The Adventures of Roderick Random, by Tobias Smollett

Chapter XVIII

I carry my qualification to the Navy Office — the nature of it — the behaviour of the Secretary — Strap’s concern for my absence — a battle betwixt him a blacksmith — the troublesome consequences of it — his harangue to me — his friend the schoolmaster recommends me to a French Apothecary, who entertains me as a journeyman

I would most willingly have gone home to sleep, but was told by my companions, that we must deliver our letters of qualification at the Navy office, before one o’clock. Accordingly, we went thither, and gave them to the secretary, who opened and read them, and I was mightily pleased to find myself qualified for second mate of a third-rate. When he had stuck them all together on a file, one of our company asked if there were any vacancies; to which interrogation he answered “No!” Then I ventured to inquire if may ships were to be put in commission soon. At which question he surveyed me with a look of ineffable contempt; and, pushing us out of his office, locked the door without deigning us another word. We went down stairs, and conferred together on our expectations, when I understood that each of them had been recommended to one or other of the commissioners, and each of them promised the first vacancy that should fall; but that none of them relied solely upon that interest, without a present to the secretary, with whom some of the commissioners went snacks. For which reason, each of them had provided a small purse; and I was asked what I proposed to give This was a vexatious question to me who (far from being in a capacity to gratify a ravenous secretary) had not wherewithal to purchase a dinner. I therefore answered, I had not yet determined what to give; and sneaked off toward my own lodging, lamenting my fate all the way, and inveighing with much bitterness against the barbarity of my grandfather, and the sordid avarice of my relations, who left me a prey to contempt and indigence.

Full of these disagreeable reflections, I arrived at the house where I lodged, and relieved my landlord from great anxiety on my account; for this honest man believed I had met with some dismal accident, and that he never should see me again. Strap, who had come to visit me in the morning, understanding I had been abroad all night, was almost distracted, and after having obtained leave of his master, had gone in quest of me, though he was even more ignorant of the town than I. Not being willing to inform the landlord of my adventure, I told him I had met an acquaintance at Surgeons’ Hall, with whom I spent the evening and night; but being very much infested with bugs, I had not slept much, and therefore intended to take a little repose; so saying, I went to bed, and desired to be awakened if Strap should happen to come wile I should be asleep. I was accordingly roused by my friend himself, who entered my chamber about three o’clock in the afternoon, and presented a figure to my eyes that I could scarce believe real. In short, this affectionate shaver, setting out towards Surgeons’ Hall, had inquired for me there to no purpose: from whence he found his way to the Navy Office, where he could hear no tidings of me, because I was unknown to everybody then present; he afterwards went upon ‘Change, in hopes of seeing me upon the Scotch walk, but without success. At last, being almost in despair of finding me, he resolved to ask everybody he met in the street, if perchance anyone could give him information about me! and actually put his resolution in practice, in spite of the scoffs, curses, and reproaches with which he was answered; until a blacksmith’s ‘prentice seeing him stop a porter with a burden on his back, and hearing his question, for which he received a hearty curse, called to him, and asked if the person he inquired after was not a Scotchman? Strap replied with great eagerness, “Yes, and had on a brown coat, with long skirts.” “The same!” said the blacksmith. “I saw him pass by an hour ago,” “Did you so?” cried Strap, rubbing his hands, “Odd! I am very glad of that — which way went he?” “Towards Tyburn in a cart,” said he, “if you make good speed, you may get thither time enough to see him hanged.” This piece of wit incensed my friend to such a degree, that he called the blacksmith scoundrel, and protested he would fight him for half-a-farthing. “No, no!” said the other, stripping; “I’ll have none of your money — you Sootchmen seldom carry anything about you; but I’ll fight you for love.” Were was a ring immediately formed by the mob: and Strap, finding he could not get off honourably without fighting, at the same time burning with resentment against his adversary, quitted his clothes to the care of the multitude, and the battle began with great violence on the side of Strap, who in a few minutes exhausted his breath and spirits on his patient antagonist, who sustained the assault with great coolness, till finding the barber quite spent, he returned the blows he had lent him, with such interest, that Strap, after having received three falls on the hard stones, gave out, and allowed the blacksmith to be the better man.

The victory being thus decided, it was proposed to adjourn to a cellar hard by, and drink friends. But when my friend began to gather up his clothes, he perceived that some honest person or other had made free with his shirt, neckcloth, hat, and wig, which were carried off; and probably his coat and waistcoat would have met with the same fate, had they been worth stealing. It was in vain for him to make a noise, which only yielded mirth to the spectators; he was fain to get off in this manner, which he accomplished with much difficulty and appeared before me all besmeared with blood and dirt. Notwithstanding this misfortune, such was his transport at finding me safe and sound, that he had almost stifled and stunk me to death with his embraces. After he had cleaned himself, and put on one of my shirts, and a woollen. nightcap, I recounted to him the particulars of my night’s campaign, which filled him with admiration, and made him repeat with great energy an observation which was often in his mouth, namely, ‘that surely London is the devil’s drawing-room.’ As neither of us had dined, he desired me to get up, and the milkwoman coming round at that instant, he went downstairs, and brought up a quart, with a penny loaf, on which we made a comfortable meal. He then shared his money with me, which amounted to eighteen-pence, and left me with an intention to borrow an old wig and hat of his friend the schoolmaster.

He was no sooner gone, than I began to consider my situation with great uneasiness, and revolved all the schemes my imagination could suggest, in order to choose and pursue some one that would procure me bread; for it is impossible to express the pangs I felt, when I reflected on the miserable dependence in which I lived at the expense of a poor barber’s boy, My pride took the alarm, and having no hopes of succeeding at the Navy Office, I came to a resolution of enlisting in the foot-guards next day, be the event what it would. This extravagant design, by flattering my disposition, gave great satisfaction; and I was charging the enemy at the head of my own regiment, when Strap’s return interrupted my reverie. The schoolmaster had made him a present of the tie-wig which he wore, when I was introduced to him, together with an old hat, whose brims would have overshadowed a Colossus. Though Strap had ventured to wear them in the dusk, he did not choose to entertain the mob by day; therefore went to work immediately, and reduced them both to a moderate size. While he was employed in this office, he addressed me thus: “To be sure, Mr. Random, you are born a gentleman, and have a great deal of learning — and, indeed, look like a gentleman; for, as to person, you may hold up your head with the best of them. On the other hand, I am a poor but honest cobbler’s son: my mother was as industrious a woman as ever broke bread, till such time as she took to drinking, which you very well know; but everybody has failings — Humanum est errare. Now myself, I am a poor journeyman barber, tolerably well made and understand some Latin, and have a smattering of Greek; but what of that? Perhaps I might also say, that I know a little of the world; but that is to no purpose, — though you be gentle, and I simple, it does not follow, but that I who am simple may do a good office to you who are gentle. Now this is the case: my kinsman, the schoolmaster — perhaps you did not know he how nearly he is related to me — I’ll satisfy you in that presently; his mother and my grandmother’s sister’s nephew — no, that’s not it! — my grandfather’s brother’s daughter — rabbit it! I have forgot the degree. But this I know, he and I are cousins seven times removed.” My impatience to know the good office he had done me, got the better of my temper, and I interrupted him at this place with the exclamation, “If the schoolmaster or you can be of any advantage to me, why don’t you tell me without all this preamble?” When I pronounced these words with some vehemence, Strap looked at me for same time with a grave countenance, and then went on: “I’m very sorry to see such an alteration in your temper of late; you were always fiery, but now you are grown as crabbed as old Periwinkle the drunken tinker, on whom you and I (God forgive us!) played so many unlucky tricks while we were at school — but I will no longer detain you in suspense, because (doubtless) nothing is more uneasy than doubt — Dubio procul dubio nil dubius. My friend or relation, or which you will, or both, the schoolmaster, being informed of the regard I have for you; for you may be sure I did not fail to let him know of your good qualities — by the bye, he has undertaken to teach you the pronunciation of the English tongue, without which, he says, you will be unfit for business in this country — I say my relation has spoke in your behalf to a French apothecary who wants a journeyman; and on his recommendation you may have fifteen pounds a year, bed and board, whenever you please.” I was too much interested in this piece of news to entertain it with indifference; but, jumping up, insisted on Strap’s immediately accompanying me to the house of his friend, that I might not lose this opportunity through the least delay or neglect on my part.

We were informed, that the schoolmaster was in company at a publichouse in the neighbourhood, whither we repaired, and found him drinking with the very individual apothecary in question. When he was called to the door at our desire, and observed my impatience, he broke out into his usual term of admiration. “Oh! I suppose, when you heard of this offer, you did not take leisure enough to come downstairs, but leaped out of the window: did you overturn no porter nor oyster-woman in your way? It was a mercy of God you did not knock your brains out against some post in your career. Oh, my conscience! I believe, had I been in the inmost recesses of my habitation — the very penetralia — your eagerness would have surmounted bolts, bars, decency, and everything. The den of Cacus, or sanctum sanctorum, could not have hid me from you. But come along the gentleman of whom I spoke is in the house; I will present you to him forthwith.” When I entered the room, I perceived four or five people smoking, one of whom the schoolmaster accosted thus: “Mr. Lavement, here’s the young man of whom I spoke to you.” The apothecary, who was a little old withered man, with a forehead about an inch high, a nose turned up at the end, large cheek-bones that helped to form a pit for his little gray eyes, a great bag of loose skin hanging down on each side in wrinkles, like the alforjos of a baboon, and a mouth so much accustomed to that contraction which produces grinning, that he could not pronounce a syllable without discovering the remains of his teeth, which consisted of four yellow fangs, not improperly, by anatomists, called canine. This person, I say, after having eyed me some time, said, “Oho, ’tis ver well, Monsieur Concordance; young man, you are ver welcome, take one coup of bierre — and come to mine house to-morrow morning; Monsieur Concordance vil show you de way.” Upon this I made my bow, and as I went out of the room could hear him say, “Ma foi! c’est un beau garcon; c’est un gaillard.”

As I had by my own application, while I served Crab, acquired the French tongue well enough to read authors written in that language and understand anything that occurred in conversation, I determined to pretend ignorance to my new master, that he and his family, whom I supposed to be of the same country, not being on the reserve before me, I might possibly discover something in discourse, which would either yield me amusement or advantage. Next morning Mr. Concordance carried me to the apothecary’s house, where the bargain was made, and orders given to provide an apartment for me immediately. But before I entered upon business. the schoolmaster recommended me to his tailor, who gave me credit for a suit of clothes, to be paid out of the first moiety of my wages, and they were begun upon that very day; he afterwards accommodated me with a new hat on the same term: so that in a few days I hoped to make a very fashionable appearance. In the meantime, Strap conveyed my baggage to the place allotted for me, which was a back room up two pair of stairs, furnished with a pallet for me to lie upon, a chair without a back, a bottle by way of candlestick, and a triangular piece of glass instead of a mirror; the rest of its ornaments having been lately removed to one of the garrets, for the convenience of the servant of an Irish captain, who lodged in the first floor.

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