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'We only heard of the family the night before last,' said the
beadle; 'and we shouldn't have known anything about them, then,
only a woman who lodges in the same house made an application to
the porochial committee for them to send the porochial surgeon to
see a woman as was very bad. He had gone out to dinner; but his
'prentice (which is a very clever lad) sent 'em some medicine in
a blacking-bottle, offhand.'
'Ah, there's promptness,' said the undertaker.
'Promptness, indeed!' replied the beadle. 'But what's the
consequence; what's the ungrateful behaviour of these rebels,
sir? Why, the husband sends back word that the medicine won't
suit his wife's complaint, and so she shan't take it--says she
shan't take it, sir! Good, strong, wholesome medicine, as was
given with great success to two Irish labourers and a
coal-heaver, ony a week before--sent 'em for nothing, with a
blackin'-bottle in,--and he sends back word that she shan't take
As the atrocity presented itself to Mr. Bumble's mind in full
force, he struck the counter sharply with his cane, and became
flushed with indignation.
'Well,' said the undertaker, 'I ne--ver--did--'
'Never did, sir!' ejaculated the beadle. 'No, nor nobody never
did; but now she's dead, we've got to bury her; and that's the
direction; and the sooner it's done, the better.'
Thus saying, Mr. Bumble put on his cocked hat wrong side first,
in a fever of parochial excietment; and flounced out of the shop.
'Why, he was so angry, Oliver, that he forgot even to ask after
you!' said Mr. Sowerberry, looking after the beadle as he strode
down the street.
'Yes, sir,' replied Oliver, who had carefully kept himself out of
sight, during the interview; and who was shaking from head to
foot at the mere recollection of the sound of Mr. Bumble's voice.
He needn't haven taken the trouble to shrink from Mr. Bumble's
glance, however; for that functionary, on whom the prediction of
the gentleman in the white waistcoat had made a very strong
impression, thought that now the undertaker had got Oliver upon
trial the subject was better avoided, until such time as he
should be firmly bound for seven years, and all danger of his
being returned upon the hands of the parish should be thus
effectually and legally overcome.
'Well,' said Mr. Sowerberry, taking up his hat. 'the sooner this
job is done, the better. Noah, look after the shop. Oliver, put
on your cap, and come with me.' Oliver obeyed, and followed his
master on his professional mission.
They walked on, for some time, through the most crowded and
densely inhabited part of the town; and then, striking down a
narrow street more dirty and miserable than any they had yet
passed through, paused to look for the house which was the object
of their search. The houses on either side were high and large,
but very old, and tenanted by people of the poorest class: as
their neglected appearance would have sufficiently dentoed,
without the concurrent testimony afforded by the squalid looks of
the few men and women who, with folded arms and bodies half
doubled, occasionally skulked along. A great many of the
tenements had shop-fronts; but these were fast closed, and
mouldering away; only the upper rooms being inhabited. Some
houses which had become insecure from age and decay, were
prevented from falling into the street, by huge beams of wood
reared against the walls, and firmly planted in the road; but
even these crazy dens seemed to have been selected as the nightly
haunts of some houseless wretches, for many of the rough boards
which supplied the place of door and window, were wrenched from
their positions, to afford an aperture wide enough for the
passage of a human body. The kennel was stagnant and filthy.
The very rats, which here and there lay putrefying in its
rottenness, were hideous with famine.
There was neither knocker nor bell-handle at the open door where
Oliver and his master stopped; so, groping his way cautiously
through the dark passage, and bidding Oliver keep close to him
and not be afraid the undertaker mounted to the top of the first
flight of stairs. Stumbling against a door on the landing, he
rapped at it with his knuckles.
It was opened by a young girl of thirteen or fourteen. The
undertaker at once saw enough of what the room contained, to know
it was the apartment to which he had been directed. He stepped
in; Oliver followed him.
There was no fire in the room; but a man was crouching,
mechanically, over the empty stove. An old woman, too, had drawn
a low stool to the cold hearth, and was sitting beside him.
There were some ragged children in another corner; and in a small
recess, opposite the door, there lay upon the ground, something
covered with an old blanket. Oliver shuddered as he cast his
eyes toward the place, and crept involuntarily closer to his
master; for though it was covered up, the boy felt that it was a
The man's face was thin and very pale; his hair and beard were
grizzly; his eyes were blookshot. The old woman's face was
wrinkled; her two remaining teeth protruded over her under lip;
and her eyes were bright and piercing. Oliver was afriad to look
at either her or the man. They seemed so like the rats he had
'Nobody shall go near her,' said the man, starting fiercely up,
as the undertaker approached the recess. 'Keep back! Damn you,
keep back, if you've a life to lose!'
'Nonsense, my good man,' said the undertaker, who was pretty well
used to misery in all its shapes. 'Nonsense!'
'I tell you,' said the man: clenching his hands, and stamping
furiously on the floor,--'I tell you I won't have her put into
the ground. She couldn't rest there. The worms would worry
her--not eat her--she is so worn away.'
The undertaker offered no reply to this raving; but producing a
tape from his pocket, knelt down for a moment by the side of the
'Ah!' said the man: bursting into tears, and sinking on his
knees at the feet of the dead woman; 'kneel down, kneel down
--kneel round her, every one of you, and mark my words! I say
she was starved to death. I never knew how bad she was, till the
fever came upon her; and then her bones were starting through the
skin. There was neither fire nor candle; she died in the
dark--in the dark! She couldn't even see her children's faces,
though we heard her gasping out their names. I begged for her in
the streets: and they sent me to prison. When I came back, she
was dying; and all the blood in my heart has dried up, for they
starved her to death. I swear it before the God that saw it!
They starved her!' He twined his hands in his hair; and, with a
loud scream, rolled grovelling upon the floor: his eyes fixed,
and the foam covering his lips.
The terrified children cried bitterly; but the old woman, who had
hitherto remained as quiet as if she had been wholly deaf to all
that passed, menaced them into silence. Having unloosened the
cravat of the man who still remained extended on the ground, she
tottered towards the undertaker.
'She was my daughter,' said the old woman, nodding her head in
the direction of the corpse; and speaking with an idiotic leer,
more ghastly than even the presence of death in such a place.
'Lord, Lord! Well, it IS strange that I who gave birth to her,
and was a woman then, should be alive and merry now, and she
lying ther: so cold and stiff! Lord, Lord!--to think of it;
it's as good as a play--as good as a play!'
As the wretched creature mumbled and chuckled in her hideous
merriment, the undertaker turned to go away.
'Stop, stop!' said the old woman in a loud whisper. 'Will she be
buried to-morrow, or next day, or to-night? I laid her out; and
I must walk, you know. Send me a large cloak: a good warm one:
for it is bitter cold. We should have cake and wine, too, before
we go! Never mind; send some bread--only a loaf of bread and a
cup of water. Shall we have some bread, dear?' she said eagerly:
catching at the undertaker's coat, as he once more moved towards
'Yes, yes,' said the undertaker,'of course. Anything you like!'
He disengaged himself from the old woman's grasp; and, drawing
Oliver after him, hurried away.
The next day, (the family having been meanwhile relieved with a
half-quartern loaf and a piece of cheese, left with them by Mr.
Bumble himself,) Oliver and his master returned to the miserable
abode; where Mr. Bumble had already arrived, accompanied by four
men from the workhouse, who were to act as bearers. An old black
cloak had been thrown over the rags of the old woman and the man;
and the bare coffin having been screwed down, was hoisted on the
shoulders of the bearers, and carried into the street.
'Now, you must put your best leg foremost, old lady!' whispered
Sowerberry in the old woman's ear; 'we are rather late; and it
won't do, to keep the clergyman waiting. Move on, my men,--as
quick as you like!'
Thus directed, the bearers trotted on under their light burden;
and the two mourners kept as near them, as they could. Mr.
Bumble and Sowerberry walked at a good smart pace in front; and
Oliver, whose legs were not so long as his master's, ran by the
There was not so great a necessity for hurrying as Mr. Sowerberry
had anticipated, however; for when they reached the obscure
corner of the churchyard in which the nettles grew, and where the
parish graves were made, the clergyman had not arrived; and the
clerk, who was sitting by the vestry-room fire, seemed to think
it by no means improbable that it might be an hour or so, before
he came. So, they put the bier on the brink of the grave; and
the two mourners waited patiently in the damp clay, with a cold
rain drizzling down, while the ragged boys whom the spectacle had
attracted into the churchyard played a noisy game at
hide-and-seek among the tombstones, or varied their amusements by