'Ye-yes; oh, yes,' replied Mr. Winkle. 'I — I — am RATHER out of practice.'
'Oh, DO skate, Mr. Winkle,' said Arabella. 'I like to see it so much.'
'Oh, it is SO graceful,' said another young lady. A third young lady said it was elegant, and a fourth expressed her opinion that it was 'swan-like.'
'I should be very happy, I'm sure,' said Mr. Winkle, reddening; 'but I have no skates.'
This objection was at once overruled. Trundle had a couple of pair, and the fat boy announced that there were half a dozen more downstairs; whereat Mr. Winkle expressed exquisite delight, and looked exquisitely uncomfortable.
Old Wardle led the way to a pretty large sheet of ice; and the fat boy and Mr. Weller, having shovelled and swept away the snow which had fallen on it during the night, Mr. Bob Sawyer adjusted his skates with a dexterity which to Mr. Winkle was perfectly marvellous, and described circles with his left leg, and cut figures of eight, and inscribed upon the ice, without once stopping for breath, a great many other pleasant and astonishing devices, to the excessive satisfaction of Mr. Pickwick, Mr. Tupman, and the ladies; which reached a pitch of positive enthusiasm, when old Wardle and Benjamin Allen, assisted by the aforesaid Bob Sawyer, performed some mystic evolutions, which they called a reel.
All this time, Mr. Winkle, with his face and hands blue with the cold, had been forcing a gimlet into the sole of his feet, and putting his skates on, with the points behind, and getting the straps into a very complicated and entangled state, with the assistance of Mr. Snodgrass, who knew rather less about skates than a Hindoo. At length, however, with the assistance of Mr. Weller, the unfortunate skates were firmly screwed and buckled on, and Mr. Winkle was raised to his feet.
'Now, then, Sir,' said Sam, in an encouraging tone; 'off vith you, and show 'em how to do it.'
'Stop, Sam, stop!' said Mr. Winkle, trembling violently, and clutching hold of Sam's arms with the grasp of a drowning man. 'How slippery it is, Sam!'
'Not an uncommon thing upon ice, Sir,' replied Mr. Weller. 'Hold up, Sir!'
This last observation of Mr. Weller's bore reference to a demonstration Mr. Winkle made at the instant, of a frantic desire to throw his feet in the air, and dash the back of his head on the ice.
'These — these — are very awkward skates; ain't they, Sam?' inquired Mr. Winkle, staggering.
'I'm afeerd there's a orkard gen'l'm'n in 'em, Sir,' replied Sam.
'Now, Winkle,' cried Mr. Pickwick, quite unconscious that there was anything the matter. 'Come; the ladies are all anxiety.'
'Yes, yes,' replied Mr. Winkle, with a ghastly smile. 'I'm coming.'
'Just a-goin' to begin,' said Sam, endeavouring to disengage himself. 'Now, Sir, start off!'
'Stop an instant, Sam,' gasped Mr. Winkle, clinging most affectionately to Mr. Weller. 'I find I've got a couple of coats at home that I don't want, Sam. You may have them, Sam.'
'Thank'ee, Sir,' replied Mr. Weller.
'Never mind touching your hat, Sam,' said Mr. Winkle hastily. 'You needn't take your hand away to do that. I meant to have given you five shillings this morning for a Christmas box, Sam. I'll give it you this afternoon, Sam.'
'You're wery good, sir,' replied Mr. Weller.
'Just hold me at first, Sam; will you?' said Mr. Winkle. 'There — that's right. I shall soon get in the way of it, Sam. Not too fast, Sam; not too fast.'
Mr. Winkle, stooping forward, with his body half doubled up, was being assisted over the ice by Mr. Weller, in a very singular and un-swan-like manner, when Mr. Pickwick most innocently shouted from the opposite bank —
'Here. I want you.'
'Let go, Sir,' said Sam. 'Don't you hear the governor a-callin'? Let go, sir.'
With a violent effort, Mr. Weller disengaged himself from the grasp of the agonised Pickwickian, and, in so doing, administered a considerable impetus to the unhappy Mr. Winkle. With an accuracy which no degree of dexterity or practice could have insured, that unfortunate gentleman bore swiftly down into the centre of the reel, at the very moment when Mr. Bob Sawyer was performing a flourish of unparalleled beauty. Mr. Winkle struck wildly against him, and with a loud crash they both fell heavily down. Mr. Pickwick ran to the spot. Bob Sawyer had risen to his feet, but Mr. Winkle was far too wise to do anything of the kind, in skates. He was seated on the ice, making spasmodic efforts to smile; but anguish was depicted on every lineament of his countenance.
'Are you hurt?' inquired Mr. Benjamin Allen, with great anxiety.
'Not much,' said Mr. Winkle, rubbing his back very hard. 'I wish you'd let me bleed you,' said Mr. Benjamin, with great eagerness.
'No, thank you,' replied Mr. Winkle hurriedly.
'I really think you had better,' said Allen.
'Thank you,' replied Mr. Winkle; 'I'd rather not.'
'What do YOU think, Mr. Pickwick?' inquired Bob Sawyer.
Mr. Pickwick was excited and indignant. He beckoned to Mr. Weller, and said in a stern voice, 'Take his skates off.'
'No; but really I had scarcely begun,' remonstrated Mr. Winkle.
'Take his skates off,' repeated Mr. Pickwick firmly.
The command was not to be resisted. Mr. Winkle allowed Sam to obey it, in silence.
'Lift him up,' said Mr. Pickwick. Sam assisted him to rise.
Mr. Pickwick retired a few paces apart from the bystanders; and, beckoning his friend to approach, fixed a searching look upon him, and uttered in a low, but distinct and emphatic tone, these remarkable words —
'You're a humbug, sir.' 'A what?' said Mr. Winkle, starting.
'A humbug, Sir. I will speak plainer, if you wish it. An impostor, sir.'
With those words, Mr. Pickwick turned slowly on his heel, and rejoined his friends.
While Mr. Pickwick was delivering himself of the sentiment just recorded, Mr. Weller and the fat boy, having by their joint endeavours cut out a slide, were exercising themselves thereupon, in a very masterly and brilliant manner. Sam Weller, in particular, was displaying that beautiful feat of fancy-sliding which is currently denominated 'knocking at the cobbler's door,' and which is achieved by skimming over the ice on one foot, and occasionally giving a postman's knock upon it with the other. It was a good long slide, and there was something in the motion which Mr. Pickwick, who was very cold with standing still, could not help envying.
'It looks a nice warm exercise that, doesn't it?' he inquired of Wardle, when that gentleman was thoroughly out of breath, by reason of the indefatigable manner in which he had converted his legs into a pair of compasses, and drawn complicated problems on the ice.
'Ah, it does, indeed,' replied Wardle. 'Do you slide?'
'I used to do so, on the gutters, when I was a boy,' replied Mr. Pickwick.
'Try it now,' said Wardle.
'Oh, do, please, Mr. Pickwick!' cried all the ladies.
'I should be very happy to afford you any amusement,' replied Mr. Pickwick, 'but I haven't done such a thing these thirty years.'
'Pooh! pooh! Nonsense!' said Wardle, dragging off his skates with the impetuosity which characterised all his proceedings. 'Here; I'll keep you company; come along!' And away went the good-tempered old fellow down the slide, with a rapidity which came very close upon Mr. Weller, and beat the fat boy all to nothing.
Mr. Pickwick paused, considered, pulled off his gloves and put them in his hat; took two or three short runs, baulked himself as often, and at last took another run, and went slowly and gravely down the slide, with his feet about a yard and a quarter apart, amidst the gratified shouts of all the spectators.
'Keep the pot a-bilin', Sir!' said Sam; and down went Wardle again, and then Mr. Pickwick, and then Sam, and then Mr. Winkle, and then Mr. Bob Sawyer, and then the fat boy, and then Mr. Snodgrass, following closely upon each other's heels, and running after each other with as much eagerness as if their future prospects in life depended on their expedition.
It was the most intensely interesting thing, to observe the manner in which Mr. Pickwick performed his share in the ceremony; to watch the torture of anxiety with which he viewed the person behind, gaining upon him at the imminent hazard of tripping him up; to see him gradually expend the painful force he had put on at first, and turn slowly round on the slide, with his face towards the point from which he had started; to contemplate the playful smile which mantled on his face when he had accomplished the distance, and the eagerness with which he turned round when he had done so, and ran after his predecessor, his black gaiters tripping pleasantly through the snow, and his eyes beaming cheerfulness and gladness through his spectacles. And when he was knocked down (which happened upon the average every third round), it was the most invigorating sight that can possibly be imagined, to behold him gather up his hat, gloves, and handkerchief, with a glowing countenance, and resume his station in the rank, with an ardour and enthusiasm that nothing Could abate.