The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, by George Meredith

Chapter 17

Good Wine and Good Blood

The conversation between solicitor and client was resumed.

“Is it possible,” quoth Mr. Thompson, the moment he had ushered his client into his private room, “that you will consent, Sir Austin, to see him and receive him again?”

“Certainly,” the baronet replied. “Why not? This by no means astonishes me. When there is no longer danger to my son he will be welcome as he was before. He is a schoolboy. I knew it. I expected it. The results of your principle, Thompson!”

“One of the very worst books of that abominable class!” exclaimed the old lawyer, opening at the coloured frontispiece, from which brazen Miss Random smiled bewitchingly out, as if she had no doubt of captivating Time and all his veterans on a fair field. “Pah!” he shut her to with the energy he would have given to the office of publicly slapping her face; “from this day I diet him on bread and water — rescind his pocket-money! — How he could have got hold of such a book! How he —! And what ideas! Concealing them from me as he has done so cunningly! He trifles with vice! His mind is in a putrid state! I might have believed — I did believe — I might have gone on believing — my son Ripton to be a moral young man!” The old lawyer interjected on the delusion of fathers, and sat down in a lamentable abstraction.

“The lad has come out!” said Sir Austin. “His adoption of the legal form is amusing. He trifles with vice, true: people newly initiated are as hardy as its intimates, and a young sinner’s amusements will resemble those of a confirmed debauchee. The satiated, and the insatiate, appetite alike appeal to extremes. You are astonished at this revelation of your son’s condition. I expected it; though assuredly, believe me, not this sudden and indisputable proof of it. But I knew that the seed was in him, and therefore I have not latterly invited him to Raynham. School, and the corruption there, will bear its fruits sooner or later. I could advise you, Thompson, what to do with him: it would be my plan.”

Mr. Thompson murmured, like a true courtier, that he should esteem it an honour to be favoured with Sir Austin Feverel’s advice: secretly resolute, like a true Briton, to follow his own.

“Let him, then,” continued the baronet, “see vice in its nakedness. While he has yet some innocence, nauseate him! Vice, taken little by little, usurps gradually the whole creature. My counsel to you, Thompson, would be, to drag him through the sinks of town.”

Mr. Thompson began to blink again.

“Oh, I shall punish him, Sir Austin! Do not fear me, sir. I have no tenderness for vice.”

“That is not what is wanted, Thompson. You mistake me. He should be dealt with gently. Heavens! do you hope to make him hate vice by making him a martyr for its sake? You must descend from the pedestal of age to become his Mentor: cause him to see how certainly and pitilessly vice itself punishes: accompany him into its haunts”——

“Over town?” broke forth Mr. Thompson.

“Over town,” said the baronet.

“And depend upon it,” he added, “that, until fathers act thoroughly up to their duty, we shall see the sights we see in great cities, and hear the tales we hear in little villages, with death and calamity in our homes, and a legacy of sorrow and shame to the generations to come. I do aver,” he exclaimed, becoming excited, “that, if it were not for the duty to my son, and the hope I cherish in him, I, seeing the accumulation of misery we are handing down to an innocent posterity — to whom, through our sin, the fresh breath of life will be foul — I— yes! I would hide my name! For whither are we tending? What home is pure absolutely? What cannot our doctors and lawyers tell us?”

Mr. Thompson acquiesced significantly.

“And what is to come of this?” Sir Austin continued. “When the sins of the fathers are multiplied by the sons, is not perdition the final sum of things? And is not life, the boon of heaven, growing to be the devil’s game utterly? But for my son, I would hide my name. I would not bequeath it to be cursed by them that walk above my grave!”

This was indeed a terrible view of existence. Mr. Thompson felt uneasy. There was a dignity in his client, an impressiveness in his speech, that silenced remonstrating reason and the cry of long years of comfortable respectability. Mr. Thompson went to church regularly; paid his rates and dues without overmuch, or at least more than common, grumbling. On the surface he was a good citizen, fond of his children, faithful to his wife, devoutly marching to a fair seat in heaven on a path paved by something better than a thousand a year. But here was a man sighting him from below the surface, and though it was an unfair, unaccustomed, not to say unEnglish, method of regarding one’s fellow-man, Mr. Thompson was troubled by it. What though his client exaggerated? Facts were at the bottom of what he said. And he was acute — he had unmasked Ripton! Since Ripton’s exposure he winced at a personal application in the text his client preached from. Possibly this was the secret source of part of his anger against that peccant youth.

Mr. Thompson shook his head, and, with dolefully puckered visage and a pitiable contraction of his shoulders, rose slowly up from his chair. Apparently he was about to speak, but he straightway turned and went meditatively to a side-recess in the room, whereof he opened a door, drew forth a tray and a decanter labelled PORT, filled a glass for his client, deferentially invited him to partake of it; filled another glass for himself, and drank.

That was his reply.

Sir Austin never took wine before dinner. Thompson had looked as if he meant to speak: he waited for Thompson’s words.

Mr. Thompson saw that, as his client did not join him in his glass, the eloquence of that Porty reply was lost on his client.

Having slowly ingurgitated and meditated upon this precious draught, and turned its flavour over and over with an aspect of potent Judicial wisdom (one might have thought that he was weighing mankind in the balance), the old lawyer heaved, and said, sharpening his lips over the admirable vintage, “The world is in a very sad state, I fear, Sir Austin!”

His client gazed at him queerly.

“But that,” Mr. Thompson added immediately, ill-concealing by his gaze the glowing intestinal congratulations going on within him, “that is, I think you would say, Sir Austin — if I could but prevail upon you — a tolerably good character wine!”

“There’s virtue somewhere, I see, Thompson!” Sir Austin murmured, without disturbing his legal adviser’s dimples.

The old lawyer sat down to finish his glass, saying, that such a wine was not to be had everywhere.

They were then outwardly silent for a space. Inwardly one of them was full of riot and jubilant uproar: as if the solemn fields of law were suddenly to be invaded and possessed by troops of Bacchanals: and to preserve a decently wretched physiognomy over it, and keep on terms with his companion, he had to grimace like a melancholy clown in a pantomime.

Mr. Thompson brushed back his hair. The baronet was still expectant. Mr. Thompson sighed deeply, and emptied his glass. He combated the change that had come over him. He tried not to see Ruby. He tried to feel miserable, and it was not in him. He spoke, drawing what appropriate inspirations he could from his client’s countenance, to show that they had views in common: “Degenerating sadly, I fear!”

The baronet nodded.

“According to what my wine-merchants say,” continued Mr. Thompson, “there can be no doubt about it.”

Sir Austin stared.

“It’s the grape, or the ground, or something,” Mr. Thompson went on. “All I can say is, our youngsters will have a bad look-out! In my opinion Government should be compelled to send out a Commission to inquire into the cause. To Englishmen it would be a public calamity. It surprises me — I hear men sit and talk despondently of this extraordinary disease of the vine, and not one of them seems to think it incumbent on him to act, and do his best to stop it.” He fronted his client like a man who accuses an enormous public delinquency. “Nobody makes a stir! The apathy of Englishmen will become proverbial. Pray, try it, Sir Austin! Pray, allow me. Such a wine cannot disagree at any hour. Do! I am allowanced two glasses three hours before dinner. Stomachic. I find it agrees with me surprisingly: quite a new man. I suppose it will last our time. It must! What should we do? There’s no Law possible without it. Not a lawyer of us could live. Ours is an occupation which dries the blood.”

The scene with Ripton had unnerved him, the wine had renovated, and gratitude to the wine inspired his tongue. He thought that his client, of the whimsical mind, though undoubtedly correct moral views, had need of a glass.

“Now that very wine — Sir Austin — I think I do not err in saying, that very wine your respected father, Sir Pylcher Feverel, used to taste whenever he came to consult my father, when I was a boy. And I remember one day being called in, and Sir Pylcher himself poured me out a glass. I wish I could call in Ripton now, and do the same. No! Leniency in such a case as that! — The wine would not hurt him — I doubt if there be much left for him to welcome his guests with. Ha! ha! Now if I could persuade you, Sir Austin, as you do not take wine before dinner, some day to favour me with your company at my little country cottage — I have a wine there — the fellow to that — I think you would, I do think you would”— Mr. Thompson meant to say, he thought his client would arrive at something of a similar jocund contemplation of his fellows in their degeneracy that inspirited lawyers after potation, but condensed the sensual promise into “highly approve.”

Sir Austin speculated on his legal adviser with a sour mouth comically compressed.

It stood clear to him that Thompson before his Port, and Thompson after, were two different men. To indoctrinate him now was too late: it was perhaps the time to make the positive use of him he wanted.

He pencilled on a handy slip of paper: “Two prongs of a fork; the World stuck between them — Port and the Palate: ’Tis one which fails first — Down goes World;” and again the hieroglyph —“Port-spectacles.” He said, “I shall gladly accompany you this evening, Thompson,” words that transfigured the delighted lawyer, and ensigned the skeleton of a great Aphorism to his pocket, there to gather flesh and form, with numberless others in a like condition.

“I came to visit my lawyer,” he said to himself. “I think I have been dealing with The World in epitome!”

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