When the Fleet Prison turnkey Mr. Tom Roker leads Mr. Pickwick through the passageways at the end of which is the room and bed the turnkey will let Mr. Pickwick for the night, Mr. Pickwick is appalled by the living conditions. Sam Weller avers. Indeed, the air is stale and full of tobacco smoke. And the living spaces are chock full of people not unlike a rabbit warren.
Before Sam Weller, who has been instructed to take lodgings at a nearby public house and then to report to Mr. Pickwick in the morning, takes his leave of Mr. Pickwick, he relates an anecdote about a good natured debtor prison’s inmate who is on such good terms with the turnkeys that he’s allowed brief moments of liberty outside the prison walls. The anecdote supports Mr. Pickwick’s observation that most inmates of a debtor's prison fair just as well, if not better, inside the prison walls than from the outside.
Presently, depressed by the sound of a wailing woman, Mr. Pickwick puts on his nightcap and falls into a deep slumber only to be awoken a half-hour later by a loud exclamation, laughter, song, and dance. The song and dance are performed by an inmate named Zephyr who ,when told to keep it down on account of Mr. Pickwick’s presence by a man named Smangle, proceeds to remove Mr. Pickwick’s nightcap and to put it on his own head. Subsequently, Mr. Pickwick jumps out of bed, reclaims his nightcap, and assumes a fighting stance only to be greeted by friendly laughter.
By and by, Mr. Pickwick makes the acquaintance of his fellow inmates: the aforementioned clownish Zephyr, a man in stockings named Mivins, and the aforementioned Mr. Smangle who’s tall, has whiskers, and has a boastful, vagabond’s quality to him. When Mr. Pickwick returns to bed, Mr. Smangle proposes that they have a nightcap of sorts. To avoid discord, Mr. Pickwick commissions Mr. Mivins to fetch a bottle of wine. At Smangle’s behest, another man is sent to make sure that Mr. Mivins will indeed acquire the wine he was sent for.
Sure enough, Mr. Mivins returns with a bottle of sherry. As they drink, Mr. Smangle relates various colorful anecdotes one of which involves a through-bred horse and a beautiful Jewess. Mr. Pickwick falls asleep as Mr. Smangle continues to talk.