Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens

Chapter 17

Oliver’s destiny continuing unpropitious, brings a Great Man to London to injure his reputation

It is the custom on the stage, in all good murderous melodramas, to present the tragic and the comic scenes, in as regular alternation, as the layers of red and white in a side of streaky bacon. The hero sinks upon his straw bed, weighed down by fetters and misfortunes; in the next scene, his faithful but unconscious squire regales the audience with a comic song. We behold, with throbbing bosoms, the heroine in the grasp of a proud and ruthless baron: her virtue and her life alike in danger, drawing forth her dagger to preserve the one at the cost of the other; and just as our expectations are wrought up to the highest pitch, a whistle is heard, and we are straightway transported to the great hall of the castle; where a grey-headed seneschal sings a funny chorus with a funnier body of vassals, who are free of all sorts of places, from church vaults to palaces, and roam about in company, carolling perpetually.

Such changes appear absurd; but they are not so unnatural as they would seem at first sight. The transitions in real life from well-spread boards to death-beds, and from mourning-weeds to holiday garments, are not a whit less startling; only, there, we are busy actors, instead of passive lookers-on, which makes a vast difference. The actors in the mimic life of the theatre, are blind to violent transitions and abrupt impulses of passion or feeling, which, presented before the eyes of mere spectators, are at once condemned as outrageous and preposterous.

As sudden shiftings of the scene, and rapid changes of time and place, are not only sanctioned in books by long usage, but are by many considered as the great art of authorship: an author’s skill in his craft being, by such critics, chiefly estimated with relation to the dilemmas in which he leaves his characters at the end of every chapter: this brief introduction to the present one may perhaps be deemed unnecessary. If so, let it be considered a delicate intimation on the part of the historian that he is going back to the town in which Oliver Twist was born; the reader taking it for granted that there are good and substantial reasons for making the journey, or he would not be invited to proceed upon such an expedition.

Mr. Bumble emerged at early morning from the workhouse-gate, and walked with portly carriage and commanding steps, up the High Street. He was in the full bloom and pride of beadlehood; his cocked hat and coat were dazzling in the morning sun; he clutched his cane with the vigorous tenacity of health and power. Mr. Bumble always carried his head high; but this morning it was higher than usual. There was an abstraction in his eye, an elevation in his air, which might have warned an observant stranger that thoughts were passing in the beadle’s mind, too great for utterance.

Mr. Bumble stopped not to converse with the small shopkeepers and others who spoke to him, deferentially, as he passed along. He merely returned their salutations with a wave of his hand, and relaxed not in his dignified pace, until he reached the farm where Mrs. Mann tended the infant paupers with parochial care.

‘Drat that beadle!’ said Mrs. Mann, hearing the well-known shaking at the garden-gate. ‘If it isn’t him at this time in the morning! Lauk, Mr. Bumble, only think of its being you! Well, dear me, it IS a pleasure, this is! Come into the parlour, sir, please.’

The first sentence was addressed to Susan; and the exclamations of delight were uttered to Mr. Bumble: as the good lady unlocked the garden-gate: and showed him, with great attention and respect, into the house.

‘Mrs. Mann,’ said Mr. Bumble; not sitting upon, or dropping himself into a seat, as any common jackanapes would: but letting himself gradually and slowly down into a chair; ‘Mrs. Mann, ma’am, good morning.’

‘Well, and good morning to YOU, sir,’ replied Mrs. Mann, with many smiles; ‘and hoping you find yourself well, sir!’

‘So-so, Mrs. Mann,’ replied the beadle. ‘A porochial life is not a bed of roses, Mrs. Mann.’

‘Ah, that it isn’t indeed, Mr. Bumble,’ rejoined the lady. And all the infant paupers might have chorussed the rejoinder with great propriety, if they had heard it.

‘A porochial life, ma’am,’ continued Mr. Bumble, striking the table with his cane, ‘is a life of worrit, and vexation, and hardihood; but all public characters, as I may say, must suffer prosecution.’

Mrs. Mann, not very well knowing what the beadle meant, raised her hands with a look of sympathy, and sighed.

‘Ah! You may well sigh, Mrs. Mann!’ said the beadle.

Finding she had done right, Mrs. Mann sighed again: evidently to the satisfaction of the public character: who, repressing a complacent smile by looking sternly at his cocked hat, said,

‘Mrs. Mann, I am going to London.’

‘Lauk, Mr. Bumble!’ cried Mrs. Mann, starting back.

‘To London, ma’am,’ resumed the inflexible beadle, ‘by coach. I and two paupers, Mrs. Mann! A legal action is a coming on, about a settlement; and the board has appointed me — me, Mrs. Mann — to dispose to the matter before the quarter-sessions at Clerkinwell.

And I very much question,’ added Mr. Bumble, drawing himself up, ‘whether the Clerkinwell Sessions will not find themselves in the wrong box before they have done with me.’

‘Oh! you mustn’t be too hard upon them, sir,’ said Mrs. Mann, coaxingly.

‘The Clerkinwell Sessions have brought it upon themselves, ma’am,’ replied Mr. Bumble; ‘and if the Clerkinwell Sessions find that they come off rather worse than they expected, the Clerkinwell Sessions have only themselves to thank.’

There was so much determination and depth of purpose about the menacing manner in which Mr. Bumble delivered himself of these words, that Mrs. Mann appeared quite awed by them. At length she said,

‘You’re going by coach, sir? I thought it was always usual to send them paupers in carts.’

‘That’s when they’re ill, Mrs. Mann,’ said the beadle. ‘We put the sick paupers into open carts in the rainy weather, to prevent their taking cold.’

‘Oh!’ said Mrs. Mann.

‘The opposition coach contracts for these two; and takes them cheap,’ said Mr. Bumble. ‘They are both in a very low state, and we find it would come two pound cheaper to move ’em than to bury ’em — that is, if we can throw ’em upon another parish, which I think we shall be able to do, if they don’t die upon the road to spite us. Ha! ha! ha!’

When Mr. Bumble had laughed a little while, his eyes again encountered the cocked hat; and he became grave.

‘We are forgetting business, ma’am,’ said the beadle; ‘here is your porochial stipend for the month.”

Mr. Bumble produced some silver money rolled up in paper, from his pocket-book; and requested a receipt: which Mrs. Mann wrote.

‘It’s very much blotted, sir,’ said the farmer of infants; ‘but it’s formal enough, I dare say. Thank you, Mr. Bumble, sir, I am very much obliged to you, I’m sure.’

Mr. Bumble nodded, blandly, in acknowledgment of Mrs. Mann’s curtsey; and inquired how the children were.

‘Bless their dear little hearts!’ said Mrs. Mann with emotion, ‘they’re as well as can be, the dears! Of course, except the two that died last week. And little Dick.’

‘Isn’t that boy no better?’ inquired Mr. Bumble.

Mrs. Mann shook her head.

‘He’s a ill-conditioned, wicious, bad-disposed porochial child that,’ said Mr. Bumble angrily. ‘Where is he?’

‘I’ll bring him to you in one minute, sir,’ replied Mrs. Mann. ‘Here, you Dick!’

After some calling, Dick was discovered. Having had his face put under the pump, and dried upon Mrs. Mann’s gown, he was led into the awful presence of Mr. Bumble, the beadle.

The child was pale and thin; his cheeks were sunken; and his eyes large and bright. The scanty parish dress, the livery of his misery, hung loosely on his feeble body; and his young limbs had wasted away, like those of an old man.

Such was the little being who stood trembling beneath Mr. Bumble’s glance; not daring to lift his eyes from the floor; and dreading even to hear the beadle’s voice.

‘Can’t you look at the gentleman, you obstinate boy?’ said Mrs. Mann.

The child meekly raised his eyes, and encountered those of Mr. Bumble.

‘What’s the matter with you, porochial Dick?’ inquired Mr. Bumble, with well-timed jocularity.

‘Nothing, sir,’ replied the child faintly.

‘I should think not,’ said Mrs. Mann, who had of course laughed very much at Mr. Bumble’s humour.

‘You want for nothing, I’m sure.’

‘I should like —’ faltered the child.

‘Hey-day!’ interposed Mr. Mann, ‘I suppose you’re going to say that you DO want for something, now? Why, you little wretch —’

‘Stop, Mrs. Mann, stop!’ said the beadle, raising his hand with a show of authority. ‘Like what, sir, eh?’

‘I should like,’ said the child, ‘to leave my dear love to poor Oliver Twist; and to let him know how often I have sat by myself and cried to think of his wandering about in the dark nights with nobody to help him. And I should like to tell him,’ said the child pressing his small hands together, and speaking with great fervour, ‘that I was glad to die when I was very young; for, perhaps, if I had lived to be a man, and had grown old, my little sister who is in Heaven, might forget me, or be unlike me; and it would be so much happier if we were both children there together.’

Mr. Bumble surveyed the little speaker, from head to foot, with indescribable astonishment; and, turning to his companion, said, ‘They’re all in one story, Mrs. Mann. That out-dacious Oliver had demogalized them all!’

‘I couldn’t have believed it, sir’ said Mrs Mann, holding up her hands, and looking malignantly at Dick. ‘I never see such a hardened little wretch!’

‘Take him away, ma’am!’ said Mr. Bumble imperiously. ‘This must be stated to the board, Mrs. Mann.

‘I hope the gentleman will understand that it isn’t my fault, sir?’ said Mrs. Mann, whimpering pathetically.

‘They shall understand that, ma’am; they shall be acquainted with the true state of the case,’ said Mr. Bumble. ‘There; take him away, I can’t bear the sight on him.’

Dick was immediately taken away, and locked up in the coal-cellar. Mr. Bumble shortly afterwards took himself off, to prepare for his journey.

At six o’clock next morning, Mr. Bumble: having exchanged his cocked hat for a round one, and encased his person in a blue great-coat with a cape to it: took his place on the outside of the coach, accompanied by the criminals whose settlement was disputed; with whom, in due course of time, he arrived in London.

He experienced no other crosses on the way, than those which originated in the perverse behaviour of the two paupers, who persisted in shivering, and complaining of the cold, in a manner which, Mr. Bumble declared, caused his teeth to chatter in his head, and made him feel quite uncomfortable; although he had a great-coat on.

Having disposed of these evil-minded persons for the night, Mr. Bumble sat himself down in the house at which the coach stopped; and took a temperate dinner of steaks, oyster sauce, and porter. Putting a glass of hot gin-and-water on the chimney-piece, he drew his chair to the fire; and, with sundry moral reflections on the too-prevalent sin of discontent and complaining, composed himself to read the paper.

The very first paragraph upon which Mr. Bumble’s eye rested, was the following advertisement.

‘FIVE GUINEAS REWARD

‘Whereas a young boy, named Oliver Twist, absconded, or was enticed, on Thursday evening last, from his home, at Pentonville; and has not since been heard of. The above reward will be paid to any person who will give such information as will lead to the discovery of the said Oliver Twist, or tend to throw any light upon his previous history, in which the advertiser is, for many reasons, warmly interested.’

And then followed a full description of Oliver’s dress, person, appearance, and disappearance: with the name and address of Mr. Brownlow at full length.

Mr. Bumble opened his eyes; read the advertisement, slowly and carefully, three several times; and in something more than five minutes was on his way to Pentonville: having actually, in his excitement, left the glass of hot gin-and-water, untasted.

‘Is Mr. Brownlow at home?’ inquired Mr. Bumble of the girl who opened the door.

To this inquiry the girl returned the not uncommon, but rather evasive reply of ‘I don’t know; where do you come from?’

Mr. Bumble no sooner uttered Oliver’s name, in explanation of his errand, than Mrs. Bedwin, who had been listening at the parlour door, hastened into the passage in a breathless state.

‘Come in, come in,’ said the old lady: ‘I knew we should hear of him. Poor dear! I knew we should! I was certain of it. Bless his heart! I said so all along.’

Having heard this, the worthy old lady hurried back into the parlour again; and seating herself on a sofa, burst into tears. The girl, who was not quite so susceptible, had run upstairs meanwhile; and now returned with a request that Mr. Bumble would follow her immediately: which he did.

He was shown into the little back study, where sat Mr. Brownlow and his friend Mr. Grimwig, with decanters and glasses before them. The latter gentleman at once burst into the exclamation:

‘A beadle. A parish beadle, or I’ll eat my head.’

‘Pray don’t interrupt just now,’ said Mr. Brownlow. ‘Take a seat, will you?’

Mr. Bumble sat himself down; quite confounded by the oddity of Mr. Grimwig’s manner. Mr. Brownlow moved the lamp, so as to obtain an uninterrupted view of the beadle’s countenance; and said, with a little impatience,

‘Now, sir, you come in consequence of having seen the advertisement?’

‘Yes, sir,’ said Mr. Bumble.

‘And you ARE a beadle, are you not?’ inquired Mr. Grimwig.

‘I am a porochial beadle, gentlemen,’ rejoined Mr. Bumble proudly.

‘Of course,’ observed Mr. Grimwig aside to his friend, ‘I knew he was. A beadle all over!’

Mr. Brownlow gently shook his head to impose silence on his friend, and resumed:

‘Do you know where this poor boy is now?’

‘No more than nobody,’ replied Mr. Bumble.

‘Well, what DO you know of him?’ inquired the old gentleman. ‘Speak out, my friend, if you have anything to say. What DO you know of him?’

‘You don’t happen to know any good of him, do you?’ said Mr. Grimwig, caustically; after an attentive perusal of Mr. Bumble’s features.

Mr. Bumble, catching at the inquiry very quickly, shook his head with portentous solemnity.

‘You see?’ said Mr. Grimwig, looking triumphantly at Mr. Brownlow.

Mr. Brownlow looked apprehensively at Mr. Bumble’s pursed-up countenance; and requested him to communicate what he knew regarding Oliver, in as few words as possible.

Mr. Bumble put down his hat; unbuttoned his coat; folded his arms; inclined his head in a retrospective manner; and, after a few moments’ reflection, commenced his story.

It would be tedious if given in the beadle’s words: occupying, as it did, some twenty minutes in the telling; but the sum and substance of it was, that Oliver was a foundling, born of low and vicious parents. That he had, from his birth, displayed no better qualities than treachery, ingratitude, and malice. That he had terminated his brief career in the place of his birth, by making a sanguinary and cowardly attack on an unoffending lad, and running away in the night-time from his master’s house. In proof of his really being the person he represented himself, Mr. Bumble laid upon the table the papers he had brought to town. Folding his arms again, he then awaited Mr. Brownlow’s observations.

‘I fear it is all too true,’ said the old gentleman sorrowfully, after looking over the papers. ‘This is not much for your intelligence; but I would gladly have given you treble the money, if it had been favourable to the boy.’

It is not improbable that if Mr. Bumble had been possessed of this information at an earlier period of the interview, he might have imparted a very different colouring to his little history. It was too late to do it now, however; so he shook his head gravely, and, pocketing the five guineas, withdrew.

Mr. Brownlow paced the room to and fro for some minutes; evidently so much disturbed by the beadle’s tale, that even Mr. Grimwig forbore to vex him further.

At length he stopped, and rang the bell violently.

‘Mrs. Bedwin,’ said Mr. Brownlow, when the housekeeper appeared; ‘that boy, Oliver, is an imposter.’

‘It can’t be, sir. It cannot be,’ said the old lady energetically.

‘I tell you he is,’ retorted the old gentleman. ‘What do you mean by can’t be? We have just heard a full account of him from his birth; and he has been a thorough-paced little villain, all his life.’

‘I never will believe it, sir,’ replied the old lady, firmly. ‘Never!’

‘You old women never believe anything but quack-doctors, and lying story-books,’ growled Mr. Grimwig. ‘I knew it all along. Why didn’t you take my advise in the beginning; you would if he hadn’t had a fever, I suppose, eh? He was interesting, wasn’t he? Interesting! Bah!’ And Mr. Grimwig poked the fire with a flourish.

‘He was a dear, grateful, gentle child, sir,’ retorted Mrs. Bedwin, indignantly. ‘I know what children are, sir; and have done these forty years; and people who can’t say the same, shouldn’t say anything about them. That’s my opinion!’

This was a hard hit at Mr. Grimwig, who was a bachelor. As it extorted nothing from that gentleman but a smile, the old lady tossed her head, and smoothed down her apron preparatory to another speech, when she was stopped by Mr. Brownlow.

‘Silence!’ said the old gentleman, feigning an anger he was far from feeling. ‘Never let me hear the boy’s name again. I rang to tell you that. Never. Never, on any pretence, mind! You may leave the room, Mrs. Bedwin. Remember! I am in earnest.’

There were sad hearts at Mr. Brownlow’s that night.

Oliver’s heart sank within him, when he thought of his good friends; it was well for him that he could not know what they had heard, or it might have broken outright.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:30