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CHAPTER X

OLIVER BECOMES BETTER ACQUAINTED WITH THE CHARACTERS OF HIS NEW
ASSOCIATES; AND PURCHASES EXPERIENCE AT A HIGH PRICE. BEING A
SHORT, BUT VERY IMPORTANT CHAPTER, IN THIS HISTORY

For many days, Oliver remained in the Jew's room, picking the
marks out of the pocket-handkerchief, (of which a great number
were brought home,) and sometimes taking part in the game already
described: which the two boys and the Jew played, regularly,
every morning. At length, he began to languish for fresh air, and
took many occasions of earnestly entreating the old gentleman to
allow him to go out to work with his two companions.

Oliver was rendered the more anxious to be actively employed, by
what he had seen of the stern morality of the old gentleman's
character. Whenever the Dodger or Charley Bates came home at
night, empty-handed, he would expatiate with great vehemence on
the misery of idle and lazy habits; and would enforce upon them
the necessity of an active life, by sending them supperless to
bed. On one occasion, indeed, he even went so far as to knock
them both down a flight of stairs; but this was carrying out his
virtuous precepts to an unusual extent.

At length, one morning, Oliver obtained the permission he had so
eagerly sought. There had been no handkerchiefs to work upon,
for two or three days, and the dinners had been rather meagre.
Perhaps these were reasons for the old gentleman's giving his
assent; but, whether they were or no, he told Oliver he might go,
and placed him under the joint guardianship of Charley Bates, and
his friend the Dodger.

The three boys sallied out; the Dodger with his coat-sleeves
tucked up, and his hat cocked, as usual; Master Bates sauntering
along with his hands in his pockets; and Oliver between them,
wondering where they were going, and what branch of manufacture
he would be instructed in, first.

The pace at which they went, was such a very lazy, ill-looking
saunter, that Oliver soon began to think his companions were
going to deceive the old gentleman, by not going to work at all.
The Dodger had a vicious propensity, too, of pulling the caps
from the heads of small boys and tossing them down areas; while
Charley Bates exhibited some very loose notions concerning the
rights of property, by pilfering divers apples and onions from
the stalls at the kennel sides, and thrusting them into pockets
which were so surprisingly capacious, that they seemed to
undermine his whole suit of clothes in every direction. These
things looked so bad, that Oliver was on the point of declaring
his intention of seeking his way back, in the best way he could;
when his thoughts were suddenly directed into another channel, by
a very mysterious change of behaviour on the part of the Dodger.

They were just emerging from a narrow court not far from the open
square in Clerkenwell, which is yet called, by some strange
perversion of terms, 'The Green': when the Dodger made a sudden
stop; and, laying his finger on his lip, drew his companions back
again, with the greatest caution and circumspection.

'What's the matter?' demanded Oliver.

'Hush!' replied the Dodger. 'Do you see that old cove at the
book-stall?'

'The old gentleman over the way?' said Oliver. 'Yes, I see him.'

'He'll do,' said the Doger.

'A prime plant,' observed Master Charley Bates.

Oliver looked from one to the other, with the greatest surprise;
but he was not permitted to make any inquiries; for the two boys
walked stealthily across the road, and slunk close behind the old
gentleman towards whom his attention had been directed. Oliver
walked a few paces after them; and, not knowing whether to
advance or retire, stood looking on in silent amazement.

The old gentleman was a very respectable-looking personage, with
a powdered head and gold spectacles. He was dressed in a
bottle-green coat with a black velvet collar; wore white
trousers; and carried a smart bamboo cane under his arm. He had
taken up a book from the stall, and there he stood, reading away,
as hard as if he were in his elbow-chair, in his own study. It
is very possible that he fancied himself there, indeed; for it
was plain, from his abstraction, that he saw not the book-stall,
nor the street, nor the boys, nor, in short, anything but the
book itself: which he was reading straight through: turning
over the leaf when he got to the bottom of a page, beginning at
the top line of the next one, and going regularly on, with the
greatest interest and eagerness.

What was Oliver's horror and alarm as he stood a few paces off,
looking on with his eyelids as wide open as they would possibly
go, to see the Dodger plunge his hand into the old gentleman's
pocket, and draw from thence a handkerchief! To see him hand the
same to Charley Bates; and finally to behold them, both running
away round the corner at full speed!

In an instant the whole mystery of the hankerchiefs, and the
watches, and the jewels, and the Jew, rushed upon the boy's mind.

He stood, for a moment, with the blood so tingling through all
his veins from terror, that he felt as if he were in a burning
fire; then, confused and frightened, he took to his heels; and,
not knowing what he did, made off as fast as he could lay his
feet to the ground.

This was all done in a minute's space. In the very instant when
Oliver began to run, the old gentleman, putting his hand to his
pocket, and missing his handkerchief, turned sharp round. Seeing
the boy scudding away at such a rapid pace, he very naturally
concluded him to be the depredator; and shouting 'Stop thief!'
with all his might, made off after him, book in hand.

But the old gentleman was not the only person who raised the
hue-and-cry. The Dodger and Master Bates, unwilling to attract
public attention by running down the open street, had merely
retured into the very first doorway round the corner. They no
sooner heard the cry, and saw Oliver running, than, guessing
exactly how the matter stood, they issued forth with great
promptitude; and, shouting 'Stop thief!' too, joined in the
pursuit like good citizens.

Although Oliver had been brought up by philosophers, he was not
theoretically acquainted with the beautiful axiom that
self-preservation is the first law of nature. If he had been,
perhaps he would have been prepared for this. Not being
prepared, however, it alarmed him the more; so away he went like
the wind, with the old gentleman and the two boys roaring and
shouting behind him.

'Stop thief! Stop thief!' There is a magic in the sound. The
tradesman leaves his counter, and the car-man his waggon; the
butcher throws down his tray; the baker his basket; the milkman
his pail; the errand-boy his parcels; the school-boy his marbles;
the paviour his pickaxe; the child his battledore. Away they
run, pell-mell, helter-skelter, slap-dash: tearing, yelling,
screaming, knocking down the passengers as they turn the corners,
rousing up the dogs, and astonishing the fowls: and streets,
squares, and courts, re-echo with the sound.

'Stop thief! Stop thief!' The cry is taken up by a hundred
voices, and the crowd accumulate at every turning. Away they
fly, splashing through the mud, and rattling along the pavements:

up go the windows, out run the people, onward bear the mob, a
whole audience desert Punch in the very thickest of the plot,
and, joining the rushing throng, swell the shout, and lend fresh
vigour to the cry, 'Stop thief! Stop thief!'

'Stop thief! Stop thief!' There is a passion FOR HUNTING
SOMETHING deeply implanted in the human breast. One wretched
breathless child, panting with exhaustion; terror in his looks;
agaony in his eyes; large drops of perspiration streaming down
his face; strains every nerve to make head upon his pursuers; and
as they follow on his track, and gain upon him every instant,
they hail his decreasing strength with joy. 'Stop thief!' Ay,
stop him for God's sake, were it only in mercy!

Stopped at last! A clever blow. He is down upon the pavement;
and the crowd eagerly gather round him: each new comer, jostling
and struggling with the others to catch a glimpse. 'Stand
aside!' 'Give him a little air!' 'Nonsense! he don't deserve
it.' 'Where's the gentleman?' 'Here his is, coming down the
street.' 'Make room there for the gentleman!' 'Is this the boy,
sir!' 'Yes.'

Oliver lay, covered with mud and dust, and bleeding from the
mouth, looking wildly round upon the heap of faces that
surrounded him, when the old gentleman was officiously dragged
and pushed into the circle by the foremost of the pursuers.

'Yes,' said the gentleman, 'I am afraid it is the boy.'

'Afraid!' murmured the crowd. 'That's a good 'un!'

'Poor fellow!' said the gentleman, 'he has hurt himself.'

'_I_ did that, sir,' said a great lubberly fellow, stepping
forward; 'and preciously I cut my knuckle agin' his mouth. I
stopped him, sir.'

The follow touched his hat with a grin, expecting something for
his pains; but, the old gentleman, eyeing him with an expression
of dislike, look anxiously round, as if he contemplated running
away himself: which it is very possible he might have attempted
to do, and thus have afforded another chase, had not a police
officer (who is generally the last person to arrive in such
cases) at that moment made his way through the crowd, and seized
Oliver by the collar.

'Come, get up,' said the man, roughly.

'It wasn't me indeed, sir. Indeed, indeed, it was two other
boys,' said Oliver, clasping his hands passionately, and looking
round. 'They are here somewhere.'

'Oh no, they ain't,' said the officer. He meant this to be
ironical, but it was true besides; for the Dodger and Charley
Bates had filed off down the first convenient court they came to.

'Come, get up!'

'Don't hurt him,' said the old gentleman, compassionately.

'Oh no, I won't hurt him,' replied the officer, tearing his
jacket half off his back, in proof thereof. 'Come, I know you;
it won't do. Will you stand upon your legs, you young devil?'

Oliver, who could hardly stand, made a shift to raise himself on
his feet, and was at once lugged along the streets by the
jacket-collar, at a rapid pace. The gentleman walked on with
them by the officer's side; and as many of the crowd as could
achieve the feat, got a little ahead, and stared back at Oliver
from time to time. The boys shouted in triumph; and on they
went.





Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Category:
General Fiction

England - Social life and customs - 19th century
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