'A wretched-looking woman, the man's wife, met me on the stairs, 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 sick man was lying with his face turned towards the wall; and as he took no heed of my presence, I had leisure to observe the place in which I found myself.
'He was lying on an old bedstead, which turned up during the day. The tattered remains of a checked curtain were drawn round the bed's head, to exclude the wind, which, however, made its way into the comfortless room through the numerous chinks in the door, and blew it to and fro every instant. There was a low cinder fire in a rusty, unfixed grate; and an old three-cornered stained table, with some medicine bottles, a broken glass, and a few other domestic articles, was drawn out before it. A little child was sleeping on a temporary bed which had been made for it on the floor, and the woman sat on a chair by its side. There were a couple of shelves, with a few plates and cups and saucers; 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 been carelessly thrown into the corners of the room, these were the only things in the apartment.
'I had had time to note these little particulars, and to mark the heavy breathing and feverish startings of the sick man, before he was aware of my presence. In the restless attempts to procure some easy resting-place for his head, 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 for a few seconds, and then grasping me tightly by the wrist said, "Don't leave me — 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 stooped over 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 the boy too; and now I am weak and helpless, Jem, she'll murder me for it; I know she 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 too well what all this meant. If I could have entertained any doubt of it, for an instant, one glance at the woman's pale face and wasted form would have sufficiently explained the real state of the case. "You had better stand aside," said I to the poor creature. "You can do him no good. Perhaps he will be calmer, if he does not see you." She retired out of the man's sight. He opened 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 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 at the bedside looking at me." He drew me closer to him, as he 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. No woman could have borne what she has."
'I sickened at the thought of the long course of cruelty and neglect which must have occurred to produce such an impression on such a man. I could say nothing in reply; for who could offer hope, or consolation, to the abject being 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 arms here and there, and turning constantly from side to side. At length he fell into that state of partial unconsciousness, in which the mind wanders uneasily from 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 of present suffering. Finding from his incoherent wanderings that this was the case, and knowing that in all probability the fever would not grow immediately worse, I left him, promising his 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 had produced a frightful alteration. The eyes, though deeply sunk and heavy, shone with a lustre frightful to behold. The lips were parched, and cracked in many places; the hard, dry skin glowed with a burning heat; and there was an almost unearthly air of wild anxiety in the man's face, indicating even more strongly the ravages 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 callous among human beings — the awful ravings of a dying man. From what I had heard of the medical attendant's opinion, I knew there was no hope for him: I was sitting by his death-bed. I saw the wasted limbs — which a few hours before had been distorted for the amusement of a boisterous gallery, writhing under the tortures of a burning fever — I heard the clown's shrill laugh, blending with the low murmurings of the dying man.
'It is a touching thing to hear the mind reverting to the ordinary occupations and pursuits of health, when the body lies before you weak and helpless; but when those occupations are of a character the most strongly opposed to anything we associate with grave and solemn ideas, the impression produced is infinitely more powerful. The theatre and the public-house were the chief themes of the wretched man's wanderings. It was evening, he fancied; he had a part to play that night; it was late, and he must leave home instantly. Why did 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 feebly bemoaned 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 rose in bed, drew up his withered limbs, and rolled about in uncouth positions; he was acting — he was at the theatre. A minute's silence, and he murmured the burden of some roaring song. He had reached the old house 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 had followed him before. He fell back upon his pillow and moaned aloud. A short period of oblivion, and he was wandering through a tedious maze of low-arched rooms — so low, sometimes, that he must creep upon his hands and knees to make his way along; it was close and dark, and every way he turned, some obstacle impeded his progress. There were insects, too, hideous crawling things, with eyes that stared upon him, and filled the very air around, glistening horribly amidst the thick darkness of the place. The walls and ceiling were alive with reptiles — the vault expanded to an enormous size — 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 were searing him with heated irons, and binding his head with cords till the blood started; and he struggled madly for life.
'At the close of one of these paroxysms, when I had with great difficulty held him down in his bed, he sank into what appeared to be a slumber. Overpowered with watching and exertion, I had closed my eyes for a few minutes, when I felt a violent clutch on my shoulder. I awoke instantly. He had raised himself up, so as to seat himself in bed — a dreadful change had come over his face, but consciousness had returned, for he evidently knew me. The child, who had been long since disturbed by his ravings, rose from its little bed, and ran towards its 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 by the alteration of his features, stood transfixed by the bedside. He grasped my shoulder convulsively, and, striking his breast with the other hand, made a desperate attempt to articulate. It was unavailing; he extended his arm towards them, and made another violent effort. There was a rattling noise in the 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 we should have been enabled to present it to our readers, but for a most unfortunate occurrence.
Mr. Pickwick had replaced on the table the glass which, during the last few sentences of the tale, he had retained in his hand; and had just made up his mind to speak — indeed, we have the authority of Mr. Snodgrass's note-book for stating, that he had actually 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 of delivering some remarks which would have enlightened the world, if not the Thames, when he was thus interrupted; for he gazed sternly on the waiter's countenance, and then looked round on the company generally, as if seeking for information relative to the new-comers.
'Oh!' said Mr. Winkle, rising, 'some friends of mine — show them in. Very pleasant fellows,' added Mr. Winkle, after the waiter had retired — 'officers of the 97th, whose acquaintance I made rather oddly this morning. You will like them very much.'
Mr. Pickwick's equanimity was at once restored. The waiter returned, and ushered three gentlemen into the room.
'Lieutenant Tappleton,' said Mr. Winkle, 'Lieutenant Tappleton, Mr. Pickwick — Doctor Payne, Mr. Pickwick — Mr. Snodgrass you have seen before, my friend Mr. Tupman, Doctor Payne — Doctor Slammer, Mr. Pickwick — Mr. Tupman, Doctor Slam — '
Here Mr. Winkle suddenly paused; for strong emotion was visible on the countenance 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 a scrutinising glance on the green-coated stranger. 'I think I gave that person a very pressing invitation last night, which he thought proper to decline.' Saying which the doctor scowled magnanimously on the stranger, and whispered his 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 ask you, sir,' he said, addressing Mr. Pickwick, who was considerably mystified by this very unpolite by-play — 'will you allow me to ask you, Sir, whether that person 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 lieutenant 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 Doctor Slammer, with a scarcely perceptible shrug of the shoulder, as if implying some doubt of the accuracy of his recollection. The little doctor looked wrathful, but confounded; and Mr. Payne gazed with a ferocious aspect on the beaming countenance of the unconscious Pickwick.
'Sir,' said the doctor, suddenly addressing Mr. Tupman, in a tone which made that gentleman start as perceptibly as if a pin had been cunningly inserted in the calf of his leg, 'you were at the ball here last night!'
Mr. Tupman gasped a faint affirmative, looking very hard at Mr. Pickwick all the while.
'That person was your companion,' said the doctor, pointing to the 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 me your card, and to receive the treatment of a gentleman; or whether you impose upon me the necessity of personally chastising you on the spot?'
'Stay, sir,' said Mr. Pickwick, 'I really cannot allow this matter to go any further without some explanation. Tupman, recount the circumstances.'
Mr. Tupman, thus solemnly adjured, stated the case in a few words; touched slightly on the borrowing of the coat; expatiated largely on its having been done 'after dinner'; wound up with a little penitence on his own account; and left the stranger to clear himself as best he could.
He was apparently about to proceed to do so, when Lieutenant Tappleton, who had 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 to Doctor Slammer. — 'He acts in the piece that the officers of the 52nd get up at the 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 Lieutenant Tappleton, addressing Mr. Pickwick; 'allow me to suggest, that the best way of avoiding a recurrence of such scenes in future will be to be more select in the choice of your companions. Good-evening, Sir!' and the lieutenant bounced out of the room.
'And allow me to say, Sir,' said the irascible Doctor Payne, 'that if I had been 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 my name, sir — Doctor Payne of the 43rd. Good-evening, Sir.' Having concluded this speech, and uttered the last three words in a loud key, he stalked majestically after his friend, closely followed by Doctor Slammer, who said nothing, but contented himself by withering the company with a look. Rising rage and extreme bewilderment had swelled the noble breast of Mr. Pickwick, almost to the bursting of his waistcoat, during the delivery of the above defiance. He stood transfixed to the spot, gazing on vacancy. The closing of the 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 another instant it would have been on the throat of Doctor Payne of the 43rd, had not Mr. Snodgrass seized his revered leader by the coat tail, and dragged him backwards.
'Restrain him,' cried Mr. Snodgrass; 'Winkle, Tupman — he must 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 united efforts of the whole company, Mr. Pickwick was forced into an arm-chair. 'Leave him alone,' said the green-coated stranger; 'brandy-and-water — jolly old gentleman — lots of pluck — swallow this — ah! — capital stuff.' Having previously tested the virtues of a bumper, which had been mixed by the dismal man, the stranger applied the glass to Mr. Pickwick's mouth; and the remainder of its contents rapidly disappeared.
There was a short pause; the brandy-and-water had done its work; the amiable countenance 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 to have been betrayed into this warmth of feeling. Draw your chair up to the table, Sir.'
The dismal man readily complied; a circle was again formed round the table, and harmony once more prevailed. Some lingering irritability appeared to find a resting-place in Mr. Winkle's bosom, occasioned possibly by the temporary abstraction of his coat — though it is scarcely reasonable to suppose that so slight a circumstance can have excited even a passing feeling of anger in a Pickwickian's breast. With this exception, their good-humour was completely restored; and the evening concluded with the conviviality with which it had begun.