Pieces People Ask For/Mr. Pickwick's Romantic Adventure
MR. PICKWICK'S ROMANTIC ADVENTURE WITH A MIDDLE-AGED LADY IN YELLOW CURL-PAPERS.
"Dear me, it's time to go to bed. It will never do, sitting here. I shall be pale to-morrow, Mr. Pickwick!
At the bare notion of such a calamity, Mr. Peter Magnus rang the bell for the chambermaid; and the striped bag, the red bag, the leather hat-box, and the brown-paper parcel, having been conveyed to his bedroom, he retired in company with a japanned candlestick to one side of the house, while Mr. Pickwick, and another japanned candlestick, were conducted through a multitude of tortuous windings to another.
"This is your room, sir," said the chambermaid.
"Very well," replied Mr. Pickwick, looking round him. It was a tolerably large double-bedded room, with a fire; upon the whole, a more comfortable-looking apartment than Mr. Pickwick's short experience of the accommodations of the Great White Horse had led him to expect.
"Nobody sleeps in the other bed, of course," said Mr. Pickwick.
"Oh, no, sir."
"Very good. Tell my servant to bring me up some hot water at half-past eight in the morning, and that I shall not want him any more to-night."
"Yes, sir." And bidding Mr. Pickwick good-night, the chambermaid retired, and left him alone.
Mr. Pickwick sat himself down in a chair before the fire, and fell into a train of rambling meditations. First he thought of his friends, and wondered when they would join him ; then his mind reverted to Mrs. Martha Bardell; and from that lady it wandered, by a natural process, to the dingy counting-house of Dodson and Fogg. From Dodson and Fogg's it flew off at a tangent, to the very centre of the history of the queer client; and then it came back to the Great White Horse at Ipswich, with sufficient clearness to convince Mr. Pickwick that he was falling asleep; so he roused himself, and began to undress, when he recollected he had left his watch on the table down-stairs.
Now, this watch was a special favorite with Mr. Pickwick, having been carried about, beneath the shadow of his waistcoat, for a greater number of years than we feel called upon to state at present. The possibility of going to sleep unless it were ticking gently beneath his pillow, or in his watch-pocket over his head, had never entered Mr. Pickwick's brain. So as it was pretty late now, and he was unwilling to ring his bell at that hour of the night, he slipped on his coat, of which he had just divested himself, and, taking the japanned candlestick in his hand, walked quietly down-stairs.
The more stairs Mr. Pickwick went down, the more stairs there seemed to be to descend; and again and again, when Mr. Pickwick got into some narrow passage, and began to congratulate himself on having gained the ground-floor, did another flight of stairs appear before his astonished eyes. At last he reached a stone hall, which he remembered to have seen when he entered the house. Passage after passage did he explore; room after room did he peep into; at length, just as he was on the point of giving up the search in despair, he opened the door of the identical room in which he had spent the evening, and beheld his missing property on the table.
Mr. Pickwick seized the watch in triumph, and proceeded to retrace his steps to his bed-chamber. If his progress downwards had been attended with difficulties and uncertainty, his journey back was infinitely more perplexing. Rows of doors garnished with boots of every shape, make, and size, branched off in every possible direction. A dozen times did he softly turn the handle of some bedroom door which resembled his own, when a gruff cry from within, of "Who the devil's that?" or "What do you want here?" caused him to steal away, on tiptoe, with a marvellous celerity. He was reduced to the verge of despair, when an open door attracted his attention. He peeped in—right at last! There were the two beds, whose situation he perfectly remembered, and the fire still burning. His candle, not a long one when he first received it, had flickered away in the draughts of air through which he had passed, and sunk into the socket just as he closed the door after him. "No matter," said Mr. Pickwick, "I can undress myself just as well, by the light of the fire."
The bedsteads stood, one on each side of the door; and on the inner side of each was a little path, terminating in a rush-bottomed chair, just wide enough to admit of a person's getting into or out of bed on that side, if he or she thought proper. Having carefully drawn the curtains of his bed on the outside, Mr. Pickwick sat down on the rush-bottomed chair, and leisurely divested himself of his shoes and gaiters. He then took off and folded up his coat, waistcoat, and neck-cloth, and, slowly tying on his tasselled nightcap, secured it firmly on his head, by tying beneath his chin the strings which he had always attached to that article of dress. It was at this moment that the absurdity of his recent bewilderment struck upon his mind; and throwing himself back in the rush-bottomed chair, Mr. Pickwick laughed to himself so heartily, that it would have been quite delightful to any man of well-constituted mind to have watched the smiles which expanded his amiable features as they shone forth from beneath the nightcap.
"It is the best idea," said Mr. Pickwick to himself, smiling till he almost cracked the nightcap strings,—"it is the best idea, my losing myself in this place, and wandering about those staircases, that I ever heard of. Droll, droll, very droll." Here Mr. Pickwick smiled again, a broader smile than before, and was about to continue the process of undressing, in the very best possible humor, when he was suddenly stopped by a most unexpected interruption; to wit, the entrance into the room of some person with a candle, who, after locking the door, advanced to the dressing-table, and set down the light upon it.
The smile that played on Mr. Pickwick's features was instantaneously lost in a look of the most unbounded and wonder-stricken surprise. The person, whoever it was, had come in so suddenly and with so little noise, that Mr. Pickwick had no time to call out, or oppose their entrance. Who could it be? A robber! Some evil-minded person who had seen him come up-stairs with a handsome watch in his hand, perhaps. What was he to do? The only way in which Mr. Pickwick could catch a glimpse of his mysterious visitor, with the least danger of being seen himself, was by creeping on to the bed, and peeping out from between the curtains on the opposite side. To this manœuvre he accordingly resorted. Keeping the curtains carefully closed with his hand, so that nothing more of him could be seen than his face and nightcap, and putting on his spectacles, he mustered up courage, and looked out.
Mr. Pickwick almost fainted with horror and dismay. Standing before the dressing-glass was a middle-aged lady in yellow curl-papers, busily engaged in brushing what ladies call their "back hair." However the unconscious middle-aged lady came into that room, it was quite clear that she contemplated remaining there for the night; for she had brought a rushlight and shade with her, which, with praiseworthy precaution against fire, she had stationed in a basin on the floor, where it was glimmering away like a gigantic light-house in a particularly small piece of water.
"Bless my soul," thought Mr. Pickwick, "what a dreadful thing!"
"Hem!" said the lady; and in went Mr. Pickwick's head with automaton-like rapidity.
"I never met any thing so awful as this," thought poor Mr. Pickwick, the cold perspiration starting in drops upon his nightcap. "Never. This is fearful."
It was quite impossible to resist the urgent desire to see what was going forward. So out went Mr. Pickwick's head again. The prospect was worse than before. The middle-aged lady had finished arranging her hair, and carefully enveloped it in a muslin nightcap with a small plaited border, and was gazing pensively on the fire.
"This matter is growing alarming," reasoned Mr. Pickwick with himself. "I can't allow things to go in this way. By the self-possession of that lady, it's clear to me that I must have come into the wrong room. If I call out, she'll alarm the house; but if I remain here, the consequence will be still more frightful!"
Mr. Pickwick, it is quite necessary to say, was one of the most modest and delicate-minded of mortals. The very idea of exhibiting his nightcap to a lady overpowered him; but he had tied those confounded strings in a knot, and, do what he would, he couldn't get it off. The disclosure must be made. There was only one other way of doing it. He shrunk behind the curtains, and called out very loudly,—
"Ha — hum."
That the lady started at this unexpected sound, was dent by her falling up against the rushlight shade; that she persuaded herself it must have been the effect of imagination, was equally clear, for when Mr. Pickwick, under the impression that she had fainted away, stone dead from fright, ventured to peep out again, she was gazing pensively on the fire as before.
"Most extraordinary female this," thought Mr. Pickwick, popping in again. "Ha—hum."
These last sounds, so like those in which, as legends inform us, the ferocious giant Blunderbore was in the habit of expressing his opinion that it was time to lay the cloth, were too distinctly audible to be again mistaken for the workings of fancy.
"Gracious Heaven!" said the middle-aged lady, "what's that?"
"It's—it's—only a gentleman, ma'am," said Mr. Pickwick from behind the curtains.
"A gentleman!" said the lady with a terrific scream.
"It's all over," thought Mr. Pickwick.
"A strange man!" shrieked the lady. Another instant, and the house would be alarmed. Her garments rustled as she rushed towards the door.
"Ma'am"— said Mr. Pickwick, thrusting out his head, in the extremity of his desperation, "ma'am." Now, although Mr. Pickwick was not actuated by any definite object in putting out his head, it was instantaneously productive of a good effect. The lady, as we have already stated, was near the door. She must pass it to reach the staircase; and she would most undoubtedly have done so, by this time, had not the sudden apparition of Mr. Pickwick's nightcap driven her back, into the remotest corner of the apartment, where she stood staring wildly at Mr. Pickwick, while Mr. Pickwick in his turn stared wildly at her.
"Wretch," said the lady, covering her eyes with her hands, "what do you want here?"
"Nothing, ma'am,—nothing whatever, ma'am," said Mr. Pickwick earnestly.
"Nothing!" said the lady looking up.
"Nothing, ma'am, upon my honor," said Mr. Pickwick, nodding his head so energetically, that the tassel of his nightcap danced again. "I am almost ready to sink, ma'am, beneath the confusion of addressing a lady in my nightcap (here the lady hastily snatched off hers), but I can't get it off, ma'am (here Mr. Pickwick gave it a tremendous tug in proof of the statement). It is evident to me, ma'am, now, that I have mistaken this bedroom for my own. I had not been here five minutes, ma'am, when you suddenly entered it."
"If this improbable story be really true, sir," said the lady, sobbing violently, "you will leave it instantly."
"I will, ma'am, with the greatest pleasure," replied Mr. Pickwick.
"Instantly, sir," said the lady.
"Certainly, ma'am," interposed Mr. Pickwick, very quickly. "Certainly, ma'am. I—I—am very sorry, ma'am," said Mr. Pickwick, making his appearance at the bottom of the bed, "to have been the innocent occasion of this alarm and emotion; deeply sorry, ma'am."
The lady pointed to the door. One excellent quality of Mr. Pickwick's character was beautifully displayed at this moment, under the most trying circumstances. Although he had hastily put on his hat over his nightcap, after the manner of the old patrol; although he carried his shoes and gaiters in his hand, and his coat and waistcoat over his arm, nothing could subdue his native politeness.
"I am exceedingly sorry, ma'am," said Mr. Pickwick, bowing very low.
"If you are, sir, you will at once leave the room," said the lady.
"Immediately, ma'am; this instant, ma'am," said Mr. Pickwick, opening the door, and dropping both his shoes with a loud crash in so doing."I trust, ma'am," resumed Mr. Pickwick, gathering up his shoes, and turning round to bow again, "I trust, ma'am, that my unblemished character, and the devoted respect I entertain for your sex, will plead as some slight excuse for this"—But before Mr. Pickwick could conclude the sentence, the lady had thrust him into the passage, and locked and bolted the door behind him.