The Adventures of Roderick Random, by Tobias Smollett

Chapter XLVIII

We repair to the coffee-house, where we overhear a curious dispute between Wagtail and Medlar, which is referred to our decision — the Doctor gives an account of his experiment — Medlar is roasted by Banter at the ordinary — the old gentleman’s advice to me

Being as willing to drop the theme as he was to propose it, I accompanied him thither, where we found Mr. Medlar and Dr. Wagtail disputing upon the word Custard, which the physician affirmed should be spelt with a G, observing that it was derived from the Latin verb gustare, “to taste;” but Medlar pleaded custom in behalf of C, observing, that, by the Doctor’s rule, we ought to change pudding into budding, because it is derived from the French word boudin; and in that case why not retain the original orthography and pronunciation of all the foreign words we have adopted, by which means our language would become a dissonant jargon without standard or propriety? The controversy was referred to us; and Banter, notwithstanding his real opinion to the contrary, decided it in favour of Wagtail; upon which the peevish annuitant arose, and uttering the monosyllable pish! with great emphasis, removed to another table.

We then inquired of the doctor, what progress he had made in the experiment of distilling tinder-water; and he told us he had been at all the glass-houses about town, but could find nobody who would undertake to blow a retort large enough to hold the third part of the quantity prescribed; but he intended to try the process on as much as would produce five drops, which would be sufficient to prove the specific, and then he would make it a parliamentary affair; that he had already purchased a considerable weight of rags, in reducing which to tinder, he had met with a misfortune, which had obliged him to change his lodgings; for he had gathered them in a heap on the floor, and set fire to them with a candle, on the supposition that the boards would sustain no damage, because it is the nature of flame to ascend; but, by some very extraordinary accident, the wood was invaded, and began to blaze with great violence, which disordered him so much, that he had not the presence of mind enough to call for assistance, and the whole house must have been consumed with him in the midst of it, had not the smoke that rolled out of the windows in clouds alarmed the neighbourhood, and brought people to his succour: that he had lost a pair of black velvet breeches and a tie-wig in the hurry, besides the expense of the rags, which were rendered useless by the water used to quench the flame, and the damage of the floor, which he was compelled to repair; that his landlord, believing him distracted, had insisted on his quitting his apartment at a minute’s warning, and he was put to incredible inconvenience; but now he was settled in a very comfortable house, and had the use of a large paved yard for preparing his tinder; so that he hoped in a very short time to reap the fruits of his labour.

After having congratulated the doctor on his prospect, and read the papers, we repaired to an auction of pictures, where we entertained ourselves an hour or two; from thence we adjourned to the Mall, and, after two or three turns, went back to dinner, Banter assuring us, that he intended to roast Medlar at the ordinary; and, indeed, we were no sooner set than this cynic began to execute his purpose, by telling the old gentleman that he looked extremely well, considering the little sleep he had enjoyed last night. To this compliment Medlar made no reply, but by a stare, accompanied with a significant grin; and Banter went on thus; “I don’t know whether most to admire the charity of your mind, or the vigour of your body. Upon my soul, Mr. Medlar, you do generous things with the best taste of any man I know! You extend your compassion to real objects, and exact only such returns as they are capable of making. You must know, gentlemen,” said he, turning to the company, “I had been up most part of the night with a friend who is ill of a fever, and, on my return home this morning, chanced to pass by a gin shop still open, whence issued a confused sound of mirth and jollity: upon which, I popped in my head, and perceived Mr. Medlar dancing bareheaded in the midst of ten or twenty ragged bunters, who rejoiced at his expense. But indeed, Mr. Medlar, you should not sacrifice your constitution to your benevolence. Consider, you grow old apace; and, therefore, have a reverend care of your health, which must certainly be very much impaired by these nocturnal expeditions.” The testy senior could no longer contain himself, but cried hastily, “’Tis well known that your tongue is no slanderer.” “I think,” said the other, “ you might spare that observation, as you are very sensible, that my tongue has done you signal service on many occasions. You may remember, that, when you made your addresses to the fat widow who kept a public-house at Islington, there was a report spread very much to the prejudice of your manhood, which coming to the ears of your mistress, you were discarded immediately: and I brought matters to a reconciliation, by assuring her you had three bastards at nurse in the country. How you ruined your own affair afterwards, it is neither my business nor inclination to relate.”

This anecdote, which had no other foundation than in Banter’s own invention, afforded a good deal of mirth to everybody present, and provoked Mr. Medlar beyond all sufferance; so that he started up in a mighty passion, and, forgetting that his mouth was full, bespattered those who sat next to him, while he discharged his indignation in a volley of oaths, and called Banter insignificant puppy, impertinent jackanapes, and a hundred such appellations; telling the company he had invented these false and malicious aspersions, because he would not lend him money to squander away upon rooks and whores. “A very likely story,” said Banter, “that I should attempt to borrow money of a man who is obliged to practise a thousand shifts to make his weekly allowance hold out till Saturday night. Sometimes he sleeps four-and-twenty hours at a stretch, by which means he saves three meals, besides coffee-house expense. Sometimes he is fain to put up with bread and cheese and small beer for dinner; and sometimes he regales on twopennyworth of ox cheek in a cellar.” “You are a lying miscreant!” cried Medlar, in an ecstacy of rage; “I can always command money enough to pay your tailor’s bill, which I am sure is no trifle; and I have a good mind to give you a convincing proof of my circumstances, by prosecuting you for defamation, sirrah.” By this time the violence of his wrath had deprived him of his appetite, and he sat silent, unable to swallow one mouthful, while his tormentor enjoyed his mortification, and increased his chagrin, by advising him to lay in plentifully for his next day’s fast.

Dinner being ended, we came down stairs to the coffee room, and Banter went away to keep an appointment, saying, he supposed he should see Wagtail and me in the evening at the Bedford Coffee-house. He was no sooner gone than the old gentleman took me aside, and said, he was sorry to see me so intimate with that fellow, who was one of the most graceless rakes about town, and had already wasted a good estate and constitution upon harlots; that he had been the ruin of many a young man, by introducing them into debauched company, and setting a lewd example of all manner of wickedness; and that, unless I were on my guard, he would strip me in a short time both of my money and reputation. I thanked him for his information, and promised to conduct myself accordingly, wishing, however, his caution had been a few hours more early, by which means I might have saved five guineas. Notwithstanding this intelligence, I was inclinable to impute some part of the charge to Medlar’s revenge for the liberties taken with him at dinner; and therefore, as soon as I could disengage myself, applied to Wagtail for his opinion of the character in question, resolved to compare their accounts, allowing for the prejudice of each, and to form my judgment upon both, without adhering strictly to either. The doctor assured me, that he was a very pretty gentleman of family and fortune; a scholar, a wit, a critic, and perfectly well acquainted with the town; that his honour and courage were unquestionable, though some extravagances he had been guilty of, and his talents for satire had procured him enemies, and made some people shy of his acquaintance. From these different sketches, I concluded that Banter was a young fellow of some parts, who had spent his fortune, but retained his appetites, and fallen out with the world, because he could not enjoy it to his wish.

I went to the Bedford Coffee-house in the evening, where I met my friends, from thence proceeded to the play, and afterwards carried them home to my lodgings, where we supped in great good humour.

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