The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom, by Tobias Smollett

Chapter Twenty-Three

Acquits Himself with Address in a Nocturnal Riot.

The Italian and the abbe were the first who began to grow whimsical under the influence of the burgundy; and, in the heat of their elevation, proposed that the company should amuse themselves during the remaining part of the night, at the house of an obliging dame, who maintained a troop of fair nymphs for the accommodation of the other sex. The proposal was approved by all, except the Hollander, whose economy the wine had not as yet invaded; and, while he retreated soberly to his own lodgings, the rest of the society adjourned in two coaches to the temple of love, where they were received by the venerable priestess, a personage turned of seventy, who seemed to exercise the functions of her calling, in despite of the most cruel ravages of time; for age had bent her into the form of a Turkish bow. Her head was agitated by the palsy, like the leaf of the poplar tree; her hair fell down in scanty parcels, as white as the driven snow; her face was not simply wrinkled, but ploughed into innumerable furrows; her jaws could not boast of one remaining tooth; one eye distilled a large quantity of rheum, by virtue of the fiery edge that surrounded it; the other was altogether extinguished, and she had lost her nose in the course of her ministration. The Delphic sibyl was but a type of this hoary matron, who, by her figure, might have been mistaken for the consort of Chaos, or mother of Time. Yet there was something meritorious in her appearance, as it denoted her an indefatigable minister to the pleasure of mankind, and as it formed an agreeable contrast with the beauty and youth of the fair damsels that wantoned in her train. It resembled those discords in music, which, properly disposed, contribute to the harmony of the whole piece; or those horrible giants, who, in the world of romance, used to guard the gates of the castle in which the enchanted damsel was confined.

This Urganda seemed to be aware of her own importance, and perfectly well acquainted with the human appetite; for she compelled the whole company to undergo her embrace. Then a lacquey, in magnificent livery, ushered them into a superb apartment, where they waited some minutes, without being favoured with the appearance of the ladies, to the manifest dissatisfaction of the abbe, who, sending for the gouvernante, reprimanded her severely for her want of politesse. The old lady, who was by no means a pattern of patience and submission, retorted his reproaches with great emphasis and vivacity. Her eloquence flowed altogether in the Covent Garden strain; and I question whether the celebrated Mother Douglas herself could have made such a figure in an extemporaneous altercation.

After having bestowed upon the abbe the epithets of saucy insignificant pimp, she put him in mind of the good offices which he had received at her hands; how she had supplied him with bed, board, and bedfellow, in his greatest necessity; sent him abroad with money in his pockets — and, in a word, cherished him in her bosom, when his own mother had abandoned him to distress. She then reviled him for presuming to affront her before strangers, and gave the company to understand, that the young ladies would wait upon them as soon as they could be confessed and receive absolution from a worthy cordelier, who was now employed in performing that charitable office. The gentlemen were satisfied with this remonstrance, which argued the old lady’s pious concern for the souls that were under her care, and our adventurer proposed an accommodation betwixt her and the abbe, who was prevailed upon to ask her pardon, and received her blessing upon his knees.

This affair had not been long adjusted, when five damsels were introduced in a very gay dishabille, and our hero was complimented with the privilege of choosing his Amanda from the whole bevy. When he was provided, the others began to pair themselves, and, unhappily, the German count chanced to pitch upon the same nymph who had captivated the desires of the British knight. A dispute immediately ensued; for the Englishman made his addresses to the lady, without paying the least regard to the priority of the other’s claim; and she, being pleased with his attachment, did not scruple to renounce his rival, who swore by the thunder, lightning, and sacrament, that he would not quit his pretensions for any prince in Christendom, much less for a little English cavalier, whom he had already honoured too much in condescending to be his companion.

The knight, provoked at this stately declaration, which was the immediate effect of anger and ebriety, eyed his antagonist with a most contemptuous aspect, and advised him to avoid such comparisons for the future. “We all know,” said he, “the importance of a German count; I suppose your revenue amounts to three hundred rix-dollars; and you have a chateau that looks like the ruins of an English gaol. I will bind myself to lend you a thousand pounds upon a mortgage of your estate, (and a bad bargain I am sure I shall have,) if I do not, in less than two months, find a yeoman of Kent, who spends more in strong ale than the sum-total of your yearly income; and, were the truth known, I believe that lace upon your coat is no better than tinsel, and those fringed ruffles, with fine Holland sleeves, tacked to a shirt of brown canvas, so that, were you to undress yourself before the lady, you would only expose your own poverty and pride.”

The count was so much enraged at these sarcastic observations, that his faculty of speech was overwhelmed by his resentment; though, in order to acquit himself of the Englishman’s imputation, he forthwith pulled off his clothes with such fury, that his brocade waistcoat was tore from top to bottom. The knight, mistaking his meaning, considered this demeanour as a fair challenge, to try which was the better man in the exercise of boxing; and, on that supposition, began to strip in his turn, when he was undeceived by Fathom, who put the right interpretation upon the count’s behaviour, and begged that the affair might be compromised. By this time the Westphalian recovered the use of his tongue, and with many threats and imprecations, desired they would take notice how falsely he had been aspersed, and do him justice in espousing his claim to the damsel in question.

Before the company had time or inclination to interest themselves in the quarrel, his opponent observed that no person who was not a mere German, would ever dream of forcing the inclinations of a pretty girl, whom the accidents of fortune had subjected to his power; that such compulsion was equivalent to the most cruel rape that could be committed; and that the lady’s aversion was not at all surprising; for, to speak his own sentiments, were he a woman of pleasure, he would as soon grant favours to a Westphalian hog, as to the person of his antagonist. The German, enraged at this comparison, was quite abandoned by his patience and discretion. He called the knight an English clown, and, swearing he was the most untoward beast of a whole nation of mules, snatched up one of the candlesticks, which he launched at him with such force and violence, that it sung through the air, and, winging its flight into the ante-chamber, encountered the skull of his own valet, who with immediate prostration received the message of his master.

The knight, that he might not be behindhand with the Westphalian in point of courtesy, returned the compliment with the remaining chandelier, which also missed its mark, and, smiting a large mirror that was fixed behind them, emitted such a crash as one might expect to hear if a mine were sprung beneath a manufacture of glass. Both lights being thus extinguished, a furious combat ensued in the dark; the Italian scampered off with infinite agility, and, as he went downstairs, desired that nobody would interpose, because it was an affair of honour, which could not be made up. The ladies consulted their safety in flight; Count Fathom slyly retired to one corner of the room; while the abbe, having upon him the terrors of the commissaire, endeavoured to appease and part the combatants, and, in the attempt, sustained a random blow upon his nose, which sent him howling into the other chamber, where, finding his band besmeared with his own blood, he began to caper about the apartment, in a transport of rage and vexation.

Meanwhile, the old gentlewoman being alarmed with the noise of the battle, and apprehensive that it would end in murder, to the danger and discredit of herself and family, immediately mustered up her myrmidons, of whom she always retained a formidable band, and, putting herself at their head, lighted them to the scene of uproar. Ferdinand, who had hitherto observed a strict neutrality, no sooner perceived them approach, than he leaped in between the disputants, that he might be found acting in the character of a peacemaker; and, indeed, by this time, victory had declared for the baronet, who had treated his antagonist with a cross-buttock, which laid him almost breathless on the floor. The victor was prevailed upon, by the entreaties of Fathom, to quit the field of battle, and adjourn into another room, where, in less than half an hour, he received a billet from the count, defying him to single combat on the frontiers of Flanders, at an appointed time and place. The challenge was immediately accepted by the knight, who, being flushed with conquest, treated his adversary with great contempt.

But, next day, when the fumes of the burgundy were quite exhaled, and the adventure recurred to his remembrance and sober reflection, he waited upon our adventurer at his lodgings, and solicited his advice in such a manner, as gave him to understand that he looked upon what had happened as a drunken brawl, which ought to have no serious consequences. Fathom foreseeing that the affair might be managed for his own interest, professed himself of the baronet’s opinion; and, without hesitation, undertook the office of a mediator, assuring his principal, that his honour should suffer no stain in the course of his negotiation.

Having received the Englishman’s acknowledgments for this instance of friendship, he forthwith set out for the place of the German’s habitation, and understanding he was still asleep, insisted upon his being immediately waked, and told, that a gentleman from the chevalier desired to see him, upon business of importance which could not be delayed. Accordingly, his valet-de-chambre, pressed by Fathom’s importunities and remonstrances, ventured to go in and shake the count by the shoulder; when this furious Teutonian, still agitated by the fever of the preceding night, leaped out of bed in a frenzy, and seizing his sword that lay upon a table, would have severely punished the presumption of his servant, had not he been restrained by the entrance of Ferdinand, who, with a peremptory countenance, gave him to understand that the valet had acted at his immediate instigation; and that he was come, as the Englishman’s friend, to concert with him proper measures for keeping the appointment they had made at their last meeting.

This message effectually calmed the German, who was not a little mortified to find himself so disagreeably disturbed. He could not help cursing the impatience of his antagonist, and even hinting that he would have acted more like a gentleman and good Christian, in expressing a desire of seeing the affair accommodated, as he knew himself to be the aggressor, consequently the first offender against the laws of politeness and good-fellowship. Fathom, finding him in a fit temper of mind, took the opportunity of assenting to the reasonableness of his observation. He ventured to condemn the impetuosity of the baronet, who, he perceived, was extremely nice and scrupulous in the punctilios of honour; and said it was a pity that two gentlemen should forfeit each other’s friendship, much less expose their lives, for such a frivolous cause. “My dear count,” cried the Westphalian, “I am charmed to find your sentiments so conformable to my own. In an honourable cause, I despise all danger; my courage, thank Heaven! has been manifested in many public engagements as well as in private rencounters; but, to break with my friend, whose eminent virtues I admire, and even to seek his life, on such a scandalous occasion, for a little insignificant w —-e, who, I suppose, took the advantage of our intoxication, to foment the quarrel: by Heaven! my conscience cannot digest it.”

Having expressed himself to this purpose, he waited impatiently for the reply of Ferdinand, who, after a pause of deliberation, offered his services in the way of mediation; though, he observed, it was a matter of great delicacy, and the event altogether uncertain. “Nevertheless,” added our adventurer, “I will strive to appease the knight, who, I hope, will be induced by my remonstrances to forget the unlucky accident, which hath so disagreeably interrupted your mutual friendship.” The German thanked him for this proof of his regard, which yielded him more satisfaction on account of the chevalier than of himself. “For, by the tombs of my fathers,” cried he, “I have so little concern for my personal safety, that, if my honour were interested, I durst oppose myself singly to the whole ban of the empire; and I am now ready, if the chevalier requires it, to give him the rendezvous in the forest of Senlis, either on horseback or on foot, where this contest may be terminated with the life of one or both of us.”

Count Fathom, with a view to chastise the Westphalian for this rhodomontade, told him, with a mortifying air of indifference, that if they were both bent upon taking the field, he would save himself the trouble of interposing farther in the affair; and desired to know the hour at which it would suit him to take the air with the baronet. The other, not a little embarrassed by this question, said, with a faltering tongue, he should be proud to obey the chevalier’s orders; but, at the same time, owned he should be much better pleased if our hero would execute the pacific proposal he had made. Fathom accordingly promised to exert himself for that purpose, and returned to the knight, with whom he assumed the merit of having tranquillised the rage of an incensed barbarian, who was now disposed to a reconciliation upon equal terms. The baronet overwhelmed him with caresses and compliments upon his friendship and address; the parties met that same forenoon, as if by accident, in Fathom’s apartment, where they embraced each other cordially, exchanged apologies, and renewed their former correspondence.

Our adventurer thought he had good reason to congratulate himself upon the part he had acted in this pacification. He was treated by both with signal marks of particular affection and esteem. The count pressed him to accept, as a token of his attachment, a sword of very curious workmanship, which he had received in a present from a certain prince of the empire. The knight forced upon his finger a very splendid diamond ring, as a testimony of his gratitude and esteem. But there was still another person to be appeased, before the peace of the whole company could be established. This was no other than the abbe, from whom each of the reconciled friends received at dinner a billet couched in these words:—

“I have the honour to lament the infinite chagrin and mortification that compels me to address myself in this manner to a person of your rank and eminence, whom I should do myself the pleasure of waiting upon in person, were I not prevented by the misfortune of my nose, which was last night most cruelly disarranged, by a violent contusion I had the honour to receive, in attempting to compose that unhappy fracas, at the house of Madame la Maquerelle; and what puts the finishing stroke to my mishap, is my being rendered incapable of keeping three or four assignations with ladies of fashion, by whom I have the honour to be particularly esteemed. The disfiguration of my nose, the pain I have undergone, with the discomposure of brain which it produced, I could bear as a philosopher; but the disappointment of the ladies, my glory will not permit me to overlook. And as you know the injury was sustained in your service, I have the pleasure to hope you will not refuse to grant such reparation as will be acceptable to a gentleman, who has the honour to be with inviolable attachment —

Sir, your most devoted slave,
PEPIN CLOTHAIRE CHARLE HENRI LOOUIS BARNABE DE FUMIER.”

This epistle was so equivocal, that the persons to whom it was addressed did not know whether or not they ought to interpret the contents into a challenge; when our hero observed, that the ambiguity of his expressions plainly proved there was a door left open for accommodation; and proposed that they should forthwith visit the writer at his own apartment. They accordingly followed his advice, and found the abbe in his morning gown and slippers, with three huge nightcaps on his head, and a crape hat-band tied over the middle of his face, by way of bandage to his nose. He received his visitors with the most ridiculous solemnity, being still a stranger to the purport of their errand; but soon as the Westphalian declared they were come in consequence of his billet, in order to ask pardon for the undesigned offence they had given, his features retrieved their natural vivacity, and he professed himself perfectly satisfied with their polite acknowledgment. Then they condoled him upon the evil plight of his nose, and seeing some marks upon his shirt, asked with seeming concern, if he had lost any blood in the fray? To this interrogation he replied, that he had still a sufficient quantity left for the occasions of his friends; and that he should deem it his greatest glory to expend the last drop of it in their service.

Matters being thus amicably adjusted, they prevailed upon him to unease his nose, which retained no signs of the outrage he had suffered; and the amusements of the day were concerted. It was in consequence of this plan, that, after the comedy, they were entertained at the count’s lodgings, where quadrille was proposed by the abbe, as the most innocent pastime, and the proposal was immediately embraced by all present, and by none with more alacrity than by our adventurer, who, without putting forth a moiety of his skill, went home with twenty louis clear gain. Though, far from believing himself greatly superior to the rest of the party, in the artifices of play, he justly suspected that they had concealed their skill, with a view of stripping him on some other occasion; for he could not suppose that persons of their figure and character should be, in reality, such novices as they affected to appear.

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