Oliver Twist – Day 9 of 173

The next morning, the public were once informed that Oliver Twist was again To Let, and that five pounds would be paid to anybody who would take possession of him.

Chapter IV: Oliver, Being Offered Another Place, Makes His First Entry Into Public Life

In great families, when an advantageous place cannot be obtained, either in possession, reversion, remainder, or expectancy, for the young man who is growing up, it is a very general custom to send him to sea. The board, in imitation of so wise and salutary an example, took counsel together on the expediency of shipping off Oliver Twist, in some small trading vessel bound to a good unhealthy port. This suggested itself as the very best thing that could possibly be done with him: the probability being, that the skipper would flog him to death, in a playful mood, some day after dinner, or would knock his brains out with an iron bar; both pastimes being, as is pretty generally known, very favourite and common recreations among gentleman of that class. The more the case presented itself to the board, in this point of view, the more manifold the advantages of the step appeared; so, they came to the conclusion that the only way of providing for Oliver effectually, was to send him to sea without delay.

Mr. Bumble had been despatched to make various preliminary inquiries, with the view of finding out some captain or other who wanted a cabin-boy without any friends; and was returning to the workhouse to communicate the result of his mission; when he encountered at the gate, no less a person than Mr. Sowerberry, the parochial undertaker.

Mr. Sowerberry was a tall gaunt, large-jointed man, attired in a suit of threadbare black, with darned cotton stockings of the same colour, and shoes to answer. His features were not naturally intended to wear a smiling aspect, but he was in general rather given to professional jocosity. His step was elastic, and his face betokened inward pleasantry, as he advanced to Mr. Bumble, and shook him cordially by the hand.

‘I have taken the measure of the two women that died last night, Mr. Bumble,’ said the undertaker.

‘You’ll make your fortune, Mr. Sowerberry,’ said the beadle, as he thrust his thumb and forefinger into the proffered snuff-box of the undertaker: which was an ingenious little model of a patent coffin. ‘I say you’ll make your fortune, Mr. Sowerberry,’ repeated Mr. Bumble, tapping the undertaker on the shoulder, in a friendly manner, with his cane.

‘Think so?’ said the undertaker in a tone which half admitted and half disputed the probability of the event. ‘The prices allowed by the board are very small, Mr. Bumble.’

‘So are the coffins,’ replied the beadle: with precisely as near an approach to a laugh as a great official ought to indulge in.

Mr. Sowerberry was much tickled at this: as of course he ought to be; and laughed a long time without cessation. ‘Well, well, Mr. Bumble,’ he said at length, ‘there’s no denying that, since the new system of feeding has come in, the coffins are something narrower and more shallow than they used to be; but we must have some profit, Mr. Bumble. Well-seasoned timber is an expensive article, sir; and all the iron handles come, by canal, from Birmingham.’

‘Well, well,’ said Mr. Bumble, ‘every trade has its drawbacks. A fair profit is, of course, allowable.’

‘Of course, of course,’ replied the undertaker; ‘and if I don’t get a profit upon this or that particular article, why, I make it up in the long-run, you see–he! he! he!’

‘Just so,’ said Mr. Bumble.

‘Though I must say,’ continued the undertaker, resuming the current of observations which the beadle had interrupted: ‘though I must say, Mr. Bumble, that I have to contend against one very great disadvantage: which is, that all the stout people go off the quickest. The people who have been better off, and have paid rates for many years, are the first to sink when they come into the house; and let me tell you, Mr. Bumble, that three or four inches over one’s calculation makes a great hole in one’s profits: especially when one has a family to provide for, sir.’

As Mr. Sowerberry said this, with the becoming indignation of an ill-used man; and as Mr. Bumble felt that it rather tended to convey a reflection on the honour of the parish; the latter gentleman thought it advisable to change the subject. Oliver Twist being uppermost in his mind, he made him his theme.

‘By the bye,’ said Mr. Bumble, ‘you don’t know anybody who wants a boy, do you? A porochial ’prentis, who is at present a dead-weight; a millstone, as I may say, round the porochial throat? Liberal terms, Mr. Sowerberry, liberal terms?’ As Mr. Bumble spoke, he raised his cane to the bill above him, and gave three distinct raps upon the words ‘five pounds’: which were printed thereon in Roman capitals of gigantic size.

‘Gadso!’ said the undertaker: taking Mr. Bumble by the gilt-edged lappel of his official coat; ‘that’s just the very thing I wanted to speak to you about. You know–dear me, what a very elegant button this is, Mr. Bumble! I never noticed it before.’

‘Yes, I think it rather pretty,’ said the beadle, glancing proudly downwards at the large brass buttons which embellished his coat. ‘The die is the same as the porochial seal–the Good Samaritan healing the sick and bruised man. The board presented it to me on Newyear’s morning, Mr. Sowerberry. I put it on, I remember, for the first time, to attend the inquest on that reduced tradesman, who died in a doorway at midnight.’

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