The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom, by Tobias Smollett

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Our Adventurer is Made Acquainted with a New Scene of Life.

Just as he entered these mansions of misery, his ears were invaded with a hoarse and dreadful voice, exclaiming, “You, Bess Beetle, score a couple of fresh eggs, a pennyworth of butter, and half a pint of mountain to the king; and stop credit till the bill is paid:— He is now debtor for fifteen shillings and sixpence, and d — n me if I trust him one farthing more, if he was the best king in Christendom. And, d’ye hear, send Ragged-head with five pounds of potatoes for Major Macleaver’s supper, and let him have what drink he wants; the fat widow gentlewoman from Pimlico has promised to quit his score. Sir Mungo Barebones may have some hasty pudding and small beer, though I don’t expect to see his coin, no more than to receive the eighteen pence I laid out for a pair of breeches to his backside — what then? he’s a quiet sort of a body, and a great scholar, and it was a scandal to the place to see him going about in that naked condition. As for the mad Frenchman with the beard, if you give him so much as a cheese-paring, you b — ch, I’ll send you back to the hole, among your old companions; an impudent dog! I’ll teach him to draw his sword upon the governor of an English county jail. What! I suppose he thought he had to do with a French hang-tang-dang, rabbit him! he shall eat his white feather, before I give him credit for a morsel of bread.”

Although our adventurer was very little disposed, at this juncture, to make observations foreign to his own affairs, he could not help taking notice of these extraordinary injunctions; especially those concerning the person who was entitled king, whom, however, he supposed to be some prisoner elected as the magistrate by the joint suffrage of his fellows. Having taken possession of his chamber, which he rented at five shillings a week, and being ill at ease in his own thoughts, he forthwith secured his door, undressed, and went to bed, in which, though it was none of the most elegant or inviting couches, he enjoyed profound repose after the accumulated fatigues and mortifications of the day. Next morning, after breakfast, the keeper entered his apartment, and gave him to understand, that the gentlemen under his care, having heard of the Count’s arrival, had deputed one of their number to wait upon him with the compliments of condolence suitable to the occasion, and invite him to become a member of their society. Our hero could not politely dispense with this instance of civility, and their ambassador being instantly introduced by the name of Captain Minikin, saluted him with great solemnity.

This was a person equally remarkable for his extraordinary figure and address; his age seemed to border upon forty, his stature amounted to five feet, his visage was long, meagre, and weather-beaten, and his aspect, though not quite rueful, exhibited a certain formality, which was the result of care and conscious importance. He was very little encumbered with flesh and blood; yet what body he had was well proportioned, his limbs were elegantly turned, and by his carriage he was well entitled to that compliment which we pay to any person when we say he has very much the air of a gentleman. There was also an evident singularity in his dress, which, though intended as an improvement, appeared to be an extravagant exaggeration of the mode, and at once evinced him an original to the discerning eyes of our adventurer, who received him with his usual complaisance, and made a very eloquent acknowledgment of the honour and satisfaction he received from the visit of the representative, and the hospitality of his constituents. The captain’s peculiarities were not confined to his external appearance; for his voice resembled the sound of a bassoon, or the aggregate hum of a whole bee-hive, and his discourse was almost nothing else than a series of quotations from the English poets, interlarded with French phrases, which he retained for their significance, on the recommendation of his friends, being himself unacquainted with that or any other outlandish tongue.

Fathom, finding this gentleman of a very communicative disposition, thought he could not have a fairer opportunity of learning the history of his fellow-prisoners; and, turning the conversation on that subject, was not disappointed in his expectation. “I don’t doubt, sir,” said he, with the utmost solemnity of declamation, “but you look with horror upon every object that surrounds you in this uncomfortable place; but, nevertheless, here are some, who, as my friend Shakespeare has it, have seen better days, and have with holy bell been knolled to church; and sat at good men’s feasts, and wiped their eyes of drops that sacred pity hath engendered. You must know, sir, that, exclusive of the canaille, or the profanum vulgus, as they are styled by Horace, there are several small communities in the jail, consisting of people who are attracted by the manners and dispositions of each other; for this place, sir, is quite a microcosm, and as the great world, so is this, a stage, and all the men and women merely players. For my own part, sir, I have always made it a maxim to associate with the best of company I can find. Not that I pretend to boast of my family or extraction; because, you know, as the poet says, Vix ea nostra voco. My father, ’tis true, was a man that piqued himself upon his pedigree, as well as upon his politesse and personal merit; for he had been a very old officer in the army, and I myself may say I was born with a spontoon in my hand. Sir, I have had the honour to serve his Majesty these twenty years, and have been bandied about in the course of duty through all the British plantations, and you see the recompense of all my service. But this is a disagreeable subject, and therefore I shall waive it; however, as Butler observes:

My only comfort is, that now
My dubbolt fortune is so low,
That either it must quickly end,
Or turn about again and mend.

“And now, to return from this digression, you will perhaps be surprised to hear that the head or chairman of our club is really a sovereign prince; no less, I’ll assure you, than the celebrated Theodore king of Corsica, who lies in prison for a debt of a few hundred pounds. Heu! quantum mutatus ab illo. It is not my business to censure the conduct of my superiors; but I always speak my mind in a cavalier manner, and as, according to the Spectator, talking to a friend is no more than thinking aloud, entre nous, his Corsican majesty has been scurvily treated by a certain administration. Be that as it will, he is a personage of a very portly appearance, and is quite master of the bienseance. Besides, they will find it their interest to have recourse again to his alliance; and in that case some of us may expect to profit by his restoration. But few words are best.

“He that maintains the second rank in our assembly is one Major Macleaver, an Irish gentleman, who has served abroad; a soldier of fortune, sir, a man of unquestionable honour and courage, but a little overbearing, in consequence of his knowledge and experience. He is a person of good address — to be sure, and quite free of the mauvaise honte, and he may have seen a good deal of service. But what then? other people may be as good as he, though they have not had such opportunities; if he speaks five or six languages, he does not pretend to any taste in the liberal arts, which are the criterion of an accomplished gentleman.

“The next is Sir Mungo Barebones, the representative of a very ancient family in the north; his affairs are very much deranged, but he is a gentleman of great probity and learning, and at present engaged in a very grand scheme, which, if he can bring it to bear, will render him famous to all posterity; no less than the conversion of the Jews and the Gentiles. The project, I own, looks chimerical to one who has not conversed with the author; but, in my opinion, he has clearly demonstrated, from an anagrammatical analysis of a certain Hebrew word, that his present Majesty, whom God preserve, is the person pointed at in Scripture as the temporal Messiah of the Jews; and, if he could once raise by subscription such a trifling sum as twelve hundred thousand pounds, I make no doubt but he would accomplish his aim, vast and romantic as it seems to be.

“Besides these, we have another messmate, who is a French chevalier, an odd sort of a man, a kind of Lazarillo de Tormes, a caricatura; he wears a long beard, pretends to be a great poet, and makes a d —-ed fracas with his verses. The king has been obliged to exert his authority over him more than once, by ordering him into close confinement, for which he was so rash as to send his majesty a challenge; but he afterwards made his submission, and was again taken into favour. The truth is, I believe his brain is a little disordered, and, he being a stranger, we overlook his extravagancies.

“Sir, we shall think ourselves happy in your accession to our society. You will be under no sort of restraint; for, though we dine at one table, every individual calls and pays for his own mess. Our conversation, such as it is, will not, I hope, be disagreeable; and though we have not opportunities of breathing the pure Arcadian air, and cannot, ‘under the shade of melancholy boughs, lose and neglect the creeping hours of time,’ we may enjoy ourselves over a glass of punch or a dish of tea. Nor are we destitute of friends, who visit us in these shades of distress. The major has a numerous acquaintance of both sexes; among others, a first cousin of good fortune, who, with her daughters, often cheer our solitude; she is a very sensible ladylike gentlewoman, and the young ladies have a certain degagee air, that plainly shows they have seen the best company. Besides, I will venture to recommend Mrs. Minikin as a woman of tolerable breeding and capacity, who, I hope, will not be found altogether deficient in the accomplishments of the sex. So that we find means to make little parties, in which the time glides away insensibly. Then I have a small collection of books which are at your service. You may amuse yourself with Shakespeare, or Milton, or Don Quixote, or any of our modern authors that are worth reading, such as the Adventures of Loveill, Lady Frail, George Edwards, Joe Thompson, Bampfylde Moore Carew, Young Scarron, and Miss Betsy Thoughtless; and if you have a taste for drawing, I can entertain you with a parcel of prints by the best masters.”

A man of our hero’s politeness could not help expressing himself in the warmest terms of gratitude for this courteous declaration. He thanked the captain in particular for his obliging offers, and begged he would be so good as to present his respects to the society, of which he longed to be a member. It was determined, therefore, that Minikin should return in an hour, when the Count would be dressed, in order to conduct him into the presence of his majesty; and he had already taken his leave for the present, when all of a sudden he came back, and taking hold of a waistcoat that lay upon a chair, “Sir,” said he, “give me leave to look at that fringe; I think it is the most elegant knitting I ever saw. But pray, sir, are not these quite out of fashion? I thought plain silk, such as this that I wear, had been the mode, with the pockets very low.” Before Fathom had time to make any sort of reply, he took notice of his hat and pumps; the first of which, he said, was too narrow in the brims, and the last an inch too low in the heels. Indeed, they formed a remarkable contrast with his own; for, exclusive of the fashion of the cock, which resembled the form of a Roman galley, the brim of his hat, if properly spread, would have projected a shade sufficient to shelter a whole file of musketeers from the heat of a summer’s sun; and the heels of his shoes were so high as to raise his feet three inches at least from the surface of the earth.

Having made these observations, for the credit of his taste, he retired, and returning at the time appointed, accompanied Ferdinand to the apartment of the king, at the doors of which their ears were invaded with a strange sound, being that of a human voice imitating the noise of a drum. The captain, hearing this alarm, made a full stop, and, giving the Count to understand that his majesty was busy, begged he would not take it amiss, if the introduction should be delayed for a few moments. Fathom, curious to know the meaning of what he had heard, applied to his guide for information, and learned that the king and the major, whom he had nominated to the post of his general-in-chief, were employed in landing troops upon the Genoese territory; that is, that they were settling beforehand the manner of their disembarkation.

He then, by the direction of his conductor, reconnoitred them through the keyhole, and perceived the sovereign and his minister sitting on opposite sides of a deal board table, covered with a large chart or map, upon which he saw a great number of mussel and oyster shells ranged in a certain order, and, at a little distance, several regular squares and columns made of cards cut in small pieces. The prince himself, whose eyes were reinforced by spectacles, surveyed this armament with great attention, while the general put the whole in action, and conducted their motions by beat of drum. The mussel-shells, according to Minikin’s explanation, represented the transports, the oyster-shells were considered as the men-of-war that covered the troops in landing, and the pieces of card exhibited the different bodies into which the army was formed upon its disembarkation.

As an affair of such consequence could not be transacted without opposition, they had provided divers ambuscades, consisting of the enemy, whom they represented by grey peas; and accordingly General Macleaver, perceiving the said grey peas marching along shore to attack his forces before they could be drawn up in battalia, thus addressed himself to the oyster-shells, in an audible voice:—“You men-of-war, don’t you see the front of the enemy advancing, and the rest of the detachment following out of sight? Arrah! the devil burn you, why don’t you come ashore and open your batteries?” So saying, he pushed the shells towards the breach, performed the cannonading with his voice, the grey peas were soon put in confusion, the general was beat, the cards marched forwards in order of battle, and the enemy having retreated with great precipitation, they took possession of their ground without farther difficulty.

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