The Adventures of Roderick Random, by Tobias Smollett

Chapter XXIII

Miss Williams interrupted by a bailiff, who carries her to the Marshalsea — I accompany her — prove she is not the person named in the writ — the bailiff is fain to discharge her — we shift our lodging — her story, and my reflections thereupon-progress of a common woman of the town — resolves to quit that way of life

Her story was here interrupted by a rap at the door, which I no sooner opened, than three or four terrible fellows rushed in, one of whom accosted my fellow-lodger thus: “Madam, your servant — you must do me the favour to come along with me, I have a writ against you.” While the bailiff (for so he was) spoke thus, his followers surrounded the prisoner, and began to handle her very roughly. This treatment incensed me so much, that I snatched up the poker and would certainly have used it in defence of the lady, without any regard to the strength and number of her adversaries, had she not begged me, with a composure of countenance for which I could not account, to use no violence on her behalf, which could be of no service to her, but might be very detrimental to myself. Then turning to the leader of this formidable troop, she desired to see the writ, and having perused it, said with a faltering voice, “I am not the person whose name is here mentioned, arrest me at your peril.” “Ay, ay, madam,” replied the catchpole. “We shall prove your identity. In the meantime, whither will you be pleased to be carried, to my house, or to jail?” “If I must be confined,” said she, “I would rather be in your house than in a common jail.” “Well, well,” answered he, “if you have money enough in your pocket, you shall be entertained like a princess.” But when she acquainted him with her poverty, he swore he never gave credit, and ordered one of his myrmidons to call a coach, to carry her to the Marshalsea at once. While they waited for the convenience, she took me aside, and bade me be under no concern on her account, for she knew how to extricate herself from this difficulty very soon, and perhaps gain something by the occasion. Although her discourse was a mystery to me, I was very well pleased with her assurance; and when the coach came to the door, I offered to accompany her to prison, to which proposal, after much entreaty, she consented.

When we arrived at the gate of the Marshalsea, our conductor alighted, and having demanded entrance, presented the writ to the turnkey, who no sooner perceived the name of Elizabeth Cary than he cried, “Ah, ah: my old acquaintance Bet! I’m glad to see thee with all my heart.” So saying, he opened the coach door, and helped her to dismount; but when he observed her face, he started back, saying, “Who have we got here?” The bailiff, alarmed at this interrogation, cried with some emotion, “Who should it be but the prisoner, Elizabeth Cary?” The turnkey replied, “That Elizabeth Cary! I’ll be hanged if that’s Elizabeth Cary more than my grandmother.” Here the lady thought fit to interpose, and tell the catchpole, if he had taken her word for it at first, he might have saved himself and her a great deal of trouble. “It may be so,” answered he, “but I’ll have further evidence that you are not the person, before you and I part.” “Yes, yes,” said she, “you shall have further evidence, to your cost.” Then we adjourned into the lodge, and called for a bottle of wine, where my companion wrote a direction to two of her acquaintance, and begged the favour of me to go to their lodgings, and request them to come to her immediately. I found them together at a house in Brydges Street, Drury Lane, and as they were luckily unengaged, they set out with me in a hackney-coach without hesitation, after I had related the circumstances of the affair, which flattered then with hopes of seeing a bailiff trounced; for there is an antipathy as natural between women of that class and bailiffs, as that subsisting between mice and cats. Accordingly, when they entered the lodge, they embraced the prisoner very affectionately by the name of Nancy Williams, and asked how long she had been nabbed, and for what? On hearing the particulars of her adventure repeated, they offered to swear before a justice of peace that she was not the person mentioned in the writ, whom, it seems, they all knew; but the bailiff, who was by the time convinced of his mistake, told them he would not put them to that trouble. “Ladies,” said he, “there’s no harm done — you shall give me leave to treat you with another bottle, and then we’ll part friends.” This proposal was not at all relished by the sisterhood: and Miss Williams told him, sure he did not imagine her such a fool as to be satisfied with a paltry glass of sour wine? Here the turnkey interrupted her by affirming with an oath, that the wine was as good as ever was tipped over tongue. “Well,” continued she, “that maybe; but were it the best of champagne, it is no recompense for the damage I have suffered both in character and health, by being wrongfully dragged to jail; at this rate, no innocent person is safe, since an officer of justice, out of malice, private pique, or mistake, may injure and oppress the subject with impunity; but, thank heaven, I live under the protection of laws that will not suffer such insults to pass unpunished, and I know very well how to procure redress.” Mr. Vulture, for that was the bailiff’s name, finding he had to deal with one who would not be imposed upon, began to look very sullen and perplexed, and, leaning his forehead on his hand, entered into a deliberation with himself, which lasted a few minutes, and then broke out in a volley of dreadful curses against the old jade our landlady, as he called her, for having misinformed him. After much wrangling and swearing, the matter was referred to the decision of the turnkey, who calling for the other bottle, mulcted the bailiff in all the liquor that had been drunk, coach hire, and a couple of guineas for the use of the plaintiff. The money was immediately deposited; Miss Williams gratified the two evidences with one half, and putting the other in her pocket drove borne with me, leaving the catchpole grumbling over his loss, yet pleased in the main, for having so cheaply got clear of a business that might have cost him ten times the sum, and his place to boot. This guinea was a very seasonable relief to us, who were reduced to great necessity, six of my shirts, and almost all my clothes, except those on my back, having been either pawned or sold for our maintenance before this happened. As we resented the behaviour of our landlady, our first care was to provide ourselves with another lodging, whither we removed next day, with an intention to keep ourselves as retired as possible, until our cure should be completed. When we were fixed in our new habitation, I entreated her to finish the story of her life, which she pursued in this manner:—

‘The success of our experiment on the judge encouraged us to practice the same deceit on others; but this harvest lasted not long, my character taking air, and my directress deserting me for some new game. Then I took lodgings near Charing-Cross, at two guineas a week, and began to entertain company in a public manner; but my income being too small to defray my expenses, I was obliged to retrench, and enter into articles with the porters of certain taverns, who undertook to find employment enough for me, provided I would share my profits with them. Accordingly, I was almost every night engaged with company, among whom I was exposed to every mortification, danger, and abuse, that flow from drunkenness and brutality. As my spirit was not sufficiently humbled to the will, nor my temper calculated for the conversation of my gallants, it was impossible for me to overcome an aversion I felt for my profession, which manifested itself in a settled gloom on my countenance, and disgusted those sons of mirth and riot so much, that I was frequently used in a shocking manner, and kicked down stairs with disgrace. The messengers, seeing me disagreeable to their benefactors and employers, seldom troubled me with a call, and I began to find myself almost totally neglected.

‘To contribute towards my support I was fain to sell my watch, rings, trinkets, with the best part of my clothes; and I was one evening musing by myself on misery before me when I received a message from a tavern, whither I repaired in a chair, and was introduced to a gentleman dressed like an officer, with whom I supped in a sumptuous manner. In the morning, when I awoke, I found my gallant had got up, and, drawing aside the curtain, could not perceive him in the room. I waited a full hour for his return, and then in the greatest perplexity, rose up and rang the bell. When the waiter came to the door, he found it locked, and desired admittance, which I granted, after observing, with great surprise, that the key remained on the inside, as when we went to bed. I no sooner inquired for the captain, than the fellow, staring with a distracted look, cried, “How, madam, is he not abed?” And when he was satisfied as to that particular, ran into a closet adjoining to the chamber, the window of which he found open. Through this the adventurer had got upon a wall, front whence he dropped down into a court and escaped, leaving me to be answerable not only for the reckoning, but also for a large silver tankard and posset-bowl, which he had carried off with him.

‘It is impossible to describe the consternation I was under, when I saw myself detained as a thief’s accomplice; for I was looked upon in that light, and carried before a justice, who mistaking my confusion for a sign of guilt committed me, after a short examination, to Bridewell, having admonished me, as the only means to save my life, to turn evidence, and impeach my confederate. I now concluded the vengeance of Heaven had overtaken me, and that I must soon finish my career by an ignominious death. This reflection sank so deep into my soul, that I was for some days deprived of my reason, and actually believed myself in hell, tormented by fiends. Indeed, there needs not a very extravagant imagination to form that idea: for of all the scenes on earth that of Bridewell approaches nearest the notion I had always entertained of the regions. Here I saw nothing but rage, anguish and impiety, and heard nothing but groans, curses, and blasphemy. In the midst of this hellish crew, I was subjected to the tyranny of a barbarian, who imposed upon me tasks that I could not possibly perform, and then punished my incapacity with the utmost rigour and inhumanity. I was often whipped into a swoon, and lashed out of it (during which miserable interval, I was robbed by my fellow-prisoners of everything about me, even to my cap, shoes, and stockings): I was not only destitute of necessaries, but even of food, so that my wretchedness was extreme. Not one of my acquaintance to whom I imparted my situation, would grant me the least succour or regard, on pretence of my being committed for theft, and my landlord refused to part with some of my own clothes which I sent for, because I was indebted to him for a week’s lodging.

‘Overwhelmed with calamity, I grew desperate, and resolved to put an end to my grievances and life together: for this purpose I got up in the middle of the night, when I thought everybody around me asleep, and fixing one end of a large hook in the ceiling, that supported the scales on which the hemp is weighed, I stood upon a chair, and making a noose on the other end, put my neck into ii with an intention to hang myself; but before I could adjust the knot I was surprised and prevented by two women, who had been awake all the while and suspected my design. In the morning, my attempt was published among the prisoners and punished with thirty stripes, the pain of which, co-operating with my disappointment and disgrace, bereft me of my senses, and threw me into an ecstacy of madness, during which I tore the flesh from my bones with my teeth, and dashed my head against the pavement; so that they were obliged to set a watch over me, to restrain me from doing further mischief to myself and others. This fit of frenzy continued three days, at the end of which I grew calm and sullen: but as the desire of making away with myself still remained, I came to a determination of starving myself to death, and with that view refused all sustenance.

‘Whether it was owing to the want of opposition, or to the weakness of nature, I know not; but on the second day of my fast, I found my resolution considerably impaired, and the calls of hunger almost insupportable. At this critical conjuncture a lady was brought into the prison, with whom I had contracted an acquaintance while I lived with Horatio; she was then on the same footing as I was, but afterwards quarrelling with her gallant, and not finding another to her mind, altered her scheme of life, and set up a coffee-house among the hundreds in Drury, where she entertained gentlemen with claret, arrack, and the choice of half-a-dozen damsels who lived in her house. This serviceable matron having neglected to gratify a certain justice for the connivance she enjoyed, was indicted at the quarter sessions, in consequence of which her bevy was dispersed, and herself committed to Bridewell. She had not been long there before she learned my disaster, and coming up to me, after a compliment of condolence, inquired into the particulars of my fate. While we were engaged in discourse together, the master came and told me, that the fellow on whose account I had suffered was taken, that he had confessed the theft, and cleared me of any concern in the affair; for which reason he, the master, had orders to discharge me, and that I was from that moment free.

‘This piece of news soon banished all thoughts of death, and had such an instantaneous effect on my countenance, that Mrs. Coupler (the lady then present), hoping to find her account in me, very generously offered to furnish me with what necessaries I wanted, and take me into her own house as soon as she could compromise matters with the justices. The conditions of her offer were, that I should pay three guineas weekly for my board, and a reasonable consideration besides, for the use of such clothes and ornaments as she should supply me with, to be deducted from the first profits of my occupation. These were hard terms, but not to be rejected by one who was turned out helpless and naked into the wide world, without a friend to pity or assist her. I therefore embraced her proposal, and she being bailed in a few hours, took me home with her in a coach. As I was by this time conscious of having formerly disgusted my admirers by my reserved loud haughty behaviour, I now endeavoured to conquer that disposition, and the sudden change of my fortune giving me a flow of spirits, I appeared in the most winning and gay manner I could assume. Having the advantage of a good voice and education, I exerted my talents to the uttermost, and soon became the favourite with all company. This success alarmed the pride and jealousy of Mrs. Coupler, who could not bear the thoughts of being eclipsed: she therefore made a merit of her envy, and whispered among the customers that I was unsound. There needed no more to ruin my reputation and blast my prosperity; everybody shunned me with marks of aversion and disdain, and in a very short time I was as solitary as ever. Want of gallants was attended with want of money to satisfy my malicious landlady, who having purposely given me credit to the amount of eleven pounds, took out a writ against me and I was arrested in her own house. Though the room was crowded with people when the bailiff entered, not one of them had compassion enough to mollify my prosecutrix, far less to pay the debt; they even laughed at my tears, and one of them bade me be of good cheer, for I should not want admirers in Newgate.

‘At this instant a sea-lieutenant came in, and seeing my plight, began to inquire into the circumstances of my misfortune. “Harkee, my girl,” he inquired “how far have you overrun the constable?” I told him that the debt amounted to eleven pounds, besides the expenses of the writ. “An that be all,” said he, “you shan’t go to the bilboes this bout.” And taking out his purse, he paid the money, discharged the bailiff, and telling me I had got into the wrong port, advised me to seek out a more convenient harbour, where I could be safely hove down; for which purpose he made me a present of five guineas more. I was so touched with this singular piece of generosity, that for some time I had not power to thank him. However, as soon as I recollected myself, I begged the favour of him to go with me to the next tavern, where I explained the nature of my disaster, and convinced him of the falsehood of what was reported to my prejudice so effectually, that he from that moment attached himself to me, and we lived in great harmony together, until he was obliged to go to sea, where he perished in a storm.

‘Having lost my benefactor, and almost consumed the remains of his bounty, I saw myself in danger of relapsing into my former necessity, and began to be very uneasy at the prospect of bailiffs and jails! when one of the sisterhood advised me to take lodgings in a part of the town where I was unknown, and pass for an heiress, by which artifice I might entrap somebody to be my husband, who would possibly be able to allow me a handsome maintenance, or at worst screen me from the dread and danger of a prison, by becoming liable for whatever debts I should contract. I approved of this scheme, towards the execution of which my companion clubbed her wardrobe, and undertook to live with me in quality of my maid, with the proviso that she should be reimbursed and handsomely considered out of the profits of my success. She was immediately detached to look out for a convenient place, and that very day hired a genteel apartment in Park Street, whither I moved in a couch loaded with her baggage, and my own. I made my first appearance in a blue riding habit trimmed with silver; and my maid acted her part so artfully, that in a day or two my fame spread all over the neighbourhood, and I was said to be a rich heiress just arrived from the country. This report brought a swarm of gay young fellows about me; but I soon found them to be all indigent adventurers like myself, who crowded to me like crows to a carrion, with a view of preying upon my fortune. I maintained, however, the appearance of wealth as long as possible, in hopes of gaining some admirer more for my purpose, and at length attracted the regard of one who would have satisfied my wishes, and managed matters so well, that a day was actually fixed for our nuptials. In the interim, he begged leave to introduce an intimate friend to me, which request, as I could not refuse, I had the extreme mortification and surprise to see, next night, in that friend, my old keeper Horatio, who no sooner beheld me than he changed colour, but had presence of mind to advance and salute me, bidding me (with a low voice) be under no apprehension, for he would not expose me. In spite of his assurance, I could not recover myself so far as to entertain them, but withdrew to my chamber on pretence of a severe headache, to the no small concern of my adorer, who took his leave in the tenderest manner, and went off with his friend.

‘Having imparted my situation to my companion, she found it high time for us to decamp, and that without any noise, because we were not only indebted to our landlady, but also to several tradesmen in the neighbourhood. Our retreat, therefore, was concerted and executed in this manner: Having packed up all our clothes and moveables in small parcels, she (on pretence of fetching cordials for me) carried them at several times to the house of an acquaintance, where she likewise procured a lodging, to which we retired in the middle of the night, when every other body in the house was asleep. I was now obliged to aim at lower game, and accordingly spread my nets among tradespeople, but found them all too phlegmatic or cautious for my art and attractions, till at last I became acquainted with you, on whom I practised all my dexterity; not that I believed you had any fortune, or expectation of me, but that I might transfer the burden of such debts as I had incurred, or should contract, from myself to another, and at the same time avenge myself of your sex, by rendering miserable one who bore such resemblance to the wretch who ruined me; but Heaven preserved you from my snares by the discovery you made, which was owing to the negligence of my maid in leaving the chamber-door unlocked when she went to buy sugar for breakfast. When I found myself detected and forsaken by you, I was fain to move my lodging, and dwell two pair of stairs higher than before. My companion, being disappointed in her expectations, left me, and I had no other resource than to venture forth, like the owls in the dark, to pick up a precarious and uncomfortable subsistence. I have often sauntered between Ludgate Hill and Charing Cross a whole winter night, exposed not only to the inclemency of the weather, but likewise to the rage of hunger and thirst, without being so happy as to meet with one dupe, then creep up to my garret, in a deplorable draggled condition, sneak to bed, and try to bury my appetite and sorrows in sleep. When I lighted on some rake or tradesman reeling home drunk, I frequently suffered the most brutal treatment, in spite of which I was obliged to affect gaiety and good humour, though my soul was stung with resentment and disdain, and my heart loaded with grief and affliction. In the course of these nocturnal adventures, I was infected with the disease, that in a short time rendered me the object of my own abhorrence, and drove me to the retreat where your benevolence rescued me from the jaws of death.’

So much candour and good sense appeared in this lady’s narration, that I made no scruple of believing every syllable of what she said, and expressed my astonishment at the variety of miseries she had undergone in so little time, for all her misfortunes had happened within the compass of two years; I compared her situation with my own, and found it a thousand times more wretched. I had endured hardships, ’tis true — my whole life had been a series of such; and when I looked forward, the prospect was not much bettered, but then they were become habitual to me, and consequently I could bear them with less difficulty. If one scheme of life should not succeed, I could have recourse to another, and so to a third, veering about to a thousand different shifts, according to the emergencies of my fate, without forfeiting the dignity of my character beyond a power of retrieving it, or subjecting myself wholly to the caprice and barbarity of the world. On the other hand, she had known and relished the sweets of prosperity, she had been brought up under the wings of an indulgent parent, in all the delicacies to which her sex and rank entitled her; and without any extravagance of hope, entertained herself with the view of uninterrupted happiness through the whole scene of life. How fatal then, how tormenting, how intolerable, must her reverse of fortune be! — a reverse, that not only robs her of these external comforts, and plunges her into all the miseries of want, but also murders her peace of mind, and entails upon her the curse of eternal infamy! Of all professions I pronounced that of a courtesan the most deplorable, and her of all courtesans the most unhappy. She allowed my observation to be just in the main, but at the same time affirmed that notwithstanding the disgraces which had fallen to her share, she had not been so unlucky in the condition of a prostitute as many others of the same community. “I have often seen,” said she, “while I strolled about the streets at midnight, a number of naked wretches reduced to rags and filth, huddled together like swine, in the corner of a dark alley, some of whom, but eighteen months before, I had known the favourites of the town, rolling in affluence, and glittering in all the pomp of equipage and dress. Miserable wretch that I am! perhaps the same horrors are decreed for me!” “No!” cried she, after some pause, “I shall never live to such extremity of distress; my own hand shall open a way for my deliverance, before I arrive at that forlorn period!” Her condition filled me with sympathy and compassion: I revered her qualifications, looked upon her as unfortunate, not criminal, and attended her with such care and success, that in less than two months her health, as well as my own, was perfectly re-established. As we often conferred upon our mutual affairs, and interchanged advice, a thousand different projects were formed, which, upon further canvassing, appeared impracticable. We would have gladly gone to service, but who would take us in without recommendation? At length an expedient occurred to her, of which she intended to lay hold; and this was, to procure with the first money she should earn, the homely garb of a country wench, go to some village at a good distance from town, and come up in a waggon, as a fresh girl for service: by which means she might be provided for, in a manner much more suitable to her inclination than her present way of life.

Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30