The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, by George Meredith

Chapter 3

The Magian Conflict

Among boys there are laws of honour and chivalrous codes, not written or formally taught, but intuitively understood by all, and invariably acted upon by the loyal and the true. The race is not nearly civilized, we must remember. Thus, not to follow your leader whithersoever he may think proper to lead; to back out of an expedition because the end of it frowns dubious, and the present fruit of it is discomfort; to quit a comrade on the road, and return home without him: these are tricks which no boy of spirit would be guilty of, let him come to any description of mortal grief in consequence. Better so than have his own conscience denouncing him sneak. Some boys who behave boldly enough are not troubled by this conscience, and the eyes and the lips of their fellows have to supply the deficiency. They do it with just as haunting, and even more horrible pertinacity, than the inner voice, and the result, if the probation be not very severe and searching, is the same. The leader can rely on the faithfulness of his host: the comrade is sworn to serve. Master Ripton Thompson was naturally loyal. The idea of turning off and forsaking his friend never once crossed his mind, though his condition was desperate, and his friend’s behaviour that of a Bedlamite. He announced several times impatiently that they would be too late for dinner. His friend did not budge. Dinner seemed nothing to him. There he lay plucking grass, and patting the old dog’s nose, as if incapable of conceiving what a thing hunger was. Ripton took half-a-dozen turns up and down, and at last flung himself down beside the taciturn boy, accepting his fate.

Now, the chance that works for certain purposes sent a smart shower from the sinking sun, and the wet sent two strangers for shelter in the lane behind the hedge where the boys reclined. One was a travelling tinker, who lit a pipe and spread a tawny umbrella. The other was a burly young countryman, pipeless and tentless. They saluted with a nod, and began recounting for each other’s benefit the day-long doings of the weather, as it had affected their individual experience and followed their prophecies. Both had anticipated and foretold a bit of rain before night, and therefore both welcomed the wet with satisfaction. A monotonous betweenwhiles kind of talk they kept droning, in harmony with the still hum of the air. From the weather theme they fell upon the blessings of tobacco; how it was the poor man’s friend, his company, his consolation, his comfort, his refuge at night, his first thought in the morning.

“Better than a wife!” chuckled the tinker. “No curtain-lecturin’ with a pipe. Your pipe an’t a shrew.”

“That be it!” the other chimed in. “Your pipe doan’t mak’ ye out wi’ all the cash Saturday evenin’.”

“Take one,” said the tinker, in the enthusiasm of the moment, handing a grimy short clay. Speed-the-Plough filled from the tinker’s pouch, and continued his praises.

“Penny a day, and there y’are, primed! Better than a wife? Ha, ha!”

“And you can get rid of it, if ye wants for to, and when ye wants,” added tinker.

“So ye can!” Speed-the-Plough took him up. “And ye doan’t want for to. Leastways, t’other case. I means pipe.”

“And,” continued tinker, comprehending him perfectly, “it don’t bring repentance after it.”

“Not nohow, master, it doan’t! And”— Speed-the-Plough cocked his eye —“it doan’t eat up half the victuals, your pipe doan’t.”

Here the honest yeoman gesticulated his keen sense of a clincher, which the tinker acknowledged; and having, so to speak, sealed up the subject by saying the best thing that could be said, the two smoked for some time in silence to the drip and patter of the shower.

Ripton solaced his wretchedness by watching them through the briar hedge. He saw the tinker stroking a white cat, and appealing to her, every now and then, as his missus, for an opinion or a confirmation; and he thought that a curious sight. Speed-the-Plough was stretched at full length, with his boots in the rain, and his head amidst the tinker’s pots, smoking, profoundly contemplative. The minutes seemed to be taken up alternately by the grey puffs from their mouths.

It was the tinker who renewed the colloquy. Said he, “Times is bad!”

His companion assented, “Sure-ly!”

“But it somehow comes round right,” resumed the tinker. “Why, look here. Where’s the good o’ moping? I sees it all come round right and tight. Now I travels about. I’ve got my beat. ‘Casion calls me t’other day to Newcastle! — Eh?”

“Coals!” ejaculated Speed-the-Plough sonorously.

“Coals!” echoed the tinker. “You ask what I goes there for, mayhap? Never you mind. One sees a mort o’ life in my trade. Not for coals it isn’t. And I don’t carry ’em there, neither. Anyhow, I comes back. London’s my mark. Says I, I’ll see a bit o’ the sea, and steps aboard a collier. We were as nigh wrecked as the prophet Paul.”

“— A— who’s him?” the other wished to know.

“Read your Bible,” said the tinker. “We pitched and tossed —‘tain’t that game at sea ’tis on land, I can tell ye! I thinks, down we’re a-going — say your prayers, Bob Tiles! That was a night, to be sure! But God’s above the devil, and here I am, ye see.”

Speed-the-Plough lurched round on his elbow and regarded him indifferently. “D’ye call that doctrin’? He bean’t al’ays, or I shoo’n’t be scrapin’ my heels wi’ nothin’ to do, and, what’s warse, nothin’ to eat. Why, look heer. Luck’s luck, and bad luck’s the contrary. Varmer Bollop, t’other day, has’s rick burnt down. Next night his gran’ry’s burnt. What do he tak’ and go and do? He takes and goes and hangs unsel’, and turns us out of his employ. God warn’t above the devil then, I thinks, or I can’t make out the reckonin’.”

The tinker cleared his throat, and said it was a bad case.

“And a darn’d bad case. I’ll tak’ my oath on’t!” cried Speed-the-Plough. “Well, look heer! Heer’s another darn’d bad case. I threshed for Varmer Blaize — Blaize o’ Beltharpe — afore I goes to Varmer Bollop. Varmer Blaize misses pilkins. He swears our chaps steals pilkins. ‘Twarn’t me steals ’em. What do he tak’ and go and do? He takes and tarns us off, me and another, neck and crop, to scuffle about and starve, for all he keers. God warn’t above the devil then, I thinks. Not nohow, as I can see!”

The tinker shook his head, and said that was a bad case also.

“And you can’t mend it,” added Speed-the-Plough. “It’s bad, and there it be. But I’ll tell ye what, master. Bad wants payin’ for.” He nodded and winked mysteriously. “Bad has its wages as well’s honest work, I’m thinkin’. Varmer Bollop I don’t owe no grudge to: Varmer Blaize I do. And I shud like to stick a Lucifer in his rick some dry windy night.” Speed-the-Plough screwed up an eye villainously. “He wants hittin’ in the wind — jest where the pocket is, master, do Varmer Blaize, and he’ll cry out ‘O Lor’!’ Varmer Blaize will. You won’t get the better o’ Varmer Blaize by no means, as I makes out, if ye doan’t hit into him jest there.”

The tinker sent a rapid succession of white clouds from his mouth, and said that would be taking the devil’s side of a bad case. Speed-the-Plough observed energetically that, if Farmer Blaize was on the other, he should be on that side.

There was a young gentleman close by, who thought with him. The hope of Raynham had lent a careless half-compelled attention to the foregoing dialogue, wherein a common labourer and a travelling tinker had propounded and discussed one of the most ancient theories of transmundane dominion and influence on mundane affairs. He now started to his feet, and came tearing through the briar hedge, calling out for one of them to direct them the nearest road to Bursley. The tinker was kindling preparations for his tea, under the tawny umbrella. A loaf was set forth, on which Ripton’s eyes, stuck in the hedge, fastened ravenously. Speed-the-Plough volunteered information that Bursley was a good three mile from where they stood, and a good eight mile from Lobourne.

“I’ll give you half-a-crown for that loaf, my good fellow,” said Richard to the tinker.

“It’s a bargain,” quoth the tinker, “eh, missus?”

His cat replied by humping her back at the dog.

The half-crown was tossed down, and Ripton, who had just succeeded in freeing his limbs from the briar, prickly as a hedgehog, collared the loaf.

“Those young squires be sharp-set, and no mistake,” said the tinker to his companion. “Come! we’ll to Bursley after ’em, and talk it out over a pot o’ beer.” Speed-the-Plough was nothing loath, and in a short time they were following the two lads on the road to Bursley, while a horizontal blaze shot across the autumn land from the Western edge of the rain-cloud.

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