CHAPTER XLI. WHAT BEFELL Mr. PICKWICK WHEN HE GOT INTO THE FLEET; WHAT PRISONERS HE SAW THERE, AND HOW HE PASSED THE NIGHT
Mr. Tom Roker, the gentleman who had accompanied Mr. Pickwick into the prison, turned sharp round to the right when he got to the bottom of the little flight of steps, and led the way, through an iron gate which stood open, and up another short flight of steps, into a long narrow gallery, dirty and low, paved with stone, and very dimly lighted by a window at each remote end.
'This,' said the gentleman, thrusting his hands into his pockets, and looking carelessly over his shoulder to Mr. Pickwick — 'this here is the hall flight.'
'Oh,' replied Mr. Pickwick, looking down a dark and filthy staircase, which appeared to lead to a range of damp and gloomy stone vaults, beneath the ground, 'and those, I suppose, are the little cellars where the prisoners keep their small quantities of coals. Unpleasant places to have to go down to; but very convenient, I dare say.'
'Yes, I shouldn't wonder if they was convenient,' replied the gentleman, 'seeing that a few people live there, pretty snug. That's the Fair, that is.'
'My friend,' said Mr. Pickwick, 'you don't really mean to say that human beings live down in those wretched dungeons?'
'Don't I?' replied Mr. Roker, with indignant astonishment; 'why shouldn't I?'
'Live! — live down there!' exclaimed Mr. Pickwick.
'Live down there! Yes, and die down there, too, very often!' replied Mr. Roker; 'and what of that? Who's got to say anything agin it? Live down there! Yes, and a wery good place it is to live in, ain't it?'
As Roker turned somewhat fiercely upon Mr. Pickwick in saying this, and moreover muttered in an excited fashion certain unpleasant invocations concerning his own eyes, limbs, and circulating fluids, the latter gentleman deemed it advisable to pursue the discourse no further. Mr. Roker then proceeded to mount another staircase, as dirty as that which led to the place which has just been the subject of discussion, in which ascent he was closely followed by Mr. Pickwick and Sam.
'There,' said Mr. Roker, pausing for breath when they reached another gallery of the same dimensions as the one below, 'this is the coffee-room flight; the one above's the third, and the one above that's the top; and the room where you're a-going to sleep to-night is the warden's room, and it's this way — come on.' Having said all this in a breath, Mr. Roker mounted another flight of stairs with Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller following at his heels.
These staircases received light from sundry windows placed at some little distance above the floor, and looking into a gravelled area bounded by a high brick wall, with iron CHEVAUX-DE-FRISE at the top. This area, it appeared from Mr. Roker's statement, was the racket-ground; and it further appeared, on the testimony of the same gentleman, that there was a smaller area in that portion of the prison which was nearest Farringdon Street, denominated and called 'the Painted Ground,' from the fact of its walls having once displayed the semblance of various men-of-war in full sail, and other artistical effects achieved in bygone times by some imprisoned draughtsman in his leisure hours.
Having communicated this piece of information, apparently more for the purpose of discharging his bosom of an important fact, than with any specific view of enlightening Mr. Pickwick, the guide, having at length reached another gallery, led the way into a small passage at the extreme end, opened a door, and disclosed an apartment of an appearance by no means inviting, containing eight or nine iron bedsteads.
'There,' said Mr. Roker, holding the door open, and looking triumphantly round at Mr. Pickwick, 'there's a room!'
Mr. Pickwick's face, however, betokened such a very trifling portion of satisfaction at the appearance of his lodging, that Mr. Roker looked, for a reciprocity of feeling, into the countenance of Samuel Weller, who, until now, had observed a dignified silence. 'There's a room, young man,' observed Mr. Roker.
'I see it,' replied Sam, with a placid nod of the head.
'You wouldn't think to find such a room as this in the Farringdon Hotel, would you?' said Mr. Roker, with a complacent smile.
To this Mr. Weller replied with an easy and unstudied closing of one eye; which might be considered to mean, either that he would have thought it, or that he would not have thought it, or that he had never thought anything at all about it, as the observer's imagination suggested. Having executed this feat, and reopened his eye, Mr. Weller proceeded to inquire which was the individual bedstead that Mr. Roker had so flatteringly described as an out-and-outer to sleep in.
'That's it,' replied Mr. Roker, pointing to a very rusty one in a corner. 'It would make any one go to sleep, that bedstead would, whether they wanted to or not.'
'I should think,' said Sam, eyeing the piece of furniture in question with a look of excessive disgust — 'I should think poppies was nothing to it.'
'Nothing at all,' said Mr. Roker.
'And I s'pose,' said Sam, with a sidelong glance at his master, as if to see whether there were any symptoms of his determination being shaken by what passed, 'I s'pose the other gen'l'men as sleeps here ARE gen'l'men.'
'Nothing but it,' said Mr. Roker. 'One of 'em takes his twelve pints of ale a day, and never leaves off smoking even at his meals.'
'He must be a first-rater,' said Sam.
'A1,' replied Mr. Roker.
Nothing daunted, even by this intelligence, Mr. Pickwick smilingly announced his determination to test the powers of the narcotic bedstead for that night; and Mr. Roker, after informing him that he could retire to rest at whatever hour he thought proper, without any further notice or formality, walked off, leaving him standing with Sam in the gallery.
It was getting dark; that is to say, a few gas jets were kindled in this place which was never light, by way of compliment to the evening, which had set in outside. As it was rather warm, some of the tenants of the numerous little rooms which opened into the gallery on either hand, had set their doors ajar. Mr. Pickwick peeped into them as he passed along, with great curiosity and interest. Here, four or five great hulking fellows, just visible through a cloud of tobacco smoke, were engaged in noisy and riotous conversation over half-emptied pots of beer, or playing at all-fours with a very greasy pack of cards. In the adjoining room, some solitary tenant might be seen poring, by the light of a feeble tallow candle, over a bundle of soiled and tattered papers, yellow with dust and dropping to pieces from age, writing, for the hundredth time, some lengthened statement of his grievances, for the perusal of some great man whose eyes it would never reach, or whose heart it would never touch. In a third, a man, with his wife and a whole crowd of children, might be seen making up a scanty bed on the ground, or upon a few chairs, for the younger ones to pass the night in. And in a fourth, and a fifth, and a sixth, and a seventh, the noise, and the beer, and the tobacco smoke, and the cards, all came over again in greater force than before.
In the galleries themselves, and more especially on the stair-cases, there lingered a great number of people, who came there, some because their rooms were empty and lonesome, others because their rooms were full and hot; the greater part because they were restless and uncomfortable, and not possessed of the secret of exactly knowing what to do with themselves. There were many classes of people here, from the labouring man in his fustian jacket, to the broken-down spendthrift in his shawl dressing-gown, most appropriately out at elbows; but there was the same air about them all — a kind of listless, jail-bird, careless swagger, a vagabondish who's-afraid sort of bearing, which is wholly indescribable in words, but which any man can understand in one moment if he wish, by setting foot in the nearest debtors' prison, and looking at the very first group of people he sees there, with the same interest as Mr. Pickwick did.
'It strikes me, Sam,' said Mr. Pickwick, leaning over the iron rail at the stair-head-'it strikes me, Sam, that imprisonment for debt is scarcely any punishment at all.'
'Think not, sir?' inquired Mr. Weller.
'You see how these fellows drink, and smoke, and roar,' replied Mr. Pickwick. 'It's quite impossible that they can mind it much.'
'Ah, that's just the wery thing, Sir,' rejoined Sam, 'they don't mind it; it's a reg'lar holiday to them — all porter and skittles. It's the t'other vuns as gets done over vith this sort o' thing; them down-hearted fellers as can't svig avay at the beer, nor play at skittles neither; them as vould pay if they could, and gets low by being boxed up. I'll tell you wot it is, sir; them as is always a-idlin' in public-houses it don't damage at all, and them as is alvays a-workin' wen they can, it damages too much. "It's unekal," as my father used to say wen his grog worn't made half-and-half: "it's unekal, and that's the fault on it."'
'I think you're right, Sam,' said Mr. Pickwick, after a few moments' reflection, 'quite right.'
'P'raps, now and then, there's some honest people as likes it,' observed Mr. Weller, in a ruminative tone, 'but I never heerd o' one as I can call to mind, 'cept the little dirty-faced man in the brown coat; and that was force of habit.'
'And who was he?' inquired Mr. Pickwick.
'Wy, that's just the wery point as nobody never know'd,' replied Sam.
'But what did he do?'
'Wy, he did wot many men as has been much better know'd has done in their time, Sir,' replied Sam, 'he run a match agin the constable, and vun it.'
'In other words, I suppose,' said Mr. Pickwick, 'he got into debt.'
'Just that, Sir,' replied Sam, 'and in course o' time he come here in consekens. It warn't much — execution for nine pound nothin', multiplied by five for costs; but hows'ever here he stopped for seventeen year. If he got any wrinkles in his face, they were stopped up vith the dirt, for both the dirty face and the brown coat wos just the same at the end o' that time as they wos at the beginnin'. He wos a wery peaceful, inoffendin' little creetur, and wos alvays a-bustlin' about for somebody, or playin' rackets and never vinnin'; till at last the turnkeys they got quite fond on him, and he wos in the lodge ev'ry night, a-chattering vith 'em, and tellin' stories, and all that 'ere. Vun night he wos in there as usual, along vith a wery old friend of his, as wos on the lock, ven he says all of a sudden, "I ain't seen the market outside, Bill," he says (Fleet Market wos there at that time) — "I ain't seen the market outside, Bill," he says, "for seventeen year." "I know you ain't," says the turnkey, smoking his pipe. "I should like to see it for a minit, Bill," he says. "Wery probable," says the turnkey, smoking his pipe wery fierce, and making believe he warn't up to wot the little man wanted. "Bill," says the little man, more abrupt than afore, "I've got the fancy in my head. Let me see the public streets once more afore I die; and if I ain't struck with apoplexy, I'll be back in five minits by the clock." "And wot 'ud become o' me if you WOS struck with apoplexy?" said the turnkey. "Wy," says the little creetur, "whoever found me, 'ud bring me home, for I've got my card in my pocket, Bill," he says, "No. 20, Coffee-room Flight": and that wos true, sure enough, for wen he wanted to make the acquaintance of any new-comer, he used to pull out a little limp card vith them words on it and nothin' else; in consideration of vich, he vos alvays called Number Tventy. The turnkey takes a fixed look at him, and at last he says in a solemn manner, "Tventy," he says, "I'll trust you; you Won't get your old friend into trouble." "No, my boy; I hope I've somethin' better behind here," says the little man; and as he said it he hit his little vesket wery hard, and then a tear started out o' each eye, which wos wery extraordinary, for it wos supposed as water never touched his face. He shook the turnkey by the hand; out he vent — '