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Chapter 38

  • It was a dull, close, overcast summer evening. The clouds, which had bee_hreatening all day, spread out in a dense and sluggish mass of vapour, already yielded large drops of rain, and seemed to presage a violent thunder- storm, when Mr. and Mrs. Bumble, turning out of the main street of the town, directed their course towards a scattered little colony of ruinous houses, distant from it some mile and a-half, or thereabouts, and erected on a lo_nwholesome swamp, bordering upon the river.
  • They were both wrapped in old and shabby outer garments, which might, perhaps, serve the double purpose of protecting their persons from the rain, an_heltering them from observation. The husband carried a lantern, from which, however, no light yet shone; and trudged on, a few paces in front, a_hough—the way being dirty—to give his wife the benefit of treading in hi_eavy footprints. They went on, in profound silence; every now and then, Mr.
  • Bumble relaxed his pace, and turned his head as if to make sure that hi_elpmate was following; then, discovering that she was close at his heels, h_ended his rate of walking, and proceeded, at a considerable increase o_peed, towards their place of destination.
  • This was far from being a place of doubtful character; for it had long bee_nown as the residence of none but low ruffians, who, under various pretence_f living by their labour, subsisted chiefly on plunder and crime. It was _ollection of mere hovels: some, hastily built with loose bricks: others, o_ld worm-eaten ship-timber: jumbled together without any attempt at order o_rrangement, and planted, for the most part, within a few feet of the river'_ank. A few leaky boats drawn up on the mud, and made fast to the dwarf wal_hich skirted it: and here and there an oar or coil of rope: appeared, a_irst, to indicate that the inhabitants of these miserable cottages pursue_ome avocation on the river; but a glance at the shattered and useles_ondition of the articles thus displayed, would have led a passer-by, withou_uch difficulty, to the conjecture that they were disposed there, rather fo_he preservation of appearances, than with any view to their being actuall_mployed.
  • In the heart of this cluster of huts; and skirting the river, which its uppe_tories overhung; stood a large building, formerly used as a manufactory o_ome kind. It had, in its day, probably furnished employment to th_nhabitants of the surrounding tenements. But it had long since gone to ruin.
  • The rat, the worm, and the action of the damp, had weakened and rotted th_iles on which it stood; and a considerable portion of the building ha_lready sunk down into the water; while the remainder, tottering and bendin_ver the dark stream, seemed to wait a favourable opportunity of following it_ld companion, and involving itself in the same fate.
  • It was before this ruinous building that the worthy couple paused, as th_irst peal of distant thunder reverberated in the air, and the rain commence_ouring violently down.
  • 'The place should be somewhere here,' said Bumble, consulting a scrap of pape_e held in his hand.
  • 'Halloa there!' cried a voice from above.
  • Following the sound, Mr. Bumble raised his head and descried a man looking ou_f a door, breast-high, on the second story.
  • 'Stand still, a minute,' cried the voice; 'I'll be with you directly.' Wit_hich the head disappeared, and the door closed.
  • 'Is that the man?' asked Mr. Bumble's good lady.
  • Mr. Bumble nodded in the affirmative.
  • 'Then, mind what I told you,' said the matron: 'and be careful to say a_ittle as you can, or you'll betray us at once.'
  • Mr. Bumble, who had eyed the building with very rueful looks, was apparentl_bout to express some doubts relative to the advisability of proceeding an_urther with the enterprise just then, when he was prevented by the appearanc_f Monks: who opened a small door, near which they stood, and beckoned the_nwards.
  • 'Come in!' he cried impatiently, stamping his foot upon the ground. 'Don'_eep me here!'
  • The woman, who had hesitated at first, walked boldly in, without any othe_nvitation. Mr. Bumble, who was ashamed or afraid to lag behind, followed: obviously very ill at ease and with scarcely any of that remarkable dignit_hich was usually his chief characteristic.
  • 'What the devil made you stand lingering there, in the wet?' said Monks, turning round, and addressing Bumble, after he had bolted the door behin_hem.
  • 'We—we were only cooling ourselves,' stammered Bumble, looking apprehensivel_bout him.
  • 'Cooling yourselves!' retorted Monks. 'Not all the rain that ever fell, o_ver will fall, will put as much of hell's fire out, as a man can carry abou_ith him. You won't cool yourself so easily; don't think it!'
  • With this agreeable speech, Monks turned short upon the matron, and bent hi_aze upon her, till even she, who was not easily cowed, was fain to withdra_er eyes, and turn them towards the ground.
  • 'This is the woman, is it?' demanded Monks.
  • 'Hem! That is the woman,' replied Mr. Bumble, mindful of his wife's caution.
  • 'You think women never can keep secrets, I suppose?' said the matron, interposing, and returning, as she spoke, the searching look of Monks.
  • 'I know they will always keep _one_ till it's found out,' said Monks.
  • 'And what may that be?' asked the matron.
  • 'The loss of their own good name,' replied Monks. 'So, by the same rule, if _oman's a party to a secret that might hang or transport her, I'm not afrai_f her telling it to anybody; not I! Do you understand, mistress?'
  • 'No,' rejoined the matron, slightly colouring as she spoke.
  • 'Of course you don't!' said Monks. 'How should you?'
  • Bestowing something half-way between a smile and a frown upon his tw_ompanions, and again beckoning them to follow him, the man hastened acros_he apartment, which was of considerable extent, but low in the roof. He wa_reparing to ascend a steep staircase, or rather ladder, leading to anothe_loor of warehouses above: when a bright flash of lightning streamed down th_perture, and a peal of thunder followed, which shook the crazy building t_ts centre.
  • 'Hear it!' he cried, shrinking back. 'Hear it! Rolling and crashing on as i_t echoed through a thousand caverns where the devils were hiding from it. _ate the sound!'
  • He remained silent for a few moments; and then, removing his hands suddenl_rom his face, showed, to the unspeakable discomposure of Mr. Bumble, that i_as much distorted and discoloured.
  • 'These fits come over me, now and then,' said Monks, observing his alarm; 'an_hunder sometimes brings them on. Don't mind me now; it's all over for thi_nce.'
  • Thus speaking, he led the way up the ladder; and hastily closing the window- shutter of the room into which it led, lowered a lantern which hung at the en_f a rope and pulley passed through one of the heavy beams in the ceiling: an_hich cast a dim light upon an old table and three chairs that were place_eneath it.
  • 'Now,' said Monks, when they had all three seated themselves, 'the sooner w_ome to our business, the better for all. The woman know what it is, doe_he?'
  • The question was addressed to Bumble; but his wife anticipated the reply, b_ntimating that she was perfectly acquainted with it.
  • 'He is right in saying that you were with this hag the night she died; an_hat she told you something—'
  • 'About the mother of the boy you named,' replied the matron interrupting him.
  • 'Yes.'
  • 'The first question is, of what nature was her communication?' said Monks.
  • 'That's the second,' observed the woman with much deliberation. 'The first is, what may the communication be worth?'
  • 'Who the devil can tell that, without knowing of what kind it is?' aske_onks.
  • 'Nobody better than you, I am persuaded,' answered Mrs. Bumble: who did no_ant for spirit, as her yoke-fellow could abundantly testify.
  • 'Humph!' said Monks significantly, and with a look of eager inquiry; 'ther_ay be money's worth to get, eh?'
  • 'Perhaps there may,' was the composed reply.
  • 'Something that was taken from her,' said Monks. 'Something that she wore.
  • Something that—'
  • 'You had better bid,' interrupted Mrs. Bumble. 'I have heard enough, already, to assure me that you are the man I ought to talk to.'
  • Mr. Bumble, who had not yet been admitted by his better half into any greate_hare of the secret than he had originally possessed, listened to thi_ialogue with outstretched neck and distended eyes: which he directed toward_is wife and Monks, by turns, in undisguised astonishment; increased, i_ossible, when the latter sternly demanded, what sum was required for th_isclosure.
  • 'What's it worth to you?' asked the woman, as collectedly as before.
  • 'It may be nothing; it may be twenty pounds,' replied Monks. 'Speak out, an_et me know which.'
  • 'Add five pounds to the sum you have named; give me five-and-twenty pounds i_old,' said the woman; 'and I'll tell you all I know. Not before.'
  • 'Five-and-twenty pounds!' exclaimed Monks, drawing back.
  • 'I spoke as plainly as I could,' replied Mrs. Bumble. 'It's not a large sum, either.'
  • 'Not a large sum for a paltry secret, that may be nothing when it's told!'
  • cried Monks impatiently; 'and which has been lying dead for twelve years pas_r more!'
  • 'Such matters keep well, and, like good wine, often double their value i_ourse of time,' answered the matron, still preserving the resolut_ndifference she had assumed. 'As to lying dead, there are those who will li_ead for twelve thousand years to come, or twelve million, for anything you o_ know, who will tell strange tales at last!'
  • 'What if I pay it for nothing?' asked Monks, hesitating.
  • 'You can easily take it away again,' replied the matron. 'I am but a woman; alone here; and unprotected.'
  • 'Not alone, my dear, nor unprotected, neither,' submitted Mr. Bumble, in _oice tremulous with fear: '_I_ am here, my dear. And besides,' said Mr.
  • Bumble, his teeth chattering as he spoke, 'Mr. Monks is too much of _entleman to attempt any violence on porochial persons. Mr. Monks is awar_hat I am not a young man, my dear, and also that I am a little run to seed, as I may say; bu he has heerd: I say I have no doubt Mr. Monks has heerd, m_ear: that I am a very determined officer, with very uncommon strength, if I'_nce roused. I only want a little rousing; that's all.'
  • As Mr. Bumble spoke, he made a melancholy feint of grasping his lantern wit_ierce determination; and plainly showed, by the alarmed expression of ever_eature, that he _did_ want a little rousing, and not a little, prior t_aking any very warlike demonstration: unless, indeed, against paupers, o_ther person or persons trained down for the purpose.
  • 'You are a fool,' said Mrs. Bumble, in reply; 'and had better hold you_ongue.'
  • 'He had better have cut it out, before he came, if he can't speak in a lowe_one,' said Monks, grimly. 'So! He's your husband, eh?'
  • 'He my husband!' tittered the matron, parrying the question.
  • 'I thought as much, when you came in,' rejoined Monks, marking the angr_lance which the lady darted at her spouse as she spoke. 'So much the better; I have less hesitation in dealing with two people, when I find that there'_nly one will between them. I'm in earnest. See here!'
  • He thrust his hand into a side-pocket; and producing a canvas bag, told ou_wenty-five sovereigns on the table, and pushed them over to the woman.
  • 'Now,' he said, 'gather them up; and when this cursed peal of thunder, which _eel is coming up to break over the house-top, is gone, let's hear you_tory.'
  • The thunder, which seemed in fact much nearer, and to shiver and break almos_ver their heads, having subsided, Monks, raising his face from the table, bent forward to listen to what the woman should say. The faces of the thre_early touched, as the two men leant over the small table in their eagernes_o hear, and the woman also leant forward to render her whisper audible. Th_ickly rays of the suspended lantern falling directly upon them, aggravate_he paleness and anxiety of their countenances: which, encircled by th_eepest gloom and darkness, looked ghastly in the extreme.
  • 'When this woman, that we called old Sally, died,' the matron began, 'she an_ were alone.'
  • 'Was there no one by?' asked Monks, in the same hollow whisper; 'No sic_retch or idiot in some other bed? No one who could hear, and might, b_ossibility, understand?'
  • 'Not a soul,' replied the woman; 'we were alone. _I_ stood alone beside th_ody when death came over it.'
  • 'Good,' said Monks, regarding her attentively. 'Go on.'
  • 'She spoke of a young creature,' resumed the matron, 'who had brought a chil_nto the world some years before; not merely in the same room, but in the sam_ed, in which she then lay dying.'
  • 'Ay?' said Monks, with quivering lip, and glancing over his shoulder, 'Blood!
  • How things come about!'
  • 'The child was the one you named to him last night,' said the matron, noddin_arelessly towards her husband; 'the mother this nurse had robbed.'
  • 'In life?' asked Monks.
  • 'In death,' replied the woman, with something like a shudder. 'She stole fro_he corpse, when it had hardly turned to one, that which the dead mother ha_rayed her, with her last breath, to keep for the infant's sake.'
  • 'She sold it,' cried Monks, with desperate eagerness; 'did she sell it? Where?
  • When? To whom? How long before?'
  • 'As she told me, with great difficulty, that she had done this,' said th_atron, 'she fell back and died.'
  • 'Without saying more?' cried Monks, in a voice which, from its ver_uppression, seemed only the more furious. 'It's a lie! I'll not be playe_ith. She said more. I'll tear the life out of you both, but I'll know what i_as.'
  • 'She didn't utter another word,' said the woman, to all appearance unmoved (a_r. Bumble was very far from being) by the strange man's violence; 'but sh_lutched my gown, violently, with one hand, which was partly closed; and whe_ saw that she was dead, and so removed the hand by force, I found it claspe_ scrap of dirty paper.'
  • 'Which contained—' interposed Monks, stretching forward.
  • 'Nothing,' replied the woman; 'it was a pawnbroker's duplicate.'
  • 'For what?' demanded Monks.
  • 'In good time I'll tell you.' said the woman. 'I judge that she had kept th_rinket, for some time, in the hope of turning it to better account; and the_ad pawned it; and had saved or scraped together money to pay the pawnbroker'_nterest year by year, and prevent its running out; so that if anything cam_f it, it could still be redeemed. Nothing had come of it; and, as I tell you, she died with the scrap of paper, all worn and tattered, in her hand. The tim_as out in two days; I thought something might one day come of it too; and s_edeemed the pledge.'
  • 'Where is it now?' asked Monks quickly.
  • '_There_,' replied the woman. And, as if glad to be relieved of it, sh_astily threw upon the table a small kid bag scarcely large enough for _rench watch, which Monks pouncing upon, tore open with trembling hands. I_ontained a little gold locket: in which were two locks of hair, and a plai_old wedding-ring.
  • 'It has the word "Agnes" engraved on the inside,' said the woman.
  • 'There is a blank left for the surname; and then follows the date; which i_ithin a year before the child was born. I found out that.'
  • 'And this is all?' said Monks, after a close and eager scrutiny of th_ontents of the little packet.
  • 'All,' replied the woman.
  • Mr. Bumble drew a long breath, as if he were glad to find that the story wa_ver, and no mention made of taking the five-and-twenty pounds back again; an_ow he took courage to wipe the perspiration which had been trickling over hi_ose, unchecked, during the whole of the previous dialogue.
  • 'I know nothing of the story, beyond what I can guess at,' said his wif_ddressing Monks, after a short silence; 'and I want to know nothing; for it'_afer not. But I may ask you two questions, may I?'
  • 'You may ask,' said Monks, with some show of surprise; 'but whether I answe_r not is another question.'
  • '—Which makes three,' observed Mr. Bumble, essaying a stroke of facetiousness.
  • 'Is that what you expected to get from me?' demanded the matron.
  • 'It is,' replied Monks. 'The other question?'
  • 'What do you propose to do with it? Can it be used against me?'
  • 'Never,' rejoined Monks; 'nor against me either. See here! But don't move _tep forward, or your life is not worth a bulrush.'
  • With these words, he suddenly wheeled the table aside, and pulling an iro_ing in the boarding, threw back a large trap-door which opened close at Mr.
  • Bumble's feet, and caused that gentleman to retire several paces backward, with great precipitation.
  • 'Look down,' said Monks, lowering the lantern into the gulf. 'Don't fear me. _ould have let you down, quietly enough, when you were seated over it, if tha_ad been my game.'
  • Thus encouraged, the matron drew near to the brink; and even Mr. Bumbl_imself, impelled by curiousity, ventured to do the same. The turbid water, swollen by the heavy rain, was rushing rapidly on below; and all other sound_ere lost in the noise of its plashing and eddying against the green and slim_iles. There had once been a water-mill beneath; the tide foaming and chafin_ound the few rotten stakes, and fragments of machinery that yet remained, seemed to dart onward, with a new impulse, when freed from the obstacles whic_ad unavailingly attempted to stem its headlong course.
  • 'If you flung a man's body down there, where would it be to-morrow morning?'
  • said Monks, swinging the lantern to and fro in the dark well.
  • 'Twelve miles down the river, and cut to pieces besides,' replied Bumble, recoiling at the thought.
  • Monks drew the little packet from his breast, where he had hurriedly thrus_t; and tying it to a leaden weight, which had formed a part of some pulley, and was lying on the floor, dropped it into the stream. It fell straight, an_rue as a die; clove the water with a scarcely audible splash; and was gone.
  • The three looking into each other's faces, seemed to breathe more freely.
  • 'There!' said Monks, closing the trap-door, which fell heavily back into it_ormer position. 'If the sea ever gives up its dead, as books say it will, i_ill keep its gold and silver to itself, and that trash among it. We hav_othing more to say, and may break up our pleasant party.'
  • 'By all means,' observed Mr. Bumble, with great alacrity.
  • 'You'll keep a quiet tongue in your head, will you?' said Monks, with _hreatening look. 'I am not afraid of your wife.'
  • 'You may depend upon me, young man,' answered Mr. Bumble, bowing himsel_radually towards the ladder, with excessive politeness. 'On everybody'_ccount, young man; on my own, you know, Mr. Monks.'
  • 'I am glad, for your sake, to hear it,' remarked Monks. 'Light your lantern!
  • And get away from here as fast as you can.'
  • It was fortunate that the conversation terminated at this point, or Mr.
  • Bumble, who had bowed himself to within six inches of the ladder, woul_nfallibly have pitched headlong into the room below. He lighted his lanter_rom that which Monks had detached from the rope, and now carried in his hand; and making no effort to prolong the discourse, descended in silence, followe_y his wife. Monks brought up the rear, after pausing on the steps to satisf_imself that there were no other sounds to be heard than the beating of th_ain without, and the rushing of the water.
  • They traversed the lower room, slowly, and with caution; for Monks started a_very shadow; and Mr. Bumble, holding his lantern a foot above the ground, walked not only with remarkable care, but with a marvellously light step for _entleman of his figure: looking nervously about him for hidden trap-doors.
  • The gate at which they had entered, was softly unfastened and opened by Monks; merely exchanging a nod with their mysterious acquaintance, the married coupl_merged into the wet and darkness outside.
  • They were no sooner gone, than Monks, who appeared to entertain an invincibl_epugnance to being left alone, called to a boy who had been hidden somewher_elow. Bidding him go first, and bear the light, he returned to the chamber h_ad just quitted.