Charles Dickens >> Oliver Twist (page 31)

He was still placidly engaged in this latter survey, when Mrs.Corney, hurrying into the room, threw herself, in a breathlessstate, on a chair by the fireside, and covering her eyes with onehand, placed the other over her heart, and gasped for breath.

'Mrs. Corney,' said Mr. Bumble, stooping over the matron, 'whatis this, ma'am? Has anything happened, ma'am? Pray answer me: I'm on--on--' Mr. Bumble, in his alarm, could not immediatelythink of the word 'tenterhooks,' so he said 'broken bottles.'

'Oh, Mr. Bumble!' cried the lady, 'I have been so dreadfully putout!'

'Put out, ma'am!' exclaimed Mr. Bumble; 'who has dared to--? Iknow!' said Mr. Bumble, checking himself, with native majesty,'this is them wicious paupers!'

'It's dreadful to think of!' said the lady, shuddering.

'Then DON'T think of it, ma'am,' rejoined Mr. Bumble.

'I can't help it,' whimpered the lady.

'Then take something, ma'am,' said Mr. Bumble soothingly. 'Alittle of the wine?'

'Not for the world!' replied Mrs. Corney. 'I couldn't,--oh! Thetop shelf in the right-hand corner--oh!' Uttering these words,the good lady pointed, distractedly, to the cupboard, andunderwent a convulsion from internal spasms. Mr. Bumble rushedto the closet; and, snatching a pint green-glass bottle from theshelf thus incoherently indicated, filled a tea-cup with itscontents, and held it to the lady's lips.

'I'm better now,' said Mrs. Corney, falling back, after drinkinghalf of it.

Mr. Bumble raised his eyes piously to the ceiling inthankfulness; and, bringing them down again to the brim of thecup, lifted it to his nose.

'Peppermint,' exclaimed Mrs. Corney, in a faint voice, smilinggently on the beadle as she spoke. 'Try it! There's a little--alittle something else in it.'

Mr. Bumble tasted the medicine with a doubtful look; smacked hislips; took another taste; and put the cup down empty.

'It's very comforting,' said Mrs. Corney.

'Very much so indeed, ma'am,' said the beadle. As he spoke, hedrew a chair beside the matron, and tenderly inquired what hadhappened to distress her.

'Nothing,' replied Mrs. Corney. 'I am a foolish, excitable, weakcreetur.'

'Not weak, ma'am,' retorted Mr. Bumble, drawing his chair alittle closer. 'Are you a weak creetur, Mrs. Corney?'

'We are all weak creeturs,' said Mrs. Corney, laying down ageneral principle.

'So we are,' said the beadle.

Nothing was said on either side, for a minute or two afterwards. By the expiration of that time, Mr. Bumble had illustrated theposition by removing his left arm from the back of Mrs. Corney'schair, where it had previously rested, to Mrs. Corney'saprong-string, round which is gradually became entwined.

'We are all weak creeturs,' said Mr. Bumble.

Mrs. Corney sighed.

'Don't sigh, Mrs. Corney,' said Mr. Bumble.

'I can't help it,' said Mrs. Corney. And she sighed again.

'This is a very comfortable room, ma'am,' said Mr. Bumble lookinground. 'Another room, and this, ma'am, would be a completething.'

'It would be too much for one,' murmured the lady.

'But not for two, ma'am,' rejoined Mr. Bumble, in soft accents. 'Eh, Mrs. Corney?'

Mrs. Corney drooped her head, when the beadle said this; thebeadle drooped his, to get a view of Mrs. Corney's face. Mrs.Corney, with great propriety, turned her head away, and releasedher hand to get at her pocket-handkerchief; but insensiblyreplaced it in that of Mr. Bumble.

'The board allows you coals, don't they, Mrs. Corney?' inquiredthe beadle, affectionately pressing her hand.

'And candles,' replied Mrs. Corney, slightly returning thepressure.

'Coals, candles, and house-rent free,' said Mr. Bumble. 'Oh,Mrs. Corney, what an Angel you are!'

The lady was not proof against this burst of feeling. She sankinto Mr. Bumble's arms; and that gentleman in his agitation,imprinted a passionate kiss upon her chaste nose.

'Such porochial perfection!' exclaimed Mr. Bumble, rapturously. 'You know that Mr. Slout is worse to-night, my fascinator?'

'Yes,' replied Mrs. Corney, bashfully.

'He can't live a week, the doctor says,' pursued Mr. Bumble. 'Heis the master of this establishment; his death will cause awacancy; that wacancy must be filled up. Oh, Mrs. Corney, what aprospect this opens! What a opportunity for a jining of heartsand housekeepings!'

Mrs. Corney sobbed.

'The little word?' said Mr. Bumble, bending over the bashfulbeauty. 'The one little, little, little word, my blessedCorney?'

'Ye--ye--yes!' sighed out the matron.

'One more,' pursued the beadle; 'compose your darling feelingsfor only one more. When is it to come off?'

Mrs. Corney twice essayed to speak: and twice failed. At lengthsummoning up courage, she threw her arms around Mr. Bumble'sneck, and said, it might be as soon as ever he pleased, and thathe was 'a irresistible duck.'

Matters being thus amicably and satisfactorily arranged, thecontract was solemnly ratified in another teacupful of thepeppermint mixture; which was rendered the more necessary, by theflutter and agitation of the lady's spirits. While it was beingdisposed of, she acquainted Mr. Bumble with the old woman'sdecease.

'Very good,' said that gentleman, sipping his peppermint; 'I'llcall at Sowerberry's as I go home, and tell him to send to-morrowmorning. Was it that as frightened you, love?'

'It wasn't anything particular, dear,' said the lady evasively.

'It must have been something, love,' urged Mr. Bumble. 'Won't youtell your own B.?'

'Not now,' rejoined the lady; 'one of these days. After we'remarried, dear.'

'After we're married!' exclaimed Mr. Bumble. 'It wasn't anyimpudence from any of them male paupers as--'

'No, no, love!' interposed the lady, hastily.

'If I thought it was,' continued Mr. Bumble; 'if I thought as anyone of 'em had dared to lift his wulgar eyes to that lovelycountenance--'

'They wouldn't have dared to do it, love,' responded the lady.

'They had better not!' said Mr. Bumble, clenching his fist. 'Letme see any man, porochial or extra-porochial, as would presume todo it; and I can tell him that he wouldn't do it a second time!'

Unembellished by any violence of gesticulation, this might haveseemed no very high compliment to the lady's charms; but, as Mr.Bumble accompanied the threat with many warlike gestures, she wasmuch touched with this proof of his devotion, and protested, withgreat admiration, that he was indeed a dove.

The dove then turned up his coat-collar, and put on his cockedhat; and, having exchanged a long and affectionate embrace withhis future partner, once again braved the cold wind of the night:merely pausing, for a few minutes, in the male paupers' ward, toabuse them a little, with the view of satisfying himself that hecould fill the office of workhouse-master with needful acerbity. Assured of his qualifications, Mr. Bumble left the building witha light heart, and bright visions of his future promotion: whichserved to occupy his mind until he reached the shop of theundertaker.

Now, Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry having gone out to tea and supper: and Noah Claypole not being at any time disposed to take uponhimself a greater amount of physical exertion than is necessaryto a convenient performance of the two functions of eating anddrinking, the shop was not closed, although it was past the usualhour of shutting-up. Mr. Bumble tapped with his cane on thecounter several times; but, attracting no attention, andbeholding a light shining through the glass-window of the littleparlour at the back of the shop, he made bold to peep in and seewhat was going forward; and when he saw what was going forward,he was not a little surprised.

The cloth was laid for supper; the table was covered with breadand butter, plates and glasses; a porter-pot and a wine-bottle. At the upper end of the table, Mr. Noah Claypole lollednegligently in an easy-chair, with his legs thrown over one ofthe arms: an open clasp-knife in one hand, and a mass of butteredbread in the other. Close beside him stood Charlotte, openingoysters from a barrel: which Mr. Claypole condescended toswallow, with remarkable avidity. A more than ordinary rednessin the region of the young gentleman's nose, and a kind of fixedwink in his right eye, denoted that he was in a slight degreeintoxicated; these symptoms were confirmed by the intense relishwith which he took his oysters, for which nothing but a strongappreciation of their cooling properties, in cases of internalfever, could have sufficiently accounted.

'Here's a delicious fat one, Noah, dear!' said Charlotte; 'tryhim, do; only this one.'

'What a delicious thing is a oyster!' remarked Mr. Claypole,after he had swallowed it. 'What a pity it is, a number of 'emshould ever make you feel uncomfortable; isn't it, Charlotte?'

'It's quite a cruelty,' said Charlotte.

'So it is,' acquiesced Mr. Claypole. 'An't yer fond of oysters?'

'Not overmuch,' replied Charlotte. 'I like to see you eat 'em,Noah dear, better than eating 'em myself.'

'Lor!' said Noah, reflectively; 'how queer!'

'Have another,' said Charlotte. 'Here's one with such abeautiful, delicate beard!'

'I can't manage any more,' said Noah. 'I'm very sorry. Comehere, Charlotte, and I'll kiss yer.'

'What!' said Mr. Bumble, bursting into the room. 'Say thatagain, sir.'

Charlotte uttered a scream, and hid her face in her apron. Mr.Claypole, without making any further change in his position thansuffering his legs to reach the ground, gazed at the beadle indrunken terror.

'Say it again, you wile, owdacious fellow!' said Mr. Bumble. 'Howdare you mention such a thing, sir? And how dare you encouragehim, you insolent minx? Kiss her!' exclaimed Mr. Bumble, instrong indignation. 'Faugh!'

'I didn't mean to do it!' said Noah, blubbering. 'She's alwaysa-kissing of me, whether I like it, or not.'

'Oh, Noah,' cried Charlotte, reproachfully.

'Yer are; yer know yer are!' retorted Noah. 'She's alwaysa-doin' of it, Mr. Bumble, sir; she chucks me under the chin,please, sir; and makes all manner of love!'

'Silence!' cried Mr. Bumble, sternly. 'Take yourself downstairs,ma'am. Noah, you shut up the shop; say another word till yourmaster comes home, at your peril; and, when he does come home,tell him that Mr. Bumble said he was to send a old woman's shellafter breakfast to-morrow morning. Do you hear sir? Kissing!'cried Mr. Bumble, holding up his hands. 'The sin and wickednessof the lower orders in this porochial district is frightful! IfParliament don't take their abominable courses underconsideration, this country's ruined, and the character of thepeasantry gone for ever!' With these words, the beadle strode,with a lofty and gloomy air, from the undertaker's premises.

And now that we have accompanied him so far on his road home, andhave made all necessary preparations for the old woman's funeral,let us set on foot a few inquires after young Oliver Twist, andascertain whether he be still lying in the ditch where TobyCrackit left him.



'Wolves tear your throats!' muttered Sikes, grinding his teeth. 'I wish I was among some of you; you'd howl the hoarser for it.'

As Sikes growled forth this imprecation, with the most desperateferocity that his desperate nature was capable of, he rested thebody of the wounded boy across his bended knee; and turned hishead, for an instant, to look back at his pursuers.

There was little to be made out, in the mist and darkness; butthe loud shouting of men vibrated through the air, and thebarking of the neighbouring dogs, roused by the sound of thealarm bell, resounded in every direction.

'Stop, you white-livered hound!' cried the robber, shouting afterToby Crackit, who, making the best use of his long legs, wasalready ahead. 'Stop!'

The repetition of the word, brought Toby to a dead stand-still. For he was not quite satisfied that he was beyond the range ofpistol-shot; and Sikes was in no mood to be played with.

'Bear a hand with the boy,' cried Sikes, beckoning furiously tohis confederate. 'Come back!'

Toby made a show of returning; but ventured, in a low voice,broken for want of breath, to intimate considerable reluctance ashe came slowly along.

'Quicker!' cried Sikes, laying the boy in a dry ditch at hisfeet, and drawing a pistol from his pocket. 'Don't play bootywith me.'

At this moment the noise grew louder. Sikes, again lookinground, could discern that the men who had given chase werealready climbing the gate of the field in which he stood; andthat a couple of dogs were some paces in advance of them.

'It's all up, Bill!' cried Toby; 'drop the kid, and show 'em yourheels.' With this parting advice, Mr. Crackit, preferring thechance of being shot by his friend, to the certainty of beingtaken by his enemies, fairly turned tail, and darted off at fullspeed. Sikes clenched his teeth; took one look around; threwover the prostrate form of Oliver, the cape in which he had beenhurriedly muffled; ran along the front of the hedge, as if todistract the attention of those behind, from the spot where theboy lay; paused, for a second, before another hedge which met itat right angles; and whirling his pistol high into the air,cleared it at a bound, and was gone.

Title: Oliver Twist
Author: Charles Dickens
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