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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Laurence Sterne (1713–1768)

Uncle Toby’s Courtship

From “Tristram Shandy”

“I AM half-distracted, Captain Shandy,” said Mrs. Wadman, holding up her cambric handkerchief to her left eye, as she approached the door of my uncle Toby’s sentry-box; “a mote, or sand, or something, I know not what, has got into this eye of mine. Do look into it; it is not in the white.”

In saying which, Mrs. Wadman edged herself close in beside my uncle Toby, and, squeezing herself down upon the corner of his bench, she gave him an opportunity of doing it without rising up. “Do look into it,” said she.

Honest soul! Thou didst look into it with as much innocency of heart as ever child looked into a raree show-box; and ’twere as much a sin to have hurt thee.

If a man will be peeping of his own accord into things of that nature, I’ve nothing to say to it.

My uncle Toby never did; and I will answer for him that he would have sat quietly upon a sofa from June to January (which you know takes in both the hot and cold months) with an eye as fine as the Thracian Rhodope’s beside him, without being able to tell whether it was a black or a blue one.

The difficulty was to get my uncle Toby to look at one at all.

’Tis surmounted. And—

I see him yonder, with his pipe pendulous in his hand, and the ashes falling out of it, looking, and looking, then rubbing his eyes and looking again, with twice the good nature that ever Galileo looked for a spot in the sun.

In vain! For, by all the powers which animate the organ, Widow Wadman’s left eye shines this moment as lucid as her right; there is neither mote, nor sand, nor dust, nor chaff, nor speck, nor particle of opaque matter floating in it. There is nothing, my dear paternal uncle, but one lambent, delicious fire, furtively shooting out from every part of it in all directions into thine.

If thou lookest, my uncle Toby, in search of this mote one moment longer, thou art undone.

An eye is, for all the world, exactly like a cannon in this respect, that it is not so much the eye or the cannon in themselves, as it is the carriage of the eye and the carriage of the cannon; by which both the one and the other are enabled to do so much execution. I don’t think the comparison a bad one; however, as ’tis made, and placed at the head of the chapter, as much for use as ornament, all I desire in return is, that whenever I speak of Mrs. Wadman’s eyes (except once in the next period), that you keep it in your fancy.

“I protest, madam,” said my uncle Toby. “I can see nothing whatever in your eye.”

“It is not in the white,” said Mrs. Wadman.

My uncle Toby looked with might and main into the pupil.

Now, of all the eyes which ever were created, from your own, madam, up to those of Venus herself, which certainly were as venereal a pair of eyes as ever stood in a head, there never was an eye of them all so fitted to rob my uncle Toby of his repose as the very eye at which he was looking. It was not, madam, a rolling eye, a romping, or a wanton one; nor was it an eye sparkling, petulant, or imperious, of high claims and terrifying exactions, which would have curdled at once that milk of human nature of which my uncle Toby was made up; but ’twas an eye full of gentle salutations and soft responses, speaking, not like the trumpet-stop of some ill-made organ, in which many an eye I talk to holds coarse converse, but whispering soft, like the last low accents of an expiring saint: “How can you live comfortless, Captain Shandy, and alone, without a bosom to lean your head on or trust your cares to?”

It was an eye——

But I shall be in love with it myself if I say another word about it.

It did my uncle Toby’s business….

The world is ashamed of being virtuous. My uncle Toby knew little of the world; and therefore, when he felt he was in love with Widow Wadman, he had no conception that the thing was any more to be made a mystery of than if Mrs. Wadman had given him a cut with a gaped knife across his finger. Had it been otherwise— Yet, as he looked upon Trim as an humble friend, and saw fresh reasons every day of his life to treat him as such, it would have made no variation in the manner in which he informed him of the affair.

“I am in love, corporal,” quoth my uncle Toby.

“In love!” said the corporal. “Your Honour was very well the day before yesterday, when I was telling your Honour the story of the King of Bohemia.”

“Bohemia!” said my uncle Toby, musing a long time. “What became of that story, Trim?”

“We lost it, an’t please your Honour, somehow, betwixt us; but your Honour was as free from love then as I am.”

“’Twas just while thou went’st off with the wheelbarrow, with Mrs. Wadman,” quoth my uncle Toby. “She has left a ball here,” added my uncle Toby, pointing to his breast.

“She can no more, an’ please your Honour, stand a siege than she can fly,” cried the corporal.

“But as we are neighbours, Trim, the best way, I think, is to let her know it civilly first,” quoth my uncle Toby.

“Now, if I might presume,” said the corporal, “to differ from your Honour.”

“Why else do I talk to thee, Trim?” said my uncle Toby mildly.

“Then I would begin, an’ it please your Honour, with making a good thundering attack upon her in return, and telling her civilly afterward; for if she knows anything of your Honour’s being in love beforehand, Lord help her!”

“She knows no more at present of it, Trim,” said my uncle Toby, “than the child unborn.”

Precious souls!

Mrs. Wadman had told it, with all its circumstances, to Mrs. Bridget, twenty-four hours before, and was at that very moment sitting in council with her touching some slight misgivings with regard to the issue of the affair, which the devil, who never lies dead in a ditch, had put into her head before he would allow her half time to get quietly through her Te Deum.

“We’ll know the long and broad of it in ten days,” answered Mrs. Bridget; “for whilst the captain is paying his addresses to you, I’m confident Mr. Trim will be for making love to me; and I’ll let him, as much as he will,” added Bridget, “to get it all out of him.”

The measures were taken at once; and my uncle Toby and the corporal went on with theirs.

“Now,” quoth the corporal, setting his left hand akimbo, and giving such a flourish with his right as just promised success, and no more, “if your Honour will give me leave to lay down the plan of this attack.”

“Thou wilt please me by it, Trim,” said my uncle Toby, “exceedingly; and as I foresee thou must act in it as my aide-de-camp, here’s a crown, corporal, to begin with, to steep thy commission.”

“Then, an’ please your Honour,” said the corporal, making a bow first for his commission, “we will begin by getting your Honour’s laced clothes out of the great campaign-trunk, to be well aired, and have the blue and gold taken up at the sleeves; and I’ll put your white ramillie-wig fresh into pipes; and send for a tailor to have your Honour’s thin scarlet breeches turned.”

“I had better take the red plush ones,” quoth my uncle Toby….

“Your Honour’s two razors shall be new set, and I will get my Montero cap furbished up, and put on poor Lieutenant Le Fèvre’s regimental coat, which your Honour gave me to wear for his sake; and as soon as your Honour is clean shaved, and has got your clean shirt on, with your blue and gold or your fine scarlet, sometimes one and sometimes t’other, and everything is ready for the attack, we’ll march up boldly, as if ’twas to the face of a bastion; and whilst your Honour engages Mrs. Wadman in the parlour to the right, I’ll attack Mrs. Bridget in the kitchen to the left; and having seized that pass, I’ll answer for it,” said the corporal, snapping his fingers over his head, “that the day is your own.”

“I wish I may but manage it right,” said my uncle Toby; “but I declare, corporal, I had rather march up to the very edge of a trench.”

“A woman is quite a different thing,” said the corporal.

“I suppose so,” quoth my uncle Toby.