Книга Oliver Twist. Страница 48
'Hold your tongue, you doting idiot!' said the matron sternly.
'You, Martha, tell me; has she been in this way before?'
'Often,' answered the first woman.
'But will never be again,' added the second one; 'that is, she'll never wake again but once-and mind, mistress, that won't be for long!'
'Long or short,' said the matron, snappishly, 'she won't find me here when she does wake; take care, both of you, how you worry me again for nothing. It's no part of my duty to see all the old women in the house die, and I won't-that's more. Mind that, you impudent old harridans. If you make a fool of me again, I'll soon cure you, I warrant you!'
She was bouncing away, when a cry from the two women, who had turned towards the bed, caused her to look round. The patient had raised herself upright, and was stretching her arms towards them.
'Who's that?' she cried, in a hollow voice.
'Hush, hush!' said one of the women, stooping over her. 'Lie down, lie down!'
'I'll never lie down again alive!' said the woman, struggling. 'I will tell her! Come here! Nearer! Let me whisper in your ear.'
She clutched the matron by the arm, and forcing her into a chair by the bedside, was about to speak, when looking round, she caught sight of the two old women bending forward in the attitude of eager listeners.
'Turn them away,' said the woman, drowsily; 'make haste! make haste!'
The two old crones, chiming in together, began pouring out many piteous lamentations that the poor dear was too far gone to know her best friends; and were uttering sundry protestations that they would never leave her, when the superior pushed them from the room, closed the door, and returned to the bedside. On being excluded, the old ladies changed their tone, and cried through the keyhole that old Sally was drunk; which, indeed, was not unlikely; since, in addition to a moderate dose of opium prescribed by the apothecary, she was labouring under the effects of a final taste of gin-and-water which had been privily administered, in the openness of their hearts, by the worthy old ladies themselves.
'Now listen to me,' said the dying woman aloud, as if making a great effort to revive one latent spark of energy. 'In this very room-in this very bed-I once nursed a pretty young creetur', that was brought into the house with her feet cut and bruised with walking, and all soiled with dust and blood. She gave birth to a boy, and died. Let me think-what was the year again!'
'Never mind the year,' said the impatient auditor; 'what about her?'
'Ay,' murmured the sick woman, relapsing into her former drowsy state, 'what about her?-what about-I know!' she cried, jumping fiercely up: her face flushed, and her eyes starting from her head-'I robbed her, so I did! She wasn't cold-I tell you she wasn't cold, when I stole it!'
'Stole what, for God's sake?' cried the matron, with a gesture as if she would call for help.
'It!' replied the woman, laying her hand over the other's mouth.
'The only thing she had. She wanted clothes to keep her warm, and food to eat; but she had kept it safe, and had it in her bosom. It was gold, I tell you! Rich gold, that might have saved her life!'
'Gold!' echoed the matron, bending eagerly over the woman as she fell back. 'Go on, go on-yes-what of it? Who was the mother?
When was it?'
'She charge me to keep it safe,' replied the woman with a groan, 'and trusted me as the only woman about her. I stole it in my heart when she first showed it me hanging round her neck; and the child's death, perhaps, is on me besides! They would have treated him better, if they had known it all!'
'Known what?' asked the other. 'Speak!'
'The boy grew so like his mother,' said the woman, rambling on, and not heeding the question, 'that I could never forget it when I saw his face. Poor girl! poor girl! She was so young, too!
Such a gentle lamb! Wait; there's more to tell. I have not told you all, have I?'
'No, no,' replied the matron, inclining her head to catch the words, as they came more faintly from the dying woman. 'Be quick, or it may be too late!'
'The mother,' said the woman, making a more violent effort than before; 'the mother, when the pains of death first came upon her, whispered in my ear that if her baby was born alive, and thrived, the day might come when it would not feel so much disgraced to hear its poor young mother named. "And oh, kind Heaven!" she said, folding her thin hands together, "whether it be boy or girl, raise up some friends for it in this troubled world, and take pity upon a lonely desolate child, abandoned to its mercy!"'
'The boy's name?' demanded the matron.
'They called him Oliver,' replied the woman, feebly. 'The gold I stole was-'
'Yes, yes-what?' cried the other.
She was bending eagerly over the woman to hear her reply; but drew back, instinctively, as she once again rose, slowly and stiffly, into a sitting posture; then, clutching the coverlid with both hands, muttered some indistinct sounds in her throat, and fell lifeless on the bed.
'Stone dead!' said one of the old women, hurrying in as soon as the door was opened.
'And nothing to tell, after all,' rejoined the matron, walking carelessly away.
The two crones, to all appearance, too busily occupied in the preparations for their dreadful duties to make any reply, were left alone, hovering about the body.
WHEREIN THIS HISTORY REVERTS TO MR. FAGIN AND COMPANY
While these things were passing in the country workhouse, Mr.
Fagin sat in the old den-the same from which Oliver had been removed by the girl-brooding over a dull, smoky fire. He held a pair of bellows upon his knee, with which he had apparently been endeavouring to rouse it into more cheerful action; but he had fallen into deep thought; and with his arms folded on them, and his chin resting on his thumbs, fixed his eyes, abstractedly, on the rusty bars.
At a table behind him sat the Artful Dodger, Master Charles Bates, and Mr. Chitling: all intent upon a game of whist; the Artful taking dummy against Master Bates and Mr. Chitling. The countenance of the first-named gentleman, peculiarly intelligent at all times, acquired great additional interest from his close observance of the game, and his attentive perusal of Mr.
Chitling's hand; upon which, from time to time, as occasion served, he bestowed a variety of earnest glances: wisely regulating his own play by the result of his observations upon his neighbour's cards. It being a cold night, the Dodger wore his hat, as, indeed, was often his custom within doors. He also sustained a clay pipe between his teeth, which he only removed for a brief space when he deemed it necessary to apply for refreshment to a quart pot upon the table, which stood ready filled with gin-and-water for the accommodation of the company.
Master Bates was also attentive to the play; but being of a more excitable nature than his accomplished friend, it was observable that he more frequently applied himself to the gin-and-water, and moreover indulged in many jests and irrelevant remarks, all highly unbecoming a scientific rubber. Indeed, the Artful, presuming upon their close attachment, more than once took occasion to reason gravely with his companion upon these improprieties; all of which remonstrances, Master Bates received in extremely good part; merely requesting his friend to be 'blowed,' or to insert his head in a sack, or replying with some other neatly-turned witticism of a similar kind, the happy application of which, excited considerable admiration in the mind of Mr. Chitling. It was remarkable that the latter gentleman and his partner invariably lost; and that the circumstance, so far from angering Master Bates, appeared to afford him the highest amusement, inasmuch as he laughed most uproariously at the end of every deal, and protested that he had never seen such a jolly game in all his born days.