CHAPTER XLIII. SHOWING HOW Mr. SAMUEL WELLER GOT INTO DIFFICULTIES
In a lofty room, ill-lighted and worse ventilated, situated in Portugal Street, Lincoln's Inn Fields, there sit nearly the whole year round, one, two, three, or four gentlemen in wigs, as the case may be, with little writing-desks before them, constructed after the fashion of those used by the judges of the land, barring the French polish. There is a box of barristers on their right hand; there is an enclosure of insolvent debtors on their left; and there is an inclined plane of most especially dirty faces in their front. These gentlemen are the Commissioners of the Insolvent Court, and the place in which they sit, is the Insolvent Court itself.
It is, and has been, time out of mind, the remarkable fate of this court to be, somehow or other, held and understood, by the general consent of all the destitute shabby-genteel people in London, as their common resort, and place of daily refuge. It is always full. The steams of beer and spirits perpetually ascend to the ceiling, and, being condensed by the heat, roll down the walls like rain; there are more old suits of clothes in it at one time, than will be offered for sale in all Houndsditch in a twelvemonth; more unwashed skins and grizzly beards than all the pumps and shaving-shops between Tyburn and Whitechapel could render decent, between sunrise and sunset.
It must not be supposed that any of these people have the least shadow of business in, or the remotest connection with, the place they so indefatigably attend. If they had, it would be no matter of surprise, and the singularity of the thing would cease. Some of them sleep during the greater part of the sitting; others carry small portable dinners wrapped in pocket-handkerchiefs or sticking out of their worn-out pockets, and munch and listen with equal relish; but no one among them was ever known to have the slightest personal interest in any case that was ever brought forward. Whatever they do, there they sit from the first moment to the last. When it is heavy, rainy weather, they all come in, wet through; and at such times the vapours of the court are like those of a fungus-pit.
A casual visitor might suppose this place to be a temple dedicated to the Genius of Seediness. There is not a messenger or process-server attached to it, who wears a coat that was made for him; not a tolerably fresh, or wholesome-looking man in the whole establishment, except a little white-headed apple-faced tipstaff, and even he, like an ill-conditioned cherry preserved in brandy, seems to have artificially dried and withered up into a state of preservation to which he can lay no natural claim. The very barristers' wigs are ill-powdered, and their curls lack crispness.
But the attorneys, who sit at a large bare table below the commissioners, are, after all, the greatest curiosities. The professional establishment of the more opulent of these gentlemen, consists of a blue bag and a boy; generally a youth of the Jewish persuasion. They have no fixed offices, their legal business being transacted in the parlours of public-houses, or the yards of prisons, whither they repair in crowds, and canvass for customers after the manner of omnibus cads. They are of a greasy and mildewed appearance; and if they can be said to have any vices at all, perhaps drinking and cheating are the most conspicuous among them. Their residences are usually on the outskirts of 'the Rules,' chiefly lying within a circle of one mile from the obelisk in St. George's Fields. Their looks are not prepossessing, and their manners are peculiar.
Mr. Solomon Pell, one of this learned body, was a fat, flabby, pale man, in a surtout which looked green one minute, and brown the next, with a velvet collar of the same chameleon tints. His forehead was narrow, his face wide, his head large, and his nose all on one side, as if Nature, indignant with the propensities she observed in him in his birth, had given it an angry tweak which it had never recovered. Being short-necked and asthmatic, however, he respired principally through this feature; so, perhaps, what it wanted in ornament, it made up in usefulness.
'I'm sure to bring him through it,' said Mr. Pell.
'Are you, though?' replied the person to whom the assurance was pledged.
'Certain sure,' replied Pell; 'but if he'd gone to any irregular practitioner, mind you, I wouldn't have answered for the consequences.'
'Ah!' said the other, with open mouth.
'No, that I wouldn't,' said Mr. Pell; and he pursed up his lips, frowned, and shook his head mysteriously.
Now, the place where this discourse occurred was the public-house just opposite to the Insolvent Court; and the person with whom it was held was no other than the elder Mr. Weller, who had come there, to comfort and console a friend, whose petition to be discharged under the act, was to be that day heard, and whose attorney he was at that moment consulting.
'And vere is George?' inquired the old gentleman.
Mr. Pell jerked his head in the direction of a back parlour, whither Mr. Weller at once repairing, was immediately greeted in the warmest and most flattering manner by some half-dozen of his professional brethren, in token of their gratification at his arrival. The insolvent gentleman, who had contracted a speculative but imprudent passion for horsing long stages, which had led to his present embarrassments, looked extremely well, and was soothing the excitement of his feelings with shrimps and porter.
The salutation between Mr. Weller and his friends was strictly confined to the freemasonry of the craft; consisting of a jerking round of the right wrist, and a tossing of the little finger into the air at the same time. We once knew two famous coachmen (they are dead now, poor fellows) who were twins, and between whom an unaffected and devoted attachment existed. They passed each other on the Dover road, every day, for twenty-four years, never exchanging any other greeting than this; and yet, when one died, the other pined away, and soon afterwards followed him!
'Vell, George,' said Mr. Weller senior, taking off his upper coat, and seating himself with his accustomed gravity. 'How is it? All right behind, and full inside?'
'All right, old feller,' replied the embarrassed gentleman.
'Is the gray mare made over to anybody?' inquired Mr. Weller anxiously. George nodded in the affirmative.
'Vell, that's all right,' said Mr. Weller. 'Coach taken care on, also?'
'Con-signed in a safe quarter,' replied George, wringing the heads off half a dozen shrimps, and swallowing them without any more ado.
'Wery good, wery good,' said Mr. Weller. 'Alvays see to the drag ven you go downhill. Is the vay-bill all clear and straight for'erd?'
'The schedule, sir,' said Pell, guessing at Mr. Weller's meaning, 'the schedule is as plain and satisfactory as pen and ink can make it.'
Mr. Weller nodded in a manner which bespoke his inward approval of these arrangements; and then, turning to Mr. Pell, said, pointing to his friend George —
'Ven do you take his cloths off?'
'Why,' replied Mr. Pell, 'he stands third on the opposed list, and I should think it would be his turn in about half an hour. I told my clerk to come over and tell us when there was a chance.'
Mr. Weller surveyed the attorney from head to foot with great admiration, and said emphatically —
'And what'll you take, sir?'
'Why, really,' replied Mr. Pell, 'you're very — Upon my word and honour, I'm not in the habit of — It's so very early in the morning, that, actually, I am almost — Well, you may bring me threepenn'orth of rum, my dear.'
The officiating damsel, who had anticipated the order before it was given, set the glass of spirits before Pell, and retired.
'Gentlemen,' said Mr. Pell, looking round upon the company, 'success to your friend! I don't like to boast, gentlemen; it's not my way; but I can't help saying, that, if your friend hadn't been fortunate enough to fall into hands that — But I won't say what I was going to say. Gentlemen, my service to you.' Having emptied the glass in a twinkling, Mr. Pell smacked his lips, and looked complacently round on the assembled coachmen, who evidently regarded him as a species of divinity.
'Let me see,' said the legal authority. 'What was I a-saying, gentlemen?'
'I think you was remarkin' as you wouldn't have no objection to another o' the same, Sir,' said Mr. Weller, with grave facetiousness. 'Ha, ha!' laughed Mr. Pell. 'Not bad, not bad. A professional man, too! At this time of the morning, it would be rather too good a — Well, I don't know, my dear — you may do that again, if you please. Hem!'
This last sound was a solemn and dignified cough, in which Mr. Pell, observing an indecent tendency to mirth in some of his auditors, considered it due to himself to indulge.
'The late Lord Chancellor, gentlemen, was very fond of me,' said Mr. Pell.
'And wery creditable in him, too,' interposed Mr. Weller.
'Hear, hear,' assented Mr. Pell's client. 'Why shouldn't he be?
'Ah! Why, indeed!' said a very red-faced man, who had said nothing yet, and who looked extremely unlikely to say anything more. 'Why shouldn't he?'
A murmur of assent ran through the company.
'I remember, gentlemen,' said Mr. Pell, 'dining with him on one occasion; there was only us two, but everything as splendid as if twenty people had been expected — the great seal on a dumb-waiter at his right hand, and a man in a bag-wig and suit of armour guarding the mace with a drawn sword and silk stockings — which is perpetually done, gentlemen, night and day; when he said, "Pell," he said, "no false delicacy, Pell. You're a man of talent; you can get anybody through the Insolvent Court, Pell; and your country should be proud of you." Those were his very words. "My Lord," I said, "you flatter me." — "Pell," he said, "if I do, I'm damned."'
'Did he say that?' inquired Mr. Weller.
'He did,' replied Pell.
'Vell, then,' said Mr. Weller, 'I say Parliament ought to ha' took it up; and if he'd been a poor man, they would ha' done it.'
'But, my dear friend,' argued Mr. Pell, 'it was in confidence.'
'In what?' said Mr. Weller.