Oliver, being left to himself in the undertaker's shop, set the lamp down on _orkman'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 tim_is eyes wandered in the direction of the dismal object: from which he almos_xpected to see some frightful form slowly rear its head, to drive him ma_ith terror. Against the wall were ranged, in regular array, a long row of el_oards cut in the same shape: looking in the dim light, like high-shouldere_hosts 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 o_wo mutes in very stiff neckcloths, on duty at a large private door, with _earse drawn by four black steeds, approaching in the distance. The shop wa_lose and hot. The atmosphere seemed tainted with the smell of coffins. Th_ecess beneath the counter in which his flock mattress was thrust, looked lik_ grave.
Nor were these the only dismal feelings which depressed Oliver. He was alon_n a strange place; and we all know how chilled and desolate the best of u_ill 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 hi_arrow bed, that that were his coffin, and that he could be lain in a calm an_asting sleep in the churchyard ground, with the tall grass waving gentl_bove 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 th_hop-door: which, before he could huddle on his clothes, was repeated, in a_ngry and impetuous manner, about twenty-five times. When he began to undo th_hain, the legs desisted, and a voice began.
'Open the door, will yer?' cried the voice which belonged to the legs whic_ad kicked at the door.
'I will, directly, sir,' replied Oliver: undoing the chain, and turning th_ey.
'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 voic_egan to whistle.
Oliver had been too often subjected to the process to which the ver_xpressive monosyllable just recorded bears reference, to entertain th_mallest doubt that the owner of the voice, whoever he might be, would redee_is pledge, most honourably. He drew back the bolts with a trembling hand, an_pened the door.
For a second or two, Oliver glanced up the street, and down the street, an_ver the way: impressed with the belief that the unknown, who had addresse_im through the key-hole, had walked a few paces off, to warm himself; fo_obody did he see but a big charity-boy, sitting on a post in front of th_ouse, eating a slice of bread and butter: which he cut into wedges, the siz_f 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 visito_ade 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 woul_ant 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, i_ontinuation: descending from the top of the post, meanwhile, with edifyin_ravity.
'No, sir,' rejoined Oliver.
'I'm Mister Noah Claypole,' said the charity-boy, 'and you're under me. Tak_own the shutters, yer idle young ruffian!' With this, Mr. Claypol_dministered 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-eye_outh, of lumbering make and heavy countenance, to look dignified under an_ircumstances; but it is more especially so, when superadded to these persona_ttractions are a red nose and yellow smalls.
Oliver, having taken down the shutters, and broken a pane of glass in hi_ffort to stagger away beneath the weight of the first one to a small court a_he side of the house in which they were kept during the day, was graciousl_ssisted by Noah: who having consoled him with the assurance that 'he'd catc_t,' condescended to help him. Mr. Sowerberry came down soon after. Shortl_fterwards, Mrs. Sowerberry appeared. Oliver having 'caught it,' in fulfilmen_f Noah's prediction, followed that young gentleman down the stairs t_reakfast.
'Come near the fire, Noah,' said Charlotte. 'I saved a nice little bit o_acon for you from master's breakfast. Oliver, shut that door at Mister Noah'_ack, 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 mak_aste, 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 le_he boy alone?'
'Let him alone!' said Noah. 'Why everybody lets him alone enough, for th_atter of that. Neither his father nor his mother will ever interfere wit_im. 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 whic_he was joined by Noah; after which they both looked scornfully at poor Olive_wist, as he sat shivering on the box in the coldest corner of the room, an_te 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 live_ard by; his mother being a washerwoman, and his father a drunken soldier, discharged with a wooden leg, and a diurnal pension of twopence-halfpenny an_n unstateable fraction. The shop-boys in the neighbourhood had long been i_he habit of branding Noah in the public streets, with the ignominiou_pithets of 'leathers,' 'charity,' and the like; and Noah had bourne the_ithout reply. But, now that fortune had cast in his way a nameless orphan, a_hom even the meanest could point the finger of scorn, he retorted on him wit_nterest. This affords charming food for contemplation. It shows us what _eautiful thing human nature may be made to be; and how impartially the sam_miable 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 th_ittle back-parlour, when Mr. Sowerberry, after several deferential glances a_is wife, said,
'My dear—' He was going to say more; but, Mrs. Sowerberry looking up, with _eculiarly 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 wan_o hear, my dear. I was only going to say—'
'Oh, don't tell me what you were going to say,' interposed Mrs. Sowerberry. '_m nobody; don't consult me, pray. _I_ don't want to intrude upon you_ecrets.' As Mrs. Sowerberry said this, she gave an hysterical laugh, whic_hreatened 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, whic_rightened Mr. Sowerberry very much. This is a very common and much-approve_atrimonial course of treatment, which is often very effective. It at onc_educed Mr. Sowerberry to begging, as a special favour, to be allowed to sa_hat Mrs. Sowerberry was most curious to hear. After a short duration, th_ermission 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, m_ove.'
Mrs. Sowerberry looked up with an expression of considerable wonderment. Mr.
Sowerberry remarked it and, without allowing time for any observation on th_ood lady's part, proceeded.
'I don't mean a regular mute to attend grown-up people, my dear, but only fo_hildren's practice. It would be very new to have a mute in proportion, m_ear. 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 muc_truck by the novelty of this idea; but, as it would have been compromisin_er dignity to have said so, under existing circumstances, she merel_nquired, with much sharpness, why such an obvious suggestion had no_resented itself to her husband's mind before? Mr. Sowerberry rightl_onstrued this, as an acquiescence in his proposition; it was speedil_etermined, therefore, that Oliver should be at once initiated into th_ysteries of the trade; and, with this view, that he should accompany hi_aster on the very next occasion of his services being required.
The occasion was not long in coming. Half an hour after breakfast nex_orning, Mr. Bumble entered the shop; and supporting his cane against th_ounter, drew forth his large leathern pocket-book: from which he selected _mall scrap of paper, which he handed over to Sowerberry.
'Aha!' said the undertaker, glancing over it with a lively countenance; 'a_rder 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 ver_orpulent.
'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; ver_bstinate. 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 w_houldn't have known anything about them, then, only a woman who lodges in th_ame house made an application to the porochial committee for them to send th_orochial 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 _lacking-bottle, offhand.'
'Ah, there's promptness,' said the undertaker.
'Promptness, indeed!' replied the beadle. 'But what's the consequence; what'_he ungrateful behaviour of these rebels, sir? Why, the husband sends bac_ord that the medicine won't suit his wife's complaint, and so she shan't tak_t—says she shan't take it, sir! Good, strong, wholesome medicine, as wa_iven with great success to two Irish labourers and a coal-heaver, only a wee_efore—sent 'em for nothing, with a blackin'-bottle in,—and he sends back wor_hat she shan't take it, sir!'
As the atrocity presented itself to Mr. Bumble's mind in full force, he struc_he 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 no_he's dead, we've got to bury her; and that's the direction; and the soone_t's done, the better.'
Thus saying, Mr. Bumble put on his cocked hat wrong side first, in a fever o_arochial excitement; 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 mer_ecollection 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 th_hite waistcoat had made a very strong impression, thought that now th_ndertaker had got Oliver upon trial the subject was better avoided, unti_uch time as he should be firmly bound for seven years, and all danger of hi_eing returned upon the hands of the parish should be thus effectually an_egally 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 wit_e.' Oliver obeyed, and followed his master on his professional mission.
They walked on, for some time, through the most crowded and densely inhabite_art of the town; and then, striking down a narrow street more dirty an_iserable than any they had yet passed through, paused to look for the hous_hich was the object of their search. The houses on either side were high an_arge, but very old, and tenanted by people of the poorest class: as thei_eglected appearance would have sufficiently denoted, without the concurren_estimony afforded by the squalid looks of the few men and women who, wit_olded arms and bodies half doubled, occasionally skulked along. A great man_f the tenements had shop-fronts; but these were fast closed, and moulderin_way; only the upper rooms being inhabited. Some houses which had becom_nsecure from age and decay, were prevented from falling into the street, b_uge 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 haunt_f some houseless wretches, for many of the rough boards which supplied th_lace of door and window, were wrenched from their positions, to afford a_perture wide enough for the passage of a human body. The kennel was stagnan_nd filthy. The very rats, which here and there lay putrefying in it_ottenness, were hideous with famine.
There was neither knocker nor bell-handle at the open door where Oliver an_is master stopped; so, groping his way cautiously through the dark passage, and bidding Oliver keep close to him and not be afraid the undertaker mounte_o the top of the first flight of stairs. Stumbling against a door on th_anding, he rapped at it with his knuckles.
It was opened by a young girl of thirteen or fourteen. The undertaker at onc_aw enough of what the room contained, to know it was the apartment to whic_e had been directed. He stepped in; Oliver followed him.
There was no fire in the room; but a man was crouching, mechanically, over th_mpty stove. An old woman, too, had drawn a low stool to the cold hearth, an_as sitting beside him. There were some ragged children in another corner; an_n a small recess, opposite the door, there lay upon the ground, somethin_overed with an old blanket. Oliver shuddered as he cast his eyes toward th_lace, and crept involuntarily closer to his master; for though it was covere_p, the boy felt that it was a corpse.
The man's face was thin and very pale; his hair and beard were grizzly; hi_yes were bloodshot. The old woman's face was wrinkled; her two remainin_eeth protruded over her under lip; and her eyes were bright and piercing.
Oliver was afraid to look at either her or the man. They seemed so like th_ats he had seen outside.
'Nobody shall go near her,' said the man, starting fiercely up, as th_ndertaker approached the recess. 'Keep back! Damn you, keep back, if you've _ife to lose!'
'Nonsense, my good man,' said the undertaker, who was pretty well used t_isery in all its shapes. 'Nonsense!'
'I tell you,' said the man: clenching his hands, and stamping furiously on th_loor,—'I tell you I won't have her put into the ground. She couldn't res_here. 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 hi_ocket, 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 fee_f 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 sh_as, till the fever came upon her; and then her bones were starting throug_he 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 ou_heir names. I begged for her in the streets: and they sent me to prison. Whe_ came back, she was dying; and all the blood in my heart has dried up, fo_hey starved her to death. I swear it before the God that saw it! They starve_er!' He twined his hands in his hair; and, with a loud scream, rolle_rovelling upon the floor: his eyes fixed, and the foam covering his lips.
The terrified children cried bitterly; but the old woman, who had hithert_emained as quiet as if she had been wholly deaf to all that passed, menace_hem into silence. Having unloosened the cravat of the man who still remaine_xtended on the ground, she tottered towards the undertaker.
'She was my daughter,' said the old woman, nodding her head in the directio_f the corpse; and speaking with an idiotic leer, more ghastly than even th_resence of death in such a place. 'Lord, Lord! Well, it _is_ strange that _ho gave birth to her, and was a woman then, should be alive and merry now, and she lying there: so cold and stiff! Lord, Lord!—to think of it; it's a_ood as a play—as good as a play!'
As the wretched creature mumbled and chuckled in her hideous merriment, th_ndertaker 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 hav_ake and wine, too, before we go! Never mind; send some bread—only a loaf o_read 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 disengage_imself from the old woman's grasp; and, drawing Oliver after him, hurrie_way.
The next day, (the family having been meanwhile relieved with a half-quarter_oaf and a piece of cheese, left with them by Mr. Bumble himself,) Oliver an_is master returned to the miserable abode; where Mr. Bumble had alread_rrived, accompanied by four men from the workhouse, who were to act a_earers. An old black cloak had been thrown over the rags of the old woman an_he man; and the bare coffin having been screwed down, was hoisted on th_houlders of the bearers, and carried into the street.
'Now, you must put your best leg foremost, old lady!' whispered Sowerberry i_he old woman's ear; 'we are rather late; and it won't do, to keep th_lergyman waiting. Move on, my men,—as quick as you like!'
Thus directed, the bearers trotted on under their light burden; and the tw_ourners kept as near them, as they could. Mr. Bumble and Sowerberry walked a_ good smart pace in front; and Oliver, whose legs were not so long as hi_aster's, ran by the side.
There was not so great a necessity for hurrying as Mr. Sowerberry ha_nticipated, however; for when they reached the obscure corner of th_hurchyard 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 hou_r so, before he came. So, they put the bier on the brink of the grave; an_he two mourners waited patiently in the damp clay, with a cold rain drizzlin_own, while the ragged boys whom the spectacle had attracted into th_hurchyard played a noisy game at hide-and-seek among the tombstones, o_aried their amusements by jumping backwards and forwards over the coffin. Mr.
Sowerberry and Bumble, being personal friends of the clerk, sat by the fir_ith him, and read the paper.
At length, after a lapse of something more than an hour, Mr. Bumble, an_owerberry, and the clerk, were seen running towards the grave. Immediatel_fterwards, the clergyman appeared: putting on his surplice as he came along.
Mr. Bumble then thrashed a boy or two, to keep up appearances; and th_everend gentleman, having read as much of the burial service as could b_ompressed into four minutes, gave his surplice to the clerk, and walked awa_gain.
'Now, Bill!' said Sowerberry to the grave-digger. 'Fill up!'
It was no very difficult task, for the grave was so full, that the uppermos_offin was within a few feet of the surface. The grave-digger shovelled in th_arth; stamped it loosely down with his feet: shouldered his spade; and walke_ff, followed by the boys, who murmured very loud complaints at the fun bein_ver so soon.
'Come, my good fellow!' said Bumble, tapping the man on the back. 'They wan_o shut up the yard.'
The man who had never once moved, since he had taken his station by the grav_ide, 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 woma_as too much occupied in bewailing the loss of her cloak (which the undertake_ad taken off), to pay him any attention; so they threw a can of cold wate_ver him; and when he came to, saw him safely out of the churchyard, locke_he 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 whe_ou _are_ used to it, my boy.'
Oliver wondered, in his own mind, whether it had taken a very long time to ge_r. 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.