Oliver Twist – Day 68 of 173

‘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.’

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