Oliver Twist – Day 69 of 173

‘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.

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