The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, by George Meredith

Chapter 31

The Philosopher Appears in Person

General withdrawing of heads from street-windows, emigration of organs and bands, and a relaxed atmosphere in the circle of Mrs. Berry’s abode, proved that Dan Cupid had veritably flown to suck the life of fresh regions. With a pensive mind she grasped Ripton’s arm to regulate his steps, and returned to the room where her creditor awaited her. In the interval he had stormed her undefended fortress, the cake, from which altitude he shook a dolorous head at the guilty woman. She smoothed her excited apron, sighing. Let no one imagine that she regretted her complicity. She was ready to cry torrents, but there must be absolute castigation before this criminal shall conceive the sense of regret; and probably then she will cling to her wickedness the more — such is the born Pagan’s tenacity! Mrs. Berry sighed, and gave him back his shake of the head. O you wanton, improvident creature! said he. O you very wise old gentleman! said she. He asked her the thing she had been doing. She enlightened him with the fatalist’s reply. He sounded a bogey’s alarm of contingent grave results. She retreated to the entrenched camp of the fact she had helped to make.

“It’s done!” she exclaimed. How could she regret what she felt comfort to know was done? Convinced that events alone could stamp a mark on such stubborn flesh, he determined to wait for them, and crouched silent on the cake, with one finger downward at Ripton’s incision there, showing a crumbling chasm and gloomy rich recess.

The eloquent indication was understood. “Dear! dear!” cried Mrs. Berry, “what a heap o’ cake, and no one to send it to!”

Ripton had resumed his seat by the table and his embrace of the claret. Clear ideas of satisfaction had left him and resolved to a boiling geysir of indistinguishable transports. He bubbled, and waggled, and nodded amicably to nothing, and successfully, though not without effort, preserved his uppermost member from the seductions of the nymph, Gravitation, who was on the look-out for his whole length shortly.

“Ha! ha!” he shouted, about a minute after Mrs. Berry had spoken, and almost abandoned himself to the nymph on the spot. Mrs. Berry’s words had just reached his wits.

“Why do you laugh, young man?” she inquired, familiar and motherly on account of his condition.

Ripton laughed louder, and caught his chest on the edge of the table and his nose on a chicken. “That’s goo’!” he said, recovering, and rocking under Mrs. Berry’s eyes. “No friend!”

“I did not say, no friend,” she remarked. “I said, no one; meanin’, I know not where for to send it to.”

Ripton’s response to this was: “You put a Griffin on that cake. Wheatsheaves each side.”

“His crest?” Mrs. Berry said sweetly.

“Oldest baronetcy ‘n England!” waved Ripton.

“Yes?” Mrs. Berry encouraged him on.

“You think he’s Richards. We’re oblige’ be very close. And she’s the most lovely! — If I hear man say thing ‘gainst her.”

“You needn’t for to cry over her, young man,” said Mrs. Berry. “I wanted for to drink their right healths by their right names, and then go about my day’s work, and I do hope you won’t keep me.”

Ripton stood bolt upright at her words.

“You do?” he said, and filling a bumper he with cheerfully vinous articulation and glibness of tongue proposed the health of Richard and Lucy Feverel, of Raynham Abbey! and that mankind should not require an expeditious example of the way to accept the inspiring toast, he drained his bumper at a gulp. It finished him. The farthing rushlight of his reason leapt and expired. He tumbled to the sofa and there stretched.

Some minutes subsequent to Ripton’s signalization of his devotion to the bridal pair, Mrs. Berry’s maid entered the room to say that a gentleman was inquiring below after the young gentleman who had departed, and found her mistress with a tottering wineglass in her hand, exhibiting every symptom of unconsoled hysterics. Her mouth gaped, as if the fell creditor had her by the swallow. She ejaculated with horrible exultation that she had been and done it, as her disastrous aspect seemed to testify, and her evident, but inexplicable, access of misery induced the sympathetic maid to tender those caressing words that were all Mrs. Berry wanted to go off into the self-caressing fit without delay; and she had already given the preluding demoniac ironic outburst, when the maid called heaven to witness that the gentleman would hear her; upon which Mrs. Berry violently controlled her bosom, and ordered that he should be shown upstairs instantly to see her the wretch she was. She repeated the injunction.

The maid did as she was told, and Mrs. Berry, wishing first to see herself as she was, mutely accosted the looking-glass, and tried to look a very little better. She dropped a shawl on Ripton and was settled, smoothing her agitation when her visitor was announced.

The gentleman was Adrian Harley. An interview with Tom Bakewell had put him on the track, and now a momentary survey of the table, and its white-vestured cake, made him whistle.

Mrs. Berry plaintively begged him to do her the favour to be seated.

“A fine morning, ma’am,” said Adrian.

“It have been!” Mrs. Berry answered, glancing over her shoulder at the window, and gulping as if to get her heart down from her mouth.

“A very fine Spring,” pursued Adrian, calmly anatomizing her countenance.

Mrs. Berry smothered an adjective to “weather” on a deep sigh. Her wretchedness was palpable. In proportion to it, Adrian waxed cheerful and brisk. He divined enough of the business to see that there was some strange intelligence to be fished out of the culprit who sat compressing hysterics before him; and as he was never more in his element than when he had a sinner, and a repentant prostrate abject sinner in hand, his affable countenance might well deceive poor Berry.

“I presume these are Mr. Thompson’s lodgings?” he remarked, with a look at the table.

Mrs. Berry’s head and the whites of her eyes informed him that they were not Mr. Thompson’s lodgings.

“No?” said Adrian, and threw a carelessly inquisitive eye about him. “Mr. Feverel is out, I suppose?”

A convulsive start at the name, and two corroborating hands dropped on her knees, formed Mrs. Berry’s reply.

“Mr. Feverel’s man,” continued Adrian, “told me I should be certain to find him here. I thought he would be with his friend, Mr. Thompson. I’m too late, I perceive. Their entertainment is over. I fancy you have been having a party of them here, ma’am? — a bachelors’ breakfast!”

In the presence of that cake this observation seemed to mask an irony so shrewd that Mrs. Berry could barely contain herself. She felt she must speak. Making her face as deplorably propitiating as she could, she began:

“Sir, may I beg for to know your name?”

Mr. Harley accorded her request.

Groaning in the clutch of a pitiless truth, she continued:

“And you are Mr. Harley, that was — oh! and you’ve come for Mr.?”——

Mr. Richard Feverel was the gentleman Mr. Harley had come for.

“Oh! and it’s no mistake, and he’s of Raynham Abbey?” Mrs. Berry inquired.

Adrian, very much amused, assured her that he was born and bred there.

“His father’s Sir Austin?” wailed the black-satin bunch from behind her handkerchief.

Adrian verified Richard’s descent.

“Oh, then, what have I been and done!” she cried, and stared blankly at her visitor. “I been and married my baby! I been and married the bread out of my own mouth. O Mr. Harley! Mr. Harley! I knew you when you was a boy that big, and wore jackets; and all of you. And it’s my softness that’s my ruin, for I never can resist a man’s asking. Look at that cake, Mr. Harley!”

Adrian followed her directions quite coolly. “Wedding-cake, ma’am!” he said.

“Bride-cake it is, Mr. Harley!”

“Did you make it yourself, ma’am?”

The quiet ease of the question overwhelmed Mrs. Berry, and upset that train of symbolic representations by which she was seeking to make him guess the catastrophe and spare her the furnace of confession.

“I did not make it myself, Mr. Harley,” she replied. “It’s a bought cake, and I’m a lost woman. Little I dreamed when I had him in my arms a baby that I should some day be marrying him out of my own house! I little dreamed that! Oh, why did he come to me! Don’t you remember his old nurse, when he was a baby in arms, that went away so sudden, and no fault of hers, Mr. Harley! The very mornin’ after the night you got into Mr. Benson’s cellar, and got so tipsy on his Madeary I remember it as clear as yesterday! — and Mr. Benson was that angry he threatened to use the whip to you, and I helped put you to bed. I’m that very woman.”

Adrian smiled placidly at these reminiscences of his guileless youthful life.

“Well, ma’am! well?” he said. He would bring her to the furnace.

“Won’t you see it all, kind sir?” Mrs. Berry appealed to him in pathetic dumb show.

Doubtless by this time Adrian did see it all, and was mentally cursing at Folly, and reckoning the immediate consequences, but he looked uninstructed, his peculiar dimple-smile was undisturbed, his comfortable full-bodied posture was the same. “Well, ma’am?” he spurred her on.

Mrs. Berry burst forth: “It were done this mornin’, Mr. Harley, in the church, at half-past eleven of the clock, or twenty to, by licence.”

Adrian was now obliged to comprehend a case of matrimony. “Oh!” he said, like one who is as hard as facts, and as little to be moved: “Somebody was married this morning; was it Mr. Thompson, or Mr. Feverel?”

Mrs. Berry shuffled up to Ripton, and removed the shawl from him, saying: “Do he look like a new married bridegroom, Mr. Harley?”

Adrian inspected the oblivious Ripton with philosophic gravity.

“This young gentleman was at church this morning?” he asked.

“Oh, quite reasonable and proper then,” Mrs. Berry begged him to understand.

“Of course, ma’am.” Adrian lifted and let fall the stupid inanimate limbs of the gone wretch, puckering his mouth queerly. “You were all reasonable and proper, ma’am. The principal male performer, then, is my cousin, Mr. Feverel? He was married by you, this morning, by licence at your parish church, and came here, and ate a hearty breakfast, and left intoxicated.”

Mrs. Berry flew out. “He never drink a drop, sir. A more moderate young gentleman you never see. Oh! don’t ye think that now, Mr. Harley. He was as upright and master of his mind as you be.”

“Ay!” the wise youth nodded thanks to her for the comparison, “I mean the other form of intoxication.”

Mrs. Berry sighed. She could say nothing on that score.

Adrian desired her to sit down, and compose herself, and tell him circumstantially what had been done.

She obeyed, in utter perplexity at his perfectly composed demeanour.

Mrs. Berry, as her recital declared, was no other than that identical woman who once in old days had dared to behold the baronet behind his mask, and had ever since lived in exile from the Raynham world on a little pension regularly paid to her as an indemnity. She was that woman, and the thought of it made her almost accuse Providence for the betraying excess of softness it had endowed her with. How was she to recognize her baby grown a man? He came in a feigned name; not a word of the family was mentioned. He came like an ordinary mortal, though she felt something more than ordinary to him — she knew she did. He came bringing a beautiful young lady, and on what grounds could she turn her back on them? Why, seeing that all was chaste and legal, why should she interfere to make them unhappy — so few the chances of happiness in this world! Mrs. Berry related the seizure of her ring.

“One wrench,” said the sobbing culprit, “one, and my ring was off!”

She had no suspicions, and the task of writing her name in the vestry-book had been too enacting for a thought upon the other signatures.

“I daresay you were exceedingly sorry for what you had done,” said Adrian.

“Indeed, sir,” moaned Berry, “I were, and am.”

“And would do your best to rectify the mischief — eh, ma’am?”

“Indeed, and indeed, sir, I would,” she protested solemnly.

“— As, of course, you should — knowing the family. Where may these lunatics have gone to spend the Moon?”

Mrs. Berry swimmingly replied: “To the Isle —— I don’t quite know, sir!” she snapped the indication short, and jumped out of the pit she had fallen into. Repentant as she might be, those dears should not be pursued and cruelly balked of their young bliss! “To-morrow, if you please, Mr. Harley: not today!”

“A pleasant spot,” Adrian observed, smiling at his easy prey.

By a measurement of dates he discovered that the bridegroom had brought his bride to the house on the day he had quitted Raynham, and this was enough to satisfy Adrian’s mind that there had been concoction and chicanery. Chance, probably, had brought him to the old woman: chance certainly had not brought him to the young one.

“Very well, ma’am,” he said, in answer to her petitions for his favourable offices with Sir Austin in behalf of her little pension and the bridal pair, “I will tell him you were only a blind agent in the affair, being naturally soft, and that you trust he will bless the consummation. He will be in town tomorrow morning; but one of you two must see him to-night. An emetic kindly administered will set our friend here on his legs. A bath and a clean shirt, and he might go. I don’t see why your name should appear at all. Brush him up, and send him to Bellingham by the seven o’clock train. He will find his way to Raynham; he knows the neighbourhood best in the dark. Let him go and state the case. Remember, one of you must go.”

With this fair prospect of leaving a choice of a perdition between the couple of unfortunates, for them to fight and lose all their virtue over, Adrian said, “Good morning.”

Mrs. Berry touchingly arrested him. “You won’t refuse a piece of his cake, Mr. Harley?”

“Oh, dear, no, ma’am,” Adrian turned to the cake with alacrity. “I shall claim a very large piece. Richard has a great many friends who will rejoice to eat his wedding-cake. Cut me a fair quarter, Mrs. Berry. Put it in paper, if you please. I shall be delighted to carry it to them, and apportion it equitably according to their several degrees of relationship.”

Mrs. Berry cut the cake. Somehow, as she sliced through it, the sweetness and hapless innocence of the bride was presented to her, and she launched into eulogies of Lucy, and clearly showed how little she regretted her conduct. She vowed that they seemed made for each other; that both were beautiful; both had spirit; both were innocent; and to part them, or make them unhappy, would be, Mrs. Berry wrought herself to cry aloud, oh, such a pity!

Adrian listened to it as the expression of a matter-of-fact opinion. He took the huge quarter of cake, nodded multitudinous promises, and left Mrs. Berry to bless his good heart.

“So dies the System!” was Adrian’s comment in the street. “And now let prophets roar! He dies respectably in a marriage-bed, which is more than I should have foretold of the monster. Meantime,” he gave the cake a dramatic tap, “I’ll go sow nightmares.”

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