The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom, by Tobias Smollett

Chapter Forty-Seven

The Art of Borrowing Further Explained, and an Account of a Strange Phenomenon.

In this manner did the artful incendiary work upon the passions of the credulous unsuspecting Hungarian, who pressed him to his breast with the most cordial expressions of friendship, calling him his guardian, his saviour, his second father, and gave himself up wholly to his advice.

Next morning, according to the plan they had laid overnight, they repaired to a tavern in the neighbourhood of the person to whom our adventurer had been directed, and were fortunate enough to find him in the house, transacting a money affair with a young gentleman who treated him with his morning’s whet.

That affair being negotiated, he adjourned into another room with Renaldo and his companion, who were not a little surprised to see this minister of Plutus in the shape of a young sprightly beau, trimmed up in all the foppery of the fashion; for they had hitherto always associated with the idea of an usurer old age and rusty apparel. After divers modish congees, he begged to know to what he should attribute the honour of their message; when Ferdinand, who acted the orator, told him, that his friend Count Melvil, having occasion for a sum of money, had been directed to a gentleman of his name, “and, I suppose,” added he, “you are the son of the person with whom the affair is to be negotiated.”

“Sir,” said this petit-maitre, with a smile, “I perceive you are surprised to see one of my profession in the appearance of a gentleman; and perhaps your wonder will not cease, when I tell you, that my education was liberal, and that I once had the honour to bear a commission in the British army. I was indeed a first lieutenant of marines, and will venture to say, that no officer in the service was more delicate than myself in observing all the punctilios of honour. I entertained the utmost contempt for all the trading part of the nation, and suffered myself to be run through the body in a duel, rather than roll with a brother-lieutenant, who was a broker’s son. But, thank Heaven! I have long ago conquered all those ridiculous prejudices. I soon observed, that without money there was no respect, honour, or convenience to be acquired in life; that wealth amply supplied the want of wit, merit, and pedigree, having influence and pleasure ever at command; and that the world never failed to worship the flood of affluence, without examining the dirty channels through which it commonly flowed.

“At the end of the war, finding my appointments reduced to two shillings and fourpence per day, and being addicted to pleasures which I could not possibly purchase from such a fund, I sold my half-pay for two hundred pounds, which I lent upon bond to a young officer of the same regiment, on condition that he should insure his life, and restore one-fourth part of the sum by way of premium. I happened to be lucky in this first essay; for the borrower, having in six weeks expended the money, made an excursion on the highway, was apprehended, tried, convicted of felony, and cut his own throat, to prevent the shame of a public execution; so that his bond was discharged by the insurers.

“In short, gentlemen, when I engaged in this business, I determined to carry it on with such spirit, as would either make my fortune, or entirely ruin me in a little time; and hitherto my endeavours have been tolerably successful. Nor do I think my proceedings a whit more criminal or unjust than those of other merchants, who strive to turn their money to the best account. The commodity I deal in is cash; and it is my business to sell it to the best advantage. A London factor sends a cargo of goods to market, and if he gets two hundred per cent upon the sale, he is commended for industry and address. If I sell money for one-fourth part of that profit, certain persons will be so unjust as to cry, Shame upon me, for taking such advantage of my neighbour’s distress; not considering, that the trader took four times the same advantage of those people who bought his cargo, though his risk was not half so great as mine, and although the money I sold perhaps retrieved the borrower from the very jaws of destruction. For example, it was but yesterday I saved a worthy man from being arrested for a sum of money, for which he had bailed a friend who treacherously left him in the lurch. As he did not foresee what would happen, he had made no provision for the demand, and his sphere of life secluding him from all sorts of monied intercourse, he could not raise the cash by his credit in the usual way of borrowing; so that, without my assistance, he must have gone to jail; a disgrace which would have proved fatal to the peace of his family, and utterly ruined his reputation. — Nay, that very young gentleman, from whom I am just now parted, will, in all probability, be indebted to me for a very genteel livelihood. He had obtained the absolute promise of being provided for by a great man, who sits at the helm of affairs in a neighbouring kingdom; but, being destitute of all other resources, he could not have equipped himself for the voyage, in order to profit by his lordship’s intention, unless I had enabled him to pursue his good fortune.”

Renaldo was not a little pleased to hear this harangue, to which Fathom replied with many florid encomiums upon the usurer’s good sense and humane disposition; then he explained the errand of his friend, which was to borrow three hundred pounds, in order to retrieve his inheritance, of which he had been defrauded in his absence.

“Sir,” said the lender, addressing himself to Count Melvil, “I pretend to have acquired by experience some skill in physiognomy; and though there are some faces so deeply disguised as to baffle all the penetration of our art, there are others, in which the heart appears with such nakedness of integrity, as at once to recommend it to our goodwill. I own your countenance prepossesses me in your favour; and you shall be accommodated, upon those terms from which I never deviate, provided you can find proper security, that you shall not quit the British dominions; for that, with me, is a condition sine qua non.”

This was a very disagreeable declaration to Renaldo, who candidly owned, that, as his concerns lay upon the Continent, his purpose was to leave England without delay. The usurer professed himself sorry that it was not in his power to oblige him; and, in order to prevent any further importunity, assured them, he had laid it down as a maxim, from which he would never swerve, to avoid all dealings with people whom, if need should be, he could not sue by the laws of this realm.

Thus the intervention of one unlucky and unforeseen circumstance blasted in an instant the budding hopes of Melvil, who, while his visage exhibited the most sorrowful disappointment, begged to know, if there was any person of his acquaintance who might be less scrupulous in that particular.

The young gentleman directed them to another member of his profession, and wishing them success, took his leave with great form and complaisance. This instance of politeness was, however, no more than a shift to disengage himself the more easily from their entreaties; for, when the case was opened to the second usurer, he blessed himself from such customers, and dismissed them with the most mortifying and boorish refusal. Notwithstanding these repulses, Renaldo resolved to make one desperate push; and, without allowing himself the least respite, solicited, one by one, not fewer than fifteen persons who dealt in this kind of traffic, and his proposals were rejected by each. At last, fatigued by the toil, and exasperated at the ill success of his expedition, and half mad with the recollection of his finances, which were now drained to half-a-crown, “Since we have nothing to expect,” cried he, “from the favour of Christians, let us have recourse to the descendants of Judah. Though they lie under the general reproach of nations, as a people dead to virtue and benevolence, and wholly devoted to avarice, fraud, and extortion, the most savage of their tribe cannot treat me with more barbarity of indifference, than I have experienced among those who are the authors of their reproach.”

Although Fathom looked upon this proposal as an extravagant symptom of despair, he affected to approve of the scheme, and encouraged Renaldo with the hope of succeeding in another quarter, even if this expedition should fail; for, by this time, our adventurer was half resolved to export him at his own charge, rather than he should be much longer restricted in his designs upon Monimia.

Meanwhile, being resolved to try the experiment upon the children of Israel, they betook themselves to the house of a rich Jew, whose wealth they considered as a proof of his rapaciousness; and, being admitted into his counting-house, they found him in the midst of half a dozen clerks, when Renaldo, in his imagination, likened him unto a minister of darkness surrounded by his familiars, and planning schemes of misery to be executed upon the hapless sons of men. In spite of these suggestions, which were not at all mitigated by the forbidding aspect of the Hebrew, he demanded a private audience; and, being ushered into another apartment, he explained his business with manifest marks of disorder and affliction. Indeed, his confusion was in some measure owing to the looks of the Jew, who, in the midst of this exordium, pulled down his eyebrows, which were surprisingly black and bushy, so as, in appearance, totally to extinguish his visage, though he was all the time observing our youth from behind those almost impenetrable thickets.

Melvil, having signified his request, “Young gentleman,” said the Israelite, with a most discordant voice, “what in the name of goodness could induce you to come to me upon such an errand? Did you ever hear that I lent money to strangers without security?” “No,” replied Renaldo, “nor did I believe I should profit by my application; but my affairs are desperate; and my proposals having been rejected by every Christian to whom they were offered, I was resolved to try my fate among the Jews, who are reckoned another species of men.”

Fathom, alarmed at this abrupt reply, which he supposed could not fail to disgust the merchant, interposed in the conversation, by making an apology for the plain dealing of his friend, who, he said, was soured and ruffled by his misfortunes; then exerting that power of eloquence which he had at command, he expostulated upon Renaldo’s claim and expectations, described the wrongs he had suffered, extolled his virtue, and drew a most pathetic picture of his distress.

The Jew listened attentively for some time; then his eyebrows began to rise and fall alternately; he coughed, sneezed, and winking hard, “I’m plagued,” said he, “with a salt rheum that trickles from my eyes without intermission.” So saying, he wiped the moisture from his face, and proceeded in these words: “Sir, your story is plausible; and your friend is a good advocate; but before I give an answer to your demand, I must beg leave to ask if you can produce undeniable evidence of your being the identical person you really assume? If you are really the Count de Melvil, you will excuse my caution. We cannot be too much on our guard against fraud; though I must own you have not the air of an impostor.”

Renaldo’s eyes began to sparkle at this preliminary question; to which he replied, that he could procure the testimony of the Emperor’s minister, to whom he had occasionally paid his respects since his first arrival in England.

“If that be the case,” said the Jew, “take the trouble to call here to-morrow morning, at eight o’clock, and I will carry you in my own coach to the house of his excellency, with whom I have the honour to be acquainted; and, if he has nothing to object against your character or pretensions, I will contribute my assistance towards your obtaining justice at the Imperial court.”

The Hungarian was so much confounded at this unexpected reception, that he had not power to thank the merchant for his promised favour, but stood motionless and silent, while the streams of emotion of the heart was of more weight with the Jew, than the eloquent acknowledgment which Ferdinand took the opportunity of making for his friend; and he was fain to dismiss them a little abruptly, in order to prevent a second discharge of that same rheum of which he had already complained.

Melvil recollected all that had happened as a dream, which had no foundation in truth, and was all day long in a sort of delirium, produced by the alternate gusts of hope and fear that still agitated his bosom; for he was not yet without apprehension of being again disappointed by some unlucky occurrence.

He did not, however, fail to be punctual to the hour of his appointment, when the Jew told him, there would be no occasion for visiting the ambassador, because Renaldo had been, the preceding day, recognised by one of the clerks who had been employed as a purveyor in the Imperial army; and who, knowing his family, confirmed everything he had alleged. “After breakfast,” continued this benevolent Israelite, “I will give you an order upon my banker for five hundred pounds, that you may be enabled to appear at Vienna as the son and representative of Count Melvil; and you shall also be furnished with a letter of recommendation to a person of some influence at that court, whose friendship and countenance may be of some service to your suit; for I am now heartily engaged in your interest, in consequence of the fair and unblemished character which I find you have hitherto maintained.”

The reader must appeal to his own heart, to acquire a just idea of Renaldo’s feelings, when every tittle of these promises was fulfilled, and the merchant refused to take one farthing by way of premium, contenting himself with the slender security of a personal bond. He was, in truth, overwhelmed with the obligation, and certainly disposed to believe that his benefactor was something more than human. As for Fathom, his sentiments took a different turn; and he scrupled not to impute all this kindness to some deep-laid interested scheme, the scope of which he could not at present comprehend.

After the tumults of the young gentleman’s joy had subsided, and he found himself eased of that burdensome poverty under which he had groaned so long, his thoughts, which before were dissipated upon the various circumstances of distress, began to collect themselves in a body, and to resume their deliberations upon a subject which they had been long accustomed to consider; this was no other than the forlorn Monimia, whose idea now emerged in his bosom, being disencumbered of one part of the load by which it had been depressed. He mentioned her name to Fathom with marks of the most melting compassion, deplored her apostasy, and, while he protested that he had divorced her for ever from his heart, expressed an inclination to see her once more before his departure, that he might in person exhort her to penitence and reformation.

Our adventurer, who dreaded such an interview as the infallible means of his own ruin, resisted the proposal with the whole power of his elocution. He affirmed, that Renaldo’s desire was a manifest proof that he still retained part of the fatal poison which that enchantress had spread within his veins; and that the sight of her, softened by his reproaches into tears and affected contrition, would dispel his resentment, disable his manhood, and blow the embers of his former passion to such a rage, as would hurry him on to a reconciliation, which would debase his honour, and ruin his future peace. In a word, Ferdinand described the danger that would attend the meeting in such emphatic terms, that the Hungarian started with horror at the picture which he drew, and in this particular conformed with the admonition of his friend.

One hundred pounds of the Jew’s money was immediately appropriated for the payment of his most urgent debts; the like sum he presented to his friend Fathom, with a solemn promise of sharing with him whatever good fortune might await him in Germany. And though Monimia had forfeited all title to his regard, so ill could he bear the prospect of her distress, that he entrusted his dear companion with the half of what remained, to be expended for her use, fully resolving to screen her from the shocks and temptations of want, as the circumstances of his future fate would allow.

Fathom, far from opposing, applauded his generosity with marks of extreme wonder and admiration, assuring him, that she should be put in possession of his bounty immediately after his departure, he being unwilling to make her acquainted with her good fortune before that period, lest, finding his affairs in a fair way of being retrieved, she should be base enough to worship his returning prosperity, and, by false professions, and artful blandishments, seek to ensnare his heart anew.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:59