The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, by George Meredith

Chapter 10

Richard Passes Through His Preliminary Ordeal, and is the Occasion of an Aphorism

To have determined upon an act something akin to heroism in its way, and to have fulfilled it by lying heartily, and so subverting the whole structure built by good resolution, seems a sad downfall if we forget what human nature, in its green weedy spring, is composed of. Young Richard had quitted his cousin Austin fully resolved to do his penance and drink the bitter cup; and he had drunk it; drained many cups to the dregs; and it was to no purpose. Still they floated before him, brimmed, trebly bitter. Away from Austin’s influence, he was almost the same boy who had slipped the guinea into Tom Bakewell’s hand, and the lucifers into Farmer Blaize’s rick. For good seed is long ripening; a good boy is not made in a minute. Enough that the seed was in him. He chafed on his road to Raynham at the scene he had just endured, and the figure of Belthorpe’s fat tenant burnt like hot copper on the tablet of his brain, insufferably condescending, and, what was worse, in the right. Richard, obscured as his mind’s eye was by wounded pride, saw that clearly, and hated his enemy for it the more.

Heavy Benson’s tongue was knelling dinner as Richard arrived at the Abbey. He hurried up to his room to dress. Accident, or design, had laid the book of Sir Austin’s aphorisms open on the dressing-table. Hastily combing his hair, Richard glanced down and read —

“The Dog returneth to his vomit: the Liar must eat his Lie.”

Underneath was interjected in pencil: “The Devil’s mouthful!”

Young Richard ran downstairs feeling that his father had struck him in the face.

Sir Austin marked the scarlet stain on his son’s cheek-bones. He sought the youth’s eye, but Richard would not look, and sat conning his plate, an abject copy of Adrian’s succulent air at that employment. How could he pretend to the relish of an epicure when he was painfully endeavouring to masticate The Devil’s mouthful?

Heavy Benson sat upon the wretched dinner. Hippias, usually the silent member, as if awakened by the unnatural stillness, became sprightly, like the goatsucker owl at night, and spoke much of his book, his digestion, and his dreams, and was spared both by Algernon and Adrian. One inconsequent dream he related, about fancying himself quite young and rich, and finding himself suddenly in a field cropping razors around him, when, just as he had, by steps dainty as those of a French dancing-master, reached the middle, he to his dismay beheld a path clear of the bloodthirsty steel-crop, which he might have taken at first had he looked narrowly; and there he was.

Hippias’s brethren regarded him with eyes that plainly said they wished he had remained there. Sir Austin, however, drew forth his note-book, and jotted down a reflection. A composer of aphorisms can pluck blossoms even from a razor-crop. Was not Hippias’s dream the very counterpart of Richard’s position? He, had he looked narrowly, might have taken the clear path: he, too, had been making dainty steps till he was surrounded by the grinning blades. And from that text Sir Austin preached to his son when they were alone. Little Clare was still too unwell to be permitted to attend the dessert, and father and son were soon closeted together.

It was a strange meeting. They seemed to have been separated so long. The father took his son’s hand; they sat without a word passing between them. Silence said most. The boy did not understand his father: his father frequently thwarted him: at times he thought his father foolish: but that paternal pressure of his hand was eloquent to him of how warmly he was beloved. He tried once or twice to steal his hand away, conscious it was melting him. The spirit of his pride, and old rebellion, whispered him to be hard, unbending, resolute. Hard he had entered his father’s study: hard he had met his father’s eyes. He could not meet them now. His father sat beside him gently; with a manner that was almost meekness, so he loved this boy. The poor gentleman’s lips moved. He was praying internally to God for him.

By degrees an emotion awoke in the boy’s bosom. Love is that blessed wand which wins the waters from the hardness of the heart. Richard fought against it, for the dignity of old rebellion. The tears would come; hot and struggling over the dams of pride. Shamefully fast they began to fall. He could no longer conceal them, or check the sobs. Sir Austin drew him nearer and nearer, till the beloved head was on his breast.

An hour afterwards, Adrian Harley, Austin Wentworth, and Algernon Feverel were summoned to the baronet’s study.

Adrian came last. There was a style of affable omnipotence about the wise youth as he slung himself into a chair, and made an arch of the points of his fingers, through which to gaze on his blundering kinsmen. Careless as one may be whose sagacity has foreseen, and whose benevolent efforts have forestalled, the point of danger at the threshold, Adrian crossed his legs, and only intruded on their introductory remarks so far as to hum half audibly at intervals —

“Ripton and Richard were two pretty men,”

in parody of the old ballad. Young Richard’s red eyes, and the baronet’s ruffled demeanour, told him that an explanation had taken place, and a reconciliation. That was well. The baronet would now pay cheerfully. Adrian summed and considered these matters, and barely listened when the baronet called attention to what he had to say: which was elaborately to inform all present, what all present very well knew, that a rick had been fired, that his son was implicated as an accessory to the fact, that the perpetrator was now imprisoned, and that Richard’s family were, as it seemed to him, bound in honour to do their utmost to effect the man’s release.

Then the baronet stated that he had himself been down to Belthorpe, his son likewise: and that he had found every disposition in Blaize to meet his wishes.

The lamp which ultimately was sure to be lifted up to illumine the acts of this secretive race began slowly to dispread its rays; and, as statement followed statement, they saw that all had known of the business: that all had been down to Belthorpe: all save the wise youth Adrian, who, with due deference and a sarcastic shrug, objected to the proceeding, as putting them in the hands of the man Blaize. His wisdom shone forth in an oration so persuasive and aphoristic that had it not been based on a plea against honour, it would have made Sir Austin waver. But its basis was expediency, and the baronet had a better aphorism of his own to confute him with.

“Expediency is man’s wisdom, Adrian Harley. Doing right is God’s.”

Adrian curbed his desire to ask Sir Austin whether an attempt to counteract the just working of the law was doing right. The direct application of an aphorism was unpopular at Raynham.

“I am to understand then,” said he, “that Blaize consents not to press the prosecution.”

“Of course he won’t,” Algernon remarked. “Confound him! he’ll have his money, and what does he want besides?”

“These agricultural gentleman are delicate customers to deal with. However, if he really consents”——

“I have his promise,” said the baronet, fondling his son.

Young Richard looked up to his father, as if he wished to speak. He said nothing, and Sir Austin took it as a mute reply to his caresses, and caressed him the more. Adrian perceived a reserve in the boy’s manner, and as he was not quite satisfied that his chief should suppose him to have been the only idle, and not the most acute and vigilant member of the family, he commenced a cross-examination of him by asking who had last spoken with the tenant of Belthorpe?

“I think I saw him last,” murmured Richard, and relinquished his father’s hand.

Adrian fastened on his prey. “And left him with a distinct and satisfactory assurance of his amicable intentions?”

“No,” said Richard.

“Not?” the Feverels joined in astounded chorus.

Richard sidled away from his father, and repeated a shamefaced “No.”

“Was he hostile?” inquired Adrian, smoothing his palms, and smiling.

“Yes,” the boy confessed.

Here was quite another view of their position. Adrian, generally patient of results, triumphed strongly at having evoked it, and turned upon Austin Wentworth, reproving him for inducing the boy to go down to Belthorpe. Austin looked grieved. He feared that Richard had failed in his good resolve.

“I thought it his duty to go,” he observed.

“It was!” said the baronet, emphatically.

“And you see what comes of it, sir,” Adrian struck in. “These agricultural gentlemen, I repeat, are delicate customers to deal with. For my part I would prefer being in the hands of a policeman. We are decidedly collared by Blaize. What were his words, Ricky? Give it in his own Doric.”

“He said he would transport Tom Bakewell.”

Adrian smoothed his palms, and smiled again. Then they could afford to defy Mr. Blaize, he informed them significantly, and made once more a mysterious allusion to the Punic elephant, bidding his relatives be at peace. They were attaching, in his opinion, too much importance to Richard’s complicity. The man was a fool, and a very extraordinary arsonite, to have an accomplice at all. It was a thing unknown in the annals of rick-burning. But one would be severer than law itself to say that a boy of fourteen had instigated to crime a full-grown man. At that rate the boy was “father of the man” with a vengeance, and one might hear next that “the baby was father of the boy.” They would find common sense a more benevolent ruler than poetical metaphysics.

When he had done, Austin, with his customary directness, asked him what he meant.

“I confess, Adrian,” said the baronet, hearing him expostulate with Austin’s stupidity, “I for one am at a loss. I have heard that this man, Bakewell, chooses voluntarily not to inculpate my son. Seldom have I heard anything that so gratified me. It is a view of innate nobleness in the rustic’s character which many a gentleman might take example from. We are bound to do our utmost for the man.” And, saying that he should pay a second visit to Belthorpe, to inquire into the reasons for the farmer’s sudden exposition of vindictiveness, Sir Austin rose.

Before he left the room, Algernon asked Richard if the farmer had vouchsafed any reasons, and the boy then spoke of the tampering with the witnesses, and the Bantam’s “Not upon oath!” which caused Adrian to choke with laughter. Even the baronet smiled at so cunning a distinction as that involved in swearing a thing, and not swearing it upon oath.

“How little,” he exclaimed, “does one yeoman know another! To elevate a distinction into a difference is the natural action of their minds. I will point that out to Blaize. He shall see that the idea is native born.”

Richard saw his father go forth. Adrian, too, was ill at ease.

“This trotting down to Belthorpe spoils all,” said he. “The affair would pass over tomorrow — Blaize has no witnesses. The old rascal is only standing out for more money.”

“No, he isn’t,” Richard corrected him. “It’s not that. I’m sure he believes his witnesses have been tampered with, as he calls it.”

“What if they have, boy?” Adrian put it boldly. “The ground is cut from under his feet.”

“Blaize told me that if my father would give his word there had been nothing of the sort, he would take it. My father will give his word.”

“Then,” said Adrian, “you had better stop him from going down.”

Austin looked at Adrian keenly, and questioned him whether he thought the farmer was justified in his suspicions. The wise youth was not to be entrapped. He had only been given to understand that the witnesses were tolerably unstable, and, like the Bantam, ready to swear lustily, but not upon the Book. How given to understand, he chose not to explain, but he reiterated that the chief should not be allowed to go down to Belthorpe.

Sir Austin was in the lane leading to the farm when he heard steps of some one running behind him. It was dark, and he shook off the hand that laid hold of his cloak, roughly, not recognizing his son.

“It’s I, sir,” said Richard panting. “Pardon me. You mustn’t go in there.”

“Why not?” said the baronet, putting his arm about him.

“Not now,” continued the boy. “I will tell you all to-night. I must see the farmer myself. It was my fault, sir. I— I lied to him — the Liar must eat his Lie. Oh, forgive me for disgracing you, sir. I did it — I hope I did it to save Tom Bakewell. Let me go in alone, and speak the truth.”

“Go, and I will wait for you here,” said his father.

The wind that bowed the old elms, and shivered the dead leaves in the air, had a voice and a meaning for the baronet during that half-hour’s lonely pacing up and down under the darkness, awaiting his boy’s return. The solemn gladness of his heart gave nature a tongue. Through the desolation flying overhead — the wailing of the Mother of Plenty across the bare-swept land — he caught intelligible signs of the beneficent order of the universe, from a heart newly confirmed in its grasp of the principle of human goodness, as manifested in the dear child who had just left him; confirmed in its belief in the ultimate victory of good within us, without which nature has neither music nor meaning, and is rock, stone, tree, and nothing more.

In the dark, the dead leaves beating on his face, he had a word for his note-book: “There is for the mind but one grasp of happiness: from that uppermost pinnacle of wisdom, whence we see that this world is well designed.”

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 17:11