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Cunut Fatham's Adventure in the Lone Cottage.
The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom is one of those rare works of genius, in a very unusual sense of the epithet, which a reader of a well-constituted mind is at a loss whether to admire or to dislike. It is a history of such elaborate and unmitigated rascality, that one is surprised how the author's imagination could have consented to keep such a scoundrel company for so long a period. But there is one scene in it, which by universal consent is a masterpiece of interest; a mixture of the terrible and the probable that has often since been emulated, but never surpassed. It is to real life what the fragment of Sir Bertrand is to the ideal; and the writing is as fine as the conception. Smollett takes a delight in showing that the powers of his pen are equal to the most formidable occasions. He rejoices in “piling up an agony,” especially on a victim not so courageous as himself; and by a principle of extremes meeting, a mischievous sarcasm, and strokes of humor itself, contribute to aggravate and envenom the impression of terror.
FATHOM departed from the village that same afternoon
under the auspices of his conductor, and found himself benighted in the midst of a forest, far from the habitations
The darkness of the night, the silence and solitude of the place, the indistinct images of the trees that appeared
on every side stretching their extravagant arms athwart the gloom, conspired with the dejection of spirits occasioned by his loss to disturb his fancy, and raise strange phantoms in his imagination. Although he was not naturally superstitious, his mind began to be invaded with an awful horror, that gradually prevailed over all the consolations of reason and philosophy; nor was his heart free from the terrors of assassination. In order to dissipate these disagreeable reveries, he had recourse to the conversation of his guide, by whom he was entertained with the history of divers travellers who had been robbed and murdered by ruffians, whose retreat was in the recesses of that
In the midst of this communication, which did not at all tend to the elevation of our hero's spirits, the conductor made an excuse for dropping behind, while our traveller jogged on in expectation of being joined again by him in a few minutes; he was, however, disappointed in that hope; the sound of the horse's feet by degrees grew more and more faint, and at last altogether died away. Alarmed at this circumstance, Fathom halted in the road, and listened with the most fearful attention ; but his sense of hearing was saluted with naught but the dismal sighings of the trees, that seemed to foretell an approaching storm. Accordingly, the heavens contracted a more dreary aspect, the lightning began to gleam, the thunder to roll, and the tempest, raising its voice to a tremendous roar, descended in a torrent of rain.
In this emergency, the fortitude of our hero was almost quite overcome. So many concurring circumstances of danger and distress might have appalled the most undaunted breast; what impression then must they have made upon the mind of Ferdinand, who was by no means a man to set fear at defiance ? Indeed he had well nigh lost the use of his re
flection, and was actually invaded to the skin, before he could ' recollect himself so far as to quit the road, and seek for shel
ter among the thickets that surrounded him. Having rode some furlongs into the forest, he took his station under a tuft of tall trees, that screened him from the storm, and in that situation called a council with himself, to deliberate upon his next excursion. He persuaded himself that his guide had deserted him for the present, in order to give intelligence of a traveller to some gang of robbers with whom he was connected; and that he must of necessity fall a prey to those banditti, unless he should have the good fortune to elude their search, and disentangle himself from the mazes of the wood.
Harrowed with these apprehensions, he resolved to com. mit himself to the mercy of the hurricane, as of two evils the least, and penetrate straight forwards through some devious opening, until he should be delivered from the forest. For this purpose
he turned his horse's head in a line quite contrary to the direction of the high road which he had left, on supposition that the robbers would pursue that tract in quest of him, and that they would never dream of his deserting the highway to traverse an unknown forest amidst the darkness of such a boisterous night. After he had continued in this progress through a succession of groves, and bogs, and thorns, and brakes, by which not only his clothes, but also his skin suffered in a grievous manner, while every nerve quivered with eagerness and dismay, he at length reached an open plain, and pursuing his course, in full hope of arriving at some village where his life would be safe, he descried a rushlight, at a distance, which he looked upon as the star of his good fortune; and riding towards it at full speed, arrived at the door of a lone cottage, into which he was admitted by an old woman, who, understanding he was a bewildered traveller, received him with great hospitality.
When he learned from his hostess that there was not another house within three leagues, and that she could accommodate him with a tolerable bed, and his horse with lodging and oats, he thanked Heaven for his good fortune in stumbling upon this humble habitation, and determined to pass the night under the protection of the old cottager, who gave him to understand, that her husband, who was a fagotmaker, had gone to the next town to dispose of his merchandise, and that in all probability he would not return till the next morning, on account of the tempestuous night. Ferdinand sounded the beldame with a thousand artful interrogations, and she answered with such an appearance of truth and simplicity, that he concluded his person was quite secure; and, after having been regaled with a dish of eggs and bacon, desired she would conduct him into the chamber where she proposed he should take his repose. He was accordingly ushered up by a sort of ladder into an apartment furnished with a standing bed, and almost half filled with trusses of straw. He seemed extremely well pleased with his lodging, which in reality exceeded his expectations; and his kind landlady, cautioning him against letting the candle approach the combustibles, took her leave, and locked the door on the outside.
Fathom, whose own principles taught him to be suspicious, and ever upon his guard against the treachery of his fellowcreatures, could have dispensed with this instance of her care in confining her guest to her chamber; and began to be seized with strange fancies, when he observed that there was no bolt on the inside of the door, by which he might secure himself from intrusion. In consequence of these suggestions, he proposed to take an accurate survey of every object in the apartment, and, in the course of his inquiry, had the mortification to find the dead body of a man, still warm, who had
been lately stabbed, and concealed beneath several bundles of straw.
Such a discovery could not fail to fill the breast of our hero with unspeakable horror; for he concluded that he himself would undergo the same fate before morning, without the interposition of a miracle in his favor. In the first transports of his dread he ran to the window, with a view to escape by that outlet, and found his flight effectually obstructed by divers strong bars of iron. Then his heart began to palpitate, his hair to bristle up, and his knees to totter: his thoughts teemed with presages of death and destruction, his conscience rose up in judgment against him; and he underwent a severe paroxysm of dismay and distraction. His spirits were agitated into a state of fermentation that produced an energy akin to that which is inspired by brandy or other strong liquors; and, by an impulse that seemed supernatural, he was immediately hurried into measures for his own preservation.
What upon a less interesting occasion his imagination durst not propose, he now executed without scruple or re
He undressed the corpse that lay bleeding among the straw, and conveying it to the bed in his arms, deposited it in the attitude of a person who sleeps at his ease; then he extinguished the light, took possession of the place from whence the body had been removed, and, holding a pistol ready cocked in each hand, waited for the sequel with that determined purpose which is often the immediate production of despair. About midnight he heard the sound of feet ascending the ladder; the door was softly opened; he saw the shadow of two men stalking towards the bed; a dark lantern being unshrouded, directed their aim to the supposed sleeper; and he that held it thrust a poniard to his heart. The force of the blow made a compression on the chest, and a sort of