The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom, by Tobias Smollett

Chapter Fifty-Four

His Eclipse, and Gradual Declination.

Misfortunes seldom come single; upon the back of this hue and cry he unluckily prescribed phlebotomy to a gentleman of some rank, who chanced to expire during the operation, and quarrelled with his landlord the apothecary, who charged him with having forgot the good offices he had done him in the beginning of his career, and desired he would provide himself with another lodging.

All these mishaps, treading upon the heels of one another, had a very mortifying effect upon his practice. At every tea-table his name was occasionally put to the torture, with that of the vile creature whom he had seduced, though it was generally taken for granted by all those female casuists, that she must have made the first advances, for it could not be supposed that any man would take much trouble in laying schemes for the ruin of a person whose attractions were so slender, especially considering the ill state of her health, a circumstance that seldom adds to a woman’s beauty or good-humour; besides, she was always a pert minx, that affected singularity, and a masculine manner of speaking, and many of them had foreseen that she would, some time or other, bring herself into such a premunire. At all gossipings, where the apothecary or his wife assisted, Fathom’s pride, ingratitude, and malpractice were canvassed; in all clubs of married men he was mentioned with marks of abhorrence and detestation, and every medical coffee-house rung with his reproach. Instances of his ignorance and presumption were quoted, and many particulars feigned for the purpose of defamation, so that our hero was exactly in the situation of a horseman, who, in riding at full speed for the plate, is thrown from the saddle in the middle of the race, and left without sense or motion upon the plain.

His progress, though rapid, had been so short, that he could not be supposed to have laid up store against such a day of trouble, and as he still cherished hopes of surmounting those obstacles which had so suddenly started up in his way, he would not resign his equipage nor retrench his expenses, but appeared as usual in all public places with that serenity and confidence of feature which he had never deposited, and maintained his external pomp upon the little he had reserved in the days of his prosperity, and the credit he had acquired by the punctuality of his former payments. Both these funds, however, failed in a very little time, his lawsuit was a gulf that swallowed up all his ready money, and the gleanings of his practice were scarce sufficient to answer his pocket expenses, which now increased in proportion to the decrease of business, for, as he had more idle time, and was less admitted into private families, so he thought he had more occasion to enlarge his acquaintance among his own sex, who alone were able to support him in his disgrace with the other. He accordingly listed himself in several clubs, and endeavoured to monopolise the venereal branch of trade, though this was but an indifferent resource, for almost all his patients of this class were such as either could not, or would not, properly recompense the physician.

For some time he lingered in this situation, without going upwards or downwards, floating like a wisp of straw at the turning of the tide, until he could no longer amuse the person of whom he had hired his coach-horses, or postpone the other demands, which multiplied upon him every day. Then was his chariot overturned with a hideous crash, and his face so much wounded with the shivers of the glass, which went to pieces in the fall, that he appeared in the coffee-house with half a dozen black patches upon his countenance, gave a most circumstantial detail of the risk he had run, and declared, that he did not believe he should ever hazard himself again in any sort of wheel carriage.

Soon after this accident, he took an opportunity of telling his friends, in the same public place, that he had turned away his footman on account of his drunkenness, and was resolved, for the future, to keep none but maids in his service, because the menservants are generally impudent, lazy, debauched, or dishonest; and after all, neither so neat, handy, or agreeable as the other sex. In the rear of this resolution, he shifted his lodgings into a private court, being distracted with the din of carriages, that disturb the inhabitants who live towards the open street; and gave his acquaintance to understand, that he had a medical work upon the anvil, which he could not finish without being indulged in silence and tranquillity. In effect, he gradually put on the exteriors of an author. His watch, with an horizontal movement by Graham, which he had often mentioned, and shown as a very curious piece of workmanship, began, about this time, to be very much out of order, and was committed to the care of a mender, who was in no hurry to restore it. His tie-wig degenerated into a major; he sometimes appeared without a sword, and was even observed in public with a second day’s shirt. At last, his clothes became rusty; and when he walked about the streets, his head turned round in a surprising manner, by an involuntary motion in his neck, which he had contracted by a habit of reconnoitring the ground, that he might avoid all dangerous or disagreeable encounters.

Fathom, finding himself descending the hill of fortune with an acquired gravitation, strove to catch at every twig, in order to stop or retard his descent. He now regretted the opportunities he had neglected, of marrying one of several women of moderate fortune, who had made advances to him in the zenith of his reputation; and endeavoured, by forcing himself into a lower path of life than any he had hitherto trod, to keep himself afloat, with the portion of some tradesman’s daughter, whom he meant to espouse. While he exerted himself in this pursuit, he happened, in returning from a place about thirty miles from London, to become acquainted, in the stage-coach, with a young woman of a very homely appearance, whom, from the driver’s information, he understood to be the niece of a country justice, and daughter of a soap-boiler, who had lived and died in London, and left her, in her infancy, sole heiress of his effects, which amounted to four thousand pounds. The uncle, who was her guardian, had kept her sacred from the knowledge of the world, resolving to effect a match betwixt her and his own son; and it was with much difficulty he had consented to this journey, which she had undertaken as a visit to her own mother, who had married a second husband in town.

Fraught with these anecdotes, Fathom began to put forth his gallantry and good-humour, and, in a word, was admitted by the lady to the privilege of an acquaintance, in which capacity he visited her during the term of her residence in London; and, as there was no time to be lost, declared his honourable intentions. He had such a manifest advantage, in point of personal accomplishments, over the young gentleman who was destined for her husband, that she did not disdain his proposals; and, before she set out for the country, he had made such progress in her heart, that the day was actually fixed for their nuptials, on which he faithfully promised to carry her off in a coach and six. How to raise money for this expedition was all the difficulty that remained; for, by this time, his finances were utterly dried up, and his credit altogether exhausted. Upon a very pressing occasion, he had formerly applied himself to a certain wealthy quack, who had relieved his necessities by lending him a small sum of money, in return for having communicated to him a secret medicine, which he affirmed to be the most admirable specific that ever was invented. The nostrum had been used, and, luckily for him, succeeded in the trial; so that the empiric, in the midst of his satisfaction, began to reflect, that this same Fathom, who pretended to be in possession of a great many remedies, equally efficacious, would certainly become a formidable rival to him in his business, should he ever be able to extricate himself from his present difficulties.

In consequence of these suggestions, he resolved to keep our adventurer’s head under water, by maintaining him in the most abject dependence. Accordingly he had, from time to time, accommodated him with small trifles, which barely served to support his existence, and even for these had taken notes of hand, that he might have a scourge over his head, in case he should prove insolent or refractory. To this benefactor Fathom applied for a reinforcement of twenty guineas, which he solicited with the more confidence, as that sum would certainly enable him to repay all other obligations. The quack would advance the money upon no other condition, than that of knowing the scheme, which being explained, he complied with Ferdinand’s request; but, at the same time, privately despatched an express to the young lady’s uncle, with a full account of the whole conspiracy; so that, when the doctor arrived at the inn, according to appointment, he was received by his worship in person, who gave him to understand, that his niece had changed her mind, and gone fifty miles farther into the country to visit a relation. This was a grievous disappointment to Fathom, who really believed his mistress had forsaken him through mere levity and caprice, and was not undeceived till several months after her marriage with her cousin, when, at an accidental meeting in London, she explained the story of the secret intelligence, and excused her marriage, as the effect of rigorous usage and compulsion.

Had our hero been really enamoured of her person, he might have probably accomplished his wishes, notwithstanding the steps she had taken. But this was not the case. His passion was of a different nature, and the object of it effectually without his reach. With regard to his appetite for women, as it was an infirmity of his constitution, which he could not overcome, and as he was in no condition to gratify it at a great expense, he had of late chosen a housekeeper from the hundreds of Drury, and, to avoid scandal, allowed her to assume his name. As to the intimation which had been sent to the country justice, he immediately imputed it to the true author, whom he marked for his vengeance accordingly; but, in the meantime, suppressed his resentment, because he in some measure depended upon him for subsistence. On the other hand, the quack, dreading the forwardness and plausibility of our hero, which might, one time or other, render him independent, put a stop to those supplies, on pretence of finding them inconvenient; but, out of his friendship and goodwill to Fathom, undertook to procure for him such letters of recommendation as would infallibly make his fortune in the West Indies, and even to set him out in a genteel manner for the voyage. Ferdinand perceived his drift, and thanked him for his generous offer, which he would not fail to consider with all due deliberation; though he was determined against the proposal, but obliged to temporise, that he might not incur the displeasure of this man, at whose mercy he lay. Meanwhile the prosecution against him in Doctors’ Commons drew near a period, and the lawyers were clamorous for money, without which, he foresaw he should lose the advantage which his cause had lately acquired by the death of his antagonist’s chief evidence; he therefore, seeing every other channel shut up, began to doubt, whether the risk of being apprehended or slain in the character of a highwayman, was not overbalanced by the prospect of being acquitted of a charge which had ruined his reputation and fortune, and actually entertained thoughts of taking the air on Hounslow Heath, when he was diverted from this expedient by a very singular adventure.

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