'Bless my soul!' thought Mr. Pickwick, 'what a dreadful thing!'
'Hem!' said the lady; and in went Mr. Pickwick's head with automaton-like rapidity.
'I never met with anything so awful as this,' thought poor Mr. Pickwick, the cold perspiration starting in drops upon his nightcap. 'Never. This is fearful.'
It was quite impossible to resist the urgent desire to see what was going forward. So out went Mr. Pickwick's head again. The prospect was worse than before. The middle-aged lady had finished arranging her hair; had carefully enveloped it in a muslin nightcap with a small plaited border; and was gazing pensively on the fire.
'This matter is growing alarming,' reasoned Mr. Pickwick with himself. 'I can't allow things to go on in this way. By the self-possession of that lady, it is clear to me that I must have come into the wrong room. If I call out she'll alarm the house; but if I remain here the consequences will be still more frightful.' Mr. Pickwick, it is quite unnecessary to say, was one of the most modest and delicate-minded of mortals. The very idea of exhibiting his nightcap to a lady overpowered him, but he had tied those confounded strings in a knot, and, do what he would, he couldn't get it off. The disclosure must be made. There was only one other way of doing it. He shrunk behind the curtains, and called out very loudly —
That the lady started at this unexpected sound was evident, by her falling up against the rushlight shade; that she persuaded herself it must have been the effect of imagination was equally clear, for when Mr. Pickwick, under the impression that she had fainted away stone-dead with fright, ventured to peep out again, she was gazing pensively on the fire as before.
'Most extraordinary female this,' thought Mr. Pickwick, popping in again. 'Ha-hum!'
These last sounds, so like those in which, as legends inform us, the ferocious giant Blunderbore was in the habit of expressing his opinion that it was time to lay the cloth, were too distinctly audible to be again mistaken for the workings of fancy.
'Gracious Heaven!' said the middle-aged lady, 'what's that?'
'It's — it's — only a gentleman, ma'am,' said Mr. Pickwick, from behind the curtains.
'A gentleman!' said the lady, with a terrific scream.
'It's all over!' thought Mr. Pickwick.
'A strange man!' shrieked the lady. Another instant and the house would be alarmed. Her garments rustled as she rushed towards the door.
'Ma'am,' said Mr. Pickwick, thrusting out his head in the extremity of his desperation, 'ma'am!'
Now, although Mr. Pickwick was not actuated by any definite object in putting out his head, it was instantaneously productive of a good effect. The lady, as we have already stated, was near the door. She must pass it, to reach the staircase, and she would most undoubtedly have done so by this time, had not the sudden apparition of Mr. Pickwick's nightcap driven her back into the remotest corner of the apartment, where she stood staring wildly at Mr. Pickwick, while Mr. Pickwick in his turn stared wildly at her.
'Wretch,' said the lady, covering her eyes with her hands, 'what do you want here?'
'Nothing, ma'am; nothing whatever, ma'am,' said Mr. Pickwick earnestly.
'Nothing!' said the lady, looking up.
'Nothing, ma'am, upon my honour,' said Mr. Pickwick, nodding his head so energetically, that the tassel of his nightcap danced again. 'I am almost ready to sink, ma'am, beneath the confusion of addressing a lady in my nightcap (here the lady hastily snatched off hers), but I can't get it off, ma'am (here Mr. Pickwick gave it a tremendous tug, in proof of the statement). It is evident to me, ma'am, now, that I have mistaken this bedroom for my own. I had not been here five minutes, ma'am, when you suddenly entered it.'
'If this improbable story be really true, Sir,' said the lady, sobbing violently, 'you will leave it instantly.'
'I will, ma'am, with the greatest pleasure,' replied Mr. Pickwick.
'Instantly, sir,' said the lady.
'Certainly, ma'am,' interposed Mr. Pickwick, very quickly. 'Certainly, ma'am. I — I — am very sorry, ma'am,' said Mr. Pickwick, making his appearance at the bottom of the bed, 'to have been the innocent occasion of this alarm and emotion; deeply sorry, ma'am.'
The lady pointed to the door. One excellent quality of Mr. Pickwick's character was beautifully displayed at this moment, under the most trying circumstances. Although he had hastily Put on his hat over his nightcap, after the manner of the old patrol; although he carried his shoes and gaiters in his hand, and his coat and waistcoat over his arm; nothing could subdue his native politeness.
'I am exceedingly sorry, ma'am,' said Mr. Pickwick, bowing very low.
'If you are, Sir, you will at once leave the room,' said the lady.
'Immediately, ma'am; this instant, ma'am,' said Mr. Pickwick, opening the door, and dropping both his shoes with a crash in so doing.
'I trust, ma'am,' resumed Mr. Pickwick, gathering up his shoes, and turning round to bow again — 'I trust, ma'am, that my unblemished character, and the devoted respect I entertain for your sex, will plead as some slight excuse for this — ' But before Mr. Pickwick could conclude the sentence, the lady had thrust him into the passage, and locked and bolted the door behind him.
Whatever grounds of self-congratulation Mr. Pickwick might have for having escaped so quietly from his late awkward situation, his present position was by no means enviable. He was alone, in an open passage, in a strange house in the middle of the night, half dressed; it was not to be supposed that he could find his way in perfect darkness to a room which he had been wholly unable to discover with a light, and if he made the slightest noise in his fruitless attempts to do so, he stood every chance of being shot at, and perhaps killed, by some wakeful traveller. He had no resource but to remain where he was until daylight appeared. So after groping his way a few paces down the passage, and, to his infinite alarm, stumbling over several pairs of boots in so doing, Mr. Pickwick crouched into a little recess in the wall, to wait for morning, as philosophically as he might.
He was not destined, however, to undergo this additional trial of patience; for he had not been long ensconced in his present concealment when, to his unspeakable horror, a man, bearing a light, appeared at the end of the passage. His horror was suddenly converted into joy, however, when he recognised the form of his faithful attendant. It was indeed Mr. Samuel Weller, who after sitting up thus late, in conversation with the boots, who was sitting up for the mail, was now about to retire to rest.
'Sam,' said Mr. Pickwick, suddenly appearing before him, 'where's my bedroom?'
Mr. Weller stared at his master with the most emphatic surprise; and it was not until the question had been repeated three several times, that he turned round, and led the way to the long-sought apartment.
'Sam,' said Mr. Pickwick, as he got into bed, 'I have made one of the most extraordinary mistakes to-night, that ever were heard of.'
'Wery likely, Sir,' replied Mr. Weller drily.
'But of this I am determined, Sam,' said Mr. Pickwick; 'that if I were to stop in this house for six months, I would never trust myself about it, alone, again.'
'That's the wery prudentest resolution as you could come to, Sir,' replied Mr. Weller. 'You rayther want somebody to look arter you, Sir, when your judgment goes out a wisitin'.'
'What do you mean by that, Sam?' said Mr. Pickwick. He raised himself in bed, and extended his hand, as if he were about to say something more; but suddenly checking himself, turned round, and bade his valet 'Good-night.'
'Good-night, Sir,' replied Mr. Weller. He paused when he got outside the door — shook his head — walked on — stopped — snuffed the candle — shook his head again — and finally proceeded slowly to his chamber, apparently buried in the profoundest meditation.