Now, Mr. Pickwick being in the very best health and spirits, had been making himself perfectly delightful all dinner-time, and was at this moment engaged in an energetic conversation with Emily and Mr. Winkle; bowing his head, courteously, in the emphasis of his discourse, gently waving his left hand to lend force to his observations, and all glowing with placid smiles. He took a piece of cheese from the plate, and was on the point of turning round to renew the conversation, when the fat boy, stooping so as to bring his head on a level with that of Mr. Pickwick, pointed with his thumb over his shoulder, and made the most horrible and hideous face that was ever seen out of a Christmas pantomime.
'Dear me!' said Mr. Pickwick, starting, 'what a very — Eh?' He stopped, for the fat boy had drawn himself up, and was, or pretended to be, fast asleep.
'What's the matter?' inquired Wardle.
'This is such an extremely singular lad!' replied Mr. Pickwick, looking uneasily at the boy. 'It seems an odd thing to say, but upon my word I am afraid that, at times, he is a little deranged.'
'Oh! Mr. Pickwick, pray don't say so,' cried Emily and Arabella, both at once.
'I am not certain, of course,' said Mr. Pickwick, amidst profound silence and looks of general dismay; 'but his manner to me this moment really was very alarming. Oh!' ejaculated Mr. Pickwick, suddenly jumping up with a short scream. 'I beg your pardon, ladies, but at that moment he ran some sharp instrument into my leg. Really, he is not safe.'
'He's drunk,' roared old Wardle passionately. 'Ring the bell! Call the waiters! He's drunk.'
'I ain't,' said the fat boy, falling on his knees as his master seized him by the collar. 'I ain't drunk.'
'Then you're mad; that's worse. Call the waiters,' said the old gentleman.
'I ain't mad; I'm sensible,' rejoined the fat boy, beginning to cry.
'Then, what the devil did you run sharp instruments into Mr. Pickwick's legs for?' inquired Wardle angrily.
'He wouldn't look at me,' replied the boy. 'I wanted to speak to him.'
'What did you want to say?' asked half a dozen voices at once.
The fat boy gasped, looked at the bedroom door, gasped again, and wiped two tears away with the knuckle of each of his forefingers.
'What did you want to say?' demanded Wardle, shaking him.
'Stop!' said Mr. Pickwick; 'allow me. What did you wish to communicate to me, my poor boy?'
'I want to whisper to you,' replied the fat boy.
'You want to bite his ear off, I suppose,' said Wardle. 'Don't come near him; he's vicious; ring the bell, and let him be taken downstairs.'
Just as Mr. Winkle caught the bell-rope in his hand, it was arrested by a general expression of astonishment; the captive lover, his face burning with confusion, suddenly walked in from the bedroom, and made a comprehensive bow to the company.
'Hollo!' cried Wardle, releasing the fat boy's collar, and staggering back. 'What's this?'
'I have been concealed in the next room, sir, since you returned,' explained Mr. Snodgrass.
'Emily, my girl,' said Wardle reproachfully, 'I detest meanness and deceit; this is unjustifiable and indelicate in the highest degree. I don't deserve this at your hands, Emily, indeed!'
'Dear papa,' said Emily, 'Arabella knows — everybody here knows — Joe knows — that I was no party to this concealment. Augustus, for Heaven's sake, explain it!'
Mr. Snodgrass, who had only waited for a hearing, at once recounted how he had been placed in his then distressing predicament; how the fear of giving rise to domestic dissensions had alone prompted him to avoid Mr. Wardle on his entrance; how he merely meant to depart by another door, but, finding it locked, had been compelled to stay against his will. It was a painful situation to be placed in; but he now regretted it the less, inasmuch as it afforded him an opportunity of acknowledging, before their mutual friends, that he loved Mr. Wardle's daughter deeply and sincerely; that he was proud to avow that the feeling was mutual; and that if thousands of miles were placed between them, or oceans rolled their waters, he could never for an instant forget those happy days, when first — et cetera, et cetera.
Having delivered himself to this effect, Mr. Snodgrass bowed again, looked into the crown of his hat, and stepped towards the door.
'Stop!' shouted Wardle. 'Why, in the name of all that's — '
'Inflammable,' mildly suggested Mr. Pickwick, who thought something worse was coming.
'Well — that's inflammable,' said Wardle, adopting the substitute; 'couldn't you say all this to me in the first instance?'
'Or confide in me?' added Mr. Pickwick.
'Dear, dear,' said Arabella, taking up the defence, 'what is the use of asking all that now, especially when you know you had set your covetous old heart on a richer son-in-law, and are so wild and fierce besides, that everybody is afraid of you, except me? Shake hands with him, and order him some dinner, for goodness gracious' sake, for he looks half starved; and pray have your wine up at once, for you'll not be tolerable until you have taken two bottles at least.'
The worthy old gentleman pulled Arabella's ear, kissed her without the smallest scruple, kissed his daughter also with great affection, and shook Mr. Snodgrass warmly by the hand.
'She is right on one point at all events,' said the old gentleman cheerfully. 'Ring for the wine!'
The wine came, and Perker came upstairs at the same moment. Mr. Snodgrass had dinner at a side table, and, when he had despatched it, drew his chair next Emily, without the smallest opposition on the old gentleman's part.
The evening was excellent. Little Mr. Perker came out wonderfully, told various comic stories, and sang a serious song which was almost as funny as the anecdotes. Arabella was very charming, Mr. Wardle very jovial, Mr. Pickwick very harmonious, Mr. Ben Allen very uproarious, the lovers very silent, Mr. Winkle very talkative, and all of them very happy.