The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, by Tobias Smollett

Chapter XCV.

The young Gentleman is introduced to a Virtuoso of the first Order, and commences Yelper.

Hitherto Peregrine had professed himself an author, without reaping the fruits of that occupation, except the little fame he had acquired by his late satire; but now he thought it high time to weigh solid pudding against empty praise; and therefore engaged with some booksellers in a certain translation, which he obliged himself to perform for the consideration of two hundred pounds. The articles of agreement being drawn, he began his task with great eagerness, rose early in the morning to his work, at which he laboured all day long, went abroad with the bats in the evening, and appeared in the coffee-house, where he amused himself with the newspapers and conversation till nine o’clock; then he retired to his own apartment, and, after a slight repast, betook himself to rest, that he might be able to unroost with the cock. This sudden change from his former way of life agreed so ill with his disposition, that, for the first time, he was troubled with flatulencies and indigestion, which produced anxiety and dejection of spirits, and the nature of his situation began in some measure to discompose his brain; a discovery which he no sooner made, than he had recourse to the advice of a young physician, who was a member of the college of authors, at this time one of our hero’s most intimate acquaintance.

The son of Esculapius, having considered his case, imputed his disorder to the right cause, namely, want of exercise; dissuaded him from such close application to study, until he should be gradually familiarized to a sedentary life; advised him to enjoy his friend and his bottle in moderation, and wean himself from his former customs by degrees; and, above all things, to rise immediately after his first sleep, and exercise himself in a morning’s walk. In order to render this last part of the prescription the more palatable, the doctor promised to attend him in these early excursions, and even to introduce him to a certain personage of note, who gave a sort of public breakfasting to the minor virtuosi of the age, and often employed his interest in behalf of those who properly cultivated his countenance and approbation.

This proposal was extremely acceptable to our young gentleman, who, besides the advantage which might accrue to him from such a valuable connection, foresaw much entertainment and satisfaction in the discourse of so many learned guests. The occasions of his health and interest, moreover, coincided in another circumstance; the minister’s levee being kept betimes in the morning, so that he could perform his walk, yield his attendance, and breakfast at this philosophical board, without encroaching a great deal upon his other avocations. Measures being thus preconcerted, the physician conducted our adventurer to the house of this celebrated sage, to whom he recommended him as a gentleman of genius and taste, who craved the honour of his acquaintance; but he had previously smoothed the way to his introduction, by representing Peregrine as a young fellow of great ambition, spirit, and address, who could not fail to make a figure in the world; that therefore he would be a creditable addition to the subordinates of such a patron, and by his qualifications, intrepidity, and warmth of temper, turn out a consummate herald of his fame. Upon these considerations, he met with a most engaging reception from the entertainer, who was a well-bred man, of some learning, generosity, and taste; but his foible was the desire of being thought the inimitable pattern of all three.

It was with a view to acquire and support this character, that his house was open to all those who had any pretensions to literature; consequently he was surrounded by a strange variety of pretenders; but none were discouraged, because he knew that even the most insignificant might, in some shape, conduce to the propagation of his praise. A babbler, though he cannot run upon the scent, may spring the game, and, by his yelping, help to fill up the cry. No wonder, then, that a youth of Pickle’s accomplishments was admitted and even invited into the pack. After having enjoyed a very short private audience in the closet, our young gentleman was shown into another room, where half a dozen of his fellow-adherents waited for the Maecenas, who in a few minutes appeared, with a most gracious aspect, received the compliments of the morning, and sat down to breakfast, in the midst of them, without any further ceremony.

The conversation at first turned upon the weather, which was investigated in a very philosophical manner by one of the company, who seemed to have consulted all the barometers and thermometers that ever were invented, before he would venture to affirm that it was a chill morning. This subject being accurately discussed, the chief inquired about the news of the learned world; and his inclination was no sooner expressed than every guest opened his mouth, in order to ratify his curiosity. But he that first captivated his attention was a meagre, shrivelled antiquary, who looked like an animated mummy, which had been scorched among the sands of the desert. He told the patron, that he had, by accident, met with a medal, which, though it was defaced by time, he would venture to pronounce a genuine antique, from the ringing and taste of the metal, as well as from the colour and composition of the rust. So saying, he produced a piece of copper coin, so consumed and disguised by age, that scarce a vestige of the impression was to be perceived. Nevertheless, this connoisseur pretended to distinguish a face in profile, from which he concluded that the piece was of the Upper Empire, and on the reverse he endeavoured to point out the bulb of the spear, and part of the parazonium, which were the insignia of the Roman Virtus, together with the fragment of one fold of the multicium in which she was clothed. He likewise had discovered an angle of the letter N, and, at some distance, an entire I; from these circumstances conjecturing, and indeed concluding, that the medal was struck by Severus, in honour of the victory he obtained over his rival Niger, after he had forced the passes of Mount Taurus. This criticism seemed very satisfactory to the entertainer, who, having examined the coin by the help of his spectacles, plainly discerned the particulars which the owner had mentioned, and was pleased to term his account of the matter a very ingenious explanation.

The curiosity was circulated through the hands of all present, and every virtuoso, in his turn, licked the copper, and rung it upon the hearth, declaring his assent to the judgment which had been pronounced. At length it fell under the inspection of our young gentleman, who, though no antiquarian, was very well acquainted with the current coin of his own country, and no sooner cast his eyes upon the valuable antique, than he affirmed, without hesitation, that it was no other than the ruins of an English farthing, and that same spear, parazonium, and multicium, the remains of the emblems and drapery with which the figure of Britannia is delineated on our copper money. This hardy asseveration seemed to disconcert the patron while it incensed the medallist, who, grinning like an enraged baboon, “What d’ye tell me of a brass farthing?” said he. “Did you ever know modern brass of such a relish? Do but taste it, young gentleman; and sure I am, if you have ever been conversant with subjects of this kind, you will find as wide a difference in the savour between this and an English farthing as can possibly be perceived betwixt an onion and a turnip. Besides, this medal has the true Corinthian ring; then the attitude is upright, whereas that of Britannia is reclining; and how is it possible to mistake a branch of palm for a parazonium?”

All the rest of the company espoused the virtuoso’s side of the question, because the reputation of each was concerned. The patron, finding himself in the same circumstance, assumed a solemnity of feature, dashed with a small mixture of displeasure, and told Peregrine, that as he had not made that branch of literature his particular study, he was not surprised to see him mistaken in his opinion. Pickle immediately understood the reproof, though he was shocked at the vanity or infatuation of his entertainer and fellow-guests; asked pardon for his presumption, which was accordingly excused, in consideration of his inexperience; and the English farthing was dignified with the title of a true antique.

The next person that addressed himself to the chief was a gentleman of a very mathematical turn, who valued himself upon the improvements he had made in several domestic machines, and now presented the plan of a new contrivance for cutting cabbages, in such a manner as would secure the stock against the rotting rain, and enable it to produce a plenteous aftercrop of delicious sprouts. In this important machine he had united the whole mechanic powers, with such massy complication of iron and wood, that it could not have been moved without the assistance of a horse, and a road made for the convenience of the draught. These objections were so obvious, that they occurred at first sight to the inspector-general, who greatly commended the invention, which, he observed, might be applied to several other useful purposes, could it once be rendered a little more portable and commodious.

The inventor, who had not foreseen these difficulties, was not prepared to surmount them; but he took the hint in good part, and promised to task his abilities anew, in altering the construction of his design. Not but that he underwent some severe irony from the rest of the virtuosi, who complimented him upon the momentous improvement he had made, by which a family might save a dish of greens in a quarter, for so trifling an expense as that of purchasing, working, and maintaining such a stupendous machine; but no man was ever more sarcastic in his remarks upon this piece of mechanism than the naturalist, who next appealed to the patron’s approbation for a curious disposition he had made touching the procreation of muck-flies, in which he had laid down a curious method of collecting, preserving, and hatching the eggs of these insects, even in the winter, by certain modifications of artificial heat. The nature of this discovery was no sooner communicated, than Peregrine, unable to contain himself, was seized with a fit of laughter, which infected every person at the table, the landlord himself not excepted, who found it impossible to preserve his wonted gravity of face.

Such unmannerly mirth did not fail to mortify the philosopher, who, after some pause, during which indignation and disdain were painted in his countenance, reprehended our young gentleman for his unphilosophical behaviour, and undertook to prove, that the subject of his inquiry was of infinite consequence to the progress and increase of natural knowledge. But he found no quarter from the vengeful engineer, who now retorted his ironical compliments, with great emphasis, upon this hotbed for the generation of vermin, and advised him to lay the whole process before the Royal Society, which would, doubtless, present him with a medal, and give him a place among their memoirs, as a distinguished promoter of the useful arts. “If,” said he, “you had employed your studies in finding out some effectual method to destroy those insects which prejudice and annoy mankind, in all probability you must have been contented with the contemplation of the good you had done; but this curious expedient for multiplying maggots will surely entitle you to an honourable rank in the list of learned philosophers.”—“I don’t wonder,” replied the naturalist, “that you should be so much averse to the propagation of insects, because, in all likelihood, you are afraid that they will not leave you a cabbage to cut down with the same miraculous machine.”—“Sir,” answered the mechanic, with great bitterness of voice and aspect, “if the cabbage be as light-headed as some muck-worm philosophers, it will not he worth cutting down.”—“I never dispute upon cabbage with the son of a cucumber,” said the fly-breeder, alluding to the pedigree of his antagonist; who, impatient of the affront, started up with fury in his looks, exclaiming, “‘Sdeath! meaning me, sir?”

Here the patron, perceiving things drawing towards a rupture, interposed his authority, rebuking them for their intemperance and recommending to them amity and concord against the Goths and Vandals of the age, who took all opportunities of ridiculing and discouraging the adherents of knowledge and philosophy. After this exhortation, they had no pretence for carrying on the dispute, which was dropped in all appearance, though the mechanic still retained his resentment; and after breakfast, when the company broke up, accosted his adversary in the street, desiring to know how he durst be so insolent as to make that scurrilous reflection upon his family. The fly-fancier, thus questioned, accused the mathematician of having been the aggressor, in likening his head to a light cabbage; and here the altercation being renewed, the engineer proceeded to the illustration of his mechanics, tilting up his hand like a balance, thrusting it forward by way of lever, embracing the naturalist’s nose like a wedge betwixt two of his fingers, and turning it round, with the momentum of a screw or peritrochium. Had they been obliged to decide the dispute with equal arms, the assailant would have had great advantage over the other, who was very much his inferior in muscular strength; but the philosopher being luckily provided with a cane, no sooner disengaged himself from this opprobrious application, than he handled his weapon with great dexterity about the head and shoulders of his antagonist, who, finding this shower of blows very disagreeable, was fain to betake himself to his heels for shelter, and was pursued by the angry victor, who chased him from one end of the street to the other, affording unspeakable satisfaction to the multitude, as well as to our hero and to his introductor, who were spectators of the whole scene.

Thus was our adventurer initiated into the society of Yelpers, though he did not as yet fully understand the nature of his office, which was explained by the young physician, who chid him for his blunt behaviour in the case of the medal; and gave him to understand, that their patron’s favour was neither to be gained nor preserved by any man that would pretend to convict him of a mistake. He therefore counselled him to respect this foible, and cultivate the old gentleman with all the zeal and veneration which a regard to his own character would permit him to say. This task was the easier to one of our young gentleman’s pliant disposition, because the virtuoso’s behaviour was absolutely free from that insolent self-conceit, which he could not bear without disgust. The senior was, on the contrary, mild and beneficent; and Pickle was rather pleased than shocked at his weakness; because it flattered his vanity with the supposition of his own superior sense. Cautioned in this manner, Peregrine profited so much by his insinuating qualifications, that, in a very little time, he was looked upon as one of the chief favourites of the patron, to whom he dedicated a small occasional poem; and everybody believed he would reap the fruits of his attachment among the first of the old gentleman’s dependents.

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