Seven o'clock had hardly ceased striking on the following morning, when Mr. Pickwick's comprehensive mind was aroused from the state of unconsciousness, in which slumber had plunged it, by a loud knocking at his chamber door. 'Who's there?' said Mr. Pickwick, starting up in bed.
'What do you want?'
'Please, sir, can you tell me which gentleman of your party wears a bright blue dress-coat, with a gilt button with "P. C." on it?'
'It's been given out to brush,' thought Mr. Pickwick, 'and the man has forgotten whom it belongs to.' 'Mr. Winkle,'he called out, 'next room but two, on the right hand.' 'Thank'ee, sir,' said the Boots, and away he went.
'What's the matter?' cried Mr. Tupman, as a loud knocking at his door roused hint from his oblivious repose.
'Can I speak to Mr. Winkle, sir?' replied Boots from the outside.
'Winkle — Winkle!' shouted Mr. Tupman, calling into the inner room. 'Hollo!' replied a faint voice from within the bed-clothes.
'You're wanted — some one at the door;' and, having exerted himself to articulate thus much, Mr. Tracy Tupman turned round and fell fast asleep again.
'Wanted!' said Mr. Winkle, hastily jumping out of bed, and putting on a few articles of clothing; 'wanted! at this distance from town — who on earth can want me?'
'Gentleman in the coffee-room, sir,' replied the Boots, as Mr. Winkle opened the door and confronted him; 'gentleman says he'll not detain you a moment, Sir, but he can take no denial.'
'Very odd!' said Mr. Winkle; 'I'll be down directly.'
He hurriedly wrapped himself in a travelling-shawl and dressing-gown, and proceeded downstairs. An old woman and a couple of waiters were cleaning the coffee-room, and an officer in undress uniform was looking out of the window. He turned round as Mr. Winkle entered, and made a stiff inclination of the head. Having ordered the attendants to retire, and closed the door very carefully, he said, 'Mr. Winkle, I presume?'
'My name is Winkle, sir.'
'You will not be surprised, sir, when I inform you that I have called here this morning on behalf of my friend, Doctor Slammer, of the 97th.'
'Doctor Slammer!' said Mr. Winkle.
'Doctor Slammer. He begged me to express his opinion that your conduct of last evening was of a description which no gentleman could endure; and' (he added) 'which no one gentleman would pursue towards another.'
Mr. Winkle's astonishment was too real, and too evident, to escape the observation of Doctor Slammer's friend; he therefore proceeded — 'My friend, Doctor Slammer, requested me to add, that he was firmly persuaded you were intoxicated during a portion of the evening, and possibly unconscious of the extent of the insult you were guilty of. He commissioned me to say, that should this be pleaded as an excuse for your behaviour, he will consent to accept a written apology, to be penned by you, from my dictation.'
'A written apology!' repeated Mr. Winkle, in the most emphatic tone of amazement possible.
'Of course you know the alternative,' replied the visitor coolly.
'Were you intrusted with this message to me by name?' inquired Mr. Winkle, whose intellects were hopelessly confused by this extraordinary conversation.
'I was not present myself,' replied the visitor, 'and in consequence of your firm refusal to give your card to Doctor Slammer, I was desired by that gentleman to identify the wearer of a very uncommon coat — a bright blue dress-coat, with a gilt button displaying a bust, and the letters "P. C."'
Mr. Winkle actually staggered with astonishment as he heard his own costume thus minutely described. Doctor Slammer's friend proceeded: — 'From the inquiries I made at the bar, just now, I was convinced that the owner of the coat in question arrived here, with three gentlemen, yesterday afternoon. I immediately sent up to the gentleman who was described as appearing the head of the party, and he at once referred me to you.'
If the principal tower of Rochester Castle had suddenly walked from its foundation, and stationed itself opposite the coffee-room window, Mr. Winkle's surprise would have been as nothing compared with the profound astonishment with which he had heard this address. His first impression was that his coat had been stolen. 'Will you allow me to detain you one moment?' said he.
'Certainly,' replied the unwelcome visitor.
Mr. Winkle ran hastily upstairs, and with a trembling hand opened the bag. There was the coat in its usual place, but exhibiting, on a close inspection, evident tokens of having been worn on the preceding night.
'It must be so,' said Mr. Winkle, letting the coat fall from his hands. 'I took too much wine after dinner, and have a very vague recollection of walking about the streets, and smoking a cigar afterwards. The fact is, I was very drunk; — I must have changed my coat — gone somewhere — and insulted somebody — I have no doubt of it; and this message is the terrible consequence.' Saying which, Mr. Winkle retraced his steps in the direction of the coffee-room, with the gloomy and dreadful resolve of accepting the challenge of the warlike Doctor Slammer, and abiding by the worst consequences that might ensue.
To this determination Mr. Winkle was urged by a variety of considerations, the first of which was his reputation with the club. He had always been looked up to as a high authority on all matters of amusement and dexterity, whether offensive, defensive, or inoffensive; and if, on this very first occasion of being put to the test, he shrunk back from the trial, beneath his leader's eye, his name and standing were lost for ever. Besides, he remembered to have heard it frequently surmised by the uninitiated in such matters that by an understood arrangement between the seconds, the pistols were seldom loaded with ball; and, furthermore, he reflected that if he applied to Mr. Snodgrass to act as his second, and depicted the danger in glowing terms, that gentleman might possibly communicate the intelligence to Mr. Pickwick, who would certainly lose no time in transmitting it to the local authorities, and thus prevent the killing or maiming of his follower.
Such were his thoughts when he returned to the coffee-room, and intimated his intention of accepting the doctor's challenge.
'Will you refer me to a friend, to arrange the time and place of meeting?' said the officer.
'Quite unnecessary,' replied Mr. Winkle; 'name them to me, and I can procure the attendance of a friend afterwards.'
'Shall we say — sunset this evening?' inquired the officer, in a careless tone.
'Very good,' replied Mr. Winkle, thinking in his heart it was very bad.
'You know Fort Pitt?'
'Yes; I saw it yesterday.'
'If you will take the trouble to turn into the field which borders the trench, take the foot-path to the left when you arrive at an angle of the fortification, and keep straight on, till you see me, I will precede you to a secluded place, where the affair can be conducted without fear of interruption.'
'Fear of interruption!' thought Mr. Winkle.
'Nothing more to arrange, I think,' said the officer.
'I am not aware of anything more,' replied Mr. Winkle. 'Good-morning.'
'Good-morning;' and the officer whistled a lively air as he strode away.
That morning's breakfast passed heavily off. Mr. Tupman was not in a condition to rise, after the unwonted dissipation of the previous night; Mr. Snodgrass appeared to labour under a poetical depression of spirits; and even Mr. Pickwick evinced an unusual attachment to silence and soda-water. Mr. Winkle eagerly watched his opportunity: it was not long wanting. Mr. Snodgrass proposed a visit to the castle, and as Mr. Winkle was the only other member of the party disposed to walk, they went out together. 'Snodgrass,' said Mr. Winkle, when they had turned out of the public street. 'Snodgrass, my dear fellow, can I rely upon your secrecy?' As he said this, he most devoutly and earnestly hoped he could not.
'You can,' replied Mr. Snodgrass. 'Hear me swear — '
'No, no,' interrupted Winkle, terrified at the idea of his companion's unconsciously pledging himself not to give information; 'don't swear, don't swear; it's quite unnecessary.'
Mr. Snodgrass dropped the hand which he had, in the spirit of poesy, raised towards the clouds as he made the above appeal, and assumed an attitude of attention.
'I want your assistance, my dear fellow, in an affair of honour,' said Mr. Winkle.
'You shall have it,' replied Mr. Snodgrass, clasping his friend's hand.
'With a doctor — Doctor Slammer, of the 97th,' said Mr. Winkle, wishing to make the matter appear as solemn as possible; 'an affair with an officer, seconded by another officer, at sunset this evening, in a lonely field beyond Fort Pitt.'
'I will attend you,' said Mr. Snodgrass.