Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens

Chapter 5

Oliver mingles with new associates. Going to a Funeral for the first time, he forms an unfavourable notion of his Master’s business

Oliver, being left to himself in the undertaker’s shop, set the lamp down on a workman’s bench, and gazed timidly about him with a feeling of awe and dread, which many people a good deal older than he will be at no loss to understand. An unfinished coffin on black tressels, which stood in the middle of the shop, looked so gloomy and death-like that a cold tremble came over him, every time his eyes wandered in the direction of the dismal object: from which he almost expected to see some frightful form slowly rear its head, to drive him mad with terror. Against the wall were ranged, in regular array, a long row of elm boards cut in the same shape: looking in the dim light, like high-shouldered ghosts with their hands in their breeches pockets. Coffin-plates, elm-chips, bright-headed nails, and shreds of black cloth, lay scattered on the floor; and the wall behind the counter was ornamented with a lively representation of two mutes in very stiff neckcloths, on duty at a large private door, with a hearse drawn by four black steeds, approaching in the distance. The shop was close and hot. The atmosphere seemed tainted with the smell of coffins. The recess beneath the counter in which his flock mattress was thrust, looked like a grave.

Nor were these the only dismal feelings which depressed Oliver. He was alone in a strange place; and we all know how chilled and desolate the best of us will sometimes feel in such a situation. The boy had no friends to care for, or to care for him. The regret of no recent separation was fresh in his mind; the absence of no loved and well-remembered face sank heavily into his heart.

But his heart was heavy, notwithstanding; and he wished, as he crept into his narrow bed, that that were his coffin, and that he could be lain in a calm and lasting sleep in the churchyard ground, with the tall grass waving gently above his head, and the sound of the old deep bell to soothe him in his sleep.

Oliver was awakened in the morning, by a loud kicking at the outside of the shop-door: which, before he could huddle on his clothes, was repeated, in an angry and impetuous manner, about twenty-five times. When he began to undo the chain, the legs desisted, and a voice began.

‘Open the door, will yer?’ cried the voice which belonged to the legs which had kicked at the door.

‘I will, directly, sir,’ replied Oliver: undoing the chain, and turning the key.

‘I suppose yer the new boy, ain’t yer?’ said the voice through the key-hole.

‘Yes, sir,’ replied Oliver.

‘How old are yer?’ inquired the voice.

‘Ten, sir,’ replied Oliver.

‘Then I’ll whop yer when I get in,’ said the voice; ‘you just see if I don’t, that’s all, my work’us brat!’ and having made this obliging promise, the voice began to whistle.

Oliver had been too often subjected to the process to which the very expressive monosyllable just recorded bears reference, to entertain the smallest doubt that the owner of the voice, whoever he might be, would redeem his pledge, most honourably. He drew back the bolts with a trembling hand, and opened the door.

For a second or two, Oliver glanced up the street, and down the street, and over the way: impressed with the belief that the unknown, who had addressed him through the key-hole, had walked a few paces off, to warm himself; for nobody did he see but a big charity-boy, sitting on a post in front of the house, eating a slice of bread and butter: which he cut into wedges, the size of his mouth, with a clasp-knife, and then consumed with great dexterity.

‘I beg your pardon, sir,’ said Oliver at length: seeing that no other visitor made his appearance; ‘did you knock?’

‘I kicked,’ replied the charity-boy.

‘Did you want a coffin, sir?’ inquired Oliver, innocently.

At this, the charity-boy looked monstrous fierce; and said that Oliver would want one before long, if he cut jokes with his superiors in that way.

‘Yer don’t know who I am, I suppose, Work’us?’ said the charity-boy, in continuation: descending from the top of the post, meanwhile, with edifying gravity.

‘No, sir,’ rejoined Oliver.

‘I’m Mister Noah Claypole,’ said the charity-boy, ‘and you’re under me. Take down the shutters, yer idle young ruffian!’ With this, Mr. Claypole administered a kick to Oliver, and entered the shop with a dignified air, which did him great credit. It is difficult for a large-headed, small-eyed youth, of lumbering make and heavy countenance, to look dignified under any circumstances; but it is more especially so, when superadded to these personal attractions are a red nose and yellow smalls.

Oliver, having taken down the shutters, and broken a pane of glass in his effort to stagger away beneath the weight of the first one to a small court at the side of the house in which they were kept during the day, was graciously assisted by Noah: who having consoled him with the assurance that ‘he’d catch it,’ condescended to help him. Mr. Sowerberry came down soon after. Shortly afterwards, Mrs. Sowerberry appeared. Oliver having ‘caught it,’ in fulfilment of Noah’s prediction, followed that young gentleman down the stairs to breakfast.

‘Come near the fire, Noah,’ said Charlotte. ‘I saved a nice little bit of bacon for you from master’s breakfast. Oliver, shut that door at Mister Noah’s back, and take them bits that I’ve put out on the cover of the bread-pan. There’s your tea; take it away to that box, and drink it there, and make haste, for they’ll want you to mind the shop. D’ye hear?’

‘D’ye hear, Work’us?’ said Noah Claypole.

‘Lor, Noah!’ said Charlotte, ‘what a rum creature you are! Why don’t you let the boy alone?’

‘Let him alone!’ said Noah. ‘Why everybody lets him alone enough, for the matter of that. Neither his father nor his mother will ever interfere with him. All his relations let him have his own way pretty well. Eh, Charlotte? He! he! he!’

‘Oh, you queer soul!’ said Charlotte, bursting into a hearty laugh, in which she was joined by Noah; after which they both looked scornfully at poor Oliver Twist, as he sat shivering on the box in the coldest corner of the room, and ate the stale pieces which had been specially reserved for him.

Noah was a charity-boy, but not a workhouse orphan. No chance-child was he, for he could trace his genealogy all the way back to his parents, who lived hard by; his mother being a washerwoman, and his father a drunken soldier, discharged with a wooden leg, and a diurnal pension of twopence-halfpenny and an unstateable fraction. The shop-boys in the neighbourhood had long been in the habit of branding Noah in the public streets, with the ignominious epithets of ‘leathers,’ ‘charity,’ and the like; and Noah had bourne them without reply. But, now that fortune had cast in his way a nameless orphan, at whom even the meanest could point the finger of scorn, he retorted on him with interest. This affords charming food for contemplation. It shows us what a beautiful thing human nature may be made to be; and how impartially the same amiable qualities are developed in the finest lord and the dirtiest charity-boy.

Oliver had been sojourning at the undertaker’s some three weeks or a month. Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry — the shop being shut up — were taking their supper in the little back-parlour, when Mr. Sowerberry, after several deferential glances at his wife, said,

‘My dear —’ He was going to say more; but, Mrs. Sowerberry looking up, with a peculiarly unpropitious aspect, he stopped short.

‘Well,’ said Mrs. Sowerberry, sharply.

‘Nothing, my dear, nothing,’ said Mr. Sowerberry.

‘Ugh, you brute!’ said Mrs. Sowerberry.

‘Not at all, my dear,’ said Mr. Sowerberry humbly. ‘I thought you didn’t want to hear, my dear. I was only going to say —’

‘Oh, don’t tell me what you were going to say,’ interposed Mrs. Sowerberry. ‘I am nobody; don’t consult me, pray. I don’t want to intrude upon your secrets.’ As Mrs. Sowerberry said this, she gave an hysterical laugh, which threatened violent consequences.

‘But, my dear,’ said Sowerberry, ‘I want to ask your advice.’

‘No, no, don’t ask mine,’ replied Mrs. Sowerberry, in an affecting manner: ‘ask somebody else’s.’ Here, there was another hysterical laugh, which frightened Mr. Sowerberry very much. This is a very common and much-approved matrimonial course of treatment, which is often very effective It at once reduced Mr. Sowerberry to begging, as a special favour, to be allowed to say what Mrs. Sowerberry was most curious to hear. After a short duration, the permission was most graciously conceded.

‘It’s only about young Twist, my dear,’ said Mr. Sowerberry. ‘A very good-looking boy, that, my dear.’

‘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 would make a delightful mute, my love.’

Mrs. Sowerberry looked up with an expression of considerable wonderment. Mr. Sowerberry remarked it and, without allowing time 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 a mute in proportion, my dear. You may depend upon it, it would have a superb effect.’

Mrs. Sowerberry, who had a good deal of taste in the undertaking way, was much struck by the novelty of this idea; but, as it would have been compromising her dignity to have said so, under existing circumstances, she merely inquired, with much sharpness, why such an obvious suggestion had not presented itself to her husband’s mind before? Mr. Sowerberry rightly construed this, as an acquiescence in his proposition; it was speedily determined, therefore, that Oliver should be at once initiated into the mysteries of the trade; and, with this view, that he should accompany his master on the very next occasion of his services being required.

The occasion was not long in coming. Half an hour after breakfast next morning, Mr. Bumble entered the shop; and supporting his cane against the counter, drew forth his large leathern pocket-book: from which he selected a small scrap of paper, which he handed over to Sowerberry.

‘Aha!’ said the undertaker, glancing over it with a lively countenance; ‘an order for a coffin, eh?’

‘For a coffin first, and a porochial funeral afterwards,’ replied Mr. 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 to Mr. 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 the beadle; ‘and we shouldn’t have known anything about them, then, only a woman who lodges in the same house made an application to the porochial committee for them to send the porochial surgeon to see 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 in a blacking-bottle, offhand.’

‘Ah, there’s promptness,’ said the undertaker.

‘Promptness, indeed!’ replied the beadle. ‘But what’s the consequence; what’s the ungrateful behaviour of these rebels, sir? Why, the husband sends back word that the medicine won’t suit his wife’s complaint, and so she shan’t take it — says she shan’t take it, sir! Good, strong, wholesome medicine, as was given with great success to two Irish labourers and a coal-heaver, ony a week before — sent ’em for nothing, with a blackin’-bottle in — and he sends back word that she shan’t take it, sir!’

As the atrocity presented itself to Mr. Bumble’s mind in full force, he struck the counter sharply with his cane, and became flushed with indignation.

‘Well,’ said the undertaker, ‘I ne — ver — did —’

‘Never did, sir!’ ejaculated the beadle. ‘No, nor nobody never did; but now she’s dead, we’ve got to bury her; and that’s the direction; 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 after you!’ said Mr. Sowerberry, looking after the beadle as he strode down the street.

‘Yes, sir,’ replied Oliver, who had carefully kept himself out of sight, during the interview; and who was shaking from head to foot at the mere recollection of the sound of Mr. Bumble’s voice.

He needn’t haven taken the trouble to shrink from Mr. Bumble’s glance, however; for that functionary, on whom the prediction of the gentleman in the white waistcoat had made a very strong impression, thought that now the undertaker had got Oliver upon trial the subject was better avoided, until such time as he should be firmly bound for seven years, and all danger of his being returned upon the hands of the parish should be thus effectually and legally overcome.

‘Well,’ said Mr. Sowerberry, taking up his hat. ‘the sooner this job is done, the better. Noah, look after the shop. Oliver, put on your cap, and come with me.’ Oliver obeyed, and followed his master on his professional mission.

They walked on, for some time, through the most crowded and densely inhabited part of the town; and then, striking down a narrow street more dirty and miserable than any they had yet passed through, paused to look for the house which was the object of their search. The houses on either side were high and large, but very old, and tenanted by people of the poorest class: as their neglected appearance would have sufficiently dentoed, without the concurrent testimony afforded by the squalid looks of the few men and women who, with folded arms and bodies half doubled, occasionally skulked along. A great many of the tenements had shop-fronts; but these were fast closed, and mouldering away; only the upper rooms being inhabited. Some houses which had become insecure from age and decay, were prevented from falling into the street, by huge beams of wood reared against the walls, and firmly planted in the road; but even these crazy dens seemed to have been selected as the nightly haunts of some houseless wretches, for many of the rough boards which supplied the place of door and window, were wrenched from their positions, to afford an aperture wide enough for the passage of a human body. The kennel was stagnant and filthy. The very rats, which here and there lay putrefying in its rottenness, were hideous with famine.

There was neither knocker nor bell-handle at the open door where Oliver and his master stopped; so, groping his way cautiously through the dark passage, and bidding Oliver keep close to him and not be afraid the undertaker mounted to the top of the first flight of stairs. Stumbling against a door on the landing, he rapped at it with his knuckles.

It was opened by a young girl of thirteen or fourteen. The undertaker at once saw enough of what the room contained, to know it was the apartment to which he had been directed. He stepped in; 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 drawn a low stool to the cold hearth, and was sitting beside him. There were some ragged children in another corner; and in a small recess, opposite the door, there lay upon the ground, something covered with an old blanket. Oliver shuddered as he cast his eyes toward the place, and crept involuntarily closer to his master; for though it was covered up, the boy felt that it was a corpse.

The man’s face was thin and very pale; his hair and beard were grizzly; his eyes were blookshot. The old woman’s face was wrinkled; her two remaining teeth protruded over her under lip; and her eyes were bright and piercing. Oliver was afraid to look at either her or the man. They seemed so like the rats he had seen 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 well used to misery in all its shapes. ‘Nonsense!’

‘I tell you,’ said the man: clenching his hands, and stamping furiously on the floor — ‘I tell you I won’t have her put into the ground. She couldn’t rest there. The worms would worry her — not eat her — she is so worn away.’

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

‘Ah!’ said the man: bursting into tears, and sinking on his knees at the feet of the dead woman; ‘kneel down, kneel down — kneel round her, every one of you, and mark my words! I say she was starved to death. I never knew how bad she was, till the fever came upon her; and then her bones were starting through the skin. There was neither fire nor candle; she died in the dark — in the dark! She couldn’t even see her children’s faces, though we heard her gasping out their names. I begged for her in the streets: and they sent me to prison. When I came back, she was dying; and all the blood in my heart has dried up, for they starved her to death. I swear it before the God that saw it! They starved her!’ He twined his hands in his hair; and, with a loud 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 had hitherto remained as quiet as if she had been wholly deaf to all that passed, menaced them into silence. Having unloosened the cravat of the man who still remained extended on the ground, she tottered towards the undertaker.

‘She was my daughter,’ said the old woman, nodding her head in the 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 she lying 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 hideous merriment, the undertaker turned to go away.

‘Stop, stop!’ said the old woman in a loud whisper. ‘Will she be buried to-morrow, or next day, or to-night? I laid her out; and I 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, before we go! Never mind; send some bread — only a loaf of bread and a cup of water. Shall we have some bread, dear?’ she said eagerly:

catching at the undertaker’s coat, as he once more moved towards the door.

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

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

‘Now, you must put your best leg foremost, old lady!’ whispered Sowerberry in the old woman’s ear; ‘we are rather late; and it won’t do, to keep the clergyman waiting. Move on, my men — as quick 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; and Oliver, whose legs were not so long as his master’s, ran by the side.

There was not so great a necessity for hurrying as Mr. Sowerberry had anticipated, however; for when they reached the obscure corner of the churchyard in which the nettles grew, and where the parish graves were made, the clergyman had not arrived; and the clerk, who was sitting by the vestry-room fire, seemed to think it by no means improbable that it might be an hour or so, before he came. So, they put the bier on the brink of the grave; and the two mourners waited patiently in the damp clay, with a cold rain drizzling down, while the ragged boys whom the spectacle had attracted into the churchyard played a noisy game at hide-and-seek among the tombstones, or varied their amusements by jumping backwards and forwards over the coffin. Mr. Sowerberry and Bumble, being personal friends of the clerk, sat by the fire with 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 towards the grave. Immediately afterwards, the clergyman appeared: putting on his surplice as he came along. Mr. Bumble then thrashed a boy or two, to keep up appearances; and the reverend gentleman, having read as much of the burial service as could be compressed into four minutes, gave his surplice to the clerk, and walked away again.

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

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

‘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 station by the grave side, started, raised his head, stared at the person who had addressed him, walked forward for a few paces; and fell down in a swoon. The crazy old woman was too much occupied in bewailing the loss of her cloak (which the undertaker had taken off), to pay him any attention; so they threw a can of cold water over him; and when he came to, saw him safely out of the churchyard, locked the gate, and departed on their different ways.

‘Well, Oliver,’ said Sowerberry, as they walked home, ‘how do you like it?’

‘Pretty well, thank you, sir’ replied Oliver, with considerable hesitation. ‘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.’

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

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