'I believe,' said Mr. Pickwick, consulting his ticket — 'I believe this is twenty-seven in the third?'
'Well?' replied the gentleman.
'I have come here in consequence of receiving this bit of paper,' rejoined Mr. Pickwick.
'Hand it over,' said the gentleman.
Mr. Pickwick complied.
'I think Roker might have chummed you somewhere else,' said Mr. Simpson (for it was the leg), after a very discontented sort of a pause.
Mr. Pickwick thought so also; but, under all the circumstances, he considered it a matter of sound policy to be silent. Mr. Simpson mused for a few moments after this, and then, thrusting his head out of the window, gave a shrill whistle, and pronounced some word aloud, several times. What the word was, Mr. Pickwick could not distinguish; but he rather inferred that it must be some nickname which distinguished Mr. Martin, from the fact of a great number of gentlemen on the ground below, immediately proceeding to cry 'Butcher!' in imitation of the tone in which that useful class of society are wont, diurnally, to make their presence known at area railings.
Subsequent occurrences confirmed the accuracy of Mr. Pickwick's impression; for, in a few seconds, a gentleman, prematurely broad for his years, clothed in a professional blue jean frock and top-boots with circular toes, entered the room nearly out of breath, closely followed by another gentleman in very shabby black, and a sealskin cap. The latter gentleman, who fastened his coat all the way up to his chin by means of a pin and a button alternately, had a very coarse red face, and looked like a drunken chaplain; which, indeed, he was.
These two gentlemen having by turns perused Mr. Pickwick's billet, the one expressed his opinion that it was 'a rig,' and the other his conviction that it was 'a go.' Having recorded their feelings in these very intelligible terms, they looked at Mr. Pickwick and each other in awkward silence.
'It's an aggravating thing, just as we got the beds so snug,' said the chaplain, looking at three dirty mattresses, each rolled up in a blanket; which occupied one corner of the room during the day, and formed a kind of slab, on which were placed an old cracked basin, ewer, and soap-dish, of common yellow earthenware, with a blue flower — 'very aggravating.'
Mr. Martin expressed the same opinion in rather stronger terms; Mr. Simpson, after having let a variety of expletive adjectives loose upon society without any substantive to accompany them, tucked up his sleeves, and began to wash the greens for dinner.
While this was going on, Mr. Pickwick had been eyeing the room, which was filthily dirty, and smelt intolerably close. There was no vestige of either carpet, curtain, or blind. There was not even a closet in it. Unquestionably there were but few things to put away, if there had been one; but, however few in number, or small in individual amount, still, remnants of loaves and pieces of cheese, and damp towels, and scrags of meat, and articles of wearing apparel, and mutilated crockery, and bellows without nozzles, and toasting-forks without prongs, do present somewhat of an uncomfortable appearance when they are scattered about the floor of a small apartment, which is the common sitting and sleeping room of three idle men.
'I suppose this can be managed somehow,' said the butcher, after a pretty long silence. 'What will you take to go out?' 'I beg your pardon,' replied Mr. Pickwick. 'What did you say? I hardly understand you.'
'What will you take to be paid out?' said the butcher. 'The regular chummage is two-and-six. Will you take three bob?'
'And a bender,' suggested the clerical gentleman.
'Well, I don't mind that; it's only twopence a piece more,' said Mr. Martin. 'What do you say, now? We'll pay you out for three-and-sixpence a week. Come!'
'And stand a gallon of beer down,' chimed in Mr. Simpson. 'There!'
'And drink it on the spot,' said the chaplain. 'Now!'
'I really am so wholly ignorant of the rules of this place,' returned Mr. Pickwick, 'that I do not yet comprehend you. Can I live anywhere else? I thought I could not.'
At this inquiry Mr. Martin looked, with a countenance of excessive surprise, at his two friends, and then each gentleman pointed with his right thumb over his left shoulder. This action imperfectly described in words by the very feeble term of 'over the left,' when performed by any number of ladies or gentlemen who are accustomed to act in unison, has a very graceful and airy effect; its expression is one of light and playful sarcasm.
'CAN you!' repeated Mr. Martin, with a smile of pity.
'Well, if I knew as little of life as that, I'd eat my hat and swallow the buckle whole,' said the clerical gentleman.
'So would I,' added the sporting one solemnly.
After this introductory preface, the three chums informed Mr. Pickwick, in a breath, that money was, in the Fleet, just what money was out of it; that it would instantly procure him almost anything he desired; and that, supposing he had it, and had no objection to spend it, if he only signified his wish to have a room to himself, he might take possession of one, furnished and fitted to boot, in half an hour's time.
With this the parties separated, very much to their common satisfaction; Mr. Pickwick once more retracing his steps to the lodge, and the three companions adjourning to the coffee-room, there to spend the five shillings which the clerical gentleman had, with admirable prudence and foresight, borrowed of him for the purpose.
'I knowed it!' said Mr. Roker, with a chuckle, when Mr. Pickwick stated the object with which he had returned. 'Didn't I say so, Neddy?'
The philosophical owner of the universal penknife growled an affirmative.
'I knowed you'd want a room for yourself, bless you!' said Mr. Roker. 'Let me see. You'll want some furniture. You'll hire that of me, I suppose? That's the reg'lar thing.'
'With great pleasure,' replied Mr. Pickwick.
'There's a capital room up in the coffee-room flight, that belongs to a Chancery prisoner,' said Mr. Roker. 'It'll stand you in a pound a week. I suppose you don't mind that?'
'Not at all,' said Mr. Pickwick.
'Just step there with me,' said Roker, taking up his hat with great alacrity; 'the matter's settled in five minutes. Lord! why didn't you say at first that you was willing to come down handsome?'
The matter was soon arranged, as the turnkey had foretold. The Chancery prisoner had been there long enough to have lost his friends, fortune, home, and happiness, and to have acquired the right of having a room to himself. As he laboured, however, under the inconvenience of often wanting a morsel of bread, he eagerly listened to Mr. Pickwick's proposal to rent the apartment, and readily covenanted and agreed to yield him up the sole and undisturbed possession thereof, in consideration of the weekly payment of twenty shillings; from which fund he furthermore contracted to pay out any person or persons that might be chummed upon it.
As they struck the bargain, Mr. Pickwick surveyed him with a painful interest. He was a tall, gaunt, cadaverous man, in an old greatcoat and slippers, with sunken cheeks, and a restless, eager eye. His lips were bloodless, and his bones sharp and thin. God help him! the iron teeth of confinement and privation had been slowly filing him down for twenty years.
'And where will you live meanwhile, Sir?' said Mr. Pickwick, as he laid the amount of the first week's rent, in advance, on the tottering table.
The man gathered up the money with a trembling hand, and replied that he didn't know yet; he must go and see where he could move his bed to.
'I am afraid, sir,' said Mr. Pickwick, laying his hand gently and compassionately on his arm — 'I am afraid you will have to live in some noisy, crowded place. Now, pray, consider this room your own when you want quiet, or when any of your friends come to see you.'
'Friends!' interposed the man, in a voice which rattled in his throat. 'if I lay dead at the bottom of the deepest mine in the world; tight screwed down and soldered in my coffin; rotting in the dark and filthy ditch that drags its slime along, beneath the foundations of this prison; I could not be more forgotten or unheeded than I am here. I am a dead man; dead to society, without the pity they bestow on those whose souls have passed to judgment. Friends to see me! My God! I have sunk, from the prime of life into old age, in this place, and there is not one to raise his hand above my bed when I lie dead upon it, and say, "It is a blessing he is gone!"'
The excitement, which had cast an unwonted light over the man's face, while he spoke, subsided as he concluded; and pressing his withered hands together in a hasty and disordered manner, he shuffled from the room.
'Rides rather rusty,' said Mr. Roker, with a smile. 'Ah! they're like the elephants. They feel it now and then, and it makes 'em wild!'
Having made this deeply-sympathising remark, Mr. Roker entered upon his arrangements with such expedition, that in a short time the room was furnished with a carpet, six chairs, a table, a sofa bedstead, a tea-kettle, and various small articles, on hire, at the very reasonable rate of seven-and-twenty shillings and sixpence per week.
'Now, is there anything more we can do for you?' inquired Mr. Roker, looking round with great satisfaction, and gaily chinking the first week's hire in his closed fist.
'Why, yes,' said Mr. Pickwick, who had been musing deeply for some time. 'Are there any people here who run on errands, and so forth?'
'Outside, do you mean?' inquired Mr. Roker.
'Yes. I mean who are able to go outside. Not prisoners.'
'Yes, there is,' said Roker. 'There's an unfortunate devil, who has got a friend on the poor side, that's glad to do anything of that sort. He's been running odd jobs, and that, for the last two months. Shall I send him?'
'If you please,' rejoined Mr. Pickwick. 'Stay; no. The poor side, you say? I should like to see it. I'll go to him myself.'