Tobias Smollett, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker: Ch. 10

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Letter X

To Sir WATKIN PHILLIPS, of Jesus college, Oxon.

HOT WELL, April 20.


I now sit down to execute the threat in the tail of my last. The truth is, I am big with the secret, and long to be delivered. It relates to my guardian, who, you know, is at present our principal object in view.

T'other day, I thought I had detected him in such a state of frailty, as would but ill become his years and character. There is a decent sort of woman, not disagreeable in her person, that comes to the Well, with a poor emaciated child, far gone in a consumption. I had caught my uncle's eyes several times directed to this person, with a very suspicious expression in them, and every time he saw himself observed, he hastily withdrew them, with evident marks of confusion — I resolved to watch him more narrowly, and saw him speaking to her privately in a corner of the walk. At length, going down to the Well one day, I met her half way up the hill to Clifton, and could not help suspecting she was going to our lodgings by appointment, as it was about one o'clock, the hour when my sister and I are generally at the Pump-room. — This notion exciting my curiosity, I returned by a back-way, and got unperceived into my own chamber, which is contiguous to my uncle's apartment. Sure enough, the woman was introduced but not into his bedchamber; he gave her audience in a parlour; so that I was obliged to shift my station to another room, where, however, there was a small chink in the partition, through which I could perceive what passed. My uncle, though a little lame, rose up when she came in, and setting a chair for her, desired she would sit down: then he asked if she would take a dish of chocolate, which she declined, with much acknowledgment. After a short pause, he said, in a croaking tone of voice, which confounded me not a little, 'Madam, I am truly concerned for your misfortunes; and if this trifle can be of any service to you, I beg you will accept it without ceremony.' So saying, he put a bit of paper into her hand, which she opening with great trepidation, exclaimed in an extacy, 'Twenty pounds! Oh, sir!' and sinking down upon a settee, fainted away — Frightened at this fit, and, I suppose, afraid of calling for assistance, lest her situation should give rise to unfavourable conjectures, he ran about the room in distraction, making frightful grimaces; and, at length, had recollection enough to throw a little water in her face; by which application she was brought to herself: but, then her feeling took another turn. She shed a flood of tears, and cried aloud, 'I know not who you are: but, sure — worthy sir — generous sir! — the distress of me and my poor dying child — Oh! if the widow's prayers — if the orphan's tears of gratitude can ought avail — gracious Providence — Blessings! — shower down eternal blessings.' — Here she was interrupted by my uncle, who muttered in a voice still more and more discordant, 'For Heaven's sake be quiet, madam — consider — the people of the house —'sdeath! can't you.' — All this time she was struggling to throw herself on her knees, while he seizing her by the wrists, endeavoured to seat her upon the settee, saying, 'Prithee — good now — hold your tongue' — At that instant, who should burst into — the room but our aunt Tabby! of all antiquated maidens the most diabolically capricious — Ever prying into other people's affairs, she had seen the woman enter, and followed her to the door, where she stood listening, but probably could hear nothing distinctly, except my uncle's, last exclamation; at which she bounded into the parlour in a violent rage, that dyed the tip of her nose of a purple hue, — 'Fy upon you, Matt! (cried she) what doings are these, to disgrace your own character, and disparage your family?' — Then, snatching the bank note out of the stranger's hand, she went on — 'How now, twenty pounds! — here is temptation with a witness! — Good-woman, go about your business — Brother, brother, I know not which most to admire; your concupissins, or your extravagance!' — 'Good God (exclaimed the poor woman) shall a worthy gentleman's character suffer for an action that does honour to humanity?' By this time, uncle's indignation was effectually roused. His face grew pale, his teeth chattered, and his eyes flashed — 'Sister (cried he, in a voice like thunder) I vow to God, your impertinence is exceedingly provoking.' With these words, he took her by the hand, and, opening the door of communication, thrust her into the chamber where I stood, so affected by the scene, that the tears ran down my cheeks. Observing these marks of emotion, 'I don't wonder (said she) to see you concerned at the back-slidings of so near a relation; a man of his years and infirmities: These are fine doings, truly — This is a rare example, set by a guardian, for the benefit of his pupils — Monstrous! incongruous! sophistical!' — I thought it was but an act of justice to set her to rights; and therefore explained the mystery. But she would not be undeceived, 'What (said she) would you go for to offer for to arguefy me out of my senses? Did'n't I hear him whispering to her to hold her tongue? Did'n't I see her in tears? Did'n't I see him struggling to throw her upon the couch? 0 filthy! hideous! abominable! Child, child, talk not to me of charity. — Who gives twenty pounds in charity? — But you are a stripling — You know nothing of the world. Besides, charity begins at home — Twenty pounds would buy me a complete suit of flowered silk, trimmings and all —' In short, I quitted the room, my contempt for her, and my respect for her brother, being increased in the same proportion. I have since been informed, that the person, whom my uncle so generously relieved, is the widow of an ensign, who has nothing to depend upon but the pension of fifteen pounds a year. The people of the Well-house give her an excellent character. She lodges in a garret, and works very hard at plain work, to support her daughter, who is dying of a consumption. I must own, to my shame, I feel a strong inclination to follow my uncle's example, in relieving this poor widow; but, betwixt friends, I am afraid of being detected in a weakness, that might entail the ridicule of the company, upon,

Dear Phillips,
Yours always,

Direct your next to me at Bath; and remember me to all our fellow-jesuits.