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Chapter 6

THE HOSPITAL PATIENT

In our rambles through the streets of London after evening has set
in, we often pause beneath the windows of some public hospital, and
picture to ourself the gloomy and mournful scenes that are passing
within. The sudden moving of a taper as its feeble ray shoots from
window to window, until its light gradually disappears, as if it
were carried farther back into the room to the bedside of some
suffering patient, is enough to awaken a whole crowd of
reflections; the mere glimmering of the low-burning lamps, which,
when all other habitations are wrapped in darkness and slumber,
denote the chamber where so many forms are writhing with pain, or
wasting with disease, is sufficient to check the most boisterous
merriment.

Who can tell the anguish of those weary hours, when the only sound
the sick man hears, is the disjointed wanderings of some feverish
slumberer near him, the low moan of pain, or perhaps the muttered,
long-forgotten prayer of a dying man? Who, but they who have felt
it, can imagine the sense of loneliness and desolation which must
be the portion of those who in the hour of dangerous illness are
left to be tended by strangers; for what hands, be they ever so
gentle, can wipe the clammy brow, or smooth the restless bed, like
those of mother, wife, or child?

Impressed with these thoughts, we have turned away, through the
nearly-deserted streets; and the sight of the few miserable
creatures still hovering about them, has not tended to lessen the
pain which such meditations awaken. The hospital is a refuge and
resting-place for hundreds, who but for such institutions must die
in the streets and doorways; but what can be the feelings of some
outcasts when they are stretched on the bed of sickness with
scarcely a hope of recovery? The wretched woman who lingers about
the pavement, hours after midnight, and the miserable shadow of a
man--the ghastly remnant that want and drunkenness have left--which
crouches beneath a window-ledge, to sleep where there is some
shelter from the rain, have little to bind them to life, but what
have they to look back upon, in death? What are the unwonted
comforts of a roof and a bed, to them, when the recollections of a
whole life of debasement stalk before them; when repentance seems a
mockery, and sorrow comes too late?

About a twelvemonth ago, as we were strolling through Covent-garden
(we had been thinking about these things over-night), we were
attracted by the very prepossessing appearance of a pickpocket, who
having declined to take the trouble of walking to the Police-
office, on the ground that he hadn't the slightest wish to go there
at all, was being conveyed thither in a wheelbarrow, to the huge
delight of a crowd.

Somehow, we never can resist joining a crowd, so we turned back
with the mob, and entered the office, in company with our friend
the pickpocket, a couple of policemen, and as many dirty-faced
spectators as could squeeze their way in.

There was a powerful, ill-looking young fellow at the bar, who was
undergoing an examination, on the very common charge of having, on
the previous night, ill-treated a woman, with whom he lived in some
court hard by. Several witnesses bore testimony to acts of the
grossest brutality; and a certificate was read from the house-
surgeon of a neighbouring hospital, describing the nature of the
injuries the woman had received, and intimating that her recovery
was extremely doubtful.

Some question appeared to have been raised about the identity of
the prisoner; for when it was agreed that the two magistrates
should visit the hospital at eight o'clock that evening, to take
her deposition, it was settled that the man should be taken there
also. He turned pale at this, and we saw him clench the bar very
hard when the order was given. He was removed directly afterwards,
and he spoke not a word.

We felt an irrepressible curiosity to witness this interview,
although it is hard to tell why, at this instant, for we knew it
must be a painful one. It was no very difficult matter for us to
gain permission, and we obtained it.

The prisoner, and the officer who had him in custody, were already
at the hospital when we reached it, and waiting the arrival of the
magistrates in a small room below stairs. The man was handcuffed,
and his hat was pulled forward over his eyes. It was easy to see,
though, by the whiteness of his countenance, and the constant
twitching of the muscles of his face, that he dreaded what was to
come. After a short interval, the magistrates and clerk were bowed
in by the house-surgeon and a couple of young men who smelt very
strong of tobacco-smoke--they were introduced as 'dressers'--and
after one magistrate had complained bitterly of the cold, and the
other of the absence of any news in the evening paper, it was
announced that the patient was prepared; and we were conducted to
the 'casualty ward' in which she was lying.

The dim light which burnt in the spacious room, increased rather
than diminished the ghastly appearance of the hapless creatures in
the beds, which were ranged in two long rows on either side. In
one bed, lay a child enveloped in bandages, with its body half-
consumed by fire; in another, a female, rendered hideous by some
dreadful accident, was wildly beating her clenched fists on the
coverlet, in pain; on a third, there lay stretched a young girl,
apparently in the heavy stupor often the immediate precursor of
death: her face was stained with blood, and her breast and arms
were bound up in folds of linen. Two or three of the beds were
empty, and their recent occupants were sitting beside them, but
with faces so wan, and eyes so bright and glassy, that it was
fearful to meet their gaze. On every face was stamped the
expression of anguish and suffering.

The object of the visit was lying at the upper end of the room.
She was a fine young woman of about two or three and twenty. Her
long black hair, which had been hastily cut from near the wounds on
her head, streamed over the pillow in jagged and matted locks. Her
face bore deep marks of the ill-usage she had received: her hand
was pressed upon her side, as if her chief pain were there; her
breathing was short and heavy; and it was plain to see that she was
dying fast. She murmured a few words in reply to the magistrate's
inquiry whether she was in great pain; and, having been raised on
the pillow by the nurse, looked vacantly upon the strange
countenances that surrounded her bed. The magistrate nodded to the
officer, to bring the man forward. He did so, and stationed him at
the bedside. The girl looked on with a wild and troubled
expression of face; but her sight was dim, and she did not know
him.

'Take off his hat,' said the magistrate. The officer did as he was
desired, and the man's features were disclosed.

The girl started up, with an energy quite preternatural; the fire
gleamed in her heavy eyes, and the blood rushed to her pale and
sunken cheeks. It was a convulsive effort. She fell back upon her
pillow, and covering her scarred and bruised face with her hands,
burst into tears. The man cast an anxious look towards her, but
otherwise appeared wholly unmoved. After a brief pause the nature
of the errand was explained, and the oath tendered.

'Oh, no, gentlemen,' said the girl, raising herself once more, and
folding her hands together; 'no, gentlemen, for God's sake! I did
it myself--it was nobody's fault--it was an accident. He didn't
hurt me; he wouldn't for all the world. Jack, dear Jack, you know
you wouldn't!'

Her sight was fast failing her, and her hand groped over the
bedclothes in search of his. Brute as the man was, he was not
prepared for this. He turned his face from the bed, and sobbed.
The girl's colour changed, and her breathing grew more difficult.
She was evidently dying.

'We respect the feelings which prompt you to this,' said the
gentleman who had spoken first, 'but let me warn you, not to
persist in what you know to be untrue, until it is too late. It
cannot save him.'

'Jack,' murmured the girl, laying her hand upon his arm, 'they
shall not persuade me to swear your life away. He didn't do it,
gentlemen. He never hurt me.' She grasped his arm tightly, and
added, in a broken whisper, 'I hope God Almighty will forgive me
all the wrong I have done, and the life I have led. God bless you,
Jack. Some kind gentleman take my love to my poor old father.
Five years ago, he said he wished I had died a child. Oh, I wish I
had! I wish I had!'

The nurse bent over the girl for a few seconds, and then drew the
sheet over her face. It covered a corpse.

Charles Dickens