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.
'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.
'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.'
'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.'
'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.