The Adventures of Roderick Random, by Tobias Smollett

Chapter L

I long to be revenged on Melinda — apply to Banter for his Assistance — he contrives a scheme for that purpose — which is put in Execution with great Success — I make an Attempt upon the Heart of Miss Gripewell, but am disappointed — grow melancholy at my Disappointment, and have recourse to the Bottle — receive a Billet-doux — am ravished with the Contents — find myself involved in Intrigue, which I imagined would make my Fortune — am confounded at my mistake, which banishes all Thoughts of Matrimony

In the meantime, my attention was wholly engrossed in search of another mistress, and the desire of being revenged on Melinda, in both which schemes I was very much assisted by Billy Chatter, who was such a necessary creature among the ladies, that in all private dances he engaged the men. To him therefore I applied, desiring he would introduce me to a partner of some figure, at the next private assembly, for the sake of a frolic, the intention of which I would afterwards communicate. Billy, who had heard something of a difference between Melinda and me, immediately smoked part of my design, and, thinking I only wanted to alarm her jealousy a little, promised to gratify my desire, by matching me with a partner worth thirty thousand pounds, whom the ladies of this end of the town had lately taken under their management and protection. Upon further inquiry, I found this person’s name was Miss Biddy Gripewell; that her father, who had been a pawnbroker, died intestate, by which means all his substance descended to his daughter, who was so little a favourite that, could the old man have prevailed with his own rapacious disposition to part with as much money as would have paid the expense of a will, she would not have inherited the sixth part of his fortune; that during his life, far from being educated in a way suitable to such great expectations, she was obliged to live like a servant wench, and do the most menial offices in the family. But his funeral was no sooner performed, than she assumed the fine lady, and found so many people of both sexes to flatter, caress, and instruct her, that, for want of discretion and experience, she was grown insufferably vain and arrogant, and pretended to no less than a duke or earl at least for her husband; that she had the misfortune to be neglected by the English quality, but a certain poor Scottish lord was then making interest to be introduced to her acquaintance. In the meantime, she was fallen into the hands of a notable lady, who had already disposed of her to a lieutenant of foot, a distant relation of her ladyship’s, though Miss as yet knew nothing of the affair; and lastly that if I proposed to dance with her, I must give him leave to represent me as a knight, or foreign count at least. I was ravished at this piece of information, and consented for one night, to personate a French marquis, that I might the easier fulfil my revenge.

Having made the appointment with Chatter I went to Banter’s lodgings, as I had by this time conceived a great opinion of his penetration and knowledge; and, after I had enjoined secrecy, told him every circumstance of my disgrace with Melinda, and imparted the plan I had projected to mortify that proud coquette, desiring his advice in proving, and assistance in executing the scheme. Nothing could be more agreeable to his misanthropical temper than an account of her behaviour and my resentment: he applauded my resolution, and proposed that I should not only provide myself with a proper partner, but also procure such a one for Miss Goosetrap, as should infallibly entail upon her the ridicule of all her acquaintance. For this purpose he mentioned his barber who he said, was an exceeding coxcomb lately come from Paris, whose absurd affectation and grimace, would easily pass upon her for the sprightly politesse of a gentleman improved by travel. I hugged him for this hint; and he assured me it would be no difficult matter to make him believe, that Melinda, having seen him by accident, was captivated by his appearance, and begged for his acquaintance. He actually engaged him on this pretence, and painted his good fortune in such colours that the poor shaver was quite beside himself with joy. He was immediately fitted with a tawdry suit of clothes belonging to Banter, and by him recommended to Chatter as a very pretty fellow, just returned from his travels. Master Billy, who acted as a gentleman usher to a great many of the fair sex in and about town, undertook at once to bespeak Melinda in his behalf; and everything happened according to my wish.

At the time appointed I appeared dressed to the best advantage; and, in the character of a Marquis, bad the honour of opening the ball with the rich heiress, who attracted the eyes of the whole company by the prodigious number of jewels with which she was adorned. Among others I perceived Melinda, who could not more conceal her envy than astonishment at my success; her curiosity was still more flagrant and tormenting, for she had never seen Miss Gripewell before; and Chatter, who alone could give her any satisfaction on that head, was engaged in conversation at the other end of the room. I observed her impatience, and exulted in her chagrin; and after my partner was set, took the opportunity of passing by her to make a slight bow without stopping, which completed my triumph and her indignation. She changed colour, bridled up, assumed an air of disdain, and flirted her fan with such a fury, that it went to pieces in a moment, to the no small entertainment of those who sat near and observed her.

At length the metamorphosed barber took her out, and acted his part with such ridiculous extravagance that the mirth of the whole company was excited at his expense, and his partner was so much ashamed that, before the country dances began, she retired in great confusion, under pretence of being taken suddenly ill, and was followed by her gallant, who no doubt imagined her indisposition was nothing but love; and laid hold of the occasion of conducting her home, to comfort her, with an assurance of his entertaining a reciprocal passion. They were no sooner gone than an inquisitive whisper of “Who is he?” ran round the room; and Chatter could give them no other intelligence about him than that he was a man of fortune just returned from his travels. I, who alone was acquainted with his real quality, affected ignorance well knowing that female curiosity would not rest satisfied with such a general account, and that the discovery would proceed with a better grace from anybody than me.

Meanwhile, I was tempted by the richness of the prize to practise upon Miss Gripewell’s heart, but soon found it too well fortified with pride and indifference to yield to any efforts in my own character, and I neither would nor could preserve the title I had borrowed longer than that night.

As I expected, everything came to light next day. The barber, in pure simplicity of heart, detected himself to Melinda, and discovered the foundation of his hopes; she sickened at the affront, and was ashamed to show her face in public for many weeks after this accident. Poor Chatter found it impossible to justify himself to her satisfaction; was in utter disgrace with Miss Gripewell, for having imposed me upon her as a nobleman; and suffered very much in his character and influence among the ladies in general.

Finding my finances diminished more than one-half, and my project as little advanced as on the first day of my arrival in town, I began to despair of my success, and grew melancholy at the prospect of approaching want. To dispel the horrors of this fiend I had recourse to the bottle, and kept more company than ever. I became particularly attached to the playhouse, conversed with the actors behind the scenes, grew acquainted with a body of templars, and in a short time commenced a professed wit and critic. Indeed, I may say, without vanity, that I was much better qualified than any one of my companions, who were, generally speaking, of all the creatures I ever conversed with, the most ignorant and assuming. By means of these avocations I got the better of care, and learned to separate my ideas in such a manner that, whenever I was attacked by a gloomy reflection, I could shove it aside, and call in some agreeable reverie to my assistance. This was not the case with Strap, who practised a thousand shifts to conceal the sorrow that preyed upon his carcass, and reduced him to the resemblance of a mere skeleton.

While I thus posted, in a thoughtless manner, towards poverty, I one day received, by the penny post, a letter written in a woman’s hand, containing a great many high-flown compliments, warm protestations of love, couched in a very poetical style, an earnest desire of knowing whether or not my heart was engaged, by leaving an answer at a certain place, directed to R. B., and the whole subscribed “Your incognita.” I was transported with joy on reading the contents of this billet-doux, which I admired as a masterpiece of tenderness and elegance, and was already up to my ears in love with the author, whom my imagination represented as a lady of fortune, in the bloom of youth and beauty. Elevated with this conjecture, I went to work, and exhausted my invention in composing an answer suitable to the sublimity of her style and the ardour of her sentiments. I expressed my admiration of her wit in terms the most hyperbolical, and while I acknowledged myself unworthy of her regard, declared myself enamoured of her understanding; and in the most pathetic manner implored the honour of an interview. Having finished this performance, and communicated it to Strap, who skipped about for joy, I dispatched him with it to the place appointed, which was the house of a milliner not far from Bond Street, and desired him to keep watch near the door for some time, that he might discover the person who should call for it. In less than an hour he returned with a joyful countenance, and told me that, soon after he had delivered the letter, a chairman was called, to whom it was given, with directions to carry it to the house of a rich gentleman in the neighbourhood, whither he (Strap) followed him, and saw him put it into the hands of a waiting-woman, who paid the messenger, and shut the door; that, upon inquiry at an alehouse hard by, where he called for a pint of beer, he understood the gentleman to whom the house belonged had an only daughter, very handsome, who would inherit his whole estate; and who certainly was the author of the billet I had received. I was of the same opinion, and, hugging myself in the happy prospect, dressed immediately, and passed in great state the house that contained my unknown admirer. Nor was my vanity disappointed; for I perceived a beautiful young creature standing at one of the windows of the dining-room, who, I imagined, observed me with more than common curiosity. That I might indulge her view, and at the same time feast my own, I affected to stop, and gave orders to Strap, in the street, just opposite to her station, by which means I had an opportunity of seeing her more distinctly, and of congratulating myself on having made a conquest of so much perfection. In a few moments she retired, and I betook myself to the ordinary in a rapture of hope, which deprived me of my appetite for that meal, and sent me home in the evening to indulge my contemplation.

Early next day, I was favoured with another epistle from my unknown admirer, signifying her unutterable joy at the receipt of mine, which, while it made a tender of my heart, convinced her of the value of it. Above all things, she professed her extreme pleasure in finding me so much attached to her understanding, a circumstance that not only flattered her in the most sensible part, but at the same time argued my own sagacity. As for the interview I desired, she assured me, that I could not be more eager for such an occasion than she; but she must not only sacrifice little more to decorum, but be satisfied of my honourable intentions, before she could grant that request. Meanwhile she gave me to understand that, although she might owe some deference to the opinion of certain persons, she was resolved, in an affair that so nearly concerned her happiness, to consult her own inclination, preferable to the advice of the whole world; especially as she was urged to such condescension by no consideration of fortune, what she depended upon being her own without restriction or control. Struck with admiration at the philosophy and self-denial of my mistress, who seemed insensible of the beauty she possessed, and in particular ravished with that piece of intelligence by which I learned her fortune was independent; I resumed the pen, launched out into encomiums on the dignity of her sentiments, affected to undervalue the charms of external beauty, pretended to ground my passion on the qualities of her mind, complained of her rigour in sacrificing my repose to an overscrupulous regard to decorum, and declared the purity of my designs in the most solemn and pathetic vows. This performance being sealed and directed, was sent to the place appointed by Strap, who, that we might be still the more confirmed in our belief, renewed his watch, and in a little time brought back the same information as before, with this addition, that Miss Sparkle (the name of my correspondent), looking out at the window, no sooner saw the messenger arrive. than she shut the casement in a sort of beautiful confusion, and disappeared, eager no doubt to hear from the dear object of her love.

My doubts now vanished, the long-expected port appeared, and I looked upon myself as perfectly secure of that happiness I had been in quest of so long. After dinner, I sauntered in company with Dr. Wagtail, to that part of the town in which my inamorata lived; and, as he was a mere register, inquired of him into the name, character, and fortune of everybody who possessed a good house in the streets through which we passed. When it came to his turn to mention Sir John Sparkle, he represented him as a man of an immense estate and narrow disposition, who mewed up his only child, a fine young lady, from the conversation of mankind, under the strict watch and inspection of an old governante, who was either so honest, envious, or insatiable, that nobody had been as yet able to make her a friend, or get access to her charge, though numbers attempted it every day; not so much on account of her expectations from her father, who, being a widower, might marry again and have sons, as for a fortune of twelve thousand pounds left her by an uncle, of which she could not be deprived. This piece of news, exactly tallying with the last part of the letter I had been honoured with in the morning, had such an effect on me, that any man except Wagtail might have observed my emotion; but his attention was too much engrossed by the contemplation of his own importance to suffer him to be affected with the deportment of any other body, unless it happened to be so particular that he could not help taking notice of it.

When I had disengaged myself from him, whose conversation grew insipid to me, I went home, and made Strap acquainted with the fruit of my researches. This faithful squire was almost choked with transport, and even wept with joy; but whether on account of himself or me, I shall not pretend to determine. Next day a third billet-doux was brought to me, containing many expressions of tenderness, mingled with some affecting doubts about the artifice of man, the inconstancy of youth, and the jealousy often attending the most sincere passion; withal desiring I would excuse her, if she should try me a little longer, before she declared herself beyond the power of retracting. These interesting scruples added fuel to my flame and impatience to my hope; I redoubled my complaints of her indifference, and pressed her to an assignation with such fervent entreaties, that in a few days she consented to meet me at the house of that milliner who had forwarded all my letters. During the interval between the date of her promise and the hour of appointment, my pride soared beyond all reason and description; I lost all remembrance of the gentle Narcissa, and my thoughts were wholly employed in planning triumphs over the malice and contempt of the world.

At length the happy hour arrived. I flew to the place of rendezvous, and was conducted into an apartment, where I had not waited ten minutes, when I heard the rustling of silk, and the sound of feet ascending the stairs; my heart took the alarm, and beat quick; my cheeks glowed, my nerves thrilled, and my knees shook with ecstacy! I perceived the door opening, saw a gold brocade petticoat advance, and sprang forward to embrace my charmer. Heaven and earth! how shall I paint my situation, when I found Miss Sparkle converted into a wrinkled hag turned of seventy! I was struck dumb with amazement, and petrified with horror! This ancient Urganda, perceived my disorder, and, approaching with a languishing air, seized my hand, asking in a squeaking tone, if I was indisposed. Her monstrous affectation completed the disgust I had conceived for her at her first appearance, and it was a long time before I could command myself so much as to behave with common civility: at length, however, I recollected myself, and pronounced an apology for my behaviour, which I said proceeded from a dizziness that seized me all of a sudden. My hoary Dulcinea, who, no doubt, had been alarmed at my confusion, no sooner learned the cause to which I now ascribed it, than she discovered her joy in a thousand amorous coquetries, and assumed the sprightly airs of a girl of sixteen. One while she ogled me with her dim eyes, quenched in rheum; then, as if she was ashamed of that freedom, she affected to look down, blush, and play with her fan; then toss her head that I might not perceive a palsy that shook it, ask some childish questions with a lisping accent, giggle and grin with her mouth shut to conceal the ravage of time upon her teeth, leer upon me again, sigh piteously, fling herself about in her chair to show her agility, and act a great many more absurdities that youth and beauty can alone excuse. Shocked as I was at my disappointment, my disposition was incapable of affronting any person who loved me; I therefore endeavoured to put a good face to the matter for the present, resolved to drop the whole affair as soon as I should get clear of her company; with this view, I uttered some civil things, and in particular desired to know the name and condition of the lady who had honoured me so much. She told me her name was Withers, that she lived with Sir John Sparkle in quality of governess to his only daughter, in which situation she had picked up a comfortable sufficiency to make her easy for life; that she had the pleasure of seeing me at church, where my appearance and deportment made such an impression upon her heart, that she could enjoy no ease until she had inquired into my character, which she found so amiable in all respects, that she yielded to the violence of her inclination, and ventured to declare her passion with too little regard perhaps to the decorum of her sex; but she hoped I would forgive a trespass of which I myself was in some measure the cause, and impute her intrusion to the irresistible dictates of love. No decayed rake ever swallowed a bolus with more reluctance than I felt in making a reply suitable to this compliment, when, instead of the jewel, I found the crazy casket only in my power; and yet my hopes began to revive a little, when I considered, that, by carrying on the appearance of an intrigue with the duenna, I might possibly obtain access to her charge. Encouraged by this suggestion, my temper grew more serene, my reserve wore off, I talked en cavalier, and even made love to this antiquated coquette, who seemed extremely happy in her adorer, and spread all her allurements to make her imagined conquest more secure. The good woman of the house treated us with tea and sweetmeats, and afterwards withdrew, like a civil experienced matron as she was.

Left thus to our mutual endearments, Miss Withers (for she was still a maiden) began to talk of matrimony, and expressed so much impatience in all her behaviour that, had she been fifty years younger, I might possibly have gratified her longing without having recourse to the church; but this step my virtue as well as interest forbade. When the inclinations of an old maid settle upon a young fellow. he is persecuted with her addresses; but, should he once grant her the favour, he will never be able to disentangle himself from her importunities and reproaches. It was my business to defer the ceremony as long as possible, under the most specious pretences, with a view of becoming acquainted with Miss Sparkle in the meantime; and I did not despair of success, when I considered, that in the course of our correspondence, I should I all probability be invited to visit my mistress in her own apartment, and by these means have an opportunity of conversing with her charming ward. Pleased with this prospect, my heart dilated with joy; I talked in raptures to the state governante, and kissed her shrivelled hand with great devotion, She was so much transported with her good fortune, that she could not contain her ecstacy, but flew upon me like a tigress, and pressed her skinny lips to mine; when (as it was no doubt concerted by her evil genius) a dose of garlic she had swallowed that morning, to dispel wind, I suppose, began to operate with such a sudden explosion, that human nature, circumstanced as I was, could not endure the shock with any degree of temper. I lost all patience and reflection, flung away from her in an instant, snatched my hat and cane, and ran downstairs as if the devil had me in pursuit, and could scarcely retain the convulsion of my bowels, which were grievously offended by the perfume that assaulted me. Strap, who waited my return with impatience, seeing me arrive in the utmost disorder, stood motionless with apprehension, and durst not inquire into the cause.

After I had washed my mouth, more than once, and recruited my spirits with a glass of wine, I recounted to him every particular of what had happened; to which he made no other reply for some time than lifting up his eyes, clasping his hands, and uttering a hollow groan. At length he observed, in a melancholy tone, that it was a thousand pities my organs were so delicate as to be offended with the smell of garlic. “Ah! God help us,” said he, “’tis not the steams of garlic, no, nor of something else, that would give me the least uneasiness — see what it is to be a cobler’s son!” I replied hastily, “I wish then you would go and retrieve my miscarriage.” At this suggestion he started, forced a smile, and left the room, shaking his head. Whether the old gentlewoman resented my abrupt departure so much that her love changed into disdain, or was ashamed to see me on account of her infirmity, I know not; but I was never troubled again with her passion.

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