On Mr. Pickwick's presenting himself at the bar, an elderly female emerged from behind the screen therein, and presented herself before him.
'Is Mr. Lowten here, ma'am?' inquired Mr. Pickwick.
'Yes, he is, Sir,' replied the landlady. 'Here, Charley, show the gentleman in to Mr. Lowten.'
'The gen'l'm'n can't go in just now,' said a shambling pot-boy, with a red head, 'cos' Mr. Lowten's a-singin' a comic song, and he'll put him out. He'll be done directly, Sir.'
The red-headed pot-boy had scarcely finished speaking, when a most unanimous hammering of tables, and jingling of glasses, announced that the song had that instant terminated; and Mr. Pickwick, after desiring Sam to solace himself in the tap, suffered himself to be conducted into the presence of Mr. Lowten.
At the announcement of 'A gentleman to speak to you, Sir,' a puffy-faced young man, who filled the chair at the head of the table, looked with some surprise in the direction from whence the voice proceeded; and the surprise seemed to be by no means diminished, when his eyes rested on an individual whom he had never seen before.
'I beg your pardon, Sir,' said Mr. Pickwick, 'and I am very sorry to disturb the other gentlemen, too, but I come on very particular business; and if you will suffer me to detain you at this end of the room for five minutes, I shall be very much obliged to you.'
The puffy-faced young man rose, and drawing a chair close to Mr. Pickwick in an obscure corner of the room, listened attentively to his tale of woe.
'Ah,'he said, when Mr. Pickwick had concluded, 'Dodson and Fogg — sharp practice theirs — capital men of business, Dodson and Fogg, sir.'
Mr. Pickwick admitted the sharp practice of Dodson and Fogg, and Lowten resumed. 'Perker ain't in town, and he won't be, neither, before the end of next week; but if you want the action defended, and will leave the copy with me, I can do all that's needful till he comes back.'
'That's exactly what I came here for,' said Mr. Pickwick, handing over the document. 'If anything particular occurs, you can write to me at the post-office, Ipswich.'
'That's all right,' replied Mr. Perker's clerk; and then seeing Mr. Pickwick's eye wandering curiously towards the table, he added, 'will you join us, for half an hour or so? We are capital company here to-night. There's Samkin and Green's managing-clerk, and Smithers and Price's chancery, and Pimkin and Thomas's out o' doors — sings a capital song, he does — and Jack Bamber, and ever so many more. You're come out of the country, I suppose. Would you like to join us?'
Mr. Pickwick could not resist so tempting an opportunity of studying human nature. He suffered himself to be led to the table, where, after having been introduced to the company in due form, he was accommodated with a seat near the chairman and called for a glass of his favourite beverage.
A profound silence, quite contrary to Mr. Pickwick's expectation, succeeded. 'You don't find this sort of thing disagreeable, I hope, sir?' said his right hand neighbour, a gentleman in a checked shirt and Mosaic studs, with a cigar in his mouth.
'Not in the least,' replied Mr. Pickwick; 'I like it very much, although I am no smoker myself.'
'I should be very sorry to say I wasn't,' interposed another gentleman on the opposite side of the table. 'It's board and lodgings to me, is smoke.'
Mr. Pickwick glanced at the speaker, and thought that if it were washing too, it would be all the better.
Here there was another pause. Mr. Pickwick was a stranger, and his coming had evidently cast a damp upon the party.
'Mr. Grundy's going to oblige the company with a song,' said the chairman.
'No, he ain't,' said Mr. Grundy.
'Why not?' said the chairman.
'Because he can't,' said Mr. Grundy. 'You had better say he won't,' replied the chairman.
'Well, then, he won't,' retorted Mr. Grundy. Mr. Grundy's positive refusal to gratify the company occasioned another silence. 'Won't anybody enliven us?' said the chairman, despondingly.
'Why don't you enliven us yourself, Mr. Chairman?' said a young man with a whisker, a squint, and an open shirt collar (dirty), from the bottom of the table.
'Hear! hear!' said the smoking gentleman, in the Mosaic jewellery.
'Because I only know one song, and I have sung it already, and it's a fine of "glasses round" to sing the same song twice in a night,' replied the chairman.
This was an unanswerable reply, and silence prevailed again.
'I have been to-night, gentlemen,' said Mr. Pickwick, hoping to start a subject which all the company could take a part in discussing, 'I have been to-night, in a place which you all know very well, doubtless, but which I have not been in for some years, and know very little of; I mean Gray's Inn, gentlemen. Curious little nooks in a great place, like London, these old inns are.'
'By Jove!' said the chairman, whispering across the table to Mr. Pickwick, 'you have hit upon something that one of us, at least, would talk upon for ever. You'll draw old Jack Bamber out; he was never heard to talk about anything else but the inns, and he has lived alone in them till he's half crazy.'
The individual to whom Lowten alluded, was a little, yellow, high-shouldered man, whose countenance, from his habit of stooping forward when silent, Mr. Pickwick had not observed before. He wondered, though, when the old man raised his shrivelled face, and bent his gray eye upon him, with a keen inquiring look, that such remarkable features could have escaped his attention for a moment. There was a fixed grim smile perpetually on his countenance; he leaned his chin on a long, skinny hand, with nails of extraordinary length; and as he inclined his head to one side, and looked keenly out from beneath his ragged gray eyebrows, there was a strange, wild slyness in his leer, quite repulsive to behold.
This was the figure that now started forward, and burst into an animated torrent of words. As this chapter has been a long one, however, and as the old man was a remarkable personage, it will be more respectful to him, and more convenient to us, to let him speak for himself in a fresh one.