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Mr. Bumble sat in the workhouse parlour, with his eyes moodily fixed on the cheerless grate, whence, as it was summer time, no brighter gleam proceeded, than the reflection of certain sickly rays of the sun, which were sent back from its cold and shining surface.

A paper fly-cage dangled from the ceiling, to which he occasionally raised his eyes in gloomy thought; and, as the heedless insects hovered round the gaudy net-work, Mr. Bumble would heave a deep sigh, while a more gloomy shadow overspread his countenance.

Mr. Bumble was meditating; it might be that the insects brought to mind, some painful passage in his own past life. Nor was Mr. Bumble's gloom the only thing calculated to awaken a pleasing melancholy in the bosom of a spectator. There were not wanting other appearances, and those closely connected with his own person, which announced that a great change had taken place in the position of his affairs.

The laced coat, and the cocked hat; where were they?

He still wore knee-breeches, and dark cotton stockings on his nether limbs; but they were not _the_ breeches.

The coat was wide-skirted; and in that respect like _the_ coat, but, oh how different!

The mighty cocked hat was replaced by a modest round one.

Mr. Bumble was no longer a beadle. There are some promotions in life, which, independent of the more substantial rewards they offer, require peculiar value and dignity from the coats and waistcoats connected with them.

A field-marshal has his uniform; a bishop his silk apron; a counsellor his silk gown; a beadle his cocked hat.

Strip the bishop of his apron, or the beadle of his hat and lace; what are they?

Men.

Mere men.

Dignity, and even holiness too, sometimes, are more questions of coat and waistcoat than some people imagine. Mr. Bumble had married Mrs. Corney, and was master of the workhouse.

Another beadle had come into power.

On him the cocked hat, gold-laced coat, and staff, had all three descended. 'And to-morrow two months it was done!' said Mr. Bumble, with a sigh.

'It seems a age.' Mr. Bumble might have meant that he had concentrated a whole existence of happiness into the short space of eight weeks; but the sigh--there was a vast deal of meaning in the sigh. 'I sold myself,' said Mr. Bumble, pursuing the same train of relection, 'for six teaspoons, a pair of sugar-tongs, and a milk-pot; with a small quantity of second-hand furniture, and twenty pound in money.

I went very reasonable.

Cheap, dirt cheap!' 'Cheap!' cried a shrill voice in Mr. Bumble's ear: 'you would have been dear at any price; and dear enough I paid for you, Lord above knows that!' Mr. Bumble turned, and encountered the face of his interesting consort, who, imperfectly comprehending the few words she had overheard of his complaint, had hazarded the foregoing remark at a venture. 'Mrs. Bumble, ma'am!' said Mr. Bumble, with a sentimental sternness. 'Well!' cried the lady. 'Have the goodness to look at me,' said Mr. Bumble, fixing his eyes upon her.

(If she stands such a eye as that,' said Mr. Bumble to himself, 'she can stand anything.

It is a eye I never knew to fail with paupers.

If it fails with her, my power is gone.') Whether an exceedingly small expansion of eye be sufficient to quell paupers, who, being lightly fed, are in no very high condition; or whether the late Mrs. Corney was particularly proof against eagle glances; are matters of opinion.

The matter of fact, is, that the matron was in no way overpowered by Mr. Bumble's scowl, but, on the contrary, treated it with great disdain, and even raised a laugh thereat, which sounded as though it were genuine. On hearing this most unexpected sound, Mr. Bumble looked, first incredulous, and afterwards amazed.

He then relapsed into his former state; nor did he rouse himself until his attention was again awakened by the voice of his partner. 'Are you going to sit snoring there, all day?' inquired Mrs. Bumble. 'I am going to sit here, as long as I think proper, ma'am,' rejoined Mr. Bumble; 'and although I was _not_ snoring, I shall snore, gape, sneeze, laugh, or cry, as the humour strikes me; such being my prerogative.' '_Your_ prerogative!' sneered Mrs. Bumble, with ineffable contempt. 'I said the word, ma'am,' said Mr. Bumble.

'The prerogative of a man is to command.' 'And what's the prerogative of a woman, in the name of Goodness?' cried the relict of Mr. Corney deceased. 'To obey, ma'am,' thundered Mr. Bumble.

'Your late unfortunate husband should have taught it you; and then, perhaps, he might have been alive now.

I wish he was, poor man!' Mrs. Bumble, seeing at a glance, that the decisive moment had now arrived, and that a blow struck for the mastership on one side or other, must necessarily be final and conclusive, no sooner heard this allusion to the dead and gone, than she dropped into a chair, and with a loud scream that Mr. Bumble was a hard-hearted brute, fell into a paroxysm of tears. But, tears were not the things to find their way to Mr. Bumble's soul; his heart was waterproof.

Like washable beaver hats that improve with rain, his nerves were rendered stouter and more vigorous, by showers of tears, which, being tokens of weakness, and so far tacit admissions of his own power, pleased and exalted him.

He eyed his good lady with looks of great satisfaction, and begged, in an encouraging manner, that she should cry her hardest:

the exercise being looked upon, by the faculty, as strongly conducive to health. 'It opens the lungs, washes the countenance, exercises the eyes, and softens down the temper,' said Mr. Bumble.

'So cry away.' As he discharged himself of this pleasantry, Mr. Bumble took his hat from a peg, and putting it on, rather rakishly, on one side, as a man might, who felt he had asserted his superiority in a becoming manner, thrust his hands into his pockets, and sauntered towards the door, with much ease and waggishness depicted in his whole appearance. Now, Mrs. Corney that was, had tried the tears, because they were less troublesome than a manual assault; but, she was quite prepared to make trial of the latter mode of proceeding, as Mr. Bumble was not long in discovering. The first proof he experienced of the fact, was conveyed in a hollow sound, immediately succeeded by the sudden flying off of his hat to the opposite end of the room.

This preliminary proceeding laying bare his head, the expert lady, clasping him tightly round the throat with one hand, inflicted a shower of blows (dealt with singular vigour and dexterity) upon it with the other.

This done, she created a little variety by scratching his face, and tearing his hair; and, having, by this time, inflicted as much punishment as she deemed necessary for the offence, she pushed him over a chair, which was luckily well situated for the purpose:

and defied him to talk about his prerogative again, if he dared. 'Get up!' said Mrs. Bumble, in a voice of command.

'And take yourself away from here, unless you want me to do something desperate.' Mr. Bumble rose with a very rueful countenance:

wondering much what something desperate might be.

Picking up his hat, he looked towards the door. 'Are you going?' demanded Mrs. Bumble. 'Certainly, my dear, certainly,' rejoined Mr. Bumble, making a quicker motion towards the door.

'I didn't intend to--I'm going, my dear!

You are so very violent, that really I--' At this instant, Mrs. Bumble stepped hastily forward to replace the carpet, which had been kicked up in the scuffle.

Mr. Bumble immediately darted out of the room, without bestowing another thought on his unfinished sentence:

leaving the late Mrs. Corney in full possession of the field. Mr. Bumble was fairly taken by surprise, and fairly beaten.

He had a decided propensity for bullying:

derived no inconsiderable pleasure from the exercise of petty cruelty; and, consequently, was (it is needless to say) a coward.

This is by no means a disparagement to his character; for many official personages, who are held in high respect and admiration, are the victims of similar infirmities.

The remark is made, indeed, rather in his favour than otherwise, and with a view of impressing the reader with a just sense of his qualifications for office. But, the measure of his degradation was not yet full.

After making a tour of the house, and thinking, for the first time, that the poor-laws really were too hard on people; and that men who ran away from their wives, leaving them chargeable to the parish, ought, in justice to be visited with no punishment at all, but rather rewarded as meritorious individuals who had suffered much; Mr. Bumble came to a room where some of the female paupers were usually employed in washing the parish linen:

when the sound of voices in conversation, now proceeded. 'Hem!' said Mr. Bumble, summoning up all his native dignity. 'These women at least shall continue to respect the prerogative. Hallo! hallo there!

What do you mean by this noise, you hussies?' With these words, Mr. Bumble opened the door, and walked in with a very fierce and angry manner:

which was at once exchanged for a most humiliated and cowering air, as his eyes unexpectedly rested on the form of his lady wife. 'My dear,' said Mr. Bumble, 'I didn't know you were here.' 'Didn't know I was here!' repeated Mrs. Bumble.

'What do _you_ do here?' 'I thought they were talking rather too much to be doing their work properly, my dear,' replied Mr. Bumble:

glancing distractedly at a couple of old women at the wash-tub, who were comparing notes of admiration at the workhouse-master's humility. '_You_ thought they were talking too much?' said Mrs. Bumble. 'What business is it of yours?' 'Why, my dear--' urged Mr. Bumble submissively. 'What business is it of yours?' demanded Mrs. Bumble, again. 'It's very true, you're matron here, my dear,' submitted Mr. Bumble; 'but I thought you mightn't be in the way just then.' 'I'll tell you what, Mr. Bumble,' returned his lady.

'We don't want any of your interference.

You're a great deal too fond of poking your nose into things that don't concern you, making everybody in the house laugh, the moment your back is turned, and making yourself look like a fool every hour in the day.

Be off; come!' Mr. Bumble, seeing with excruciating feelings, the delight of the two old paupers, who were tittering together most rapturously, hesitated for an instant.

Mrs. Bumble, whose patience brooked no delay, caught up a bowl of soap-suds, and motioning him towards the door, ordered him instantly to depart, on pain of receiving the contents upon his portly person. What could Mr. Bumble do?

He looked dejectedly round, and slunk away; and, as he reached the door, the titterings of the paupers broke into a shrill chuckle of irrepressible delight.

It wanted but this.

He was degraded in their eyes; he had lost caste and station before the very paupers; he had fallen from all the height and pomp of beadleship, to the lowest depth of the most snubbed hen-peckery. 'All in two months!' said Mr. Bumble, filled with dismal thoughts.

'Two months!

No more than two months ago, I was not only my own master, but everybody else's, so far as the porochial workhouse was concerned, and now!--' It was too much.

Mr. Bumble boxed the ears of the boy who opened the gate for him (for he had reached the portal in his reverie); and walked, distractedly, into the street. He walked up one street, and down another, until exercise had abated the first passion of his grief; and then the revulsion of feeling made him thirsty.

He passed a great many public-houses; but, at length paused before one in a by-way, whose parlour, as he gathered from a hasty peep over the blinds, was deserted, save by one solitary customer.

It began to rain, heavily, at the moment.

This determined him.

Mr. Bumble stepped in; and ordering something to drink, as he passed the bar, entered the apartment into which he had looked from the street. The man who was seated there, was tall and dark, and wore a large cloak.

He had the air of a stranger; and seemed, by a certain haggardness in his look, as well as by the dusty soils on his dress, to have travelled some distance.

He eyed Bumble askance, as he entered, but scarcely deigned to nod his head in acknowledgment of his salutation. Mr. Bumble had quite dignity enough for two; supposing even that the stranger had been more familiar:

so he drank his gin-and-water in silence, and read the paper with great show of pomp and circumstance. It so happened, however: as it will happen very often, when men fall into company under such circumstances:

that Mr. Bumble felt, every now and then, a powerful inducement, which he could not resist, to steal a look at the stranger:

and that whenever he did so, he withdrew his eyes, in some confusion, to find that the stranger was at that moment stealing a look at him.

Mr. Bumble's awkwardness was enhanced by the very remarkable expression of the stranger's eye, which was keen and bright, but shadowed by a scowl of distrust and suspicion, unlike anything he had ever observed before, and repulsive to behold. When they had encountered each other's glance several times in this way, the stranger, in a harsh, deep voice, broke silence. 'Were you looking for me,' he said, 'when you peered in at the window?' 'Not that I am aware of, unless you're Mr. --'

Here Mr. Bumble stopped short; for he was curious to know the stranger's name, and thought in his impatience, he might supply the blank. 'I see you were not,' said the stranger; an expression of quiet sarcasm playing about his mouth; 'or you have known my name.

You don't know it.

I would recommend you not to ask for it.' 'I meant no harm, young man,' observed Mr. Bumble, majestically. 'And have done none,' said the stranger. Another silence succeeded this short dialogue:

which was again broken by the stranger. 'I have seen you before, I think?' said he.

'You were differently dressed at that time, and I only passed you in the street, but I should know you again.

You were beadle here, once; were you not?' 'I was,' said Mr. Bumble, in some surprise; 'porochial beadle.' 'Just so,' rejoined the other, nodding his head.

'It was in that character I saw you.

What are you now?' 'Master of the workhouse,' rejoined Mr. Bumble, slowly and impressively, to check any undue familiarity the stranger might otherwise assume.

'Master of the workhouse, young man!' 'You have the same eye to your own interest, that you always had, I doubt not?' resumed the stranger, looking keenly into Mr. Bumble's eyes, as he raised them in astonishment at the question. 'Don't scruple to answer freely, man.

I know you pretty well, you see.' 'I suppose, a married man,' replied Mr. Bumble, shading his eyes with his hand, and surveying the stranger, from head to foot, in evident perplexity, 'is not more averse to turning an honest penny when he can, than a single one.

Porochial officers are not so well paid that they can afford to refuse any little extra fee, when it comes to them in a civil and proper manner.' The stranger smiled, and nodded his head again: as much to say, he had not mistaken his man; then rang the bell. 'Fill this glass again,' he said, handing Mr. Bumble's empty tumbler to the landlord.

'Let it be strong and hot.

You like it so, I suppose?' 'Not too strong,' replied Mr. Bumble, with a delicate cough. 'You understand what that means, landlord!' said the stranger, drily. The host smiled, disappeared, and shortly afterwards returned with a steaming jorum: of which, the first gulp brought the water into Mr. Bumble's eyes. 'Now listen to me,' said the stranger, after closing the door and window.

'I came down to this place, to-day, to find you out; and, by one of those chances which the devil throws in the way of his friends sometimes, you walked into the very room I was sitting in, while you were uppermost in my mind.

I want some information from you.

I don't ask you to give it for nothing, slight as it is.

Put up that, to begin with.' As he spoke, he pushed a couple of sovereigns across the table to his companion, carefully, as though unwilling that the chinking of money should be heard without.

When Mr. Bumble had scrupulously examined the coins, to see that they were genuine, and had put them up, with much satisfaction, in his waistcoat-pocket, he went on: 'Carry your memory back--let me see--twelve years, last winter.' 'It's a long time,' said Mr. Bumble.

'Very good.

I've done it.' 'The scene, the workhouse.' 'Good!' 'And the time, night.' 'Yes.' 'And the place, the crazy hole, wherever it was, in which miserable drabs brought forth the life and health so often denied to themselves--gave birth to puling children for the parish to rear; and hid their shame, rot 'em in the grave!' 'The lying-in room, I suppose?' said Mr. Bumble, not quite following the stranger's excited description. 'Yes,' said the stranger.

'A boy was born there.' 'A many boys,' observed Mr. Bumble, shaking his head, despondingly. 'A murrain on the young devils!' cried the stranger; 'I speak of one; a meek-looking, pale-faced boy, who was apprenticed down here, to a coffin-maker--I wish he had made his coffin, and screwed his body in it--and who afterwards ran away to London, as it was supposed. 'Why, you mean Oliver!

Young Twist!' said Mr. Bumble; 'I remember him, of course.

There wasn't a obstinater young rascal--' 'It's not of him I want to hear; I've heard enough of him,' said the stranger, stopping Mr. Bumble in the outset of a tirade on the subject of poor Oliver's vices.

'It's of a woman; the hag that nursed his mother.

Where is she?' 'Where is she?' said Mr. Bumble, whom the gin-and-water had rendered facetious.

'It would be hard to tell.

There's no midwifery there, whichever place she's gone to; so I suppose she's out of employment, anyway.' 'What do you mean?' demanded the stranger, sternly. 'That she died last winter,' rejoined Mr. Bumble. The man looked fixedly at him when he had given this information, and although he did not withdraw his eyes for some time afterwards, his gaze gradually became vacant and abstracted, and he seemed lost in thought.

For some time, he appeared doubtful whether he ought to be relieved or disappointed by the intelligence; but at length he breathed more freely; and withdrawing his eyes, observed that it was no great matter. With that he rose, as if to depart. But Mr. Bumble was cunning enough; and he at once saw that an opportunity was opened, for the lucrative disposal of some secret in the possession of his better half.

He well remembered the night of old Sally's death, which the occurrences of that day had given him good reason to recollect, as the occasion on which he had proposed to Mrs. Corney; and although that lady had never confided to him the disclosure of which she had been the solitary witness, he had heard enough to know that it related to something that had occurred in the old woman's attendance, as workhouse nurse, upon the young mother of Oliver Twist.

Hastily calling this circumstance to mind, he informed the stranger, with an air of mystery, that one woman had been closeted with the old harridan shortly before she died; and that she could, as he had reason to believe, throw some light on the subject of his inquiry. 'How can I find her?' said the stranger, thrown off his guard; and plainly showing that all his fears (whatever they were) were aroused afresh by the intelligence. 'Only through me,' rejoined Mr. Bumble. 'When?' cried the stranger, hastily. 'To-morrow,' rejoined Bumble. 'At nine in the evening,' said the stranger, producing a scrap of paper, and writing down upon it, an obscure address by the water-side, in characters that betrayed his agitation; 'at nine in the evening, bring her to me there.

I needn't tell you to be secret.

It's your interest.' With these words, he led the way to the door, after stopping to pay for the liquor that had been drunk.

Shortly remarking that their roads were different, he departed, without more ceremony than an emphatic repetition of the hour of appointment for the following night. On glancing at the address, the parochial functionary observed that it contained no name.

The stranger had not gone far, so he made after him to ask it. 'What do you want?' cried the man, turning quickly round, as Bumble touched him on the arm.

'Following me?' 'Only to ask a question,' said the other, pointing to the scrap of paper.

'What name am I to ask for?' 'Monks!' rejoined the man; and strode hastily, away.

(读者在这一章里可以看到婚前婚后情况迥异的寻常现象。)

邦布尔先生闷闷不乐地坐在济贫院的一个房间里,眼睛盯着毫无生气的壁炉。因为正值夏季,除了壁炉那冷冰冰、亮闪闪的外表反射回来的几束微弱的日光而外,那里丝毫也看不到明亮一些的光线。一只纸糊的捕蝇笼晃晃悠悠地吊在天花板上,几只不懂事的小虫子绕着花花绿绿的罗网直打转。邦布尔先生偶尔抬起眼睛,忧心忡忡地看它一眼,重重地长叹一声,脸上随即泛起一道更为沮丧的阴影。邦布尔先生正在苦苦思索。也许正是那几只虫子勾起了他心中的一段痛苦的往事。

在旁观者心中唤起一种惬意的伤感来的倒也不仅仅是邦布尔先生的悲哀表情。还有一些与他的身份紧密相连的迹象表明,他的境况已经发生了巨大的变化。那件镶边的外套,还有三角帽,它们上哪儿去了?他依旧穿着紧身短裤和深色长统纱袜,但紧身裤已经不是原来的那一条。外套依旧是宽边式的,这一点跟以前那件很相似,可是,哦,真有天壤之别啊。威风凛凛的三角帽换成了一顶谦虚的圆顶帽。邦布尔先生不再是一位干事了。

生活中有一些升迁,且不谈它们所带来的更大实惠,其特殊价值和威严来源于与之紧密连接的外套和背心。陆军元帅有陆军元帅的军服,主教有主教的丝绸法衣,律师有律师的绸长袍,一位教区干事就要数他的三角帽了。扒下主教的法衣或者干事的三角帽——他们成了什么了?人,普普通通的人。有些时候,一件外套或者背心,比有些人所想像的更能决定一个人仪表是否威严,气宇够不够神圣。

邦布尔先生跟柯尼太太结了婚,当上了济贫院的院长。另外一个干事已经上任。三角帽、金边外套和手杖,三大件全都传给了后任。

“到明天,这事就满两个月了。”邦布尔先生叹了口气,说道。“真像是过了整整一辈子。”

邦布尔先生的意思也许是,他把毕生幸福浓缩到了短短的八个星期里。可那一声长叹——那一声长叹意味深长。

“我把自己给卖了,”邦布尔先生追溯着同一条思路。“换了六把茶匙,一把糖夹子,一口奶锅,加上为数不多的几样二手家具,以及二十镑现钱。我卖贱了。便宜了,也太便宜了点。”

“便宜!”一个尖利的声音冲进邦布尔先生的耳朵。“无论出什么价买你都算贵,我为你付出的代价够高的了,上帝心里有数。”

邦布尔先生转过身来,刚好同他那位斤斤计较的娘子打了个照面,她无意中听到邦布尔先生日出怨言,还没有完全明白那几句话的意思,便劈头盖脸给了他如上的一通抢白。

“邦布尔太太,夫人!”邦布尔先生严厉的语气中带着一点伤感。

“怎么啦?”女的嚷道。

“劳您大驾,看着我的眼睛。”邦布尔先生目不转睛地盯住她说。(“她要是连这样一种眼光都顶得住,”邦布尔先生暗自说道,“那她什么顶不住?我用这种眼光对付贫民,从来就没听说过不灵的。如果败给了她,我的权威就完了。”)

对于一班半饥半饱,境况不是最好的贫民来说,是否只要瞪一眼就足以弄得他们服服帖帖,或者说,已故柯尼先生的这位遗孀特别经得起严厉的目光,大家尽可保留各自的见解。事实上,女总管丝毫也没有被邦布尔先生的怒容压倒,恰恰相反,她报以极大的轻蔑,甚至还冲着他发出一阵狂笑,听上去不大像是虚张声势。

听到这完全出乎意料的笑声,邦布尔先生先是不敢相信,随后便惊呆了。接下来他又恢复了刚才的模样,直到他那位搭档的声音又一次唤醒他的注意力,他才回过神来。

“你就成天坐在那儿打呼噜打上一天?”邦布尔太太问道。

“我认为坐多久合适,我就要在这儿坐多久,夫人,”邦布尔先生回答,“虽说我刚才没有打呼噜,可只要我高兴,我可以打呼噜,打呵欠,打喷嚏,可以笑,也可以哭,这是我的特权。”

“你的特权。”邦布尔太太带着说不出的轻蔑,冷笑一声。

“没错,夫人,”邦布尔先生说道,“男人的特权就是发号施令。”

“那女人的特权又是什么,看在老天的分上,你倒是说说?”

“服从,夫人,”邦布尔先生吼声如雷,“你那个倒霉的前夫怎么没把这个道理教给你,要不然,他没准还能活到今天。我真巴不得他还活着,苦命的人啊!”

邦布尔太太一眼看出,决定性的时刻已经到来,无论是哪一方,要想取得控制权,都必须实施一次最后的也是致命的打击。一听见对方提到逝去的亲人,她便咚的一声倒在一把椅子上,泪如泉涌,一边尖声哭喊着邦布尔先生是一头冷酷无情的畜生。

然而,眼泪这种东西根本无法触及邦布尔先生的灵魂,他的心能够防水。如同可以下水的獭皮帽子淋了雨反而更好一样,他的神经经过眼泪的洗礼变得更加结实、有力了,眼泪是软弱的象征,到此刻为止也是对他个人权威的默认,让他高兴,使他兴奋。他心满意足地望着自己的好太太,以一种鼓励的口气请她尽量使劲哭,因为从机能方面来看,这种锻炼对健康十分有利。

“哭能够舒张肺部,冲洗面孔,锻炼眼睛,并且平息火气,”邦布尔先生说道,“哭个够吧。”

邦布尔先生说过这一番逗乐的话,从木钉上取下帽子,相当俏皮地歪戴在头上,就跟一个感觉到自己以适当的手法维护了优势地位的人似的,双手往衣袋里一插,朝门口荡去,整个一副轻松潇洒、油头滑脑的样子。

已故柯尼先生的遗孀之所以先拿眼泪来试探,是因为这样比出手打人要少些麻烦,不过她早就做好了试验一下后一种行动方式的准备,邦布尔先生马上就要领教了。

伴随着一声打在某种外实内空的物件上发出的响声,他体验到事实果真如此的第一个明证传过来了,紧接着他的帽子忽然朝房间另一端飞了过去。精于此道的太太通过这一项准备活动先将他的脑袋亮出来,然后一只手紧紧掐住他的脖子,另一只手照着他脑袋雨点般地打去(伴以非凡的力气与熟练)。这一招用过之后,她又生出了新花样,又是抓他的脸,又是扯他的头发,到这个时候,她认为对于这种冒犯必须给予的惩罚已大致差不多了,便将他朝一把幸亏放得正是地方的椅子上一推,推得他连人带椅子翻了一个跟斗,问他还敢不敢说什么他的特权。

“起来!”邦布尔太太喝令,“你要是不希望我干出什么不要命的事,就从这儿滚出去!”

邦布尔先生哭丧着脸从地上爬起来,心里很是纳闷,不知道不要命的事究竟是什么。他拾起帽子,朝门口看了一眼。

“你走了?”邦布尔太太问道。

“当然,我亲爱的,当然,”邦而尔先生一边回答,一边还算敏捷地朝房门比划了一下。“我不是存心——我走我走,亲爱的。你发那么大的火,真叫我——”

这当儿,邦布尔太太匆匆走上前来,本意是想把在混战中踢得乱糟糟的地毯还原。邦布尔先生顾不得把这句话说完,立刻冲出了房间,听任前柯尼太太占领整个战场。

邦布尔先生结结实实吃了一惊,又结结实实挨了一顿打。他明摆着有一种欺负弱者的嗜好,并从中得到了绝非微不足道的乐趣,结果呢,他成了(这用不着说)一个胆小鬼。这绝对不是诬蔑他的人格。因为有许多享有崇高威望与声誉的官场中人也是这类弱点的牺牲品。的确,这样说没有别的意思,也是为了他好,希望读者能够对他执行公务的能力得出一个正确的概念。

不过,他出丑也还没有到此为止。邦布尔先生在济贫院内转了一圈,这才头一回想到,济贫法待人真是太刻薄了,有人从老婆那里逃出来,把她们丢给教区去管,这样的男人按理非但不应受到惩罚,倒是应当作为受苦受难的杰出人士而予以奖赏。他这么寻思着朝一间屋子走去,这里平时就有几个女贫民专门负责清洗教区分发的衣服,眼下里面传出几个嗓门说话的声音。

“哼!”邦布尔先生一边说,一边振作起固有的威风。“至少这些娘们该继续尊重这种特权。喂!喂喂!嚷嚷什么呢,你们这些贱货?”

邦布尔先生说着推开房门,气势汹汹地走了进去,可是,当他的目光不期而然落在自己那位贤内助身上的时候,这种态度立刻换成了一副非常谦卑、怯懦的嘴脸。

“亲爱的,”邦布尔先生说,“我不知道你在这里。”

“不知道我在这里。”邦布尔太太重复了一句,“你到这儿来干什么?”

“我想她们讲话过多就顾不上好好干活了,亲爱的。”邦布尔先生心烦意乱,瞅了一眼洗衣盆跟前的两个老婆子,她俩看到院长那副低声下气的样子,都感到很佩服,正在那儿评头品足地议论着。

“你认为她们讲话太多了?”邦布尔太太说,“这跟你有什么相干?”

“怎么,亲爱的——”邦布尔先生谦卑地支吾着。

“这跟你有什么相干?”邦布尔太太又一次发出质问。

“不错不错,你是这儿的总管,亲爱的,”邦布尔先生屈服了,“我以为你这会儿没准不在这里。”

“我可告诉你了,邦布尔先生,”太太回道,“我们不需要你来搀和。你实在太喜欢插手与你无关的事情了,害得你一转过背去,全院是个人都会发笑,一天到晚你都像个傻瓜。你给我出去,走!”

邦布尔先生见那两个穷老婆子大为开心,吃吃地笑个不停,真感到痛苦得无法忍受,不禁迟疑了一下。邦布尔太太再也耐不住性子,操起一盆肥皂水,朝他比划着,命令他马上离开,否则就让他那肥肥胖胖的身子骨尝尝肥皂水的滋味。

邦布尔先生又能怎么样呢?他沮丧地左右看了看,便溜掉了。他刚走到门口,那几个女贫民的吃吃窃笑突然化作乐不可支的格格声,真是刺耳。缺的就是这个了。他在她们眼里身价大跌。当着这几个穷光蛋的面,他失去了人格、地位,从身为教区干事的壮丽巅峰掉进了最遭人白眼的妻管严的无底深渊。

“总共才两个月啊。”邦布尔先生心情坏透了,“两个月。不出两个月以前,我不单单替自己当家,还替教区济贫院的每一个人当家,可现在——”

真是太过分了,邦布尔先生照着替他打开大门的那个小孩就是一记耳光(心事重重的他这时已经来到门口),心烦意乱地走到街上。

他走过一条街又一条街,先前的悲愤心情开始得到缓解,接下来这种感情上的变化又使他生出了口渴的感觉。他走过无数家酒店,最后才在背街的一家酒店前停下来。他从帘子上朝里边草草看了一眼,雅座里空荡荡的,只有孤零零的一个顾客。就在这时候,下起大雨来了。没有办法了。他走进酒店,叫了点喝的,经过酒吧台,走进自己在街上看到的那个雅座单间。

坐在里边的那个汉子又高又黑,穿着一件宽大的斗篷,样子不大像本地人,从他那副略显憔悴的脸色和浑身的尘土来看,好像是远道而来。邦布尔走进去的时候,跟那人打了个招呼,那人包斜着眼睛看了他一眼,爱理不理地点了点头。邦布尔先生的傲慢本来就抵得上两个人,就算陌生人比较容易接近,他也未必赏脸,所以他只顾默默地啜着掺水杜松子酒,一边端足了架子看报。

说来也巧,就像人们在那种情形下走到一起常有的事一样,邦布尔先生时时感到自己有一种克制不住的冲动,想偷偷看一眼陌生人。每当他这样做的时候,又都颇为尴尬地把目光缩回来,因为他发现,陌生人在同一时刻也在偷偷地打量自己。陌生人目光犀利,炯炯有神,但却被一脸的戒心和猜疑蒙上了一层阴影,让人看着讨厌;邦布尔先生从来没有看见过这样异乎寻常的表情,不由得更加手足无措。

就这样,彼此的眼光几度交锋之后,陌生人用一种刺耳、低沉的嗓音打破了沉默。

“你从窗口往里边瞧的时候,是在找我吗?”他说道。

“我没有这个意思,莫非先生你是——”邦布尔先生说到这里骤然停住,他很想知道陌生人的名字,满以为对方会填上这个空白。

“我看你也没这个意思,”陌生人的嘴角动了一下,略微露出一点嘲讽的意味。“要不你也不会打听我的名宇。你并不知道我的名字。我可要劝你别去打听。”

“我不想冒犯你,年轻人。”邦布尔先生大度地说道。

“你也没有冒犯。”陌生人说。

这一番简短的对话之后又是一阵沉默,还是陌生人又一次打破了僵局。

“我恐怕从前见过你。”陌生人说,“那时候你穿着不一样,我只是在街上跟你面对面走过,但应该还是想得起来。你当过本地的教区干事,对不对?”

“我是当过,”邦布尔先生多少有些吃惊,“教区干事。”

“就是嘛,”另一位点了点头,接过话题,“我那会儿看见你正担任那个职务。你现在干什么?”

“济贫院院长,”邦布尔先生说得很慢,尽量给人留下深刻的印象,免得对方生出任何不相称的热乎劲。“济贫院院长,年轻人。”

“不知道你的眼光还是不是老样子,只盯着自己的利益?”陌生人接着说道,一边目光灼灼地逼视着邦布尔先生的眼睛,这句话问得对方愕然不解地抬起头来。“伙计,怎么回答都行啊。你看得出来,我相当了解你。”

“我想,一个已婚的男人跟单身汉一样,”邦布尔先生一边回答,一边用手挡住亮光,将陌生人从头到脚打量了一番,明摆着下不来台。“并不反对有机会的时候挣两个干净钱。教区职员薪水不高,所以不会拒绝任何一笔小小的外快,只要来路正当、规矩就行。”

陌生人微微一笑,又点了点头,好像是说他没有看错人,接着拉了一下铃。

“再来一杯,”说着,他把邦布尔先生的空杯子递给掌柜。“来杯又凶又烫的,你喜欢这样吧,我想?”

“别太凶了。”邦布尔先生轻轻咳嗽一声,答道。

“掌柜的,你懂这是什么意思。”陌生人干巴巴地说。

老板含笑退了出去,转眼间又端着满满一杯酒回来了,邦布尔先生刚喝了一口,泪水就涌进了他的眼里。

“现在你听我说,”陌生人关上门窗,说道,“我今天到这个地方来,正是为了找到你。有的时候啊,还真是鬼使神差,正当我满心想着你的功夫,你就走进我坐的这间屋子来了。我想跟你打听点事,我不会让你白说的,尽管不是什么大事。这点小意思你先收起来。”

说着,他小心翼翼地把两个金镑从桌子对面朝同伴推过去,似乎不希望让外人听见钱币的叮当声。邦布尔先生翻来覆去查看了一番,见金币都是真的,才分外满意地放进背心口袋里。陌生人继续说道:

“把你的记忆带回到——让我想想——十二年以前那个冬天。”

“时间不算短,”邦布尔先生说,“很好。我想起来了。”

“地点,济贫院。”

“好”

“时间是夜里。”

“对呀。”

“场面,那个破破烂烂的窝,管它在哪儿呢,一些个不要脸的贱货,她们自己经常都性命难保,健康就别提了——生下一些哭哭啼啼的孩子给教区抚养,把她们的丑事,妈的,带到坟墓里藏起来了。”

“我想,是产妇室吧?”邦布尔先生说道。陌生人讲得慷慨激昂,他有点跟不大上。

“对,”陌生人说,“有个孩子就是在那儿生的。”

“有许多孩子。”邦布尔摇了摇头,有些泄气。

“这帮该死的小鬼。”陌生人嚷了起来,“我说的是其中一个,一个长相可怜巴巴,脸上没有血色的男孩,他在本地一个棺材店老板手下当过一阵学徒——我巴不得老板早就替他造好了棺材,把他装进去,再拧紧螺钉——据说他后来跑到伦敦去了。”

“哦,你指的是奥立弗、小退斯特。”邦布尔先生说道,“我当然记得他。没有一个小坏蛋有那么顽固的——”

“我不想打听他的情况,他的事我听得多了,”邦布尔先生正准备一一历数不幸的奥立弗的罪过,陌生人没让他往下说。“我想打听的是一个女人,照看过他母亲的那个丑八怪。现在她在哪儿?”

“她在哪儿?”邦布尔先生有了掺水杜松子酒垫底,开始变得幽默起来。“那可难说了。反正她去的地方不需要接生婆,我猜想她横竖是再没事情干了。”

“你是什么意思?”陌生人一本正经地问道。

“意思就是她去年冬天就死了。”邦布尔先生回答。

听到这个消息,陌生人目不转睛地望着他,半晌没有把视线移开,但他的眼神却渐渐变得空蒙、迷惘,好像陷入了沉思。好一会儿,他似乎有点拿不准对于听到这个消息究竟应该感到欣慰还是失望,但末了还是松了一口气,目光也收了回去,说那也算不得什么大事。说罢他站起来,像是打算离去。

然而,邦布尔先生毕竟老奸巨猾,他立刻看出,机会就在眼前,他可以从他内当家掌握的某种秘密之中捞到好处。老沙丽去世的那个夜晚他记得再清楚不过了,那一天正是他向柯尼太太求婚的喜庆日子,经历的事情很多,他有充分的理由想起那个日子。尽管太太从来没有向他透出口风说她是唯一的见证,他却听说了不少事,知道同那个在济贫院当护士的老太婆照料奥立弗·退斯特年轻的母亲有关。他很快就想起了当时的情况,便神秘兮兮地告诉陌生人,那个鬼老太婆临死之前曾经与一位女士关起门来谈过,他有理由相信,那位女士能够对他想要打听的事情提供一些线索。

“我怎么才能找到她?”陌生人说话时已经把戒心抛到了脑后,清清楚楚明地表明因为这个消息,他惧怕的所有事情(且不管他究竟怕什么)又都重新跃上心头。

“只有通过我。”邦布尔先生回答。

“什么时候?”陌生人风风火火地嚷道。

“明天。”邦布尔答道。

“晚上九点,”陌生人掏出一张纸片,在上边写了一个紧靠河边的住址,地方很偏僻;从字迹上看得出他非常亢奋。“晚上九点钟,带她到我那儿去。我用不着嘱咐你保守秘密了。这可是有你的好处。”

随着这番话,他先朝门口走去,途中停了一下,把酒账结了。他说了一句两人不同路,又着重提醒了一遍第二天晚上约定的时间,没再多客套,拔脚就走。

济贫院院长看了一眼那个住址,发觉上边没写名字。这时陌生人还没走远,他为了问个明白便赶上去。

“你想干什么?”邦布尔拍了拍陌生人的肩膀,那人骤然转过身来,叫道。“你盯我的梢。”

“只问一句话,”对方指着那张纸片说,“我该去找什么人?”

“孟可司。”那人答了一句,便急急忙忙大步离去了。