The Adventures of Roderick Random, by Tobias Smollett

Chapter XLVII

Strap communicates to me a conquest he had made of a Chandler’s Widow — finds himself miserably mistaken — I go to the Opera — admire Melinda — am cautioned by Banter — go to the Assembly at Hampstead — dance with that young lady — receive an insolent message from Bragwell, whose mettle is soon cooled — am in favour with my Mistress, whom I visit next day, and am bubbled out of eighteen guineas at cards — Strap triumphs at my success, but is astonished at my expense — Banter comes to my lodging, is very sarcastic at my expense, and borrows five guineas from me, as a proof of his friendship

In the morning, before I got up, Strap came into my chamber, and, finding me awake, hemmed several times, scratched his head, cast his eyes upon the ground, and, with a very foolish kind of simper upon his face gave me to understand he had something to communicate. “By your countenance,” said I, “I expect to hear good tidings.” “Indifferently,” replied he, tittering, “that is, hereafter as it shall be. You must know, I have some thoughts of altering my condition.” “What!” cried I, astonished, “a matrimonial scheme? O rare Strap! thou hast got the heels of me at last.” “N— no less, I assure you,” said he, bursting into a laugh of self-approbation: “ a tallow chandler’s widow that lives hard by, has taken a liking to me, a fine jolly dame, as plump as a partridge. She has a well-furnished house, a brisk trade, and a good deal of the ready. I may have her for the asking. She told a friend of mine, a brother footman, that she would take me out of a stinking clout. But I refused to give my final answer, till I knew your opinion of the matter.” I congratulated Monsieur d’Estrapes upon his conquest, and approved of the scheme, provided he could be assured of those circumstances of her fortune; but advised him to do nothing rashly, and give me an opportunity of seeing the lady before matters should be brought to a conclusion. He assured me he would do nothing without my consent and approbation, and that very morning, while I was at breakfast, introduce his inamorata to my acquaintance. She was a short thick woman, about the age of thirty-six, and had a particular prominence of belly, which I perceived at first sight, not without some suspicion of foul play. I desired her, however, to sit, and treated her with a dish of tea; the discourse turning on the good qualities of Strap, whom I represented as a prodigy of sobriety, industry and virtue. When she took her leave, he followed her to the door, and returned licking his lips, and asking if I did not think she was a luscious creature. I made no mystery of my apprehension, but declared my sentiments of her without reserve; at which he was not surprised, telling me he had observed the same symptom, but was informed by his friend that she was only livergrown and would in few months be as small in the waist as ever. “ Yes,” said I, “a few weeks, I believe, will do the business. In short, Strap, it is my opinion, that you are egregiously imposed upon; and that this friend is no other than a rascal who wants to palm his trull upon you for a wife, that he may at once deliver himself from the importunities of the mother and the expense of her bantling; for which reason I would not have you trust implicitly to the report he makes of her wealth, which is inconsistent with his behaviour, nor run your head precipitately into a noose, that you may afterwards wish exchanged for the hangman’s.” He seemed very much startled at my insinuation, and promised to look twice before he leaped; saying, with some heat, “Odds, if I find his intention is to betray me, we shall see which of us is the better man.” My prediction was verified in less than a fortnight, her great belly producing an infant, to the unspeakable amazement of Strap, who was before this happened, inclinable to believe I had refined a little too much in my penetration. His false friend disappeared; and a few days after an execution was issued against her goods and household furniture, which were seized by the creditors.

Meanwhile I met my friend Banter at the ordinary, and in the evening went to the Opera with him and Mr Chatter, who pointed out Melinda in one of the boxes, and offered to introduce me to her, observing at the same time, that she was a reigning toast worth ten thousand pounds. This piece of information made my heart bound with joy, and I discovered great eagerness to accept the proposal; upon which he assured me I should dance with her at the next assembly, if he had any influence in that quarter: so saying, he went round, spoke to her some minutes, and, as I imagined, pointed at me; then returning, told me, to my inexpressible pleasure, that I might depend upon what he had promised, for she was now engaged as my partner. Banter in a whisper, gave me to understand that she was an incorrigible coquette, who would grant the same favour to any young fellow in England of a tolerable appearance, merely to engage him among the herd of her admirers, that she might have the pleasure of seeing them daily increase; that she was of a cold insensible disposition, dead to every passion but vanity, and so blind to merit, that he would lay any wager the wealthiest fool would carry her at last. I attributed a good deal of this intelligence to the satirical turn of my friend, or resentment for having himself suffered a rebuff from the lady in question. and, at any rate, trusted so much to my own accomplishments as to believe no woman could resist the ardour of my addresses.

Full of this confidence I repaired to Hampstead in company with Billy Chatter, my Lord Hobble, and Doctor Wagtail. There I saw a very brilliant assembly, before whom I had the honour to walk a minuet with Melinda, who charmed me with her frank manner and easiness of behaviour. Before the country dances began, I received a message by a person I did not know from Bragwell, who was present, importing that nobody who knew him presumed to dance with Melinda while he was there in person, that I would do well to relinquish her without noise, because he had a mind to lead up a country dance with her. This extraordinary intimation, which was delivered in the lady’s hearing, did not at all discompose me, who, by this time, was pretty well acquainted with the character of my rival. I therefore, without the least symptom of concern bade the gentleman tell Mr. Bragwell, that since I was so happy as to obtain the lady’s consent, I should not be solicitous about his; and desired the bearer himself to bring me no such impertinent messages for the future. Melinda, affected a sort of confusion, and pretended to wonder that Mr. Bragwell should give himself such liberties with regard to her, who had no manner of connection with the fellow. I laid hold of this opportunity to display my valour, and offered to call him to an account for his insolence, a proposal which she absolutely refused, under pretence of consulting my safety; though I could perceive, by the sparkling of her eyes, that she would not have thought herself affronted by being the subject of a duel. I was by no means pleased with this discovery of her thoughts, which not only argued the most unjustifiable vanity, but likewise the most barbarous indifference; however, I was allured by her fortune, and resolved to gratify her pride, in making her the occasion of a public quarrel between me and Bragwell, who, I was pretty certain, would never drive matters to a dangerous extremity.

While we danced together, I observed this formidable rival at one end of the room, encircled with a cluster of beaux, to whom he talked with great vehemence, casting many big looks at me from time to time. I guessed the subject of his discourse, and as soon as I had handed my partner to her seat, strutted up to the place where he stood, and, cocking my hat in his face, demanded aloud, if he had anything to say to me. He answered with a sullen tone, “Nothing, at present, sir;” and turned about upon his heel. “Well,” said I, “you where I am to be found at any time.” His companions stared at one another, and I returned to the lady, whose features brightened at my approach, and immediately a whisper ran through the whole room; after which so many eyes were turned upon me that I was ready to sink with confusion. When the ball broke up, I led her to her coach, and, like a true French gallant, would have got up behind it, in order to protect her from violence on the road, but she absolutely refused my offer, and expressed her concern that there was not an empty seat for me within the vehicle.

Next day, in the afternoon, I waited on her at her lodgings, by permission, in company with Chatter, and was very civilly received by her mother, with whom she lived. There were a good many fashionable people present, chiefly young fellows, and immediately after tea, a couple of card tables were set, at one of which I had the honour to play with Melinda, who in less than three hours, made shift to plunder me of eight guineas. I was well enough content to lose a little money with a good grace, that I might have an opportunity in the meantime to say soft things, which are still most welcome when attended with good luck; but I was by no means satisfied of her fair play, a circumstance that shocked me not a little, and greatly impaired my opinion of her disinterestedness and delicacy. However, I was resolved to profit by this behaviour, and treat her in my turn with less ceremony; accordingly, I laid close siege to her, and, finding her not at all disgusted with the gross incense I offered, that very night made a declaration of love in plain terms. She received my addresses with great gaiety, and pretended to laugh them off, but at the same time treated me with such particular complacency that I was persuaded I had made a conquest of her heart, and concluded myself the happiest man alive. Elevated with these flattering ideas, I sat down again to cards after supper, and with great cheerfulness suffered myself to be cheated of ten guineas more.

It was late before I took my leave, after being favoured with a general invitation; and, when I got into bed, the adventures of the day hindered me from sleeping. Sometimes I pleased myself with the hopes of possessing n fine woman with ten thousand pounds; then I would ruminate on the character I had heard of her from Banter, and compare it with the circumstances of her conduct towards me, which seemed to bear too great a resemblance to the picture he had drawn. This introduced a melancholy reflection on the expense I had undergone, and the smallness of my funds to support it, which, by-the-by, were none of my own. In short, I found myself involved in doubts and perplexities, that kept me awake the greatest part of the night.

In the morning, Strap, with whom I had not conversed for two days, presented himself with the utensils for shaving me; upon which, I asked his opinion of the lady he had seen me conduct to her coach at Hampstead. “Odds! she’s a delicious creature!” cried he, “and, as I am informed, a great fortune. I am sorry you did not insist on going home with her. I dare say, she would not have refused your company; for she seems to be a good-humoured soul.” “There’s a time for all things,” said I. “you must know, Strap, I was in company with her till one o’clock this morning.” I had no sooner pronounced these words than he began to caper about the room, and snap his fingers, crying in a transport, “The day’s our own — the day’s our own!” I gave him to understand that his triumph was a little premature, and that I had more difficulties to surmount than he was aware of; then I recounted to him the intelligence I had received from Banter. At which he changed colour, shook his head, and observed there was no faith in woman. I told him I was resolved to make a bold push notwithstanding, although I foresaw it would lead me into a great expense; and bade him guess the sum I had lost last night at cards. He scratched his chin, and protested his abhorrence of cards, the very name of which being mentioned, made him sweat with vexation, as it recalled the money-dropper to his remembrance. “But, however,” said he, “you have to do with other guess people now. Why, I suppose, if you had a bad run last night, you would scarce come off for less than ten or twelve shilling.” I was mortified at this piece of simplicity, which I imagined, at that time, was all affected by way of reprimand for my folly; and asked with some heat if he thought I had spent the evening in a cellar with chairmen and bunters; giving him to know, at the same time, that my expense had amounted to eighteen guineas.

It would require the pencil of Hogarth to express the astonishment and concern of Strap on hearing this piece of news; the basin, in which he was preparing the lather for my chin, dropped out of his hands, and he I remained some time immovable in that ludicrous attitude, with his mouth open, and his eyes thrust forward considerably beyond their station; but, remembering my disposition, which was touchy, and impatient of control, he smothered his chagrin, and attempted to recollect himself. With this view he endeavoured to laugh, but in spite if his teeth, broke out in a whimper, took up his wash-ball and pewter-pot, scrubbed my beard with the one, and discharged the other upon my face. I took no notice of this confusion, but after he had fully recovered himself, put him in mind of his right, and assured him of my readiness to surrender my effects whenever he should think proper to demand them. He was nettled at my insinuation, which he thought proceeded from my distrust of his friendship; and begged I would never talk to him in that strain again, unless I had a mind to break his heart.

This good creature’s unalterable friendship for me affected me with the most grateful sentiments, and acted as a spur to my resolution of acquiring a fortune, that I might have it in my power to manifest my generosity in my turn. For this purpose, I determined to bring matters to a speedy conclusion with Melinda; well knowing that a few such nights as the last would effectually incapacitate me from prosecuting that or any other advantageous amour.

While my meditation was busied in planning out my future conduct, Mr. Banter favoured me with a visit, and after breakfast asked how I had passed the preceding evening. I answered I was very agreeably entertained at a private house. “Yes,” said he, with a sarcastic smile, “you deserve something extraordinary for the price you paid.” I was surprised at this remark, and pretended ignorance of his meaning. “Come, come, Mr. Random,” continued he, “you need not make a mystery of it to me; the whole town has it. I wish that foolish affair between you and Bragwell at Hampstead had been less public. It has set all the busybodies at work to find out your real character and situation; and you cannot imagine what conjectures have already circulated at your expense. One suspects you to be a Jesuit in disguise; another thinks you are an agent from the Pretender; a third believes you to be an upstart gamester, because nobody knows anything of your family or fortune; a fourth is of opinion that you are an Irish fortune-hunter.” This last hypothesis touched me so nearly that, to conceal my confusion, I was fain to interrupt his detail, and damn the world for an envious meddling community, that would not suffer a gentleman to live without molestation. He took no notice of this apostrophe, but went on. “For my own part, I neither know nor desire to know who or what you are. This I am certain of, that few people make a mystery of their origin or situation, who can boast of anything advantageous in either; and my own opinion of the matter is that you have raised yourself, by your industry, from nothing to the appearance you now maintain, and which you endeavour to support by some matrimonial scheme.” Here he fixed his eyes steadfastly upon me and perceiving my face covered with blushes, told me, how he was confirmed in his opinion. “Look ye, Random,” said he, “I have divined your plan, and am confident it will never succeed. You are too honest and too ignorant of the town to practise the necessary cheats of your profession, and detect the conspiracies that will be formed against you. Besides, you are downright bashful. What the devil! set up for a fortune hunter before you have conquered the sense of shame! Perhaps you are entitled by your merit, and I believe you are, to a richer and a better wife than Melinda; but take my word for it, she is not to be won at that rate; — or, if you are so lucky as to carry her, between you and me, you may say, as Teague said, By my soul, I have gained a loss! She would take care to spend her fortune in a twinkling, and soon make you sick of her extravagance.”

I was alarmed by his discourse, while I resented the freedom of it, and expressed my disgust by telling him, he was mistaken in my intentions, and desiring he would give me leave to regulate my conduct according to the dictates of my own reason. He made no apology for the liberty he had taken, and ascribed it to the warmth of his friendship for me; as an uncommon instance of which he borrowed five guineas, assuring me there were very few people in the world who whom he could so far favour with his confidence. I gave him the money, and professed myself so well convinced of his sincerity, that he had no occasion to put it to such extraordinary proofs for the future. “I thought,” said he, “to have asked five pieces more, but hearing you were bubbled of eighteen last night, I presumed you might he out of cash, and resolved to model my demand accordingly.” I could not help admiring the cavalier behaviour of this spark, of whom I desired to know his reason for saying I was bubbled. He then gave me to understand, that before he came to my lodgings, he had beat up Tom Tossle, who, being present, informed him of the particulars, rehearsed all the fine things I said to Melinda, with which he proposed to entertain the town, and among other circumstances, assured him my mistress cheated with so little art, that nobody but a mere novice could be imposed upon.

The thoughts of becoming a subject of raillery for coxcombs, and losing my money to boot, stung me to the quick; but I made a virtue of my indignation, and swore that no man should with impunity either asperse the character of Melinda, or turn my behaviour into ridicule. He replied in a dry manner, that I would find it a Herculean task to chastise everybody who should laugh at my expense; and, as for the character of Melinda, he did not see how it could suffer by what was laid to her charge; for that cheating at cards, far from being reckoned a blemish among people of fashion, was looked upon as an honourable indication of superior genius and address. “But let us waive this subject,” said he, “and go to the coffee-house, in order to make a party for dinner.”

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