Oliver Twist was the son of a poor lady who was found lying in the street one day in an English village, almost starved and very ill. She had walked a long way, for her shoes were worn to pieces, but where she came from or where she was going nobody knew. As she had no money, she was taken to the poorhouse, where she died the next day without even telling her name, leaving behind her only a gold locket, which was around her neck, and a baby.
The locket fell into the hands of the mistress of the poorhouse, who was named Mrs. Bumble. It contained the dead mother's wedding-ring, and, as Mrs. Bumble was a dishonest woman, she hid both locket and ring, intending sometime to sell them.
The baby was left, with no one to care for it, to grow up at the poorhouse with the other wretched orphan children, who wore calico dresses all alike and had little to eat and many whippings.
Mr. Bumble, the master of the poorhouse, was a pompous, self-important bully who browbeat every[Pg 50] one weaker than himself and scolded and cuffed the paupers to his heart's content. It was he who named the baby "Oliver Twist." He used to name all the babies as they came along, by the letters of the alphabet. The one before Oliver was named Swubble; then came Oliver with a T; the next would be Unwin, the next Vilkins, and so on down to Z. Then he would begin the alphabet all over again.
Little Oliver, the baby, grew without any idea of who he was. When he was a year old he was sent to the poor-farm where an old woman took care of orphan children for a very small sum apiece each week. This money, which was paid by the town, was hardly enough to buy them food, but nevertheless the old woman took good care to save the bigger share for herself.
He lived there till he was a pale, handsome boy of nine years, and then he was taken to the workhouse, where, with many other boys of his own age or older, he had to work hard all day picking oakum.
The boys had nothing but thin gruel for their meals, with an onion twice a week and half a roll on Sundays. They ate in a great stone hall, in one end of which stood the big copper of gruel which Mr. Bumble ladled out. Each boy got only one helping, and the bowls never needed washing, because, when the meal was through, there was not a drop of gruel left in them. After each meal they[Pg 51] all sat staring at the copper and sucking their fingers, but nobody dared ask for more.
One day they felt so terribly hungry that one of the biggest boys said unless he got another helping of gruel he was afraid he would have to eat the boy who slept next him. The little boys all believed this and cast lots to see who should ask for more. It fell to Oliver Twist.
So that night after supper, though he was dreadfully frightened, Oliver rose and went up to the end of the room and said to Mr. Bumble, "Please, sir, I want some more."
Mr. Bumble was so surprised he turned pale. "What!" he gasped.
"Please, sir," said Oliver again, "I want some more."
Mr. Bumble picked up the ladle and struck Oliver on the head with it; then he pounced on him and shook him. When he was tired shaking him, he dragged him away and shut him up in a dark room, where he stayed a whole week, and was only taken out once a day to be whipped. Then, to make an example of him, a notice was pasted on the gate of the workhouse offering a reward to anybody who would take poor Oliver away and do what he liked with him.
The first one who came by was a middle-aged chimney-sweep, who wanted a boy to climb up the insides of chimneys and clean out the soot. This was a dangerous thing to do, for sometimes the boys[Pg 52] who did it got burned or choked with the smoke, and when Oliver found what they were going to do with him and looked at the man's cruel face, he burst out crying, so that a kind-hearted magistrate interfered and would not let the chimney-sweep have him.
Mr. Bumble finally gave him to the village undertaker, and there he had to mind the shop and do all the chores. He slept under the counter among piles of empty coffins. The undertaker's wife beat him often, and whenever he was not at work he had to attend funerals, which was by no means amusing, so that he found life no better than it had been at the workhouse. The undertaker had an apprentice, too, who kicked him whenever he came near.
All this wretchedness Oliver bore as well as he could, without complaining. But one day the cowardly apprentice began to say unkind things of Oliver's dead mother, and this he could not stand. His anger made him stronger even than his tormentor, though the latter was more than a head taller and much older, and he sprang upon him, caught him by the throat and, after shaking him till his teeth rattled, knocked him flat on the floor.
The big bully screamed for help and cried that he was being murdered, so that the undertaker and his wife came running in. Oliver told them what the apprentice had said, but that made no difference. The undertaker sent for Mr. Bumble, and[Pg 53] between them they flogged him till he could hardly stand and sent him to bed without anything to eat.
Till then Oliver had not shed a tear, but now, alone in the dark, he felt so miserable that he cried for a long time.
There was nothing to do, he thought at last, but to run away. So he tied up his few belongings in a handkerchief and, waiting till the first beam of sunrise, he unbarred the door and ran away as fast as he could, through the town into the country.
He hid behind hedges whenever he saw anybody, for fear the undertaker or Mr. Bumble were after him, and before long he found a road that he knew led to London. Oliver had never seen a city, but he thought where there were so many people there would certainly be something for a boy to do to earn his living, so he trudged stoutly on and before nightfall had walked twenty miles. He begged a crust of bread at a cottage and slept under a hayrick. The next day and night he was so very hungry and cold that when morning came again he could scarcely walk at all.
He sat down finally at the edge of a village, wondering whether he was going to die, when he saw coming along the queerest-looking boy. He was about Oliver's age, with a snub nose, bow legs and little sharp eyes. His face was very dirty and he wore a man's coat, whose ragged tails came to his heels.
The boy saw Oliver's plight and asked him what[Pg 54] the matter was, mixing his words with such a lot of strange slang that Oliver could hardly understand him. When Oliver explained that he had been walking a number of days and was very hungry, the other took him to a shop near by, bought him some bread and ham, and watched him eat it with great attention, asking him many questions—whether he had any money or knew any place in London where he could stay. Oliver answered no.
"Don't fret about that," said the other. "I know a 'spectable old genelman as lives there wot'll give you lodgings for nothing if I interduce you."
Oliver did not think his new host looked very respectable himself, but he thought it might be as well for him to know the old gentleman, particularly as he had nowhere else to go. So they set off.
It was night when they reached London, and it was so big and crowded that Oliver kept close to his guide. He noticed, however, that the streets they passed through were narrow and dirty and the houses old and hideously filthy. The people, too, seemed low and wretched.
He was just wondering if he had not better run away when the boy pushed open a door, drew Oliver inside, up a broken stairway and into a back room.
Here, frying some sausages over a stove, was a shriveled old Jew in a greasy flannel gown. He was very ugly and his matted red hair hung down over[Pg 55] his villainous face. In a corner stood a clothes-horse on which hung hundreds of silk handkerchiefs, and four or five boys, as dirty and oddly dressed as the one who had brought Oliver, sat about a table smoking pipes like rough, grown men.
Oliver's guide introduced him to the Jew, whose name was Fagin, and the boys crowded around him, putting their hands into his pockets, which he thought a queer joke. Fagin grinned horribly as he shook hands with him and told him he was very welcome, which did not tend to reassure him, and then the sausages were passed around. The Jew gave Oliver a glass of something to drink, and as soon as he drank it he became very sleepy and knew nothing more till the following morning.
The next few days Oliver saw much to wonder at. When he woke up, Fagin was sorting over a great box full of watches, which he hid away when he saw Oliver was looking. Every day the boy who had brought him there, whom they called "the Artful Dodger," came in and gave the Jew some pocketbooks and handkerchiefs. Oliver thought he must have made the pocketbooks, only they did not look new, and some seemed to have money in them. He noticed, too, that whenever the Artful Dodger came home empty-handed Fagin seemed angry and cuffed and kicked him and sent him to bed supperless; but when he brought home a good number everything was very jolly.[Pg 56]
Whenever there was nothing else to do, the old Jew played a very curious game with the boys. This was the way they played it:
Fagin would put a snuff-box in one pocket, a watch in another and a handkerchief in a third; then he would walk about the room just as any old gentleman would walk about the street, stopping now and then, as if he were looking into shop-windows. All the time the boys followed him closely, sometimes treading on his toes or stumbling against him, and when this happened one of them would slip a hand into his pocket and take out either the watch or the snuff-box or the handkerchief. If the Jew felt a hand in his pocket he cried out which it was, and then the game began all over again. At last Fagin made Oliver try if he could take something out of his pocket without his knowing it, and when Oliver succeeded he patted his head and seemed well pleased.
But Oliver grew very tired of the dirty room and the same game. He longed for the open air and begged to be allowed to go out; so one day the Jew put him in charge of the Artful Dodger and they went upon the streets, Oliver wondering where in the world he was going to be taught to make pocketbooks.
He was on the point of asking, when the Artful Dodger signed to him to be silent, and slunk behind an old gentleman who was reading a book in front of a book-stall. You can imagine Oliver's[Pg 57] horror when he saw him thrust his hand into the old gentleman's pocket, draw out a silk handkerchief and run off at full speed.
In an instant Oliver understood the mystery of the handkerchiefs, the watches, the purses and the curious game he had learned at Fagin's. He knew then that the Artful Dodger was a pickpocket. He was so frightened that for a minute he lost his wits and ran off as fast as he could go.
Just then the old gentleman found his handkerchief was gone and, seeing Oliver running away, shouted "Stop thief!" which frightened the poor boy even more and made him run all the faster. Everybody joined the chase, and before he had gone far a burly fellow overtook Oliver and knocked him down.
A policeman was at hand and he was dragged, more dead than alive, to the police court, followed by the angry old gentleman.
The moment the latter saw the boy's face, however, he could not believe it was the face of a thief, and refused to appear against him, but the magistrate was in a bad humor and was about to sentence Oliver to prison, anyway, when the owner of the book-stall came hurrying in. He had seen the theft and knew Oliver was not guilty, so the magistrate was obliged to let him go.
But the terror and the blow he had received had been too much for Oliver. He fell down in a faint, and the old gentleman, whose name was Mr.[Pg 58] Brownlow, overcome with pity, put him into a coach and drove him to his own home, determined, if the boy had no parents, to adopt him as his own son.
Merci pour la lecture!