The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom, by Tobias Smollett

Chapter Fifty

Fathom Shifts the Scene, and Appears in a New Character.

Fathom’s expectations with respect to the fair orphan having thus proved abortive, he lost no time in bewailing his miscarriage, but had immediate recourse to other means of improving his small fortune, which, at this period, amounted to near two hundred pounds. Whatever inclination he had to resume the character he had formerly borne in the polite world, he durst not venture to launch out again into the expense necessary to maintain that station, because his former resources were now stopped, and all the people of fashion by this time convinced of his being a needy adventurer. Nevertheless, he resolved to sound the sentiments of his old friends at a distance, and judge, from the reception he should meet with, how far he might presume upon their countenance and favour. For he rightly supposed, that if he could in any shape contribute to their interest or amusement, they would easily forgive his former pretensions to quality, arrogant as they were, and still entertain him on the footing of a necessary acquaintance.

With this view, he one day presented himself at court in a very gay suit of clothes, and bowed, at a distance, to many of his old fashionable friends of both sexes, not one of whom favoured him with any other notice, than that of a quarter curtsey, or slight inclination of the head. For, by this time, the few that remembered him knew from what retirement he now emerged, and avoided him accordingly as the jail infection. But the greater part of those who had cultivated him in the zenith of his fortune were now utter strangers to his person, which they had actually forgot, amidst the succession of novelties that surrounded them; or, if they did recollect his name, it was remembered as an old fashion which had been many months out of date.

Notwithstanding these mortifying discouragements, our hero, that same evening, effected a lodgment in a certain gaming-house not far from St. James’s; and, as he played pretty high, and made a parade of his ready money, he was soon recognised by divers persons of consequence, who cordially welcomed him to England, on pretence of believing he had been abroad, and with great complacency repeated their former professions of friendship. Though this was a certain way of retaining the favour of those worthies, while his finances continued to flourish, and his payments were prompt, he knew the weakness of his funds too well, to think they could bear the vicissitudes of play; and the remembrance of the two British knights who had spoiled him at Paris, hung over his imagination with the most frightful presages. Besides, he perceived that gaming was now managed in such a manner, as rendered skill and dexterity of no advantage. For the spirit of play having overspread the land, like a pestilence, raged to such a degree of madness and desperation, that the unhappy people who were infected, laid aside all thoughts of amusement, economy, or caution, and risked their fortunes upon issues equally extravagant, childish, and absurd.

The whole mystery of the art was reduced to the simple exercise of tossing up a guinea, and the lust of laying wagers, which they indulged to a surprising pitch of ridiculous intemperance. In one corner of the room might be heard a pair of lordlings running their grandmothers against each other, that is, betting sums on the longest liver; in another the success of the wager depended upon the sex of the landlady’s next child; and one of the waiters happening to drop down in an apoplectic fit, a certain noble peer exclaimed, “Dead for a thousand pounds.” The challenge was immediately accepted; and when the master of the house sent for a surgeon to attempt the cure, the nobleman, who set the price upon the patient’s head, insisted upon his being left to the efforts of nature alone, otherwise the wager should be void. Nay, when the landlord harped upon the loss he should sustain by the death of a trusty servant, his lordship obviated the objection, by desiring that the fellow might be charged in the bill.

In short, the rage of gaming seemed to have devoured all their other faculties, and to have equalled the rash enthusiasm of the inhabitants of Malacca in the East Indies, who are so possessed with that pernicious spirit, that they sacrifice to it not only their fortunes, but also their wives and children; and then letting their hair down upon their shoulders, in imitation of the ancient Lacedaemonians when they devoted themselves to death, those wretches unsheathe their daggers, and murder every living creature in their way. In this, however, they differ from the gamesters of our country, who never find their senses, until they have lost their fortunes, and beggared their families; whereas the Malays never run amuck, but in consequence of misery and despair.

Such are the amusements, or rather such is the continual employment of those hopeful youths who are destined by birth to be the judges of our property, and pillars of our constitution. Such are the heirs and representatives of those patriots who planned, and those heroes who maintained, the laws and freedom of their country; who were the patrons of merit, the fathers of the poor, the terror of vice and immorality, and at once the ornaments and support of a happy nation.

Our adventurer considered all these circumstances with his wonted sagacity, and, seeing upon what precarious footing he must stand, should he rank himself with such society, he wisely came to the resolution of descending one step in the degrees of life, and of taking upon him the title of physician, under which he did not despair of insinuating himself into the pockets of his patients, and into the secrets of private families, so as to acquire a comfortable share of practice, or captivate the heart of some heiress or rich widow, whose fortune would at once render him independent and happy.

After this determination, his next care was to concert measures for his first appearance in this new character; well knowing, that the success of a physician, in a great measure, depends upon the external equipage in which he first declares himself an adept in the healing art. He first of all procured a few books on the subject of medicine, which he studied with great attention during the remaining part of the winter and spring, and repaired to Tunbridge with the first of the season, where he appeared in the uniform of Aesculapius, namely, a plain suit, full trimmed, with a voluminous tie-periwig; believing that in this place he might glide, as it were, imperceptibly into the functions of his new employment, and gradually accustom himself to the method and form of prescription.

A man so well known in the gay world could not be supposed to effect such a transformation without being observed; and therefore, in order to anticipate the censure and ridicule of those who might be tempted to make themselves merry at his expense, he, on his arrival at the wells, repaired to the shop of an apothecary, and calling for pen, ink, and paper, wrote a prescription, which he desired might be immediately made up. While this was doing by the servant, he was invited into a parlour by the master, with whom he entered into conversation touching the properties of the Tunbridge water, which seemed to have been his particular study; and indeed he had perused Rouzee’s treatise on that subject with indefatigable assiduity. From this theme, he made digressions into other parts of medicine, upon which he spoke with such plausible elocution, that the apothecary, whose knowledge in that art was not very profound, looked upon him as a physician of great learning and experience, and hinted a desire of knowing his name and situation.

Fathom accordingly gave him to understand, that he had studied physic, and taken his degrees at Padua, rather for his amusement, than with any view of exercising medicine, as he then could not possibly foresee the misfortunes which had since happened to his family, and by which he was now compelled to have recourse to a profession that was very much beneath the expectations of his birth. Yet he bore his disappointments with resignation, and even good-humour, and blessed his stars for having inclined him to the study of any branch of knowledge by which he might be enabled to laugh at the vicissitudes of fortune. He then observed, that he had practised with some applause at the hot well near Bristol, before he thought he should be ever reduced to the necessity of taking a fee, and that, in all probability, his metamorphosis, when known, would furnish matter of surprise and merriment to some of his old acquaintance.

The apothecary was equally struck with his polite address, and pleased with his agreeable discourse. He consoled him for the misfortunes of his family, by assuring him, that in England nothing could be more honourable, or indeed profitable, than the character of a physician, provided he could once wriggle himself into practice; and insinuated, that, although he was restricted by certain engagements with other persons of the faculty, he should be glad of an opportunity to show his regard for Doctor Fathom. This was a very effectual method which our hero took to intimate his new character to the public. By the industry and communicative disposition of the apothecary, it was circulated in half a day through every family in the place; and, next morning, when Ferdinand appeared, the company forthwith assembled in separate groups, and from each knot he heard his name reverberated in a whisper.

Having thus announced himself to all whom it might concern, and allowed the ladies two days to discuss the merit of his transfiguration, together with the novelty of the case, he ventured to salute, at a distance, a lady and her daughter, who had been his patients at the hot well; and, although they honoured his bow with the return of a slight curtsey, they gave him not the least encouragement to make a nearer approach. Notwithstanding this rebuff, he concluded, that, should the health of either come in question, they would renew their application to his skill, and what was refused by their pride would be granted by their apprehension. Here, however, he happened to be mistaken in his conjecture.

The young lady being seized with a violent headache and palpitation, her mother desired the apothecary to recommend a physician; and the person with whom he was contracted being at that time absent, he proposed Doctor Fathom as a man of great ability and discretion. But the good lady rejected the proposal with disdain, because she had formerly known him in the character of a Count — though that very character was the chief reason that had then induced her to crave his advice.

Such is the caprice of the world in general, that whatever bears the face of novelty captivates, or rather bewitches, the imagination, and confounds the ideas of reason and common sense. If, for example, a scullion, from the clinking of pewter, shall conceive a taste for the clinking of rhyme, and make shift to bring together twenty syllables, so as that the tenth and last shall have the like ending, the composition is immediately extolled as a miracle; and what appeals to the admiration is not the wit, the elegance, or poetry of the work, but the uncultivated talent and humble station of the author. A reader does not exclaim, “What a delicate sentiment! what a beautiful simile! what easy and musical versification!”— but cries in rapture, “Heavens! what a prodigy a poet from the scullery! a muse in livery! or, Apollo with a trowel!”— The public is astonished into liberality — the scullion eats from those trenchers he scoured before — the footman is admitted into the coach behind which he was wont to stand — and the bricklayer, instead of plastering walls, bedaubs his illustrious partner with the mortar of his praise. Thus, lifted into a higher sphere, their talents receive cultivation; they become professed bards, and though their subsequent works bear evident marks of improvement, they are neglected among the rest of their brethren, because that novelty, which recommended them in the beginning, no longer remains.

So it fared with our adventurer in his new occupation. There was something so extraordinary in a nobleman’s understanding medicine, and so uncommon in a physician’s prescribing gratis, that the curiosity and admiration of the company at Bristol were engaged, and they followed his advice, as the direction of some supernatural intelligence. But, now that he professed himself one of the faculty, and might be supposed to have refreshed his memory, and reinforced his knowledge for the occasion, he was as much overlooked as any other physician unsupported by interest or cabal; or, at least, the notice he attracted was not at all to the advantage of his character, because it wholly regarded the decline of his fortune, which is a never-failing fund of disgrace.

These mortifications did not overcome the patience and perseverance of Fathom, who foresaw, that the soothing hand of time would cast a veil of oblivion over those scenes which were remembered to his prejudice; and that, in the meantime, though he was excluded from the private parties of the fair sex, in which his main hope of success was placed, he should be able to insinuate himself into some degree of favour and practice among the male patients; and some lucky cure, properly displayed, might be the means of propagating his fame, and banishing that reserve which at present interfered with his purpose. Accordingly, it was not long before he found means to break that spell of universal prejudice that hedged him in. At the ordinary which he frequented, his polite carriage, facetious remarks, and agreeable stories soon conciliated the regard of his fellow-guests, among whom he sometimes rallied his own transformation with singular good-humour and success. He was even witty upon his want of employment, and used to observe, that a physician without practice had one comfort to which his brethren were strangers, namely, that the seldomer he had occasion to prescribe, the less he had upon his conscience on account of being accessory to the death of his fellow-creatures.

Nothing so effectually blunts the shafts of ridicule, and defeats the aims of slander, as this method of anticipation. In spite of the arrows that were levelled against his reputation from every tea-table at Tunbridge, he made his party good among almost all the gay young gentlemen that frequented the place. Far from avoiding his company, they began to court his conversation, and he was commonly seen in the walks surrounded with a group of admirers.

Having thus paved the way for a total removal of the invidious prepossession that obstructed his views, he, one night, while every person was lulled in the arms of repose, and universal silence prevailed, tuned his violin, and began to play some masterly airs, in a tone so uncommonly expressive, and with such ravishing dexterity of execution, that a certain lady, who lodged in the same house, being waked by the music, and ignorant of the source from which it flowed, listened with rapture, as to the harp of an angel, and, wrapping herself in a loose gown, rose and opened her chamber door, in order to discover in what apartment the musician resided. She no sooner entered the passage, than she found her fellow-lodgers already assembled on the same occasion; and there they remained during the best part of the night, transported by the harmony which our hero produced.

Doctor Fathom was immediately known to be the author of this entertainment; and thus retrieved the benefit of that admiration which he had forfeited by appearing in the shape of a physician. For, as people had formerly wondered to see a count skilled in medicine, they were now amazed to find a physician such a master in music.

The good effects of this stratagem were almost instantaneous. His performance became the topic of discourse among all the fashionable company. His male friends complimented him from the information of the other sex; and that lady whom he had regaled, instead of that shyness and disdain with which she used to receive his salutation, at their very next meeting in the thoroughfare, returned his bow with marks of profound respect. Nay, at midnight, she, with the rest, took post in the same place where they had been stationed before; and, by frequent tittering, and repeated whispers, gave intimation to Fathom, that they would be glad of a second serenade. But he was too well acquainted with the human passions to indulge this their desire. It was his interest to inflame their impatience, rather than to gratify their expectation; and therefore he tantalised them for some hours, by tuning his violin, and playing some flourishes, which, however, produced nothing to fulfil their wishes.

At the ordinary, he was accosted by a gentleman, a lodger in the same house, who assured him, that the ladies would take it as a great favour if he would let them know when he intended to amuse himself again with his instrument, that they might not, by falling asleep beforehand, deprive themselves of the pleasure of hearing his music. To this message he replied, with an air of consequence and reserve, that, though music was not the art he professed, he should be always complaisant enough to entertain the ladies to the utmost of his power, when their commands were signified to him in a manner suited to his character; but that he would never put himself on the footing of an itinerate harper, whose music is tolerated through the medium of a board partition. The gentleman having reported this answer to his constituents, they empowered him to invite Doctor Fathom to breakfast, and he was next morning introduced with the usual ceremony, and treated with uncommon regard by all the females of the house, assembled for his reception.

Having thus broken the ice of their aversion in one part, so as that the beams of his personal accomplishments had room to operate, he soon effected a general thaw in his favour, and found himself growing once more into request amongst the most amiable part of the creation. His company was coveted, and his taste consulted in their balls, concerts, and private assemblies; and he recompensed the regard they paid to him with an incessant exertion of his agreeable talents, politeness, and good-humour.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/smollett/tobias/fathom/chapter50.html

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