The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, by Tobias Smollett

Chapter LXXI.

Peregrine humbles a noted Hector, and meets with a strange Character at the House of a certain Lady.

Among those who never failed to reside at Bath during the season, was a certain person, who, from the most abject misery, had, by his industry and art at play, amassed about fifteen thousand pounds; and though his character was notorious, insinuated himself so far into the favour of what is called the best company, that very few private parties of pleasure took place in which he was not principally concerned. He was of a gigantic stature, a most intrepid countenance; and his disposition, naturally overbearing, had, in the course of his adventures and success, acquired a most intolerable degree of insolence and vanity. By the ferocity of his features, and audacity of his behaviour, he had obtained a reputation for the most undaunted courage, which had been confirmed by divers adventures, in which he had humbled the most assuming heroes of his own fraternity; so that he now reigned chief Hector of the place with unquestioned authority.

With this son of fortune was Peregrine one evening engaged at play, and so successful, that he could not help informing his friend of his good luck. Godfrey, hearing the description of the loser, immediately recognized the person, whom he had known at Tunbridge; and, assuring Pickle that he was a sharper of the first water, cautioned him against any further connection with such a dangerous companion, who, he affirmed, had suffered him to win a small sum, that he might be encouraged to lose a much greater sum upon some other occasion.

Our young gentleman treasured up this advice; and though he did not scruple to give the gamester an opportunity of retrieving his loss, when he next day demanded his revenge, he absolutely refused to proceed after he had refunded his winning. The other, who considered him as a hot-headed unthinking youth, endeavoured to inflame his pride to a continuance of the game, by treating his skill with scorn and contempt; and, among other sarcastic expressions, advised him to go to school again, before he pretended to engage with masters of the art. Our hero, incensed at his arrogance, replied with great warmth, that he knew himself sufficiently qualified for playing with men of honour, who deal upon the square, and hoped he should always deem it infamous either to learn or practise the tricks of a professed gamester. “Blood and thunder! meaning me, sir?” cried this artist, raising his voice, and curling his visage into a most intimidating frown. “Zounds! I’ll cut the throat of any scoundrel who has the presumption to suppose that I don’t play as honourably as e’er a nobleman in the kingdom: and I insist upon an explanation from you, sir; or, by hell and brimstone! I shall expect other sort of satisfaction.” Peregrine (whose blood by this time boiled within him) answered without hesitation, “Far from thinking your demand unreasonable, I will immediately explain myself without reserve, and tell you, that, upon unquestionable authority, I believe you to be an impudent rascal and common cheat.”

The Hector was so amazed and confounded at the freedom of this declaration, which he thought no man on earth would venture to make in his presence, that, for some minutes, he could not recollect himself; but at length whispered a challenge in the ear of our hero, which was accordingly accepted. When they arrived next morning upon the field, the gamester, arming his countenance with all its terrors, advanced with a sword of a monstrous length, and, putting himself in a posture, called out aloud in a most terrific voice, “Draw, d — n ye, draw; I will this instant send you to your fathers.” The youth was not slow in complying with his desire; his weapon was unsheathed in a moment, and he began the attack with such unexpected spirit and address, that his adversary, having made shift with great difficulty to parry the first pass, retreated a few paces, and demanded a parley, in which he endeavoured to persuade the young man, that to lay a man of his character under the necessity of chastising his insolence, was the most rash and inconsiderate step that he could possibly have taken; but that he had compassion upon his youth, and was willing to spare him if he would surrender his sword, and promise to ask pardon in public for the offence he had given. Pickle was so much exasperated at this unparalleled effrontery, that, without deigning to make the least reply, he flung his own hat in the proposer’s face, and renewed the charge with such undaunted agility, that the gamester, finding himself in manifest hazard of his life, betook himself to his heels, and fled homewards with incredible speed, being closely pursued by Peregrine, who, having sheathed his sword, pelted him with stones as he ran, and compelled him to go, that same day, into banishment from Bath, where he had domineered so long.

By this achievement, which was the subject of astonishment to all the company, who had looked upon the fugitive as a person of heroic courage, our adventurer’s reputation was rendered formidable in all its circumstances; although he thereby disobliged a good many people of fashion, who had contracted an intimacy of friendship with the exile, and who resented his disgrace, as if it had been the misfortune of a worthy man. These generous patrons, however, bore a very small proportion to those who were pleased with the event of the duel; because, in the course of their residence at Bath, they had either been insulted or defrauded by the challenger. Nor was this instance of our hero’s courage unacceptable to the ladies, few of whom could now resist the united force of such accomplishments. Indeed, neither he nor his friend Godfrey would have found much difficulty in picking up an agreeable companion for life; but Gauntlet’s heart was pre-engaged to Sophy; and Pickle, exclusive of his attachment to Emily, which was stronger than he himself imagined, possessed such a share of ambition as could not be satisfied with the conquest of any female he beheld at Bath.

His visits were, therefore, promiscuous, without any other view than that of amusement; and though his pride was flattered by the advances of the fair, whom he had captivated, he never harboured one thought of proceeding beyond the limits of common gallantry, and carefully avoided all particular explanations. But, what above all other enjoyments yielded him the most agreeable entertainment, was the secret history of characters, which he learned from a very extraordinary person, with whom he became acquainted in this manner.

Being at the house of a certain lady on a visiting day, he was struck with the appearance of an old man, who no sooner entered the room than the mistress of the house very kindly desired one of the wits present to roast the old put. This petit-maitre, proud of the employment, went up to the senior, who had something extremely peculiar and significant in his countenance, and saluting him with divers fashionable congees, accosted him in these words: “Your servant, you old rascal. I hope to have the honour of seeing you hanged. I vow to Gad! you look extremely shocking, with these gummy eyes, lanthorn jaws, and toothless chaps. What! you squint at the ladies, you old rotten medlar? Yes, yes, we understand your ogling; but you must content yourself with a cook-maid, sink me! I see you want to sit. These withered shanks of yours tremble under their burden; but you must have a little patience, old Hirco! indeed you must. I intend to mortify you a little longer, curse me!”

The company was so tickled with this address, which was delivered with much grimace and gesticulation, that they burst out into a loud fit of laughter, which they fathered upon a monkey that was chained in the room; and, when the peal was over, the wit renewed the attack in these words: “I suppose you are fool enough to think this mirth was occasioned by Pug. Ay, there he is; you had best survey him; he is of your own family; switch me. But the laugh was at your expense; and you ought to thank Heaven for making you so ridiculous.” While he uttered these ingenious ejaculations, the old gentleman bowed alternately to him and the monkey, that seemed to grin and chatter in imitation of the beau, and, with an arch solemnity of visage, pronounced, “Gentlemen, as I have not the honour to understand your compliments, they will be much better bestowed on each other.” So saying, he seated himself, and had the satisfaction to see the laugh returned upon the aggressor, who remained confounded and abashed, and in a few minutes left the room, muttering, as he retired, “The old fellow grows scurrilous, stap my breath!”

While Peregrine wondered in silence at this extraordinary scene, the lady of the house perceiving his surprise, gave him to understand, that the ancient visitant was utterly bereft of the sense of hearing; that his name was Cadwallader Crabtree, his disposition altogether misanthropical; and that he was admitted into company on account of entertainment he afforded by his sarcastic observations, and the pleasant mistakes to which he was subject from his infirmity. Nor did our hero wait a long time for an illustration of this odd character. Every sentence he spoke was replete with gall; nor did his satire consist in general reflections, but a series of remarks, which had been made through the medium of a most whimsical peculiarity of opinion.

Among those who were present at this assembly was a young officer, who having, by dint of interest, obtained a seat in the lower house, thought it incumbent upon him to talk of affairs of state; and accordingly regaled the company with an account of a secret expedition which the French were busied in preparing; assuring them that he had it from the mouth of the minister, to whom it had been transmitted by one of his agents abroad. In descanting upon the particulars of the armament, he observed that they had twenty ships of the line ready manned and victualled at Brest, which were destined for Toulon, where they would be joined by as many more; and from thence proceed to the execution of their scheme, which he imparted as a secret not fit to be divulged.

This piece of intelligence being communicated to all the company except Mr. Crabtree, who suffered by his loss of hearing, that cynic was soon after accosted by a lady, who, by means of an artificial alphabet, formed by a certain conjunction and disposition of the fingers, asked if he had heard any extraordinary news of late. Cadwallader, with his usual complaisance, replied, that he supposed she took him for a courier or spy, by teasing him eternally with that question. He then expatiated upon the foolish curiosity of mankind, which, he said, must either proceed from idleness or want of ideas; and repeated almost verbatim the officer’s information, a vague ridiculous report invented by some ignorant coxcomb, who wanted to give himself airs of importance, and believed only by those who were utterly unacquainted with the politics and strength of the French nation.

In confirmation of what he had advanced, he endeavoured to demonstrate how impossible it must be for that people to fit out even the third part of such a navy, so soon after the losses they had sustained during the war; and confirmed his proof by asserting, that to his certain knowledge, the harbours of Brest and Toulon could not at that time produce a squadron of eight ships of the line. The member, who was an utter stranger to this misanthrope, hearing his own asseverations treated with such contempt, glowed with confusion and resentment, and, raising his voice, began to defend his own veracity, with great eagerness and trepidation, mingling with his arguments many blustering invectives, against the insolence and ill manners of his supposed contradictor, who sat with the most mortifying composure of countenance, till the officer’s patience was quite exhausted, and then, to the manifest increase of his vexation, he was informed, that his antagonist was so deaf, that in all probability, the last trumpet would make no impression upon him, without a previous renovation of his organs.

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