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 —
'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.