Charles Dickens.

Oliver Twist, Illustrated online

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Mrs. Corney shook her head mournfully, as if deploring the mental
blindness of those paupers who did not know it; and thrusting
a silver spoon (private property) into the inmost recesses of a
two-ounce tin tea-caddy, proceeded to make the tea.

How slight a thing will disturb the equanimity of our frail minds!
The black teapot, being very small and easily filled, ran over while
Mrs. Corney was moralising; and the water slightly scalded Mrs.
Corney’s hand.

‘Drat the pot!’ said the worthy matron, setting it down very hastily
on the hob; ‘a little stupid thing, that only holds a couple of
cups! What use is it of, to anybody! Except,’ said Mrs. Corney,
pausing, ‘except to a poor desolate creature like me. Oh dear!’

With these words, the matron dropped into her chair, and, once more
resting her elbow on the table, thought of her solitary fate. The
small teapot, and the single cup, had awakened in her mind sad
recollections of Mr. Corney (who had not been dead more than
five-and-twenty years); and she was overpowered.

‘I shall never get another!’ said Mrs. Corney, pettishly; ‘I shall
never get another - like him.’

Whether this remark bore reference to the husband, or the teapot, is
uncertain. It might have been the latter; for Mrs. Corney looked at
it as she spoke; and took it up afterwards. She had just tasted her
first cup, when she was disturbed by a soft tap at the room-door.

‘Oh, come in with you!’ said Mrs. Corney, sharply. ‘Some of the old
women dying, I suppose. They always die when I’m at meals. Don’t
stand there, letting the cold air in, don’t. What’s amiss now, eh?’

‘Nothing, ma’am, nothing,’ replied a man’s voice.

‘Dear me!’ exclaimed the matron, in a much sweeter tone, ‘is that
Mr. Bumble?’

‘At your service, ma’am,’ said Mr. Bumble, who had been stopping
outside to rub his shoes clean, and to shake the snow off his coat;
and who now made his appearance, bearing the cocked hat in one hand
and a bundle in the other. ‘Shall I shut the door, ma’am?’

The lady modestly hesitated to reply, lest there should be any
impropriety in holding an interview with Mr. Bumble, with closed
doors. Mr. Bumble taking advantage of the hesitation, and being very
cold himself, shut it without permission.

‘Hard weather, Mr. Bumble,’ said the matron.

‘Hard, indeed, ma’am,’ replied the beadle. ‘Anti-porochial weather
this, ma’am. We have given away, Mrs. Corney, we have given away a
matter of twenty quartern loaves and a cheese and a half, this very
blessed afternoon; and yet them paupers are not contented.’

‘Of course not. When would they be, Mr. Bumble?’ said the matron,
sipping her tea.

‘When, indeed, ma’am!’ rejoined Mr. Bumble. ‘Why here’s one man
that, in consideration of his wife and large family, has a quartern
loaf and a good pound of cheese, full weight. Is he grateful, ma’am?
Is he grateful? Not a copper farthing’s worth of it! What does
he do, ma’am, but ask for a few coals; if it’s only a pocket
handkerchief full, he says! Coals! What would he do with coals?
Toast his cheese with ‘em and then come back for more. That’s the
way with these people, ma’am; give ‘em a apron full of coals to-day,
and they’ll come back for another, the day after to-morrow, as
brazen as alabaster.’

The matron expressed her entire concurrence in this intelligible
simile; and the beadle went on.

‘I never,’ said Mr. Bumble, ‘see anything like the pitch it’s got
to. The day afore yesterday, a man - you have been a married woman,
ma’am, and I may mention it to you - a man, with hardly a rag
upon his back (here Mrs. Corney looked at the floor), goes to our
overseer’s door when he has got company coming to dinner; and
says, he must be relieved, Mrs. Corney. As he wouldn’t go away, and
shocked the company very much, our overseer sent him out a pound of
potatoes and half a pint of oatmeal. “My heart!” says the ungrateful
villain, “what’s the use of _this_ to me? You might as well give me
a pair of iron spectacles!” “Very good,” says our overseer, taking
‘em away again, “you won’t get anything else here.” “Then I’ll die
in the streets!” says the vagrant. “Oh no, you won’t,” says our
overseer.’

‘Ha! ha! That was very good! So like Mr. Grannett, wasn’t it?’
interposed the matron. ‘Well, Mr. Bumble?’

‘Well, ma’am,’ rejoined the beadle, ‘he went away; and he _did_ die
in the streets. There’s a obstinate pauper for you!’

‘It beats anything I could have believed,’ observed the matron
emphatically. ‘But don’t you think out-of-door relief a very bad
thing, any way, Mr. Bumble? You’re a gentleman of experience, and
ought to know. Come.’

‘Mrs. Corney,’ said the beadle, smiling as men smile who are
conscious of superior information, ‘out-of-door relief, properly
managed: properly managed, ma’am: is the porochial safeguard.
The great principle of out-of-door relief is, to give the paupers
exactly what they don’t want; and then they get tired of coming.’

‘Dear me!’ exclaimed Mrs. Corney. ‘Well, that is a good one, too!’

‘Yes. Betwixt you and me, ma’am,’ returned Mr. Bumble, ‘that’s the
great principle; and that’s the reason why, if you look at any cases
that get into them owdacious newspapers, you’ll always observe that
sick families have been relieved with slices of cheese. That’s the
rule now, Mrs. Corney, all over the country. But, however,’ said the
beadle, stopping to unpack his bundle, ‘these are official secrets,
ma’am; not to be spoken of; except, as I may say, among the
porochial officers, such as ourselves. This is the port wine, ma’am,
that the board ordered for the infirmary; real, fresh, genuine port
wine; only out of the cask this forenoon; clear as a bell, and no
sediment!’

Having held the first bottle up to the light, and shaken it well to
test its excellence, Mr. Bumble placed them both on top of a chest
of drawers; folded the handkerchief in which they had been wrapped;
put it carefully in his pocket; and took up his hat, as if to go.

‘You’ll have a very cold walk, Mr. Bumble,’ said the matron.

‘It blows, ma’am,’ replied Mr. Bumble, turning up his coat-collar,
‘enough to cut one’s ears off.’

The matron looked, from the little kettle, to the beadle, who was
moving towards the door; and as the beadle coughed, preparatory
to bidding her good-night, bashfully inquired whether - whether he
wouldn’t take a cup of tea?

Mr. Bumble instantaneously turned back his collar again; laid his
hat and stick upon a chair; and drew another chair up to the table.
As he slowly seated himself, he looked at the lady. She fixed her
eyes upon the little teapot. Mr. Bumble coughed again, and slightly
smiled.

Mrs. Corney rose to get another cup and saucer from the closet. As
she sat down, her eyes once again encountered those of the gallant
beadle; she coloured, and applied herself to the task of making his
tea. Again Mr. Bumble coughed - louder this time than he had coughed
yet.

‘Sweet? Mr. Bumble?’ inquired the matron, taking up the sugar-basin.

‘Very sweet, indeed, ma’am,’ replied Mr. Bumble. He fixed his eyes
on Mrs. Corney as he said this; and if ever a beadle looked tender,
Mr. Bumble was that beadle at that moment.

The tea was made, and handed in silence. Mr. Bumble, having spread a
handkerchief over his knees to prevent the crumbs from sullying
the splendour of his shorts, began to eat and drink; varying these
amusements, occasionally, by fetching a deep sigh; which, however,
had no injurious effect upon his appetite, but, on the contrary,
rather seemed to facilitate his operations in the tea and toast
department.

‘You have a cat, ma’am, I see,’ said Mr. Bumble, glancing at one
who, in the centre of her family, was basking before the fire; ‘and
kittens too, I declare!’

‘I am so fond of them, Mr. Bumble, you can’t think,’ replied the
matron. ‘They’re _so_ happy, _so_ frolicsome, and _so_ cheerful,
that they are quite companions for me.’

‘Very nice animals, ma’am,’ replied Mr. Bumble, approvingly; ‘so
very domestic.’

‘Oh, yes!’ rejoined the matron with enthusiasm; ‘so fond of their
home too, that it’s quite a pleasure, I’m sure.’

‘Mrs. Corney, ma’am,’ said Mr. Bumble, slowly, and marking the time
with his teaspoon, ‘I mean to say this, ma’am; that any cat, or
kitten, that could live with you, ma’am, and _not_ be fond of its
home, must be a ass, ma’am.’

‘Oh, Mr. Bumble!’ remonstrated Mrs. Corney.

‘It’s of no use disguising facts, ma’am,’ said Mr. Bumble, slowly
flourishing the teaspoon with a kind of amorous dignity which made
him doubly impressive; ‘I would drown it myself, with pleasure.’

‘Then you’re a cruel man,’ said the matron vivaciously, as she held
out her hand for the beadle’s cup; ‘and a very hard-hearted man
besides.’

‘Hard-hearted, ma’am?’ said Mr. Bumble. ‘Hard?’ Mr. Bumble resigned
his cup without another word; squeezed Mrs. Corney’s little finger
as she took it; and inflicting two open-handed slaps upon his laced
waistcoat, gave a mighty sigh, and hitched his chair a very little
morsel farther from the fire.

It was a round table; and as Mrs. Corney and Mr. Bumble had been
sitting opposite each other, with no great space between them, and
fronting the fire, it will be seen that Mr. Bumble, in receding from
the fire, and still keeping at the table, increased the distance
between himself and Mrs. Corney; which proceeding, some prudent
readers will doubtless be disposed to admire, and to consider an act
of great heroism on Mr. Bumble’s part: he being in some sort tempted
by time, place, and opportunity, to give utterance to certain soft
nothings, which however well they may become the lips of the light
and thoughtless, do seem immeasurably beneath the dignity of judges
of the land, members of parliament, ministers of state, lord mayors,
and other great public functionaries, but more particularly beneath
the stateliness and gravity of a beadle: who (as is well known)
should be the sternest and most inflexible among them all.

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

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

Now, if the matron had moved her chair to the right, she would have
been scorched by the fire; and if to the left, she must have fallen
into Mr. Bumble’s arms; so (being a discreet matron, and no doubt
foreseeing these consequences at a glance) she remained where 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 question from
a single man. What can you want to know for, Mr. Bumble?’

The beadle drank his tea to the last drop; finished a piece of
toast; whisked the crumbs off his knees; wiped his lips; and
deliberately kissed the matron.

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

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

It is worthy of remark, as a curious physical instance of the
efficacy of a sudden surprise in counteracting the effects of
extreme fear, that her voice had quite recovered all its official
asperity.

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

‘Well, what’s that to me?’ angrily demanded the matron. ‘I can’t
keep her alive, can I?’

‘No, no, mistress,’ replied the old woman, ‘nobody can; she’s far
beyond the reach of help. I’ve seen a many people die; little babes
and great strong men; and I know when death’s a-coming, well
enough. But she’s troubled in her mind: and when the fits are not
on her, - and that’s not often, for she is dying very hard, - she says
she has got something to tell, which you must hear. She’ll never die
quiet till you come, mistress.’

At this intelligence, the worthy Mrs. Corney muttered a variety of
invectives against old women who couldn’t even die without purposely
annoying their betters; and, muffling herself in a thick shawl which
she hastily caught up, briefly requested Mr. Bumble to stay till
she came back, lest anything particular should occur. Bidding the
messenger walk fast, and not be all night hobbling up the stairs,
she followed her from the room with a very ill grace, scolding all
the way.

Mr. Bumble’s conduct on being left to himself, was rather
inexplicable. He opened the closet, counted the teaspoons, weighed
the sugar-tongs, closely inspected a silver milk-pot to ascertain
that it was of the genuine metal, and, having satisfied his
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 took off
the cocked hat again, and, spreading himself before the fire with
his back towards it, seemed to be mentally engaged in taking an
exact inventory of the furniture.



CHAPTER XXIV - TREATS ON A VERY POOR SUBJECT. BUT IS A SHORT ONE,
AND MAY BE FOUND OF IMPORTANCE IN THIS HISTORY

It was no unfit messenger of death, who had disturbed the quiet of
the matron’s room. Her body was bent by age; her limbs trembled with
palsy; her face, distorted into a mumbling leer, resembled more the
grotesque shaping of some wild pencil, than the work of Nature’s
hand.

Alas! How few of Nature’s faces are left alone to gladden us with
their beauty! The cares, and sorrows, and hungerings, of the
world, change them as they change hearts; and it is only when those
passions sleep, and have lost their hold for ever, that the troubled
clouds pass off, and leave Heaven’s surface clear. It is a common
thing for the countenances of the dead, even in that fixed and rigid
state, to subside into the long-forgotten expression of sleeping
infancy, and settle into the very look of early life; so calm, so
peaceful, do they grow again, that those who knew them in their
happy childhood, kneel by the coffin’s side in awe, and see the
Angel even upon earth.

The old crone tottered along the passages, and up the stairs,
muttering some indistinct answers to the chidings of her companion;
being at length compelled to pause for breath, she gave the light
into her hand, and remained behind to follow as she might: while the
more nimble superior made her way to the room where the sick woman
lay.

It was a bare garret-room, with a dim light burning at the farther
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 the matron
entered.

‘Very cold, indeed, sir,’ replied the mistress, in her most civil
tones, and dropping a curtsey as she spoke.

‘You should get better coals out of your contractors,’ said the
apothecary’s deputy, breaking a lump on the top of the fire with
the rusty poker; ‘these are not at all the sort of thing for a cold
night.’

‘They’re the board’s choosing, sir,’ returned the matron. ‘The least
they could do, would be to keep us pretty warm: for our places are
hard enough.’

The conversation was here interrupted by a moan from the sick woman.

‘Oh!’ said the young mag, turning his face towards the bed, as if
he 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 the
apothecary’s apprentice, intent upon the toothpick’s point. ‘It’s a
break-up of the system altogether. Is she dozing, old lady?’

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

‘Then perhaps she’ll go off in that way, if you don’t make a row,’
said the young man. ‘Put the light on the floor. She won’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 done so,
she resumed her seat by the side of the other nurse, who had by
this time returned. The mistress, with an expression of impatience,
wrapped herself in her shawl, and sat at the foot of the bed.

The apothecary’s apprentice, having completed the manufacture of the
toothpick, planted himself in front of the fire and made good use
of it for ten minutes or so: when apparently growing rather dull, he
wished Mrs. Corney joy of her job, and took himself off on tiptoe.

When they had sat in silence for some time, the two old women rose
from the bed, and crouching over the fire, held out their withered
hands to catch the heat. The flame threw a ghastly light on their
shrivelled faces, and made their ugliness appear terrible, as, in
this position, they began to converse in a low voice.

‘Did she say any more, Anny dear, while I was gone?’ inquired the
messenger.

‘Not a word,’ replied the other. ‘She plucked and tore at her arms
for a little time; but I held her hands, and she soon dropped off.
She hasn’t much strength in her, so I easily kept her quiet. I ain’t
so weak for an old woman, although I am on parish 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 teeth were
tight set, and she clenched the mug so hard that it was as much as I
could do to get it back again. So I drank it; and it did me good!’

Looking cautiously round, to ascertain that they were not overheard,
the two hags cowered nearer to the fire, and chuckled heartily.

‘I mind the time,’ said the first speaker, ‘when she would have done
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 as
waxwork. My old eyes have seen them - ay, and those old hands touched
them too; for I have helped her, scores of times.’

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

‘Not long, mistress,’ replied the second woman, looking up into
her 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’ll
never wake again but once - and mind, mistress, that won’t be for
long!’

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

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

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

‘Hush, hush!’ said one of the women, stooping over her. ‘Lie down,
lie down!’

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

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

‘Turn them away,’ said the woman, drowsily; ‘make haste! make
haste!’

The two old crones, chiming in together, began pouring out many
piteous lamentations that the poor dear was too far gone to know her
best friends; and were uttering sundry protestations that they would
never leave her, when the superior pushed them from the room, closed
the door, and returned to the bedside. On being excluded, the old
ladies changed their tone, and cried through the keyhole that old
Sally was drunk; which, indeed, was not unlikely; since, in addition
to a moderate dose of opium prescribed by the apothecary, she was
labouring under the effects of a final taste of gin-and-water which
had been privily administered, in the openness of their hearts, by
the worthy old ladies themselves.

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

‘Never mind the year,’ said the impatient auditor; ‘what about her?’

‘Ay,’ murmured the sick woman, relapsing into her former drowsy
state, ‘what about her? - what about - I know!’ she cried, jumping
fiercely up: her face flushed, and her eyes starting from her
head - ‘I robbed her, so I did! She wasn’t cold - I tell you she
wasn’t cold, when I stole it!’

‘Stole what, for God’s sake?’ cried the matron, with a gesture as if
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 her bosom. It
was gold, I tell you! Rich gold, that might have saved her life!’

‘Gold!’ echoed the matron, bending eagerly over the woman as she
fell back. ‘Go on, go on - yes - 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 my heart
when she first showed it me hanging round her neck; and the child’s
death, perhaps, is on me besides! They would have treated 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 when I 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 told you all, have I?’

‘No, no,’ replied the matron, inclining her head to catch the words,
as they came more faintly from the dying woman. ‘Be quick, or it may
be too late!’

‘The mother,’ said the woman, making a more violent effort than
before; ‘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 to
hear its poor young mother named. “And oh, kind Heaven!” she said,


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Online LibraryCharles DickensOliver Twist, Illustrated → online text (page 16 of 25)