Mr. Pickwick was perfectly aware that a tree is a very dangerous neighbour in a thunderstorm. He had a tree on his right, a tree on his left, a third before him, and a fourth behind. If he remained where he was, he might fall the victim of an accident; if he showed himself in the centre of the garden, he might be consigned to a constable. Once or twice he tried to scale the wall, but having no other legs this time, than those with which Nature had furnished him, the only effect of his struggles was to inflict a variety of very unpleasant gratings on his knees and shins, and to throw him into a state of the most profuse perspiration.
'What a dreadful situation,' said Mr. Pickwick, pausing to wipe his brow after this exercise. He looked up at the house — all was dark. They must be gone to bed now. He would try the signal again.
He walked on tiptoe across the moist gravel, and tapped at the door. He held his breath, and listened at the key-hole. No reply: very odd. Another knock. He listened again. There was a low whispering inside, and then a voice cried —
'That's not Job,' thought Mr. Pickwick, hastily drawing himself straight up against the wall again. 'It's a woman.'
He had scarcely had time to form this conclusion, when a window above stairs was thrown up, and three or four female voices repeated the query — 'Who's there?'
Mr. Pickwick dared not move hand or foot. It was clear that the whole establishment was roused. He made up his mind to remain where he was, until the alarm had subsided; and then by a supernatural effort, to get over the wall, or perish in the attempt.
Like all Mr. Pickwick's determinations, this was the best that could be made under the circumstances; but, unfortunately, it was founded upon the assumption that they would not venture to open the door again. What was his discomfiture, when he heard the chain and bolts withdrawn, and saw the door slowly opening, wider and wider! He retreated into the corner, step by step; but do what he would, the interposition of his own person, prevented its being opened to its utmost width.
'Who's there?' screamed a numerous chorus of treble voices from the staircase inside, consisting of the spinster lady of the establishment, three teachers, five female servants, and thirty boarders, all half-dressed and in a forest of curl-papers.
Of course Mr. Pickwick didn't say who was there: and then the burden of the chorus changed into — 'Lor! I am so frightened.'
'Cook,' said the lady abbess, who took care to be on the top stair, the very last of the group — 'cook, why don't you go a little way into the garden?' 'Please, ma'am, I don't like,' responded the cook.
'Lor, what a stupid thing that cook is!' said the thirty boarders.
'Cook,' said the lady abbess, with great dignity; 'don't answer me, if you please. I insist upon your looking into the garden immediately.'
Here the cook began to cry, and the housemaid said it was 'a shame!' for which partisanship she received a month's warning on the spot.
'Do you hear, cook?' said the lady abbess, stamping her foot impatiently.
'Don't you hear your missis, cook?' said the three teachers.
'What an impudent thing that cook is!' said the thirty boarders.
The unfortunate cook, thus strongly urged, advanced a step or two, and holding her candle just where it prevented her from seeing at all, declared there was nothing there, and it must have been the wind. The door was just going to be closed in consequence, when an inquisitive boarder, who had been peeping between the hinges, set up a fearful screaming, which called back the cook and housemaid, and all the more adventurous, in no time.
'What is the matter with Miss Smithers?' said the lady abbess, as the aforesaid Miss Smithers proceeded to go into hysterics of four young lady power.
'Lor, Miss Smithers, dear,' said the other nine-and-twenty boarders.
'Oh, the man — the man — behind the door!' screamed Miss Smithers.
The lady abbess no sooner heard this appalling cry, than she retreated to her own bedroom, double-locked the door, and fainted away comfortably. The boarders, and the teachers, and the servants, fell back upon the stairs, and upon each other; and never was such a screaming, and fainting, and struggling beheld. In the midst of the tumult, Mr. Pickwick emerged from his concealment, and presented himself amongst them.
'Ladies — dear ladies,' said Mr. Pickwick.
'Oh. he says we're dear,' cried the oldest and ugliest teacher. 'Oh, the wretch!'
'Ladies,' roared Mr. Pickwick, rendered desperate by the danger of his situation. 'Hear me. I am no robber. I want the lady of the house.'
'Oh, what a ferocious monster!' screamed another teacher. 'He wants Miss Tomkins.'
Here there was a general scream.
'Ring the alarm bell, somebody!' cried a dozen voices.
'Don't — don't,' shouted Mr. Pickwick. 'Look at me. Do I look like a robber! My dear ladies — you may bind me hand and leg, or lock me up in a closet, if you like. Only hear what I have got to say — only hear me.'
'How did you come in our garden?' faltered the housemaid.
'Call the lady of the house, and I'll tell her everything,' said Mr. Pickwick, exerting his lungs to the utmost pitch. 'Call her — only be quiet, and call her, and you shall hear everything.'
It might have been Mr. Pickwick's appearance, or it might have been his manner, or it might have been the temptation — irresistible to a female mind — of hearing something at present enveloped in mystery, that reduced the more reasonable portion of the establishment (some four individuals) to a state of comparative quiet. By them it was proposed, as a test of Mr. Pickwick's sincerity, that he should immediately submit to personal restraint; and that gentleman having consented to hold a conference with Miss Tomkins, from the interior of a closet in which the day boarders hung their bonnets and sandwich-bags, he at once stepped into it, of his own accord, and was securely locked in. This revived the others; and Miss Tomkins having been brought to, and brought down, the conference began.
'What did you do in my garden, man?' said Miss Tomkins, in a faint voice.
'I came to warn you that one of your young ladies was going to elope to-night,' replied Mr. Pickwick, from the interior of the closet.
'Elope!' exclaimed Miss Tomkins, the three teachers, the thirty boarders, and the five servants. 'Who with?' 'Your friend, Mr. Charles Fitz-Marshall.'
'MY friend! I don't know any such person.'
'Well, Mr. Jingle, then.'
'I never heard the name in my life.'
'Then, I have been deceived, and deluded,' said Mr. Pickwick. 'I have been the victim of a conspiracy — a foul and base conspiracy. Send to the Angel, my dear ma'am, if you don't believe me. Send to the Angel for Mr. Pickwick's manservant, I implore you, ma'am.'
'He must be respectable — he keeps a manservant,' said Miss Tomkins to the writing and ciphering governess.
'It's my opinion, Miss Tomkins,' said the writing and ciphering governess, 'that his manservant keeps him, I think he's a madman, Miss Tomkins, and the other's his keeper.'
'I think you are very right, Miss Gwynn,' responded Miss Tomkins. 'Let two of the servants repair to the Angel, and let the others remain here, to protect us.'
So two of the servants were despatched to the Angel in search of Mr. Samuel Weller; and the remaining three stopped behind to protect Miss Tomkins, and the three teachers, and the thirty boarders. And Mr. Pickwick sat down in the closet, beneath a grove of sandwich-bags, and awaited the return of the messengers, with all the philosophy and fortitude he could summon to his aid.
An hour and a half elapsed before they came back, and when they did come, Mr. Pickwick recognised, in addition to the voice of Mr. Samuel Weller, two other voices, the tones of which struck familiarly on his ear; but whose they were, he could not for the life of him call to mind.
A very brief conversation ensued. The door was unlocked. Mr. Pickwick stepped out of the closet, and found himself in the presence of the whole establishment of Westgate House, Mr Samuel Weller, and — old Wardle, and his destined son-in-law, Mr. Trundle!
'My dear friend,' said Mr. Pickwick, running forward and grasping Wardle's hand, 'my dear friend, pray, for Heaven's sake, explain to this lady the unfortunate and dreadful situation in which I am placed. You must have heard it from my servant; say, at all events, my dear fellow, that I am neither a robber nor a madman.'
'I have said so, my dear friend. I have said so already,' replied Mr. Wardle, shaking the right hand of his friend, while Mr. Trundle shook the left. 'And whoever says, or has said, he is,' interposed Mr. Weller, stepping forward, 'says that which is not the truth, but so far from it, on the contrary, quite the rewerse. And if there's any number o' men on these here premises as has said so, I shall be wery happy to give 'em all a wery convincing proof o' their being mistaken, in this here wery room, if these wery respectable ladies 'll have the goodness to retire, and order 'em up, one at a time.' Having delivered this defiance with great volubility, Mr. Weller struck his open palm emphatically with his clenched fist, and winked pleasantly on Miss Tomkins, the intensity of whose horror at his supposing it within the bounds of possibility that there could be any men on the premises of Westgate House Establishment for Young Ladies, it is impossible to describe.
Mr. Pickwick's explanation having already been partially made, was soon concluded. But neither in the course of his walk home with his friends, nor afterwards when seated before a blazing fire at the supper he so much needed, could a single observation be drawn from him. He seemed bewildered and amazed. Once, and only once, he turned round to Mr. Wardle, and said —
'How did you come here?'