The poor side of a debtor's prison is, as its name imports, that in which the most miserable and abject class of debtors are confined. A prisoner having declared upon the poor side, pays neither rent nor chummage. His fees, upon entering and leaving the jail, are reduced in amount, and he becomes entitled to a share of some small quantities of food: to provide which, a few charitable persons have, from time to time, left trifling legacies in their wills. Most of our readers will remember, that, until within a very few years past, there was a kind of iron cage in the wall of the Fleet Prison, within which was posted some man of hungry looks, who, from time to time, rattled a money-box, and exclaimed in a mournful voice, 'Pray, remember the poor debtors; pray remember the poor debtors.' The receipts of this box, when there were any, were divided among the poor prisoners; and the men on the poor side relieved each other in this degrading office.
Although this custom has been abolished, and the cage is now boarded up, the miserable and destitute condition of these unhappy persons remains the same. We no longer suffer them to appeal at the prison gates to the charity and compassion of the passersby; but we still leave unblotted the leaves of our statute book, for the reverence and admiration of succeeding ages, the just and wholesome law which declares that the sturdy felon shall be fed and clothed, and that the penniless debtor shall be left to die of starvation and nakedness. This is no fiction. Not a week passes over our head, but, in every one of our prisons for debt, some of these men must inevitably expire in the slow agonies of want, if they were not relieved by their fellow-prisoners.
Turning these things in his mind, as he mounted the narrow staircase at the foot of which Roker had left him, Mr. Pickwick gradually worked himself to the boiling-over point; and so excited was he with his reflections on this subject, that he had burst into the room to which he had been directed, before he had any distinct recollection, either of the place in which he was, or of the object of his visit.
The general aspect of the room recalled him to himself at once; but he had no sooner cast his eye on the figure of a man who was brooding over the dusty fire, than, letting his hat fall on the floor, he stood perfectly fixed and immovable with astonishment.
Yes; in tattered garments, and without a coat; his common calico shirt, yellow and in rags; his hair hanging over his face; his features changed with suffering, and pinched with famine — there sat Mr. Alfred Jingle; his head resting on his hands, his eyes fixed upon the fire, and his whole appearance denoting misery and dejection!
Near him, leaning listlessly against the wall, stood a strong-built countryman, flicking with a worn-out hunting-whip the top-boot that adorned his right foot; his left being thrust into an old slipper. Horses, dogs, and drink had brought him there, pell-mell. There was a rusty spur on the solitary boot, which he occasionally jerked into the empty air, at the same time giving the boot a smart blow, and muttering some of the sounds by which a sportsman encourages his horse. He was riding, in imagination, some desperate steeplechase at that moment. Poor wretch! He never rode a match on the swiftest animal in his costly stud, with half the speed at which he had torn along the course that ended in the Fleet.
On the opposite side of the room an old man was seated on a small wooden box, with his eyes riveted on the floor, and his face settled into an expression of the deepest and most hopeless despair. A young girl — his little grand-daughter — was hanging about him, endeavouring, with a thousand childish devices, to engage his attention; but the old man neither saw nor heard her. The voice that had been music to him, and the eyes that had been light, fell coldly on his senses. His limbs were shaking with disease, and the palsy had fastened on his mind.
There were two or three other men in the room, congregated in a little knot, and noiselessly talking among themselves. There was a lean and haggard woman, too — a prisoner's wife — who was watering, with great solicitude, the wretched stump of a dried-up, withered plant, which, it was plain to see, could never send forth a green leaf again — too true an emblem, perhaps, of the office she had come there to discharge.
Such were the objects which presented themselves to Mr. Pickwick's view, as he looked round him in amazement. The noise of some one stumbling hastily into the room, roused him. Turning his eyes towards the door, they encountered the new-comer; and in him, through his rags and dirt, he recognised the familiar features of Mr. Job Trotter.
'Mr. Pickwick!' exclaimed Job aloud.
'Eh?' said Jingle, starting from his seat. 'Mr — — ! So it is — queer place — strange things — serves me right — very.' Mr. Jingle thrust his hands into the place where his trousers pockets used to be, and, dropping his chin upon his breast, sank back into his chair.
Mr. Pickwick was affected; the two men looked so very miserable. The sharp, involuntary glance Jingle had cast at a small piece of raw loin of mutton, which Job had brought in with him, said more of their reduced state than two hours' explanation could have done. Mr. Pickwick looked mildly at Jingle, and said —
'I should like to speak to you in private. Will you step out for an instant?'
'Certainly,' said Jingle, rising hastily. 'Can't step far — no danger of overwalking yourself here — spike park — grounds pretty — romantic, but not extensive — open for public inspection — family always in town — housekeeper desperately careful — very.'
'You have forgotten your coat,' said Mr. Pickwick, as they walked out to the staircase, and closed the door after them.
'Eh?' said Jingle. 'Spout — dear relation — uncle Tom — couldn't help it — must eat, you know. Wants of nature — and all that.'
'What do you mean?'
'Gone, my dear sir — last coat — can't help it. Lived on a pair of boots, whole fortnight. Silk umbrella — ivory handle — week — fact — honour — ask Job — knows it.'
'Lived for three weeks upon a pair of boots, and a silk umbrella with an ivory handle!' exclaimed Mr. Pickwick, who had only heard of such things in shipwrecks or read of them in Constable's Miscellany.
'True,' said Jingle, nodding his head. 'Pawnbroker's shop — duplicates here — small sums — mere nothing — all rascals.'
'Oh,' said Mr. Pickwick, much relieved by this explanation; 'I understand you. You have pawned your wardrobe.'
'Everything — Job's too — all shirts gone — never mind — saves washing. Nothing soon — lie in bed — starve — die — inquest — little bone-house — poor prisoner — common necessaries — hush it up — gentlemen of the jury — warden's tradesmen — keep it snug — natural death — coroner's order — workhouse funeral — serve him right — all over — drop the curtain.'
Jingle delivered this singular summary of his prospects in life, with his accustomed volubility, and with various twitches of the countenance to counterfeit smiles. Mr. Pickwick easily perceived that his recklessness was assumed, and looking him full, but not unkindly, in the face, saw that his eyes were moist with tears.
'Good fellow,' said Jingle, pressing his hand, and turning his head away. 'Ungrateful dog — boyish to cry — can't help it — bad fever — weak — ill — hungry. Deserved it all — but suffered much — very.' Wholly unable to keep up appearances any longer, and perhaps rendered worse by the effort he had made, the dejected stroller sat down on the stairs, and, covering his face with his hands, sobbed like a child.
'Come, come,' said Mr. Pickwick, with considerable emotion, 'we will see what can be done, when I know all about the matter. Here, Job; where is that fellow?'
'Here, sir,' replied Job, presenting himself on the staircase. We have described him, by the bye, as having deeply-sunken eyes, in the best of times. In his present state of want and distress, he looked as if those features had gone out of town altogether.
'Here, sir,' cried Job.
'Come here, sir,' said Mr. Pickwick, trying to look stern, with four large tears running down his waistcoat. 'Take that, sir.'
Take what? In the ordinary acceptation of such language, it should have been a blow. As the world runs, it ought to have been a sound, hearty cuff; for Mr. Pickwick had been duped, deceived, and wronged by the destitute outcast who was now wholly in his power. Must we tell the truth? It was something from Mr. Pickwick's waistcoat pocket, which chinked as it was given into Job's hand, and the giving of which, somehow or other imparted a sparkle to the eye, and a swelling to the heart, of our excellent old friend, as he hurried away.
Sam had returned when Mr. Pickwick reached his own room, and was inspecting the arrangements that had been made for his comfort, with a kind of grim satisfaction which was very pleasant to look upon. Having a decided objection to his master's being there at all, Mr. Weller appeared to consider it a high moral duty not to appear too much pleased with anything that was done, said, suggested, or proposed.
'Well, Sam,' said Mr. Pickwick.
'Well, sir,' replied Mr. Weller.
'Pretty comfortable now, eh, Sam?'
'Pretty vell, sir,' responded Sam, looking round him in a disparaging manner.
'Have you seen Mr. Tupman and our other friends?'
'Yes, I HAVE seen 'em, sir, and they're a-comin' to-morrow, and wos wery much surprised to hear they warn't to come to-day,' replied Sam.
'You have brought the things I wanted?'
Mr. Weller in reply pointed to various packages which he had arranged, as neatly as he could, in a corner of the room.
'Very well, Sam,' said Mr. Pickwick, after a little hesitation; 'listen to what I am going to say, Sam.'
'Cert'nly, Sir,' rejoined Mr. Weller; 'fire away, Sir.'
'I have felt from the first, Sam,' said Mr. Pickwick, with much solemnity, 'that this is not the place to bring a young man to.'
'Nor an old 'un neither, Sir,' observed Mr. Weller.
'You're quite right, Sam,' said Mr. Pickwick; 'but old men may come here through their own heedlessness and unsuspicion, and young men may be brought here by the selfishness of those they serve. It is better for those young men, in every point of view, that they should not remain here. Do you understand me, Sam?'
'Vy no, Sir, I do NOT,' replied Mr. Weller doggedly.
'Try, Sam,' said Mr. Pickwick.
'Vell, sir,' rejoined Sam, after a short pause, 'I think I see your drift; and if I do see your drift, it's my 'pinion that you're a-comin' it a great deal too strong, as the mail-coachman said to the snowstorm, ven it overtook him.'
'I see you comprehend me, Sam,' said Mr. Pickwick. 'Independently of my wish that you should not be idling about a place like this, for years to come, I feel that for a debtor in the Fleet to be attended by his manservant is a monstrous absurdity. Sam,' said Mr. Pickwick, 'for a time you must leave me.'
'Oh, for a time, eh, sir?' rejoined Mr. Weller rather sarcastically.
'Yes, for the time that I remain here,' said Mr. Pickwick. 'Your wages I shall continue to pay. Any one of my three friends will be happy to take you, were it only out of respect to me. And if I ever do leave this place, Sam,' added Mr. Pickwick, with assumed cheerfulness — 'if I do, I pledge you my word that you shall return to me instantly.'
'Now I'll tell you wot it is, Sir,' said Mr. Weller, in a grave and solemn voice. 'This here sort o' thing won't do at all, so don't let's hear no more about it.' 'I am serious, and resolved, Sam,' said Mr. Pickwick.
'You air, air you, sir?' inquired Mr. Weller firmly. 'Wery good, Sir; then so am I.'
Thus speaking, Mr. Weller fixed his hat on his head with great precision, and abruptly left the room.
'Sam!' cried Mr. Pickwick, calling after him, 'Sam! Here!'
But the long gallery ceased to re-echo the sound of footsteps. Sam Weller was gone.