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Charles Dickens >> The Pickwick Papers (page 6)


'The other party, and a surgeon, I suppose,' said Mr. Snodgrass;'take a drop of brandy.' Mr. Winkle seized the wickerbottle which his friend proffered, and took a lengthened pull atthe exhilarating liquid.

'My friend, Sir, Mr. Snodgrass,' said Mr. Winkle, as the officerapproached. Doctor Slammer's friend bowed, and produced acase similar to that which Mr. Snodgrass carried.

'We have nothing further to say, Sir, I think,' he coldly remarked,as he opened the case; 'an apology has been resolutely declined.'

'Nothing, Sir,' said Mr. Snodgrass, who began to feel ratheruncomfortable himself.

'Will you step forward?' said the officer.

'Certainly,' replied Mr. Snodgrass. The ground was measured,and preliminaries arranged.'You will find these better than your own,' said the oppositesecond, producing his pistols. 'You saw me load them. Do youobject to use them?'

'Certainly not,' replied Mr. Snodgrass. The offer relieved himfrom considerable embarrassment, for his previous notions ofloading a pistol were rather vague and undefined.

'We may place our men, then, I think,' observed the officer,with as much indifference as if the principals were chess-men, andthe seconds players.

'I think we may,' replied Mr. Snodgrass; who would haveassented to any proposition, because he knew nothing about thematter. The officer crossed to Doctor Slammer, and Mr. Snodgrasswent up to Mr. Winkle.

'It's all ready,' said he, offering the pistol. 'Give me your cloak.'

'You have got the packet, my dear fellow,' said poor Winkle.'All right,' said Mr. Snodgrass. 'Be steady, and wing him.'

It occurred to Mr. Winkle that this advice was very like thatwhich bystanders invariably give to the smallest boy in a streetfight, namely, 'Go in, and win'--an admirable thing to recommend,if you only know how to do it. He took off his cloak,however, in silence--it always took a long time to undo that cloak--and accepted the pistol. The seconds retired, the gentleman onthe camp-stool did the same, and the belligerents approachedeach other.

Mr. Winkle was always remarkable for extreme humanity. It isconjectured that his unwillingness to hurt a fellow-creatureintentionally was the cause of his shutting his eyes when hearrived at the fatal spot; and that the circumstance of his eyesbeing closed, prevented his observing the very extraordinary andunaccountable demeanour of Doctor Slammer. That gentlemanstarted, stared, retreated, rubbed his eyes, stared again, and,finally, shouted, 'Stop, stop!'

'What's all this?' said Doctor Slammer, as his friend and Mr.Snodgrass came running up; 'that's not the man.'

'Not the man!' said Doctor Slammer's second.

'Not the man!' said Mr. Snodgrass.

'Not the man!' said the gentleman with the camp-stool in his hand.

'Certainly not,' replied the little doctor. 'That's not the personwho insulted me last night.'

'Very extraordinary!' exclaimed the officer.

'Very,' said the gentleman with the camp-stool. 'The onlyquestion is, whether the gentleman, being on the ground, mustnot be considered, as a matter of form, to be the individual whoinsulted our friend, Doctor Slammer, yesterday evening, whetherhe is really that individual or not;' and having delivered thissuggestion, with a very sage and mysterious air, the man with thecamp-stool took a large pinch of snuff, and looked profoundlyround, with the air of an authority in such matters.

Now Mr. Winkle had opened his eyes, and his ears too, whenhe heard his adversary call out for a cessation of hostilities; andperceiving by what he had afterwards said that there was, beyondall question, some mistake in the matter, he at once foresaw theincrease of reputation he should inevitably acquire by concealingthe real motive of his coming out; he therefore stepped boldlyforward, and said--

'I am not the person. I know it.'

'Then, that,' said the man with the camp-stool, 'is an affrontto Doctor Slammer, and a sufficient reason for proceeding immediately.'

'Pray be quiet, Payne,' said the doctor's second. 'Why did younot communicate this fact to me this morning, Sir?'

'To be sure--to be sure,' said the man with the camp-stoolindignantly.

'I entreat you to be quiet, Payne,' said the other. 'May I repeatmy question, Sir?'

'Because, Sir,' replied Mr. Winkle, who had had time todeliberate upon his answer, 'because, Sir, you described anintoxicated and ungentlemanly person as wearing a coat which Ihave the honour, not only to wear but to have invented--theproposed uniform, Sir, of the Pickwick Club in London. Thehonour of that uniform I feel bound to maintain, and I therefore,without inquiry, accepted the challenge which you offered me.'

'My dear Sir,' said the good-humoured little doctor advancingwith extended hand, 'I honour your gallantry. Permit me to say,Sir, that I highly admire your conduct, and extremely regrethaving caused you the inconvenience of this meeting, to no purpose.'

'I beg you won't mention it, Sir,' said Mr. Winkle.

'I shall feel proud of your acquaintance, Sir,' said the little doctor.

'It will afford me the greatest pleasure to know you, sir,' repliedMr. Winkle. Thereupon the doctor and Mr. Winkle shookhands, and then Mr. Winkle and Lieutenant Tappleton (thedoctor's second), and then Mr. Winkle and the man with thecamp-stool, and, finally, Mr. Winkle and Mr. Snodgrass--thelast-named gentleman in an excess of admiration at the nobleconduct of his heroic friend.

'I think we may adjourn,' said Lieutenant Tappleton.

'Certainly,' added the doctor.

'Unless,' interposed the man with the camp-stool, 'unless Mr.Winkle feels himself aggrieved by the challenge; in which case, Isubmit, he has a right to satisfaction.'

Mr. Winkle, with great self-denial, expressed himself quitesatisfied already.'Or possibly,' said the man with the camp-stool, 'the gentleman'ssecond may feel himself affronted with some observationswhich fell from me at an early period of this meeting; if so, I shallbe happy to give him satisfaction immediately.'

Mr. Snodgrass hastily professed himself very much obligedwith the handsome offer of the gentleman who had spoken last,which he was only induced to decline by his entire contentmentwith the whole proceedings. The two seconds adjusted the cases,and the whole party left the ground in a much more livelymanner than they had proceeded to it.

'Do you remain long here?' inquired Doctor Slammer ofMr. Winkle, as they walked on most amicably together.

'I think we shall leave here the day after to-morrow,' was the reply.

'I trust I shall have the pleasure of seeing you and your friendat my rooms, and of spending a pleasant evening with you, afterthis awkward mistake,' said the little doctor; 'are youdisengaged this evening?'

'We have some friends here,' replied Mr. Winkle, 'and I shouldnot like to leave them to-night. Perhaps you and your friend willjoin us at the Bull.'

'With great pleasure,' said the little doctor; 'will ten o'clock betoo late to look in for half an hour?'

'Oh dear, no,' said Mr. Winkle. 'I shall be most happy tointroduce you to my friends, Mr. Pickwick and Mr. Tupman.'

'It will give me great pleasure, I am sure,' replied DoctorSlammer, little suspecting who Mr. Tupman was.

'You will be sure to come?' said Mr. Snodgrass.

'Oh, certainly.'

By this time they had reached the road. Cordial farewells wereexchanged, and the party separated. Doctor Slammer and hisfriends repaired to the barracks, and Mr. Winkle, accompanied byMr. Snodgrass, returned to their inn.

CHAPTER IIIA NEW ACQUAINTANCE--THE STROLLER'S TALE--ADISAGREEABLE INTERRUPTION, AND AN UNPLEASANTENCOUNTER

Mr. Pickwick had felt some apprehensions in consequence of theunusual absence of his two friends, which their mysteriousbehaviour during the whole morning had by no means tended todiminish. It was, therefore, with more than ordinary pleasurethat he rose to greet them when they again entered; and with morethan ordinary interest that he inquired what had occurred todetain them from his society. In reply to his questions on thispoint, Mr. Snodgrass was about to offer an historical account ofthe circumstances just now detailed, when he was suddenly checkedby observing that there were present, not only Mr. Tupman andtheir stage-coach companion of the preceding day, but anotherstranger of equally singular appearance. It was a careworn-lookingman, whose sallow face, and deeply-sunken eyes, were renderedstill more striking than Nature had made them, by the straightblack hair which hung in matted disorder half-way down his face.His eyes were almost unnaturally bright and piercing; hischeek-bones were high and prominent; and his jaws were so long andlank, that an observer would have supposed that he was drawing theflesh of his face in, for a moment, by some contraction of themuscles, if his half-opened mouth and immovable expression had notannounced that it was his ordinary appearance. Round his neck hewore a green shawl, with the large ends straggling over his chest,and making their appearance occasionally beneath the wornbutton-holes of his old waistcoat. His upper garment was a longblack surtout; and below it he wore wide drab trousers, and largeboots, running rapidly to seed.

It was on this uncouth-looking person that Mr. Winkle's eyerested, and it was towards him that Mr. Pickwick extended hishand when he said, 'A friend of our friend's here. We discoveredthis morning that our friend was connected with the theatre inthis place, though he is not desirous to have it generally known,and this gentleman is a member of the same profession. He wasabout to favour us with a little anecdote connected with it, whenyou entered.'

'Lots of anecdote,' said the green-coated stranger of the daybefore, advancing to Mr. Winkle and speaking in a low andconfidential tone. 'Rum fellow--does the heavy business--noactor--strange man--all sorts of miseries--Dismal Jemmy, wecall him on the circuit.' Mr. Winkle and Mr. Snodgrass politelywelcomed the gentleman, elegantly designated as 'DismalJemmy'; and calling for brandy-and-water, in imitation of theremainder of the company, seated themselves at the table.'Now sir,' said Mr. Pickwick, 'will you oblige us by proceedingwith what you were going to relate?'

The dismal individual took a dirty roll of paper from hispocket, and turning to Mr. Snodgrass, who had just taken outhis note-book, said in a hollow voice, perfectly in keeping with hisoutward man--'Are you the poet?'

'I--I do a little in that way,' replied Mr. Snodgrass, rathertaken aback by the abruptness of the question.'Ah! poetry makes life what light and music do the stage--strip the one of the false embellishments, and the other of itsillusions, and what is there real in either to live or care for?'

'Very true, Sir,' replied Mr. Snodgrass.

'To be before the footlights,' continued the dismal man, 'is likesitting at a grand court show, and admiring the silken dresses ofthe gaudy throng; to be behind them is to be the people whomake that finery, uncared for and unknown, and left to sink orswim, to starve or live, as fortune wills it.'

'Certainly,' said Mr. Snodgrass: for the sunken eye of thedismal man rested on him, and he felt it necessary to say something.

'Go on, Jemmy,' said the Spanish traveller, 'like black-eyedSusan--all in the Downs--no croaking--speak out--look lively.''Will you make another glass before you begin, Sir ?' said Mr. Pickwick.

The dismal man took the hint, and having mixed a glass ofbrandy-and-water, and slowly swallowed half of it, opened theroll of paper and proceeded, partly to read, and partly to relate,the following incident, which we find recorded on the Transactionsof the Club as 'The Stroller's Tale.'

THE STROLLER'S TALE

'There is nothing of the marvellous in what I am going to relate,'said the dismal man; 'there is nothing even uncommon in it.Want and sickness are too common in many stations of life todeserve more notice than is usually bestowed on the mostordinary vicissitudes of human nature. I have thrown these fewnotes together, because the subject of them was well known to mefor many years. I traced his progress downwards, step by step,until at last he reached that excess of destitution from which henever rose again.

'The man of whom I speak was a low pantomime actor; and,like many people of his class, an habitual drunkard. in his betterdays, before he had become enfeebled by dissipation andemaciated by disease, he had been in the receipt of a good salary,which, if he had been careful and prudent, he might have continuedto receive for some years--not many; because these meneither die early, or by unnaturally taxing their bodily energies,lose, prematurely, those physical powers on which alone they candepend for subsistence. His besetting sin gained so fast upon him,however, that it was found impossible to employ him in thesituations in which he really was useful to the theatre. Thepublic-house had a fascination for him which he could not resist.Neglected disease and hopeless poverty were as certain to be hisportion as death itself, if he persevered in the same course; yet hedid persevere, and the result may be guessed. He could obtain noengagement, and he wanted bread.'Everybody who is at all acquainted with theatrical mattersknows what a host of shabby, poverty-stricken men hang aboutthe stage of a large establishment--not regularly engaged actors,but ballet people, procession men, tumblers, and so forth, whoare taken on during the run of a pantomime, or an Easter piece,and are then discharged, until the production of some heavyspectacle occasions a new demand for their services. To thismode of life the man was compelled to resort; and taking thechair every night, at some low theatrical house, at once put himin possession of a few more shillings weekly, and enabled him togratify his old propensity. Even this resource shortly failed him;his irregularities were too great to admit of his earning thewretched pittance he might thus have procured, and he wasactually reduced to a state bordering on starvation, only procuringa trifle occasionally by borrowing it of some old companion,or by obtaining an appearance at one or other of the commonestof the minor theatres; and when he did earn anything it wasspent in the old way.

Title: The Pickwick Papers
Author: Charles Dickens
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