The Adventures of Roderick Random, by Tobias Smollett

Chapter XL

My mistress is surprised at my learning — communicates her performances to me — I impart some of mine to her — am mortified at her faint praise — Narcissa approves of my conduct — I gain an involuntary conquest over the cookwench and dairymaid — their mutual resentment and insinuations — the jealousy of their lovers

During this season of love and tranquillity, my muse, which had lain dormant so long, awoke, and produced several small performances on the subject of my flame. But as it concerned me nearly to remain undiscovered in my character and sentiments, I was under a necessity of mortifying my desire of praise, by confining my works to my own perusal and applause. In the meantime I strove to insinuate myself into the good opinion of both ladies; and succeeded so well, by my diligence and dutiful behaviour, that in a little time I was at least a favourite servant; and frequently enjoyed the satisfaction of hearing myself mentioned in French and Italian, with some degree of warmth and surprise by the dear object of all my wishes, as a person who had so much of the gentleman in my appearance and discourse, that she could not for her soul treat me like a common lacquey. My prudence and modesty were not long proof against these bewitching compliments. One day, while I waited at dinner, the conversation turned upon a knotty passage of Tasso’s Gierusalem, which, it seems, had puzzled them both: after a great many unsatisfactory conjectures, my mistress, taking the book out of her pocket, turned up the place in question, and read the sentence over and over without success; at length, despairing of finding the author’s meaning, she turned to me, saying, “Come hither, Bruno; let us see what fortune will do for us: I will interpret to thee what goes before, and what follows this obscure paragraph, the particular words of which I will also explain, that thou mayst, by comparing one with another, guess the sense of that which perplexes us.” I was too vain to let slip this opportunity of displaying my talents; therefore, without hesitation, read and explained the whole of that which had disconcerted them, to the utter astonishment of both. Narcissa’s face and lovely neck were overspread with blushes, from which I drew a favourable opinion, while her aunt, after having stared at me a good while with a look of amazement, exclaimed, “In the name of heaven who art thou?” I told her I had picked up a smattering of Italian, during a voyage up the Straits. At this explanation she shook her head, and observed that no smatterer could read as I had done. She then desired to know if I understood French. To which question I answered in the affirmative. She asked if I was acquainted with the Latin and Greek? I replied, “A little.” “Oho!” continued she, “and with philosophy and mathematics, I suppose?” I owned I knew something of each. Then she repeated her stare and interrogation. I began to repent of my vanity, and in order to repair the fault I committed, said, it was not to be wondered at if I had a tolerable education, for learning was so cheap in my country, that every peasant was a scholar; but, I hoped her Ladyship would think my understanding no exception to my character. “No, no, God forbid.” But during the rest of the time they sat at table, they behaved with remarkable reserve.

This alteration gave me great uneasiness; and I passed the night without sleep, in melancholy reflections on the vanity of young men, which prompts them to commit so many foolish actions, contrary to their own sober judgment. Next day, however, instead of profiting by this self-condemnation, I yielded still more to the dictates of the principle I had endeavoured to chastise, and if fortune had not befriended me more than prudence could expect, I should have been treated with the contempt it deserved. After breakfast my lady, who was a true author, bade me follow her into the study, where she expressed herself thus: “Since you are so learned, you cannot be void of taste; therefore I am to desire your opinion of a small performance in poetry, which I lately composed. You must know that I have planned a tragedy, the subject of which shall be, the murder of a prince before the altar, where he is busy at his devotions. After the deed is perpetrated, the regicide will harangue the people with the bloody dagger in his hand; and I have already composed a speech, which, I think, will suit the character extremely. Here it is.” Then, taking up a scrap of paper, she read, with violent emphasis and gesture, as follows:—

“Thus have I sent the simple King to hell,
Without or coffin, shroud, or passing bell:
To me what are divine and human laws?
I court no sanction but my own applause!
Rapes, robberies, treasons, yield my soul delight,
And human carnage gratifies my sight:
I drag the parent by the hoary hair,
And toss the sprawling infant on the spear,
While the fond mother’s cries regale my ear.
I fight, I vanquish, murder friends and foes;
Nor dare the immortal gods my rage oppose.”

Though I did great violence to my understanding in praising this unnatural rhapsody, I nevertheless extolled it as a production that of itself deserved immortal fame; and besought her ladyship to bless the world with the fruits of those uncommon talents Heaven had bestowed upon her. She smiled with a look of self-complacency, and encouraged by the incense I had offered, communicated all her poetical works which I applauded, one by one, with as little candour as I had shown at first. Satiated with my flattery, which I hope my situation justified, she could not in conscience refuse me an opportunity of shining in my turn: and, therefore, after a compliment to my nice discernment and taste, observed, that doubtless I must have produced something in that way myself, which she desired to see. This was temptation I could by no means resist. I owned that while I was at college I wrote some detached pieces, at the desire of a friend who was in love; and at her request repeated the following verses, which indeed my love for Narcissa had inspired:—

On Celia,

Playing on the harpsichord and singing.

When Sappho struck the quivering wire,
The throbbing breast was all on fire:
And when she raised the vocal lay,
The captive soul was charm’d away.

But had the nymph possessed with these
Thy softer, chaster, power to please;
Thy beauteous air of sprightly youth,
Thy native smiles of artless truth;

The worm of grief had never preyed
On the forsaken love-sick maid:
Nor had she mourn’d a hapless flame,
Nor dash’d on rocks her tender frame.

My mistress paid me a cold compliment on the versification, which, she said, was elegant enough, but, the subject beneath the pen of a true poet. I was extremely nettled at her indifference, and looked at Narcissa, who by this time had joined us, for her approbation; but she declined giving her opinion, protesting she was no judge of these matters; so that I was forced to retire very much balked in my expectation, which was generally a little too sanguine. In the afternoon, however, the waiting-maid assured me that Narcissa had expressed her approbation of my performance with great warmth, and desired her to procure a copy of it as for herself, that she (Narcissa) might have an opportunity to peruse it at pleasure. I was elated to an extravagant pitch at this intelligence, and immediately transcribed a fair copy of my Ode, which was carried to the dear charmer, together with another on the same subject, as follows:—

Thy fatal shaft unerring move;
I bow before thine altar, Love!
I feel thou soft resistless flame
Glide swift through all my vital frame!

For while I gaze my bosom glows,
My blood in tides impetuous flows;
Hope, fear, and joy alternate roll,
And floods of transports ‘whelm my soul!

My faltering tongue attempts in vain
In soothing murmurs to complain;
My tongue some secret magic ties,
My murmurs sink in broken sighs.

Condemn’d to nurse eternal care,
And ever drop the silent tear,
Unheard I mourn, unknown I sigh,
Unfriended live, unpitied die!

Whether or not Narcissa discovered my passion, I could not learn from her behaviour, which, though always benevolent to me was henceforth more reserved and less cheerful. While my thoughts aspired to a sphere so far above me, I had unwittingly made a conquest of the cookwench and dairymaid, who became so jealous of each other that, if their sentiments had been refined by education, it is probable one or other of them would have had recourse to poison or steel to be avenged of her rival; but, as their minds were happily adapted to their humble station, their mutual enmity was confined to scolding and fistcuffs, in which exercise they were both well skilled. My good fortune did not long remain a secret; for it was disclosed by the frequent broils of these heroines, who kept no decorum in their encounters. The coachman and gardener, who paid their devoirs to my admirers, each to his respective choice, alarmed at my success, laid their heads together, in order to concert n plan of revenge; and the former, having been educated at the academy at Tottenham Court, undertook to challenge me to single combat. He accordingly, with many opprobrious invectives, bade me defiance, and offered to box me for twenty guineas. I told him that, although I believed myself a match for him even at that work I would not descend so far below the dignity of a gentleman as to fight like a porter; but if he had anything to say to me, I was his man at blunderbuss, musket, pistol, sword, hatchet, spit, cleaver, fork, or needle; nay, I swore, that should he give his tongue any more saucy liberties at my expense, I would crop his ears without any ceremony. This rhodomontade, delivered with a stern countenance and resolute tone, had the desired effect upon my antagonist, who, with some confusion, sneaked off, and gave his friend an account of his reception.

The story, taking air among the servants, procured for me the title of Gentleman John, with which I was sometimes honoured, even by my mistress and Narcissa, who had been informed of the whole affair by the chambermaid. In the meantime, the rival queens expressed their passion by all the ways in their power: the cook entertained me with choice bits, the dairymaid with strokings: the first would often encourage me to declare myself, by complimenting me upon my courage and learning, and observing, that if she had a husband like me, to maintain order and keep accounts, she could make a great deal of money, by setting up an eating-house in London for gentlemen’s servants on board wages. The other courted my affection by showing her own importance, and telling me that many a substantial farmer in the neighbourhood would be glad to marry her, but she was resolved to please her eye, if she should plague her heart. Then she would launch out into the praise of my proper person, and say, she was sure I would make a good husband, for I was very good-natured. I began to be uneasy at the importunities of these inamoratas, whom, at another time perhaps, I might have pleased without the disagreeable sauce of matrimony, but, at present, my whole soul was engrossed by Narcissa; and I could not bear the thoughts of doing anything derogatory to the passion I entertained for her.

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