The Adventures of Roderick Random, by Tobias Smollett

Chapter XXXVIII

I get up and crawl into a barn, where I am in danger of perishing, through the fear of the country people — their inhumanity — I am succoured by a reputed witch — her story — her advice — she recommends me as a valet to a single lady, whose character she explains

But as I lay ruminating, my passion insensibly abated; I considered my situation in quite another light, from that in which it appeared to me at first, and the result of my deliberation was to rise if I could, and crawl to the next inhabited place for assistance. With some difficulty I got upon my legs, and having examined my body, found I had received no other injury than two large contused wounds, one on the fore and another on the hinder part of my head, which seemed to be occasioned by the same weapon, namely, the butt-end of a pistol. I looked towards the sea, but could discern no remains of the ship; so that I concluded she was gone to pieces, and that those who remained in her had perished: but, as I afterwards learned, the gunner, who had more sagacity than Crampley, observing that it was flood when he left her, and that she would probably float at high water, made no noise about getting on shore, but continued on deck, in hopes of bringing her safe into some harbour, after her commander should have deserted her, for which piece of service he expected, no doubt, to be handsomely rewarded. This scheme he accordingly executed, and was promised great things by the Admiralty for saving his Majesty’s ship: but I never heard he reaped the fruits of his expectation. As for my own part, I directed my course towards a small cottage I perceived, and in the road picked up a seaman’s old jacket, which I suppose the thief who dressed himself in my clothes had thrown away: this was a very comfortable acquisition to me, who was almost stiff with cold: I therefore put it on; and, as my natural heat revived, my wounds, which had left off bleeding, burst out afresh; so that, finding myself excessively exhausted, I was about to lie down in the fields, when I discovered a barn on my left hand, within a few yards of me; thither I made shift to stagger, and finding the door open, went in, but saw nobody; however, I threw myself upon a truss of straw, hoping to be soon relieved by some person or other. I had not lain here many minutes, when I saw a countryman come in with a pitchfork in his hand, which he was upon the point of thrusting into the straw that concealed me, and in all probability would have done my business, had I not uttered a dreadful groan, after having essayed in vain to speak. This melancholy note alarmed the clown, who started back, and discovering a body all besmeared with blood, stood trembling, with the pitchfork extended before him, his hair bristling up, his eyes staring, his nostrils dilated, and his mouth wide open. At another time I should have been much diverted by this figure, which preserved the same attitude very near ten minutes, during which time I made many unsuccessful efforts to implore his compassion and assistance; but my tongue failed me, and my language was only a repetition of groans. At length an old man arrived, who, seeing the other in such a posture, cried, “Mercy upon en! the leaad’s bewitched! why, Dick, beest thou besayd thyself!” Dick, without moving his eyes from the object that terrified him, replied, “O vather! vatber! here be either the devil or a dead mon: I doant know which o’en, but a groans woundily.” The father, whose eyesight was none of the best, pulled out his spectacles, and, having applied them to his nose reconnoitered me over his son’s shoulder: but no sooner did he behold me, than he was seized with a fit of shaking, even more violent than Dick’s, and, with a broken accent, addressed me thus: “In the name of the Vather, Zun, and Holy Ghost, I charge you, an you been Satan, to be gone to the Red Zen; but an you be a moordered mon, speak, that you may have a Christom burial.”

As I was not in a condition to satisfy him in this particular, he repeated his conjuration to no purpose, and they continued a good while in the agonies of fear. At length the father proposed that the son should draw nearer, and take a more distinct view of the apparition; but Dick was of opinion that his father should advance first, he being an old man past his labour and, if he received any mischief, the loss would be the smaller; whereas he himself might escape, and be useful, in his generation. This prudential reason had no effect upon the senior, who still kept Dick between me and him. In the meantime I endeavoured to raise one hand as a signal of distress, but had only strength sufficient to produce a rustling among the straw, which discomposed the young peasant so much, that he sprang out at the door, and overthrew his father in his flight. The old gentleman would not spend time in getting up, but crawled backwards like a crab, with great speed, till he had got over the threshold, mumbling exorcisms all the way. I was exceedingly mortified to find myself in danger of perishing through the ignorance and cowardice of these clowns; and felt my spirits decay apace, when an old woman entered the barn, followed by the two fugitives and with great intrepidity advanced to the place where I lay, saying, “If it be the devil I fearen not, and for a dead mon a can do us no harm.” When she saw my condition, she cried, “Here be no devil, but in your en fool’s head. Here be a poor miserable wretch bleeding to death, and if a dies, we must be at the charge of burying him; therefore, Dick, go vetch the old wheelbarrow and put en in, and carry en to goodman Hodge’s backdoor; he is more able than we to pay out money upon poor vagrants.” Her advice was taken, and immediately put in execution; I was rolled to the other farmer’s door, where I was tumbled out like a heap of dung; and should certainly have fallen a prey to the hogs, if my groans had not disturbed the family, and brought some of them out to view my situation. But Hodge resembled the Jew more than the good Samaritan, and ordered me to be carried to the house of the parson, whose business it was to practise as well as to preach charity; observing that it was sufficient for him to pay his quota towards the maintenance of the poor belonging to his own parish. When I was set down at the vicar’s gate, he fell into a mighty passion, and threatened to excommunicate him who sent, as well as those who brought me, unless they would move me immediately to another place. About this time I fainted with the fatigue I had undergone, and afterwards understood that I was bandied from door to door through a whole village, nobody having humanity enough to administer the least relief to me, Until an old woman, who was suspected of witchcraft by the neighbourhood, hearing of my distress, received me into her house, and, having dressed my wounds, brought me to myself with cordials of her own preparing. I was treated with great care and tenderness by this grave matron, who, after I had recovered some strength, desired to know the particulars of my last disaster. This piece of satisfaction I could not refuse to one who had saved my life, therefore related all my adventures without exaggeration or reserve. She seemed surprised at the vicissitudes I had undergone, and drew a happy presage of my future life from my past suffering, then launched out into the praise of adversity, with so much ardour and good sense, that I concluded she was a person who had seen better days, and conceived a longing desire to hear her story. She perceived my drift by some words I dropped, and smiling told me, there was nothing either entertaining or extraordinary in the course of her fortune; but, however, she would communicate it to me, in consideration of the confidence I had reposed in her. “It is of little consequence,” said she, “to tell the names of my parents, who are dead many years ago; let it suffice to assure you, they were wealthy, and had no other child than me; so that I was looked upon as heiress to a considerable estate, and teased with addresses on that account. Among the number of my admirers, there was a young gentleman of no fortune, whose sole dependence was on his promotion in the army, in which, at that time, he bore a lieutenant’s commission. I conceived an affection for this amiable officer, which, in a short time, increased to a violent passion. and without entering into minute circumstances, married him privately. We had not enjoyed one another long in stolen interviews, when he was ordered with his regiment to Flanders; but, before he set out, it was agreed between us, that we should declare our marriage to my father by letter, and implore his pardon for the step we had taken without his approbation. This discovery was made while I was abroad visiting, and just as I was about to return home, I received a letter from my father, importing that, since I had acted so undutifully and meanly as to marry a beggar, without his privity or consent, to the disgrace of his family as well as the disappointment of his hopes, he renounced me to the miserable fate I had entailed upon myself, and charged me never to set foot within his doors again. This rigid sentence was confirmed by my mother, who, in a postscript, gave me to understand that her sentiments were exactly conformable to those of my father, and that I might save myself the trouble of making any applications, for her resolutions were unalterable. Thunderstruck with my evil fortune I called a coach, and drove to my husband’s lodgings, where I found him waiting the event of his letter. Though he could easily divine by my looks the issue of his declaration, he read with great steadiness the epistle I had received; and with a smile full of tenderness, which I shall never forget, embraced me, saying, “I believe the good lady your mother might have spared herself the trouble of the last part of her postscript. Well, my dear Betty, you must lay aside all thoughts of a coach, till I can procure the command of a regiment.” This unconcerned behaviour, while it enabled me to support my reverse of fortune, at the same time endeared him to me the more, by convincing me of his disinterested views in espousing me. I was next day boarded in company with the wife of another officer, who had long been the friend and confidant of my husband, at a village not far from London, where they parted with us in the most melting manner, went to Flanders, and were killed in sight of one another at the battle of the Wood.

“Why should I tire you with a description of our unutterable sorrow at the fatal news of this event, the remembrance of which now fills my aged eyes with tears! When our grief subsided a little, and reflection came to our aid, we found ourselves deserted by the whole world, and in danger of perishing by want; whereupon we made application for the pension, and were put upon the list. Then, vowing eternal friendship, sold our jewels and superfluous clothes, retired to this place (which is in the county of Sussex) bought this little house, where we lived many years in a solitary manner, indulging our mutual sorrow, till it pleased Heaven to call away my companion two years ago; since which time I have lingered out an unhappy being, in hopes of a speedy dissolution, when I promise myself the eternal reward of all my cares. In the meantime,” continued she, “I must inform you of the character I bear among my neighbours. My conversation being different from that of the inhabitants of the village, my recluse way of life, my skill in curing distempers, which I acquired from books since I settled here, and lastly, my age having made the common people look upon me as something preternatural, and I am actually, at this hour, believed to be a witch. The parson of the parish, whose acquaintance I have not been at much pains to cultivate, taking umbrage at my supposed disrespect, has contributed not a little towards the confirmation of this opinion, by dropping certain hints to my prejudice among the vulgar, who are also very much scandalised at my entertaining this poor tabby cat with the collar about her neck, which was a favourite of my deceased companion.”

The whole behaviour of this venerable person was so primitive, innocent, sensible, and humane, that I contracted a filial respect for her, and begged her advice with regard to my future conduct, as soon as I was in a condition to act for myself. She dissuaded me from a design I had formed of travelling to Louder, in hopes of retrieving my clothes and pay, by returning to my ship, which by this time I read in the newspaper was safely arrived in the River Thames: “because,” said she, “you run the hazard of being treated not only as a deserter in quitting the sloop, but also as a mutineer, in assaulting your commanding officer, to the malice of whose revenge you will moreover be exposed.” She then promised to recommend me, as servant to a single lady of her acquaintance, who lived in the neighbourhood with her nephew, who was a young foxhunter of great fortune, where I might be very happy, provided I could bear with the disposition and manners of my mistress, which were somewhat whimsical and particular. But, above all things, she counselled me to conceal my story, the knowledge of which would effectually poison my entertainment; for it was a maxim, among most people of condition, that no gentleman ought to be admitted into a family as a domestic, lest he become lazy, and insolent. I was fain to embrace this humble proposal, because my affairs were desperate; and in a few days was hired by this lady, to serve in quality of her footman, having been represented by my hostess as a young man who was bred up to the sea by his relations against his will, and had suffered shipwreck, which had increased his disgust to that way of life so much, that he rather chose to go to service on shore, than enter himself on board of any other ship. Before I took possession of my new place, she gave me a sketch of my mistress’s character, that I might know better how to regulate my conduct.

“Your lady,” said she, “is a maiden of forty years, not so remarkable for her beauty as her learning and taste, which is famous all over the country. Indeed, she is a perfect female virtuoso, and so eager after the pursuit of knowledge that she neglects her person even to a degree of sluttishness; this negligence, together with her contempt of the male part of the creation, gives her nephew no great concern, as by these means he will probably keep her fortune, which is considerable. in the family. He therefore permits her to live in her own way, which is something extraordinary, and gratifies her in all her whimsical desires. Her apartment is at some distance from the other inhabited parts of the house; and consists of a dining-room, bedchamber, and study; she keeps a cook maid, a waiting-woman, and footman, of her own, and seldom eats or converses with any of the family but her niece, who is a very lovely creature, and humours her aunt often to the prejudice of her own health by sitting up with her whole nights together; for your mistress is too much of a philosopher to be swayed by the custom of the world, and never sleeps nor eats like other people. Among other odd notions, she professes the principles of Rosicrucius, and believes the earth, air, and sea, are inhabited by invisible beings, with whom it is possible for the human species to entertain correspondence and intimacy, on the easy condition of living chaste. As she hopes one day to be admitted into an acquaintance of this kind, she no sooner heard of me and my cat, than she paid me a visit, with a view, as she has since owned, to be introduced to my familiar; and was greatly mortified to find herself disappointed in her expectation. Being by this visionary turn of mind abstracted as it were from the world, she cannot advert to the common occurrences of life; and therefore is frequently so absent as to commit very strange mistakes and extravagancies, which you will do well to rectify and repair, as your prudence shall suggest.”

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