Oliver Twist Audiobook 3 Chapter 48 by Charles Dickens


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Transcript:
CHAPTER XLVIII
THE FLIGHT OF SIKES
Of all bad deeds that, under cover of the darkness, had been committed within wide London's
bounds since night hung over it, that was the worst. Of all the horrors that rose with
an ill scent upon the morning air, that was the foulest and most cruel.
The sunóthe bright sun, that brings back, not light alone, but new life, and hope, and
freshness to manóburst upon the crowded city in clear and radiant glory. Through costly-coloured
glass and paper-mended window, through cathedral dome and rotten crevice, it shed its equal
ray. It lighted up the room where the murdered woman lay. It did. He tried to shut it out,
but it would stream in. If the sight had been a ghastly one in the dull morning, what was
it, now, in all that brilliant light!
He had not moved; he had been afraid to stir. There had been a moan and motion of the hand;
and, with terror added to rage, he had struck and struck again. Once he threw a rug over
it; but it was worse to fancy the eyes, and imagine them moving towards him, than to see
them glaring upward, as if watching the reflection of the pool of gore that quivered and danced
in the sunlight on the ceiling. He had plucked it off again. And there was the bodyómere
flesh and blood, no moreóbut such flesh, and so much blood!
He struck a light, kindled a fire, and thrust the club into it. There was hair upon the
end, which blazed and shrunk into a light cinder, and, caught by the air, whirled up
the chimney. Even that frightened him, sturdy as he was; but he held the weapon till it
broke, and then piled it on the coals to burn away, and smoulder into ashes. He washed himself,
and rubbed his clothes; there were spots that would not be removed, but he cut the pieces
out, and burnt them. How those stains were dispersed about the room! The very feet of
the dog were bloody.
All this time he had, never once, turned his back upon the corpse; no, not for a moment.
Such preparations completed, he moved, backward, towards the door: dragging the dog with him,
lest he should soil his feet anew and carry out new evidence of the crime into the streets.
He shut the door softly, locked it, took the key, and left the house.
He crossed over, and glanced up at the window, to be sure that nothing was visible from the
outside. There was the curtain still drawn, which she would have opened to admit the light
she never saw again. It lay nearly under there. He knew that. God, how the sun poured down
upon the very spot!
The glance was instantaneous. It was a relief to have got free of the room. He whistled
on the dog, and walked rapidly away.
He went through Islington; strode up the hill at Highgate on which stands the stone in honour
of Whittington; turned down to Highgate Hill, unsteady of purpose, and uncertain where to
go; struck off to the right again, almost as soon as he began to descend it; and taking
the foot-path across the fields, skirted Caen Wood, and so came on Hampstead Heath. Traversing
the hollow by the Vale of Heath, he mounted the opposite bank, and crossing the road which
joins the villages of Hampstead and Highgate, made along the remaining portion of the heath
to the fields at North End, in one of which he laid himself down under a hedge, and slept.
Soon he was up again, and away,ónot far into the country, but back towards London by the
high-roadóthen back againóthen over another part of the same ground as he already traversedóthen
wandering up and down in fields, and lying on ditches' brinks to rest, and starting up
to make for some other spot, and do the same, and ramble on again.
Where could he go, that was near and not too public, to get some meat and drink? Hendon.
That was a good place, not far off, and out of most people's way. Thither he directed
his steps,órunning sometimes, and sometimes, with a strange perversity, loitering at a
snail's pace, or stopping altogether and idly breaking the hedges with a stick. But when
he got there, all the people he metóthe very children at the doorsóseemed to view him
with suspicion. Back he turned again, without the courage to purchase bit or drop, though
he had tasted no food for many hours; and once more he lingered on the Heath, uncertain
where to go.
He wandered over miles and miles of ground, and still came back to the old place. Morning
and noon had passed, and the day was on the wane, and still he rambled to and fro, and
up and down, and round and round, and still lingered about the same spot. At last he got
away, and shaped his course for Hatfield.
It was nine o'clock at night, when the man, quite tired out, and the dog, limping and
lame from the unaccustomed exercise, turned down the hill by the church of the quiet village,
and plodding along the little street, crept into a small public-house, whose scanty light
had guided them to the spot. There was a fire in the tap-room, and some country-labourers
were drinking before it.
They made room for the stranger, but he sat down in the furthest corner, and ate and drank
alone, or rather with his dog: to whom he cast a morsel of food from time to time.
The conversation of the men assembled here, turned upon the neighbouring land, and farmers;
and when those topics were exhausted, upon the age of some old man who had been buried
on the previous Sunday; the young men present considering him very old, and the old men
present declaring him to have been quite youngónot older, one white-haired grandfather said,
than he wasówith ten or fifteen year of life in him at leastóif he had taken care; if
he had taken care.
There was nothing to attract attention, or excite alarm in this. The robber, after paying
his reckoning, sat silent and unnoticed in his corner, and had almost dropped asleep,
when he was half wakened by the noisy entrance of a new comer.
This was an antic fellow, half pedlar and half mountebank, who travelled about the country
on foot to vend hones, strops, razors, washballs, harness-paste, medicine for dogs and horses,
cheap perfumery, cosmetics, and such-like wares, which he carried in a case slung to
his back. His entrance was the signal for various homely jokes with the countrymen,
which slackened not until he had made his supper, and opened his box of treasures, when
he ingeniously contrived to unite business with amusement.
'And what be that stoof? Good to eat, Harry?' asked a grinning countryman, pointing to some
composition-cakes in one corner.
'This,' said the fellow, producing one, 'this is the infallible and invaluable composition
for removing all sorts of stain, rust, dirt, mildew, spick, speck, spot, or spatter, from
silk, satin, linen, cambric, cloth, crape, stuff, carpet, merino, muslin, bombazeen,
or woollen stuff. Wine-stains, fruit-stains, beer-stains, water-stains, paint-stains, pitch-stains,
any stains, all come out at one rub with the infallible and invaluable composition. If
a lady stains her honour, she has only need to swallow one cake and she's cured at onceófor
it's poison. If a gentleman wants to prove this, he has only need to bolt one little
square, and he has put it beyond questionófor it's quite as satisfactory as a pistol-bullet,
and a great deal nastier in the flavour, consequently the more credit in taking it. One penny a
square. With all these virtues, one penny a square!'
There were two buyers directly, and more of the listeners plainly hesitated. The vendor
observing this, increased in loquacity.
'It's all bought up as fast as it can be made,' said the fellow. 'There are fourteen water-mills,
six steam-engines, and a galvanic battery, always a-working upon it, and they can't make
it fast enough, though the men work so hard that they die off, and the widows is pensioned
directly, with twenty pound a-year for each of the children, and a premium of fifty for
twins. One penny a square! Two half-pence is all the same, and four farthings is received
with joy. One penny a square! Wine-stains, fruit-stains, beer-stains, water-stains, paint-stains,
pitch-stains, mud-stains, blood-stains! Here is a stain upon the hat of a gentleman in
company, that I'll take clean out, before he can order me a pint of ale.'
'Hah!' cried Sikes starting up. 'Give that back.'
'I'll take it clean out, sir,' replied the man, winking to the company, 'before you can
come across the room to get it. Gentlemen all, observe the dark stain upon this gentleman's
hat, no wider than a shilling, but thicker than a half-crown. Whether it is a wine-stain,
fruit-stain, beer-stain, water-stain, paint-stain, pitch-stain, mud-stain, or blood-stainó'
The man got no further, for Sikes with a hideous imprecation overthrew the table, and tearing
the hat from him, burst out of the house.
With the same perversity of feeling and irresolution that had fastened upon him, despite himself,
all day, the murderer, finding that he was not followed, and that they most probably
considered him some drunken sullen fellow, turned back up the town, and getting out of
the glare of the lamps of a stage-coach that was standing in the street, was walking past,
when he recognised the mail from London, and saw that it was standing at the little post-office.
He almost knew what was to come; but he crossed over, and listened.
The guard was standing at the door, waiting for the letter-bag. A man, dressed like a
game-keeper, came up at the moment, and he handed him a basket which lay ready on the
pavement.
'That's for your people,' said the guard. 'Now, look alive in there, will you. Damn
that 'ere bag, it warn't ready night afore last; this won't do, you know!'
'Anything new up in town, Ben?' asked the game-keeper, drawing back to the window-shutters,
the better to admire the horses.
'No, nothing that I knows on,' replied the man, pulling on his gloves. 'Corn's up a little.
I heerd talk of a murder, too, down Spitalfields way, but I don't reckon much upon it.'
'Oh, that's quite true,' said a gentleman inside, who was looking out of the window.
'And a dreadful murder it was.'
'Was it, sir?' rejoined the guard, touching his hat. 'Man or woman, pray, sir?'
'A woman,' replied the gentleman. 'It is supposedó'
'Now, Ben,' replied the coachman impatiently.
'Damn that 'ere bag,' said the guard; 'are you gone to sleep in there?'
'Coming!' cried the office keeper, running out.
'Coming,' growled the guard. 'Ah, and so's the young 'ooman of property that's going
to take a fancy to me, but I don't know when. Here, give hold. All rióight!'
The horn sounded a few cheerful notes, and the coach was gone.
Sikes remained standing in the street, apparently unmoved by what he had just heard, and agitated
by no stronger feeling than a doubt where to go. At length he went back again, and took
the road which leads from Hatfield to St. Albans.
He went on doggedly; but as he left the town behind him, and plunged into the solitude
and darkness of the road, he felt a dread and awe creeping upon him which shook him
to the core. Every object before him, substance or shadow, still or moving, took the semblance
of some fearful thing; but these fears were nothing compared to the sense that haunted
him of that morning's ghastly figure following at his heels. He could trace its shadow in
the gloom, supply the smallest item of the outline, and note how stiff and solemn it
seemed to stalk along. He could hear its garments rustling in the leaves, and every breath of
wind came laden with that last low cry. If he stopped it did the same. If he ran, it
followedónot running too: that would have been a relief: but like a corpse endowed with
the mere machinery of life, and borne on one slow melancholy wind that never rose or fell.
At times, he turned, with desperate determination, resolved to beat this phantom off, though
it should look him dead; but the hair rose on his head, and his blood stood still, for
it had turned with him and was behind him then. He had kept it before him that morning,
but it was behind nowóalways. He leaned his back against a bank, and felt that it stood
above him, visibly out against the cold night-sky. He threw himself upon the roadóon his back
upon the road. At his head it stood, silent, erect, and stillóa living grave-stone, with
its epitaph in blood.
Let no man talk of murderers escaping justice, and hint that Providence must sleep. There
were twenty score of violent deaths in one long minute of that agony of fear.
There was a shed in a field he passed, that offered shelter for the night. Before the
door, were three tall poplar trees, which made it very dark within; and the wind moaned
through them with a dismal wail. He could not walk on, till daylight came again; and
here he stretched himself close to the wallóto undergo new torture.
For now, a vision came before him, as constant and more terrible than that from which he
had escaped. Those widely staring eyes, so lustreless and so glassy, that he had better
borne to see them than think upon them, appeared in the midst of the darkness: light in themselves,
but giving light to nothing. There were but two, but they were everywhere. If he shut
out the sight, there came the room with every well-known objectósome, indeed, that he would
have forgotten, if he had gone over its contents from memoryóeach in its accustomed place.
The body was in its place, and its eyes were as he saw them when he stole away. He got
up, and rushed into the field without. The figure was behind him. He re-entered the shed,
and shrunk down once more. The eyes were there, before he had laid himself along.
And here he remained in such terror as none but he can know, trembling in every limb,
and the cold sweat starting from every pore, when suddenly there arose upon the night-wind
the noise of distant shouting, and the roar of voices mingled in alarm and wonder. Any
sound of men in that lonely place, even though it conveyed a real cause of alarm, was something
to him. He regained his strength and energy at the prospect of personal danger; and springing
to his feet, rushed into the open air.
The broad sky seemed on fire. Rising into the air with showers of sparks, and rolling
one above the other, were sheets of flame, lighting the atmosphere for miles round, and
driving clouds of smoke in the direction where he stood. The shouts grew louder as new voices
swelled the roar, and he could hear the cry of Fire! mingled with the ringing of an alarm-bell,
the fall of heavy bodies, and the crackling of flames as they twined round some new obstacle,
and shot aloft as though refreshed by food. The noise increased as he looked. There were
people thereómen and womenólight, bustle. It was like new life to him. He darted onwardóstraight,
headlongódashing through brier and brake, and leaping gate and fence as madly as his
dog, who careered with loud and sounding bark before him.
He came upon the spot. There were half-dressed figures tearing to and fro, some endeavouring
to drag the frightened horses from the stables, others driving the cattle from the yard and
out-houses, and others coming laden from the burning pile, amidst a shower of falling sparks,
and the tumbling down of red-hot beams. The apertures, where doors and windows stood an
hour ago, disclosed a mass of raging fire; walls rocked and crumbled into the burning
well; the molten lead and iron poured down, white hot, upon the ground. Women and children
shrieked, and men encouraged each other with noisy shouts and cheers. The clanking of the
engine-pumps, and the spirting and hissing of the water as it fell upon the blazing wood,
added to the tremendous roar. He shouted, too, till he was hoarse; and flying from memory
and himself, plunged into the thickest of the throng. Hither and thither he dived that
night: now working at the pumps, and now hurrying through the smoke and flame, but never ceasing
to engage himself wherever noise and men were thickest. Up and down the ladders, upon the
roofs of buildings, over floors that quaked and trembled with his weight, under the lee
of falling bricks and stones, in every part of that great fire was he; but he bore a charmed
life, and had neither scratch nor bruise, nor weariness nor thought, till morning dawned
again, and only smoke and blackened ruins remained.
This mad excitement over, there returned, with ten-fold force, the dreadful consciousness
of his crime. He looked suspiciously about him, for the men were conversing in groups,
and he feared to be the subject of their talk. The dog obeyed the significant beck of his
finger, and they drew off, stealthily, together. He passed near an engine where some men were
seated, and they called to him to share in their refreshment. He took some bread and
meat; and as he drank a draught of beer, heard the firemen, who were from London, talking
about the murder. 'He has gone to Birmingham, they say,' said one: 'but they'll have him
yet, for the scouts are out, and by to-morrow night there'll be a cry all through the country.'
He hurried off, and walked till he almost dropped upon the ground; then lay down in
a lane, and had a long, but broken and uneasy sleep. He wandered on again, irresolute and
undecided, and oppressed with the fear of another solitary night.
Suddenly, he took the desperate resolution to going back to London.
'There's somebody to speak to there, at all event,' he thought. 'A good hiding-place,
too. They'll never expect to nab me there, after this country scent. Why can't I lie
by for a week or so, and, forcing blunt from Fagin, get abroad to France? Damme, I'll risk
it.'
He acted upon this impulse without delay, and choosing the least frequented roads began
his journey back, resolved to lie concealed within a short distance of the metropolis,
and, entering it at dusk by a circuitous route, to proceed straight to that part of it which
he had fixed on for his destination.
The dog, though. If any description of him were out, it would not be forgotten that the
dog was missing, and had probably gone with him. This might lead to his apprehension as
he passed along the streets. He resolved to drown him, and walked on, looking about for
a pond: picking up a heavy stone and tying it to his handkerchief as he went.
The animal looked up into his master's face while these preparations were making; whether
his instinct apprehended something of their purpose, or the robber's sidelong look at
him was sterner than ordinary, he skulked a little farther in the rear than usual, and
cowered as he came more slowly along. When his master halted at the brink of a pool,
and looked round to call him, he stopped outright.
'Do you hear me call? Come here!' cried Sikes.
The animal came up from the very force of habit; but as Sikes stooped to attach the
handkerchief to his throat, he uttered a low growl and started back.
'Come back!' said the robber.
The dog wagged his tail, but moved not. Sikes made a running noose and called him again.
The dog advanced, retreated, paused an instant, and scoured away at his hardest speed.
The man whistled again and again, and sat down and waited in the expectation that he
would return. But no dog appeared, and at length he resumed his journey.