The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom, by Tobias Smollett

Chapter Fifty-Three

Acquires Employment in Consequence of a Lucky Miscarriage.

These ill offices, however, far from answering her purpose, had a quite contrary effect. For, in consequence of her invectives, he was, in a few days, called to the wife of a merchant, who piously hoped, that his practice would not give Miss Biddy the lie. The patient had long lingered under a complication of distempers, and being in no immediate danger of her life, Doctor Fathom was in no hurry to strike a decisive stroke; till the husband growing impatient of delay, and so explicit in his hints, that it was impossible to misapprehend his meaning, our adventurer resolved to do something effectual for his satisfaction, and prescribed a medicine of such rough operation, as he thought must either oblige his employer, or produce a change in the lady’s constitution, that would make a noise in the world, and bring a new accession to his fame.

Proceeding upon these maxims, he could not be disappointed. The remedy played its part with such violence, as reduced the patient to extremity, and the merchant had actually bespoke an undertaker; when, after a series of swoonings and convulsions, nature so far prevailed, as to expel, at once, the prescription and the disease; yet the good-natured husband was so much affected with the agonies to which he saw the wife of his bosom exposed by this specific, that, although the effect of it was her perfect recovery, he could never bear the sight of Fathom for the future, nor even hear his name mentioned, without giving signs of horror and indignation. Nay, he did not scruple to affirm, that, had our adventurer been endowed with the least tincture of humanity, he would have suffered the poor woman to depart in peace, rather than restore her to health, at the expense of such anxiety and torture.

On the other hand, this extraordinary cure was blazoned abroad by the good lady and her gossips, with such exaggerations as roused the astonishment of the public, and concurred with the report of his last miscarriage to bring him upon the carpet, as the universal subject of discourse. When a physician becomes the town talk, he generally concludes his business more than half done, even though his fame should wholly turn upon his malpractice; insomuch that some members of the faculty have been heard to complain, that they never had the good fortune to be publicly accused of homicide; and it is well known, that a certain famous empiric, of our day, never flourished to any degree of wealth and reputation till after he had been attacked in print, and fairly convicted of having destroyed a good number of the human species. Success raised upon such a foundation would, by a disciple of Plato, and some modern moralists, be ascribed to the innate virtue and generosity of the human heart, which naturally espouses the cause that needs protection. But I, whose notions of human excellence are not quite so sublime, am apt to believe it is owing to that spirit of self-conceit and contradiction, which is, at least, as universal, if not as natural, as the moral sense so warmly contended for by those ideal philosophers.

The most infamous wretch often finds his account in these principles of malevolence and self-love. For wheresoever his character falls under discussion there is generally some person present, who, either from an affectation of singularity, or envy to the accusers, undertakes his defence, and endeavours to invalidate the articles of his impeachment, until he is heated by altercation, and hurried into more effectual measures for his advantage. If such benefits accrue to those who have no real merit to depend upon, surely our hero could not but reap something extraordinary from the debates to which he now gave rise; as, by the miraculous cure he had affected, all his patient’s friends, all the enemies of her husband, all those who envied his other adversary, were interested in his behalf, exclusive of such admirers as surprise and curiosity might engage in his cause.

Thus wafted upon the wings of applause, his fame soon diffused itself into all the corners of this great capital. The newspapers teemed with his praise; and in order to keep up the attention of the public, his emissaries, male and female, separated into different coffee-houses, companies, and clubs, where they did not fail to comment upon these articles of intelligence. Such a favourable incident is, of itself, sufficient to float the bark of a man’s fortune. He was, in a few days, called to another lady, labouring under the same disorder he had so successfully dispelled, and she thought herself benefited by his advice. His acquaintance naturally extended itself among the visitants and allies of his patients; he was recommended from family to family; the fees began to multiply; a variety of footmen appeared every day at his door; he discontinued his sham circuit, and looking upon the present conjuncture, as that tide in his affairs, which, according to Shakespeare, when taken at the full, leads on to fortune, he resolved that the opportunity should not be lost, and applied himself with such assiduity to his practice, that, in all likelihood, he would have carried the palm from all his contemporaries, had he not split upon the same rock which had shipwrecked his hopes before.

We have formerly descanted upon that venereal appetite which glowed in the constitution of our adventurer, and with all his philosophy and caution could hardly keep within bounds. The reader, therefore, will not be much surprised to learn, that, in the exercise of his profession, he contracted an intimacy with a clergyman’s wife, whom he attended as a physician, and whose conjugal virtue he subdued by a long and diligent exertion of his delusive arts, while her mind was enervated by sickness, and her husband abroad upon his necessary occasions. This unhappy patient, who was a woman of an agreeable person and lively conversation, fell a sacrifice to her own security and self-conceit; her want of health had confined her to a sedentary life, and her imagination being active and restless, she had spent those hours in reading which other young women devote to company and diversion, but, as her studies were not superintended by any person of taste, she had indulged her own fancy without method or propriety. The Spectator taught her to be a critic and philosopher; from plays she learned poetry and wit, and derived her knowledge of life from books of history and adventures. Fraught with these acquisitions, and furnished by nature with uncommon vivacity, she despised her own sex, and courted the society of men, among whom she thought her talents might be more honourably displayed, fully confident of her own virtue and sagacity, which enabled her to set all their arts at defiance.

Thus qualified, she, in an evil hour, had recourse to the advice of our adventurer, for some ailment under which she had long laboured, and found such relief from his skill as very much prepossessed her in his favour. She was no less pleased with his obliging manners than with his physic, and found much entertainment in his conversation, so that the acquaintance proceeded to a degree of intimacy, during which he perceived her weak side, and being enamoured of her person, flattered her out of all her caution. The privilege of his character furnished him with opportunities to lay snares for her virtue, and, taking advantage of that listlessness, languor, and indolence of the spirits, by which all the vigilance of the soul is relaxed, he, after a long course of attention and perseverance, found means to make shipwreck of her peace.

Though he mastered her chastity, he could not quiet her conscience, which incessantly upbraided her with breach of the marriage vow; nor did her undoer escape without a share of the reproaches suggested by her penitence and remorse. This internal anxiety co-operating with her disease, and perhaps with the medicines he prescribed, reduced her to the brink of the grave; when her husband returned from a neighbouring kingdom, in consequence of her earnest request, joined to the information of her friends, who had written to him an account of the extremity in which she was. The good man was afflicted beyond measure when he saw himself upon the verge of losing a wife whom he had always tenderly loved; but what were his emotions, when she, taking the first opportunity of his being alone with her, accosted him to this effect:

“I am now hastening towards that dissolution from which no mortal is exempted, and though the prospect of futurity is altogether clouded and uncertain, my conscience will not allow me to plunge into eternity without unburdening my mind, and, by an ingenuous confession, making all the atonement in my power for the ingratitude I have been guilty of, and the wrongs I have committed against a virtuous husband, who never gave me cause of complaint. You stand amazed at this preamble, but alas! how will you be shocked when I own that I have betrayed you in your absence, that I have trespassed against God and my marriage vow, and fallen from the pride and confidence of virtue to the most abject state of vice; yes, I have been unfaithful to your bed, having fallen a victim to the infernal insinuations of a villain, who took advantage of my weak and unguarded moments. Fathom is the wretch who hath thus injured your honour, and ruined my unsuspecting innocence. I have nothing to plead in alleviation of my crime but the most sincere contrition of heart, and though, at any other juncture, I could not expect your forgiveness, yet, as I now touch the goal of life, I trust in your humanity and benevolence for that pardon which will lighten the sorrows of my soul, and those prayers which I hope will entitle me to favour at the throne of grace.”

The poor husband was so much overwhelmed with grief and confusion at this unexpected address that he could not recollect himself till after a pause of several minutes, when uttering a hollow groan, “I will not,” said he, “aggravate your sufferings, by reproaching you with my wrongs, though your conduct hath been but an ill return for all my tenderness and esteem. I look upon it as a trial of my Christian patience, and bear my misfortune with resignation; meanwhile, I forgive you from my heart, and fervently pray that your repentance may be acceptable to the Father of Mercy.” So saying, he approached her bedside, and embraced her in token of his sincerity. Whether this generous condescension diffused such a composure upon her spirits as tended to the ease and refreshment of nature, which had been almost exhausted by disease and vexation, certain it is, that from this day she began to struggle with her malady in surprising efforts, and hourly gained ground, until her health was pretty well re-established.

This recovery was so far beyond the husband’s expectation, that he began to make very serious reflections on the event, and even to wish he had not been quite so precipitate in pardoning the backslidings of his wife; for, though he could not withhold his compassion from a dying penitent, he did not at all relish the thoughts of cohabiting, as usual, with a wife self-convicted of the violation of the matrimonial contract; he therefore considered his declaration as no more than a provisional pardon, to take place on condition of her immediate death, and, in a little time, not only communicated to her his sentiments on this subject, but also separated himself from her company, secured the evidence of her maid, who had been confidant in her amour with Fathom, and immediately set on foot a prosecution against our adventurer, whose behaviour to his wife he did not fail to promulgate, with all its aggravating circumstances. By these means the doctor’s name became so notorious that every man was afraid of admitting him into his house, and every woman ashamed of soliciting his advice.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/smollett/tobias/fathom/chapter53.html

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