CHAPTER XIV. COMPRISING A BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE COMPANY AT THE PEACOCK ASSEMBLED; AND A TALE TOLD BY A BAGMAN
It is pleasant to turn from contemplating the strife and turmoil of political existence, to the peaceful repose of private life. Although in reality no great partisan of either side, Mr. Pickwick was sufficiently fired with Mr. Pott's enthusiasm, to apply his whole time and attention to the proceedings, of which the last chapter affords a description compiled from his own memoranda. Nor while he was thus occupied was Mr. Winkle idle, his whole time being devoted to pleasant walks and short country excursions with Mrs. Pott, who never failed, when such an opportunity presented itself, to seek some relief from the tedious monotony she so constantly complained of. The two gentlemen being thus completely domesticated in the editor's house, Mr. Tupman and Mr. Snodgrass were in a great measure cast upon their own resources. Taking but little interest in public affairs, they beguiled their time chiefly with such amusements as the Peacock afforded, which were limited to a bagatelle-board in the first floor, and a sequestered skittle-ground in the back yard. In the science and nicety of both these recreations, which are far more abstruse than ordinary men suppose, they were gradually initiated by Mr. Weller, who possessed a perfect knowledge of such pastimes. Thus, notwithstanding that they were in a great measure deprived of the comfort and advantage of Mr. Pickwick's society, they were still enabled to beguile the time, and to prevent its hanging heavily on their hands.
It was in the evening, however, that the Peacock presented attractions which enabled the two friends to resist even the invitations of the gifted, though prosy, Pott. It was in the evening that the 'commercial room' was filled with a social circle, whose characters and manners it was the delight of Mr. Tupman to observe; whose sayings and doings it was the habit of Mr. Snodgrass to note down.
Most people know what sort of places commercial rooms usually are. That of the Peacock differed in no material respect from the generality of such apartments; that is to say, it was a large, bare-looking room, the furniture of which had no doubt been better when it was newer, with a spacious table in the centre, and a variety of smaller dittos in the corners; an extensive assortment of variously shaped chairs, and an old Turkey carpet, bearing about the same relative proportion to the size of the room, as a lady's pocket-handkerchief might to the floor of a watch-box. The walls were garnished with one or two large maps; and several weather-beaten rough greatcoats, with complicated capes, dangled from a long row of pegs in one corner. The mantel-shelf was ornamented with a wooden inkstand, containing one stump of a pen and half a wafer; a road-book and directory; a county history minus the cover; and the mortal remains of a trout in a glass coffin. The atmosphere was redolent of tobacco-smoke, the fumes of which had communicated a rather dingy hue to the whole room, and more especially to the dusty red curtains which shaded the windows. On the sideboard a variety of miscellaneous articles were huddled together, the most conspicuous of which were some very cloudy fish-sauce cruets, a couple of driving-boxes, two or three whips, and as many travelling shawls, a tray of knives and forks, and the mustard.
Here it was that Mr. Tupman and Mr. Snodgrass were seated on the evening after the conclusion of the election, with several other temporary inmates of the house, smoking and drinking.
'Well, gents,' said a stout, hale personage of about forty, with only one eye — a very bright black eye, which twinkled with a roguish expression of fun and good-humour, 'our noble selves, gents. I always propose that toast to the company, and drink Mary to myself. Eh, Mary!'
'Get along with you, you wretch,' said the hand-maiden, obviously not ill-pleased with the compliment, however.
'Don't go away, Mary,' said the black-eyed man.
'Let me alone, imperence,' said the young lady.
'Never mind,' said the one-eyed man, calling after the girl as she left the room. 'I'll step out by and by, Mary. Keep your spirits up, dear.' Here he went through the not very difficult process of winking upon the company with his solitary eye, to the enthusiastic delight of an elderly personage with a dirty face and a clay pipe.
'Rum creeters is women,' said the dirty-faced man, after a pause.
'Ah! no mistake about that,' said a very red-faced man, behind a cigar.
After this little bit of philosophy there was another pause.
'There's rummer things than women in this world though, mind you,' said the man with the black eye, slowly filling a large Dutch pipe, with a most capacious bowl.
'Are you married?' inquired the dirty-faced man.
'Can't say I am.'
'I thought not.' Here the dirty-faced man fell into ecstasies of mirth at his own retort, in which he was joined by a man of bland voice and placid countenance, who always made it a point to agree with everybody.
'Women, after all, gentlemen,' said the enthusiastic Mr. Snodgrass, 'are the great props and comforts of our existence.'
'So they are,' said the placid gentleman.
'When they're in a good humour,' interposed the dirty-faced man.
'And that's very true,' said the placid one.
'I repudiate that qualification,' said Mr. Snodgrass, whose thoughts were fast reverting to Emily Wardle. 'I repudiate it with disdain — with indignation. Show me the man who says anything against women, as women, and I boldly declare he is not 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 the dirty countenance.
'And there's certainly a very great deal of truth in what you observe 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 argument about women brought to my mind a story I have heard an old uncle of mine tell, the recollection of which, just now, made me say there were rummer things than women to be met with, sometimes.'
'I should like to hear that same story,' said the red-faced man with the cigar.
'Should you?' was the only reply of the bagman, who continued 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 you won't believe it,' said the man with the roguish eye, making that organ 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 the traveller. 'Did you ever hear of the great commercial house of Bilson & Slum? But it doesn't matter though, whether you did or not, because they retired from business long since. It's eighty years ago, since the circumstance happened to a traveller for that house, but he was a particular friend of my uncle's; and my uncle told the story to me. It's a queer name; but he used to call it
THE BAGMAN'S STORY
and he used to tell it, something in this way.
'One winter's evening, about five o'clock, just as it began to grow dusk, a man in a gig might have been seen urging his tired horse along the road which leads across Marlborough Downs, in the direction of Bristol. I say he might have been seen, and I have no doubt he would have been, if anybody but a blind man had happened to pass that way; but the weather was so bad, and the night so cold and wet, that nothing was out but the water, and so the traveller jogged along in the middle of the road, lonesome and dreary enough. If any bagman of that day could have caught sight 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's horse and a twopenny post-office pony, he would have known at once, that this traveller could have been no other than Tom Smart, of the great house of Bilson and Slum, Cateaton Street, City. However, as there was no bagman to look on, nobody knew anything at all about the matter; and so Tom Smart and his clay-coloured gig with the red wheels, and the vixenish mare with the fast pace, went on together, keeping the secret among them, 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 throw in beside, a gloomy winter's evening, a miry and sloppy road, and a pelting fall of heavy rain, and try the effect, by way of experiment, in your own proper person, you will experience the full force of this observation.
'The wind blew — not up the road or down it, though that's bad enough, but sheer across it, sending the rain slanting down like the lines they used to rule in the copy-books at school, to make the boys slope well. For a moment it would die away, and the traveller would begin to delude himself into the belief that, exhausted with its previous fury, it had quietly laid itself down to rest, when, whoo! he could hear it growling and whistling in the distance, and on it would come rushing over the hill-tops, and sweeping along the plain, gathering sound and strength as it drew nearer, until it dashed with a heavy gust against horse and man, driving the sharp rain into their ears, and its cold damp breath 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.