The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, by Tobias Smollett

Chapter XCIII.

Peregrine commits himself to the Public, and is admitted Member of a College of Authors.

The bitterness of this explanation being passed, our young gentleman began to revolve within himself schemes for making up the deficiencies of his yearly income, which was now so grievously reduced; and determined to profit, in some shape or other, by those talents which he owed to nature and education. He had, in his affluence, heard of several authors, who, without any pretensions to genius or human literature, earned a very genteel subsistence by undertaking work for booksellers, in which reputation was not at all concerned. One, for example, professed all manner of translation, at so much per sheet, and actually kept five or six amanuenses continually employed, like so many clerks in a counting-house, by which means he was enabled to live at his ease, and enjoy his friend and his bottle, ambitious of no other character than that of an honest man and a good neighbour. Another projected a variety of plans for new dictionaries, which were executed under his eye by day-labourers; and the province of a third was history and voyages, collected or abridged by understrappers of the same class.

Mr. Pickle, in his comparisons, paid such deference to his own capacity, as banished all doubts of his being able to excel any of those undertakers in their different branches of profession, if ever he should be driven to that experiment; but his ambition prompted him to make his interest and glory coincide, by attempting some performance which should do him honour with the public, and at the same time establish his importance among the copy-purchasers in town. With this view, he worshipped the muse; and, conscious of the little regard which is in this age paid to every species of poetic composition, in which neither satire nor obscenity occurs, he produced an imitation of Juvenal, and lashed some conspicuous characters, with equal truth, spirit, and severity. Though his name did not appear in the title-page of this production, he managed matters so that the work was universally imputed to the true author, who was not altogether disappointed in his expectations of success; for the impression was immediately sold off, and the piece became the subject of conversation in all assemblies of taste.

This happy exordium not only attracted the addresses of the booksellers, who made interest for his acquaintance, but also roused the notice of a society of authors, who styled themselves “The College,” from which he was honoured with a deputation, offering to enroll him a member by unanimous consent. The person employed for this purpose being a bard who had formerly tasted of our hero’s bounty, used all his eloquence to persuade him to comply with the advances of their fraternity, which he described in such a manner as inflamed the curiosity of Pickle, who dismissed the ambassador, with an acknowledgment of the great honour they conferred upon him, and a faithful promise of endeavouring to merit the continuance of their approbation.

He was afterwards, by the same minister, instructed in the ceremonies of the college; and, in consequence of his information, composed an ode, to be publicly recited on the evening of his introduction. He understood that this constitution was no other than a body of authors, incorporated by mutual consent, for their joint advantage and satisfaction, opposed to another assembly of the same kind, their avowed enemies and detractors. No wonder, then, that they sought to strengthen themselves with such a valuable acquisition as our hero was likely to prove. The college consisted of authors only, and these of all degrees in point of reputation, from the fabricator of a song, set to music, and sung at Marylebone, to the dramatic bard who had appeared in buskins upon the stage: nay, one of the members had actually finished eight books of an epic poem, for the publication of which he was at that time soliciting subscriptions.

It cannot be supposed that such a congregation of the sons of Apollo would sit a whole evening with order and decorum, unless they were under the check of some established authority; and this inconvenience having been foreseen, they had elected a president, vested with full power to silence any member or members that should attempt to disturb the harmony and subordination of the whole. The sage, who at this time possessed the chair, was a person in years, whose countenance was a lively portraiture of that rancorous discontent which follows repeated damnation. He had been extremely unfortunate in his theatrical productions, and was, to use the words of a profane wag, who assisted at the condemnation of his last play, by this time d — d beyond redemption. Nevertheless, he still tarried about the skirts of Parnassus, translating some of the classics, and writing miscellanies, and by dint of an invincible assurance, supercilious insolence, the most undaunted virulence of tongue, and some knowledge of life, he made shift to acquire and maintain the character of a man of learning and wit, in the opinion of people who had neither; that is, thirty-nine in forty of those with whom he associated himself. He was even looked upon in this light by some few of the college; though the major part of those who favoured his election, were such as dreaded his malice, respected his experience and seniority, or hated his competitor, who was the epic poet.

The chief end of this society, as I have already hinted, was to assist and support each other in their productions, which they mutually recommended to sale, with all their art and influence, not only in private conversation, but also in occasional epigrams, criticisms, and advertisements, inserted in the public papers. This science, which is known by the vulgar appellation of puffing, they carried to such a pitch of finesse, that an author very often wrote an abusive answer to his own performance, in order to inflame the curiosity of the town, by which it had been overlooked. Notwithstanding this general unanimity in the college, a private animosity had long subsisted between the two rivals I have mentioned, on account of precedence, to which both laid claim, though, by a majority of votes, it had been decided in favour of the present chairman. The grudge indeed never proceeded to any degree of outrage or defiance, but manifested itself at every meeting, in attempts to eclipse each other in smart sayings and pregnant repartee; so that there was always a delicate mess of this kind of wit served up in the front of the evening, for the entertainment and example of the junior members, who never failed to divide upon this occasion, declaring themselves for one or other of the combatants, whom they encouraged by their looks, gestures, and applause, according to the circumstances of the dispute.

This honourable consistory was held in the best room of an ale-house, which afforded wine, punch, or beer, suitable to the purse or inclination of every individual, who separately paid for his own choice; and here was our hero introduced in the midst of twenty strangers, who, by their looks and equipage, formed a very picturesque variety. He was received with a most gracious solemnity, and placed upon the right hand of the president, who, having commanded silence, recited aloud his introductory ode, which met with universal approbation. Then was tendered to him the customary oath, obliging him to consult the honour and advantage of the society as far as it should he in his power, in every station of life; and this being taken, his temples were bound with a wreath of laurel, which was kept sacred for such inauguration.

When these rites were performed with all due ceremony, the new member cast his eyes around the place, and took a more accurate survey of his brethren; among whom he observed a strange collection of periwigs, with regard to the colour, fashions, and dimensions, which were such as he had never seen before. Those who sat on each side, nearest the president, were generally distinguished by venerable ties, the foretops of which exhibited a surprising diversity; some of them rose slanting backwards, like the glacis of a fortification; some were elevated in two distinct eminences, like the hills Helicon and Parnassus; and others were curled and reflected, as the horns of Jupiter Ammon. Next to these, the majors took place, many of which were mere succedanea, made by the application of an occasional rose to the tail of a lank bob; and in the lower form appeared masses of hair, which would admit of no description.

Their clothes were tolerably well suited to the furniture of their heads, the apparel of the upper bench being decent and clean, while that of the second class was threadbare and soiled; and at the lower end of the room, he perceived divers efforts made to conceal their rent breeches and dirty linen; nay, he could distinguish by their countenances the different kinds of poetry in which they exercised the muse. He saw Tragedy conspicuous in a grave solemnity of regard; Satire louring in a frown of envy and discontent; Elegy whining in a funeral aspect; Pastoral dozing in a most insipid languor of face; Ode-writing delineated in a distracted stare; and Epigram squinting with a pert sneer. Perhaps our hero refined too much in his penetration, when he affirmed, that, over and above these discoveries, he could plainly perceive the state of every one’s finances, and would have undertaken to have guessed each particular sum without varying three farthings from the truth. The conversation, instead of becoming general, began to fall into parties; and the epic poet had actually attracted the attention of a private committee, when the chairman interposed, calling aloud, “No cabals, no conspiracies, gentlemen.” His rival, thinking it incumbent upon him to make some reply to this rebuke, answered, “We have no secrets; he that hath ears, let him hear.” This was spoke as an intimation to the company, whose looks were instantly whetted with the expectation of their ordinary meal; but the president seemed to decline the contest; for, without putting on his fighting face, he calmly replied, that he had seen Mr. Metaphor tip the wink, and whisper to one of his confederates, and thence judged, that there was something mysterious on the carpet.

The epic poet, believing his antagonist crest-fallen, resolved to take the advantage of his dejection, that he might enhance his own character in the opinion of the stranger; and, with that view, asked, with an air of exultation, if a man might not be allowed to have a convulsion in his eye, without being suspected of a conspiracy? The president, perceiving his drift, and piqued at his presumption, “To be sure,” said he, “a man of a weak head may be very well supposed to have convulsions in his eyes.” This repartee produced a laugh of triumph among the chairman’s adherents; one of whom observed, that his rival had got a smart rap on the pate. “Yes,” replied the bard, “in that respect Mr. Chairman has the advantage of me. Had my head been fortified with a horn-work, I should not have been so sensible of the stroke.” This retort, which carried a severe allusion to the president’s wife, lighted up the countenances of the aggressor’s friends, which had begun to be a little obumbrated; and had a contrary effect upon the other faction, till their chief, collecting all his capacity, returned the salute, by observing, that there was no occasion for a horn-work, when the covered way was not worth defending.

Such a reprisal upon Mr. Metaphor’s yoke-fellow, who was by no means remarkable for her beauty, could not fail to operate upon the hearers; and as for the bard himself, he was evidently ruffled by the reflection; to which, however, he, without hesitation, replied, “Egad! ’tis my opinion, that, if your covered way was laid open, few people would venture to give the assault.”—“Not unless their batteries were more effectual than the fire of your wit,” said the president. “As for that matter,” cried the other with precipitation, “they would have no occasion to batter in breach; they would find the angle of the la pucelle bastion demolished to their hands — he, he!”—“But I believe it would surpass your understanding,” resumed the chairman, “to fill up the fosse.”—“That, I own, is impracticable,” replied the bard, “there I should meet with a hiatus maxime deflendus!”

The president, exasperated at this insinuation, in presence of the new member, exclaimed, with indignation in his looks, “And yet, if a body of pioneers were set at work upon your skull, they would find rubbish enough to choke up all the common sewers in town.” Here a groan was uttered by the admirers of the epic poet, who, taking a pinch of snuff with great composure, “When a man grows scurrilous,” said he, “I take it for an undoubted proof of his overthrow.”—“If that be the case,” cried the other, “you yourself must be the vanquished party, for you were the first that was driven to personal abuse.”—“I appeal,” answered the bard, “to those who can distinguish. Gentlemen, your judgment.”

This reference produced a universal clamour, and the whole college was involved in confusion. Every man entered into dispute with his neighbour on the merits of this cause. The chairman interposed his authority in vain; the noise grew louder and louder; the disputants waxed warm; the epithets of blockhead, fool, and scoundrel, were bandied about. Peregrine enjoyed the uproar, and, leaping upon the table, sounded the charge to battle, which was immediately commenced in ten different duels. The lights were extinguished; the combatants thrashed one another without distinction; the mischievous Pickle distributed sundry random blows in the dark, and the people below, being alarmed with the sound of application, the overturning of chairs, and the outcries of those who were engaged, came up-stairs in a body with lights to reconnoitre, and, if possible, quell this hideous tumult.

Objects were no sooner rendered visible, than the field of battle exhibited strange groups of the standing and the fallen. Each of Mr. Metaphor’s eyes was surrounded with a circle of a livid hue; and the president’s nose distilled a quantity of clotted blood. One of the tragic authors, finding himself assaulted in the dark, had, by way of a poniard, employed upon his adversary’s throat a knife which lay upon the table, for the convenience of cutting cheese; but, by the blessing of God, the edge of it was not keen enough to enter the skin, which it had only scratched in divers places. A satirist had almost bit off the ear of a lyric bard. Shirts and neckcloths were torn to rags; and there was such a woeful wreck of periwigs on the floor, that no examination could adjust the property of the owners, the greatest part of whom were obliged to use handkerchiefs by way of nightcap.

The fray, however, ceased at the approach of those who interposed; part of the combatants being tired of an exercise in which they had received nothing but hard blows; part of them being intimidated by the remonstrances of the landlord and his company, who threatened to call the watch; and a very few being ashamed of the scandalous dispute in which they were detected. But though the battle was ended, it was impossible, for that evening, to restore harmony and good order to the society, which broke up, after the president had pronounced a short and confused apology to our adventurer, for the indecent uproar which had unfortunately happened on the first night of his admission. Indeed, Peregrine deliberated with himself, whether or not his reputation would allow him to appear again among this venerable fraternity; but, as he knew some of them to be men of real genius, how ridiculous soever their carriage might be modified, and was of that laughing disposition, which is always seeking food for mirth, as Horace observes of Philippus:

Risus undique quaerit; —

he resolved to frequent the college, notwithstanding this accident, which happened at his inauguration; being thereto, moreover, induced by his desire of knowing the private history of the stage, with which he supposed some of the members perfectly well acquainted. He was also visited, before the next meeting, by his introductor, who assured him, that such a tumult had never happened since the first institution of the assembly, till that very night; and promised that, for the future, he should have no cause to be scandalized at their behaviour.

Persuaded by these motives and assurances, he trusted himself once more in the midst of their community, and everything proceeded with great decorum; all dispute and altercation was avoided, and the college applied itself seriously to the purposes of its meeting, namely, to hear the grievances of individuals, and assist them with salutary advice. The first person that craved redress was a noisy North Briton, who complained, in a strange dialect, that he had, in the beginning of the season, presented a comedy to the manager of a certain theatre, who, after it had lain six weeks in his hands, returned it to the author, affirming there was neither sense nor English in the performance.

The president, who, by the bye, had revised the piece, thinking his own reputation concerned, declared, in presence of the whole society, that, with regard to sense, he would not undertake to vindicate the production; but, in point of language, no fault could be justly laid to its charge. “The case, however, is very plain,” said he; “the manager never gave himself the trouble to peruse the play, but formed a judgment of it from the conversation of the author, never dreaming that it had undergone the revisal of an English writer; be that as it will, you are infinitely obliged to him for having despatched you so soon, and I shall have the better opinion of him for it so long as I live; for I have known other guise authors than you, that is, in point of interest and fame, kept in continual attendance and dependence during the best part of their lives, and, after all, disappointed in the expectation of seeing their performances exhibited on the stage.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00