The Adventures of Roderick Random, by Tobias Smollett

Chapter XXXIX

My Reception by that Lady — I become enamoured of Narcissa — recount the particulars of my last misfortune-acquire the good opinion of my Mistress — an Account of the young Squire — I am made acquainted with more particulars of Narcissa’s Situation — conceive a mortal hatred against Sir Timothy — examine my Lady’s library and performances — her extravagant behaviour

Fraught with these useful instructions, I repaired to the place of her habitation, and was introduced by the waiting-woman to the presence of my lady, who had not before seen me. She sat in her study, with one foot on the ground, and the other upon a high stool at some distance from her seat; her sandy locks hung down, in a disorder I cannot call beautiful, from her head, which was deprived of its coif, for the benefit of scratching with one hand, while she held the stump of a pen in the other. Her forehead was high and wrinkled; her eyes were large, gray, and prominent; her nose was long, and aquiline: her mouth of vast capacity, her visage meagre and freckled, and her chin peaked like a shoemaker’s paring knife; her upper lip contained a large quantity of plain Spanish, which, by continual falling, had embroidered her neck, that was not naturally very white, and the breast of her gown, that flowed loose about her with a negligence that was truly poetic, discovering linen that was very fine, and, to all appearance, never washed but in Castalian streams. Around her lay heaps of books, globes, quadrants, telescopes, and other learned apparatus; her snuff-box stood at her right hand: at her left hand lay her handkerchief, sufficiently used, and a convenience to spit in appeared on one side of her chair. She being in a reverie when we entered, the maid did not think proper to disturb her; so that we waited some minutes unobserved, during which time she bit the quill several times, altered her position, made many wry faces, and, at length, with an air of triumph, repeated aloud:

“Nor dare th’immortal gods my rage oppose!”

Having committed her success to paper, she turned towards the door, and perceiving us, cried, “What’s the matter?” “Here’s the young man,” replied my conductress, “whom Mrs. Sagely recommended as a footman to your ladyship.” On this information she stared in my face for a considerable time, and then asked my name, which I thought proper to conceal under that of John Brown. After having surveyed me with a curious eye, she broke out into, “O! ay, thou wast shipwrecked, I remember. Whether didst thou come on shore on the back of a whale or a dolphin?” To this I answered, I had swam ashore without any assistance. Then she demanded to know if I had ever been at the Hellespont, and swam from Sestos to Abydos. I replied in the negative; upon which she bade the maid order a suit of new livery for me, and instruct me in the articles of my duty: so she spit in her snuff-box, and wiped her nose with her cap, which lay on the table, instead of a handkerchief.

We returned to the kitchen, where I was regaled by the maids, who seemed to vie with each other in expressing their regard for me; and from them I understood, that my business consisted in cleaning knives and forks, laying the cloth, waiting at table, carrying messages, and attending my lady when she went abroad. There was a very good suit of livery in the house, which had belonged to my predecessor deceased, and it fitted me exactly; so that there was no occasion for employing a tailor on my account. I had not been long equipped in this manner, when my lady’s bell rung; upon which, I ran up stairs, and found her stalking about the room in her shift and under petticoat only; I would immediately have retired as became me, but she bade me come in, and air a clean shift for her; which operation I having performed with some backwardness, she put it on before me without any ceremony, and I verily believe was ignorant of my sex all that time, as being quite absorbed in contemplation. About four o’clock in the afternoon I was ordered to lay the cloth, and place two covers, which I understood were for my mistress and her niece, whom I had not as yet seen. Though I was not very dexterous at this work, I performed it pretty well for a beginner, and, when dinner was upon the table, saw my mistress approach, accompanied by the young lady, whose name for the present shall be Narcissa. So much sweetness appeared in the countenance and carriage of this amiable apparition, that my heart was captivated at first sight, and while dinner lasted, I gazed upon her without intermission. Her age seemed to be seventeen, her stature tall, her shape unexceptionable, her hair, that fell down upon her ivory neck in ringlets, black as jet; her arched eyebrows of the same colour; her eyes piercing, yet tender; her lips of the consistence and hue of cherries; her complexion clear, delicate and healthy; her aspect noble, ingenuous, and humane; and the whole person so ravishingly delightful, that it was impossible for any creature endued with sensibility, to see without admiring, and admire without loving her to excess. I began to curse the servile station that placed me so far beneath the regard of this idol of my adoration! and yet I blessed my fate, that enabled me to enjoy daily the sight of so much perfection! When she spoke I listened with pleasure; but when she spoke to me, my soul was thrilled with an extacy of tumultuous joy. I was even so happy as to be the subject of their conversation; for Narcissa, having observed me, said to her aunt, “I see your new footman is come.” Then addressing herself to me, asked, with ineffable complacency, if I was the person who had been so cruelly used by robbers? When I had satisfied her in this; she expressed a desire of knowing the other particulars of my fortune, both before and since my being shipwrecked: hereupon (as Mrs. Sagely had counselled me) I told her that I had been bound apprentice to the master of a ship, contrary to my inclination, which ship had foundered at sea; that I and four more, who chanced to be on deck when she went down, made shift to swim to the shore, when my companions, after having overpowered me, stripped me to the shirt, and left me, as they imagined, dead of the wounds I received in my own defence. Then I related the circumstances of being found in a barn, with the inhuman treatment I met with from the country people and parson; the description of which, I perceived, drew tears from the charming creature’s eyes. When I had finished my recital, my mistress, said, “Ma foi! le garcon est bien fait!” To which opinion Narcissa assented, with a compliment to my understanding, in the same language, that flattered my vanity extremely.

The conversation, among other subjects, turned upon the young squire, whom my lady inquired after under the title of the Savage; and was informed by her niece that he was still in bed, repairing the fatigue of last night’s debauch, and recruiting strength and spirits to undergo a fox chase to-morrow morning, in company with Sir Timothy Thicket, Squire Bumper, and a great many other gentlemen of the same stamp, whom he had invited on that occasion! so that by daybreak the whole house would be in an uproar. This was a very disagreeable piece of news to the virtuoso, who protested she would stuff her ears with cotton when she went to bed, and take a dose of opium to make her sleep the more sound, that she might not be disturbed and distracted by the clamour of the brutes.

When their dinner was over, I and my fellow servants sat down to ours in the kitchen, where I understood that Sir Timothy Thicket was a wealthy knight in the neighbourhood, between whom and Narcissa a match had been projected by her brother, who promised at the same time to espouse Sir Timothy’s sister; by which means, as their fortunes were pretty equal, the young ladies would be provided for, and their brothers be never the poorer; but that the ladies did not concur in the scheme, each of them entertaining a hearty contempt for the person allotted to her for a husband by this agreement. This information begat in me a mortal aversion to Sir Timothy, whom I looked upon as my rival, and cursed in my heart for his presumption.

Next morning, by daybreak, being awakened by the noise of the hunters and hounds, I rose to view the cavalcade, and had a sight of my competitor, whose accomplishments (the estate excluded) did not seem brilliant enough to give me much uneasiness with respect to Narcissa, who, I flattered myself, was not to be won by such qualifications as he was master of, either as to person or mind. My mistress, notwithstanding her precaution, was so much disturbed by her nephew’s company, that she did not rise till five o’clock in the afternoon; so that I had an opportunity of examining her study at leisure, to which examination I was strongly prompted by my curiosity. Here I found a thousand scraps of her own poetry, consisting of three, four, ten, twelve, and twenty lines, on an infinity of subjects, which, as whim inspired, she had begun, without constancy or capacity to bring to any degree of composition: but, what was very extraordinary in a female poet, there was not the least mention made of love in any of her performances. I counted fragments of five tragedies, the titles of which were “The Stern Philosopher,” “The Double,” “The Sacrilegious Traitor,” “The Fall of Lucifer,” and “The Last Day.” From whence I gathered, that her disposition was gloomy, and her imagination delighted with objects of horror. Her library was composed of the best English historians, poets, and philosophers; of all the French critics and poets, and of a few books in Italian, chiefly poetry, at the head of which were Tasso and Ariosto, pretty much used. Besides these, translations of the classics into French, but not one book in Greek or Latin; a circumstance that discovered her ignorance in these languages.

After having taken a full view of this collection, I retired, and at the usual time was preparing to lay the cloth, when I was told by the maid that her mistress was still in bed, and had been so affected with the notes of the hounds in the morning, that she actually believed herself a hare beset by the hunters, and begged a few greens to munch for breakfast. When I expressed my surprise in this unaccountable imagination she gave me to understand that her lady was very much subject to whims of this nature; sometimes fancying herself an animal, sometimes a piece of furniture, during which conceited transformations it was very dangerous to come near her, especially when she represented a beast; for that lately, in the character of a cat, she had flown at her, and scratched her face in a terrible manner: that some months ago, she prophesied the general conflagration was at hand, and nothing would be able to quench it but her water, which therefore she kept so long, that her life was in danger, and she must needs have died of the retention, had they not found an expedient to make her evacuate, by kindling a bonfire under her chamber window and persuading her that the house was in flames: upon which, with great deliberation, she bade them bring all the tubs and vessels they could find to be filled for the preservation of the house, into one of which she immediately discharged the cause of her distemper. I was also informed that nothing contributed so much to the recovery of her reason as music, which was always administered on those occasions by Narcissa, who played perfectly well on the harpsichord, and to whom she (the maid) was just then going to intimate her aunt’s disorder.

She was no sooner gone than I was summoned by the bell to my lady’s chamber, where I found her sitting squat on her hands on the floor, in the manner of puss when she listens to the outcries of her pursuers. When I appeared, she started up with an alarmed look, and sprang to the other side of the room to avoid me, whom, without doubt, she mistook for a beagle thirsting after her life. Perceiving her extreme confusion, I retired, and on the staircase met the adorable Narcissa coming up, to whom I imparted the situation of my mistress; she said not a word, but smiling with unspeakable grace, went into her aunt’s apartment, and in a little time my ears were ravished with the efforts of her skill. She accompanied the instrument with a voice so sweet and melodious, that I did not wonder at the surprising change it produced on the spirits of my mistress which composed to peace and sober reflection.

About seven o’clock, the hunters arrived with the skins of two foxes and one badger, carried before them as trophies of their success; and when they were about to sit down to dinner (or supper) Sir Timothy Thicket desired that Narcissa would honour the table with her presence; but this request, notwithstanding her brother’s threats and entreaties, she refused, on pretence of attending her aunt, who was indisposed; so I enjoyed the satisfaction of seeing my rival mortified: but this disappointment made no great impression on him, who consoled himself with the bottle, of which the whole company became so enamoured that, after a most horrid uproar of laughing, singing, swearing, and fighting, they were all carried to bed in a state of utter oblivion. My duty being altogether detached from the squire and his family, I led a pretty easy and comfortable life, drinking daily intoxicating draughts of love from the charms of Narcissa, which brightened on my contemplation every day more and more. Inglorious as my station was, I became blind to my own unworthiness, and even conceived hopes of one day enjoying this amiable creature, whose, affability greatly encouraged these presumptuous thoughts.

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