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THE PRISON INQUEST.
BY THE CLERGYMAN IN DEBT."
I HAD always a passion for the survey of external and universal nature. I have been a far traveller; my shadow has deepened among the gloomier shades of the forests of the New World, and I have seen it play at evening, lengthened by the moon, over the snows of an Apennine or an Alp; fire-flies have lighted me along my tropic path, and the mute stars have shone listening on the oars that rowed my gondola over Venetian waters; the sunny vineyards of Italy-the fair fields of France-the bright radiance of the sparkling sands in the Arabian desert-the brighter pomp of the Indian city-the faded glories of the Alhambra and the embrowned richness of the Spanish grove-on all these have I feasted my sight and soul, gathering up the living beauties of one landscape and the everlasting wonders of another, as food and manna for the worship and adoration of the God who made them all! In the pursuit of nature in other lands, and in the fond contemplation of "wonders that lead to piety," I fancied, as a young man, that I was laying in a store of proper knowledge for the heart, losing myself rashly, but perhaps pardonably, in the loveliness of the natural world, and forgetting that from my very calling-MAN, in the image of his Maker, should have been my study-not as he is studied by the physician, for his bodily advantage-but in the pulses of his heart-in the promptings of his spirit-in the fiery impetus of his passions-the milder suggestions of his reason-and the busy workings of his brain! that I should watch all in short-not severely, but in all benevolence-for the sake of the salvation of a few!
It is a confession that may not perhaps tell much to my advantage, that this truth first flashed upon me within the walls of a prison-that it was when I had been merged as it were into the pressing difficulties of poverty, and learned how hard a thing it is to want'-when I had seen man fallen more in credit than humanity-a father wondering how his children should live-a mother dreading lest they should die—yes, it was when I had seen different ages-different grades-different degrees of poverty, of sorrow, and of shame-that I began for the first time to feel that I should centre and concentrate all my energies in the study of the human mind
"That vast unbounded thing,
That hath a soul upon its wing!
In a prison! Yes, reader, in a dangerous and detestable prison, I, as a young man, fond of truth-fond of philosophy-fond of religiongained an insight into the human heart-saw it in its various shades and phases-like a many-coloured glass, that being broken in a thousand pieces, was shaping forth its hues and fashions in the great kaleidoscope of the world!
All prisons are dreadful, but a debtor's prison is the most dreadful of all. There men who have committed no crime are criminals—for their
punishment is the punishment of the dishonest. The poor man sits down by the side of the swindler, and yet both pay to justice the same retribution. Oh, Goldsmith! you who first sent your pious vicar into the heart of a prison where the debtor and the thief mixed in the same circle-where the horse-stealer, prating of the "Cosmognomy of the World," spouted his spurious learning to the parson, who was rich in the revelation of the Gospel; you, Johnson, who proposed to hunt from society the harsh despoiler of a peaceful home, and to cover with obloquy the man who prevented another from earning the bread with which his children should be fed; why were not your humane doctrines as extensively practised as they were universally read, and your wisdom followed as much as it was loved?
Well-a-day! but it was in a gaol that my poor experience of what man is capable of enduring, both bodily and mentally, has been gained and garnered.
Towards the end of summer, or rather the beginning of autumn, in the last year, I was a prisoner in the King's Bench. My incarceration took its rise out of a bill which I had signed for a friend; the amount was considerable-he had not paid it-I could not-he gained time—I a prison! Upon me imprisonment would have pressed sadly and severely, but for my occupation; in the field before me the duties of the clergyman overcame the selfishness of the man. Labor omnia vincit—and what I had to perform conquered what I had to bear! Sometimes I had to cheer the honest-sometimes to endeavour to reform the unworthy-often to administer consolation to affliction-oftener to reprove the levity of youth-more than once too I waited and watched by the bed of sickness, and registered in my own heart the last prayer of men whose spirits, as I hoped, were fleeing above sorrow and
"Beyond the reach of sin."
This, reader, is the worst of all; and this was what I saw, rowed over, in a debtors' gaol.
I have said that I had a passion for the study of external nature. It was a bright night, and towards the end of August, that I left my dreary and desolate chamber to imbibe the air of Heaven upon the racquetground within the walls of the King's Bench. I knew that the leaves had fallen from the trees, although I could not roam upon the paths where they were scattered. Neither woods nor waters, cities nor fields, were before me or around me, or on either side, but above-yes, above
me there was a glorious and cloudless Heaven, radiant with moonlight and studded with stars, and upon that I could gaze, and wonder, and rejoice-gaze on the great glory of Providence-wonder at the marvellousness of its mystery-and rejoice in those shining emblems of its mercy and its love! I began to speculate-not less upon the promises and marvels which I fancied I saw recorded in the sky, than upon those bright figures and parables in revelation—each in itself as much a beacon to the human spirit as particular stars are signals to the mariner upon the deep! And I am not the only one who has drawn a moral from the stars within a prison walls-De Berenger watched them in France, through his grated bars.
Ay, and now, reflected I, in the words of the French lyrist,
Perhaps it is emblematic of some poor fellow who, even to-day, may have been taken from a bright station in society to be thrust into this gloomy gaol; or perhaps it is indeed a type of death, and un mortel expire!"
It was a quiet autumn night—I had ventured out because I found a greater stillness prevailed than was usual within the walls of the prison— the hour was late, and I must have been perambulating a weary while' from one end to the other of the racquet-ground and back, when a shooting star called to my mind the fanciful supposition of Berenger's" un mortel expire.""If so be that a mortal dies," said I, musingly, peace follow him to the grave."
Several times I continued to pace backwards and forwards, dreaming awake, as it were, of death-its fit preparation and its appalling presence. Men often familiarize with the lips a sentence that has struck suddenly upon the mind, and I, as I strode over the prison-ground, in thought kept repeating to myself the words which the shooting star had awakened in my memory-" Un mortel expire-un mortel expire."
"My husband is dying," cried a woman who had approached me unnoticed and laid her hand upon my arm; " for God's sake come-come and administer to him the last consolations of religion!"
“Un mortel expire-there is a man dying," said I, almost mechanically, surprised in the very tenor of my thought; "Heaven save his soul."
"Holy Virgin!" exclaimed the woman, "the clergyman is mad, and my poor husband 'll die widout a sacrament!" and she bounded away from me with the speed of despair.
Her words brought me to my senses, and I soon arrested her progress. Stop, stop," said I, " is your husband really dying?" "I fear so."
"Is he a Catholic?"
"No, no, I am a Catholic, but my poor William is a Protestant. Och, for God's sake, come and save his soul! come," said she, "come!"
I followed her up two flights of stone steps in one of the front staircases of the King's Bench. The door of her room, as she opened it, creaked gently upon its hinges, and was answered by a quiet groan.
"Hush," whispered she, as if in addressing the patient she were drowning the noise of the door; "Hush, dear William, are ye in pain ?"
"No, I'm in no pain now, but I hav'n't long to live; don't cry now, Ellen, you've been always a kind creature to me, and be sure I'll love ye to the last."
"Papa's not well," lisped a child who lay dreaming on the floor in one corner of the apartment. I tapped gently at the door.
"Come in, Sir; Och, come in for the love of God!" sobbed the distracted wife.
I entered; the husband, exhausted with the few words he had spoken, dozed half insensibly, and I sat myself down by his bed.
"He had better not be disturbed," whispered I.
66 'No, Sir, not now," said the wife; "but the docther 'll be here directly, and afther he's done wid him, ye'd better talk to him, Sir. Nothing can save him now."
I continued sitting by the bed; and in the interval which elapsed before the doctor's arrival, I took note of the interior of the room. Like all the apartments of the prison, it was small in its dimensions, about twelve feet square; the walls were green, here and there darkened with a spot of damp; there was no carpet on the floor, and either the fire was extinguished, or the embers were the wreck of some former day's warmth. A rushlight, twisted round with paper, and stuck in a bottle-there was no candlestick-threw a faint sad flicker over the chamber, like a meteor through mist, shedding mingled light and gloom. The bed on which the patient lay was of French make, but its curtains had long been pledged for food; the counterpane was gone too, and the upper sheet, so that the dingy and worn blankets were the invalid's only coverings. In one corner of the room, upon a mattress on the floor, lay two children—a boy and girl; the girl, about eight years of age, slept soundly-the boy, younger by three years, had just wakened, and seeing a stranger in the room, lay with his bright blue. eyes fixed upon my figure in a wide inquisitive stare. The eldest daughter of the dying man, a pretty slim girl some three years older than either of the other children, nursed an infant by the window, while the mother stood near the foot of the invalid's bed, and watched his pale lips as he lay breathing away the last moments of his life.
For about ten minutes after I had sat down by the bed-side there was a silent stillness in the room. The man continued dozing, and the poor wife, who seemed to fancy that in that short sleep her husband's suffering was lulled, controlled her sobs and tears in her intense anxiety that he should rest peacefully.
A gentle opening of the door, and a repetition of the same slight creak which I before noticed, announced the arrival of the doctor, but the patient did not move. The medical attendant stood as he had entered, and the wife did not change her earnest listening posture; she stood like a frail vessel between the Scylla and Charybdis of human destiny-her own heart vibrating betwixt hope and fear. The patient too dozed in a sort of doubt, whether he should wake to woo the fair spirit of existence, or sleep on till he became united with the darker angel of death. So pondered the Lord Thomas of the olden ballad between his two brides!
For about two minutes, this sort of awful quiet prevailed in the room; it was interrupted, and the prisoner awakened, by the faint cry of the child whom his eldest daughter was nursing. The patient, who had