Oliver Twist HTML version

Chapter 17
It is the custom on the stage, in all good murderous melodramas, to present the tragic and
the comic scenes, in as regular alternation, as the layers of red and white in a side of
streaky bacon. The hero sinks upon his straw bed, weighed down by fetters and
misfortunes; in the next scene, his faithful but unconscious squire regales the audience
with a comic song. We behold, with throbbing bosoms, the heroine in the grasp of a
proud and ruthless baron: her virtue and her life alike in danger, drawing forth her dagger
to preserve the one at the cost of the other; and just as our expectations are wrought up to
the highest pitch, a whistle is heard, and we are straightway transported to the great hall
of the castle; where a grey-headed seneschal sings a funny chorus with a funnier body of
vassals, who are free of all sorts of places, from church vaults to palaces, and roam about
in company, carolling perpetually.
Such changes appear absurd; but they are not so unnatural as they would seem at first
sight. The transitions in real life from well-spread boards to death-beds, and from
mourning-weeds to holiday garments, are not a whit less startling; only, there, we are
busy actors, instead of passive lookers-on, which makes a vast difference. The actors in
the mimic life of the theatre, are blind to violent transitions and abrupt impulses of
passion or feeling, which, presented before the eyes of mere spectators, are at once
condemned as outrageous and preposterous.
As sudden shiftings of the scene, and rapid changes of time and place, are not only
sanctioned in books by long usage, but are by many considered as the great art of
authorship: an author's skill in his craft being, by such critics, chiefly estimated with
relation to the dilemmas in which he leaves his characters at the end of every chapter: this
brief introduction to the present one may perhaps be deemed unnecessary. If so, let it be
considered a delicate intimation on the part of the historian that he is going back to the
town in which Oliver Twist was born; the reader taking it for granted that there are good
and substantial reasons for making the journey, or he would not be invited to proceed
upon such an expedition.
Mr. Bumble emerged at early morning from the workhouse-gate, and walked with portly
carriage and commanding steps, up the High Street. He was in the full bloom and pride of
beadlehood; his cocked hat and coat were dazzling in the morning sun; he clutched his
cane with the vigorous tenacity of health and power. Mr. Bumble always carried his head
high; but this morning it was higher than usual. There was an abstraction in his eye, an
elevation in his air, which might have warned an observant stranger that thoughts were
passing in the beadle's mind, too great for utterance.
Mr. Bumble stopped not to converse with the small shopkeepers and others who spoke to
him, deferentially, as he passed along. He merely returned their salutations with a wave