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Charles Dickens >> Oliver Twist (page 27)


Whatever were Mr. Bumble's intentions, however (and no doubt theywere of the best): it unfortunately happened, as has been twicebefore remarked, that the table was a round one; consequently Mr.Bumble, moving his chair by little and little, soon began todiminish the distance between himself and the matron; and,continuing to travel round the outer edge of the circle, broughthis chair, in time, close to that in which the matron was seated.

Indeed, the two chairs touched; and when they did so, Mr. Bumblestopped.

Now, if the matron had moved her chair to the right, she wouldhave been scorched by the fire; and if to the left, she must havefallen into Mr. Bumble's arms; so (being a discreet matron, andno doubt foreseeing these consequences at a glance) she remainedwhere 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 questionfrom a single man. What can you want to know for, Mr. Bumble?'

The beadle drank his tea to the last drop; finished a piece oftoast; whisked the crumbs off his knees; wiped his lips; anddeliberately kissed the matron.

'Mr. Bumble!' cried that discreet lady in a whisper; for thefright was so great, that she had quite lost her voice, 'Mr.Bumble, I shall scream!' Mr. Bumble made no reply; but in a slowand dignified manner, put his arm round the matron's waist.

As the lady had stated her intention of screaming, of course shewould have screamed at this additional boldness, but that theexertion was rendered unnecessary by a hasty knocking at thedoor: which was no sooner heard, than Mr. Bumble darted, withmuch agility, to the wine bottles, and began dusting them withgreat violence: while the matron sharply demanded who was there.

It is worthy of remark, as a curious physical instance of theefficacy of a sudden surprise in counteracting the effects ofextreme fear, that her voice had quite recovered all its officialasperity.

'If you please, mistress,' said a withered old female pauper,hideously ugly: putting her head in at the door, 'Old Sally isa-going fast.'

'Well, what's that to me?' angrily demanded the matron. 'I can'tkeep her alive, can I?'

'No, no, mistress,' replied the old woman, 'nobody can; she's farbeyond the reach of help. I've seen a many people die; littlebabes and great strong men; and I know when death's a-coming,well enough. But she's troubled in her mind: and when the fitsare not on her,--and that's not often, for she is dying veryhard,--she says she has got something to tell, which you musthear. She'll never die quiet till you come, mistress.'

At this intelligence, the worthy Mrs. Corney muttered a varietyof invectives against old women who couldn't even die withoutpurposely annoying their betters; and, muffling herself in athick shawl which she hastily caught up, briefly requested Mr.Bumble to stay till she came back, lest anything particularshould occur. Bidding the messenger walk fast, and not be allnight hobbling up the stairs, she followed her from the room witha very ill grace, scolding all the way.

Mr. Bumble's conduct on being left to himself, was ratherinexplicable. He opened the closet, counted the teaspoons,weighed the sugar-tongs, closely inspected a silver milk-pot toascertain that it was of the genuine metal, and, having satisfiedhis 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 tookoff the cocked hat again, and, spreading himself before the firewith his back towards it, seemed to be mentally engaged in takingan exact inventory of the furniture.

CHAPTER XXIV

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

It was no unfit messanger of death, who had disturbed the quietof the matron's room. Her body was bent by age; her limbstrembled with palsy; her face, distorted into a mumbling leer,resembled more the grotesque shaping of some wild pencil, thanthe work of Nature's hand.

Alas! How few of Nature's faces are left alone to gladden uswith their beauty! The cares, and sorrows, and hungerings, ofthe world, change them as they change hearts; and it is only whenthose passions sleep, and have lost their hold for ever, that thetroubled clouds pass off, and leave Heaven's surface clear. Itis a common thing for the countenances of the dead, even in thatfixed and rigid state, to subside into the long-forgottenexpression of sleeping infancy, and settle into the very look ofearly life; so calm, so peaceful, do they grow again, that thosewho knew them in their happy childhood, kneel by the coffin'sside 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 hercompanion; being at length compelled to pause for breath, shegave the light into her hand, and remained behind to follow asshe might: while the more nimble superior made her way to theroom where the sick woman lay.

It was a bare garret-room, with a dim light burning at thefarther 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 thematron entered.

'Very cold, indeed, sir,' replied the mistress, in her most civiltones, and dropping a curtsey as she spoke.

'You should get better coals out of your contractors,' said theapothecary's deputy, breaking a lump on the top of the fire withthe rusty poker; 'these are not at all the sort of thing for acold night.'

'They're the board's choosing, sir,' returned the matron. 'Theleast they could do, would be to keep us pretty warm: for ourplaces are hard enough.'

The conversation was here interrupted by a moan from the sickwoman.

'Oh!' said the young mag, turning his face towards the bed, as ifhe 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 theapothecary's apprentice, intent upon the toothpick's point. 'It's a break-up of the system altogether. Is she dozing, oldlady?'

The attendant stooped over the bed, to ascertain; and nodded inthe affirmative.

'Then perhaps she'll go off in that way, if you don't make arow,' said the young man. 'Put the light on the floor. Shewon'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 doneso, she resumed her seat by the side of the other nurse, who hadby this time returned. The mistress, with an expression ofimpatience, wrapped herself in her shawl, and sat at the foot ofthe bed.

The apothecary's apprentice, having completed the manufacture ofthe toothpick, planted himself in front of the fire and made gooduse of it for ten minutes or so: when apparently growing ratherdull, he wished Mrs. Corney joy of her job, and took himself offon tiptoe.

When they had sat in silence for some time, the two old womenrose from the bed, and crouching over the fire, held out theirwithered hands to catch the heat. The flame threw a ghastlylight on their shrivelled faces, and made their ugliness appearterrible, as, in this position, they began to converse in a lowvoice.

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

'Not a word,' replied the other. 'She plucked and tore at herarms for a little time; but I held her hands, and she soondropped off. She hasn't much strength in her, so I easily kepther quiet. I ain't so weak for an old woman, although I am onparish 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 teethwere tight set, and she clenched the mug so hard that it was asmuch as I could do to get it back again. So I drank it; and itdid me good!'

Looking cautiously round, to ascertain that they were notoverheard, the two hags cowered nearer to the fire, and chuckledheartily.

'I mind the time,' said the first speaker, 'when she would havedone 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 aswaxwork. My old eyes have seen them--ay, and those old handstouched them too; for I have helped her, scores of times.'

Stretching forth her trembling fingers as she spoke, the oldcreature shook them exultingly before her face, and fumbling inher pocket, brought out an old time-discoloured tin snuff-box,from which she shook a few grains into the outstretched palm ofher companion, and a few more into her own. While they were thusemployed, the matron, who had been impatiently watching until thedying woman should awaken from her stupor, joined them by thefire, and sharply asked how long she was to wait?

'Not long, mistress,' replied the second woman, looking up intoher 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'llnever wake again but once--and mind, mistress, that won't be forlong!'

'Long or short,' said the matron, snappishly, 'she won't find mehere when she does wake; take care, both of you, how you worry meagain for nothing. It's no part of my duty to see all the oldwomen in the house die, and I won't--that's more. Mind that, youimpudent old harridans. If you make a fool of me again, I'llsoon cure you, I warrant you!'

She was bouncing away, when a cry from the two women, who hadturned towards the bed, caused her to look round. The patienthad raised herself upright, and was stretching her arms towardsthem.

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

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

'I'll never lie down again alive!' said the woman, struggling. 'IWILL tell her! Come here! Nearer! Let me whisper in your ear.'

She clutched the matron by the arm, and forcing her into a chairby the bedside, was about to speak, when looking round, shecaught sight of the two old women bending forward in the attitudeof eager listeners.

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

The two old crones, chiming in together, began pouring out manypiteous lamentations that the poor dear was too far gone to knowher best friends; and were uttering sundry protestations thatthey would never leave her, when the superior pushed them fromthe room, closed the door, and returned to the bedside. On beingexcluded, the old ladies changed their tone, and cried throughthe keyhole that old Sally was drunk; which, indeed, was notunlikely; since, in addition to a moderate dose of opiumprescribed by the apothecary, she was labouring under the effectsof a final taste of gin-and-water which had been privilyadministered, in the openness of their hearts, by the worthy oldladies themselves.

'Now listen to me,' said the dying woman aloud, as if making agreat effort to revive one latent spark of energy. 'In this veryroom--in this very bed--I once nursed a pretty young creetur',that was brought into the house with her feet cut and bruisedwith walking, and all soiled with dust and blood. She gave birthto a boy, and died. Let me think--what was the year again!'

'Never mind the year,' said the impatient auditor; 'what abouther?'

'Ay,' murmured the sick woman, relapsing into her former drowsystate, 'what about her?--what about--I know!' she cried, jumpingfiercely up: her face flushed, and her eyes starting from herhead--'I robbed her, so I did! She wasn't cold--I tell you shewasn't cold, when I stole it!'

'Stole what, for God's sake?' cried the matron, with a gesture asif 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 herbosom. It was gold, I tell you! Rich gold, that might havesaved her life!'

'Gold!' echoed the matron, bending eagerly over the woman as shefell 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 myheart when she first showed it me hanging round her neck; and thechild's death, perhaps, is on me besides! They would havetreated 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 whenI 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 toldyou all, have I?'

'No, no,' replied the matron, inclining her head to catch thewords, as they came more faintly from the dying woman. 'Bequick, or it may be too late!'

'The mother,' said the woman, making a more violent effort thanbefore; '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 tohear its poor young mother named. "And oh, kind Heaven!" shesaid, folding her thin hands together, "whether it be boy orgirl, raise up some friends for it in this troubled world, andtake pity upon a lonely desolate child, abandoned to its mercy!"'

Title: Oliver Twist
Author: Charles Dickens
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