TREATS OF THE PLACE WHERE OLIVER TWIST WAS BORN AND OF THE
CIRCUMSTANCES ATTENDING HIS BIRTH
Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many
reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to
which I will assign no fictitious name, there is one anciently
common to most towns, great or small: to wit, a workhouse; and
in this workhouse was born; on a day and date which I need not
trouble myself to repeat, inasmuch as it can be of no possible
consequence to the reader, in this stage of the business at all
events; the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head
of this chapter.
For a long time after it was ushered into this world of sorrow
and trouble, by the parish surgeon, it remained a matter of
considerable doubt whether the child would survive to bear any
name at all; in which case it is somewhat more than probable that
these memoirs would never have appeared; or, if they had, that
being comprised within a couple of pages, they would have
possessed the inestimable merit of being the most concise and
faithful specimen of biography, extant in the literature of any
age or country.
Although I am not disposed to maintain that the being born in a
workhouse, is in itself the most fortunate and enviable
circumstance that can possibly befall a human being, I do mean to
say that in this particular instance, it was the best thing for
Oliver Twist that could by possibility have occurred. The fact
is, that there was considerable difficulty in inducing Oliver to
take upon himself the office of respiration,--a troublesome
practice, but one which custom has rendered necessary to our easy
existence; and for some time he lay gasping on a little flock
mattress, rather unequally poised between this world and the
next: the balance being decidedly in favour of the latter. Now,
if, during this brief period, Oliver had been surrounded by
careful grandmothers, anxious aunts, experienced nurses, and
doctors of profound wisdom, he would most inevitably and
indubitably have been killed in no time. There being nobody by,
however, but a pauper old woman, who was rendered rather misty by
an unwonted allowance of beer; and a parish surgeon who did such
matters by contract; Oliver and Nature fought out the point
between them. The result was, that, after a few struggles,
Oliver breathed, sneezed, and proceeded to advertise to the
inmates of the workhouse the fact of a new burden having been
imposed upon the parish, by setting up as loud a cry as could
reasonably have been expected from a male infant who had not been
possessed of that very useful appendage, a voice, for a much
longer space of time than three minutes and a quarter.
As Oliver gave this first proof of the free and proper action of
his lungs, the patchwork coverlet which was carelessly flung over
the iron bedstead, rustled; the pale face of a young woman was
raised feebly from the pillow; and a faint voice imperfectly
articulated the words, 'Let me see the child, and die.'
The surgeon had been sitting with his face turned towards the
fire: giving the palms of his hands a warm and a rub
alternately. As the young woman spoke, he rose, and advancing to
the bed's head, said, with more kindness than might have been
expected of him:
'Oh, you must not talk about dying yet.'
'Lor bless her dear heart, no!' interposed the nurse, hastily
depositing in her pocket a green glass bottle, the contents of
which she had been tasting in a corner with evident satisfaction.
'Lor bless her dear heart, when she has lived as long as I have,
sir, and had thirteen children of her own, and all on 'em dead
except two, and them in the wurkus with me, she'll know better
than to take on in that way, bless her dear heart! Think what it
is to be a mother, there's a dear young lamb do.'
Apparently this consolatory perspective of a mother's prospects
failed in producing its due effect. The patient shook her head,
and stretched out her hand towards the child.
The surgeon deposited it in her arms. She imprinted her cold
white lips passionately on its forehead; passed her hands over
her face; gazed wildly round; shuddered; fell back--and died.
They chafed her breast, hands, and temples; but the blood had
stopped forever. They talked of hope and comfort. They had been
strangers too long.
'It's all over, Mrs. Thingummy!' said the surgeon at last.
'Ah, poor dear, so it is!' said the nurse, picking up the cork of
the green bottle, which had fallen out on the pillow, as she
stooped to take up the child. 'Poor dear!'
'You needn't mind sending up to me, if the child cries, nurse,'
said the surgeon, putting on his gloves with great deliberation.
'It's very likely it WILL be troublesome. Give it a little gruel
if it is.' He put on his hat, and, pausing by the bed-side on
his way to the door, added, 'She was a good-looking girl, too;
where did she come from?'
'She was brought here last night,' replied the old woman, 'by the
overseer's order. She was found lying in the street. She had
walked some distance, for her shoes were worn to pieces; but
where she came from, or where she was going to, nobody knows.'
The surgeon leaned over the body, and raised the left hand. 'The
old story,' he said, shaking his head: 'no wedding-ring, I see.
The medical gentleman walked away to dinner; and the nurse,
having once more applied herself to the green bottle, sat down on
a low chair before the fire, and proceeded to dress the infant.
What an excellent example of the power of dress, young Oliver
Twist was! Wrapped in the blanket which had hitherto formed his
only covering, he might have been the child of a nobleman or a
beggar; it would have been hard for the haughtiest stranger to
have assigned him his proper station in society. But now that he
was enveloped in the old calico robes which had grown yellow in
the same service, he was badged and ticketed, and fell into his
place at once--a parish child--the orphan of a workhouse--the
humble, half-starved drudge--to be cuffed and buffeted through
the world--despised by all, and pitied by none.
Oliver cried lustily. If he could have known that he was an
orphan, left to the tender mercies of church-wardens and
overseers, perhaps he would have cried the louder.