The Adventures of Roderick Random, by Tobias Smollett

Chapter LI

I cultivate an Acquaintance with two Noblemen — am introduced to earl Strutwell — his kind Promise and Invitation — the Behaviour of his Porter and Lacquey — he receives me with an Appearance of uncommon Affection — undertakes to speak in my Behalf to the Minister — informs me of his Success, and wishes me Joy — introduces a Conversation about Fetronius Arbiter — falls in Love with my Watch, which I press upon him — I make a present of a Diamond Ring to Lord Straddle — impart my good Fortune to Strap and Banter, who disabuses me, to my utter Mortification

Baffled hitherto in my matrimonial schemes, I began to question my talents for the science of fortune-hunting, and to bend my thoughts towards some employment under the government. With the view of procuring which, I cultivated the acquaintance of Lords Straddle and Swillpot, whose fathers were men of interest at court. I found these young noblemen as open to my advances as I could desire; I accompanied them in their midnight rambles, and often dined with them at taverns, where I had the honour of paying the reckoning.

I one day took the opportunity, while I was loaded with protestations of friendship, to disclose my desire of being settled in some sinecure, and to solicit their influence in my behalf. Swillpot, squeezing my hand, said, I might depend upon his service by G—. The other swore that no man would be more proud than he to run my errands. Encouraged by these declarations, I ventured to express an inclination to be introduced to their fathers, who were able to do my business at once. Swillpot frankly owned he had not spoken to his father these three years; and Straddle assured me, his father, having lately disobliged the minister by subscribing his name to a protest in the house of peers, was thereby rendered incapable of serving his friends at present; but he undertook to make me acquainted with Earl Strutwell, who was hand and glove with a certain person who ruled the roast. This offer I embraced with many acknowledgments, and plied him so closely, in spite of a thousand evasions, that he found himself under a necessity of keeping his word, and actually carried me to the levee of this great man, where he left me in a crowd of fellow-dependents, and was ushered to a particular closet audience; from whence, in a few minutes, he returned with his lordship, who took me by the hand, assured me he would do me all the service he could, and desired to see me often. I was charmed with my reception, and, although I had heard that a courtier’s promise is not to be depended upon, I thought I discovered so much sweetness of temper and candour in this earl’s countenance, that I did not doubt of finding my account in his protection. I resolved therefore to profit by this permission, and waited on him next audience day, when I was favoured with a particular smile, squeeze of the hand, and a whisper, signifying that he wanted half-an-hour’s conversation with me in private, when he should be disengaged, and for that purpose desired me to come and drink a dish of chocolate with him to-morrow morning.

This invitation, which did not a little flatter my vanity and expectation, I took care to observe, and went to his lordship’s house at the time appointed. Having rapped at the gate, the porter unbolted and kept it half open, placing himself in the gap, like soldiers in the broach, to dispute my passage. I asked if his lord was stirring? He answered with a surly aspect, “ No.” “At what hour does he commonly rise?” said I. “Sometimes sooner, sometimes later,” said he, closing the door upon me by degrees. I then told him I was come by his lordship’s own appointment, to which intimation this Cerberus replied, “I have received no orders about the matter,” and was upon the point of shutting me out, when I recollected myself all of a sudden, and slipping a crown into his hand, begged as a favour that he would inquire, and let me know whether or not the earl was up. The grim janitor relented at the touch of my money, which he took with all the indifference of a taxgatherer, and showed me into a parlour, where, he said, I might amuse myself till such time as his lord should be awake. I had not sat ten minutes in this place, when a footman entered, and, without speaking, started at me; I interpreted this piece of his behaviour into, “Pray, sir, what is your business?” and asked the same question I had put to the porter, when I accosted him first. The lacquey made the same reply, and disappeared before I could get any further intelligence. In a little time he returned, on pretence of poking the fire, and looked at me again with great earnestness; upon which I began to perceive his meaning, and, tipping him with half-a-crown, desired he would be so good as to fall upon some method of letting the earl know that I was in the house. He made a low bow, said, “Yes, sir,” and vanished. This bounty was not thrown away, for in an instant he came back, and conducted me to a chamber, where I was received with great kindness and familiarity by his lordship, whom I found just risen, in his morning-gown, and slippers. After breakfast, he entered into a particular conversation with me about my travels, the remarks I had made abroad, and examined me to the full extent of my understanding. My answers seemed to please him very much, he frequently squeezed my hand, and, looking at me with a singular complacency in his countenance, bade me depend upon his good offices with the ministry in my behalf. “Young men of your qualifications,” said he, “ought to be cherished by every administration. For my own part, I see so little merit in the world, that I have laid it down as a maxim, to encourage the least appearance of genius and virtue to the utmost of my power: you have a great deal of both; and will not fail of making a figure one day, if I am not mistaken; but you must lay your account with mounting by gradual steps to the summit of your fortune. Rome was not built in a day. As you understand the languages perfectly well, how would you like to cross the sea as secretary to an embassy?” I assured his lordship, with great eagerness, that nothing could be more agreeable to my inclination: upon which he bade me make myself easy, my business was done, for he had a place of that kind in his view. This piece of generosity affected me so much, that I was unable for some time to express my gratitude, which at length broke out in acknowledgments of my own unworthiness, and encomiums on his benevolence. I could not even help shedding tears at the goodness of this noble lord, who no sooner perceived them than he caught me in his arms, and hugged and kissed me with a seemingly paternal affection. Confounded at this uncommon instance of fondness for a stranger, I remained a few moments silent and ashamed; then rose and took my leave, after he had assured me that he would speak to the minister in my favour that very day; and desired that I would not for the future give myself the trouble of attending at his levee, but come at the same hour every day, when he should be at leisure, that is, three times a week.

Though my hopes were now very sanguine, I determined to conceal my prospect from everybody, even from Strap, until I should be more certain of success: and in the meantime give my patron no respite from my solicitations. When I renewed my visit, I found the street-door opened to me as if by enchantment; but in my passage towards the presence-room, I was met by the valet-de-chambre, who cast some furious looks at me the meaning of which I could not comprehend. The earl saluted me at entrance with a tender embrace, and wished me joy of his success with the Premier, who, he said, had preferred his recommendation to that of two other noblemen very urgent in behalf of their respective friends, and absolutely promised that I should go to a certain foreign court in quality of secretary to an ambassador and plenipotentiary who was to set out in a few weeks an affair of vast importance to the nation. I was thunderstruck with my good fortune, and could make no other reply than kneel and attempt to kiss my benefactor’s hand, which submission he would not permit; but, raising me up, pressed me to his breast with surprising emotion, and told me he had now taken upon himself the care of making my fortune. What enhanced the value of the benefit still the more, was his making light of the favour, and shifting the conversation to another subject.

Among other topics of discourse, that of the Belles Lettres was introduced, upon which his lordship held forth with great taste and erudition and discovered an intimate knowledge of the authors of antiquity, “Here’s a book,” said he, taking one from his bosom, “written with great elegance and spirit; and, though the subject may give offence to some narrow-minded people, the author will always be held in esteem by every person of wit and learning.” So saying, he put into my hand Petronius Arbiter, and asked my opinion of his wit and manner. I told him, that, in my opinion, he wrote with great ease and vivacity, but was withal so lewd and indecent that he ought to find no quarter or protection among people of morals and taste. “I own,” replied the earl, “that his taste in love is generally decried, and indeed condemned by our laws; but perhaps that may be more owing to prejudice and misapprehension than to true reason and deliberation. The best man among the ancients is said to have entertained that passion; one of the wisest of their legislators has permitted the indulgence of it in his commonwealth; the most celebrated poets have not scrupled to avow it. At this day it prevails not only over all the East, but in most parts of Europe; in our own country, it gains ground apace, and in all probability will become in a short time a more, fashionable vice than simple fornication. Indeed there is something to be said in vindication of it; for, notwithstanding the severity of the law against offenders in this way, it must be confessed that the practice of this passion is unattended with that curse and burthen upon society which proceeds from a race of miserable and deserted bastards, who are either murdered by their parents, deserted to the utmost want and wretchedness, or bred up to prey upon the commonwealth: and it likewise prevents the debauchery of many a young maiden, and the prostitution of honest men’s wives; not to mention the consideration of health, which is much less liable to be impaired in the gratification of this appetite, than in the exercise of common venery, which, by ruining the constitutions of our young men, has produced a puny progeny that degenerates from generation to generation. Nay, I have been told, that there is another motive perhaps more powerful than all these, that induces people to cultivate this inclination; namely, the exquisite pleasure attending its success.”

From this discourse I began to be apprehensive that his lordship, finding I had travelled, was afraid I might have been infected with this spurious and sordid desire abroad, and took this method of sounding my sentiments on the subject. Fired at this supposed suspicion, I argued against it with great warmth, as an appetite unnatural, absurd, and of pernicious consequence; and declared my utter detestation and abhorrence of it in these lines of the satirist:—

Eternal infamy the wretch confound
Who planted first that vice on British ground!
A vice! That spite of nature and sense reigns,
And poisons genial love, and manhood stains.

The earl smiled at my indignation, and told me he was glad to find my opinion of the matter so conformable to his own, and that what he had advanced was only to provoke me to an answer, with which he professed himself perfectly well pleased. After I had enjoyed a long audience, I happened to look at my watch, in order to regulate my motions by it; and his lordship, observing the chased case, desired to see the device, and examine the exception, which he approved with some expressions of admiration. Considering the obligations I lay under to his lordship, I thought there could not be a fitter opportunity than the present to manifest, in some shape, my gratitude; I therefore begged he would do me the honour to accept of the watch as a small testimony of the sense I had of his lordship’s generosity; but, he refused it in a peremptory manner, and said he was sorry I should entertain such a mercenary opinion of him; observing at the same time, that it was the most beautiful piece of workmanship he had ever seen, and desiring to know where he could have such another. I begged a thousand pardons for the freedom I had taken, which I hoped he would impute to nothing else than the highest veneration for his person — told him, that, as it came to my hand by accident in France, I could give him no information about the maker, for there was no name on the inside; and once more humbly entreated that he would indulge me so far as to use it for my sake. He was still positive in refusing it; but was pleased to thank me for my generous offer, saying, it was a present that no nobleman need be ashamed of receiving: though he was resolved to show his disinterestedness with regard to me, for whom he had conceived a particular friendship; and insisted (if I were willing to part with the watch) upon knowing what it had cost, that he might at least indemnify me, by refunding the money. On the other hand, I assured his lordship that I should look upon it as an uncommon mark of distinction, if he would take it without further question; and, rather than disoblige me, he was at last persuaded to put it in his pocket, to my no small satisfaction, who took my leave immediately, after having received a kind squeeze, and an injunction to depend upon his promise.

Buoyed up with this reception, my heart opened; I gave away a guinea, among the lacqueys, who escorted me to the door, flew to the lodgings of Lord Straddle, upon whom I forced my diamond ring as an acknowledgment for the great service he had done me, and from thence hied me home, with an intent of sharing my happiness with honest Strap. I determined, however, to heighten his pleasure, by depressing his spirits at first, and then bringing in good news with double relish. For this purpose, I affected the appearance of disappointment and chagrin, and told him in an abrupt manner that I had lost the watch and diamond. Poor Hugh, who had been already harassed into a consumption by intelligence of this sort, no sooner heard these words, than, unable to contain himself, he cried, with distraction in his looks, “God in heaven forbid!” I could carry on the farce no longer; but, laughing in his face, told him everything that had passed, as above recited. His features were immediately unbended, and the transition was so affecting, that he wept with joy, calling my Lord Strutwell by the appellations of Jewel, Phoenix, Rara avis; and praising God, that there was still some virtue left among our nobility. Our mutual congratulations being over, we gave way to our imagination, and anticipated our happiness by prosecuting our success through the different steps of promotion, till I arrived at the rank of a prime minister, and he to that of my first secretary.

Intoxicated with these ideas, I went to the ordinary, where, meeting with Banter, I communicated the whole affair in confidence to him, concluding with an assurance that I would do him all the service in my power. He heard me to an end with great patience, then regarding me a good while with a look of disdain, pronounced, “So your business is done, you think?” “As good as done. I believe,” said I. “I’ll tell you,” replied he, “what will do it still more effectually — a halter! ‘Sdeath! if I had been such a gull to two such scoundrels as Strutwell and Straddle, I would, without any more ado, tuck myself up.” Shocked at this exclamation, I desired him with some confusion to explain himself; upon which he gave me to understand that Straddle was a poor contemptible wretch, who lived by borrowing and pimping for his fellow-peers; that in consequence of this last capacity, he had doubtless introduced me to Strutwell, who was so notorious for a passion for his own sex that he was amazed his character had never reached my ears; and that, far from being able to obtain for me the post he had promised, his interest at court was so low, that he could scarce provide for a superannuated footman once a year in the customs or excise; that it was a common thing for him to amuse strangers, whom his jackals ran down, with such assurances and caresses as he had bestowed on me, until he had stripped them of their cash, and everything valuable about them, very often of their chastity, and then leave them a prey to want and infamy: that he allowed his servants no other wages than that part of the spoil which they could glean by their industry; and the whole of his conduct towards me was so glaring, that nobody who knew anything of mankind could have been imposed upon by his insinuations.

I leave the reader to judge how I relished this piece of information, which precipitated me from the most exalted pinnacle of hope to the lowest abyss of despondence, and well nigh determined me to take Banter’s advice and finish my chagrin with a halter. I had no room to suspect the veracity of my friend, because, upon recollection, I found every circumstance of Strutwell’s behaviour exactly tallying with the character he had described; his hugs, embraces, squeezes, and eager looks, were now no longer a mystery; no more than his defence of Petronius, and the jealous frown of his valet-de-chambre, who, it seems, had been the favourite pathic of his lord.

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