Oliver Twist – Day 117 of 173

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

‘This is the woman, is it?’ demanded Monks.

‘Hem! That is the woman,’ replied Mr. Bumble, mindful of his wife’s caution.

‘You think women never can keep secrets, I suppose?’ said the matron, interposing, and returning, as she spoke, the searching look of Monks.

‘I know they will always keep one till it’s found out,’ said Monks.

‘And what may that be?’ asked the matron.

‘The loss of their own good name,’ replied Monks. ‘So, by the same rule, if a woman’s a party to a secret that might hang or transport her, I’m not afraid of her telling it to anybody; not I! 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 his two companions, and again beckoning them to follow him, the man hastened across the apartment, which was of considerable extent, but low in the roof. He was preparing to ascend a steep staircase, or rather ladder, leading to another floor of warehouses above: when a bright flash of lightning streamed down the aperture, and a peal of thunder followed, which shook the crazy building to its centre.

‘Hear it!’ he cried, shrinking back. ‘Hear it! Rolling and crashing on as if it echoed through a thousand caverns where the devils were hiding from it. I hate the sound!’

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

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

Thus speaking, he led the way up the ladder; and hastily closing the window-shutter of the room into which it led, lowered a lantern which hung at the end of a rope and pulley passed through one of the heavy beams in the ceiling: and which cast a dim light upon an old table and three chairs that were placed beneath it.

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

The question was addressed to Bumble; but his wife anticipated the reply, by intimating that she was perfectly acquainted with it.

‘He is right in saying that you were with this hag the night she died; and that she told you something–‘

‘About the mother of the boy you named,’ replied the matron interrupting 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 it is?’ asked Monks.

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

‘Humph!’ said Monks significantly, and with a look of eager inquiry; ‘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 that she wore. Something that–‘

‘You had better bid,’ interrupted Mrs. Bumble. ‘I have heard enough, already, to assure me that you are the man I ought to talk to.’

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

‘What’s it worth to you?’ asked the woman, as collectedly as before.

‘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 me five-and-twenty pounds in gold,’ said the woman; ‘and I’ll tell you 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 not a large sum, either.’

‘Not a large sum for a paltry secret, that may be nothing when it’s told!’ cried Monks impatiently; ‘and which has been lying dead for twelve years past or more!’

‘Such matters keep well, and, like good wine, often double their value in course of time,’ answered the matron, still preserving the resolute indifference she had assumed. ‘As to lying dead, there are those who will lie dead for twelve thousand years to come, or twelve million, for anything you or I know, who will tell 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 am but 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 on porochial 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, my dear: that I am a very determined officer, with very uncommon strength, 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 his lantern with fierce determination; and plainly showed, by the alarmed expression of every feature, that he did want a little rousing, and not a little, prior to making any very warlike demonstration: unless, indeed, against paupers, or other person or persons trained down for the purpose.

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