A prison is a house of care,|
A place where none can thrive,
A touchstone true to try a friend,
A grave for one alive
Sometimes a place of right,
Sometimes a place of wrong,
Sometimes a place of rogues and thieves,
And honest men among.
Inscription on Edinburgh Tolbooth
‘Be sharp, man, and get out the swell, canst thou not?’
‘Hold your tongue and be d—d, you ——,’ answered her loving husband, with two additional epithets of great energy, but which we beg to be excused from repeating. Then addressing Bertram—‘Come, will you get out, my handy lad, or must we lend you a lift?’
Bertram came out of the carriage, and, collared by the constable as he put his foot on the ground, was dragged, though he offered no resistance, across the threshold, amid the continued shouts of the little sans-culottes, who looked on at such distance as their fear of Mrs. Mac-Guffog permitted. The instant his foot had crossed the fatal porch, the portress again dropped her chains, drew her bolts, and, turning with both hands an immense key, took it from the lock and thrust it into a huge side-pocket of red cloth.
Bertram was now in the small court already mentioned. Two or three prisoners were sauntering along the pavement, and deriving as it were a feeling of refreshment from the momentary glimpse with which the opening door had extended their prospect to the other side of a dirty street. Nor can this be thought surprising, when it is considered that, unless on such occasions, their view was confined to the grated front of their prison, the high and sable walls of the courtyard, the heaven above them, and the pavement beneath their feet—a sameness of landscape which, to use the poet’s expression, ‘lay like a load on the wearied eye,’ and had fostered in some a callous and dull misanthropy, in others that sickness of the heart which induces him who is immured already in a living grave to wish for a sepulchre yet more calm and sequestered.
Mac-Guffog, when they entered the courtyard, suffered Bertram to pause for a minute and look upon his companions in affliction. When he had cast his eye around on faces on which guilt and despondence and low excess had fixed their stigma—upon the spendthrift, and the swindler, and the thief, the bankrupt debtor, the ‘moping idiot, and the madman gay,’ whom a paltry spirit of economy congregated to share this dismal habitation, he felt his heart recoil with inexpressible loathing from enduring the contamination of their society even for a moment.
‘I hope, sir,’ he said to the keeper, ‘you intend to assign me a place of confinement apart?’
‘And what should I be the better of that?’
‘Why, sir, I can but be detained here a day or two, and it would be very disagreeable to me to mix in the sort of company this place affords.’
‘And what do I care for that?’
‘Why then, sir, to speak to your feelings,’ said Bertram, ‘I shall be willing to make you a handsome compliment for this indulgence.’
‘Ay, but when, Captain? when and how? that’s the question, or rather the twa questions,’ said the jailor.
‘When I am delivered, and get my remittances from England,’ answered the prisoner.
Mac-Guffog shook his head incredulously.
‘Why, friend, you do not pretend to believe that I am really a malefactor?’ said Bertram.
‘Why, I no ken,’ said the fellow; ‘but if you are on the account, ye’re nae sharp ane, that’s the daylight o’t.’
‘And why do you say I am no sharp one?’
‘Why, wha but a crack-brained greenhorn wad hae let them keep up the siller that ye left at the Gordon Arms?’ said the constable. ‘Deil fetch me, but I wad have had it out o’ their wames! Ye had nae right to be strippit o’ your money and sent to jail without a mark to pay your fees; they might have keepit the rest o’ the articles for evidence. But why, for a blind bottle-head, did not ye ask the guineas? and I kept winking and nodding a’ the time, and the donnert deevil wad never ance look my way!’
‘Well, sir,’ replied Bertram, ‘if I have a title to have that property delivered up to me, I shall apply for it; and there is a good deal more than enough to pay any demand you can set up.’
‘I dinna ken a bit about that,’ said Mac-Guffog; ‘ye may be here lang eneugh. And then the gieing credit maun be considered in the fees. But, however, as ye do seem to be a chap by common, though my wife says I lose by my good-nature, if ye gie me an order for my fees upon that money I daresay Glossin will make it forthcoming; I ken something about an escape from Ellangowan. Ay, ay, he’ll be glad to carry me through, and be neighbour-like.’
‘Well, sir,’ replied Bertram, ‘if I am not furnished in a day or two otherwise, you shall have such an order.’
‘Weel, weel, then ye shall be put up like a prince,’ said Mac-Guffog. ‘But mark ye me, friend, that we may have nae colly-shangie afterhend, these are the fees that I always charge a swell that must have his lib-ken to himsell:—Thirty shillings a week for lodgings, and a guinea for garnish; half a guinea a week for a single bed; and I dinna get the whole of it, for I must gie half a crown out of it to Donald Laider that’s in for sheep-stealing, that should sleep with you by rule, and he’ll expect clean strae, and maybe some whisky beside. So I make little upon that.’
‘Well, sir, go on.’
‘Then for meat and liquor, ye may have the best, and I never charge abune twenty per cent ower tavern price for pleasing a gentleman that way; and that’s little eneugh for sending in and sending out, and wearing the lassie’s shoon out. And then if ye’re dowie I will sit wi’ you a gliff in the evening mysell, man, and help ye out wi’ your bottle. I have drank mony a glass wi’ Glossin, man, that did you up, though he’s a justice now. And then I’se warrant ye’ll be for fire thir cauld nights, or if ye want candle, that’s an expensive article, for it’s against the rules. And now I’ve tell’d ye the head articles of the charge, and I dinna think there’s muckle mair, though there will aye be some odd expenses ower and abune.’
‘Well, sir, I must trust to your conscience, if ever you happened to hear of such a thing; I cannot help myself.’
‘Na, na, sir,’ answered the cautious jailor, ‘I’ll no permit you to be saying that. I’m forcing naething upon ye; an ye dinna like the price, ye needna take the article. I force no man; I was only explaining what civility was. But if ye like to take the common run of the house, it’s a’ ane to me; I’ll be saved trouble, that’s a’.’
‘Nay, my friend, I have, as I suppose you may easily guess, no inclination to dispute your terms upon such a penalty,’ answered Bertram. ‘Come, show me where I am to be, for I would fain be alone for a little while.’
‘Ay, ay, come along then, Captain,’ said the fellow, with a contortion of visage which he intended to be a smile; ‘and I’ll tell you now—to show you that I have a conscience, as ye ca’t,—d—n me if I charge ye abune six-pence a day for the freedom o’ the court, and ye may walk in’t very near three hours a day, and play at pitch-and-toss and hand ba’ and what not.’
With this gracious promise he ushered Bertram into the house, and showed him up a steep and narrow stone staircase, at the top of which was a strong door, clenched with iron and studded with nails. Beyond this door was a narrow passage or gallery, having three cells on each side, wretched vaults, with iron bed-frames and straw mattresses. But at the farther end was a small apartment of rather a more decent appearance, that is, having less the air of a place of confinement, since, unless for the large lock and chain upon the door, and the crossed and ponderous stanchions upon the window, it rather resembled the ‘worst inn’s worst room.’ It was designed as a sort of infirmary for prisoners whose state of health required some indulgence; and, in fact, Donald Laider, Bertram’s destined chum, had been just dragged out of one of the two beds which it contained, to try whether clean straw and whisky might not have a better chance to cure his intermitting fever. This process of ejection had been carried into force by Mrs. Mac-Guffog while her husband parleyed with Bertram in the courtyard, that good lady having a distinct presentiment of the manner in which the treaty must necessarily terminate. Apparently the expulsion had not taken place without some application of the strong hand, for one of the bed-posts of a sort of tent-bed was broken down, so that the tester and curtains hung forward into the middle of the narrow chamber, like the banner of a chieftain half-sinking amid the confusion of a combat.
‘Never mind that being out o’ sorts, Captain,’ said Mrs. Mac-Guffog, who now followed them into the room; then, turning her back to the prisoner, with as much delicacy as the action admitted, she whipped from her knee her ferret garter, and applied it to splicing and fastening the broken bed-post; then used more pins than her apparel could well spare to fasten up the bed-curtains in festoons; then shook the bed-clothes into something like form; then flung over all a tattered patch-work quilt, and pronounced that things were now ‘something purpose-like.’ ‘And there’s your bed, Captain,’ pointing to a massy four-posted hulk, which, owing to the inequality of the floor, that had sunk considerably (the house, though new, having been built by contract), stood on three legs, and held the fourth aloft as if pawing the air, and in the attitude of advancing like an elephant passant upon the panel of a coach,—‘there’s your bed and the blankets; but if ye want sheets, or bowster, or pillow, or ony sort o’ nappery for the table, or for your hands, ye’ll hae to speak to me about it, for that’s out o’ the gudeman’s line (Mac-Guffog had by this time left the room, to avoid, probably, any appeal which might be made to him upon this new exaction), and he never engages for ony thing like that.’
‘In God’s name,’ said Bertram, ‘let me have what is decent, and make any charge you please.’
‘Aweel, aweel, that’s sune settled; we’ll no excise you neither, though we live sae near the custom-house. And I maun see to get you some fire and some dinner too, I’se warrant; but your dinner will be but a puir ane the day, no expecting company that would be nice and fashious.’ So saying, and in all haste, Mrs. Mac-Guffog fetched a scuttle of live coals, and having replenished ‘the rusty grate, unconscious of a fire’ for months before, she proceeded with unwashed hands to arrange the stipulated bed-linen (alas, how different from Ailie Dinmont’s!), and, muttering to herself as she discharged her task, seemed, in inveterate spleen of temper, to grudge even those accommodations for which she was to receive payment. At length, however, she departed, grumbling between her teeth, that ‘she wad rather lock up a haill ward than be fiking about thae niff-naffy gentles that gae sae muckle fash wi’ their fancies.’
When she was gone Bertram found himself reduced to the alternative of pacing his little apartment for exercise, or gazing out upon the sea in such proportions as could be seen from the narrow panes of his window, obscured by dirt and by close iron bars, or reading over the records of brutal wit and blackguardism which despair had scrawled upon the half-whitened walls. The sounds were as uncomfortable as the objects of sight; the sullen dash of the tide, which was now retreating, and the occasional opening and shutting of a door, with all its accompaniments of jarring bolts and creaking hinges, mingling occasionally with the dull monotony of the retiring ocean. Sometimes, too, he could hear the hoarse growl of the keeper, or the shriller strain of his helpmate, almost always in the tone of discontent, anger, or insolence. At other times the large mastiff chained in the courtyard answered with furious bark the insults of the idle loiterers who made a sport of incensing him.
At length the tedium of this weary space was broken by the entrance of a dirty-looking serving-wench, who made some preparations for dinner by laying a half-dirty cloth upon a whole-dirty deal table. A knife and fork, which had not been worn out by overcleaning, flanked a cracked delf plate; a nearly empty mustard-pot, placed on one side of the table, balanced a salt-cellar, containing an article of a greyish, or rather a blackish, mixture, upon the other, both of stoneware, and bearing too obvious marks of recent service. Shortly after, the same Hebe brought up a plate of beef-collops, done in the frying-pan, with a huge allowance of grease floating in an ocean of lukewarm water; and, having added a coarse loaf to these savoury viands, she requested to know what liquors the gentleman chose to order. The appearance of this fare was not very inviting; but Bertram endeavoured to mend his commons by ordering wine, which he found tolerably good, and, with the assistance of some indifferent cheese, made his dinner chiefly off the brown loaf. When his meal was over the girl presented her master’s compliments, and, if agreeable to the gentleman, he would help him to spend the evening. Bertram desired to be excused, and begged, instead of this gracious society, that he might be furnished with paper, pen, ink, and candles. The light appeared in the shape of one long broken tallow-candle, inclining over a tin candlestick coated with grease; as for the writing materials, the prisoner was informed that he might have them the next day if he chose to send out to buy them. Bertram next desired the maid to procure him a book, and enforced his request with a shilling; in consequence of which, after long absence, she reappeared with two odd volumes of the ‘Newgate Calendar,’ which she had borrowed from Sam Silverquill, an idle apprentice, who was imprisoned under a charge of forgery. Having laid the books on the table she retired, and left Bertram to studies which were not ill adapted to his present melancholy situation.