This salutation was addressed to Mr. Brownlow, who had stepped up to within a short distance of the respectable couple. He inquired, as he pointed to Monks,
'Do you know that person?'
'No,' replied Mrs. Bumble flatly.
'Perhaps you don't?' said Mr. Brownlow, addressing her spouse.
'I never saw him in all my life,' said Mr. Bumble.
'Nor sold him anything, perhaps?'
'No,' replied Mrs. Bumble.
'You never had, perhaps, a certain gold locket and ring?' said Mr. Brownlow.
'Certainly not,' replied the matron. 'Why are we brought here to answer to such nonsense as this?'
Again Mr. Brownlow nodded to Mr. Grimwig; and again that gentleman limped away with extraordinary readiness. But not again did he return with a stout man and wife; for this time, he led in two palsied women, who shook and tottered as they walked.
'You shut the door the night old Sally died,' said the foremost one, raising her shrivelled hand, 'but you couldn't shut out the sound, nor stop the chinks.'
'No, no,' said the other, looking round her and wagging her toothless jaws. 'No, no, no.'
'We heard her try to tell you what she'd done, and saw you take a paper from her hand, and watched you too, next day, to the pawnbroker's shop,' said the first.
'Yes,' added the second, 'and it was a "locket and gold ring." We found out that, and saw it given you. We were by. Oh! we were by.'
'And we know more than that,' resumed the first, 'for she told us often, long ago, that the young mother had told her that, feeling she should never get over it, she was on her way, at the time that she was taken ill, to die near the grave of the father of the child.'
'Would you like to see the pawnbroker himself?' asked Mr. Grimwig with a motion towards the door.
'No,' replied the woman; 'if he — she pointed to Monks — 'has been coward enough to confess, as I see he has, and you have sounded all these hags till you have found the right ones, I have nothing more to say. I did sell them, and they're where you'll never get them. What then?'
'Nothing,' replied Mr. Brownlow, 'except that it remains for us to take care that neither of you is employed in a situation of trust again. You may leave the room.'
'I hope,' said Mr. Bumble, looking about him with great ruefulness, as Mr. Grimwig disappeared with the two old women: 'I hope that this unfortunate little circumstance will not deprive me of my porochial office?'
'Indeed it will,' replied Mr. Brownlow. 'You may make up your mind to that, and think yourself well off besides.'
'It was all Mrs. Bumble. She would do it,' urged Mr. Bumble; first looking round to ascertain that his partner had left the room.
'That is no excuse,' replied Mr. Brownlow. 'You were present on the occasion of the destruction of these trinkets, and indeed are the more guilty of the two, in the eye of the law; for the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction.'
'If the law supposes that,' said Mr. Bumble, squeezing his hat emphatically in both hands, 'the law is a ass — a idiot. If that's the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is, that his eye may be opened by experience — by experience.'
Laying great stress on the repetition of these two words, Mr. Bumble fixed his hat on very tight, and putting his hands in his pockets, followed his helpmate downstairs.
'Young lady,' said Mr. Brownlow, turning to Rose, 'give me your hand. Do not tremble. You need not fear to hear the few remaining words we have to say.'
'If they have — I do not know how they can, but if they have — any reference to me,' said Rose, 'pray let me hear them at some other time. I have not strength or spirits now.'
'Nay,' returned the old gentlman, drawing her arm through his; 'you have more fortitude than this, I am sure. Do you know this young lady, sir?'
'Yes,' replied Monks.
'I never saw you before,' said Rose faintly.
'I have seen you often,' returned Monks.
'The father of the unhappy Agnes had two daughters,' said Mr. Brownlow. 'What was the fate of the other — the child?'
'The child,' replied Monks, 'when her father died in a strange place, in a strange name, without a letter, book, or scrap of paper that yielded the faintest clue by which his friends or relatives could be traced — the child was taken by some wretched cottagers, who reared it as their own.'
'Go on,' said Mr. Brownlow, signing to Mrs. Maylie to approach. 'Go on!'
'You couldn't find the spot to which these people had repaired,' said Monks, 'but where friendship fails, hatred will often force a way. My mother found it, after a year of cunning search — ay, and found the child.'
'She took it, did she?'
'No. The people were poor and began to sicken — at least the man did — of their fine humanity; so she left it with them, giving them a small present of money which would not last long, and promised more, which she never meant to send. She didn't quite rely, however, on their discontent and poverty for the child's unhappiness, but told the history of the sister's shame, with such alterations as suited her; bade them take good heed of the child, for she came of bad blood; and told them she was illegitimate, and sure to go wrong at one time or other. The circumstances countenanced all this; the people believed it; and there the child dragged on an existence, miserable enough even to satisfy us, until a widow lady, residing, then, at Chester, saw the girl by chance, pitied her, and took her home. There was some cursed spell, I think, against us; for in spite of all our efforts she remained there and was happy. I lost sight of her, two or three years ago, and saw her no more until a few months back.'
'Do you see her now?'
'Yes. Leaning on your arm.'
'But not the less my niece,' cried Mrs. Maylie, folding the fainting girl in her arms; 'not the less my dearest child. I would not lose her now, for all the treasures of the world. My sweet companion, my own dear girl!'
'The only friend I ever had,' cried Rose, clinging to her. 'The kindest, best of friends. My heart will burst. I cannot bear all this.'
'You have borne more, and have been, through all, the best and gentlest creature that ever shed happiness on every one she knew,' said Mrs. Maylie, embracing her tenderly. 'Come, come, my love, remember who this is who waits to clasp you in his arms, poor child! See here — look, look, my dear!'
'Not aunt,' cried Oliver, throwing his arms about her neck; 'I'll never call her aunt — sister, my own dear sister, that something taught my heart to love so dearly from the first! Rose, dear, darling Rose!'