Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

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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

'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

'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.


'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

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

'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

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

'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

'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.



The month's trial over, Oliver was formally apprenticed. It was

a nice sickly season just at this time. In commercial phrase,
coffins were looking up; and, in the course of a few weeks,
Oliver acquired a great deal of experience. The success of Mr.
Sowerberry's ingenious speculation, exceeded even his most
sanguine hopes. The oldest inhabitants recollected no period at
which measles had been so prevalent, or so fatal to infant
existence; and many were the mournful processions which little
Oliver headed, in a hat-band reaching down to his knees, to the
indescribable admiration and emotion of all the mothers in the
town. As Oliver accompanied his master in most of his adult
expeditions too, in order that he might acquire that equanimity
of demeanour and full command of nerve which was essential to a
finished undertaker, he had many opportunities of observing the
beautiful resignation and fortitude with which some strong-minded
people bear their trials and losses.

For instance; when Sowerberry had an order for the burial of some

rich old lady or gentleman, who was surrounded by a great number
of nephews and nieces, who had been perfectly inconsolable during
the previous illness, and whose grief had been wholly
irrepressible even on the most public occasions, they would be as
happy among themselves as need be--quite cheerful and
contented--conversing together with as much freedom and gaiety,
as if nothing whatever had happened to disturb them. Husbands,
too, bore the loss of their wives with the most heroic calmness.
Wives, again, put on weeds for their husbands, as if, so far from
grieving in the garb of sorrow, they had made up their minds to
render it as becoming and attractive as possible. It was
observable, too, that ladies and gentlemen who were in passions
of anguish during the ceremony of interment, recovered almost as
soon as they reached home, and became quite composed before the
tea-drinking was over. All this was very pleasant and improving
to see; and Oliver beheld it with great admiration.

That Oliver Twist was moved to resignation by the example of

these good people, I cannot, although I am his biographer,
undertake to affirm with any degree of confidence; but I can most
distinctly say, that for many months he continued meekly to
submit to the domination and ill-treatment of Noah Claypole: who
used him far worse than before, now that his jealousy was roused
by seeing the new boy promoted to the black stick and hatband,
while he, the old one, remained stationary in the muffin-cap and
leathers. Charlotte treated him ill, because Noah did; and Mrs.
Sowerberry was his decided enemy, because Mr. Sowerberry was
disposed to be his friend; so, between these three on one side,
and a glut of funerals on the other, Oliver was not altogether as
comfortable as the hungry pig was, when he was shut up, by
mistake, in the grain department of a brewery.

And now, I come to a very important passage in Oliver's history;

for I have to record an act, slight and unimportant perhaps in
appearance, but which indirectly produced a material change in
all his future prospects and proceedings.

One day, Oliver and Noah had descended into the kitchen at the

usual dinner-hour, to banquet upon a small joint of mutton--a
pound and a half of the worst end of the neck--when Charlotte
being called out of the way, there ensued a brief interval of
time, which Noah Claypole, being hungry and vicious, considered
he could not possibly devote to a worthier purpose than
aggravating and tantalising young Oliver Twist.

Intent upon this innocent amusement, Noah put his feet on the

table-cloth; and pulled Oliver's hair; and twitched his ears; and
expressed his opinion that he was a 'sneak'; and furthermore
announced his intention of coming to see him hanged, whenever
that desirable event should take place; and entered upon various
topics of petty annoyance, like a malicious and ill-conditioned
charity-boy as he was. But, making Oliver cry, Noah attempted to
be more facetious still; and in his attempt, did what many
sometimes do to this day, when they want to be funny. He got
rather personal.

'Work'us,' said Noah, 'how's your mother?'

'She's dead,' replied Oliver; 'don't you say anything about her
to me!'

Oliver's colour rose as he said this; he breathed quickly; and

there was a curious working of the mouth and nostrils, which Mr.
Claypole thought must be the immediate precursor of a violent fit

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