes. The tower of old Saint Saviour’s Church, and the spire of Saint Magnus, so long the giant-warders of the ancient bridge, were visible in the gloom; but the forest of shipping below bridge, and the thickly scattered spires of churches above, were nearly all hidden from sight.

The girl had taken a few restless turns to and fro — closely watched meanwhile by her hidden observer — when the heavy bell of St. Paul’s tolled for the death of another day. Midnight had come upon the crowded city. The palace, the night-cellar, the jail, the madhouse: the chambers of birth and death, of health and sickness, the rigid face of the corpse and the calm sleep of the child: midnight was upon them all.

The hour had not struck two minutes, when a young lady, accompanied by a grey-haired gentleman, alighted from a hackney-carriage within a short distance of the bridge, and, having dismissed the vehicle, walked straight towards it. They had scarcely set foot upon its pavement, when the girl started, and immediately made towards them.

They walked onward, looking about them with the air of persons who entertained some very slight expectation which had little chance of being realised, when they were suddenly joined by this new associate. They halted with an exclamation of surprise, but suppressed it immediately; for a man in the garments of a countryman came close up — brushed against them, indeed — at that precise moment.

‘Not here,’ said Nancy hurriedly, ‘I am afraid to speak to you here. Come away — out of the public road — down the steps yonder!’

As she uttered these words, and indicated, with her hand, the direction in which she wished them to proceed, the countryman looked round, and roughly asking what they took up the whole pavement for, passed on.

The steps to which the girl had pointed, were those which, on the Surrey bank, and on the same side of the bridge as Saint Saviour’s Church, form a landing-stairs from the river. To this spot, the man bearing the appearance of a countryman, hastened unobserved; and after a moment’s survey of the place, he began to descend.

These stairs are a part of the bridge; they consist of three flights. Just below the end of the second, going down, the stone wall on the left terminates in an ornamental pilaster facing towards the Thames. At this point the lower steps widen: so that a person turning that angle of the wall, is necessarily unseen by any others on the stairs who chance to be above him, if only a step. The countryman looked hastily round, when he reached this point; and as there seemed no better place of concealment, and, the tide being out, there was plenty of room, he slipped aside, with his back to the pilaster, and there waited: pretty certain that they would come no lower, and that even if he could not hear what was said, he could follow them again, with safety.

So tardily stole the time in this lonely place, and so eager was the spy to penetrate the motives of an interview so different from what he had been led to expect, that he more than once gave the matter up for lost, and persuaded himself, either that they had stopped far above, or had resorted to some entirely different spot to hold their mysterious conversation. He was on the point of emerging from his hiding-place, and regaining the road above, when he heard the sound of footsteps, and directly afterwards of voices almost close at his ear.

He drew himself straight upright against the wall, and, scarcely breathing, listened attentively.

‘This is far enough,’ said a voice, which was evidently that of the gentleman. ‘I will not suffer the young lady to go any farther. Many people would have distrusted you too much to have come even so far, but you see I am willing to humour you.’

‘To humour me!’ cried the voice of the girl whom he had followed.

‘You’re considerate, indeed, sir. To humour me! Well, well, it’s no matter.’

‘Why, for what,’ said the gentleman in a kinder tone, ‘for what purpose can you have brought us to this strange place? Why not have let me speak to you, above there, where it is light, and there is something stirring, instead of bringing us to this dark and dismal hole?’

‘I told you before,’ replied Nancy, ‘that I was afraid to speak to you there. I don’t know why it is,’ said the girl, shuddering, ‘but I have such a fear and dread upon me to-night that I can hardly stand.’

‘A fear of what?’ asked the gentleman, who seemed to pity her.

‘I scarcely know of what,’ replied the girl. ‘I wish I did. Horrible thoughts of death, and shrouds with blood upon them, and a fear that has made me burn as if I was on fire, have been upon me all day. I was reading a book to-night, to wile the time away, and the same things came into the print.’

‘Imagination,’ said the gentleman, soothing her.

‘No imagination,’ replied the girl in a hoarse voice. ‘I’ll swear I saw “coffin” written in every page of the book in large black letters — aye, and they carried one close to me, in the streets to-night.’

‘There is nothing unusual in that,’ said the gentleman. ‘They have passed me often.’

‘REAL ONES,’ rejoined the girl. ‘This was not.’

There was something so uncommon in her manner, that the flesh of the concealed listener crept as he heard the girl utter these words, and the blood chilled within him. He had never experienced a greater relief than in hearing the sweet voice of the young lady as she begged her to be calm, and not allow herself to become the prey of such fearful fancies.

‘Speak to her kindly,’ said the young lady to her companion. ‘Poor creature! She seems to need it.’

‘Your haughty religious people would have held their heads up to see me as I am to-night, and preached of flames and vengeance,’ cried the girl. ‘Oh, dear lady, why ar’n’t those who claim to be God’s own folks as gentle and as kind to us poor wretches as you, who, having youth, and beauty, and all that they have lost, might be a little proud instead of so much humbler?’

‘Ah!’ said the gentleman. ‘A Turk turns his face, after washing it well, to the East, when he says his prayers; these good people, after giving their faces such a rub against the World as to take the smiles off, turn with no less regularity, to the darkest side of Heaven. Between the Mussulman and the Pharisee, commend me to the first!’

These words appeared to be addressed to the young lady, and were perhaps uttered with the view of affording Nancy time to recover herself. The gentleman, shortly afterwards, addressed himself to her.

‘You were not here last Sunday night,’ he said.

‘I couldn’t come,’ replied Nancy; ‘I was kept by force.’

‘By whom?’

‘Him that I told the young lady of before.’

‘You were not suspected of holding any communication with anybody on the subject which has brought us here to-night, I hope?’ asked the old gentleman.

‘No,’ replied the girl, shaking her head. ‘It’s not very easy for me to leave him unless he knows why; I couldn’t give him a drink of laudanum before I came away.’

‘Did he awake before you returned?’ inquired the gentleman.

‘No; and neither he nor any of them suspect me.’

‘Good,’ said the gentleman. ‘Now listen to me.’

‘I am ready,’ replied the girl, as he paused for a moment.

‘This young lady,’ the gentleman began, ‘has communicated to me, and to some other friends who can be safely trusted, what you told her nearly a fortnight since. I confess to you that I had doubts, at first, whether you were to be implicitly relied upon, but now I firmly believe you are.’

‘I am,’ said the girl earnestly.

‘I repeat that I firmly believe it. To prove to you that I am disposed to trust you, I tell you without reserve, that we propose to extort the secret, whatever it may be, from the fear of this man Monks. But if — if —’ said the gentleman, ‘he cannot be secured, or, if secured, cannot be acted upon as we wish, you must deliver up the Jew.’

‘Fagin,’ cried the girl, recoiling.

‘That man must be delivered up by you,’ said the gentleman.

‘I will not do it! I will never do it!’ replied the girl. ‘Devil that he is, and worse than devil as he has been to me, I will never do that.’

‘You will not?’ said the gentleman, who seemed fully prepared for this answer.

‘Never!’ returned the girl.

‘Tell me why?’

‘For one reason,’ rejoined the girl firmly, ‘for one reason, that the lady knows and will stand by me in, I know she will, for I have her promise: and for this other reason, besides, that, bad life as he has led, I have led a bad life too; there are many of us who have kept the same courses together, and I’ll not turn upon them, who might — any of them — have turned upon me, but didn’t, bad as they are.’

‘Then,’ said the gentleman, quickly, as if this had been the point he had been aiming to attain; ‘put Monks into my hands, and leave him to me to deal with.’

‘What if he turns against the others?’

‘I promise you that in that case, if the truth is forced from him, there the matter will rest; there must be circumstances in Oliver’s little history which it would be painful to drag before the public eye, and if the truth is once elicited, they shall go scot free.’

‘And if it is not?’ suggested the girl.

‘Then,’ pursued the gentleman, ‘this Fagin shall not be brought to justice without your consent. In such a case I could show you reasons, I think, which would induce you to yield it.’

‘Have I the lady’s promise for that?’ asked the girl.

‘You have,’ replied Rose. ‘My true and faithful pledge.’

‘Monks would never learn how you knew what you do?’ said the girl, after a short pause.

‘Never,’ replied the gentleman. ‘The intelligence should be brought to bear upon him, that he could never even guess.’

‘I have been a liar, and among liars from a little child,’ said the girl after another interval of silence, ‘but I will take your words.’

After receving an assurance from both, that she might safely do so, she proceeded in a voice so low that it was often difficult for the listener to discover even the purport of what she said, to describe, by name and situation, the public-house whence she had been followed that night. From the manner in which she occasionally paused, it appeared as if the gentleman were making some hasty notes of the information she communicated. When she had thoroughly explained the localities of the place, the best position from which to watch it without exciting observation, and the night and hour on which Monks was most in the habit of frequenting it, she seemed to consider for a few moments, for the purpose of recalling his features and appearances more forcibly to her recollection.

‘He is tall,’ said the girl, ‘and a strongly made man, but not stout; he has a lurking walk; and as he walks, constantly looks over his shoulder, first on one side, and then on the other. Don’t forget that, for his eyes are sunk in his head so much deeper than any other man’s, that you might almost tell him by that alone. His face is dark, like his hair and eyes; and, although he can’t be more than six or eight and twenty, withered and haggard. His lips are often discoloured and disfigured with the marks of teeth; for he has desperate fits, and sometimes even bites his hands and covers them with wounds — why did you start?’ said the girl, stopping suddenly.

The gentleman replied, in a hurried manner, that he was not conscious of having done so, and begged her to proceed.

‘Part of this,’ said the girl, ‘I have drawn out from other people at the house I tell you of, for I have only seen him twice, and both times he was covered up in a large cloak. I think that’s all I can give you to know him by. Stay though,’ she added. ‘Upon his throat: so high that you can see a part of it below his neckerchief when he turns his face: there is —’

‘A broad red mark, like a burn or scald?’ cried the gentleman.

‘How’s this?’ said the girl. ‘You know him!’

The young lady uttered a cry of surprise, and for a few moments they were so still that the listener could distinctly hear them breathe.

‘I think I do,’ said the gentleman, breaking silence. ‘I should by your description. We shall see. Many people are singularly like each other. It may not be the same.’

As he expressed himself to this effect, with assumed carelessness, he took a step or two nearer the concealed spy, as the latter could tell from the distinctness with which he heard him mutter, ‘It must be he!’

‘Now,’ he said, returning: so it seemed by the sound: to the spot where he had stood before, ‘you have given us most valuable assistance, young woman, and I wish you to be the better for it. What can I do to serve you?’

‘Nothing,’ replied Nancy.

‘You will not persist in saying that,’ rejoined the gentleman, with a voice and emphasis of kindness that might have touched a much harder and more obdurate heart. ‘Think now. Tell me.’

‘Nothing, sir,’ rejoined the girl, weeping. ‘You can do nothing to help me. I am past all hope, indeed.’

‘You put yourself beyond its pale,’ said the gentleman. ‘The past has been a dreary waste with you, of youthful energies mis-spent, and such priceless treasures lavished, as the Creator bestows but once and never grants again, but, for the future, you may hope. I do not say that it is in our power to offer you peace of heart and mind, for that must come as you seek it; but a quiet asylum, either in England, or, if you fear to remain here, in some foreign country, it is not only within the compass of our ability but our most anxious wish to secure you. Before the dawn of morning, before this river wakes to the first glimpse of day-light, you shall be placed as entirely beyond the reach of your former associates, and leave as utter an absence of all trace behind you, as if you were to disappear from the earth this moment. Come! I would not have you go back to exchange one word with any old companion, or take one look at any old haunt, or breathe the very air which is pestilence and death to you. Quit them all, while there is time and opportunity!’

‘She will be persuaded now,’ cried the young lady. ‘She hesitates, I am sure.’

‘I fear not, my dear,’ said the gentleman.

‘No sir, I do not,’ replied the girl, after a short struggle. ‘I am chained to my old life. I loathe and hate it now, but I cannot leave it. I must have gone too far to turn back — and yet I don’t know, for if you had spoken to me so, some time ago, I should have laughed it off. But,’ she said, looking hastily round, ‘this fear comes over me again. I must go home.’

‘Home!’ repeated the young lady, with great stress upon the word.

‘Home, lady,’ rejoined the girl. ‘To such a home as I have raised for myself with the work of my whole life. Let us part. I shall be watched or seen. Go! Go! If I have done you any service all I ask is, that you leave me, and let me go my way alone.’

‘It is useless,’ said the gentleman, with a sigh. ‘We compromise her safety, perhaps, by staying here. We may have detained her longer than she expected already.’

‘Yes, yes,’ urged the girl. ‘You have.’

‘What,’ cried the young lady. ‘can be the end of this poor creature’s life!’

‘What!’ repeated the girl. ‘Look before you, lady. Look at that dark water. How many times do you read of such as I who spring into the tide, and leave no living thing, to care for, or bewail them. It may be years hence, or it may be only months, but I shall come to that at last.’

‘Do not speak thus, pray,’ returned the young lady, sobbing.

‘It will never reach your ears, dear lady, and God forbid such horrors should!’ replied the girl. ‘Good-night, good-night!’

The gentleman turned away.

‘This purse,’ cried the young lady. ‘Take it for my sake, that you may have some resource in an hour of need and trouble.’

‘No!’ replied the girl. ‘I have not done this for money. Let me have that to think of. And yet — give me something that you have worn: I should like to have something — no, no, not a ring — your gloves or handkerchief — anything that I can keep, as having belonged to you, sweet lady. There. Bless you! God bless you. Good-night, good-night!’

The violent agitation of the girl, and the apprehension of some discovery which would subject her to ill-usage and violence, seemed to determine the gentleman to leave her, as she requested.

The sound of retreating footsteps were audible and the voices ceased.

The two figures of the young lady and her companion soon afterwards appeared upon the bridge. They stopped at the summit of the stairs.

‘Hark!’ cried the young lady, listening. ‘Did she call! I thought I heard her voice.’

‘No, my love,’ replied Mr. Brownlow, looking sadly back. ‘She has not moved, and will not till we are gone.’

Rose Maylie lingered, but the old gentleman drew her arm through his, and led her, with gentle force, away. As they disappeared, the girl sunk down nearly at her full length upon one of the stone stairs, and vented the anguish of her heart in bitter tears.

After a time she arose, and with feeble and tottering steps ascended the street. The astonished listener remained motionless on his post for some minutes afterwards, and having ascertained, with many cautious glances round him, that he was again alone, crept slowly from his hiding-place, and returned, stealthily and in the shade of the wall, in the same manner as he had descended.

Peeping out, more than once, when he reached the top, to make sure that he was unobserved, Noah Claypole darted away at his utmost speed, and made for the Jew’s house as fast as his legs would carry him.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:30