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6. The Father of the Marshalsea
Thirty years ago there stood, a few doors short of the church of Saint George, in
the borough of Southwark, on the left-hand side of the way going southward, the
Marshalsea Prison. It had stood there many years before, and it remained there
some years afterwards; but it is gone now, and the world is none the worse
without it.
It was an oblong pile of barrack building, partitioned into squalid houses standing
back to back, so that there were no back rooms; environed by a narrow paved
yard, hemmed in by high walls duly spiked at top. Itself a close and confined
prison for debtors, it contained within it a much closer and more confined jail for
smugglers. Offenders against the revenue laws, and defaulters to excise or
customs who had incurred fines which they were unable to pay, were supposed
to be incarcerated behind an iron-plated door closing up a second prison,
consisting of a strong cell or two, and a blind alley some yard and a half wide,
which formed the mysterious termination of the very limited skittle-ground in
which the Marshalsea debtors bowled down their troubles.
Supposed to be incarcerated there, because the time had rather outgrown the
strong cells and the blind alley. In practice they had come to be considered a little
too bad, though in theory they were quite as good as ever; which may be
observed to be the case at the present day with other cells that are not at all
strong, and with other blind alleys that are stone-blind. Hence the smugglers
habitually consorted with the debtors (who received them with open arms),
except at certain constitutional moments when somebody came from some
Office, to go through some form of overlooking something which neither he nor
anybody else knew anything about. On these truly British occasions, the
smugglers, if any, made a feint of walking into the strong cells and the blind alley,
while this somebody pretended to do his something: and made a reality of
walking out again as soon as he hadn't done it--neatly epitomising the
administration of most of the public affairs in our right little, tight little, island.
There had been taken to the Marshalsea Prison, long before the day when the
sun shone on Marseilles and on the opening of this narrative, a debtor with whom
this narrative has some concern.
He was, at that time, a very amiable and very helpless middle-aged gentleman,
who was going out again directly. Necessarily, he was going out again directly,
because the Marshalsea lock never turned upon a debtor who was not. He
brought in a portmanteau with him, which he doubted its being worth while to
unpack; he was so perfectly clear--like all the rest of them, the turnkey on the
lock said--that he was going out again directly.
He was a shy, retiring man; well-looking, though in an effeminate style; with a
mild voice, curling hair, and irresolute hands--rings upon the fingers in those
days--which nervously wandered to his trembling lip a hundred times in the first
half-hour of his acquaintance with the jail. His principal anxiety was about his