Charles Dickens >> The Pickwick Papers (page 29)

'And that's very true,' said the placid one.

'I repudiate that qualification,' said Mr. Snodgrass, whosethoughts were fast reverting to Emily Wardle. 'I repudiate itwith disdain--with indignation. Show me the man who saysanything against women, as women, and I boldly declare he isnot a man.' And Mr. Snodgrass took his cigar from his mouth,and struck the table violently with his clenched fist.

'That's good sound argument,' said the placid man.

'Containing a position which I deny,' interrupted he of thedirty countenance.

'And there's certainly a very great deal of truth in what youobserve too, Sir,' said the placid gentleman.

'Your health, Sir,' said the bagman with the lonely eye,bestowing an approving nod on Mr. Snodgrass.

Mr. Snodgrass acknowledged the compliment.

'I always like to hear a good argument,'continued the bagman,'a sharp one, like this: it's very improving; but this little argumentabout women brought to my mind a story I have heard anold uncle of mine tell, the recollection of which, just now, mademe say there were rummer things than women to be met with, sometimes.'

'I should like to hear that same story,' said the red-faced manwith the cigar.

'Should you?' was the only reply of the bagman, whocontinued to smoke with great vehemence.

'So should I,' said Mr. Tupman, speaking for the first time.He was always anxious to increase his stock of experience.

'Should YOU? Well then, I'll tell it. No, I won't. I know youwon't believe it,' said the man with the roguish eye, making thatorgan look more roguish than ever.'If you say it's true, of course I shall,' said Mr. Tupman.

'Well, upon that understanding I'll tell you,' replied thetraveller. 'Did you ever hear of the great commercial house ofBilson & Slum? But it doesn't matter though, whether you did ornot, because they retired from business long since. It's eightyyears ago, since the circumstance happened to a traveller forthat house, but he was a particular friend of my uncle's; andmy uncle told the story to me. It's a queer name; but he used tocall it


and he used to tell it, something in this way.

'One winter's evening, about five o'clock, just as it began togrow dusk, a man in a gig might have been seen urging his tiredhorse along the road which leads across Marlborough Downs, inthe direction of Bristol. I say he might have been seen, and I haveno doubt he would have been, if anybody but a blind man hadhappened to pass that way; but the weather was so bad, and thenight so cold and wet, that nothing was out but the water, andso the traveller jogged along in the middle of the road, lonesomeand dreary enough. If any bagman of that day could have caughtsight of the little neck-or-nothing sort of gig, with a clay-coloured body and red wheels, and the vixenish, ill tempered,fast-going bay mare, that looked like a cross between a butcher'shorse and a twopenny post-office pony, he would have known atonce, that this traveller could have been no other than TomSmart, of the great house of Bilson and Slum, Cateaton Street,City. However, as there was no bagman to look on, nobodyknew anything at all about the matter; and so Tom Smart andhis clay-coloured gig with the red wheels, and the vixenish marewith the fast pace, went on together, keeping the secret amongthem, and nobody was a bit the wiser.

'There are many pleasanter places even in this dreary world,than Marlborough Downs when it blows hard; and if you throwin beside, a gloomy winter's evening, a miry and sloppy road, anda pelting fall of heavy rain, and try the effect, by way of experiment,in your own proper person, you will experience the fullforce of this observation.

'The wind blew--not up the road or down it, though that'sbad enough, but sheer across it, sending the rain slanting downlike the lines they used to rule in the copy-books at school, tomake the boys slope well. For a moment it would die away, andthe traveller would begin to delude himself into the belief that,exhausted with its previous fury, it had quietly laid itself downto rest, when, whoo! he could hear it growling and whistling inthe distance, and on it would come rushing over the hill-tops, andsweeping along the plain, gathering sound and strength as itdrew nearer, until it dashed with a heavy gust against horse andman, driving the sharp rain into their ears, and its cold dampbreath into their very bones; and past them it would scour, far,far away, with a stunning roar, as if in ridicule of their weakness,and triumphant in the consciousness of its own strength and power.

'The bay mare splashed away, through the mud and water,with drooping ears; now and then tossing her head as if toexpress her disgust at this very ungentlemanly behaviour of theelements, but keeping a good pace notwithstanding, until a gustof wind, more furious than any that had yet assailed them,caused her to stop suddenly and plant her four feet firmly againstthe ground, to prevent her being blown over. It's a special mercythat she did this, for if she HAD been blown over, the vixenishmare was so light, and the gig was so light, and Tom Smart sucha light weight into the bargain, that they must infallibly have allgone rolling over and over together, until they reached theconfines of earth, or until the wind fell; and in either case theprobability is, that neither the vixenish mare, nor the clay-coloured gig with the red wheels, nor Tom Smart, would everhave been fit for service again.

'"Well, damn my straps and whiskers," says Tom Smart(Tom sometimes had an unpleasant knack of swearing)--"damn my straps and whiskers," says Tom, "if this ain'tpleasant, blow me!"

'You'll very likely ask me why, as Tom Smart had been prettywell blown already, he expressed this wish to be submitted to thesame process again. I can't say--all I know is, that Tom Smartsaid so--or at least he always told my uncle he said so, and it'sjust the same thing.

"'Blow me," says Tom Smart; and the mare neighed as if shewere precisely of the same opinion.

"'Cheer up, old girl," said Tom, patting the bay mare on theneck with the end of his whip. "It won't do pushing on, such anight as this; the first house we come to we'll put up at, so thefaster you go the sooner it's over. Soho, old girl--gently--gently."

'Whether the vixenish mare was sufficiently well acquaintedwith the tones of Tom's voice to comprehend his meaning, orwhether she found it colder standing still than moving on, ofcourse I can't say. But I can say that Tom had no sooner finishedspeaking, than she pricked up her ears, and started forward at aspeed which made the clay-coloured gig rattle until you wouldhave supposed every one of the red spokes were going to fly outon the turf of Marlborough Downs; and even Tom, whip as hewas, couldn't stop or check her pace, until she drew up of herown accord, before a roadside inn on the right-hand side of theway, about half a quarter of a mile from the end of the Downs.'Tom cast a hasty glance at the upper part of the house as hethrew the reins to the hostler, and stuck the whip in the box. Itwas a strange old place, built of a kind of shingle, inlaid, as itwere, with cross-beams, with gabled-topped windows projectingcompletely over the pathway, and a low door with a dark porch,and a couple of steep steps leading down into the house, insteadof the modern fashion of half a dozen shallow ones leading up toit. It was a comfortable-looking place though, for there was astrong, cheerful light in the bar window, which shed a bright rayacross the road, and even lighted up the hedge on the other side;and there was a red flickering light in the opposite window, onemoment but faintly discernible, and the next gleaming stronglythrough the drawn curtains, which intimated that a rousing firewas blazing within. Marking these little evidences with the eye ofan experienced traveller, Tom dismounted with as much agilityas his half-frozen limbs would permit, and entered the house.

'In less than five minutes' time, Tom was ensconced in theroom opposite the bar--the very room where he had imaginedthe fire blazing--before a substantial, matter-of-fact, roaringfire, composed of something short of a bushel of coals, and woodenough to make half a dozen decent gooseberry bushes, piledhalf-way up the chimney, and roaring and crackling with asound that of itself would have warmed the heart of any reasonableman. This was comfortable, but this was not all; for asmartly-dressed girl, with a bright eye and a neat ankle, waslaying a very clean white cloth on the table; and as Tom sat withhis slippered feet on the fender, and his back to the open door, hesaw a charming prospect of the bar reflected in the glass over thechimney-piece, with delightful rows of green bottles and goldlabels, together with jars of pickles and preserves, and cheesesand boiled hams, and rounds of beef, arranged on shelves in themost tempting and delicious array. Well, this was comfortabletoo; but even this was not all--for in the bar, seated at tea at thenicest possible little table, drawn close up before the brightestpossible little fire, was a buxom widow of somewhere abouteight-and-forty or thereabouts, with a face as comfortable as thebar, who was evidently the landlady of the house, and thesupreme ruler over all these agreeable possessions. There wasonly one drawback to the beauty of the whole picture, and thatwas a tall man--a very tall man--in a brown coat and brightbasket buttons, and black whiskers and wavy black hair, whowas seated at tea with the widow, and who it required no greatpenetration to discover was in a fair way of persuading her to bea widow no longer, but to confer upon him the privilege ofsitting down in that bar, for and during the whole remainder ofthe term of his natural life.

'Tom Smart was by no means of an irritable or enviousdisposition, but somehow or other the tall man with the browncoat and the bright basket buttons did rouse what little gall hehad in his composition, and did make him feel extremely indignant,the more especially as he could now and then observe, fromhis seat before the glass, certain little affectionate familiaritiespassing between the tall man and the widow, which sufficientlydenoted that the tall man was as high in favour as he was in size.Tom was fond of hot punch--I may venture to say he was VERYfond of hot punch--and after he had seen the vixenish mare wellfed and well littered down, and had eaten every bit of the nicelittle hot dinner which the widow tossed up for him with herown hands, he just ordered a tumbler of it by way of experiment.Now, if there was one thing in the whole range of domestic art,which the widow could manufacture better than another, it wasthis identical article; and the first tumbler was adapted to TomSmart's taste with such peculiar nicety, that he ordered a secondwith the least possible delay. Hot punch is a pleasant thing,gentlemen--an extremely pleasant thing under any circumstances--but in that snug old parlour, before the roaring fire, with thewind blowing outside till every timber in the old house creakedagain, Tom Smart found it perfectly delightful. He orderedanother tumbler, and then another--I am not quite certainwhether he didn't order another after that--but the more hedrank of the hot punch, the more he thought of the tall man.

'"Confound his impudence!" said Tom to himself, "whatbusiness has he in that snug bar? Such an ugly villain too!" saidTom. "If the widow had any taste, she might surely pick up somebetter fellow than that." Here Tom's eye wandered from the glasson the chimney-piece to the glass on the table; and as he felthimself becoming gradually sentimental, he emptied the fourthtumbler of punch and ordered a fifth.

'Tom Smart, gentlemen, had always been very much attachedto the public line. It had been long his ambition to stand in a barof his own, in a green coat, knee-cords, and tops. He had a greatnotion of taking the chair at convivial dinners, and he had oftenthought how well he could preside in a room of his own in thetalking way, and what a capital example he could set to hiscustomers in the drinking department. All these things passedrapidly through Tom's mind as he sat drinking the hot punch bythe roaring fire, and he felt very justly and properly indignantthat the tall man should be in a fair way of keeping such anexcellent house, while he, Tom Smart, was as far off from it asever. So, after deliberating over the two last tumblers, whether hehadn't a perfect right to pick a quarrel with the tall man forhaving contrived to get into the good graces of the buxom widow,Tom Smart at last arrived at the satisfactory conclusion that hewas a very ill-used and persecuted individual, and had better goto bed.

'Up a wide and ancient staircase the smart girl preceded Tom,shading the chamber candle with her hand, to protect it from thecurrents of air which in such a rambling old place might havefound plenty of room to disport themselves in, without blowingthe candle out, but which did blow it out nevertheless--thusaffording Tom's enemies an opportunity of asserting that it washe, and not the wind, who extinguished the candle, and thatwhile he pretended to be blowing it alight again, he was in factkissing the girl. Be this as it may, another light was obtained, andTom was conducted through a maze of rooms, and a labyrinthof passages, to the apartment which had been prepared for hisreception, where the girl bade him good-night and left him alone.

'It was a good large room with big closets, and a bed whichmight have served for a whole boarding-school, to say nothing ofa couple of oaken presses that would have held the baggage of asmall army; but what struck Tom's fancy most was a strange,grim-looking, high backed chair, carved in the most fantasticmanner, with a flowered damask cushion, and the round knobsat the bottom of the legs carefully tied up in red cloth, as if ithad got the gout in its toes. Of any other queer chair, Tom wouldonly have thought it was a queer chair, and there would havebeen an end of the matter; but there was something about thisparticular chair, and yet he couldn't tell what it was, so odd andso unlike any other piece of furniture he had ever seen, that itseemed to fascinate him. He sat down before the fire, and staredat the old chair for half an hour.--Damn the chair, it was sucha strange old thing, he couldn't take his eyes off it.

Title: The Pickwick Papers
Author: Charles Dickens
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