The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, by Charles Dickens

CHAPTER III

A new Acquaintance — The Stroller’s Tale — A disagreeable Interruption, and an unpleasant Encounter

Mr. Pickwick had felt some apprehensions in consequence of the unusual absence of his two friends, which their mysterious behaviour during the whole morning had by no means tended to diminish. It was, therefore, with more than ordinary pleasure that he rose to greet them when they again entered; and with more than ordinary interest that he inquired what had occurred to detain them from his society. In reply to his questions on this point, Mr. Snodgrass was about to offer an historical account of the circumstances just now detailed, when he was suddenly checked by observing that there were present, not only Mr. Tupman and their stage-coach companion of the preceding day, but another stranger of equally singular appearance. It was a careworn-looking man, whose sallow face, and deeply-sunken eyes, were rendered still more striking than Nature had made them, by the straight black hair which hung in matted disorder half-way down his face. His eyes were almost unnaturally bright and piercing; his cheek-bones were high and prominent; and his jaws were so long and lank, that an observer would have supposed that he was drawing the flesh of his face in, for a moment, by some contraction of the muscles, if his half-opened mouth and immovable expression had not announced that it was his ordinary appearance. Round his neck he wore a green shawl, with the large ends straggling over his chest, and making their appearance occasionally beneath the worn button-holes of his old waistcoat. His upper garment was a long black surtout; and below it he wore wide drab trousers, and large boots, running rapidly to seed.

It was on this uncouth-looking person that Mr. Winkle’s eye rested, and it was towards him that Mr. Pickwick extended his hand when he said, ‘A friend of our friend’s here. We discovered this morning that our friend was connected with the theatre in this place, though he is not desirous to have it generally known, and this gentleman is a member of the same profession. He was about to favour us with a little anecdote connected with it, when you entered.’

‘Lots of anecdote,’ said the green-coated stranger of the day before, advancing to Mr. Winkle and speaking in a low and confidential tone. ‘Rum fellow — does the heavy business — no actor — strange man — all sorts of miseries — Dismal Jemmy, we call him on the circuit.’ Mr. Winkle and Mr. Snodgrass politely welcomed the gentleman, elegantly designated as ‘Dismal Jemmy’; and calling for brandy-and-water, in imitation of the remainder of the company, seated themselves at the table. ‘Now sir,’ said Mr. Pickwick, ‘will you oblige us by proceeding with what you were going to relate?’

The dismal individual took a dirty roll of paper from his pocket, and turning to Mr. Snodgrass, who had just taken out his note-book, said in a hollow voice, perfectly in keeping with his outward man —‘Are you the poet?’

‘I— I do a little in that way,’ replied Mr. Snodgrass, rather taken aback by the abruptness of the question. ‘Ah! poetry makes life what light and music do the stage — strip the one of the false embellishments, and the other of its illusions, and what is there real in either to live or care for?’

‘Very true, Sir,’ replied Mr. Snodgrass.

‘To be before the footlights,’ continued the dismal man, ‘is like sitting at a grand court show, and admiring the silken dresses of the gaudy throng; to be behind them is to be the people who make that finery, uncared for and unknown, and left to sink or swim, to starve or live, as fortune wills it.’

‘Certainly,’ said Mr. Snodgrass: for the sunken eye of the dismal man rested on him, and he felt it necessary to say something.

‘Go on, Jemmy,’ said the Spanish traveller, ‘like black-eyed Susan — all in the Downs — no croaking — speak out — look lively.’ ‘Will you make another glass before you begin, Sir?’ said Mr. Pickwick.

The dismal man took the hint, and having mixed a glass of brandy-and-water, and slowly swallowed half of it, opened the roll of paper and proceeded, partly to read, and partly to relate, the following incident, which we find recorded on the Transactions of the Club as ‘The Stroller’s Tale.’

THE STROLLER’S TALE

‘There is nothing of the marvellous in what I am going to relate,’ said the dismal man; ‘there is nothing even uncommon in it. Want and sickness are too common in many stations of life to deserve more notice than is usually bestowed on the most ordinary vicissitudes of human nature. I have thrown these few notes together, because the subject of them was well known to me for many years. I traced his progress downwards, step by step, until at last he reached that excess of destitution from which he never rose again.

‘The man of whom I speak was a low pantomime actor; and, like many people of his class, an habitual drunkard. in his better days, before he had become enfeebled by dissipation and emaciated by disease, he had been in the receipt of a good salary, which, if he had been careful and prudent, he might have continued to receive for some years — not many; because these men either die early, or by unnaturally taxing their bodily energies, lose, prematurely, those physical powers on which alone they can depend for subsistence. His besetting sin gained so fast upon him, however, that it was found impossible to employ him in the situations in which he really was useful to the theatre. The public-house had a fascination for him which he could not resist. Neglected disease and hopeless poverty were as certain to be his portion as death itself, if he persevered in the same course; yet he did persevere, and the result may be guessed. He could obtain no engagement, and he wanted bread. ‘Everybody who is at all acquainted with theatrical matters knows what a host of shabby, poverty-stricken men hang about the stage of a large establishment — not regularly engaged actors, but ballet people, procession men, tumblers, and so forth, who are taken on during the run of a pantomime, or an Easter piece, and are then discharged, until the production of some heavy spectacle occasions a new demand for their services. To this mode of life the man was compelled to resort; and taking the chair every night, at some low theatrical house, at once put him in possession of a few more shillings weekly, and enabled him to gratify his old propensity. Even this resource shortly failed him; his irregularities were too great to admit of his earning the wretched pittance he might thus have procured, and he was actually reduced to a state bordering on starvation, only procuring a trifle occasionally by borrowing it of some old companion, or by obtaining an appearance at one or other of the commonest of the minor theatres; and when he did earn anything it was spent in the old way.

‘About this time, and when he had been existing for upwards of a year no one knew how, I had a short engagement at one of the theatres on the Surrey side of the water, and here I saw this man, whom I had lost sight of for some time; for I had been travelling in the provinces, and he had been skulking in the lanes and alleys of London. I was dressed to leave the house, and was crossing the stage on my way out, when he tapped me on the shoulder. Never shall I forget the repulsive sight that met my eye when I turned round. He was dressed for the pantomimes in all the absurdity of a clown’s costume. The spectral figures in the Dance of Death, the most frightful shapes that the ablest painter ever portrayed on canvas, never presented an appearance half so ghastly. His bloated body and shrunken legs — their deformity enhanced a hundredfold by the fantastic dress — the glassy eyes, contrasting fearfully with the thick white paint with which the face was besmeared; the grotesquely-ornamented head, trembling with paralysis, and the long skinny hands, rubbed with white chalk — all gave him a hideous and unnatural appearance, of which no description could convey an adequate idea, and which, to this day, I shudder to think of. His voice was hollow and tremulous as he took me aside, and in broken words recounted a long catalogue of sickness and privations, terminating as usual with an urgent request for the loan of a trifling sum of money. I put a few shillings in his hand, and as I turned away I heard the roar of laughter which followed his first tumble on the stage. ‘A few nights afterwards, a boy put a dirty scrap of paper in my hand, on which were scrawled a few words in pencil, intimating that the man was dangerously ill, and begging me, after the performance, to see him at his lodgings in some street — I forget the name of it now — at no great distance from the theatre. I promised to comply, as soon as I could get away; and after the curtain fell, sallied forth on my melancholy errand.

‘It was late, for I had been playing in the last piece; and, as it was a benefit night, the performances had been protracted to an unusual length. It was a dark, cold night, with a chill, damp wind, which blew the rain heavily against the windows and house-fronts. Pools of water had collected in the narrow and little-frequented streets, and as many of the thinly-scattered oil-lamps had been blown out by the violence of the wind, the walk was not only a comfortless, but most uncertain one. I had fortunately taken the right course, however, and succeeded, after a little difficulty, in finding the house to which I had been directed — a coal-shed, with one Storey above it, in the back room of which lay the object of my search.

‘A wretched-looking woman, the man’s wife, met me on the stairs, and, telling me that he had just fallen into a kind of doze, led me softly in, and placed a chair for me at the bedside. The sick man was lying with his face turned towards the wall; and as he took no heed of my presence, I had leisure to observe the place in which I found myself.

‘He was lying on an old bedstead, which turned up during the day. The tattered remains of a checked curtain were drawn round the bed’s head, to exclude the wind, which, however, made its way into the comfortless room through the numerous chinks in the door, and blew it to and fro every instant. There was a low cinder fire in a rusty, unfixed grate; and an old three-cornered stained table, with some medicine bottles, a broken glass, and a few other domestic articles, was drawn out before it. A little child was sleeping on a temporary bed which had been made for it on the floor, and the woman sat on a chair by its side. There were a couple of shelves, with a few plates and cups and saucers; and a pair of stage shoes and a couple of foils hung beneath them. With the exception of little heaps of rags and bundles which had been carelessly thrown into the corners of the room, these were the only things in the apartment.

‘I had had time to note these little particulars, and to mark the heavy breathing and feverish startings of the sick man, before he was aware of my presence. In the restless attempts to procure some easy resting-place for his head, he tossed his hand out of the bed, and it fell on mine. He started up, and stared eagerly in my face.

‘“Mr. Hutley, John,” said his wife; “Mr. Hutley, that you sent for to-night, you know.”

‘“Ah!” said the invalid, passing his hand across his forehead; “Hutley — Hutley — let me see.” He seemed endeavouring to collect his thoughts for a few seconds, and then grasping me tightly by the wrist said, “Don’t leave me — don’t leave me, old fellow. She’ll murder me; I know she will.”

‘“Has he been long so?” said I, addressing his weeping wife.

‘“Since yesterday night,” she replied. “John, John, don’t you know me?” ‘“Don’t let her come near me,” said the man, with a shudder, as she stooped over him. “Drive her away; I can’t bear her near me.” He stared wildly at her, with a look of deadly apprehension, and then whispered in my ear, “I beat her, Jem; I beat her yesterday, and many times before. I have starved her and the boy too; and now I am weak and helpless, Jem, she’ll murder me for it; I know she will. If you’d seen her cry, as I have, you’d know it too. Keep her off.” He relaxed his grasp, and sank back exhausted on the pillow. ‘I knew but too well what all this meant. If I could have entertained any doubt of it, for an instant, one glance at the woman’s pale face and wasted form would have sufficiently explained the real state of the case. “You had better stand aside,” said I to the poor creature. “You can do him no good. Perhaps he will be calmer, if he does not see you.” She retired out of the man’s sight. He opened his eyes after a few seconds, and looked anxiously round.

‘“Is she gone?” he eagerly inquired.

‘“Yes — yes,” said I; “she shall not hurt you.”

‘“I’ll tell you what, Jem,” said the man, in a low voice, “she does hurt me. There’s something in her eyes wakes such a dreadful fear in my heart, that it drives me mad. All last night, her large, staring eyes and pale face were close to mine; wherever I turned, they turned; and whenever I started up from my sleep, she was at the bedside looking at me.” He drew me closer to him, as he said in a deep alarmed whisper, “Jem, she must be an evil spirit — a devil! Hush! I know she is. If she had been a woman she would have died long ago. No woman could have borne what she has.”

‘I sickened at the thought of the long course of cruelty and neglect which must have occurred to produce such an impression on such a man. I could say nothing in reply; for who could offer hope, or consolation, to the abject being before me?

‘I sat there for upwards of two hours, during which time he tossed about, murmuring exclamations of pain or impatience, restlessly throwing his arms here and there, and turning constantly from side to side. At length he fell into that state of partial unconsciousness, in which the mind wanders uneasily from scene to scene, and from place to place, without the control of reason, but still without being able to divest itself of an indescribable sense of present suffering. Finding from his incoherent wanderings that this was the case, and knowing that in all probability the fever would not grow immediately worse, I left him, promising his miserable wife that I would repeat my visit next evening, and, if necessary, sit up with the patient during the night.

‘I kept my promise. The last four-and-twenty hours had produced a frightful alteration. The eyes, though deeply sunk and heavy, shone with a lustre frightful to behold. The lips were parched, and cracked in many places; the hard, dry skin glowed with a burning heat; and there was an almost unearthly air of wild anxiety in the man’s face, indicating even more strongly the ravages of the disease. The fever was at its height.

‘I took the seat I had occupied the night before, and there I sat for hours, listening to sounds which must strike deep to the heart of the most callous among human beings — the awful ravings of a dying man. From what I had heard of the medical attendant’s opinion, I knew there was no hope for him: I was sitting by his death-bed. I saw the wasted limbs — which a few hours before had been distorted for the amusement of a boisterous gallery, writhing under the tortures of a burning fever — I heard the clown’s shrill laugh, blending with the low murmurings of the dying man.

‘It is a touching thing to hear the mind reverting to the ordinary occupations and pursuits of health, when the body lies before you weak and helpless; but when those occupations are of a character the most strongly opposed to anything we associate with grave and solemn ideas, the impression produced is infinitely more powerful. The theatre and the public-house were the chief themes of the wretched man’s wanderings. It was evening, he fancied; he had a part to play that night; it was late, and he must leave home instantly. Why did they hold him, and prevent his going? — he should lose the money — he must go. No! they would not let him. He hid his face in his burning hands, and feebly bemoaned his own weakness, and the cruelty of his persecutors. A short pause, and he shouted out a few doggerel rhymes — the last he had ever learned. He rose in bed, drew up his withered limbs, and rolled about in uncouth positions; he was acting — he was at the theatre. A minute’s silence, and he murmured the burden of some roaring song. He had reached the old house at last — how hot the room was. He had been ill, very ill, but he was well now, and happy. Fill up his glass. Who was that, that dashed it from his lips? It was the same persecutor that had followed him before. He fell back upon his pillow and moaned aloud. A short period of oblivion, and he was wandering through a tedious maze of low-arched rooms — so low, sometimes, that he must creep upon his hands and knees to make his way along; it was close and dark, and every way he turned, some obstacle impeded his progress. There were insects, too, hideous crawling things, with eyes that stared upon him, and filled the very air around, glistening horribly amidst the thick darkness of the place. The walls and ceiling were alive with reptiles — the vault expanded to an enormous size — frightful figures flitted to and fro — and the faces of men he knew, rendered hideous by gibing and mouthing, peered out from among them; they were searing him with heated irons, and binding his head with cords till the blood started; and he struggled madly for life.

‘At the close of one of these paroxysms, when I had with great difficulty held him down in his bed, he sank into what appeared to be a slumber. Overpowered with watching and exertion, I had closed my eyes for a few minutes, when I felt a violent clutch on my shoulder. I awoke instantly. He had raised himself up, so as to seat himself in bed — a dreadful change had come over his face, but consciousness had returned, for he evidently knew me. The child, who had been long since disturbed by his ravings, rose from its little bed, and ran towards its father, screaming with fright — the mother hastily caught it in her arms, lest he should injure it in the violence of his insanity; but, terrified by the alteration of his features, stood transfixed by the bedside. He grasped my shoulder convulsively, and, striking his breast with the other hand, made a desperate attempt to articulate. It was unavailing; he extended his arm towards them, and made another violent effort. There was a rattling noise in the throat — a glare of the eye — a short stifled groan — and he fell back — dead!’

It would afford us the highest gratification to be enabled to record Mr. Pickwick’s opinion of the foregoing anecdote. We have little doubt that we should have been enabled to present it to our readers, but for a most unfortunate occurrence.

Mr. Pickwick had replaced on the table the glass which, during the last few sentences of the tale, he had retained in his hand; and had just made up his mind to speak — indeed, we have the authority of Mr. Snodgrass’s note-book for stating, that he had actually opened his mouth — when the waiter entered the room, and said —

‘Some gentlemen, Sir.’

It has been conjectured that Mr. Pickwick was on the point of delivering some remarks which would have enlightened the world, if not the Thames, when he was thus interrupted; for he gazed sternly on the waiter’s countenance, and then looked round on the company generally, as if seeking for information relative to the new-comers.

‘Oh!’ said Mr. Winkle, rising, ‘some friends of mine — show them in. Very pleasant fellows,’ added Mr. Winkle, after the waiter had retired —‘officers of the 97th, whose acquaintance I made rather oddly this morning. You will like them very much.’

Mr. Pickwick’s equanimity was at once restored. The waiter returned, and ushered three gentlemen into the room.

‘Lieutenant Tappleton,’ said Mr. Winkle, ‘Lieutenant Tappleton, Mr. Pickwick — Doctor Payne, Mr. Pickwick — Mr. Snodgrass you have seen before, my friend Mr. Tupman, Doctor Payne — Doctor Slammer, Mr. Pickwick — Mr. Tupman, Doctor Slam —’

Here Mr. Winkle suddenly paused; for strong emotion was visible on the countenance both of Mr. Tupman and the doctor.

‘I have met THIS gentleman before,’ said the Doctor, with marked emphasis.

‘Indeed!’ said Mr. Winkle.

‘And — and that person, too, if I am not mistaken,’ said the doctor, bestowing a scrutinising glance on the green-coated stranger. ‘I think I gave that person a very pressing invitation last night, which he thought proper to decline.’ Saying which the doctor scowled magnanimously on the stranger, and whispered his friend Lieutenant Tappleton.

‘You don’t say so,’ said that gentleman, at the conclusion of the whisper.

‘I do, indeed,’ replied Doctor Slammer.

‘You are bound to kick him on the spot,’ murmured the owner of the camp-stool, with great importance.

‘Do be quiet, Payne,’ interposed the lieutenant. ‘Will you allow me to ask you, sir,’ he said, addressing Mr. Pickwick, who was considerably mystified by this very unpolite by-play —‘will you allow me to ask you, Sir, whether that person belongs to your party?’

‘No, Sir,’ replied Mr. Pickwick, ‘he is a guest of ours.’

‘He is a member of your club, or I am mistaken?’ said the lieutenant inquiringly.

‘Certainly not,’ responded Mr. Pickwick.

‘And never wears your club-button?’ said the lieutenant.

‘No — never!’ replied the astonished Mr. Pickwick.

Lieutenant Tappleton turned round to his friend Doctor Slammer, with a scarcely perceptible shrug of the shoulder, as if implying some doubt of the accuracy of his recollection. The little doctor looked wrathful, but confounded; and Mr. Payne gazed with a ferocious aspect on the beaming countenance of the unconscious Pickwick.

‘Sir,’ said the doctor, suddenly addressing Mr. Tupman, in a tone which made that gentleman start as perceptibly as if a pin had been cunningly inserted in the calf of his leg, ‘you were at the ball here last night!’

Mr. Tupman gasped a faint affirmative, looking very hard at Mr. Pickwick all the while.

‘That person was your companion,’ said the doctor, pointing to the still unmoved stranger.

Mr. Tupman admitted the fact.

‘Now, sir,’ said the doctor to the stranger, ‘I ask you once again, in the presence of these gentlemen, whether you choose to give me your card, and to receive the treatment of a gentleman; or whether you impose upon me the necessity of personally chastising you on the spot?’

‘Stay, sir,’ said Mr. Pickwick, ‘I really cannot allow this matter to go any further without some explanation. Tupman, recount the circumstances.’

Mr. Tupman, thus solemnly adjured, stated the case in a few words; touched slightly on the borrowing of the coat; expatiated largely on its having been done ‘after dinner’; wound up with a little penitence on his own account; and left the stranger to clear himself as best he could.

He was apparently about to proceed to do so, when Lieutenant Tappleton, who had been eyeing him with great curiosity, said with considerable scorn, ‘Haven’t I seen you at the theatre, Sir?’

‘Certainly,’ replied the unabashed stranger.

‘He is a strolling actor!’ said the lieutenant contemptuously, turning to Doctor Slammer. —‘He acts in the piece that the officers of the 52nd get up at the Rochester Theatre to-morrow night. You cannot proceed in this affair, Slammer — impossible!’

‘Quite!’ said the dignified Payne.

‘Sorry to have placed you in this disagreeable situation,’ said Lieutenant Tappleton, addressing Mr. Pickwick; ‘allow me to suggest, that the best way of avoiding a recurrence of such scenes in future will be to be more select in the choice of your companions. Good-evening, Sir!’ and the lieutenant bounced out of the room.

‘And allow me to say, Sir,’ said the irascible Doctor Payne, ‘that if I had been Tappleton, or if I had been Slammer, I would have pulled your nose, Sir, and the nose of every man in this company. I would, sir — every man. Payne is my name, sir — Doctor Payne of the 43rd. Good-evening, Sir.’ Having concluded this speech, and uttered the last three words in a loud key, he stalked majestically after his friend, closely followed by Doctor Slammer, who said nothing, but contented himself by withering the company with a look. Rising rage and extreme bewilderment had swelled the noble breast of Mr. Pickwick, almost to the bursting of his waistcoat, during the delivery of the above defiance. He stood transfixed to the spot, gazing on vacancy. The closing of the door recalled him to himself. He rushed forward with fury in his looks, and fire in his eye. His hand was upon the lock of the door; in another instant it would have been on the throat of Doctor Payne of the 43rd, had not Mr. Snodgrass seized his revered leader by the coat tail, and dragged him backwards.

‘Restrain him,’ cried Mr. Snodgrass; ‘Winkle, Tupman — he must not peril his distinguished life in such a cause as this.’

‘Let me go,’ said Mr. Pickwick.

‘Hold him tight,’ shouted Mr. Snodgrass; and by the united efforts of the whole company, Mr. Pickwick was forced into an arm-chair. ‘Leave him alone,’ said the green-coated stranger; ‘brandy– and-water — jolly old gentleman — lots of pluck — swallow this — ah! — capital stuff.’ Having previously tested the virtues of a bumper, which had been mixed by the dismal man, the stranger applied the glass to Mr. Pickwick’s mouth; and the remainder of its contents rapidly disappeared.

There was a short pause; the brandy-and-water had done its work; the amiable countenance of Mr. Pickwick was fast recovering its customary expression.

‘They are not worth your notice,’ said the dismal man.

‘You are right, sir,’ replied Mr. Pickwick, ‘they are not. I am ashamed to have been betrayed into this warmth of feeling. Draw your chair up to the table, Sir.’

The dismal man readily complied; a circle was again formed round the table, and harmony once more prevailed. Some lingering irritability appeared to find a resting-place in Mr. Winkle’s bosom, occasioned possibly by the temporary abstraction of his coat — though it is scarcely reasonable to suppose that so slight a circumstance can have excited even a passing feeling of anger in a Pickwickian’s breast. With this exception, their good-humour was completely restored; and the evening concluded with the conviviality with which it had begun.

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