Tobias Smollett, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker: Ch. 67

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Letter LXVII



At what time of life may a man think himself exempted from the necessity of sacrificing his repose to the punctilios of a contemptible world? I have been engaged in a ridiculous adventure, which I shall recount at meeting; and this, I hope, will not be much longer delayed, as we have now performed almost all our visits, and seen every thing that I think has any right to retard us in our journey homewards — A few days ago, understanding by accident, that my old friend Baynard was in the country, I would not pass so near his habitation without paying him a visit, though our correspondence had been interrupted for a long course of years.

I felt my self very sensibly affected by the idea of our past intimacy, as we approached the place where we had spent so many happy days together; but when we arrived at the house, I could not recognize any one of those objects, which had been so deeply impressed upon my remembrance — The tall oaks that shaded the avenue, had been cut down, and the iron gates at the end of it removed, together with the high wall that surrounded the court yard. The house itself, which was formerly a convent of Cistercian monks, had a venerable appearance: and along the front that looked into the garden, was a stone gallery, which afforded me many an agreeable walk, when I was disposed to be contemplative. Now the old front is covered with a screen of modern architecture; so that all without is Grecian, and all within Gothic. As for the garden, which was well stocked with the best fruit which England could produce, there is not now the least vestage remaining of trees, walls, or hedges — Nothing appears but a naked circus of loose sand, with a dry bason and a leaden triton in the middle.

You must know, that Baynard, at his father's death, had a clear estate of fifteen hundred pounds a-year, and was in other respects extremely well qualified to make a respectable figure in the commonwealth; but, what with some excesses of youth, and the expence of a contested election, he in a few years found himself encumbered with a debt of ten thousand pounds, which he resolved to discharge by means of a prudent marriage. He accordingly married a miss Thomson, whose fortune amounted to double the sum that he owed — She was the daughter of a citizen, who had failed in trade; but her fortune came by an uncle, who died in the East-Indies — Her own parents being dead, she lived with a maiden aunt, who had superintended her education; and, in all appearance, was well enough qualified for the usual purposes of the married state — Her virtues, however, stood rather upon a negative, than a positive foundation — She was neither proud, insolent, nor capricious, nor given to scandal, nor addicted to gaming, nor inclined to gallantry. She could read, and write, and dance, and sing, and play upon the harpsichord, and smatter French, and take a hand at whist and ombre; but even these accomplishments she possessed by halves — She excelled in nothing. Her conversation was flat, her stile mean, and her expression embarrassed — In a word, her character was totally insipid. Her person was not disagreeable; but there was nothing graceful in her address, nor engaging in her manners; and she was so ill qualified to do the honours of the house, that when she sat at the head of the table, one was always looking for the mistress of the family in some other place.

Baynard had flattered himself, that it would be no difficult matter to mould such a subject after his own fashion, and that she would chearfully enter into his views, which were wholly turned to domestic happiness. He proposed to reside always in the country, of which he was fond to a degree of enthusiasm; to cultivate his estate, which was very improvable; to enjoy the exercise of rural diversions; to maintain an intimacy of correspondence with some friends that were settled in his neighbourhood; to keep a comfortable house, without suffering his expence to exceed the limits of his income; and to find pleasure and employ merit for his wife in the management and avocations of her own family — This, however, was a visionary scheme, which he never was able to realize. His wife was as ignorant as a new-born babe of everything that related to the conduct of a family; and she had no idea of a country-life. Her understanding did not reach so far as to comprehend the first principles of discretion; and, indeed, if her capacity had been better than it was, her natural indolence would not have permitted her to abandon a certain routine, to which she had been habituated. She had not taste enough to relish any rational enjoyment; but her ruling passion was vanity, not that species which arises from self-conceit of superior accomplishments, but that which is of a bastard and idiot nature, excited by shew and ostentation, which implies not even the least consciousness of any personal merit.