The narrow streets and courts, at length, terminated in a large open space; scattered about which, were pens for beasts, and other indications of a cattle-market. Sikes slackened his pace when they reached this spot: the girl being quite unable to support any longer, the rapid rate at which they had hitherto walked. Turning to Oliver, he roughly commanded him to take hold of Nancy’s hand.
‘Do you hear?’ growled Sikes, as Oliver hesitated, and looked round.
They were in a dark corner, quite out of the track of passengers.
Oliver saw, but too plainly, that resistance would be of no avail. He held out his hand, which Nancy clasped tight in hers.
‘Give me the other,’ said Sikes, seizing Oliver’s unoccupied hand. ‘Here, Bull’s–Eye!’
The dog looked up, and growled.
‘See here, boy!’ said Sikes, putting his other hand to Oliver’s throat; ‘if he speaks ever so soft a word, hold him! D’ye mind!’
The dog growled again; and licking his lips, eyed Oliver as if he were anxious to attach himself to his windpipe without delay.
‘He’s as willing as a Christian, strike me blind if he isn’t!’ said Sikes, regarding the animal with a kind of grim and ferocious approval. ‘Now, you know what you’ve got to expect, master, so call away as quick as you like; the dog will soon stop that game. Get on, young’un!’
Bull’s-eye wagged his tail in acknowledgment of this unusually endearing form of speech; and, giving vent to another admonitory growl for the benefit of Oliver, led the way onward.
It was Smithfield that they were crossing, although it might have been Grosvenor Square, for anything Oliver knew to the contrary. The night was dark and foggy. The lights in the shops could scarecely struggle through the heavy mist, which thickened every moment and shrouded the streets and houses in gloom; rendering the strange place still stranger in Oliver’s eyes; and making his uncertainty the more dismal and depressing.
They had hurried on a few paces, when a deep church-bell struck the hour. With its first stroke, his two conductors stopped, and turned their heads in the direction whence the sound proceeded.
‘Eight o’ clock, Bill,’ said Nancy, when the bell ceased.
‘What’s the good of telling me that; I can hear it, can’t I!’ replied Sikes.
‘I wonder whether THEY can hear it,’ said Nancy.
‘Of course they can,’ replied Sikes. ‘It was Bartlemy time when I was shopped; and there warn’t a penny trumpet in the fair, as I couldn’t hear the squeaking on. Arter I was locked up for the night, the row and din outside made the thundering old jail so silent, that I could almost have beat my brains out against the iron plates of the door.’
‘Poor fellow!’ said Nancy, who still had her face turned towards the quarter in which the bell had sounded. ‘Oh, Bill, such fine young chaps as them!’
‘Yes; that’s all you women think of,’ answered Sikes. ‘Fine young chaps! Well, they’re as good as dead, so it don’t much matter.’
With this consolation, Mr. Sikes appeared to repress a rising tendency to jealousy, and, clasping Oliver’s wrist more firmly, told him to step out again.
‘Wait a minute!’ said the girl: ‘I wouldn’t hurry by, if it was you that was coming out to be hung, the next time eight o’clock struck, Bill. I’d walk round and round the place till I dropped, if the snow was on the ground, and I hadn’t a shawl to cover me.’
‘And what good would that do?’ inquired the unsentimental Mr. Sikes. ‘Unless you could pitch over a file and twenty yards of good stout rope, you might as well be walking fifty mile off, or not walking at all, for all the good it would do me. Come on, and don’t stand preaching there.’
The girl burst into a laugh; drew her shawl more closely round her; and they walked away. But Oliver felt her hand tremble, and, looking up in her face as they passed a gas-lamp, saw that it had turned a deadly white.
They walked on, by little-frequented and dirty ways, for a full half-hour: meeting very few people, and those appearing from their looks to hold much the same position in society as Mr. Sikes himself. At length they turned into a very filthy narrow street, nearly full of old-clothes shops; the dog running forward, as if conscious that there was no further occasion for his keeping on guard, stopped before the door of a shop that was closed and apparently untenanted; the house was in a ruinous condition, and on the door was nailed a board, intimating that it was to let: which looked as if it had hung there for many years.
‘All right,’ cried Sikes, glancing cautiously about.
Nancy stooped below the shutters, and Oliver heard the sound of a bell. They crossed to the opposite side of the street, and stood for a few moments under a lamp. A noise, as if a sash window were gently raised, was heard; and soon afterwards the door softly opened. Mr. Sikes then seized the terrified boy by the collar with very little ceremony; and all three were quickly inside the house.
The passage was perfectly dark. They waited, while the person who had let them in, chained and barred the door.
‘Anybody here?’ inquired Sikes.
‘No,’ replied a voice, which Oliver thought he had heard before.
‘Is the old ’un here?’ asked the robber.
‘Yes,’ replied the voice, ‘and precious down in the mouth he has been. Won’t he be glad to see you? Oh, no!’
The style of this reply, as well as the voice which delivered it, seemed familiar to Oliver’s ears: but it was impossible to distinguish even the form of the speaker in the darkness.
‘Let’s have a glim,’ said Sikes, ‘or we shall go breaking our necks, or treading on the dog. Look after your legs if you do!’
‘Stand still a moment, and I’ll get you one,’ replied the voice. The receding footsteps of the speaker were heard; and, in another minute, the form of Mr. John Dawkins, otherwise the Artful Dodger, appeared. He bore in his right hand a tallow candle stuck in the end of a cleft stick.
The young gentleman did not stop to bestow any other mark of recognition upon Oliver than a humourous grin; but, turning away, beckoned the visitors to follow him down a flight of stairs. They crossed an empty kitchen; and, opening the door of a low earthy-smelling room, which seemed to have been built in a small back-yard, were received with a shout of laughter.
‘Oh, my wig, my wig!’ cried Master Charles Bates, from whose lungs the laughter had proceeded: ‘here he is! oh, cry, here he is! Oh, Fagin, look at him! Fagin, do look at him! I can’t bear it; it is such a jolly game, I cant’ bear it. Hold me, somebody, while I laugh it out.’
With this irrepressible ebullition of mirth, Master Bates laid himself flat on the floor: and kicked convulsively for five minutes, in an ectasy of facetious joy. Then jumping to his feet, he snatched the cleft stick from the Dodger; and, advancing to Oliver, viewed him round and round; while the Jew, taking off his nightcap, made a great number of low bows to the bewildered boy. The Artful, meantime, who was of a rather saturnine disposition, and seldom gave way to merriment when it interfered with business, rifled Oliver’s pockets with steady assiduity.
‘Look at his togs, Fagin!’ said Charley, putting the light so close to his new jacket as nearly to set him on fire. ‘Look at his togs! Superfine cloth, and the heavy swell cut! Oh, my eye, what a game! And his books, too! Nothing but a gentleman, Fagin!’
‘Delighted to see you looking so well, my dear,’ said the Jew, bowing with mock humility. ‘The Artful shall give you another suit, my dear, for fear you should spoil that Sunday one. Why didn’t you write, my dear, and say you were coming? We’d have got something warm for supper.’
At his, Master Bates roared again: so loud, that Fagin himself relaxed, and even the Dodger smiled; but as the Artful drew forth the five-pound note at that instant, it is doubtful whether the sally of the discovery awakened his merriment.
‘Hallo, what’s that?’ inquired Sikes, stepping forward as the Jew seized the note. ‘That’s mine, Fagin.’
‘No, no, my dear,’ said the Jew. ‘Mine, Bill, mine. You shall have the books.’
‘If that ain’t mine!’ said Bill Sikes, putting on his hat with a determined air; ‘mine and Nancy’s that is; I’ll take the boy back again.’
The Jew started. Oliver started too, though from a very different cause; for he hoped that the dispute might really end in his being taken back.
‘Come! Hand over, will you?’ said Sikes.
‘This is hardly fair, Bill; hardly fair, is it, Nancy?’ inquired the Jew.
‘Fair, or not fair,’ retorted Sikes, ‘hand over, I tell you! Do you think Nancy and me has got nothing else to do with our precious time but to spend it in scouting arter, and kidnapping, every young boy as gets grabbed through you? Give it here, you avaricious old skeleton, give it here!’
With this gentle remonstrance, Mr. Sikes plucked the note from between the Jew’s finger and thumb; and looking the old man coolly in the face, folded it up small, and tied it in his neckerchief.
‘That’s for our share of the trouble,’ said Sikes; ‘and not half enough, neither. You may keep the books, if you’re fond of reading. If you ain’t, sell ’em.’
‘They’re very pretty,’ said Charley Bates: who, with sundry grimaces, had been affecting to read one of the volumes in question; ‘beautiful writing, isn’t is, Oliver?’ At sight of the dismayed look with which Oliver regarded his tormentors, Master Bates, who was blessed with a lively sense of the ludicrous, fell into another ectasy, more boisterous than the first.
‘They belong to the old gentleman,’ said Oliver, wringing his hands; ‘to the good, kind, old gentleman who took me into his house, and had me nursed, when I was near dying of the fever. Oh, pray send them back; send him back the books and money. Keep me here all my life long; but pray, pray send them back. He’ll think I stole them; the old lady: all of them who were so kind to me: will think I stole them. Oh, do have mercy upon me, and send them back!’
With these words, which were uttered with all the energy of passionate grief, Oliver fell upon his knees at the Jew’s feet; and beat his hands together, in perfect desperation.
‘The boy’s right,’ remarked Fagin, looking covertly round, and knitting his shaggy eyebrows into a hard knot. ‘You’re right, Oliver, you’re right; they WILL think you have stolen ’em. Ha! ha!’ chuckled the Jew, rubbing his hands, ‘it couldn’t have happened better, if we had chosen our time!’
‘Of course it couldn’t,’ replied Sikes; ‘I know’d that, directly I see him coming through Clerkenwell, with the books under his arm. It’s all right enough. They’re soft-hearted psalm-singers, or they wouldn’t have taken him in at all; and they’ll ask no questions after him, fear they should be obliged to prosecute, and so get him lagged. He’s safe enough.’
Oliver had looked from one to the other, while these words were being spoken, as if he were bewildered, and could scarecely understand what passed; but when Bill Sikes concluded, he jumped suddenly to his feet, and tore wildly from the room: uttering shrieks for help, which made the bare old house echo to the roof.
‘Keep back the dog, Bill!’ cried Nancy, springing before the door, and closing it, as the Jew and his two pupils darted out in pursuit. ‘Keep back the dog; he’ll tear the boy to pieces.’
‘Serve him right!’ cried Sikes, struggling to disengage himself from the girl’s grasp. ‘Stand off from me, or I’ll split your head against the wall.’
‘I don’t care for that, Bill, I don’t care for that,’ screamed the girl, struggling violently with the man, ‘the child shan’t be torn down by the dog, unless you kill me first.’
‘Shan’t he!’ said Sikes, setting his teeth. ‘I’ll soon do that, if you don’t keep off.’
The housebreaker flung the girl from him to the further end of the room, just as the Jew and the two boys returned, dragging Oliver among them.
‘What’s the matter here!’ said Fagin, looking round.
‘The girl’s gone mad, I think,’ replied Sikes, savagely.
‘No, she hasn’t,’ said Nancy, pale and breathless from the scuffle; ‘no, she hasn’t, Fagin; don’t think it.’
‘Then keep quiet, will you?’ said the Jew, with a threatening look.
‘No, I won’t do that, neither,’ replied Nancy, speaking very loud. ‘Come! What do you think of that?’
Mr. Fagin was sufficiently well acquainted with the manners and customs of that particular species of humanity to which Nancy belonged, to feel tolerably certain that it would be rather unsafe to prolong any conversation with her, at present. With the view of diverting the attention of the company, he turned to Oliver.
‘So you wanted to get away, my dear, did you?’ said the Jew, taking up a jagged and knotted club which law in a corner of the fireplace; ‘eh?’
Oliver made no reply. But he watched the Jew’s motions, and breathed quickly.
‘Wanted to get assistance; called for the police; did you?’ sneered the Jew, catching the boy by the arm. ‘We’ll cure you of that, my young master.’
The Jew inflicted a smart blow on Oliver’s shoulders with the club; and was raising it for a second, when the girl, rushing forward, wrested it from his hand. She flung it into the fire, with a force that brought some of the glowing coals whirling out into the room.
‘I won’t stand by and see it done, Fagin,’ cried the girl. ‘You’ve got the boy, and what more would you have? — Let him be — let him be — or I shall put that mark on some of you, that will bring me to the gallows before my time.’
The girl stamped her foot violently on the floor as she vented this threat; and with her lips compressed, and her hands clenched, looked alternately at the Jew and the other robber: her face quite colourless from the passion of rage into which she had gradually worked herself.
‘Why, Nancy!’ said the Jew, in a soothing tone; after a pause, during which he and Mr. Sikes had stared at one another in a disconcerted manner; ‘you — you’re more clever than ever to-night. Ha! ha! my dear, you are acting beautifully.’
‘Am I!’ said the girl. ‘Take care I don’t overdo it. You will be the worse for it, Fagin, if I do; and so I tell you in good time to keep clear of me.’
There is something about a roused woman: especially if she add to all her other strong passions, the fierce impulses of recklessness and despair; which few men like to provoke. The Jew saw that it would be hopeless to affect any further mistake regarding the reality of Miss Nancy’s rage; and, shrinking involuntarily back a few paces, cast a glance, half imploring and half cowardly, at Sikes: as if to hint that he was the fittest person to pursue the dialogue.
Mr. Sikes, thus mutely appealed to; and possibly feeling his personal pride and influence interested in the immediate reduction of Miss Nancy to reason; gave utterance to about a couple of score of curses and threats, the rapid production of which reflected great credit on the fertility of his invention. As they produced no visible effect on the object against whom they were discharged, however, he resorted to more tangible arguments.
‘What do you mean by this?’ said Sikes; backing the inquiry with a very common imprecation concerning the most beautiful of human features: which, if it were heard above, only once out of every fifty thousand times that it is uttered below, would render blindness as common a disorder as measles: ‘what do you mean by it? Burn my body! Do you know who you are, and what you are?’
‘Oh, yes, I know all about it,’ replied the girl, laughing hysterically; and shaking her head from side to side, with a poor assumption of indifference.
‘Well, then, keep quiet,’ rejoined Sikes, with a growl like that he was accustomed to use when addressing his dog, ‘or I’ll quiet you for a good long time to come.’
The girl laughed again: even less composedly than before; and, darting a hasty look at Sikes, turned her face aside, and bit her lip till the blood came.
‘You’re a nice one,’ added Sikes, as he surveyed her with a contemptuous air, ‘to take up the humane and gen — teel side! A pretty subject for the child, as you call him, to make a friend of!’
‘God Almighty help me, I am!’ cried the girl passionately; ‘and I wish I had been struck dead in the street, or had changed places with them we passed so near to-night, before I had lent a hand in bringing him here. He’s a thief, a liar, a devil, all that’s bad, from this night forth. Isn’t that enough for the old wretch, without blows?’
‘Come, come, Sikes,’ said the Jew appealing to him in a remonstratory tone, and motioning towards the boys, who were eagerly attentive to all that passed; ‘we must have civil words; civil words, Bill.’
‘Civil words!’ cried the girl, whose passion was frightful to see. ‘Civil words, you villain! Yes, you deserve ’em from me. I thieved for you when I was a child not half as old as this!’ pointing to Oliver. ‘I have been in the same trade, and in the same service, for twelve years since. Don’t you know it? Speak out! Don’t you know it?’
‘Well, well,’ replied the Jew, with an attempt at pacification; ‘and, if you have, it’s your living!’
‘Aye, it is!’ returned the girl; not speaking, but pouring out the words in one continuous and vehement scream. ‘It is my living; and the cold, wet, dirty streets are my home; and you’re the wretch that drove me to them long ago, and that’ll keep me there, day and night, day and night, till I die!’
‘I shall do you a mischief!’ interposed the Jew, goaded by these reproaches; ‘a mischief worse than that, if you say much more!’
The girl said nothing more; but, tearing her hair and dress in a transport of passion, made such a rush at the Jew as would probably have left signal marks of her revenge upon him, had not her wrists been seized by Sikes at the right moment; upon which, she made a few ineffectual struggles, and fainted.
‘She’s all right now,’ said Sikes, laying her down in a corner. ‘She’s uncommon strong in the arms, when she’s up in this way.’
The Jew wiped his forehead: and smiled, as if it were a relief to have the disturbance over; but neither he, nor Sikes, nor the dog, nor the boys, seemed to consider it in any other light than a common occurance incidental to business.
‘It’s the worst of having to do with women,’ said the Jew, replacing his club; ‘but they’re clever, and we can’t get on, in our line, without ’em. Charley, show Oliver to bed.’
‘I suppose he’d better not wear his best clothes tomorrow, Fagin, had he?’ inquired Charley Bates.
‘Certainly not,’ replied the Jew, reciprocating the grin with which Charley put the question.
Master Bates, apparently much delighted with his commission, took the cleft stick: and led Oliver into an adjacent kitchen, where there were two or three of the beds on which he had slept before; and here, with many uncontrollable bursts of laughter, he produced the identical old suit of clothes which Oliver had so much congratulated himself upon leaving off at Mr. Brownlow’s; and the accidental display of which, to Fagin, by the Jew who purchased them, had been the very first clue received, of his whereabout.
‘Put off the smart ones,’ said Charley, ‘and I’ll give ’em to Fagin to take care of. What fun it is!’
Poor Oliver unwillingly complied. Master Bates rolling up the new clothes under his arm, departed from the room, leaving Oliver in the dark, and locking the door behind him.
The noise of Charley’s laughter, and the voice of Miss Betsy, who opportunely arrived to throw water over her friend, and perform other feminine offices for the promotion of her recovery, might have kept many people awake under more happy circumstances than those in which Oliver was placed. But he was sick and weary; and he soon fell sound asleep.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07