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CHAPTER XXXVII

IN WHICH THE READER MAY PERCEIVE A CONTRAST, NOT UNCOMMON IN
MATRIMONIAL CASES

Mr. Bumble sat in the workhouse parlour, with his eyes moodily
fixed on the cheerless grate, whence, as it was summer time, no
brighter gleam proceeded, than the reflection of certain sickly
rays of the sun, which were sent back from its cold and shining
surface. A paper fly-cage dangled from the ceiling, to which he
occasionally raised his eyes in gloomy thought; and, as the
heedless insects hovered round the gaudy net-work, Mr. Bumble
would heave a deep sigh, while a more gloomy shadow overspread
his countenance. Mr. Bumble was meditating; it might be that the
insects brought to mind, some painful passage in his own past
life.

Nor was Mr. Bumble's gloom the only thing calculated to awaken a
pleasing melancholy in the bosom of a spectator. There were not
wanting other appearances, and those closely connected with his
own person, which announced that a great change had taken place
in the position of his affairs. The laced coat, and the cocked
hat; where were they? He still wore knee-breeches, and dark
cotton stockings on his nether limbs; but they were not THE
breeches. The coat was wide-skirted; and in that respect like
THE coat, but, oh how different! The mighty cocked hat was
replaced by a modest round one. Mr. Bumble was no longer a
beadle.

There are some promotions in life, which, independent of the more
substantial rewards they offer, require peculiar value and
dignity from the coats and waistcoats connected with them. A
field-marshal has his uniform; a bishop his silk apron; a
counsellor his silk gown; a beadle his cocked hat. Strip the
bishop of his apron, or the beadle of his hat and lace; what are
they? Men. Mere men. Dignity, and even holiness too,
sometimes, are more questions of coat and waistcoat than some
people imagine.

Mr. Bumle had married Mrs. Corney, and was master of the
workhouse. Another beadle had come into power. On him the
cocked hat, gold-laced coat, and staff, had all three descended.

'And to-morrow two months it was done!' said Mr. Bumble, with a
sigh. 'It seems a age.'

Mr. Bumble might have meant that he had concentrated a whole
existence of happiness into the short space of eight weeks; but
the sigh--there was a vast deal of meaning in the sigh.

'I sold myself,' said Mr. Bumble, pursuing the same train of
relection, 'for six teaspoons, a pair of sugar-tongs, and a
milk-pot; with a small quantity of second-hand furniture, and
twenty pound in money. I went very reasonable. Cheap, dirt
cheap!'

'Cheap!' cried a shrill voice in Mr. Bumble's ear: 'you would
have been dear at any price; and dear enough I paid for you, Lord
above knows that!'

Mr. Bumble turned, and encountered the face of his interesting
consort, who, imperfectly comprehending the few words she had
overheard of his complaint, had hazarded the foregoing remark at
a venture.

'Mrs. Bumble, ma'am!' said Mr. Bumble, with a sentimental
sternness.

'Well!' cried the lady.

'Have the goodness to look at me,' said Mr. Bumble, fixing his
eyes upon her. (If she stands such a eye as that,' said Mr.
Bumble to himself, 'she can stand anything. It is a eye I never
knew to fail with paupers. If it fails with her, my power is
gone.')

Whether an exceedingly small expansion of eye be sufficient to
quell paupers, who, being lightly fed, are in no very high
condition; or whether the late Mrs. Corney was particularly proof
against eagle glances; are matters of opinion. The matter of
fact, is, that the matron was in no way overpowered by Mr.
Bumble's scowl, but, on the contrary, treated it with great
disdain, and even raised a laugh threreat, which sounded as
though it were genuine.

On hearing this most unexpected sound, Mr. Bumble looked, first
incredulous, and afterwards amazed. He then relapsed into his
former state; nor did he rouse himself until his attention was
again awakened by the voice of his partner.

'Are you going to sit snoring there, all day?' inquired Mrs.
Bumble.

'I am going to sit here, as long as I think proper, ma'am,'
rejoined Mr. Bumble; 'and although I was NOT snoring, I shall
snore, gape, sneeze, laugh, or cry, as the humour strikes me;
such being my prerogative.'

'Your PREROGATIVE!' sneered Mrs. Bumble, with ineffable contempt.

'I said the word, ma'am,' said Mr. Bumble. 'The prerogative of a
man is to command.'

'And what's the prerogative of a woman, in the name of Goodness?'
cried the relict of Mr. Corney deceased.

'To obey, ma'am,' thundered Mr. Bumble. 'Your late unfortunate
husband should have taught it you; and then, perhaps, he might
have been alive now. I wish he was, poor man!'

Mrs. Bumble, seeing at a glance, that the decisive moment had now
arrived, and that a blow struck for the mastership on one side or
other, must necessarily be final and conclusive, no sooner heard
this allusion to the dead and gone, than she dropped into a
chair, and with a loud scream that Mr. Bumble was a hard-hearted
brute, fell into a paroxysm of tears.

But, tears were not the things to find their way to Mr. Bumble's
soul; his heart was waterproof. Like washable beaver hats that
improve with rain, his nerves were rendered stouter and more
vigorous, by showers of tears, which, being tokens of weakness,
and so far tacit admissions of his own power, please and exalted
him. He eyed his good lady with looks of great satisfaction, and
begged, in an encouraging manner, that she should cry her
hardest: the exercise being looked upon, by the faculty, as
stronly conducive to health.

'It opens the lungs, washes the countenance, exercises the eyes,
and softens down the temper,' said Mr. Bumble. 'So cry away.'

As he discharged himself of this pleasantry, Mr. Bumble took his
hat from a peg, and putting it on, rather rakishly, on one side,
as a man might, who felt he had asserted his superiority in a
becoming manner, thrust his hands into his pockets, and sauntered
towards the door, with much ease and waggishness depicted in his
whole appearance.

Now, Mrs. Corney that was, had tried the tears, because they were
less troublesome than a manual assault; but, she was quite
prepared to make trial of the latter mode of proceeding, as Mr.
Bumble was not long in discovering.

The first proof he experienced of the fact, was conveyed in a
hollow sound, immediately succeeded by the sudden flying off of
his hat to the opposite end of the room. This preliminary
proceeding laying bare his head, the expert lady, clasping him
tightly round the throat with one hand, inflicted a shower of
blows (dealt with singular vigour and dexterity) upon it with the
other. This done, she created a little variety by scratching his
face, and tearing his hair; and, having, by this time, inflicted
as much punishment as she deemed necessary for the offence, she
pushed him over a chair, which was luckily well situated for the
purpose: and defied him to talk about his prerogative again, if
he dared.

'Get up!' said Mrs. Bumble, in a voice of command. 'And take
yourself away from here, unless you want me to do something
desperate.'

Mr. Bumble rose with a very rueful countenance: wondering much
what something desperate might be. Picking up his hat, he looked
towards the door.

'Are you going?' demanded Mr. Bumble.

'Certainly, my dear, certainly,' rejoined Mr. Bumble, making a
quicker motion towards the door. 'I didn't intend to--I'm going,
my dear! You are so very violent, that really I--'

At this instant, Mrs. Bumble stepped hastily forward to replace
the carpet, which had been kicked up in the scuffle. Mr. Bumble
immediately darted out of the room, without bestowing another
thought on his unfinished sentence: leaving the late Mrs. Corney
in full possession of the field.

Mr. Bumble was fairly taken by surprise, and fairly beaten. He
had a decided propensity for bullying: derived no inconsiderable
pleasure from the exercise of petty cruelty; and, consequently,
was (it is needless to say) a coward. This is by no means a
disparagement to his character; for many official personages, who
are held in high respect and admiration, are the victims of
similar infirmities. The remark is made, indeed, rather in his
favour than otherwise, and with a view of impressing the reader
with a just sense of his qualifications for office.

But, the measure of his degradation was not yet full. After
making a tour of the house, and thinking, for the first time,
that the poor-laws really were too hard on people; and that men
who ran away from their wives, leaving them chargeable to the
parish, ought, in justice to be visited with no punishment at
all, but rather rewarded as meritorious individuals who had
suffered much; Mr. Bumble came to a room where some of the female
paupers were usually employed in washing the parish linen: when
the sound of voices in conversation, now proceeded.

'Hem!' said Mr. Bumble, summoning up all his native dignity.
'These women at least shall continue to respect the prerogative.
Hallo! hallo there! What do you mean by this noise, you
hussies?'

With these words, Mr. Bumble opened the door, and walked in with
a very fierce and angry manner: which was at once exchanged for
a most humiliated and cowering air, as his eyes unexpectedly
rested on the form of his lady wife.

'My dear,' said Mr. Bumble, 'I didn't know you were here.'

'Didn't know I was here!' repeated Mrs. Bumble. 'What do YOU do
here?'

'I thought they were talking rather too much to be doing their
work properly, my dear,' replied Mr. Bumble: glancing
distractedly at a couple of old women at the wash-tub, who were
comparing notes of admiration at the workhouse-master's humility.

'YOU thought they were talking too much?' said Mrs. Bumble. 'What
business is it of yours?'

'Why, my dear--' urged Mr. Bumble submissively.

'What business is it of yours?' demanded Mrs. Bumble, again.

'It's very true, you're matron here, my dear,' submitted Mr.
Bumble; 'but I thought you mightn't be in the way just then.'

'I'll tell you what, Mr. Bumble,' returned his lady. 'We don't
want any of your interference. You're a great deal too fond of
poking your nose into things that don't concern you, making
everybody in the house laugh, the moment your back is turned, and
making yourself look like a fool every hour in the day. Be off;
come!'

Mr. Bumble, seeing with excruciating feelings, the delight of the
two old paupers, who were tittering together most rapturously,
hesitated for an instant. Mrs. Bumble, whose patience brooked no
delay, caught up a bowl of soap-suds, and motioning him towards
the door, ordered him instantly to depart, on pain of receiving
the contents upon his portly person.

What could Mr. Bumble do? He looked dejectedly round, and slunk
away; and, as he reached the door, the titterings of the paupers
broke into a shrill chuckle of irrepressible delight. It wanted
but this. He was degraded in their eyes; he had lost caste and
station before the very paupers; he had fallen from all the
height and pomp of beadleship, to the lowest depth of the most
snubbed hen-peckery.

'All in two months!' said Mr. Bumble, filled with dismal
thoughts. 'Two months! No more than two months ago, I was not
only my own master, but everybody else's, so far as the porochial
workhouse was concerned, and now!--'

It was too much. Mr. Bumble boxed the ears of the boy who opened
the gate for him (for he had reached the portal in his reverie);
and walked, distractedly, into the street.

He walked up one street, and down another, until exercise had
abated the first passion of his grief; and then the revulsion of
feeling made him thirsty. He passed a great many public-houses;
but, at length paused before one in a by-way, whose parlour, as
he gathered from a hasty peep over the blinds, was deserted, save
by one solitary customer. It began to rain, heavily, at the
moment. This determined him. Mr. Bumble stepped in; and
ordering something to drink, as he passed the bar, entered the
apartment into which he had looked from the street.

The man who was seated there, was tall and dark, and wore a large
cloak. He had the air of a stranger; and seemed, by a certain
haggardness in his look, as well as by the dusty soils on his
dress, to have travelled some distance. He eyed Bumble askance,
as he entered, but scarcely deigned to nod his head in
acknowledgment of his salutation.

Mr. Bumble had quite dignity enough for two; supposing even that
the stranger had been more familiar: so he drank his
gin-and-water in silence, and read the paper with great show of
pomp and circumstance.

It so happened, however: as it will happen very often, when men
fall into company under such circumstances: that Mr. Bumble
felt, every now and then, a powerful inducement, which he could
not resist, to steal a look at the stranger: and that whenever
he did so, he withdrew his eyes, in some confusion, to find that
the stranger was at that moment stealing a look at him. Mr.
Bumble's awkwardness was enhanced by the very remarkable
expression of the stranger's eye, which was keen and bright, but
shadowed by a scowl of distrust and suspicion, unlike anything he
had ever observed before, and repulsive to behold.

When they had encountered each other's glance several times in
this way, the stranger, in a harsh, deep voice, broke silence.

'Were you looking for me,' he said, 'when you peered in at the
window?'

'Not that I am aware of, unless you're Mr. --' Here Mr. Bumble
stopped short; for he was curious to know the stranger's name,
and thought in his impatience, he might supply the blank.

'I see you were not,' said the stranger; and expression of quiet
sarcasm playing about his mouth; 'or you have known my name. You
don't know it. I would recommend you not to ask for it.'

'I meant no harm, young man,' observed Mr. Bumble, majestically.

'And have done none,' said the stranger.

Another silence succeeded this short dialogue: which was again
broken by the stranger.

'I have seen you before, I think?' said he. 'You were
differently dressed at that time, and I only passed you in the
street, but I should know you again. You were beadle here, once;
were you not?'

'I was,' said Mr. Bumble, in some surprise; 'porochial beadle.'

'Just so,' rejoined the other, nodding his head. 'It was in that
character I saw you. What are you now?'

'Master of the workhouse,' rejoined Mr. Bumble, slowly and
impressively, to check any undue familiarity the stranger might
otherwise assume. 'Master of the workhouse, young man!'

'You have the same eye to your own interest, that you always had,
I doubt not?' resumed the stranger, looking keenly into Mr.
Bumble's eyes, as he raised them in astonishment at the question.

'Don't scruple to answer freely, man. I know you pretty well,
you see.'

'I suppose, a married man,' replied Mr. Bumble, shading his eyes
with his hand, and surveying the stranger, from head to foot, in
evident perplexity, 'is not more averse to turning an honest
penny when he can, than a single one. Porochial officers are not
so well paid that they can afford to refuse any little extra fee,
when it comes to them in a civil and proper manner.'

The stranger smiled, and nodded his head again: as much to say,
he had not mistaken his man; then rang the bell.

'Fill this glass again,' he said, handing Mr. Bumble's empty
tumbler to the landlord. 'Let it be strong and hot. You like it
so, I suppose?'

'Not too strong,' replied Mr. Bumble, with a delicate cough.

'You understand what that means, landlord!' said the stranger,
drily.

The host smiled, disappeared, and shortly afterwards returned
with a steaming jorum: of which, the first gulp brought the water
into Mr. Bumble's eyes.

'Now listen to me,' said the stranger, after closing the door and
window. 'I came down to this place, to-day, to find you out;
and, by one of those chances which the devil throws in the way of
his friends sometimes, you walked into the very room I was
sitting in, while you were uppermost in my mind. I want some
information from you. I don't ask you to give it for mothing,
slight as it is. Put up that, to begin with.'

As he spoke, he pushed a couple of sovereigns across the table to
his companion, carefully, as though unwilling that the chinking
of money should be heard without. When Mr. Bumble had
scrupulously examined the coins, to see that they were genuine,
and had put them up, with much satisfaction, in his
waistcoat-pocket, he went on:

'Carry your memory back--let me see--twelve years, last winter.'

'It's a long time,' said Mr. Bumble. 'Very good. I've done it.'

'The scene, the workhouse.'

'Good!'

'And the time, night.'

'Yes.'

'And the place, the crazy hole, wherever it was, in which
miserable drabs brought forth the life and health so often denied
to themselves--gave birth to puling children for the parish to
rear; and hid their shame, rot 'em in the grave!'

'The lying-in room, I suppose?' said Mr. Bumble, not quite
following the stranger's excited description.

'Yes,' said the stranger. 'A boy was born there.'

'A many boys,' observed Mr. Bumble, shaking his head,
despondingly.

'A murrain on the young devils!' cried the stranger; 'I speak of
one; a meek-looking, pale-faced boy, who was apprenticed down
here, to a coffin-maker--I wish he had made his coffin, and
screwed his body in it--and who afterwards ran away to London, as
it was supposed.

'Why, you mean Oliver! Young Twist!' said Mr. Bumble; 'I
remember him, of course. There wasn't a obstinater young
rascal--'

'It's not of him I want to hear; I've heard enough of him,' said
the stranger, stopping Mr. Bumble in the outset of a tirade on
the subject of poor Oliver's vices. 'It's of a woman; the hag
that nursed his mother. Where is she?'

'Where is she?' said Mr. Bumble, whom the gin-and-water had
rendered facetious. 'It would be hard to tell. There's no
midwifery there, whichever place she's gone to; so I suppose
she's out of employment, anyway.'

'What do you mean?' demanded the stranger, sternly.

'That she died last winter,' rejoined Mr. Bumble.

The man looked fixedly at him when he had given this information,
and although he did not withdraw his eyes for some time
afterwards, his gaze gradually became vacant and abstracted, and
he seemed lost in thought. For some time, he appeared doubtful
whether he ought to be relieved or disappointed by the
intelligence; but at length he breathed more freely; and
withdrawing his eyes, observed that it was no great matter. With
that he rose, as if to depart.

But Mr. Bumble was cunning enough; and he at once saw that an
opportunity was opened, for the lucrative disposal of some secret
in the possession of his better half. He well remembered the
night of old Sally's death, which the occurrences of that day had
given him good reason to recollect, as the occasion on which he
had proposed to Mrs. Corney; and although that lady had never
confided to him the disclosure of which she had been the solitary
witness, he had heard enough to know that it related to something
that had occurred in the old woman's attendance, as workhouse
nurse, upon the young mother of Oliver Twist. Hastily calling
this circumstance to mind, he informed the stranger, with an air
of mystery, that one woman had been closeted with the old
harridan shortly before she died; and that she could, as he had
reason to believe, throw some light on the subject of his
inquiry.

'How can I find her?' said the stranger, thrown off his guard;
and plainly showing that all his fears (whatever they were) were
aroused afresh by the intelligence.

'Only through me,' rejoined Mr. Bumble.

'When?' cried the stranger, hastily.

'To-morrow,' rejoined Bumble.

'At nine in the evening,' said the stranger, producing a scrap of
paper, and writing down upon it, an obscure address by the
water-side, in characters that betrayed his agitation; 'at nine
in the evening, bring her to me there. I needn't tell you to be
secret. It's your interest.'

With these words, he led the way to the door, after stopping to
pay for the liquor that had been drunk. Shortly remarking that
their roads were different, he departed, without more ceremony
than an emphatic repetition of the hour of appointment for the
following night.

On glancing at the address, the parochial functionary observed
that it contained no name. The stranger had not gone far, so he
made after him to ask it.

'What do you want?' cried the man. turning quickly round, as
Bumble touched him on the arm. 'Following me?'

'Only to ask a question,' said the other, pointing to the scrap
of paper. 'What name am I to ask for?'

'Monks!' rejoined the man; and strode hastily, away.





Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Category:
General Fiction

England - Social life and customs - 19th century
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