A NEW ACQUAINTANCE--THE STROLLER'S TALE--A
< BackForward >
DISAGREEABLE INTERRUPTION, AND AN UNPLEASANT
Mr. Pickwick had felt some apprehensions in consequence of the
unusual absence of his two friends, which their mysterious
behaviour during the whole morning had by no means tended to
diminish. It was, therefore, with more than ordinary pleasure
that he rose to greet them when they again entered; and with more
than ordinary interest that he inquired what had occurred to
detain them from his society. In reply to his questions on this
point, Mr. Snodgrass was about to offer an historical account of
the circumstances just now detailed, when he was suddenly checked
by observing that there were present, not only Mr. Tupman and
their stage-coach companion of the preceding day, but another
stranger of equally singular appearance. It was a careworn-looking
man, whose sallow face, and deeply-sunken eyes, were rendered
still more striking than Nature had made them, by the straight
black hair which hung in matted disorder half-way down his face.
His eyes were almost unnaturally bright and piercing; his
cheek-bones were high and prominent; and his jaws were so long and
lank, that an observer would have supposed that he was drawing the
flesh of his face in, for a moment, by some contraction of the
muscles, if his half-opened mouth and immovable expression had not
announced that it was his ordinary appearance. Round his neck he
wore a green shawl, with the large ends straggling over his chest,
and making their appearance occasionally beneath the worn
button-holes of his old waistcoat. His upper garment was a long
black surtout; and below it he wore wide drab trousers, and large
boots, running rapidly to seed.
It was on this uncouth-looking person that Mr. Winkle's eye
rested, and it was towards him that Mr. Pickwick extended his
hand when he said, 'A friend of our friend's here. We discovered
this morning that our friend was connected with the theatre in
this place, though he is not desirous to have it generally known,
and this gentleman is a member of the same profession. He was
about to favour us with a little anecdote connected with it, when
'Lots of anecdote,' said the green-coated stranger of the day
before, advancing to Mr. Winkle and speaking in a low and
confidential tone. 'Rum fellow--does the heavy business--no
actor--strange man--all sorts of miseries--Dismal Jemmy, we
call him on the circuit.' Mr. Winkle and Mr. Snodgrass politely
welcomed the gentleman, elegantly designated as 'Dismal
Jemmy'; and calling for brandy-and-water, in imitation of the
remainder of the company, seated themselves at the table.
'Now sir,' said Mr. Pickwick, 'will you oblige us by proceeding
with what you were going to relate?'
The dismal individual took a dirty roll of paper from his
pocket, and turning to Mr. Snodgrass, who had just taken out
his note-book, said in a hollow voice, perfectly in keeping with his
outward man--'Are you the poet?'
'I--I do a little in that way,' replied Mr. Snodgrass, rather
taken aback by the abruptness of the question.
'Ah! poetry makes life what light and music do the stage--
strip the one of the false embellishments, and the other of its
illusions, and what is there real in either to live or care for?'
'Very true, Sir,' replied Mr. Snodgrass.
'To be before the footlights,' continued the dismal man, 'is like
sitting at a grand court show, and admiring the silken dresses of
the gaudy throng; to be behind them is to be the people who
make that finery, uncared for and unknown, and left to sink or
swim, to starve or live, as fortune wills it.'
'Certainly,' said Mr. Snodgrass: for the sunken eye of the
dismal man rested on him, and he felt it necessary to say something.
'Go on, Jemmy,' said the Spanish traveller, 'like black-eyed
Susan--all in the Downs--no croaking--speak out--look lively.'
'Will you make another glass before you begin, Sir ?' said Mr. Pickwick.
The dismal man took the hint, and having mixed a glass of
brandy-and-water, and slowly swallowed half of it, opened the
roll of paper and proceeded, partly to read, and partly to relate,
the following incident, which we find recorded on the Transactions
of the Club as 'The Stroller's Tale.'
THE STROLLER'S TALE
'There is nothing of the marvellous in what I am going to relate,'
said the dismal man; 'there is nothing even uncommon in it.
Want and sickness are too common in many stations of life to
deserve more notice than is usually bestowed on the most
ordinary vicissitudes of human nature. I have thrown these few
notes together, because the subject of them was well known to me
for many years. I traced his progress downwards, step by step,
until at last he reached that excess of destitution from which he
never rose again.
'The man of whom I speak was a low pantomime actor; and,
like many people of his class, an habitual drunkard. in his better
days, before he had become enfeebled by dissipation and
emaciated by disease, he had been in the receipt of a good salary,
which, if he had been careful and prudent, he might have continued
to receive for some years--not many; because these men
either die early, or by unnaturally taxing their bodily energies,
lose, prematurely, those physical powers on which alone they can
depend for subsistence. His besetting sin gained so fast upon him,
however, that it was found impossible to employ him in the
situations in which he really was useful to the theatre. The
public-house had a fascination for him which he could not resist.
Neglected disease and hopeless poverty were as certain to be his
portion as death itself, if he persevered in the same course; yet he
did persevere, and the result may be guessed. He could obtain no
engagement, and he wanted bread.
'Everybody who is at all acquainted with theatrical matters
knows what a host of shabby, poverty-stricken men hang about
the stage of a large establishment--not regularly engaged actors,
but ballet people, procession men, tumblers, and so forth, who
are taken on during the run of a pantomime, or an Easter piece,
and are then discharged, until the production of some heavy
spectacle occasions a new demand for their services. To this
mode of life the man was compelled to resort; and taking the
chair every night, at some low theatrical house, at once put him
in possession of a few more shillings weekly, and enabled him to
gratify his old propensity. Even this resource shortly failed him;
his irregularities were too great to admit of his earning the
wretched pittance he might thus have procured, and he was
actually reduced to a state bordering on starvation, only procuring
a trifle occasionally by borrowing it of some old companion,
or by obtaining an appearance at one or other of the commonest
of the minor theatres; and when he did earn anything it was
spent in the old way.
'About this time, and when he had been existing for upwards
of a year no one knew how, I had a short engagement at one of
the theatres on the Surrey side of the water, and here I saw this
man, whom I had lost sight of for some time; for I had been
travelling in the provinces, and he had been skulking in the lanes
and alleys of London. I was dressed to leave the house, and was
crossing the stage on my way out, when he tapped me on the
shoulder. Never shall I forget the repulsive sight that met my eye
when I turned round. He was dressed for the pantomimes in all
the absurdity of a clown's costume. The spectral figures in the
Dance of Death, the most frightful shapes that the ablest painter
ever portrayed on canvas, never presented an appearance half so
ghastly. His bloated body and shrunken legs--their deformity
enhanced a hundredfold by the fantastic dress--the glassy eyes,
contrasting fearfully with the thick white paint with which the
face was besmeared; the grotesquely-ornamented head, trembling
with paralysis, and the long skinny hands, rubbed with white
chalk--all gave him a hideous and unnatural appearance, of
which no description could convey an adequate idea, and which,
to this day, I shudder to think of. His voice was hollow and
tremulous as he took me aside, and in broken words recounted a
long catalogue of sickness and privations, terminating as usual
with an urgent request for the loan of a trifling sum of money. I
put a few shillings in his hand, and as I turned away I heard the
roar of laughter which followed his first tumble on the stage.
'A few nights afterwards, a boy put a dirty scrap of paper in
my hand, on which were scrawled a few words in pencil,
intimating that the man was dangerously ill, and begging me, after
the performance, to see him at his lodgings in some street--I
forget the name of it now--at no great distance from the theatre.
I promised to comply, as soon as I could get away; and after the
curtain fell, sallied forth on my melancholy errand.
'It was late, for I had been playing in the last piece; and, as it
was a benefit night, the performances had been protracted to an
unusual length. It was a dark, cold night, with a chill, damp wind,
which blew the rain heavily against the windows and house-
fronts. Pools of water had collected in the narrow and little-
frequented streets, and as many of the thinly-scattered oil-lamps
had been blown out by the violence of the wind, the walk was not
only a comfortless, but most uncertain one. I had fortunately
taken the right course, however, and succeeded, after a little
difficulty, in finding the house to which I had been directed--a
coal-shed, with one Storey above it, in the back room of which
lay the object of my search.
'A wretched-looking woman, the man's wife, met me on the
stairs, and, telling me that he had just fallen into a kind of doze,
led me softly in, and placed a chair for me at the bedside. The sick
man was lying with his face turned towards the wall; and as he
took no heed of my presence, I had leisure to observe the place in
which I found myself.
'He was lying on an old bedstead, which turned up during the
day. The tattered remains of a checked curtain were drawn round
the bed's head, to exclude the wind, which, however, made its
way into the comfortless room through the numerous chinks in
the door, and blew it to and fro every instant. There was a low
cinder fire in a rusty, unfixed grate; and an old three-cornered
stained table, with some medicine bottles, a broken glass, and a
few other domestic articles, was drawn out before it. A little child
was sleeping on a temporary bed which had been made for it on
the floor, and the woman sat on a chair by its side. There were
a couple of shelves, with a few plates and cups and saucers; and
a pair of stage shoes and a couple of foils hung beneath them.
With the exception of little heaps of rags and bundles which had
been carelessly thrown into the corners of the room, these were
the only things in the apartment.
'I had had time to note these little particulars, and to mark the
heavy breathing and feverish startings of the sick man, before he
was aware of my presence. In the restless attempts to procure
some easy resting-place for his head, he tossed his hand out of the
bed, and it fell on mine. He started up, and stared eagerly in my face.
'"Mr. Hutley, John," said his wife; "Mr. Hutley, that you sent
for to-night, you know."
'"Ah!" said the invalid, passing his hand across his forehead;
"Hutley--Hutley--let me see." He seemed endeavouring to
collect his thoughts for a few seconds, and then grasping me
tightly by the wrist said, "Don't leave me--don't leave me, old
fellow. She'll murder me; I know she will."
'"Has he been long so?" said I, addressing his weeping wife.
'"Since yesterday night," she replied. "John, John, don't you
'"Don't let her come near me," said the man, with a shudder,
as she stooped over him. "Drive her away; I can't bear her near
me." He stared wildly at her, with a look of deadly apprehension,
and then whispered in my ear, "I beat her, Jem; I beat her
yesterday, and many times before. I have starved her and the boy
too; and now I am weak and helpless, Jem, she'll murder me for
it; I know she will. If you'd seen her cry, as I have, you'd know it
too. Keep her off." He relaxed his grasp, and sank back exhausted
on the pillow.
'I knew but too well what all this meant. If I could have
entertained any doubt of it, for an instant, one glance at the
woman's pale face and wasted form would have sufficiently
explained the real state of the case. "You had better stand aside,"
said I to the poor creature. "You can do him no good. Perhaps he
will be calmer, if he does not see you." She retired out of the
man's sight. He opened his eyes after a few seconds, and looked
'"Is she gone?" he eagerly inquired.
'"Yes--yes," said I; "she shall not hurt you."
'"I'll tell you what, Jem," said the man, in a low voice, "she
does hurt me. There's something in her eyes wakes such a dreadful
fear in my heart, that it drives me mad. All last night, her large,
staring eyes and pale face were close to mine; wherever I turned,
they turned; and whenever I started up from my sleep, she was at
the bedside looking at me." He drew me closer to him, as he said
in a deep alarmed whisper, "Jem, she must be an evil spirit--a
devil! Hush! I know she is. If she had been a woman she would
have died long ago. No woman could have borne what she has."
'I sickened at the thought of the long course of cruelty and
neglect which must have occurred to produce such an impression
on such a man. I could say nothing in reply; for who could offer
hope, or consolation, to the abject being before me?
'I sat there for upwards of two hours, during which time he
tossed about, murmuring exclamations of pain or impatience,
restlessly throwing his arms here and there, and turning
constantly from side to side. At length he fell into that state of partial
unconsciousness, in which the mind wanders uneasily from scene
to scene, and from place to place, without the control of reason,
but still without being able to divest itself of an indescribable
sense of present suffering. Finding from his incoherent wanderings
that this was the case, and knowing that in all probability the
fever would not grow immediately worse, I left him, promising
his miserable wife that I would repeat my visit next evening, and,
if necessary, sit up with the patient during the night.
'I kept my promise. The last four-and-twenty hours had
produced a frightful alteration. The eyes, though deeply sunk
and heavy, shone with a lustre frightful to behold. The lips were
parched, and cracked in many places; the hard, dry skin glowed
with a burning heat; and there was an almost unearthly air of
wild anxiety in the man's face, indicating even more strongly the
ravages of the disease. The fever was at its height.
'I took the seat I had occupied the night before, and there I sat
for hours, listening to sounds which must strike deep to the heart
of the most callous among human beings--the awful ravings of a
dying man. From what I had heard of the medical attendant's
opinion, I knew there was no hope for him: I was sitting by his
death-bed. I saw the wasted limbs--which a few hours before
had been distorted for the amusement of a boisterous gallery,
writhing under the tortures of a burning fever--I heard the
clown's shrill laugh, blending with the low murmurings of the
'It is a touching thing to hear the mind reverting to the
ordinary occupations and pursuits of health, when the body lies
before you weak and helpless; but when those occupations are of
a character the most strongly opposed to anything we associate
with grave and solemn ideas, the impression produced is
infinitely more powerful. The theatre and the public-house were the
chief themes of the wretched man's wanderings. It was evening,
he fancied; he had a part to play that night; it was late, and he
must leave home instantly. Why did they hold him, and prevent
his going?--he should lose the money--he must go. No! they
would not let him. He hid his face in his burning hands, and
feebly bemoaned his own weakness, and the cruelty of his
persecutors. A short pause, and he shouted out a few doggerel
rhymes--the last he had ever learned. He rose in bed, drew up
his withered limbs, and rolled about in uncouth positions; he was
acting--he was at the theatre. A minute's silence, and he murmured
the burden of some roaring song. He had reached the old
house at last--how hot the room was. He had been ill, very ill,
but he was well now, and happy. Fill up his glass. Who was that,
that dashed it from his lips? It was the same persecutor that had
followed him before. He fell back upon his pillow and moaned
aloud. A short period of oblivion, and he was wandering through
a tedious maze of low-arched rooms--so low, sometimes, that he
must creep upon his hands and knees to make his way along; it
was close and dark, and every way he turned, some obstacle
impeded his progress. There were insects, too, hideous crawling
things, with eyes that stared upon him, and filled the very air
around, glistening horribly amidst the thick darkness of the place.
The walls and ceiling were alive with reptiles--the vault expanded
to an enormous size--frightful figures flitted to and fro--and the
faces of men he knew, rendered hideous by gibing and mouthing,
peered out from among them; they were searing him with
heated irons, and binding his head with cords till the blood
started; and he struggled madly for life.
'At the close of one of these paroxysms, when I had with great
difficulty held him down in his bed, he sank into what appeared
to be a slumber. Overpowered with watching and exertion, I had
closed my eyes for a few minutes, when I felt a violent clutch on
my shoulder. I awoke instantly. He had raised himself up, so as to
seat himself in bed--a dreadful change had come over his face,
but consciousness had returned, for he evidently knew me. The
child, who had been long since disturbed by his ravings, rose
from its little bed, and ran towards its father, screaming with
fright--the mother hastily caught it in her arms, lest he should
injure it in the violence of his insanity; but, terrified by the
alteration of his features, stood transfixed by the bedside. He
grasped my shoulder convulsively, and, striking his breast with
the other hand, made a desperate attempt to articulate. It was
unavailing; he extended his arm towards them, and made another
violent effort. There was a rattling noise in the throat--a glare of
the eye--a short stifled groan--and he fell back--dead!'
It would afford us the highest gratification to be enabled to
record Mr. Pickwick's opinion of the foregoing anecdote. We
have little doubt that we should have been enabled to present it
to our readers, but for a most unfortunate occurrence.
Mr. Pickwick had replaced on the table the glass which, during
the last few sentences of the tale, he had retained in his hand;
and had just made up his mind to speak--indeed, we have the
authority of Mr. Snodgrass's note-book for stating, that he had
actually opened his mouth--when the waiter entered the room,
'Some gentlemen, Sir.'
It has been conjectured that Mr. Pickwick was on the point of
delivering some remarks which would have enlightened the
world, if not the Thames, when he was thus interrupted; for he
gazed sternly on the waiter's countenance, and then looked round
on the company generally, as if seeking for information relative
to the new-comers.
'Oh!' said Mr. Winkle, rising, 'some friends of mine--show
them in. Very pleasant fellows,' added Mr. Winkle, after the
waiter had retired--'officers of the 97th, whose acquaintance I
made rather oddly this morning. You will like them very much.'
Mr. Pickwick's equanimity was at once restored. The waiter
returned, and ushered three gentlemen into the room.
'Lieutenant Tappleton,' said Mr. Winkle, 'Lieutenant Tappleton,
Mr. Pickwick--Doctor Payne, Mr. Pickwick--Mr. Snodgrass
you have seen before, my friend Mr. Tupman, Doctor
Payne--Doctor Slammer, Mr. Pickwick--Mr. Tupman, Doctor
Here Mr. Winkle suddenly paused; for strong emotion was
visible on the countenance both of Mr. Tupman and the doctor.
'I have met THIS gentleman before,' said the Doctor, with
'Indeed!' said Mr. Winkle.
'And--and that person, too, if I am not mistaken,' said the
doctor, bestowing a scrutinising glance on the green-coated
stranger. 'I think I gave that person a very pressing invitation last
night, which he thought proper to decline.' Saying which the
doctor scowled magnanimously on the stranger, and whispered
his friend Lieutenant Tappleton.
'You don't say so,' said that gentleman, at the conclusion of
'I do, indeed,' replied Doctor Slammer.
'You are bound to kick him on the spot,' murmured the
owner of the camp-stool, with great importance.
'Do be quiet, Payne,' interposed the lieutenant. 'Will you
allow me to ask you, sir,' he said, addressing Mr. Pickwick, who
was considerably mystified by this very unpolite by-play--'will
you allow me to ask you, Sir, whether that person belongs to your party?'
'No, Sir,' replied Mr. Pickwick, 'he is a guest of ours.'
'He is a member of your club, or I am mistaken?' said the
'Certainly not,' responded Mr. Pickwick.
'And never wears your club-button?' said the lieutenant.
'No--never!' replied the astonished Mr. Pickwick.
Lieutenant Tappleton turned round to his friend Doctor
Slammer, with a scarcely perceptible shrug of the shoulder, as if
implying some doubt of the accuracy of his recollection. The little
doctor looked wrathful, but confounded; and Mr. Payne gazed
with a ferocious aspect on the beaming countenance of the
'Sir,' said the doctor, suddenly addressing Mr. Tupman, in a
tone which made that gentleman start as perceptibly as if a pin
had been cunningly inserted in the calf of his leg, 'you were at the
ball here last night!'
Mr. Tupman gasped a faint affirmative, looking very hard at
Mr. Pickwick all the while.
'That person was your companion,' said the doctor, pointing
to the still unmoved stranger.
Mr. Tupman admitted the fact.
'Now, sir,' said the doctor to the stranger, 'I ask you once
again, in the presence of these gentlemen, whether you choose to
give me your card, and to receive the treatment of a gentleman;
or whether you impose upon me the necessity of personally
chastising you on the spot?'
'Stay, sir,' said Mr. Pickwick, 'I really cannot allow this matter
to go any further without some explanation. Tupman, recount the
Mr. Tupman, thus solemnly adjured, stated the case in a few
words; touched slightly on the borrowing of the coat; expatiated
largely on its having been done 'after dinner'; wound up with a
little penitence on his own account; and left the stranger to clear
himself as best he could.
He was apparently about to proceed to do so, when Lieutenant
Tappleton, who had been eyeing him with great curiosity, said
with considerable scorn, 'Haven't I seen you at the theatre, Sir?'
'Certainly,' replied the unabashed stranger.
'He is a strolling actor!' said the lieutenant contemptuously,
turning to Doctor Slammer.--'He acts in the piece that the
officers of the 52nd get up at the Rochester Theatre to-morrow
night. You cannot proceed in this affair, Slammer--impossible!'
'Quite!' said the dignified Payne.
'Sorry to have placed you in this disagreeable situation,' said
Lieutenant Tappleton, addressing Mr. Pickwick; 'allow me to
suggest, that the best way of avoiding a recurrence of such scenes
in future will be to be more select in the choice of your companions.
Good-evening, Sir!' and the lieutenant bounced out of the room.
'And allow me to say, Sir,' said the irascible Doctor Payne,
'that if I had been Tappleton, or if I had been Slammer, I would
have pulled your nose, Sir, and the nose of every man in this
company. I would, sir--every man. Payne is my name, sir--
Doctor Payne of the 43rd. Good-evening, Sir.' Having concluded
this speech, and uttered the last three words in a loud key, he
stalked majestically after his friend, closely followed by Doctor
Slammer, who said nothing, but contented himself by withering
the company with a look.
Rising rage and extreme bewilderment had swelled the noble
breast of Mr. Pickwick, almost to the bursting of his waistcoat,
during the delivery of the above defiance. He stood transfixed to
the spot, gazing on vacancy. The closing of the door recalled him
to himself. He rushed forward with fury in his looks, and fire in
his eye. His hand was upon the lock of the door; in another
instant it would have been on the throat of Doctor Payne of the
43rd, had not Mr. Snodgrass seized his revered leader by the coat
tail, and dragged him backwards.
'Restrain him,' cried Mr. Snodgrass; 'Winkle, Tupman--he
must not peril his distinguished life in such a cause as this.'
'Let me go,' said Mr. Pickwick.
'Hold him tight,' shouted Mr. Snodgrass; and by the united
efforts of the whole company, Mr. Pickwick was forced into an arm-chair.
'Leave him alone,' said the green-coated stranger; 'brandy-
and-water--jolly old gentleman--lots of pluck--swallow this--
ah!--capital stuff.' Having previously tested the virtues of a
bumper, which had been mixed by the dismal man, the stranger
applied the glass to Mr. Pickwick's mouth; and the remainder of
its contents rapidly disappeared.
There was a short pause; the brandy-and-water had done its
work; the amiable countenance of Mr. Pickwick was fast
recovering its customary expression.
'They are not worth your notice,' said the dismal man.
'You are right, sir,' replied Mr. Pickwick, 'they are not. I am
ashamed to have been betrayed into this warmth of feeling. Draw
your chair up to the table, Sir.'
The dismal man readily complied; a circle was again formed
round the table, and harmony once more prevailed. Some
lingering irritability appeared to find a resting-place in Mr.
Winkle's bosom, occasioned possibly by the temporary abstraction
of his coat--though it is scarcely reasonable to suppose that
so slight a circumstance can have excited even a passing feeling of
anger in a Pickwickian's breast. With this exception, their good-
humour was completely restored; and the evening concluded
with the conviviality with which it had begun.