The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, by Tobias Smollett

Chapter LXXXII.

He persuades Cadwallader to assume the Character of a Magician, in which he acquires a great Share of Reputation, by his Responses to three Females of Distinction, who severally consult the Researches of his Art.

His heart being thus, as it were, suspended between two objects that lessened the force of each other’s attraction, he took this opportunity of enjoying some respite, and for the present detached his sentiments from both, resolving to indulge himself in the exercise of that practical satire which was so agreeable and peculiar in his disposition. In this laudable determination he was confirmed by the repeated suggestions of his friend Cadwallader, who taxed him with letting his talents rust in indolence, and stimulated his natural vivacity with a succession of fresh discoveries in the world of scandal.

Peregrine was now seized with a strange whim, and when he communicated the conceit to Cadwallader, it in a moment acquired his approbation. This notion he imparted in a proposal to subject the town to their ridicule, by giving responses to the character of a professed conjurer, to be personated by the old misanthrope, whose aspect was extremely well calculated for the purpose. The plan was immediately adjusted in all its parts; an apartment hired in a house accommodated with a public stair, so that people might have free ingress and egress, without being exposed to observation; and, this tenement being furnished with the apparatus of a magician, such as globes, telescopes, a magic-lanthorn, a skeleton, a dried monkey together with the skins of an alligator, otter, and snake, the conjurer himself took possession of his castle, after having distributed printed advertisements containing the particulars of his undertaking.

These bills soon operated according to the wish of the projectors. As the price of the oracle was fixed at half a guinea, the public naturally concluded that the author was no common fortune-teller; and, the very next day, Peregrine found some ladies of his quality acquaintance infected with the desire of making an experiment upon the skill of this new conjurer, who pretended to be just arrived from the Mogul’s empire, where he had learned the art from a Brachman philosopher. Our young gentleman affected to talk of the pretensions of this sage with ridicule and contempt, and with seeming reluctance undertook to attend them to his apartment, observing, that it would be a very easy matter to detect the fellow’s ignorance, and no more than common justice to chastise him for his presumption. Though he could easily perceive a great fund of credulity in the company, they affected to espouse his opinion, and, under the notion of a frolic, agreed that one particular lady should endeavour to baffle his art, by appearing before him in the dress of her woman, who should at the same time personate her mistress, and be treated as such by our adventurer, who promised to squire them to the place. These measures being concerted, and the appointment fixed for the next audience-day, Peregrine furnished his friend with the necessary information, and, when the hour of assignation arrived, conducted his charge to this oraculous seer.

They were admitted by our hero’s valet-de-chambre, whose visage, being naturally meagre and swarthy, was adorned with artificial whiskers; so that he became the Persian dress which he wore, and seemed a very proper master of the ceremonies to an Oriental necromancer. Having crossed his arms upon his breasts, with an inclination of the head, he stalked in solemn silence before them into the penetralia of the temple, where they found the conjurer sitting at a table, provided with pen, ink, and paper, divers books, mathematical instruments, and a long white wand lying across the whole. He was habited in a black gown and fur cap. His countenance, over and above a double proportion of philosophic gravity, which he had assumed for the occasion, was improved by a thick beard, white as snow, that reached to his middle, and upon each shoulder sat a prodigious large black cat which had been tutored for the purpose.

Such a figure, which would have startled Peregrine himself, had not he been concerned in the mystery, could not fail to make an impression upon those whom he accompanied. The fictitious chambermaid, in spite of all her natural pertness and vivacity, changed colour when she entered the room, while the pretended lady, whose intellects were not quite so enlightened, began to tremble in every joint, and ejaculate petitions to Heaven for her safety. Their conductor, advancing to the table, presented his offering, and, pointing to the maid, told him, that lady desired to know what would be her destiny in point of marriage. The philosopher, without lifting up his eyes to view the person in whose behalf he was consulted, turned his ear to one of the sable familiars that purred upon his shoulder, and, taking up the pen, wrote upon a detached slip of paper these words, which Peregrine, at the desire of the ladies, repeated aloud: “Her destiny will, in a great measure, depend upon what happened to her about nine o’clock in the morning on the third day of last December.”

This sentence was no sooner pronounced, than the counterfeit lady screamed, and ran into the ante-chamber, exclaiming, “Christ have mercy upon us! Sure he is the devil incarnate!” Her mistress, who followed her with great consternation, insisted upon knowing the transaction to which the response alluded; and Mrs. Abigail, after some recollection, gave her to understand that she had an admirer, who, on that very hour and day mentioned by the cunning man, had addressed himself to her in a serious proposal of marriage. This explanation, however, was more ingenious than candid, for the admirer was no other than the identical Mr. Pickle himself, who was a mere dragon among the chambermaids, and, in his previous information communicated to his associate, had given an account of this assignation, with which he had been favoured by the damsel in question.

Our hero seeing his company very much affected with the circumstance of the wizard’s art, which had almost frightened both mistress and maid into hysteric fits, pretended to laugh them out of their fears, by observing, that there was nothing extraordinary in this instance of his knowledge, which might have been acquired by some of those secret emissaries whom such impostors are obliged to employ for intelligence, or imparted by the lover himself, who had, perhaps, come to consult him about the success of his amour. Encouraged by this observation, or rather prompted by an insatiable curiosity, which was proof against all sorts of apprehension, the disguised lady returned to the magician’s own apartment, and, assuming the air of a pert chambermaid, “Mr. Conjurer,” said she, “now you have satisfied my mistress, will you be as good as to tell me if ever I shall be married?” The sage, without the least hesitation, favoured her with an answer, in the following words: “You cannot be married before you are a widow; and whether or not that will ever be the case, is a question which my art cannot resolve, because my foreknowledge exceeds not the term of thirty years.”

This reply, which at once cut her off from her pleasing prospect of seeing herself independent in the enjoyment of youth and fortune, in a moment clouded her aspect; all her good-humour was overcast, and she went away, without further inquiry, muttering in the rancour of her chagrin, that he was a silly impertinent fellow, and a mere quack in his profession. Notwithstanding the prejudice of this resentment, her conviction soon recurred; and when the report of his answers was made to those confederates by whom she had been deputed to make trial of his skill, they were universally persuaded that his art was altogether supernatural, though each affected to treat it with contempt, resolving in her own breast to have recourse to him in private.

In the meantime, the maid, though laid under the most peremptory injunctions of secrecy, was so full of the circumstance which related to her own conduct, that she extolled his prescience, in whispers, to all acquaintances, assuring them, that he had told her all the particulars of her life; so that his fame was almost instantaneously conveyed, through a thousand different channels, to all parts of the town; and, the very next time he assumed the chair, his doors were besieged by curious people of all sects and denominations.

Being an old practitioner in this art, Cadwallader knew it would be impossible for him to support his reputation in the promiscuous exercise of fortune-telling, because every person that should come to consult him would expect a sample of his skill relating to things past; and it could not be supposed that he was acquainted with the private concerns of every individual who might apply to him for that purpose. He, therefore, ordered his minister, whom he distinguished by the name of Hadgi Rourk, to signify to all those who demanded entrance, that his price was half a guinea; and that all such as were not disposed to gratify him with that consideration, would do well to leave the passage free for the rest.

This declaration succeeded to his wish; for this congregation consisted chiefly of footmen, chambermaids, prentices, and the lower class of tradesmen, who could not afford to purchase prescience at such a price; so that, after fruitless offers of shillings and half-crowns, they dropped off one by one, and left the field open for customers of a higher rank.

The first person of this species who appeared was dressed like the wife of a substantial tradesman; but this disguise could not screen her from the penetration of the conjurer, who at first sight knew her to be one of the ladies of whose coming he had been apprised by Peregrine, on the supposition that their curiosity was rather inflamed than allayed by the intelligence they had received from his first client. This lady approached the philosopher with that intrepidity of countenance so conspicuous in matrons of her dignified sphere, and, in a soft voice, asked with a simper, of what complexion her next child would be? The necromancer, who was perfectly well acquainted with her private history, forthwith delivered his response in the following question, written in the usual form: “How long has Pompey the black been dismissed from your ladyship’s service?”

Endued as she was with a great share of that fortitude which is distinguished by the appellation of effrontery, her face exhibited some signs of shame and confusion at the receipt of this oracular interrogation, by which she was convinced of his extraordinary intelligence; and, accosting him in a very serious tone, “Doctor,” said she, “I perceive you are a person of great abilities in the art you profess; and therefore, without pretending to dissemble, I will own you have touched the true string of my apprehensions. I am persuaded I need not be more particular in my inquiries. Here is a purse of money; take it, and deliver me from a most alarming and uneasy suspense.” So saying, she deposited her offering upon the table, and waited for his answer, with a face of fearful expectation, while he was employed in writing this sentence for her perusal: “Though I see into the womb of time, the prospect is not perfectly distinct: the seeds of future events lie mingled and confused. So that I am under the necessity of assisting my divination in some cases, by analogy and human intelligence; and cannot possibly satisfy your present doubts, unless you will condescend to make me privy to all those occurrences which you think might have interfered with the cause of your apprehension.”

The lady having read the declaration, affected a small emotion of shyness and repugnance, and, seating herself upon a settee, after having cautiously informed herself of the privacy of the apartment, gave such a detail of the succession of her lovers, as amazed, while it entertained, the necromancer, as well as his friend Pickle, who, from a closet in which he had concealed himself, overheard every syllable of her confession. Cadwallader listened to her story with a look of infinite importance and sagacity, and, after a short pause, told her, that he would not pretend to give a categorical answer, until he should have deliberated maturely upon the various circumstances of the affair; but, if she would take the trouble of honouring him with another visit on his next public day, he hoped he should be able to give her full satisfaction. Conscious of the importance of her doubts, she could not help commending his caution, and took her leave, with a promise of returning at the appointed time. Then the conjurer being joined by his associate, they gave a loose to their mirth, which having indulged, they began to concert measures for inflicting some disgraceful punishment on the shameless and insatiate termagant who had so impudently avowed her own prostitution.

They were interrupted, however, in their conference, by the arrival of a new guest, who being announced by Hadgi, our hero retreated to his lurking-place, and Cadwallader resumed his mysterious appearance. This new client, though she hid her face in a mask, could not conceal herself from the knowledge of the conjurer, who, by her voice, recognised her to be an unmarried lady of his own acquaintance. She had, within a small compass of time, made herself remarkable for two adventures, which had not at all succeeded to her expectation. Being very much addicted to play, she had, at a certain rout, indulged that passion to such excess, as not only got the better of her justice, but also of her circumspection, so that she was unfortunately detected in her endeavours to appropriate to herself what was not lawfully her due. This small slip was attended with another indiscretion, which had likewise an unlucky effect upon her reputation. She had been favoured with the addresses of one of those hopeful heirs who swarm and swagger about town, under the denomination of bucks; and, in the confidence of his honour, consented to be one of a party that made an excursion as far as Windsor, thinking herself secured from scandal by the company of another young lady, who had also condescended to trust her person to the protection of her admirer. The two gallants, in the course of this expedition, were said to use the most perfidious means to intoxicate the passions of their mistresses by mixing drugs with their wine, which inflamed their constitutions to such a degree, that they fell an easy sacrifice to the appetites of their conductors, who, upon their return to town, were so base and inhuman as to boast among their companions of the exploit they had achieved. Thus the story was circulated, with a thousand additional circumstances to the prejudice of the sufferers, one of whom had thought proper to withdraw into the country, until the scandal raised at her expense should subside; while the other, who was not so easily put out of countenance, resolved to outface the report, as a treacherous aspersion, invented by her lover as an excuse for his own inconstancy; and actually appeared in public, as usual, till she found herself neglected by the greatest part of her acquaintance.

In consequence of this disgrace, which she knew not whether to impute to the card affair, or to the last faux pas she had committed, she now came to consult the conjurer, and signified her errand, by asking whether the cause of her present disquiet was of the town or the country. Cadwallader at once perceiving her allusion, answered her question in these terms: “This honest world will forgive a young gamester for indiscretion at play, but a favour granted to a babbling coxcomb is an unpardonable offence.” This response she received with equal astonishment and chagrin; and, fully convinced of the necromancer’s omniscience, implored his advice, touching the retrieval of her reputation: upon which he counselled her to wed with the first opportunity. She seemed so well pleased with his admonition, that she gratified him with a double fee, and, dropping a low curtsey, retired.

Our undertakers now thought it high time to silence the oracle for the day, and Hadgi was accordingly ordered to exclude all comers, while Peregrine and his friend renewed the deliberations which had been interrupted, and settled a plan of operations for the next occasion. Meanwhile it was resolved that Hadgi should not only exercise his own talents, but also employ inferior agents, in procuring general intelligence for the support of their scheme; that the expense of this ministry should be defrayed from the profits of their professions; and the remainder be distributed to poor families in distress.

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