'Well, I shouldn't wonder if it was,' returned the old man doubtfully.
'Drive on, boys,' cried the testy old gentleman; 'don't waste any more time with that old idiot!'
'Idiot!' exclaimed the old man with a grin, as he stood in the middle of the road with the gate half-closed, watching the chaise which rapidly diminished in the increasing distance. 'No — not much o' that either; you've lost ten minutes here, and gone away as wise as you came, arter all. If every man on the line as has a guinea give him, earns it half as well, you won't catch t'other shay this side Mich'lmas, old short-and-fat.' And with another prolonged grin, the old man closed the gate, re-entered his house, and bolted the door after him.
Meanwhile the chaise proceeded, without any slackening of pace, towards the conclusion of the stage. The moon, as Wardle had foretold, was rapidly on the wane; large tiers of dark, heavy clouds, which had been gradually overspreading the sky for some time past, now formed one black mass overhead; and large drops of rain which pattered every now and then against the windows of the chaise, seemed to warn the travellers of the rapid approach of a stormy night. The wind, too, which was directly against them, swept in furious gusts down the narrow road, and howled dismally through the trees which skirted the pathway. Mr. Pickwick drew his coat closer about him, coiled himself more snugly up into the corner of the chaise, and fell into a sound sleep, from which he was only awakened by the stopping of the vehicle, the sound of the hostler's bell, and a loud cry of 'Horses on directly!'
But here another delay occurred. The boys were sleeping with such mysterious soundness, that it took five minutes a-piece to wake them. The hostler had somehow or other mislaid the key of the stable, and even when that was found, two sleepy helpers put the wrong harness on the wrong horses, and the whole process of harnessing had to be gone through afresh. Had Mr. Pickwick been alone, these multiplied obstacles would have completely put an end to the pursuit at once, but old Wardle was not to be so easily daunted; and he laid about him with such hearty good-will, cuffing this man, and pushing that; strapping a buckle here, and taking in a link there, that the chaise was ready in a much shorter time than could reasonably have been expected, under so many difficulties.
They resumed their journey; and certainly the prospect before them was by no means encouraging. The stage was fifteen miles long, the night was dark, the wind high, and the rain pouring in torrents. It was impossible to make any great way against such obstacles united; it was hard upon one o'clock already; and nearly two hours were consumed in getting to the end of the stage. Here, however, an object presented itself, which rekindled their hopes, and reanimated their drooping spirits.
'When did this chaise come in?' cried old Wardle, leaping out of his own vehicle, and pointing to one covered with wet mud, which was standing in the yard.
'Not a quarter of an hour ago, sir,' replied the hostler, to whom the question was addressed. 'Lady and gentleman?' inquired Wardle, almost breathless with impatience.
'Tall gentleman — dress-coat — long legs — thin body?'
'Elderly lady — thin face — rather skinny — eh?'
'By heavens, it's the couple, Pickwick,' exclaimed the old gentleman.
'Would have been here before,' said the hostler, 'but they broke a trace.'
''Tis them!' said Wardle, 'it is, by Jove! Chaise-and-four instantly! We shall catch them yet before they reach the next stage. A guinea a-piece, boys-be alive there — bustle about — there's good fellows.'
And with such admonitions as these, the old gentleman ran up and down the yard, and bustled to and fro, in a state of excitement which communicated itself to Mr. Pickwick also; and under the influence of which, that gentleman got himself into complicated entanglements with harness, and mixed up with horses and wheels of chaises, in the most surprising manner, firmly believing that by so doing he was materially forwarding the preparations for their resuming their journey.
'Jump in — jump in!' cried old Wardle, climbing into the chaise, pulling up the steps, and slamming the door after him. 'Come along! Make haste!' And before Mr. Pickwick knew precisely what he was about, he felt himself forced in at the other door, by one pull from the old gentleman and one push from the hostler; and off they were again.
'Ah! we are moving now,' said the old gentleman exultingly. They were indeed, as was sufficiently testified to Mr. Pickwick, by his constant collision either with the hard wood-work of the chaise, or the body of his companion.
'Hold up!' said the stout old Mr. Wardle, as Mr. Pickwick dived head foremost into his capacious waistcoat.
'I never did feel such a jolting in my life,' said Mr. Pickwick.
'Never mind,' replied his companion, 'it will soon be over. Steady, steady.'
Mr. Pickwick planted himself into his own corner, as firmly as he could; and on whirled the chaise faster than ever.
They had travelled in this way about three miles, when Mr. Wardle, who had been looking out of the Window for two or three minutes, suddenly drew in his face, covered with splashes, and exclaimed in breathless eagerness —
'Here they are!'
Mr. Pickwick thrust his head out of his window. Yes: there was a chaise-and-four, a short distance before them, dashing along at full gallop.
'Go on, go on,' almost shrieked the old gentleman. 'Two guineas a-piece, boys — don't let 'em gain on us — keep it up — keep it up.'
The horses in the first chaise started on at their utmost speed; and those in Mr. Wardle's galloped furiously behind them.
'I see his head,' exclaimed the choleric old man; 'damme, I see his head.'
'So do I' said Mr. Pickwick; 'that's he.' Mr. Pickwick was not mistaken. The countenance of Mr. Jingle, completely coated with mud thrown up by the wheels, was plainly discernible at the window of his chaise; and the motion of his arm, which was waving violently towards the postillions, denoted that he was encouraging them to increased exertion.
The interest was intense. Fields, trees, and hedges, seemed to rush past them with the velocity of a whirlwind, so rapid was the pace at which they tore along. They were close by the side of the first chaise. Jingle's voice could be plainly heard, even above the din of the wheels, urging on the boys. Old Mr. Wardle foamed with rage and excitement. He roared out scoundrels and villains by the dozen, clenched his fist and shook it expressively at the object of his indignation; but Mr. Jingle only answered with a contemptuous smile, and replied to his menaces by a shout of triumph, as his horses, answering the increased application of whip and spur, broke into a faster gallop, and left the pursuers behind.
Mr. Pickwick had just drawn in his head, and Mr. Wardle, exhausted with shouting, had done the same, when a tremendous jolt threw them forward against the front of the vehicle. There was a sudden bump — a loud crash — away rolled a wheel, and over went the chaise.
After a very few seconds of bewilderment and confusion, in which nothing but the plunging of horses, and breaking of glass could be made out, Mr. Pickwick felt himself violently pulled out from among the ruins of the chaise; and as soon as he had gained his feet, extricated his head from the skirts of his greatcoat, which materially impeded the usefulness of his spectacles, the full disaster of the case met his view.
Old Mr. Wardle without a hat, and his clothes torn in several places, stood by his side, and the fragments of the chaise lay scattered at their feet. The post-boys, who had succeeded in cutting the traces, were standing, disfigured with mud and disordered by hard riding, by the horses' heads. About a hundred yards in advance was the other chaise, which had pulled up on hearing the crash. The postillions, each with a broad grin convulsing his countenance, were viewing the adverse party from their saddles, and Mr. Jingle was contemplating the wreck from the coach window, with evident satisfaction. The day was just breaking, and the whole scene was rendered perfectly visible by the grey light of the morning.
'Hollo!' shouted the shameless Jingle, 'anybody damaged? — elderly gentlemen — no light weights — dangerous work — very.'
'You're a rascal,' roared Wardle.
'Ha! ha!' replied Jingle; and then he added, with a knowing wink, and a jerk of the thumb towards the interior of the chaise — 'I say — she's very well — desires her compliments — begs you won't trouble yourself — love to TUPPY — won't you get up behind? — drive on, boys.'
The postillions resumed their proper attitudes, and away rattled the chaise, Mr. Jingle fluttering in derision a white handkerchief from the coach window.
Nothing in the whole adventure, not even the upset, had disturbed the calm and equable current of Mr. Pickwick's temper. The villainy, however, which could first borrow money of his faithful follower, and then abbreviate his name to 'Tuppy,' was more than he could patiently bear. He drew his breath hard, and coloured up to the very tips of his spectacles, as he said, slowly and emphatically —
'If ever I meet that man again, I'll — '
'Yes, yes,' interrupted Wardle, 'that's all very well; but while we stand talking here, they'll get their licence, and be married in London.'
Mr. Pickwick paused, bottled up his vengeance, and corked it down. 'How far is it to the next stage?' inquired Mr. Wardle, of one of the boys.
'Six mile, ain't it, Tom?'
'Rayther better nor six mile, Sir.'
'Can't be helped,' said Wardle, 'we must walk it, Pickwick.'
'No help for it,' replied that truly great man.
So sending forward one of the boys on horseback, to procure a fresh chaise and horses, and leaving the other behind to take care of the broken one, Mr. Pickwick and Mr. Wardle set manfully forward on the walk, first tying their shawls round their necks, and slouching down their hats to escape as much as possible from the deluge of rain, which after a slight cessation had again begun to pour heavily down.