Charles Dickens >> Oliver Twist (page 42)

Mr. Bumle had married Mrs. Corney, and was master of theworkhouse. Another beadle had come into power. On him thecocked hat, gold-laced coat, and staff, had all three descended.

'And to-morrow two months it was done!' said Mr. Bumble, with asigh. 'It seems a age.'

Mr. Bumble might have meant that he had concentrated a wholeexistence of happiness into the short space of eight weeks; butthe sigh--there was a vast deal of meaning in the sigh.

'I sold myself,' said Mr. Bumble, pursuing the same train ofrelection, 'for six teaspoons, a pair of sugar-tongs, and amilk-pot; with a small quantity of second-hand furniture, andtwenty pound in money. I went very reasonable. Cheap, dirtcheap!'

'Cheap!' cried a shrill voice in Mr. Bumble's ear: 'you wouldhave been dear at any price; and dear enough I paid for you, Lordabove knows that!'

Mr. Bumble turned, and encountered the face of his interestingconsort, who, imperfectly comprehending the few words she hadoverheard of his complaint, had hazarded the foregoing remark ata venture.

'Mrs. Bumble, ma'am!' said Mr. Bumble, with a sentimentalsternness.

'Well!' cried the lady.

'Have the goodness to look at me,' said Mr. Bumble, fixing hiseyes upon her. (If she stands such a eye as that,' said Mr.Bumble to himself, 'she can stand anything. It is a eye I neverknew to fail with paupers. If it fails with her, my power isgone.')

Whether an exceedingly small expansion of eye be sufficient toquell paupers, who, being lightly fed, are in no very highcondition; or whether the late Mrs. Corney was particularly proofagainst eagle glances; are matters of opinion. The matter offact, is, that the matron was in no way overpowered by Mr.Bumble's scowl, but, on the contrary, treated it with greatdisdain, and even raised a laugh threreat, which sounded asthough it were genuine.

On hearing this most unexpected sound, Mr. Bumble looked, firstincredulous, and afterwards amazed. He then relapsed into hisformer state; nor did he rouse himself until his attention wasagain 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 shallsnore, 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 aman 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 unfortunatehusband should have taught it you; and then, perhaps, he mighthave been alive now. I wish he was, poor man!'

Mrs. Bumble, seeing at a glance, that the decisive moment had nowarrived, and that a blow struck for the mastership on one side orother, must necessarily be final and conclusive, no sooner heardthis allusion to the dead and gone, than she dropped into achair, and with a loud scream that Mr. Bumble was a hard-heartedbrute, fell into a paroxysm of tears.

But, tears were not the things to find their way to Mr. Bumble'ssoul; his heart was waterproof. Like washable beaver hats thatimprove with rain, his nerves were rendered stouter and morevigorous, by showers of tears, which, being tokens of weakness,and so far tacit admissions of his own power, please and exaltedhim. He eyed his good lady with looks of great satisfaction, andbegged, in an encouraging manner, that she should cry herhardest: the exercise being looked upon, by the faculty, asstronly 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 hishat from a peg, and putting it on, rather rakishly, on one side,as a man might, who felt he had asserted his superiority in abecoming manner, thrust his hands into his pockets, and saunteredtowards the door, with much ease and waggishness depicted in hiswhole appearance.

Now, Mrs. Corney that was, had tried the tears, because they wereless troublesome than a manual assault; but, she was quiteprepared 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 ahollow sound, immediately succeeded by the sudden flying off ofhis hat to the opposite end of the room. This preliminaryproceeding laying bare his head, the expert lady, clasping himtightly round the throat with one hand, inflicted a shower ofblows (dealt with singular vigour and dexterity) upon it with theother. This done, she created a little variety by scratching hisface, and tearing his hair; and, having, by this time, inflictedas much punishment as she deemed necessary for the offence, shepushed him over a chair, which was luckily well situated for thepurpose: and defied him to talk about his prerogative again, ifhe dared.

'Get up!' said Mrs. Bumble, in a voice of command. 'And takeyourself away from here, unless you want me to do somethingdesperate.'

Mr. Bumble rose with a very rueful countenance: wondering muchwhat something desperate might be. Picking up his hat, he lookedtowards the door.

'Are you going?' demanded Mr. Bumble.

'Certainly, my dear, certainly,' rejoined Mr. Bumble, making aquicker 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 replacethe carpet, which had been kicked up in the scuffle. Mr. Bumbleimmediately darted out of the room, without bestowing anotherthought on his unfinished sentence: leaving the late Mrs. Corneyin full possession of the field.

Mr. Bumble was fairly taken by surprise, and fairly beaten. Hehad a decided propensity for bullying: derived no inconsiderablepleasure from the exercise of petty cruelty; and, consequently,was (it is needless to say) a coward. This is by no means adisparagement to his character; for many official personages, whoare held in high respect and admiration, are the victims ofsimilar infirmities. The remark is made, indeed, rather in hisfavour than otherwise, and with a view of impressing the readerwith a just sense of his qualifications for office.

But, the measure of his degradation was not yet full. Aftermaking a tour of the house, and thinking, for the first time,that the poor-laws really were too hard on people; and that menwho ran away from their wives, leaving them chargeable to theparish, ought, in justice to be visited with no punishment atall, but rather rewarded as meritorious individuals who hadsuffered much; Mr. Bumble came to a room where some of the femalepaupers were usually employed in washing the parish linen: whenthe 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, youhussies?'

With these words, Mr. Bumble opened the door, and walked in witha very fierce and angry manner: which was at once exchanged fora most humiliated and cowering air, as his eyes unexpectedlyrested 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 dohere?'

'I thought they were talking rather too much to be doing theirwork properly, my dear,' replied Mr. Bumble: glancingdistractedly at a couple of old women at the wash-tub, who werecomparing notes of admiration at the workhouse-master's humility.

'YOU thought they were talking too much?' said Mrs. Bumble. 'Whatbusiness 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'twant any of your interference. You're a great deal too fond ofpoking your nose into things that don't concern you, makingeverybody in the house laugh, the moment your back is turned, andmaking yourself look like a fool every hour in the day. Be off;come!'

Mr. Bumble, seeing with excruciating feelings, the delight of thetwo old paupers, who were tittering together most rapturously,hesitated for an instant. Mrs. Bumble, whose patience brooked nodelay, caught up a bowl of soap-suds, and motioning him towardsthe door, ordered him instantly to depart, on pain of receivingthe contents upon his portly person.

What could Mr. Bumble do? He looked dejectedly round, and slunkaway; and, as he reached the door, the titterings of the paupersbroke into a shrill chuckle of irrepressible delight. It wantedbut this. He was degraded in their eyes; he had lost caste andstation before the very paupers; he had fallen from all theheight and pomp of beadleship, to the lowest depth of the mostsnubbed hen-peckery.

'All in two months!' said Mr. Bumble, filled with dismalthoughts. 'Two months! No more than two months ago, I was notonly my own master, but everybody else's, so far as the porochialworkhouse was concerned, and now!--'

It was too much. Mr. Bumble boxed the ears of the boy who openedthe 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 hadabated the first passion of his grief; and then the revulsion offeeling made him thirsty. He passed a great many public-houses;but, at length paused before one in a by-way, whose parlour, ashe gathered from a hasty peep over the blinds, was deserted, saveby one solitary customer. It began to rain, heavily, at themoment. This determined him. Mr. Bumble stepped in; andordering something to drink, as he passed the bar, entered theapartment into which he had looked from the street.

The man who was seated there, was tall and dark, and wore a largecloak. He had the air of a stranger; and seemed, by a certainhaggardness in his look, as well as by the dusty soils on hisdress, to have travelled some distance. He eyed Bumble askance,as he entered, but scarcely deigned to nod his head inacknowledgment of his salutation.

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

It so happened, however: as it will happen very often, when menfall into company under such circumstances: that Mr. Bumblefelt, every now and then, a powerful inducement, which he couldnot resist, to steal a look at the stranger: and that wheneverhe did so, he withdrew his eyes, in some confusion, to find thatthe stranger was at that moment stealing a look at him. Mr.Bumble's awkwardness was enhanced by the very remarkableexpression of the stranger's eye, which was keen and bright, butshadowed by a scowl of distrust and suspicion, unlike anything hehad ever observed before, and repulsive to behold.

When they had encountered each other's glance several times inthis way, the stranger, in a harsh, deep voice, broke silence.

'Were you looking for me,' he said, 'when you peered in at thewindow?'

'Not that I am aware of, unless you're Mr. --' Here Mr. Bumblestopped 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 quietsarcasm playing about his mouth; 'or you have known my name. Youdon'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 againbroken by the stranger.

'I have seen you before, I think?' said he. 'You weredifferently dressed at that time, and I only passed you in thestreet, 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 thatcharacter I saw you. What are you now?'

'Master of the workhouse,' rejoined Mr. Bumble, slowly andimpressively, to check any undue familiarity the stranger mightotherwise 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 eyeswith his hand, and surveying the stranger, from head to foot, inevident perplexity, 'is not more averse to turning an honestpenny when he can, than a single one. Porochial officers are notso 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 emptytumbler to the landlord. 'Let it be strong and hot. You like itso, 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 returnedwith a steaming jorum: of which, the first gulp brought the waterinto Mr. Bumble's eyes.

Title: Oliver Twist
Author: Charles Dickens
Viewed 145648 times


Page generation 0.001 seconds