Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens

Chapter 37

In which the Reader may perceive a contrast, not uncommon in Matrimonial cases

Mr. Bumble sat in the workhouse parlour, with his eyes moodily fixed on the cheerless grate, whence, as it was summer time, no brighter gleam proceeded, than the reflection of certain sickly rays of the sun, which were sent back from 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 the heedless insects hovered round the gaudy net-work, Mr. Bumble would heave a deep sigh, while a more gloomy shadow overspread his countenance. Mr. Bumble was meditating; it might be that the insects brought to mind, some painful passage in his own past life.

Nor was Mr. Bumble’s gloom the only thing calculated to awaken a pleasing melancholy in the bosom of a spectator. There were not wanting other appearances, and those closely connected with his own person, which announced that a great change had taken place in the position of his affairs. The laced coat, and the cocked hat; where were they? He still wore knee-breeches, and dark 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 how different! 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 substantial rewards they offer, require peculiar value and dignity from the coats and waistcoats connected with them. A field-marshal has his uniform; a bishop his silk apron; a counsellor his silk gown; a beadle his cocked hat. Strip the bishop 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 of coat and waistcoat than some people imagine.

Mr. Bumle had married Mrs. Corney, and was master of the workhouse. Another beadle 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. ‘It seems a age.’

Mr. Bumble might have meant that he had concentrated a whole existence of happiness into the short space of eight weeks; but the sigh — there was a vast deal of meaning in the sigh.

‘I sold myself,’ said Mr. Bumble, pursuing the same train of relection, ‘for six teaspoons, a pair of sugar-tongs, and a milk-pot; with a small quantity of second-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 dear at 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 stand anything. 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 late Mrs. Corney was particularly proof against eagle glances; are matters of opinion. The matter of fact, is, that the matron was in no way overpowered by Mr. Bumble’s scowl, but, on the contrary, treated it with great disdain, and even raised a laugh threreat, 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 he rouse himself until his attention was again awakened by the voice of his partner.

‘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 to command.’

‘And what’s the prerogative of a woman, in the name of Goodness?’ cried the relict of Mr. Corney deceased.

‘To obey, ma’am,’ thundered Mr. Bumble. ‘Your late unfortunate husband should have taught it you; and then, perhaps, he might have been alive now. I wish he was, poor man!’

Mrs. Bumble, seeing at a glance, that the decisive moment had now arrived, and that a blow struck for the mastership on one side or other, must necessarily be 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 a hard-hearted brute, fell into a paroxysm of tears.

But, tears were not the things to find their way to Mr. Bumble’s soul; his heart was waterproof. Like washable beaver hats that improve with rain, his nerves were rendered stouter and more vigorous, by showers of tears, which, being tokens of weakness, and so far tacit admissions of his own power, please and exalted him. He eyed his good lady with looks of great satisfaction, and begged, in an encouraging manner, that she should cry her hardest: the exercise being looked upon, by the faculty, as stronly conducive to health.

‘It opens the lungs, washes the countenance, exercises the eyes, and softens down the temper,’ said Mr. Bumble. ‘So cry away.’

As he discharged himself of this pleasantry, Mr. Bumble took his hat from a peg, and putting it on, rather rakishly, on one side, as a man might, who felt he had asserted his superiority in a becoming manner, thrust his hands into his pockets, and sauntered towards the door, with much ease and waggishness depicted in his whole appearance.

Now, Mrs. Corney that was, had tried the tears, because they were less troublesome than a manual assault; but, she was quite prepared to make trial of 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 end of the room. This preliminary proceeding laying bare his head, the expert lady, clasping him tightly round the throat with one hand, inflicted a shower of blows (dealt with singular vigour and dexterity) upon it with the other. This done, she created a little variety by scratching his face, and tearing his hair; and, having, by this time, inflicted as much punishment as she deemed necessary for the offence, she pushed him over a chair, which was luckily well situated for the purpose: and defied him to talk about his prerogative again, if he dared.

‘Get up!’ said Mrs. Bumble, in a voice of command. ‘And take yourself away from here, unless you want me to do something desperate.’

Mr. Bumble rose with a very rueful countenance: wondering much what something desperate might be. Picking up his hat, he looked towards the door.

‘Are you going?’ demanded Mr. Bumble.

‘Certainly, my dear, certainly,’ rejoined Mr. Bumble, making a quicker motion towards the door. ‘I didn’t intend to — I’m going, my dear! You are so very violent, 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 of the 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 decided propensity for bullying: derived no inconsiderable pleasure from the exercise of petty cruelty; and, consequently, was (it is needless to say) a coward. This is by no means a disparagement to his character; for many official personages, who are held in high respect and admiration, are the victims of similar infirmities. The remark is made, indeed, rather in his favour than otherwise, and with a view of impressing the reader with a just sense of his qualifications for office.

But, the measure of his degradation was not yet full. After making a tour of the house, and thinking, for the first time, that the poor-laws really were too hard on people; and that men who ran away from their wives, leaving them chargeable to the parish, ought, in justice to be visited with no punishment at all, but rather rewarded as meritorious individuals who had suffered much; Mr. Bumble came to a room where some of the female paupers were usually employed in washing the parish linen: when the sound of voices in conversation, now proceeded.

‘Hem!’ said Mr. Bumble, summoning up all his native dignity. ‘These women at least shall continue to respect the prerogative. Hallo! hallo there! What do you mean by this noise, you hussies?’

With these words, Mr. Bumble opened the door, and walked in with a very fierce and angry manner: which was at once exchanged for a most humiliated and cowering 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 women at 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 business is 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 I thought you mightn’t be in the way just then.’

‘I’ll tell you what, Mr. Bumble,’ returned his lady. ‘We don’t want any of your interference. You’re a great deal too fond of poking your nose into things that don’t concern you, making everybody in the house laugh, the moment your back is turned, and making yourself look like a fool every hour in the day. Be off; come!’

Mr. Bumble, seeing with excruciating feelings, the delight of the two old paupers, who were tittering together most rapturously, hesitated for an instant. Mrs. Bumble, whose patience brooked no delay, caught up a bowl of soap-suds, and motioning him towards the door, ordered him instantly to depart, on pain of receiving the contents upon his portly person.

What could Mr. Bumble do? He looked dejectedly round, and slunk away; and, as he reached the door, the titterings of the paupers broke into a shrill chuckle of 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 all the height and pomp of beadleship, to the lowest depth of the most snubbed hen-peckery.

‘All in two months!’ said Mr. Bumble, filled with dismal thoughts. ‘Two months! No more than two months ago, I was not only my own master, but everybody 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 for him (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 first passion of his grief; and then the revulsion of feeling made him thirsty. He passed 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, was deserted, save by one solitary customer. It began to rain, heavily, at the moment. This determined him. Mr. Bumble stepped in; and ordering something to drink, as he passed the bar, entered the apartment into which he had looked from the street.

The man who was seated there, was tall and dark, and wore a large cloak. He had 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 in acknowledgment of his salutation.

Mr. Bumble had quite dignity enough for two; supposing even that the stranger had been more familiar: so he drank his gin-and-water in silence, and read the paper with great show of pomp and circumstance.

It so happened, however: as it will happen very often, when men fall into company under such circumstances: that Mr. Bumble felt, every now and then, a powerful inducement, which he could not resist, to steal a look at the stranger: and that whenever he did so, he withdrew his eyes, in some confusion, to find that the stranger was at that moment stealing a look at him. Mr. Bumble’s awkwardness was enhanced by the very remarkable expression of the stranger’s eye, which was keen and bright, but shadowed by a scowl of distrust and suspicion, unlike anything he had ever observed before, and repulsive to behold.

When they had encountered each other’s glance several times in this way, the stranger, 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; and expression of quiet sarcasm playing about his mouth; ‘or you have known my name. You don’t know it. I would 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 the stranger.

‘I have seen you before, I think?’ said he. ‘You were differently dressed at that 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 I saw you. What are you now?’

‘Master of the workhouse,’ rejoined Mr. Bumble, slowly and impressively, to check any undue familiarity the stranger might otherwise assume. ‘Master of the workhouse, young man!’

‘You have the same eye to your own interest, that you always had, I doubt not?’ resumed the stranger, looking keenly into Mr. Bumble’s eyes, as he raised 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 his hand, 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 any little 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 not mistaken his man; then rang the bell.

‘Fill this glass again,’ he said, handing Mr. Bumble’s empty tumbler to the landlord. ‘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 steaming jorum: 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. ‘I came down to this place, to-day, to find you out; and, by one of those chances which the devil throws in the way of his friends sometimes, you walked into the very room I was sitting in, while you were uppermost in my mind. I want some information from you. I don’t ask you to give it for mothing, slight as it is. Put up that, to begin with.’

As he spoke, he pushed a couple of sovereigns across the table to his companion, carefully, as though unwilling that the chinking of money should be heard without. When Mr. Bumble had scrupulously examined the coins, to see that they were genuine, and had put them up, with much satisfaction, in his waistcoat-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.’

‘Good!’

‘And the time, night.’

‘Yes.’

‘And the place, the crazy hole, wherever it was, in which miserable drabs brought forth the life and health so often denied to themselves — gave birth to puling children for the parish to rear; and hid their shame, rot ’em in the grave!’

‘The lying-in room, I suppose?’ said Mr. Bumble, not quite following the stranger’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 — I wish he had made his coffin, and screwed his body in it — and who afterwards ran away to London, as it was supposed.

‘Why, you mean Oliver! Young Twist!’ said Mr. Bumble; ‘I remember him, of course. 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’s vices. ‘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 rendered facetious. ‘It would be hard to tell. There’s no midwifery there, whichever place 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 although he did not withdraw his eyes for some time afterwards, his gaze gradually became vacant and abstracted, and he seemed lost in thought. For some time, he appeared doubtful whether he ought to be relieved or disappointed by the intelligence; 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 was opened, for the lucrative disposal of some secret in the possession of his better half. He well remembered the night of old Sally’s death, which the occurrences of that day had given him good reason to recollect, as the occasion on which he had proposed to Mrs. Corney; and although that lady had never confided to him the disclosure of which she had been the solitary witness, he had heard enough to know that it related to something that had occurred in the old woman’s attendance, as workhouse nurse, upon the young mother of Oliver Twist. Hastily calling this circumstance to mind, he informed the stranger, with an air of mystery, that one woman had been closeted with the old harridan shortly before she died; and that she could, as he had reason to believe, throw some light on the subject of his inquiry.

‘How can I find her?’ said the stranger, thrown off his guard; and plainly showing that all his fears (whatever they were) were aroused afresh by the intelligence.

‘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, and writing down upon it, an obscure address by the water-side, in characters that betrayed his agitation; ‘at nine in the evening, bring her to me there. I needn’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 the liquor that had been drunk. Shortly remarking that their roads were different, he departed, without more ceremony than an emphatic repetition of the hour of appointment for the following night.

On glancing at the address, the parochial functionary observed that it contained no name. The stranger had not gone far, so he made after him to ask it.

‘What do you want?’ cried the man. turning quickly round, as Bumble touched him 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.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/dickens/charles/d54ot/chapter37.html

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