The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, by George Meredith

Chapter 23

Crisis in the Apple-Disease

Night had come on as Richard entered the old elm-shaded, grass-bordered lane leading down from Raynham to Belthorpe. The pale eye of twilight was shut. The wind had tossed up the bank of Western cloud, which was now flying broad and unlighted across the sky, broad and balmy — the charioted South-west at full charge behind his panting coursers. As he neared the farm his heart fluttered and leapt up. He was sure she must be there. She must have returned. Why should she have left for good without writing? He caught suspicion by the throat, making it voiceless, if it lived: he silenced reason. Her not writing was now a proof that she had returned. He listened to nothing but his imperious passion, and murmured sweet words for her, as if she were by: tender cherishing epithets of love in the nest. She was there — she moved somewhere about like a silver flame in the dear old house, doing her sweet household duties. His blood began to sing: O happy those within, to see her, and be about her! By some extraordinary process he contrived to cast a sort of glory round the burly person of Farmer Blaize himself. And oh! to have companionship with a seraph one must know a seraph’s bliss, and was not young Tom to be envied? The smell of late clematis brought on the wind enwrapped him, and went to his brain, and threw a light over the old red-brick house, for he remembered where it grew, and the winter rose-tree, and the jessamine, and the passion-flower: the garden in front with the standard roses tended by her hands; the long wall to the left striped by the branches of the cherry, the peep of a further green garden through the wall, and then the orchard, and the fields beyond — the happy circle of her dwelling! it flashed before his eyes while he looked on the darkness. And yet it was the reverse of hope which kindled this light and inspired the momentary calm he experienced: it was despair exaggerating delusion, wilfully building up on a groundless basis. “For the tenacity of true passion is terrible,” says THE PILGRIM’S SCRIP: “it will stand against the hosts of heaven, God’s great array of Facts, rather than surrender its aim, and must be crushed before it will succumb — sent to the lowest pit!” He knew she was not there; she was gone. But the power of a will strained to madness fought at it, kept it down, conjured forth her ghost, and would have it as he dictated. Poor youth! the great array of facts was in due order of march.

He had breathed her name many times, and once overloud; almost a cry for her escaped him. He had not noticed the opening of a door and the noise of a foot along the gravel walk. He was leaning over Cassandra’s uneasy neck watching the one window intently, when a voice addressed him out of the darkness.

“Be that you, young gentleman? — Mr. Fev’rel?”

Richard’s trance was broken. “Mr. Blaize!” he said, recognizing the farmer’s voice.

“Good even’n t’you, sir,” returned the farmer. “I knew the mare though I didn’t know you. Rather bluff to-night it be. Will ye step in, Mr. Fev’rel? it’s beginnin’ to spit — going to be a wildish night, I reckon.”

Richard dismounted. The farmer called one of his men to hold the mare, and ushered the young man in. Once there, Richard’s conjurations ceased. There was a deadness about the rooms and passages that told of her absence. The walls he touched — these were the vacant shells of her. He had never been in the house since he knew her, and now what strange sweetness, and what pangs!

Young Tom Blaize was in the parlour, squared over the table in open-mouthed examination of an ancient book of the fashions for a summer month which had elapsed during his mother’s minority. Young Tom was respectfully studying the aspects of the radiant beauties of the polite work. He also was a thrall of woman, newly enrolled, and full of wonder.

“What, Tom!” the farmer sang out as soon as he had opened the door; “there ye be! at yer Folly agin, are ye? What good’ll them fashens do to you, I’d like t’know? Come, shut up, and go and see to Mr. Fev’rel’s mare. He’s al’ays at that ther’ Folly now. I say there never were a better name for a book than that ther’ Folly! Talk about attitudes!”

The farmer laughed his fat sides into a chair, and motioned his visitor to do likewise.

“It’s a comfort they’re most on ’em females,” he pursued, sounding a thwack on his knee as he settled himself agreeably in his seat. “It don’t matter much what they does, except pinchin’ in-waspin’ it — at the waist. Give me nature, I say — woman as she’s made! eh, young gentleman?”

“You seem very lonely here,” said Richard, glancing round, and at the ceiling.

“Lonely?” quoth the farmer. “Well, for the matter o’ that, we be! — jest now, so’t happens; I’ve got my pipe, and Tom’ve got his Folly. He’s on one side the table, and I’m on t’other. He gaapes, and I gazes. We are a bit lonesome. But there — it’s for the best!”

Richard resumed, “I hardly expected to see you to-night, Mr. Blaize.”

“Y’acted like a man in coming, young gentleman, and I does ye honour for it!” said Farmer Blaize with sudden energy and directness.

The thing implied by the farmer’s words caused Richard to take a quick breath. They looked at each other, and looked away, the farmer thrumming on the arm of his chair.

Above the mantel-piece, surrounded by tarnished indifferent miniatures of high-collared, well-to-do yeomen of the anterior generation, trying their best not to grin, and high-waisted old ladies smiling an encouraging smile through plentiful cap-puckers, there hung a passably executed half-figure of a naval officer in uniform, grasping a telescope under his left arm, who stood forth clearly as not of their kith and kin. His eyes were blue, his hair light, his bearing that of a man who knows how to carry his head and shoulders. The artist, while giving him an epaulette to indicate his rank, had also recorded the juvenility which a lieutenant in the naval service can retain after arriving at that position, by painting him with smooth cheeks and fresh ruddy lips. To this portrait Richard’s eyes were directed. Farmer Blaize observed it, and said —

“Her father, sir!”

Richard moderated his voice to praise the likeness.

“Yes,” said the farmer, “pretty well. Next best to havin’ her, though it’s a long way off that!”

“An old family, Mr. Blaize — is it not?” Richard asked in as careless a tone as he could assume.

“Gentlefolks — what’s left of ’em,” replied the farmer with an equally affected indifference.

“And that’s her father?” said Richard, growing bolder to speak of her.

“That’s her father, young gentleman!”

“Mr. Blaize,” Richard turned to face him, and burst out, “where is she?”

“Gone, sir! packed off! — Can’t have her here now.” The farmer thrummed a step brisker, and eyed the young man’s wild face resolutely.

“Mr. Blaize,” Richard leaned forward to get closer to him. He was stunned, and hardly aware of what he was saying or doing: “Where has she gone? Why did she leave?”

“You needn’t to ask, sir — ye know,” said the farmer, with a side shot of his head.

“But she did not — it was not her wish to go?”

“No! I think she likes the place. Mayhap she likes’t too well!”

“Why did you send her away to make her unhappy, Mr. Blaize?”

The farmer bluntly denied it was he was the party who made her unhappy. “Nobody can’t accuse me. Tell ye what, sir. I wunt have the busybodies set to work about her, and there’s all the matter. So let you and I come to an understandin’.”

A blind inclination to take offence made Richard sit upright. He forgot it the next minute, and said humbly: “Am I the cause of her going?”

“Well!” returned the farmer, “to speak straight — ye be!”

“What can I do, Mr. Blaize, that she may come back again?” the young hypocrite asked.

“Now,” said the farmer, “you’re coming to business. Glad to hear ye talk in that sensible way, Mr. Fev’rel. You may guess I wants her bad enough. The house ain’t itself now she’s away, and I ain’t myself. Well, sir! This ye can do. If you gives me your promise not to meddle with her at all — I can’t mak’ out how you come to be acquainted; not to try to get her to be meetin’ you — and if you’d a seen her when she left, you would — when did ye meet? — last grass, wasn’t it? — your word as a gentleman not to be writing letters, and spyin’ after her — I’ll have her back at once. Back she shall come!”

“Give her up!” cried Richard.

“Ay, that’s it!” said the farmer. “Give her up.”

The young man checked the annihilation of time that was on his mouth.

“You sent her away to protect her from me, then?” he said savagely.

“That’s not quite it, but that’ll do,” rejoined the farmer.

“Do you think I shall harm her, sir?”

“People seem to think she’ll harm you, young gentleman,” the farmer said with some irony.

“Harm me— she? What people?”

“People pretty intimate with you, sir.”

“What people? Who spoke of us?” Richard began to scent a plot, and would not be balked.

“Well, sir, look here,” said the farmer. “It ain’t no secret, and if it be, I don’t see why I’m to keep it. It appears your education’s peculiar!” The farmer drawled out the word as if he were describing the figure of a snake. “You ain’t to be as other young gentlemen. All the better! You’re a fine bold young gentleman, and your father’s a right to be proud of ye. Well, sir — I’m sure I thank him for’t — he comes to hear of you and Luce, and of course he don’t want nothin’ o’ that — more do I. I meets him there! What’s more I won’t have nothin’ of it. She be my gal. She were left to my protection. And she’s a lady, sir. Let me tell ye, ye won’t find many on ’em so well looked to as she be-my Luce! Well, Mr. Fev’rel, it’s you, or it’s her — one of ye must be out o’ the way. So we’re told. And Luce — I do believe she’s just as anxious about yer education as yer father — she says she’ll go, and wouldn’t write, and’d break it off for the sake o’ your education. And she’ve kep’ her word, haven’t she? — She’s a true’n. What she says she’ll do! — True blue she be, my Luce! So now, sir, you do the same, and I’ll thank ye.”

Any one who has tossed a sheet of paper into the fire, and seen it gradually brown with heat, and strike to flame, may conceive the mind of the lover as he listened to this speech.

His anger did not evaporate in words, but condensed and sank deep. “Mr. Blaize,” he said, “this is very kind of the people you allude to, but I am of an age now to think and act for myself — I love her, sir!” His whole countenance changed, and the muscles of his face quivered.

“Well!” said the farmer, appeasingly, “we all do at your age — somebody or other. It’s natural!”

“I love her!” the young man thundered afresh, too much possessed by his passion to have a sense of shame in the confession. “Farmer!” his voice fell to supplication, “will you bring her back?”

Farmer Blaize made a queer face. He asked — what for? and where was the promise required? — But was not the lover’s argument conclusive? He said he loved her! and he could not see why her uncle should not in consequence immediately send for her, that they might be together. All very well, quoth the farmer, but what’s to come of it? — What was to come of it? Why, love, and more love! And a bit too much! the farmer added grimly.

“Then you refuse me, farmer,” said Richard. “I must look to you for keeping her away from me, not to — to — these people. You will not have her back, though I tell you I love her better than my life?”

Farmer Blaize now had to answer him plainly, he had a reason and an objection of his own. And it was, that her character was at stake, and God knew whether she herself might not be in danger. He spoke with a kindly candour, not without dignity. He complimented Richard personally, but young people were young people; baronets’ sons were not in the habit of marrying farmers’ nieces.

At first the son of a System did not comprehend him. When he did, he said: “Farmer! if I give you my word of honour, as I hope for heaven, to marry her when I am of age, will you have her back?”

He was so fervid that, to quiet him, the farmer only shook his head doubtfully at the bars of the grate, and let his chest fall slowly. Richard caught what seemed to him a glimpse of encouragement in these signs, and observed: “It’s not because you object to me, Mr. Blaize?”

The farmer signified it was not that.

“It’s because my father is against me,” Richard went on, and undertook to show that love was so sacred a matter that no father could entirely and for ever resist his son’s inclinations. Argument being a cool field where the farmer could meet and match him, the young man got on the tramroad of his passion, and went ahead. He drew pictures of Lucy, of her truth, and his own. He took leaps from life to death, from death to life, mixing imprecations and prayers in a torrent. Perhaps he did move the stolid old Englishman a little, he was so vehement, and made so visible a sacrifice of his pride.

Farmer Blaize tried to pacify him, but it was useless. His jewel he must have.

The farmer stretched out his hand for the pipe that allayeth botheration. “May smoke heer now,” he said. “Not when — somebody’s present. Smoke in the kitchen then. Don’t mind smell?”

Richard nodded, and watched the operations while the farmer filled, and lighted, and began to puff, as if his fate hung on them.

“Who’d a’ thought, when you sat over there once, of its comin’ to this?” ejaculated the farmer, drawing ease and reflection from tobacco. “You didn’t think much of her that day, young gentleman! I introduced ye. Well! things comes about. Can’t you wait till she returns in due course, now?”

This suggestion, the work of the pipe, did but bring on him another torrent.

“It’s queer,” said the farmer, putting the mouth of the pipe to his wrinkled-up temples.

Richard waited for him, and then he laid down the pipe altogether, as no aid in perplexity, and said, after leaning his arm on the table and staring at Richard an instant:

“Look, young gentleman! My word’s gone. I’ve spoke it. I’ve given ’em the ‘surance she shan’t be back till the Spring, and then I’ll have her, and then — well! I do hope, for more reasons than one, ye’ll both be wiser — I’ve got my own notions about her. But I an’t the man to force a gal to marry ‘gainst her inclines. Depend upon it I’m not your enemy, Mr. Fev’rel. You’re jest the one to mak’ a young gal proud. So wait — and see. That’s my ‘dvice. Jest tak’ and wait. I’ve no more to say.”

Richard’s impetuosity had made him really afraid of speaking his notions concerning the projected felicity of young Tom, if indeed they were serious.

The farmer repeated that he had no more to say; and Richard, with “Wait till the Spring! Wait till the Spring!” dinning despair in his ears, stood up to depart. Farmer Blaize shook his slack hand in a friendly way, and called out at the door for young Tom, who, dreading allusions to his Folly, did not appear. A maid rushed by Richard in the passage, and slipped something into his grasp, which fixed on it without further consciousness than that of touch. The mare was led forth by the Bantam. A light rain was falling down strong warm gusts, and the trees were noisy in the night. Farmer Blaize requested Richard at the gate to give him his hand, and say all was well. He liked the young man for his earnestness and honest outspeaking. Richard could not say all was well, but he gave his hand, and knitted it to the farmer’s in a sharp squeeze, when he got upon Cassandra, and rode into the tumult.

A calm, clear dawn succeeded the roaring West, and threw its glowing grey image on the waters of the Abbey-lake. Before sunrise Tom Bakewell was abroad, and met the missing youth, his master, jogging Cassandra leisurely along the Lobourne park-road, a sorry couple to look at. Cassandra’s flanks were caked with mud, her head drooped: all that was in her had been taken out by that wild night. On what heaths and heavy fallows had she not spent her noble strength, recklessly fretting through the darkness!

“Take the mare,” said Richard, dismounting and patting her between the eyes. “She’s done up, poor old girl! Look to her, Tom, and then come to me in my room.”

Tom asked no questions.

Three days would bring the anniversary of Richard’s birth, and though Tom was close, the condition of the mare, and the young gentleman’s strange freak in riding her out all night becoming known, prepared everybody at Raynham for the usual bad-luck birthday, the prophets of which were full of sad gratification. Sir Austin had an unpleasant office to require of his son; no other than that of humbly begging Benson’s pardon, and washing out the undue blood he had spilt in taking his Pound of Flesh. Heavy Benson was told to anticipate the demand for pardon, and practised in his mind the most melancholy Christian deportment he could assume on the occasion. But while his son was in this state, Sir Austin considered that he would hardly be brought to see the virtues of the act, and did not make the requisition of him, and heavy Benson remained drawn up solemnly expectant at doorways, and at the foot of the staircase, a Saurian Caryatid, wherever he could get a step in advance of the young man, while Richard heedlessly passed him, as he passed everybody else, his head bent to the ground, and his legs bearing him like random instruments of whose service he was unconscious. It was a shock to Benson’s implicit belief in his patron; and he was not consoled by the philosophic explanation, “That Good in a strong many-compounded nature is of slower growth than any other mortal thing, and must not be forced.” Damnatory doctrines best pleased Benson. He was ready to pardon, as a Christian should, but he did want his enemy before him on his knees. And now, though the Saurian Eye saw more than all the other eyes in the house, and saw that there was matter in hand between Tom and his master to breed exceeding discomposure to the System, Benson, as he had not received his indemnity, and did not wish to encounter fresh perils for nothing, held his peace.

Sir Austin partly divined what was going on in the breast of his son, without conceiving the depths of distrust his son cherished or quite measuring the intensity of the passion that consumed him. He was very kind and tender with him. Like a cunning physician who has, nevertheless, overlooked the change in the disease super-induced by one false dose, he meditated his prescriptions carefully and confidently, sure that he knew the case, and was a match for it. He decreed that Richard’s erratic behaviour should pass unnoticed. Two days before the birthday, he asked him whether he would object to having company? To which Richard said: “Have whom you will, sir.” The preparation for festivity commenced accordingly.

On the birthday eve he dined with the rest. Lady Blandish was there, and sat penitently at his right. Hippias prognosticated certain indigestion for himself on the morrow. The Eighteenth Century wondered whether she should live to see another birthday. Adrian drank the two-years’ distant term of his tutorship, and Algernon went over the list of the Lobourne men who would cope with Bursley on the morrow. Sir Austin gave ear and a word to all, keeping his mental eye for his son. To please Lady Blandish also, Adrian ventured to make trifling jokes about London’s Mrs. Grandison; jokes delicately not decent, but so delicately so, that it was not decent to perceive it.

After dinner Richard left them. Nothing more than commonly peculiar was observed about him, beyond the excessive glitter of his eyes, but the baronet said, “Yes, yes! that will pass.” He and Adrian, and Lady Blandish, took tea in the library, and sat till a late hour discussing casuistries relating mostly to the Apple-disease. Converse very amusing to the wise youth, who could suggest to the two chaste minds situations of the shadiest character, with the air of a seeker after truth, and lead them, unsuspecting, where they dared not look about them. The Aphorist had elated the heart of his constant fair worshipper with a newly rounded if not newly conceived sentence, when they became aware that they were four. Heavy Benson stood among them. He said he had knocked, but received no answer. There was, however, a vestige of surprise and dissatisfaction on his face beholding Adrian of the company, which had not quite worn away, and gave place, when it did vanish, to an aspect of flabby severity.

“Well, Benson? well?” said the baronet.

The unmoving man replied: “If you please, Sir Austin — Mr. Richard!”

“Well!”

“He’s out!”

“Well?”

“With Bakewell!”

“Well?”

“And a carpet-bag!”

The carpet-bag might be supposed to contain that funny thing called a young hero’s romance in the making.

Out Richard was, and with a carpet-bag, which Tom Bakewell carried. He was on the road to Bellingham, under heavy rain, hasting like an escaped captive, wild with joy, while Tom shook his skin, and grunted at his discomforts. The mail train was to be caught at Bellingham. He knew where to find her now, through the intervention of Miss Davenport, and thither he was flying, an arrow loosed from the bow: thither, in spite of fathers and friends and plotters, to claim her, and take her, and stand with her against the world.

They were both thoroughly wet when they entered Bellingham, and Tom’s visions were of hot drinks. He hinted the necessity for inward consolation to his master, who could answer nothing but “Tom! Tom! I shall see her tomorrow!” It was bad — travelling in the wet, Tom hinted again, to provoke the same insane outcry, and have his arm seized and furiously shaken into the bargain. Passing the principal inn of the place, Tom spoke plainly for brandy.

“No!” cried Richard, “there’s not a moment to be lost!” and as he said it, he reeled, and fell against Tom, muttering indistinctly of faintness, and that there was no time to lose. Tom lifted him in his arms, and got admission to the inn. Brandy, the country’s specific, was advised by host and hostess, and forced into his mouth, reviving him sufficiently to cry out, “Tom! the bell’s ringing: we shall be late,” after which he fell back insensible on the sofa where they had stretched him. Excitement of blood and brain had done its work upon him. The youth suffered them to undress him and put him to bed, and there he lay, forgetful even of love; a drowned weed borne onward by the tide of the hours. There his father found him.

Was the Scientific Humanist remorseful? He had looked forward to such a crisis as that point in the disease his son was the victim of, when the body would fail and give the spirit calm to conquer the malady, knowing very well that the seeds of the evil were not of the spirit. Moreover, to see him and have him was a repose after the alarm Benson had sounded. “Mark!” he said to Lady Blandish, “when he recovers he will not care for her.”

The lady had accompanied him to the Bellingham inn on first hearing of Richard’s seizure.

“What an iron man you can be,” she exclaimed, smothering her intuitions. She was for giving the boy his bauble; promising it him, at least, if he would only get well and be the bright flower of promise he once was.

“Can you look on him,” she pleaded, “can you look on him and persevere?”

It was a hard sight for this man who loved his son so deeply. The youth lay in his strange bed, straight and motionless, with fever on his cheeks, and altered eyes.

Old Dr. Clifford of Lobourne was the medical attendant, who, with head-shaking, and gathering of lips, and reminiscences of ancient arguments, guaranteed to do all that leech could do in the matter. The old doctor did admit that Richard’s constitution was admirable, and answered to his prescriptions like a piano to the musician. “But,” he said at a family consultation, for Sir Austin had told him how it stood with the young man, “drugs are not much in cases of this sort. Change! That’s what’s wanted, and as soon as may be. Distraction! He ought to see the world, and know what he is made of. It’s no use my talking, I know,” added the doctor.

“On the contrary,” said Sir Austin, “I am quite of your persuasion. And the world he shall see — now.”

“We have dipped him in Styx, you know, doctor,” Adrian remarked.

“But, doctor,” said Lady Blandish, “have you known a case of this sort before?”

“Never, my lady,” said the doctor, “they’re not common in these parts. Country people are tolerably healthy-minded.”

“But people — and country people — have died for love, doctor?”

The doctor had not met any of them.

“Men, or women?” inquired the baronet.

Lady Blandish believed mostly women.

“Ask the doctor whether they were healthy-minded women,” said the baronet. “No! you are both looking at the wrong end. Between a highly-cultured being, and an emotionless animal, there is all the difference in the world. But of the two, the doctor is nearer the truth. The healthy nature is pretty safe. If he allowed for organization he would be right altogether. To feel, but not to feel to excess, that is the problem.”

“If I can’t have the one I chose,

To some fresh maid I will propose,”

Adrian hummed a country ballad.

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