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CHAPTER XXIII

WHICH CONTAINS THE SUBSTANCE OF A PLEASANT CONVERSATION BETWEEN
MR. BUMBLE AND A LADY; AND SHOWS THAT EVEN A BEADLE MAY BE
SUSCEPTIBLE ON SOME POINTS

The night was bitter cold. The snow lay on the ground, frozen
into a hard thick crust, so that only the heaps that had drifted
into byways and corners were affected by the sharp wind that
howled abroad: which, as if expending increased fury on such
prey as it found, caught it savagely up in clouds, and, whirling
it into a thousand misty eddies, scattered it in air. Bleak,
dark, and piercing cold, it was a night for the well-housed and
fed to draw round the bright fire and thank God they were at
home; and for the homeless, starving wretch to lay him down and
die. Many hunger-worn outcasts close their eyes in our bare
streets, at such times, who, let their crimes have been what they
may, can hardly open them in a more bitter world.

Such was the aspect of out-of-doors affairs, when Mr. Corney, the
matron of the workhouse to which our readers have been already
introduced as the birthplace of Oliver Twist, sat herself down
before a cheerful fire in her own little room, and glanced, with
no small degree of complacency, at a small round table: on which
stood a tray of corresponding size, furnished with all necessary
materials for the most grateful meal that matrons enjoy. In
fact, Mrs. Corney was about to solace herself with a cup of tea.
As she glanced from the table to the fireplace, where the
smallest of all possible kettles was singing a small song in a
small voice, her inward satisfaction evidently increased,--so
much so, indeed, that Mrs. Corney smiled.

'Well!' said the matron, leaning her elbow on the table, and
looking reflectively at the fire; 'I'm sure we have all on us a
great deal to be grateful for! A great deal, if we did but know
it. Ah!'

Mrs. Corney shook her head mournfully, as if deploring the mental
blindness of those paupers who did not know it; and thrusting a
silver spoon (private property) into the inmost recesses of a
two-ounce tin tea-caddy, proceeded to make the tea.

How slight a thing will disturb the equanimity of our frail
minds! The black teapot, being very small and easily filled, ran
over while Mrs. Corney was moralising; and the water slightly
scalded Mrs. Corney's hand.

'Drat the pot!' said the worthy matron, setting it down very
hastily on the hob; 'a little stupid thing, that only holds a
couple of cups! What use is it of, to anybody! Except,' said
Mrs. Corney, pausing, 'except to a poor desolate creature like
me. Oh dear!'

With these words, the matron dropped into her chair, and, once
more resting her elbow on the table, thought of her solitary
fate. The small teapot, and the single cup, had awakened in her
mind sad recollections of Mr. Corney (who had not been dead more
than five-and-twenty years); and she was overpowered.

'I shall never get another!' said Mrs. Corney, pettishly; 'I
shall never get another--like him.'

Whether this remark bore reference to the husband, or the teapot,
is uncertain. It might have been the latter; for Mrs. Corney
looked at it as she spoke; and took it up afterwards. She had
just tasted her first cup, when she was disturbed by a soft tap
at the room-door.

'Oh, come in with you!' said Mrs. Corney, sharply. 'Some of the
old women dying, I suppose. They always die when I'm at meals.
Don't stand there, letting the cold air in, don't. What's amiss
now, eh?'

'Nothing, ma'am, nothing,' replied a man's voice.

'Dear me!' exclaimed the matron, in a much sweeter tone, 'is that
Mr. Bumble?'

'At your service, ma'am,' said Mr. Bumble, who had been stopping
outside to rub his shoes clean, and to shake the snow off his
coat; and who now made his appearance, bearing the cocked hat in
one hand and a bundle in the other. 'Shall I shut the door,
ma'am?'

The lady modestly hesitated to reply, lest there should be any
impropriety in holding an interview with Mr. Bumble, with closed
doors. Mr. Bumble taking advantage of the hesitation, and being
very cold himself, shut it without permission.

'Hard weather, Mr. Bumble,' said the matron.

'Hard, indeed, ma'am,' replied the beadle. 'Anti-porochial
weather this, ma'am. We have given away, Mrs. Corney, we have
given away a matter of twenty quartern loaves and a cheese and a
half, this very blessed afternoon; and yet them paupers are not
contented.'

'Of course not. When would they be, Mr. Bumble?' said the
matron, sipping her tea.

'When, indeed, ma'am!' rejoined Mr. Bumble. 'Why here's one man
that, in consideraton of his wife and large family, has a
quartern loaf and a good pound of cheese, full weight. Is he
grateful, ma'am? Is he grateful? Not a copper farthing's worth
of it! What does he do, ma'am, but ask for a few coals; if it's
only a pocket handkerchief full, he says! Coals! What would he
do with coals? Toast his cheese with 'em and then come back for
more. That's the way with these people, ma'am; give 'em a apron
full of coals to-day, and they'll come back for another, the day
after to-morrow, as brazen as alabaster.'

The matron expressed her entire concurrence in this intelligible
simile; and the beadle went on.

'I never,' said Mr. Bumble, 'see anything like the pitch it's got
to. The day afore yesterday, a man--you have been a married
woman, ma'am, and I may mention it to you--a man, with hardly a
rag upon his back (here Mrs. Corney looked at the floor), goes to
our overseer's door when he has got company coming to dinner; and
says, he must be relieved, Mrs. Corney. As he wouldn't go away,
and shocked the company very much, our overseer sent him out a
pound of potatoes and half a pint of oatmeal. "My heart!" says
the ungrateful villain, "what's the use of THIS to me? You might
as well give me a pair of iron spectacles!' "Very good," says
our overseer, taking 'em away again, "you won't get anything else
here." "Then I'll die in the streets!" says the vagrant. "Oh
no, you won't," says our overseer.'

'Ha! ha! That was very good! So like Mr. Grannett, wasn't it?'
interposed the matron. 'Well, Mr. Bumble?'

'Well, ma'am,' rejoined the beadle, 'he went away; and he DID die
in the streets. There's a obstinate pauper for you!'

'It beats anything I could have believed,' observed the matron
emphatically. 'But don't you think out-of-door relief a very bad
thing, any way, Mr. Bumble? You're a gentleman of experience,
and ought to know. Come.'

'Mrs. Corney,' said the beadle, smiling as men smile who are
conscious of superior information, 'out-of-door relief, properly
managed, ma'am: is the porochial safeguard. The great principle
of out-of-door relief is, to give the paupers exactly what they
don't want; and then they get tired of coming.'

'Dear me!' exclaimed Mrs. Corney. 'Well, that is a good one,
too!'

'Yes. Betwixt you and me, ma'am,' returned Mr. Bumble, 'that's
the great principle; and that's the reason why, if you look at
any cases that get into them owdacious newspapers, you'll always
observe that sick families have been relieved with slices of
cheese. That's the rule now, Mrs. Corney, all over the country.
But, however,' said the beadle, stopping to unpack his bundle,
'these are official secrets, ma'am; not to be spoken of; except,
as I may say, among the porochial officers, such as ourselves.
This is the port wine, ma'am, that the board ordered for the
infirmary; real, fresh, genuine port wine; only out of the cask
this forenoon; clear as a bell, and no sediment!'

Having held the first bottle up to the light, and shaken it well
to test its excellence, Mr. Bumble placed them both on top of a
chest of drawers; folded the handkerchief in which they had been
wrapped; put it carefully in his pocket; and took up his hat, as
if to go.

'You'll have a very cold walk, Mr. Bumble,' said the matron.

'It blows, ma'am,' replied Mr. Bumble, turning up his
coat-collar, 'enough to cut one's ears off.'

The matron looked, from the little kettle, to the beadle, who was
moving towards the door; and as the beadle coughed, preparatory
to bidding her good-night, bashfully inquired whether--whether he
wouldn't take a cup of tea?

Mr. Bumble instantaneously turned back his collar again; laid his
hat and stick upon a chair; and drew another chair up to the
table. As he slowly seated himself, he looked at the lady. She
fixed her eyes upon the little teapot. Mr. Bumble coughed again,
and slightly smiled.

Mrs. Corney rose to get another cup and saucer from the closet.
As she sat down, her eyes once again encountered those of the
gallant beadle; she coloured, and applied herself to the task of
making his tea. Again Mr. Bumble coughed--louder this time than
he had coughed yet.

'Sweet? Mr. Bumble?' inquired the matron, taking up the
sugar-basin.

'Very sweet, indeed, ma'am,' replied Mr. Bumble. He fixed his
eyes on Mrs. Corney as he said this; and if ever a beadle looked
tender, Mr. Bumble was that beadle at that moment.

The tea was made, and handed in silence. Mr. Bumble, having
spread a handkerchief over his knees to prevent the crumbs from
sullying the splendour of his shorts, began to eat and drink;
varying these amusements, occasionally, by fetching a deep sigh;
which, however, had no injurious effect upon his appetite, but,
on the contrary, rather seemed to facilitate his operations in
the tea and toast department.

'You have a cat, ma'am, I see,' said Mr. Bumble, glancing at one
who, in the centre of her family, was basking before the fire;
'and kittens too, I declare!'

'I am so fond of them, Mr. Bumble,you can't think,' replied the
matron. 'They're SO happy, SO frolicsome, and SO cheerful, that
they are quite companions for me.'

'Very nice animals, ma'am,' replied Mr. Bumble, approvingly; 'so
very domestic.'

'Oh, yes!' rejoined the matron with enthusiasm; 'so fond of their
home too, that it's quite a pleasure, I'm sure.'

'Mrs. Corney, ma'am, said Mr. Bumble, slowly, and marking the
time with his teaspoon, 'I mean to say this, ma'am; that any cat,
or kitten, that could live with you, ma'am, and NOT be fond of
its home, must be a ass, ma'am.'

'Oh, Mr. Bumble!' remonstrated Mrs. Corney.

'It's of no use disguising facts, ma'am,' said Mr. Bumble, slowly
flourishing the teaspoon with a kind of amorous dignity which
made him doubly impressive; 'I would drown it myself, with
pleasure.'

'Then you're a cruel man,' said the matron vivaciously, as she
held out her hand for the beadle's cup; 'and a very hard-hearted
man besides.'

'Hard-hearted, ma'am?' said Mr. Bumble. 'Hard?' Mr. Bumble
resigned his cup without another word; squeezed Mrs. Corney's
little finger as she took it; and inflicting two open-handed
slaps upon his laced waistcoat, gave a mighty sigh, and hitched
his chair a very little morsel farther from the fire.

It was a round table; and as Mrs. Corney and Mr. Bumble had been
sitting opposite each other, with no great space between them,
and fronting the fire, it will be seen that Mr. Bumble, in
receding from the fire, and still keeping at the table, increased
the distance between himself and Mrs. Corney; which proceeding,
some prudent readers will doubtless be disposed to admire, and to
consider an act of great heroism on Mr. Bumble's part: he being
in some sort tempted by time, place, and opportunity, to give
utterance to certain soft nothings, which however well they may
become the lips of the light and thoughtless, do seem
immeasurably beneath the dignity of judges of the land, members
of parliament, ministers of state, lord mayors, and other great
public functionaries, but more particularly beneath the
stateliness and gravity of a beadle: who (as is well known)
should be the sternest and most inflexible among them all.

Whatever were Mr. Bumble's intentions, however (and no doubt they
were of the best): it unfortunately happened, as has been twice
before remarked, that the table was a round one; consequently Mr.
Bumble, moving his chair by little and little, soon began to
diminish the distance between himself and the matron; and,
continuing to travel round the outer edge of the circle, brought
his chair, in time, close to that in which the matron was seated.

Indeed, the two chairs touched; and when they did so, Mr. Bumble
stopped.

Now, if the matron had moved her chair to the right, she would
have been scorched by the fire; and if to the left, she must have
fallen into Mr. Bumble's arms; so (being a discreet matron, and
no doubt foreseeing these consequences at a glance) she remained
where she was, and handed Mr. Bumble another cup of tea.

'Hard-hearted, Mrs. Corney?' said Mr. Bumble, stirring his tea,
and looking up into the matron's face; 'are YOU hard-hearted,
Mrs. Corney?'

'Dear me!' exclaimed the matron, 'what a very curious question
from a single man. What can you want to know for, Mr. Bumble?'

The beadle drank his tea to the last drop; finished a piece of
toast; whisked the crumbs off his knees; wiped his lips; and
deliberately kissed the matron.

'Mr. Bumble!' cried that discreet lady in a whisper; for the
fright was so great, that she had quite lost her voice, 'Mr.
Bumble, I shall scream!' Mr. Bumble made no reply; but in a slow
and dignified manner, put his arm round the matron's waist.

As the lady had stated her intention of screaming, of course she
would have screamed at this additional boldness, but that the
exertion was rendered unnecessary by a hasty knocking at the
door: which was no sooner heard, than Mr. Bumble darted, with
much agility, to the wine bottles, and began dusting them with
great violence: while the matron sharply demanded who was there.

It is worthy of remark, as a curious physical instance of the
efficacy of a sudden surprise in counteracting the effects of
extreme fear, that her voice had quite recovered all its official
asperity.

'If you please, mistress,' said a withered old female pauper,
hideously ugly: putting her head in at the door, 'Old Sally is
a-going fast.'

'Well, what's that to me?' angrily demanded the matron. 'I can't
keep her alive, can I?'

'No, no, mistress,' replied the old woman, 'nobody can; she's far
beyond the reach of help. I've seen a many people die; little
babes and great strong men; and I know when death's a-coming,
well enough. But she's troubled in her mind: and when the fits
are not on her,--and that's not often, for she is dying very
hard,--she says she has got something to tell, which you must
hear. She'll never die quiet till you come, mistress.'

At this intelligence, the worthy Mrs. Corney muttered a variety
of invectives against old women who couldn't even die without
purposely annoying their betters; and, muffling herself in a
thick shawl which she hastily caught up, briefly requested Mr.
Bumble to stay till she came back, lest anything particular
should occur. Bidding the messenger walk fast, and not be all
night hobbling up the stairs, she followed her from the room with
a very ill grace, scolding all the way.

Mr. Bumble's conduct on being left to himself, was rather
inexplicable. He opened the closet, counted the teaspoons,
weighed the sugar-tongs, closely inspected a silver milk-pot to
ascertain that it was of the genuine metal, and, having satisfied
his curiosity on these points, put on his cocked hat corner-wise,
and danced with much gravity four distinct times round the table.

Having gone through this very extraordinary performance, he took
off the cocked hat again, and, spreading himself before the fire
with his back towards it, seemed to be mentally engaged in taking
an exact inventory of the furniture.





Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Category:
General Fiction

England - Social life and customs - 19th century
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