In great families, when an advantageous place cannot be obtained, either in possession, reversion, remainder, or expectancy, for the young man who is growing up, it is a very general custom to send him to sea. The board, in imitation of so wise and salutary an example, took counsel together on the expediency of shipping off Oliver Twist, in some small trading vessel bound to a good unhealthy port. This suggested itself as the very best thing that could possibly be done with him: the probability being, that the skipper would flog him to death, in a playful mood, some day after dinner, or would knock his brains out with an iron bar; both pastimes being, as is pretty generally known, very favourite and common recreations among gentleman of that class. The more the case presented itself to the board, in this point of view, the more manifold the advantages of the step appeared; so, they came to the conclusion that the only way of providing for Oliver effectually, was to send him to sea without delay.
Mr. Bumble had been despatched to make various preliminary inquiries, with the view of finding out some captain or other who wanted a cabin-boy without any friends; and was returning to the workhouse to communicate the result of his mission; when he encountered at the gate, no less a person than Mr. Sowerberry, the parochial undertaker.
Mr. Sowerberry was a tall gaunt, large-jointed man, attired in a suit of threadbare black, with darned cotton stockings of the same colour, and shoes to answer. His features were not naturally intended to wear a smiling aspect, but he was in general rather given to professional jocosity. His step was elastic, and his face betokened inward pleasantry, as he advanced to Mr. Bumble, and shook him cordially by the hand.
“I have taken the measure of the two women that died last night, Mr. Bumble,” said the undertaker.
“You’ll make your fortune, Mr. Sowerberry,” said the beadle, as he thrust his thumb and forefinger into the proferred snuff-box of the undertaker: which was an ingenious little model of a patent coffin. “I say you’ll make your fortune, Mr. Sowerberry,” repeated Mr. Bumble, tapping the undertaker on the shoulder, in a friendly manner, with his cane.
“Think so?” said the undertaker in a tone which half admitted and half disputed the probability of the event. “The prices allowed by the board are very small, Mr. Bumble.”
“So are the coffins,” replied the beadle: with precisely as near an approach to a laugh as a great official ought to indulge in.
Mr. Sowerberry was much tickled at this: as of course he ought to be; and laughed a long time without cessation. “Well, well, Mr. Bumble,” he said at length, ‘there’s no denying that, since the new system of feeding has come in, the coffins are something narrower and more shallow than they used to be; but we must have some profit, Mr. Bumble. Well-seasoned timber is an expensive article, sir; and all the iron handles come, by canal, from Birmingham.”
“Well, well,” said Mr. Bumble, “every trade has its drawbacks. A fair profit is, of course, allowable.”
“Of course, of course,” replied the undertaker; “and if I don’t get a profit upon this or that particular article, why, I make it up in the long-run, you see—he! he! he!”
’”Just so,” said Mr. Bumble.
“Though I must say,” continued the undertaker, resuming the current of observations which the beadle had interrupted: “though I must say, Mr. Bumble, that I have to contend against one very great disadvantage: which is, that all the stout people go off the quickest. The people who have been better off, and have paid rates for many years, are the first to sink when they come into the house; and let me tell you, Mr. Bumble, that three or four inches over one’s calculation makes a great hole in one’s profits: especially when one has a family to provide for, sir.”
As Mr. Sowerberry said this, with the becoming indignation of an ill-used man; and as Mr. Bumble felt that it rather tended to convey a reflection on the honour of the parish; the latter gentleman thought it advisable to change the subject. Oliver Twist being uppermost in his mind, he made him his theme.
“By the bye,” said Mr. Bumble, “you don’t know anybody who wants a boy, do you—a porochial ‘prentis, who is at present a deadweight—a millstone, as I may say, round the porochial throat? Liberal terms, Mr. Sowerberry, liberal terms;”—and, as Mr. Bumble spoke, he raised his cane to the bill above him, and gave three distinct raps upon the words “five pounds” which were printed thereon in Roman capitals of gigantic size.
“Gadso!” said the undertaker taking Mr. Bumble by the gilt-edged lappel of his official coat; “that’s just the very thing I wanted to speak to you about. You know—dear me, what a very elegant button this is, Mr. Bumble! I never noticed it before.”
“Yes, I think it rather pretty,” said the beadle, glancing proudly downwards at the large brass buttons which embellished his coat. “The die is the same as the porochial seal—the Good Samaritan healing the sick and bruised man. The board presented it to me on Newyear’s morning, Mr. Sowerberry. I put it on, I remember, for the first time, to attend the inquest on that reduced tradesman, who died in a doorway at midnight.”
“I recollect,” said the undertaker. “The jury brought it in, ‘Died from exposure to the cold, and want of the common necessaries of life,’ didn’t they?”
Mr. Bumble nodded.
“And they made it a special verdict, I think,” said the undertaker, “by adding some words to the effect, that if the relieving officer had”.
“Tush! Foolery!” interposed the beadle. “If the board attended to all the nonsense that ignorant jurymen talk, they’d have enough to do.”
“Very true,” said the undertaker; “they would indeed.”
“Juries,” said Mr. Bumble, grasping his cane tightly, as was his wont when working into a passion: “juries is ineddicated, vulgar, grovelling wretches.”
“So they are,” said the undertaker.
“They haven’t no more philosophy nor political economy about ‘em than that,” said the beadle, snapping his fingers contemptuously.
“No more they have,” acquiesced the undertaker.
“I despise em,” said the beadle, growing very red in the face.
“So do I,” rejoined the undertaker.
“And I only wish we’d a jury of the independent sort, in the house for a week or two,” said the beadle; “the rules and regulations of the board would soon bring their spirit down for them.”
“Let them alone for that,” replied the undertaker. So saying, he smiled, approvingly: to calm the rising wrath of the indignant parish officer.
Mr Bumble lifted off his cocked hat; took a handkerchief from the inside of the crown; wiped from his forehead the perspiration which his rage had engendered; fixed the cocked hat on again; and, turning to the undertaker, said in a calmer voice,
“Well; what about the boy?”
“Oh!” replied the undertaker; “why, you know, Mr. Bumble, I pay a good deal towards the poor’s rates.”
“Hem!” said Mr. Bumble. “Well?”
“Well,” replied the undertaker, “I was thinking that if I pay so much towards them, I’ve a right to get as much out of them as I can, Mr. Bumble; and so—and so—I think I’ll take the boy myself.”
Mr. Bumble grasped the undertaker by the arm, and led him into the building. Mr. Sowerberry was closeted with the board for five minutes; and it was arranged that Oliver should go to him that evening “upon liking”—a phrase which means, in the case of a parish apprentice, that if the master find, upon a short trial, that he can get enough work out of a boy without putting too much food into him, he shall have him for a term of years, to do what he likes with.
When little Oliver was taken before ‘the gentlemen’ that evening; and informed that he was to go, that night, as general house-lad to a coffin-maker’s; and that if he complained of his situation, or ever came back to the