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Oliver Twist's Story

Oliver Twist

Charles Dickens

Some time in the 1830s, a woman who was not married, gave birth to a boy in a workhouse in England. The woman died without telling anyone her name and the boy was taken care of at the workhouse and given the name Oliver Twist. A workhouse was not a pleasant place in which to grow up. The directors of the workhouse had only one aim in life: to reduce the cost of food for the poor, and if the number of the poor was reduced at the same time - why all the better!

The boys in the workhouse were served gruel three times a day. Gruel is a kind of porridge consisting of a little oatmeal and a great deal of water. The boys ate their meals in a large stone hall with a big copper kettle at one end. There stood the master and served the gruel with a big ladle. The boys walked up to him and got one helping each, never any more.

Their plates never needed washing up. The boys polished them shining clean with their spoons. When they had finished, they would sit staring hungrily at the copper kettle, sucking their fingers. They were always hungry and always dreaming about food. At last, they decided that one of them should walk up to the master after supper and ask for more. But who? Nobody dared, so they drew lots and the lot fell to Oliver Twist. Oliver was then nine years old.

The evening arrived, the boys went into the hall and the master began serving out the gruel. As usual the food disappeared quickly and the boys began to whisper and make signs to Oliver. Oliver got up, quite surprised at his own courage and with his spoon and plate in hand walked up to the master and said:

''Please, sir, I want some more."

The master, a bigx fat man, turned pale with shock. "What!" he said at last.

"Please, sir," said Oliver again, "I want some more." The master hit him over the head with his big ladle and began to scream. He called out for his superior, Mr Bumble, who came rushing in. Mr Bumble was as shocked and horrified as the master.

It so happened that the Board of Directors was having a meeting at that moment, so Mr Bumble grabbed hold of Oliver and rushed, without knocking, into the room where the Board was sitting and turned to the chairman, Mr Limbkins. "Mr Limbkins, I beg your pardon, sir!" he shouted. "Oliver Twist has asked for more."
"For more!" said Mr Limbkins. "Say that again. Do I understand that he asked for more than he was given?" "He did sir," replied Mr Bumble. Everybody at the board meeting agreed that Oliver would come to a bad end. He would certainly be hanged sooner or later, and the gentlemen of the board began immediately to discuss how they could best get rid of Oliver Twist. In the end they decided to offer five pounds to any man or woman who would agree to take care of the boy and teach him a trade.

And so it happened that Oliver left the workhouse and went to live with Mr Sowerberry, an undertaker. Mr Sowerberry was quite a businessman, and he soon discovered that little Oliver Twist looked perfect in a funeral procession. Oliver had such a melancholy face as he walked beside the coffin, all dressed in black with a hatband that came down to his knees. People who saw him were moved to tears.

(Music: Lionel Bart: Oliver!)

At Mr Sowerberry's there was another boy, Noa Claypole. This boy was always bullying and teasing Oliver. He would pull Oliver's hair and twitch his ears, and one day he said: "Hey, workhouse boy, how's your mother?" - "She's dead," answered Oliver, "don't say anything about her to me." - "What did she die of then?" asked Noa. "Of a broken heart, so I'm told," said Oliver. But Noa went on teasing Oliver, saying that his mother was a bad woman and so on, until Oliver got angry, and before Noa knew where he was, Oliver had taken him by the throat and had thrown him to the ground. "He'll murder me!" cried Noa, and soon the whole household came running, first to take part in the fight and then to blame Oliver and punish him for it.

That night Oliver ran away. It was a cold dark night and he set out on foot towards London. Nobody would be able to find him in London!

Oliver walked for seven days and slept in the fields at night. As he approached the big town, a very strange-looking boy spoke to him. The boy was no bigger than himself but dressed in a coat which reached down to his heels. He offered Oliver a meal and then started asking questions.

"Going to London?" asked the strange boy. "Yes." - "Got any lodgings?" "No." "Money?" - "No." The strange boy whistled, and put his arms into his pockets as far as the big coat-sleeves would let them go. "Do you live in London?" asked Oliver. "Yes, I do when I'm at home," replied the boy. "I suppose you want a place to sleep in tonight, don't you?" - "I do indeed," answered Oliver. "I have not slept under a roof since I left the country." "Don't worry," said the strange boy. "I know a respectable gentleman in London. He'll give you lodgings for nothing because I say so, because you are my friend."

So, late in the evening the two boys arrived in the slums of London, Oliver holding on to the Dodger's hand. The Dodger was the nickname of the strange boy. At last they came to the dirty old house where the Dodger lived, and Oliver was introduced to Fagin, the "respectable old gentleman" and five or six other boys. They were having their supper and shared their toast and sausages with Oliver, and they told Oliver to consider himself one of the family. They seemed to be a jolly and happy lot and laughed heartily at Mr Fagin's jokes, though Oliver didn't understand what was so funny. They also gave him a drink of hot water with gin in it after which Oliver sank into a deep sleep.

(Music: Lionel Bart: Oliver!)
When Oliver woke up next morning, all the boys were gone, but soon two of them came back. "And what have you got my dears?" asked Fagin. At this, the Dodger took out two pocket-books and the other boy four handkerchiefs. "Well, well," said Fagin, "they are good ones, very. You haven't marked them very well, though. Charley! No, these initials will have to be picked out with a needle, and we'll teach Oliver to do it, eh, Oliver? Ha! Ha! Ha!" "If you please, sir," said Oliver, and they all had a good laugh. They had breakfast together, quite a good one too. After breakfast had been cleared away, the old gentleman and the two boys played a very curious game. It went like this: Fagin put a diamond pin in his shirt, he put a snuffbox in one of his pockets, a handkerchief in another and a watch in another. After that he took a walking stick in his hand and began trotting up and down the room like a gentleman out for a walk in town, stopping now and then to look into shop-windows, patting his pockets to see that he hadn't lost anything and turning round to see that he was not being followed by pickpockets. He did it in such a funny and natural way that Oliver laughed till the tears ran down his face. All the time the two boys followed Fagin closely, but took care to get out of his sight as soon as he turned round. They were so quick about it that "the gentleman in the street" could not possibly know that he was being followed. At last the Dodger stepped on Fagin's toes and the other boy bumped into him from behind. In a second they had taken from him the snuffbox, the watch, the diamond pin and the handkerchief. They played this game over and over again.

Later that day, the boys were sent out again and this time Fagin gave them some money to spend. "There, my dear," said Fagin to Oliver when they were alone, "that's a pleasant life, isn't it? Now, look at me. Is my handkerchief hanging out of my pocket, my dear?" "Yes, sir," said Oliver. "See if you can take it out without my feeling it, as you saw the others do, when we were playing this morning." Oliver had watched the Dodger carefully and knew just what to do. Within a moment he had taken the handkerchief out of Fagin's pocket. "Is it gone?" cried Fagin. "Here it is, sir," said Oliver. "You're a clever boy, my dear," said Fagin patting Oliver on the head. "Here's a shilling for you. If you go on in this way you'll be the greatest man of the time.

And now come here and I'll show you how to take the marks out of the handkerchiefs."

(Music: Lionel Bart: Oliver!)

So without really understanding what was happening, Oliver was being trained to be a pickpocket.

One day he was sent out into the streets with the Dodger and Charley. In front of a bookstall he saw an old gentleman looking at books. Suddenly he saw the Dodger put his hand into the old gentleman's pocket, pull out a handkerchief and hand it over to Charley. Immediately he remembered the curious game of the handkerchiefs. Suddenly he understood what was going on, and he started to run away as fast as he could. The other two boys just slipped round the corner and hid in a doorway. At that moment the old gentleman felt for his handkerchief which wasn't there. Turning round he saw Oliver running for dear life.

"Stop thief!" he cried, and soon everybody in the street was running after Oliver, crying "Stop thief."

So, of course it did not take long before Oliver was caught and taken to the police station. There Oliver began to feel more and more confused and couldn't answer any of the questions the magistrate put to him. He had just been given three months in prison when the owner of the bookstall turned up. He told them that Oliver was innocent for he had seen the other two boys running off with the old gentleman's handkerchief.

The magistrate got very irritated and shouted several times: "Clear the office, everybody out, officers do you hear? Clear the office!" When at last they were all in the street Oliver fainted. The last few days had been too much for him. Mr Brownlow, the old gentleman whose handkerchief had been stolen, picked up Oliver, called a cab and took him to his own house.

Oliver was very ill and lay unconscious for several days. He was very well looked after by Mr Brownlow's housekeeper, Mrs Bedwin. When he was able to get up again, he sat with Mrs Bedwin in the drawing-room and there he caught sight of a portrait on the wall. It was the picture of a young woman, and Oliver couldn't take his eyes from her face.

"What is it, child?" asked Mrs Bedwin. "It is so very pretty," said Oliver, "but the eyes look so sorrowful; and from where I sit they seem fixed upon me. It makes my heart beat as if the picture was alive and wanted to speak to me, but couldn't." "Lord save us!" exclaimed the old lady, "don't talk in that way child.” Just then Mr Brownlow entered the room to ask Oliver how he felt. He looked at Oliver and then at the portrait on the wall. "Gracious God, what's this Bedwin? Look, look there!" As he spoke he pointed to the picture above Oliver's head, and then to the boy's face, which was its living copy. The shape of the head, the eyes, the mouth; every feature was the same.

As it turns out later, much later, Oliver is the son of Mr Brownlow's best friend, and the picture on the wall is a portrait of his dead mother. But many terrible and exciting things happen before Oliver Twist's story comes to a happy end.