The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, by George Meredith

Chapter 18

The System Encounters the Wild Oats Special Plea

The rumour circulated that Sir Austin Feverel, the recluse of Raynham, the rank misogynist, the rich baronet, was in town, looking out a bride for his only son and uncorrupted heir. Doctor Benjamin Bairam was the excellent authority. Doctor Bairam had safely delivered Mrs. Deborah Gossip of this interesting bantling, which was forthwith dandled in dozens of feminine laps. Doctor Bairam could boast the first interview with the famous recluse. He had it from his own lips that the object of the baronet was to look out a bride for his only son and uncorrupted heir; “and,” added the doctor, “she’ll be lucky who gets him.” Which was interpreted to mean, that he would be a catch; the doctor probably intending to allude to certain extraordinary difficulties in the way of a choice.

A demand was made on the publisher of THE PILGRIM’S SCRIP for all his outstanding copies. Conventionalities were defied. A summer-shower of cards fell on the baronet’s table.

He had few male friends. He shunned the Clubs as nests of scandal. The cards he contemplated were mostly those of the sex, with the husband, if there was a husband, evidently dragged in for propriety’s sake. He perused the cards and smiled. He knew their purpose. What terrible light Thompson, and Bairam had thrown on some of them! Heavens! in what a state was the blood of this Empire.

Before commencing his campaign he called on two ancient intimates, Lord Heddon, and his distant cousin Darley Absworthy, both Members of Parliament, useful men, though gouty, who had sown in their time a fine crop of wild oats, and advocated the advantage of doing so, seeing that they did not fancy themselves the worse for it. He found one with an imbecile son and the other with consumptive daughters. “So much,” he wrote in the Note-book, “for the Wild Oats theory!”

Darley was proud of his daughters’ white and pink skins. “Beautiful complexions,” he called them. The eldest was in the market, immensely admired. Sir Austin Was introduced to her. She talked fluently and sweetly. A youth not on his guard, a simple schoolboy youth, or even a man, might have fallen in love with her, she was so affable and fair. There was something poetic about her. And she was quite well, she said, the baronet frequently questioning her on that point. She intimated that she was robust; but towards the close of their conversation her hand would now and then travel to her side, and she breathed painfully an instant, saying, “Isn’t it odd? Dora, Adela, and myself, we all feel the same queer sensation — about the heart, I think it is — after talking much.”

Sir Austin nodded and blinked sadly, exclaiming to his soul, “Wild oats! wild oats!”

He did not ask permission to see Dora and Adela.

Lord Heddon vehemently preached wild oats.

“It’s all nonsense, Feverel,” he said, “about bringing up a lad out of the common way. He’s all the better for a little racketing when he’s green — feels his bone and muscle — learns to know the world. He’ll never be a man if he hasn’t played at the old game one time in his life, and the earlier the better. I’ve always found the best fellows were wildish once. I don’t care what he does when he’s a greenhorn; besides, he’s got an excuse for it then. You can’t expect to have a man, if he doesn’t take a man’s food. You’ll have a milksop. And, depend upon it, when he does break out he’ll go to the devil, and nobody pities him. Look what those fellows, the grocers, do when they get hold of a young — what d’ye call ’em? — apprentice. They know the scoundrel was born with a sweet tooth. Well! they give him the run of the shop, and in a very short time he soberly deals out the goods, a devilish deal too wise to abstract a morsel even for the pleasure of stealing. I know you have contrary theories. You hold that the young grocer should have a soul above sugar. It won’t do! Take my word for it, Feverel, it’s a dangerous experiment, that of bringing up flesh and blood in harness. No colt will bear it, or he’s a tame beast. And look you: take it on medical grounds. Early excesses the frame will recover from: late ones break the constitution. There’s the case in a nutshell. How’s your son?”

“Sound and well!” replied Sir Austin. “And yours?”

“Oh, Lipscombe’s always the same!” Lord Heddon sighed peevishly. “He’s quiet — that’s one good thing; but there’s no getting the country to take him, so I must give up hopes of that.”

Lord Lipscombe entering the room just then, Sir Austin surveyed him, and was not astonished at the refusal of the country to take him.

“Wild oats!” he thought, as he contemplated the headless, degenerate, weedy issue and result.

Both Darley Absworthy and Lord Heddon spoke of the marriage of their offspring as a matter of course. “And if I were not a coward,” Sir Austin confessed to himself, “I should stand forth and forbid the banns! This universal ignorance of the inevitable consequence of sin is frightful! The wild oats plea is a torpedo that seems to have struck the world, and rendered it morally insensible.” However, they silenced him. He was obliged to spare their feelings on a subject to him so deeply sacred. The healthful image of his noble boy rose before him, a triumphant living rejoinder to any hostile argument.

He was content to remark to his doctor, that he thought the third generation of wild oats would be a pretty thin crop!

Families against whom neither Thompson lawyer nor Bairam physician could recollect a progenitorial blot, either on the male or female side, were not numerous. “Only,” said the doctor, “you really must not be too exacting in these days, my dear Sir Austin. It is impossible to contest your principle, and you are doing mankind incalculable service in calling its attention to this the gravest of its duties: but as the stream of civilization progresses we must be a little taken in the lump, as it were. The world is, I can assure you — and I do not look only above the surface, you can believe — the world is awakening to the vital importance of the question.”

“Doctor,” replied Sir Austin, “if you had a pure-blood Arab barb would you cross him with a screw?”

“Decidedly not,” said the doctor.

“Then permit me to say, I shall employ every care to match my son according to his merits,” Sir Austin returned. “I trust the world is awakening, as you observe. I have been to my publisher, since my arrival in town, with a manuscript ‘Proposal for a New System of Education of our British Youth,’ which may come in opportunely. I think I am entitled to speak on that subject.”

“Certainly,” said the doctor. “You will admit, Sir Austin, that, compared with continental nations — our neighbours, for instance — we shine to advantage, in morals, as in everything else. I hope you admit that?”

“I find no consolation in shining by comparison with a lower standard,” said the baronet. “If I compare the enlightenment of your views — for you admit my principle — with the obstinate incredulity of a country doctor’s, who sees nothing of the world, you are hardly flattered, I presume?”

Doctor Bairam would hardly be flattered at such a comparison, assuredly, he interjected.

“Besides,” added the baronet, “the French make no pretences, and thereby escape one of the main penalties of hypocrisy. Whereas we! — but I am not their advocate, credit me. It is better, perhaps, to pay our homage to virtue. At least it delays the spread of entire corruptness.”

Doctor Bairam wished the baronet success, and diligently endeavoured to assist his search for a mate worthy of the pure-blood barb, by putting several mamas, whom he visited, on the alert.

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