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CHAPTER XXX

RELATES WHAT OLIVER'S NEW VISITORS THOUGHT OF HIM

With many loquacious assurances that they would be agreeably
surprised in the aspect of the criminal, the doctor drew the
young lady's arm through one of him; and offering his disengaged
hand to Mrs. Maylie, led them, with much ceremony and
stateliness, upstairs.

'Now,' said the doctor, in a whisper, as he softly turned the
handle of a bedroom-door, 'let us hear what you think of him. He
has not been shaved very recently, but he don't look at all
ferocious notwithstanding. Stop, though! Let me first see that
he is in visiting order.'

Stepping before them, he looked into the room. Motioning them to
advance, he closed the door when they had entered; and gently
drew back the curtains of the bed. Upon it, in lieu of the
dogged, black-visaged ruffian they had expected to behold, there
lay a mere child: worn with pain and exhaustion, and sunk into a
deep sleep. His wounded arm, bound and splintered up, was
crossed upon his breast; his head reclined upon the other arm,
which was half hidden by his long hair, as it streamed over the
pillow.

The honest gentleman held the curtain in his hand, and looked on,
for a minute or so, in silence. Whilst he was watching the
patient thus, the younger lady glided softly past, and seating
herself in a chair by the bedside, gathered Oliver's hair from
his face. As she stooped over him, her tears fell upon his
forehead.

The boy stirred, and smiled in his sleep, as though these marks
of pity and compassion had awakened some pleasant dream of a love
and affection he had never known. Thus, a strain of gentle
music, or the rippling of water in a silent place, or the odour
of a flower, or the mention of a familiar word, will sometimes
call up sudden dim remembrances of scenes that never were, in
this life; which vanish like a breath; which some brief memory of
a happier existence, long gone by, would seem to have awakened;
which no voluntary exertion of the mind can ever recall.

'What can this mean?' exclaimed the elder lady. 'This poor child
can never have been the pupil of robbers!'

'Vice,' said the surgeon, replacing the curtain, 'takes up her
abode in many temples; and who can say that a fair outside shell
not enshrine her?'

'But at so early an age!' urged Rose.

'My dear young lady,' rejoined the surgeon, mournfully shaking
his head; 'crime, like death, is not confined to the old and
withered alone. The youngest and fairest are too often its
chosen victims.'

'But, can you--oh! can you really believe that this delicate boy
has been the voluntary associate of the worst outcasts of
society?' said Rose.

The surgeon shook his head, in a manner which intimated that he
feared it was very possible; and observing that they might
disturb the patient, led the way into an adjoining apartment.

'But even if he has been wicked,' pursued Rose, 'think how young
he is; think that he may never have known a mother's love, or the
comfort of a home; that ill-usage and blows, or the want of
bread, may have driven him to herd with men who have forced him
to guilt. Aunt, dear aunt, for mercy's sake, think of this,
before you let them drag this sick child to a prison, which in
any case must be the grave of all his chances of amendment. Oh!
as you love me, and know that I have never felt the want of
parents in your goodness and affection, but that I might have
done so, and might have been equally helpless and unprotected
with this poor child, have pity upon him before it is too late!'

'My dear love,' said the elder lady, as she folded the weeping
girl to her bosom, 'do you think I would harm a hair of his
head?'

'Oh, no!' replied Rose, eagerly.

'No, surely,' said the old lady; 'my days are drawing to their
close: and may mercy be shown to me as I show it to others!
What can I do to save him, sir?'

'Let me think, ma'am,' said the doctor; 'let me think.'

Mr. Losberne thrust his hands into his pockets, and took several
turns up and down the room; often stopping, and balancing himself
on his toes, and frowning frightfully. After various
exclamations of 'I've got it now' and 'no, I haven't,' and as
many renewals of the walking and frowning, he at length made a
dead halt, and spoke as follows:

'I think if you give me a full and unlimited commission to bully
Giles, and that little boy, Brittles, I can manage it. Giles is
a faithful fellow and an old servant, I know; but you can make it
up to him in a thousand ways, and reward him for being such a
good shot besides. You don't object to that?'

'Unless there is some other way of preserving the child,' replied
Mrs. Maylie.

'There is no other,' said the doctor. 'No other, take my word
for it.'

'Then my aunt invests you with full power,' said Rose, smiling
through her tears; 'but pray don't be harder upon the poor
fellows than is indispensably necessary.'

'You seem to think,' retorted the doctor, 'that everybody is
disposed to be hard-hearted to-day, except yourself, Miss Rose.
I only hope, for the sake of the rising male sex generally, that
you may be found in as vulnerable and soft-hearted a mood by the
first eligible young fellow who appeals to your compassion; and I
wish I were a young fellow, that I might avail myself, on the
spot, of such a favourable opportunity for doing so, as the
present.'

'You are as great a boy as poor Brittles himself,' returned Rose,
blushing.

'Well,' said the doctor, laughing heartily, 'that is no very
difficult matter. But to return to this boy. The great point of
our agreement is yet to come. He will wake in an hour or so, I
dare say; and although I have told that thick-headed
constable-fellow downstairs that he musn't be moved or spoken to,
on peril of his life, I think we may converse with him without
danger. Now I make this stipulation--that I shall examine him in
your presence, and that, if, from what he says, we judge, and I
can show to the satisfaction of your cool reason, that he is a
real and thorough bad one (which is more than possible), he shall
be left to his fate, without any farther interference on my part,
at all events.'

'Oh no, aunt!' entreated Rose.

'Oh yes, aunt!' said the doctor. 'Is is a bargain?;

'He cannot be hardened in vice,' said Rose; 'It is impossible.'

'Very good,' retorted the doctor; 'then so much the more reason
for acceding to my proposition.'

Finally the treaty was entered into; and the parties thereunto
sat down to wait, with some impatience, until Oliver should
awake.

The patience of the two ladies was destined to undergo a longer
trial than Mr. Losberne had led them to expect; for hour after
hour passed on, and still Oliver slumbered heavily. It was
evening, indeed, before the kind-hearted doctor brought them the
intelligence, that he was at length sufficiently restored to be
spoken to. The boy was very ill, he said, and weak from the loss
of blood; but his mind was so troubled with anxiety to disclose
something, that he deemed it better to give him the opportunity,
than to insist upon his remaining quiet until next morning:
which he should otherwise have done.

The conference was a long one. Oliver told them all his simple
history, and was often compelled to stop, by pain and want of
strength. It was a solemn thing, to hear, in the darkened room,
the feeble voice of the sick child recounting a weary catalogue
of evils and calamities which hard men had brought upon him. Oh!
if when we oppress and grind our fellow-creatures, we bestowed
but one thought on the dark evidences of human error, which, like
dense and heavy clouds, are rising, slowly it is true, but not
less surely, to Heaven, to pour their after-vengeance on our
heads; if we heard but one instant, in imagination, the deep
testimony of dead men's voices, which no power can stifle, and no
pride shut out; where would be the injury and injustice, the
suffering, misery, cruelty, and wrong, that each day's life
brings with it!

Oliver's pillow was smoothed by gentle hands that night; and
loveliness and virtue watched him as he slept. He felt calm and
happy, and could have died without a murmur.

The momentous interview was no sooner concluded, and Oliver
composed to rest again, than the doctor, after wiping his eyes,
and condemning them for being weak all at once, betook himself
downstairs to open upon Mr. Giles. And finding nobody about the
parlours, it occurred to him, that he could perhaps originate the
proceedings with better effect in the kitchen; so into the
kitchen he went.

There were assembled, in that lower house of the domestic
parliament, the women-servants, Mr. Brittles, Mr. Giles, the
tinker (who had received a special invitation to regale himself
for the remainder of the day, in consideration of his services),
and the constable. The latter gentleman had a large staff, a
large head, large features, and large half-boots; and he looked
as if he had been taking a proportionate allowance of ale--as
indeed he had.

The adventures of the previous night were still under discussion;
for Mr. Giles was expatiating upon his presence of mind, when the
doctor entered; Mr. Brittles, with a mug of ale in his hand, was
corroborating everything, before his superior said it.

'Sit still!' said the doctor, waving his hand.

'Thank you, sir, said Mr. Giles. 'Misses wished some ale to be
given out, sir; and as I felt no ways inclined for my own little
room, sir, and was disposed for company, I am taking mine among
'em here.'

Brittles headed a low murmur, by which the ladies and gentlemen
generally were understood to express the gratification they
derived from Mr. Giles's condescension. Mr. Giles looked round
with a patronising air, as much as to say that so long as they
behaved properly, he would never desert them.

'How is the patient to-night, sir?' asked Giles.

'So-so'; returned the doctor. 'I am afraid you have got yourself
into a scrape there, Mr. Giles.'

'I hope you don't mean to say, sir,' said Mr. Giles, trembling,
'that he's going to die. If I thought it, I should never be
happy again. I wouldn't cut a boy off: no, not even Brittles
here; not for all the plate in the county, sir.'

'That's not the point,' said the doctor, mysteriously. 'Mr.
Giles, are you a Protestant?'

'Yes, sir, I hope so,' faltered Mr. Giles, who had turned very
pale.

'And what are YOU, boy?' said the doctor, turning sharply upon
Brittles.

'Lord bless me, sir!' replied Brittles, starting violently; 'I'm
the same as Mr. Giles, sir.'

'Then tell me this,' said the doctor, 'both of you, both of you!
Are you going to take upon yourselves to swear, that that boy
upstairs is the boy that was put through the little window last
night? Out with it! Come! We are prepared for you!'

The doctor, who was universally considered one of the
best-tempered creatures on earth, made this demand in such a
dreadful tone of anger, that Giles and Brittles, who were
considerably muddled by ale and excitement, stared at each other
in a state of stupefaction.

'Pay attention to the reply, constable, will you?' said the
doctor, shaking his forefinger with great solemnity of manner,
and tapping the bridge of his nose with it, to bespeak the
exercise of that worthy's utmost acuteness. 'Something may come
of this before long.'

The constable looked as wise as he could, and took up his staff
of office: which had been recling indolently in the
chimney-corner.

'It's a simple question of identity, you will observe,' said the
doctor.

'That's what it is, sir,' replied the constable, coughing with
great violence; for he had finished his ale in a hurry, and some
of it had gone the wrong way.

'Here's the house broken into,' said the doctor, 'and a couple of
men catch one moment's glimpse of a boy, in the midst of
gunpowder smoke, and in all the distraction of alarm and
darkness. Here's a boy comes to that very same house, next
morning, and because he happens to have his arm tied up, these
men lay violent hands upon him--by doing which, they place his
life in great danger--and swear he is the thief. Now, the
question is, whether these men are justified by the fact; if not,
in what situation do they place themselves?'

The constable nodded profoundly. He said, if that wasn't law, he
would be glad to know what was.

'I ask you again,' thundered the doctor, 'are you, on your solemn
oaths, able to identify that boy?'

Brittles looked doubtfully at Mr. Giles; Mr. Giles looked
doubtfully at Brittles; the constable put his hand behind his
ear, to catch the reply; the two women and the tinker leaned
forward to listen; the doctor glanced keenly round; when a ring
was heard at the gate, and at the same moment, the sound of
wheels.

'It's the runners!' cried Brittles, to all appearance much
relieved.

'The what?' exclaimed the doctor, aghast in his turn.

'The Bow Street officers, sir,' replied Brittles, taking up a
candle; 'me and Mr. Giles sent for 'em this morning.'

'What?' cried the doctor.

'Yes,' replied Brittles; 'I sent a message up by the coachman,
and I only wonder they weren't here before, sir.'

'You did, did you? Then confound your--slow coaches down here;
that's all,' said the doctor, walking away.





Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Category:
General Fiction

England - Social life and customs - 19th century
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