The esteemed Mr. Pickwick and his friends join a crowd in a busy 19th century English town to watch the local militia carry out a mock battle.

Mr. Pickwick and his three companions stationed themselves in the front of the crowd, and patiently awaited the commencement of the proceedings. The throng was increasing every moment; and the efforts which they were compelled to make, to retain the position that they had gained, sufficiently occupied their attention during the two hours that ensued. At one time, there was a sudden pressure from behind, and then Mr. Pickwick was jerked forward for several yards, with a degree of speed and elasticity highly inconsistent with the general gravity of his demeanor; at another moment, there was a request to “keep back” from the front, and then the butt-end of a musket was either dropped upon Mr. Pickwick’s toe, to remind him of the demand, or thrust into his chest, to insure its being complied with. Then some facetious gentlemen on the left, after pressing sideways in a body, and squeezing Mr. Snodgrass into the very last extreme of human torture, would request to know “where he was a-shovin’ to”; and when Mr. Winkle had done expressing his excessive indignation at witnessing this unprovoked assault, some person behind would knock his hat over his eyes, and beg the favour of his putting his head in his pocket. These, and other practical witticisms, coupled with the unaccountable absence of Mr. Tupman (who had suddenly disappeared, and was nowhere to be found), rendered their situation upon the whole rather more uncomfortable than pleasing or desirable.

At length, that low roar of many voices ran through the crowd which usually announces the arrival of whatever they have been waiting for. All eyes were turned in the direction of the sally-port [where the soldiers would enter the streets]. A few moments of eager expectation, and colours were seen fluttering gaily in the air, arms glistened brightly in the sun, column after column poured on to the plain. The troops halted and formed; the word of command rang through the line; there was a general clash of muskets as arms were presented; and the commander-in-chief, attended by Colonel Bulder and numerous officers, cantered to the front. The military bands struck up altogether; the horses stood upon two legs each, cantered backwards, and whisked their tails about in all directions; the dogs barked, the mob screamed, the troops recovered, and nothing was to be seen on either side, as far as the eye could reach, but a long perspective of red coats and white trousers, fixed and motionless.

Mr. Pickwick had been so fully occupied in falling about, and disentangling himself, miraculously, from between the legs of horses, that he had not enjoyed sufficient leisure to observe the scene before him, until it assumed the appearance that we have just described. When he was at last enabled to stand firmly on his legs, his gratification and delight were unbounded.

“Can anything be finer or more delightful?” he inquired of Mr. Winkle.

“Nothing,” replied that gentleman, who had a short man standing on each of his feet for the quarter of an hour immediately preceding. “It is indeed a noble and a brilliant sight,” said Mr. Snodgrass, in whose bosom a blaze of poetry was rapidly bursting forth, “to see the gallant defenders of their country drawn up in brilliant array before its peaceful citizens; their faces beaming — not with warlike ferocity, but with civilized gentleness; their eyes flashing — not with the rude fire of rapine or revenge, but with the soft light of humanity and intelligence.”

Mr. Pickwick fully entered into the spirit of this eulogium, but he could not exactly re-echo its terms; for the soft light of intelligence burned rather feebly in the eyes of the warriors, inasmuch as the command “eyes front” had been given, and all the spectator saw before him was several thousand pair of optics, staring straight forward, wholly divested of any expression whatever.

“We are in a capital situation now,” said Mr. Pickwick, looking round him. The crowd had gradually dispersed in their immediate vicinity, and they were nearly alone.

“Capital!” echoed both Mr. Snodgrass and Mr. Winkle.

“What are they doing now?” inquired Mr. Pickwick, adjusting his spectacles.

“I — I — rather think,” said Mr. Winkle, changing color — “I rather think they’re going to fire.”

“Nonsense,” said Mr. Pickwick hastily.

“I — I — really think they are,” urged Mr. Snodgrass, somewhat alarmed.

“Impossible,” replied Mr. Pickwick. He had hardly uttered the word, when the whole half-dozen regiments levelled their muskets as if they had but one common object, and that object [to shoot] the Pickwickians, and burst forth with the most awful and tremendous discharge that ever shook the earth to its centres, or an elderly gentleman off his.

It was in this trying situation, exposed to a galling fire of blank cartridges, and harassed by the operations of the military, a fresh body of whom had begun to fall in on the opposite side, that Mr. Pickwick displayed that perfect coolness and self-possession which are the indispensable accompaniments of a great mind. He seized Mr. Winkle by the arm, and placing himself between that gentleman and Mr. Snodgrass, earnestly besought them to remember that, beyond the possibility of being rendered deaf by the noise, there was no immediate danger to be apprehended from the firing.

“But — but — suppose some of the men should happen to have ball cartridges by mistake,” remonstrated Mr. Winkle, pallid at the supposition he was himself conjuring up. “I heard something whistle through the air now — so sharp; close to my ear.” “We had better throw ourselves on our faces, hadn’t we?” said Mr. Snodgrass.

“No, no — it’s over now,” said Mr. Pickwick. His lip might quiver, and his cheek might blanch, but no expression of fear or concern escaped the lips of that immortal man.

Mr. Pickwick was right — the firing ceased; but he had scarcely time to congratulate himself on the accuracy of his opinion, when a quick movement was visible in the line; the hoarse shout of the word of command ran along it, and before either of the party could form a guess at the meaning of this new maneuver, the whole of the half-dozen regiments, with fixed bayonets, charged at double-quick time down upon the very spot on which Mr. Pickwick and his friends were stationed.

Man is but mortal; and there is a point beyond which human courage cannot extend. Mr. Pickwick gazed through his spectacles for an instant on the advancing mass, and then fairly turned his back and — we will not say fled; first, because it is an ignoble term, and second, because Mr. Pickwick’s figure was by no means adapted for that mode of retreat — he trotted away, at as quick a rate as his legs would convey him; so quickly, indeed, that he did not perceive the awkwardness of his situation, to the full extent, until too late.

The opposite troops, whose falling-in had perplexed Mr. Pickwick a few seconds before, were drawn up to repel the mimic attack of the sham besiegers of the citadel; and the consequence was that Mr. Pickwick and his two companions found themselves suddenly enclosed between two lines of great length, the one advancing at a rapid pace, and the other firmly waiting the collision in hostile array.

“Hoi!” shouted the officers of the advancing line.

“Get out of the way!” cried the officers of the stationary one.

“Where are we to go to?” screamed the agitated Pickwickians.

“Hoi — hoi — hoi!” was the only reply. There was a moment of intense bewilderment, a heavy tramp of footsteps, a violent concussion, a smothered laugh; the half-dozen regiments were half a thousand yards off, and the soles of Mr. Pickwick’s boots were elevated in air.

Mr. Snodgrass and Mr. Winkle had each performed a compulsory somersault with remarkable agility, when the first object that met the eyes of Mr. Winkle as he sat on the ground, staunching the stream of life which issued from his nose, was his venerated leader at some distance off, running after his own hat, which was gambolling playfully away in perspective.

There are very few moments in a man’s existence when he experiences so much ludicrous distress, or meets with so little charitable commiseration, as when he is in pursuit of his own hat. A vast deal of coolness, and a peculiar degree of judgment, are requisite in catching a hat. A man must not be precipitate, or he runs over it; he must not rush into the opposite extreme, or he loses it altogether. The best way is to keep gently up with the object of pursuit, to be wary and cautious, to watch your opportunity well, get gradually before it, then make a rapid dive, seize it by the crown, and stick it firmly on your head; smiling pleasantly all the time, as if you thought it as good a joke as anybody else.

[from The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens]

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