The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, by George Meredith

Chapter 13

The Magnetic Age

It was now, as Sir Austin had written it down, The Magnetic Age: the Age of violent attractions, when to hear mention of love is dangerous, and to see it, a communication of the disease. People at Raynham were put on their guard by the baronet, and his reputation for wisdom was severely criticized in consequence of the injunctions he thought fit to issue through butler and housekeeper down to the lower household, for the preservation of his son from any visible symptom of the passion. A footman and two housemaids are believed to have been dismissed on the report of heavy Benson that they were in or inclining to the state; upon which an under-cook and a dairymaid voluntarily threw up their places, averring that “they did not want no young men, but to have their sex spied after by an old wretch like that,” indicating the ponderous butler, “was a little too much for a Christian woman,” and then they were ungenerous enough to glance at Benson’s well-known marital calamity, hinting that some men met their deserts. So intolerable did heavy Benson’s espionage become, that Raynham would have grown depopulated of its womankind had not Adrian interfered, who pointed out to the baronet what a fearful arm his butler was wielding. Sir Austin acknowledged it despondently. “It only shows,” said he, with a fine spirit of justice, “how all but impossible it is to legislate where there are women!”

“I do not object,” he added; “I hope I am too just to object to the exercise of their natural inclinations. All I ask from them is discreetness.”

“Ay,” said Adrian, whose discreetness was a marvel.

“No gadding about in couples,” continued the baronet, “no kissing in public. Such occurrences no boy should witness. Whenever people of both sexes are thrown together, they will be silly; and where they are high-fed, uneducated, and barely occupied, it must be looked for as a matter of course. Let it be known that I only require discreetness.”

Discreetness, therefore, was instructed to reign at the Abbey. Under Adrian’s able tuition the fairest of its domestics acquired that virtue.

Discreetness, too, was enjoined to the upper household. Sir Austin, who had not previously appeared to notice the case of Lobourne’s hopeless curate, now desired Mrs. Doria to interdict, or at least discourage, his visits, for the appearance of the man was that of an embodied sigh and groan.

“Really, Austin!” said Mrs. Doria, astonished to find her brother more awake than she had supposed, “I have never allowed him to hope.”

“Let him see it, then,” replied the baronet; “let him see it.”

“The man amuses me,” said Mrs. Doria. “You know, we have few amusements here, we inferior creatures. I confess I should like a barrel-organ better; that reminds one of town and the opera; and besides, it plays more than one tune. However, since you think my society bad for him, let him stop away.”

With the self-devotion of a woman she grew patient and sweet the moment her daughter Clare was spoken of, and the business of her life in view. Mrs. Doria’s maternal heart had betrothed the two cousins, Richard and Clare; had already beheld them espoused and fruitful. For this she yielded the pleasures of town; for this she immured herself at Raynham; for this she bore with a thousand follies, exactions, inconveniences, things abhorrent to her, and heaven knows what forms of torture and self-denial, which are smilingly endured by that greatest of voluntary martyrs — a mother with a daughter to marry. Mrs. Doria, an amiable widow, had surely married but for her daughter Clare. The lady’s hair no woman could possess without feeling it her pride. It was the daily theme of her lady’s-maid — a natural aureole to her head. She was gay, witty, still physically youthful enough to claim a destiny; and she sacrificed it to accomplish her daughter’s! sacrificed, as with heroic scissors, hair, wit, gaiety — let us not attempt to enumerate how much! more than may be said. And she was only one of thousands; thousands who have no portion of the hero’s reward; for he may reckon on applause, and condolence, and sympathy, and honour; they, poor slaves! must look for nothing but the opposition of their own sex and the sneers of ours. O, Sir Austin! had you not been so blinded, what an Aphorism might have sprung from this point of observation! Mrs. Doria was coolly told, between sister and brother, that during the Magnetic Age her daughter’s presence at Raynham was undesirable. Instead of nursing offence, her sole thought was the mountain of prejudice she had to contend against. She bowed, and said, Clare wanted sea-air — she had never quite recovered the shock of that dreadful night. How long, Mrs. Doria wished to know, might the Peculiar Period be expected to last?

“That,” said Sir Austin, “depends. A year, perhaps, he is entering on it. I shall be most grieved to lose you, Helen. Clare is now — how old?”

“Seventeen.”

“She is marriageable.”

“Marriageable, Austin! at seventeen! don’t name such a thing. My child shall not be robbed of her youth.”

“Our women marry early, Helen.”

“My child shall not!”

The baronet reflected a moment. He did not wish to lose his sister.

“As you are of that opinion, Helen,” said he, “perhaps we may still make arrangements to retain you with us. Would you think it advisable to send Clare — she should know discipline — to some establishment for a few months?” . . .

“To an asylum, Austin?” cried Mrs. Doria, controlling her indignation as well as she could.

“To some select superior seminary, Helen. There are such to be found.”

“Austin!” Mrs. Doria exclaimed, and had to fight with a moisture in her eyes. “Unjust! absurd!” she murmured. The baronet thought it a natural proposition that Clare should be a bride or a schoolgirl.

“I cannot leave my child.” Mrs. Doria trembled. “Where she goes, I go. I am aware that she is only one of our sex, and therefore of no value to the world, but she is my child. I will see, poor dear, that you have no cause to complain of her.”

“I thought,” Sir Austin remarked, “that you acquiesced in my views with regard to my son.”

“Yes — generally,” said Mrs. Doria, and felt culpable that she had not before, and could not then, tell her brother that he had set up an Idol in his house — an Idol of flesh! more retributive and abominable than wood or brass or gold. But she had bowed to the Idol too long — she had too entirely bound herself to gain her project by subserviency. She had, and she dimly perceived it, committed a greater fault in tactics, in teaching her daughter to bow to the Idol also. Love of that kind Richard took for tribute. He was indifferent to Clare’s soft eyes. The parting kiss he gave her was ready and cold as his father could desire. Sir Austin now grew eloquent to him in laudation of manly pursuits: but Richard thought his eloquence barren, his attempts at companionship awkward, and all manly pursuits and aims, life itself, vain and worthless. To what end? sighed the blossomless youth, and cried aloud, as soon as he was relieved of his father’s society, what was the good of anything? Whatever he did — whichever path he selected, led back to Raynham. And whatever he did, however wretched and wayward he showed himself, only confirmed Sir Austin more and more in the truth of his previsions. Tom Bakewell, now the youth’s groom, had to give the baronet a report of his young master’s proceedings, in common with Adrian, and while there was no harm to tell, Tom spoke out. “He do ride like fire every day to Pig’s Snout,” naming the highest hill in the neighbourhood, “and stand there and stare, never movin’, like a mad ’un. And then hoam agin all slack as if he’d been beaten in a race by somebody.”

“There is no woman in that!” mused the baronet. “He would have ridden back as hard as he went,” reflected this profound scientific humanist, “had there been a woman in it. He would shun vast expanses, and seek shade, concealment, solitude. The desire for distances betokens emptiness and undirected hunger: when the heart is possessed by an image we fly to wood and forest, like the guilty.”

Adrian’s report accused his pupil of an extraordinary access of cynicism.

“Exactly,” said the baronet. “As I foresaw. At this period an insatiate appetite is accompanied by a fastidious palate. Nothing but the quintessences of existence, and those in exhaustless supplies, will satisfy this craving, which is not to be satisfied! Hence his bitterness. Life can furnish no food fitting for him. The strength and purity of his energies have reached to an almost divine height, and roam through the Inane. Poetry, love, and such-like, are the drugs earth has to offer to high natures, as she offers to low ones debauchery. ’Tis a sign, this sourness, that he is subject to none of the empiricisms that are afloat. Now to keep him clear of them!”

The Titans had an easier task in storming Olympus. As yet, however, it could not be said that Sir Austin’s System had failed. On the contrary, it had reared a youth, handsome, intelligent, well-bred, and, observed the ladies, with acute emphasis, innocent. Where, they asked, was such another young man to be found?

“Oh!” said Lady Blandish to Sir Austin, “if men could give their hands to women unsoiled — how different would many a marriage be! She will be a happy girl who calls Richard husband.”

“Happy, indeed!” was the baronet’s caustic ejaculation. “But where shall I meet one equal to him, and his match?”

“I was innocent when I was a girl,” said the lady.

Sir Austin bowed a reserved opinion.

“Do you think no girls innocent?”

Sir Austin gallantly thought them all so.

“No, that you know they are not,” said the lady, stamping. “But they are more innocent than boys, I am sure.”

“Because of their education, madam. You see now what a youth can be. Perhaps, when my System is published, or rather — to speak more humbly — when it is practised, the balance may be restored, and we shall have virtuous young men.”

“It’s too late for poor me to hope for a husband from one of them,” said the lady, pouting and laughing.

“It is never too late for beauty to waken love,” returned the baronet, and they trifled a little. They were approaching Daphne’s Bower, which they entered, and sat there to taste the coolness of a descending midsummer day.

The baronet seemed in a humour for dignified fooling; the lady for serious converse.

“I shall believe again in Arthur’s knights,” she said. “When I was a girl I dreamed of one.”

“And he was in quest of the San Greal?”

“If you like.”

“And showed his good taste by turning aside for the more tangible San Blandish?”

“Of course you consider it would have been so,” sighed the lady, ruffling.

“I can only judge by our generation,” said Sir Austin, with a bend of homage.

The lady gathered her mouth. “Either we are very mighty or you are very weak.”

“Both, madam.”

“But whatever we are, and if we are bad, bad! we love virtue, and truth, and lofty souls, in men: and, when we meet those qualities in them, we are constant, and would die for them — die for them. Ah! you know men but not women.”

“The knights possessing such distinctions must be young, I presume?” said Sir Austin.

“Old, or young!”

“But if old, they are scarce capable of enterprise?”

“They are loved for themselves, not for their deeds.”

“Ah!”

“Yes — ah!” said the lady. “Intellect may subdue women — make slaves of them; and they worship beauty perhaps as much as you do. But they only love for ever and are mated when they meet a noble nature.”

Sir Austin looked at her wistfully.

“And did you encounter the knight of your dream?”

“Not then.” She lowered her eyelids. It was prettily done.

“And how did you bear the disappointment?”

“My dream was in the nursery. The day my frock was lengthened to a gown I stood at the altar. I am not the only girl that has been made a woman in a day, and given to an ogre instead of a true knight.”

“Good God!” exclaimed Sir Austin, “women have much to bear.”

Here the couple changed characters. The lady became gay as the baronet grew earnest.

“You know it is our lot,” she said. “And we are allowed many amusements. If we fulfil our duty in producing children, that, like our virtue, is its own reward. Then, as a widow, I have wonderful privileges.”

“To preserve which, you remain a widow?”

“Certainly,” she responded. “I have no trouble now in patching and piecing that rag the world calls — a character. I can sit at your feet every day unquestioned. To be sure, others do the same, but they are female eccentrics, and have cast off the rag altogether.”

Sir Austin drew nearer to her. “You would have made an admirable mother, madam.”

This from Sir Austin was very like positive wooing.

“It is,” he continued, “ten thousand pities that you are not one.”

“Do you think so?” She spoke with humility.

“I would,” he went on, “that heaven had given you a daughter.”

“Would you have thought her worthy of Richard?”

“Our blood, madam, should have been one!”

The lady tapped her toe with her parasol. “But I am a mother,” she said. “Richard is my son. Yes! Richard is my boy,” she reiterated.

Sir Austin most graciously appended, “Call him ours, madam,” and held his head as if to catch the word from her lips, which, however, she chose to refuse, or defer. They made the coloured West a common point for their eyes, and then Sir Austin said:

“As you will not say ‘ours,’ let me. And, as you have therefore an equal claim on the boy, I will confide to you a project I have lately conceived.”

The announcement of a project hardly savoured of a coming proposal, but for Sir Austin to confide one to a woman was almost tantamount to a declaration. So Lady Blandish thought, and so said her soft, deep-eyed smile, as she perused the ground while listening to the project. It concerned Richard’s nuptials. He was now nearly eighteen. He was to marry when he was five-and-twenty. Meantime a young lady, some years his junior, was to be sought for in the homes of England, who would be every way fitted by education, instincts, and blood — on each of which qualifications Sir Austin unreservedly enlarged — to espouse so perfect a youth and accept the honourable duty of assisting in the perpetuation of the Feverels. The baronet went on to say that he proposed to set forth immediately, and devote a couple of months, to the first essay in his Coelebite search.

“I fear,” said Lady Blandish, when the project had been fully unfolded, “you have laid down for yourself a difficult task. You must not be too exacting.”

“I know it.” The baronet’s shake of the head was piteous.

“Even in England she will be rare. But I confine myself to no class. If I ask for blood it is for untainted, not what you call high blood. I believe many of the middle classes are frequently more careful — more pure-blooded — than our aristocracy. Show me among them a God-fearing family who educate their children — I should prefer a girl without brothers and sisters — as a Christian damsel should be educated — say; on the model of my son, and she may be penniless, I will pledge her to Richard Feverel.”

Lady Blandish bit her lip. “And what do you do with Richard while you are absent on this expedition?”

“Oh!” said the baronet, “he accompanies his father.”

“Then give it up. His future bride is now pinafored and bread-and-buttery. She romps, she cries, she dreams of play and pudding. How can he care for her? He thinks more at his age of old women like me. He will be certain to kick against her, and destroy your plan, believe me, Sir Austin.”

“Ay? ay? do you think that?” said the baronet.

Lady Blandish gave him a multitude of reasons.

“Ay! true,” he muttered. “Adrian said the same. He must not see her. How could I think of it! The child is naked woman. He would despise her. Naturally!”

“Naturally!” echoed the lady.

“Then, madam,” and the baronet rose, “there is one thing for me to determine upon. I must, for the first time in his life, leave him.”

“Will you, indeed?” said the lady.

“It is my duty, having thus brought him up, to see that he is properly mated — not wrecked upon the quicksands of marriage, as a youth so delicately trained might be; more easily than another! Betrothed, he will be safe from a thousand snares. I may, I think, leave him for a term. My precautions have saved him from the temptations of his season.”

“And under whose charge will you leave him?” Lady Blandish inquired.

She had emerged from the temple, and stood beside Sir Austin on the upper steps, under a clear summer twilight.

“Madam!” he took her hand, and his voice was gallant and tender, “under whose but yours?”

As the baronet said this, he bent above her hand, and raised it to his lips.

Lady Blandish felt that she had been wooed and asked in wedlock. She did not withdraw her hand. The baronet’s salute was flatteringly reverent. He deliberated over it, as one going through a grave ceremony. And he, the scorner of women, had chosen her for his homage! Lady Blandish forgot that she had taken some trouble to arrive at it. She received the exquisite compliment in all its unique honey-sweet: for in love we must deserve nothing or the fine bloom of fruition is gone.

The lady’s hand was still in durance, and the baronet had not recovered from his profound inclination, when a noise from the neighbouring beechwood startled the two actors in this courtly pantomime. They turned their heads, and beheld the hope of Raynham on horseback surveying the scene. The next moment he had galloped away.

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