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Charles Dickens >> The Pickwick Papers (page 45)


'That ain't bad, if it's true,' said the man in the Mosaic studs,lighting a fresh cigar.

'IF!' exclaimed the old man, with a look of excessive contempt.'I suppose,' he added, turning to Lowten, 'he'll say next, that mystory about the queer client we had, when I was in an attorney'soffice, is not true either--I shouldn't wonder.'

'I shan't venture to say anything at all about it, seeing that Inever heard the story,' observed the owner of the Mosaic decorations.

'I wish you would repeat it, Sir,' said Mr. Pickwick.

'Ah, do,' said Lowten, 'nobody has heard it but me, and I havenearly forgotten it.'

The old man looked round the table, and leered more horriblythan ever, as if in triumph, at the attention which was depicted inevery face. Then rubbing his chin with his hand, and looking upto the ceiling as if to recall the circumstances to his memory, hebegan as follows:--

THE OLD MAN'S TALE ABOUT THE QUEER CLIENT

'It matters little,' said the old man, 'where, or how, I picked upthis brief history. If I were to relate it in the order in which itreached me, I should commence in the middle, and when I hadarrived at the conclusion, go back for a beginning. It is enoughfor me to say that some of its circumstances passed before myown eyes; for the remainder I know them to have happened, andthere are some persons yet living, who will remember them buttoo well.

'In the Borough High Street, near St. George's Church, and onthe same side of the way, stands, as most people know, thesmallest of our debtors' prisons, the Marshalsea. Although inlater times it has been a very different place from the sink of filthand dirt it once was, even its improved condition holds out butlittle temptation to the extravagant, or consolation to theimprovident. The condemned felon has as good a yard for air andexercise in Newgate, as the insolvent debtor in the MarshalseaPrison. [Better. But this is past, in a better age, and the prisonexists no longer.]

'It may be my fancy, or it may be that I cannot separate theplace from the old recollections associated with it, but this part ofLondon I cannot bear. The street is broad, the shops are spacious,the noise of passing vehicles, the footsteps of a perpetual streamof people--all the busy sounds of traffic, resound in it from mornto midnight; but the streets around are mean and close; povertyand debauchery lie festering in the crowded alleys; want andmisfortune are pent up in the narrow prison; an air of gloom anddreariness seems, in my eyes at least, to hang about the scene,and to impart to it a squalid and sickly hue.

'Many eyes, that have long since been closed in the grave, havelooked round upon that scene lightly enough, when entering thegate of the old Marshalsea Prison for the first time; for despairseldom comes with the first severe shock of misfortune. A manhas confidence in untried friends, he remembers the many offersof service so freely made by his boon companions when he wantedthem not; he has hope--the hope of happy inexperience--andhowever he may bend beneath the first shock, it springs up in hisbosom, and flourishes there for a brief space, until it droopsbeneath the blight of disappointment and neglect. How soonhave those same eyes, deeply sunken in the head, glared fromfaces wasted with famine, and sallow from confinement, in dayswhen it was no figure of speech to say that debtors rottedin prison, with no hope of release, and no prospect of liberty!The atrocity in its full extent no longer exists, but there is enoughof it left to give rise to occurrences that make the heart bleed.

'Twenty years ago, that pavement was worn with the footstepsof a mother and child, who, day by day, so surely as the morningcame, presented themselves at the prison gate; often after a nightof restless misery and anxious thoughts, were they there, a fullhour too soon, and then the young mother turning meekly away,would lead the child to the old bridge, and raising him in herarms to show him the glistening water, tinted with the light of themorning's sun, and stirring with all the bustling preparations forbusiness and pleasure that the river presented at that early hour,endeavour to interest his thoughts in the objects before him. Butshe would quickly set him down, and hiding her face in her shawl,give vent to the tears that blinded her; for no expression ofinterest or amusement lighted up his thin and sickly face. Hisrecollections were few enough, but they were all of one kind--allconnected with the poverty and misery of his parents. Hour afterhour had he sat on his mother's knee, and with childish sympathywatched the tears that stole down her face, and then crept quietlyaway into some dark corner, and sobbed himself to sleep. Thehard realities of the world, with many of its worst privations--hunger and thirst, and cold and want--had all come home tohim, from the first dawnings of reason; and though the form ofchildhood was there, its light heart, its merry laugh, and sparklingeyes were wanting.'The father and mother looked on upon this, and upon eachother, with thoughts of agony they dared not breathe in words.The healthy, strong-made man, who could have borne almost anyfatigue of active exertion, was wasting beneath the close confinementand unhealthy atmosphere of a crowded prison. The slight and delicatewoman was sinking beneath the combined effects of bodily and mentalillness. The child's young heart was breaking.

'Winter came, and with it weeks of cold and heavy rain. Thepoor girl had removed to a wretched apartment close to the spotof her husband's imprisonment; and though the change had beenrendered necessary by their increasing poverty, she was happiernow, for she was nearer him. For two months, she and her littlecompanion watched the opening of the gate as usual. One dayshe failed to come, for the first time. Another morning arrived,and she came alone. The child was dead.

'They little know, who coldly talk of the poor man's bereavements,as a happy release from pain to the departed, and amerciful relief from expense to the survivor--they little know, Isay, what the agony of those bereavements is. A silent look ofaffection and regard when all other eyes are turned coldly away--the consciousness that we possess the sympathy and affectionof one being when all others have deserted us--is a hold, a stay,a comfort, in the deepest affliction, which no wealth couldpurchase, or power bestow. The child had sat at his parents' feetfor hours together, with his little hands patiently folded in eachother, and his thin wan face raised towards them. They had seenhim pine away, from day to day; and though his brief existencehad been a joyless one, and he was now removed to that peaceand rest which, child as he was, he had never known in thisworld, they were his parents, and his loss sank deep into their souls.

'It was plain to those who looked upon the mother's alteredface, that death must soon close the scene of her adversity andtrial. Her husband's fellow-prisoners shrank from obtruding onhis grief and misery, and left to himself alone, the small room hehad previously occupied in common with two companions. Sheshared it with him; and lingering on without pain, but withouthope, her life ebbed slowly away.

'She had fainted one evening in her husband's arms, and hehad borne her to the open window, to revive her with the air,when the light of the moon falling full upon her face, showed hima change upon her features, which made him stagger beneathher weight, like a helpless infant.

'"Set me down, George," she said faintly. He did so, andseating himself beside her, covered his face with his hands, andburst into tears.

'"It is very hard to leave you, George," she said; "but it isGod's will, and you must bear it for my sake. Oh! how I thankHim for having taken our boy! He is happy, and in heaven now.What would he have done here, without his mother!"

'"You shall not die, Mary, you shall not die;" said thehusband, starting up. He paced hurriedly to and fro, striking hishead with his clenched fists; then reseating himself beside her,and supporting her in his arms, added more calmly, "Rouseyourself, my dear girl. Pray, pray do. You will revive yet."

'"Never again, George; never again," said the dying woman."Let them lay me by my poor boy now, but promise me, that ifever you leave this dreadful place, and should grow rich, you willhave us removed to some quiet country churchyard, a long, longway off--very far from here--where we can rest in peace. DearGeorge, promise me you will."

'"I do, I do," said the man, throwing himself passionately onhis knees before her. "Speak to me, Mary, another word; onelook--but one!"

'He ceased to speak: for the arm that clasped his neck grewstiff and heavy. A deep sigh escaped from the wasted form beforehim; the lips moved, and a smile played upon the face; but thelips were pallid, and the smile faded into a rigid and ghastlystare. He was alone in the world.

'That night, in the silence and desolation of his miserableroom, the wretched man knelt down by the dead body of hiswife, and called on God to witness a terrible oath, that from thathour, he devoted himself to revenge her death and that of hischild; that thenceforth to the last moment of his life, his wholeenergies should be directed to this one object; that his revengeshould be protracted and terrible; that his hatred should beundying and inextinguishable; and should hunt its object throughthe world.

'The deepest despair, and passion scarcely human, had madesuch fierce ravages on his face and form, in that one night, thathis companions in misfortune shrank affrighted from him as hepassed by. His eyes were bloodshot and heavy, his face a deadlywhite, and his body bent as if with age. He had bitten his underlip nearly through in the violence of his mental suffering, and theblood which had flowed from the wound had trickled down hischin, and stained his shirt and neckerchief. No tear, or sound ofcomplaint escaped him; but the unsettled look, and disorderedhaste with which he paced up and down the yard, denoted thefever which was burning within.

'It was necessary that his wife's body should be removed fromthe prison, without delay. He received the communication withperfect calmness, and acquiesced in its propriety. Nearly all theinmates of the prison had assembled to witness its removal; theyfell back on either side when the widower appeared; he walkedhurriedly forward, and stationed himself, alone, in a little railedarea close to the lodge gate, from whence the crowd, with aninstinctive feeling of delicacy, had retired. The rude coffin wasborne slowly forward on men's shoulders. A dead silence pervadedthe throng, broken only by the audible lamentations of thewomen, and the shuffling steps of the bearers on the stone pavement.They reached the spot where the bereaved husband stood:and stopped. He laid his hand upon the coffin, and mechanicallyadjusting the pall with which it was covered, motioned themonward. The turnkeys in the prison lobby took off their hats as itpassed through, and in another moment the heavy gate closedbehind it. He looked vacantly upon the crowd, and fell heavily tothe ground.

'Although for many weeks after this, he was watched, nightand day, in the wildest ravings of fever, neither the consciousnessof his loss, nor the recollection of the vow he had made, ever lefthim for a moment. Scenes changed before his eyes, place succeededplace, and event followed event, in all the hurry ofdelirium; but they were all connected in some way with the greatobject of his mind. He was sailing over a boundless expanse ofsea, with a blood-red sky above, and the angry waters, lashedinto fury beneath, boiling and eddying up, on every side. Therewas another vessel before them, toiling and labouring in thehowling storm; her canvas fluttering in ribbons from the mast,and her deck thronged with figures who were lashed to the sides,over which huge waves every instant burst, sweeping away somedevoted creatures into the foaming sea. Onward they bore,amidst the roaring mass of water, with a speed and force whichnothing could resist; and striking the stem of the foremostvessel, crushed her beneath their keel. From the huge whirlpoolwhich the sinking wreck occasioned, arose a shriek so loud andshrill--the death-cry of a hundred drowning creatures, blendedinto one fierce yell--that it rung far above the war-cry of theelements, and echoed, and re-echoed till it seemed to pierce air,sky, and ocean. But what was that--that old gray head that roseabove the water's surface, and with looks of agony, and screamsfor aid, buffeted with the waves! One look, and he had sprungfrom the vessel's side, and with vigorous strokes was swimmingtowards it. He reached it; he was close upon it. They were HISfeatures. The old man saw him coming, and vainly strove toelude his grasp. But he clasped him tight, and dragged him beneaththe water. Down, down with him, fifty fathoms down; hisstruggles grew fainter and fainter, until they wholly ceased. Hewas dead; he had killed him, and had kept his oath.

'He was traversing the scorching sands of a mighty desert,barefoot and alone. The sand choked and blinded him; its finethin grains entered the very pores of his skin, and irritated himalmost to madness. Gigantic masses of the same material, carriedforward by the wind, and shone through by the burning sun,stalked in the distance like pillars of living fire. The bones ofmen, who had perished in the dreary waste, lay scattered at hisfeet; a fearful light fell on everything around; so far as the eye couldreach, nothing but objects of dread and horror presented themselves.Vainly striving to utter a cry of terror, with his tonguecleaving to his mouth, he rushed madly forward. Armed withsupernatural strength, he waded through the sand, until,exhausted with fatigue and thirst, he fell senseless on the earth.What fragrant coolness revived him; what gushing sound wasthat? Water! It was indeed a well; and the clear fresh stream wasrunning at his feet. He drank deeply of it, and throwing hisaching limbs upon the bank, sank into a delicious trance. Thesound of approaching footsteps roused him. An old gray-headedman tottered forward to slake his burning thirst. It was HE again!Fe wound his arms round the old man's body, and held him back.He struggled, and shrieked for water--for but one drop of waterto save his life! But he held the old man firmly, and watched hisagonies with greedy eyes; and when his lifeless head fell forwardon his bosom, he rolled the corpse from him with his feet.

Title: The Pickwick Papers
Author: Charles Dickens
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