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by Laurence Sterne
The original, squashed down to read in about 30 minutes
Laurence Sterne was a priest from Clonmel in Co. Tipperary, who wrote this stupendously popular comic novel during the year his mother died, his wife was gravely ill, and he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. It is the fount of the ingenious and bizarrely incoherent 'learned wit' which eventually caused the likes of Monty Python.
On the fifth day of November, 1718, was I, Tristram Shandy, gentleman, brought forth into this scurvy and disastrous world of ours. I wish I had been born in the moon, or in any of the planets (except Jupiter or Saturn), because I never could bear cold weather; for it could not well have fared worse with me in any of them (though I will not answer for Venus) than it has in this vile dirty planet of ours, which of my conscience with reverence be it spoken I take to be made up of the shreds and clippings of the rest; not but the planet is well enough, provided a man could be born in it to a great title or to a great estate, or could anyhow contrive to be called up to public charges and employments of dignity and power; but that is not my case; and therefore every man will speak of the fair as his own market has gone in it; for which cause I affirm it over again to be one of the vilest worlds that ever was made; for I can truly say, that from the first hour I drew breath in it, to this - I can now scarce draw it at all, for an asthma I got in skating against the wind in Flanders - I have been the continual sport of what the world calls Fortune, and though I will not wrong her by saying she has ever made me feel the weight of any great and signal evil, yet with all the good temper in the world, I affirm it of her, that in every stage of my life, and at every turn and corner where she could get fairly at me, the ungracious duchess has pelted me with a set of as pitiful misadventures and cross accidents as ever small hero sustained.
"I wonder what's all that noise and running backwards and forwards for above stairs?" quoth my father, addressing himself after an hour and a half's silence to my Uncle Toby, who, you must know, was sitting on the opposite side of the fire, smoking his pipe all the time in mute contemplation of a new pair of black plush breeches which he had got on. "What can they be doing, brother?" quoth my father; "We can scarce hear ourselves talk."
"I think," replied my uncle Toby, taking his pipe from his mouth and striking the head of it two or three times upon the nail of his left thumb as he began his sentence; "I think," says he - but to enter rightly into my Uncle Toby's sentiments upon this matter, you must be made to enter just a little into his character.
The wound in my Uncle Toby's groin, which he received at the siege of Namur, rendering him unfit for the service, it was thought expedient he should return to England, in order, if possible, to be set to rights.
He was four years totally confined, partly to his bed and all of it to his room; and in the course of his cure, which was all that time in hand, suffered unspeakable misery.
The siege of Namur by Captn. Shandy & Corporal Trim.
My father at that time was just beginning business in London, and had taken a house, and as the truest friendship and cordiality subsisted between the two brothers, and as my father thought my Uncle Toby could nowhere be so well nursed and taken care of as in his own house, he assigned him the very best apartment in it. And what was a much more sincere mark of his affection still, he would never suffer a friend or acquaintance to step into the house, but he would take him by the hand, and lead him upstairs to see his brother Toby, and chat an hour by his bedside.
The history of a soldier's wound beguiles the pain of it - my uncle's visitors at least thought so, and they would frequently turn the discourse to that subject, and from that subject the discourse would generally roll on to the siege itself.
When my Uncle Toby got his map of Namur to his mind he began immediately to apply himself, and with the utmost diligence, to the study of it. The more my Uncle Toby pored over the map, the more he took a liking to it.
In the latter end of the third year my Uncle began to break in upon daily regularity of a clean shirt, and to allow his surgeon scarce time sufficient to dress his wound, concerning himself so little about it as not to ask him once in seven times dressing how it went on, when, lo! all of a sudden - for the change was as quick as lightning - he began to sigh heavily for his recovery, complained to my father, grew impatient with the surgeon; and one morning, as he heard his foot coming upstairs, he shut up his books and thrust aside his instruments, in order to expostulate with him upon the protraction of his cure, which he told him might surely have been accomplished at least by that time.
Desire of life and health is implanted in man's nature; the love of liberty and enlargement is a sister - passion to it. These my Uncle Toby had in common with his species. But nothing wrought with our family after the common way.
When a man gives himself up to the government of a ruling passion, or, in other words, when his hobbyhorse grows headstrong, farewell cool reason and fair discretion. My Uncle Toby's wound was near well; he broiled with impatience to put his design in execution; and so, without consulting further, with any soul living, which, by the way, I think is right, when you are predetermined to take no one soul's advice, he privately ordered Trim, his man, to pack up a bundle of lint and dressings, and hire a chariot and four to be at the door exactly by twelve o'clock that day, when he knew my father would be upon change. So, leaving a banknote upon the table for the surgeon's care of him, and a letter of tender thanks for his brother's, he packed up his maps, his books of fortification, his instruments, and so forth, and by the help of a crutch on one side and Trim on the other, my Uncle Toby embarked for Shandy Hall.
The reason, or rather the rise, of this sudden demigration was as follows:
The table in my Uncle Toby's room, being somewhat of the smallest, for that infinity of great and small instruments of knowledge which usually lay crowded upon it, he had the accident in reaching over for his tobacco box to throw down his compasses, and in stooping to take the compasses up, with his sleeve he threw down his case of instruments and snuffers; and in his endeavouring to catch the snuffers in falling, he thrust his books off the table. 'Twas to no purpose for a man, lame as my Uncle Toby was, to think of redressing all these evils by himself; he rung his bell for his man Trim, - "Trim," quoth my Uncle Toby, "prithee see what confusion I have been making. I must have some better contrivance, Trim."
I must here inform you that this servant of my Uncle Toby's, who went by the name of Trim, had been a corporal in my Uncle's own company. His real name was James Butter, but having got the nickname of Trim in the regiment, my Uncle Toby, unless when he happened to be very angry with him, would never call him by any other name.
The poor fellow had been disabled for the service by a wound on his left knee by a musket bullet at the Battle of Landen, which was two years before the affair of Namur; and as the fellow was well - beloved in the regiment, and a handy fellow into the bargain, my Uncle Toby took him for his servant, and of excellent use was he, attending my Uncle Toby in the camp and in his quarters as valet, groom, barber, cook, sempster, and nurse; and indeed, from first to last, waited upon him and served him with great fidelity and affection.
My Uncle Toby loved the man in return, and what attached him more to him still, was the similitude of their knowledge; for Corporal Trim by four years occasional attention to his master's discourse upon fortified towns had become no mean proficient in the science, and was thought by the cook and chambermaid to know as much of the nature of strongholds as my Uncle Toby himself.
"If I durst presume," said Trim, "to give your honour my advice, and speak my opinion in this matter" - "Thou art welcome, Trim," quoth my Uncle Toby. "Why then," replied Trim, pointing with his right hand towards a map of Dunkirk: "I think with humble submission to your honour's better judgement, that the ravelins, bastions, and curtains, make but a poor, contemptible, fiddle - faddle piece of work of it here upon paper, compared to what your honour and I could make of it were we out in the country by ourselves, and had but a rood and a half of ground to do what we pleased with. As summer is coming on," continued Trim, "your honour might sit out of doors and give me the nography" - (call it icnography, quoth my uncle) - "of the town or citadel your honour was pleased to sit down before, and I will be shot by your honour upon the glacis of it if I did not fortify it to your honour's mind." - "I dare say thou wouldst, Trim," quoth my uncle. "I would throw out the earth," continued the corporal, "upon this hand towards the town for the scarp, and on the right hand towards the campaign for the counterscarp." - "Very right, Trim," quoth my Uncle Toby. "And when I had sloped them to your mind, an' please your honour, I would face the glacis, as the finest fortifications are done in Flanders, with sods, and as your honour knows they should be, and I would make the walls and parapets with sods too." - "The best engineers call them gazons, Trim," said my Uncle Toby.
"Your honour understands these matters," replied corporal Trim, "better than any officer in His Majesty's service; but would your honour please but let us go into the country, I would work under your honour's directions like a horse, and make fortifications for you something like a Tansy with all their batteries, saps, ditches, and pallisadoes, that it should be worth all the world to ride twenty miles to go and see it."
My Uncle Toby blushed as red as scarlet as Trim went on, but it was not a blush of guilt, of modesty, or of anger - it was a blush of joy; he was fired with Corporal Trim's project and description. "Trim," said my Uncle Toby, "say no more; but go down, Trim, this moment, my lad, and bring up my supper this instant."
Trim ran down and brought up his master's supper, to no purpose. Trim's plan of operation ran so in my Uncle Toby's head, he could not taste it. "Trim," quoth my Uncle Toby, "get me to bed." 'Twas all one. Corporal Trim's description had fired his imagination. My Uncle Toby could not shut his eyes. The more he considered it, the more bewitching the scene appeared to him; so that two full hours before daylight he had come to a final determination, and had concerted the whole plan of his and Corporal Trim's decampment.
My Uncle Toby had a neat little country house of his own in the village where my father's estate lay at Shandy. Behind this house was a kitchen garden of about half an acre; and at the bottom of the garden, and cut off from it by a tall yew hedge, was a bowling-green, containing just about as much ground as Corporal Trim wished for. So that as Trim uttered the words, "a rood and a half of ground, to do what they would with," this identical bowling-green instantly presented itself upon the retina of my Uncle Toby's fancy.
Never did lover post down to a beloved mistress with more heat and expectation than my Uncle Toby did to enjoy this self - same thing in private.
"Then reach my breeches off the chair," said my father to Susanah. "There's not a moment's time to dress you, sir," cried Susanah; "bless me, sir, the child's in a fit. Mr. Yorick's curate's in the dressing room with the child upon his arm, waiting for the name; and my mistress bid me run as fast as I could to know, as Captain Shandy is the godfather, whether it should not be called after him."
"Were one sure," said my father to himself, scratching his eyebrow, "that the child was expiring, one might as well compliment my brother Toby as not, and 'twould be a pity in such a case to throw away so great a name as Trismegistus upon him. But he may recover."
"No, no," said my father to Susanah, "I'll get up." - "There's no time," cried Susanah, "the child's as black as my shoe." - "Trismegistus," said my father: "but stay; thou art a leaky vessel, Susanah; canst thou carry Trismegistus in thy head the length of the gallery without scattering?" - "Can I," cried Susanah, shutting the door in a huff. "If she can, I'll be shot," said my father, bouncing out of bed in the dark and groping for his breeches.
Susanah ran with all speed along the gallery.
My father made all possible speed to find his breeches. Susanah got the start and kept it. "'Tis Tris something," cried Susanah. "There is no Christian name in the world," said the curate, "beginning with Tris, but Tristram." - "Then 'tis Tristram - gistus," quoth Susanah.
"There is no gistus to it, noodle; 'tis my own name," replied the curate, dipping his hand as he spoke into the basin. "Tristram," said he, etc., etc. So Tristram was I called, and Tristram shall I be to the day of my death.
VII. The Story of Le Fevre
It was some time in the summer of that year in which Dendermond was taken by the Allies, which was about seven years after the time that my Uncle Toby and Trim had privately decamped from my father's house in town, in order to lay some of the finest sieges to some of the finest cities in Europe, when my Uncle Toby was one evening getting his supper, with Trim sitting behind him at a small sideboard, when the landlord of a little inn in the village came into the parlour with an empty phial in his hand, to beg a glass or two of sack: "'Tis for a poor gentleman, I think, of the Army," said the landlord, "who has been taken ill at my house four days ago, and has never held up his head since, or had a desire to taste anything, till just now, that he has a fancy for a glass of sack and a thin toast: 'I think,' says he, 'it would comfort me.' If I could neither beg, borrow nor buy such a thing," added the landlord, "I would almost steal it for the poor gentleman, he is so ill. I hope in God he will still mend, we are all of us concerned for him."
"Thou art a good - natured soul, I will answer for thee," cried my Uncle Toby, "and thou shalt drink the poor gentleman's health in a glass of sack thyself, and take a couple of bottles with my service and tell him he is heartily welcome to them, and to a dozen more if they will do him good."
"Though I am persuaded," said my Uncle Toby, as the landlord shut the door, "he is a very compassionate fellow, Trim, yet I cannot help entertaining a high opinion of his guest too; there must be something more than common in him, that in so short a time should win so much upon the affections of his host." - "And of his whole family," added the Corporal, "for they are all concerned for him." - "Step after him," said my Uncle Toby; "do, Trim, ask if he knows his name.
"I have quite forgot it truly," said the landlord, coming back to the parlour with the Corporal, "but I can ask his son again." - "Has he a son with him, then?" said my Uncle Toby. "A boy," replied the landlord, "of about eleven or twelve years of age; but the poor creature has tasted almost as little as his father; he does nothing but mourn and lament for him night and day. He has not stirred from the bedside these two days."
My Uncle Toby lay down his knife and fork, and thrust his plate from before him, as the landlord gave him the account; and Trim, without being ordered, took it away without saying one word, and in a few minutes after brought him his pipe and tobacco.
"Trim," said my Uncle Toby, after he had lighted his pipe and smoked about a dozen whiffs; "I have a project in my head, as it is a bad night, of wrapping myself up warm and paying a visit to this poor gentleman." "Leave it, an' please your honour, to me," quoth the Corporal; "I'll take my hat and stick and go to the house and reconnoitre, and act accordingly; and I will bring your honour a full account in an hour."
VIII. The Story of Le Fevre (continued)
It was not till my Uncle Toby had knocked the ashes out of his third pipe that Corporal Trim returned from the inn, and gave him the following account.
"I despaired at first," said the Corporal, "of being able to bring back any intelligence to your honour about the Lieutenant and his son; for when I asked where his servant was, from whom I made myself sure of knowing everything which was proper to be asked," - ("that's a right distinction, Trim," said my Uncle Toby) - "I was answered, an' please your honour, that he had no servant with him; that he had come to the inn with hired horses, which, upon finding himself unable to proceed (to join, I suppose the regiment) he had dismissed the morning after he came. 'If I get better, my dear,' said he, as he gave his purse to his son to pay the man, 'we can hire horses from hence' - 'but, alas! the poor gentleman will never get from hence,' said the landlady to me, 'for I heard the deathwatch all night long; and when he dies, the youth, his son, will certainly die with him, for he's broken - hearted already.' I was hearing this account, when the youth came into the kitchen, to order the thin toast the landlord spoke of. 'But I will do it for my father myself,' said the youth. 'Pray let me save you the trouble, young gentleman,' said I, taking up a fork for that purpose. 'I believe, sir,' said he, very modestly, 'I can please him best myself.' - 'I am sure,' said I, 'his honour will not like the toast the worse for being toasted by an old soldier,' The youth took hold of my hand and instantly burst into tears." ("Poor youth," said my Uncle Toby, "he has been bred up from an infant in the army, and the name of a soldier, Trim, sounded in his ears like the name of a friend. I wish I had him here.")
"When I gave him the toast," continued the Corporal, "I thought it was proper to tell him I was Captain Shandy's servant, and that your honour (though a stranger) was extremely concerned for his father, and that if there was anything in your house or cellar," - ("And thou mightest have added my purse, too," said my Uncle Toby) - he was heartily welcome to it. He made a very low bow (which was meant to your honour) but no answer, for his heart was full; so he went upstairs with the toast. When the lieutenant had taken his glass of sack and toast, he felt himself a little revived, and sent down into the kitchen to let me know that he should be glad if I would step upstairs. He did not offer to speak to me till I had walked up close to his bedside. 'If you are Captain Shandy's servant,' said he, 'you must present my thanks to your master, with my little boy's thanks along with them, for his courtesy to me: if he was of Leven's,' said the Lieutenant, - I told him your honour was. 'Then,' said he, 'I served three campaigns with him in Flanders, and remember him; but 'tis most likely that he remembers nothing of me. You will tell him, however, that the person his good nature has laid under obligations to him is one Le Fevre, a lieutenant in Angus' - 'but he knows me not,' said he a second time, musing. 'Possibly he may know my story,' added he. 'Pray tell the Captain I was the ensign at Breda whose wife was most unfortunately killed with musket - shot as she lay in my arms in my tent'"
"I remember," said my Uncle Toby, sighing, "the story of the ensign and his wife. But finish the story thou art upon." - "'Tis finished already," said the Corporal, "for I could stay no longer, so wished his honour good night; young Le Fevre rose from off the bed, and saw me to the bottom of the stairs, and, as we went down, he told me they had come from Ireland and were on their route to join the regiment in Flanders. But, alas!" said the Corporal, "the lieutenant's last day's march is over."
IX. The Story of Le Fevre (concluded)
"Thou hast left this matter short," said my Uncle Toby to the Corporal, as he was putting him to bed, "and I will tell thee in what, Trim. When thou offeredst Le Fevre whatever was in my house, thou shouldst have offered him my house, too. A sick brother officer should have the best quarter's, Trim, and if we had him with us, we could tend and look to him. Thou art an excellent nurse thyself, Trim, and what with thy care of him, and the old woman's, and his boy's, and mine together, we might recruit him again at once and set him upon his legs. In a fortnight or three weeks he might march."
"He will never march, an' please your honour, in this world," said the Corporal. "He will march," said my Uncle Toby, rising up from the side of the bed with one shoe off. "An' please your honour," said the Corporal, "he will never march but to his grave." - "He shall march," cried my Uncle Toby, marching the foot which had a shoe on, though without advancing an inch, "he shall march to his regiment." "He cannot stand it," said the Corporal. "He shall be supported," said my Uncle Toby. "He'll drop at last," said the Corporal. "He shall not drop," said my Uncle Toby, firmly. "Ah, well - a - day, do what we can for him," said Trim, "the poor soul will die." - "He shall not die, by G -," cried my Uncle Toby.
The Accusing Spirit which flew up to Heaven's chancery with the oath, blushed as he gave it in; and the Recording Angel, as he wrote it down, dropped a tear upon the word, and blotted it out for ever.
* * *
The sun looked bright the morning after to every eye in the village but Le Fevre's and his afflicted son's. My Uncle Toby, who had rose up an hour before his wonted time, entered the lieutenant's room, and sat himself down upon the chair by the bedside, and opened the curtain in the manner an old friend and brother officer would have done it.
There was a frankness in my Uncle Toby - not the effect of familiarity, but the cause of it - which let you at once into his soul, and showed you the goodness of his nature. The blood and spirits of Le Fevre, which were waxing cold and slow within him, and were retreating to the last citadel, the heart, rallied back. The film forsook his eyes for a moment. He looked up wistfully in my Uncle Toby's face, then cast a look upon his boy. Nature instantly ebbed again. The film returned to its place: the pulse fluttered, stopped, went on - throbbed, stopped again - moved, stopped - .
My Uncle Toby, with young Le Fevre in his hand, attended the poor lieutenant as chief mourners to his grave.
● Copyright © 2014 Glyn Hughes.
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