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Charles Dickens > Oliver Twist > Chapter XXXVIII

Oliver Twist



It was a dull, close, overcast summer evening. The clouds, which
had been threatening all day, spread out in a dense and sluggish
mass of vapour, already yielded large drops of rain, and seemed
to presage a violent thunder-storm, when Mr. and Mrs. Bumble,
turning out of the main street of the town, directed their course
towards a scattered little colony of ruinous houses, distant from
it some mile and a-half, or thereabouts, and erected on a low
unwholesome swamp, bordering upon the river.

They were both wrapped in old and shabby outer garments, which
might, perhaps, serve the double purpose of protecting their
persons from the rain, and sheltering them from observation. The
husband carried a lantern, from which, however, no light yet
shone; and trudged on, a few paces in front, as though--the way
being dirty--to give his wife the benefit of treading in his
heavy footprints. They went on, in profound silence; every now
and then, Mr. Bumble relaxed his pace, and turned his head as if
to make sure that his helpmate was following; then, discovering
that she was close at his heels, he mended his rate of walking,
and proceeded, at a considerable increase of speed, towards their
place of destination.

This was far from being a place of doubtful character; for it had
long been known as the residence of none but low ruffians, who,
under various pretences of living by their labour, subsisted
chiefly on plunder and crime. It was a collection of mere
hovels: some, hastily built with loose bricks: others, of old
worm-eaten ship-timber: jumbled together without any attempt at
order or arrangement, and planted, for the most part, within a
few feet of the river's bank. A few leaky boats drawn up on the
mud, and made fast to the dwarf wall which skirted it: and here
and there an oar or coil of rope: appeared, at first, to
indicate that the inhabitants of these miserable cottages pursued
some avocation on the river; but a glance at the shattered and
useless condition of the articles thus displayed, would have led
a passer-by, without much difficulty, to the conjecture that they
were disposed there, rather for the preservation of appearances,
than with any view to their being actually employed.

In the heart of this cluster of huts; and skirting the river,
which its upper stories overhung; stood a large building,
formerly used as a manufactory of some kind. It had, in its day,
probably furnished employment to the inhabitants of the
surrounding tenements. But it had long since gone to ruin. The
rat, the worm, and the action of the damp, had weakened and
rotted the piles on which it stood; and a considerable portion of
the building had already sunk down into the water; while the
remainder, tottering and bending over the dark stream, seemed to
wait a favourable opportunity of following its old companion, and
involving itself in the same fate.

It was before this ruinous building that the worthy couple
paused, as the first peal of distant thunder reverberated in the
air, and the rain commenced pouring violently down.

'The place should be somewhere here,' said Bumble, consulting a
scrap of paper he held in his hand.

'Halloa there!' cried a voice from above.

Following the sound, Mr. Bumble raised his head and descried a
man looking out of a door, breast-high, on the second story.

'Stand still, a minute,' cried the voice; 'I'll be with you
directly.' With which the head disappeared, and the door closed.

'Is that the man?' asked Mr. Bumble's good lady.

Mr. Bumble nodded in the affirmative.

'Then, mind what I told you,' said the matron: 'and be careful to
say as little as you can, or you'll betray us at once.'

Mr. Bumble, who had eyed the building with very rueful looks, was
apparently about to express some doubts relative to the
advisability of proceeding any further with the enterprise just
then, when he was prevented by the appearance of Monks: w ho
opened a small door, near which they stood, and beckoned them

'Come in!' he cried impatiently, stamping his foot upon the
ground. 'Don't keep me here!'

The woman, who had hesitated at first, walked boldly in, without
any other invitation. Mr. Bumble, who was ashamed or afraid to
lag behind, followed: obviously very ill at ease and with
scarcely any of that remarkable dignity which was usually his
chief characteristic.

'What the devil made you stand lingering there, in the wet?' said
Monks, turning round, and addressing Bumble, after he had bolted
the door behind them.

'We--we were only cooling ourselves,' stammered Bumble, looking
apprehensively about him.

'Cooling yourselves!' retorted Monks. 'Not all the rain that
ever fell, or ever will fall, will put as much of hell's fire
out, as a man can carry about with him. You won't cool yourself
so easily; don't think it!'

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 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

'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

'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

'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

'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

'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

'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.

'You are a fool,' said Mrs. Bumble, in reply; 'and had better
hold your tongue.'

'He had better have cut it out, before he came, if he can't speak
in a lower tone,' said Monks, grimly. 'So! He's your husband,

'He my husband!' tittered the matron, parrying the question.

'I thought as much, when you came in,' rejoined Monks, marking
the angry glance which the lady darted at her spouse as she
spoke. 'So much the better; I have less hesitation in dealing
with two people, when I find that there's only one will between
them. I'm in earnest. See here!'

He thrust his hand into a side-pocket; and producing a canvas
bag, told out twenty-five sovereigns on the table, and pushed
them over to the woman.

'Now,' he said, 'gather them up; and when this cursed peal of
thunder, which I feel is coming up to break over the house-top,
is gone, let's hear your story.'

The thunder, which seemed in fact much nearer, and to shiver and
break almost over their heads, having subsided, Monks, raising
his face from the table, bent forward to listen to what the woman
should say. The faces of the three nearly touched, as the two
men leant over the small table in their eagerness to hear, and
the woman also leant forward to render her whisper audible. The
sickly rays of the suspended lantern falling directly upon them,
aggravated the paleness and anxiety of their countenances: which,
encircled by the deepest gloom and darkness, looked ghastly in
the extreme.

'When this woman, that we called old Sally, died,' the matron
began, 'she and I were alone.'

'Was there no one by?' asked Monks, in the same hollow whisper;
'No sick wretch or idiot in some other bed? No one who could
hear, and might, by possibility, understand?'

'Not a soul,' replied the woman; 'we were alone. _I_ stood alone
beside the body when death came over it.'

'Good,' said Monks, regarding her attentively. 'Go on.'

'She spoke of a young creature,' resumed the matron, 'who had
brought a child into the world some years before; not merely in
the same room, but in the same bed, in which she then lay dying.'

'Ay?' said Monks, with quivering lip, and glancing over his
shoulder, 'Blood! How things come about!'

'The child was the one you named to him last night,' said the
matron, nodding carelessly towards her husband; 'the mother this
nurse had robbed.'

'In life?' asked Monks.

'In death,' replied the woman, with something like a shudder.
'She stole from the corpse, when it had hardly turned to one,
that which the dead mother had prayed her, with her last breath,
to keep for the infant's sake.'

'She sold it,' cried Monks, with desperate eagerness; 'did she
sell it? Where? When? To whom? How long before?'

'As she told me, with great difficulty, that she had done this,'
said the matron, 'she fell back and died.'

'Without saying more?' cried Monks, in a voice which, from its
very suppression, seemed only the more furious. 'It's a lie!
I'll not be played with. She said more. I'll tear the life out
of you both, but I'll know what it was.'

'She didn't utter another word,' said the woman, to all
appearance unmoved (as Mr. Bumble was very far from being) by the
strange man's violence; 'but she clutched my gown, violently,
with one hand, which was partly closed; and when I saw that she
was dead, and so removed the hand by force, I found it clasped a
scrap of dirty paper.'

'Which contained--' interposed Monks, stretching forward.

'Nothing,' replied the woman; 'it was a pawnbroker's duplicate.'

'For what?' demanded Monks.

'In good time I'll tell you.' said the woman. 'I judge that she
had kept the trinket, for some time, in the hope of turning it to
better account; and then had pawned it; and had saved or scraped
together money to pay the pawnbroker's interest year by year, and
prevent its running out; so that if anything came of it, it could
still be redeemed. Nothing had come of it; and, as I tell you,
she died with the scrap of paper, all worn and tattered, in her
hand. The time was out in two days; I thought something might
one day come of it too; and so redeemed the pledge.'

'Where is it now?' asked Monks quickly.

'THERE,' replied the woman. And, as if glad to be relieved of
it, she hastily threw upon the table a small kid bag scarcely
large enough for a French watch, which Monks pouncing upon, tore
open with trembling hands. It contained a little gold locket:
in which were two locks of hair, and a plain gold wedding-ring.

'It has the word "Agnes" engraved on the inside,' said the woman.

'There is a blank left for the surname; and then follows the
date; which is within a year before the child was born. I found
out that.'

'And this is all?' said Monks, after a close and eager scrutiny
of the contents of the little packet.

'All,' replied the woman.

Mr. Bumble drew a long breath, as if he were glad to find that
the story was over, and no mention made of taking the
five-and-twenty pounds back again; and now he took courage to
wipe the perspiration which had been trickling over his nose,
unchecked, during the whole of the previous dialogue.

'I know nothing of the story, beyond what I can guess at,' said
his wife addressing Monks, after a short silence; 'and I want to
know nothing; for it's safer not. But I may ask you two
questions, may I?'

'You may ask,' said Monks, with some show of surprise; 'but
whether I answer or not is another question.'

'--Which makes three,' observed Mr. Bumble, essaying a stroke of

'Is that what you expected to get from me?' demanded the matron.

'It is,' replied Monks. 'The other question?'

'What do you propose to do with it? Can it be used against me?'

'Never,' rejoined Monks; 'nor against me either. See here! But
don't move a step forward, or your life is not worth a bulrush.'

With these words, he suddenly wheeled the table aside, and
pulling an iron ring in the boarding, threw back a large
trap-door which opened close at Mr. Bumble's feet, and caused
that gentleman to retire several paces backward, with great

'Look down,' said Monks, lowering the lantern into the gulf.
'Don't fear me. I could have let you down, quietly enough, when
you were seated over it, if that had been my game.'

Thus encouraged, the matron drew near to the brink; and even Mr.
Bumble himself, impelled by curiousity, ventured to do the same.
The turbid water, swollen by the heavy rain, was rushing rapidly
on below; and all other sounds were lost in the noise of its
plashing and eddying against the green and slimy piles. There
had once been a water-mill beneath; the tide foaming and chafing
round the few rotten stakes, and fragments of machinery that yet
remained, seemed to dart onward, with a new impulse, when freed
from the obstacles which had unavailingly attempted to stem its
headlong course.

'If you flung a man's body down there, where would it be
to-morrow morning?' said Monks, swinging the lantern to and fro
in the dark well.

'Twelve miles down the river, and cut to pieces besides,' replied
Bumble, recoiling at the thought.

Monks drew the little packet from his breast, where he had
hurriedly thrust it; and tying it to a leaden weight, which had
formed a part of some pulley, and was lying on the floor, dropped
it into the stream. It fell straight, and true as a die; clove
the water with a scarcely audible splash; and was gone.

The three looking into each other's faces, seemed to breathe more

'There!' said Monks, closing the trap-door, which fell heavily
back into its former position. 'If the sea ever gives up its
dead, as books say it will, it will keep its gold and silver to
itself, and that trash among it. We have nothing more to say,
and may break up our pleasant party.'

'By all means,' observed Mr. Bumble, with great alacrity.

'You'll keep a quiet tongue in your head, will you?' said Monks,
with a threatening look. 'I am not afraid of your wife.'

'You may depend upon me, young man,' answered Mr. Bumble, bowing
himself gradually towards the ladder, with excessive politeness.
'On everybody's account, young man; on my own, you know, Mr.

'I am glad, for your sake, to hear it,' remarked Monks. 'Light
your lantern! And get away from here as fast as you can.'

It was fortunate that the conversation terminated at this point,
or Mr. Bumble, who had bowed himself to within six inches of the
ladder, would infallibly have pitched headlong into the room
below. He lighted his lantern from that which Monks had detached
from the rope, and now carried in his hand; and making no effort
to prolong the discourse, descended in silence, followed by his
wife. Monks brought up the rear, after pausing on the steps to
satisfy himself that there were no other sounds to be heard than
the beating of the rain without, and the rushing of the water.

They traversed the lower room, slowly, and with caution; for
Monks started at every shadow; and Mr. Bumble, holding his
lantern a foot above the ground, walked not only with remarkable
care, but with a marvellously light step for a gentleman of his
figure: looking nervously about him for hidden trap-doors. The
gate at which they had entered, was softly unfastened and opened
by Monks; merely exchanging a nod with their mysterious
acquaintance, the married couple emerged into the wet and
darkness outside.

They were no sooner gone, than Monks, who appeared to entertain
an invincible repugnance to being left alone, called to a boy who
had been hidden somewhere below. Bidding him go first, and bear
the light, he returned to the chamber he had just quitted.

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