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For at the very moment when a child had contrived to exist upon the smallest possible portion of the weakest possible food, it did perversely happen in eight and a half cases out of ten, either that it sickened from want or cold, or fell into the fire from neglect, or got half-smothered by accident; in any one of which cases, the miserable little being was usually summoned into another world, and there gathered to the fathers it had never known in this.
It can not be expected that this system of farming would produce any very extraordinary or luxuriant crop. Oliver Twist's ninth birthday found him a pale, thin child, somewhat diminutive in stature, and decidedly small in circumference. It was his ninth birthday; and he was keeping it in the coal cellar with a select party of two other young gentlemen, who, after participating with him in a sound thrashing, had been locked up for atrociously presuming to be hungry.
The famous meal in the workhouse when Oliver asked for more was intended to direct attention to the way children were fed and treated in institutions. The boys were fed on gruel.
Of this festive composition each boy had one porringer, and no more except on occasions of great public rejoicing, when he had two ounces and a quarter of bread besides. The bowls never wanted washing. The boys polished them with their spoons till they shone again; and when they had performed this operation (which never took very long, the spoons being nearly as large as the bowls), they would sit staring at the copper, with such eager eyes, as if they could have devoured the very bricks of which it was composed; employing themselves, meanwhile, in sucking their fingers most assiduously, with the view of catching up any stray splashes of gruel that might have been cast thereon. Boys have generally excellent appetites. Oliver Twist and his companions suffered the tortures of slow starvation for three months; at last they got so voracious and wild with hunger that one boy who was tall for his age, and hadn't been used to that sort of thing (for his father had kept a small cookshop), hinted darkly to his companions that unless he had another basin of gruel per diem, he was afraid he might some night happen to eat the boy who slept next to him, who happened to be a weakly youth of tender age. He had a
wild, hungry eye; and they implicitly believed him. A council was held; lots were cast who should walk up to the master after supper that evening, and ask for more; and it fell to Oliver Twist.
The evening arrived; the boys took their places. The master, in his cook's uniform, stationed himself at the copper; his pauper assistants ranged themselves behind him; the gruel was served out; and a long grace was said over a short commons. The gruel disappeared; the boys whispered each other and winked at Oliver; while his next neighbours nudged him. Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said, somewhat alarmed at his own temerity:
Please, sir, I want some more."
The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupefied astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper.
The assistants were paralyzed with wonder; the boys with fear.
What! said the master at length, in a faint voice.
Please, sir," replied Oliver, I want some more."
The master aimed a blow at Oliver's head with the ladle; pinioned his arms; and shrieked aloud for the beadle.
The board were sitting in solemn conclave, when Mr. Bumble rushed into the room in great excitement, and addressing the gentleman in the high chair, said:
Mr. Limbkins, I beg your pardon, sir! Oliver Twist has asked for more.”
There was a general start. Horror was depicted in every countenance.
For more!” said Mr. Limbkins. “ Compose yourself, Bumble, and answer me distinctly. Do I understand that he asked for more, after he had eaten the supper allotted by the dietary?"
“ He did, sir,” replied Bumble.
“ That boy will be hung,” said the gentleman in the white waistcoat. “I know that boy will be hung."
Having shown how infants were starved in “farming,” and how boys were starved in the workhouses, he next directed attention to the way apprentices were treated.
Mr. Sowerberry was an undertaker, who decided to take Oliver from the workhouse. He took Oliver “upon liking,” which meant that “if he could get enough work out of him without putting too much food into him, he should keep him for a term of years to do what he liked with him.”
When Oliver had been driven to desperation by Noah Claypole, and had punished him as he deserved, Mrs. Sowerberry sent for Mr. Bumble. When Mr. Bumble asked Oliver if he was not afraid of him, Oliver bravely answered “No!” The Beadle was petrified with amazement, and he accounted for Oliver's wickedness by saying:
“ It's meat.”
What?” exclaimed Mrs. Sowerberry.
“Meat, ma'am, meat,” replied Bumble, with stern emphasis. “You've overfed him, ma'am. You've raised a artificial soul and spirit in him, ma'am, unbecoming a person of his condition; as the board, Mrs. Sowerberry, who are practical philosophers, will tell you. What have paupers to do with soul or spirit? It's quite enough that we let 'em have live bodies. If you had kept the boy on gruel, ma'am, this would never have happened.” “ Dear, dear! ”
ejaculated Mrs. Sowerberry, piously raising her eyes to the kitchen ceiling; “ this comes of being liberal!”
The liberality of Mrs. Sowerberry to Oliver had consisted in a profuse bestowal upon him of all the dirty odds and ends which nobody else would eat.
By this conversation Dickens meant to teach that a well-fed child is a different type from one who is not properly nourished; that food has an influence on the spirit, as well as on the body. He did not disapprove of Oliver's spirit, but he heartily commended him for resenting the way he was treated. This lesson was needed too, as children were expected to submit uncomplainingly to those who were their legal guardians, whether strangers or parents. Now, largely through Dickens, children are not only encouraged to defend themselves against cruel and tyrannical guardians or parents, and to run away from them, but the state itself will take them away, if
cruelty is proved against those who should be their protectors.
Dickens also revealed by this incident the meanness of adults not only in institutions but in homes, in giving to the children the “ odds and ends," the scraps, the parts of the fowl or the meat that older people do not care for. He brought the matter up again in Great Expectations. At the Christmas dinner Pip was regaled with the scaly tips of the drumsticks of the fowls, and with those obscure corners of pork of which the pig, when living, had least reason to be vain."
One of the reasons given by Snawley to Squeers to induce him to take his stepsons at a lower rate was that “ they were not great eaters."
The selfishness of adulthood toward childhood, and the stupidity of the general idea, that children do not require good food because they are young and do not have to work hard, were held up to deserved ridicule, in Squeers's manner of breakfasting in London, and the food he provided for the five hungry little boys to strengthen them for their long ride to Yorkshire in cold weather.
He found that learned gentleman sitting at breakfast, with the three little boys before noticed, and two others who had turned up by some lucky chance since the interview of the previous day, ranged in a row on the opposite seat. Mr. Squeers had before him a small measure of coffee, a plate of hot toast, and a cold round of beef; but he was at that moment intent on preparing breakfast for the little boys.
“ This is two penn'orth of milk, is it, waiter?” said Mr. Squeers, looking down into a large blue mug, and slanting it gently, so as to get an accurate view of the quantity of liquid contained in it.
That's two penn'orth, sir," replied the waiter.
“ What a rare article milk is, to be sure, in London!” said Mr. Squeers with a sigh. “Just fill that mug up with lukewarm water, William, will you?”
* To the wery top, sir?” inquired the waiter. “Why, the milk will be drownded.”
“ Never you mind that,” replied Mr. Squeers. Serve
it right for being so dear. You ordered that thick bread and butter for three, did you?”
“ Coming directly, sir."
“ You needn't hurry yourself,” said Squeers; there's plenty of time. Conquer your passions, boys, and don't be eager after vittles.” As he uttered this moral precept, Mr. Squeers took a large bite out of the cold beef, and recognised Nicholas.
“Sit down, Mr. Nickleby,” said Squeers. “ Here we are, a-breakfasting you see! ”
Nicholas did not see that anybody was breakfasting, except Mr. Squeers; but he bowed with all becoming reverence, and looked as cheerful as he could.
“Oh! that's the milk and water, is it, William? said Squeers. * Very good; don't forget the bread and butter presently."
At this fresh mention of the bread and butter the five little boys looked very eager, and followed the waiter out, with their eyes; meanwhile Mr. Squeers tasted the milk and water.
“ Ah!” said that gentleman, smacking his lips, “ here's richness! Think of the many beggars and orphans in the streets that would be glad of this, little boys. A shocking thing hunger is, isn't it, Mr. Nickleby?”
* Very shocking, sir,” said Nicholas.
“When I say number one," pursued Mr. Squeers, put. ting the mug before the children, “the boy on the left hand nearest the window may take a drink; and when ] say number two, the boy next him will go in. and so till we come to number five, which is the last boy. Are you ready?'
Yes, sir,” cried the little boys with great eagerness.
“ That's right,” said Squeers, calmly getting on wit] his breakfast; “ keep ready till I tell you to begin. Subduo your appetites, my dears, and you've conquered human natur. This is the way we inculcate strength of mind, Mr. Nickleby,” said the schoolmaster, turning to Nicholas, and speaking with his mouth very full of beef and toast.
Nicholas murmured something—he knew not what-in reply; and the little boys, dividing their gaze between the mug, the bread and butter (which had by this time arrived), and every morsel which Mr. Squeers took into his mouth, remained with strained eyes in torments of expectation.