CHAPTER LIV. CONTAINING SOME PARTICULARS RELATIVE TO THE DOUBLE KNOCK, AND OTHER MATTERS: AMONG WHICH CERTAIN INTERESTING DISCLOSURES RELATIVE TO Mr. SNODGRASS AND A YOUNG LADY ARE BY NO MEANS IRRELEVANT TO THIS HISTORY
The object that presented itself to the eyes of the astonished clerk, was a boy — a wonderfully fat boy — habited as a serving lad, standing upright on the mat, with his eyes closed as if in sleep. He had never seen such a fat boy, in or out of a travelling caravan; and this, coupled with the calmness and repose of his appearance, so very different from what was reasonably to have been expected of the inflicter of such knocks, smote him with wonder.
'What's the matter?' inquired the clerk.
The extraordinary boy replied not a word; but he nodded once, and seemed, to the clerk's imagination, to snore feebly.
'Where do you come from?' inquired the clerk.
The boy made no sign. He breathed heavily, but in all other respects was motionless.
The clerk repeated the question thrice, and receiving no answer, prepared to shut the door, when the boy suddenly opened his eyes, winked several times, sneezed once, and raised his hand as if to repeat the knocking. Finding the door open, he stared about him with astonishment, and at length fixed his eyes on Mr. Lowten's face.
'What the devil do you knock in that way for?' inquired the clerk angrily.
'Which way?' said the boy, in a slow and sleepy voice.
'Why, like forty hackney-coachmen,' replied the clerk.
'Because master said, I wasn't to leave off knocking till they opened the door, for fear I should go to sleep,' said the boy.
'Well,' said the clerk, 'what message have you brought?'
'He's downstairs,' rejoined the boy.
'Master. He wants to know whether you're at home.'
Mr. Lowten bethought himself, at this juncture, of looking out of the window. Seeing an open carriage with a hearty old gentleman in it, looking up very anxiously, he ventured to beckon him; on which, the old gentleman jumped out directly.
'That's your master in the carriage, I suppose?' said Lowten.
The boy nodded.
All further inquiries were superseded by the appearance of old Wardle, who, running upstairs and just recognising Lowten, passed at once into Mr. Perker's room.
'Pickwick!' said the old gentleman. 'Your hand, my boy! Why have I never heard until the day before yesterday of your suffering yourself to be cooped up in jail? And why did you let him do it, Perker?'
'I couldn't help it, my dear Sir,' replied Perker, with a smile and a pinch of snuff; 'you know how obstinate he is?'
'Of course I do; of course I do,' replied the old gentleman. 'I am heartily glad to see him, notwithstanding. I will not lose sight of him again, in a hurry.'
With these words, Wardle shook Mr. Pickwick's hand once more, and, having done the same by Perker, threw himself into an arm-chair, his jolly red face shining again with smiles and health.
'Well!' said Wardle. 'Here are pretty goings on — a pinch of your snuff, Perker, my boy — never were such times, eh?'
'What do you mean?' inquired Mr. Pickwick.
'Mean!' replied Wardle. 'Why, I think the girls are all running mad; that's no news, you'll say? Perhaps it's not; but it's true, for all that.'
'You have not come up to London, of all places in the world, to tell us that, my dear Sir, have you?' inquired Perker.
'No, not altogether,' replied Wardle; 'though it was the main cause of my coming. How's Arabella?'
'Very well,' replied Mr. Pickwick, 'and will be delighted to see you, I am sure.'
'Black-eyed little jilt!' replied Wardle. 'I had a great idea of marrying her myself, one of these odd days. But I am glad of it too, very glad.'
'How did the intelligence reach you?' asked Mr. Pickwick.
'Oh, it came to my girls, of course,'replied Wardle. 'Arabella wrote, the day before yesterday, to say she had made a stolen match without her husband's father's consent, and so you had gone down to get it when his refusing it couldn't prevent the match, and all the rest of it. I thought it a very good time to say something serious to my girls; so I said what a dreadful thing it was that children should marry without their parents' consent, and so forth; but, bless your hearts, I couldn't make the least impression upon them. They thought it such a much more dreadful thing that there should have been a wedding without bridesmaids, that I might as well have preached to Joe himself.' Here the old gentleman stopped to laugh; and having done so to his heart's content, presently resumed —
'But this is not the best of it, it seems. This is only half the love-making and plotting that have been going forward. We have been walking on mines for the last six months, and they're sprung at last.'
'What do you mean?' exclaimed Mr. Pickwick, turning pale; 'no other secret marriage, I hope?'
'No, no,' replied old Wardle; 'not so bad as that; no.'
'What then?' inquired Mr. Pickwick; 'am I interested in it?'
'Shall I answer that question, Perker?' said Wardle.
'If you don't commit yourself by doing so, my dear Sir.'
'Well then, you are,' said Wardle.
'How?' asked Mr. Pickwick anxiously. 'In what way?'
'Really,' replied Wardle, 'you're such a fiery sort of a young fellow that I am almost afraid to tell you; but, however, if Perker will sit between us to prevent mischief, I'll venture.'
Having closed the room door, and fortified himself with another application to Perker's snuff-box, the old gentleman proceeded with his great disclosure in these words —
'The fact is, that my daughter Bella — Bella, who married young Trundle, you know.'
'Yes, yes, we know,' said Mr. Pickwick impatiently.
'Don't alarm me at the very beginning. My daughter Bella — Emily having gone to bed with a headache after she had read Arabella's letter to me — sat herself down by my side the other evening, and began to talk over this marriage affair. "Well, pa," she says, "what do you think of it?" "Why, my dear," I said, "I suppose it's all very well; I hope it's for the best." I answered in this way because I was sitting before the fire at the time, drinking my grog rather thoughtfully, and I knew my throwing in an undecided word now and then, would induce her to continue talking. Both my girls are pictures of their dear mother, and as I grow old I like to sit with only them by me; for their voices and looks carry me back to the happiest period of my life, and make me, for the moment, as young as I used to be then, though not quite so light-hearted. "It's quite a marriage of affection, pa," said Bella, after a short silence. "Yes, my dear," said I, "but such marriages do not always turn out the happiest."'
'I question that, mind!' interposed Mr. Pickwick warmly. 'Very good,' responded Wardle, 'question anything you like when it's your turn to speak, but don't interrupt me.'
'I beg your pardon,' said Mr. Pickwick.
'Granted,' replied Wardle. '"I am sorry to hear you express your opinion against marriages of affection, pa," said Bella, colouring a little. "I was wrong; I ought not to have said so, my dear, either," said I, patting her cheek as kindly as a rough old fellow like me could pat it, "for your mother's was one, and so was yours." "It's not that I meant, pa," said Bella. "The fact is, pa, I wanted to speak to you about Emily."'
Mr. Pickwick started.
'What's the matter now?' inquired Wardle, stopping in his narrative.
'Nothing,'replied Mr. Pickwick. 'Pray go on.'
'I never could spin out a story,' said Wardle abruptly. 'It must come out, sooner or later, and it'll save us all a great deal of time if it comes at once. The long and the short of it is, then, that Bella at last mustered up courage to tell me that Emily was very unhappy; that she and your young friend Snodgrass had been in constant correspondence and communication ever since last Christmas; that she had very dutifully made up her mind to run away with him, in laudable imitation of her old friend and school-fellow; but that having some compunctions of conscience on the subject, inasmuch as I had always been rather kindly disposed to both of them, they had thought it better in the first instance to pay me the compliment of asking whether I would have any objection to their being married in the usual matter-of-fact manner. There now, Mr. Pickwick, if you can make it convenient to reduce your eyes to their usual size again, and to let me hear what you think we ought to do, I shall feel rather obliged to you!'
The testy manner in which the hearty old gentleman uttered this last sentence was not wholly unwarranted; for Mr. Pickwick's face had settled down into an expression of blank amazement and perplexity, quite curious to behold.
'Snodgrass!-since last Christmas!' were the first broken words that issued from the lips of the confounded gentleman.
'Since last Christmas,' replied Wardle; 'that's plain enough, and very bad spectacles we must have worn, not to have discovered it before.'
'I don't understand it,' said Mr. Pickwick, ruminating; 'I cannot really understand it.'