The Garden of Romance/The Story of Le Fevre

V


THE STORY OF LE FEVRE


From "Tristram Shandy"


It was some time in the summer of that year in which Dendermond was taken by the Allies, which was about seven years before my father came into the country, and about as many 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 fortified cities in Europe, when my uncle Toby was one evening getting his supper, with Trim sitting behind him at a small sideboard. I say sitting, for, in consideration of the Corporal's lame knee (which sometimes gave him exquisite pain), when my uncle Toby dined or supped alone, he would never suffer the Corporal to stand; and the poor fellow's veneration for his master was such that, with a proper artillery, my uncle Toby could have taken Dendermond itself with less trouble than he was able to gain this point over him; for many a time, when my uncle Toby supposed the Corporal's leg was at rest, he would look back, and detect him standing behind him with the most dutiful respect. This bred more little squabbles betwixt them than all other causes for five-and-twenty years together; but this is neither here nor there. Why did I mention it? Ask my pen: it governs me;—I govern not it.

He was one evening sitting thus at his supper, 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, taking his hand from his forehead, '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," continued he; "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; and ask if he knows his name."

"I have quite forgot it truly," said the landlord, coming back into 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 bed-side these two days."

My uncle Toby laid 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 away, without saying one word, and, in a few minutes after, brought him his pipe and tobacco.

"Stay in the room a little," said my uncle Toby.

"Trim," said my uncle Toby, after he lighted his pipe and smoked about a dozen whiffs. Trim came in front of his master, and made his bow; my uncle Toby smoked on, and said no more. "Corporal!" said my uncle Toby. The Corporal made his bow. My uncle Toby proceeded no farther, but finished his pipe.

"Trim!" said my uncle Toby, "I have a project in my head, as it is a bad night, of wrapping myself up warm in my roquelaure, and paying a visit to this poor gentleman." "Your Honour's roquelaure," replied the Corporal, "has not once been had on since the night before your Honour received your wound, when we mounted guard in the trenches before the gate of St. Nicholas; and, besides, it is so cold and rainy a night that, what with the roquelaure, and what with the weather, 'twill be enough to give your Honour your death, and bring on your Honour's torment in your groin." "I fear so," replied my uncle Toby, "but I am not at rest in my mind, Trim, since the account the landlord has given me. I wish I had not known so much of this affair," added my uncle Toby, "or that I had known more of it. How shall we manage it?" "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." "Thou shalt go, Trim," said my uncle Toby, "and here's a shilling for thee to drink with his servant." "I shall get it all out of him," said the Corporal, shutting the door.

My uncle Toby filled his second pipe; and had it not been that he now and then wandered from the point, with considering whether it was not full as well to have the curtain of the ténaille a straight line as a crooked one,—he might be said to have thought of nothing else but poor Le Fevre and his boy the whole time he smoked it.

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 your Honour any kind of intelligence concerning the poor sick Lieutenant." "Is he in the army, then?" said my uncle Toby. "He is," said the Corporal. "And in what regiment?" said my uncle Toby. "I'll tell your Honour," replied the Corporal, "everything straight forwards, as I learnt it." "Then, Trim, I'll fill another pipe," said my uncle Toby, "and not interrupt thee till thou hast done; so sit down at thy ease, Trim, in the window-seat, and begin thy story again." The Corporal made his old bow, which generally spoke as plain as a bow could speak it, Your Honour is good:—and having done that, he sat down, as he was ordered, and began the story to my uncle Toby over again in pretty near the same words.

"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 thence.' 'But, alas! the poor gentleman will never go hence,' said the landlady to me, 'for I heard the death-watch all night long; and, when he dies, the youth, his son, will certainly die with him, for he is broken-hearted already.'

"I was hearing this account," continued the Corporal, "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 the purpose, and offering him my chair to sit down upon by the fire, whilst I did it. '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."

"I never, in the longest march," said the Corporal, "had so great a mind for my dinner, as I had to cry with him for company. What could be the matter with me, an' please your Honour?" "Nothing in the world, Trim," said my uncle Toby, blowing his nose, "but that thou art a good-natured fellow."

"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 might'st 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. 'I warrant you, my dear,' said I, as I opened the kitchen door, 'your father will be well again.' Mr. Yorick's curate was smoking a pipe by the kitchen fire, but said not a word, good or bad, to comfort the youth. I thought it wrong," added the Corporal. "I think so too," said my uncle Toby.

"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, in about ten minutes, he should be glad if I would step upstairs. 'I believe,' said the landlord, 'he is going to say his prayers; for there was a book laid upon the chair by his bed-side, and, as I shut the door, I saw his son take up a cushion.'

"'I thought,' said the Curate, 'that you gentlemen of the army, Mr. Trim, never said your prayers at all.' 'I heard the poor gentleman say his prayers last night,' said the landlady, 'very devoutly, and with my own ears, or I could not have believed it.' 'Are you sure of it?' replied the Curate. 'A soldier, an' please your reverence,' said I, 'prays as often (of his own accord) as a parson; and when he is fighting for his king, and for his own life, and for his honour too, he has the most reason to pray to God of any one in the whole world.' "'Twas well said of thee, Trim," said my uncle Toby." 'But when a soldier,' said I, 'an' please your reverence, has been standing for twelve hours together in the trenches, up to his knees in cold water, or engaged,' said I, 'for months together in long and dangerous marches; harassed, perhaps, in his rear to-day; harassing others to-morrow; detached here, countermanded there; resting this night out upon his arms, beat up in his shirt the next; benumbed in his joints; perhaps without straw in his tent to kneel on; must say his prayers how and when he can—I believe,' said I, for I was piqued, quoth the Corporal, for the reputation of the army—'I believe, an' please your reverence,' said I, 'that when a soldier gets time to pray, he prays as heartily as a parson, though not with all his fuss and hypocrisy.' "Thou should'st not have said that, Trim," said my uncle Toby, "for God only knows who is a hypocrite, and who is not. At the great and general review of us all, Corporal, at the day of judgment (and not till then), it will be seen who have done their duties in this world, and who have not; and we shall be advanced, Trim, accordingly." "I hope we shall," said Trim. "It is in the Scripture," said my uncle Toby; "and I will show it thee to-morrow. In the meantime we may depend upon it, Trim, for our comfort," said my uncle Toby, "that God Almighty is so good and just a Governor of the world that, if we have but done our duties in it, it will never be inquired into whether we have done them in a red coat or a black one." "I hope not," said the Corporal. "But go on, Trim," said my uncle Toby, "with thy story."

"When I went up," continued the Corporal, "into the Lieutenant's room, which I did not do till the expiration of the ten minutes, he was lying in his bed, with his head raised upon his hand, with his elbow upon the pillow, and a clean white cambric handkerchief beside it. The youth was just stooping down to take up the cushion, upon which I supposed he had been kneeling; the book was laid upon the bed, and, as he arose, in taking up the cushion with one hand, he reached out his other to take it away at the same time. 'Let it remain there, my dear,' said the Lieutenant.

"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, as I had not the honour of any acquaintance with him, that he knows 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's;—but he knows me not,' said he, a second time, musing; 'possibly he may my story,' added he. 'Pray tell the Captain that I was the ensign at Breda whose wife was most unfortunately killed with a musket-shot, as she lay in my arms in my tent.' 'I remember the story, an' please your Honour,' said I, 'very well.' 'Do you so?' said he, wiping his eyes with his handkerchief, 'then well may I.' In saying this, he drew a little ring out of his bosom, which seemed tied with a black riband about his neck, and kissed it twice. 'Here, Billy,' said he. The boy flew across the room to the bedside, and falling down upon his knee, took the ring in his hand, and kissed it too, then kissed his father, and sat down upon the bed and wept."

"I wish," said my uncle Toby, with a deep sigh, "I wish, Trim, I was asleep."

"Your Honour," replied the Corporal, "is too much concerned. Shall I pour your Honour out a glass of sack to your pipe?" "Do, Trim," said my uncle Toby.

"I remember," said my uncle Toby, sighing again, "the story of the ensign and his wife, with a circumstance his modesty omitted; and particularly well that he, as well as she, upon some account or other (I forget what) was universally pitied by the whole regiment; 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 together, told me that 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!" "Then what is to become of his poor boy?" cried my uncle Toby.

It was to my uncle Toby's eternal honour though I tell it only for the sake of those who, when cooped in betwixt a natural and a positive law, know not, for their souls, which way in the world to turn themselves that, notwithstanding my uncle Toby was warmly engaged at that time in carrying on the siege of Dendermond, parallel with the Allies, who pressed theirs on so vigorously that they scarce allowed him time to get his dinner, that nevertheless he gave up Dendermond, though he had already made a lodgment upon the counterscarp, and bent his whole thoughts towards the private distresses at the inn; and, except that he ordered the garden gate to be bolted up, by which he might be said to have turned the siege of Dendermond into a blockade, he left Dendermond to itself, to be relieved or not by the French king, as the French king thought good, and only considered how he himself should relieve the poor Lieutenant and his son.

That kind Being, who is a friend to the friendless, shall recompense thee for this.

"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. In the first place, when thou madest an offer of my services to Le Fevre, as sickness and travelling are both expensive, and thou knewest he was but a poor Lieutenant, with a son to subsist as well as himself out of his pay, that thou didst not make an offer to him of my purse; because had he stood in need, thou knowest, Trim, he had been as welcome to it as myself." "Your Honour knows," said the Corporal, "I had no orders." "True," quoth my uncle Toby,—"thou didst very right, Trim, as a soldier—but certainly very wrong as a man.

"In the second place, for which, indeed, thou hast the same excuse," continued my uncle Toby, "when thou offeredst him whatever was in my house, thou shouldst have offered him my house too. A sick brother officer should have the best quarters, 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," added my uncle Toby, smiling, "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, "and what will become of his boy?" "He shall not drop," said my uncle Toby firmly. "A-well-a-day! do what we can for him," said Trim, maintaining his point, "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.

My uncle Toby went to his bureau, put his purse into his breeches pocket, and, having ordered the Corporal to go early in the morning for a physician, he went to bed and fell asleep.

The sun looked bright, the morning after, to every eye in the village but Le Fevre's and his afflicted son's; the hand of death pressed heavy upon his eyelids; and hardly could the wheel at the cistern turn round its circle, when my uncle Toby, who had risen up an hour before his wonted time, entered the Lieutenant's room, and without preface or apology, sat himself down upon the chair by the bedside, and, independently of all modes and customs, opened the curtain in the manner an old friend and brother officer would have done it, and asked him how he did, how he had rested in the night, what was his complaint, where was his pain, and what he could do to help him; and, without giving him time to answer any one of these inquiries, went on, and told him of the little plan which he had been concerting with the Corporal the night before for him.

"You shall go home directly, Le Fevre," said my uncle Toby, "to my house, and we'll send for a doctor to see what's the matter; and we'll have an apothecary; and the Corporal shall be your nurse; and I'll be your servant, Le Fevre."

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. To this there was something in his looks, and voice, and manner superadded which eternally beckoned to the unfortunate to come and take shelter under him; so that, before my uncle Toby had half finished the kind offers he was making to the father, had the son insensibly pressed up close to his knees, and had taken hold of the breast of his coat, and was pulling it towards him. The blood and spirits of Le Fevre, which were waxing cold and slow within him, and were retreating to their 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; and that ligament, fine as it was, was never broken!

Nature instantly ebbed again;—the film returned to its place;—the pulse fluttered;—stopped;—went on,—throbbed,—stopped again,—moved, stopped. Shall I go on? No!

I am so impatient to return to my own story, that what remains of young Le Fevre's, that is, from this turn of his fortune to the time my uncle Toby recommended him for my preceptor, shall be told in a very few words in another page. All that is necessary to be added to this is as follows:—

That my uncle Toby, with young Le Fevre in his hand, attended the poor Lieutenant, as chief mourners, to his grave.

That the governor of Dendermond paid his obsequies all military honours, and that Yorick, not to be behind-hand, paid him all ecclesiastic, for he buried him in his chancel. And it appears, likewise, he preached a funeral sermon over him. I say it appears, for it was Yorick's custom, which I suppose a general one with those of his profession, on the first leaf of every sermon which he composed, to chronicle down the time, the place, and the occasion of its being preached: to this he was ever wont to add some short comment or stricture upon the sermon itself,—seldom, indeed, much to its credit. For instance, "This sermon upon the Jewish dispensation—I don't like it at all; though I own there is a world of waterlandish knowledge in it; but 'tis all tritical, and most tritically put together. This is but a flimsy kind of composition. What was in my head when I made it?

"N.B. The excellency of this text is that it will suit any sermon; and of this sermon, that it will suit any text.

"For this sermon I shall be hanged, for I have stolen the greatest part of it. Doctor Paidagunes found me out. Set a thief to catch a thief."

On the back of half-a-dozen I find written, So, so, and no more; and upon a couple moderato; by which, as far as one may gather, from Altieri's Italian Dictionary, but mostly from the authority of a piece of green whipcord, which seemed to have been the unravelling of Yorick's whip-lash, with which he has left us the two sermons marked moderato and the half-dozen of So, so, tied fast together in one bundle by themselves, one may safely suppose he meant pretty nearly the same thing.

There is but one difficulty in the way of this conjecture, which is this, that the moderatos are five times better than the so, so's; show ten times more knowledge of the human heart; have seventy times more wit and spirit in them (and, to rise properly in my climax), discover a thousand times more genius; and, to crown all, are infinitely more entertaining than those tied up with them; for which reason, whenever Yorick's dramatic sermons are offered to the world, though I shall admit but one out of the whole number of the so, so's, I shall, nevertheless, adventure to print the two moderatos without any sort of scruple.

What Yorick could mean by the words lentamente, tenutè, grave, and sometimes adagio, as applied to theological compositions, and with which he has characterised some of these sermons, I dare not venture to guess. I am more puzzled still upon finding a l'octavo alta! upon one; Con strepito upon the back of another; Scicilliana upon a third; Alla capella upon a fourth; Con l'arco upon this; Senza l'arco upon that. All I know is that they are musical terms, and have a meaning; and, as he was a musical man, I will make no doubt but that, by some quaint application of such metaphors to the compositions in hand, they impressed very distinct ideas of their several characters upon his fancy, whatever they may do upon that of others.

Amongst these there is that particular sermon which has unaccountably led me into this digression, the funeral sermon upon poor Le Fevre, wrote out very fairly, as if from a hasty copy. I take notice of it the more because it seems to have been his favourite composition. It is upon mortality, and is tied lengthways and crossways with a yarn thrum, and then rolled up and twisted round with a half-sheet of dirty blue paper, which seems to have been once the cast cover of a general review, which to this day smells horribly of horse-drugs. Whether these marks of humiliation were designed, I something doubt, because at the end of the sermon (and not at the beginning of it), very different from his way of treating the rest, he had wrote—Bravo!

Though not very offensively, for it was at two inches, at least, and a half's distance from and below the concluding line of the sermon, at the very extremity of the page, and in that right hand corner of it which, you know, is generally covered with your thumb; and, to do it justice, it is wrote besides with a crow's quill, so faintly, in a small Italian hand, as scarcely to solicit the eye towards the place, whether your thumb is there or not, so that, from the manner of it, it stands half excused, and being wrote moreover with very pale ink, diluted almost to nothing—'tis more like a ritratto of the shadow of Vanity than of Vanity herself—of the two; resembling rather a faint thought of transient applause, secretly stirring up in the heart of the composer, than a gross mark of it coarsely obtruded upon the world.

With all these extenuations, I am aware that, in publishing this, I do no service to Yorick's character as a modest man; but all men have their failings! and what lessens this still farther, and almost wipes it away, is this, that the word was struck through some time afterwards (as appears from a different tint of the ink) with a line quite across it, in this manner, Bravo! as if he had retracted, or was ashamed of the opinion he had once entertained of it.

These short characters of his sermons were always written, excepting in this one instance, upon the first leaf of his sermon, which served as a cover to it, and usually upon the inside of it, which was turned towards the text; but at the end of his discourse, where, perhaps, he had five or six pages, and sometimes, perhaps, a whole score to turn himself in, he took a larger circuit, and indeed a much more mettlesome one, as if he had snatched the occasion of unlacing himself with a few more frolicksome strokes at vice than the straitness of the pulpit allowed. These, though, hussar-like, they skirmish lightly, and out of all order, are still auxiliaries on the side of Virtue. Tell me then, Mynheer Vander Blonederdondergewdenstronke, why they should not be printed together?

When my uncle Toby had turned everything into money, and settled all accounts betwixt the agent of the regiment and Le Fevre, and betwixt Le Fevre and all mankind, there remained nothing more in my uncle Toby's hands than an old regimental coat and sword; so that my uncle Toby found little or no opposition from the world in taking administration. The coat, my uncle Toby gave the Corporal. "Wear it, Trim," said my uncle Toby, "as long as it will hold together, for the sake of the poor Lieutenant. And this," said my uncle Toby, taking up the sword in his hand, and drawing it out of the scabbard as he spoke, "and this, Le Fevre, I'll save for thee; 'tis all the fortune," continued my uncle Toby, hanging it up upon a crook, and pointing to it, "'tis all the fortune, my dear Le Fevre, which God has left thee; but if He has given thee a heart to fight thy way with it in the world, and thou dost it like a man of honour, 'tis enough for us."

As soon as my uncle Toby had laid a foundation, and taught him to inscribe a regular polygon in a circle, he sent him to a public school, where, excepting Whitsuntide and Christmas, at which times the Corporal was punctually despatched for him, he remained to the spring of the year Seventeen; when the stories of the Emperor's sending his army into Hungary against the Turks, kindling a spark of fire in his bosom, he left his Greek and Latin, without leave, and, throwing himself upon his knees before my uncle Toby, begged his father's sword, and my uncle Toby's leave along with it, to go and try his fortune under Eugene. Twice did my uncle Toby forget his wound and cry out, "Le Fevre, I will go with thee, and thou shalt fight beside me!" and twice he laid his hand upon his groin, and hung down his head in sorrow and disconsolation.

My uncle Toby took down the sword from the crook, where it had hung untouched ever since the Lieutenant's death, and delivered it to the Corporal to brighten up; and, having detained Le Fevre a single fortnight to equip him, and contract for his passage to Leghorn, he put the sword into his hand. "If thou art brave, Le Fevre," said my uncle Toby, "this will not fail thee; but Fortune," said he, musing a little, "Fortune may; and if she does," added my uncle Toby, embracing him, "come back again to me, Le Fevre, and we will shape thee another course."

The greatest injury could not have oppressed the heart of Le Fevre more than my uncle Toby's paternal kindness; he parted from my uncle Toby as the best of sons from the best of fathers: both dropped tears; and, as my uncle Toby gave him his last kiss, he slipped sixty guineas, tied up in an old purse of his father's, in which was his mother's ring, into his hand, and bid God bless him.