I wasn't here myself above seven year before you. I shan't last long. When I'm off the lock for good and all, you'll be the Father of the Marshalsea.'
The turnkey went off the lock of this world next day. His words were remembered and repeated; and tradition afterwards handed down from generation to generation--a Marshalsea generation might be calculated as about three months--that the shabby old debtor with the soft manner and the white hair, was the Father of the Marshalsea.
And he grew to be proud of the title. If any impostor had arisen to claim it, he would have shed tears in resentment of the attempt to deprive him of his rights. A disposition began to be perceived in him to exaggerate the number of years he had been there; it was generally understood that you must deduct a few from his account; he was vain, the fleeting generations of debtors said.
All new-comers were presented to him. He was punctilious in the exaction of this ceremony. The wits would perform the office of introduction with overcharged pomp and politeness, but they could not easily overstep his sense of its gravity. He received them in his poor room (he disliked an introduction in the mere yard, as informal--a thing that might happen to anybody), with a kind of bowed-down beneficence. They were welcome to the Marshalsea, he would tell them. Yes, he was the Father of the place. So the world was kind enough to call him; and so he was, if more than twenty years of residence gave him a claim to the title. It looked small at first, but there was very good company there--among a mixture--necessarily a mixture--and very good air.
It became a not unusual circumstance for letters to be put under his door at night, enclosing half-a-crown, two half-crowns, now and then at long intervals even half-a-sovereign, for the Father of the Marshalsea. 'With the compliments of a collegian taking leave.' He received the gifts as tributes, from admirers, to a public character. Sometimes these correspondents assumed facetious names, as the Brick, Bellows, Old Gooseberry, Wideawake, Snooks, Mops, Cutaway, the Dogs-meat Man; but he considered this in bad taste, and was always a little hurt by it.
In the fulness of time, this correspondence showing signs of wearing out, and seeming to require an effort on the part of the correspondents to which in the hurried circumstances of departure many of them might not be equal, he established the custom of attending collegians of a certain standing, to the gate, and taking leave of them there. The collegian under treatment, after shaking hands, would occasionally stop to wrap up something in a bit of paper, and would come back again calling 'Hi!'
He would look round surprised.'Me?' he would say, with a smile. By this time the collegian would be up with him, and he would paternally add,'What have you forgotten? What can I do for you?'
'I forgot to leave this,' the collegian would usually return, 'for the Father of the Marshalsea.'
'My good sir,' he would rejoin, 'he is infinitely obliged to you.' But, to the last, the irresolute hand of old would remain in the pocket into which he had slipped the money during two or three turns about the yard, lest the transaction should be too conspicuous to the general body of collegians.
One afternoon he had been doing the honours of the place to a rather large party of collegians, who happened to be going out, when, as he was coming back, he encountered one from the poor side who had been taken in execution for a small sum a week before, had 'settled' in the course of that afternoon, and was going out too. The man was a mere Plasterer in his working dress; had his wife with him, and a bundle; and was in high spirits.
'God bless you, sir,' he said in passing.
'And you,' benignantly returned the Father of the Marshalsea.
They were pretty far divided, going their several ways, when the Plasterer called out, 'I say!--sir!' and came back to him.
'It ain't much,' said the Plasterer, putting a little pile of halfpence in his hand, 'but it's well meant.'
The Father of the Marshalsea had never been offered tribute in copper yet.