The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom, by Tobias Smollett

Chapter Thirty-Four

He Performs Another Exploit, that Conveys a True Idea of His Gratitude and Honour.

It was not long after this celebrated victory, that he was invited to spend part of the summer at the house of a country gentleman, who lived about one hundred miles from London, possessed of a very opulent fortune, the greatest part of which was expended in acts of old English hospitality. He had met with our hero by accident at the table of a certain great man, and was so struck with his manner and conversation, as to desire his acquaintance, and cultivate his friendship; and he thought himself extremely happy in having prevailed upon him to pass a few weeks in his family.

Fathom, among his other observations, perceived that there was a domestic uneasiness, occasioned by a very beautiful young creature about the age of fifteen, who resided in the house under the title of the gentleman’s niece, though she was in reality his natural daughter, born before his marriage. This circumstance was not unknown to his lady, by whose express approbation he had bestowed particular attention upon the education of the child, whom we shall distinguish by the name of Celinda. Their liberality in this particular had not been misapplied; for she not only gave marks of uncommon capacity, but, as she grew up, became more and more amiable in her person, and was now returned from the boarding school, possessed of every accomplishment that could be acquired by one of her age and opportunities. These qualifications, which endeared her to every other person, excited the jealousy and displeasure of her supposed aunt, who could not bear to see her own children eclipsed by this illegitimate daughter, whom she therefore discountenanced upon all occasions, and exposed to such mortifications as would in all appearance drive her from her father’s house. This persecuting spirit was very disagreeable to the husband, who loved Celinda with a truly paternal affection, and produced abundance of family disquiet; but being a man of a peaceable and yielding disposition, he could not long maintain the resolution he had taken in her favour, and therefore he ceased opposing the malevolence of his wife.

In this unfortunate predicament stood the fair bastard, at the arrival of our adventurer, who, being allured by her charms, apprised of her situation at the same time, took the generous resolution to undermine her innocence, that he might banquet his vicious appetite with the spoils of her beauty. Perhaps such a brutal design might not have entered his imagination, if he had not observed, in the disposition of this hapless maiden, certain peculiarities from which he derived the most confident presages of success. Besides a total want of experience, that left her open and unguarded against the attacks of the other sex, she discovered a remarkable spirit of credulity and superstitious fear, which had been cherished by the conversation of her school-fellows. She was particularly fond of music, in which she had made some progress; but so delicate was the texture of her nerves, that one day, while Fathom entertained the company with a favourite air, she actually swooned with pleasure.

Such sensibility, our projector well knew, must be diffused through all the passions of her heart; he congratulated himself upon the sure ascendency he had gained over her in this particular; and forthwith began to execute the plan he had erected for her destruction. That he might the more effectually deceive the vigilance of her father’s wife, he threw such a dash of affectation in his complaisance towards Celinda, as could not escape the notice of that prying matron, though it was not palpable enough to disoblige the young lady herself, who could not so well distinguish between overstrained courtesy and real good breeding. This behaviour screened him from the suspicion of the family, who considered it as an effort of politeness, to cover his indifference and disgust for the daughter of his friend, who had by this time given some reason to believe she looked upon him with the eyes of affection; so that the opportunities he enjoyed of conversing with her in private, were less liable to intrusion or inquiry. Indeed, from what I have already observed, touching the sentiments of her stepdame, that lady, far from taking measures for thwarting our hero’s design, would have rejoiced at the execution of it, and, had she been informed of his intent, might have fallen upon some method to facilitate the enterprise; but, as he solely depended upon his own talents, he never dreamed of soliciting such an auxiliary.

Under cover of instructing and accomplishing her in the exercise of music, he could not want occasions for promoting his aim; when, after having soothed her sense of hearing, even to a degree of ravishment, so as to extort from her an exclamation, importing, that he was surely something supernatural! he never failed to whisper some insidious compliment or tale of love, exquisitely suited to the emotions of her soul. Thus was her heart insensibly subdued; though more than half his work was still undone; for, at all times, she disclosed such purity of sentiment, such inviolable attachment to religion and virtue, and seemed so averse to all sorts of inflammatory discourse, that he durst not presume upon the footing he had gained in her affection, to explain the baseness of his desire; he therefore applied to another of her passions, that proved the bane of her virtue. This was her timidity, which at first being constitutional, was afterwards increased by the circumstances of her education, and now aggravated by the artful conversation of Fathom, which he chequered with dismal stories of omens, portents, prophecies, and apparitions, delivered upon such unquestionable testimony, and with such marks of conviction, as captivated the belief of the devoted Celinda, and filled her imagination with unceasing terrors.

In vain she strove to dispel those frightful ideas, and avoid such topics of discourse for the future. The more she endeavoured to banish them, the more troublesome they became; and such was her infatuation, that as her terrors increased, her thirst after that sort of knowledge was augmented. Many sleepless nights did she pass amidst those horrors of fancy, starting at every noise, and sweating with dreary apprehension, yet ashamed to own her fears, or solicit the comfort of a bedfellow, lest she should incur the ridicule and censure of her father’s wife; and what rendered this disposition the more irksome, was the solitary situation of her chamber, that stood at the end of a long gallery scarce within hearing of any other inhabited part of the house.

All these circumstances had been duly weighed by our projector, who, having prepared Celinda for his purpose, stole at midnight from his apartment, which was in another storey, and approaching her door, there uttered a piteous groan; then softly retired to his bed, in full confidence of seeing next day the effect of this operation. Nor did his arrow miss the mark. Poor Celinda’s countenance gave such indications of melancholy and dismay, that he could not omit asking the cause of her disquiet, and she, at his earnest request, was prevailed upon to communicate the dreadful salutation of the preceding night, which she considered as an omen of death to some person of the family, in all probability to herself, as the groan seemed to issue from one corner of her own apartment. Our adventurer argued against this supposition, as contradictory to the common observation of those supernatural warnings which are not usually imparted to the person who is doomed to die, but to some faithful friend, or trusty servant, particularly interested in the event. He therefore supposed, that the groans foreboded the death of my lady, who seemed to be in a drooping state of health, and were, by her genius, conveyed to the organs of Celinda, who was the chief sufferer by her jealous and barbarous disposition; he likewise expressed an earnest desire to be an ear-witness of such solemn communication, and, alleging that it was highly improper for a young lady of her delicate feelings to expose herself alone to such another dismal visitation, begged he might be allowed to watch all night in her chamber, in order to defend her from the shocking impressions of fear.

Though no person ever stood more in need of a companion or guard, and her heart throbbed with transports of dismay at the prospect of night, she rejected his proposal with due acknowledgment, and resolved to trust solely to the protection of Heaven. Not that she thought her innocence or reputation could suffer by her compliance with his request; for, hitherto, her heart was a stranger to those young desires which haunt the fancy, and warm the breast of youth; so that, being ignorant of her danger, she saw not the necessity of avoiding temptation; but she refused to admit a man into her bedchamber, merely because it was a step altogether opposite to the forms and decorum of life. Nevertheless, far from being discouraged by this repulse, he knew her fears would multiply and reduce that reluctance, which, in order to weaken, he had recourse to another piece of machinery, that operated powerfully in behalf of his design.

Some years ago, a twelve-stringed instrument was contrived by a very ingenious musician, by whom it was aptly entitled the “Harp of Aeolus,” because, being properly applied to a stream of air, it produces a wild irregular variety of harmonious sounds, that seem to be the effect of enchantment, and wonderfully dispose the mind for the most romantic situations. Fathom, who was really a virtuoso in music, had brought one of those new-fashioned guitars into the country, and as the effect of it was still unknown in the family, he that night converted it to the purposes of his amour, by fixing it in the casement of a window belonging to the gallery, exposed to the west wind, which then blew in a gentle breeze. The strings no sooner felt the impression of the balmy zephyr, than they began to pour forth a stream of melody more ravishingly delightful than the song of Philomel, the warbling brook, and all the concert of the wood. The soft and tender notes of peace and love were swelled up with the most delicate and insensible transition into a loud hymn of triumph and exultation, joined by the deep-toned organ, and a full choir of voices, which gradually decayed upon the ear, until it died away in distant sound, as if a flight of angels had raised the song in their ascent to heaven. Yet the chords hardly ceased to vibrate after the expiration of this overture, which ushered in a composition in the same pathetic style; and this again was succeeded by a third, almost without pause or intermission, as if the artist’s hand had been indefatigable, and the theme never to be exhausted.

His heart must be quite callous, and his ear lost to all distinction, who could hear such harmony without emotion; how deeply, then, must it have affected the delicate Celinda, whose sensations, naturally acute, were whetted to a most painful keenness by her apprehension; who could have no previous idea of such entertainment, and was credulous enough to believe the most improbable tale of superstition! She was overwhelmed with awful terror, and, never doubting that the sounds were more than mortal, recommended herself to the care of Providence in a succession of pious ejaculations.

Our adventurer, having allowed some time for the effect of this contrivance, repaired to her chamber door, and, in a whisper, conveyed through the keyhole, asked if she was awake, begged pardon for such an unseasonable visit, and desired to know her opinion of the strange music which he then heard. In spite of her notions of decency, she was glad of his intrusion, and, being in no condition to observe punctilios, slipped on a wrapper, opened the door, and, with a faltering voice, owned herself frightened almost to distraction. He pretended to console her with reflections, importing, that she was in the hands of a benevolent Being, who would not impose upon his creatures any task which they could not bear; he insisted upon her returning to bed, and assured her he would not stir from her chamber till day. Thus comforted, she betook herself again to rest, while he sat down in an elbow-chair at some distance from the bedside, and, in a soft voice, began the conversation with her on the subject of those visitations from above, which, though undertaken on pretence of dissipating her fear and anxiety, was, in reality, calculated for the purpose of augmenting both.

“That sweet air,” said he, “seems designed for soothing the bodily anguish of some saint in his last moments. Hark! how it rises into a more sprightly and elevated strain, as if it were an inspiriting invitation to the realms of bliss! Sure, he is now absolved from all the misery of this life! That full and glorious concert of voices and celestial harps betoken his reception among the heavenly choir, who now waft his soul to paradisian joys! This is altogether great, solemn, and amazing! The clock strikes one, the symphony hath ceased!”

This was actually the case; for he had ordered Maurice to remove the instrument at that hour, lest the sound of it should become too familiar, and excite the curiosity of some undaunted domestic, who might frustrate his scheme by discovering the apparatus. As for poor Celinda, her fancy was, by his music and discourse, worked up to the highest pitch of enthusiastic terrors; the whole bed shook with her trepidation, the awful silence that succeeded the supernatural music threw an additional damp upon her spirits, and the artful Fathom affecting to snore at the same time, she could no longer contain her horror, but called upon his name with a fearful accent, and, having owned her present situation insupportable, entreated him to draw near her bedside, that he might be within touch on any emergency.

This was a welcome request to our adventurer, who, asking pardon for his drowsiness, and taking his station on the side of her bed, exhorted her to compose herself; then locking her hand fast in his own, was again seized with such an inclination to sleep, that he gradually sunk down by her side, and seemed to enjoy his repose in that attitude. Meanwhile, his tender-hearted mistress, that he might not suffer in his health by his humanity and complaisance, covered him with the counterpane as he slept, and suffered him to take his rest without interruption, till he thought proper to start up suddenly with an exclamation of, “Heaven watch over us!” and then asked, with symptoms of astonishment, if she had heard nothing. Such an abrupt address upon such an occasion, did not fail to amaze and affright the gentle Celinda, who, unable to speak, sprung towards her treacherous protector; and he, catching her in his arms, bade her fear nothing, for he would, at the expense of his life, defend her from all danger.

Having thus, by tampering with her weakness, conquered the first and chief obstacles to his design, he, with great art and perseverance, improved the intercourse to such a degree of intimacy, as could not but be productive of all the consequences which he had foreseen. The groans and music were occasionally repeated, so as to alarm the whole family, and inspire a thousand various conjectures. He failed not to continue his nocturnal visits and ghastly discourse, until his attendance became so necessary to this unhappy maiden, that she durst not stay in her own chamber without his company, nor even sleep, except in contact with her betrayer.

Such a commerce between two such persons of a different sex could not possibly be long carried on, without degenerating from the Platonic system of sentimental love. In her paroxysms of dismay, he did not forget to breathe the soft inspirations of his passion, to which she listened with more pleasure, as they diverted the gloomy ideas of her fear; and by this time his extraordinary accomplishments had made a conquest of her heart. What therefore could be a more interesting transition than that from the most uneasy to the most agreeable sensation of the human breast?

This being the case, the reader will not wonder that a consummate traitor, like Fathom, should triumph over the virtue of an artless, innocent young creature, whose passions he had entirely under his command. The gradations towards vice are almost imperceptible, and an experienced seducer can strew them with such enticing and agreeable flowers, as will lead the young sinner on insensibly, even to the most profligate stages of guilt. All therefore that can be done by virtue, unassisted with experience, is to avoid every trial with such a formidable foe, by declining and discouraging the first advances towards a particular correspondence with perfidious man, howsoever agreeable it may seem to be. For here is no security but in conscious weakness.

Fathom, though possessed of the spoils of poor Celinda’s honour, did not enjoy his success with tranquillity. Reflection and remorse often invaded her in the midst of their guilty pleasures, and embittered all those moments they had dedicated to mutual bliss. For the seeds of virtue are seldom destroyed at once. Even amidst the rank productions of vice, they regerminate to a sort of imperfect vegetation, like some scattered hyacinths shooting up among the weeds of a ruined garden, that testify the former culture and amenity of the soil. She sighed at the sad remembrance of that virgin dignity which she had lost; she wept at the prospect of that disgrace, mortification, and misery she should undergo, when abandoned by this transient lover, and severely reproached him for the arts he had used to shipwreck her innocence and peace.

Such expostulations are extremely unseasonable, when addressed to a man well-nigh sated with the effects of his conquest. They act like strong blasts of wind applied to embers almost extinguished, which, instead of reviving the flame, scatter and destroy every remaining particle of fire. Our adventurer, in the midst of his peculiarities, had inconstancy in common with the rest of his sex. More than half cloyed with the possession of Celinda, he could not fail to be disgusted with her upbraidings; and had she not been the daughter of a gentleman whose friendship he did not think it his interest to forfeit, he would have dropped this correspondence, without reluctance or hesitation. But, as he had measures to keep with a family of such consequence, he constrained his inclinations, so far as to counterfeit those raptures he no longer felt, and found means to appease those intervening tumults of her grief.

Foreseeing, however, that it would not be always in his power to console her on these terms, he resolved, if possible, to divide her affection, which now glowed upon him too intensely; and, with that view, whenever she complained of the vapours or dejection, he prescribed, and even insisted upon her swallowing certain cordials of the most palatable composition, without which he never travelled; and these produced such agreeable reveries and flow of spirits, that she gradually became enamoured of intoxication; while he encouraged the pernicious passion, by expressing the most extravagant applause and admiration at the wild irregular sallies it produced. Without having first made this diversion, he would have found it impracticable to leave the house with tranquillity; but, when this bewitching philtre grew into an habit, her attachment to Ferdinand was insensibly dissolved; she began to bear his neglect with indifference, and, sequestering herself from the rest of the family, used to solicit this new ally for consolation.

Having thus put the finishing stroke to the daughter’s ruin, he took leave of the father, with many acknowledgments and expressions of gratitude for his hospitality and friendship, and, riding across the country to Bristol, took up his habitation near the hot well, where he stayed during the remaining part of the season. As for the miserable Celinda, she became more and more addicted to the vices in which she had been initiated by his superlative perfidy and craft, until she was quite abandoned by decency and caution. Her father’s heart was torn with anguish, while his wife rejoiced in her fall; at length her ideas were quite debased by her infirmity; she grew every day more and more sensual and degenerate, and contracted an intimacy with one of the footmen, who was kind enough to take her to wife, in hope of obtaining a good settlement from his master; but, being disappointed in his aim, he conducted her to London, where he made shift to insinuate himself into another service, leaving her to the use, and partly the advantage, of her own person, which was still uncommonly attractive.

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