The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, by Charles Dickens

CHAPTER XVIII

Briefly illustrative of two Points; first, the Power of Hysterics, and, secondly, the Force of Circumstances

For two days after the DEJEUNE at Mrs. Hunter’s, the Pickwickians remained at Eatanswill, anxiously awaiting the arrival of some intelligence from their revered leader. Mr. Tupman and Mr. Snodgrass were once again left to their own means of amusement; for Mr. Winkle, in compliance with a most pressing invitation, continued to reside at Mr. Pott’s house, and to devote his time to the companionship of his amiable lady. Nor was the occasional society of Mr. Pott himself wanting to complete their felicity. Deeply immersed in the intensity of his speculations for the public weal and the destruction of the INDEPENDENT, it was not the habit of that great man to descend from his mental pinnacle to the humble level of ordinary minds. On this occasion, however, and as if expressly in compliment to any follower of Mr. Pickwick’s, he unbent, relaxed, stepped down from his pedestal, and walked upon the ground, benignly adapting his remarks to the comprehension of the herd, and seeming in outward form, if not in spirit, to be one of them.

Such having been the demeanour of this celebrated public character towards Mr. Winkle, it will be readily imagined that considerable surprise was depicted on the countenance of the latter gentleman, when, as he was sitting alone in the breakfast– room, the door was hastily thrown open, and as hastily closed, on the entrance of Mr. Pott, who, stalking majestically towards him, and thrusting aside his proffered hand, ground his teeth, as if to put a sharper edge on what he was about to utter, and exclaimed, in a saw-like voice —

‘Serpent!’

‘Sir!’ exclaimed Mr. Winkle, starting from his chair.

‘Serpent, Sir,’ repeated Mr. Pott, raising his voice, and then suddenly depressing it: ‘I said, serpent, sir — make the most of it.’

When you have parted with a man at two o’clock in the morning, on terms of the utmost good-fellowship, and he meets you again, at half-past nine, and greets you as a serpent, it is not unreasonable to conclude that something of an unpleasant nature has occurred meanwhile. So Mr. Winkle thought. He returned Mr. Pott’s gaze of stone, and in compliance with that gentleman’s request, proceeded to make the most he could of the ‘serpent.’ The most, however, was nothing at all; so, after a profound silence of some minutes’ duration, he said —

‘Serpent, Sir! Serpent, Mr. Pott! What can you mean, Sir? — this is pleasantry.’

‘Pleasantry, sir!’ exclaimed Pott, with a motion of the hand, indicative of a strong desire to hurl the Britannia metal teapot at the head of the visitor. ‘Pleasantry, sir! — But — no, I will be calm; I will be calm, Sir;’ in proof of his calmness, Mr. Pott flung himself into a chair, and foamed at the mouth.

‘My dear sir,’ interposed Mr. Winkle.

‘DEAR Sir!’ replied Pott. ‘How dare you address me, as dear Sir, Sir? How dare you look me in the face and do it, sir?’

‘Well, Sir, if you come to that,’ responded Mr. Winkle, ‘how dare you look me in the face, and call me a serpent, sir?’

‘Because you are one,’ replied Mr. Pott.

‘Prove it, Sir,’ said Mr. Winkle warmly. ‘Prove it.’

A malignant scowl passed over the profound face of the editor, as he drew from his pocket the INDEPENDENT of that morning; and laying his finger on a particular paragraph, threw the journal across the table to Mr. Winkle.

That gentleman took it up, and read as follows:—

‘Our obscure and filthy contemporary, in some disgusting observations on the recent election for this borough, has presumed to violate the hallowed sanctity of private life, and to refer,

in a manner not to be misunderstood, to the personal affairs of our late candidate — aye, and notwithstanding his base defeat, we will add, our future member, Mr. Fizkin. What does our dastardly contemporary mean? What would the ruffian say, if we, setting at naught, like him, the decencies of social intercourse, were to raise the curtain which happily conceals His private life from general ridicule, not to say from general execration? What, if we were even to point out, and comment on, facts and circumstances, which are publicly notorious, and beheld by every one but our mole-eyed contemporary — what if we were to print the following effusion, which we received while we were writing the commencement of this article, from a talented fellow-townsman and correspondent?

‘“LINES TO A BRASS POT

‘“Oh Pott! if you’d known

How false she’d have grown,

When you heard the marriage bells tinkle;

You’d have done then, I vow,

What you cannot help now,

And handed her over to W——”’

‘What,’ said Mr. Pott solemnly —‘what rhymes to “tinkle,” villain?’

‘What rhymes to tinkle?’ said Mrs. Pott, whose entrance at the moment forestalled the reply. ‘What rhymes to tinkle? Why, Winkle, I should conceive.’ Saying this, Mrs. Pott smiled sweetly on the disturbed Pickwickian, and extended her hand towards him. The agitated young man would have accepted it, in his confusion, had not Pott indignantly interposed.

‘Back, ma’am — back!’ said the editor. ‘Take his hand before my very face!’

‘Mr. P.!’ said his astonished lady.

‘Wretched woman, look here,’ exclaimed the husband. ‘Look here, ma’am —“Lines to a Brass Pot.” “Brass Pot”; that’s me, ma’am. “False SHE’D have grown”; that’s you, ma’am — you.’ With this ebullition of rage, which was not unaccompanied with something like a tremble, at the expression of his wife’s face, Mr. Pott dashed the current number of the Eatanswill INDEPENDENT at her feet.

‘Upon my word, Sir,’ said the astonished Mrs. Pott, stooping to pick up the paper. ‘Upon my word, Sir!’

Mr. Pott winced beneath the contemptuous gaze of his wife. He had made a desperate struggle to screw up his courage, but it was fast coming unscrewed again.

There appears nothing very tremendous in this little sentence, ‘Upon my word, sir,’ when it comes to be read; but the tone of voice in which it was delivered, and the look that accompanied it, both seeming to bear reference to some revenge to be thereafter visited upon the head of Pott, produced their effect upon him. The most unskilful observer could have detected in his troubled countenance, a readiness to resign his Wellington boots to any efficient substitute who would have consented to stand in them at that moment.

Mrs. Pott read the paragraph, uttered a loud shriek, and threw herself at full length on the hearth-rug, screaming, and tapping it with the heels of her shoes, in a manner which could leave no doubt of the propriety of her feelings on the occasion.

‘My dear,’ said the terrified Pott, ‘I didn’t say I believed it; — I—’ but the unfortunate man’s voice was drowned in the screaming of his partner.

‘Mrs. Pott, let me entreat you, my dear ma’am, to compose yourself,’ said Mr. Winkle; but the shrieks and tappings were louder, and more frequent than ever.

‘My dear,’ said Mr. Pott, ‘I’m very sorry. If you won’t consider your own health, consider me, my dear. We shall have a crowd round the house.’ But the more strenuously Mr. Pott entreated, the more vehemently the screams poured forth.

Very fortunately, however, attached to Mrs. Pott’s person was a bodyguard of one, a young lady whose ostensible employment was to preside over her toilet, but who rendered herself useful in a variety of ways, and in none more so than in the particular department of constantly aiding and abetting her mistress in every wish and inclination opposed to the desires of the unhappy Pott. The screams reached this young lady’s ears in due course, and brought her into the room with a speed which threatened to derange, materially, the very exquisite arrangement of her cap and ringlets.

‘Oh, my dear, dear mistress!’ exclaimed the bodyguard, kneeling frantically by the side of the prostrate Mrs. Pott. ‘Oh, my dear mistress, what is the matter?’

‘Your master — your brutal master,’ murmured the patient.

Pott was evidently giving way.

‘It’s a shame,’ said the bodyguard reproachfully. ‘I know he’ll be the death on you, ma’am. Poor dear thing!’

He gave way more. The opposite party followed up the attack.

‘Oh, don’t leave me — don’t leave me, Goodwin,’ murmured Mrs. Pott, clutching at the wrist of the said Goodwin with an hysteric jerk. ‘You’re the only person that’s kind to me, Goodwin.’

At this affecting appeal, Goodwin got up a little domestic tragedy of her own, and shed tears copiously.

‘Never, ma’am — never,’ said Goodwin.‘Oh, sir, you should be careful — you should indeed; you don’t know what harm you may do missis; you’ll be sorry for it one day, I know — I’ve always said so.’

The unlucky Pott looked timidly on, but said nothing.

‘Goodwin,’ said Mrs. Pott, in a soft voice.

‘Ma’am,’ said Goodwin.

‘If you only knew how I have loved that man —’ ‘Don’t distress yourself by recollecting it, ma’am,’ said the bodyguard.

Pott looked very frightened. It was time to finish him.

‘And now,’ sobbed Mrs. Pott, ‘now, after all, to be treated in this way; to be reproached and insulted in the presence of a third party, and that party almost a stranger. But I will not submit to it! Goodwin,’ continued Mrs. Pott, raising herself in the arms of her attendant, ‘my brother, the lieutenant, shall interfere. I’ll be separated, Goodwin!’

‘It would certainly serve him right, ma’am,’ said Goodwin.

Whatever thoughts the threat of a separation might have awakened in Mr. Pott’s mind, he forbore to give utterance to them, and contented himself by saying, with great humility:—

‘My dear, will you hear me?’

A fresh train of sobs was the only reply, as Mrs. Pott grew more hysterical, requested to be informed why she was ever born, and required sundry other pieces of information of a similar description.

‘My dear,’ remonstrated Mr. Pott, ‘do not give way to these sensitive feelings. I never believed that the paragraph had any foundation, my dear — impossible. I was only angry, my dear — I may say outrageous — with the INDEPENDENT people for daring to insert it; that’s all.’ Mr. Pott cast an imploring look at the innocent cause of the mischief, as if to entreat him to say nothing about the serpent.

‘And what steps, sir, do you mean to take to obtain redress?’ inquired Mr. Winkle, gaining courage as he saw Pott losing it.

‘Oh, Goodwin,’ observed Mrs. Pott, ‘does he mean to horsewhip the editor of the INDEPENDENT— does he, Goodwin?’

‘Hush, hush, ma’am; pray keep yourself quiet,’ replied the bodyguard. ‘I dare say he will, if you wish it, ma’am.’

‘Certainly,’ said Pott, as his wife evinced decided symptoms of going off again. ‘Of course I shall.’

‘When, Goodwin — when?’ said Mrs. Pott, still undecided about the going off.

‘Immediately, of course,’ said Mr. Pott; ‘before the day is out.’

‘Oh, Goodwin,’ resumed Mrs. Pott, ‘it’s the only way of meeting the slander, and setting me right with the world.’

‘Certainly, ma’am,’ replied Goodwin. ‘No man as is a man, ma’am, could refuse to do it.’

So, as the hysterics were still hovering about, Mr. Pott said once more that he would do it; but Mrs. Pott was so overcome at the bare idea of having ever been suspected, that she was half a dozen times on the very verge of a relapse, and most unquestionably would have gone off, had it not been for the indefatigable efforts of the assiduous Goodwin, and repeated entreaties for pardon from the conquered Pott; and finally, when that unhappy individual had been frightened and snubbed down to his proper level, Mrs. Pott recovered, and they went to breakfast.

‘You will not allow this base newspaper slander to shorten your stay here, Mr. Winkle?’ said Mrs. Pott, smiling through the traces of her tears.

‘I hope not,’ said Mr. Pott, actuated, as he spoke, by a wish that his visitor would choke himself with the morsel of dry toast which he was raising to his lips at the moment, and so terminate his stay effectually.

‘I hope not.’

‘You are very good,’ said Mr. Winkle; ‘but a letter has been received from Mr. Pickwick — so I learn by a note from Mr. Tupman, which was brought up to my bedroom door, this morning — in which he requests us to join him at Bury to-day; and we are to leave by the coach at noon.’

‘But you will come back?’ said Mrs. Pott.

‘Oh, certainly,’ replied Mr. Winkle.

‘You are quite sure?’ said Mrs. Pott, stealing a tender look at her visitor.

‘Quite,’ responded Mr. Winkle.

The breakfast passed off in silence, for each of the party was brooding over his, or her, own personal grievances. Mrs. Pott was regretting the loss of a beau; Mr. Pott his rash pledge to horsewhip the INDEPENDENT; Mr. Winkle his having innocently placed himself in so awkward a situation. Noon approached, and after many adieux and promises to return, he tore himself away.

‘If he ever comes back, I’ll poison him,’ thought Mr. Pott, as he turned into the little back office where he prepared his thunderbolts.

‘If I ever do come back, and mix myself up with these people again,‘thought Mr. Winkle, as he wended his way to the Peacock, ‘I shall deserve to be horsewhipped myself — that’s all.’

His friends were ready, the coach was nearly so, and in half an hour they were proceeding on their journey, along the road over which Mr. Pickwick and Sam had so recently travelled, and of which, as we have already said something, we do not feel called upon to extract Mr. Snodgrass’s poetical and beautiful description.

Mr. Weller was standing at the door of the Angel, ready to receive them, and by that gentleman they were ushered to the apartment of Mr. Pickwick, where, to the no small surprise of Mr. Winkle and Mr. Snodgrass, and the no small embarrassment of Mr. Tupman, they found old Wardle and Trundle.

‘How are you?’ said the old man, grasping Mr. Tupman’s hand. ‘Don’t hang back, or look sentimental about it; it can’t be helped, old fellow. For her sake, I wish you’d had her; for your own, I’m very glad you have not. A young fellow like you will do better one of these days, eh?’ With this conclusion, Wardle slapped Mr. Tupman on the back, and laughed heartily.

‘Well, and how are you, my fine fellows?’ said the old gentleman, shaking hands with Mr. Winkle and Mr. Snodgrass at the same time. ‘I have just been telling Pickwick that we must have you all down at Christmas. We’re going to have a wedding — a real wedding this time.’

‘A wedding!’ exclaimed Mr. Snodgrass, turning very pale.

‘Yes, a wedding. But don’t be frightened,’ said the good-humoured old man; ‘it’s only Trundle there, and Bella.’

‘Oh, is that all?’ said Mr. Snodgrass, relieved from a painful doubt which had fallen heavily on his breast. ‘Give you joy, Sir. How is Joe?’

‘Very well,’ replied the old gentleman. ‘Sleepy as ever.’

‘And your mother, and the clergyman, and all of ’em?’

‘Quite well.’

‘Where,’ said Mr. Tupman, with an effort —‘where is — SHE, Sir?’ and he turned away his head, and covered his eyes with his hand. ‘SHE!’ said the old gentleman, with a knowing shake of the head. ‘Do you mean my single relative — eh?’

Mr. Tupman, by a nod, intimated that his question applied to the disappointed Rachael.

‘Oh, she’s gone away,’ said the old gentleman. ‘She’s living at a relation’s, far enough off. She couldn’t bear to see the girls, so I let her go. But come! Here’s the dinner. You must be hungry after your ride. I am, without any ride at all; so let us fall to.’

Ample justice was done to the meal; and when they were seated round the table, after it had been disposed of, Mr. Pickwick, to the intense horror and indignation of his followers, related the adventure he had undergone, and the success which had attended the base artifices of the diabolical Jingle. ‘And the attack of rheumatism which I caught in that garden,’ said Mr. Pickwick, in conclusion, ‘renders me lame at this moment.’

‘I, too, have had something of an adventure,’ said Mr. Winkle, with a smile; and, at the request of Mr. Pickwick, he detailed the malicious libel of the Eatanswill INDEPENDENT, and the consequent excitement of their friend, the editor.

Mr. Pickwick’s brow darkened during the recital. His friends observed it, and, when Mr. Winkle had concluded, maintained a profound silence. Mr. Pickwick struck the table emphatically with his clenched fist, and spoke as follows:—

‘Is it not a wonderful circumstance,’ said Mr. Pickwick, ‘that we seem destined to enter no man’s house without involving him in some degree of trouble? Does it not, I ask, bespeak the indiscretion, or, worse than that, the blackness of heart — that I should say so! — of my followers, that, beneath whatever roof they locate, they disturb the peace of mind and happiness of some confiding female? Is it not, I say —’

Mr. Pickwick would in all probability have gone on for some time, had not the entrance of Sam, with a letter, caused him to break off in his eloquent discourse. He passed his handkerchief across his forehead, took off his spectacles, wiped them, and put them on again; and his voice had recovered its wonted softness of tone when he said —

‘What have you there, Sam?’

‘Called at the post-office just now, and found this here letter, as has laid there for two days,’ replied Mr. Weller. ‘It’s sealed vith a vafer, and directed in round hand.’

‘I don’t know this hand,’ said Mr. Pickwick, opening the letter. ‘Mercy on us! what’s this? It must be a jest; it — it — can’t be true.’

‘What’s the matter?’ was the general inquiry.

‘Nobody dead, is there?’ said Wardle, alarmed at the horror in Mr. Pickwick’s countenance.

Mr. Pickwick made no reply, but, pushing the letter across the table, and desiring Mr. Tupman to read it aloud, fell back in his chair with a look of vacant astonishment quite alarming to behold.

Mr. Tupman, with a trembling voice, read the letter, of which the following is a copy:—

Freeman’s Court, Cornhill, August 28th, 1827.

Bardell against Pickwick.

Sir,

Having been instructed by Mrs. Martha Bardell to commence an action against you for a breach of promise of marriage, for which the plaintiff lays her damages at fifteen hundred pounds, we beg to inform you that a writ has been issued against you in this suit in the Court of Common Pleas; and request to know, by return of post, the name of your attorney in London, who will accept service thereof.

We are, Sir, Your obedient servants, Dodson & Fogg.

Mr. Samuel Pickwick.

There was something so impressive in the mute astonishment with which each man regarded his neighbour, and every man regarded Mr. Pickwick, that all seemed afraid to speak. The silence was at length broken by Mr. Tupman.

‘Dodson and Fogg,’ he repeated mechanically.

‘Bardell and Pickwick,’ said Mr. Snodgrass, musing.

‘Peace of mind and happiness of confiding females,’ murmured Mr. Winkle, with an air of abstraction.

‘It’s a conspiracy,’ said Mr. Pickwick, at length recovering the power of speech; ‘a base conspiracy between these two grasping attorneys, Dodson and Fogg. Mrs. Bardell would never do it; — she hasn’t the heart to do it; — she hasn’t the case to do it. Ridiculous — ridiculous.’ ‘Of her heart,’ said Wardle, with a smile, ‘you should certainly be the best judge. I don’t wish to discourage you, but I should certainly say that, of her case, Dodson and Fogg are far better judges than any of us can be.’

‘It’s a vile attempt to extort money,’ said Mr. Pickwick.

‘I hope it is,’ said Wardle, with a short, dry cough.

‘Who ever heard me address her in any way but that in which a lodger would address his landlady?’ continued Mr. Pickwick, with great vehemence. ‘Who ever saw me with her? Not even my friends here —’

‘Except on one occasion,’ said Mr. Tupman.

Mr. Pickwick changed colour. ‘Ah,’ said Mr. Wardle. ‘Well, that’s important. There was nothing suspicious then, I suppose?’

Mr. Tupman glanced timidly at his leader. ‘Why,’ said he, ‘there was nothing suspicious; but — I don’t know how it happened, mind — she certainly was reclining in his arms.’

‘Gracious powers!’ ejaculated Mr. Pickwick, as the recollection of the scene in question struck forcibly upon him; ‘what a dreadful instance of the force of circumstances! So she was — so she was.’

‘And our friend was soothing her anguish,’ said Mr. Winkle, rather maliciously.

‘So I was,’ said Mr. Pickwick. ‘I don’t deny it. So I was.’

‘Hollo!’ said Wardle; ‘for a case in which there’s nothing suspicious, this looks rather queer — eh, Pickwick? Ah, sly dog — sly dog!’ and he laughed till the glasses on the sideboard rang again.

‘What a dreadful conjunction of appearances!’ exclaimed Mr. Pickwick, resting his chin upon his hands. ‘Winkle — Tupman — I beg your pardon for the observations I made just now. We are all the victims of circumstances, and I the greatest.’ With this apology Mr. Pickwick buried his head in his hands, and ruminated; while Wardle measured out a regular circle of nods and winks, addressed to the other members of the company.

‘I’ll have it explained, though,’ said Mr. Pickwick, raising his head and hammering the table. ‘I’ll see this Dodson and Fogg! I’ll go to London to-morrow.’

‘Not to-morrow,’ said Wardle; ‘you’re too lame.’

‘Well, then, next day.’

‘Next day is the first of September, and you’re pledged to ride out with us, as far as Sir Geoffrey Manning’s grounds at all events, and to meet us at lunch, if you don’t take the field.’

‘Well, then, the day after,’ said Mr. Pickwick; ‘Thursday. — Sam!’

‘Sir,’ replied Mr. Weller.

‘Take two places outside to London, on Thursday morning, for yourself and me.’

‘Wery well, Sir.’

Mr. Weller left the room, and departed slowly on his errand, with his hands in his pocket and his eyes fixed on the ground.

‘Rum feller, the hemperor,’ said Mr. Weller, as he walked slowly up the street. ‘Think o’ his makin’ up to that ‘ere Mrs. Bardell — vith a little boy, too! Always the vay vith these here old ’uns howsoever, as is such steady goers to look at. I didn’t think he’d ha’ done it, though — I didn’t think he’d ha’ done it!’ Moralising in this strain, Mr. Samuel Weller bent his steps towards the booking-office.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:30