The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, by Tobias Smollett

Chapter X.

The Commodore being in some cases restive, his Lady has recourse to Artifice in the Establishment of her Throne — She exhibits Symptoms of Pregnancy, to the unspeakable joy of Trunnion, who, nevertheless, is balked in his expectation.

These innovations were not effected without many loud objections on his part; and divers curious dialogues passed between him and his yoke-fellow, who always came off victorious from the dispute; insomuch, that his countenance gradually fell: he began to suppress, and at length entirely devoured, his chagrin; the terrors of superior authority were plainly perceivable in his features; and in less than three months he became a thorough-paced husband. Not that his obstinacy was extinguished, though overcome. In some things he was as inflexible and mulish as ever; but then he durst not kick so openly, and was reduced to the necessity of being passive in his resentments. Mrs. Trunnion, for example, proposed that a coach and six should be purchased, as she could not ride on horseback, and the chaise was a scandalous carriage for a person of her condition. The commodore, conscious of his own inferior capacity in point of reasoning, did not think proper to dispute the proposal but lent a deaf ear to her repeated remonstrances, though they were enforced with every argument which she thought could soothe, terrify, shame or decoy him into compliance. In vain did she urge the excess of affection she had for him as meriting some return of tenderness and condescension: he was even proof against certain menacing hints she gave touching the resentment of a slighted woman; and he stood out against all the considerations of dignity or disgrace like a bulwark of brass. Neither was he moved to any indecent or unkind expressions of contradiction, even when she upbraided him with his sordid disposition, and put him in mind of the fortune and honour he had acquired by his marriage, but seemed to retire within himself, like a tortoise when attacked, that shrinks within its shell, and silently endured the scourge of her reproaches, without seeming sensible of the smart.

This, however, was the only point in which she had been baffled since her nuptials; and as she could by no means digest the miscarriage, she tortured her invention for some new plan by which she might augment her influence and authority. What her genius refused was supplied by accident; for she had not lived four months in the garrison, when she was seized with frequent qualms and retchings; in a word, she congratulated herself on the symptoms of her own fertility; and the commodore was transported with joy at the prospect of an heir of his own begetting.

She knew this was the proper season for vindicating her own sovereignty, and accordingly employed the means which nature had put in her power. There was not a rare piece of furniture or apparel for which she did not long; and one day, as she went to church, seeing Lady Stately’s equipage arrive, she suddenly fainted away. Her husband, whose vanity had never been so perfectly gratified as with this promised harvest of his own sowing, took the alarm immediately; and in order to prevent relapses of that kind, which might be attended with fatal consequence to his hope, gave her leave to bespeak a coach, horses, and liveries, to her own liking. Thus authorized, she in a very little time exhibited such a specimen of her own taste and magnificence as afforded speculation to the whole country, and made Trunnion’s heart quake within him; because he foresaw no limits to her extravagance which also manifested itself in the most expensive preparations for her lying-in.

Her pride, which had hitherto regarded the representative of her father’s house, seemed now to lose all that hereditary respect, and prompt her to outshine and undervalue the elder branch of her family. She behaved to Mrs. Pickle with a sort of civil reserve that implied a conscious superiority; and an emulation in point of grandeur immediately commenced between the two sisters. She every day communicated her importance to the whole parish, under pretence of taking the air in her coach, and endeavoured to extend her acquaintance among people of fashion. Nor was this an undertaking attended with great difficulty, for all persons whatever capable of maintaining a certain appearance, will always find admission into what is called the best company, and be rated in point of character according to their own valuation, without subjecting their pretensions to the smallest doubt or examination. In all her visits and parties she seized every opportunity of declaring her present condition, observing that she was forbid by her physicians to taste such a pickle, and that such a dish was poison to a woman in her way; nay, where she was on a footing of familiarity, she affected to make wry faces, and complained that the young rogue began to be very unruly, writhing herself into divers contortions, as if she had been grievously incommoded by the mettle of this future Trunnion. The husband himself did not behave with all the moderation that might have been expected. At the club he frequently mentioned this circumstance of his own vigour as a pretty successful feat to be performed by an old fellow of fifty-five, and confirmed the opinion of his strength by redoubled squeezes of the landlord’s hand, which never failed of extorting a satisfactory certificate of his might. When his companions drank to the Hans en kelder, or Jack in the low cellar, he could not help displaying an extraordinary complacence of countenance, and signified his intention of sending the young dog to sea as soon as he should be able to carry a cartridge, in hopes of seeing him an officer before his own death.

This hope helped to console him under the extraordinary expense to which he was exposed by the profusion of his wife, especially when he considered that his compliance with her prodigality would be limited to the expiration of the nine months, of which the best part was by this time elapsed: yet, in spite of all this philosophical resignation, her fancy sometimes soared to such a ridiculous and intolerable pitch of insolence and absurdity, that his temper forsook him, and he could not help wishing in secret that her pride might be confounded in the dissipation of her most flattering hopes, even though he himself should be a principal sufferer by the disappointment. These, however, were no other than the suggestions of temporary disgusts, that commonly subsided as suddenly as they arose, and never gave the least disturbance to the person who inspired them, because he took care to conceal them carefully from her knowledge.

Meanwhile she happily advanced in her reckoning, with the promise of a favourable issue: the term of her computation expired, and in the middle of the night she was visited by certain warnings that seemed to bespeak the approach of the critical moment. The commodore got up with great alacrity, and called the midwife, who had been several days in the house; the gossips were immediately summoned, and the most interesting expectations prevailed; but the symptoms of labour gradually vanished, and as the matrons sagely observed, this was no more than a false alarm.

Two nights after they received a second intimation, and as she was sensibly diminished in the waist, everything was supposed to be in a fair way; yet this visitation was not more conclusive than the former; her pains wore off in spite of all her endeavours to encourage them, and the good women betook themselves to their respective homes, in expectation of finding the third attack decisive, alluding to the well-known maxim, that “number three is always fortunate.” For once, however, this apophthegm failed; the next call was altogether as ineffectual as the former; and moreover, attended with a phenomenon which to them was equally strange and inexplicable: this was no other than such a reduction in the size of Mrs. Trunnion as might have been expected after the birth of a full-grown child. Startled at such an unaccountable event, they sat in close divan; and concluding that the case was in all respects unnatural and prodigious, desired that a messenger might be immediately despatched for some male practitioner in the art of midwifery.

The commodore, without guessing the cause of her perplexity, ordered Pipes immediately on this piece of duty, and in less than two hours they were assisted by the advice of a surgeon of the neighbourhood, who boldly affirmed that the patient had never been with child. This asseveration was like a clap of thunder to Mr. Trunnion, who had been, during eight whole days and nights, in continual expectation of being hailed with the appellation of father.

After some recollection, he swore the surgeon was an ignorant fellow, and that he would not take his word for what he advanced, being comforted and confirmed in his want of faith by the insinuations of the midwife, who still persisted to feed Mrs. Trunnion with hopes of a speedy and safe delivery; observing that she had been concerned in many a case of the same nature, where a fine child was found, even after all signs of the mother’s pregnancy had disappeared. Every twig of hope, how slender soever it may be, is eagerly caught hold on by people who find themselves in danger of being disappointed. To every question proposed by her to the lady, with the preambles of “Han’t you?” or “Don’t you?” answer was made in the affirmative, whether agreeable to truth or not, because the respondent could not find in her heart to disown any symptom that might favour the notion she had so long indulged.

This experienced proficient in the obstetric art was therefore kept in close attendance for the space of three weeks, during which the patient had several returns of what she pleased herself with believing to be labour pains, till at length, she and her husband became the standing joke of the parish; and this infatuated couple could scarce be prevailed upon to part with their hope, even when she appeared as lank as a greyhound, and they were furnished with other unquestionable proofs of their having been deceived. But they could not for ever remain under the influence of this sweet delusion, which at last faded away, and was succeeded by a paroxysm of shame and confusion, that kept the husband within-doors for the space of a whole fortnight, and confined his lady to her bed for a series of weeks, during which she suffered all the anguish of the most intense mortification; yet even this was subdued by the lenient hand of time.

The first respite from her chagrin was employed in the strict discharge of what are called the duties of religion, which she performed with the most rancorous severity, setting on foot a persecution in her own family, that made the house too hot for all the menial servants, even ruffled the almost invincible indifference of Tom Pipes, harassed the commodore himself out of all patience, and spared no individual but Lieutenant Hatchway, whom she never ventured to disoblige.

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