The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, by Tobias Smollett

Chapter LXXXV.

Peregrine is celebrated as a Wit and Patron, and proceeds to entertain himself at the Expense of whom it did concern.

In the meantime, Peregrine flourished in the gay scenes of life, and, as I have already observed, had divers opportunities of profiting in the way of marriage, had not his ambition been a little too inordinate, and his heart still biased by a passion, which all the levity of youth could not balance, nor all the pride of vanity overcome. Nor was our hero unmarked in the world of letters and taste; he had signalized himself in several poetical productions, by which he had acquired a good share of reputation: not that the pieces were such as ought to have done much honour to his genius; but any tolerable performance from a person of his figure and supposed fortune, will always be considered by the bulk of readers as an instance of astonishing capacity; though the very same production, ushered into the world with the name of an author in less affluent circumstances would be justly disregarded and despised; so much is the opinion of most people influenced and overawed by ridiculous considerations.

Be this as it will, our young gentleman was no sooner distinguished as an author, than he was marked out as a patron by all the starving retainers to poetry; he was solemnised in odes, celebrated in epigrams, and fed with the milk of soft dedication. His vanity even relished this incense; and, though his reason could not help despising those that offered it, not one of them was sent away unowned by his munificence. He began to think himself, in good earnest, that superior genius which their flattery had described; he cultivated acquaintance with the wits of fashion, and even composed in secret a number of bon-mots, which he uttered in company as the impromptus of his imagination. In this practice, indeed, he imitated some of the most renowned geniuses of the age, who, if the truth were known, have laboured in secret, with the sweat of their brows, for many a repartee which they have vended as the immediate production of fancy and expression. He was so successful in this exercise of his talents, that his fame actually came in competition with that great man who had long sat at the helm of wit; and, in a dialogue that once happened between them, on the subject of a corkscrew, wherein the altercation was discharged, according to Bayes, slap for slap, dash for dash, our hero was judged to have the better of his lordship, by some of the minor satellites, that commonly surround and reflect the rays of such mighty luminaries.

In a word, he dipped himself so far in these literary amusements, that he took the management of the pit into his direction, putting himself at the head of those critics who call themselves the town; and in that capacity chastised several players, who had been rendered insolent and refractory by unmerited success. As for the new productions of the stage, though generally unspirited and insipid, they always enjoyed the benefit of his influence and protection; because he never disliked the performance so much as he sympathized with the poor author, who stood behind the scenes in the most dreadful suspense, trembling, as it were, on the very brink of damnation. Yet, though he extended his generosity and compassion to the humble and needy, he never let slip one opportunity of mortifying villainy and arrogance. Had the executive power of the legislature been vested in him, he would have doubtless devised strange species of punishment for all offenders against humanity and decorum; but, restricted as he was, he employed his invention in subjecting them to the ridicule and contempt of their fellow-subjects.

It was with this view he set on foot the scheme of conjuration, which was still happily carried on, and made use of the intelligence of his friend Cadwallader; though he sometimes converted this advantage to the purposes of gallantry, being, as the reader may have perceived, of a very amorous complexion. He not only acted the reformer, or rather the castigator, in the fashionable world, but also exercised his talents among the inferior class of people, who chanced to incur his displeasure. One mischievous plan that entered our hero’s imagination was suggested by two advertisements published in the same paper, by persons who wanted to borrow certain sums of money, for which they promised to give undeniable security. Peregrine, from the style and manner of both, concluded they were written by attorneys, a species of people for whom he entertained his uncle’s aversion. In order to amuse himself and some of his friends with their disappointment, he wrote a letter signed A. B. to each advertiser, according to the address specified in the newspaper, importing, that if he would come with his writings to a certain coffee-house near the Temple, precisely at six in the evening, he would find a person sitting in the right-hand box next to the window, who would be glad to treat with him about the subject of his advertisement; and, should his security be liked, would accommodate him with the sum which he wanted to raise. Before the hour of this double appointment, Pickle, with his friend Cadwallader, and a few more gentlemen, to whom he had thought proper to communicate the plan, went to the coffee-house, and seated themselves near the place that was destined for their meeting.

The hope of getting money had such an evident effect upon their punctuality, that one of them arrived a considerable time before the hour; and having reconnoitred the room, took his station according to the direction he had received, fixing his eye upon a dock that stood before him, and asking of the barkeeper, if it was not too slow. He, had not remained in this posture many minutes, when he was joined by a strange figure that waddled into the room, with a bundle of papers in his bosom, and. the sweat running over his nose. Seeing a man in the box to which he had been directed, he took it for granted that he was the lender; and as soon as he could recover his breath, which was almost exhausted by the despatch he had made, “Sir,” said he, “I presume you are the gentleman I was to meet about that loan.” Here he was interrupted by the other, who eagerly replied, “A. B., sir, I suppose.” “The same,” cried the last-comer: “I was afraid I should be too late; for I was detained beyond my expectation by a nobleman at the other end of the town, that wants to mortgage a small trifle of his estate, about a thousand a year; and my watch happens to be in the hands of the maker, having met with an accident a few nights ago, which set it asleep. But, howsomever, there is no time lost, and I hope this affair will be transacted to the satisfaction of us both. For my own part, I love to do good offices myself, and therefore I expect nothing but what is fair and honest of other people.”

His new friend was exceedingly comforted by this declaration, which he considered as a happy omen of his success; and the hope of fingering the cash operated visibly in his countenance, while he expressed his satisfaction at meeting with a person of such candour and humanity. “The pleasure,” said he, “of dealing with an easy conscientious man is, in my opinion, superior to that of touching all the money upon earth; for what joy can be compared with what a generous mind feels in befriending its fellow-creatures? I was never so happy in my life, as at one time, in lending five hundred pounds to a worthy gentleman in distress, without insisting upon rigid security. Sir, one may easily distinguish an upright man by his countenance: for example now, I think I could take your word for ten thousand pounds.” The other, with great joy, protested, that he was right in his conjecture, and returned the compliment a thousand-fold; by which means, the expectation of both was wound up to a very interesting pitch; and both, at the same instant, began to produce their papers, in the untying of which their hands shook with transports of eagerness and impatience; while their eyes were so intent upon their work, that they did not perceive the occupation of each other.

At length, one of them, having got the start of the other, and unrolled several skins of musty parchment, directed his view to the employment of his friend; and, seeing him fumbling at his bundle, asked if that was a blank bond and conveyance which he had brought along with him. The other, without lifting up his eyes, or desisting from his endeavours to loose the knot, which by this time he had applied to his teeth, answered this question in the negative, observing that the papers in his hand were the security which he proposed to give for the money. This reply converted the looks of the inquirer into a stare of infinite solidity, accompanied with the word Anan! which he pronounced in a tone of fear and astonishment. The other, alarmed at this note, cast his eyes towards the supposed lender, and was in a moment infected by his aspect. All the exultation of hope that sparkled in their eyes was now succeeded by disappointment and dismay; and while they gazed ruefully at each other, their features were gradually elongated, like the transient curls of a Middle-row periwig.

This emphatic silence was, however, broken by the last-comer, who, in a faltering accent, desired the other to recollect the contents of his letter. “Of your letter!” cried the first, putting into his hand the advertisement he had received from Pickle; which he had no sooner perused, than he produced his own for the satisfaction of the other party. So that another gloomy pause ensued, at the end of which, each uttered a profound sigh, or rather groan, and, rising up, sneaked off without further communication, he who seemed to be the most afflicted of the two, taking his departure, with an exclamation of “Humbugged, egad!”

Such were the amusements of our hero, though they did not engross his whole time, some part of which was dedicated to nocturnal riots and revels, among a set of young noblemen, who had denounced war against temperance, economy, and common sense, and were indeed the devoted sons of tumult, waste, and prodigality. Not that Peregrine relished those scenes, which were a succession of absurd extravagance, devoid of all true spirit, taste, or enjoyment. But his vanity prompted him to mingle with those who are entitled the choice spirits of the age; and his disposition was so pliable, as to adapt itself easily to the measures of his company, where he had not influence enough to act in the capacity of a director. Their rendezvous was a certain tavern, which might be properly styled the temple of excess, where they left the choice of their fare to the discretion of the landlord, that they might save themselves the pains of exercising their own reason; and, in order to avoid the trouble of adjusting the bill, ordered the waiter to declare how much every individual must pay, without specifying the articles of the charge. This proportion generally amounted to two guineas per head for each dinner and supper; and frequently exceeded that sum; of which the landlord durst not abate, without running the risk of having his nose slit for his moderation.

But this was puny expense compared with that which they often incurred, by the damage done to the furniture and servants, in the madness of their intoxication, as well as the loss they sustained at hazard, an amusement to which all of them had recourse in the progress of their debauches. This elegant diversion was introduced, encouraged, and promoted by a crew of rapacious sharpers, who had made themselves necessary companions to this hopeful generation, by the talents of pimping and buffoonery. Though they were universally known, even by those they preyed upon to have no other means of earning their livelihood, than the most infamous and fraudulent practices, they were caressed and courted by these infatuated dupes, when a man of honour, who would not join in their excesses, would have been treated with the utmost indignity and contempt.

Though Peregrine, in his heart, detested those abandoned courses, and was a professed enemy to the whole society of gamesters, whom he considered, and always treated, as the foes of humankind, he was insensibly accustomed to licentious riot, and even led imperceptibly into play by those cormorants, who are no less dangerous in the art of cheating, than by their consummate skill in working up the passions of unwary youth. They are, for the most part, naturally cool, phlegmatic, and crafty, and, by a long habit of dissimulation, have gained an absolute dominion over the hasty passions of the heart; so that they engage with manifest advantage over the impatience and impetuosity of a warm undesigning temper, like that of our young gentleman, who, when he was heated with wine, misled by example, invited on one hand, and defied on the other, forgot all his maxims of caution and sobriety, and, plunging into the reigning folly of the place, had frequent occasions to moralize in the morning upon the loss of the preceding night. These penitential reflections were attended with many laudable resolutions of profiting by the experience which he had so dearly purchased; but he was one of those philosophers who always put off till another day the commencement of their reformation.

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