The Adventures of Roderick Random, by Tobias Smollett

Chapter XLV

I inquire for my Uncle, and understand he is gone to sea — take Lodgings at Charing Cross — go to the Play, where I meet with an adventure-Dine at an ordinary — the Guests described — become acquainted with Medlar and Doctor Wagtail

As soon as we alighted at the inn, I dispatched Strap to inquire for my uncle at the Union Flag in Wapping; and he returned in a little time, with an account of Mr. Bowling’s having gone to sea, mate of a merchant ship, after a long and unsuccessful application attendance at the Admiralty; where, it seems, the interest he depended upon was not sufficient to reinstate him, or recover the pay that was due to him when he quitted the Thunder.

Next day I hired very handsome lodgings not far from Charing Cross; and in the evening dressed myself in a plain suit of the true Paris cut, and appeared in a front box at the play, where I saw a good deal of company, and was vain enough to believe that I was observed with an uncommon degree of attention and applause. This silly conceit intoxicated me so much, that I was guilty of a thousand ridiculous coquetries; and I dare say, how favourable soever the thoughts of the company might be at my first appearance, they were soon changed by my absurd behaviour into pity or contempt. I rose and sat down, covered and uncovered my head twenty times between the acts; pulled out my watch, clapped it to my ear, wound it up, set it, gave it the hearing again; displayed my snuff-box, affected to take snuff, that I might have all opportunity of showing my brilliant, and wiped my nose with perfumed handkerchief; then dangled my cane, and adjusted my sword-knot, and acted many more fooleries of the same kind, in hopes of obtaining the character of a pretty fellow, in the acquiring of which I found two considerable obstructions in my disposition — namely, a natural reserve and jealous sensibility. Fain would I have entered into conversation with the people around me: but I was restrained by the fear of being censured for my assurance, as well as by reflecting that I was more entitled to a compliment of this kind from them, than they to such condescension from a stranger like me. How often did I redden at the frequent whispers and loud laughter of my fellow beaux, which I imagined were excited by me; and how often did I envy the happy indifference of those choice spirits, who behold the distress of the scene without discovering the least symptom of approbation or concern. My attention was engaged in spite of myself, and I could not help weeping with the heroine of the stage, though I practised a great many shifs to conceal this piece of unpolite weakness.

When the play was ended, I sat waiting for an opportunity of handing some lady to her coach; but everyone was attended by such a number of officious gallants, that for a long time I was balked in my expectation. At length, however, I perceived a very handsome creature, genteelly dressed, sitting by herself in a box, at some distance from me; upon which I went up to her, and offered my service. She seemed to be in some confusion, thanked me for my complaisance, and with a tender look declined giving me the trouble: looking at her watch, and testifying her surprise at the negligence of her footman whom she had ordered to have a chair ready for her at that hour. I repeated my entreaty with all the eloquence and compliment I was master of; and, in the event, she was prevailed upon to accept of a proposal I made, to send my servant for a chair or coach: accordingly, Strap was detached for that purpose, and returned without success. By this time the playhouse was quite empty, and we were obliged to retire. As I led her through the passage, I observed five or six young fellows of fashion standing in a corner, one of whom, as I thought, tipped my charmer the wink, and when we were passed, I heard a loud laugh. This note aroused my attention, and I was resolved to be fully satisfied of this lady’s character, before I should have any nearer connection with her. As no convenience appeared, I proposed to conduct her to a tavern, where we might stay a few minutes, until my servant could fetch a coach from the Strand. She seemed particularly shy of trusting herself in a tavern with a stranger, but at last yielded to my pathetic remonstrances, rather than endanger her health by remaining in a cold, damp thoroughfare. Having thus far succeeded, I begged to know what wine she would be pleased to drink a glass of; but she professed the greatest aversion to all sorts of strong liquors, and it was with much difficulty that I could persuade her to eat a jelly.

In the meantime, I endeavoured to alleviate the uneasiness she discovered, by saying all the agreeable things I could think of; at which she would often sigh, and regard me with a languishing look, that seemed, however, too near akin to the lewd leer of a courtesan. This discovery added to my former suspicion, while it put me upon my guard against her arts, divested me of reserve, and enabled me to entertain her with gaiety and freedom. In the course of our conversation, I pressed her to allow me the honour of waiting upon her next day at her lodgings, a request which she, with many apologues, refused, lest it should give umbrage to Sir John, who was of a disposition apt to be fretted with trifles. This information, by which I was to understand that her husband was a knight, did not check my addresses, which became more and more importunate, and I was even hardy enough to ravish a kiss. But, O heavens! instead of banqueting on the ambrosial flavour, that her delicacy of complexion promised, I was almost suffocated with the steams of Geneva! An exhalation of this kind, from a mouth which had just before declared an utter abhorrence of all spirituous liquors, not only changed my doubts into certainty, but my raptures into loathing; and it would have been impossible for me to have preserved common complaisance five minutes longer, when my servant returned with a coach. I took the advantage of this occasion, and presented my hand to the lady, who put in practice against me the whole artillery of her charms, ogling, languishing, sighing, and squeezing, with so little reserve that Strap perceived her tenderness, and rubbed his hands with joy as he followed us to the door; but I was proof against all her endearments, and handed her into the coach with an intention to take my leave immediately. She guessed my design, and invited me to her house, whispering, that now Sir John was gone to bed, she could have the pleasure of my conversation for half-an-hour without interruption. I told her there was no mortification I would not undergo, rather than endanger the repose of her ladyship; and, bidding the coachman drive on, wished her a good night. She lost all temper at my indifference, and, stopping the coach, at the distance of about twenty yards from me, popped out her head, and howled with the lungs of a fishwoman, “D— n you, you dog, won’t you pay the coach-hire?” As I made no answer, she held forth against me with an eloquence peculiar to herself; calling me pitifull fellow, scoundrel, and a hundred such appellations; concluding with an oath, that, for all my appearance, she believed I had got no money in my pocket.

Having thus vented her indignation, she ordered her coachman to proceed, and I returned to the tavern, where I bespoke something for supper, very well pleased at the issue of this adventure. I dispensed with the attendance of the waiter at table, on pretence that my own servant was present, and, when we were alone, said to Strap, “Well, Monsieur d’Estrapes, what d’ye think of this lady?” My friend, who had not opened his mouth since her departure, could make no other reply than the monosyllable “Think!” which he pronounced with a note of fear and astonishment. Surprised at this emphasis, I surveyed my valet, and, perceiving a wildness in his looks, asked if he had seen his grandfather’s ghost? “Ghost!” said he, “I am sure I have seen a devil incarnate! Who would have thought that so much devilish malice and Billingsgate could lurk under so much sweetness of countenance and modesty of behaviour? Ah! God help us! Fronti nulla fides — nimium ne crede colori — but we ought to down on our knees, and bless God for delivering us from the jaws of that painted sepulchre!” I was pretty much of Strap’s opinion, and, though I did not believe myself in any danger from the allurements of that sisterhood, I determined to act with great circumspection for the future, and shun all commerce of that kind, as equally prejudicial to my purse and constitution.

My next care was to introduce myself into a set of good acquaintance: for which purpose I frequented a certain coffee-house, noted for the resort of good company, English as well as foreigners, where my appearance procured all the civilities and advances I could desire. As there was an ordinary in the same house, I went upstairs to dinner with the other guests, and found myself at a table with thirteen people, the greatest part of whom were better dressed than myself. The conversation, which was mostly carried on in French, turned chiefly on politics; and I soon found the whole company were in the French interest, myself excepted, and a testy old gentleman, who contradicted everything that was advanced in favour of his Most Christian Majesty, with a surliness truly English. But this trusty patriot, who had never been out of his own country, and drew all his maxims and notions from prejudice and hearsay, was very unequal to his antagonists, who were superior to him in learning and experience, and often took the liberty of travellers in asserting things which were not strictly true, because they thought themselves in no danger of being detected by him. The claim of the Queen Of Spain to the Austrian dominions in Italy was fully explained and vindicated, by a person who sat opposite to me, and, by the solemnity of his manner and the richness of his apparel, seemed to be a foreign ambassador. This dissertation produced another on the Pragmatic Sanction, handled with great warmth by a young gentleman at my right hand, dressed in a green frock, trimmed with gold, who justified the French king for his breach of that contract; and affirmed that he could not have observed it without injuring his own glory. Although I was not at all convinced by this gentleman’s arguments, I could not help admiring his vivacity which, I imagined, must be the effect of his illustrious birth and noble education, and accordingly rated him, in my conjecture, as a young prince on his travels. The discourse was afterwards shifted by an old gentleman, of a very martial appearance, to the last campaign, when the battle of Dettingen was fought over again, with so many circumstances to the honour of the French and disadvantages if the Allies, that I began to entertain some doubts of my having been there in person, and took the liberty to mention some objections to what he advanced. This freedom introduced a dispute, which lasted a good while, to the mortification of all present; and was at last referred to the determination of a grave person, whom they styled Doctor, and who, under a show of great moderation, decided it against me, with so little regard to truth, that I taxed him with partiality in pretty severe terms, to the no small entertainment of the true English politician, who rejoiced at my defence of a cause he had so often espoused without success.

My opponent, pleased with the victory he had gained, affected a great deal of candour, and told me, he should not have been so positive, if he had not been at great pains to inform himself of each particular. “Indeed,” said he, “I am convinced that the previous steps considered, things could not happen otherwise; for we generals who have seen service, though we may not be on the spot ourselves, know by the least sketch of the disposition what must be the event.” He then censured, with great freedom, every circumstance of the conduct of those who commanded the Allies; from thence made a transition to the ministry, which he honoured with many invectives for employing people who had neither experience nor capacity, to the prejudice of old officers, who had been distinguished for both; dropped many hints of his own importance, and concluded with observing, that the French and Spaniards knew better how to value generals of merit; the good effects of which are seen in the conquests they gain, and the discipline of their troops, which are at the same time better clothed and paid than any soldiers in the universe. These remarks furnished the green knight with an opportunity of launching out in the praise of the French government in general, civil as well as military; on which occasion he made many odious comparisons to the disadvantage of the English. Everybody, almost, assented to the observations he made, and the doctor gave his sanction, by saying, the people of France were undoubtedly the happiest subjects in the world. I was so much astonished and confounded at their infatuation and effrontery, that I had not power to utter one word in opposition to their assertions; but my morose associate could not put up with the indignity that was offered to Old England, and therefore with a satirical grin addressed himself to the general in these words: “Sir, sir, I have often heard it said, She’s a villainous bird that befouls her own nest. As for what those people who are foreigners say, I don’t mind it; they know no better; but you who were bred and born, and have got your bread, under the English government, should have more regard to gratitude, as well as truth in censuring your native country. If the ministry have thought fit to lay you aside, I suppose they have their own reasons for so doing; and you ought to remember, that you still live on the bounty of this nation. As for these gentlemen (meaning the prince and ambassador), who make so free with our constitution, laws, and genius of our people, I think they might show a little more respect for their benefactors, who, I must own, are to blame in harbouring and protecting, and encouraging such ungrateful vagrants as they are.” At these words, the chevalier in green started up in a great passion, and laying his hand on the hilt of his hanger, exclaimed, “Ah! foutre!” The Englishman on the other hand, grasping his cane cried, “Don’t foutre me, sirrah, or by G— d I’ll knock you down.” The company interposed, the Frenchman sat down again, and his antagonist proceeded — “Lookey, Monsieur, you know very well that had you dared to speak so freely of the administration of your own country in Paris as you have done of ours in London, you would have been sent to the Bastille without ceremony, where you might have rotted in a dungeon, and never seen the light of the sun again. Now, sir, take my word for it, although our constitution screens us from such oppression, we want not laws to chastise the authors of seditious discourse, and if I hear another syllable out of your mouth in contempt or prejudice of this kingdom, I will give you a convincing proof of what I advance, and have you laid by the heels for your presumption.” This declaration had an effect on the company as sudden as surprising. The young prince became as supple as a spaniel, the ambassador trembled, the general sat silent and abashed, and the doctor, who it seems, had felt the rod of power, grew pale as death, and assured us all, that he had no intention to affront any person or people. “Your principles, doctor,” resumed the old gentleman, “are no secret — I have nothing to say upon that head; but am very much surprised, that a man who despises us so much, should notwithstanding live among us, when he has no visible motive for so doing. Why don’t you take up your habitation in your beloved France, where you may rail at England without censure?” To this remonstrance the doctor thought proper to make no reply, and an unsocial silence ensued; which I perceiving, took notice, that it was pity such idle disputes, maintained very often through whim or diversion, should create any misunderstanding among gentlemen of good sense, and proposed to drink down all animosity in another bottle,

This motion was applauded by the whole company. The wine was brought, and the English champion, declaring he had no spleen against any man for differing in opinion from him, any more than for difference of complexion, drank to the good health of all present; the compliment was returned, and the conversation once more became unreserved though more general than before. Among other topics, the subject of war was introduced, on which the general declaimed with great eloquence, recounting many of his own exploits by way of illustration. In the course of his harangue he happened to mention the word epaulement, upon which the testy gentleman asked the meaning, of that term. “I’ll tell you what an epaulement is,” replied he, “I never saw an epaulement but once, and that was at the siege of Namur. In a council of war, Monsieur Cohorn, the famous engineer, affirmed that the place could not be taken.” “Yes,” said the Prince of Vandemont, “it may be taken by an epaulement.” “This was immediately put into execution, and in twenty-four hours Mareschal Boufflers was fain to capitulate.” Here he made a full stop, and the old gentleman repeated the question, “But pray what is an epaulement?” To this interrogation the officer made no immediate reply, but rang the bell, and called for the bill, which being brought, he threw down his proportion of the reckoning, and, telling the company he would show them an epaulement when his majesty should think fit to entrust him with the command of our army abroad, strutted away with great dignity. I could not imagine why he was so shy of explaining one of the most simple terms of fortification, which I forthwith described as a side-work composed of earth, gabions, or fascines; but I was very much surprised when I afterwards understood that his reserve proceeded from his ignorance.

Having paid our bill, we adjourned to the coffee-room, where my fellow-labourer insisted on treating me with a dish, giving me to understand, at the same time, that I had acquired his good opinion, both with respect to my principles and understanding. I thanked him for his compliment, and, professing myself an utter stranger in this part of the world, begged he would have the goodness to inform me of the quality and characters of the people who dined above. This request was a real favour to one of his disposition, which was no less communicative than curious; he therefore complied with great satisfaction, and told me, to my extreme astonishment, that the supposed young prince was a dancer at one of the theatres, and the ambassador no other than a fiddler belonging to the opera. “The doctor,” said he “is a Roman Catholic priest, who sometimes appears in the character of an officer, and assumes the name of captain; but more generally takes the garb, title, and behaviour of a physician, in which capacity he wheedles himself into the confidence of weak-minded people, and by arguments no less specious than false, converts them from their religion and allegiance. He has been in the hands of justice more than once for such practices, but he is a sly dog, and manages matters with so much craft, that hitherto he has escaped for a short imprisonment. As for the general, you may see he has owed his promotion more to his interest than his capacity; and, now that the eyes of the ministry are opened, his friends dead or become inconsiderable, he is struck off the list, and obliged to put up with a yearly pension. In consequence of this reduction, he is become malcontent, and inveighs against the government in all companies, with so little discretion, that I am surprised at the lenity of the administration, in overlooking his insolence, but the truth of the matter is, he owes his safety to his weakness and want of importance. He has seen a little, and but a little, service, and yet, if you will take his word to it, there has not been a great action performed in the field since the Revolution, in which he was not principally concerned. When a story is told of any great general, he immediately matches it with one of himself, though he is often unhappy in his invention, and commits such gross blunders in the detail, that everybody is in pain for him. Caesar, Pompey, and Alexander the Great, are continually in his mouth; and, as he reads a good deal without any judgment to digest it, his ideas are confused, and his harangues as unintelligible as infinite; for, if once he begin, there is no chance of his leaving off speaking while one person remains to yield attention; therefore the only expedient I know, for putting a stop to his loquacity, is to lay hold of some incongruity he has uttered, and demand an explanation; or ask the meaning of some difficult term that he knows by name; this method will effectually put him to silence, if not to flight, as it happened when I inquired about an epaulement. Had he been acquainted with the signification of that word, his triumph would have been intolerable, and we must have quitted the field first, or been worried with impertinence.”

Having thus gratified my curiosity, the old gentleman began to discover his own, in questions relating to myself, to which I thought proper to return ambiguous answers. “I presume, Sir,” said he, “you have travelled.” I answered, “Yes.” “I dare say you have found it very expensive,” said he. I replied, “To be sure, one cannot travel without money.” “That I know by experience,” said he, “for I myself take a trip to Bath or Tunbridge every season; and one must pay sauce for what he has on the road, as well in other countries as in this. That’s a pretty stone in your ring — give me leave, sir — the French have attained to a wonderful skill in making compositions of this kind. Why, now, this looks almost as well as a diamond.” “Almost as well, Sir!” said I, “Why not altogether? I am sure if you understand anything of jewels, you must perceive, at first sight, that this stone is a real diamond, and that of a very fine water. Take it in your hand and examine it.” He did so with some confusion, and returned it, saying, “I ask your pardon; I see it is a true brilliant of immense value.” I imagined his respect to me increased after this inquiry; therefore to captivate his esteem the more, I told him, I would show him a seal of composition, engraved after a very valuable antique; upon which I pulled out my watch with a rich gold chain, adorned with three seals set in gold, and an opal ring, He viewed each of them with great eagerness, handled the chain, admired the chased case, and observed that the whole must have cost me a vast sum of money. I affected indifference, and replied in a careless manner, “Some trifle of sixty or seventy guineas.” He stared in my face for some time, and then asked if I was an Englishman? I answered in the negative. “You are from Ireland then, Sir, I presume,” said he. I made the same reply. “Oh! perhaps,” said he “you were born in one of our settlements abroad.” I still answered No. He seemed very much surprised, and said, he was sure I was not a foreigner. I made no reply, but left him upon the tenter-hooks of impatient uncertainty. He could not contain his anxiety, but asked pardon for the liberties he had taken and, to encourage me the more to disclose my situation, displayed his own without reserve. “I am,” said he, “a single man, have a considerable annuity, on which I live according to my inclination, and make the ends of the year meet very comfortably. As I have no estate to leave behind, I am not troubled with the importunate officiousness of relations or legacy hunters, and I consider the world as made for me, not me for the world. It is my maxim, therefore, to enjoy it while I can, and let futurity shift for itself.”

While he thus indulged his own talkative vein, and at the same time, no doubt, expected retaliation from me, a young man entered, dressed in black velvet and an enormous tie-wig, with an air in which natural levity and affected solemnity were so jumbled together, that on the whole he appeared a burlesque on all decorum. This ridiculous oddity danced up to the table at which we sat, and, after a thousand grimaces, asked my friend by the name of Mr. Medlar, if we were not engaged upon business. My companion put on a surly countenance, and replied “No great business, doctor — but however — ” “Oh! then,” cried the physician; “I must beg your indulgence a little; pray pardon me, gentlemen.” “Sir,” said he, addressing himself to me, “your most humble servant. I hope you will forgive me, sir — I must beg the favour to sit — sir — sir — I have something of consequence to impart to my friend Mr. Medlar — sir, I hope you will excuse my freedom in whispering, sir,” Before I had time to give this complaisant person my permission, Mr. Medlar cried, “I’Il have no whispering — if you have anything to say to me, speak with an audible voice.” The doctor seemed a little disconcerted at this exclamation, and, turning again to me, made a thousand apologies for pretending to make a mystery of anything, a piece of caution which he said was owing to his ignorance of my connection with Mr. Medlar; but now he understood I was a friend, and would communicate what he had to say in my hearing. He then began, after two or three hems, in this manner: “You must know, sir, I am just come from dinner at my Lady Flareit’s (then addressing himself to me), a lady of quality, sir, at whose table I have the honour of dining sometimes. There was Lady Stately and my Lady Larum, and Mrs. Dainty, and Miss Biddy Giggler, upon my word, a very good-natured young lady, with a very pretty fortune sir. There was also my Lord Straddle. Sir John Shrug, and Master Billy Chatter, who is actually a very facetious young gentleman. So, sir, her ladyship seeing me excessively fatigued, for she was the last of fifteen patients (people of distinction, sir) whom I had visited this forenoon, insisted upon my staying dinner, though upon my word I protest I had no appetite; however, in compliance with her ladyship’s request, sir, I sat down, and the conversation turning on different subjects, among other things, Mr Chatter asked very earnestly when I saw Mr. Medlar. I told him I had not had the pleasure of seeing you these nineteen hours and a half; for you may remember, sir, it was nearly about that time; I won’t be positive as to a minute.” “No,” says he, “then I desire you will go to his lodgings immediately after dinner, and see what’s the matter with him, for he must certainly be very bad from having eaten last night such a vast quantity of raw oysters.” The crusty gentleman, who, from the solemnity of his delivery, expected something extraordinary, no sooner heard his conclusion, than he started up in a testy humour, crying, “Pshaw, pshaw! D— n your oysters!” and walked away, after a short compliment of, “Your servant sir,” to me. The doctor got up also, saying, “I vow and protest, upon my word, I am actually amazed;” and followed Mr. Medlar to the bar, which was hard by, where he was paying for his coffee: there he whispered so loud that I could overhear, “Pray who is this gentleman?” His friend replied hastily, “I might have known that before now, if it had not been for your impertinent intrusion,” — and walked off very much disappointed. The ceremonious physician returned immediately and sat down by me, asking a thousand pardons for leaving me alone: and giving me to understand that what he had communicated to Mr. Medlar at the bar, was an affair of the last importance, that would admit of no delay. He then called for some coffee, and launched out into the virtues of that berry, which, he said, in cold phlegmatic constitutions, like his, dried up the superfluous moisture, and braced the relaxed nerves. He told me it was utterly unknown to the ancients; and derived its name from an Arabian word, which I might easily perceive by the sound and termination. From this topic he transferred his disquisitions to the verb drink, which he affirmed was improperly applied to the taking of coffee, inasmuch as people did not drink, but sip or sipple that liquor; that the genuine meaning of drinking is to quench one’s thirst, or commit a debauch by swallowing wine; that the Latin word, which conveyed the same idea, was bibere or potare, and that of the Greeks pinein or poteein, though he was apt to believe they were differently used on different occasions: for example — to drink a vast quantity, or, as the vulgar express it, to drink an ocean of liquor, was in Latin potare, and in Greek poteein; and, on the other hand, to use it moderately, was bibere and pinein; — that this was only a conjecture of his, which, however, seemed to be supported by the word bibulous, which is particularly applied to the pores of the skin, and can only drink a very small quantity of the circumambient moisture, by reason of the smallness of their diameters; — whereas, from the verb poteein is derived the substantive potamos, which signifies a river, or vast quantity of liquor. I could not help smiling at this learned and important investigation; and, to recommend myself the more to my new acquaintance, whose disposition I was by this time well informed of, I observed that, what he alleged, did not, to the best of my remembrance, appear in the writings of the ancients; for Horace uses the words poto and bibo indifferently for the same purpose, as in the twentieth Ode of his first Book.

“Vile potabis modicis sabinum cantharis —
— Et praelo domitam caleno tu bibes uvam.”

That I had never heard of the verb poteein, but that potamos, potema, and potos, were derived from pino, poso, pepoka, in consequence of which, the Greek poets never use any other word for festal drinking. Homer describes Nestor at his cups in these words,

“Nestora d’ouk elathen jache pinonta pcrempes.”

And Anacreon mentions it on the same occasion always in every page.

“Pinonti de oinon hedun.
Otan pino ton oinon.
Opliz’ ego de pino.”

And in a thousand other places. The doctor who doubtless intended by his criticism to give me a high idea of his erudition, was infinitely surprised to find himself schooled by one of my appearance; and after a considerable pause cried, “Upon my word, you are in the right, sir — I find I have not considered this affair with my usual accuracy.” Then, accosting me in Latin, which he spoke very well, the conversation was maintained full two hours, on a variety of subjects, in that language; and indeed he spoke so judiciously, that I was convinced, notwithstanding his whimsical appearance and attention to trifles, that he was a man of extensive knowledge, especially in books; he looked upon me, as I afterwards understood from Mr. Medlar, as a prodigy in learning, and proposed that very night, if I were not engaged, to introduce me to several young gentlemen of fortune and fashion, with whom I had an appointment at the Bedford coffee house.

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