Laurence Sterne. (17131768). A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
70. The Case of Delicacy
WHEN you have gaind the top of mount Taurira, you run presently down to Lyonsadieu then to all rapid movements! T is a journey of caution; and it fares better with sentiments, not to be in a hurry with them; so I contracted with a voiturin to take his time with a couple of mules, and convey me in my own chaise safe to Turin through Savoy.
Poor, patient, quiet, honest people! fear not: your poverty, the treasury of your simple virtues, will not be envied you by the world, nor will your valleys be invaded by it.Nature! in the midst of thy disorders, thou art still friendly to the scantiness thou hast createdwith all thy great works about thee, little hast thou left to give, either to the scythe or to the sicklebut to that little thou grantest safety and protection; and sweet are the dwellings which stand so shelterd.
Let the wayworn traveler vent his complaints upon the sudden turns and dangers of your roadsyour rocksyour precipicesthe difficulties of getting upthe horrors of getting downmountains impracticableand cataracts, which roll down great stones from their summits, and block his road up.The peasants had been all day at work in removing a fragment of this kind between St. Michael and Madane; and by the time my voiturin got to the place, it wanted full two hours of completing before a passage could any how be gaind: there was nothing but to wait with patiencet was a wet and tempestuous night: so that by the delay, and that together, the voiturin found himself obliged to take up five miles short of his stage at a little decent kind of an inn by the roadside.
As there was no other bedchamber in the house, the hostess, without much nicety, led them into mine, telling them, as she usherd them in, that there was nobody in it but an English gentlemanthat there were two good beds in it, and a closet within the room which held another.The accent in which she spoke of this third bed did not say much for ithowever, she said there were three beds, and but three peopleand she durst say, the gentleman would do anything to accommodate matters.I left not the lady a moment to make a conjecture about itso instantly made a declaration I would do anything in my power.
As this did not amount to an absolute surrender of my bedchamber, I still felt myself so much the proprietor, as to have a right to do the honors of itso I desired the lady to sit downpressed her into the warmest seatcalld for more wooddesird the hostess to enlarge the plan of the supper, and to favor us with the very best wine.
The lady had scarce warmd herself five minutes at the fire before she began to turn her head back, and give a look at the beds; and the oftener she cast her eyes that way, the more they returnd perplexd.I felt for herand for myself; for in a few minutes, what by her looks, and the case itself, I found myself as much embarrassed as it was possible the lady could be herself.
That the beds we were to lay in were in one and the same room, was enough simply by itself to have excited all thisbut the position of them, for they stood parallel, and so very close to each other, as only to allow space for a small wicker chair betwixt them, renderd the affair still more oppressive to usthey were fixed up moreover near the fire, and the projection of the chimney on one side, and a large beam which crossd the room on the other, formd a kind of recess for them that was no way favorable to the nicety of our sensationsif anything could have added to it, it was that the two beds were both of em so very small as to cut us off from every idea of the lady and the maid lying together; which in either of them, could it have been feasible, my lying besides them, tho a thing not to be wishd, yet there was nothing in it so terrible which the imagination might not have passd over without torment.
As for the little room within, it offerd little or no consolation to us; t was a damp cold closet, with a half-dismantled window-shutter, and with a window which had neither glass or oil paper in it to keep out the tempest of the night. I did not endeavor to stifle my cough when the lady gave a peep into it; so it reduced the case in course to this alternativethat the lady should sacrifice her health to her feelings, and take up with the closet herself, and abandon the bed next mine to her maidor that the girl should take the closet, &c. &c.
The lady was a Piedmontese of about thirty, with a glow of health in her cheeks.The maid was a Lyonnoise of twenty, and as brisk and lively a French girl as ever moved.There were difficulties every wayand the obstacle of the stone in the road, which brought us into the distress, great as it appeared whilst the peasants were removing it, was but a pebble to what lay in our ways now.I have only to add, that it did not lessen the weight which hung upon our spirits, that we were both too delicate to communicate what we felt to each other upon the occasion.
We sat down to supper; and had we not had more generous wine to it than a little inn in Savoy could have furnishd, our tongues had been tied up, till necessity herself had set them at libertybut the lady having a few bottles of Burgundy in her voiture, sent down her Fille de Chambre for a couple of them; so that by the time supper was over. and we were left alone, we felt ourselves inspired with a strength of mind sufficient to talk, at least, without reserve upon our situation. We turnd it every way, and debated and considered it in all kind of lights in the course of a two hours negotiation; at the end of which the articles were settled finally betwixt us, and stipulated for in form and manner of a treaty of peaceand I believe with as much religion and good faith on both sides, as in any treaty which has yet had the honor of being handed down to posterity.
They were as follows: First. As the right of the bedchamber is in Monsieurand he thinking the bed next to the fire to be the warmest, he insists upon the concession on the ladys side of taking up with it.
Granted, on the part of Madame; with a proviso, that as the curtains of that bed are of a flimsy transparent cotton. and appear likewise too scanty to draw close, that the Fille de Chambre shall fasten up the opening, either by corkingpins, or needle and thread, in such manner as shall be deemd a sufficient barrier on the side of Monsieur.
The mentioning the silk pair of breeches made an entire change of the articlefor the breeches were accepted as an equivalent for the robe de chambre; and so it was stipulated and agreed upon, that I should lay in my black silk breeches all night.
There was but one point forgot in this treaty, and that was the manner in which the lady and myself should be obliged to undress and get to bedthere was but one way of doing it, and that I leave to the reader to devise; protesting as I do, that if it is not the most delicate in nature, t is the fault of his own imaginationagainst which this is not my first complaint.
Now when we were got to bed, whether it was the novelty of the situation, or what it was, I know not; but so it was, I could not shut my eyes; I tired this side and that, and turnd and turnd again, till a full hour after midnight; when Nature and patience both wearing outO my God! said IYou have broke the treaty, Monsieur, said the lady, who had no more slept than myself.I beggd a thousand pardonsbut insisted it was no more than an ejaculationshe maintaind t was an entire infraction of the treatyI maintaind it was provided for in the clause of the third article.
But the Fille de Chambre hearing there were words between us, and fearing that hostilities would ensue in course, had crept silently out of her closet, and it being totally dark, had stolen so close to our beds, that she had got herself into. the narrow passage which separated them, and had advancd so far up as to be in a line betwixt her mistress and me