CHAPTER XIX. A PLEASANT DAY WITH AN UNPLEASANT TERMINATION
The birds, who, happily for their own peace of mind and personal comfort, were in blissful ignorance of the preparations which had been making to astonish them, on the first of September, hailed it, no doubt, as one of the pleasantest mornings they had seen that season. Many a young partridge who strutted complacently among the stubble, with all the finicking coxcombry of youth, and many an older one who watched his levity out of his little round eye, with the contemptuous air of a bird of wisdom and experience, alike unconscious of their approaching doom, basked in the fresh morning air with lively and blithesome feelings, and a few hours afterwards were laid low upon the earth. But we grow affecting: let us proceed.
In plain commonplace matter-of-fact, then, it was a fine morning — so fine that you would scarcely have believed that the few months of an English summer had yet flown by. Hedges, fields, and trees, hill and moorland, presented to the eye their ever-varying shades of deep rich green; scarce a leaf had fallen, scarce a sprinkle of yellow mingled with the hues of summer, warned you that autumn had begun. The sky was cloudless; the sun shone out bright and warm; the songs of birds, the hum of myriads of summer insects, filled the air; and the cottage gardens, crowded with flowers of every rich and beautiful tint, sparkled, in the heavy dew, like beds of glittering jewels. Everything bore the stamp of summer, and none of its beautiful colour had yet faded from the die.
Such was the morning, when an open carriage, in which were three Pickwickians (Mr. Snodgrass having preferred to remain at home), Mr. Wardle, and Mr. Trundle, with Sam Weller on the box beside the driver, pulled up by a gate at the roadside, before which stood a tall, raw-boned gamekeeper, and a half-booted, leather-legginged boy, each bearing a bag of capacious dimensions, and accompanied by a brace of pointers.
'I say,' whispered Mr. Winkle to Wardle, as the man let down the steps, 'they don't suppose we're going to kill game enough to fill those bags, do they?'
'Fill them!' exclaimed old Wardle. 'Bless you, yes! You shall fill one, and I the other; and when we've done with them, the pockets of our shooting-jackets will hold as much more.'
Mr. Winkle dismounted without saying anything in reply to this observation; but he thought within himself, that if the party remained in the open air, till he had filled one of the bags, they stood a considerable chance of catching colds in their heads.
'Hi, Juno, lass-hi, old girl; down, Daph, down,' said Wardle, caressing the dogs. 'Sir Geoffrey still in Scotland, of course, Martin?'
The tall gamekeeper replied in the affirmative, and looked with some surprise from Mr. Winkle, who was holding his gun as if he wished his coat pocket to save him the trouble of pulling the trigger, to Mr. Tupman, who was holding his as if he was afraid of it — as there is no earthly reason to doubt he really was.
'My friends are not much in the way of this sort of thing yet, Martin,' said Wardle, noticing the look. 'Live and learn, you know. They'll be good shots one of these days. I beg my friend Winkle's pardon, though; he has had some practice.'
Mr. Winkle smiled feebly over his blue neckerchief in acknowledgment of the compliment, and got himself so mysteriously entangled with his gun, in his modest confusion, that if the piece had been loaded, he must inevitably have shot himself dead upon the spot.
'You mustn't handle your piece in that 'ere way, when you come to have the charge in it, Sir,' said the tall gamekeeper gruffly; 'or I'm damned if you won't make cold meat of some on us.'
Mr. Winkle, thus admonished, abruptly altered his position, and in so doing, contrived to bring the barrel into pretty smart contact with Mr. Weller's head.
'Hollo!' said Sam, picking up his hat, which had been knocked off, and rubbing his temple. 'Hollo, sir! if you comes it this vay, you'll fill one o' them bags, and something to spare, at one fire.'
Here the leather-legginged boy laughed very heartily, and then tried to look as if it was somebody else, whereat Mr. Winkle frowned majestically.
'Where did you tell the boy to meet us with the snack, Martin?' inquired Wardle.
'Side of One-tree Hill, at twelve o'clock, Sir.'
'That's not Sir Geoffrey's land, is it?'
'No, Sir; but it's close by it. It's Captain Boldwig's land; but there'll be nobody to interrupt us, and there's a fine bit of turf there.'
'Very well,' said old Wardle. 'Now the sooner we're off the better. Will you join us at twelve, then, Pickwick?'
Mr. Pickwick was particularly desirous to view the sport, the more especially as he was rather anxious in respect of Mr. Winkle's life and limbs. On so inviting a morning, too, it was very tantalising to turn back, and leave his friends to enjoy themselves. It was, therefore, with a very rueful air that he replied —
'Why, I suppose I must.'
'Ain't the gentleman a shot, Sir?' inquired the long gamekeeper.
'No,' replied Wardle; 'and he's lame besides.'
'I should very much like to go,' said Mr. Pickwick — 'very much.'
There was a short pause of commiseration.
'There's a barrow t'other side the hedge,' said the boy. 'If the gentleman's servant would wheel along the paths, he could keep nigh us, and we could lift it over the stiles, and that.'
'The wery thing,' said Mr. Weller, who was a party interested, inasmuch as he ardently longed to see the sport. 'The wery thing. Well said, Smallcheek; I'll have it out in a minute.'
But here a difficulty arose. The long gamekeeper resolutely protested against the introduction into a shooting party, of a gentleman in a barrow, as a gross violation of all established rules and precedents. It was a great objection, but not an insurmountable one. The gamekeeper having been coaxed and feed, and having, moreover, eased his mind by 'punching' the head of the inventive youth who had first suggested the use of the machine, Mr. Pickwick was placed in it, and off the party set; Wardle and the long gamekeeper leading the way, and Mr. Pickwick in the barrow, propelled by Sam, bringing up the rear.
'Stop, Sam,' said Mr. Pickwick, when they had got half across the first field.
'What's the matter now?' said Wardle.
'I won't suffer this barrow to be moved another step,' said Mr. Pickwick, resolutely, 'unless Winkle carries that gun of his in a different manner.'
'How AM I to carry it?' said the wretched Winkle. 'Carry it with the muzzle to the ground,' replied Mr. Pickwick.
'It's so unsportsmanlike,' reasoned Winkle.
'I don't care whether it's unsportsmanlike or not,' replied Mr. Pickwick; 'I am not going to be shot in a wheel-barrow, for the sake of appearances, to please anybody.'
'I know the gentleman'll put that 'ere charge into somebody afore he's done,' growled the long man.
'Well, well — I don't mind,' said poor Winkle, turning his gun-stock uppermost — 'there.'
'Anythin' for a quiet life,' said Mr. Weller; and on they went again.
'Stop!' said Mr. Pickwick, after they had gone a few yards farther.
'What now?' said Wardle.
'That gun of Tupman's is not safe: I know it isn't,' said Mr. Pickwick.
'Eh? What! not safe?' said Mr. Tupman, in a tone of great alarm.
'Not as you are carrying it,' said Mr. Pickwick. 'I am very sorry to make any further objection, but I cannot consent to go on, unless you carry it as Winkle does his.'
'I think you had better, sir,' said the long gamekeeper, 'or you're quite as likely to lodge the charge in yourself as in anything else.'
Mr. Tupman, with the most obliging haste, placed his piece in the position required, and the party moved on again; the two amateurs marching with reversed arms, like a couple of privates at a royal funeral.
The dogs suddenly came to a dead stop, and the party advancing stealthily a single pace, stopped too.
'What's the matter with the dogs' legs?' whispered Mr. Winkle. 'How queer they're standing.'
'Hush, can't you?' replied Wardle softly. 'Don't you see, they're making a point?'
'Making a point!' said Mr. Winkle, staring about him, as if he expected to discover some particular beauty in the landscape, which the sagacious animals were calling special attention to. 'Making a point! What are they pointing at?'
'Keep your eyes open,' said Wardle, not heeding the question in the excitement of the moment. 'Now then.'
There was a sharp whirring noise, that made Mr. Winkle start back as if he had been shot himself. Bang, bang, went a couple of guns — the smoke swept quickly away over the field, and curled into the air.
'Where are they!' said Mr. Winkle, in a state of the highest excitement, turning round and round in all directions. 'Where are they? Tell me when to fire. Where are they — where are they?'