The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom, by Tobias Smollett

Chapter Fifty-Eight

Renaldo Abridges the Proceedings at Law, and Approves Himself the Son of His Father.

The Major, finding him determined, insisted upon attending him in this expedition, and they set out together for Presburg, where they privately arrived in the dark, resolving to keep themselves concealed at the house of a friend, until they should have formed some plan for their future operations. Here they were informed that Count Trebasi’s castle was altogether inaccessible; that all the servants who were supposed to have the least veneration or compassion for the Countess were dismissed; and that, since Renaldo was known to be in Germany, the vigilance and caution of that cruel husband was redoubled to such a degree, that nobody knew whether his unfortunate lady was actually alive or dead.

Farrel perceiving Melvil exceedingly affected with this intimation, and hearing him declare that he would never quit Presburg until he should have entered the house, and removed his doubts on that interesting subject, not only argued with great vehemence against such an attempt, as equally dangerous and indiscreet, but solemnly swore he would prevent his purpose, by discovering his design to the family, unless he would promise to listen to a more moderate and feasible expedient. He then proposed that he himself should appear in the equipage of one of the travelling Savoyards who stroll about Europe, amusing ignorant people with the effects of a magic lanthorn, and in that disguise endeavour to obtain admittance from the servants of Trebasi, among whom he might make such inquiries as would deliver Melvil from his present uneasy suspense.

This proposal was embraced, though reluctantly, by Renaldo, who was unwilling to expose his friend to the least danger or disgrace; and the Major being next day provided with the habit and implements of his new profession, together with a ragged attendant who preceded him, extorting music from a paltry viol, approached the castle gate, and proclaimed his show so naturally in a yell, partaking of the scream of Savoy and the howl of Ireland, that one would have imagined he had been conductor to Madam Catherina from his cradle. So far his stratagem succeeded; he had not long stood in waiting before he was invited into the court-yard, where the servants formed a ring, and danced to the efforts of his companion’s skill; then he was conducted into the buttery, where he exhibited his figures on the wall, and his princess on the floor; and while they regaled him in this manner with scraps and sour wine, he took occasion to inquire about the old lady and her daughter, before whom he said he had performed in his last peregrination. Though this question was asked with all that air of simplicity which is peculiar to these people, one of the domestics took the alarm, being infected with the suspicions of his master, and plainly taxed the Major with being a spy, threatening at the same time that he should be stripped and searched.

This would have been a very dangerous experiment for the Hibernian, who had actually in his pocket a letter to the Countess from her son, which he hoped fortune might have furnished him with an opportunity to deliver. When he therefore found himself in this dilemma, he was not at all easy in his own mind. However, instead of protesting his innocence in an humble and beseeching strain, in order to acquit himself of the charge, he resolved to elude the suspicion by provoking the wrath of his accuser, and, putting on the air of vulgar integrity affronted, began to reproach the servant in very insolent terms for his unfair supposition, and undressed himself in a moment to the skin, threw his tattered garments in the face of his adversary, telling him he would find nothing there which he would not be very glad to part with; at the same time raising his voice, he, in the gibberish of the clan he represented, scolded and cursed with great fluency, so that the whole house resounded with the noise. The valet’s jealousy, like a smaller fire, was in a trice swallowed up in the greater flame of his rage enkindled by this abrupt address. In consequence of which, Farrel was kicked out at the gate, naked as he was to the waist, after his lanthorn had been broke to pieces on his head; and there he was joined by his domestic, who had not been able to recover his apparel and effect a retreat, without incurring marks of the same sort of distinction.

The Major, considering the risk he must have run in being detected, thought himself cheaply quit for this moderate discipline, though he was really concerned for his friend Renaldo, who, understanding the particulars of the adventure, determined, as the last effort, to ride round the castle in the open day, on pretence of taking the air, when, peradventure, the Countess would see him from the place of her confinement, and favour him with some mark or token of her being alive.

Though his companion did not much relish this plan, which he foresaw would expose him to the insults of Trebasi, yet, as he could not contrive a better, he acquiesced in Renaldo’s invention, with the proviso that he would defer the execution of it until his father-in-law should be absent in the chase, which was a diversion he every day enjoyed.

Accordingly they set a proper watch, and lay concealed until they were informed of Trebasi’s having gone forth; when they mounted their horses, and rode into the neighbourhood of the castle. Having made a small excursion in the adjoining fields, they drew nearer the walls, and at an easy pace had twice circled them, when Farrel descried, at the top of a tower, a white handkerchief waved by a woman’s hand through the iron bars that secured the window. This signal being pointed out to Renaldo, his heart began to throb with great violence; he made a respectful obeisance towards the part in which it appeared, and perceiving the hand beckoning him to approach, advanced to the very buttress of the turret; upon which, seeing something drop, he alighted with great expedition, and took up a picture of his father in miniature, the features of which he no sooner distinguished, than the tears ran down his cheeks; he pressed the little image to his lips with the most filial fervour; then conveying it to his bosom, looked up to the hand, which waved in such a manner as gave him to understand it was high time to retire. Being by this time highly persuaded that his kind monitor was no other than the Countess herself, he pointed to his heart, in token of his filial affection, and laying his hand on his sword, to denote his resolution of doing her justice, he took his leave with another profound bow, and suffered himself to be reconducted to his lodging.

Every circumstance of this transaction was observed by the servants of Count Trebasi, who immediately despatched a messenger to their lord, with an account of what had happened. Alarmed at this information, from which he immediately concluded that the stranger was young Melvil, he forthwith quitted the chase, and returning to the castle by a private postern, ordered his horse to be kept ready saddled, in hope that his son-in-law would repeat the visit to his mother. This precaution would have been to no purpose, had Renaldo followed the advice of Farrel, who represented the danger of returning to a place where the alarm was undoubtedly given by his first appearance; and exhorted him to return to Vienna for the prosecution of his suit, now that he was satisfied of his mother’s being alive. In order to strengthen this admonition, he bade him recollect the signal for withdrawing, which was doubtless the effect of maternal concern, inspired by the knowledge of the Count’s vigilance and vindictive disposition.

Notwithstanding these suggestions, Melvil persisted in his resolution of appearing once more below the tower, on the supposition that his mother, in expectation of his return, had prepared a billet for his acceptance, from which he might obtain important intelligence. The Major, seeing him lend a deaf ear to his remonstrances, was contented to attend him in his second expedition, which he pressed him to undertake that same afternoon, as Trebasi had taken care to circulate a report of his having gone to dine at the seat of a nobleman in the neighbourhood. Our knight-errant and his squire, deceived by this finesse, presented themselves again under the prison of the Countess, who no sooner beheld her son return, than she earnestly entreated him to be gone, by the same sign which she had before used; and he, taking it for granted that she was debarred the use of pen, ink, and paper, and that she had nothing more to expect, consented to retire, and had already moved to some distance from the house, when, in crossing a small plantation that belonged to the castle, they were met by Count Trebasi and another person on horseback.

At sight of this apparition, the blood mounted into Renaldo’s cheeks, and his eyes began to lighten with eagerness and indignation; which was not at all diminished by the ferocious address of the Count, who advancing to Melvil, with a menacing air. “Before you proceed,” said he, “I must know with what view you have been twice to-day patroling round my enclosures, and reconnoitring the different avenues of my house. You likewise carry on a clandestine correspondence with some person in the family, of which my honour obliges me to demand an explanation.”

“Had your actions been always regulated by the dictates of honour,” replied Renaldo, “I should never have been questioned for riding round that castle, which you know is my rightful inheritance; or excluded from the sight of a parent who suffers under your tyranny and oppression. It is my part, therefore, to expostulate; and, since fortune hath favoured me with an opportunity of revenging our wrongs in person, we shall not part until you have learned that the family of the Count de Melvil is not to be injured with impunity. Here is no advantage on either side, in point of arms or number; you are better mounted than I am, and shall have the choice of the ground on which our difference ought to be brought to a speedy determination.”

Trebasi, whose courage was not of the sentimental kind, but purely owing to his natural insensibility of danger, instead of concerting measures coolly for the engagement, or making any verbal reply to this defiance, drew a pistol, without the least hesitation, and fired it at the face of Renaldo, part of whose left eyebrow was carried off by the ball. Melvil was not slow in returning the compliment, which, as it was deliberate, proved the more decisive. For the shot entering the Count’s right breast, made its way to the backbone with such a shock, as struck him to the ground; upon which the other alighted, in order to improve the advantage he had gained.

During this transaction, Farrel had well-nigh lost his life by the savage behaviour of Trebasi’s attendant, who had been a hussar officer, and who, thinking it was his duty to imitate the example of his patron on this occasion, discharged a pistol at the Major, before he had the least intimation of his design. The Hibernian’s horse being a common hireling, and unaccustomed to stand fire, no sooner saw the flash of Trebasi’s pistol, than, starting aside, he happened to plunge into a hole, and was overturned at the very instant when the hussar’s piece went off, so that no damage ensued to his rider, who, pitching on his feet, flew with great nimbleness to his adversary, then, laying hold on one leg, dismounted him in a twinkling, and, seizing his throat as he lay, would have soon despatched him without the use of firearms, had he not been prevented by his friend Renaldo, who desired him to desist, observing that his vengeance was already satisfied, as the Count seemed to be in the agonies of death. The Major was loth to quit his prey, as he thought his aggressor had acted in a treacherous manner; but recollecting that there was no time to lose, because, in all probability, the firing had alarmed the castle, he took his leave of the vanquished hussar, with a couple of hearty kicks, and, mounting his horse, followed Melvil to the house of a gentleman in the neighbourhood, who was kinsman to the Countess, and very well disposed to grant him a secure retreat, until the troublesome consequences of this rencontre should be overblown.

Trebasi, though to the young gentleman he seemed speechless and insensible, had neither lost the use of his reason nor of his tongue, but affected that extremity, in order to avoid any further conversation with the victor. He was one of those people who never think of death until he knocks at the door, and then earnestly entreat him to excuse them for the present, and be so good as to call another time. The Count had so often escaped unhurt, in the course of his campaigns, that he looked upon himself as invulnerable, and set all danger at defiance. Though he had hitherto taken no care of the concerns of his soul, he had a large fund of superstition at bottom; and, when the surgeon, who examined his wound, declared it was mortal, all the terrors of futurity took hold on his imagination, all the misdemeanours of his life presented themselves in aggravated colours to his recollection.

He implored the spiritual assistance of a good priest in the neighbourhood, who, in the discharge of his own conscience, gave him to understand that he had little mercy to expect, unless he would, as much as lay in his power, redress the injuries he had done to his fellow-creatures. As nothing lay heavier upon his soul than the cruelty and fraud he had practised upon the family of Count Melvil, he earnestly besought this charitable clergyman to mediate his pardon with the Countess, and at the same time desired to see Renaldo before his death, that he might put him in possession of his paternal estate, and solicit his forgiveness for the offence he had given.

His lady, far from waiting for the priest’s intercession, no sooner understood the lamentable situation of her husband, and found herself at liberty, than she hastened to his apartment, expressed the utmost concern for his misfortune, and tended him with truly conjugal tenderness and fidelity. Her son gladly obeyed the summons, and was received with great civility and satisfaction by his father-in-law, who, in presence of the judge and divers gentlemen assembled for that purpose, renounced all right and title to the fortune he had so unjustly usurped; disclosed the name of the convent to which Mademoiselle de Melvil had been conveyed, dismissed all the agents of his iniquity, and being reconciled to his son-in-law, began to prepare himself in tranquillity for his latter end.

The Countess was overwhelmed with an excess of joy, while she embraced her long-lost son, who had proved himself so worthy of his father. Yet this joy was embittered, by reflecting that she was made a widow by the hands of that darling son. For, though she knew his honour demanded the sacrifice, she could not lay aside that regard and veneration which is attached to the name of husband; and therefore resolved to retire into a monastery, where she could spend the remainder of her life in devotion, without being exposed to any intercourse which might interfere with the delicacy of her sentiments on that subject.

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