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Charles Dickens >> Oliver Twist (page 43)


'Now listen to me,' said the stranger, after closing the door andwindow. '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 ofhis friends sometimes, you walked into the very room I wassitting in, while you were uppermost in my mind. I want someinformation 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 tohis companion, carefully, as though unwilling that the chinkingof money should be heard without. When Mr. Bumble hadscrupulously examined the coins, to see that they were genuine,and had put them up, with much satisfaction, in hiswaistcoat-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 whichmiserable drabs brought forth the life and health so often deniedto themselves--gave birth to puling children for the parish torear; and hid their shame, rot 'em in the grave!'

'The lying-in room, I suppose?' said Mr. Bumble, not quitefollowing 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 ofone; a meek-looking, pale-faced boy, who was apprenticed downhere, to a coffin-maker--I wish he had made his coffin, andscrewed his body in it--and who afterwards ran away to London, asit was supposed.

'Why, you mean Oliver! Young Twist!' said Mr. Bumble; 'Iremember him, of course. There wasn't a obstinater youngrascal--'

'It's not of him I want to hear; I've heard enough of him,' saidthe stranger, stopping Mr. Bumble in the outset of a tirade onthe subject of poor Oliver's vices. 'It's of a woman; the hagthat nursed his mother. Where is she?'

'Where is she?' said Mr. Bumble, whom the gin-and-water hadrendered facetious. 'It would be hard to tell. There's nomidwifery there, whichever place she's gone to; so I supposeshe'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 timeafterwards, his gaze gradually became vacant and abstracted, andhe seemed lost in thought. For some time, he appeared doubtfulwhether he ought to be relieved or disappointed by theintelligence; but at length he breathed more freely; andwithdrawing his eyes, observed that it was no great matter. Withthat he rose, as if to depart.

But Mr. Bumble was cunning enough; and he at once saw that anopportunity was opened, for the lucrative disposal of some secretin the possession of his better half. He well remembered thenight of old Sally's death, which the occurrences of that day hadgiven him good reason to recollect, as the occasion on which hehad proposed to Mrs. Corney; and although that lady had neverconfided to him the disclosure of which she had been the solitarywitness, he had heard enough to know that it related to somethingthat had occurred in the old woman's attendance, as workhousenurse, upon the young mother of Oliver Twist. Hastily callingthis circumstance to mind, he informed the stranger, with an airof mystery, that one woman had been closeted with the oldharridan shortly before she died; and that she could, as he hadreason to believe, throw some light on the subject of hisinquiry.

'How can I find her?' said the stranger, thrown off his guard;and plainly showing that all his fears (whatever they were) werearoused 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 ofpaper, and writing down upon it, an obscure address by thewater-side, in characters that betrayed his agitation; 'at ninein the evening, bring her to me there. I needn't tell you to besecret. It's your interest.'

With these words, he led the way to the door, after stopping topay for the liquor that had been drunk. Shortly remarking thattheir roads were different, he departed, without more ceremonythan an emphatic repetition of the hour of appointment for thefollowing night.

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

'What do you want?' cried the man. turning quickly round, asBumble touched him on the arm. 'Following me?'

'Only to ask a question,' said the other, pointing to the scrapof paper. 'What name am I to ask for?'

'Monks!' rejoined the man; and strode hastily, away.

CHAPTER XXXVIII

CONTAINING AN ACCOUNT OF WHAT PASSED BETWEEN MR. AND MRS. BUMBLE,AND MR. MONKS, AT THEIR NOCTURNAL INTERVIEW

It was a dull, close, overcast summer evening. The clouds, whichhad been threatening all day, spread out in a dense and sluggishmass of vapour, already yielded large drops of rain, and seemedto presage a violent thunder-storm, when Mr. and Mrs. Bumble,turning out of the main street of the town, directed their coursetowards a scattered little colony of ruinous houses, distant fromit some mile and a-half, or thereabouts, and erected on a lowunwholesome swamp, bordering upon the river.

They were both wrapped in old and shabby outer garments, whichmight, perhaps, serve the double purpose of protecting theirpersons from the rain, and sheltering them from observation. Thehusband carried a lantern, from which, however, no light yetshone; and trudged on, a few paces in front, as though--the waybeing dirty--to give his wife the benefit of treading in hisheavy footprints. They went on, in profound silence; every nowand then, Mr. Bumble relaxed his pace, and turned his head as ifto make sure that his helpmate was following; then, discoveringthat she was close at his heels, he mended his rate of walking,and proceeded, at a considerable increase of speed, towards theirplace of destination.

This was far from being a place of doubtful character; for it hadlong been known as the residence of none but low ruffians, who,under various pretences of living by their labour, subsistedchiefly on plunder and crime. It was a collection of merehovels: some, hastily built with loose bricks: others, of oldworm-eaten ship-timber: jumbled together without any attempt atorder or arrangement, and planted, for the most part, within afew feet of the river's bank. A few leaky boats drawn up on themud, and made fast to the dwarf wall which skirted it: and hereand there an oar or coil of rope: appeared, at first, toindicate that the inhabitants of these miserable cottages pursuedsome avocation on the river; but a glance at the shattered anduseless condition of the articles thus displayed, would have leda passer-by, without much difficulty, to the conjecture that theywere disposed there, rather for the preservation of appearances,than with any view to their being actually employed.

In the heart of this cluster of huts; and skirting the river,which its upper stories overhung; stood a large building,formerly used as a manufactory of some kind. It had, in its day,probably furnished employment to the inhabitants of thesurrounding tenements. But it had long since gone to ruin. Therat, the worm, and the action of the damp, had weakened androtted the piles on which it stood; and a considerable portion ofthe building had already sunk down into the water; while theremainder, tottering and bending over the dark stream, seemed towait a favourable opportunity of following its old companion, andinvolving itself in the same fate.

It was before this ruinous building that the worthy couplepaused, as the first peal of distant thunder reverberated in theair, and the rain commenced pouring violently down.

'The place should be somewhere here,' said Bumble, consulting ascrap of paper he held in his hand.

'Halloa there!' cried a voice from above.

Following the sound, Mr. Bumble raised his head and descried aman looking out of a door, breast-high, on the second story.

'Stand still, a minute,' cried the voice; 'I'll be with youdirectly.' With which the head disappeared, and the door closed.

'Is that the man?' asked Mr. Bumble's good lady.

Mr. Bumble nodded in the affirmative.

'Then, mind what I told you,' said the matron: 'and be careful tosay as little as you can, or you'll betray us at once.'

Mr. Bumble, who had eyed the building with very rueful looks, wasapparently about to express some doubts relative to theadvisability of proceeding any further with the enterprise justthen, when he was prevented by the appearance of Monks: w hoopened a small door, near which they stood, and beckoned theminwards.

'Come in!' he cried impatiently, stamping his foot upon theground. 'Don't keep me here!'

The woman, who had hesitated at first, walked boldly in, withoutany other invitation. Mr. Bumble, who was ashamed or afraid tolag behind, followed: obviously very ill at ease and withscarcely any of that remarkable dignity which was usually hischief characteristic.

'What the devil made you stand lingering there, in the wet?' saidMonks, turning round, and addressing Bumble, after he had boltedthe door behind them.

'We--we were only cooling ourselves,' stammered Bumble, lookingapprehensively about him.

'Cooling yourselves!' retorted Monks. 'Not all the rain thatever fell, or ever will fall, will put as much of hell's fireout, as a man can carry about with him. You won't cool yourselfso easily; don't think it!'

With this agreeable speech, Monks turned short upon the matron,and bent his gaze upon her, till even she, who was not easilycowed, was fain to withdraw her eyes, and turn them them towardsthe ground.

'This is the woman, is it?' demanded Monks.

'Hem! That is the woman,' replied Mr. Bumble, mindful of hiswife's caution.

'You think women never can keep secrets, I suppose?' said thematron, interposing, and returning, as she spoke, the searchinglook of Monks.

'I know they will always keep ONE till it's found out,' saidMonks.

'And what may that be?' asked the matron.

'The loss of their own good name,' replied Monks. 'So, by thesame rule, if a woman's a party to a secret that might hang ortransport her, I'm not afraid of her telling it to anybody; notI! Do you understand, mistress?'

'No,' rejoined the matron, slightly colouring as she spoke.

'Of course you don't!' said Monks. 'How should you?'

Bestowing something half-way between a smile and a frown upon histwo companions, and again beckoning them to follow him, the manhastened across the apartment, which was of considerable extent,but low in the roof. He was preparing to ascend a steepstaircase, or rather ladder, leading to another floor ofwarehouses above: when a bright flash of lightning streamed downthe aperture, and a peal of thunder followed, which shook thecrazy building to its centre.

'Hear it!' he cried, shrinking back. 'Hear it! Rolling andcrashing on as if it echoed through a thousand caverns where thedevils were hiding from it. I hate the sound!'

He remained silent for a few moments; and then, removing hishands suddenly from his face, showed, to the unspeakablediscomposure of Mr. Bumble, that it was much distorted anddiscoloured.

'These fits come over me, now and then,' said Monks, observinghis alarm; 'and thunder sometimes brings them on. Don't mind menow; it's all over for this once.'

Thus speaking, he led the way up the ladder; and hastily closingthe window-shutter of the room into which it led, lowered alantern which hung at the end of a rope and pulley passed throughone of the heavy beams in the ceiling: and which cast a dimlight upon an old table and three chairs that were placed beneathit.

'Now,' said Monks, when they had all three seated themselves,'the sooner we come to our business, the better for all. Thewoman know what it is, does she?'

The question was addressed to Bumble; but his wife anticipatedthe reply, by intimating that she was perfectly acquainted withit.

'He is right in saying that you were with this hag the night shedied; and that she told you something--'

'About the mother of the boy you named,' replied the matroninterrupting him. 'Yes.'

'The first question is, of what nature was her communication?'said Monks.

'That's the second,' observed the woman with much deliberation. 'The first is, what may the communication be worth?'

'Who the devil can tell that, without knowing of what kind itis?' asked Monks.

'Nobody better than you, I am persuaded,' answered Mrs. Bumble:who did not want for spirit, as her yoke-fellow could abundantlytestify.

'Humph!' said Monks significantly, and with a look of eagerinquiry; 'there may be money's worth to get, eh?'

'Perhaps there may,' was the composed reply.

'Something that was taken from her,' said Monks. 'Something thatshe wore. Something that--'

'You had better bid,' interrupted Mrs. Bumble. 'I have heardenough, already, to assure me that you are the man I ought totalk to.'

Mr. Bumble, who had not yet been admitted by his better half intoany greater share of the secret than he had originally possessed,listened to this dialogue with outstretched neck and distendedeyes: which he directed towards his wife and Monks, by turns, inundisguised astonishment; increased, if possible, when the lattersternly demanded, what sum was required for the disclosure.

Title: Oliver Twist
Author: Charles Dickens
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