Mr. Pickwick had never held any personal communication with Mr. Winkle, senior, although he had once or twice corresponded with him by letter, and returned satisfactory answers to his inquiries concerning the moral character and behaviour of his son; he felt nervously sensible that to wait upon him, for the first time, attended by Bob Sawyer and Ben Allen, both slightly fuddled, was not the most ingenious and likely means that could have been hit upon to prepossess him in his favour.
'However,' said Mr. Pickwick, endeavouring to reassure himself, 'I must do the best I can. I must see him to-night, for I faithfully promised to do so. If they persist in accompanying me, I must make the interview as brief as possible, and be content that, for their own sakes, they will not expose themselves.'
As he comforted himself with these reflections, the chaise stopped at the door of the Old Royal. Ben Allen having been partially awakened from a stupendous sleep, and dragged out by the collar by Mr. Samuel Weller, Mr. Pickwick was enabled to alight. They were shown to a comfortable apartment, and Mr. Pickwick at once propounded a question to the waiter concerning the whereabout of Mr. Winkle's residence.
'Close by, Sir,' said the waiter, 'not above five hundred yards, Sir. Mr. Winkle is a wharfinger, Sir, at the canal, sir. Private residence is not — oh dear, no, sir, not five hundred yards, sir.' Here the waiter blew a candle out, and made a feint of lighting it again, in order to afford Mr. Pickwick an opportunity of asking any further questions, if he felt so disposed. 'Take anything now, Sir?' said the waiter, lighting the candle in desperation at Mr. Pickwick's silence. 'Tea or coffee, Sir? Dinner, sir?'
'Very good, sir. Like to order supper, Sir?'
'Not just now.'
'Very good, Sir.' Here, he walked slowly to the door, and then stopping short, turned round and said, with great suavity —
'Shall I send the chambermaid, gentlemen?'
'You may if you please,' replied Mr. Pickwick.
'If YOU please, sir.'
'And bring some soda-water,' said Bob Sawyer.
'Soda-water, Sir! Yes, Sir.' With his mind apparently relieved from an overwhelming weight, by having at last got an order for something, the waiter imperceptibly melted away. Waiters never walk or run. They have a peculiar and mysterious power of skimming out of rooms, which other mortals possess not.
Some slight symptoms of vitality having been awakened in Mr. Ben Allen by the soda-water, he suffered himself to be prevailed upon to wash his face and hands, and to submit to be brushed by Sam. Mr. Pickwick and Bob Sawyer having also repaired the disorder which the journey had made in their apparel, the three started forth, arm in arm, to Mr. Winkle's; Bob Sawyer impregnating the atmosphere with tobacco smoke as he walked along.
About a quarter of a mile off, in a quiet, substantial-looking street, stood an old red brick house with three steps before the door, and a brass plate upon it, bearing, in fat Roman capitals, the words, 'Mr. Winkle.'The steps were very white, and the bricks were very red, and the house was very clean; and here stood Mr. Pickwick, Mr. Benjamin Allen, and Mr. Bob Sawyer, as the clock struck ten.
A smart servant-girl answered the knock, and started on beholding the three strangers.
'Is Mr. Winkle at home, my dear?' inquired Mr. Pickwick.
'He is just going to supper, Sir,' replied the girl.
'Give him that card if you please,' rejoined Mr. Pickwick. 'Say I am sorry to trouble him at so late an hour; but I am anxious to see him to-night, and have only just arrived.' The girl looked timidly at Mr. Bob Sawyer, who was expressing his admiration of her personal charms by a variety of wonderful grimaces; and casting an eye at the hats and greatcoats which hung in the passage, called another girl to mind the door while she went upstairs. The sentinel was speedily relieved; for the girl returned immediately, and begging pardon of the gentlemen for leaving them in the street, ushered them into a floor-clothed back parlour, half office and half dressing room, in which the principal useful and ornamental articles of furniture were a desk, a wash-hand stand and shaving-glass, a boot-rack and boot-jack, a high stool, four chairs, a table, and an old eight-day clock. Over the mantelpiece were the sunken doors of an iron safe, while a couple of hanging shelves for books, an almanac, and several files of dusty papers, decorated the walls.
'Very sorry to leave you standing at the door, Sir,' said the girl, lighting a lamp, and addressing Mr. Pickwick with a winning smile, 'but you was quite strangers to me; and we have such a many trampers that only come to see what they can lay their hands on, that really — '
'There is not the least occasion for any apology, my dear,' said Mr. Pickwick good-humouredly.
'Not the slightest, my love,' said Bob Sawyer, playfully stretching forth his arms, and skipping from side to side, as if to prevent the young lady's leaving the room.
The young lady was not at all softened by these allurements, for she at once expressed her opinion, that Mr. Bob Sawyer was an 'odous creetur;' and, on his becoming rather more pressing in his attentions, imprinted her fair fingers upon his face, and bounced out of the room with many expressions of aversion and contempt.
Deprived of the young lady's society, Mr. Bob Sawyer proceeded to divert himself by peeping into the desk, looking into all the table drawers, feigning to pick the lock of the iron safe, turning the almanac with its face to the wall, trying on the boots of Mr. Winkle, senior, over his own, and making several other humorous experiments upon the furniture, all of which afforded Mr. Pickwick unspeakable horror and agony, and yielded Mr. Bob Sawyer proportionate delight.
At length the door opened, and a little old gentleman in a snuff-coloured suit, with a head and face the precise counterpart of those belonging to Mr. Winkle, junior, excepting that he was rather bald, trotted into the room with Mr. Pickwick's card in one hand, and a silver candlestick in the other.
'Mr. Pickwick, sir, how do you do?' said Winkle the elder, putting down the candlestick and proffering his hand. 'Hope I see you well, sir. Glad to see you. Be seated, Mr. Pickwick, I beg, Sir. This gentleman is — '
'My friend, Mr. Sawyer,' interposed Mr. Pickwick, 'your son's friend.'
'Oh,' said Mr. Winkle the elder, looking rather grimly at Bob. 'I hope you are well, sir.'
'Right as a trivet, sir,' replied Bob Sawyer.
'This other gentleman,' cried Mr. Pickwick, 'is, as you will see when you have read the letter with which I am intrusted, a very near relative, or I should rather say a very particular friend of your son's. His name is Allen.'
'THAT gentleman?' inquired Mr. Winkle, pointing with the card towards Ben Allen, who had fallen asleep in an attitude which left nothing of him visible but his spine and his coat collar.
Mr. Pickwick was on the point of replying to the question, and reciting Mr. Benjamin Allen's name and honourable distinctions at full length, when the sprightly Mr. Bob Sawyer, with a view of rousing his friend to a sense of his situation, inflicted a startling pinch upon the fleshly part of his arm, which caused him to jump up with a shriek. Suddenly aware that he was in the presence of a stranger, Mr. Ben Allen advanced and, shaking Mr. Winkle most affectionately by both hands for about five minutes, murmured, in some half-intelligible fragments of sentences, the great delight he felt in seeing him, and a hospitable inquiry whether he felt disposed to take anything after his walk, or would prefer waiting 'till dinner-time;' which done, he sat down and gazed about him with a petrified stare, as if he had not the remotest idea where he was, which indeed he had not.
All this was most embarrassing to Mr. Pickwick, the more especially as Mr. Winkle, senior, evinced palpable astonishment at the eccentric — not to say extraordinary — behaviour of his two companions. To bring the matter to an issue at once, he drew a letter from his pocket, and presenting it to Mr. Winkle, senior, said —
'This letter, Sir, is from your son. You will see, by its contents, that on your favourable and fatherly consideration of it, depend his future happiness and welfare. Will you oblige me by giving it the calmest and coolest perusal, and by discussing the subject afterwards with me, in the tone and spirit in which alone it ought to be discussed? You may judge of the importance of your decision to your son, and his intense anxiety upon the subject, by my waiting upon you, without any previous warning, at so late an hour; and,' added Mr. Pickwick, glancing slightly at his two companions — 'and under such unfavourable circumstances.'
With this prelude, Mr. Pickwick placed four closely-written sides of extra superfine wire-wove penitence in the hands of the astounded Mr. Winkle, senior. Then reseating himself in his chair, he watched his looks and manner: anxiously, it is true, but with the open front of a gentleman who feels he has taken no part which he need excuse or palliate. The old wharfinger turned the letter over, looked at the front, back, and sides, made a microscopic examination of the fat little boy on the seal, raised his eyes to Mr. Pickwick's face, and then, seating himself on the high stool, and drawing the lamp closer to him, broke the wax, unfolded the epistle, and lifting it to the light, prepared to read. Just at this moment, Mr. Bob Sawyer, whose wit had lain dormant for some minutes, placed his hands on his knees, and made a face after the portraits of the late Mr. Grimaldi, as clown. It so happened that Mr. Winkle, senior, instead of being deeply engaged in reading the letter, as Mr. Bob Sawyer thought, chanced to be looking over the top of it at no less a person than Mr. Bob Sawyer himself; rightly conjecturing that the face aforesaid was made in ridicule and derision of his own person, he fixed his eyes on Bob with such expressive sternness, that the late Mr. Grimaldi's lineaments gradually resolved themselves into a very fine expression of humility and confusion.