RELATES HOW OLIVER TWIST WAS VERY NEAR GETTING A PLACE WHICH WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN A SINECURE.
FOR a week after the commission of the impious and profane offence of asking for more, Oliver remained a close prisoner in the dark and solitary room to which he had been consigned by the wisdom and mercy of the board. It appears, at first sight not unreasonable to suppose, that, if he had entertained a becoming feeling of respect for the prediction of the gentleman in the white waistcoat, he would have established that sage individual’s prophetic character, once and for ever, by tying one end of his pocket-handkerchief to a hook in the wall, and attaching himself to the other. To the performance of this feat, however, there was one obstacle: namely, that pocket-handkerchiefs being decided articles of luxury, had been, for all future times and ages, removed from the noses of paupers by the express order of the board, in council assembled: solemnly given and pronounced under their hands and seals. There was a still greater obstacle in Oliver’s youth and childishness. He only cried bitterly all day; and, when the long, dismal night came on, spread his little hands before his eyes to shut out the darkness, and crouching in the corner, tried to sleep: ever and anon waking with a start and tremble, and drawing himself closer and closer to the wall, as if to feel even its cold hard surface were a protection in the gloom and loneliness which surrounded him.
Let it not be supposed by the enemies of “the system,” that, during the period of his solitary incarceration, Oliver was denied the benefit of exercise, the pleasure of society, or the advantages of religious consolation. As for exercise, it was nice cold weather, and he was allowed to perform his ablutions every morning under the pump, in a stone yard, in the presence of Mr. Bumble, who prevented his catching cold, and caused a tingling sensation to pervade his frame, by repeated applications of the cane. As for society, he was carried every other day into the hall where the boys dined, and there sociably flogged as a public warning and example. And so for from being denied the advantages of religious consolation, he was kicked into the same apartment every evening at prayer-time, and there permitted to listen to, and console his mind with, a general supplication of the boys, containing a special clause, therein inserted by authority of the board, in which they entreated to be made good, virtuous, contented, and obedient, and to be guarded from the sins and vices of Oliver Twist: whom the supplication distinctly set forth to be under the exclusive patronage and protection of the powers of wickedness, and an article direct from the manufactory of the very Devil himself.
It chanced one morning, while Oliver’s affairs were in this auspicious and comfortable state, that Mr. Gamfield, chimney-sweep, went his way down the High Street, deeply cogitating in his mind his ways and means of paying certain arrears of rent, for which his landlord had become rather pressing. Mr. Gamfield’s most sanguine estimate of his finances could not raise them within full five pounds of the desired amount; and, in a species of arthimetical desperation, he was alternately cudgelling his brains and his donkey, when passing the workhouse, his eyes encountered the bill on the gate.
“Wo—o!” said Mr. Gamfield to the donkey.
The donkey was in a state of profound abstraction: wondering, probably, whether he was destined to be regaled with a cabbage-stalk or two when he had disposed of the two sacks of soot with which the little cart was laden; so, without noticing the word of command, he jogged onward.
Mr. Gamfield growled a fierce imprecation on the donkey generally, but more particularly on his eyes; and, running after him, bestowed a blow on his head, which would inevitably have beaten in any skull but a donkey’s. Then, catching hold of the bridle, he gave his jaw a sharp wrench, by way of gentle reminder that he was not his own master; and by these means turned him round. He then gave him another blow on the head, just to stun him till he came back again. Having completed these arrangements, he walked up to the gate, to read the bill.
The gentleman with the white waistcoat was standing at the gate with his hands behind him, after having delivered himself of some profound sentiments in the board-room. Having witnessed the little dispute between Mr. Gamfield and the donkey, he smiled joyously when that person came up to read the bill, for he saw at once that Mr. Gamfield was exactly the sort of master Oliver Twist wanted. Mr. Gamfield smiled, too, as he perused the document; for five pounds was just the sum he had been wishing for; and, as to the boy with which it was encumbered, Mr. Gamfield, knowing what the dietary of the workhouse was, well knew he would be a nice small pattern, just the very thing for register stoves. So, he spelt the bill through again, from beginning to end; and then, touching his fur cap in token of humility, accosted the gentleman in the white waistcoat.
“This here boy, sir, wot the parish wants to ’prentis,” said Mr. Gamfield.
“Ay, my man,” said the gentleman in the white waistcoat, with a condescending smile. “What of him?”
“If the parish vould like him to learn a right pleasant trade, in a good ’spectable chimbley-sweepin’ bisness,” said Mr. Gamfield, “I wants a ’prentis, and I am ready to take him.”
“Walk in,” said the gentleman in the white waistcoat. Mr. Gamfield having lingered behind, to give the donkey another blow on the head, and another wrench of the jaw, as a caution not to run away in his absence, followed the gentleman with the white waistcoat into the room where Oliver had first seen him.
“It’s a nasty trade,” said Mr. Limbkins, when Gamfield had again stated his wish.
“Young boys have been smothered in chimneys before now,” said another gentleman.
“That’s acause they damped the straw afore they lit it in the chimbley to make ’em come down again,” said Gamfield; “that’s all smoke, and no blaze; vereas smoke ain’t o’ no use at all in making a boy come down, for it only sinds him to sleep, and that’s wot he likes. Boys is wery obstinit, and wery lazy, gen’lmen, and there’s nothink like a good hot blaze to make ’em come down vith a run. It’s humane too, gen’lmen, acause, even if they”ve stuck in the chimbley, roasting their feet makes ’em struggle to hextricate theirselves.”
The gentleman in the white waistcoat appeared very much amused by this explanation; but his mirth was speedily checked by a look from Mr. Limbkins. The board then proceeded to converse among themselves for a few minutes, but in so low a tone, that the words “saving of expenditure,” “looked well in the accounts,” “have a printed report published,” were alone audible. These only chanced to be heard, indeed, or account of their being very frequently repeated with great emphasis.
At length the whispering ceased; and the members of the board, having resumed their seats and their solemnity, Mr. Limbkins said:
“We have considered your proposition, and we don’t approve of it.”
“Not at all,” said the gentleman in the white waistcoat.
“Decidedly not,” added the other members.
As Mr. Gamfield did happen to labour under the slight imputation of having bruised three or four boys to death already, it occurred to him that the board had, perhaps, in some unaccountable freak, taken it into their heads that this extraneous circumstance ought to influence their proceedings. It was very unlike their general mode of doing business, if they had; but still, as he had no particular wish to revive the rumour, he twisted his cap in his hands, and walked slowly from the table.
“So you won’t let me have him, gen’lmen?” said Mr. Gamfield, pausing near the door.
“No,” replied Mr. Limbkins; “at least, as it’s a nasty business, we think you ought to take something less than the premium we offered.”
Mr. Gamfield’s countenance brightened, as, with a quick step, he returned to the table, and said,
“What’ll you give, gen’lmen? Come! Don’t be too hard on a poor man. What’ll you give?”
“I should say, three pound ten was plenty,” said Mr. Limbkins.
“Ten shillings too much,” said the gentleman in the white waistcoat.
“Come!” said Gamfield; “say four pound, gen’lmen. Say four pound, and you’ve got rid of him for good and all. There!”
“Three pound ten,” repeated Mr. Limbkins, firmly.
“Come! I’ll split the difference, gen’lmen,” urged Gamfield. “Three pound fifteen.”
“Not a farthing more,” was the firm reply of Mr. Limbkins.
“You’re desperate hard upon me, gen’lmen,” said Gamfield, wavering.
“Pooh! pooh! nonsense!” said the gentleman in the white waistcoat. “He’d be cheap with nothing at all, as a premium. Take him, you silly fellow! He’s just the boy for you. He wants the stick, now and then: it’ll do him good; and his board needn’t come very expensive, for he hasn’t been overfed since he was born. Ha! ha! ha!”
Mr. Gamfield gave an arch look at the faces round the table, and, observing a smile on all of them, gradually broke into a smile himself. The bargain was made. Mr. Bumble was at once instructed that Oliver Twist and his indentures were to be conveyed before the magistrate, for signature and approval, that very afternoon.
In pursuance of this determination, little Oliver, to his excessive astonishment, was released from bondage, and ordered to put himself into a clean shirt. He had hardly achieved this very unusual gymnastic performance, when Mr. Bumble brought him, with his own hands, a basin of gruel, and the holiday allowance of two ounces and a quarter of bread. At this tremendous sight, Oliver began to cry very piteously: thinking, not unnaturally, that the board must have determined to kill him for some useful purpose, or they never would have begun to fatten him up in that way.
“Don’t make your eyes red, Oliver, but eat your food and be thankful,” said Mr. Bumble, in a tone of impressive pomposity. “You’re a going to be made a ’prentice of, Oliver.”
“A ’prentice, sir!” said the child, trembling.
“Yes, Oliver,” said Mr. Bumble. “The kind and blessed gentleman which is so many parents to you, Oliver, when you have none of your own: are a going to ’prentice you: and to set you up in life, and make a man of you: although the expense to the parish is three pound ten!—three pound ten, Oliver!—seventy shillins—one hundred and forty sixpences!—and all for a naughty orphan which nobody can’t love.”
As Mr. Bumble paused to take breath, after delivering this address in an awful voice, the tears rolled down the poor child’s face, and he sobbed bitterly.
“Come,” said Mr. Bumble, somewhat less pompously, for it was gratifying to his feelings to observe the effect his eloquence had produced; “Come, Oliver! Wipe your eyes with the cuffs of your jacket, and don’t cry into your gruel; that’s a very foolish action, Oliver.” It certainly was, for there was quite enough water in it already.
On their way to the magistrate, Mr. Bumble instructed Oliver that all he would have to do, would be to look very happy, and say, when the gentleman asked him if he wanted to be apprenticed, that he should like it very much indeed; both of which injunctions Oliver promised to obey: the rather as Mr. Bumble threw in a gentle hint, that if he failed in either particular, there was no telling what would be done to him. When they arrived at the office, he was shut up in a little room by himself, and admonished by Mr. Bumble to stay there, until he came back to fetch him.
There the boy remained, with a palpitating heart, for half an hour. At the expiration of which time Mr. Bumble thrust in his head, unadorned with the cocked hat, and said aloud:
“Now, Oliver, my dear, come to the gentleman.” As Mr. Bumble said this, he put on a grim and threatening look, and added, in a low voice, “Mind what I told you, you young rascal!”
Oliver stared innocently in Mr. Bumble’s face at this somewhat contradictory style of address; but that gentleman prevented his offering any remark thereupon, by leading him at once into an adjoining room: the door of which was open. It was a large room, with a great window. Behind a desk, sat two old gentleman with powdered heads: one of whom was reading the newspaper; while the other was perusing, with the aid of a pair of tortoise-shell spectacles, a small piece of parchment which lay before him. Mr. Limbkins was standing in front of the desk on one side; and Mr. Gamfield, with a partially washed face, on the other; while two or three bluff-looking men, in top-boots, were lounging about.
The old gentleman with the spectacles gradually dozed off, over the little bit of parchment; and there was a short pause, after Oliver had been stationed by Mr. Bumble in front of the desk.
“This is the boy, your worship,” said Mr. Bumble.
The old gentleman who was reading the newspaper raised his head for a moment, and pulled the other old gentleman by the sleeve; whereupon, the last-mentioned old gentleman woke up.
“Oh, is this the boy?” said the old gentleman.
“This is him, sir,” replied Mr. Bumble. “Bow to the magistrate, my dear.”
Oliver roused himself, and made his best obeisance. He had been wondering, with his eyes fixed on the magistrates’ powder, whether all boards were born with that white stuff on their heads, and were boards from thenceforth on that account.
“Well,” said the old gentleman, “I suppose he’s fond of chimney-sweeping?”
“He doats on it, your worship,” replied Bumble; giving Oliver a sly pinch, to intimate that he had better not say he didn’t.
“And he will be a sweep, will he?” inquired the old gentleman.
“If we was to bind him to any other trade to-morrow, he’d run away simultaneous, your worship,” replied Bumble.
“And this man that’s to be his master—you, sir—you’ll treat him well, and feed him, and do all that sort of thing, will you?” said the old gentleman.
“When I says I will, I means I will,” replied Mr. Gamfield doggedly.
“You’re a rough speaker, my friend, but you look an honest, open-hearted man,” said the old gentleman: turning his spectacles in the direction of the candidate for Oliver’s premium, whose villainous countenance was a regular stamped receipt for cruelty. But the magistrate was half blind and half childish, so he couldn’t reasonably be expected to discern what other people did.
“I hope I am, sir,” said Mr. Gamfield, with an ugly leer.
“I have no doubt you are, my friend,” replied the old gentleman: fixing his spectacles more firmly on his nose, and looking about him for the inkstand.
It was the critical moment of Oliver’s fate. If the inkstand had been where the old gentleman thought it was, he would have dipped his pen into it, and signed the indentures, and Oliver would have been straightway hurried off. But, as it chanced to be immediately under his nose, it followed, as a matter of course, that he looked all over his desk for it, without finding it; and happening in the course of his search to look straight before him, his gaze encountered the pale and terrified face of Oliver Twist: who, despite all the admonitory looks and pinches of Bumble, was regarding the repulsive countenance of his future master, with a mingled expression of horror and fear, too palpable to be mistaken, even by a half-blind magistrate.
The old gentleman stopped, laid down his pen, and looked from Oliver to Mr. Limbkins; who attempted to take snuff with a cheerful and unconcerned aspect.
“My boy!” said the old gentleman, leaning over the desk. Oliver started at the sound. He might be excused for doing so: for the words were kindly said; and strange sounds frighten one. He trembled violently, and burst into tears.
“My boy!” said the old gentleman, “you look pale and alarmed. What is the matter?”
“Stand a little away from him, Beadle,” said the other magistrate: laying aside the paper, and leaning forward with an expression of interest. “Now, boy, tell us what’s the matter: don’t be afraid.”
Oliver fell on his knees, and clasping his hands together, prayed that they would order him back to the dark room—that they would starve him—beat him—kill him if they pleased—rather than send him away with that dreadful man.
“Well!” said Mr. Bumble, raising his hands and eyes with most impressive solemnity. “Well! of all the artful and designing orphans that ever I see, Oliver, you are one of the most bare-facedest.”
“Hold your tongue, Beadle,” said the second old gentleman, when Mr. Bumble had given vent to this compound adjective.
“I beg your worship’s pardon,” said Mr. Bumble, incredulous of having heard aright. “Did your worship speak to me?”
“Yes. Hold your tongue.”
Mr. Bumble was stupefied with astonishment. A beadle ordered to hold his tongue! A moral revolution!
The old gentleman in the tortoise-shell spectacles looked at his companion, he nodded significantly.
“We refuse to sanction these indentures,” said the old gentleman: tossing aside the piece of parchment as he spoke.
“I hope,” stammered Mr. Limbkins: “I hope the magistrates will not form the opinion that the authorities have been guilty of any improper conduct, on the unsupported testimony of a child.”
“The magistrates are not called upon to pronounce any opinion on the matter,” said the second old gentleman sharply. “Take the boy back to the workhouse, and treat him kindly. He seems to want it.”
That same evening, the gentleman in the white waistcoat most positively and decidedly affirmed, not only that Oliver would be hung, but that he would be drawn and quartered into the bargain. Mr. Bumble shook his head with gloomy mystery, and said he wished he might come to good; whereunto Mr. Gamfield replied, that he wished he might come to him; which, although he agreed with the beadle in most matters, would seem to be a wish of a totally opposite description.
The next morning, the public were once informed that Oliver Twist was again To Let, and that five pounds would be paid to anybody who would take possession of him.