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The night was bitter cold.

The snow lay on the ground, frozen into a hard thick crust, so that only the heaps that had drifted into byways and corners were affected by the sharp wind that howled abroad:

which, as if expending increased fury on such prey as it found, caught it savagely up in clouds, and, whirling it into a thousand misty eddies, scattered it in air.

Bleak, dark, and piercing cold, it was a night for the well-housed and fed to draw round the bright fire and thank God they were at home; and for the homeless, starving wretch to lay him down and die.

Many hunger-worn outcasts close their eyes in our bare streets, at such times, who, let their crimes have been what they may, can hardly open them in a more bitter world. Such was the aspect of out-of-doors affairs, when Mrs. Corney, the matron of the workhouse to which our readers have been already introduced as the birthplace of Oliver Twist, sat herself down before a cheerful fire in her own little room, and glanced, with no small degree of complacency, at a small round table:

on which stood a tray of corresponding size, furnished with all necessary materials for the most grateful meal that matrons enjoy.

In fact, Mrs. Corney was about to solace herself with a cup of tea. As she glanced from the table to the fireplace, where the smallest of all possible kettles was singing a small song in a small voice, her inward satisfaction evidently increased,--so much so, indeed, that Mrs. Corney smiled. 'Well!' said the matron, leaning her elbow on the table, and looking reflectively at the fire; 'I'm sure we have all on us a great deal to be grateful for!

A great deal, if we did but know it.

Ah!' Mrs. Corney shook her head mournfully, as if deploring the mental blindness of those paupers who did not know it; and thrusting a silver spoon (private property) into the inmost recesses of a two-ounce tin tea-caddy, proceeded to make the tea. How slight a thing will disturb the equanimity of our frail minds!

The black teapot, being very small and easily filled, ran over while Mrs. Corney was moralising; and the water slightly scalded Mrs. Corney's hand. 'Drat the pot!' said the worthy matron, setting it down very hastily on the hob; 'a little stupid thing, that only holds a couple of cups!

What use is it of, to anybody!

Except,' said Mrs. Corney, pausing, 'except to a poor desolate creature like me.

Oh dear!' With these words, the matron dropped into her chair, and, once more resting her elbow on the table, thought of her solitary fate.

The small teapot, and the single cup, had awakened in her mind sad recollections of Mr. Corney (who had not been dead more than five-and-twenty years); and she was overpowered. 'I shall never get another!' said Mrs. Corney, pettishly; 'I shall never get another--like him.' Whether this remark bore reference to the husband, or the teapot, is uncertain.

It might have been the latter; for Mrs. Corney looked at it as she spoke; and took it up afterwards.

She had just tasted her first cup, when she was disturbed by a soft tap at the room-door. 'Oh, come in with you!' said Mrs. Corney, sharply.

'Some of the old women dying, I suppose.

They always die when I'm at meals. Don't stand there, letting the cold air in, don't.

What's amiss now, eh?' 'Nothing, ma'am, nothing,' replied a man's voice. 'Dear me!' exclaimed the matron, in a much sweeter tone, 'is that Mr. Bumble?' 'At your service, ma'am,' said Mr. Bumble, who had been stopping outside to rub his shoes clean, and to shake the snow off his coat; and who now made his appearance, bearing the cocked hat in one hand and a bundle in the other.

'Shall I shut the door, ma'am?' The lady modestly hesitated to reply, lest there should be any impropriety in holding an interview with Mr. Bumble, with closed doors.

Mr. Bumble taking advantage of the hesitation, and being very cold himself, shut it without permission. 'Hard weather, Mr. Bumble,' said the matron. 'Hard, indeed, ma'am,' replied the beadle.

'Anti-porochial weather this, ma'am.

We have given away, Mrs. Corney, we have given away a matter of twenty quartern loaves and a cheese and a half, this very blessed afternoon; and yet them paupers are not contented.' 'Of course not.

When would they be, Mr. Bumble?' said the matron, sipping her tea. 'When, indeed, ma'am!' rejoined Mr. Bumble.

'Why here's one man that, in consideration of his wife and large family, has a quartern loaf and a good pound of cheese, full weight.

Is he grateful, ma'am?

Is he grateful?

Not a copper farthing's worth of it!

What does he do, ma'am, but ask for a few coals; if it's only a pocket handkerchief full, he says!

Coals! What would he do with coals?

Toast his cheese with 'em and then come back for more.

That's the way with these people, ma'am; give 'em a apron full of coals to-day, and they'll come back for another, the day after to-morrow, as brazen as alabaster.' The matron expressed her entire concurrence in this intelligible simile; and the beadle went on. 'I never,' said Mr. Bumble, 'see anything like the pitch it's got to.

The day afore yesterday, a man--you have been a married woman, ma'am, and I may mention it to you--a man, with hardly a rag upon his back (here Mrs. Corney looked at the floor), goes to our overseer's door when he has got company coming to dinner; and says, he must be relieved, Mrs. Corney.

As he wouldn't go away, and shocked the company very much, our overseer sent him out a pound of potatoes and half a pint of oatmeal.

"My heart!" says the ungrateful villain, "what's the use of _this_ to me?

You might as well give me a pair of iron spectacles!"

"Very good," says our overseer, taking 'em away again, "you won't get anything else here."

"Then I'll die in the streets!" says the vagrant.

"Oh no, you won't," says our overseer.' 'Ha! ha!

That was very good!

So like Mr. Grannett, wasn't it?' interposed the matron.

'Well, Mr. Bumble?' 'Well, ma'am,' rejoined the beadle, 'he went away; and he _did_ die in the streets.

There's a obstinate pauper for you!' 'It beats anything I could have believed,' observed the matron emphatically.

'But don't you think out-of-door relief a very bad thing, any way, Mr. Bumble?

You're a gentleman of experience, and ought to know.

Come.' 'Mrs. Corney,' said the beadle, smiling as men smile who are conscious of superior information, 'out-of-door relief, properly managed: properly managed, ma'am: is the porochial safeguard.

The great principle of out-of-door relief is, to give the paupers exactly what they don't want; and then they get tired of coming.' 'Dear me!' exclaimed Mrs. Corney.

'Well, that is a good one, too!' 'Yes.

Betwixt you and me, ma'am,' returned Mr. Bumble, 'that's the great principle; and that's the reason why, if you look at any cases that get into them owdacious newspapers, you'll always observe that sick families have been relieved with slices of cheese.

That's the rule now, Mrs. Corney, all over the country. But, however,' said the beadle, stopping to unpack his bundle, 'these are official secrets, ma'am; not to be spoken of; except, as I may say, among the porochial officers, such as ourselves. This is the port wine, ma'am, that the board ordered for the infirmary; real, fresh, genuine port wine; only out of the cask this forenoon; clear as a bell, and no sediment!' Having held the first bottle up to the light, and shaken it well to test its excellence, Mr. Bumble placed them both on top of a chest of drawers; folded the handkerchief in which they had been wrapped; put it carefully in his pocket; and took up his hat, as if to go. 'You'll have a very cold walk, Mr. Bumble,' said the matron. 'It blows, ma'am,' replied Mr. Bumble, turning up his coat-collar, 'enough to cut one's ears off.' The matron looked, from the little kettle, to the beadle, who was moving towards the door; and as the beadle coughed, preparatory to bidding her good-night, bashfully inquired whether--whether he wouldn't take a cup of tea? Mr. Bumble instantaneously turned back his collar again; laid his hat and stick upon a chair; and drew another chair up to the table.

As he slowly seated himself, he looked at the lady.

She fixed her eyes upon the little teapot.

Mr. Bumble coughed again, and slightly smiled. Mrs. Corney rose to get another cup and saucer from the closet. As she sat down, her eyes once again encountered those of the gallant beadle; she coloured, and applied herself to the task of making his tea.

Again Mr. Bumble coughed--louder this time than he had coughed yet. 'Sweet?

Mr. Bumble?' inquired the matron, taking up the sugar-basin. 'Very sweet, indeed, ma'am,' replied Mr. Bumble.

He fixed his eyes on Mrs. Corney as he said this; and if ever a beadle looked tender, Mr. Bumble was that beadle at that moment. The tea was made, and handed in silence.

Mr. Bumble, having spread a handkerchief over his knees to prevent the crumbs from sullying the splendour of his shorts, began to eat and drink; varying these amusements, occasionally, by fetching a deep sigh; which, however, had no injurious effect upon his appetite, but, on the contrary, rather seemed to facilitate his operations in the tea and toast department. 'You have a cat, ma'am, I see,' said Mr. Bumble, glancing at one who, in the centre of her family, was basking before the fire; 'and kittens too, I declare!' 'I am so fond of them, Mr. Bumble, you can't think,' replied the matron.

'They're _so_ happy, _so_ frolicsome, and _so_ cheerful, that they are quite companions for me.' 'Very nice animals, ma'am,' replied Mr. Bumble, approvingly; 'so very domestic.' 'Oh, yes!' rejoined the matron with enthusiasm; 'so fond of their home too, that it's quite a pleasure, I'm sure.' 'Mrs. Corney, ma'am,' said Mr. Bumble, slowly, and marking the time with his teaspoon, 'I mean to say this, ma'am; that any cat, or kitten, that could live with you, ma'am, and _not_ be fond of its home, must be a ass, ma'am.' '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.

(邦布尔先生和一位女士进行了一次愉快的交谈,说明在某些时候甚至一位教区干事也会多情善感。)

这大夜里天气格外寒冷。雪垫在地面上,凝结成厚厚的一层硬壳。只有飘撒在小路。角落里的团团积雪才感受到了呼啸而过的朔风,风找到了这样的战利品,似乎越加暴躁地滥施淫威,气势汹汹地抓起雪片抛到云端,把雪搅成难以计数的白蒙蒙的旋涡,撒满天空。夜,萧瑟,黑暗,刺骨的寒冷。在这样的夜晚,家境优裕,吃饱穿暖的人们围坐在熊熊的炉火旁边,为自己舒适的家而感谢上苍。无家可归。饥寒交迫的人们则注定只有倒毙路旁的命运。遇到这种时候,多少备受饥饿折磨的流浪者在我们那些空荡荡的街头巷尾闭上了双眼。就算他们罪有应得,咎由自取吧;反正他们再也不会睁开眼睛来看一个更为悲惨的世界了。

这不过是门外的光景罢了。眼下,济贫院女总管柯尼太太正坐在自己的小房间里,面对着欢腾跳跃的炉火。这所济贫院就是奥立弗·退斯特出生的地方,前边已经向读者介绍过了。柯尼太太往一张小圆桌看了一眼,一副。冶然自得的神气,桌上放着一个跟圆桌很相称的托盘,女总管们心满意足享用一餐所需要的一切,托盘里应有尽有。事实上,柯尼太太正打算喝杯茶解解闷。她的目光掠过圆桌落到壁炉上边,那儿有一把小得不能再小的水壶正用小小的嗓门唱着一首小曲,她内心的快感显然平添了几分——确确实实,柯尼太太笑出来了。

“哎,”女总管把胳膊肘依在桌子上,若有所思地望着炉火,自说自话起来。“我敢担保,我们人人都有很多理当感恩的东西。多了去了,可惜的是我们不知道。啊。”

柯尼太太悲哀地摇了摇头,像是对那些愚昧无知的贫民居然不明白这一点深感痛惜似的,她将一把银汤匙(私有财产)插进一个容量两盎司的锡茶壶里,着手熬茶。

真是的,一件微不足道的事情就足以打破我们脆弱心灵的平静。黑色的茶壶真小,很容易漫出来,柯尼太太正在探讨道德问题,壶里的茶溢了出来,柯尼太太的手给轻微地烫了一下。

“该死的茶壶!”可敬的女总管骂了一句,忙不迭地把茶壶放在炉边。“愚蠢的小玩意儿,只能盛两杯。谁拿着都没用。除了,”柯尼太太顿了一下,“除了像我这样一个孤单寂寞的女人。天啦!”

女总管颓然倒在椅子上,又一次将胳臂肘靠在桌上,自己凄苦的命运涌上心头。小小的茶壶,不成双的茶杯,在她心里唤起了对柯尼先生的哀思(他告别人世已经二十五年有余),她承受不住了。

“我再也找不到了,”柯尼太太怪里怪气地说,“再也找不到了——像那样的。”

谁也不知道这话是指那位作丈夫的呢,还是指茶壶。想来应当是后者,因为柯尼太太说话时眼睛一直盯着茶壶,随后又把茶壶端起来。她刚品过头一杯茶,就被门上传来的一记柔和的敲门声打断了。

“喔,进来。”柯尼太太的话音十分尖锐。“照我猜,准是那几个老婆子要死了。她们老是挑我吃饭的时候去死。别站在那儿,把冷气放进来,真是的。什么事啊,唔?”

“没什么事,太太,没事。”一个男子的声音回答。

“哦哟哟。”女总管发出一声惊呼,嗓门变得柔和多了。“是邦布尔先生吗?”

“乐意为您效劳,太太,”说话的正是邦布尔先生,他刚在门外擦去鞋上的污泥,抖掉外套上的雪花,这才一只手捏着三角帽,另一只手提着一个包袱走进来。“要不要把门关上,太太?”

女总管有些难为情,迟迟没有回答,关上门会见邦布尔先生多少有点不成体统。邦布尔趁她正在犹豫,不待接到进一步的指示,便把门关上了,他也确实冻坏了。

“天气可真厉害,邦布尔先生。”女总管说。

“厉害,太太,是那话,”教区干事答道,“这天气跟教区过不去啊,太太。单是这一个该死的下午,我们就拿出去,柯尼太太,我们就拿出去四磅重的面包二十个,干酪一块半,他们那帮贫民还嫌不够。”

“当然嫌不够喽,邦布尔先生,他们什么时候满足过?”女总管说着呷了一口茶。

“什么时候,太太,是这话呀。”邦布尔先生答道,“可不,眼下就有一个男的,考虑到他有老婆和一大家人,领了一个四磅重的面包和整整一磅奶酪,分量都挺足的。他道谢了没有,太太,他道谢了没有?真连一个铜板都不值。他干什么来着,太太,又来要几块煤,他说了,只要满满一小手绢。煤。他要煤干吗?用来烤他的干酪,然后又回来要更多的。太太,这些人老是这一套,今天给了他们满满一围裙的煤,后天又会来再要一围裙,脸皮真厚,跟石膏一样。”

女总管表示自己完全赞同这一精辟的比喻,教区干事接着说道,“我绝没有见过有什么东西像这么黑的。前天,有个男人——太太,您是过来人,可以说给您听听——有个男人,身上几乎一丝不挂(听到这里,柯尼太太的眼睛直往地板上望),跑到我们济贫专员家门口去了,当时专员正请人吃饭,柯尼太太,他说非得要领点救济不可。他怎么也不肯走,客人都很生气,我们专员给了他一磅土豆、半品脱麦片。这个忘恩负义的坏蛋,居然说:‘我的天啦,这点东西能有什么用?还不如给我一副铁边眼镜。’‘好极了,’我们专员说着把东西收回。‘你甭想得到别的东西了。’那个无赖说:‘那我就去死在大街上。’我们专员说:‘啊,不,你不会的。’”

“哈哈!太妙了。倒真像格兰力特先生的风格哩,不是吗?”女总管插嘴说,“邦布尔先生,后来呢?”

“唔,太太,”教区干事回答道,“他走了,后来果真死在街上了。死脑筋的贫民总是有的,你有什么办法。”

“我简直不敢相信。”女总管强调指出。“不过,邦布尔先生,难道你不认为街头救济再怎么说也是一件非常糟糕的事情吗?你是一位很有见识的绅士,应该知道,你说说。”

“柯尼太太,”男人们感觉到自己在见识上高人一等时常有的那种笑容在教区干事的脸上荡漾开来。“街头救济嘛,运用得当,太太,运用得当能起到保卫教区的作用,街头救济的首要原则就是,专拣穷小子们不需要的东西给他们,然后他们就再也不想来了。”

“我的天啦!”柯尼太太嚷了起来。“那么说,也是一件好事罗!”

“是的,太太,你我之间说说也无妨,”邦布尔先生回答,“首要原则就是这一条,妙就妙在这里,看一下那班胆大包天的报纸上登的随便什么案子,你就会发现,给有人生病的家庭发放的救济就是几条奶酪。柯尼太太,这可是风行全国的规矩。再者说,”干事弯下腰,一边打开带来的包裹,一边说道,“这些可是官方机密,我应该说,除开像我们这号在教区担任职务的,太太,你别对外边说。太太,这是理事会替医务室定购的红葡萄酒,真正新酿的纯正红葡萄酒,上午才出的桶,纯净得跟什么似的,没一点沉淀。”

邦布尔先生将第一瓶酒举到灯前,熟练地摇了摇,证明质量确属上乘,然后将两瓶酒一起放到柜橱上边,把先前用来包酒的手帕折起来,细心地揣进衣袋,拿起帽子,似乎打算告辞了。

“这一路可别把你冻坏了,邦布尔先生。”女总管说道。

“风挺厉害的,太太,”邦布尔先生一边回答,一边将衣领翻上去。“能把人耳朵割下来。”

女总管的目光从小茶壶移到了教区干事的身上,他正朝着门口走去。干事咳嗽一声,正准备向她道晚安,女总管红着脸问了一声,莫非——他莫非连茶也不肯喝一杯?

话音刚落,邦布尔先生立刻重新翻下衣领,把帽子和手杖放在一张椅子上,将另一张拖到桌边。他慢吞吞地在椅子上坐下来,借这功夫朝那位女士看了一眼。她的两只眼睛正牢牢盯住那个小小的茶壶。邦布尔先生又咳嗽了一声,露出一丝笑意。

柯尼太太站起来,从壁橱里取出另一副杯碟。她坐回椅子上的时候,又一次与教区干事合情脉脉的目光相遇了,脸顿时变得绯红,赶紧埋头替他沏茶。邦布尔先生又咳嗽了一声——这一声比先前响得多。

“你喜欢喝得甜一点,邦布尔先生?”女总管手里端着糖缸,问道。

“我爱喝很甜的,真的,太太。”邦布尔先生说这句话的时候,眼睛一直盯着柯尼太太。假如一位教区干事什么时候也会显得十分温柔的话,此时的邦布尔先生就是一个例子。

茶彻好了,默默无言地递到了手中。邦布尔先生在膝盖上铺了一张手帕,以免面包屑弄脏了他那条漂亮的紧身裤,开始用茶点。为了使这类赏心乐事多点变化,他不时发出一声悠长的叹息,不过这并没有给他的胃口带来不良影响,恰恰相反,茶和面包下肚倒像是越发顺当了。

“我发现你养了一只猎,太太,”邦布尔先生一眼看见,一只猎周围是她的一家子,正偎在炉前取暖。“我敢说,还有小猫。”

“邦布尔先生,你想像不出我多么喜欢它们,”女总管回答,“它们是那样快活,那样淘气,又那样招人喜欢,简直成了我的伙伴了。”

“真是些可爱的小动物,太太,”邦布尔先生深表赞同,“那么驯良。”

“噢,可不是嘛。”女总管兴致勃勃地说,“它们对自己的家那么有感情,我敢担保,这真是一大乐趣。”

“柯尼太太,夫人,”邦布尔先生慢吞吞地说,一边用茶匙替自己计算着时间。“我是说,夫人,不管大猫小猫,能跟你住在一块儿,夫人,倒会对这个家没感情,夫人,那准是头蠢驴。”

“喔,邦布尔先生。”柯尼太太提出抗议了。

“不顾事实不行,太太,”邦布尔先生慢悠悠地挥动着茶匙,显得情意绵绵,颇为庄重,给人留下了加倍深刻的印象。“我会不胜荣幸,亲自动手淹死这样的猫。”

“你可真是一个铁石心肠的男人,”女总管一边伸出手来接教区干事的茶杯,一边活泼地说。“还得加上一句,心肠忒硬的男人。”

“心肠忒硬,太太,心肠硬?”邦布尔先生把茶杯递过去,没再说下去,柯尼太太接过杯子,他顺势掐了一下她的小指头,重重地叹了口气,张开两个巴掌在自己的滚边背心上拍了拍,稍许把椅子从壁炉旁挪开了一些。

柯尼太太和邦布尔先生本来是相对而坐,中间隔了一张圆桌,面前是壁炉,两人之间的间隔说不上很大。可以想见,邦布尔先生这时正从壁炉前往后退,人依然挨着桌子,这样便增大了他与柯尼太太之间的距离——这一举动无疑会受到一些考虑周到的读者褒奖,看作是邦布尔先生这方面的一个了不起的豪侠举动。邦布尔先生此时多多少少正受到时间、地点和机会的诱惑,某种充满柔情蜜意的废话就要脱口而出,这种话从一班没长脑筋的轻薄之徒口中说出来倒是不要紧,如果出自堂堂法官、议员、大臣、市长以及其他达官显贵之口的话,似乎就会大大有失体面。对于一名教区干事的威严与庄重来说更是如此,这一类人(大家心中有数)比所有这些大人物还要来得严肃,不苟言笑。

无论邦布尔先生意向如何(肯定都是最高尚的想法),不幸的是,前边已经两次提到,桌子是圆的,邦布尔先生一点一点地挪动椅子,自己与女总管之间的距离不一会儿便开始缩短,他继续沿圆周外缘移动,不失时机地把自己的椅子往女总管坐的那把椅子挨过去。千真万确,两把椅子相碰了,与此同时,邦布尔先生停了下来。

在这个时候,女总管如果把椅子往右边挪一挪,就会引火上身,要是往左边挪,肯定栽进邦布尔先生的怀里,于是(考虑周到的女总管一眼就看清了这两种结果),她坐着一点没动,又递了一杯茶给邦布尔先生。

“柯尼太太,心肠忒硬吗?”邦布尔一边搅动着茶,一边抬起头来,盯着女总管的脸,说道。“你心肠硬不硬,柯尼太太?”

“天啊!”女总管嚷道,“这样稀奇的问题,你一个单身汉也问得出来,邦布尔先生,你问这个干吗?”

干事把茶喝了个一滴不剩,又吃了一片面包,抖掉膝盖上的碎屑,擦了擦嘴,不慌不忙地吻起女总管来。

“邦布尔先生,”这位考虑周到的女士低声嚷嚷着,这一阵恐慌来得非同小可,她简直说不出话来。“邦布尔先生,我要喊啦。”邦布尔没有回答,反而以一种缓慢而又不失尊严的姿势伸出胳臂,挽住女总管的腰。

正当这位女士声称自己要喊出来的功夫——对于这种得寸进尺的放肆行为,她理所当然是要喊的——一阵急促的敲门声将这种意图变成了多余的。一听有人敲门,邦布尔先生分外敏捷地跳到一边,开始使劲地掸去酒瓶上的灰尘,女总管厉声问谁在那儿。值得一提的是,她的嗓门已经完全恢复了那种不折不扣的官腔,这是一个奇妙的实例,说明突如其来的意外事件可以有效地抵消极度恐惧造成的影响。

“夫人,劳您的驾,”一个干瘪的,相貌奇丑的女贫民从门口把脑袋伸了进来。“老沙丽快玩完了。”

“哟,跟我有什么关系?”女总管怒气冲冲。“她要死又留不住她,对不对?”

“是的,是的,夫人,”老妇人回答,“没人留得住,她压根治不好了。我见过许多人死,小宝宝,身强力壮的男人,都见过,我知道死的时候是什么光景。可她心里放不下,一口气很难咽下去,她没发作的时候——这也不常有——她说她有话要说,你非得听一听。夫人,你要是不去一趟,她绝不安安生生死去。”

听到这消息,可敬的柯尼太太嘟嘟哝哝,冲着那些个老婆子就是一通臭骂,她们非得故意打搅一下上司才肯闭上眼睛,随后匆匆抓起一条厚实的围巾裹在身上,开门见山地请邦布尔先生等自己回来再走,说是怕要发生什么特别的事情。柯尼太太吩咐报信的老太婆腿脚利索些,免得在楼梯上磨磨蹭蹭折腾一晚上,然后跟在老太婆后边走出房间,脸色十分阴沉,骂骂咧咧地去了。

邦布尔先生独自留下来以后的举动颇为令人费解。他打开壁橱,点了一下茶匙的数目,掂了掂方糖夹子,又对一把银质奶壶细细察看了一番,以确定它的质地。上述种种好奇心得到满足之后,他把三角帽歪戴在头上,一本正经地踏着舞步,绕着桌子转了四个花样不同的圈子。这一番非同寻常的表演结束了,他摘下帽子,背朝火炉,仰摊在椅子上,像是正在脑子里开列一张家具明细清单似的。。