CHAPTER IX. A DISCOVERY AND A CHASE
The supper was ready laid, the chairs were drawn round the table, bottles, jugs, and glasses were arranged upon the sideboard, and everything betokened the approach of the most convivial period in the whole four-and-twenty hours.
'Where's Rachael?' said Mr. Wardle.
'Ay, and Jingle?' added Mr. Pickwick.
'Dear me,' said the host, 'I wonder I haven't missed him before. Why, I don't think I've heard his voice for two hours at least. Emily, my dear, ring the bell.'
The bell was rung, and the fat boy appeared.
'Where's Miss Rachael?' He couldn't say. 'Where's Mr. Jingle, then?' He didn't know. Everybody looked surprised. It was late — past eleven o'clock. Mr. Tupman laughed in his sleeve. They were loitering somewhere, talking about him. Ha, ha! capital notion that — funny.
'Never mind,' said Wardle, after a short pause. 'They'll turn up presently, I dare say. I never wait supper for anybody.'
'Excellent rule, that,' said Mr. Pickwick — 'admirable.'
'Pray, sit down,' said the host.
'Certainly' said Mr. Pickwick; and down they sat.
There was a gigantic round of cold beef on the table, and Mr. Pickwick was supplied with a plentiful portion of it. He had raised his fork to his lips, and was on the very point of opening his mouth for the reception of a piece of beef, when the hum of many voices suddenly arose in the kitchen. He paused, and laid down his fork. Mr. Wardle paused too, and insensibly released his hold of the carving-knife, which remained inserted in the beef. He looked at Mr. Pickwick. Mr. Pickwick looked at him.
Heavy footsteps were heard in the passage; the parlour door was suddenly burst open; and the man who had cleaned Mr. Pickwick's boots on his first arrival, rushed into the room, followed by the fat boy and all the domestics. 'What the devil's the meaning of this?' exclaimed the host.
'The kitchen chimney ain't a-fire, is it, Emma?' inquired the old lady. 'Lor, grandma! No,' screamed both the young ladies.
'What's the matter?' roared the master of the house.
The man gasped for breath, and faintly ejaculated —
'They ha' gone, mas'r! — gone right clean off, Sir!' (At this juncture Mr. Tupman was observed to lay down his knife and fork, and to turn very pale.)
'Who's gone?' said Mr. Wardle fiercely.
'Mus'r Jingle and Miss Rachael, in a po'-chay, from Blue Lion, Muggleton. I was there; but I couldn't stop 'em; so I run off to tell 'ee.'
'I paid his expenses!' said Mr. Tupman, jumping up frantically. 'He's got ten pounds of mine! — stop him! — he's swindled me! — I won't bear it! — I'll have justice, Pickwick! — I won't stand it!' and with sundry incoherent exclamations of the like nature, the unhappy gentleman spun round and round the apartment, in a transport of frenzy.
'Lord preserve us!' ejaculated Mr. Pickwick, eyeing the extraordinary gestures of his friend with terrified surprise. 'He's gone mad! What shall we do?' 'Do!' said the stout old host, who regarded only the last words of the sentence. 'Put the horse in the gig! I'll get a chaise at the Lion, and follow 'em instantly. Where?' — he exclaimed, as the man ran out to execute the commission — 'where's that villain, Joe?'
'Here I am! but I hain't a willin,' replied a voice. It was the fat boy's.
'Let me get at him, Pickwick,' cried Wardle, as he rushed at the ill-starred youth. 'He was bribed by that scoundrel, Jingle, to put me on a wrong scent, by telling a cock-and-bull story of my sister and your friend Tupman!' (Here Mr. Tupman sank into a chair.) 'Let me get at him!'
'Don't let him!' screamed all the women, above whose exclamations the blubbering of the fat boy was distinctly audible.
'I won't be held!' cried the old man. 'Mr. Winkle, take your hands off. Mr. Pickwick, let me go, sir!'
It was a beautiful sight, in that moment of turmoil and confusion, to behold the placid and philosophical expression of Mr. Pickwick's face, albeit somewhat flushed with exertion, as he stood with his arms firmly clasped round the extensive waist of their corpulent host, thus restraining the impetuosity of his passion, while the fat boy was scratched, and pulled, and pushed from the room by all the females congregated therein. He had no sooner released his hold, than the man entered to announce that the gig was ready.
'Don't let him go alone!' screamed the females. 'He'll kill somebody!'
'I'll go with him,' said Mr. Pickwick.
'You're a good fellow, Pickwick,' said the host, grasping his hand. 'Emma, give Mr. Pickwick a shawl to tie round his neck — make haste. Look after your grandmother, girls; she has fainted away. Now then, are you ready?'
Mr. Pickwick's mouth and chin having been hastily enveloped in a large shawl, his hat having been put on his head, and his greatcoat thrown over his arm, he replied in the affirmative.
They jumped into the gig. 'Give her her head, Tom,' cried the host; and away they went, down the narrow lanes; jolting in and out of the cart-ruts, and bumping up against the hedges on either side, as if they would go to pieces every moment.
'How much are they ahead?' shouted Wardle, as they drove up to the door of the Blue Lion, round which a little crowd had collected, late as it was.
'Not above three-quarters of an hour,' was everybody's reply. 'Chaise-and-four directly! — out with 'em! Put up the gig afterwards.'
'Now, boys!' cried the landlord — 'chaise-and-four out — make haste — look alive there!'
Away ran the hostlers and the boys. The lanterns glimmered, as the men ran to and fro; the horses' hoofs clattered on the uneven paving of the yard; the chaise rumbled as it was drawn out of the coach-house; and all was noise and bustle.
'Now then! — is that chaise coming out to-night?' cried Wardle.
'Coming down the yard now, Sir,' replied the hostler.
Out came the chaise — in went the horses — on sprang the boys — in got the travellers.
'Mind — the seven-mile stage in less than half an hour!' shouted Wardle.
'Off with you!'
The boys applied whip and spur, the waiters shouted, the hostlers cheered, and away they went, fast and furiously.
'Pretty situation,' thought Mr. Pickwick, when he had had a moment's time for reflection. 'Pretty situation for the general chairman of the Pickwick Club. Damp chaise — strange horses — fifteen miles an hour — and twelve o'clock at night!'
For the first three or four miles, not a word was spoken by either of the gentlemen, each being too much immersed in his own reflections to address any observations to his companion. When they had gone over that much ground, however, and the horses getting thoroughly warmed began to do their work in really good style, Mr. Pickwick became too much exhilarated with the rapidity of the motion, to remain any longer perfectly mute.
'We're sure to catch them, I think,' said he.
'Hope so,' replied his companion.
'Fine night,' said Mr. Pickwick, looking up at the moon, which was shining brightly.
'So much the worse,' returned Wardle; 'for they'll have had all the advantage of the moonlight to get the start of us, and we shall lose it. It will have gone down in another hour.'
'It will be rather unpleasant going at this rate in the dark, won't it?' inquired Mr. Pickwick.
'I dare say it will,' replied his friend dryly.
Mr. Pickwick's temporary excitement began to sober down a little, as he reflected upon the inconveniences and dangers of the expedition in which he had so thoughtlessly embarked. He was roused by a loud shouting of the post-boy on the leader.
'Yo-yo-yo-yo-yoe!' went the first boy.
'Yo-yo-yo-yoe!' went the second.
'Yo-yo-yo-yoe!' chimed in old Wardle himself, most lustily, with his head and half his body out of the coach window.
'Yo-yo-yo-yoe!' shouted Mr. Pickwick, taking up the burden of the cry, though he had not the slightest notion of its meaning or object. And amidst the yo-yoing of the whole four, the chaise stopped.
'What's the matter?' inquired Mr. Pickwick.
'There's a gate here,' replied old Wardle. 'We shall hear something of the fugitives.'
After a lapse of five minutes, consumed in incessant knocking and shouting, an old man in his shirt and trousers emerged from the turnpike-house, and opened the gate.
'How long is it since a post-chaise went through here?' inquired Mr. Wardle.
'Why, I don't rightly know. It worn't a long time ago, nor it worn't a short time ago — just between the two, perhaps.'
'Has any chaise been by at all?'
'Oh, yes, there's been a Shay by.'
'How long ago, my friend,' interposed Mr. Pickwick; 'an hour?'
'Ah, I dare say it might be,' replied the man.
'Or two hours?' inquired the post — boy on the wheeler.