Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
The Cheerful Society of Bath
By Tobias Smollett (17211771)
From The Expedition of Humphry Clinker
DEAR LEWISI received your bill upon Wiltshire, which was punctually honoured; but, as I dont choose to keep so much cash by me in a common lodging-house, I have deposited £250 in the bank of Bath, and shall take their bills for it on London, when I leave this place, where the season draws to an end. You must know that now being afoot, I am resolved to give Liddy a glimpse of London. She is one of the best-hearted creatures I ever knew, and gains upon my affection every day. As for Tabby, I have dropped such hints to the Irish baronet, concerning her fortune, as, I make no doubt, will cool the ardour of his addresses. Then her pride will take the alarm; and the rancour of stale maidenhood being chafed, we shall hear nothing but slander and abuse of Sir Ulic Mackilligut. This rupture, I foresee, will facilitate our departure from Bath; where, at present, Tabby seems to enjoy herself with peculiar satisfaction. For my part, I detest it so much, that I should not have been able to stay so long in the place, if I had not discovered some old friends, whose conversation alleviates my disgust. Going to the coffee-house one forenoon, I could not help contemplating the company, with equal surprise and compassion. We consisted of thirteen individuals: seven lamed by the gout, rheumatism, or palsy; three maimed by accident; and the rest either deaf or blind. One hobbled, another hopped, a third dragged his legs after him like a wounded snake, a fourth straddled betwixt a pair of long crutches, like the mummy of a felon hanging in chains; a fifth was bent into a horizontal position, like a mounted telescope, shoved in by a couple of chairmen; and a sixth was the bust of a man, set upright in a wheel machine, which the waiter moved from place to place.
Being struck with some of their faces, I consulted the subscription-book; and, perceiving the names of several old friends, began to consider the group with more attention. At length I discovered Rear-Admiral Balderick, the companion of my youth, whom I had not seen since he was appointed lieutenant of the Severn. He was metamorphosed into an old man, with a wooden leg and a weather-beaten face; which appeared the more ancient from his grey locks, that were truly venerable. Sitting down at the table, where he was reading a newspaper, I gazed at him for some minutes, with a mixture of pleasure and regret, which made my heart gush with tenderness; then, taking him by the hand, Ah Sam, said I, forty years ago I little thought I was too much moved to proceed. An old friend, sure enough! cried he, squeezing my hand, and surveying me eagerly through his glasses; I know the looming of the vessel, though she has been hard strained since we parted; but I cant heave up the name. The moment I told him who I was, he exclaimed, Ha! Matt, my old fellow-cruiser, still afloat! and starting up, hugged me in his arms. His transport, however, boded me no good; for, in saluting me, he thrust the spring of his spectacles into my eye, and, at the same time, set his wooden stump upon my gouty toe; an attack that made me shed tears in sad earnest. After the hurry of our recognition was over, he pointed out two of our common friends in the room. The bust was what remained of Colonel Cockril, who had lost the use of his limbs in making an American campaign; and the telescope proved to be my college chum, Sir Reginald Bentley, who, with his new title and unexpected inheritance, commenced fox-hunter, without having served his apprenticeship in the mystery; and in consequence of following the hounds through a river, was seized with an inflammation in his bowels, which has contracted him into his present attitude.
Our former correspondence was forthwith renewed, with the most hearty expressions of mutual goodwill; and as we had met so unexpectedly, we agreed to dine together that very day at the tavern. My friend Quin, being luckily unengaged, obliged us with his company; and, truly, this was the most happy day I have passed these twenty years. You and I, Lewis, having been always together, never tasted friendship in this high goût, contracted from long absence. I cannot express the half of what I felt at this casual meeting of three or four companions, who had been so long separated, and so roughly treated by the storms of life. It was a renovation of youth; a kind of resuscitation of the dead, that realised those interesting dreams in which we sometimes retrieve our ancient friends from the grave. Perhaps, my enjoyment was not the less pleasing for being mixed with a strain of melancholy, produced by the remembrance of past scenes, that conjured up the ideas of some endearing connections, which the hand of death has actually dissolved.
The spirits and good-humour of the company seemed to triumph over the wreck of their constitutions. They had even philosophy enough to joke upon their own calamities; such is the power of friendship, the sovereign cordial of life. I afterwards found, however, that they were not without their moments and even hours of disquiet. Each of them apart, in succeeding conferences, expatiated upon his own particular grievances; and they were all malcontents at bottom. Over and above their personal disasters, they thought themselves unfortunate in the lottery of life. Balderick complained, that all the recompense he had received for his long and hard service was the half-pay of a rear-admiral. The Colonel was mortified to see himself overtopped by upstart generals, some of whom he had once commanded; and, being a man of a liberal turn, could ill put up with a moderate annuity, for which he had sold his commission. As for the baronet, having run himself considerably in debt, on a contested election, he has been obliged to relinquish his seat in Parliament, and his seat in the country at the same time, and put his estate to nurse. But his chagrin, which is the effect of his own misconduct, does not affect me half so much as that of the other two, who have acted honourable and distinguished parts on the great theatre, and are now reduced to lead a weary life in this stewpan of idleness and insignificance. They have long left off using the waters, after having experienced their inefficacy. The diversions of the place they are not in a condition to enjoy. How then do they make shift to pass their time? In the forenoon they crawl out to the rooms or the coffee-house, where they take a hand at whist, or descant upon the General Advertiser; and their evenings they murder in private parties, among peevish invalids, and insipid old women. This is the case with a good number of individuals, whom nature seems to have intended for better purposes.
About a dozen years ago, many decent families, restricted to small fortunes, besides those that came hither on the score of health, were tempted to settle at Bath, where they could then live comfortably, and even make a genteel appearance at a small expense. But the madness of the times has made the place too hot for them, and they are now obliged to think of other migrations. Some have already fled to the mountains of Wales, and others have retired to Exeter. Thither, no doubt, they will be followed by the flood of luxury and extravagance, which will drive them from place to place to the very Lands End; and there, I suppose, they will be obliged to ship themselves to some other country. Bath is become a mere sink of profligacy and extortion. Every article of housekeeping is raised to an enormous price; a circumstance no longer to be wondered at, when we know that every petty retainer of fortune piques himself upon keeping a table, and thinks it is for the honour of his character to wink at the knavery of his servants, who are in a confederacy with the market-people, and of consequence pay whatever they demand. Here is now a mushroom of opulence, who pays a cook seventy guineas a-week for furnishing him with one meal a-day. This portentous frenzy is become so contagious, that the very rabble and refuse of mankind are infected. I have known a negro-driver from Jamaica, pay over-night, to the master of one of the rooms, sixty-five guineas for tea and coffee to the company, and leave Bath next morning, in such obscurity, that not one of his guests had the slightest idea of his person, or even made the least inquiry about his name. Incidents of this kind are frequent; and every day teems with such absurdities, which are too gross to make a thinking man merry. But I feel the spleen creeping upon me apace, and therefore will indulge you with a cessation, that you may have no unnecessary cause to curse your correspondence with, dear DickYours ever,