a reading by Charles Dickens
It was nearly two hours before day-break; that time which in the autumn of the year, may be truly called the dead of night; when the streets are silent and deserted; when even sounds appear to slumber, and profligacy and riot have staggered home to dream; it was at this still and silent hour, that Fagin sat watching in his old lair, with face so distorted and pale, and eyes so red and blood-shot, that he looked less like a man, than like some hideous phantom, moist from the grave, and worried by an evil spirit.
He sat crouching over a cold hearth, wrapped in an old torn coverlet, with his face turned towards a wasting candle that stood upon a table by his side. His right hand was raised to his lips, and as, absorbed in thought, he hit his long black nails, he disclosed among his toothless gums a few such fangs as should have been a dog’s or rat’s.
Stretched upon a mattress on the floor, lay Noah Claypole, fast asleep. Towards him the old man sometimes directed his eyes for an instant, and then brought them back again to the candle; which with a long-burnt wick drooping almost double, and hot grease falling down in clots upon the table, plainly showed that his thoughts were busy elsewhere.
Indeed they were. Mortification at the overthrow of his notable scheme; hatred of the girl who had dared to palter with strangers; and utter distrust of the sincerity of her refusal to yield him up; bitter disappointment at the loss of his revenge on Sikes; the fear of detection, and ruin, and death; and a fierce and deadly rage kindled by all; these were the passionate considerations which, following close upon each other with rapid and ceaseless whirl, shot through the brain of Fagin, as every evil thought and blackest purpose lay working at his heart.
He sat without changing his attitude in the least, or appearing to take the smallest heed of time, until his quick ear seemed to be attracted by a footstep in the street.
“At last,” he muttered, wiping his dry and fevered mouth. “At last!”
The bell rang gently as he spoke. He crept upstairs to the door, and presently returned accompanied by a man muffled to the chin, who carried a bundle under one arm. Sitting down and throwing back his outer coat, the man displayed the burly frame of Sikes.
“There!” he said, laying the bundle on the table. “Take care of that, and do the most you can with it. It’s been trouble enough to get; I thought I should have been here, three hours ago.”
Fagin laid his hand upon the bundle, and locking it in the cupboard, sat down again without speaking. But he did not take his eyes off the robber, for an instant, during this action; and now that they sat over against each other, face to face, he looked fixedly at him, with his lips quivering so violently, and his face so altered by the emotions which had mastered him, that the housebreaker involuntarily drew back his chair, and surveyed him with a look of real affright.
“Wot now?” cried Sikes. “Wot do you look at a man so for?”
Fagin raised his right hand, and shook his trembling forefinger in the air; but his passion was so great, that the power of speech was for the moment gone.
“Damme!” said Sikes, feeling in his breast with a look of alarm. “He’s gone mad. I must look to myself here.”
“No, no,” rejoined Fagin, finding his voice. “It’s not—you’re not the person, Bill. I’ve no—no fault to find with you.”
“Oh, you haven’t, haven’t you?” said Sikes, looking sternly at him, and ostentatiously passing a pistol into a more convenient pocket. “That’s lucky—for one of us. Which one that is, don’t matter.”
“I’ve got that to tell you, Bill,” said Fagin, drawing his chair nearer, “will make you worse than me.”
“Aye?” returned the robber with an incredulous air. “Tell away! Look sharp, or Nance will think I’m lost.”
“Lost!” cried Fagin. “She has pretty well settled that, in her own mind, already.”
Sikes looked with an aspect of great perplexity into the Jew’s face, and reading no satisfactory explanation of the riddle there, clenched his coat collar in his huge hand and shook him soundly.
“Speak, will you!” he said; “or if you don’t, it shall be for want of breath. Open your mouth and say wot you’ve got to say in plain words. Out with it, you thundering old cur, out with it!”
“Suppose that lad that’s laying there—” Fagin began.
Sikes turned round to where Noah was sleeping, as if he had not previously observed him. “Well!” he said, resuming his former position.
“Suppose that lad,” pursued Fagin, “was to peach—to blow upon us all—first seeking out the right folks for the purpose, and then having a meeting with ’em in the street to paint our likenesses, describe every mark that they might know us by, and the crib where we might be most easily taken. Suppose he was to do all this, and besides to blow upon a plant we’ve all been in, more or less—of his own fancy; not grabbed, trapped, tried, earwigged by the parson and brought to it on bread and water,—but of his own fancy; to please his own taste; stealing out at nights to find those most interested against us, and peaching to them. Do you hear me?” cried the Jew, his eyes flashing with rage. “Suppose he did all this, what then?”
“What then!” replied Sikes; with a tremendous oath. “If he was left alive till I came, I’d grind his skull under the iron heel of my boot into as many grains as there are hairs upon his head.”
“What if I did it!” cried Fagin almost in a yell. “I, that knows so much, and could hang so many besides myself!”
“I don’t know,” replied Sikes, clenching his teeth and turning white at the mere suggestion. “I’d do something in the jail that ’ud get me put in irons; and if I was tried along with you, I’d fall upon you with them in the open court, and beat your brains out afore the people. I should have such strength,” muttered the robber, poising his brawny arm, “that I could smash your head as if a loaded waggon had gone over it.”
“Would I!” said the housebreaker. “Try me.”
“If it was Charley, or the Dodger, or Bet, or—”
“I don’t care who,” replied Sikes impatiently. “Whoever it was, I’d serve them the same.”
Fagin looked hard at the robber; and, motioning him to be silent, stooped over the bed upon the floor, and shook the sleeper to rouse him. Sikes leant forward in his chair: looking on with his hands upon his knees, as if wondering much what all this questioning and preparation was to end in.
“Bolter, Bolter! Poor lad!” said Fagin, looking up with an expression of devilish anticipation, and speaking slowly and with marked emphasis. “He’s tired—tired with watching for her so long,—watching for her, Bill.”
“Wot d’ye mean?” asked Sikes, drawing back.
Fagin made no answer, but bending over the sleeper again, hauled him into a sitting posture. When his assumed name had been repeated several times, Noah rubbed his eyes, and, giving a heavy yawn, looked sleepily about him.
“Tell me that again—once again, just for him to hear,” said the Jew, pointing to Sikes as he spoke.
“Tell yer what?” asked the sleepy Noah, shaking himself pettishly.
“That about— Nancy,” said Fagin, clutching Sikes by the wrist, as if to prevent his leaving the house before he had heard enough. “You followed her?”
“To London Bridge?”
“Where she met two people.”
“So she did.”
“A gentleman and a lady that she had gone to of her own accord before, who asked her to give up all her pals, and Monks first, which she did—and to describe him, which she did—and to tell her what house it was that we meet at, and go to, which she did—and where it could be best watched from, which she did—and what time the people went there, which she did. She did all this. She told it all every word without a threat, without a murmur—she did—did she not?” cried Fagin, half mad with fury.
“All right,” replied Noah, scratching his head. “That’s just what it was!”
“What did they say, about last Sunday?”
“About last Sunday!” replied Noah, considering. “Why I told yer that before.” “Again. Tell it again!” cried Fagin, tightening his grasp on Sikes, and brandishing his other hand aloft, as the foam flew from his lips.
“They asked her,” said Noah, who, as he grew more wakeful, seemed to have a dawning perception who Sikes was, “they asked her why she didn’t come, last Sunday, as she promised. She said she couldn’t.”
“Why—why? Tell him that.”
“Because she was forcibly kept at home by Bill, the man she had told them of before,” replied Noah.
“What more of him?” cried Fagin. “What more of the man she had told them of before? Tell him that, tell him that.”
“Why, that she couldn’t very easily get out of doors unless he knew where she was going to,” said Noah; “and so the first time she went to see the lady, she—ha! ha! ha! it made me laugh when she said it, that it did—she gave him a drink of laudanum.”
“Hell’s fire!” cried Sikes, breaking fiercely from the Jew. “Let me go!”
Flinging the old man from him, he rushed from the room, and darted, wildly and furiously, up the stairs.
“Bill, Bill!” cried Fagin, following him hastily. “A word. Only a word.”
The word would not have been exchanged, but that the housebreaker was unable to open the door: on which he was expending fruitless oaths and violence, when the Jew came panting up.
“Let me out,” said Sikes. “Don’t speak to me; it’s not safe. Let me out, I say!”
“Hear me speak a word,” rejoined Fagin, laying his hand upon the lock. “You won’t be—”
“Well,” replied the other.
“You won’t be—too—violent, Bill?”
The day was breaking, and there was light enough for the men to see each other’s faces. They exchanged one brief glance; there was a fire in the eyes of both, which could not be mistaken.
“I mean,” said Fagin, showing that he felt all disguise was now useless, “not too violent for safety. Be crafty, Bill, and not too bold.”
Sikes made no reply; but, pulling open the door, of which Fagin had turned the lock, dashed into the silent streets.
Without one pause, or moment’s consideration; without once turning his head to the right or left, or raising his eyes to the sky, or lowering them to the ground, but looking straight before him with savage resolution: his teeth so tightly compressed that the strained jaw seemed starting through his skin; the robber held on his headlong course, nor muttered a word, nor relaxed a muscle, until he reached his own door. He opened it, softly, with a key; strode lightly up the stairs; and entering his own room, double-locked the door, and lifting a heavy table against it, drew back the curtain of the bed.
The girl was lying, half-dressed, upon it. He had roused her from her sleep, for she raised herself with a hurried and startled look.
“Get up!” said the man.
“It is you, Bill!” said the girl, with an expression of pleasure at his return.
“It is,” was the reply. “Get up.”
There was a candle burning, but the man hastily drew it from the candlestick, and hurled it under the grate. Seeing the faint light of early day without, the girl rose to undraw the curtain.
“Let it be,” said Sikes, thrusting his hand before her. “There’s enough light for wot I’ve got to do.”
“Bill,” said the girl, in the low voice of alarm, “why do you look like that at me!”
The robber sat regarding her, for a few seconds, with dilated nostrils and heaving breast; and then, grasping her by the head and throat, dragged her into the middle of the room, and looking once towards the door, placed his heavy hand upon her mouth.
“Bill, Bill!” gasped the girl, wrestling with the strength of mortal fear,—“I—I won’t scream or cry—not once—hear me—speak to me—tell me what I have done!”
“You know, you she devil!” returned the robber, suppressing his breath. “You were watched to-night; every word you said was heard.”
“Then spare my life for the love of Heaven, as I spared yours,” rejoined the girl, clinging to him. “Bill, dear Bill, you cannot have the heart to kill me. Oh! think of all I have given up, only this one night, for you. You shall have time to think, and save yourself this crime; I will not loose my hold, you cannot throw me off.
Bill, Bill, for dear God’s sake, for your own, for mine, stop before you spill my blood! I have been true to you, upon my guilty soul I have!”
The man struggled violently, to release his arms; but those of the girl were clasped round his, and tear her as he would, he could not tear them away.
“Bill,” cried the girl, striving to lay her head upon his breast, “the gentleman and that dear lady, told me to-night of a home in some foreign country where I could end my days in solitude and peace. Let me see them again, and beg them, on my knees, to show the same mercy and goodness to you; and let us both leave this dreadful place, and far apart lead better lives, and forget how we have lived, except in prayers, and never see each other more. It is never too late to repent. They told me so—I feel it now—but we must have time—a little, little time!”
The housebreaker freed one arm, and grasped his pistol. The certainty of immediate detection if he fired, flashed across his mind even in the midst of his fury; and he beat it twice with all the force he could summon, upon the upturned face that almost touched his own.
She staggered and fell: nearly blinded with the blood that rained down from a deep gash in her forehead; but raising herself, with difficulty, on her knees, drew from her bosom a white handkerchief—Rose Maylie’s own—and holding it up, in her folded hands, as high towards Heaven as her feeble strength would allow, breathed one prayer for mercy to her Maker.
It was a ghastly figure to look upon. The murderer staggering backward to the wall, and shutting out the sight with his hand, seized a heavy club and struck her down.