The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, by George Meredith

Chapter 16

Unmasking of Master Ripton Thompson

Lady Blandish, and others who professed an interest in the fortunes and future of the systematized youth, had occasionally mentioned names of families whose alliance according to apparent calculations, would not degrade his blood: and over these names, secretly preserved on an open leaf of the note-book, Sir Austin, as he neared the metropolis, distantly dropped his eye. There were names historic and names mushroomic; names that the Conqueror might have called in his muster-roll; names that had been, clearly, tossed into the upper stratum of civilized life by a mill-wheel or a merchant-stool. Against them the baronet had written M., or Po. or Pr. — signifying, Money, Position, Principles, favouring the latter with special brackets. The wisdom of a worldly man, which he could now and then adopt, determined him, before he commenced his round of visits, to consult and sound his solicitor and his physician thereanent; lawyers and doctors being the rats who know best the merits of a house, and on what sort of foundation it may be standing.

Sir Austin entered the great city with a sad mind. The memory of his misfortune came upon him vividly, as if no years had intervened, and it were but yesterday that he found the letter telling him that he had no wife and his son no mother. He wandered on foot through the streets the first night of his arrival, looking strangely at the shops and shows and bustle of the world from which he had divorced himself; feeling as destitute as the poorest vagrant. He had almost forgotten how to find his way about, and came across his old mansion in his efforts to regain his hotel. The windows were alight — signs of merry life within. He stared at it from the shadow of the opposite side. It seemed to him he was a ghost gazing upon his living past. And then the phantom which had stood there mocking while he felt as other men — the phantom, now flesh and blood reality, seized and convulsed his heart, and filled its unforgiving crevices with bitter ironic venom. He remembered by the time reflection returned to him that it was Algernon, who had the house at his disposal, probably giving a card-party, or something of the sort. In the morning, too, he remembered that he had divorced the world to wed a System, and must be faithful to that exacting Spouse, who, now alone of things on earth, could fortify and recompense him.

Mr. Thompson received his client with the dignity and emotion due to such a rent-roll and the unexpectedness of the honour. He was a thin stately man of law, garbed as one who gave audience to sacred bishops, and carrying on his countenance the stamp of paternity to the parchment-skins, and of a virtuous attachment to Port wine sufficient to increase his respectability in the eyes of moral Britain. After congratulating Sir Austin on the fortunate issue of two or three suits, and being assured that the baronet’s business in town had no concern therewith, Mr. Thompson ventured to hope that the young heir was all his father could desire him to be, and heard with satisfaction that he was a pattern to the youth of the Age.

“A difficult time of life, Sir Austin!” said the old lawyer, shaking his head. “We must keep our eyes on them — keep awake! The mischief is done in a minute.”

“We must take care to have seen where we planted, and that the root was sound, or the mischief will do itself in spite of, or under the very spectacles of, supervision,” said the baronet.

His legal adviser murmured “Exactly,” as if that were his own idea, adding, “It is my plan with Ripton, who has had the honour of an introduction to you, and a very pleasant time he spent with my young friend, whom he does not forget. Ripton follows the Law. He is articled to me, and will, I trust, succeed me worthily in your confidence. I bring him into town in the morning; I take him back at night. I think I may say that I am quite content with him.”

“Do you think,” said Sir Austin, fixing his brows, “that you can trace every act of his to its motive?”

The old lawyer bent forward and humbly requested that this might be repeated.

“Do you”— Sir Austin held the same searching expression —“do you establish yourself in a radiating centre of intuition: do you base your watchfulness on so thorough an acquaintance with his character, so perfect a knowledge of the instrument, that all its movements — even the eccentric ones — are anticipated by you, and provided for?”

The explanation was a little too long for the old lawyer to entreat another repetition. Winking with the painful deprecation of a deaf man, Mr. Thompson smiled urbanely, coughed conciliatingly, and said he was afraid he could not affirm that much, though he was happily enabled to say that Ripton had borne an extremely good character at school.

“I find,” Sir Austin remarked, as sardonically he relaxed his inspecting pose and mien, “there are fathers who are content to be simply obeyed. Now I require not only that my son should obey; I would have him guiltless of the impulse to gainsay my wishes — feeling me in him stronger than his undeveloped nature, up to a certain period, where my responsibility ends and his commences. Man is a self-acting machine. He cannot cease to be a machine; but, though self-acting, he may lose the powers of self-guidance, and in a wrong course his very vitalities hurry him to perdition. Young, he is an organism ripening to the set mechanic diurnal round, and while so he needs all the angels to hold watch over him that he grow straight and healthy, and fit for what machinal duties he may have to perform.” . . .

Mr. Thompson agitated his eyebrows dreadfully. He was utterly lost. He respected Sir Austin’s estates too much to believe for a moment he was listening to downright folly. Yet how otherwise explain the fact of his excellent client being incomprehensible to him? For a middle-aged gentleman, and one who has been in the habit of advising and managing, will rarely have a notion of accusing his understanding; and Mr. Thompson had not the slightest notion of accusing his. But the baronet’s condescension in coming thus to him, and speaking on the subject nearest his heart, might well affect him, and he quickly settled the case in favour of both parties, pronouncing mentally that his honoured client had a meaning, and so deep it was, so subtle, that no wonder he experienced difficulty in giving it fitly significant words.

Sir Austin elaborated his theory of the Organism and the Mechanism, for his lawyer’s edification. At a recurrence of the world “healthy” Mr. Thompson caught him up —

“I apprehended you! Oh, I agree with you, Sir Austin! entirely! Allow me to ring for my son Ripton. I think, if you condescend to examine him, you will say that regular habits, and a diet of nothing but law-reading — for other forms of literature I strictly interdict — have made him all that you instance.”

Mr. Thompson’s hand was on the bell. Sir Austin arrested him.

“Permit me to see the lad at his occupation,” said he.

Our old friend Ripton sat in a room apart with the confidential clerk, Mr. Beazley, a veteran of law, now little better than a document, looking already signed and sealed, and shortly to be delivered, who enjoined nothing from his pupil and companion save absolute silence, and sounded his praises to his father at the close of days when it had been rigidly observed — not caring, or considering, the finished dry old document that he was, under what kind of spell a turbulent commonplace youth could be charmed into stillness for six hours of the day. Ripton was supposed to be devoted to the study of Blackstone. A tome of the classic legal commentator lay extended outside his desk, under the partially lifted lid of which nestled the assiduous student’s head — law being thus brought into direct contact with his brainpan. The office-door opened, and he heard not; his name was called, and he remained equally moveless. His method of taking in Blackstone seemed absorbing as it was novel.

“Comparing notes, I daresay,” whispered Mr. Thompson to Sir Austin. “I call that study!”

The confidential clerk rose, and bowed obsequious senility.

“Is it like this every day, Beazley?” Mr. Thompson asked with parental pride.

“Ahem!” the old clerk replied, “he is like this every day, sir. I could not ask more of a mouse.”

Sir Austin stepped forward to the desk. His proximity roused one of Ripton’s senses, which blew a call to the others. Down went the lid of the desk. Dismay, and the ardours of study, flashed together in Ripton’s face. He slouched from his perch with the air of one who means rather to defend his position than welcome a superior, the right hand in his waistcoat pocket fumbling a key, the left catching at his vacant stool.

Sir Austin put two fingers on the youth’s shoulder, and said, leaning his head a little on one side, in a way habitual to him, “I am glad to find my son’s old comrade thus profitably occupied. I know what study is myself. But beware of prosecuting it too excitedly! Come! you must not be offended at our interruption; you will soon take up the thread again. Besides, you know, you must get accustomed to the visits of your client.”

So condescending and kindly did this speech sound to Mr. Thompson, that, seeing Ripton still preserve his appearance of disorder and sneaking defiance, he thought fit to nod and frown at the youth, and desired him to inform the baronet what particular part of Blackstone he was absorbed in mastering at that moment.

Ripton hesitated an instant, and blundered out, with dubious articulation, “The Law of Gravelkind.”

“What Law?” said Sir Austin, perplexed.

“Gravelkind,” again rumbled Ripton’s voice.

Sir Austin turned to Mr. Thompson for an explanation. The old lawyer was shaking his law-box.

“Singular!” he exclaimed. “He will make that mistake! What law, sir?”

Ripton read his error in the sternly painful expression of his father’s face, and corrected himself. “Gavelkind, sir.”

“Ah!” said Mr. Thompson, with a sigh of relief. “Gravelkind, indeed! Gavelkind! An old Kentish”—— He was going to expound, but Sir Austin assured him he knew it, and a very absurd law it was, adding, “I should like to look at your son’s notes, or remarks on the judiciousness of that family arrangement, if he has any.”

“You were making notes, or referring to them, as we entered,” said Mr. Thompson to the sucking lawyer; “a very good plan, which I have always enjoined on you. Were you not?”

Ripton stammered that he was afraid he had not any notes to show, worth seeing.

“What were you doing then, sir?”

“Making notes,” muttered Ripton, looking incarnate subterfuge.

“Exhibit!”

Ripton glanced at his desk and then at his father; at Sir Austin, and at the confidential clerk. He took out his key. It would not fit the hole.

“Exhibit!” was peremptorily called again.

In his praiseworthy efforts to accommodate the keyhole, Ripton discovered that the desk was already unlocked. Mr. Thompson marched to it, and held the lid aloft. A book was lying open within, which Ripton immediately hustled among a mass of papers and tossed into a dark corner, not before the glimpse of a coloured frontispiece was caught by Sir Austin’s eye.

The baronet smiled, and said, “You study Heraldry, too? Are you fond of the science?”

Ripton replied that he was very fond of it — extremely attached, and threw a further pile of papers into the dark corner.

The notes had been less conspicuously placed, and the search for them was tedious and vain. Papers, not legal, or the fruits of study, were found, that made Mr. Thompson more intimate with the condition of his son’s exchequer; nothing in the shape of a remark on the Law of Gavelkind.

Mr. Thompson suggested to his son that they might be among those scraps he had thrown carelessly into the dark corner. Ripton, though he consented to inspect them, was positive they were not there.

“What have we here?” said Mr. Thompson, seizing a neatly folded paper addressed to the Editor of a law publication, as Ripton brought them forth, one by one. Forthwith Mr. Thompson fixed his spectacles and read aloud:

To the Editor of the ‘Jurist.‘

“Sir — In your recent observations on the great case of Crim”——

Mr. Thompson hem’d! and stopped short, like a man who comes unexpectedly upon a snake in his path. Mr. Beazley’s feet shuffled. Sir Austin changed the position of an arm.

“It’s on the other side, I think,” gasped Ripton.

Mr. Thompson confidently turned over, and intoned with emphasis.

“To Absalom, the son of David, the little Jew usurer of Bond Court, Whitecross Gutters, for his introduction to Venus, I O U Five pounds, when I can pay.

“Signed: RIPTON THOMPSON.”

Underneath this fictitious legal instrument was discreetly appended:

“(Mem. Document not binding.)”

There was a pause: an awful under-breath of sanctified wonderment and reproach passed round the office. Sir Austin assumed an attitude. Mr. Thompson shed a glance of severity on his confidential clerk, who parried by throwing up his hands.

Ripton, now fairly bewildered, stuffed another paper under his father’s nose, hoping the outside perhaps would satisfy him: it was marked “Legal Considerations.” Mr. Thompson had no idea of sparing or shielding his son. In fact, like many men whose self-love is wounded by their offspring, he felt vindictive, and was ready to sacrifice him up to a certain point, for the good of both. He therefore opened the paper, expecting something worse than what he had hitherto seen, despite its formal heading, and he was not disappointed.

The “Legal Considerations” related to the Case regarding which Ripton had conceived it imperative upon him to address a letter to the Editor of the “Jurist,” and was indeed a great case, and an ancient; revived apparently for the special purpose of displaying the forensic abilities of the Junior Counsel for the Plaintiff, Mr. Ripton Thompson, whose assistance the Attorney–General, in his opening statement, congratulated himself on securing, a rather unusual thing, due probably to the eminence and renown of that youthful gentleman at the Bar of his country. So much was seen from the copy of a report purporting to be extracted from a newspaper, and prefixed to the Junior Counsel’s remarks, or Legal Considerations, on the conduct of the Case, the admissibility and non-admissibility of certain evidence, and the ultimate decision of the judges.

Mr. Thompson, senior, lifted the paper high, with the spirit of one prepared to do execution on the criminal, and in the voice of a town-crier, varied by a bitter accentuation and satiric sing-song tone, deliberately read:

“Vulcan v. Mars.

“The Attorney–General, assisted by Mr. Ripton Thompson, appeared on behalf of the Plaintiff. Mr. Serjeant Cupid, Q.C., and Mr. Capital Opportunity, for the Defendant.”

“Oh!” snapped Mr. Thompson, senior, peering venom at the unfortunate Ripton over his spectacles, “your notes are on that issue, sir! Thus you employ your time, sir!”

With another side-shot at the confidential clerk, who retired immediately behind a strong entrenchment of shrugs, Mr. Thompson was pushed by the devil of his rancour to continue reading:

“This Case is too well known to require more than a partial summary of particulars”. . . .

“Ahem! we will skip the particulars, however partial,” said Mr. Thompson. “Ah! — what do you mean here, sir — but enough! I think we may be excused your Legal Considerations on such a Case. This is how you employ your law-studies, sir! You put them to this purpose? Mr. Beazley! you will henceforward sit alone. I must have this young man under my own eye. Sir Austin! permit me to apologize to you for subjecting you to a scene so disagreeable. It was a father’s duty not to spare him.”

Mr. Thompson wiped his forehead, as Brutus might have done after passing judgment on the scion of his house.

“These papers,” he went on, fluttering Ripton’s precious lucubrations in a waving judicial hand, “I shall retain. The day will come when he will regard them with shame. And it shall be his penance, his punishment, to do so! Stop!” he cried, as Ripton was noiselessly shutting his desk, “have you more of them, sir; of a similar description? Rout them out! Let us know you at your worst. What have you there — in that corner?”

Ripton was understood to say he devoted that corner to old briefs on important cases.

Mr. Thompson thrust his trembling fingers among the old briefs, and turned over the volume Sir Austin had observed, but without much remarking it, for his suspicions had not risen to print.

“A Manual of Heraldry?” the baronet politely, and it may be ironically, inquired, before it could well escape.

“I like it very much,” said Ripton, clutching the book in dreadful torment.

“Allow me to see that you have our arms and crest correct.” The baronet proffered a hand for the book.

“A Griffin between two Wheatsheaves,” cried Ripton, still clutching it nervously.

Mr. Thompson, without any notion of what he was doing, drew the book from Ripton’s hold; whereupon the two seniors laid their grey heads together over the title-page. It set forth in attractive characters beside a coloured frontispiece, which embodied the promise displayed there, the entrancing adventures of Miss Random, a strange young lady.

Had there been a Black Hole within the area of those law regions to consign Ripton to there and then, or an Iron Rod handy to mortify his sinful flesh, Mr. Thompson would have used them. As it was, he contented himself by looking Black Holes and Iron Rods at the detected youth, who sat on his perch insensible to what might happen next, collapsed.

Mr. Thompson cast the wicked creature down with a “Pah!” He, however, took her up again, and strode away with her. Sir Austin gave Ripton a forefinger, and kindly touched his head, saying, “Good-bye, boy! At some future date Richard will be happy to see you at Raynham.”

Undoubtedly this was a great triumph to the System!

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