Oliver Twist has one desire: to own a bookshop and live a simple, middle-class life, far away from his workhouse-shadowed past. One thing stands in his way: Jack Dawkins–The Artful Dodger–who’s just returned to London and is looking for Fagin’s old gang.
Jack’s visits cause Oliver nothing but trouble, but he finds himself drawn, time and again, to their shared past, Jack’s unguarded honesty, and those bright, green eyes.
Oliver craves respectability, which he won’t find with a forbidden love. Can Jack convince Oliver that having one doesn’t mean losing the other?
This excerpt is taken from a point in the book, early on, when Oliver Twist sees Jack Dawkins (the Artful Dodger) again for the first time in five years. Jack wants to know what happened to Fagin and the gang, and Oliver, horrified, doesn’t want anything to do with Jack.
Oliver walked along the pavement, his chin ducked into his red scarf, the snow almost up to his ankles, until his heart settled in his breast and his rage dulled to a low ache in the shivery air. The row of white townhouses, all neat and tidy, looked cream-colored against the smudged sky, their green-painted ironworks hidden by layers of snow.
The world was white all around, a thin swirl about his head and dark flakes coming down from the smoking chimneys, black against the newly laid white. There was, at this hour in the afternoon, yet a gleam of sunlight slanting over the chimney pots, silver through the clouds.
The street was not very busy, as was typical during the late afternoon hours, especially when a deep cold was coming on. All the deliveries had been made, tomorrow’s milk and eggs ordered, and toast and tea were being prepared in houses all up and down the tidy street.
People were inside, as they should be, but Oliver needed to be outside. The townhouse was too full of memories of good things, many of which he’d taken for granted, in a way. Not that he was ever less than mindful of always having a full stomach. Or that his boots were sturdy and without holes, that his stockings were woolen and thick against the cold. And, best of all, he always had books aplenty to read and considerable amounts of time to read them.
When Oliver got to the corner of Old Church Street, he turned in the direction away from the church and the dark grey workhouse, not wanting to be faced with the reminder of the funeral that morning nor the dark, towering walls that represented his past.
He could go into Elm Street Park, where the path was likely to be shoveled and trampled. Though now the dark treetops were humped in soft white, in springtime the path was kept private by boughs of willows and thickets and smelled of greenery and flowers.
Oliver determined he would think of that, instead of the snow that now bowed branches and lumped over shrubbery. He thought maybe that the snow would forever remind him of Uncle Brownlow, catching a chill, growing weaker, the fever taking him, and then this emptiness. Surely spring would come. Surely the memories would fade into something more pleasant than the ache in his heart.
Oliver walked along the street till he got to the path that wended its way through the park. He faced the wind as he went; it was prudent to do this, for then he would be able to walk home with the wind at his back and his face turned away from the cold as he retreated from his memories. But for now, he walked face in the cold, shoulders back, braced against what might come.
The trail beneath the snow was a little slippery, but there was enough traction from stones and branches and roots of trees to help keep him upright. A gust of snow caught an exposed part of his neck, and his cheeks were burning with cold.
A group of men with shovels over their shoulders came walking toward him on the path. Their boots were thick and their clothes were thick, but they were bare-headed, their faces gleaming with sweat from their efforts to clear snow. As they walked, the heads of their shovels knocked snow from the upper branches, and they seemed neither to notice nor care upon whom the snow fell. Oliver hesitated on the path, and then, at the last moment, jumped out of their way, to the edge of the path, shivering as a face full of snow caught him anyway.
Sputtering, he wiped his face with his gloves. He should get back to the funeral reception anyhow, before he was missed. Even though there was really no one to miss him now, and the reception was mostly full of conversation of the idle type he’d never much cared for, there were expectations of propriety and guests waiting.
He felt a hand on his arm and jerked backward.
“Leave me be,” he said, low, almost muttering. “I’ve got it, I say.”
“Leave you be, Nolly?” said a voice, using the pet name that no one had called him in years. “That’s all anyone’s ever done, is leave you be.”
The voice was close, and Oliver could smell small beer and unwashed skin and something familiar that made him freeze. He did not know that voice, and yet he did. He shrank inside his greatcoat, but the hand jerked him again and pushed him against a tree, where the snow rattled down and obscured his vision again even as he opened his eyes.
When he could see through the curtain of snow, there, to accompany a voice from long ago, was a face from memory, five years on. The face was thin, hollow-cheeked, the skin sallow, as though fading from being sunburnt, with snapping, bright green eyes, that rough face grown into itself. It was, impossibly so, the face of the Artful Dodger, also known to his more intimate acquaintances as Jack Dawkins, back from the grave, back, back from wherever he’d been. And he’d found Oliver.
“Oh,” said Oliver. “Oh.” A prickly feeling rose along the back of his neck and along his scalp, and he was cold all over. He felt as though something had punched him in the gut, a deep blow that sent his whole body reverberating with shock waves that made him reel, unsteady, on his feet.
In spite of this, all of a sudden part of him flickered with the memories of Jack from so long ago. Jack, taking Oliver by the hand on a crowded High Street in Barnet; Jack acquiring ham and bread, and feeding Oliver with it till Oliver’s stomach had been as full as it had ever been, more full than he could ever remember. And then how Jack had pulled him through the streets of Barnet and Islington, to the thickness of London, darting across posh, wide boulevards, and trotting down rackety-packety back lanes full of sewage and open doorways with dark figures looming inside.
There was, as well, the memory of Jack’s touch in Fagin’s den. Jack’s hands pulling him back, Jack putting his body slightly in front of Oliver’s when Fagin ranted, waving his iron fork about. Jack, with his hands in Oliver’s hair, or patting his cheek, stroking his arm. Jack had been a constant part of that time, his hands leaving a sensory memento of those days so long ago. The echoes of which Oliver realized he were now stirring inside of him, and which he did not quite know what to do with.
And then, sometime along when Oliver had been snatched off the streets by Nancy and Bill Sikes, Jack had disappeared, never to be seen again. No one had ever told him what had happened to Jack, and Oliver had never known whom to ask. And yet here Jack was, cutting a bright figure in the snow, dapper in a new greatcoat that was no doubt, no doubt, stolen from some fine establishment, where the staff were, even yet, quite possibly peering through the racks and crates and boxes, trying to figure out where the coat had gone. They’d probably never even seen Jack, neither coming nor going.
Oliver thought to say a word, and he opened his mouth to say it, but his confusion over whether it should be of welcome or recrimination stopped him. Jack was not his friend; that finely drawn illusion had been shattered some time after Jack had dragged him into a den of thieves. Oliver had been taught how to pick pockets and how to break into homes.
And yet. Jack had been the first person to show him any real kindness. In the midst of Oliver’s exhaustion after his walk from Hardingstone and his confusion as to what to do next, Jack had taken Oliver under his wing, fed him, had given him a smile and a pat on the head, and Oliver had been so grateful, so unbelievably grateful. Yet, it was hard to separate what had happened on the High Street at Barnet from what had come later. Jack Dawkins had found the life of a thief a grand one; in his mind, it was something to be grateful for. So he had not meant—
But now, Jack’s eyes were narrow, and his thin face was shadowed and grimy from cold and exposure. With a snap, he shoved Oliver against the tree, sending snow to sift inside the red scarf folded about his neck.
“You’re goin’ to tell me what I want to know,” Jack said. His teeth were gritted together, and the accommodating smile, which had flitted among Oliver’s memories through the past five years, was nowhere to be seen.
Lurching forward, Oliver tried to push past, but Jack caught him, the breadth of his shoulders creating a barrier. The group of men who’d been shoveling snow was too far gone, and there was no one else near the little copse in the park, no one to help. When he’d gotten snatched by Bill and Nancy, he’d shouted, and although there’d been plenty to hear, no one had believed him. This time, there was no one even to hear.
“Let me go, Jack,” said Oliver. His teeth were chattering. He wanted to tell himself it was from the cold, only his knees felt as though they’d lost bone and were ready to give way beneath him at any moment. “I won’t tell anyone you’re here, I won’t, promise.”
“Tell anyone what, then?” asked Jack. He pushed Oliver hard against the trunk of the tree with cold, gloveless hands, his smile showing the tips of his teeth. “I’m here on orders of the Queen an’ all; got papers an’ everythin’. Been hextricated an’ that. Five years, served me time.”
“Extricated from where?” Oliver had no idea what Jack was talking about, and yet it seemed that Jack assumed he did. He didn’t correct Jack that the word hextricated was pronounced extricated; it wouldn’t help, and Jack would hardly appreciate the difference, anyway.
“Got shipped back, by orders of the Queen. Been deported to Australia, to the colonies, haven’t I, but now I’m back. On good behavior, no less.” Jack smirked, still pressing Oliver against the tree.
“They don’t let you come back; they send you there and you never come back,” said Oliver, his jaw tight. He couldn’t believe that Jack had actually been deported, let alone returned.
“And yet here I am,” said Jack, smiling fully now, showing more teeth, his green eyes flashing.
Oliver’s rage during the funeral reception, which had begun to turn into grief, sprang anew within him. His heart raced, as it had so many times in the past, pushing against his breastbone in a painful, sharp way, as though battering its way through his chest. But Jack did not notice or care as he held Oliver’s shoulders. And even though it seemed Jack did this as if by afterthought, no matter how hard Oliver twisted and pushed, he couldn’t move.
“I come to London three days ago an’ go straight to the bottom of Saffron Hill. The Three Cripples was there, but no Fagin, no gang,” said Jack. The words came in a blast from Jack’s chapped lips. “I asked; no one knows the story. I go to the other hideouts, the perches, the dens, an’ then ask around some more. I hang about the Three Cripples till they almost throw me to the peelers. But no one’s seen anythin’ of Fagin’s gang, an’ no one will tell me exactly what happened, why they’re all dead an’ gone. An’ no one’d ever heard of me neither. It was as if I t’weren’t never there.”
The words and the grip took Oliver back in an instant, as if the intervening years had never been. As if the last door he’d stepped through had not been the cream-trimmed one at the townhouse on Old Church Street, but the one to the room in Fagin’s backup den, where Oliver had been kept forever. Kept in semi-darkness and utter silence and fed a meager diet and given books about criminals to read until he’d all but broken.
“Let me go, let me go,” said Oliver. He could hardly breathe to get enough air in his lungs, and the words came out thin.
Jack laughed a little under his breath and seemed only amused by this rather than moved, though he stepped back and dropped his hands from Oliver’s shoulders, as though to let him pass. Oliver took a single step, and then, in a blur, he was on the ground, shoulders and back pushed into the snow, almost smothering from the weight of Jack on top of him. Jack held Oliver’s face between two hands.
“You tell me,” said Jack, low, snarling, his breath warm, shocking, on Oliver’s face. “You tell me where they are.”
Oliver could hardly move. Dizzy from lack of air, he could only blink the snow from his eyes and stare at Jack. When he tried to inhale, his breath throttled in his throat, and Jack still didn’t seem to care.
“Who?” Oliver managed. “Who?” He couldn’t imagine who Jack was looking for after all these years.
“Them! Everyone! Like I told you! I’m lookin’ for ’em.” Jack slammed Oliver’s head deeper into the snow until the white walls cupping around his ears threatened to collapse in on him and smother him. “Charley, Nancy, even Bill Sikes. And where’s Fagin? Fagin!”
Oliver’s eyes fluttered half-closed. He didn’t want to be the one to tell Jack, Jack who had come so recently back to England and didn’t know. The newspapers depicting the events were five years old, and even if Jack could find them, Jack’s reading skills had never been a known thing. But to tell him? To be the one? Jack would surely kill him then.
Oliver shook his head and clamped his mouth shut, and was shocked to feel Jack’s fist slamming into his face. He inhaled snow up his nose and coughed and thrashed as Jack held him down. His struggles only shifted Jack’s body till Jack’s legs were between his own, warm and heavy, shoving, part of Jack’s body pressing like an iron brand against the inside of his thigh.
“Tell me,” said Jack, thrusting forward. “Tell me or I’ll bury you in snow.”
It would be foolish to doubt this. Oliver felt the warmth on his face and was sure his nose was bleeding as his jaw throbbed. The press of Jack’s chest on his was pushing him further into the snow, and whether Jack buried him or used more of his fists, it didn’t matter. Oliver was already marked up, and he was to see Mr. McCready the next week—
Oliver pushed up, growling, and for a second, this seemed to surprise Jack, who pulled back, only to slam down again as he punched Oliver right on the mouth, sending hot blood from his mouth to sear on the snow. Gasping, Oliver sank back, trying to shift his legs so that Jack’s weight didn’t press so close against him.
Jack brought his face very near Oliver’s. He wasn’t looking at Oliver directly; it was as if he didn’t care what Oliver looked like. He breathed through his nose, and when he spoke, his lips almost brushed against Oliver’s.
“You’ll tell me,” he said. His breath skittered across Oliver’s skin. “Or I’ll bury you.”
“Jack,” said Oliver, unable to breathe.
“I’ll make you,” said Jack. He drew back his fist.
“No, wait,” said Oliver. He turned his face away. “I’ll tell you.”
It would be useless to try to explain to Jack why Oliver mustn’t look like he’d been getting into street fights. Why it was so important that he get away from Mr. Grimwig and start his new life, start working toward that bookshop he’d always wanted. He couldn’t tell Jack any of that because Jack was likely to use that knowledge somehow, to control Oliver and make him turn back into one of Fagin’s boys. To make him sink to the level of the street, to the throng and pall of those who barely had enough to eat, and where there would certainly be no quiet corner in which to read.
Too much was at stake. He’d tell Jack what he needed to know, and then Jack would leave him in peace.
Jack moved. Half his weight was off Oliver now, and Oliver felt the relief in his chest, gasping with it, even though Jack’s legs were still tangled with his, sending some humming thing moving through his stomach. But more, he shivered with the touch of Jack’s skin, warm against the coldness the snow had left behind, the tiny roughness at the ends of his fingertips against Oliver’s jaw, the heat and pulse beneath Jack’s skin.
“You goin’ t’start talkin’?” asked Jack. “Or do I get to shove my fist down your throat?”
“It’s difficult to begin,” said Oliver. On top of shaking with cold, he could hardly believe that he was having this conversation, which threw him back in time, back to when he’d been a child of the streets, a poor orphan that nobody wanted and could never love. Oh, Fagin had once had use for him and his pretty face, that was certain, but it was for his own gain and never for Oliver’s.
“You have to promise—”
“I wasn’t there, Jack,” said Oliver. “I wasn’t there for any of this, you have to understand it, you have to—”
Jack tightened his fist; Oliver shied back and put his hands up to his face, but Jack’s hand upon him was firm. Snow flew up around Oliver’s arms like white lace, beautiful but cutting and cold.
“I can’t tell you more about where they’ve gone,” Oliver said, thinking to take the gentle road, something comforting and soothing, as might be said, even regarding the likes of Fagin and his gang. “Unless it is to the hereafter, and God speed to them.”
“What the fuckall does that mean?” Jack spat this, as if his temper had been frayed by hours of attempting to lure the truth out of him rather than only two moments in the drifts of snow.
“Something happened to Fagin’s gang,” said Oliver. His lips felt numb. “I don’t know exactly, but that’s what Uncle Brownlow told me. It was in the newspapers, but that was five years ago, and they never let me see them. They said it would be too much for me, after—well, after everything.”
With a shove, Jack pressed close, his hand clenched around Oliver’s jaw. “I know you know more, an’ you better tell me quick, or—”
“Wait!” Oliver took a breath. Cold air whistled down his neck where the red scarf gaped. “It all happened so fast, you realize. Once Nancy was killed, the hunt was on, and the courts, they took it personally, having let Fagin’s gang go on so long. So they hanged him. They hanged all of them, as far as I know.”
“Where did they hang him?”
Then it became clear. Where a criminal was hanged was markedly important; Oliver remembered this from the books on criminals that Fagin had made him read. This, then, was the crux of it for Jack.
“Fagin was hanged at Newgate,” said Oliver, as plainly as he could. “I went to see him, to pray—”
Jack slammed Oliver in the chest with the flat of his hand, then pulled him close again, breathing right into Oliver’s face. Cold snow slithered down his neck; Jack’s hot breath simmered against his cheek. A low, cold wind whistled around them both, the dark branches stirring overhead, sifting down snow as delicate as though from angels’ wings.
“Prayers? For Fagin? From you?” Jack looked white, his eyes enormous dark spots, the breath winged out of him, as though he’d been struck in the gut.
“I stayed with him to give him some comfort,” said Oliver as quickly as he could. Only it had been so long ago, and Oliver had buried much of it, and couldn’t dig up enough of it fast enough. But he had to try. Something, somehow—
“It was a horrible place. There were two guards outside of Fagin’s cell—”
“Of course there would be two, for someone as dangerous and canny as ol’ Fagin,” said Jack, arching his neck proudly. “Go on.”
Now Oliver understood, and he stopped thinking about what he could recall and instead began to imagine what, exactly, it was that Jack wanted to hear. Jack wanted the romantic story of it and not Christian platitudes, that was plain enough.
“It was one of the most secure cells, guarded by the warden, an important cell,” Oliver continued. He focused on Jack as this news, only slightly false, fell into the cold, raw air.
“Because he was an important prisoner, of course.” Jack nodded, some color coming back to his cheeks. “Then what?”
Oliver considered the reality of what had actually happened that day. Fagin had gone mad with terror, had crouched on his pallet, shivering and shaking and spouting nonsense. He’d continually muttered about a man who should have his throat slit, someone who had betrayed them all. Someone who had peached.
This last was the worst possible sin for anyone of Fagin’s ilk, so Oliver could well imagine that the person in question should have his throat slit. At least according to Fagin. And, probably, according to Jack, who was waiting for more of the story. Oliver swallowed, settled his chin, and determined to make the best of it.
“He didn’t want my prayers,” said Oliver, the lies, like the words in a story, coming more easily to him now. “The major of the guards had questioned him for some time, Fagin told me, wanting to know details and names, but even on promise of a lighter sentence, Fagin never gave anyone up. He waited, upright and strong, for his fate.”
At least part of the story was true. Fagin had been too busy trying to pretend that Oliver was going to escort him out of Newgate, as innocent as you please, to even come close to naming names. Except there had been that one name, new and unknown to Oliver at the time, and which now remained firmly out of reach. It didn’t matter, anyway. At that point, the guards hadn’t cared who Fagin had been able to mention, so in effect, he’d peached on no one.
“Of course not,” said Jack. “I always knew he’d go like that.”
Jack’s eyes were blind to Oliver now, as though he was miles away, back where he’d come from, back in some moment of his own past. He made a small gesture with his hand toward Oliver, as if asking for something.
“What is it?” said Oliver.
Jack focused on him then, but didn’t say anything.
“That’s all I know.” Oliver said this as quickly as he could. “Something happened, I don’t know what, but Bill killed Nancy. A mob chased him through the streets and he was shot. Along the way, as he ran, he must have led constables to the various hideouts, and they were able to track their way to Fagin, and—”
Jack pulled his hand away, and he sat back on his heels, the edges of his coat digging dark trenches in the soft snow that sparkled whiteness all around. He pulled Oliver to sitting but kept him close by, hip deep in snow, and banged his fist gently on his own bent knee.
“Hanged.” Jack’s voice quivered, and it seemed as though he were trembling.
Teeth chattering, Oliver looked up at Jack and tried to shift to a more comfortable position in the snow, but Jack gave him a shove and refused to let him move.
“Stop,” said Jack. His face was the color of iced paper. “Fagin was hanged because of you. You an’ your snivelin’ face an’ your stupid, pious—”
Oliver felt the rush of his temper, like flames shooting out of his belly. He rolled to his side and shifted to his feet, ready to be away from Jack and his fists, poised, ready to run. The snow flew about him, and his red scarf fluttered loose about his neck.
“I wasn’t there for any of it!” He almost screamed this. He had been there for part of it, but if Jack was going to keep at him like this, then maybe Jack did deserve to know that his precious mentor, his leader, went so mad in the head that he thought Oliver was there to take him away from that horrible place. Fagin had kept babbling about someone who had sent them all to the gallows, leaving Oliver unable to make sense of any of it. “I was in the country, I was at church, I was studying my new textbooks; I simply wasn’t there.”
Jack bent low and scooped up some snow with his bare palm and placed it on Oliver’s jaw. Without thought, Oliver knocked his hand away, making the snow, already dappled with blood from Oliver’s nose, fly and drift down anew.
“Stay away from me,” said Oliver, low, his voice rough from the distaste of having his past, this past, barrel its way into his life just when he was taking a new direction and starting over again. He felt rough, as well, from his shock at the unexpected but not unfamiliar touch of Jack’s hand, the gentle kindness, the casual intimacy of the gesture. “You stay away from me or I’ll call the constable and explain to him exactly who you are and what you were arrested for.” Oliver could almost taste his disdain for Jack. “And this time? They’ll carry you off for good.”
Something flickered across Jack’s face, and there was a twitch along the edge of his mouth. Oliver knew he merely imagined he saw the hurt there because Jack had been on the streets most of his life; no hard words could ever hurt him. If Jack was wounded, it was because Oliver had threatened to break the code, the one that dictated that none of Fagin’s boys ever peached.
Jack straightened up and took a step back, stumbling against the roots buried beneath the white lumps of snow.
“As you wish, Nolly,” he said, smirking. “I’ll leave you be, but you know, Fagin’s boys got to stick together, help each other out. Find good jobs to get to the glittery stuff an’ that.”
Jack had always been happier in a group, and if he couldn’t find his gang, he’d be all alone. But then, it wouldn’t be too long till Jack had another gang, would it. Though that was none of Oliver’s concern, and bad business besides.
“I’m not one of Fagin’s boys,” said Oliver. “And I’ve got nothing for you. Nothing. Stay away from me, or I will call the law.”
“You won’t do that, Nolly,” said Jack, not at all worried, it seemed.
“Good-bye, Jack,” said Oliver.
He picked up his red scarf that had fallen in the snow and started to push past Jack, stepping back on the path, shaking snow from his shoulders as he went. He could sense Jack standing there, watching him, but he didn’t turn back to meet his gaze. Those old days were gone, and Oliver wanted nothing to do with them.