Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Mrs. Francis of Ryde
By Henry Fielding (17071754)
From A Voyage to Lisbon
WE brought with us our provisions from the ship, so that we wanted nothing but a fire to dress our dinner, and a room in which we might eat it. In neither of these had we any reason to apprehend a disappointment, our dinner consisting only of beans and bacon; and the worst apartment in his majestys dominions, either at home or abroad, being fully sufficient to answer our present ideas of delicacy.
Unluckily, however, we were disappointed in both; for when we arrived about four at our inn, exulting in the hopes of immediately seeing our beans smoking on the table, we had the mortification of seeing them on the table indeed, but without that circumstance which would have made the sight agreeable, being in the same state in which we had dispatched them from our ship.
In excuse for this delay, though we had exceeded, almost purposely, the time appointed, and our provision had arrived three hours before, the mistress of the house acquainted us that it was not for want of time to dress them that they were not ready, but for fear of their being cold or overdone before we should come; which she assured us was much worse than waiting a few minutes for our dinner; an observation so very just, that it is impossible to find any objection to it; but, indeed, it was not altogether so proper at this time, for we had given the most absolute orders to have them ready at four, and had been ourselves, not without much care and difficulty, most exactly punctual in keeping to the very minute of our appointment. But tradesmen, inn-keepers, and servants never care to indulge us in matters contrary to our true interest, which they always know better than ourselves; nor can any bribes corrupt them to go out of their way whilst they are consulting our good in our own despite.
Our disappointment in the other particular, in defiance of our humility, as it was more extraordinary, was more provoking. In short, Mrs. Francis (for that was the name of the good woman of the house) no sooner received the news of our intended arrival than she considered more the gentility than the humanity of her guests, and applied herself not to that which kindles but to that which extinguishes fire, and, forgetting to put on her pot, fell to washing her house.
As the messenger who had brought my venison was impatient to be dispatched, I ordered it to be brought and laid on the table in the room where I was seated; and the table not being large enough, one side, and that a very bloody one, was laid on the brick floor. I then ordered Mrs. Francis to be called in, in order to give her instructions concerning it; in particular, what I would have roasted and what baked; concluding that she would be highly pleased with the prospect of so much money being spent in her house as she might have now reason to expect, if the wind continued only a few days longer to blow from the same points whence it had blown for several weeks past.
I soon saw good cause, I must confess, to despise my own sagacity. Mrs. Francis, having received her orders, without making any answer, snatched the side from the floor, which remained stained with blood, and, bidding a servant to take up that on the table, left the room with no pleasant countenance, muttering to herself that, had she known the litter which was to have been made, she would not have taken such pains to wash her house that morning. If this was gentility, much good may it do such gentlefolks; for her part she had no notion of it.
From these murmurs I received two hints. The one, that it was not from a mistake of our inclination that the good woman had starved us, but from wisely consulting her own dignity, or rather perhaps her vanity, to which our hunger was offered up as a sacrifice. The other, that I was now sitting in a damp room, a circumstance, though it had hitherto escaped my notice from the colour of the bricks, which was by no means to be neglected in a valetudinary state.
My wife, who, besides discharging excellently well her own and all the tender offices becoming the female character; who, besides being a faithful friend, an amiable companion, and a tender nurse, could likewise supply the wants of a decrepit husband, and occasionally perform his part, had, before this, discovered the immoderate attention to neatness in Mrs. Francis and provided against its ill consequences. She had found, though not under the same roof, a very snug apartment belonging to Mr. Francis, and which had escaped the mop by his wifes being satisfied it could not possibly be visited by gentlefolks.
This was a dry, warm, oaken-floored barn, lined on both sides with wheaten straw, and opening at one end with a green field and a beautiful prospect. Here, without hesitation, she ordered the cloth to be laid, and came hastily to snatch me from worse perils by water than the common dangers of the sea.
Mrs. Francis, who could not trust her own ears, or could not believe a footman in so extraordinary a phenomenon, followed my wife, and asked her if she had indeed ordered the cloth to be laid in the barn? She answered in the affirmative; upon which Mrs. Francis declared she would not dispute her pleasure, but it was the first time she believed that quality had ever preferred a barn to a house. She showed at the same time the most pregnant marks of contempt, and again lamented the labour she had undergone through her ignorance of the absurd taste of her guests.
At length, we were seated in one of the most pleasant spots, I believe, in the kingdom, and were regaled with our beans and bacon, in which there was nothing deficient but the quantity. This defect was however so deplorable that we had consumed our whole dish before we had visibly lessened our hunger. We now waited with impatience the arrival of our second course, which necessity, and not luxury, had dictated. This was a joint of mutton which Mrs. Francis had been ordered to provide; but when, being tired with expectation, we ordered our servants to see for something else we were informed that there was nothing else; on which Mrs. Francis, being summoned, declared there was no such thing as mutton to be had at Ryde. When I expressed some astonishment at their having no butcher in a village so situated, she answered they had a very good one, and one that killed all sorts of meat in season, beef two or three times a year, and mutton the whole year round; but that it being then beans and peas time, he killed no meat by reason he was not sure of selling it. This she had not thought worthy of communication, any more than there lived a fisherman at next door, who was then provided with plenty of soles, and whitings, and lobsters, far superior to those which adorn a city feast. This discovery being made by accident, we completed the best, the pleasantest, and the merriest meal, with more appetite, more real solid luxury, and more festivity, than was ever seen in an entertainment at Whites.
It may be wondered at, perhaps, that Mrs. Francis should be so negligent of providing for her guests, as she may seem to be thus inattentive to her own interest; but this was not the case; for, having clapped a poll-tax on our heads at our arrival, and determined at what price to discharge our bodies from her house, the less she suffered any other to share in the levy the clearer it came into her own pocket; and that it was better to get twelve pence in a shilling than ten pence, which latter would be the case if she afforded us fish at any rate.