Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens



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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.

CHAPTER XXIV

TREATS ON A VERY POOR SUBJECT. BUT IS A SHORT ONE, AND MAY BE
FOUND OF IMPORTANCE IN THIS HISTORY

It was no unfit messanger of death, who had disturbed the quiet


of the matron's room. Her body was bent by age; her limbs
trembled with palsy; her face, distorted into a mumbling leer,
resembled more the grotesque shaping of some wild pencil, than
the work of Nature's hand.

Alas! How few of Nature's faces are left alone to gladden us


with their beauty! The cares, and sorrows, and hungerings, of
the world, change them as they change hearts; and it is only when
those passions sleep, and have lost their hold for ever, that the
troubled clouds pass off, and leave Heaven's surface clear. It
is a common thing for the countenances of the dead, even in that
fixed and rigid state, to subside into the long-forgotten
expression of sleeping infancy, and settle into the very look of
early life; so calm, so peaceful, do they grow again, that those
who knew them in their happy childhood, kneel by the coffin's
side in awe, and see the Angel even upon earth.

The old crone tottered alone the passages, and up the stairs,


muttering some indistinct answers to the chidings of her
companion; being at length compelled to pause for breath, she
gave the light into her hand, and remained behind to follow as
she might: while the more nimble superior made her way to the
room where the sick woman lay.

It was a bare garret-room, with a dim light burning at the


farther end. There was another old woman watching by the bed;
the parish apothecary's apprentice was standing by the fire,
making a toothpick out of a quill.

'Cold night, Mrs. Corney,' said this young gentleman, as the


matron entered.

'Very cold, indeed, sir,' replied the mistress, in her most civil


tones, and dropping a curtsey as she spoke.

'You should get better coals out of your contractors,' said the


apothecary's deputy, breaking a lump on the top of the fire with
the rusty poker; 'these are not at all the sort of thing for a
cold night.'

'They're the board's choosing, sir,' returned the matron. 'The


least they could do, would be to keep us pretty warm: for our
places are hard enough.'

The conversation was here interrupted by a moan from the sick


woman.

'Oh!' said the young mag, turning his face towards the bed, as if


he had previously quite forgotten the patient, 'it's all U.P.
there, Mrs. Corney.'

'It is, is it, sir?' asked the matron.

'If she lasts a couple of hours, I shall be surprised.' said the
apothecary's apprentice, intent upon the toothpick's point.
'It's a break-up of the system altogether. Is she dozing, old
lady?'

The attendant stooped over the bed, to ascertain; and nodded in


the affirmative.

'Then perhaps she'll go off in that way, if you don't make a


row,' said the young man. 'Put the light on the floor. She
won't see it there.'

The attendant did as she was told: shaking her head meanwhile,


to intimate that the woman would not die so easily; having done
so, she resumed her seat by the side of the other nurse, who had
by this time returned. The mistress, with an expression of
impatience, wrapped herself in her shawl, and sat at the foot of
the bed.

The apothecary's apprentice, having completed the manufacture of


the toothpick, planted himself in front of the fire and made good
use of it for ten minutes or so: when apparently growing rather
dull, he wished Mrs. Corney joy of her job, and took himself off
on tiptoe.

When they had sat in silence for some time, the two old women


rose from the bed, and crouching over the fire, held out their
withered hands to catch the heat. The flame threw a ghastly
light on their shrivelled faces, and made their ugliness appear
terrible, as, in this position, they began to converse in a low
voice.

'Did she say any more, Anny dear, while I was gone?' inquired the


messenger.

'Not a word,' replied the other. 'She plucked and tore at her


arms for a little time; but I held her hands, and she soon
dropped off. She hasn't much strength in her, so I easily kept
her quiet. I ain't so weak for an old woman, although I am on
parish allowance; no, no!'

'Did she drink the hot wine the doctor said she was to have?'


demanded the first.

'I tried to get it down,' rejoined the other. 'But her teeth


were tight set, and she clenched the mug so hard that it was as
much as I could do to get it back again. So I drank it; and it
did me good!'

Looking cautiously round, to ascertain that they were not


overheard, the two hags cowered nearer to the fire, and chuckled
heartily.

'I mind the time,' said the first speaker, 'when she would have


done the same, and made rare fun of it afterwards.'

'Ay, that she would,' rejoined the other; 'she had a merry heart.

A many, many, beautiful corpses she laid out, as nice and neat as
waxwork. My old eyes have seen them--ay, and those old hands
touched them too; for I have helped her, scores of times.'

Stretching forth her trembling fingers as she spoke, the old


creature shook them exultingly before her face, and fumbling in
her pocket, brought out an old time-discoloured tin snuff-box,
from which she shook a few grains into the outstretched palm of
her companion, and a few more into her own. While they were thus
employed, the matron, who had been impatiently watching until the
dying woman should awaken from her stupor, joined them by the
fire, and sharply asked how long she was to wait?

'Not long, mistress,' replied the second woman, looking up into


her face. 'We have none of us long to wait for Death. Patience,
patience! He'll be here soon enough for us all.'

'Hold your tongue, you doting idiot!' said the matron sternly.


'You, Martha, tell me; has she been in this way before?'

'Often,' answered the first woman.

'But will never be again,' added the second one; 'that is, she'll
never wake again but once--and mind, mistress, that won't be for
long!'

'Long or short,' said the matron, snappishly, 'she won't find me


here when she does wake; take care, both of you, how you worry me
again for nothing. It's no part of my duty to see all the old
women in the house die, and I won't--that's more. Mind that, you
impudent old harridans. If you make a fool of me again, I'll
soon cure you, I warrant you!'

She was bouncing away, when a cry from the two women, who had


turned towards the bed, caused her to look round. The patient
had raised herself upright, and was stretching her arms towards
them.

'Who's that?' she cried, in a hollow voice.

'Hush, hush!' said one of the women, stooping over her. 'Lie
down, lie down!'

'I'll never lie down again alive!' said the woman, struggling. 'I


WILL tell her! Come here! Nearer! Let me whisper in your ear.'

She clutched the matron by the arm, and forcing her into a chair


by the bedside, was about to speak, when looking round, she
caught sight of the two old women bending forward in the attitude
of eager listeners.

'Turn them away,' said the woman, drowsily; 'make haste! make


haste!'

The two old crones, chiming in together, began pouring out many


piteous lamentations that the poor dear was too far gone to know
her best friends; and were uttering sundry protestations that
they would never leave her, when the superior pushed them from
the room, closed the door, and returned to the bedside. On being
excluded, the old ladies changed their tone, and cried through
the keyhole that old Sally was drunk; which, indeed, was not
unlikely; since, in addition to a moderate dose of opium
prescribed by the apothecary, she was labouring under the effects
of a final taste of gin-and-water which had been privily
administered, in the openness of their hearts, by the worthy old
ladies themselves.

'Now listen to me,' said the dying woman aloud, as if making a


great effort to revive one latent spark of energy. 'In this very
room--in this very bed--I once nursed a pretty young creetur',
that was brought into the house with her feet cut and bruised
with walking, and all soiled with dust and blood. She gave birth
to a boy, and died. Let me think--what was the year again!'

'Never mind the year,' said the impatient auditor; 'what about


her?'

'Ay,' murmured the sick woman, relapsing into her former drowsy


state, 'what about her?--what about--I know!' she cried, jumping
fiercely up: her face flushed, and her eyes starting from her
head--'I robbed her, so I did! She wasn't cold--I tell you she
wasn't cold, when I stole it!'

'Stole what, for God's sake?' cried the matron, with a gesture as


if she would call for help.

'IT!' replied the woman, laying her hand over the other's mouth.


'The only thing she had. She wanted clothes to keep her warm,
and food to eat; but she had kept it safe, and had it in her
bosom. It was gold, I tell you! Rich gold, that might have
saved her life!'

'Gold!' echoed the matron, bending eagerly over the woman as she


fell back. 'Go on, go on--yest--what of it? Who was the mother?

When was it?'

'She charge me to keep it safe,' replied the woman with a groan,
'and trusted me as the only woman about her. I stole it in my
heart when she first showed it me hanging round her neck; and the
child's death, perhaps, is on me besides! They would have
treated him better, if they had known it all!'

'Known what?' asked the other. 'Speak!'

'The boy grew so like his mother,' said the woman, rambling on,
and not heeding the question, 'that I could never forget it when
I saw his face. Poor girl! poor girl! She was so young, too!
Such a gentle lamb! Wait; there's more to tell. I have not told
you all, have I?'

'No, no,' replied the matron, inclining her head to catch the


words, as they came more faintly from the dying woman. 'Be
quick, or it may be too late!'

'The mother,' said the woman, making a more violent effort than


before; 'the mother, when the pains of death first came upon her,
whispered in my ear that if her baby was born alive, and thrived,
the day might come when it would not feel so much disgraced to
hear its poor young mother named. "And oh, kind Heaven!" she
said, folding her thin hands together, "whether it be boy or
girl, raise up some friends for it in this troubled world, and
take pity upon a lonely desolate child, abandoned to its mercy!"'

'The boy's name?' demanded the matron.

'They CALLED him Oliver,' replied the woman, feebly. 'The gold I
stole was--'

'Yes, yes--what?' cried the other.

She was bending eagerly over the woman to hear her reply; but
drew back, instinctively, as she once again rose, slowly and
stiffly, into a sitting posture; then, clutching the coverlid
with both hands, muttered some indistinct sounds in her throat,
and fell lifeless on the bed.

* * * * * * *

'Stone dead!' said one of the old women, hurrying in as soon as
the door was opened.

'And nothing to tell, after all,' rejoined the matron, walking


carelessly away.

The two crones, to all appearance, too busily occupied in the


preparations for their dreadful duties to make any reply, were
left alone, hovering about the body.

CHAPTER XXV

WHEREIN THIS HISTORY REVERTS TO MR. FAGIN AND COMPANY

While these things were passing in the country workhouse, Mr.


Fagin sat in the old den--the same from which Oliver had been
removed by the girl--brooding over a dull, smoky fire. He held a
pair of bellows upon his knee, with which he had apparently been
endeavouring to rouse it into more cheerful action; but he had
fallen into deep thought; and with his arms folded on them, and
his chin resting on his thumbs, fixed his eyes, abstractedly, on
the rusty bars.

At a table behind him sat the Artful Dodger, Master Charles

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