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.'
'And the time, night.'
'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.