eBooks Cube
 
CHAPTER V

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 afriad 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.





Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Category:
General Fiction

England - Social life and customs - 19th century
Nabou.com: the big site