The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, by Tobias Smollett

Chapter LXII.

The Travellers depart for Antwerp, at which place the Painter gives a loose to his Enthusiasm.

Our adventurer, baffled in all his efforts to retrieve his lost Amanda, yielded at length to the remonstrances of his governor and fellow-travellers, who, out of pure complaisance to him, had exceeded their intended stay by six days at least; and a couple of post-chaises, with three riding-horses, being hired, they departed from Brussels in the morning, dined at Mechlin, and arrived about eight in the evening at the venerable city of Antwerp. During this day’s journey Pallet was elevated to an uncommon flow of spirits, with the prospect of seeing the birthplace of Rubens, for whom he professed an enthusiastic admiration. He swore, that the pleasure he felt was equal to that of a Mussulman, on the last day of his pilgrimage to Mecca; and that he already considered himself a native of Antwerp, being so intimately acquainted with their so justly boasted citizen, from whom, at certain junctures, he could not help believing himself derived, because his own pencil adopted the manner of that great man with surprising facility, and his face wanted nothing but a pair of whiskers and a beard, to exhibit the express image of the Fleming’s countenance. He told them he was so proud of this resemblance, that, in order to render it more striking, he had, at one time of his life, resolved to keep his face sacred from the razor; and in that purpose had persevered, notwithstanding the continual reprehensions of Mrs. Pallet, (who, being then with child), said, his aspect was so hideous, that she dreaded a miscarriage every hour, until she threatened in plain terms, to dispute the sanity of his intellects, and apply to the chancellor for a committee.

The doctor, on this occasion, observed, that a man who is not proof against the solicitations of a woman, can never expect to make a great figure in life; that painters and poets ought to cultivate no wives but the Muses; or, if they are by the accidents of fortune encumbered with families, they should carefully guard against that pernicious weakness, falsely honoured with the appellation of natural affection, and pay no manner of regard to the impertinent customs of the world. “Granting that you had been for a short time deemed a lunatic,” said he, “you might have acquitted yourself honourably of that imputation, by some performance that would have raised your character above all censure. Sophocles himself, that celebrated tragic poet, who, for the sweetness of his versification, was styled Melitta, or “the Bee,” in his old age, suffered the same accusation from his own children. who, seeing him neglect his family affairs, and devote himself entirely to poetry, carried him before the magistrate, as a man whose intellects were so much impaired by the infirmities of age, that he was no longer fit to manage his domestic concerns; upon which the reverend bard produced his tragedy of Oidipus epi Kolono, as a work he had just finished; which being perused, instead of being declared unsound of understanding, he was dismissed with admiration and applause. I wish your beard and whiskers had been sanctioned by the like authority; though I am afraid you would have been in the predicament of those disciples of a certain philosopher, who drank decoctions of cummin seeds, that their faces might adopt the paleness of their master’s complexion, hoping that, in being as wan, they would be as learned as their teacher.” The painter, stung by this sarcasm, replied, “or like those virtuosi, who, by repeating Greek, eating sillikicaby, and pretending to see visions, think they equal the ancients in taste and genius.” The physician retorted, Pallet rejoined, and the altercation continued until they entered the gates of Antwerp, when the admirer of Rubens broke forth into a rapturous exclamation, which put an end to the dispute and attracted the notice of the inhabitants, many of whom by shrugging up their shoulders and pointing to their foreheads, gave shrewd indications that they believed him a poor gentleman disordered in his brain.

They had no sooner alighted at the inn, than this pseudo-enthusiast proposed to visit the great church, in which he had been informed some of his master’s pieces were to be seen, and was remarkably chagrined, when he understood that he could not be admitted till next day. He rose next morning by day-break, and disturbed his fellow-travellers in such a noisy and clamorous manner, that Peregrine determined to punish him with some new infliction, and, while he put on his clothes, actually formed the plan of promoting a duel between him and the doctor, in the management of which, he promised himself store of entertainment, from the behaviour of both.

Being provided with one of those domestics who are always in waiting to offer their services to strangers on their first arrival, they were conducted to the house of a gentleman who had an excellent collection of pictures; and though the greatest part of them were painted by his favourite artist, Pallet condemned them all by the lump, because Pickle had told him beforehand that there was not one performance of Rubens among the number.

The next place they visited was what is called the Academy of Painting, furnished with a number of paltry pieces, in which our painter recognised the style of Peter Paul, with many expressions of admiration, on the same sort of previous intelligence.

From this repository, they went to the great church; and being led to the tomb of Rubens, the whimsical painter fell upon his knees, and worshipped with such appearance of devotion, that the attendant, scandalized at his superstition, pulled him up, observing, with great warmth, that the person buried in that place was no saint, but as great a sinner as himself; and that, if he was spiritually disposed, there was a chapel of the Blessed Virgin, at the distance of three yards on the right hand, to which he might retire. He thought it was incumbent upon him to manifest some extraordinary inspiration, while he resided on the spot where Rubens was born; and, therefore, his whole behaviour was an affectation of rapture, expressed in distracted exclamations, convulsive starts, and uncouth gesticulations. In the midst of this frantic behaviour, he saw an old Capuchin, with a white beard, mount the pulpit, and hold forth to the congregation with such violence of emphasis and gesture, as captivated his fancy; and, bawling aloud, “Zounds! what an excellent Paul preaching at Athens!” he pulled a pencil and a small memorandum book from his pocket, and began to take a sketch of the orator, with great eagerness and agitation, saying “Egad! friend Raphael, we shall see whether you or I have got the best knack at trumping up an apostle.” This appearance of disrespect gave offence to the audience, who began to murmur against this heretic libertine; when one of the priests belonging to the choir, in order to prevent any ill consequence from their displeasure, came and told him in the French language, that such liberties were not permitted in their religion, and advised him to lay aside his implements, lest the people should take umbrage at his design, and be provoked to punish him as a profane scoffer at their worship.

The painter, seeing himself addressed by a friar, who, while he spoke, bowed with great complaisance, imagined that he was a begging brother come to supplicate his charity; and his attention being quite engrossed by the design he was making, he patted the priest’s shaven crown with his hand, saying, Oter tems, oter tems, and then resumed his pencil with great earnestness. The ecclesiastic, perceiving that the stranger did not comprehend his meaning, pulled him by the sleeve, and explained himself in the Latin tongue: upon which Pallet, provoked at his intrusion, cursed him aloud for an impudent beggarly son of a w — and, taking out a shilling, flung it upon the pavement, with manifest signs of indignation.

Some of the common people, enraged to see their religion contemned, and their priests insulted at the very altar, rose from their seats, and, surrounding the astonished painter, one of the number snatched his book from his hand, and tore it into a thousand pieces. Frightened as he was, he could not help crying “Fire and fagots! all my favourite ideas are gone to wreck!” and was in danger of being very roughly handled by the crowd, had not Peregrine stepped in, and assured them, that he was a poor unhappy gentleman, who laboured under a transport of the brain. Those who understood the French language communicated this information to the rest, so that he escaped without any other chastisement than being obliged to retire. And as they could not see the famous Descent from the Cross till after the service was finished, they were conducted by their domestic to the house of a painter, where they found a beggar standing for his picture, and the artist actually employed in representing a huge louse that crawled upon his shoulder. Pallet was wonderfully pleased with this circumstance, which he said was altogether a new thought, and an excellent hint, of which he would make his advantage: and, in the course of his survey of this Fleming’s performances, perceiving a piece in which two flies were engaged upon the carcass of a dog half devoured, he ran to his brother brush, and swore he was worthy of being a fellow-citizen of the immortal Rubens. He then lamented, with many expressions of grief and resentment, that he had lost his commonplace book, in which he had preserved a thousand conceptions of the same sort, formed by the accidental objects of his senses and imagination; and took an opportunity of telling his fellow-travellers, that in execution he had equalled, if not excelled, the two ancient painters who had vied with each other in the representation of a curtain and a bunch of grapes; for he had exhibited the image of a certain object so like to nature, that the bare sight of it set a whole hog-sty in an uproar.

When he had examined and applauded all the productions of this minute artist, they returned to the great church, and were entertained with the view of that celebrated masterpiece of Rubens, in which he has introduced the portraits of himself and his whole family. The doors that conceal this capital performance were no sooner unfolded, than our enthusiast, debarred the use of speech, by a previous covenant with his friend Pickle, lifted up his hands and eyes, and putting himself in the attitude of Hamlet, when his father’s ghost appears, adored in silent ecstasy and awe. He even made a merit of necessity; and, when they had withdrawn from the place, protested that his whole faculties were swallowed up in love and admiration. He now professed himself more than ever enamoured of the Flemish school, raved in extravagant encomiums, and proposed that the whole company should pay homage to the memory of the divine Rubens, by repairing forthwith to the house in which he lived, and prostrating themselves on the floor of his painting-room.

As there was nothing remarkable in the tenement, which had been rebuilt more than once since the death of that great man, Peregrine excused himself from complying with the proposal, on pretence of being fatigued with the circuit they had already performed. Jolter declined it for the same reason; and the question being put to the doctor, he refused his company with an air of disdain. Pallet, piqued at his contemptuous manner, asked, “if he would not go and see the habitation of Pindoor, provided he was in the city where that poet lived?” and when the physician observed, that there was an infinite difference between the men, “That I’ll allow,” replied the painter, “for the devil a poet ever lived in Greece or Troy, that was worthy to clean the pencils of our beloved Rubens.” The physician could not, with any degree of temper and forbearance, hear this outrageous blasphemy, for which, he said, Pallet’s eyes ought to be picked out by owls; and the dispute arose, as usual, to such scurrilities of language, and indecency of behaviour, that passengers began to take notice of their animosity, and Peregrine was obliged to interpose for his own credit.

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