The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom, by Tobias Smollett

Chapter Fifty-Five

After Divers Unsuccessful Efforts, he has Recourse to the Matrimonial Noose.

Chancing to meet with one of his acquaintance at a certain coffee-house, the discourse turned upon the characters of mankind, when, among other oddities, his friend brought upon the carpet a certain old gentlewoman of such a rapacious disposition, that, like a jackdaw, she never beheld any metalline substance, without an inclination, and even an effort to secrete it for her own use and contemplation. Nor was this infirmity originally produced from indigence, inasmuch as her circumstances had been always affluent, and she was now possessed of a considerable sum of money in the funds; notwithstanding which, the avarice of her nature tempted her to let lodgings, though few people could live under the same roof with such an original, who, rather than be idle, had often filched pieces of her own plate, and charged her servants with the theft, or hinted suspicion of her lodgers. Fathom, struck with the description, soon perceived how this woman’s disease might be converted to his advantage; and after having obtained sufficient intelligence, on pretence of satisfying his curiosity, he visited the widow, in consequence of a bill at her door, and actually hired an apartment in her house, whither he forthwith repaired with his inamorata.

It was not long before he perceived that his landlady’s character had not been misrepresented. He fed her distemper with divers inconsiderable trinkets, such as copper medals, corkscrews, odd buckles, and a paltry seal set in silver, which were, at different times, laid as baits for her infirmity, and always conveyed away with remarkable eagerness, which he and his Dulcinea took pleasure in observing from an unsuspected place. Thus confirmed in his opinion, he, at length, took an opportunity of exposing a metal watch that belonged to his mistress, and saw it seized with great satisfaction, in the absence of his helpmate, who had gone abroad on purpose. According to instruction, she soon returned, and began to raise a terrible clamour about the loss of her watch; upon which she was condoled by her landlady, who seemed to doubt the integrity of the maid, and even proposed that Mrs. Fathom should apply to some justice of the peace for a warrant to search the servant’s trunk. The lady thanked her for the good advice, in compliance with which she had immediate recourse to a magistrate, who granted a search warrant, not against the maid, but the mistress; and she, in a little time, returned with the constable at her back.

These precautions being taken, Doctor Fathom desired a private conference with the old gentlewoman, in which he gave her to understand, that he had undoubted proofs of her having secreted, not only the watch, but also several other odd things of less consequence, which he lost since his residence in her house. He then showed the warrant he had obtained against her, and asked if she had anything to offer why the constable should not do his duty? Inexpressible were the anguish and confusion of the defendant, when she found herself thus entrapped, and reflected, that she was on the point of being detected of felony; for she at once concluded, that the snare was laid for her, and knew that the officer of justice would certainly find the unlucky watch in one of the drawers of her scrutoire.

Tortured with these suggestions, afraid of public disgrace, and dreading the consequence of legal conviction, she fell on her knees before the injured Fathom, and, after having imputed her crime to the temptations of necessity, implored his compassion, promised to restore the watch, and everything she had taken, and begged he would dismiss the constable, that her reputation might not suffer in the eye of the world.

Ferdinand, with a severity of countenance purposely assumed, observed that, were she really indigent, he had charity enough to forgive what she had done; but, as he knew her circumstances were opulent, he looked upon this excuse as an aggravation of her guilt, which was certainly the effect of a vicious inclination; and he was therefore determined to prosecute her with the utmost severity of the law, as an example and terror to others, who might be infected with the same evil disposition. Finding him deaf to all her tears and entreaties, she changed her note, and offered him one hundred guineas, if he would compromise the affair, and drop the prosecution, so as that her character should sustain no damage. After much argumentation, he consented to accept of double the sum, which being instantly paid in East India bonds, Doctor Fathom told the constable, that the watch was found; and for once her reputation was patched up. This seasonable supply enabled our hero to stand trial with his adversary, who was nonsuited, and also to mend his external appearance, which of late had not been extremely magnificent.

Soon after this gleam of good fortune, a tradesman, to whom he was considerably indebted, seeing no other probable means to recover his money, introduced Fathom to the acquaintance of a young widow who lodged at his house, and was said to be in possession of a considerable fortune. Considering the steps that were taken, it would have been almost impossible for him to miscarry in his addresses. The lady had been bred in the country, was unacquainted with the world, and of a very sanguine disposition, which her short trial of matrimony had not served to cool. Our adventurer was instructed to call at the tradesman’s house, as if by accident, at an appointed time, when the widow was drinking tea with her landlady. On these occasions he always behaved to admiration. She liked his person, and praised his politeness, good-humour, and good sense; his confederates extolled him as a prodigy of learning, taste, and good-nature; they likewise represented him as a person on the eve of eclipsing all his competitors in physic. An acquaintance and intimacy soon ensued, nor was he restricted in point of opportunity. In a word, he succeeded in his endeavours, and, one evening, on pretence of attending her to the play, he accompanied her to the Fleet, where they were married, in presence of the tradesman and his wife, who were of the party.

This grand affair being accomplished to his satisfaction, he, next day, visited her brother, who was a counsellor of the Temple, to make him acquainted with the step his sister had taken; and though the lawyer was not a little mortified to find that she had made such a clandestine match, he behaved civilly to his new brother-in-law, and gave him to understand, that his wife’s fortune consisted of a jointure of one hundred and fifty pounds a year, and fifteen hundred pounds bequeathed to her during her widowhood, by her own father, who had taken the precaution of settling it in the hands of trustees, in such a manner as that any husband she might afterwards espouse should be restricted from encroaching upon the capital, which was reserved for the benefit of her heirs. This intimation was far from being agreeable to our hero, who had been informed, that this sum was absolutely at the lady’s disposal, and had actually destined the greatest part of it for the payment of his debts, for defraying the expense of furnishing an elegant house, and setting up a new equipage.

Notwithstanding this disappointment, he resolved to carry on his plan upon the credit of his marriage, which was published in a very pompous article of the newspapers; a chariot was bespoke, a ready furnished house immediately taken, and Doctor Fathom began to reappear in all his former splendour.

His good friend the empiric, alarmed at this event, which not only raised our adventurer into the sphere of a dangerous rival, but also furnished him with means to revenge the ill office he had sustained at his hands on the adventure of the former match — for, by this time, Fathom had given him some hints, importing, that he was not ignorant of his treacherous behaviour — roused, I say, by these considerations, he employed one of his emissaries, who had some knowledge of Fathom’s brother-in-law, to prejudice him against our adventurer, whom he represented as a needy sharper, not only overwhelmed with debt and disgrace, but likewise previously married to a poor woman, who was prevented by nothing but want from seeking redress at law. To confirm these assertions, he gave him a detail of Fathom’s encumbrances, which he had learned for the purpose, and even brought the counsellor into company with the person who had lived with our hero before marriage, and who was so much incensed at her abrupt dismission, that she did not scruple to corroborate these allegations of the informer.

The lawyer, startled at this intelligence, set on foot a minute inquiry into the life and conversation of the doctor, which turned out so little to the advantage of his character and circumstances, that he resolved, if possible, to disunite him from his family; and, as a previous step, repeated to his sister all that he had heard to the prejudice of her husband, not forgetting to produce the evidence of his mistress, who laid claim to him by a prior title, which, she pretended, could be proved by the testimony of the clergyman who joined them. Such an explanation could not fail to inflame the resentment of the injured wife, who, at the very first opportunity, giving a loose to the impetuosity of her temper, upbraided our hero with the most bitter invectives for his perfidious dealing.

Ferdinand, conscious of his own innocence, which he had not always to plead, far from attempting to soothe her indignation, assumed the authority and prerogative of a husband, and sharply reprehended her for her credulity and indecent warmth. This rebuke, instead of silencing, gave new spirit and volubility to her reproaches, in the course of which she plainly taxed him with want of honesty and affection, and said that, though his pretence was love, his aim was no other than a base design upon her fortune.

Fathom, stung with these accusations, which he really did not deserve, replied with uncommon heat, and charged her in his turn with want of sincerity and candour, in the false account she had given of that same fortune before marriage. He even magnified his own condescension, in surrendering his liberty to a woman who had so little to recommend her to the addresses of the other sex; a reflection which provoked this mild creature to such a degree of animosity, that, forgetting her duty and allegiance, she lent him a box on the ear with such energy as made his eyes water; and he, for the honour of manhood and sovereignty, having washed her face with a dish of tea, withdrew abruptly to a coffee-house in the neighbourhood, where he had not long remained, when his passion subsided, and he then saw the expediency of an immediate reconciliation, which he resolved to purchase, even at the expense of a submission.

It was pity that such a salutary resolution had not been sooner taken. For, when he returned to his own house, he understood, that Mrs. Fathom had gone abroad in a hackney-coach; and, upon examining her apartment, in lieu of her clothes and trinkets, which she had removed with admirable dexterity and despatch, he found this billet in one of the drawers of her bureau:—“Sir, being convinced that you are a cheat and an impostor, I have withdrawn myself from your cruelty and machinations, with a view to solicit the protection of the law; and I doubt not but I shall soon be able to prove, that you have no just title to, or demand upon, the person or effects of the unfortunate Sarah Muddy.”

The time had been when Mr. Fathom would have allowed Mrs. Muddy to refine at her leisure, and blessed God for his happy deliverance; but at present the case was quite altered. Smarting as he was from the expense of lawsuits, he dreaded a prosecution for bigamy, which, though he had justice on his side, he knew he could not of himself support. Besides, all his other schemes of life were frustrated by this unlucky elopement. He therefore speedily determined to anticipate, as much as in him lay, the malice of his enemies, and to obtain, without delay, authentic documents of his marriage. With this view, he hastened to the house of the tradesman, who, with his wife, had been witness to the ceremony and consummation; and, in order to interest them the more warmly in his cause, made a pathetic recital of this unhappy breach, in which he had suffered such injury and insult. But all his rhetoric would not avail. Mrs. Muddy had been beforehand with him, and had proved the better orator of the two; for she had assailed this honest couple with such tropes and figures of eloquence, as were altogether irresistible.

Nevertheless, they heard our hero to an end, with great patience. Then the wife, who was the common mouth upon all such occasions, contracting her features into a very formal disposition, “I’ll assure you,” said she, “Doctor Fathom, my husband and I have been in a very great terrification and numplush, to hear such bad things of a person, whom, as one may say, we thought a worthy gentleman, and were ready to serve at all times, by day and by night, as the saying is. And besides, for all that, you know, and God knows, as we are dustrious people, and work hard for what we get, and we have served gentlemen to our own harm, whereby my husband was last Tuesday served with a siserary, being that he was bound for an officer that ran away. And I said to my husband, Timothy, says I, ’tis a very hard thing for one to ruin one’s self for stranger people — There’s Doctor Fathom, says I, his account comes to nine-and-forty pounds seven shillings and fourpence halfpenny; and you know, doctor, that was before your last bill began. But, howsomever, little did I think, as how a gentleman of your learning would go to deceive a poor gentlewoman, when you had another wife alive.”

In vain did our adventurer endeavour to vindicate himself from this aspersion; the good woman, like a great many modern disputants, proceeded with her declamation, without seeming to hear what was said on the other side of the question; and the husband was altogether neutral. At length, Ferdinand, finding all his protestations ineffectual, “Well,” said he, “though you are resolved, I see, to discredit all that I can say in opposition to that scandalous slander, of which I can easily acquit myself in a court of justice, surely you will not refuse to grant me a certificate, signifying that you were present at the ceremony of my marriage with this unhappy woman.” “You shall excuse us,” replied the female orator; “people cannot be too wary in signing their names in this wicked world; many a one has been brought to ruination by signing his name, and my husband shall not, with my goodwill, draw himself into such a primmineery.”

Fathom, alarmed at this refusal, earnestly argued against the inhumanity and injustice of it, appealing to their own consciences for the reasonableness of his proposal; but, from the evasive answers of the wife, he had reason to believe, that, long before the time of trial, they would take care to have forgotten the whole transaction.

Though he was equally confounded and incensed at this instance of their perfidy, he durst not manifest his indignation, conscious of the advantage they had over him in divers respects; but repaired, without loss of time, to the lodging of the clergyman who had noosed him, resolved to consult his register, and secure his evidence. Here too his evil genius had got the start of him; for the worthy ecclesiastic not only could not recollect his features, or find his name in the register, but, when importuned by his pressing remonstrances, took umbrage at the freedom of his behaviour, and threatened, if he would not immediately take himself away, to raise the posse of the Fleet, for the safety of his own person.

Rather than put the pastor to the trouble of alarming his flock, he retreated with a heavy heart, and went in quest of his mistress, whom he had dismissed at his marriage, in hopes of effecting a reconciliation, and preventing her from joining in the conspiracy against him. But, alas! he met with such a reception as he had reason to expect from a slighted woman, who had never felt any real attachment for his person. She did not upbraid him with his cruelty in leaving her as a mistress, but, with a species of effrontery never enough to be admired, reproached him with his villany, in abandoning her, who was his true and lawful wife, to go and ruin a poor gentlewoman, by whose fortune he had been allured.

When he attempted to expostulate with this virago, upon the barbarity of this assertion, she very prudently declined engaging in private conversation with such an artful and wicked man; and, calling up the people of the house, insisted upon his being conducted to the door.

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