Charles Dickens >> The Pickwick Papers (page 7)

'About this time, and when he had been existing for upwardsof a year no one knew how, I had a short engagement at one ofthe theatres on the Surrey side of the water, and here I saw thisman, whom I had lost sight of for some time; for I had beentravelling in the provinces, and he had been skulking in the lanesand alleys of London. I was dressed to leave the house, and wascrossing the stage on my way out, when he tapped me on theshoulder. Never shall I forget the repulsive sight that met my eyewhen I turned round. He was dressed for the pantomimes in allthe absurdity of a clown's costume. The spectral figures in theDance of Death, the most frightful shapes that the ablest painterever portrayed on canvas, never presented an appearance half soghastly. His bloated body and shrunken legs--their deformityenhanced a hundredfold by the fantastic dress--the glassy eyes,contrasting fearfully with the thick white paint with which theface was besmeared; the grotesquely-ornamented head, tremblingwith paralysis, and the long skinny hands, rubbed with whitechalk--all gave him a hideous and unnatural appearance, ofwhich no description could convey an adequate idea, and which,to this day, I shudder to think of. His voice was hollow andtremulous as he took me aside, and in broken words recounted along catalogue of sickness and privations, terminating as usualwith an urgent request for the loan of a trifling sum of money. Iput a few shillings in his hand, and as I turned away I heard theroar of laughter which followed his first tumble on the stage.'A few nights afterwards, a boy put a dirty scrap of paper inmy hand, on which were scrawled a few words in pencil,intimating that the man was dangerously ill, and begging me, afterthe performance, to see him at his lodgings in some street--Iforget the name of it now--at no great distance from the theatre.I promised to comply, as soon as I could get away; and after 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-frequented streets, and as many of the thinly-scattered oil-lampshad been blown out by the violence of the wind, the walk was notonly a comfortless, but most uncertain one. I had fortunatelytaken the right course, however, and succeeded, after a littledifficulty, in finding the house to which I had been directed--acoal-shed, with one Storey above it, in the back room of whichlay the object of my search.

'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 itsway into the comfortless room through the numerous chinks inthe door, and blew it to and fro every instant. There was a lowcinder fire in a rusty, unfixed grate; and an old three-corneredstained table, with some medicine bottles, a broken glass, and afew other domestic articles, was drawn out before it. A little childwas sleeping on a temporary bed which had been made for it onthe floor, and the woman sat on a chair by its side. There werea couple of shelves, with a few plates and cups and saucers; anda pair of stage shoes and a couple of foils hung beneath them.With the exception of little heaps of rags and bundles which hadbeen carelessly thrown into the corners of the room, these werethe only things 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 my face.

'"Mr. Hutley, John," said his wife; "Mr. Hutley, that you sentfor to-night, you know."

'"Ah!" said the invalid, passing his hand across his forehead;"Hutley--Hutley--let me see." He seemed endeavouring tocollect his thoughts for a few seconds, and then grasping metightly by the wrist said, "Don't leave me--don't leave me, oldfellow. 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 youknow me?"'"Don't let her come near me," said the man, with a shudder,as she stooped over him. "Drive her away; I can't bear her nearme." He stared wildly at her, with a look of deadly apprehension,and then whispered in my ear, "I beat her, Jem; I beat heryesterday, and many times before. I have starved her and the boytoo; and now I am weak and helpless, Jem, she'll murder me forit; I know she will. If you'd seen her cry, as I have, you'd know ittoo. Keep her off." He relaxed his grasp, and sank back exhaustedon the pillow.'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 theman's sight. 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, "shedoes hurt me. There's something in her eyes wakes such a dreadfulfear in my heart, that it drives me mad. All last night, her large,staring eyes and pale face were close to mine; wherever I turned,they turned; and whenever I started up from my sleep, she was atthe bedside looking at me." He drew me closer to him, as he saidin a deep alarmed whisper, "Jem, she must be an evil spirit--adevil! Hush! I know she is. If she had been a woman she wouldhave died long 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 of partialunconsciousness, in which the mind wanders uneasily from sceneto scene, and from place to place, without the control of reason,but still without being able to divest itself of an indescribablesense of present suffering. Finding from his incoherent wanderingsthat this was the case, and knowing that in all probability thefever would not grow immediately worse, I left him, promisinghis miserable wife that I would repeat my visit next evening, and,if necessary, sit up with the patient during the night.

'I kept my promise. The last four-and-twenty hours hadproduced a frightful alteration. The eyes, though deeply sunkand heavy, 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 ofwild anxiety 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 heartof 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 beforehad been distorted for the amusement of a boisterous gallery,writhing under the tortures of a burning fever--I heard theclown's shrill laugh, blending with the low murmurings of thedying man.

'It is a touching thing to hear the mind reverting to theordinary occupations and pursuits of health, when the body liesbefore you weak and helpless; but when those occupations are ofa character the most strongly opposed to anything we associatewith grave and solemn ideas, the impression produced isinfinitely more powerful. The theatre and the public-house were thechief themes of the wretched man's wanderings. It was evening,he fancied; he had a part to play that night; it was late, and hemust leave home instantly. Why did they hold him, and preventhis going?--he should lose the money--he must go. No! theywould not let him. He hid his face in his burning hands, andfeebly bemoaned his own weakness, and the cruelty of hispersecutors. A short pause, and he shouted out a few doggerelrhymes--the last he had ever learned. He rose in bed, drew uphis withered limbs, and rolled about in uncouth positions; he wasacting--he was at the theatre. A minute's silence, and he murmuredthe burden of some roaring song. He had reached the oldhouse at last--how hot the room was. He had been ill, very ill,but he was well now, and happy. Fill up his glass. Who was that,that dashed it from his lips? It was the same persecutor that hadfollowed him before. He fell back upon his pillow and moanedaloud. A short period of oblivion, and he was wandering througha tedious maze of low-arched rooms--so low, sometimes, that hemust creep upon his hands and knees to make his way along; itwas close and dark, and every way he turned, some obstacleimpeded his progress. There were insects, too, hideous crawlingthings, with eyes that stared upon him, and filled the very airaround, glistening horribly amidst the thick darkness of the place.The walls and ceiling were alive with reptiles--the vault expandedto an enormous size--frightful figures flitted to and fro--and thefaces of men he knew, rendered hideous by gibing and mouthing,peered out from among them; they were searing him withheated irons, and binding his head with cords till the bloodstarted; 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 appearedto be 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,but consciousness had returned, for he evidently knew me. Thechild, who had been long since disturbed by his ravings, rosefrom its little bed, and ran towards its father, screaming withfright--the mother hastily caught it in her arms, lest he shouldinjure it in the violence of his insanity; but, terrified by thealteration of his features, stood transfixed by the bedside. Hegrasped my shoulder convulsively, and, striking his breast withthe other hand, made a desperate attempt to articulate. It wasunavailing; he extended his arm towards them, and made anotherviolent effort. There was a rattling noise in the throat--a glare ofthe eye--a short stifled groan--and he fell back--dead!'

It would afford us the highest gratification to be enabled torecord Mr. Pickwick's opinion of the foregoing anecdote. Wehave little doubt that we should have been enabled to present itto our readers, 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;and had 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 theworld, if not the Thames, when he was thus interrupted; for hegazed sternly on the waiter's countenance, and then looked roundon the company generally, as if seeking for information relativeto the new-comers.

'Oh!' said Mr. Winkle, rising, 'some friends of mine--showthem in. Very pleasant fellows,' added Mr. Winkle, after thewaiter had retired--'officers of the 97th, whose acquaintance Imade rather oddly 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, 'Lieutenant Tappleton,Mr. Pickwick--Doctor Payne, Mr. Pickwick--Mr. Snodgrassyou 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 ofthe whisper.

'I do, indeed,' replied Doctor Slammer.

'You are bound to kick him on the spot,' murmured theowner of the camp-stool, with great importance.

'Do be quiet, Payne,' interposed the lieutenant. 'Will youallow me to ask you, sir,' he said, addressing Mr. Pickwick, whowas considerably mystified by this very unpolite by-play--'willyou allow me to ask you, Sir, whether that person belongs to your party?'

Title: The Pickwick Papers
Author: Charles Dickens
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