To these succeeded a bottle or two of very good wine, for which a messenger was despatched by Mr. Pickwick to the Horn Coffee-house, in Doctors' Commons. The bottle or two, indeed, might be more properly described as a bottle or six, for by the time it was drunk, and tea over, the bell began to ring for strangers to withdraw.
But, if Mr. Winkle's behaviour had been unaccountable in the morning, it became perfectly unearthly and solemn when, under the influence of his feelings, and his share of the bottle or six, he prepared to take leave of his friend. He lingered behind, until Mr. Tupman and Mr. Snodgrass had disappeared, and then fervently clenched Mr. Pickwick's hand, with an expression of face in which deep and mighty resolve was fearfully blended with the very concentrated essence of gloom.
'Good-night, my dear Sir!' said Mr. Winkle between his set teeth.
'Bless you, my dear fellow!' replied the warm-hearted Mr. Pickwick, as he returned the pressure of his young friend's hand.
'Now then!' cried Mr. Tupman from the gallery.
'Yes, yes, directly,' replied Mr. Winkle. 'Good-night!'
'Good-night,' said Mr. Pickwick.
There was another good-night, and another, and half a dozen more after that, and still Mr. Winkle had fast hold of his friend's hand, and was looking into his face with the same strange expression.
'Is anything the matter?' said Mr. Pickwick at last, when his arm was quite sore with shaking. 'Nothing,' said Mr. Winkle.
'Well then, good-night,' said Mr. Pickwick, attempting to disengage his hand.
'My friend, my benefactor, my honoured companion,' murmured Mr. Winkle, catching at his wrist. 'Do not judge me harshly; do not, when you hear that, driven to extremity by hopeless obstacles, I — '
'Now then,' said Mr. Tupman, reappearing at the door. 'Are you coming, or are we to be locked in?'
'Yes, yes, I am ready,' replied Mr. Winkle. And with a violent effort he tore himself away.
As Mr. Pickwick was gazing down the passage after them in silent astonishment, Sam Weller appeared at the stair-head, and whispered for one moment in Mr. Winkle's ear.
'Oh, certainly, depend upon me,' said that gentleman aloud.
'Thank'ee, sir. You won't forget, sir?' said Sam. 'Of course not,' replied Mr. Winkle.
'Wish you luck, Sir,' said Sam, touching his hat. 'I should very much liked to ha' joined you, Sir; but the gov'nor, o' course, is paramount.'
'It is very much to your credit that you remain here,' said Mr. Winkle. With these words they disappeared down the stairs.
'Very extraordinary,' said Mr. Pickwick, going back into his room, and seating himself at the table in a musing attitude. 'What can that young man be going to do?'
He had sat ruminating about the matter for some time, when the voice of Roker, the turnkey, demanded whether he might come in.
'By all means,' said Mr. Pickwick.
'I've brought you a softer pillow, Sir,' said Mr. Roker, 'instead of the temporary one you had last night.'
'Thank you,' said Mr. Pickwick. 'Will you take a glass of wine?'
'You're wery good, Sir,' replied Mr. Roker, accepting the proffered glass. 'Yours, sir.'
'Thank you,' said Mr. Pickwick.
'I'm sorry to say that your landlord's wery bad to-night, Sir,' said Roker, setting down the glass, and inspecting the lining of his hat preparatory to putting it on again.
'What! The Chancery prisoner!' exclaimed Mr. Pickwick.
'He won't be a Chancery prisoner wery long, Sir,' replied Roker, turning his hat round, so as to get the maker's name right side upwards, as he looked into it.
'You make my blood run cold,' said Mr. Pickwick. 'What do you mean?'
'He's been consumptive for a long time past,' said Mr. Roker, 'and he's taken wery bad in the breath to-night. The doctor said, six months ago, that nothing but change of air could save him.'
'Great Heaven!' exclaimed Mr. Pickwick; 'has this man been slowly murdered by the law for six months?'
'I don't know about that,' replied Roker, weighing the hat by the brim in both hands. 'I suppose he'd have been took the same, wherever he was. He went into the infirmary, this morning; the doctor says his strength is to be kept up as much as possible; and the warden's sent him wine and broth and that, from his own house. It's not the warden's fault, you know, sir.'
'Of course not,' replied Mr. Pickwick hastily.
'I'm afraid, however,' said Roker, shaking his head, 'that it's all up with him. I offered Neddy two six-penn'orths to one upon it just now, but he wouldn't take it, and quite right. Thank'ee, Sir. Good-night, sir.'
'Stay,' said Mr. Pickwick earnestly. 'Where is this infirmary?'
'Just over where you slept, sir,' replied Roker. 'I'll show you, if you like to come.' Mr. Pickwick snatched up his hat without speaking, and followed at once.
The turnkey led the way in silence; and gently raising the latch of the room door, motioned Mr. Pickwick to enter. It was a large, bare, desolate room, with a number of stump bedsteads made of iron, on one of which lay stretched the shadow of a man — wan, pale, and ghastly. His breathing was hard and thick, and he moaned painfully as it came and went. At the bedside sat a short old man in a cobbler's apron, who, by the aid of a pair of horn spectacles, was reading from the Bible aloud. It was the fortunate legatee.
The sick man laid his hand upon his attendant's arm, and motioned him to stop. He closed the book, and laid it on the bed.
'Open the window,' said the sick man.
He did so. The noise of carriages and carts, the rattle of wheels, the cries of men and boys, all the busy sounds of a mighty multitude instinct with life and occupation, blended into one deep murmur, floated into the room. Above the hoarse loud hum, arose, from time to time, a boisterous laugh; or a scrap of some jingling song, shouted forth, by one of the giddy crowd, would strike upon the ear, for an instant, and then be lost amidst the roar of voices and the tramp of footsteps; the breaking of the billows of the restless sea of life, that rolled heavily on, without. These are melancholy sounds to a quiet listener at any time; but how melancholy to the watcher by the bed of death!
'There is no air here,' said the man faintly. 'The place pollutes it. It was fresh round about, when I walked there, years ago; but it grows hot and heavy in passing these walls. I cannot breathe it.'
'We have breathed it together, for a long time,' said the old man. 'Come, come.'
There was a short silence, during which the two spectators approached the bed. The sick man drew a hand of his old fellow-prisoner towards him, and pressing it affectionately between both his own, retained it in his grasp.
'I hope,' he gasped after a while, so faintly that they bent their ears close over the bed to catch the half-formed sounds his pale lips gave vent to — 'I hope my merciful Judge will bear in mind my heavy punishment on earth. Twenty years, my friend, twenty years in this hideous grave! My heart broke when my child died, and I could not even kiss him in his little coffin. My loneliness since then, in all this noise and riot, has been very dreadful. May God forgive me! He has seen my solitary, lingering death.'
He folded his hands, and murmuring something more they could not hear, fell into a sleep — only a sleep at first, for they saw him smile.
They whispered together for a little time, and the turnkey, stooping over the pillow, drew hastily back. 'He has got his discharge, by G — !' said the man.
He had. But he had grown so like death in life, that they knew not when he died.