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Charles Dickens >> Oliver Twist (page 26)


'Take this lantern,' said Sikes, looking into the room. 'You seethe stairs afore you?'

Oliver, more dead than alive, gasped out, 'Yes.' Sikes, pointingto the street-door with the pistol-barrel, briefly advised him totake notice that he was within shot all the way; and that if hefaltered, he would fall dead that instant.

'It's done in a minute,' said Sikes, in the same low whisper.'Directly I leave go of you, do your work. Hark!'

'What's that?' whispered the other man.

They listened intently.

'Nothing,' said Sikes, releasing his hold of Oliver. 'Now!'

In the short time he had had to collect his senses, the boy hadfirmly resolved that, whether he died in the attempt or not, hewould make one effort to dart upstairs from the hall, and alarmthe family. Filled with this idea, he advanced at once, butstealthiy.

'Come back!' suddenly cried Sikes aloud. 'Back! back!'

Scared by the sudden breaking of the dead stillness of the place,and by a loud cry which followed it, Oliver let his lantern fall,and knew not whether to advance or fly.

The cry was repeated--a light appeared--a vision of two terrifiedhalf-dressed men at the top of the stairs swam before his eyes--aflash--a loud noise--a smoke--a crash somewhere, but where heknew not,--and he staggered back.

Sikes had disappeared for an instant; but he was up again, andhad him by the collar before the smoke had cleared away. Hefired his own pistol after the men, who were already retreating;and dragged the boy up.

'Clasp your arm tighter,' said Sikes, as he drew him through thewindow. 'Give me a shawl here. They've hit him. Quick! Howthe boy bleeds!'

Then came the loud ringing of a bell, mingled with the noise offire-arms, and the shouts of men, and the sensation of beingcarried over uneven ground at a rapid pace. And then, the noisesgrew confused in the distance; and a cold deadly feeling creptover the boy's heart; and he saw or heard no more.

CHAPTER XXIII

WHICH CONTAINS THE SUBSTANCE OF A PLEASANT CONVERSATION BETWEENMR. BUMBLE AND A LADY; AND SHOWS THAT EVEN A BEADLE MAY BESUSCEPTIBLE ON SOME POINTS

The night was bitter cold. The snow lay on the ground, frozeninto a hard thick crust, so that only the heaps that had driftedinto byways and corners were affected by the sharp wind thathowled abroad: which, as if expending increased fury on suchprey as it found, caught it savagely up in clouds, and, whirlingit into a thousand misty eddies, scattered it in air. Bleak,dark, and piercing cold, it was a night for the well-housed andfed to draw round the bright fire and thank God they were athome; and for the homeless, starving wretch to lay him down anddie. Many hunger-worn outcasts close their eyes in our barestreets, at such times, who, let their crimes have been what theymay, can hardly open them in a more bitter world.

Such was the aspect of out-of-doors affairs, when Mr. Corney, thematron of the workhouse to which our readers have been alreadyintroduced as the birthplace of Oliver Twist, sat herself downbefore a cheerful fire in her own little room, and glanced, withno small degree of complacency, at a small round table: on whichstood a tray of corresponding size, furnished with all necessarymaterials for the most grateful meal that matrons enjoy. Infact, Mrs. Corney was about to solace herself with a cup of tea. As she glanced from the table to the fireplace, where thesmallest of all possible kettles was singing a small song in asmall voice, her inward satisfaction evidently increased,--somuch so, indeed, that Mrs. Corney smiled.

'Well!' said the matron, leaning her elbow on the table, andlooking reflectively at the fire; 'I'm sure we have all on us agreat deal to be grateful for! A great deal, if we did but knowit. Ah!'

Mrs. Corney shook her head mournfully, as if deploring the mentalblindness of those paupers who did not know it; and thrusting asilver spoon (private property) into the inmost recesses of atwo-ounce tin tea-caddy, proceeded to make the tea.

How slight a thing will disturb the equanimity of our frailminds! The black teapot, being very small and easily filled, ranover while Mrs. Corney was moralising; and the water slightlyscalded Mrs. Corney's hand.

'Drat the pot!' said the worthy matron, setting it down veryhastily on the hob; 'a little stupid thing, that only holds acouple of cups! What use is it of, to anybody! Except,' saidMrs. Corney, pausing, 'except to a poor desolate creature likeme. Oh dear!'

With these words, the matron dropped into her chair, and, oncemore resting her elbow on the table, thought of her solitaryfate. The small teapot, and the single cup, had awakened in hermind sad recollections of Mr. Corney (who had not been dead morethan five-and-twenty years); and she was overpowered.

'I shall never get another!' said Mrs. Corney, pettishly; 'Ishall never get another--like him.'

Whether this remark bore reference to the husband, or the teapot,is uncertain. It might have been the latter; for Mrs. Corneylooked at it as she spoke; and took it up afterwards. She hadjust tasted her first cup, when she was disturbed by a soft tapat the room-door.

'Oh, come in with you!' said Mrs. Corney, sharply. 'Some of theold women dying, I suppose. They always die when I'm at meals. Don't stand there, letting the cold air in, don't. What's amissnow, eh?'

'Nothing, ma'am, nothing,' replied a man's voice.

'Dear me!' exclaimed the matron, in a much sweeter tone, 'is thatMr. Bumble?'

'At your service, ma'am,' said Mr. Bumble, who had been stoppingoutside to rub his shoes clean, and to shake the snow off hiscoat; and who now made his appearance, bearing the cocked hat inone hand and a bundle in the other. 'Shall I shut the door,ma'am?'

The lady modestly hesitated to reply, lest there should be anyimpropriety in holding an interview with Mr. Bumble, with closeddoors. Mr. Bumble taking advantage of the hesitation, and beingvery cold himself, shut it without permission.

'Hard weather, Mr. Bumble,' said the matron.

'Hard, indeed, ma'am,' replied the beadle. 'Anti-porochialweather this, ma'am. We have given away, Mrs. Corney, we havegiven away a matter of twenty quartern loaves and a cheese and ahalf, this very blessed afternoon; and yet them paupers are notcontented.'

'Of course not. When would they be, Mr. Bumble?' said thematron, sipping her tea.

'When, indeed, ma'am!' rejoined Mr. Bumble. 'Why here's one manthat, in consideraton of his wife and large family, has aquartern loaf and a good pound of cheese, full weight. Is hegrateful, ma'am? Is he grateful? Not a copper farthing's worthof it! What does he do, ma'am, but ask for a few coals; if it'sonly a pocket handkerchief full, he says! Coals! What would hedo with coals? Toast his cheese with 'em and then come back formore. That's the way with these people, ma'am; give 'em a apronfull of coals to-day, and they'll come back for another, the dayafter to-morrow, as brazen as alabaster.'

The matron expressed her entire concurrence in this intelligiblesimile; and the beadle went on.

'I never,' said Mr. Bumble, 'see anything like the pitch it's gotto. The day afore yesterday, a man--you have been a marriedwoman, ma'am, and I may mention it to you--a man, with hardly arag upon his back (here Mrs. Corney looked at the floor), goes toour overseer's door when he has got company coming to dinner; andsays, he must be relieved, Mrs. Corney. As he wouldn't go away,and shocked the company very much, our overseer sent him out apound of potatoes and half a pint of oatmeal. "My heart!" saysthe ungrateful villain, "what's the use of THIS to me? You mightas well give me a pair of iron spectacles!' "Very good," saysour overseer, taking 'em away again, "you won't get anything elsehere." "Then I'll die in the streets!" says the vagrant. "Ohno, 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 diein the streets. There's a obstinate pauper for you!'

'It beats anything I could have believed,' observed the matronemphatically. 'But don't you think out-of-door relief a very badthing, 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 areconscious of superior information, 'out-of-door relief, properlymanaged, ma'am: is the porochial safeguard. The great principleof out-of-door relief is, to give the paupers exactly what theydon'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'sthe great principle; and that's the reason why, if you look atany cases that get into them owdacious newspapers, you'll alwaysobserve that sick families have been relieved with slices ofcheese. 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 theinfirmary; real, fresh, genuine port wine; only out of the caskthis forenoon; clear as a bell, and no sediment!'

Having held the first bottle up to the light, and shaken it wellto test its excellence, Mr. Bumble placed them both on top of achest of drawers; folded the handkerchief in which they had beenwrapped; put it carefully in his pocket; and took up his hat, asif to go.

'You'll have a very cold walk, Mr. Bumble,' said the matron.

'It blows, ma'am,' replied Mr. Bumble, turning up hiscoat-collar, 'enough to cut one's ears off.'

The matron looked, from the little kettle, to the beadle, who wasmoving towards the door; and as the beadle coughed, preparatoryto bidding her good-night, bashfully inquired whether--whether hewouldn't take a cup of tea?

Mr. Bumble instantaneously turned back his collar again; laid hishat and stick upon a chair; and drew another chair up to thetable. As he slowly seated himself, he looked at the lady. Shefixed 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 thegallant beadle; she coloured, and applied herself to the task ofmaking his tea. Again Mr. Bumble coughed--louder this time thanhe had coughed yet.

'Sweet? Mr. Bumble?' inquired the matron, taking up thesugar-basin.

'Very sweet, indeed, ma'am,' replied Mr. Bumble. He fixed hiseyes on Mrs. Corney as he said this; and if ever a beadle lookedtender, Mr. Bumble was that beadle at that moment.

The tea was made, and handed in silence. Mr. Bumble, havingspread a handkerchief over his knees to prevent the crumbs fromsullying 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 inthe tea and toast department.

'You have a cat, ma'am, I see,' said Mr. Bumble, glancing at onewho, 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 thematron. 'They're SO happy, SO frolicsome, and SO cheerful, thatthey are quite companions for me.'

'Very nice animals, ma'am,' replied Mr. Bumble, approvingly; 'sovery domestic.'

'Oh, yes!' rejoined the matron with enthusiasm; 'so fond of theirhome too, that it's quite a pleasure, I'm sure.'

'Mrs. Corney, ma'am, said Mr. Bumble, slowly, and marking thetime 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 ofits 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, slowlyflourishing the teaspoon with a kind of amorous dignity whichmade him doubly impressive; 'I would drown it myself, withpleasure.'

'Then you're a cruel man,' said the matron vivaciously, as sheheld out her hand for the beadle's cup; 'and a very hard-heartedman besides.'

'Hard-hearted, ma'am?' said Mr. Bumble. 'Hard?' Mr. Bumbleresigned his cup without another word; squeezed Mrs. Corney'slittle finger as she took it; and inflicting two open-handedslaps upon his laced waistcoat, gave a mighty sigh, and hitchedhis chair a very little morsel farther from the fire.

It was a round table; and as Mrs. Corney and Mr. Bumble had beensitting opposite each other, with no great space between them,and fronting the fire, it will be seen that Mr. Bumble, inreceding from the fire, and still keeping at the table, increasedthe distance between himself and Mrs. Corney; which proceeding,some prudent readers will doubtless be disposed to admire, and toconsider an act of great heroism on Mr. Bumble's part: he beingin some sort tempted by time, place, and opportunity, to giveutterance to certain soft nothings, which however well they maybecome the lips of the light and thoughtless, do seemimmeasurably beneath the dignity of judges of the land, membersof parliament, ministers of state, lord mayors, and other greatpublic functionaries, but more particularly beneath thestateliness and gravity of a beadle: who (as is well known)should be the sternest and most inflexible among them all.

Title: Oliver Twist
Author: Charles Dickens
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