The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom, by Tobias Smollett

Chapter Thirteen

He is Exposed to a Most Perilous Incident in the Course of His Intrigue with the Daughter.

He was rejoiced to find her so easily satisfied in such a momentous concern, for the principal aim of the intrigue was to make her necessary to his interested views, and even, if possible, an associate in the fraudulent plans he had projected upon her father; consequently he considered this relaxation in her virtue as an happy omen of his future success. All the obstacles to their mutual enjoyment being thus removed, our adventurer was by his mistress indulged with an assignation in her own chamber, which, though contiguous to that of her stepmother, was provided with a door that opened into a common staircase, to which he had access at all hours of the night.

He did not neglect the rendezvous, but, presenting himself at the appointed time, which was midnight, made the signal they had agreed upon, and was immediately admitted by Wilhelmina, who waited for hire with a lover’s impatience. Fathom was not deficient in those expressions of rapture that are current on those occasions; but, on the contrary, became so loud in the transports of self-congratulation, that his voice reached the ears of the vigilant stepmother, who wakening the jeweller from his first nap, gave him to understand that some person was certainly in close conversation with his daughter; and exhorted him to rise forthwith, and vindicate the honour of his family.

The German, who was naturally of a phlegmatic habit, and never went to bed without a full dose of the creature, which added to his constitutional drowsiness, gave no ear to his wife’s intimation, until she had repeated it thrice, and used other means to rouse him from the arms of slumber. Meanwhile Fathom and his inamorata overheard her information, and our hero would have made his retreat immediately, through the port by which he entered, had not his intention been overruled by the remonstrances of the young lady, who observed that the door was already fast bolted, and could not possibly be opened without creating a noise that would confirm the suspicion of her parents; and that over and above this objection he would, in sallying from that door, run the risk of being met by her father, who in all probability would present himself before it, in order to hinder our hero’s escape. She therefore conveyed him softly into her closet, where she assured him he might remain with great tranquillity, in full confidence that she would take such measures as would effectually screen him from detection.

He was fain to depend upon her assurance, and accordingly ensconced himself behind her dressing-table; but he could not help sweating with apprehension, and praying fervently to God for his deliverance, when he heard the jeweller thundering at the door, and calling to his daughter for admittance. Wilhelmina, who was already undressed, and had purposely extinguished the light, pretended to be suddenly waked from her sleep, and starting up, exclaimed in a tone of surprise and affright, “Jesu, Maria! what is the matter?”—“Hussy!” replied the German in a terrible accent, “open the door this instant; there is a man in your bedchamber, and, by the lightning and thunder! I will wash away the stain he has cast upon my honour with the schellum’s heart’s-blood.”

Not at all intimidated by this boisterous threat, she admitted him without hesitation, and, with a shrillness of voice peculiar to herself, began to hold forth upon her own innocence and his unjust suspicion, mingling in her harangue sundry oblique hints against her mother-in-law, importing, that some people were so viciously inclined by their own natures, that she did not wonder at their doubting the virtue of other people; but that these people despised the insinuations of such people, who ought to be more circumspect in their own conduct, lest they themselves should suffer reprisals from those people whom they had so maliciously slandered.

Having uttered these flowers of rhetoric, which were calculated for the hearing of her step-dame, who stood with a light at her husband’s back, the young lady assumed an ironical air, and admonished her father to search every corner of her apartment. She even affected to assist his inquiry; with her own hands pulled out a parcel of small drawers, in which her trinkets were contained; desired him to look into her needlecase and thimble, and, seeing his examination fruitless, earnestly intreated him to rummage her closet also, saying, with a sneer, that, in all probability, the dishonourer would be found in that lurking-place. The manner in which she pretended to ridicule his apprehensions made an impression upon the jeweller, who was very well disposed to retreat into his own nest, when his wife, with a certain slyness in her countenance, besought him to comply with his daughter’s request, and look into that same closet, by which means Wilhelmina’s virtue would obtain a complete triumph.

Our adventurer, who overheard the conversation, was immediately seized with a palsy of fear. He trembled at every joint, the sweat trickled down his forehead, his teeth began to chatter, his hair to stand on end; and he, in his heart, bitterly cursed the daughter’s petulance, the mother’s malice, together with his own precipitation, by which he was involved in an adventure so pregnant with danger and disgrace. Indeed, the reader may easily conceive his disorder, when he heard the key turning in the lock, and the German swearing that he would make him food for the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air.

Fathom had come unprepared with weapons of defence, was naturally an economist of his person, and saw himself on the brink of forfeiting not only the promised harvest of his double intrigue, but also the reputation of a man of honour, upon which all his future hopes depended. His agony was therefore unspeakable, when the door flew open; and it was not till after a considerable pause of recollection, that he perceived the candle extinguished by the motion of the air produced from the German’s sudden irruption. This accident, which disconcerted him so much as to put a full stop to his charge, was very favourable to our hero, who, summoning all his presence of mind, crept up into the chimney, while the jeweller stood at the door, waiting for his wife’s return with another light; so that, when the closet was examined, there was nothing found to justify the report which the stepmother had made; and the father, after having made a slight apology to Wilhelmina for his intrusion, retired with his yoke-fellow into their own chamber.

The young lady, who little thought that her papa would have taken her at her word, was overwhelmed with confusion and dismay, when she saw him enter the closet; and, had her lover been discovered, would, in all probability, have been the loudest in his reproach, and, perhaps, have accused him of an intention to rob the house; but she was altogether astonished when she found he had made shift to elude the inquiry of her parents, because she could not conceive the possibility of his escaping by the window, which was in the third storey, at a prodigious distance from the ground; and how he should conceal himself in the apartment, was a mystery which she could by no means unfold. Before her father and mother retired, she lighted her lamp, on pretence of being afraid to be in the dark, after the perturbation of spirits she had undergone; and her room was no sooner evacuated of such troublesome visitants, than she secured the doors, and went in quest of her lover.

Accordingly, every corner of the closet underwent a new search, and she called upon his name with a soft voice, which she thought no other person would overhear. But Ferdinand did not think proper to gratify her impatience, because he could not judge of the predicament in which he stood by the evidence of all his senses, and would not relinquish his post, until he should be better certified that the coast was clear. Meanwhile, his Dulcinea, having performed her inquiry to no purpose, imagined there was something preternatural in the circumstance of his vanishing so unaccountably, and began to cross herself with great devotion. She returned to her chamber, fixed the lamp in the fireplace, and, throwing herself upon the bed, gave way to the suggestions of her superstition, which were reinforced by the silence that prevailed, and the gloomy glimmering of the light. She reflected upon the trespass she had already committed in her heart, and, in the conjectures of her fear, believed that her lover was no other than the devil himself, who had assumed the appearance of Fathom, in order to tempt and seduce her virtue.

While her imagination teemed with those horrible ideas, our adventurer, concluding, from the general stillness, that the jeweller and his wife were at last happily asleep, ventured to come forth from his hiding-place, and stood before his mistress all begrimed with soot. Wilhelmina, lifting up her eyes, and seeing this sable apparition, which she mistook for Satan in propria persona, instantly screamed, and began to repeat her pater-noster with an audible voice. Upon which Ferdinand, foreseeing that her parents would be again alarmed, would not stay to undeceive her and explain himself, but, unlocking the door with great expedition, ran downstairs, and luckily accomplished his escape. This was undoubtedly the wisest measure he could have taken; for he had not performed one half of his descent toward the street, when the German was at his daughter’s bedside, demanding to know the cause of her exclamation. She then gave him an account of what she had seen, with all the exaggerations of her own fancy, and, after having weighed the circumstances of her story, he interpreted the apparition into a thief, who had found means to open the door that communicated with the stair; but, having been scared by Wilhelmina’s shriek, had been obliged to retreat before he could execute his purpose.

Our hero’s spirits were so wofully disturbed by this adventure, that, for a whole week, he felt no inclination to visit his inamorata, and was not without apprehension that the affair had terminated in an explanation very little to his advantage. He was, however, delivered from this disagreeable suspense, by an accidental meeting with the jeweller himself, who kindly chid him for his long absence, and entertained him in the street with an account of the alarm which his family had sustained, by a thief who broke into Wilhelmina’s apartment. Glad to find his apprehension mistaken, he renewed his correspondence with the family, and, in a little time, found reason to console himself for the jeopardy and panic he had undergone.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30