‘Now,’ said Fang, ‘what’s the charge against this boy? What have you got to say, sir?’
‘I was standing at a bookstall—’ Mr. Brownlow began.
‘Hold your tongue, sir,’ said Mr. Fang. ‘Policeman! Where’s the policeman? Here, swear this policeman. Now, policeman, what is this?’
The policeman, with becoming humility, related how he had taken the charge; how he had searched Oliver, and found nothing on his person; and how that was all he knew about it.
‘Are there any witnesses?’ inquired Mr. Fang.
‘None, your worship,’ replied the policeman.
Mr. Fang sat silent for some minutes, and then, turning round to the prosecutor, said in a towering passion.
‘Do you mean to state what your complaint against this boy is, man, or do you not? You have been sworn. Now, if you stand there, refusing to give evidence, I’ll punish you for disrespect to the bench; I will, by—’
By what, or by whom, nobody knows, for the clerk and jailor coughed very loud, just at the right moment; and the former dropped a heavy book upon the floor, thus preventing the word from being heard—accidently, of course.
With many interruptions, and repeated insults, Mr. Brownlow contrived to state his case; observing that, in the surprise of the moment, he had run after the boy because he had saw him running away; and expressing his hope that, if the magistrate should believe him, although not actually the thief, to be connected with the thieves, he would deal as leniently with him as justice would allow.
‘He has been hurt already,’ said the old gentleman in conclusion. ‘And I fear,’ he added, with great energy, looking towards the bar, ‘I really fear that he is ill.’
‘Oh! yes, I dare say!’ said Mr. Fang, with a sneer. ‘Come, none of your tricks here, you young vagabond; they won’t do. What’s your name?’
Oliver tried to reply but his tongue failed him. He was deadly pale; and the whole place seemed turning round and round.
‘What’s your name, you hardened scoundrel?’ demanded Mr. Fang. ‘Officer, what’s his name?’
This was addressed to a bluff old fellow, in a striped waistcoat, who was standing by the bar. He bent over Oliver, and repeated the inquiry; but finding him really incapable of understanding the question; and knowing that his not replying would only infuriate the magistrate the more, and add to the severity of his sentence; he hazarded a guess.
‘He says his name’s Tom White, your worship,’ said the kind-hearted thief-taker.
‘Oh, he won’t speak out, won’t he?’ said Fang. ‘Very well, very well. Where does he live?’
‘Where he can, your worship,’ replied the officer; again pretending to receive Oliver’s answer.
‘Has he any parents?’ inquired Mr. Fang.
‘He says they died in his infancy, your worship,’ replied the officer: hazarding the usual reply.
At this point of the inquiry, Oliver raised his head; and, looking round with imploring eyes, murmured a feeble prayer for a draught of water.
‘Stuff and nonsense!’ said Mr. Fang: ‘don’t try to make a fool of me.’
‘I think he really is ill, your worship,’ remonstrated the officer.
‘I know better,’ said Mr. Fang.
‘Take care of him, officer,’ said the old gentleman, raising his hands instinctively; ‘he’ll fall down.’
‘Stand away, officer,’ cried Fang; ‘let him, if he likes.’
Oliver availed himself of the kind permission, and fell to the floor in a fainting fit. The men in the office looked at each other, but no one dared to stir.
‘I knew he was shamming,’ said Fang, as if this were incontestable proof of the fact. ‘Let him lie there; he’ll soon be tired of that.’
‘How do you propose to deal with the case, sir?’ inquired the clerk in a low voice.
‘Summarily,’ replied Mr. Fang. ‘He stands committed for three months—hard labour of course. Clear the office.’
The door was opened for this purpose, and a couple of men were preparing to carry the insensible boy to his cell; when an elderly man of decent but poor appearance, clad in an old suit of black, rushed hastily into the office, and advanced towards the bench.
‘Stop, stop! don’t take him away! For Heaven’s sake stop a moment!’ cried the new comer, breathless with haste.
Although the presiding Genii in such an office as this, exercise a summary and arbitrary power over the liberties, the good name, the character, almost the lives, of Her Majesty’s subjects, expecially of the poorer class; and although, within such walls, enough fantastic tricks are daily played to make the angels blind with weeping; they are closed to the public, save through the medium of the daily press.[Footnote: Or were virtually, then.] Mr. Fang was consequently not a little indignant to see an unbidden guest enter in such irreverent disorder.
‘What is this? Who is this? Turn this man out. Clear the office!’ cried Mr. Fang.
‘I will speak,’ cried the man; ‘I will not be turned out. I saw it all. I keep the book-stall. I demand to be sworn. I will not be put down. Mr. Fang, you must hear me. You must not refuse, sir.’
The man was right. His manner was determined; and the matter was growing rather too serious to be hushed up.
‘Swear the man,’ growled Mr. Fang, with a very ill grace. ‘Now, man, what have you got to say?’
‘This,’ said the man: ‘I saw three boys: two others and the prisoner here: loitering on the opposite side of the way, when this gentleman was reading. The robbery was committed by another boy. I saw it done; and I saw that this boy was perfectly amazed and stupified by it.’ Having by this time recovered a little breath, the worthy book-stall keeper proceeded to relate, in a more coherent manner the exact circumstances of the robbery.
‘Why didn’t you come here before?’ said Fang, after a pause.
‘I hadn’t a soul to mind the shop,’ replied the man. ‘Everybody who could have helped me, had joined in the pursuit. I could get nobody till five minutes ago; and I’ve run here all the way.’
‘The prosecutor was reading, was he?’ inquired Fang, after another pause.
‘Yes,’ replied the man. ‘The very book he has in his hand.’
‘Oh, that book, eh?’ said Fang. ‘Is it paid for?’
‘No, it is not,’ replied the man, with a smile.
‘Dear me, I forgot all about it!’ exclaimed the absent old gentleman, innocently.
‘A nice person to prefer a charge against a poor boy!’ said Fang, with a comical effort to look humane. ‘I consider, sir, that you have obtained possession of that book, under very suspicious and disreputable circumstances; and you may think yourself very fortunate that the owner of the property declines to prosecute. Let this be a lesson to you, my man, or the law will overtake you yet. The boy is discharged. Clear the office!’
And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.
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