The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, by Tobias Smollett

Chapter LXXXIII.

Peregrine and his friend Cadwallader proceed in the Exercise of the Mystery of Fortune-telling, in the course of which they achieve various Adventures.

These preliminaries being adjusted, our hero forthwith repaired to a card assembly, which was frequented by some of the most notable gossips in town, and, having artfully turned the conversation upon the subject of the fortune-teller, whose talents he pretended to ridicule, incensed their itch of knowing secrets to such a degree of impatience, that their curiosity became flagrant, and he took it for granted, that all or some of them would visit Albumazar on his very first visiting-day. While Peregrine was thus engaged, his associate made his appearance in another convocation of fashionable people, where he soon had the pleasure of hearing the conjurer brought upon the carpet by an elderly gentlewoman, remarkable for her inquisitive disposition, who, addressing herself to Cadwallader, asked, by the help of the finger-alphabet, if he knew anything of the magician that made such a noise in town. The misanthrope answered, as usual, in a surly tone: “By your question you must either take me for a pimp or an idiot. What, in the name of nonsense, should I know of such a rascal, unless I were to court his acquaintance with a view to feast my own spleen, in seeing him fool the whole nation out of their money? Though, I suppose, his chief profits arise from his practice, in quality of pander. All fortune-tellers are bawds, and, for that reason, are so much followed by people of fashion. This fellow, I warrant, has got sundry convenient apartments for the benefit of procreation; for it is not to be supposed that those who visit him on the pretence of consulting his supernatural art, can be such fools, such drivellers, as to believe that he can actually prognosticate future events.”

The company, according to his expectation, imputed his remarks to the rancour of his disposition, which could not bear to think that any person upon earth was wiser than himself; and his ears were regaled with a thousand instances of the conjurer’s wonderful prescience, for which he was altogether indebted to fiction. Some of these specimens being communicated to him by way of appeal to his opinion, “They are,” said he, “mere phantoms of ignorance and credulity, swelled up in the repetition, like those unsubstantial bubbles which the boys blow up in soap-suds with a tobacco-pipe. And this will ever be the case in the propagation of all extraordinary intelligence. The imagination naturally magnifies every object that falls under its cognizance, especially those that concern the passions of fear and admiration; and when the occurrence comes to be rehearsed, the vanity of the relater exaggerates every circumstance in order to enhance the importance of the communication. Thus an incident, which is but barely uncommon, often gains such accession in its progress through the fancies and mouths of those who represent it, that the original fact cannot possibly be distinguished. This observation might be proved and illustrated by a thousand undeniable examples, out of which I shall only select one instance, for the entertainment and edification of the company.” A very honest gentleman, remarkable for the gravity of his deportment, was one day in a certain coffee-house accosted by one of his particular friends, who, taking him by the hand, expressed uncommon satisfaction in seeing him abroad, and in good health, after the dangerous and portentous malady he had undergone. Surprised at this salutation, the gentleman replied, it was true he had been a little out of order overnight, but there was nothing at all extraordinary in his indisposition. “Jesu! not extraordinary!” cried the other, “when you vomited three black crows.” This strange exclamation the grave gentleman at first mistook for raillery, though his friend was no joker; but, perceiving in him all the marks of sincerity and astonishment, he suddenly changed his opinion, and, after a short reverie, taking him aside, expressed himself in these words: “Sir, it is not unknown to you that I am at present engaged in a treaty of marriage, which would have been settled long ago, had it not been retarded by the repeated machinations of a certain person who professed himself my rival. Now I am fully persuaded that this affair of the three crows is a story of his invention, calculated to prejudice me in the opinion of the lady, who, to be sure, would not choose to marry a man who has a rookery in his bowels; and, therefore, I must insist upon knowing the author of this scandalous report, that I may be able to vindicate my character from the malicious aspersion.” His friend, who thought the demand was very reasonable, told him, without hesitation, that he was made acquainted with the circumstances of his distemper by Mr. Such-a-one, their common acquaintance: upon which the person who conceived himself injured went immediately in quest of his supposed defamer, and having found him: “Pray, sir,” said he, with a peremptory tone, “who told you that I vomited three black crows?”—“Three?” answered the gentleman, “I mentioned two only.”—“Zounds! Sir,” cried the other, incensed at his indifference, “you will find the two too many, if you refuse to discover the villainous source of such calumny.” The gentleman, surprised at his heat, said he was sorry to find he had been the accidental instrument of giving him offence, but translated the blame, if any there was, from himself to a third person, to whose information he owed his knowledge of the report. The plaintiff, according to the direction he received, repaired to the house of the accused; and his indignation being inflamed at finding the story had already circulated among his acquaintance, he told him, with evident marks of displeasure, that he was come to pluck the same brace of crows which he said he had disgorged. The defendant, seeing him very much irritated, positively denied that he had mentioned a brace: “One indeed,” said he, “I own I took notice of, upon the authority of your own physician, who gave me an account of it this morning.”—“By the Lord!” cried the sufferer, in a rage, which he could no longer contain, “that rascal has been suborned by my rival to slander my character in this manner: but I’ll be revenged, if there be either law or equity in England.” He had scarce pronounced these words, when the doctor happened to enter the room: when his exasperated patient lifting up his cane, “Sirrah,” said he, “if I live, I’ll make that black crow the blackest circumstance of thy whole life and conversation.” The physician, confounded at this address, assured him that he was utterly ignorant of his meaning, and, when the other gentleman explained it, absolutely denied the charge, affirming he had said no more than that he had vomited a quantity of something as black as a crow. The landlord of the house acknowledged that he might have been mistaken; and thus the whole mystery was explained.”

The company seeming to relish the story of the three black crows, which they considered as an impromptu of Cadwallader’s own invention; but, granting it to be true, they unanimously declared that it could have no weight in invalidating the testimony of divers persons of honour, who had been witnesses of the magician’s supernatural skill. On the next day of consultation, the necromancer being in the chair, and his friend behind the curtain, the outward door was scarce opened, when a female visitant flounced in, and discovered to the magician the features of one of those inquisitive ladies, whose curiosity, he knew, his confederate had aroused in the matter above described. She addressed herself to him with a familiar air, observing, that she had heard much of his great knowledge, and was come to be a witness of his art, which she desired him to display, in declaring what he knew to be her ruling passion.

Cadwallader, who was no stranger to her disposition, assumed the pen without hesitation, and furnished her with an answer, importing, that the love of money predominated, and scandal possessed the next place in her heart. Far from being offended at his freedom, she commended his frankness with a smile; and, satisfied of his uncommon talents, expressed a desire of being better acquainted with his person; nay, she began to catechise him upon the private history of divers great families, in which he happened to be well versed: and he, in a mysterious manner, dropped such artful hints of his knowledge, that she was amazed at his capacity, and actually asked if his art was communicable. The conjurer replied in the affirmative; but, at the same time, gave her to understand, that it was attainable by those only who were pure and undefiled in point of chastity and honour, or such as, by a long course of penitence, had weaned themselves from all attachments to the flesh. She not only disapproved, but seemed to doubt the truth of this assertion; telling him, with a look of disdain, that his art was not worth having, if one could not use it for the benefit of one’s pleasure; she had even penetration enough to take notice of an inconsistency in what he had advanced; and asked, why he himself exercised his knowledge for hire, if he was so much detached from all worldly concerns. “Come, come, doctor,” added she, “you are in the right to be cautious against impertinent curiosity, but, perhaps, I may make it worth your while to be communicative.”

These overtures were interrupted by a rap at the door, signifying the approach of another client; upon which the lady inquired for his private passage, through which she might retire, without the risk of being seen. When she understood he was deficient in that convenience, she withdrew into an empty room adjoining to the audience-chamber, in order to conceal herself from the observation of the new-comer. This was no other than the inamorata, who came, by appointment, to receive the solution of her doubts; and the misanthrope, glad of an opportunity to expose her to the censure of such an indefatigable minister of fame as the person who he knew would listen from the next apartment, laid her under the necessity of refreshing his remembrance with a recapitulation of her former confession, which was almost finished, when she was alarmed by a noise at the door, occasioned by two gentlemen, who attempted to enter by force.

Terrified at this uproar, which disconcerted the magician himself, she ran for shelter into the place which was preoccupied by the other lady, who, hearing this disturbance, had closed the window-shutters, that she might have the better chance of remaining unknown. Here they ensconced themselves in the utmost consternation, while the necromancer, after some recollection, ordered Hadgi to open the door, and admit the rioters, who, he hoped, would be over-awed by the authority of his appearance. The janitor had no sooner obeyed his instructions, than in rushed a young libertine, who had been for some time upon the town, together with his tutor, who was a worn-out debauchee, well known to the magician. They were both in that degree of intoxication necessary to prepare such dispositions for what they commonly call frolics, and the sober part of mankind feel to be extravagant outrages against the laws of their country, and the peace of their fellow-subjects. Having staggered up to the table, the senior, who undertook to be spokesman, saluted Cadwallader with, “How dost do, old Capricorn? Thou seem’st to be a most venerable pimp, and, I doubt not, hast abundance of discretion. Here is this young whoremaster, a true chip of the old venereal block his father, and myself, come for a comfortable cast of thy function. I don’t mean that stale pretence of conjuring — d — futurity; let us live for the present, old Haly. Conjure me up a couple of hale wenches, and I warrant we shall get into the magic circle in a twinkling. What says Galileo? What says the Reverend Brahe? Here is a purse, you pimp. Hark, how it chinks! This is sweeter than the music of spheres.”

Our necromancer, perplexed at this rencontre, made no reply; but, taking up his wand, waved it around his head in a very mysterious motion, with a view of intimidating these forward visitants, who, far from being awed by this sort of evolution, became more and more obstreperous, and even threatened to pull him by the beard, if he would not immediately comply with their desire. Had he called his associate, or even Hadgi, to his aid, he knew he could have soon calmed their turbulence; but, being unwilling to run the risk of a discovery, or even of a riot, he bethought himself of chastising their insolence in another manner, that would be less hazardous, and rather more effectual. In consequence of this suggestion, he pointed his wand towards the door of the apartment in which the ladies had taken sanctuary; and the two rakes, understanding the hint, rushed in without hesitation.

The females, finding their place of retreat taken by assault, ran about the room in great consternation, and were immediately taken prisoners by the assailants, who, pulling them towards the windows, opened the shutters at the same instant of time, when, strange to tell! one of the heroes discovered in the prize he had made, the very wife of his bosom; and his companion perceived that he had stumbled in the dark upon his own mother. Their mutual astonishment was unspeakable at this eclaircissement, which produced a universal silence for the space of several minutes. During this pause, the ladies having recollected themselves, an expostulation was begun by the elder of the two, who roundly took her son to task for his disorderly life, which laid her under the disagreeable necessity of watching his motions, and detecting him in such an infamous place.

While the careful mother thus exercised her talent for reprehension, the hopeful young gentleman, with a hand in each fob, stood whistling an opera tune, without seeming to pay the most profound regard to his parent’s reproof; and the other lady, in imitation of such a consummate pattern, began to open upon her husband, whom she bitterly reproached with his looseness and intemperance, demanding to know what he had to allege in alleviation of his present misconduct. The surprise occasioned by such an unexpected meeting, had already, in a great measure, destroyed the effects of the wine he had so plentifully drunk, and the first use he made of his recovered sobriety, was to revolve within himself the motives that could possibly induce his wife to give him the rendezvous in this manner. As he had good reason to believe she was utterly void of jealousy, he naturally placed this rencontre to the account of another passion; and his chagrin was not at all impaired by the effrontery with which she now presumed to reprimand him. He listened to her, therefore, with a grave, or rather grim, aspect; and to the question with which she concluded her rebuke, answered, with great composure, “All that I have to allege, madam, is, that the bawd has committed a mistake, in consequence of which we are both disappointed; and so, ladies, your humble servant.” So saying, he retired, with manifest confusion in his looks; and, as he passed through the audience-chamber, eyeing the conjurer askance, pronounced the epithet of precious rascal, with great emphasis. Meanwhile, the junior, like a dutiful child, handed his mamma to her chair; and the other client, after having reviled the necromancer, because he could not foresee this event, went away in a state of mortification.

The coast being clear, Peregrine came forth from his den, and congratulated his friend upon the peaceable issue of the adventure, which he had overheard; but, that he might not be exposed to such inconvenience for the future, they resolved, that a grate should be fixed in the middle of the outward door, through which the conjurer himself might reconnoitre all the visitants, before their admission; so that, to those whose appearance he might not like, Hadgi should, without opening, give notice, that his master was engaged. By this expedient too, they provided against those difficulties which Cadwallader must have encountered, in giving satisfaction to strangers, whom he did not know: for the original intention of the founders was to confine the practice of their art to people of fashion only, most of whom were personally known to the counterfeit magician and his coadjutors.

Indeed these associates, Cadwallader in particular, notwithstanding his boasted insight into the characters of life, never imagined that his pretended skill would be consulted by any but the weaker-minded of the female sex, incited by that spirit of curiosity which he knew was implanted in their nature; but, in the course of his practice, he found himself cultivated in his preternatural capacity by people of all sexes, complexions, and degrees of reputation, and had occasion to observe, that, when the passions are concerned, howsoever cool, cautious, and deliberate the disposition may otherwise be, there is nothing so idle, frivolous, or absurd, to which they will not apply for encouragement and gratification. The last occurrence, according to the hopes and expectation of the confederates, was whispered about by the ladies concerned, in such a manner, that the whole affair was in a few days the universal topic of discourse, in which it was retailed with numberless embellishments, invented by the parties themselves, who had long indulged a pique at each other, and took this opportunity of enjoying their revenge.

These incidents, while they regaled the spleen, at the same time augmented the renown of the conjurer, who was described on both sides as a very extraordinary person in his way; and the alteration in his door was no sooner performed, than he had occasion to avail himself of it, against the intrusion of a great many, with whom he would have found it very difficult to support the fame he had acquired.

Among those who appeared at his grate, he perceived a certain clergyman, whom he had long known a humble attendant on the great, and with some the reputed minister of their pleasures. This Levite had disguised himself in a greatcoat, boots, and dress quite foreign to the habit worn by those of his function; and, being admitted, attempted to impose himself as a country squire upon the conjurer, who, calling him by his name, desired him to sit down. This reception corresponding with the report he had heard, touching our magician’s art, the doctor said he would lay aside all dissimulation. After having professed an implicit belief, that his supernatural knowledge did not proceed from any communication with evil spirits, but was the immediate gift of Heaven, he declared the intention of his coming, was to inquire into the health of a good friend and brother of his, who possessed a certain living in the country, which he named; and, as he was old and infirm, to know what space of time was allotted to him in this frail state of mortality, that he might have the melancholy satisfaction of attending him in his last moments, and assisting him in his preparations for eternity.

The conjurer, who at once perceived the purport of this question, after a solemn pause, during which he seemed absorbed in contemplation, delivered this response to his consulter: “Though I foresee some occurrences, I do not pretend to be omniscient. I know not to what age that clergyman’s life will extend; but so far I can penetrate into the womb of time, as to discern, that the incumbent will survive his intended successor.” This dreadful sentence in a moment banished the blood from the face of the appalled consulter, who, hearing his own doom pronounced, began to tremble in every joint; he lifted up his eyes in the agony of fear, and saying, “The will of God be done,” withdrew in silent despondence, his teeth chattering with terror and dismay.

This client was succeeded by an old man about the age of seventy-five, who, being resolved to purchase a lease, desired to be determined in the term of years by the necromancer’s advice, observing, that, as he had no children of his own body, and had no regard for his heirs-at-law, the purchase would be made with a view to his own convenience only; and therefore, considering his age, he himself hesitated in the period of the lease, between thirty and three-score years.

The conjurer, upon due deliberation, advised him to double the last specified term, because he distinguished in his features something portending extreme old age and second childhood, and he ought to provide for that state of incapacity, which other-wise would be attended with infinite misery and affliction. The superannuated wretch, thunderstruck with this prediction, held up his hands, and in the first transports of his apprehension, exclaimed, “Lord have mercy upon me! I have not wherewithal to purchase such a long lease, and I have long outlived all my friends; what then must become of me, sinner that I am, one hundred and twenty years hence! ” Cadwallader, who enjoyed his terror, under pretence of alleviating his concern, told him that what he had prognosticated did not deprive him of the means which he and every person had in their power, to curtail a life of misfortune; and the old gentleman went away, seemingly comforted with the assurance, that it would always be in his power to employ an halter for his own deliverance.

Soon after the retreat of this elder, the magician was visited by one of those worthies known among the Romans by the appellation of haeredipetae, who had amassed a large for-tune by a close attention to the immediate wants and weakness of raw, inexperienced heirs. This honourable usurer had sold an annuity upon the life of a young spendthrift, being thereto induced by the affirmation of his physician, who had assured him his patient’s constitution was so rotten, that he could not live one year to an end. He had, nevertheless, made shift to weather eighteen months, and now seemed more vigorous and healthy than he had ever been known: for he was supposed to have nourished an hereditary pox from his cradle. Alarmed at this alteration, the seller came to consult Cadwallader, not only about the life of the annuitant, but also concerning the state of his health at the time of his purchasing the annuity, purposing to sue the physician for false intelligence, should the conjurer declare that the young man was sound when the doctor pronounced him diseased. But this was a piece of satisfaction he did not obtain from the misanthrope, who, in order to punish his sordid disposition, gave him to understand, that the physician had told him the truth, and nothing but the truth; and that the young gentleman was in a fair way of attaining a comfortable old age. “That is to say,” cried the client, in the impatience of his mortification at this answer, “bating accidents; for, thank God, the annuitant does not lead the most regular life. Besides, I am credibly informed he is choleric and rash, so that he may be concerned in a duel. Then there are such things as riots in the street, in which a rake’s skull may be casually cracked; he may be overturned in a coach, overset in the river, thrown from a vicious horse, overtaken with a cold, endangered by a surfeit; but what I place my chief confidence in, is an hearty pox, a distemper which hath been fatal to his whole family. Not but that the issue of all these things is uncertain, and expedients might be found which would more effectually answer the purpose. I know they have arts in India, by which a man can secure his own interest, in the salutation of a friendly shake by the hand; and I don’t doubt that you, who have lived in that country, are master of the secret. To be sure, if you were inclined to communicate such a nostrum, there are abundance of people who would purchase it at a very high price.”

Cadwallader understood this insinuation, and was tempted to amuse him in such a manner as would tend to his disgrace and confusion; but, considering that the case was of too criminal a nature to be tampered with, he withstood his desire of punishing this rapacious cormorant any other way than by telling him he would not impart the secret for his whole for-tune ten times doubled; so that the usurer retired, very much dissatisfied with the issue of his consultation.

The next person who presented himself at this altar of intelligence, was an author, who recommended himself to a gratis advice, by observing, that a prophet and poet were known by the same appellation among the ancients; and that, at this day, both the one and the other spoke by inspiration. The conjurer refused to own this affinity, which, he said, formerly subsisted, because both species of the vates were the children of fiction; but as he himself did not fall under that predicament, he begged leave to disown all connection with the family of the poets; and the poor author would have been dismissed without his errand, though he offered to leave an ode as security for the magician’s fee, to be paid from the profits of his first third night, had not Cadwallader’s curiosity prompted him to know the subject of this gentleman’s inquiry. He therefore told him, that, in consideration of his genius, he would for once satisfy him without a fee; and desired him to specify the doubts in which he wished to be resolved.

The son of Parnassus, glad of this condescension, for which he thanked the necromancer, gave him to understand, that he had some time before presented a play in manuscript to a certain great man, at the head of taste, who had not only read and approved the performance, but also undertaken to introduce and support it on the stage; that he, the author, was assured by this patron, that the play was already, in consequence of his recommendation, accepted by one of the managers, who had faithfully promised to bring it to light; but that, when he waited on this said manager, to know when he intended to put his production in rehearsal, the man declared he had never seen or heard of the piece. “Now, Mr. Conjurer,” said he, “I want to know whether or not my play has been presented, and if I have any sort of chance of seeing it acted this winter.”

Cadwallader, who had, in his younger days, sported among the theatrical muses, began to lose his temper at this question, which recalled the remembrance of his own disappointments; and despatched the author with an abrupt answer, importing that the affairs of the stage were altogether without the sphere of his divination, being entirely regulated by the daemons of dissimulation, ignorance, and caprice.

It would be an endless task to recount every individual response which our magician delivered in the course of his conjuration. He was consulted in all cases of law, physic, and trade, over and above the ordinary subjects of marriage and fornication; his advice and assistance were solicited by sharpers, who desired to possess an infallible method of cheating unperceived; by fortune-hunters, who wanted to make prize of widows and heiresses; by debauchees, who were disposed to be with other men’s wives; by coxcombs, who longed for the death of their fathers; by wenches with child, who wished themselves rid of their burdens; by merchants, who had insured above value, and thirsted after the news of a wreck; by underwriters, who prayed for the gift of prescience, that they might venture money upon such ships only as should perform the voyage in safety; by Jews, who wanted to foresee the fluctuations of stock; by usurers, who advance money upon undecided causes; by clients, who were dubious of the honesty of their counsel. In short, all matters of uncertain issue were appealed to this tribunal; and, in point of calculation, De Moivre was utterly neglected.

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