Tobias Smollett, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker: Ch. 37

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Letter XXXVII

To Sir WATKIN PHILLIPS, Bart. of Jesus college, Oxon.

DEAR PHILLIPS,

In my last, I mentioned my having spent an evening with a society of authors, who seemed to be jealous and afraid of one another. My uncle was not at all surprised to hear me say I was disappointed in their conversation. 'A man may be very entertaining and instructive upon paper (said he), and exceedingly dull in common discourse. I have observed, that those who shine most in private company, are but secondary stars in the constellation of genius — A small stock of ideas is more easily managed, and sooner displayed, than a great quantity crowded together. There is very seldom any thing extraordinary in the appearance and address of a good writer; whereas a dull author generally distinguishes himself by some oddity or extravagance. For this reason, I fancy, that an assembly of Grubs must be very diverting.'

My curiosity being excited by this hint, I consulted my friend Dick Ivy, who undertook to gratify it the very next day, which was Sunday last. He carried me to dine with S—, whom you and I have long known by his writings. — He lives in the skirts of the town, and every Sunday his house is opened to all unfortunate brothers of the quill, whom he treats with beef, pudding, and potatoes, port, punch, and Calvert's entire butt beer. He has fixed upon the first day of the week for the exercise of his hospitality, because some of his guests could not enjoy it on any other, for reasons that I need not explain. I was civilly received in a plain, yet decent habitation, which opened backwards into a very pleasant garden, kept in excellent order; and, indeed, I saw none of the outward signs of authorship, either in the house or the landlord, who is one of those few writers of the age that stand upon their own foundation, without patronage, and above dependence. If there was nothing characteristic in the entertainer, the company made ample amends for his want of singularity.

At two in the afternoon, I found myself one of ten messmates seated at table; and, I question, if the whole kingdom could produce such another assemblage of originals. Among their peculiarities, I do not mention those of dress, which may be purely accidental. What struck me were oddities originally produced by affectation, and afterwards confirmed by habit. One of them wore spectacles at dinner, and another his hat flapped; though (as Ivy told me) the first was noted for having a seaman's eye, when a bailiff was in the wind; and the other was never known to labour under any weakness or defect of vision, except about five years ago, when he was complimented with a couple of black eyes by a player, with whom he had quarrelled in his drink. A third wore a laced stocking, and made use of crutches, because, once in his life, he had been laid up with a broken leg, though no man could leap over a stick with more agility. A fourth had contracted such an antipathy to the country, that he insisted upon sitting with his back towards the window that looked into the garden, and when a dish of cauliflower was set upon the table, he snuffed up volatile salts to keep him from fainting; yet this delicate person was the son of a cottager, born under a hedge, and had many years run wild among asses on a common. A fifth affected distraction. When spoke to, he always answered from the purpose sometimes he suddenly started up, and rapped out a dreadful oath sometimes he burst out a-laughing — then he folded his arms, and sighed and then, he hissed like fifty serpents.

At first I really thought he was mad, and, as he sat near me, began to be under some apprehensions for my own safety, when our landlord, perceiving me alarmed, assured me aloud that I had nothing to fear. 'The gentleman (said he) is trying to act a part for which he is by no means qualified — if he had all the inclination in the world, it is not in his power to be mad. His spirits are too flat to be kindled into frenzy.' ''Tis no bad p-p-puff, however (observed a person in a tarnished laced coat): aff-ffected in-madness w-will p-pass for w-wit w-with nine-ninet-teen out of t-twenty.' — 'And affected stuttering for humour: replied our landlord, tho', God knows, there is an affinity betwixt them.' It seems, this wag, after having made some abortive attempts in plain speaking, had recourse to this defect, by means of which he frequently extorted the laugh of the company, without the least expence of genius; and that imperfection, which he had at first counterfeited, was now become so habitual, that he could not lay it aside.