The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom, by Tobias Smollett

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Some Account of His Fellow-Travellers.

Those who had taken places for the coach, understanding the sixth seat was engaged by a foreigner, determined to profit by his ignorance; and, with that politeness which is peculiar to this happy island, fixed themselves in the vehicle, in such a manner, before he had the least intimation of their design, that he found it barely practicable to insinuate himself sidelong between a corpulent quaker and a fat Wapping landlady, in which attitude he stuck fast, like a thin quarto between two voluminous dictionaries on a bookseller’s shelf. And, as if the pain and inconvenience of such compression was not sufficient matter of chagrin, the greatest part of the company entertained themselves with laughing at his ludicrous station.

The jolly dame at his left hand observed, with a loud exclamation of mirth, that monsieur would be soon better acquainted with a buttock of English beef; and said, by that time they should arrive at their dining-place, he might be spitted without larding. “Yes, verily,” replied Obadiah, who was a wag in his way, “but the swine’s fat will be all on one side.”—“So much the better for you,” cried mine hostess, “for that side is all your own.” The quaker was not so much disconcerted by the quickness of this repartee, but that he answered with great deliberation, “I thank thee for thy love, but will not profit by thy loss, especially as I like not the savour of these outlandish fowls; they are profane birds of passage, relished only by the children of vanity, like thee.”

The plump gentlewoman took umbrage at this last expression, which she considered as a double reproach, and repeated the words, “Children of vanity!” with an emphasis of resentment. “I believe, if the truth were known,” said she, “there’s more vanity than midriff in that great belly of yours, for all your pretending to humility and religion. Sirrah! my corporation is made up of good, wholesome, English fat; but you are puffed up with the wind of vanity and delusion; and when it begins to gripe your entrails, you pretend to have a motion, and then get up and preach nonsense. Yet you’ll take it upon you to call your betters children. Marry come up, Mr. Goosecap, I have got children that are as good men as you, or any hypocritical trembler in England.”

A person who sat opposite to the quaker, hearing this remonstrance, which seemed pregnant with contention, interposed in the conversation with a conscious leer, and begged there might be no rupture between the spirit and the flesh. By this remonstrance he relieved Obadiah from the satire of this female orator, and brought the whole vengeance of her elocution upon his own head. “Flesh!” cried she, with all the ferocity of an enraged Thalestris; “none of your names, Mr. Yellowchaps. What! I warrant you have an antipathy to flesh, because you yourself are nothing but skin and bone. I suppose you are some poor starved journeyman tailor come from France, where you have been learning to cabbage, and have not seen a good meal of victuals these seven years. You have been living upon rye-bread and soup-maigre, and now you come over like a walking atomy with a rat’s tail at your wig, and a tinsey jacket. And so, forsooth, you set up for a gentleman, and pretend to find fault with a sirloin of roast beef.”

The gentleman heard this address with admirable patience, and when she had rung out her alarm, very coolly replied, “Anything but your stinking fish madam. Since when, I pray, have you travelled in stage-coaches, and left off your old profession of crying oysters in winter, and rotten mackerel in June? You was then known by the name of Kate Brawn, and in good repute among the ale-houses in Thames Street, till that unlucky amour with the master of a corn-vessel, in which he was unfortunately detected by his own spouse; but you seem to have risen by that fall; and I wish you joy of your present plight. Though, considering your education on Bear Quay, you can give but a sorry account of yourself.”

The Amazon, though neither exhausted nor dismayed, was really confounded at the temper and assurance of this antagonist, who had gathered all these anecdotes from the fertility of his own invention; after a short pause, however, she poured forth a torrent of obloquy sufficient to overwhelm any person who had not been used to take up arms against such seas of trouble; and a dispute ensued, which would have not only disgraced the best orators on the Thames, but even have made a figure in the celebration of the Eleusinian mysteries, during which the Athenian matrons rallied one another from different waggons, with that freedom of altercation so happily preserved in this our age and country.

Such a redundancy of epithets, and variety of metaphors, tropes, and figures were uttered between these well-matched opponents, that an epic bard would have found his account in listening to the contest; which, in all probability, would not have been confined to words, had it not been interrupted for the sake of a young woman of an agreeable countenance and modest carriage; who, being shocked at some of their flowers of speech, and terrified by the menacing looks and gestures of the fiery-featured dame, began to scream aloud, and beg leave to quit the coach. Her perturbation put an end to the high debate. The sixth passenger, who had not opened his mouth, endeavoured to comfort her with assurances of protection; the quaker proposed a cessation of arms; the male disputant acquiesced in the proposal, assuring the company he had entered the lists for their entertainment only, without acquiring the least grudge or ill-will to the fat gentlewoman, whom he protested he had never seen before that day, and who, for aught he knew, was a person of credit and reputation. He then held forth his hand in token of amity, and asked pardon of the offended party, who was appeased by his submission; and, in testimony of her benevolence, presented to the other female, whom she had discomposed, an Hungary-water bottle filled with cherry-brandy, recommending it as a much more powerful remedy than the sal-volatile which the other held to her nose.

Peace being thus re-established, in a treaty comprehending Obadiah and all present, it will not be improper to give the reader some further information, touching the several characters assembled in this vehicle. The quaker was a London merchant, who had been at Deal superintending the repairs of a ship which had suffered by a storm in the Downs. The Wapping landlady was on her return from the same place, where she had attended the payment of a man-of-war, with sundry powers of attorney, granted by the sailors, who had lived upon credit at her house. Her competitor in fame was a dealer in wine, a smuggler of French lace, and a petty gamester just arrived from Paris, in the company of an English barber, who sat on his right hand, and the young woman was daughter of a country curate, in her way to London, where she was bound apprentice to a milliner.

Hitherto Fathom had sat in silent astonishment at the manners of his fellow-travellers, which far exceeded the notions he had preconceived of English plainness and rusticity. He found himself a monument of that disregard and contempt which a stranger never fails to meet with from the inhabitants of this island; and saw, with surprise, an agreeable young creature sit as solitary and unheeded as himself.

He was, indeed, allured by the roses of her complexion, and the innocence of her aspect, and began to repent of having pretended ignorance of the language, by which he was restrained from exercising his eloquence upon her heart; he resolved, however, to ingratiate himself, if possible, by the courtesy and politeness of dumb show, and for that purpose put his eyes in motion without farther delay.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30