The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, by Tobias Smollett

Chapter LXX.

The two Friends eclipse all their Competitors in Gallantry, and practise a pleasant Project of Revenge upon the Physicians of the Place.

The fame of their exploit against the sharpers was immediately diffused through all the companies at Bath; so that, when our adventurers appeared in public, they were pointed out by an hundred extended fingers, and considered as consummate artists in all the different species of finesse, which they would not fail to practise with the first opportunity. Nor was this opinion of their characters any obstacle to their reception into the fashionable parties in the place; but, on the contrary, such a recommendation, which, as I have already hinted, never fails to operate for the advantage of the possessor.

This first adventure, therefore, served them as an introduction to the company at Bath, who were not a little surprised to find their expectations baffled by the conduct of the two companions; because, far from engaging deeply at play, they rather shunned all occasions of gaming, and directed their attention to gallantry, in which our hero shone unrivalled. His external qualifications, exclusive of any other merit, were strong enough to captivate the common run of the female sex; and these, reinforced with a sprightliness of conversation, and a most insinuating address, became irresistible, even by those who were fortified with pride, caution, or indifference. But, among all the nymphs of this gay place, he did not meet with one object that disputed the empire of his heart with Emilia, and therefore he divided his attachment according to the suggestions of vanity and whim; so that, before he had resided a fortnight at Bath, he had set all the ladies by the ears, and furnished all the hundred tongues of scandal with full employment. The splendour of his appearance excited the inquiries of envy, which, instead of discovering any circumstances to his prejudice, was cursed with the information of his being a young gentleman of a good family, and heir to an immense fortune.

The countenance of some of his quality friends, who arrived at Bath, confirmed this piece of intelligence. Upon which his acquaintance was courted and cultivated with great assiduity; and he met with such advances from some of the fair sex, as rendered him extremely fortunate in his amours. Nor was his friend Godfrey a stranger to favours of the same kind; his accomplishments were exactly calculated for the meridian of female taste; and, with certain individuals of that sex, his muscular frame, and the robust connection of his limbs, were more attractive than the delicate proportions of his companion. He accordingly reigned paramount among those inamoratas who were turned of thirty, without being under the necessity of proceeding by tedious addresses, and was thought to have co-operated with the waters in removing the sterility of certain ladies, who had long undergone the reproach and disgust of their husbands; while Peregrine set up his throne among those who laboured under the disease of celibacy, from the pert miss of fifteen, who, with a fluttering heart, tosses her head, bridles up, and giggles involuntarily at sight of a handsome young man, to the staid maid of twenty-eight, who, with a demure aspect, moralizes on the vanity of beauty, the folly of youth, and simplicity of woman, and expatiates on friendship, benevolence, and good sense, in the style of a Platonic philosopher.

In such a diversity of dispositions, his conquests were attended with all the heart-burnings, animosities, and turmoils of jealousy and spite. The younger class took all opportunities of mortifying their seniors in public, by treating them with that indignity which, contrary to the general privilege of age, is, by the consent and connivance of mankind, leveled against those who have the misfortune to come under the denomination of old maids; and these last retorted their hostilities in the private machinations of slander, supported by experience and subtilty of invention. Not one day passed in which some new story did not circulate, to the prejudice of one or other of those rivals.

If our hero, in the long-room, chanced to quit one of the moralists, with whom he had been engaged in conversation, he was immediately accosted by a number of the opposite faction, who, with ironical smiles, upbraided him with cruelty to the poor lady he had left, exhorted him to have compassion on her sufferings; and, turning their eyes towards the object of their intercession, broke forth into a universal peal of laughter. On the other hand, when Peregrine, in consequence of having danced with one of the minors overnight, visited her in the morning, the Platonists immediately laid hold on the occasion, tasked their imaginations, associated ideas, and, with sage insinuations, retailed a thousand circumstances of the interview, which never had any foundation in truth. They observed, that, if girls are determined to behave with such indiscretion, they must lay their accounts with incurring the censure of the world; that she in question was old enough to act more circumspectly; and wondered that her mother would permit any young fellow to approach the chamber while her daughter was naked in bed. As for the servants peeping through the key-hole, to be sure it was an unlucky accident; but people ought to be upon their guard against such curiosity, and give their domestics no cause to employ their penetration. These and other such reflections were occasionally whispered as secrets among those who were known to be communicative; so that, in a few hours, it became the general topic of discourse; and, as it had been divulged under injunctions of secrecy, it was almost impossible to trace the scandal to its origin; because every person concerned must have promulgated her own breach of trust, in discovering her author of the report.

Peregrine, instead of allaying, rather exasperated this contention, by an artful distribution of his attention among the competitors; well knowing, that, should his regard be converged into one point, he would soon forfeit the pleasure he enjoyed in seeing them at variance; for both parties would join against the common enemy, and his favourite would be persecuted by the whole coalition. He perceived, that, among the secret agents of scandal, none were so busy as the physicians, a class of animals who live in this place, like so many ravens hovering about a carcase, and even ply for employment, like scullers at Hungerford-stairs. The greatest part of them have correspondents in London, who make it their business to inquire into the history, character, and distemper of every one that repairs to Bath, for the benefit of the waters, and if they cannot procure interest to recommend their medical friends to these patients before they set out, they at least furnish them with a previous account of what they could collect, that their correspondents may use this intelligence for their own advantage. By these means, and the assistance of flattery and assurance, they often insinuate themselves into the acquaintance of strangers, and, by consulting their dispositions, become necessary and subservient to their prevailing passions. By their connection with apothecaries and nurses, they are informed of all the private occurrences in each family, and therefore enabled to gratify the rancour of malice, amuse the spleen of peevish indisposition, and entertain the eagerness of impertinent curiosity.

In the course of these occupations, which frequently affected the reputation of our two adventurers, this whole body fell under the displeasure of our hero, who, after divers consultations with his friend, concerted a stratagem, which was practised upon the faculty in this manner. Among those who frequented the pump-room, was an old officer, whose temper, naturally impatient, was, by repeated attacks of the gout, which had almost deprived him of the use of his limbs, sublimated into a remarkable degree of virulence and perverseness. He imputed the inveteracy of his distemper to the malpractice of a surgeon who had administered to him, while he laboured under the consequences of an unfortunate amour; and this supposition had inspired him with an insurmountable antipathy to all the professors of the medical art, which was more and more confirmed by the information of a friend at London, who had told him, that it was the common practice among the physicians at Bath to dissuade their patients from drinking the water, that the cure, and in consequence their attendance, might be longer protracted.

Thus prepossessed, he had come to Bath, and, conformable to a few general instructions he had received, used the waters without any farther direction, taking all occasions of manifesting his hatred and contempt of the sons of Esculapius, both by speech and gesticulations, and even by pursuing a regimen quite contrary to that which he knew they prescribed to others who seemed to be exactly in his condition. But he did not find his account in this method, how successful soever it may have been in other cases. His complaints, instead of vanishing, were every day more and more enraged: and at length he was confined to his bed, where he lay blaspheming from morn to night, and from night to morn, though still more determined than ever to adhere to his former maxims.

In the midst of his torture, which was become the common joke of the town, being circulated through the industry of the physicians, who triumphed in his disaster, Peregrine, by means of Mr. Pipes, employed a country fellow, who had come to market, to run with great haste, early one morning, to the lodgings of all the doctors in town, and desire them to attend the colonel with all imaginable despatch. In consequence of this summons, the whole faculty put themselves in motion; and three of the foremost arriving at the same instant of time, far from complimenting one another with the door, each separately essayed to enter, and the whole triumvirate stuck in the passage. While they remained thus wedged together, they descried two of their brethren posting towards the same goal, with all the speed that God had enabled them to exert; upon which they came to a parley, and agreed to stand by one another. This covenant being made, they disentangled themselves, and, inquiring about the patient, were told by the servant that he had just fallen asleep.

Having received this intelligence, they took possession of his ante-chamber, and shut the door, while the rest of the tribe posted themselves on the outside as they arrived; so that the whole passage was filled, from the top of the staircase to the street-door; and the people of the house, together with the colonel’s servant, struck dumb with astonishment. The three leaders of this learned gang had no sooner made their lodgment good, than they began to consult about the patient’s malady, which every one of them pretended to have considered with great care and assiduity. The first who gave his opinion, said, the distemper was an obstinate arthritis; the second affirmed, that it was no other than a confirmed pox; and the third swore, it was an inveterate scurvy. This diversity of opinions was supported by a variety of quotations from medical authors, ancient as well as modern; but these were not of sufficient authority, or, at least, not explicit enough to decide the dispute; for there are many schisms in medicine, as well as in religion, and each sect can quote the fathers in support of the tenets they profess. In short, the contention rose to such a pitch of clamour, as not only alarmed the brethren on the stair, but also awaked the patient from the first nap he had enjoyed in the space of ten whole days. Had it been simply waking, he would have been obliged to them for the noise that disturbed him; for, in that case, he would have been relieved from the tortures of hell fire, to which, in his dreams, he fancied himself exposed. But this dreadful vision had been the result of that impression which was made upon his brain by the intolerable anguish of his joints; so that, when he awaked, the pain, instead of being allayed, was rather aggravated by a great acuteness of sensation; and the confused vociferation in the next room invading his ears at the same time, he began to think his dream was realised, and, in the pangs of despair, applied himself to a bell that stood by his bedside, which he rung with great violence and perseverance.

This alarm put an immediate stop to the disputation of the three doctors, who, upon this notice of his being awake, rushed into his chamber, without ceremony; and two of them seizing his arms, the third made the like application to one of his temples. Before the patient could recollect himself from the amazement which had laid hold on him at this unexpected irruption, the room was filled by the rest of the faculty, who followed the servant that entered in obedience to his master’s call; and the bed was in a moment surrounded by these gaunt ministers of death. The colonel seeing himself beset with such an assemblage of solemn visages and figures, which he had always considered with the utmost detestation and abhorrence, was incensed to a most inexpressible degree of indignation; and so inspirited by his rage, that though his tongue denied its office, his other limbs performed their functions. He disengaged himself from the triumvirate, who had taken possession of his body, sprung out of bed with incredible agility, and, seizing one of his crutches, applied it so effectually to one of the three, just as he stooped to examine the patient’s water, that his tie-periwig dropped into the pot, while he himself fell motionless on the floor.

This significant explanation disconcerted the whole fraternity; every man turned his face, as if it were by instinct, towards the door; and the retreat of the community being obstructed by the efforts of individuals, confusion and tumultuous uproar ensued. For the colonel, far from limiting his prowess to the first exploit, handled his weapon with astonishing vigour and dexterity, without respect of persons; so that few or none of them had escaped without marks of his displeasure, when his spirits failed, and he sank down again quite exhausted on his bed. Favoured by this respite, the discomfited faculty collected their hats and wigs, which had fallen off in the fray; and perceiving the assailant too much enfeebled to renew the attack, set up their throats together, and loudly threatened to prosecute him severely for such an outrageous assault.

By this time the landlord had interposed; and, inquiring into the cause of the disturbance, was informed of what had happened by the complainants, who, at the same time, giving him to understand that they had been severally summoned to attend the colonel that morning, he assured them that they had been imposed upon by some wag, for his lodger had never dreamed of consulting any one of their profession.

Thunderstruck at this declaration, the general clamour instantaneously ceased; and each, in particular, at once comprehending the nature of the joke, they sneaked silently off with the loss they had sustained, in unutterable shame and mortification; while Peregrine and his friend, who took care to be passing that way by accident, made a full stop at sight of such an extraordinary efflux, and enjoyed the countenance and condition of every one as he appeared; nay, even made up to some of those who seemed most affected with their situation, and mischievously tormented them with questions, touching this unusual congregation; then, in consequence of the information they received from the landlord and the colonel’s valet, subjected the sufferers to the ridicule of all the company in town. As it would have been impossible for the authors of this farce to keep themselves concealed from the indefatigable inquiries of the physicians, they made no secret of their having directed the whole: though they took care to own it in such an ambiguous manner, as afforded no handle of prosecution.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:59