The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, by Tobias Smollett

Chapter XII.

Peregrine is sent to a boarding-school — Becomes remarkable for his Genius and Ambition.

The commodore, understanding her determination, to which her husband did not venture to make the least objection, interested himself so much in behalf of his favourite, as to fit him out at his own charge, and accompany him in person to the place of his destination; where he defrayed the expense of his entrance, and left him to the particular care and inspection of the usher, who having been recommended to him as a person of parts and integrity, received per advance a handsome consideration for the task he undertook.

Nothing could be better judged than this piece of liberality; the assistant was actually a man of learning, probity, and good sense; and though obliged by the scandalous administration of fortune to act in the character of an inferior teacher, had, by his sole capacity and application, brought the school to that degree of reputation, which it never could have obtained from the talents of its superior. He had established an economy, which, though regular, was not at all severe, by enacting a body of laws suited to the age and comprehension of every individual; and each transgressor was fairly tried by his peers, and punished according to the verdict of the jury. No boy was scourged for want of apprehension, but a spirit of emulation was raised by well-timed praise and artful comparison, and maintained by a distribution of small prizes, which were adjudged to those who signalized themselves either by their industry, sobriety, or genius.

This tutor, whose name was Jennings, began with Perry, according to his constant maxim, by examining the soil; that is, studying his temper, in order to consult the bias of his disposition, which was strangely perverted by the absurd discipline he had undergone. He found him in a state of sullen insensibility, which the child had gradually contracted in a long course of stupefying correction; and at first he was not in the least actuated by that commendation which animated the rest of his school-fellows; nor was it in the power of reproach to excite his ambition, which had been buried, as it were, in the grave of disgrace; the usher, therefore, had recourse to contemptuous neglect, with which he affected to treat this stubborn spirit; foreseeing that if he retained any seeds of sentiment, this weather would infallibly raise them into vegetation; his judgment was justified by the event; the boy in a little time began to make observations; he perceived the marks of distinction with which virtue was rewarded, grew ashamed of the despicable figure he himself made among his companions, who, far from courting, rather shunned his conversation, and actually pined at his own want of importance.

Mr. Jennings saw and rejoiced at his mortification, which he suffered to proceed as far as possible, without endangering his health. The child lost all relish for diversion, loathed his food, grew pensive, solitary, and was frequently found weeping by himself. These symptoms plainly evinced the recovery of his feelings, to which his governor thought it now high time to make application; and therefore by little and little altered his behaviour from the indifference he had put on, to the appearance of more regard and attention. This produced a favourable change in the boy, whose eyes sparkled with satisfaction one day, when his master expressed himself, with a show of surprise, in these words: “So, Perry! I find you don’t want genius, when you think proper to use it.” Such encomiums kindled the spirit of emulation in his little breast; he exerted himself with surprising alacrity, by which he soon acquitted himself of the imputation of dullness, and obtained sundry honorary silver pennies, as acknowledgments of his application; his school-fellows now solicited his friendship as eagerly as they had avoided it before; and in less than a twelvemonth after his arrival, this supposed dunce was remarkable for the brightness of his parts; having in that short period learnt to read English perfectly well, made great progress in writing, enabled himself to speak the French language without hesitation, and acquired some knowledge in the rudiments of the Latin tongue. The usher did not fail to transmit an account of his proficiency to the commodore, who received it with transport, and forthwith communicated the happy tidings to the parents.

Mr. Gamaliel Pickle, who was never subject to violent emotions, heard them with a sort of phlegmatic satisfaction, that scarce manifested itself either in his countenance or expressions; nor did the child’s mother break forth into that rapture and admiration which might have been expected, when she understood how much the talents of her first-born had exceeded the hope of her warmest imagination. Not but that she professed herself well pleased with Perry’s reputation; though she observed that in these commendations the truth was always exaggerated by schoolmasters, for their own interest; and pretended to wonder that the usher had not mingled more probability with his praise. Trunnion was offended at her indifference and want of faith and believing that she refined too much in her discernment, swore that Jennings had declared the truth, and nothing but the truth; for he himself had prophesied, from the beginning, that the boy would turn out a credit to his family. But by this time Mrs. Pickle was blessed with a daughter, whom she had brought into the world about six months before the intelligence arrived; so that her care and affection being otherwise engrossed, the praise of Perry was the less greedily devoured. The abatement of her fondness was an advantage to his education, which would have been retarded, and perhaps ruined, by pernicious indulgence, and preposterous interposition, had her love considered him as an only child; whereas her concern being now diverted to another object, that shared, at least, one-half of her affection, he was left to the management of his preceptor, who tutored him according to his own plan, without any let or interruption. Indeed all his sagacity and circumspection were but barely sufficient to keep the young gentleman in order; for now that he had won the palm of victory from his rivals in point of scholarship, his ambition dilated, and he was seized with the desire of subjecting the whole school by the valour of his arm. Before he could bring his project to bear, innumerable battles were fought with various success; every day a bloody nose and complaint were presented against him, and his own visage commonly bore some livid marks of obstinate contention. At length, however, he accomplished his aim; his adversaries were subdued, his prowess acknowledged, and he obtained the laurel in war as well is in wit. Thus triumphant, he was intoxicated with success: his pride rose in proportion to his power and, in spite of all the endeavours of Jennings, who practised every method he could invent for curbing his licentious conduct, without depressing his spirit, he contracted a large proportion of insolence, which series of misfortunes that happened to him in the sequel could scarce effectually tame. Nevertheless there was a fund of good nature and generosity in his composition; and though he established a tyranny among his comrades, the tranquility of his reign was maintained by the love rather than by the fear of his subjects.

In the midst of all this enjoyment of empire he never once violated that respectful awe with which the usher had found means to inspire him; but he by no means preserved the same regard for the principal master, an old illiterate German quack, who had formerly practised corn-cutting among the quality, and sold cosmetic washes to the ladies, together with teeth-powders, hair-dyeing liquors, prolific elixirs, and tinctures to sweeten the breath. These nostrums, recommended by the art of cringing, in which he was consummate, ingratiated him so much with people of fashion, that he was enabled to set up school with five-and-twenty boys of the best families, whom he boarded on his own terms and undertook to instruct in the French and Latin languages, so as to qualify them for the colleges of Westminster and Eton. While this plan was in its infancy, he was so fortunate as to meet with Jennings, who, for the paltry consideration of thirty pounds a year, which his necessities compelled him to accept, took the whole trouble of educating the children upon himself, contrived an excellent system for that purpose, and, by his assiduity and knowledge, executed all the particulars to the entire satisfaction of those concerned, who, by the bye, never inquired into his qualifications, but suffered the other to enjoy the fruits of his labour and ingenuity.

Over and above a large stock of avarice, ignorance, and vanity, this superior had certain ridiculous peculiarities in his person, such as a hunch upon his back, and distorted limbs, that seemed to attract the satirical notice of Peregrine, who, young as he was, took offence at his want of reverence for his usher, over whom he sometimes chose opportunities of displaying his authority, that the boys might not misplace their veneration. Mr. Keypstick, therefore, such as I have described him, incurred the contempt and displeasure of this enterprising pupil, who now being in the tenth year of his age, had capacity enough to give him abundance of vexation. He underwent many mortifying jokes front the invention of Pickle and his confederates; so that he began to entertain suspicion of Mr. Jennings, who he could not help thinking had been at the bottom of them all, and spirited up principles of rebellion in the school, with a view of making himself independent. Possessed with this chimera, which was void of all foundation, the German descended so low as to tamper in private with the boys, from whom he hoped to draw some very important discovery; but he was disappointed in his expectations; and this mean practice reaching the ears of his usher, he voluntarily resigned his employment. Finding interest to obtain holy orders in a little time after, he left the kingdom, hoping to find a settlement in some of our American plantations.

The departure of Mr. Jennings produced a great revolution in the affairs of Keypstick, which declined from that moment, because he had neither authority to enforce obedience, nor prudence to maintain order among his scholars: so that the school degenerated into anarchy and confusion, and he himself dwindled in the opinion of his employers, who looked upon him as superannuated, and withdrew their children front his tuition.

Peregrine seeing this dissolution of their society, and finding himself every day deprived of some companion, began to repine at his situation, and resolved, if possible, to procure his release from the jurisdiction of the person whom he both detested and despised. With this view he went to work, and composed the following billet, addressed to the commodore, which was the first specimen of his composition in the epistolary way:—

“Honoured and Loving Uncle — Hoping you are in good health, this serves to inform you, that Mr. Jennings is gone, and Mr. Keypstick will never meet with his fellow. The school is already almost broke up, and the rest daily going away; and I beg of you of all love to have me fetched away also, for I cannot bear to be any longer under one who is a perfect ignoramus, who scarce knows the declination of musa, and is more fit to be a scarecrow than a schoolmaster; hoping you will send for me soon, with my love to my aunt, and my duty to my honoured parents, craving their blessing and yours. And this is all at present from, honoured uncle, your well-beloved and dutiful nephew and godson, and humble servant to command till death,
“Peregrine Pickle.”

Trunnion was overjoyed at the receipt of this letter, which he looked upon as one of the greatest efforts of human genius, and as such communicated the contents to his lady, whom he had disturbed for the purpose in the middle of her devotion, by sending a message to her closet, whither it was her custom very frequently to retire. She was out of humour at being interrupted, and therefore did not peruse this specimen of her nephew’s understanding with all the relish that the commodore himself had enjoyed; on the contrary, after sundry paralytical endeavours to speak (for her tongue sometimes refused its office), she observed that the boy was a pert jackanapes, and deserved to be severely chastised for treating his betters with such disrespect. Her husband undertook his godson’s defence, representing with great warmth that he knew Keypstick to be a good-for-nothing pimping old rascal, and that Perry showed a great deal of spirit and good sense in desiring to be taken from under his command; he therefore declared that the boy should not live a week longer with such a shambling son of a b — and sanctioned this declaration with abundance of oaths.

Mrs. Trunnion, composing her countenance into a look of religions demureness, rebuked him for his profane way of talking; and asked, in a magisterial tone, if he intended never to lay aside that brutal behaviour. Irritated at this reproach, he answered, in terms of indignation, that he knew how to behave himself as well as e’er a woman that wore a head, bade her mind her affairs, and with another repetition of oaths gave her to understand that he would be master in his own house.

The insinuation operated upon her spirits like friction upon a glass globe: her face gleamed with resentment, and every pore seemed to emit particles of flame. She replied with incredible fluency of the bitterest expressions: he retorted equal rage in broken hints and incoherent imprecations: she rejoined with redoubled fury; and in conclusion he was fain to betake himself to flight, ejaculating curses against her; and muttering something concerning the brandy-bottle, which, however, he took care should never reach her ears.

From his own house he went directly to visit Mrs. Pickle, to whom he imparted Peregrine’s epistle, with many encomiums upon the boy’s promising parts: and, finding his commendations but coolly received, desired she would permit him to take his godson under his own care.

This lady, whose family was now increased by another son, who seemed to engross her care for the present, had not seen Perry during a course of four years, and, with regard to him, was perfectly weaned of that infirmity known by the name of maternal fondness: she therefore consented to the commodore’s request with great condescension, and a polite compliment to him on the concern he had all along manifested for the welfare of the child.

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