Charles Dickens >> Oliver Twist (page 44)

'What's it worth to you?' asked the woman, as collectedly asbefore.

'It may be nothing; it may be twenty pounds,' replied Monks.'Speak out, and let me know which.'

'Add five pounds to the sum you have named; give mefive-and-twenty pounds in gold,' said the woman; 'and I'll tellyou all I know. Not before.'

'Five-and-twenty pounds!' exclaimed Monks, drawing back.

'I spoke as plainly as I could,' replied Mrs. Bumble. 'It's nota large sum, either.'

'Not a large sum for a paltry secret, that may be nothing whenit's told!' cried Monks impatiently; 'and which has been lyingdead for twelve years past or more!'

'Such matters keep well, and, like good wine, often double theirvalue in course of time,' answered the matron, still preservingthe resolute indifference she had assumed. 'As to lying dead,there are those who will lie dead for twelve thousand years tocome, or twelve million, for anything you or I know, who willtell strange tales at last!'

'What if I pay it for nothing?' asked Monks, hesitating.

'You can easily take it away again,' replied the matron. 'I ambut a woman; alone here; and unprotected.'

'Not alone, my dear, nor unprotected, neither,' submitted Mr.Bumble, in a voice tremulous with fear: '_I_ am here, my dear. And besides,' said Mr. Bumble, his teeth chattering as he spoke,'Mr. Monks is too much of a gentleman to attempt any violence onporochial persons. Mr. Monks is aware that I am not a young man,my dear, and also that I am a little run to seed, as I may say;bu he has heerd: I say I have no doubt Mr. Monks has heerd, mydear: that I am a very determined officer, with very uncommonstrength, if I'm once roused. I only want a little rousing;that's all.'

As Mr. Bumble spoke, he made a melancholy feint of grasping hislantern with fierce determination; and plainly showed, by thealarmed expression of every feature, that he DID want a littlerousing, and not a little, prior to making any very warlikedemonstration: unless, indeed, against paupers, or other personor persons trained down for the purpose.

'You are a fool,' said Mrs. Bumble, in reply; 'and had betterhold your tongue.'

'He had better have cut it out, before he came, if he can't speakin a lower tone,' said Monks, grimly. 'So! He's your husband,eh?'

'He my husband!' tittered the matron, parrying the question.

'I thought as much, when you came in,' rejoined Monks, markingthe angry glance which the lady darted at her spouse as shespoke. 'So much the better; I have less hesitation in dealingwith two people, when I find that there's only one will betweenthem. I'm in earnest. See here!'

He thrust his hand into a side-pocket; and producing a canvasbag, told out twenty-five sovereigns on the table, and pushedthem over to the woman.

'Now,' he said, 'gather them up; and when this cursed peal ofthunder, which I feel is coming up to break over the house-top,is gone, let's hear your story.'

The thunder, which seemed in fact much nearer, and to shiver andbreak almost over their heads, having subsided, Monks, raisinghis face from the table, bent forward to listen to what the womanshould say. The faces of the three nearly touched, as the twomen leant over the small table in their eagerness to hear, andthe woman also leant forward to render her whisper audible. Thesickly rays of the suspended lantern falling directly upon them,aggravated the paleness and anxiety of their countenances: which,encircled by the deepest gloom and darkness, looked ghastly inthe extreme.

'When this woman, that we called old Sally, died,' the matronbegan, 'she and I were alone.'

'Was there no one by?' asked Monks, in the same hollow whisper;'No sick wretch or idiot in some other bed? No one who couldhear, and might, by possibility, understand?'

'Not a soul,' replied the woman; 'we were alone. _I_ stood alonebeside the body when death came over it.'

'Good,' said Monks, regarding her attentively. 'Go on.'

'She spoke of a young creature,' resumed the matron, 'who hadbrought a child into the world some years before; not merely inthe same room, but in the same bed, in which she then lay dying.'

'Ay?' said Monks, with quivering lip, and glancing over hisshoulder, 'Blood! How things come about!'

'The child was the one you named to him last night,' said thematron, nodding carelessly towards her husband; 'the mother thisnurse had robbed.'

'In life?' asked Monks.

'In death,' replied the woman, with something like a shudder.'She stole from the corpse, when it had hardly turned to one,that which the dead mother had prayed her, with her last breath,to keep for the infant's sake.'

'She sold it,' cried Monks, with desperate eagerness; 'did shesell it? Where? When? To whom? How long before?'

'As she told me, with great difficulty, that she had done this,'said the matron, 'she fell back and died.'

'Without saying more?' cried Monks, in a voice which, from itsvery suppression, seemed only the more furious. 'It's a lie! I'll not be played with. She said more. I'll tear the life outof you both, but I'll know what it was.'

'She didn't utter another word,' said the woman, to allappearance unmoved (as Mr. Bumble was very far from being) by thestrange man's violence; 'but she clutched my gown, violently,with one hand, which was partly closed; and when I saw that shewas dead, and so removed the hand by force, I found it clasped ascrap of dirty paper.'

'Which contained--' interposed Monks, stretching forward.

'Nothing,' replied the woman; 'it was a pawnbroker's duplicate.'

'For what?' demanded Monks.

'In good time I'll tell you.' said the woman. 'I judge that shehad kept the trinket, for some time, in the hope of turning it tobetter account; and then had pawned it; and had saved or scrapedtogether money to pay the pawnbroker's interest year by year, andprevent its running out; so that if anything came of it, it couldstill be redeemed. Nothing had come of it; and, as I tell you,she died with the scrap of paper, all worn and tattered, in herhand. The time was out in two days; I thought something mightone day come of it too; and so redeemed the pledge.'

'Where is it now?' asked Monks quickly.

'THERE,' replied the woman. And, as if glad to be relieved ofit, she hastily threw upon the table a small kid bag scarcelylarge enough for a French watch, which Monks pouncing upon, toreopen with trembling hands. It contained a little gold locket: in which were two locks of hair, and a plain gold wedding-ring.

'It has the word "Agnes" engraved on the inside,' said the woman.

'There is a blank left for the surname; and then follows thedate; which is within a year before the child was born. I foundout that.'

'And this is all?' said Monks, after a close and eager scrutinyof the contents of the little packet.

'All,' replied the woman.

Mr. Bumble drew a long breath, as if he were glad to find thatthe story was over, and no mention made of taking thefive-and-twenty pounds back again; and now he took courage towipe the perspiration which had been trickling over his nose,unchecked, during the whole of the previous dialogue.

'I know nothing of the story, beyond what I can guess at,' saidhis wife addressing Monks, after a short silence; 'and I want toknow nothing; for it's safer not. But I may ask you twoquestions, may I?'

'You may ask,' said Monks, with some show of surprise; 'butwhether I answer or not is another question.'

'--Which makes three,' observed Mr. Bumble, essaying a stroke offacetiousness.

'Is that what you expected to get from me?' demanded the matron.

'It is,' replied Monks. 'The other question?'

'What do you propose to do with it? Can it be used against me?'

'Never,' rejoined Monks; 'nor against me either. See here! Butdon't move a step forward, or your life is not worth a bulrush.'

With these words, he suddenly wheeled the table aside, andpulling an iron ring in the boarding, threw back a largetrap-door which opened close at Mr. Bumble's feet, and causedthat gentleman to retire several paces backward, with greatprecipitation.

'Look down,' said Monks, lowering the lantern into the gulf.'Don't fear me. I could have let you down, quietly enough, whenyou were seated over it, if that had been my game.'

Thus encouraged, the matron drew near to the brink; and even Mr.Bumble himself, impelled by curiousity, ventured to do the same. The turbid water, swollen by the heavy rain, was rushing rapidlyon below; and all other sounds were lost in the noise of itsplashing and eddying against the green and slimy piles. Therehad once been a water-mill beneath; the tide foaming and chafinground the few rotten stakes, and fragments of machinery that yetremained, seemed to dart onward, with a new impulse, when freedfrom the obstacles which had unavailingly attempted to stem itsheadlong course.

'If you flung a man's body down there, where would it beto-morrow morning?' said Monks, swinging the lantern to and froin the dark well.

'Twelve miles down the river, and cut to pieces besides,' repliedBumble, recoiling at the thought.

Monks drew the little packet from his breast, where he hadhurriedly thrust it; and tying it to a leaden weight, which hadformed a part of some pulley, and was lying on the floor, droppedit into the stream. It fell straight, and true as a die; clovethe water with a scarcely audible splash; and was gone.

The three looking into each other's faces, seemed to breathe morefreely.

'There!' said Monks, closing the trap-door, which fell heavilyback into its former position. 'If the sea ever gives up itsdead, as books say it will, it will keep its gold and silver toitself, and that trash among it. We have nothing more to say,and may break up our pleasant party.'

'By all means,' observed Mr. Bumble, with great alacrity.

'You'll keep a quiet tongue in your head, will you?' said Monks,with a threatening look. 'I am not afraid of your wife.'

'You may depend upon me, young man,' answered Mr. Bumble, bowinghimself gradually towards the ladder, with excessive politeness. 'On everybody's account, young man; on my own, you know, Mr.Monks.'

'I am glad, for your sake, to hear it,' remarked Monks. 'Lightyour lantern! And get away from here as fast as you can.'

It was fortunate that the conversation terminated at this point,or Mr. Bumble, who had bowed himself to within six inches of theladder, would infallibly have pitched headlong into the roombelow. He lighted his lantern from that which Monks had detachedfrom the rope, and now carried in his hand; and making no effortto prolong the discourse, descended in silence, followed by hiswife. Monks brought up the rear, after pausing on the steps tosatisfy himself that there were no other sounds to be heard thanthe beating of the rain without, and the rushing of the water.

They traversed the lower room, slowly, and with caution; forMonks started at every shadow; and Mr. Bumble, holding hislantern a foot above the ground, walked not only with remarkablecare, but with a marvellously light step for a gentleman of hisfigure: looking nervously about him for hidden trap-doors. Thegate at which they had entered, was softly unfastened and openedby Monks; merely exchanging a nod with their mysteriousacquaintance, the married couple emerged into the wet anddarkness outside.

They were no sooner gone, than Monks, who appeared to entertainan invincible repugnance to being left alone, called to a boy whohad been hidden somewhere below. Bidding him go first, and bearthe light, he returned to the chamber he had just quitted.



On the evening following that upon which the three worthiesmentioned in the last chapter, disposed of their little matter ofbusiness as therein narrated, Mr. William Sikes, awakening from anap, drowsily growled forth an inquiry what time of night it was.

The room in which Mr. Sikes propounded this question, was not oneof those he had tenanted, previous to the Chertsey expedition,although it was in the same quarter of the town, and was situatedat no great distance from his former lodgings. It was not, inappearance, so desirable a habitation as his old quarters: beinga mean and badly-furnished apartment, of very limited size;lighted only by one small window in the shelving roof, andabutting on a close and dirty lane. Nor were there wanting otherindications of the good gentleman's having gone down in the worldof late: for a great scarcity of furniture, and total absence ofcomfort, together with the disappearance of all such smallmoveables as spare clothes and linen, bespoke a state of extremepoverty; while the meagre and attenuated condition of Mr. Sikeshimself would have fully confirmed these symptoms, if they hadstood in any need of corroboration.

The housebreaker was lying on the bed, wrapped in his whitegreat-coat, by way of dressing-gown, and displaying a set offeatures in no degree improved by the cadaverous hue of illness,and the addition of a soiled nightcap, and a stiff, black beardof a week's growth. The dog sat at the bedside: now eyeing hismaster with a wistful look, and now pricking his ears, anduttering a low growl as some noise in the street, or in the lowerpart of the house, attracted his attention. Seated by thewindow, busily engaged in patching an old waistcoat which formeda portion of the robber's ordinary dress, was a female: so paleand reduced with watching and privation, that there would havebeen considerable difficulty in recognising her as the same Nancywho has already figured in this tale, but for the voice in whichshe replied to Mr. Sikes's question.

Title: Oliver Twist
Author: Charles Dickens
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