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Chapter 3

A NEW ACQUAINTANCE―THE STROLLER’STALE―A DISAGREEABLE INTERRUPTION,AND AN UNPLEASANT ENCOUNTE

Rr. Pickwick had felt some apprehensions inconsequence of the unusual absence of his two friends,which their mysterious behaviour during the wholemorning had by no means tended to diminish. It was, therefore,with more than ordinary pleasure that he rose to greet them whenthey again entered; and with more than ordinary interest that heinquired what had occurred to detain them from his society. Inreply to his questions on this point, Mr. Snodgrass was about tooffer an historical account of the circumstances just now detailed,when he was suddenly checked by observing that there werepresent, not only Mr. Tupman and their stage-coach companion ofthe preceding day, but another stranger of equally singularappearance. It was a careworn-looking man, whose sallow face,and deeply-sunken eyes, were rendered still more striking thanNature had made them, by the straight black hair which hung inmatted disorder half-way down his face. His eyes were almostunnaturally bright and piercing; his cheek-bones were high andprominent; and his jaws were so long and lank, that an observerwould 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 thatit was his ordinary appearance. Round his neck he wore a greenshawl, with the large ends straggling over his chest, and makingtheir appearance occasionally beneath the worn button-holes ofhis old waistcoat. His upper garment was a long black surtout; andbelow it he wore wide drab trousers, and large boots, runningrapidly to seed.

  It was on this uncouth-looking person that Mr. Winkle’s eyerested, and it was towards him that Mr. Pickwick extended hishand when he said, ‘A friend of our friend’s here. We discoveredthis morning that our friend was connected with the theatre in thisplace, though he is not desirous to have it generally known, andthis gentleman is a member of the same profession. He was aboutto favour us with a little anecdote connected with it, when youentered.’

  ‘Lots of anecdote,’ said the green-coated stranger of the daybefore, advancing to Mr. Winkle and speaking in a low andconfidential tone. ‘Rum fellow―does the heavy business―noactor―strange man―all sorts of miseries―Dismal Jemmy, we callhim on the circuit.’ Mr. Winkle and Mr. Snodgrass politelywelcomed the gentleman, elegantly designated as ‘Dismal Jemmy’;and calling for brandy-and-water, in imitation of the remainder ofthe company, seated themselves at the table. ‘Now sir,’ said Mr.

  Pickwick, ‘will you oblige us by proceeding with what you weregoing 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 outwardman―‘Are you the poet?’

  ‘I―I do a little in that way,’ replied Mr. Snodgrass, rather takenaback by the abruptness of the question. ‘Ah! poetry makes lifewhat light and music do the stage―strip the one of the falseembellishments, and the other of its illusions, and what is therereal in either to live or care for?’

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

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

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

  ‘Go on, Jemmy,’ said the Spanish traveller, ‘like black-eyedSusan―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 ofbrandy-and-water, and slowly swallowed half of it, opened the rollof paper and proceeded, partly to read, and partly to relate, thefollowing incident, which we find recorded on the Transactions ofthe 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. Wantand sickness are too common in many stations of life to deservemore notice than is usually bestowed on the most ordinaryvicissitudes of human nature. I have thrown these few notestogether, because the subject of them was well known to me formany years. I traced his progress downwards, step by step, until atlast he reached that excess of destitution from which he never roseagain.

  ‘The man of whom I speak was a low pantomime actor; and,like many people of his class, an habitual drunkard. in his betterdays, before he had become enfeebled by dissipation andemaciated by disease, he had been in the receipt of a good salary,which, if he had been careful and prudent, he might havecontinued to receive for some years―not many; because thesemen either die early, or by unnaturally taxing their bodilyenergies, lose, prematurely, those physical powers on which alonethey can depend for subsistence. His besetting sin gained so fastupon him, however, that it was found impossible to employ him inthe situations in which he really was useful to the theatre. Thepublic-house had a fascination for him which he could not resist.

  Neglected disease and hopeless poverty were as certain to be hisportion as death itself, if he persevered in the same course; yet hedid persevere, and the result may be guessed. He could obtain noengagement, and he wanted bread.

  ‘Everybody who is at all acquainted with theatrical mattersknows what a host of shabby, poverty-stricken men hang aboutthe stage of a large establishment―not regularly engaged actors,but ballet people, procession men, tumblers, and so forth, who aretaken on during the run of a pantomime, or an Easter piece, andare then discharged, until the production of some heavy spectacleoccasions a new demand for their services. To this mode of life theman was compelled to resort; and taking the chair every night, atsome low theatrical house, at once put him in possession of a fewmore shillings weekly, and enabled him to gratify his oldpropensity. Even this resource shortly failed him; his irregularitieswere too great to admit of his earning the wretched pittance hemight thus have procured, and he was actually reduced to a statebordering on starvation, only procuring a trifle occasionally byborrowing it of some old companion, or by obtaining anappearance at one or other of the commonest of the minortheatres; and when he did earn anything it was spent in the oldway.

  ‘About this time, and when he had been existing for upwards ofa year no one knew how, I had a short engagement at one of thetheatres 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 inthe provinces, and he had been skulking in the lanes and alleys ofLondon. I was dressed to leave the house, and was crossing thestage on my way out, when he tapped me on the shoulder. Nevershall I forget the repulsive sight that met my eye when I turnedround. He was dressed for the pantomimes in all the absurdity of aclown’s costume. The spectral figures in the Dance of Death, themost frightful shapes that the ablest painter ever portrayed oncanvas, never presented an appearance half so ghastly. Hisbloated body and shrunken legs―their deformity enhanced ahundredfold by the fantastic dress―the glassy eyes, contrastingfearfully with the thick white paint with which the face wasbesmeared; the grotesquely-ornamented head, trembling withparalysis, and the long skinny hands, rubbed with white chalk―allgave him a hideous and unnatural appearance, of which nodescription could convey an adequate idea, and which, to this day,I shudder to think of. His voice was hollow and tremulous as hetook me aside, and in broken words recounted a long catalogue ofsickness and privations, terminating as usual with an urgentrequest for the loan of a trifling sum of money. I put a few shillingsin his hand, and as I turned away I heard the roar of laughterwhich followed his first tumble on the stage.

  ‘A few nights afterwards, a boy put a dirty scrap of paper in myhand, on which were scrawled a few words in pencil, intimatingthat the man was dangerously ill, and begging me, after theperformance, to see him at his lodgings in some street―I forgetthe name of it now―at no great distance from the theatre. Ipromised to comply, as soon as I could get away; and after thecurtain fell, sallied forth on my melancholy errand.

  ‘It was late, for I had been playing in the last piece; and, as itwas a benefit night, the performances had been protracted to anunusual 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-frequentedstreets, and as many of the thinly-scattered oil-lamps had beenblown out by the violence of the wind, the walk was not only acomfortless, but most uncertain one. I had fortunately taken theright course, however, and succeeded, after a little difficulty, infinding the house to which I had been directed―a coal-shed, withone Storey above it, in the back room of which lay the object of mysearch.

  ‘A wretched-looking woman, the man’s wife, met me on thestairs, 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 sickman was lying with his face turned towards the wall; and as hetook no heed of my presence, I had leisure to observe the place inwhich I found myself.

  ‘He was lying on an old bedstead, which turned up during theday. The tattered remains of a checked curtain were drawn roundthe bed’s head, to exclude the wind, which, however, made its wayinto the comfortless room through the numerous chinks in thedoor, and blew it to and fro every instant. There was a low cinderfire in a rusty, unfixed grate; and an old three-cornered stainedtable, with some medicine bottles, a broken glass, and a few other domestic articles, was drawn out before it. A little child wassleeping on a temporary bed which had been made for it on thefloor, and the woman sat on a chair by its side. There were acouple of shelves, with a few plates and cups and saucers; and apair of stage shoes and a couple of foils hung beneath them. Withthe exception of little heaps of rags and bundles which had beencarelessly thrown into the corners of the room, these were the onlythings in the apartment.

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

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

  ‘“Ah!” said the invalid, passing his hand across his forehead;“Hutley―Hutley―let me see.” He seemed endeavouring to collecthis thoughts for a few seconds, and then grasping me tightly bythe wrist said, “Don’t leave me―don’t leave me, old fellow. She’llmurder 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 youknow me?”

  ‘“Don’t let her come near me,” said the man, with a shudder, asshe stooped over him. “Drive her away; I can’t bear her near me.”

  He stared wildly at her, with a look of deadly apprehension, andthen whispered in my ear, “I beat her, Jem; I beat her yesterday,and many times before. I have starved her and the boy too; andnow I am weak and helpless, Jem, she’ll murder me for it; I knowshe will. If you’d seen her cry, as I have, you’d know it too. Keepher off.” He relaxed his grasp, and sank back exhausted on thepillow.

  ‘I knew but too well what all this meant. If I could haveentertained any doubt of it, for an instant, one glance at thewoman’s pale face and wasted form would have sufficientlyexplained the real state of the case. “You had better stand aside,”

  said I to the poor creature. “You can do him no good. Perhaps hewill be calmer, if he does not see you.” She retired out of the man’ssight. He opened his eyes after a few seconds, and lookedanxiously 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 doeshurt me. There’s something in her eyes wakes such a dreadful fearin my heart, that it drives me mad. All last night, her large, staringeyes and pale face were close to mine; wherever I turned, theyturned; and whenever I started up from my sleep, she was at thebedside looking at me.” He drew me closer to him, as he said in adeep 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 diedlong ago. No woman could have borne what she has.”

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

  ‘I sat there for upwards of two hours, during which time hetossed about, murmuring exclamations of pain or impatience,restlessly throwing his arms here and there, and turningconstantly from side to side. At length he fell into that state ofpartial unconsciousness, in which the mind wanders uneasily fromscene to scene, and from place to place, without the control ofreason, but still without being able to divest itself of anindescribable sense of present suffering. Finding from hisincoherent wanderings that this was the case, and knowing that inall probability the fever would not grow immediately worse, I lefthim, promising his miserable wife that I would repeat my visitnext evening, and, if necessary, sit up with the patient during thenight.

  ‘I kept my promise. The last four-and-twenty hours hadproduced a frightful alteration. The eyes, though deeply sunk andheavy, shone with a lustre frightful to behold. The lips wereparched, and cracked in many places; the hard, dry skin glowedwith a burning heat; and there was an almost unearthly air of wildanxiety in the man’s face, indicating even more strongly theravages of the disease. The fever was at its height.

  ‘I took the seat I had occupied the night before, and there I satfor hours, listening to sounds which must strike deep to the heart of the most callous among human beings―the awful ravings of adying man. From what I had heard of the medical attendant’sopinion, I knew there was no hope for him: I was sitting by hisdeath-bed. I saw the wasted limbs―which a few hours before hadbeen distorted for the amusement of a boisterous gallery, writhingunder the tortures of a burning fever―I heard the clown’s shrilllaugh, blending with the low murmurings of the dying man.

  ‘It is a touching thing to hear the mind reverting to the ordinaryoccupations and pursuits of health, when the body lies before youweak and helpless; but when those occupations are of a characterthe most strongly opposed to anything we associate with grave andsolemn ideas, the impression produced is infinitely more powerful.

  The theatre and the public-house were the chief themes of thewretched man’s wanderings. It was evening, he fancied; he had apart to play that night; it was late, and he must leave homeinstantly. Why did they hold him, and prevent his going?―heshould lose the money―he must go. No! they would not let him.

  He hid his face in his burning hands, and feebly bemoaned hisown weakness, and the cruelty of his persecutors. A short pause,and he shouted out a few doggerel rhymes―the last he had everlearned. He rose in bed, drew up his withered limbs, and rolledabout in uncouth positions; he was acting―he was at the theatre.

  A minute’s silence, and he murmured the burden of some roaringsong. He had reached the old house at last―how hot the roomwas. He had been ill, very ill, but he was well now, and happy. Fillup his glass. Who was that, that dashed it from his lips? It was thesame persecutor that had followed him before. He fell back uponhis pillow and moaned aloud. A short period of oblivion, and hewas wandering through a tedious maze of low-arched rooms―solow, sometimes, that he must creep upon his hands and knees tomake his way along; it was close and dark, and every way heturned, some obstacle impeded his progress. There were insects,too, hideous crawling things, with eyes that stared upon him, andfilled the very air around, glistening horribly amidst the thickdarkness of the place. The walls and ceiling were alive withreptiles―the vault expanded to an enormous size―frightfulfigures flitted to and fro―and the faces of men he knew, renderedhideous by gibing and mouthing, peered out from among them;they were searing him with heated irons, and binding his headwith cords till the blood started; and he struggled madly for life.

  ‘At the close of one of these paroxysms, when I had with greatdifficulty held him down in his bed, he sank into what appeared tobe a slumber. Overpowered with watching and exertion, I hadclosed my eyes for a few minutes, when I felt a violent clutch onmy shoulder. I awoke instantly. He had raised himself up, so as toseat himself in bed―a dreadful change had come over his face, butconsciousness had returned, for he evidently knew me. The child,who had been long since disturbed by his ravings, rose from itslittle bed, and ran towards its father, screaming with fright―themother hastily caught it in her arms, lest he should injure it in theviolence of his insanity; but, terrified by the alteration of hisfeatures, stood transfixed by the bedside. He grasped my shoulderconvulsively, and, striking his breast with the other hand, made adesperate attempt to articulate. It was unavailing; he extended hisarm towards them, and made another violent effort. There was arattling noise in the throat―a glare of the eye―a short stifledgroan―and he fell back―dead!’

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

  Mr. Pickwick had replaced on the table the glass which, duringthe last few sentences of the tale, he had retained in his hand; andhad just made up his mind to speak―indeed, we have theauthority of Mr. Snodgrass’s note-book for stating, that he hadactually 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 ofdelivering some remarks which would have enlightened the world,if not the Thames, when he was thus interrupted; for he gazedsternly on the wait er’s countenance, and then looked round on thecompany generally, as if seeking for information relative to thenew-comers.

  ‘Oh!’ said Mr. Winkle, rising, ‘some friends of mine―show themin. Very pleasant fellows,’ added Mr. Winkle, after the waiter hadretired―‘officers of the 97th, whose acquaintance I made ratheroddly this morning. You will like them very much.’

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

  ‘Lieutenant Tappleton,’ said Mr. Winkle, ‘LieutenantTappleton, Mr. Pickwick―Doctor Payne, Mr. Pickwick―Mr.

  Snodgrass you have seen before, my friend Mr. Tupman, DoctorPayne―Doctor Slammer, Mr. Pickwick―Mr. Tupman, DoctorSlam―’

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

  ‘I have met this gentleman before,’ said the Doctor, withmarked emphasis.

  ‘Indeed!’ said Mr. Winkle.

  ‘And―and that person, too, if I am not mistaken,’ said thedoctor, bestowing a scrutinising glance on the green-coatedstranger. ‘I think I gave that person a very pressing invitation lastnight, which he thought proper to decline.’ Saying which thedoctor scowled magnanimously on the stranger, and whisperedhis friend Lieutenant Tappleton.

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

  ‘I do, indeed,’ replied Doctor Slammer.

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

  ‘Do be quiet, Payne,’ interposed the lieutenant. ‘Will you allowme to ask you, sir,’ he said, addressing Mr. Pickwick, who wasconsiderably mystified by this very unpolite by-play―‘will youallow me to ask you, sir, whether that person belongs to yourparty?’

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

  ‘He is a member of your club, or I am mistaken?’ said thelieutenant 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 DoctorSlammer, with a scarcely perceptible shrug of the shoulder, as ifimplying some doubt of the accuracy of his recollection. The littledoctor looked wrathful, but confounded; and Mr. Payne gazedwith a ferocious aspect on the beaming countenance of theunconscious Pickwick.

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

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

  ‘That person was your companion,’ said the doctor, pointing tothe 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 meyour card, and to receive the treatment of a gentleman; or whetheryou impose upon me the necessity of personally chastising you onthe spot?’

  ‘Stay, sir,’ said Mr. Pickwick, ‘I really cannot allow this matterto go any further without some explanation. Tupman, recount thecircumstances.’

  Mr. Tupman, thus solemnly adjured, stated the case in a fewwords; touched slightly on the borrowing of the coat; expatiatedlargely on its having been done ‘after dinner’; wound up with alittle penitence on his own account; and left the stranger to clearhimself as best he could.

  He was apparently about to proceed to do so, when LieutenantTappleton, who had been eyeing him with great curiosity, saidwith 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 officersof the 52nd get up at the Rochester Theatre to-morrow night. Youcannot proceed in this affair, Slammer―impossible!’

  ‘Quite!’ said the dignified Payne.

  ‘Sorry to have placed you in this disagreeable situation,’ saidLieutenant Tappleton, addressing Mr. Pickwick; ‘allow me tosuggest, that the best way of avoiding a recurrence of such scenesin future will be to be more select in the choice of yourcompanions. Good-evening, sir!’ and the lieutenant bounced out ofthe room. ‘And allow me to say, sir,’ said the irascible Doctor Payne, ‘thatif I had been Tappleton, or if I had been Slammer, I would havepulled your nose, sir, and the nose of every man in this company. Iwould, sir―every man. Payne is my name, sir―Doctor Payne ofthe 43rd. Good-evening, sir.’ Having concluded this speech, anduttered the last three words in a loud key, he stalked majesticallyafter his friend, closely followed by Doctor Slammer, who saidnothing, but contented himself by withering the company with alook. Rising rage and extreme bewilderment had swelled the noblebreast of Mr. Pickwick, almost to the bursting of his waistcoat,during the delivery of the above defiance. He stood transfixed tothe spot, gazing on vacancy. The closing of the door recalled himto himself. He rushed forward with fury in his looks, and fire in hiseye. His hand was upon the lock of the door; in another instant itwould have been on the throat of Doctor Payne of the 43rd, hadnot Mr. Snodgrass seized his revered leader by the coat tail, anddragged him backwards.

  ‘Restrain him,’ cried Mr. Snodgrass; ‘Winkle, Tupman―hemust 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 unitedefforts of the whole company, Mr. Pickwick was forced into anarm-chair. ‘Leave him alone,’ said the green-coated stranger;‘brandy-and-water―jolly old gentleman―lots of pluck―swallowthis―ah!―capital stuff.’ Having previously tested the virtues of abumper, which had been mixed by the dismal man, the strangerapplied the glass to Mr. Pickwick’s mouth; and the remainder ofits contents rapidly disappeared.

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

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

  ‘You are right, sir,’ replied Mr. Pickwick, ‘they are not. I amashamed to have been betrayed into this warmth of feeling. Drawyour chair up to the table, sir.’

  The dismal man readily complied; a circle was again formedround the table, and harmony once more prevailed. Somelingering irritability appeared to find a resting-place in Mr.

  Winkle’s bosom, occasioned possibly by the temporary abstractionof his coat―though it is scarcely reasonable to suppose that soslight a circumstance can have excited even a passing feeling ofanger in a Pickwickian’s breast. With this exception, their good-humour was completely restored; and the evening concluded withthe conviviality with which it had begun.



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