Tobias Smollett – The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, 1751


Chapter XLVII.

Peregrine makes himself Merry at the Expense of the Painter, who curses his Landlady, and breaks with the Doctor.

As he could easily conceive the situation of his companion in adversity, he was unwilling to leave the place until he had reaped some diversion from his distress, and with that view repaired to the dungeon of the afflicted painter, to which he had by this time free access. When he entered, the first object that presented itself to his eye was so uncommonly ridiculous, that he could scarce preserve that gravity of countenance which he had affected in order to execute the joke he had planned. The forlorn Pallet sat upright in his bed in a deshabille that was altogether extraordinary. He had laid aside his monstrous hoop, together with his stays, gown, and petticoat, wrapped his lappets about his head by way of nightcap, and wore his domino as a loose morning-dress; his grizzled locks hung down about his lack-lustre eyes and tawny neck, in all the disorder of negligence; his gray beard bristled about half-an-inch through the remains of the paint with which his visage had been bedaubed, and every feature of his face was lengthened to the most ridiculous expression of grief and dismay.

Seeing Peregrine come in, he started up in a sort of frantic ecstasy, and, running towards him with open arms, no sooner perceived the woeful appearance into which our hero had modelled his physiognomy, than he stopped short all of a sudden, and the joy which had begun to take possession of his heart was in a moment dispelled by the most rueful presages; so that he stood in a most ludicrous posture of dejection, like a malefactor at the Old Bailey, when sentence is about to be pronounced. Pickle, taking him by the hand, heaved a profound sigh; and after having protested that he was extremely mortified at being pitched upon as the messenger of bad news, told him, with an air of sympathy and infinite concern, that the French court, having discovered his sex, had resolved, in consideration of the outrageous indignity he offered in public to a prince of the blood, to detain him in the Bastille a prisoner for life; and that this sentence was a mitigation obtained by the importunities of the British ambassador, the punishment ordained by law being no other than breaking alive upon the wheel.

These tidings aggravated the horrors of the painter to such a degree that he roared aloud, and skipped about the room in all the extravagance of distraction, taking God and man to witness, that he would rather suffer immediate death than endure one year’s imprisonment in such a hideous place; and cursing the hour of his birth, and the moment on which he departed from his own country. “For my own part,” said his tormentor, in a hypocritical tone, “I was obliged to swallow the bitter pill of making submission to the prince, who, as I had not presumed to strike him, received acknowledgments, in consequence of which I shall be this day set at liberty; and there is even one expedient left for the recovery of your freedom—it is, I own, a disagreeable remedy, but one had better undergo a little mortification than be for ever wretched. Besides, upon second thoughts, I begin to imagine that you will not for such a trifle sacrifice yourself to the unceasing horrors of a dungeon; especially as your condescension will in all probability be attended with advantages which you could not otherwise enjoy.” Pallet, interrupting him with great eagerness, begged for the love of God that he would no longer keep him in the torture of suspense, but mention that same remedy, which he was resolved to follow, let it be ever so unpalatable.

Peregrine, having thus played upon his passions of fear and hope, answered, “that as the offence was committed in the habit of a woman, which was a disguise unworthy of the other sex, the French court was of opinion that the delinquent should be reduced to the neuter gender; so that there was no alternative at his own option, by which he had it in his power to regain immediate freedom.”—“What!” cried the painter, in despair, “become a singer? Gadzooks! and the devil and all that! I’ll rather be still where I am, and let myself be devoured by vermin.” Then thrusting out his throat—“Here is my windpipe,” said he; “be so good, my dear friend, as to give it a slice or two: if you don’t, I shall one of these days be found dangling in my garters. What an unfortunate rascal I am! What a blockhead, and a beast, and a fool, was I to trust myself among such a barbarous ruffian race! Lord forgive you, Mr. Pickle, for having been the immediate cause of my disaster. If you had stood by me from the beginning, according to your promise, I should not have been teased by that coxcomb who has brought me to this pass. And why did I put on this d—d unlucky dress? Lord curse that chattering Jezebel of a landlady, who advised such a preposterous disguise!—a disguise which has not only brought me to this pass, but also rendered me abominable to myself, and frightful to others; for when I this morning signified to the turnkey that I wanted to be shaved, he looked at my beard with astonishment, and, crossing himself, muttered his Pater Noster, believing me, I suppose, to be a witch, or something worse. And Heaven confound that loathsome banquet of the ancients, which provoked me to drink too freely, that I might wash away the taste of that accursed sillikicaby.”

Our young gentleman, having heard this lamentation to an end, excused himself for his conduct by representing that he could not possibly foresee the disagreeable consequences that attended it; and in the mean time strenuously counselled him to submit to the terms of his enlargement. He observed that he was now arrived at that time of life when the lusts of the flesh should be entirely mortified within him, and his greatest concern ought to be the of his soul, to which nothing could more effectually contribute than the amputation which was proposed; that his body, as well as his mind, would profit by the change; because he would have no dangerous appetite to gratify, and no carnal thoughts to divert him from the duties of his profession; and his voice, which was naturally sweet, would improve to such a degree, that he would captivate the ears of all the people of fashion and taste, and in a little time be celebrated under the appellation of the English Senesino.

These arguments did not fail to make impression upon the painter, who nevertheless started two objections to his compliance; namely, the disgrace of the punishment, and the dread of his wife. Pickle undertook to obviate these difficulties, by assuring him that the sentence would be executed so privately as never to transpire: and that his wife could not be so unconscionable, after so many years of cohabitation, as to take exceptions to an expedient by which she would not only enjoy the conversation of her husband, but even the fruits of those talents which the knife would so remarkably refine.

Pallet shook his hand at this last remonstrance, as if he thought it would not be altogether convincing to his spouse, but yielded to the proposal, provided her consent could be obtained. Just as he signified this condescension, the jailer entered, and addressing himself to the supposed lady, expressed his satisfaction in having the honour to tell her that she was no longer a prisoner. As the painter did not understand one word of what he said, Peregrine undertook the office of interpreter, and made his friend believe the jailer’s speech was no other than an intimation that the ministry had sent a surgeon to execute what was proposed, and that the instruments and dressings were prepared in the next room. Alarmed and terrified at this sudden appointment, he flew to the other end of the room, and, snatching up an earthen chamber-pot, which was the only offensive weapon in the place, put himself in a posture of defence, and with many oaths threatened to try the temper of the barber’s skull, if he should presume to set his nose within the apartment.

The jailer, who little expected such a reception, concluded that the poor gentlewoman had actually lost her wits, and retreated with precipitation, leaving the door open as he went out; upon which Pickle, gathering up the particulars of his dress with great despatch, crammed them into Pallet’s arms, and taking notice that now the coast was clear, exhorted him to follow his footsteps to the gate, where a hackney-coach stood for his reception. There being no time for hesitation, the painter took his advice; and, without quitting the utensil, which in his hurry he forgot to lay down, sallied out in the rear of our hero, with all the wildness of terror and impatience which may be reasonably supposed to take possession of a man who flies from perpetual imprisonment. Such was the tumult of his agitation, that his faculty of thinking was for the present utterly overwhelmed, and he saw no object but his conductor, whom he followed by a sort of instinctive impulse, without regarding the keepers and sentinels, who, as he passed with his clothes under one arm, and his chamber-pot brandished above his head, were confounded, and even dismayed, at the strange apparition.

During the whole course of this irruption, he ceased nor to cry, with great vociferation, “Drive, coachman, drive, in the name of God!” and the carriage had proceeded the length of a whole street before he manifested the least sign of reflection, but stared like the Gorgon’s head, with his mouth wide open, and each particular hair crawling and twining like an animated serpent. At length, however, he began to recover the use of his senses, and asked if Peregrine thought him now out of all danger of being retaken. This unrelenting wag, not yet satisfied with the affliction he imposed upon the sufferer, answered, with an air of doubt and concern, that he hoped they would not be overtaken, and prayed to God they might not be retarded by a stop of carriages. Pallet fervently joined in this supplication; and they advanced a few yards farther, when the noise of a coach at full speed behind them invaded their ears; and Pickle, having looked out of the window, withdrew his head in seeming confusion, and exclaimed, “Lord have mercy upon us! I wish that may not be a guard sent after us. Methinks I saw the muzzle of a fusil sticking out of the coach.” The painter, hearing these tidings, that instant thrust himself half out at the window, with his helmet still in his hand, bellowing to the coachman, as loud as he could roar, “Drive, d— ye, dive to the gates of Jericho and the ends of the earth! Drive, you ragamuffin, you rascallion, you hell-hound! Drive us to the pit Of hell, rather than we should be taken!”

Such a phantom could not pass without attracting the curiosity of the people, who ran to their doors and windows, in order to behold this object of admiration. With the same view, that coach, which was supposed to be in pursuit of him, stopped just as the windows of each happened to be opposite; and Pallet, looking behind, and seeing three men standing upon the footboard armed with canes, which his fear converted into fusils, never doubted that his friend’s suspicion was just, but, shaking his Jordan at the imaginary guard, swore he would sooner die than part with his precious ware. The owner of the coach, who was a nobleman of the first quality, mistook him for some unhappy woman deprived of her senses: and, ordering his coachman to proceed, convinced the fugitive, to his infinite joy, that this was no more than a false alarm. He was not, for all that, freed from anxiety and trepidation; but our young gentleman, fearing his brain would not bear a repetition of the same joke, permitted him to gain his own lodgings without further molestation.

His landlady, meeting him on the stair, was so affected at his appearance, that she screamed aloud, and betook herself to flight; while he, cursing her with greet bitterness, rushed into the apartment to the doctor, who, instead of receiving him with cordial embraces, and congratulating him upon his deliverance, gave evident signs of umbrage and discontent; and even plainly told him, he hoped to have heard that he and Mr. Pickle had acted the glorious part of Cato; an event which would have laid the foundation of such noble struggles, as could not fail to end in happiness and freedom; and that he had already made some progress in an ode that would have immortalised their names, and inspired the flame of liberty in every honest breast. “There,” said he, “I would have proved, that great talents, and high sentiments of liberty, do reciprocally produce and assist each other; and illustrated my assertions with such notes and quotations from the Greek writers, as would have opened the eyes of the most blind and unthinking, and touched the most callous and obdurate heart. ‘O fool! to think the man, whose ample mind must grasp whatever yonder stars survey’—Pray, Mr. Pellet, what is your opinion of that image of the mind’s grasping the whole universe? For my own part, I can’t help thinking it the most happy conception that ever entered my imagination.”

The painter, who was not such a flaming enthusiast in the cause of liberty, could not brook the doctor’s reflections, which he thought savoured a little too much of indifference and deficiency in point of private friendship; and therefore seized the present opportunity of mortifying his pride, by observing, that the image was, without all doubt, very grand and magnificent; but that he had been obliged for the idea to Mr. Bayes in “The Rehearsal,” who values himself upon the same figure, conveyed in these words, “But all these clouds, when by the eye of reason grasp’d, etc.” Upon any other occasion, the painter would have triumphed greatly upon this detection; but such was the flutter and confusion of his spirits, under the apprehension of being retaken, that, without further communication, he retreated to his own room, in order to resume his own dress, which he hoped would alter his appearance in such a manner as to baffle all search and examination; while the physician remained ashamed and abashed, to find himself convinced of bombast by a person of such contemptible talents. He was offended at this proof of his memory, and so much enraged at his presumption in exhibiting it, that he could never forgive his want of reverence, and took every opportunity of exposing his ignorance and folly in the sequel. Indeed, the ties of private affection were too weak to engage the heart of this republican, whose zeal for the community had entirely swallowed up his concern for individuals. He looked upon particular friendship as a passion unworthy of his ample soul, and was a professed admirer of L. Manlius, Junius Brutus, and those later patriots of the same name, who shut their ears against the cries of nature, and resisted all the dictates of gratitude and humanity.

Tobias Smollett, 1721-1771.  The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, 1751

Pallet: The painter in Smollett’s Peregrine Pickle. A man without one jot of reverence for ancient customs or modern etiquette. Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. E. Cobham Brewer, 1894