'Where are they!' said Wardle, taking up a brace of birds which the dogs had deposited at his feet. 'Why, here they are.'
'No, no; I mean the others,' said the bewildered Winkle.
'Far enough off, by this time,' replied Wardle, coolly reloading his gun.
'We shall very likely be up with another covey in five minutes,' said the long gamekeeper. 'If the gentleman begins to fire now, perhaps he'll just get the shot out of the barrel by the time they rise.'
'Ha! ha! ha!' roared Mr. Weller.
'Sam,' said Mr. Pickwick, compassionating his follower's confusion and embarrassment.
'Certainly not, Sir.' So, by way of indemnification, Mr. Weller contorted his features from behind the wheel-barrow, for the exclusive amusement of the boy with the leggings, who thereupon burst into a boisterous laugh, and was summarily cuffed by the long gamekeeper, who wanted a pretext for turning round, to hide his own merriment.
'Bravo, old fellow!' said Wardle to Mr. Tupman; 'you fired that time, at all events.'
'Oh, yes,' replied Mr. Tupman, with conscious pride. 'I let it off.'
'Well done. You'll hit something next time, if you look sharp. Very easy, ain't it?'
'Yes, it's very easy,' said Mr. Tupman. 'How it hurts one's shoulder, though. It nearly knocked me backwards. I had no idea these small firearms kicked so.'
'Ah,' said the old gentleman, smiling, 'you'll get used to it in time. Now then — all ready — all right with the barrow there?'
'All right, Sir,' replied Mr. Weller.
'Come along, then.'
'Hold hard, Sir,' said Sam, raising the barrow.
'Aye, aye,' replied Mr. Pickwick; and on they went, as briskly as need be.
'Keep that barrow back now,' cried Wardle, when it had been hoisted over a stile into another field, and Mr. Pickwick had been deposited in it once more.
'All right, sir,' replied Mr. Weller, pausing.
'Now, Winkle,' said the old gentleman, 'follow me softly, and don't be too late this time.'
'Never fear,' said Mr. Winkle. 'Are they pointing?'
'No, no; not now. Quietly now, quietly.' On they crept, and very quietly they would have advanced, if Mr. Winkle, in the performance of some very intricate evolutions with his gun, had not accidentally fired, at the most critical moment, over the boy's head, exactly in the very spot where the tall man's brain would have been, had he been there instead.
'Why, what on earth did you do that for?' said old Wardle, as the birds flew unharmed away.
'I never saw such a gun in my life,' replied poor Mr. Winkle, looking at the lock, as if that would do any good. 'It goes off of its own accord. It WILL do it.'
'Will do it!' echoed Wardle, with something of irritation in his manner. 'I wish it would kill something of its own accord.'
'It'll do that afore long, Sir,' observed the tall man, in a low, prophetic voice.
'What do you mean by that observation, Sir?' inquired Mr. Winkle, angrily.
'Never mind, Sir, never mind,' replied the long gamekeeper; 'I've no family myself, sir; and this here boy's mother will get something handsome from Sir Geoffrey, if he's killed on his land. Load again, Sir, load again.'
'Take away his gun,' cried Mr. Pickwick from the barrow, horror-stricken at the long man's dark insinuations. 'Take away his gun, do you hear, somebody?'
Nobody, however, volunteered to obey the command; and Mr. Winkle, after darting a rebellious glance at Mr. Pickwick, reloaded his gun, and proceeded onwards with the rest.
We are bound, on the authority of Mr. Pickwick, to state, that Mr. Tupman's mode of proceeding evinced far more of prudence and deliberation, than that adopted by Mr. Winkle. Still, this by no means detracts from the great authority of the latter gentleman, on all matters connected with the field; because, as Mr. Pickwick beautifully observes, it has somehow or other happened, from time immemorial, that many of the best and ablest philosophers, who have been perfect lights of science in matters of theory, have been wholly unable to reduce them to practice.
Mr. Tupman's process, like many of our most sublime discoveries, was extremely simple. With the quickness and penetration of a man of genius, he had at once observed that the two great points to be attained were — first, to discharge his piece without injury to himself, and, secondly, to do so, without danger to the bystanders — obviously, the best thing to do, after surmounting the difficulty of firing at all, was to shut his eyes firmly, and fire into the air.
On one occasion, after performing this feat, Mr. Tupman, on opening his eyes, beheld a plump partridge in the act of falling, wounded, to the ground. He was on the point of congratulating Mr. Wardle on his invariable success, when that gentleman advanced towards him, and grasped him warmly by the hand.
'Tupman,' said the old gentleman, 'you singled out that particular bird?'
'No,' said Mr. Tupman — 'no.'
'You did,' said Wardle. 'I saw you do it — I observed you pick him out — I noticed you, as you raised your piece to take aim; and I will say this, that the best shot in existence could not have done it more beautifully. You are an older hand at this than I thought you, Tupman; you have been out before.' It was in vain for Mr. Tupman to protest, with a smile of self-denial, that he never had. The very smile was taken as evidence to the contrary; and from that time forth his reputation was established. It is not the only reputation that has been acquired as easily, nor are such fortunate circumstances confined to partridge-shooting.
Meanwhile, Mr. Winkle flashed, and blazed, and smoked away, without producing any material results worthy of being noted down; sometimes expending his charge in mid-air, and at others sending it skimming along so near the surface of the ground as to place the lives of the two dogs on a rather uncertain and precarious tenure. As a display of fancy-shooting, it was extremely varied and curious; as an exhibition of firing with any precise object, it was, upon the whole, perhaps a failure. It is an established axiom, that 'every bullet has its billet.' If it apply in an equal degree to shot, those of Mr. Winkle were unfortunate foundlings, deprived of their natural rights, cast loose upon the world, and billeted nowhere. 'Well,' said Wardle, walking up to the side of the barrow, and wiping the streams of perspiration from his jolly red face; 'smoking day, isn't it?'
'It is, indeed,' replied Mr. Pickwick. The sun is tremendously hot, even to me. I don't know how you must feel it.'
'Why,' said the old gentleman, 'pretty hot. It's past twelve, though. You see that green hill there?'
'That's the place where we are to lunch; and, by Jove, there's the boy with the basket, punctual as clockwork!'
'So he is,' said Mr. Pickwick, brightening up. 'Good boy, that. I'll give him a shilling, presently. Now, then, Sam, wheel away.'
'Hold on, sir,' said Mr. Weller, invigorated with the prospect of refreshments. 'Out of the vay, young leathers. If you walley my precious life don't upset me, as the gen'l'm'n said to the driver when they was a-carryin' him to Tyburn.' And quickening his pace to a sharp run, Mr. Weller wheeled his master nimbly to the green hill, shot him dexterously out by the very side of the basket, and proceeded to unpack it with the utmost despatch.
'Weal pie,' said Mr. Weller, soliloquising, as he arranged the eatables on the grass. 'Wery good thing is weal pie, when you know the lady as made it, and is quite sure it ain't kittens; and arter all though, where's the odds, when they're so like weal that the wery piemen themselves don't know the difference?'
'Don't they, Sam?' said Mr. Pickwick.
'Not they, sir,' replied Mr. Weller, touching his hat. 'I lodged in the same house vith a pieman once, sir, and a wery nice man he was — reg'lar clever chap, too — make pies out o' anything, he could. "What a number o' cats you keep, Mr. Brooks," says I, when I'd got intimate with him. "Ah," says he, "I do — a good many," says he, "You must be wery fond o' cats," says I. "Other people is," says he, a-winkin' at me; "they ain't in season till the winter though," says he. "Not in season!" says I. "No," says he, "fruits is in, cats is out." "Why, what do you mean?" says I. "Mean!" says he. "That I'll never be a party to the combination o' the butchers, to keep up the price o' meat," says he. "Mr. Weller," says he, a-squeezing my hand wery hard, and vispering in my ear — "don't mention this here agin — but it's the seasonin' as does it. They're all made o' them noble animals," says he, a-pointin' to a wery nice little tabby kitten, "and I seasons 'em for beefsteak, weal or kidney, 'cording to the demand. And more than that," says he, "I can make a weal a beef-steak, or a beef-steak a kidney, or any one on 'em a mutton, at a minute's notice, just as the market changes, and appetites wary!"'
'He must have been a very ingenious young man, that, Sam,' said Mr. Pickwick, with a slight shudder.