AN old country gentleman named Wardle had a servant of whom he was very proud, not because of the latter's diligence, but because Joe, commonly called the "Fat Boy," was a character which could not be matched anywhere in the world. At the time when our story opens, Mr. Pickwick of London, and three others of his literary club, were traveling in search of adventure. With Mr. Pickwick, the founder and head of the Pickwick club, were Mr. Tupman, whose great weakness for the ladies brought him frequent troubles, Mr. Winkle, whose desire to appear as a sport brought much ridicule upon himself, and Mr. Snodgrass, whose poetic nature induced him to write many romantic verses which amused his friends and all who read them. These four Pickwickians were introduced one day to Mr. Wardle, his aged sister Miss Rachel Wardle, and his two daughters, Emily and Isabella, as they were looking at some army reviews from their coach. Mr. Wardle hospitably asked Mr. Pickwick and his friends to join them in the coach.
"Come up here! Mr. Pickwick," said Mr. Wardle, "come along sir. Joe! Drat that boy! He's gone to sleep again. Joe, let down the steps and open the carriage door. Come ahead, room for two of you inside and one outside. Joe, make room for one. Put this gentleman on the box!" Mr. Wardle mounted with a little help and the fat boy, where he was, fell fast asleep.
One rank of soldiers after another passed, firing over the heads of another rank, and when the cannon went off the air resounded with the screams of ladies. Mr. Snodgrass actually found it necessary to support one of the Misses Wardle with his arm. Their maidenly aunt was in such a dreadful state of nervous alarm that Mr. Tupman found that he was obliged to put his arm about her waist to keep her up at all. Everyone was excited with the exception of the fat boy, and he slept as soundly as if the roaring of cannon were his ordinary lullaby.
"Joe! Joe!" called Mr. Wardle. "Drat that boy! He's gone asleep again. Pinch him in the leg, if you please. Nothing else wakens him. Thank you. Get out the lunch, Joe." The fat boy, who had been effectually aroused by Mr. Winkle, proceeded to unpack the hamper with more quickness than could have been expected from his previous inactivity.
"Now Joe, knives and forks." The knives and forks were handed in and each one was furnished with these useful implements.
"Now Joe, the fowls. Drat that boy! He's gone asleep again. Joe! Joe!" Numerous taps on the head with a stick and the fat boy with some difficulty was awakened. "Go hand in the eatables." There was something in the sound of the last word which aroused him. He jumped up with reddened eyes which twinkled behind his mountainous cheeks, and feasted upon the food as he unpacked it from the basket.
"Now make haste," said Mr. Wardle, for the fat boy was hanging fondly over a chicken which he seemed wholly unable to part with. The boy sighed deeply and casting an ardent gaze upon its plumpness, unwillingly handed it to his master.
"A very extraordinary boy, that," said Mr. Pickwick. "Does he always sleep in this way?"
"Sleep!" said the old gentleman. "He's always sleeping. Goes on errands fast asleep and snores as he waits at table."
"How very odd," said Mr. Pickwick.
"Ah! odd indeed," returned the old gentleman. "I'm proud of that boy. Wouldn't part with him on any account. He's a natural curiosity. Here, Joe, take these things away and open another bottle. Do you hear?" The fat boy aroused, opened his eyes, started and finished the piece of pie he was in the act of eating when he fell fast asleep, and slowly obeyed his master's orders, looking intently upon the remains of the feast as he removed the plates and stowed them in the hamper. At last Mr. Wardle and his party mounted the coach and prepared to drive off.
"Now mind," he said, as he shook hands with Mr. Pickwick, "we expect to see you all to-morrow. You have the address?"
"Manor Farm, Dingley Dell," said Mr. Pickwick, consulting his pocket-book.
"That's it," said the old gentleman. "You must come for at least a week. If you are traveling to get country life, come to me and I will give you plenty of it. Joe! Drat that boy, he's gone to sleep again. Help put in the horses." The horses were put in and the driver mounted and the boy clambered up by his side. The farewells were exchanged and the carriage rolled off. As the Pickwickians turned around to take a last glimpse of it the setting sun cast a red gold upon the faces of their entertainers, and fell upon the form of the fat boy. His head was sunk upon his bosom, and he slumbered again.
After some amusing difficulties, which we have not space to describe here, Mr. Pickwick and his friends arrived safely at the country home of Mr. Wardle. The time passed very pleasantly.
One day some of the men decided upon a shooting trip, and Mr. Winkle, to maintain his reputation as a sport, did not admit that he knew nothing about guns. Mr. Pickwick, early in the morning, seeing Mr. Wardle carrying a gun, asked what they were going to do.
"Why, your friend and I are going out rook shooting. He's a very good shot, isn't he?" said Mr. Wardle.
"I have heard him say he's a capital one," replied Mr. Pickwick, "but I never saw him aim at anything."
"Well," said the host, "I wish Mr. Tupman would join us. Joe! Joe!" The fat boy who, under the exciting influences of the morning, did not appear to be more than three parts and a fraction asleep, emerged from the house. "Go up and call Mr. Tupman, and tell him he will find us waiting." At last the party started, Mr. Tupman having joined them. Some boys, who were with them, discovered a tree with a nest in one of the branches, and when all was ready Mr. Wardle was persuaded to shoot first. The boys shouted, and shook a branch with a nest on it, and a half-a-dozen young rooks, in violent conversation, flew out to ask what the matter was. Mr. Wardle leveled his gun and fired; down fell one and off flew the others.
"Pick him up, Joe," said the old gentleman. There was a smile upon the youth's face as he advanced, for an indistinct vision of rook pie floated through his imagination. He laughed as he retired with the bird. It was a plump one.
"Now, Mr. Winkle," said the host, reloading his own gun, "fire away." Mr. Winkle advanced and raised his gun. Mr. Pickwick and his friends crouched involuntarily to escape damage from the heavy fall of birds which they felt quite certain would be caused by their friend's skill. There was a solemn pause, a shout, a flapping of wings.
Mr. Winkle closed his eyes and fired; there was a scream from an individual, not a rook. Mr. Tupman had saved the lives of innumerable birds by receiving a portion of the charge in his left arm. Though it was a very slight wound, Mr. Tupman made a great fuss about it and everyone was horror-stricken. He was partly carried to the house. The unmarried aunt uttered a piercing scream, burst into an hysterical laugh and fell backwards into the arms of her nieces. She recovered, screamed again, laughed again and fainted again.
"Calm yourself," said Mr. Tupman, affected almost to tears by this expression of sympathy. "Dear, dear Madam, calm yourself."
"You are not dead?" exclaimed the hysterical lady. "Say you are not dead!"
"Don't be a fool, Rachel," said Mr. Winkle. "What the mischief is the use of his saying he isn't dead?"
"No! No! I am not," said Mr. Tupman. "I require no assistance but yours. Let me lean on your arm," he added in a whisper. Miss Rachel advanced and offered her arm. They turned into the breakfast parlor. Mr. Tupman gently pressed her hands to his lips and sunk upon the sofa. Presently the others left him to her tender mercies. That afternoon Mr. Tupman, much affected by the extreme tenderness of Miss Rachel, suggested that as he was feeling much better they take a short stroll in the garden. There was a bower at the farther end, all honeysuckles and creeping plants, and somehow they unconsciously wandered in its direction and sat down on a bench within.
"Miss Wardle," said Mr. Tupman, "you are an angel." Miss Rachel blushed very becomingly. Much more conversation of this nature followed until finally Mr. Tupman proceeded to do what his enthusiastic emotions prompted and what were, (for all we know, for we are but little acquainted with such matters) what people in such circumstances always do. She started, and he, throwing his arms around her neck imprinted upon her lips numerous kisses, which, after a proper show of struggling and resistance, she received so passively that there is no telling how many more Mr. Tupman might have bestowed if the lady had not given a very unaffected start and exclaimed: "Mr. Tupman, we are observed! We are discovered!"
Mr. Tupman looked around. There was the fat boy perfectly motionless, with his large, circular eyes staring into the arbor, but without the slightest expression on his face. Mr. Tupman gazed at the fat boy and the fat boy stared at him, but the longer Mr. Tupman observed the utter vacancy of the fat boy's face, the more convinced he became that he either did not know or did not understand anything that had been happening. Under this impression he said with great fierceness: "What do you want here?"
"Supper is ready, sir," was the prompt reply.
"Have you just come here?" inquired Mr. Tupman, with a piercing look.
"Just," replied the fat boy. Mr. Tupman looked at him very hard again but there was not a wink of his eye or a movement in his face. Mr. Tupman took the arm of the spinster aunt and walked toward the house. The fat boy followed behind.
"He knows nothing of what has happened," he whispered.
"Nothing," said the spinster aunt. There was a sound behind them as of an imperfectly suppressed chuckle. Mr. Tupman turned sharply around.
No, it could not have been the fat boy. There was not a gleam of mirth or anything but feeding in his whole visage. "He must have been fast asleep," whispered Mr. Tupman.
"I have not the least doubt of it," replied Miss Rachel, and they both laughed heartily. Mr. Tupman was wrong. The fat boy for once had not been fast asleep. He was awake, wide awake to everything that had happened.
The day following, Joe saw his mistress, Mr. Wardle's aged mother, sitting in the arbor. Without saying a word he walked up to her, stood perfectly still and said nothing.
The old lady was easily frightened; most old ladies are, and her first impression was that Joe was about to do her some bodily harm with a view of stealing what money she might have with her. She therefore watched his motions, or rather lack of motions, with feelings of intense terror, which were in no degree lessened by his finally coming close to her and shouting in her ear, for she was very deaf, "Missus!"
"Well, Joe," said the trembling old lady, "I am sure I have been a good mistress to you." He nodded. "You have always been treated very kindly?" He nodded. "You have never had too much to do?" He nodded. "You have always had enough to eat?" This last was an appeal to the fat boy's most sensitive feelings. He seemed touched as he replied, "I know I has."
"Then what do you want to do now?"
"I wants to make yo' flesh creep," replied the boy. This sounded like a very blood-thirsty method of showing one's gratitude and so the old lady was as much frightened as before. "What do you think I saw in this very arbor last night?" inquired the boy.
"Mercies, what?" screamed the old lady, alarmed at the mysterious manner of the corpulent youth.
"A strange gentleman as had his arm around her, a kissin' and huggin'."
"Who, Joe, who? None of the servants, I hope?"
"Worser than that," roared the fat boy in the old lady's ear.
"None of my granddaughters."
"Worser than that," said Joe.
"Worse than that?" said the old lady, who had thought this the extreme limit. "Who was it, Joe? I insist upon knowing!"
The fat boy looked cautiously about and having finished his survey shouted in the old lady's ear, "Miss Rachel!"
"What?" said the old lady in a shrill tone, "speak louder!"
"Miss Rachel," roared the fat boy.
"My daughter?" The succession of nods which the fat boy gave by way of assent could not be doubted. "And she allowed him?" exclaimed the old lady. A grin stole over the fat boy's features as he said, "I see her a kissin' of him agin!" Joe's voice of necessity had been so loud that another party in the garden could not help hearing the entire conversation. If they could have seen the expression of the old lady's face at this time it is probable that a sudden burst of laughter would have betrayed them. Fragments of angry sentences drifted to them through the leaves, such as "Without my permission!" "At her time of life!" "Might have waited until I was dead," etc. Then they heard the heels of the fat boy's foot crunching the gravel as he retired and left the old lady alone.
Mr. Tupman would probably have found himself in considerable trouble if one of his friends, who had overheard the conversation had not told Mrs. Wardle that perhaps Joe had dreamed the entire incident, which did not seem altogether improbable. She watched Mr. Tupman at supper that evening, but this gentleman, having been warned, paid no attention whatever to Miss Rachel, and the old lady was finally persuaded that it was all a mistake.
Finally the visit of Mr. Pickwick and his friends came to an end, and it was several months before they again partook of Mr. Wardle's hospitality. The Pickwickians had arrived at the Inn near Mr. Wardle's place for dinner before completing the rest of their journey to Dingley Dell. Mr. Pickwick had brought with him several barrels of oysters and some special wine as a gift to his host, and he stood examining his packages to see that they had all arrived when he felt himself gently pulled by the skirts of his coat. Looking around he discovered that the individual who used this means of drawing his attention was no other than Mr. Wardle's favorite page, the fat boy.
"Aha!" said Mr. Pickwick.
"Ah!" said the fat boy, and as he said it he glanced from the wine to the oysters and chuckled joyously. He was fatter than ever.
"Well, you look rosy enough my young friend," said Mr. Pickwick.
"I have been sitting in front of the fire," replied the fat boy, who had indeed heated himself to the color of a new chimney pot in the course of an hour's nap. "Master sent me over with the cart to carry your luggage over to the house." Mr. Pickwick called his man, Sam Weller, to him and said, "Help Mr. Wardle's servant to put the packages into the cart and then ride on with him. We prefer to walk." Having given this direction Mr. Pickwick and his three friends walked briskly away, leaving Mr. Weller and the fat boy face to face for the first time. Sam looked at the fat boy with great astonishment but without saying a word, and began to put the things rapidly upon the cart while Joe stood calmly by and seemed to think it a very interesting sort of thing to see Mr. Weller working by himself.
"There," said Sam, "everything packed at last. There they are."
"Yes," said the fat boy in a very satisfied tone, "there they are."
"Well, young twenty stone," said Sam. "You're a nice specimen, you are."
"Thankee," said the fat boy.
"You ain't got nothing on your mind as makes you fret yourself, have you?" inquired Sam.
"Not as I knows of," replied the boy.
"I should rather have thought, to look at you, that you was a laborin' under a disappointed love affair with some young woman," said Sam. "Vell, young boa-constrictor," said Sam, "I'm glad to hear it. Do you ever drink anythin'?"
"I likes eatin' better," replied the boy.
"Ah!" said Sam. "I should ha' 'sposed that, but I 'spose you were never cold with all them elastic fixtures?"
"Was sometimes," replied the boy, "and I likes a drop of something that's good."
"Ah! you do, do you," said Sam, "come this way." Then after a short interruption they got into the cart.
"You can drive, can you?" said the fat boy.
"I should rather think so," replied Sam.
"Well then," said the fat boy, putting the reins in his hands and pointing up a lane, "it's as straight as you can drive. You can't miss it." With these words the fat boy laid himself affectionately down by the side of the provisions and placing an oyster barrel under his head for a pillow, fell asleep instantly.
"Vell," said Sam, "of all the boys ever I set my eyes on--wake up young dropsy." But as young dropsy could not be awakened, Sam Weller set himself down in front of the cart, started the old horse with a jerk of the rein, and jogged steadily on toward Manor Farm.
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