The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, by Charles Dickens

CHAPTER XLIX

Containing the Story of the Bagman’s Uncle

‘My uncle, gentlemen,’ said the bagman, ‘was one of the merriest, pleasantest, cleverest fellows, that ever lived. I wish you had known him, gentlemen. On second thoughts, gentlemen, I don’t wish you had known him, for if you had, you would have been all, by this time, in the ordinary course of nature, if not dead, at all events so near it, as to have taken to stopping at home and giving up company, which would have deprived me of the inestimable pleasure of addressing you at this moment. Gentlemen, I wish your fathers and mothers had known my uncle. They would have been amazingly fond of him, especially your respectable mothers; I know they would. If any two of his numerous virtues predominated over the many that adorned his character, I should say they were his mixed punch and his after-supper song. Excuse my dwelling on these melancholy recollections of departed worth; you won’t see a man like my uncle every day in the week.

‘I have always considered it a great point in my uncle’s character, gentlemen, that he was the intimate friend and companion of Tom Smart, of the great house of Bilson and Slum, Cateaton Street, City. My uncle collected for Tiggin and Welps, but for a long time he went pretty near the same journey as Tom; and the very first night they met, my uncle took a fancy for Tom, and Tom took a fancy for my uncle. They made a bet of a new hat before they had known each other half an hour, who should brew the best quart of punch and drink it the quickest. My uncle was judged to have won the making, but Tom Smart beat him in the drinking by about half a salt-spoonful. They took another quart apiece to drink each other’s health in, and were staunch friends ever afterwards. There’s a destiny in these things, gentlemen; we can’t help it.

‘In personal appearance, my uncle was a trifle shorter than the middle size; he was a thought stouter too, than the ordinary run of people, and perhaps his face might be a shade redder. He had the jolliest face you ever saw, gentleman: something like Punch, with a handsome nose and chin; his eyes were always twinkling and sparkling with good-humour; and a smile — not one of your unmeaning wooden grins, but a real, merry, hearty, good-tempered smile — was perpetually on his countenance. He was pitched out of his gig once, and knocked, head first, against a milestone. There he lay, stunned, and so cut about the face with some gravel which had been heaped up alongside it, that, to use my uncle’s own strong expression, if his mother could have revisited the earth, she wouldn’t have known him. Indeed, when I come to think of the matter, gentlemen, I feel pretty sure she wouldn’t. for she died when my uncle was two years and seven months old, and I think it’s very likely that, even without the gravel, his top-boots would have puzzled the good lady not a little; to say nothing of his jolly red face. However, there he lay, and I have heard my uncle say, many a time, that the man said who picked him up that he was smiling as merrily as if he had tumbled out for a treat, and that after they had bled him, the first faint glimmerings of returning animation, were his jumping up in bed, bursting out into a loud laugh, kissing the young woman who held the basin, and demanding a mutton chop and a pickled walnut. He was very fond of pickled walnuts, gentlemen. He said he always found that, taken without vinegar, they relished the beer.

‘My uncle’s great journey was in the fall of the leaf, at which time he collected debts, and took orders, in the north; going from London to Edinburgh, from Edinburgh to Glasgow, from Glasgow back to Edinburgh, and thence to London by the smack. You are to understand that his second visit to Edinburgh was for his own pleasure. He used to go back for a week, just to look up his old friends; and what with breakfasting with this one, lunching with that, dining with the third, and supping with another, a pretty tight week he used to make of it. I don’t know whether any of you, gentlemen, ever partook of a real substantial hospitable Scotch breakfast, and then went out to a slight lunch of a bushel of oysters, a dozen or so of bottled ale, and a noggin or two of whiskey to close up with. If you ever did, you will agree with me that it requires a pretty strong head to go out to dinner and supper afterwards.

‘But bless your hearts and eyebrows, all this sort of thing was nothing to my uncle! He was so well seasoned, that it was mere child’s play. I have heard him say that he could see the Dundee people out, any day, and walk home afterwards without staggering; and yet the Dundee people have as strong heads and as strong punch, gentlemen, as you are likely to meet with, between the poles. I have heard of a Glasgow man and a Dundee man drinking against each other for fifteen hours at a sitting. They were both suffocated, as nearly as could be ascertained, at the same moment, but with this trifling exception, gentlemen, they were not a bit the worse for it.

‘One night, within four-and-twenty hours of the time when he had settled to take shipping for London, my uncle supped at the house of a very old friend of his, a Bailie Mac something and four syllables after it, who lived in the old town of Edinburgh. There were the bailie’s wife, and the bailie’s three daughters, and the bailie’s grown-up son, and three or four stout, bushy eye– browed, canny, old Scotch fellows, that the bailie had got together to do honour to my uncle, and help to make merry. It was a glorious supper. There was kippered salmon, and Finnan haddocks, and a lamb’s head, and a haggis — a celebrated Scotch dish, gentlemen, which my uncle used to say always looked to him, when it came to table, very much like a Cupid’s stomach — and a great many other things besides, that I forget the names of, but very good things, notwithstanding. The lassies were pretty and agreeable; the bailie’s wife was one of the best creatures that ever lived; and my uncle was in thoroughly good cue. The consequence of which was, that the young ladies tittered and giggled, and the old lady laughed out loud, and the bailie and the other old fellows roared till they were red in the face, the whole mortal time. I don’t quite recollect how many tumblers of whiskey-toddy each man drank after supper; but this I know, that about one o’clock in the morning, the bailie’s grown-up son became insensible while attempting the first verse of “Willie brewed a peck o’ maut”; and he having been, for half an hour before, the only other man visible above the mahogany, it occurred to my uncle that it was almost time to think about going, especially as drinking had set in at seven o’clock, in order that he might get home at a decent hour. But, thinking it might not be quite polite to go just then, my uncle voted himself into the chair, mixed another glass, rose to propose his own health, addressed himself in a neat and complimentary speech, and drank the toast with great enthusiasm. Still nobody woke; so my uncle took a little drop more — neat this time, to prevent the toddy from disagreeing with him — and, laying violent hands on his hat, sallied forth into the street.

‘it was a wild, gusty night when my uncle closed the bailie’s door, and settling his hat firmly on his head to prevent the wind from taking it, thrust his hands into his pockets, and looking upward, took a short survey of the state of the weather. The clouds were drifting over the moon at their giddiest speed; at one time wholly obscuring her; at another, suffering her to burst forth in full splendour and shed her light on all the objects around; anon, driving over her again, with increased velocity, and shrouding everything in darkness. “Really, this won’t do,” said my uncle, addressing himself to the weather, as if he felt himself personally offended. “This is not at all the kind of thing for my voyage. It will not do at any price,” said my uncle, very impressively. Having repeated this, several times, he recovered his balance with some difficulty — for he was rather giddy with looking up into the sky so long — and walked merrily on.

‘The bailie’s house was in the Canongate, and my uncle was going to the other end of Leith Walk, rather better than a mile’s journey. On either side of him, there shot up against the dark sky, tall, gaunt, straggling houses, with time-stained fronts, and windows that seemed to have shared the lot of eyes in mortals, and to have grown dim and sunken with age. Six, seven, eight Storey high, were the houses; storey piled upon storey, as children build with cards — throwing their dark shadows over the roughly paved road, and making the dark night darker. A few oil lamps were scattered at long distances, but they only served to mark the dirty entrance to some narrow close, or to show where a common stair communicated, by steep and intricate windings, with the various flats above. Glancing at all these things with the air of a man who had seen them too often before, to think them worthy of much notice now, my uncle walked up the middle of the street, with a thumb in each waistcoat pocket, indulging from time to time in various snatches of song, chanted forth with such good-will and spirit, that the quiet honest folk started from their first sleep and lay trembling in bed till the sound died away in the distance; when, satisfying themselves that it was only some drunken ne’er-do-weel finding his way home, they covered themselves up warm and fell asleep again.

‘I am particular in describing how my uncle walked up the middle of the street, with his thumbs in his waistcoat pockets, gentlemen, because, as he often used to say (and with great reason too) there is nothing at all extraordinary in this story, unless you distinctly understand at the beginning, that he was not by any means of a marvellous or romantic turn.

‘Gentlemen, my uncle walked on with his thumbs in his waistcoat pockets, taking the middle of the street to himself, and singing, now a verse of a love song, and then a verse of a drinking one, and when he was tired of both, whistling melodiously, until he reached the North Bridge, which, at this point, connects the old and new towns of Edinburgh. Here he stopped for a minute, to look at the strange, irregular clusters of lights piled one above the other, and twinkling afar off so high, that they looked like stars, gleaming from the castle walls on the one side and the Calton Hill on the other, as if they illuminated veritable castles in the air; while the old picturesque town slept heavily on, in gloom and darkness below: its palace and chapel of Holyrood, guarded day and night, as a friend of my uncle’s used to say, by old Arthur’s Seat, towering, surly and dark, like some gruff genius, over the ancient city he has watched so long. I say, gentlemen, my uncle stopped here, for a minute, to look about him; and then, paying a compliment to the weather, which had a little cleared up, though the moon was sinking, walked on again, as royally as before; keeping the middle of the road with great dignity, and looking as if he would very much like to meet with somebody who would dispute possession of it with him. There was nobody at all disposed to contest the point, as it happened; and so, on he went, with his thumbs in his waistcoat pockets, like a lamb.

‘When my uncle reached the end of Leith Walk, he had to cross a pretty large piece of waste ground which separated him from a short street which he had to turn down to go direct to his lodging. Now, in this piece of waste ground, there was, at that time, an enclosure belonging to some wheelwright who contracted with the Post Office for the purchase of old, worn-out mail coaches; and my uncle, being very fond of coaches, old, young, or middle-aged, all at once took it into his head to step out of his road for no other purpose than to peep between the palings at these mails — about a dozen of which he remembered to have seen, crowded together in a very forlorn and dismantled state, inside. My uncle was a very enthusiastic, emphatic sort of person, gentlemen; so, finding that he could not obtain a good peep between the palings he got over them, and sitting himself quietly down on an old axle-tree, began to contemplate the mail coaches with a deal of gravity.

‘There might be a dozen of them, or there might be more — my uncle was never quite certain on this point, and being a man of very scrupulous veracity about numbers, didn’t like to say — but there they stood, all huddled together in the most desolate condition imaginable. The doors had been torn from their hinges and removed; the linings had been stripped off, only a shred hanging here and there by a rusty nail; the lamps were gone, the poles had long since vanished, the ironwork was rusty, the paint was worn away; the wind whistled through the chinks in the bare woodwork; and the rain, which had collected on the roofs, fell, drop by drop, into the insides with a hollow and melancholy sound. They were the decaying skeletons of departed mails, and in that lonely place, at that time of night, they looked chill and dismal.

‘My uncle rested his head upon his hands, and thought of the busy, bustling people who had rattled about, years before, in the old coaches, and were now as silent and changed; he thought of the numbers of people to whom one of these crazy, mouldering vehicles had borne, night after night, for many years, and through all weathers, the anxiously expected intelligence, the eagerly looked-for remittance, the promised assurance of health and safety, the sudden announcement of sickness and death. The merchant, the lover, the wife, the widow, the mother, the school-boy, the very child who tottered to the door at the postman’s knock — how had they all looked forward to the arrival of the old coach. And where were they all now? ‘Gentlemen, my uncle used to SAY that he thought all this at the time, but I rather suspect he learned it out of some book afterwards, for he distinctly stated that he fell into a kind of doze, as he sat on the old axle-tree looking at the decayed mail coaches, and that he was suddenly awakened by some deep church bell striking two. Now, my uncle was never a fast thinker, and if he had thought all these things, I am quite certain it would have taken him till full half-past two o’clock at the very least. I am, therefore, decidedly of opinion, gentlemen, that my uncle fell into a kind of doze, without having thought about anything at all.

‘Be this as it may, a church bell struck two. My uncle woke, rubbed his eyes, and jumped up in astonishment.

‘In one instant, after the clock struck two, the whole of this deserted and quiet spot had become a scene of most extraordinary life and animation. The mail coach doors were on their hinges, the lining was replaced, the ironwork was as good as new, the paint was restored, the lamps were alight; cushions and greatcoats were on every coach-box, porters were thrusting parcels into every boot, guards were stowing away letter-bags, hostlers were dashing pails of water against the renovated wheels; numbers of men were pushing about, fixing poles into every coach; passengers arrived, portmanteaus were handed up, horses were put to; in short, it was perfectly clear that every mail there, was to be off directly. Gentlemen, my uncle opened his eyes so wide at all this, that, to the very last moment of his life, he used to wonder how it fell out that he had ever been able to shut ’em again.

‘“Now then!” said a voice, as my uncle felt a hand on his shoulder, “you’re booked for one inside. You’d better get in.”

‘“I booked!” said my uncle, turning round.

‘“Yes, certainly.”

‘My uncle, gentlemen, could say nothing, he was so very much astonished. The queerest thing of all was that although there was such a crowd of persons, and although fresh faces were pouring in, every moment, there was no telling where they came from. They seemed to start up, in some strange manner, from the ground, or the air, and disappear in the same way. When a porter had put his luggage in the coach, and received his fare, he turned round and was gone; and before my uncle had well begun to wonder what had become of him, half a dozen fresh ones started up, and staggered along under the weight of parcels, which seemed big enough to crush them. The passengers were all dressed so oddly too! Large, broad-skirted laced coats, with great cuffs and no collars; and wigs, gentlemen — great formal wigs with a tie behind. My uncle could make nothing of it.

‘“Now, are you going to get in?” said the person who had addressed my uncle before. He was dressed as a mail guard, with a wig on his head and most enormous cuffs to his coat, and had a lantern in one hand, and a huge blunderbuss in the other, which he was going to stow away in his little arm-chest. “ARE you going to get in, Jack Martin?” said the guard, holding the lantern to my uncle’s face.

‘“Hollo!” said my uncle, falling back a step or two. “That’s familiar!”

‘“It’s so on the way-bill,” said the guard.

‘“Isn’t there a ‘Mister’ before it?” said my uncle. For he felt, gentlemen, that for a guard he didn’t know, to call him Jack Martin, was a liberty which the Post Office wouldn’t have sanctioned if they had known it.

‘“No, there is not,” rejoined the guard coolly.

‘“Is the fare paid?” inquired my uncle.

‘“Of course it is,” rejoined the guard.

‘“it is, is it?” said my uncle. “Then here goes! Which coach?”

‘“This,” said the guard, pointing to an old-fashioned Edinburgh and London mail, which had the steps down and the door open. “Stop! Here are the other passengers. Let them get in first.”

‘As the guard spoke, there all at once appeared, right in front of my uncle, a young gentleman in a powdered wig, and a sky-blue coat trimmed with silver, made very full and broad in the skirts, which were lined with buckram. Tiggin and Welps were in the printed calico and waistcoat piece line, gentlemen, so my uncle knew all the materials at once. He wore knee breeches, and a kind of leggings rolled up over his silk stockings, and shoes with buckles; he had ruffles at his wrists, a three-cornered hat on his head, and a long taper sword by his side. The flaps of his waist-coat came half-way down his thighs, and the ends of his cravat reached to his waist. He stalked gravely to the coach door, pulled off his hat, and held it above his head at arm’s length, cocking his little finger in the air at the same time, as some affected people do, when they take a cup of tea. Then he drew his feet together, and made a low, grave bow, and then put out his left hand. My uncle was just going to step forward, and shake it heartily, when he perceived that these attentions were directed, not towards him, but to a young lady who just then appeared at the foot of the steps, attired in an old-fashioned green velvet dress with a long waist and stomacher. She had no bonnet on her head, gentlemen, which was muffled in a black silk hood, but she looked round for an instant as she prepared to get into the coach, and such a beautiful face as she disclosed, my uncle had never seen — not even in a picture. She got into the coach, holding up her dress with one hand; and as my uncle always said with a round oath, when he told the story, he wouldn’t have believed it possible that legs and feet could have been brought to such a state of perfection unless he had seen them with his own eyes.

‘But, in this one glimpse of the beautiful face, my uncle saw that the young lady cast an imploring look upon him, and that she appeared terrified and distressed. He noticed, too, that the young fellow in the powdered wig, notwithstanding his show of gallantry, which was all very fine and grand, clasped her tight by the wrist when she got in, and followed himself immediately afterwards. An uncommonly ill-looking fellow, in a close brown wig, and a plum-coloured suit, wearing a very large sword, and boots up to his hips, belonged to the party; and when he sat himself down next to the young lady, who shrank into a corner at his approach, my uncle was confirmed in his original impression that something dark and mysterious was going forward, or, as he always said himself, that “there was a screw loose somewhere.” It’s quite surprising how quickly he made up his mind to help the lady at any peril, if she needed any help.

‘“Death and lightning!” exclaimed the young gentleman, laying his hand upon his sword as my uncle entered the coach.

‘“Blood and thunder!” roared the other gentleman. With this, he whipped his sword out, and made a lunge at my uncle without further ceremony. My uncle had no weapon about him, but with great dexterity he snatched the ill-looking gentleman’s three-cornered hat from his head, and, receiving the point of his sword right through the crown, squeezed the sides together, and held it tight.

‘“Pink him behind!” cried the ill-looking gentleman to his companion, as he struggled to regain his sword.

‘“He had better not,” cried my uncle, displaying the heel of one of his shoes, in a threatening manner. “I’ll kick his brains out, if he has any — or fracture his skull if he hasn’t.” Exerting all his strength, at this moment, my uncle wrenched the ill-looking man’s sword from his grasp, and flung it clean out of the coach window, upon which the younger gentleman vociferated, “Death and lightning!” again, and laid his hand upon the hilt of his sword, in a very fierce manner, but didn’t draw it. Perhaps, gentlemen, as my uncle used to say with a smile, perhaps he was afraid of alarming the lady.

‘“Now, gentlemen,” said my uncle, taking his seat deliberately, “I don’t want to have any death, with or without lightning, in a lady’s presence, and we have had quite blood and thundering enough for one journey; so, if you please, we’ll sit in our places like quiet insides. Here, guard, pick up that gentleman’s carving-knife.”

‘As quickly as my uncle said the words, the guard appeared at the coach window, with the gentleman’s sword in his hand. He held up his lantern, and looked earnestly in my uncle’s face, as he handed it in, when, by its light, my uncle saw, to his great surprise, that an immense crowd of mail-coach guards swarmed round the window, every one of whom had his eyes earnestly fixed upon him too. He had never seen such a sea of white faces, red bodies, and earnest eyes, in all his born days.

‘“This is the strangest sort of thing I ever had anything to do with,” thought my uncle; “allow me to return you your hat, sir.”

‘The ill-looking gentleman received his three-cornered hat in silence, looked at the hole in the middle with an inquiring air, and finally stuck it on the top of his wig with a solemnity the effect of which was a trifle impaired by his sneezing violently at the moment, and jerking it off again.

‘“All right!” cried the guard with the lantern, mounting into his little seat behind. Away they went. My uncle peeped out of the coach window as they emerged from the yard, and observed that the other mails, with coachmen, guards, horses, and passengers, complete, were driving round and round in circles, at a slow trot of about five miles an hour. My uncle burned with indignation, gentlemen. As a commercial man, he felt that the mail-bags were not to be trifled with, and he resolved to memorialise the Post Office on the subject, the very instant he reached London.

‘At present, however, his thoughts were occupied with the young lady who sat in the farthest corner of the coach, with her face muffled closely in her hood; the gentleman with the sky-blue coat sitting opposite to her; the other man in the plum-coloured suit, by her side; and both watching her intently. If she so much as rustled the folds of her hood, he could hear the ill-looking man clap his hand upon his sword, and could tell by the other’s breathing (it was so dark he couldn’t see his face) that he was looking as big as if he were going to devour her at a mouthful. This roused my uncle more and more, and he resolved, come what might, to see the end of it. He had a great admiration for bright eyes, and sweet faces, and pretty legs and feet; in short, he was fond of the whole sex. It runs in our family, gentleman — so am I.

‘Many were the devices which my uncle practised, to attract the lady’s attention, or at all events, to engage the mysterious gentlemen in conversation. They were all in vain; the gentlemen wouldn’t talk, and the lady didn’t dare. He thrust his head out of the coach window at intervals, and bawled out to know why they didn’t go faster. But he called till he was hoarse; nobody paid the least attention to him. He leaned back in the coach, and thought of the beautiful face, and the feet and legs. This answered better; it whiled away the time, and kept him from wondering where he was going, and how it was that he found himself in such an odd situation. Not that this would have worried him much, anyway — he was a mighty free and easy, roving, devil-may-care sort of person, was my uncle, gentlemen.

‘All of a sudden the coach stopped. “Hollo!” said my uncle, “what’s in the wind now?”

‘“Alight here,” said the guard, letting down the steps.

‘“Here!” cried my uncle.

‘“Here,” rejoined the guard.

‘“I’ll do nothing of the sort,” said my uncle.

‘“Very well, then stop where you are,” said the guard.

‘“I will,” said my uncle.

‘“Do,” said the guard.

‘The passengers had regarded this colloquy with great attention, and, finding that my uncle was determined not to alight, the younger man squeezed past him, to hand the lady out. At this moment, the ill-looking man was inspecting the hole in the crown of his three-cornered hat. As the young lady brushed past, she dropped one of her gloves into my uncle’s hand, and softly whispered, with her lips so close to his face that he felt her warm breath on his nose, the single word “Help!” Gentlemen, my uncle leaped out of the coach at once, with such violence that it rocked on the springs again.

‘“Oh! you’ve thought better of it, have you?” said the guard, when he saw my uncle standing on the ground.

‘My uncle looked at the guard for a few seconds, in some doubt whether it wouldn’t be better to wrench his blunderbuss from him, fire it in the face of the man with the big sword, knock the rest of the company over the head with the stock, snatch up the young lady, and go off in the smoke. On second thoughts, however, he abandoned this plan, as being a shade too melodramatic in the execution, and followed the two mysterious men, who, keeping the lady between them, were now entering an old house in front of which the coach had stopped. They turned into the passage, and my uncle followed.

‘Of all the ruinous and desolate places my uncle had ever beheld, this was the most so. It looked as if it had once been a large house of entertainment; but the roof had fallen in, in many places, and the stairs were steep, rugged, and broken. There was a huge fireplace in the room into which they walked, and the chimney was blackened with smoke; but no warm blaze lighted it up now. The white feathery dust of burned wood was still strewed over the hearth, but the stove was cold, and all was dark and gloomy.

‘“Well,” said my uncle, as he looked about him, “a mail travelling at the rate of six miles and a half an hour, and stopping for an indefinite time at such a hole as this, is rather an irregular sort of proceeding, I fancy. This shall be made known. I’ll write to the papers.”

‘My uncle said this in a pretty loud voice, and in an open, unreserved sort of manner, with the view of engaging the two strangers in conversation if he could. But, neither of them took any more notice of him than whispering to each other, and scowling at him as they did so. The lady was at the farther end of the room, and once she ventured to wave her hand, as if beseeching my uncle’s assistance.

‘At length the two strangers advanced a little, and the conversation began in earnest.

‘“You don’t know this is a private room, I suppose, fellow?” said the gentleman in sky-blue.

‘“No, I do not, fellow,” rejoined my uncle. “Only, if this is a private room specially ordered for the occasion, I should think the public room must be a VERY comfortable one;” with this, my uncle sat himself down in a high-backed chair, and took such an accurate measure of the gentleman, with his eyes, that Tiggin and Welps could have supplied him with printed calico for a suit, and not an inch too much or too little, from that estimate alone.

‘“Quit this room,” said both men together, grasping their swords.

‘“Eh?” said my uncle, not at all appearing to comprehend their meaning.

‘“Quit the room, or you are a dead man,” said the ill-looking fellow with the large sword, drawing it at the same time and flourishing it in the air.

‘“Down with him!” cried the gentleman in sky-blue, drawing his sword also, and falling back two or three yards. “Down with him!” The lady gave a loud scream.

‘Now, my uncle was always remarkable for great boldness, and great presence of mind. All the time that he had appeared so indifferent to what was going on, he had been looking slily about for some missile or weapon of defence, and at the very instant when the swords were drawn, he espied, standing in the chimney– corner, an old basket-hilted rapier in a rusty scabbard. At one bound, my uncle caught it in his hand, drew it, flourished it gallantly above his head, called aloud to the lady to keep out of the way, hurled the chair at the man in sky-blue, and the scabbard at the man in plum-colour, and taking advantage of the confusion, fell upon them both, pell-mell.

‘Gentlemen, there is an old story — none the worse for being true — regarding a fine young Irish gentleman, who being asked if he could play the fiddle, replied he had no doubt he could, but he couldn’t exactly say, for certain, because he had never tried. This is not inapplicable to my uncle and his fencing. He had never had a sword in his hand before, except once when he played Richard the Third at a private theatre, upon which occasion it was arranged with Richmond that he was to be run through, from behind, without showing fight at all. But here he was, cutting and slashing with two experienced swordsman, thrusting, and guarding, and poking, and slicing, and acquitting himself in the most manful and dexterous manner possible, although up to that time he had never been aware that he had the least notion of the science. It only shows how true the old saying is, that a man never knows what he can do till he tries, gentlemen.

‘The noise of the combat was terrific; each of the three combatants swearing like troopers, and their swords clashing with as much noise as if all the knives and steels in Newport market were rattling together, at the same time. When it was at its very height, the lady (to encourage my uncle most probably) withdrew her hood entirely from her face, and disclosed a countenance of such dazzling beauty, that he would have fought against fifty men, to win one smile from it and die. He had done wonders before, but now he began to powder away like a raving mad giant.

‘At this very moment, the gentleman in sky-blue turning round, and seeing the young lady with her face uncovered, vented an exclamation of rage and jealousy, and, turning his weapon against her beautiful bosom, pointed a thrust at her heart, which caused my uncle to utter a cry of apprehension that made the building ring. The lady stepped lightly aside, and snatching the young man’s sword from his hand, before he had recovered his balance, drove him to the wall, and running it through him, and the panelling, up to the very hilt, pinned him there, hard and fast. It was a splendid example. My uncle, with a loud shout of triumph, and a strength that was irresistible, made his adversary retreat in the same direction, and plunging the old rapier into the very centre of a large red flower in the pattern of his waistcoat, nailed him beside his friend; there they both stood, gentlemen, jerking their arms and legs about in agony, like the toy-shop figures that are moved by a piece of pack-thread. My uncle always said, afterwards, that this was one of the surest means he knew of, for disposing of an enemy; but it was liable to one objection on the ground of expense, inasmuch as it involved the loss of a sword for every man disabled.

‘“The mail, the mail!” cried the lady, running up to my uncle and throwing her beautiful arms round his neck; “we may yet escape.”

‘“May!” cried my uncle; “why, my dear, there’s nobody else to kill, is there?” My uncle was rather disappointed, gentlemen, for he thought a little quiet bit of love-making would be agreeable after the slaughtering, if it were only to change the subject.

‘“We have not an instant to lose here,” said the young lady. “He (pointing to the young gentleman in sky-blue) is the only son of the powerful Marquess of Filletoville.” ‘“Well then, my dear, I’m afraid he’ll never come to the title,” said my uncle, looking coolly at the young gentleman as he stood fixed up against the wall, in the cockchafer fashion that I have described. “You have cut off the entail, my love.”

‘“I have been torn from my home and my friends by these villains,” said the young lady, her features glowing with indignation. “That wretch would have married me by violence in another hour.”

‘“Confound his impudence!” said my uncle, bestowing a very contemptuous look on the dying heir of Filletoville.

‘ “As you may guess from what you have seen,” said the young lady, “the party were prepared to murder me if I appealed to any one for assistance. If their accomplices find us here, we are lost. Two minutes hence may be too late. The mail!” With these words, overpowered by her feelings, and the exertion of sticking the young Marquess of Filletoville, she sank into my uncle’s arms. My uncle caught her up, and bore her to the house door. There stood the mail, with four long-tailed, flowing-maned, black horses, ready harnessed; but no coachman, no guard, no hostler even, at the horses’ heads.

‘Gentlemen, I hope I do no injustice to my uncle’s memory, when I express my opinion, that although he was a bachelor, he had held some ladies in his arms before this time; I believe, indeed, that he had rather a habit of kissing barmaids; and I know, that in one or two instances, he had been seen by credible witnesses, to hug a landlady in a very perceptible manner. I mention the circumstance, to show what a very uncommon sort of person this beautiful young lady must have been, to have affected my uncle in the way she did; he used to say, that as her long dark hair trailed over his arm, and her beautiful dark eyes fixed themselves upon his face when she recovered, he felt so strange and nervous that his legs trembled beneath him. But who can look in a sweet, soft pair of dark eyes, without feeling queer? I can’t, gentlemen. I am afraid to look at some eyes I know, and that’s the truth of it.

‘“You will never leave me,” murmured the young lady.

‘“Never,” said my uncle. And he meant it too.

‘“My dear preserver!” exclaimed the young lady. “My dear, kind, brave preserver!”

‘“Don’t,” said my uncle, interrupting her.

‘”‘Why?” inquired the young lady.

‘“Because your mouth looks so beautiful when you speak,” rejoined my uncle, “that I’m afraid I shall be rude enough to kiss it.”

‘The young lady put up her hand as if to caution my uncle not to do so, and said — No, she didn’t say anything — she smiled. When you are looking at a pair of the most delicious lips in the world, and see them gently break into a roguish smile — if you are very near them, and nobody else by — you cannot better testify your admiration of their beautiful form and colour than by kissing them at once. My uncle did so, and I honour him for it.

‘“Hark!” cried the young lady, starting. “The noise of wheels, and horses!”

‘“So it is,” said my uncle, listening. He had a good ear for wheels, and the trampling of hoofs; but there appeared to be so many horses and carriages rattling towards them, from a distance, that it was impossible to form a guess at their number. The sound was like that of fifty brakes, with six blood cattle in each.

‘“We are pursued!” cried the young lady, clasping her hands. “We are pursued. I have no hope but in you!”

‘There was such an expression of terror in her beautiful face, that my uncle made up his mind at once. He lifted her into the coach, told her not to be frightened, pressed his lips to hers once more, and then advising her to draw up the window to keep the cold air out, mounted to the box.

‘“Stay, love,” cried the young lady.

‘“What’s the matter?” said my uncle, from the coach-box.

‘“I want to speak to you,” said the young lady; “only a word. Only one word, dearest.”

‘“Must I get down?” inquired my uncle. The lady made no answer, but she smiled again. Such a smile, gentlemen! It beat the other one, all to nothing. My uncle descended from his perch in a twinkling.

‘“What is it, my dear?” said my uncle, looking in at the coach window. The lady happened to bend forward at the same time, and my uncle thought she looked more beautiful than she had done yet. He was very close to her just then, gentlemen, so he really ought to know.

‘“What is it, my dear?” said my uncle.

‘“Will you never love any one but me — never marry any one beside?” said the young lady.

‘My uncle swore a great oath that he never would marry anybody else, and the young lady drew in her head, and pulled up the window. He jumped upon the box, squared his elbows, adjusted the ribands, seized the whip which lay on the roof, gave one flick to the off leader, and away went the four long-tailed, flowing-maned black horses, at fifteen good English miles an hour, with the old mail-coach behind them. Whew! How they tore along!

‘The noise behind grew louder. The faster the old mail went, the faster came the pursuers — men, horses, dogs, were leagued in the pursuit. The noise was frightful, but, above all, rose the voice of the young lady, urging my uncle on, and shrieking, “Faster! Faster!”

‘They whirled past the dark trees, as feathers would be swept before a hurricane. Houses, gates, churches, haystacks, objects of every kind they shot by, with a velocity and noise like roaring waters suddenly let loose. But still the noise of pursuit grew louder, and still my uncle could hear the young lady wildly screaming, “Faster! Faster!”

‘My uncle plied whip and rein, and the horses flew onward till they were white with foam; and yet the noise behind increased; and yet the young lady cried, “Faster! Faster!” My uncle gave a loud stamp on the boot in the energy of the moment, and — found that it was gray morning, and he was sitting in the wheelwright’s yard, on the box of an old Edinburgh mail, shivering with the cold and wet and stamping his feet to warm them! He got down, and looked eagerly inside for the beautiful young lady. Alas! There was neither door nor seat to the coach. It was a mere shell.

‘Of course, my uncle knew very well that there was some mystery in the matter, and that everything had passed exactly as he used to relate it. He remained staunch to the great oath he had sworn to the beautiful young lady, refusing several eligible landladies on her account, and dying a bachelor at last. He always said what a curious thing it was that he should have found out, by such a mere accident as his clambering over the palings, that the ghosts of mail-coaches and horses, guards, coachmen, and passengers, were in the habit of making journeys regularly every night. He used to add, that he believed he was the only living person who had ever been taken as a passenger on one of these excursions. And I think he was right, gentlemen — at least I never heard of any other.’

‘I wonder what these ghosts of mail-coaches carry in their bags,’ said the landlord, who had listened to the whole story with profound attention.

‘The dead letters, of course,’ said the bagman.

‘Oh, ah! To be sure,’ rejoined the landlord. ‘I never thought of that.’

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/dickens/charles/d54pp/chapter49.html

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