FAGIN'S LAST NIGHT ALIVE
The court was paved, from floor to roof, with human faces. Inquisitive
and eager eyes peered from every inch of space. From the rail before
the dock, away into the sharpest angle of the smallest corner in the
galleries, all looks were fixed upon one man—Fagin. Before him and
behind: above, below, on the right and on the left: he seemed to
stand surrounded by a firmament, all bright with gleaming eyes.
He stood there, in all this glare of living light, with one hand
resting on the wooden slab before him, the other held to his ear, and
his head thrust forward to enable him to catch with greater
distinctness every word that fell from the presiding judge, who was
delivering his charge to the jury. At times, he turned his eyes
sharply upon them to observe the effect of the slightest featherweight
in his favour; and when the points against him were stated with
terrible distinctness, looked towards his counsel, in mute appeal that
he would, even then, urge something in his behalf. Beyond these
manifestations of anxiety, he stirred not hand or foot. He had
scarcely moved since the trial began; and now that the judge ceased to
speak, he still remained in the same strained attitude of close
attention, with his gaze bent on him, as though he listened still.
A slight bustle in the court, recalled him to himself. Looking round,
he saw that the juryman had turned together, to consider their verdict.
As his eyes wandered to the gallery, he could see the people rising
above each other to see his face: some hastily applying their glasses
to their eyes: and others whispering their neighbours with looks
expressive of abhorrence. A few there were, who seemed unmindful of
him, and looked only to the jury, in impatient wonder how they could
delay. But in no one face—not even among the women, of whom there
were many there—could he read the faintest sympathy with himself, or
any feeling but one of all-absorbing interest that he should be
As he saw all this in one bewildered glance, the deathlike stillness
came again, and looking back he saw that the jurymen had turned towards
the judge. Hush!
They only sought permission to retire.
He looked, wistfully, into their faces, one by one when they passed
out, as though to see which way the greater number leant; but that was
fruitless. The jailer touched him on the shoulder. He followed
mechanically to the end of the dock, and sat down on a chair. The man
pointed it out, or he would not have seen it.
He looked up into the gallery again. Some of the people were eating,
and some fanning themselves with handkerchiefs; for the crowded place
was very hot. There was one young man sketching his face in a little
note-book. He wondered whether it was like, and looked on when the
artist broke his pencil-point, and made another with his knife, as any
idle spectator might have done.
In the same way, when he turned his eyes towards the judge, his mind
began to busy itself with the fashion of his dress, and what it cost,
and how he put it on. There was an old fat gentleman on the bench,
too, who had gone out, some half an hour before, and now come back. He
wondered within himself whether this man had been to get his dinner,
what he had had, and where he had had it; and pursued this train of
careless thought until some new object caught his eye and roused
Not that, all this time, his mind was, for an instant, free from one
oppressive overwhelming sense of the grave that opened at his feet; it
was ever present to him, but in a vague and general way, and he could
not fix his thoughts upon it. Thus, even while he trembled, and turned
burning hot at the idea of speedy death, he fell to counting the iron
spikes before him, and wondering how the head of one had been broken
off, and whether they would mend it, or leave it as it was. Then, he
thought of all the horrors of the gallows and the scaffold—and stopped
to watch a man sprinkling the floor to cool it—and then went on to
At length there was a cry of silence, and a breathless look from all
towards the door. The jury returned, and passed him close. He could
glean nothing from their faces; they might as well have been of stone.
Perfect stillness ensued—not a rustle—not a breath—Guilty.
The building rang with a tremendous shout, and another, and another,
and then it echoed loud groans, that gathered strength as they swelled
out, like angry thunder. It was a peal of joy from the populace
outside, greeting the news that he would die on Monday.
The noise subsided, and he was asked if he had anything to say why
sentence of death should not be passed upon him. He had resumed his
listening attitude, and looked intently at his questioner while the
demand was made; but it was twice repeated before he seemed to hear it,
and then he only muttered that he was an old man—an old man—and so,
dropping into a whisper, was silent again.
The judge assumed the black cap, and the prisoner still stood with the
same air and gesture. A woman in the gallery, uttered some
exclamation, called forth by this dread solemnity; he looked hastily up
as if angry at the interruption, and bent forward yet more attentively.
The address was solemn and impressive; the sentence fearful to hear.
But he stood, like a marble figure, without the motion of a nerve. His
haggard face was still thrust forward, his under-jaw hanging down, and
his eyes staring out before him, when the jailer put his hand upon his
arm, and beckoned him away. He gazed stupidly about him for an
instant, and obeyed.
They led him through a paved room under the court, where some prisoners
were waiting till their turns came, and others were talking to their
friends, who crowded round a grate which looked into the open yard.
There was nobody there to speak to <I>him</I>; but, as he passed, the
prisoners fell back to render him more visible to the people who were
clinging to the bars: and they assailed him with opprobrious names,
and screeched and hissed. He shook his fist, and would have spat upon
them; but his conductors hurried him on, through a gloomy passage
lighted by a few dim lamps, into the interior of the prison.
Here, he was searched, that he might not have about him the means of
anticipating the law; this ceremony performed, they led him to one of
the condemned cells, and left him there—alone.
He sat down on a stone bench opposite the door, which served for seat
and bedstead; and casting his blood-shot eyes upon the ground, tried to
collect his thoughts. After awhile, he began to remember a few
disjointed fragments of what the judge had said: though it had seemed
to him, at the time, that he could not hear a word. These gradually
fell into their proper places, and by degrees suggested more: so that
in a little time he had the whole, almost as it was delivered. To be
hanged by the neck, till he was dead—that was the end. To be hanged
by the neck till he was dead.
As it came on very dark, he began to think of all the men he had known
who had died upon the scaffold; some of them through his means. They
rose up, in such quick succession, that he could hardly count them. He
had seen some of them die,—and had joked too, because they died with
prayers upon their lips. With what a rattling noise the drop went
down; and how suddenly they changed, from strong and vigorous men to
dangling heaps of clothes!
Some of them might have inhabited that very cell—sat upon that very
spot. It was very dark; why didn't they bring a light? The cell had
been built for many years. Scores of men must have passed their last
hours there. It was like sitting in a vault strewn with dead
bodies—the cap, the noose, the pinioned arms, the faces that he knew,
even beneath that hideous veil.—Light, light!
At length, when his hands were raw with beating against the heavy door
and walls, two men appeared: one bearing a candle, which he thrust
into an iron candlestick fixed against the wall: the other dragging in
a mattress on which to pass the night; for the prisoner was to be left
alone no more.
Then came the night—dark, dismal, silent night. Other watchers are
glad to hear this church-clock strike, for they tell of life and coming
day. To him they brought despair. The boom of every iron bell came
laden with the one, deep, hollow sound—Death. What availed the noise
and bustle of cheerful morning, which penetrated even there, to him?
It was another form of knell, with mockery added to the warning.
The day passed off. Day? There was no day; it was gone as soon as
come—and night came on again; night so long, and yet so short; long in
its dreadful silence, and short in its fleeting hours. At one time he
raved and blasphemed; and at another howled and tore his hair.
Venerable men of his own persuasion had come to pray beside him, but he
had driven them away with curses. They renewed their charitable
efforts, and he beat them off.
Saturday night. He had only one night more to live. And as he thought
of this, the day broke—Sunday.
It was not until the night of this last awful day, that a withering
sense of his helpless, desperate state came in its full intensity upon
his blighted soul; not that he had ever held any defined or positive
hope of mercy, but that he had never been able to consider more than
the dim probability of dying so soon. He had spoken little to either of
the two men, who relieved each other in their attendance upon him; and
they, for their parts, made no effort to rouse his attention. He had
sat there, awake, but dreaming. Now, he started up, every minute, and
with gasping mouth and burning skin, hurried to and fro, in such a
paroxysm of fear and wrath that even they—used to such
sights—recoiled from him with horror. He grew so terrible, at last,
in all the tortures of his evil conscience, that one man could not bear
to sit there, eyeing him alone; and so the two kept watch together.
He cowered down upon his stone bed, and thought of the past. He had
been wounded with some missiles from the crowd on the day of his
capture, and his head was bandaged with a linen cloth. His red hair
hung down upon his bloodless face; his beard was torn, and twisted into
knots; his eyes shone with a terrible light; his unwashed flesh
crackled with the fever that burnt him up. Eight—nine—then. If it
was not a trick to frighten him, and those were the real hours treading
on each other's heels, where would he be, when they came round again!
Eleven! Another struck, before the voice of the previous hour had
ceased to vibrate. At eight, he would be the only mourner in his own
funeral train; at eleven—
Those dreadful walls of Newgate, which have hidden so much misery and
such unspeakable anguish, not only from the eyes, but, too often, and
too long, from the thoughts, of men, never held so dread a spectacle as
that. The few who lingered as they passed, and wondered what the man
was doing who was to be hanged to-morrow, would have slept but ill that
night, if they could have seen him.
From early in the evening until nearly midnight, little groups of two
and three presented themselves at the lodge-gate, and inquired, with
anxious faces, whether any reprieve had been received. These being
answered in the negative, communicated the welcome intelligence to
clusters in the street, who pointed out to one another the door from
which he must come out, and showed where the scaffold would be built,
and, walking with unwilling steps away, turned back to conjure up the
scene. By degrees they fell off, one by one; and, for an hour, in the
dead of night, the street was left to solitude and darkness.
The space before the prison was cleared, and a few strong barriers,
painted black, had been already thrown across the road to break the
pressure of the expected crowd, when Mr. Brownlow and Oliver appeared
at the wicket, and presented an order of admission to the prisoner,
signed by one of the sheriffs. They were immediately admitted into the
'Is the young gentleman to come too, sir?' said the man whose duty it
was to conduct them. 'It's not a sight for children, sir.'
'It is not indeed, my friend,' rejoined Mr. Brownlow; 'but my business
with this man is intimately connected with him; and as this child has
seen him in the full career of his success and villainy, I think it as
well—even at the cost of some pain and fear—that he should see him
These few words had been said apart, so as to be inaudible to Oliver.
The man touched his hat; and glancing at Oliver with some curiousity,
opened another gate, opposite to that by which they had entered, and
led them on, through dark and winding ways, towards the cells.
'This,' said the man, stopping in a gloomy passage where a couple of
workmen were making some preparations in profound silence—'this is the
place he passes through. If you step this way, you can see the door he
goes out at.'
He led them into a stone kitchen, fitted with coppers for dressing the
prison food, and pointed to a door. There was an open grating above
it, through which came the sound of men's voices, mingled with the
noise of hammering, and the throwing down of boards. There were
putting up the scaffold.
From this place, they passed through several strong gates, opened by
other turnkeys from the inner side; and, having entered an open yard,
ascended a flight of narrow steps, and came into a passage with a row
of strong doors on the left hand. Motioning them to remain where they
were, the turnkey knocked at one of these with his bunch of keys. The
two attendants, after a little whispering, came out into the passage,
stretching themselves as if glad of the temporary relief, and motioned
the visitors to follow the jailer into the cell. They did so.
The condemned criminal was seated on his bed, rocking himself from side
to side, with a countenance more like that of a snared beast than the
face of a man. His mind was evidently wandering to his old life, for
he continued to mutter, without appearing conscious of their presence
otherwise than as a part of his vision.
'Good boy, Charley—well done—' he mumbled. 'Oliver, too, ha! ha! ha!
Oliver too—quite the gentleman now—quite the—take that boy away to
The jailer took the disengaged hand of Oliver; and, whispering him not
to be alarmed, looked on without speaking.
'Take him away to bed!' cried Fagin. 'Do you hear me, some of you? He
has been the—the—somehow the cause of all this. It's worth the money
to bring him up to it—Bolter's throat, Bill; never mind the
girl—Bolter's throat as deep as you can cut. Saw his head off!'
'Fagin,' said the jailer.
'That's me!' cried the Jew, falling instantly, into the attitude of
listening he had assumed upon his trial. 'An old man, my Lord; a very
old, old man!'
'Here,' said the turnkey, laying his hand upon his breast to keep him
down. 'Here's somebody wants to see you, to ask you some questions, I
suppose. Fagin, Fagin! Are you a man?'
'I shan't be one long,' he replied, looking up with a face retaining no
human expression but rage and terror. 'Strike them all dead! What
right have they to butcher me?'
As he spoke he caught sight of Oliver and Mr. Brownlow. Shrinking to
the furthest corner of the seat, he demanded to know what they wanted
'Steady,' said the turnkey, still holding him down. 'Now, sir, tell
him what you want. Quick, if you please, for he grows worse as the
time gets on.'
'You have some papers,' said Mr. Brownlow advancing, 'which were placed
in your hands, for better security, by a man called Monks.'
'It's all a lie together,' replied Fagin. 'I haven't one—not one.'
'For the love of God,' said Mr. Brownlow solemnly, 'do not say that
now, upon the very verge of death; but tell me where they are. You
know that Sikes is dead; that Monks has confessed; that there is no
hope of any further gain. Where are those papers?'
'Oliver,' cried Fagin, beckoning to him. 'Here, here! Let me whisper
'I am not afraid,' said Oliver in a low voice, as he relinquished Mr.
'The papers,' said Fagin, drawing Oliver towards him, 'are in a canvas
bag, in a hole a little way up the chimney in the top front-room. I
want to talk to you, my dear. I want to talk to you.'
'Yes, yes,' returned Oliver. 'Let me say a prayer. Do! Let me say
one prayer. Say only one, upon your knees, with me, and we will talk
'Outside, outside,' replied Fagin, pushing the boy before him towards
the door, and looking vacantly over his head. 'Say I've gone to
sleep—they'll believe you. You can get me out, if you take me so.
Now then, now then!'
'Oh! God forgive this wretched man!' cried the boy with a burst of
'That's right, that's right,' said Fagin. 'That'll help us on. This
door first. If I shake and tremble, as we pass the gallows, don't you
mind, but hurry on. Now, now, now!'
'Have you nothing else to ask him, sir?' inquired the turnkey.
'No other question,' replied Mr. Brownlow. 'If I hoped we could recall
him to a sense of his position—'
'Nothing will do that, sir,' replied the man, shaking his head. 'You
had better leave him.'
The door of the cell opened, and the attendants returned.
'Press on, press on,' cried Fagin. 'Softly, but not so slow. Faster,
The men laid hands upon him, and disengaging Oliver from his grasp,
held him back. He struggled with the power of desperation, for an
instant; and then sent up cry upon cry that penetrated even those
massive walls, and rang in their ears until they reached the open yard.
It was some time before they left the prison. Oliver nearly swooned
after this frightful scene, and was so weak that for an hour or more,
he had not the strength to walk.
Day was dawning when they again emerged. A great multitude had already
assembled; the windows were filled with people, smoking and playing
cards to beguile the time; the crowd were pushing, quarrelling, joking.
Everything told of life and animation, but one dark cluster of objects
in the centre of all—the black stage, the cross-beam, the rope, and
all the hideous apparatus of death.