The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, by Tobias Smollett

Chapter XCIV.

Further proceedings of the College.

This affair was no sooner discussed, than another gentleman exhibited a complaint, signifying, that he had undertaken to translate into English a certain celebrated author, who had been cruelly mangled by former attempts; and that, soon as his design took air, the proprietors of those miserable translations had endeavoured to prejudice his work, by industrious insinuations, contrary to truth and fair dealing, importing, that he did not understand one word of the language which he pretended to translate. This being a case that nearly concerned the greatest part of the audience, it was taken into serious deliberation. Some observed, that it was not only a malicious effort against the plaintiff, but also a spiteful advertisement to the public, tending to promote an inquiry into the abilities of all other translators, few of whom, it was well known, were so qualified as to stand the test of such examination. Others said, that over and above this consideration, which ought to have its due weight with the college, there was a necessity for concerting measures to humble the presumption of booksellers, who had, from time immemorial, taken all opportunities to oppress and enslave their authors; not only by limiting men of genius to the wages of journeymen tailors, without even allowing them one Sabbath in the week, but also in taking such advantages of their necessities as were inconsistent with justice and humanity.

“For example,” said one of the members, “after I myself had acquired a little reputation with the town, I was caressed by one of those tyrants, who professed a friendship for me, and even supplied me with money, according to the exigencies of my situation; so that I looked upon him as the mirror of disinterested benevolence; and had he known my disposition, and treated me accordingly, I should have writ for him upon his own terms. After I had used his friendship in this manner for some time, I happened to have occasion for a small sum of money, and with great confidence made another application to my good friend; when all of a sudden he put a stop to his generosity, refused to accommodate me in the most abrupt and mortifying style; and though I was at that time pretty far advanced in a work for his benefit, which was a sufficient security for what I owed him, he roundly asked, how I proposed to pay the money which I had already borrowed? Thus was I used like a young w — just come upon the town, whom the b — d allows to run into her debt, that she may have it in her power to oppress her at pleasure; and if the sufferer complains, she is treated like the most ungrateful wretch upon earth; and that too with such appearance of reason, as may easily mislead an unconcerned spectator. ‘You unthankful drab!’ she will say, ‘didn’t I take you into my house when you hadn’t a shift to your back, a petticoat to your tail, nor a morsel of bread to put into your belly? Han’t I clothed you from head to foot like a gentlewoman, supported you with board, lodging, and all necessaries, till your own extravagance hath brought you into distress; and now you have the impudence, you nasty, stinking, brimstone bungaway! to say you are hardly dealt with, when I demand no more than my own?’ Thus the w — and the author are equally oppressed, and even left without the melancholy privilege of complaining; so that they are fain to subscribe to such terms as their creditors shall please to impose.”

This illustration operated so powerfully upon the conviction and resentment of the whole college, that revenge was universally denounced against those who had aggrieved the plaintiff; and, after some debate, it was agreed, that he should make a new translation of some other saleable book, in opposition to a former version belonging to the delinquents, and print it in such a small size as would enable him to undersell their property; and that this new translation should be recommended and introduced into the world with the whole art and influence of the society.

This affair being settled to the satisfaction of all present, an author of some character stood up, and craved the advice and assistance of his fellows, in punishing a certain nobleman of great pretensions to taste, who, in consequence of a production which this gentleman had ushered into the world with universal applause, not only desired, but even eagerly courted his acquaintance. “He invited me to his house,” said he, “where I was overwhelmed with civility and professions of friendship. He insisted upon my treating him as an intimate, and calling upon him at all hours, without ceremony; he made me promise to breakfast with him at least three times a week. In short, I looked upon myself as very fortunate, in meeting with such advances from a man of his interest and reputation, who had it in his power to befriend me effectually in my passage through life; and, that I might not give him any cause to think I neglected his friendship, I went to his house in two days, with a view of drinking chocolate, according to appointment; but he had been so much fatigued with dancing at an assembly overnight, that his valet-de-chambre would not venture to wake him so early; and I left my compliments to his lordship, with a performance in manuscript, which he had expressed a most eager desire to peruse. I repeated my visit next morning, that his impatience to see me might not have some violent effect upon his constitution; and received a message from his minister, signifying, that he had been highly entertained with the manuscript I had left, a great part of which he had read, but was at present so busy in contriving a proper dress for a private masquerade, which would be given that same evening, that he could not have the pleasure of my company at breakfast. “This was a feasible excuse, which I admitted accordingly, and in a day or two appeared again, when his lordship was particularly engaged. This might possibly be the case; and therefore I returned the fourth time, in hopes of finding him more at leisure; but he had gone out about half an hour before my arrival, and left my performance with his valet-de-chambre, who assured me, that his lord had perused it with infinite pleasure. Perhaps I might have retired very well satisfied with this declaration, had not I, in my passage through the hall, heard one of the footmen upon the top of the staircase, pronounce with an audible voice, ‘Will your lordship please to be at home when he calls?’ It is not to be supposed that I was pleased at this discovery, which I no sooner made, than, turning to my conductor, ‘I find,’ said I, ‘his lordship is disposed to be abroad to more people than me this morning.’ The fellow, though a valet-de-chambre, blushed at this observation; and I withdrew, not a little irritated at the peer’s disingenuity, and fully resolved to spare him my visits for the future. It was not long after this occasion, that I happened to meet him in the park, and being naturally civil, I could not pass him without a salutation of the hat, which he returned in the most distant manner, though we were both solitary, and not a soul within view, and when that very performance, which he had applauded so warmly, was lately published by subscription, he did not bespeak so much as one copy. I have often reflected with wonder upon this inconsistency of his conduct. I never courted his patronage, nor indeed thought of his name, until he made interest for my acquaintance; and if he was disappointed in my conversation, why did he press me so much to further connection?”

“The case is very clear,” cried the chairman, interrupting him; “he is one of those connoisseurs who set up for taste, and value themselves upon knowing all men of genius, whom they would be thought to assist in their productions. I will lay an even bet with any man, that his lordship on the strength of that slender interview, together with the opportunity of having seen your performance in manuscript, has already hinted to every company in which he is conversant, that you solicited his assistance in retouching the piece, which you have now offered to the public, and that he was pleased to favour you with his advice, but found you obstinately bigoted to your own opinion, in some points relating to those very passages which have not met with the approbation of the town. As for his caresses, there was nothing at all extraordinary in his behaviour. By that time you have lived to my age, you will not be surprised to see a courtier’s promise and performance of a different complexion; not but that I would willingly act as an auxiliary in your resentment.”

The opinion of the president was strengthened by the concurrence of all the members; and all other complaints and memorials being deferred till another sitting, the college proceeded to an exercise of wit, which was generally performed once every fortnight, with a view to promote the expectoration of genius. The subject was occasionally chosen by the chairman, who opened the game with some shrewd remark naturally arising from the conversation; and then the ball was tossed about, from one corner of the room to the other, according to the motions of the spirit.

That the reader may have a just idea of this sport, and of the abilities of those who carried it on, I shall repeat the sallies of this evening, according to the order and succession in which they escaped. One of the members observing that Mr. Metaphor was absent, was told by the person who sat next to him, that the poet had foul weather at home, and could not stir abroad. “What!” said the president, interposing, with the signal upon his countenance, “is he wind-bound, in port?”—“Wine-bound, I suppose,” cried another. “Hooped with wine! a strange metaphor!” said the third. “Not if he has got into a hogshead,” answered the fourth. “The hogshead will sooner get into him,” replied a fifth; “it must be a tun or an ocean.”—“No wonder then, if he should be overwhelmed,” said a sixth. “If he should,” cried a seventh, “he will cast up when his gall breaks.”—“That must be very soon,” roared an eighth, “for it has been long ready to burst.” “No, no,” observed a ninth, “he’ll stick fast at the bottom, take my word for it; he has a natural alacrity in sinking.”—“And yet,” remarked a tenth, “I have seen him in the clouds.”—“Then was he cloudy, I suppose,” cried the eleventh. “So dark,” replied the other, “that his meaning could not be perceived.”—“For all that,” said the twelfth, “he is easily seen through.”—“You talk,” answered the thirteenth, “as if his head was made of glass.”—“No, no,” cried the fourteenth, “his head is made of more durable stuff; it will bend before it breaks.”—“Yet I have seen it broken,” resumed the president. “Did you perceive any wit come out at the whole?” said another. “His wit,” replied the chairman, “is too subtle to be perceived.”

A third mouth was just open, when the exercise was suddenly interrupted by the dreadful cry of “Fire!” which issued from the kitchen, and involved the whole college in confusion. Every man endeavoured to be the first in making his exit, the door and passage were blocked up; each individual was pommelled by the person that happened to be behind him. This communication produced noise and exclamation; clouds of smoke rolled upwards into the apartment, and terror sat on every brow; when Peregrine, seeing no prospect of retreating by the door, opened one of the windows, and fairly leaped into the street, where he found a crowd of people assembled to contribute their assistance in extinguishing the flames. Several members of the college followed his example, and happily accomplished their escape. The chairman himself, being unwilling to use the same expedient, stood trembling on the brink of descent, dubious of his own agility, and dreading the consequence of such a leap, when a chair happening to pass, he laid hold on the opportunity, and by an exertion of his muscles, pitched upon the top of the carriage, which was immediately overturned in the kennel, to the grievous annoyance of the fare, which happened to be a certain effeminate beau, in full dress, on his way to a private assembly.

This phantom hearing the noise overhead, and feeling the shock of being overthrown at the same time, thought that some whole tenement had fallen upon the chair, and, in the terror of being crushed to pieces, uttered a scream, which the populace supposed to proceed from the mouth of a woman; and therefore went to his assistance, while the chairmen, instead of ministering to his occasions, no sooner recollected themselves, than they ran in pursuit of their overthrower, who, being accustomed to escape from bailiffs, dived into a dark alley, and, vanishing in a trice, was not visible to any living soul, until he appeared next day on Tower-hill.

The humane part of the mob, who bestirred themselves for the relief of the supposed lady, no sooner perceived their mistake in the appearance of the beau, who stared around him with horror and affright, than their compassion was changed into mirth, and they began to pass a great many unsavoury jokes upon his misfortune, which they now discovered no inclination to alleviate; and he found himself very uncomfortably beset, when Pickle, pitying his situation, interposed in his behalf, and prevailed upon the chairmen to carry him into the house of an apothecary in the neighbourhood, to whom his mischance proved a very advantageous accident; for the fright operated so violently upon his nerves, that he was seized with a delirium, and lay a whole fortnight deprived of his senses; during which period he was not neglected in point of medicines, food, and attendance, but royally regaled, as appeared by the contents of his landlord’s bill.

Our adventurer having seen this unfortunate beau safely housed, returned to the scene of the other calamity, which, as it was no other than a foul chimney, soon yielded to the endeavours of the family, and was happily overcome, without any other bad consequence than that of alarming the neighbours, disturbing the college, and disordering the brain of a beau. Eager to be acquainted with the particular constitutions of a society which seemed to open upon him by degrees, Mr. Pickle did not fail to appear at the next meeting, when several petitions were laid before the board, in behalf of those members who were confined in the prisons of the Fleet, Marshalsea, and King’s Bench. As those unhappy authors expected nothing from their brethren but advice and good offices, which did not concern the purse, the memorials were considered with great care and humanity; and, upon this occasion, Peregrine had it in his power to manifest his importance to the community; for he happened to be acquainted with the creditor of one of the prisoners, and knew that gentleman’s severity was owing to his resentment at the behaviour of the debtor, who had lampooned him in print, because he refused to comply with a fresh demand, after he had lent him money to the amount of a considerable sum. Our young gentleman, therefore, understanding that the author was penitent, and disposed to make a reasonable submission, promised to employ his influence with the creditor towards an accommodation; and in a few days actually obtained his release.

The social duties being discharged, the conversation took a general turn, and several new productions were freely criticised; those especially which belonged to authors who were either unconnected with, or unknown to the college. Nor did the profession of stage-playing escape the cognizance of the assembly; a deputation of the most judicious members being sent weekly to each theatre, with a view of making remarks upon the performance of the actors. The censors for the preceding week were accordingly called upon to give in their report; and the play which they had reviewed was “the Revenge.”

“Mr. Q — ” said the second censor, “take him all in all, is certainly the most complete and unblemished performer that ever appeared on our stage, notwithstanding the blind adoration which is paid to his rival. I went two nights ago, with an express design to criticise his action. I could find no room for censure, but infinite subject for admiration and applause. In Pierre he is great, in Othello excellent, but in Zanga beyond all imitation. Over and above the distinctness of pronunciation, the dignity of attitude, and expression of face, his gestures are so just and significant, that a man, though utterly bereft of the sense of hearing, might, by seeing him only, understand the meaning of every word he speaks! Sure nothing can be more exquisite than his manner of telling Isabella how Alonzo behaved, when he found the incendiary letter which he had dropped by the Moor’s direction; and when, to crown his vengeance, he discovers himself to be the contriver of all the mischief that had happened, he manifests a perfect masterpiece of action, in pronouncing these four little monosyllables, “Know, then, ’twas — I.”

Peregrine having eyed the critic some minutes, “I fancy,” said he, “your praise must be ironical, because, in the very two situations you mention, I think I have seen that player outherod Herod, or, in other words, exceed all his other extravagances. The intention of the author is, that the Moor should communicate to his confidant a piece of information contained in a few lines, which, doubtless, ought to be repeated with an air of eagerness and satisfaction, not with the ridiculous grimace of a monkey, to which, methought, his action bore an intimate resemblance, in uttering this plain sentence:—

—— He took it up:
But scarce was it unfolded to his sight,
When he, as if an arrow pierc’d his eye,
Started, and trembling dropp’d it on the ground.

“In pronouncing the first two words, this egregious actor stoops down, and seems to take up something from the stage, then proceeding to repeat what follows, mimics the manner of unfolding a letter; when he mentions the simile of an arrow piercing the eye, he darts his forefinger towards that organ. then recoils with great violence when the word ‘started’ is expressed; and when he comes to ‘trembling dropp’d it on the ground,’ he throws all his limbs into a tremulous motion, and shakes the imaginary paper from his hand. The latter part of the description is carried on with the same minute gesticulation, while he says:—

Pale and aghast awhile my victim stood,
Disguis’d a sigh or two, and puff’d them from him;
Then rubb’d his brow, and took it up again.

The player’s countenance assumes a wild stare, he sighs twice most piteously, as if he were on the point of suffocation, scrubs his forehead, and, bending his body, apes the action of snatching an object from the floor. Nor is this dexterity of dumb-show omitted, when he concludes his imitation in these three lines:—

At first he look’d as if he meant to read it;
But check’d by rising fears, he crushed it thus,
And thrust it, like an adder, in his bosom.

“Here the judicious performer imitates the confusion and concern of Alonzo, seems to cast his eyes upon something, from which they are immediately withdrawn with horror and precipitation then shutting his fist with a violent squeeze, as if he intended to make immediate application to Isabella’s nose, he rams it in his own bosom, with all the horror and agitation of a thief taken in the manner. Were the player debarred the use of speech, and obliged to act to the eyes only of the audience, this mimicry might be a necessary conveyance of his meaning; but when he is at liberty to signify his ideas by language, nothing can be more trivial, forced, unnatural, and antic, than this mummery. Not that I would exclude from the representation the graces of action, without which the choicest sentiments, clothed in the most exquisite expression, would appear unanimated and insipid; but these are as different from this ridiculous burlesque, as is the demeanour of a Tully in the rostrum, from the tricks of a Jack-pudding on a mountebank’s stage. And, for the truth of what I allege, I appeal to the observation of any person who has considered the elegance of attitude and propriety of gesture, as they are universally acknowledged in the real characters of life. Indeed, I have known a Gascon, whose limbs were eloquent as his tongue: he never mentioned the word sleep without reclining his head upon his hand; when he had occasion to talk of a horse, he always started up and trotted across the room, except when he was so situated that he could not stir without incommoding the company, and in that case he contented himself with neighing aloud. If a dog happened to be the subject of his conversation, he wagged his tail, and grinned in a most significant manner; and one day he expressed his desire of going backwards with such natural imitation of his purpose, that everybody in the room firmly believed he had actually overshot himself, and fortified their nostrils accordingly. Yet no man ever looked upon this virtuoso to be the standard of propriety in point of speaking and deportment. For my own part, I confess the player in question would, by dint of these qualifications, make a very good figure in the character of Pantaloon’s lacquey, in the entertainment of ‘Perseus and Andromeda,’ and perhaps might acquire some reputation, by turning ‘the Revenge’ into a pantomime; in which case, I would advise him to come upon the stage, provided with a handful of flour, in order to besmear his face when he pronounces ‘pale and aghast,’ etc.; and methinks he ought to illustrate the adder with a hideous hiss. But let us now come to the other situation, in which this modern Aesopus is supposed to distinguish himself so much — I mean that same eclaircissement comprehended in ‘Know then, ’twas — I.’ His manner, I own, may be altered since I was present at the representation of that performance; but certain I am, when I beheld him in that critical conjuncture, his behaviour appeared to me so uncouth, that I really imagined he was visited by some epileptic distemper; for he stood tottering and gasping for the space of two minutes, like a man suddenly struck with the palsy; and, after various distortions and side-shakings, as if he had got fleas in his doublet, heaved up from his lungs the letter I, like a huge anchor from foul ground.”

This criticism was acceptable to the majority of the college, who had no great veneration for the player in question; and his admirer, without making any reply, asked in a whisper, of the gentleman who sat next to him, if Pickle had not offered some production to the stage, and met with a repulse.

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