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Laurence Sterne. (1713–1768). A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

The Case of Delicacy

WHEN you have gain’d the top of mount Taurira, you run presently down to Lyons—adieu 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 created—with all thy great works about thee, little hast thou left to give, either to the scythe or to the sickle—but to that little thou grantest safety and protection; and sweet are the dwellings which stand so shelter’d.

Let the wayworn traveler vent his complaints upon the sudden turns and dangers of your roads—your rocks—your precipices—the difficulties of getting up—the horrors of getting down—mountains impracticable—and 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 gain’d: there was nothing but to wait with patience—’t 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.

I forthwith took possession of my bedchamber—got a good fire—order’d supper; and was thanking heaven it was no worse—when a voiture arrived with a lady in it and her servant-maid.

As there was no other bedchamber in the house, the hostess, without much nicety, led them into mine, telling them, as she usher’d them in, that there was nobody in it but an English gentleman—that 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 it—however, she said there were three beds, and but three people—and she durst say, the gentleman would do anything to accommodate matters.—I left not the lady a moment to make a conjecture about it—so 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 it—so I desired the lady to sit down—pressed her into the warmest seat—call’d for more wood—desir’d the hostess to enlarge the plan of the supper, and to favor us with the very best wine.

The lady had scarce warm’d 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 return’d perplex’d.—I felt for her—and 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 this—but 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, render’d the affair still more oppressive to us—they were fixed up moreover near the fire, and the projection of the chimney on one side, and a large beam which cross’d the room on the other, form’d a kind of recess for them that was no way favorable to the nicety of our sensations—if 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 wish’d, yet there was nothing in it so terrible which the imagination might not have pass’d over without torment.

As for the little room within, it offer’d 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 alternative—that the lady should sacrifice her health to her feelings, and take up with the closet herself, and abandon the bed next mine to her maid—or 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 way—and 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 furnish’d, our tongues had been tied up, till necessity herself had set them at liberty—but 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 turn’d 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 peace—and 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 Monsieur—and he thinking the bed next to the fire to be the warmest, he insists upon the concession on the lady’s 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 deem’d a sufficient barrier on the side of Monsieur.

2dly. It is required on the part of Madame, that Monsieur shall lay the whole night through in his robe de chambre.

Rejected: inasmuch as Monsieur is not worth a robe de chambre; he having nothing in his portmanteau but six shirts and a black silk pair of breeches.

The mentioning the silk pair of breeches made an entire change of the article—for 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.

3dly. It was insisted upon, and stipulated for by the lady, that after Monsieur was got to bed, and the candle and fire extinguished, that Monsieur should not speak one single word the whole night.

Granted; provided Monsieur’s saying his prayers might not be deem’d an infraction of the treaty.

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 bed—there 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 imagination—against 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 turn’d and turn’d again, till a full hour after midnight; when Nature and patience both wearing out—O my God! said I—You have broke the treaty, Monsieur, said the lady, who had no more slept than myself.—I begg’d a thousand pardons—but insisted it was no more than an ejaculation—she maintain’d ’t was an entire infraction of the treaty—I maintain’d it was provided for in the clause of the third article.

The lady would by no means give up her point, tho’ she weaken’d her barrier by it; for in the warmth of the dispute, I could hear two or three corking-pins fall out of the curtain to the ground.

Upon my word and honor, Madame, said I—stretching my arm out of bed by way of asseveration—

—(I was going to have added, that I would not have trespass’d against the remotest idea of decorum for the world)—

—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 advanc’d so far up as to be in a line betwixt her mistress and me—

So that when I stretch’d out my hand, I caught hold of the Fille de Chambre’s——