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CHAPTER XXVI

IN WHICH A MYSTERIOUS CHARACTER APPEARS UPON THE SCENE; AND MANY
THINGS, INSEPARABLE FROM THIS HISTORY, ARE DONE AND PERFORMED

The old man had gained the street corner, before he began to
recover the effect of Toby Crackit's intelligence. He had
relaxed nothing of his unusual speed; but was still pressing
onward, in the same wild and disordered manner, when the sudden
dashing past of a carriage: and a boisterous cry from the foot
passengers, who saw his danger: drove him back upon the
pavement. Avoiding, as much as was possible, all the main
streets, and skulking only through the by-ways and alleys, he at
length emerged on Snow Hill. Here he walked even faster than
before; nor did he linger until he had again turned into a court;
when, as if conscious that he was now in his proper element, he
fell into his usual shuffling pace, and seemed to breathe more
freely.

Near to the spot on which Snow Hill and Holborn Hill meet, opens,
upon the right hand as you come out of the City, a narrow and
dismal alley, leading to Saffron Hill. In its filthy shops are
exposed for sale huge bunches of second-hand silk handkerchiefs,
of all sizes and patterns; for here reside the traders who
purchase them from pick-pockets. Hundreds of these handkerchiefs
hang dangling from pegs outside the windows or flaunting from the
door-posts; and the shelves, within, are piled with them.
Confined as the limits of Field Lane are, it has its barber, its
coffee-shop, its beer-shop, and its fried-fish warehouse. It is
a commercial colony of itself: the emporium of petty larceny:
visited at early morning, and setting-in of dusk, by silent
merchants, who traffic in dark back-parlours, and who go as
strangely as they come. Here, the clothesman, the shoe-vamper,
and the rag-merchant, display their goods, as sign-boards to the
petty thief; here, stores of old iron and bones, and heaps of
mildewy fragments of woollen-stuff and linen, rust and rot in the
grimy cellars.

It was into this place that the Jew turned. He was well known to
the sallow denizens of the lane; for such of them as were on the
look-out to buy or sell, nodded, familiarly, as he passed along.
He replied to their salutations in the same way; but bestowed no
closer recognition until he reached the further end of the alley;
when he stopped, to address a salesman of small stature, who had
squeezed as much of his person into a child's chair as the chair
would hold, and was smoking a pipe at his warehouse door.

'Why, the sight of you, Mr. Fagin, would cure the hoptalymy!'
said this respectable trader, in acknowledgment of the Jew's
inquiry after his health.

'The neighbourhood was a little too hot, Lively,' said Fagin,
elevating his eyebrows, and crossing his hands upon his
shoulders.

'Well, I've heerd that complaint of it, once or twice before,'
replied the trader; 'but it soon cools down again; don't you find
it so?'

Fagin nodded in the affirmative. Pointing in the direction of
Saffron Hill, he inquired whether any one was up yonder to-night.

'At the Cripples?' inquired the man.

The Jew nodded.

'Let me see,' pursued the merchant, reflecting.

'Yes, there's some half-dozen of 'em gone in, that I knows. I
don't think your friend's there.'

'Sikes is not, I suppose?' inquired the Jew, with a disappointed
countenance.

'Non istwentus, as the lawyers say,' replied the little man,
shaking his head, and looking amazingly sly. 'Have you got
anything in my line to-night?'

'Nothing to-night,' said the Jew, turning away.

'Are you going up to the Cripples, Fagin?' cried the little man,
calling after him. 'Stop! I don't mind if I have a drop there
with you!'

But as the Jew, looking back, waved his hand to intimate that he
preferred being alone; and, moreover, as the little man could not
very easily disengage himself from the chair; the sign of the
Cripples was, for a time, bereft of the advantage of Mr. Lively's
presence. By the time he had got upon his legs, the Jew had
disappeared; so Mr. Lively, after ineffectually standing on
tiptoe, in the hope of catching sight of him, again forced
himself into the little chair, and, exchanging a shake of the
head with a lady in the opposite shop, in which doubt and
mistrust were plainly mingled, resumed his pipe with a grave
demeanour.

The Three Cripples, or rather the Cripples; which was the sign by
which the establishment was familiarly known to its patrons: was
the public-house in which Mr. Sikes and his dog have already
figured. Merely making a sign to a man at the bar, Fagin walked
straight upstairs, and opening the door of a room, and softly
insinuating himself into the chamber, looked anxiously about:
shading his eyes with his hand, as if in search of some
particular person.

The room was illuminated by two gas-lights; the glare of which
was prevented by the barred shutters, and closely-drawn curtains
of faded red, from being visible outside. The ceiling was
blackened, to prevent its colour from being injured by the
flaring of the lamps; and the place was so full of dense tobacco
smoke, that at first it was scarcely possible to discern anything
more. By degrees, however, as some of it cleared away through
the open door, an assemblage of heads, as confused as the noises
that greeted the ear, might be made out; and as the eye grew more
accustomed to the scene, the spectator gradually became aware of
the presence of a numerous company, male and female, crowded
round a long table: at the upper end of which, sat a chairman
with a hammer of office in his hand; while a professional
gentleman with a bluish nose, and his face tied up for the
benefit of a toothache, presided at a jingling piano in a remote
corner.

As Fagin stepped softly in, the professional gentleman, running
over the keys by way of prelude, occasioned a general cry of
order for a song; which having subsided, a young lady proceeded
to entertain the company with a ballad in four verses, between
each of which the accompanyist played the melody all through, as
loud as he could. When this was over, the chairman gave a
sentiment, after which, the professional gentleman on the
chairman's right and left volunteered a duet, and sang it, with
great applause.

It was curious to observe some faces which stood out prominently
from among the group. There was the chairman himself, (the
landlord of the house,) a coarse, rough, heavy built fellow, who,
while the songs were proceeding, rolled his eyes hither and
thither, and, seeming to give himself up to joviality, had an eye
for everything that was done, and an ear for everything that was
said--and sharp ones, too. Near him were the singers:
receiving, with professional indifference, the compliments of the
company, and applying themselves, in turn, to a dozen proffered
glasses of spirits and water, tendered by their more boisterous
admirers; whose countenances, expressive of almost every vice in
almost every grade, irresistibly attracted the attention, by
their very repulsiveness. Cunning, ferocity, and drunkeness in
all its stages, were there, in their strongest aspect; and women:

some with the last lingering tinge of their early freshness
almost fading as you looked: others with every mark and stamp of
their sex utterly beaten out, and presenting but one loathsome
blank of profligacy and crime; some mere girls, others but young
women, and none past the prime of life; formed the darkest and
saddest portion of this dreary picture.

Fagin, troubled by no grave emotions, looked eagerly from face to
face while these proceedings were in progress; but apparently
without meeting that of which he was in search. Succeeding, at
length, in catching the eye of the man who occupied the chair, he
beckoned to him slightly, and left the room, as quietly as he had
entered it.

'What can I do for you, Mr. Fagin?' inquired the man, as he
followed him out to the landing. 'Won't you join us? They'll be
delighted, every one of 'em.'

The Jew shook his head impatiently, and said in a whisper, 'Is HE
here?'

'No,' replied the man.

'And no news of Barney?' inquired Fagin.

'None,' replied the landlord of the Cripples; for it was he. 'He
won't stir till it's all safe. Depend on it, they're on the
scent down there; and that if he moved, he'd blow upon the thing
at once. He's all right enough, Barney is, else I should have
heard of him. I'll pound it, that Barney's managing properly.
Let him alone for that.'

'Will HE be here to-night?' asked the Jew, laying the same
emphasis on the pronoun as before.

'Monks, do you mean?' inquired the landlord, hesitating.

'Hush!' said the Jew. 'Yes.'

'Certain,' replied the man, drawing a gold watch from his fob; 'I
expected him here before now. If you'll wait ten minutes, he'll
be--'

'No, no,' said the Jew, hastily; as though, however desirous he
might be to see the person in question, he was nevertheless
relieved by his absence. 'Tell him I came here to see him; and
that he must come to me to-night. No, say to-morrow. As he is
not here, to-morrow will be time enough.'

'Good!' said the man. 'Nothing more?'

'Not a word now,' said the Jew, descending the stairs.

'I say,' said the other, looking over the rails, and speaking in
a hoarse whisper; 'what a time this would be for a sell! I've
got Phil Barker here: so drunk, that a boy might take him!'

'Ah! But it's not Phil Barker's time,' said the Jew, looking up.

'Phil has something more to do, before we can afford to part with
him; so go back to the company, my dear, and tell them to lead
merry lives--WHILE THEY LAST. Ha! ha! ha!'

The landlord reciprocated the old man's laugh; and returned to
his guests. The Jew was no sooner alone, than his countenance
resumed its former expression of anxiety and thought. After a
brief reflection, he called a hack-cabriolet, and bade the man
drive towards Bethnal Green. He dismissed him within some quarter
of a mile of Mr. Sikes's residence, and performed the short
remainder of the distance, on foot.

'Now,' muttered the Jew, as he knocked at the door, 'if there is
any deep play here, I shall have it out of you, my girl, cunning
as you are.'

She was in her room, the woman said. Fagin crept softly
upstairs, and entered it without any previous ceremony. The girl
was alone; lying with her head upon the table, and her hair
straggling over it.

'She has been drinking,' thought the Jew, cooly, 'or perhaps she
is only miserable.'

The old man turned to close the door, as he made this reflection;
the noise thus occasioned, roused the girl. She eyed his crafty
face narrowly, as she inquired to his recital of Toby Crackit's
story. When it was concluded, she sank into her former attitude,
but spoke not a word. She pushed the candle impatiently away;
and once or twice as she feverishly changed her position,
shuffled her feet upon the ground; but this was all.

During the silence, the Jew looked restlessly about the room, as
if to assure himself that there were no appearances of Sikes
having covertly returned. Apparently satisfied with his
inspection, he coughed twice or thrice, and made as many efforts
to open a conversation; but the girl heeded him no more than if
he had been made of stone. At length he made another attempt;
and rubbing his hands together, said, in his most concilitory
tone,

'And where should you think Bill was now, my dear?'

The girl moaned out some half intelligible reply, that she could
not tell; and seemed, from the smothered noise that escaped her,
to be crying.

'And the boy, too,' said the Jew, straining his eyes to catch a
glimpse of her face. 'Poor leetle child! Left in a ditch,
Nance; only think!'

'The child,' said the girl, suddenly looking up, 'is better where
he is, than among us; and if no harm comes to Bill from it, I
hope he lies dead in the ditch and that his young bones may rot
there.'

'What!' cried the Jew, in amazement.

'Ay, I do,' returned the girl, meeting his gaze. 'I shall be
glad to have him away from my eyes, and to know that the worst is
over. I can't bear to have him about me. The sight of him turns
me against myself, and all of you.'

'Pooh!' said the Jew, scornfully. 'You're drunk.'

'Am I?' cried the girl bitterly. 'It's no fault of yours, if I
am not! You'd never have me anything else, if you had your will,
except now;--the humour doesn't suit you, doesn't it?'

'No!' rejoined the Jew, furiously. 'It does not.'

'Change it, then!' responded the girl, with a laugh.

'Change it!' exclaimed the Jew, exasperated beyond all bounds by
his companion's unexpected obstinacy, and the vexation of the
night, 'I WILL change it! Listen to me, you drab. Listen to me,
who with six words, can strangle Sikes as surely as if I had his
bull's throat between my fingers now. If he comes back, and
leaves the boy behind him; if he gets off free, and dead or
alive, fails to restore him to me; murder him yourself if you
would have him escape Jack Ketch. And do it the moment he sets
foot in this room, or mind me, it will be too late!'

'What is all this?' cried the girl involuntarily.

'What is it?' pursued Fagin, mad with rage. 'When the boy's
worth hundreds of pounds to me, am I to lose what chance threw me
in the way of getting safely, through the whims of a drunken gang
that I could whistle away the lives of! And me bound, too, to a
born devil that only wants the will, and has the power to, to--'

Panting for breath, the old man stammered for a word; and in that
instant checked the torrent of his wrath, and changed his whole
demeanour. A moment before, his clenched hands had grasped the
air; his eyes had dilated; and his face grown livid with passion;
but now, he shrunk into a chair, and, cowering together, trembled
with the apprehension of having himself disclosed some hidden
villainy. After a short silence, he ventured to look round at
his companion. He appeared somewhat reassured, on beholding her
in the same listless attitude from which he had first roused her.

'Nancy, dear!' croaked the Jew, in his usual voice. 'Did you
mind me, dear?'

'Don't worry me now, Fagin!' replied the girl, raising her head
languidly. 'If Bill has not done it this time, he will another.
He has done many a good job for you, and will do many more when
he can; and when he can't he won't; so no more about that.'

'Regarding this boy, my dear?' said the Jew, rubbing the palms of
his hands nervously together.

'The boy must take his chance with the rest,' interrupted Nancy,
hastily; 'and I say again, I hope he is dead, and out of harm's
way, and out of yours,--that is, if Bill comes to no harm. And
if Toby got clear off, Bill's pretty sure to be safe; for Bill's
worth two of Toby any time.'

'And about what I was saying, my dear?' observed the Jew, keeping
his glistening eye steadily upon her.

'Your must say it all over again, if it's anything you want me to
do,' rejoined Nancy; 'and if it is, you had better wait till
to-morrow. You put me up for a minute; but now I'm stupid
again.'

Fagin put several other questions: all with the same drift of
ascertaining whether the girl had profited by his unguarded
hints; but, she answered them so readily, and was withal so
utterly unmoved by his searching looks, that his original
impression of her being more than a trifle in liquor, was
confirmed. Nancy, indeed, was not exempt from a failing which
was very common among the Jew's female pupils; and in which, in
their tenderer years, they were rather encouraged than checked.
Her disordered appearance, and a wholesale perfume of Geneva
which pervaded the apartment, afforded stong confirmatory
evidence of the justice of the Jew's supposition; and when, after
indulging in the temporary display of violence above described,
she subsided, first into dullness, and afterwards into a compound
of feelings: under the influence of which she shed tears one
minute, and in the next gave utterance to various exclamations of
'Never say die!' and divers calculations as to what might be the
amount of the odds so long as a lady or gentleman was happy, Mr.
Fagin, who had had considerable experience of such matters in his
time, saw, with great satisfaction, that she was very far gone
indeed.

Having eased his mind by this discovery; and having accomplished
his twofold object of imparting to the girl what he had, that
night, heard, and of ascertaining, with his own eyes, that Sikes
had not returned, Mr. Fagin again turned his face homeward:
leaving his young friend asleep, with her head upon the table.

It was within an hour of midnight. The weather being dark, and
piercing cold, he had no great temptation to loiter. The sharp
wind that scoured the streets, seemed to have cleared them of
passengers, as of dust and mud, for few people were abroad, and
they were to all appearance hastening fast home. It blew from the
right quarter for the Jew, however, and straight before it he
went: trembling, and shivering, as every fresh gust drove him
rudely on his way.

He had reached the corner of his own street, and was already
fumbling in his pocket for the door-key, when a dark figure
emerged from a projecting entrance which lay in deep shadow, and,
crossing the road, glided up to him unperceived.

'Fagin!' whispered a voice close to his ear.

'Ah!' said the Jew, turning quickly round, 'is that--'

'Yes!' interrupted the stranger. 'I have been lingering here
these two hours. Where the devil have you been?'

'On your business, my dear,' replied the Jew, glancing uneasily
at his companion, and slackening his pace as he spoke. 'On your
business all night.'

'Oh, of course!' said the stranger, with a sneer. 'Well; and
what's come of it?'

'Nothing good,' said the Jew.

'Nothing bad, I hope?' said the stranger, stopping short, and
turning a startled look on his companion.

The Jew shook his head, and was about to reply, when the
stranger, interrupting him, motioned to the house, before which
they had by this time arrived: remarking, that he had better say
what he had got to say, under cover: for his blood was chilled
with standing about so long, and the wind blew through him.

Fagin looked as if he could have willingly excused himself from
taking home a visitor at that unseasonable hour; and, indeed,
muttered something about having no fire; but his companion
repeating his request in a peremptory manner, he unlocked the
door, and requested him to close it softly, while he got a light.

'It's as dark as the grave,' said the man, groping forward a few
steps. 'Make haste!'

'Shut the door,' whispered Fagin from the end of the passage. As
he spoke, it closed with a loud noise.

'That wasn't my doing,' said the other man, feeling his way. 'The
wind blew it to, or it shut of its own accord: one or the other.
Look sharp with the light, or I shall knock my brains out against
something in this confounded hole.'

Fagin stealthily descended the kitchen stairs. After a short
absence, he returned with a lighted candle, and the intelligence
that Toby Crackit was asleep in the back room below, and that the
boys were in the front one. Beckoning the man to follow him, he
led the way upstairs.

'We can say the few words we've got to say in here, my dear,'
said the Jew, throwing open a door on the first floor; 'and as
there are holes in the shutters, and we never show lights to our
neighbours, we'll set the candle on the stairs. There!'

With those words, the Jew, stooping down, placed the candle on an
upper flight of stairs, exactly opposite to the room door. This
done, he led the way into the apartment; which was destitute of
all movables save a broken arm-chair, and an old couch or sofa
without covering, which stood behind the door. Upon this piece
of furniture, the stranger sat himself with the air of a weary
man; and the Jew, drawing up the arm-chair opposite, they sat
face to face. It was not quite dark; the door was partially
open; and the candle outside, threw a feeble reflection on the
opposite wall.

They conversed for some time in whispers. Though nothing of the
conversation was distinguishable beyond a few disjointed words
here and there, a listener might easily have perceived that Fagin
appeared to be defending himself against some remarks of the
stranger; and that the latter was in a state of considerable
irritation. They might have been talking, thus, for a quarter of
an hour or more, when Monks--by which name the Jew had designated
the strange man several times in the course of their
colloquy--said, raising his voice a little,

'I tell you again, it was badly planned. Why not have kept him
here among the rest, and made a sneaking, snivelling pickpocket
of him at once?'

'Only hear him!' exclaimed the Jew, shrugging his shoulders.

'Why, do you mean to say you couldn't have done it, if you had
chosen?' demanded Monks, sternly. 'Haven't you done it, with
other boys, scores of times? If you had had patience for a
twelvemonth, at most, couldn't you have got him convicted, and
sent safely out of the kingdom; perhaps for life?'

'Whose turn would that have served, my dear?' inquired the Jew
humbly.

'Mine,' replied Monks.

'But not mine,' said the Jew, submissively. 'He might have
become of use to me. When there are two parties to a bargain, it
is only reasonable that the interests of both should be
consulted; is it, my good friend?'

'What then?' demanded Monks.

'I saw it was not easy to train him to the business,' replied the
Jew; 'he was not like other boys in the same circumstances.'

'Curse him, no!' muttered the man, 'or he would have been a
thief, long ago.'

'I had no hold upon him to make him worse,' pursued the Jew,
anxiously watching the countenance of his companion. 'His hand
was not in. I had nothing to frighten him with; which we always
must have in the beginning, or we labour in vain. What could I
do? Send him out with the Dodger and Charley? We had enough of
that, at first, my dear; I trembled for us all.'

'THAT was not my doing,' observed Monks.

'No, no, my dear!' renewed the Jew. 'And I don't quarrel with it
now; because, if it had never happened, you might never have
clapped eyes on the boy to notice him, and so led to the
discovery that it was him you were looking for. Well! I got him
back for you by means of the girl; and then SHE begins to favour
him.'

'Throttle the girl!' said Monks, impatiently.

'Why, we can't afford to do that just now, my dear,' replied the
Jew, smiling; 'and, besides, that sort of thing is not in our
way; or, one of these days, I might be glad to have it done. I
know what these girls are, Monks, well. As soon as the boy
begins to harden, she'll care no more for him, than for a block
of wood. You want him made a thief. If he is alive, I can make
him one from this time; and, if--if--' said the Jew, drawing
nearer to the other,--'it's not likely, mind,--but if the worst
comes to the worst, and he is dead--'

'It's no fault of mine if he is!' interposed the other man, with
a look of terror, and clasping the Jew's arm with trembling
hands. 'Mind that. Fagin! I had no hand in it. Anything but
his death, I told you from the first. I won't shed blood; it's
always found out, and haunts a man besides. If they shot him
dead, I was not the cause; do you hear me? Fire this infernal
den! What's that?'

'What!' cried the Jew, grasping the coward round the body, with
both arms, as he sprung to his feet. 'Where?'

'Yonder! replied the man, glaring at the opposite wall. 'The
shadow! I saw the shadow of a woman, in a cloak and bonnet, pass
along the wainscot like a breath!'

The Jew released his hold, and they rushed tumultuously from the
room. The candle, wasted by the draught, was standing where it
had been placed. It showed them only the empty staircase, and
their own white faces. They listened intently: a profound
silence reigned throughout the house.

'It's your fancy,' said the Jew, taking up the light and turning
to his companion.

'I'll swear I saw it!' replied Monks, trembling. 'It was bending
forward when I saw it first; and when I spoke, it darted away.'

The Jew glanced contemptuously at the pale face of his associate,
and, telling him he could follow, if he pleased, ascended the
stairs. They looked into all the rooms; they were cold, bare,
and empty. They descended into the passage, and thence into the
cellars below. The green damp hung upon the low walls; the
tracks of the snail and slug glistened in the light of the
candle; but all was still as death.

'What do you think now?' said the Jew, when they had regained the
passage. 'Besides ourselves, there's not a creature in the house
except Toby and the boys; and they're safe enough. See here!'

As a proof of the fact, the Jew drew forth two keys from his
pocket; and explained, that when he first went downstairs, he had
locked them in, to prevent any intrusion on the conference.

This accumulated testimony effectually staggered Mr. Monks. His
protestations had gradually become less and less vehement as they
proceeded in their search without making any discovery; and, now,
he gave vent to several very grim laughs, and confessed it could
only have been his excited imagination. He declined any renewal
of the conversation, however, for that night: suddenly
remembering that it was past one o'clock. And so the amiable
couple parted.





Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Category:
General Fiction

England - Social life and customs - 19th century
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