Chapter 3 A new Acquaintance—The Stroller’s Tale—A disagreeabl_nterruption, and an unpleasant Encounter
Mr. Pickwick had felt some apprehensions in consequence of the unusual absenc_f his two friends, which their mysterious behaviour during the whole mornin_ad by no means tended to diminish. It was, therefore, with more than ordinar_leasure that he rose to greet them when they again entered; and with mor_han ordinary interest that he inquired what had occurred to detain them fro_is society. In reply to his questions on this point, Mr. Snodgrass was abou_o offer an historical account of the circumstances just now detailed, when h_as suddenly checked by observing that there were present, not only Mr. Tupma_nd their stage–coach companion of the preceding day, but another stranger o_qually singular appearance. It was a careworn–looking man, whose sallow face, and deeply–sunken eyes, were rendered still more striking than Nature had mad_hem, by the straight black hair which hung in matted disorder half–way dow_is face. His eyes were almost unnaturally bright and piercing; hi_heek–bones were high and prominent; and his jaws were so long and lank, tha_n 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 an_mmovable expression had not announced that it was his ordinary appearance.
Round his neck he wore a green shawl, with the large ends straggling over hi_hest, and making their appearance occasionally beneath the worn button–hole_f his old waistcoat. His upper garment was a long black surtout; and below i_e 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 wa_owards him that Mr. Pickwick extended his hand when he said, ‘A friend of ou_riend’s here. We discovered this morning that our friend was connected wit_he theatre in this place, though he is not desirous to have it generall_nown, and this gentleman is a member of the same profession. He was about t_avour 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. ‘Ru_ellow—does the heavy business—no actor—strange man—all sorts o_iseries—Dismal Jemmy, we call him on the circuit.’ Mr. Winkle and Mr.
Snodgrass politely welcomed the gentleman, elegantly designated as ‘Disma_emmy’; and calling for brandy–and–water, in imitation of the remainder of th_ompany, seated themselves at the table. ‘Now sir,’ said Mr. Pickwick, ‘wil_ou oblige us by proceeding with what you were going to relate?’
The dismal individual took a dirty roll of paper from his pocket, and turnin_o Mr. Snodgrass, who had just taken out his note–book, said in a hollo_oice, 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 b_he abruptness of the question. ‘Ah! poetry makes life what light and music d_he stage—strip the one of the false embellishments, and the other of it_llusions, 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 _rand court show, and admiring the silken dresses of the gaudy throng; to b_ehind 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 reste_n him, and he felt it necessary to say something.
‘Go on, Jemmy,’ said the Spanish traveller, ‘like black–eyed Susan—all in th_owns—no croaking—speak out—look lively.’ ‘Will you make another glass befor_ou 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 fin_ecorded 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 th_ismal man; ‘there is nothing even uncommon in it. Want and sickness are to_ommon in many stations of life to deserve more notice than is usuall_estowed on the most ordinary vicissitudes of human nature. I have throw_hese few notes together, because the subject of them was well known to me fo_any years. I traced his progress downwards, step by step, until at last h_eached 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 o_is class, an habitual drunkard. in his better days, before he had becom_nfeebled by dissipation and emaciated by disease, he had been in the receip_f a good salary, which, if he had been careful and prudent, he might hav_ontinued to receive for some years—not many; because these men either di_arly, or by unnaturally taxing their bodily energies, lose, prematurely, those physical powers on which alone they can depend for subsistence. Hi_esetting sin gained so fast upon him, however, that it was found impossibl_o 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 a_eath itself, if he persevered in the same course; yet he did persevere, an_he 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 hos_f shabby, poverty–stricken men hang about the stage of a larg_stablishment—not regularly engaged actors, but ballet people, procession men, tumblers, and so forth, who are taken on during the run of a pantomime, or a_aster piece, and are then discharged, until the production of some heav_pectacle occasions a new demand for their services. To this mode of life th_an was compelled to resort; and taking the chair every night, at some lo_heatrical house, at once put him in possession of a few more shilling_eekly, and enabled him to gratify his old propensity. Even this resourc_hortly failed him; his irregularities were too great to admit of his earnin_he wretched pittance he might thus have procured, and he was actually reduce_o a state bordering on starvation, only procuring a trifle occasionally b_orrowing it of some old companion, or by obtaining an appearance at one o_ther of the commonest of the minor theatres; and when he did earn anything i_as spent in the old way.
‘About this time, and when he had been existing for upwards of a year no on_new how, I had a short engagement at one of the theatres on the Surrey sid_f 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 th_anes and alleys of London. I was dressed to leave the house, and was crossin_he stage on my way out, when he tapped me on the shoulder. Never shall _orget the repulsive sight that met my eye when I turned round. He was dresse_or the pantomimes in all the absurdity of a clown’s costume. The spectra_igures in the Dance of Death, the most frightful shapes that the ables_ainter ever portrayed on canvas, never presented an appearance half s_hastly. His bloated body and shrunken legs—their deformity enhanced _undredfold by the fantastic dress—the glassy eyes, contrasting fearfully wit_he thick white paint with which the face was besmeared; th_rotesquely–ornamented head, trembling with paralysis, and the long skinn_ands, rubbed with white chalk—all gave him a hideous and unnatura_ppearance, 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 h_ook me aside, and in broken words recounted a long catalogue of sickness an_rivations, terminating as usual with an urgent request for the loan of _rifling sum of money. I put a few shillings in his hand, and as I turned awa_ heard the roar of laughter which followed his first tumble on the stage. ‘_ew nights afterwards, a boy put a dirty scrap of paper in my hand, on whic_ere scrawled a few words in pencil, intimating that the man was dangerousl_ll, and begging me, after the performance, to see him at his lodgings in som_treet—I forget the name of it now—at no great distance from the theatre. _romised 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 _enefit night, the performances had been protracted to an unusual length. I_as a dark, cold night, with a chill, damp wind, which blew the rain heavil_gainst the windows and house–fronts. Pools of water had collected in th_arrow and little–frequented streets, and as many of the thinly–scattere_il–lamps had been blown out by the violence of the wind, the walk was no_nly a comfortless, but most uncertain one. I had fortunately taken the righ_ourse, however, and succeeded, after a little difficulty, in finding th_ouse to which I had been directed—a coal–shed, with one Storey above it, i_he back room of which lay the object of my search.
‘A wretched–looking woman, the man’s wife, met me on the stairs, and, tellin_e that he had just fallen into a kind of doze, led me softly in, and placed _hair for me at the bedside. The sick man was lying with his face turne_owards the wall; and as he took no heed of my presence, I had leisure t_bserve the place in which I found myself.
‘He was lying on an old bedstead, which turned up during the day. The tattere_emains of a checked curtain were drawn round the bed’s head, to exclude th_ind, which, however, made its way into the comfortless room through th_umerous chinks in the door, and blew it to and fro every instant. There was _ow cinder fire in a rusty, unfixed grate; and an old three–cornered staine_able, with some medicine bottles, a broken glass, and a few other domesti_rticles, was drawn out before it. A little child was sleeping on a temporar_ed which had been made for it on the floor, and the woman sat on a chair b_ts side. There were a couple of shelves, with a few plates and cups an_aucers; 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 bee_arelessly thrown into the corners of the room, these were the only things i_he apartment.
‘I had had time to note these little particulars, and to mark the heav_reathing and feverish startings of the sick man, before he was aware of m_resence. In the restless attempts to procure some easy resting–place for hi_ead, 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 fo_ few seconds, and then grasping me tightly by the wrist said, “Don’t leav_e—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 stoope_ver 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 th_oy too; and now I am weak and helpless, Jem, she’ll murder me for it; I kno_he 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 to_ell what all this meant. If I could have entertained any doubt of it, for a_nstant, one glance at the woman’s pale face and wasted form would hav_ufficiently explained the real state of the case. “You had better stan_side,” said I to the poor creature. “You can do him no good. Perhaps he wil_e calmer, if he does not see you.” She retired out of the man’s sight. H_pened 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 i_rives me mad. All last night, her large, staring eyes and pale face wer_lose to mine; wherever I turned, they turned; and whenever I started up fro_y sleep, she was at the bedside looking at me.” He drew me closer to him, a_e 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. N_oman could have borne what she has.”
‘I sickened at the thought of the long course of cruelty and neglect whic_ust have occurred to produce such an impression on such a man. I could sa_othing in reply; for who could offer hope, or consolation, to the abjec_eing 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 arm_ere and there, and turning constantly from side to side. At length he fel_nto that state of partial unconsciousness, in which the mind wanders uneasil_rom 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 o_resent suffering. Finding from his incoherent wanderings that this was th_ase, and knowing that in all probability the fever would not grow immediatel_orse, I left him, promising his miserable wife that I would repeat my visi_ext 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 frightfu_lteration. The eyes, though deeply sunk and heavy, shone with a lustr_rightful to behold. The lips were parched, and cracked in many places; th_ard, dry skin glowed with a burning heat; and there was an almost unearthl_ir of wild anxiety in the man’s face, indicating even more strongly th_avages 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 callou_mong human beings—the awful ravings of a dying man. From what I had heard o_he medical attendant’s opinion, I knew there was no hope for him: I wa_itting by his death–bed. I saw the wasted limbs—which a few hours before ha_een distorted for the amusement of a boisterous gallery, writhing under th_ortures of a burning fever—I heard the clown’s shrill laugh, blending wit_he low murmurings of the dying man.
‘It is a touching thing to hear the mind reverting to the ordinary occupation_nd pursuits of health, when the body lies before you weak and helpless; bu_hen those occupations are of a character the most strongly opposed t_nything we associate with grave and solemn ideas, the impression produced i_nfinitely more powerful. The theatre and the public–house were the chie_hemes of the wretched man’s wanderings. It was evening, he fancied; he had _art to play that night; it was late, and he must leave home instantly. Wh_id 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 feebl_emoaned 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 ros_n bed, drew up his withered limbs, and rolled about in uncouth positions; h_as acting—he was at the theatre. A minute’s silence, and he murmured th_urden of some roaring song. He had reached the old house at last—how hot th_oom was. He had been ill, very ill, but he was well now, and happy. Fill u_is glass. Who was that, that dashed it from his lips? It was the sam_ersecutor that had followed him before. He fell back upon his pillow an_oaned aloud. A short period of oblivion, and he was wandering through _edious maze of low–arched rooms—so low, sometimes, that he must creep upo_is hands and knees to make his way along; it was close and dark, and ever_ay he turned, some obstacle impeded his progress. There were insects, too, hideous crawling things, with eyes that stared upon him, and filled the ver_ir around, glistening horribly amidst the thick darkness of the place. Th_alls and ceiling were alive with reptiles—the vault expanded to an enormou_ize—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 wer_earing him with heated irons, and binding his head with cords till the bloo_tarted; and he struggled madly for life.
‘At the close of one of these paroxysms, when I had with great difficulty hel_im down in his bed, he sank into what appeared to be a slumber. Overpowere_ith watching and exertion, I had closed my eyes for a few minutes, when _elt a violent clutch on my shoulder. I awoke instantly. He had raised himsel_p, so as to seat himself in bed—a dreadful change had come over his face, bu_onsciousness had returned, for he evidently knew me. The child, who had bee_ong since disturbed by his ravings, rose from its little bed, and ran toward_ts 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 b_he alteration of his features, stood transfixed by the bedside. He grasped m_houlder convulsively, and, striking his breast with the other hand, made _esperate attempt to articulate. It was unavailing; he extended his ar_owards them, and made another violent effort. There was a rattling noise i_he 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 w_hould have been enabled to present it to our readers, but for a mos_nfortunate occurrence.
Mr. Pickwick had replaced on the table the glass which, during the last fe_entences of the tale, he had retained in his hand; and had just made up hi_ind to speak—indeed, we have the authority of Mr. Snodgrass’s note–book fo_tating, that he had actually opened his mouth—when the waiter entered th_oom, and said—
‘Some gentlemen, Sir.’
It has been conjectured that Mr. Pickwick was on the point of delivering som_emarks which would have enlightened the world, if not the Thames, when he wa_hus interrupted; for he gazed sternly on the waiter’s countenance, and the_ooked round on the company generally, as if seeking for information relativ_o the new–comers.
‘Oh!’ said Mr. Winkle, rising, ‘some friends of mine—show them in. Ver_leasant fellows,’ added Mr. Winkle, after the waiter had retired—‘officers o_he 97th, whose acquaintance I made rather oddly this morning. You will lik_hem very much.’
Mr. Pickwick’s equanimity was at once restored. The waiter returned, an_shered three gentlemen into the room.
‘Lieutenant Tappleton,’ said Mr. Winkle, ‘Lieutenant Tappleton, Mr.
Pickwick—Doctor Payne, Mr. Pickwick—Mr. Snodgrass you have seen before, m_riend Mr. Tupman, Doctor Payne—Doctor Slammer, Mr. Pickwick—Mr. Tupman, Doctor Slam—’
Here Mr. Winkle suddenly paused; for strong emotion was visible on th_ountenance 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 _crutinising glance on the green–coated stranger. ‘I think I gave that perso_ very pressing invitation last night, which he thought proper to decline.’ Saying which the doctor scowled magnanimously on the stranger, and whispere_is 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 as_ou, sir,’ he said, addressing Mr. Pickwick, who was considerably mystified b_his very unpolite by–play—‘will you allow me to ask you, Sir, whether tha_erson 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 lieutenan_nquiringly.
‘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 _carcely perceptible shrug of the shoulder, as if implying some doubt of th_ccuracy of his recollection. The little doctor looked wrathful, bu_onfounded; and Mr. Payne gazed with a ferocious aspect on the beamin_ountenance of the unconscious Pickwick.
‘Sir,’ said the doctor, suddenly addressing Mr. Tupman, in a tone which mad_hat gentleman start as perceptibly as if a pin had been cunningly inserted i_he calf of his leg, ‘you were at the ball here last night!’
Mr. Tupman gasped a faint affirmative, looking very hard at Mr. Pickwick al_he while.
‘That person was your companion,’ said the doctor, pointing to the stil_nmoved stranger.
Mr. Tupman admitted the fact.
‘Now, sir,’ said the doctor to the stranger, ‘I ask you once again, in th_resence of these gentlemen, whether you choose to give me your card, and t_eceive the treatment of a gentleman; or whether you impose upon me th_ecessity of personally chastising you on the spot?’
‘Stay, sir,’ said Mr. Pickwick, ‘I really cannot allow this matter to go an_urther without some explanation. Tupman, recount the circumstances.’
Mr. Tupman, thus solemnly adjured, stated the case in a few words; touche_lightly on the borrowing of the coat; expatiated largely on its having bee_one ‘after dinner’; wound up with a little penitence on his own account; an_eft the stranger to clear himself as best he could.
He was apparently about to proceed to do so, when Lieutenant Tappleton, wh_ad 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 t_octor Slammer.—‘He acts in the piece that the officers of the 52nd get up a_he 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 Lieutenan_appleton, addressing Mr. Pickwick; ‘allow me to suggest, that the best way o_voiding a recurrence of such scenes in future will be to be more select i_he choice of your companions. Good–evening, Sir!’ and the lieutenant bounce_ut of the room.
‘And allow me to say, Sir,’ said the irascible Doctor Payne, ‘that if I ha_een 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 m_ame, sir—Doctor Payne of the 43rd. Good–evening, Sir.’ Having concluded thi_peech, and uttered the last three words in a loud key, he stalke_ajestically after his friend, closely followed by Doctor Slammer, who sai_othing, but contented himself by withering the company with a look. Risin_age and extreme bewilderment had swelled the noble breast of Mr. Pickwick, almost to the bursting of his waistcoat, during the delivery of the abov_efiance. He stood transfixed to the spot, gazing on vacancy. The closing o_he 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 anothe_nstant it would have been on the throat of Doctor Payne of the 43rd, had no_r. Snodgrass seized his revered leader by the coat tail, and dragged hi_ackwards.
‘Restrain him,’ cried Mr. Snodgrass; ‘Winkle, Tupman—he must not peril hi_istinguished 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 th_hole company, Mr. Pickwick was forced into an arm–chair. ‘Leave him alone,’ said the green–coated stranger; ‘brandy–and–water—jolly old gentleman—lots o_luck—swallow this—ah!—capital stuff.’ Having previously tested the virtues o_ bumper, which had been mixed by the dismal man, the stranger applied th_lass to Mr. Pickwick’s mouth; and the remainder of its contents rapidl_isappeared.
There was a short pause; the brandy–and–water had done its work; the amiabl_ountenance 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 t_ave been betrayed into this warmth of feeling. Draw your chair up to th_able, Sir.’
The dismal man readily complied; a circle was again formed round the table, and harmony once more prevailed. Some lingering irritability appeared to fin_ resting–place in Mr. Winkle’s bosom, occasioned possibly by the temporar_bstraction of his coat—though it is scarcely reasonable to suppose that s_light a circumstance can have excited even a passing feeling of anger in _ickwickian’s breast. With this exception, their good–humour was completel_estored; and the evening concluded with the conviviality with which it ha_egun.