Mr. Bumble sat in the workhouse parlour, with his eyes moodily fixed on th_heerless grate, whence, as it was summer time, no brighter gleam proceeded, than the reflection of certain sickly rays of the sun, which were sent bac_rom 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 th_eedless insects hovered round the gaudy net-work, Mr. Bumble would heave _eep sigh, while a more gloomy shadow overspread his countenance. Mr. Bumbl_as meditating; it might be that the insects brought to mind, some painfu_assage in his own past life.
Nor was Mr. Bumble's gloom the only thing calculated to awaken a pleasin_elancholy in the bosom of a spectator. There were not wanting othe_ppearances, and those closely connected with his own person, which announce_hat a great change had taken place in the position of his affairs. The lace_oat, and the cocked hat; where were they? He still wore knee-breeches, an_ark 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 ho_ifferent! 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 substantia_ewards they offer, require peculiar value and dignity from the coats an_aistcoats connected with them. A field-marshal has his uniform; a bishop hi_ilk apron; a counsellor his silk gown; a beadle his cocked hat. Strip th_ishop 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 o_oat and waistcoat than some people imagine.
Mr. Bumble had married Mrs. Corney, and was master of the workhouse. Anothe_eadle 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. 'I_eems a age.'
Mr. Bumble might have meant that he had concentrated a whole existence o_appiness into the short space of eight weeks; but the sigh—there was a vas_eal of meaning in the sigh.
'I sold myself,' said Mr. Bumble, pursuing the same train of relection, 'fo_ix teaspoons, a pair of sugar-tongs, and a milk-pot; with a small quantity o_econd-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 dea_t 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 stan_nything. 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 lat_rs. Corney was particularly proof against eagle glances; are matters o_pinion. The matter of fact, is, that the matron was in no way overpowered b_r. Bumble's scowl, but, on the contrary, treated it with great disdain, an_ven raised a laugh thereat, 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 h_ouse himself until his attention was again awakened by the voice of hi_artner.
'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 t_ommand.'
'And what's the prerogative of a woman, in the name of Goodness?' cried th_elict of Mr. Corney deceased.
'To obey, ma'am,' thundered Mr. Bumble. 'Your late unfortunate husband shoul_ave taught it you; and then, perhaps, he might have been alive now. I wish h_as, poor man!'
Mrs. Bumble, seeing at a glance, that the decisive moment had now arrived, an_hat a blow struck for the mastership on one side or other, must necessaril_e 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 _ard-hearted brute, fell into a paroxysm of tears.
But, tears were not the things to find their way to Mr. Bumble's soul; hi_eart was waterproof. Like washable beaver hats that improve with rain, hi_erves were rendered stouter and more vigorous, by showers of tears, which, being tokens of weakness, and so far tacit admissions of his own power, pleased and exalted him. He eyed his good lady with looks of grea_atisfaction, and begged, in an encouraging manner, that she should cry he_ardest: the exercise being looked upon, by the faculty, as strongly conduciv_o health.
'It opens the lungs, washes the countenance, exercises the eyes, and soften_own the temper,' said Mr. Bumble. 'So cry away.'
As he discharged himself of this pleasantry, Mr. Bumble took his hat from _eg, and putting it on, rather rakishly, on one side, as a man might, who fel_e had asserted his superiority in a becoming manner, thrust his hands int_is pockets, and sauntered towards the door, with much ease and waggishnes_epicted in his whole appearance.
Now, Mrs. Corney that was, had tried the tears, because they were les_roublesome than a manual assault; but, she was quite prepared to make tria_f 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 en_f the room. This preliminary proceeding laying bare his head, the exper_ady, clasping him tightly round the throat with one hand, inflicted a showe_f blows (dealt with singular vigour and dexterity) upon it with the other.
This done, she created a little variety by scratching his face, and tearin_is hair; and, having, by this time, inflicted as much punishment as sh_eemed necessary for the offence, she pushed him over a chair, which wa_uckily well situated for the purpose: and defied him to talk about hi_rerogative again, if he dared.
'Get up!' said Mrs. Bumble, in a voice of command. 'And take yourself awa_rom here, unless you want me to do something desperate.'
Mr. Bumble rose with a very rueful countenance: wondering much what somethin_esperate might be. Picking up his hat, he looked towards the door.
'Are you going?' demanded Mrs. Bumble.
'Certainly, my dear, certainly,' rejoined Mr. Bumble, making a quicker motio_owards the door. 'I didn't intend to—I'm going, my dear! You are so ver_iolent, 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 o_he 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 decide_ropensity for bullying: derived no inconsiderable pleasure from the exercis_f petty cruelty; and, consequently, was (it is needless to say) a coward.
This is by no means a disparagement to his character; for many officia_ersonages, who are held in high respect and admiration, are the victims o_imilar infirmities. The remark is made, indeed, rather in his favour tha_therwise, and with a view of impressing the reader with a just sense of hi_ualifications for office.
But, the measure of his degradation was not yet full. After making a tour o_he house, and thinking, for the first time, that the poor-laws really wer_oo hard on people; and that men who ran away from their wives, leaving the_hargeable to the parish, ought, in justice to be visited with no punishmen_t all, but rather rewarded as meritorious individuals who had suffered much; Mr. Bumble came to a room where some of the female paupers were usuall_mployed in washing the parish linen: when the sound of voices i_onversation, now proceeded.
'Hem!' said Mr. Bumble, summoning up all his native dignity. 'These women a_east shall continue to respect the prerogative. Hallo! hallo there! What d_ou mean by this noise, you hussies?'
With these words, Mr. Bumble opened the door, and walked in with a very fierc_nd angry manner: which was at once exchanged for a most humiliated an_owering 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 wome_t 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 busines_s 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 _hought you mightn't be in the way just then.'
'I'll tell you what, Mr. Bumble,' returned his lady. 'We don't want any o_our interference. You're a great deal too fond of poking your nose int_hings that don't concern you, making everybody in the house laugh, the momen_our back is turned, and making yourself look like a fool every hour in th_ay. Be off; come!'
Mr. Bumble, seeing with excruciating feelings, the delight of the two ol_aupers, who were tittering together most rapturously, hesitated for a_nstant. Mrs. Bumble, whose patience brooked no delay, caught up a bowl o_oap-suds, and motioning him towards the door, ordered him instantly t_epart, on pain of receiving the contents upon his portly person.
What could Mr. Bumble do? He looked dejectedly round, and slunk away; and, a_e reached the door, the titterings of the paupers broke into a shrill chuckl_f 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 al_he height and pomp of beadleship, to the lowest depth of the most snubbe_en-peckery.
'All in two months!' said Mr. Bumble, filled with dismal thoughts. 'Tw_onths! No more than two months ago, I was not only my own master, bu_verybody 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 fo_im (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 firs_assion of his grief; and then the revulsion of feeling made him thirsty. H_assed 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, wa_eserted, save by one solitary customer. It began to rain, heavily, at th_oment. This determined him. Mr. Bumble stepped in; and ordering something t_rink, as he passed the bar, entered the apartment into which he had looke_rom the street.
The man who was seated there, was tall and dark, and wore a large cloak. H_ad 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 i_cknowledgment of his salutation.
Mr. Bumble had quite dignity enough for two; supposing even that the strange_ad been more familiar: so he drank his gin-and-water in silence, and read th_aper with great show of pomp and circumstance.
It so happened, however: as it will happen very often, when men fall int_ompany under such circumstances: that Mr. Bumble felt, every now and then, _owerful inducement, which he could not resist, to steal a look at th_tranger: and that whenever he did so, he withdrew his eyes, in som_onfusion, to find that the stranger was at that moment stealing a look a_im. Mr. Bumble's awkwardness was enhanced by the very remarkable expressio_f the stranger's eye, which was keen and bright, but shadowed by a scowl o_istrust and suspicion, unlike anything he had ever observed before, an_epulsive to behold.
When they had encountered each other's glance several times in this way, th_tranger, 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; an expression of quiet sarcas_laying about his mouth; 'or you have known my name. You don't know it. _ould 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 th_tranger.
'I have seen you before, I think?' said he. 'You were differently dressed a_hat 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 _aw you. What are you now?'
'Master of the workhouse,' rejoined Mr. Bumble, slowly and impressively, t_heck any undue familiarity the stranger might otherwise assume. 'Master o_he workhouse, young man!'
'You have the same eye to your own interest, that you always had, I doub_ot?' resumed the stranger, looking keenly into Mr. Bumble's eyes, as h_aised 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 hi_and, 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 an_ittle 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 no_istaken his man; then rang the bell.
'Fill this glass again,' he said, handing Mr. Bumble's empty tumbler to th_andlord. '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 steamin_orum: 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. '_ame down to this place, to-day, to find you out; and, by one of those chance_hich the devil throws in the way of his friends sometimes, you walked int_he very room I was sitting in, while you were uppermost in my mind. I wan_ome information from you. I don't ask you to give it for nothing, slight a_t is. Put up that, to begin with.'
As he spoke, he pushed a couple of sovereigns across the table to hi_ompanion, carefully, as though unwilling that the chinking of money should b_eard without. When Mr. Bumble had scrupulously examined the coins, to se_hat they were genuine, and had put them up, with much satisfaction, in hi_aistcoat-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.'
'And the time, night.'
'And the place, the crazy hole, wherever it was, in which miserable drab_rought forth the life and health so often denied to themselves—gave birth t_uling children for the parish to rear; and hid their shame, rot 'em in th_rave!'
'The lying-in room, I suppose?' said Mr. Bumble, not quite following th_tranger'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—_ish he had made his coffin, and screwed his body in it—and who afterwards ra_way to London, as it was supposed.
'Why, you mean Oliver! Young Twist!' said Mr. Bumble; 'I remember him, o_ourse. 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'_ices. '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 rendere_acetious. 'It would be hard to tell. There's no midwifery there, whicheve_lace 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 althoug_e did not withdraw his eyes for some time afterwards, his gaze graduall_ecame vacant and abstracted, and he seemed lost in thought. For some time, h_ppeared doubtful whether he ought to be relieved or disappointed by th_ntelligence; 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 wa_pened, for the lucrative disposal of some secret in the possession of hi_etter half. He well remembered the night of old Sally's death, which th_ccurrences of that day had given him good reason to recollect, as th_ccasion on which he had proposed to Mrs. Corney; and although that lady ha_ever confided to him the disclosure of which she had been the solitar_itness, he had heard enough to know that it related to something that ha_ccurred in the old woman's attendance, as workhouse nurse, upon the youn_other of Oliver Twist. Hastily calling this circumstance to mind, he informe_he stranger, with an air of mystery, that one woman had been closeted wit_he old harridan shortly before she died; and that she could, as he had reaso_o believe, throw some light on the subject of his inquiry.
'How can I find her?' said the stranger, thrown off his guard; and plainl_howing that all his fears (whatever they were) were aroused afresh by th_ntelligence.
'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, an_riting down upon it, an obscure address by the water-side, in characters tha_etrayed his agitation; 'at nine in the evening, bring her to me there. _eedn'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 th_iquor that had been drunk. Shortly remarking that their roads were different, he departed, without more ceremony than an emphatic repetition of the hour o_ppointment for the following night.
On glancing at the address, the parochial functionary observed that i_ontained no name. The stranger had not gone far, so he made after him to as_t.
'What do you want?' cried the man, turning quickly round, as Bumble touche_im 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.