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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.