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Charles Dickens > Oliver Twist > Chapter LII

Oliver Twist

Chapter LII


The court was paved, from floor to roof, with human faces.
Inquisitive and eager eyes peered from every inch of space. From
the rail before the dock, away into the sharpest angle of the
smallest corner in the galleries, all looks were fixed upon one
man--Fagin. Before him and behind: above, below, on the right
and on the left: he seemed to stand surrounded by a firmament,
all bright with gleaming eyes.

He stood there, in all this glare of living light, with one hand
resting on the wooden slab before him, the other held to his ear,
and his head thrust forward to enable him to catch with greater
distinctness every word that fell from the presiding judge, who
was delivering his charge to the jury. At times, he turned his
eyes sharply upon them to observe the effect of the slightest
featherweight in his favour; and when the points against him were
stated with terrible distinctness, looked towards his counsel, in
mute appeal that he would, even then, urge something in his
behalf. Beyond these manifestations of anxiety, he stirred not
hand or foot. He had scarcely moved since the trial began; and
now that the judge ceased to speak, he still remained in the same
strained attitude of close attention, with his gaze ben on him,
as though he listened still.

A slight bustle in the court, recalled him to himself. Looking
round, he saw that the juryman had turned together, to consider
their verdict. As his eyes wandered to the gallery, he could see
the people rising above each other to see his face: some hastily
applying their glasses to their eyes: and others whispering
their neighbours with looks expressive of abhorrence. A few
there were, who seemed unmindful of him, and looked only to the
jury, in impatient wonder how they could delay. But in no one
face--not even among the women, of whom there were many
there--could he read the faintest sympathy with himself, or any
feeling but one of all-absorbing interest that he should be

As he saw all this in one bewildered glance, the deathlike
stillness came again, and looking back he saw that the jurymen
had turned towards the judge. Hush!

They only sought permission to retire.

He looked, wistfully, into their faces, one by one when they
passed out, as though to see which way the greater number leant;
but that was fruitless. The jailed touched him on the shoulder.
He followed mechanically to the end of the dock, and sat down on
a chair. The man pointed it out, or he would not have seen it.

He looked up into the gallery again. Some of the people were
eating, and some fanning themselves with handkerchiefs; for the
crowded place was very hot. There was one young man sketching
his face in a little note-book. He wondered whether it was like,
and looked on when the artist broke his pencil-point, and made
another with his knife, as any idle spectator might have done.

In the same way, when he turned his eyes towards the judge, his
mind began to busy itself with the fashion of his dress, and what
it cost, and how he put it on. There was an old fat gentleman on
the bench, too, who had gone out, some half an hour before, and
now come back. He wondered within himself whether this man had
been to get his dinner, what he had had, and where he had had it;
and pursued this train of careless thought until some new object
caught his eye and roused another.

Not that, all this time, his mind was, for an instant, free from
one oppressive overwhelming sense of the grave that opened at his
feet; it was ever present to him, but in a vague and general way,
and he could not fix his thoughts upon it. Thus, even while he
trembled, and turned burning hot at the idea of speedy death, he
fell to counting the iron spikes before him, and wondering how
the head of one had been broken off, and whether they would mend
it, or leave it as it was. Then, he thought of all the horrors
of the gallows and the scaffold--and stopped to watch a man
sprinkling the floor to cool it--and then went on to think again.

At length there was a cry of silence, and a breathless look from
all towards the door. The jury returned, and passed him close.
He could glean nothing from their faces; they might as well have
been of stone. Perfect stillness ensued--not a rustle--not a

The building rang with a tremendous shout, and another, and
another, and then it echoed loud groans, that gathered strength
as they swelled out, like angry thunder. It was a peal of joy
from the populace outside, greeting the news that he would die on

The noise subsided, and he was asked if he had anything to say
why sentence of death should not be passed upon him. He had
resumed his listening attitude, and looked intently at his
questioner while the demand was made; but it was twice repeated
before he seemed to hear it, and then he only muttered that he
was an old man--an old man--and so, dropping into a whisper, was
silent again.

The judge assumed the black cap, and the prisoner still stood
with the same air and gesture. A woman in the gallery, uttered
some exclamation, called forth by this dread solemnity; he looked
hastily up as if angry at the interruption, and bent forward yet
more attentively. The address was solemn and impressive; the
sentence fearful to hear. But he stood, like a marble figure,
without the motion of a nerve. His haggard face was still thrust
forward, his under-jaw hanging down, and his eyes staring out
before him, when the jailer put his hand upon his arm, and
beckoned him away. He gazed stupidly about him for an instant,
and obeyed.

They led him through a paved room under the court, where some
prisoners were waiting till their turns came, and others were
talking to their friends, who crowded round a grate which looked
into the open yard. There was nobody there to speak to HIM; but,
as he passed, the prisoners fell back to render him more visible
to the people who were clinging to the bars: and they assailed
him with opprobrious names, and screeched and hissed. He shook
his fist, and would have spat upon them; but his conductors
hurried him on, through a gloomy passage lighted by a few dim
lamps, into the interior of the prison.

Here, he was searched, that he might not have about him the means
of anticipating the law; this ceremony performed, they led him to
one of the condemned cells, and left him there--alone.

He sat down on a stone bench opposite the door, which served for
seat and bedstead; and casting his blood-shot eyes upon the
ground, tried to collect his thoughts. After awhile, he began to
remember a few disjointed fragments of what the judge had said:
though it had seemed to him, at the time, that he could not hear
a word. These gradually fell into their proper places, and by
degrees suggested more: so that in a little time he had the
whole, almost as it was delivered. To be hanged by the neck,
till he was dead--that was the end. To be hanged by the neck
till he was dead.

As it came on very dark, he began to think of all the men he had
known who had died upon the scaffold; some of them through his
means. They rose up, in such quick succession, that he could
hardly count them. He had seen some of them die,--and had joked
too, because they died with prayers upon their lips. With what a
rattling noise the drop went down; and how suddenly they changed,
from strong and vigorous men to dangling heaps of clothes!

Some of them might have inhabited that very cell--sat upon that
very spot. It was very dark; why didn't they bring a light? The
cell had been built for many years. Scores of men must have
passed their last hours there. It was like sitting in a vault
strewn with dead bodies--the cap, the noose, the pinioned arms,
the faces that he knew, even beneath that hideous veil.--Light,

At length, when his hands were raw with beating against the heavy
door and walls, two men appeared: one bearing a candle, which he
thrust into an iron candlestick fixed against the wall: the
other dragging in a mattress on which to pass the night; for the
prisoner was to be left alone no more.

Then came the night--dark, dismal, silent night. Other watchers
are glad to hear this church-clock strike, for they tell of life
and coming day. To him they brought despair. The boom of every
iron bell came laden with the one, deep, hollow sound--Death.
What availed the noise and bustle of cheerful morning, which
penetrated even there, to him? It was another form of knell,
with mockery added to the warning.

The day passed off. Day? There was no day; it was gone as soon
as come--and night came on again; night so long, and yet so
short; long in its dreadful silence, and short in its fleeting
hours. At one time he raved and blasphemed; and at another
howled and tore his hair. Venerable men of his own persuasion
had come to pray beside him, but he had driven them away with
curses. They renewed their charitable efforts, and he beat them

Saturday night. He had only one night more to live. And as he
thought of this, the day broke--Sunday.

It was not until the night of this last awful day, that a
withering sense of his helpless, desperate state came in its full
intensity upon his blighted soul; not that he had ever held any
defined or positive hope of mercy, but that he had never been
able to consider more than the dim probability of dying so soon.
He had spoken little to either of the two men, who relieved each
other in their attendance upon him; and they, for their parts,
made no effort to rouse his attention. He had sat there, awake,
but dreaming. Now, he started up, every minute, and with gasping
mouth and burning skin, hurried to and fro, in such a paroxysm of
fear and wrath that even they--used to such sights--recoiled from
him with horror. He grew so terrible, at last, in all the
tortures of his evil conscience, that one man could not bear to
sit there, eyeing him alone; and so the two kept watch together.

He cowered down upon his stone bed, and thought of the past. He
had been wounded with some missiles from the crowd on the day of
his capture, and his head was bandaged with a linen cloth. His
red hair hung down upon his bloodless face; his beard was torn,
and twisted into knots; his eyes shone with a terrible light; his
unwashed flesh crackled with the fever that burnt him up.
Eight--nine--then. If it was not a trick to frighten him, and
those were the real hours treading on each other's heels, where
would he be, when they came round again! Eleven! Another
struck, before the voice of the previous hour had ceased to
vibrate. At eight, he would be the only mourner in his own
funeral train; at eleven--

Those dreadful walls of Newgate, which have hidden so much misery
and such unspeakable anguish, not only from the eyes, but, too
often, and too long, from the thoughts, of men, never held so
dread a spectacle as that. The few who lingered as they passed,
and wondered what the man was doing who was to be hanged
to-morrow, would have slept but ill that night, if they could
have seen him.

From early in the evening until nearly midnight, little groups of
two and three presented themselves at the lodge-gate, and
inquired, with anxious faces, whether any reprieve had been
received. These being answered in the negative, communicated the
welcome intelligence to clusters in the street, who pointed out
to one another the door from which he must come out, and showed
where the scaffold would be built, and, walking with unwilling
steps away, turned back to conjure up the scene. By degrees they
fell off, one by one; and, for an hour, in the dead of night, the
street was left to solitude and darkness.

The space before the prison was cleared, and a few strong
barriers, painted black, had been already thrown across the road
to break the pressure of the expected crowd, when Mr. Brownlow
and Oliver appeared at the wicket, and presented an order of
admission to the prisoner, signed by one of the sheriffs. They
were immediately admitted into the lodge.

'Is the young gentleman to come too, sir?' said the man whose
duty it was to conduct them. 'It's not a sight for children,

'It is not indeed, my friend,' rejoined Mr. Brownlow; 'but my
business with this man is intimately connected with him; and as
this child has seen him in the full career of his success and
villainy, I think it as well--even at the cost of some pain and
fear--that he should see him now.'

These few words had been said apart, so as to be inaudible to
Oliver. The man touched his hat; and glancing at Oliver with
some curiousity, opened another gate, opposite to that by which
they had entered, and led them on, through dark and winding ways,
towards the cells.

'This,' said the man, stopping in a gloomy passage where a couple
of workmen were making some preparations in profound
silence--'this is the place he passes through. If you step this
way, you can see the door he goes out at.'

He led them into a stone kitchen, fitted with coppers for
dressing the prison food, and pointed to a door. There was an
open grating above it, throught which came the sound of men's
voices, mingled with the noise of hammering, and the throwing
down of boards. There were putting up the scaffold.

From this place, they passed through several strong gates, opened
by other turnkeys from the inner side; and, having entered an
open yard, ascended a flight of narrow steps, and came into a
passage with a row of strong doors on the left hand. Motioning
them to remain where they were, the turnkey knocked at one of
these with his bunch of keys. The two attendants, after a little
whispering, came out into the passage, stretching themselves as
if glad of the temporary relief, and motioned the visitors to
follow the jailer into the cell. They did so.

The condemned criminal was seated on his bed, rocking himself
from side to side, with a countenance more like that of a snared
beast than the face of a man. His mind was evidently wandering
to his old life, for he continued to mutter, without appearing
conscious of their presence otherwise than as a part of his

'Good boy, Charley--well done--' he mumbled. 'Oliver, too, ha!
ha! ha! Oliver too--quite the gentleman now--quite the--take
that boy away to bed!'

The jailer took the disengaged hand of Oliver; and, whispering
him not to be alarmed, looked on without speaking.

'Take him away to bed!' cried Fagin. 'Do you hear me, some of
you? He has been the--the--somehow the cause of all this. It's
worth the money to bring him up to it--Bolter's throat, Bill;
never mind the girl--Bolter's throat as deep as you can cut. Saw
his head off!'

'Fagin,' said the jailer.

'That's me!' cried the Jew, falling instantly, into the attitude
of listening he had assumed upon his trial. 'An old man, my
Lord; a very old, old man!'

'Here,' said the turnkey, laying his hand upon his breast to keep
him down. 'Here's somebody wants to see you, to ask you some
questions, I suppose. Fagin, Fagin! Are you a man?'

'I shan't be one long,' he replied, looking up with a face
retaining no human expression but rage and terror. 'Strike them
all dead! What right have they to butcher me?'

As he spoke he caught sight of Oliver and Mr. Brownlow. Shrinking
to the furthest corner of the seat, he demanded to know what they
wanted there.

'Steady,' said the turnkey, still holding him down. 'Now, sir,
tell him what you want. Quick, if you please, for he grows worse
as the time gets on.'

'You have some papers,' said Mr. Brownlow advancing, 'which were
placed in your hands, for better security, by a man called

'It's all a lie together,' replied Fagin. 'I haven't one--not

'For the love of God,' said Mr. Brownlow solemnly, 'do not say
that now, upon the very verge of death; but tell me where they
are. You know that Sikes is dead; that Monks has confessed; that
there is no hope of any further gain. Where are those papers?'

'Oliver,' cried Fagin, beckoning to him. 'Here, here! Let me
whisper to you.'

'I am not afraid,' said Oliver in a low voice, as he relinquished
Mr. Brownlow's hand.

'The papers,' said Fagin, drawing Oliver towards him, 'are in a
canvas bag, in a hole a little way up the chimney in the top
front-room. I want to talk to you, my dear. I want to talk to

'Yes, yes,' returned Oliver. 'Let me say a prayer. Do! Let me
say one prayer. Say only one, upon your knees, with me, and we
will talk till morning.'

'Outside, outside,' replied Fagin, pushing the boy before him
towards the door, and looking vacantly over his head. 'Say I've
gone to sleep--they'll believe you. You can get me out, if you
take me so. Now then, now then!'

'Oh! God forgive this wretched man!' cried the boy with a burst
of tears.

'That's right, that's right,' said Fagin. 'That'll help us on.
This door first. If I shake and tremble, as we pass the gallows,
don't you mind, but hurry on. Now, now, now!'

'Have you nothing else to ask him, sir?' inquired the turnkey.

'No other question,' replied Mr. Brownlow. 'If I hoped we could
recall him to a sense of his position--'

'Nothing will do that, sir,' replied the man, shaking his head.
'You had better leave him.'

The door of the cell opened, and the attendants returned.

'Press on, press on,' cried Fagin. 'Softly, but not so slow.
Faster, faster!'

The men laid hands upon him, and disengaging Oliver from his
grasp, held him back. He struggled with the power of
desperation, for an instant; and then sent up cry upon cry that
penetrated even those massive walls, and rang in their ears until
they reached the open yard.

It was some time before they left the prison. Oliver nearly
swooned after this frightful scene, and was so weak that for an
hour or more, he had not the strength to walk.

Day was dawning when they again emerged. A great multitude had
already assembled; the windows were filled with people, smoking
and playing cards to beguile the time; the crowd were pushing,
quarrelling, joking. Everything told of life and animation, but
one dark cluster of objects in the centre of all--the black stage,
the cross-beam, the rope, and all the hideous apparatus of death.

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