The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, by George Meredith

Chapter 24

Of the Spring Primrose and the Autumnal

When the young Experiment again knew the hours that rolled him onward, he was in his own room at Raynham. Nothing had changed: only a strong fist had knocked him down and stunned him, and he opened his eyes to a grey world: he had forgotten what he lived for. He was weak and thin, and with a pale memory of things. His functions were the same, everything surrounding him was the same: he looked upon the old blue hills, the far-lying fallows, the river, and the woods: he knew them, they seemed to have lost recollection of him. Nor could he find in familiar human faces the secret of intimacy of heretofore. They were the same faces: they nodded and smiled to him. What was lost he could not tell. Something had been knocked out of him! He was sensible of his father’s sweetness of manner, and he was grieved that he could not reply to it, for every sense of shame and reproach had strangely gone. He felt very useless. In place of the fiery love for one, he now bore about a cold charity to all.

Thus in the heart of the young man died the Spring Primrose, and while it died another heart was pushing forth the Primrose of Autumn.

The wonderful change in Richard, and the wisdom of her admirer, now positively proved, were exciting matters to Lady Blandish. She was rebuked for certain little rebellious fancies concerning him that had come across her enslaved mind from time to time. For was he not almost a prophet? It distressed the sentimental lady that a love like Richard’s could pass off in mere smoke, and words such as she had heard him speak in Abbey-wood resolve to emptiness. Nay, it humiliated her personally, and the baronet’s shrewd prognostication humiliated her. For how should he know, and dare to say, that love was a thing of the dust that could be trodden out under the heel of science? But he had said so, and he had proved himself right. She heard with wonderment that Richard of his own accord had spoken to his father of the folly he had been guilty of, and had begged his pardon. The baronet told her this, adding that the youth had done it in a cold unwavering way, without a movement of his features: had evidently done it to throw off the burden of the duty he had conceived. He had thought himself bound to acknowledge that he had been the Foolish Young Fellow, wishing, possibly, to abjure the fact by an act of penance. He had also given satisfaction to Benson, and was become a renovated peaceful spirit, whose main object appeared to be to get up his physical strength by exercise and no expenditure of speech.

In her company he was composed and courteous; even when they were alone together, he did not exhibit a trace of melancholy. Sober he seemed, as one who has recovered from a drunkenness and has determined to drink no more. The idea struck her that he might be playing a part, but Tom Bakewell, in a private conversation they had, informed her that he had received an order from his young master, one day while boxing with him, not to mention the young lady’s name to him as long as he lived; and Tom could only suppose that she had offended him. Theoretically wise Lady Blandish had always thought the baronet; she was unprepared to find him thus practically sagacious. She fell many degrees; she wanted something to cling to; so she clung to the man who struck her low. Love, then, was earthly; its depth could be probed by science! A man lived who could measure it from end to end; foretell its term; handle the young cherub as were he a shot owl! We who have flown into cousinship with the empyrean, and disported among immortal hosts, our base birth as a child of Time is made bare to us! — our wings are cut! Oh, then, if science is this victorious enemy of love, let us love science! was the logic of the lady’s heart; and secretly cherishing the assurance that she should confute him yet, and prove him utterly wrong, she gave him the fruits of present success, as it is a habit of women to do; involuntarily partly. The fires took hold of her. She felt soft emotions such as a girl feels, and they flattered her. It was like youth coming back. Pure women have a second youth. The Autumn primrose flourished.

We are advised by THE PILGRIM’S SCRIP that —

“The ways of women, which are Involution, and their practices, which are Opposition, are generally best hit upon by guess work, and a bold word;"— it being impossible to track them and hunt them down in the ordinary style.

So that we may not ourselves become involved and opposed, let us each of us venture a guess and say a bold word as to how it came that the lady, who trusted love to be eternal, grovelled to him that shattered her tender faith, and loved him.

Hitherto it had been simply a sentimental dalliance, and gossips had maligned the lady. Just when the gossips grew tired of their slander, and inclined to look upon her charitably, she set about to deserve every word they had said of her; which may instruct us, if you please, that gossips have only to persist in lying to be crowned with verity, or that one has only to endure evil mouths for a period to gain impunity. She was always at the Abbey now. She was much closeted with the baronet. It seemed to be understood that she had taken Mrs. Doria’s place. Benson in his misogynic soul perceived that she was taking Lady Feverel’s: but any report circulated by Benson was sure to meet discredit, and drew the gossips upon himself; which made his meditations tragic. No sooner was one woman defeated than another took the field! The object of the System was no sooner safe than its great author was in danger!

“I can’t think what has come to Benson,” he said to Adrian.

“He seems to have received a fresh legacy of several pounds of lead,” returned the wise youth, and imitating Dr. Clifford’s manner. “Change is what he wants! distraction! send him to Wales for a month, sir, and let Richard go with him. The two victims of woman may do each other good.”

“Unfortunately I can’t do without him,” said the baronet.

“Then we must continue to have him on our shoulders all day, and on our chests all night!” Adrian ejaculated.

“I think while he preserves this aspect we won’t have him at the dinner-table,” said the baronet.

Adrian thought that would be a relief to their digestions; and added: “You know, sir, what he says?”

Receiving a negative, Adrian delicately explained to him that Benson’s excessive ponderosity of demeanour was caused by anxiety for the safety of his master.

“You must pardon a faithful fool, sir,” he continued, for the baronet became red, and exclaimed:

“His stupidity is past belief! I have absolutely to bolt my study-door against him.”

Adrian at once beheld a charming scene in the interior of the study, not unlike one that Benson had visually witnessed. For, like a wary prophet, Benson, that he might have warrant for what he foretold of the future, had a care to spy upon the present: warned haply by THE PILGRIM’S SCRIP, of which he was a diligent reader, and which says, rather emphatically: “Could we see Time’s full face, we were wise of him.” Now to see Time’s full face, it is sometimes necessary to look through keyholes, the veteran having a trick of smiling peace to you on one cheek and grimacing confusion on the other behind the curtain. Decency and a sense of honour restrain most of us from being thus wise and miserable for ever. Benson’s excuse was that he believed in his master, who was menaced. And moreover, notwithstanding his previous tribulation, to spy upon Cupid was sweet to him. So he peeped, and he saw a sight. He saw Time’s full face; or, in other words, he saw the wiles of woman and the weakness of man: which is our history, as Benson would have written it, and a great many poets and philosophers have written it.

Yet it was but the plucking of the Autumn primrose that Benson had seen: a somewhat different operation from the plucking of the Spring one: very innocent! Our staid elderly sister has paler blood, and has, or thinks she has, a reason or two about the roots. She is not all instinct. “For this high cause, and for that I know men, and know him to be the flower of men, I give myself to him!” She makes that lofty inward exclamation while the hand is detaching her from the roots. Even so strong a self-justification she requires. She has not that blind glory in excess which her younger sister can gild the longest leap with. And if, moth-like, she desires the star, she is nervously cautious of candles. Hence her circles about the dangerous human flame are wide and shy. She must be drawn nearer and nearer by a fresh reason. She loves to sentimentalize. Lady Blandish had been sentimentalizing for ten years. She would have preferred to pursue the game. The dark-eyed dame was pleased with her smooth life and the soft excitement that did not ruffle it. Not willingly did she let herself be won.

“Sentimentalists,” says THE PILGRIM’S SCRIP, “are they who seek to enjoy without incurring the Immense Debtorship for a thing done.”

“It is,” the writer says of Sentimentalism elsewhere, “a happy pastime and an important science to the timid, the idle, and the heartless; but a damning one to them who have anything to forfeit.”

However, one who could set down the dying for love, as a sentimentalism, can hardly be accepted as a clear authority. Assuredly he was not one to avoid the incurring of the immense debtorship in any way: but he was a bondsman still to the woman who had forsaken him, and a spoken word would have made it seem his duty to face that public scandal which was the last evil to him. What had so horrified the virtuous Benson, Richard had already beheld in Daphne’s Bower; a simple kissing of the fair white hand! Doubtless the keyhole somehow added to Benson’s horror. The two similar performances, so very innocent, had wondrous opposite consequences. The first kindled Richard to adore Woman; the second destroyed Benson’s faith in Man. But Lady Blandish knew the difference between the two. She understood why the baronet did not speak; excused, and respected him for it. She was content, since she must love, to love humbly, and she had, besides, her pity for his sorrows to comfort her. A hundred fresh reasons for loving him arose and multiplied every day. He read to her the secret book in his own handwriting, composed for Richard’s Marriage Guide: containing Advice and Directions to a Young Husband, full of the most tender wisdom and delicacy; so she thought; nay, not wanting in poetry, though neither rhymed nor measured. He expounded to her the distinctive character of the divers ages of love, giving the palm to the flower she put forth, over that of Spring, or the Summer rose. And while they sat and talked, “My wound has healed,” he said. “How?” she asked. “At the fountain of your eyes,” he replied, and drew the joy of new life from her blushes, without incurring further debtorship for a thing done.

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