The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, by George Meredith

Chapter 33

Nursing the Devil

And now the author of the System was on trial under the eyes of the lady who loved him. What so kind as they? Yet are they very rigorous, those soft watchful woman’s eyes. If you are below the measure they have made of you, you will feel it in the fulness of time. She cannot but show you that she took you for a giant, and has had to come down a bit. You feel yourself strangely diminishing in those sweet mirrors, till at last they drop on you complacently level. But, oh, beware, vain man, of ever waxing enamoured of that wonderful elongation of a male creature you saw reflected in her adoring upcast orbs! Beware of assisting to delude her! A woman who is not quite a fool will forgive your being but a man, if you are surely that: she will haply learn to acknowledge that no mortal tailor could have fitted that figure she made of you respectably, and that practically (though she sighs to think it) her ideal of you was on the pattern of an overgrown charity-boy in the regulation jacket and breech. For this she first scorns the narrow capacities of the tailor, and then smiles at herself. But shouldst thou, when the hour says plainly, Be thyself, and the woman is willing to take thee as thou art, shouldst thou still aspire to be that thing of shanks and wrists, wilt thou not seem contemptible as well as ridiculous? And when the fall comes, will it not be flat on thy face, instead of to the common height of men? You may fall miles below her measure of you, and be safe: nothing is damaged save an overgrown charity-boy; but if you fall below the common height of men, you must make up your mind to see her rustle her gown, spy at the looking-glass, and transfer her allegiance. The moral of which is, that if we pretend to be what we are not, woman, for whose amusement the farce is performed, will find us out and punish us for it. And it is usually the end of a sentimental dalliance.

Had Sir Austin given vent to the pain and wrath it was natural he should feel, he might have gone to unphilosophic excesses, and, however much he lowered his reputation as a sage, Lady Blandish would have excused him: she would not have loved him less for seeing him closer. But the poor gentleman tasked his soul and stretched his muscles to act up to her conception of him. He, a man of science in life, who was bound to be surprised by nothing in nature, it was not for him to do more than lift his eyebrows and draw in his lips at the news delivered by Ripton Thompson, that ill bird at Raynham.

All he said, after Ripton had handed the letters and carried his penitential headache to bed, was: “You see, Emmeline, it is useless to base any system on a human being.”

A very philosophical remark for one who has been busily at work building for nearly twenty years. Too philosophical to seem genuine. It revealed where the blow struck sharpest. Richard was no longer the Richard of his creation — his pride and his joy — but simply a human being with the rest. The bright star had sunk among the mass.

And yet, what had the young man done? And in what had the System failed?

The lady could not but ask herself this, while she condoled with the offended father.

“My friend,” she said, tenderly taking his hand before she retired, “I know how deeply you must be grieved. I know what your disappointment must be. I do not beg of you to forgive him now. You cannot doubt his love for this young person, and according to his light, has he not behaved honourably, and as you would have wished, rather than bring her to shame? You will think of that. It has been an accident — a misfortune — a terrible misfortune”. . . .

“The God of this world is in the machine — not out of it,” Sir Austin interrupted her, and pressed her hand to get the good-night over.

At any other time her mind would have been arrested to admire the phrase; now it seemed perverse, vain, false, and she was tempted to turn the meaning that was in it against himself, much as she pitied him.

“You know, Emmeline,” he added, “I believe very little in the fortune, or misfortune, to which men attribute their successes and reverses. They are useful impersonations to novelists; but my opinion is sufficiently high of flesh and blood to believe that we make our own history without intervention. Accidents? — Terrible misfortunes? — What are they? — Good-night.”

“Good-night,” she said, looking sad and troubled. “When I said, ‘misfortune,’ I meant, of course, that he is to blame, but — shall I leave you his letter to me?”

“I think I have enough to meditate upon,” he replied, coldly bowing.

“God bless you,” she whispered. “And — may I say it? do not shut your heart.”

He assured her that he hoped not to do so, and the moment she was gone he set about shutting it as tight as he could.

If, instead of saying, Base no system on a human being, he had said, Never experimentalize with one, he would have been nearer the truth of his own case. He had experimented on humanity in the person of the son he loved as his life, and at once, when the experiment appeared to have failed, all humanity’s failings fell on the shoulders of his son. Richard’s parting laugh in the train — it was explicable now: it sounded in his ears like the mockery of this base nature of ours at every endeavor to exalt and chasten it. The young man had plotted this. From step to step Sir Austin traced the plot. The curious mask he had worn since his illness; the selection of his incapable uncle Hippias for a companion in preference to Adrian; it was an evident, well-perfected plot. That hideous laugh would not be silenced. Base, like the rest, treacherous, a creature of passions using his abilities solely to gratify them — never surely had humanity such chances as in him! A Manichæan tendency, from which the sententious eulogist of nature had been struggling for years (and which was partly at the bottom of the System), now began to cloud and usurp dominion of his mind. As he sat alone in the forlorn dead-hush of his library, he saw the devil.

How are we to know when we are at the head and fountain of the fates of them we love?

There by the springs of Richard’s future, his father sat: and the devil said to him: “Only be quiet: do nothing: resolutely do nothing: your object now is to keep a brave face to the world, so that all may know you superior to this human nature that has deceived you. For it is the shameless deception, not the marriage, that has wounded you.”

“Ay!” answered the baronet, “the shameless deception, not the marriage: wicked and ruinous as it must be; a destroyer of my tenderest hopes! my dearest schemes! Not the marriage — the shameless deception!” and he crumpled up his son’s letter to him, and tossed it into the fire.

How are we to distinguish the dark chief of the Manichæans when he talks our own thoughts to us?

Further he whispered, “And your System:— if you would be brave to the world, have courage to cast the dream of it out of you: relinquish an impossible project; see it as it is — dead: too good for men!”

“Ay!” muttered the baronet: “all who would save them perish on the Cross!”

And so he sat nursing the devil.

By and by he took his lamp, and put on the old cloak and cap, and went to gaze at Ripton. That exhausted debauchee and youth without a destiny slept a dead sleep. A handkerchief was bound about his forehead, and his helpless sunken chin and snoring nose projected up the pillow, made him look absurdly piteous. The baronet remembered how often he had compared his boy with this one: his own bright boy! And where was the difference between them?

“Mere outward gilding!” said his familiar.

“Yes,” he responded, “I daresay this one never positively plotted to deceive his father: he followed his appetites unchecked, and is internally the sounder of the two.”

Ripton, with his sunken chin and snoring nose under the light of the lamp, stood for human nature, honest, however abject.

“Miss Random, I fear very much, is a necessary establishment!” whispered the monitor.

“Does the evil in us demand its natural food, or it corrupts the whole?” ejaculated Sir Austin. “And is no angel of avail till that is drawn off? And is that our conflict — to see whether we can escape the contagion of its embrace, and come uncorrupted out of that?”

“The world is wise in its way,” said the voice.

“Though it look on itself through Port wine?” he suggested, remembering his lawyer Thompson.

“Wise in not seeking to be too wise,” said the voice.

“And getting intoxicated on its drug of comfort!”

“Human nature is weak.”

“And Miss Random is an establishment, and Wild Oats an institution!”

“It always has been so.”

“And always will be?”

“So I fear! in spite of your very noble efforts.”

“And leads — whither? And ends — where?”

Richard’s laugh, taken up by horrid reverberations, as it were through the lengths of the Lower Halls, replied.

This colloquy of two voices in a brain was concluded by Sir Austin asking again if there were no actual difference between the flower of his hopes and yonder drunken weed, and receiving for answer that there was a decided dissimilarity in the smell of the couple; becoming cognizant of which he retreated.

Sir Austin did not battle with the tempter. He took him into his bosom at once, as if he had been ripe for him, and received his suggestions and bowed to his dictates. Because he suffered, and decreed that he would suffer silently, and be the only sufferer, it seemed to him that he was great-minded in his calamity. He had stood against the world. The world had beaten him. What then? He must shut his heart and mask his face; that was all. To be far in advance of the mass, is as fruitless to mankind, he reflected, as straggling in the rear. For how do we know that they move behind us at all, or move in our track? What we win for them is lost; and where we are overthrown we lie!

It was thus that a fine mind and a fine heart at the bounds of a nature not great, chose to colour his retrogression and countenance his shortcoming; and it was thus that he set about ruining the work he had done. He might well say, as he once did, that there are hours when the clearest soul becomes a cunning fox. For a grief that was private and peculiar, he unhesitatingly cast the blame upon humanity; just as he had accused it in the period of what he termed his own ordeal. How had he borne that? By masking his face. And he prepared the ordeal for his son by doing the same. This was by no means his idea of a man’s duty in tribulation, about which he could be strenuously eloquent. But it was his instinct so to act, and in times of trial great natures alone are not at the mercy of their instincts. Moreover it would cost him pain to mask his face; pain worse than that he endured when there still remained an object for him to open his heart to in proportion; and he always reposed upon the Spartan comfort of bearing pain and being passive. “Do nothing,” said the devil he nursed; which meant in his case, “Take me into you and don’t cast me out.” Excellent and sane is the outburst of wrath to men, when it stops short of slaughter. For who that locks it up to eat in solitary, can say that it is consumed? Sir Austin had as weak a digestion for wrath, as poor Hippias for a green duckling. Instead of eating it, it ate him. The wild beast in him was not the less deadly because it did not roar, and the devil in him not the less active because he resolved to do nothing.

He sat at the springs of Richard’s future, in the forlorn dead-hush of his library there, hearing the cinders click in the extinguished fire, and that humming stillness in which one may fancy one hears the midnight Fates busily stirring their embryos. The lamp glowed mildly on the bust of Chatham.

Toward morning a gentle knock fell at his door. Lady Blandish glided in. With hasty step she came straight to him, and took both his hands.

“My friend,” she said, speaking tearfully, and trembling, “I feared I should find you here. I could not sleep. How is it with you?”

“Well! Emmeline, well!” he replied, torturing his brows to fix the mask.

He wished it had been Adrian who had come to him. He had an extraordinary longing for Adrian’s society. He knew that the wise youth would divine how to treat him, and he mentally confessed to just enough weakness to demand a certain kind of management. Besides, Adrian, he had not a doubt, would accept him entirely as he seemed, and not pester him in any way by trying to unlock his heart; whereas a woman, he feared, would be waxing too womanly, and swelling from tears and supplications to a scene, of all things abhorred by him the most. So he rapped the floor with his foot, and gave the lady no very welcome face when he said it was well with him.

She sat down by his side, still holding one hand firmly, and softly detaining the other.

“Oh, my friend! may I believe you? May I speak to you?” She leaned close to him. “You know my heart. I have no better ambition than to be your friend. Surely I divide your grief, and may I not claim your confidence? Who has wept more over your great and dreadful sorrows? I would not have come to you, but I do believe that sorrow shared relieves the burden, and it is now that you may feel a woman’s aid, and something of what a woman could be to you.” . . .

“Be assured,” he gravely said, “I thank you, Emmeline, for your intentions.”

“No, no! not for my intentions! And do not thank me. Think of him . . . think of your dear boy. . . . Our Richard, as we have called him. — Oh! do not think it a foolish superstition of mine, but I have had a thought this night that has kept me in torment till I rose to speak to you. . . . Tell me first you have forgiven him.”

“A father bears no malice to his son, Emmeline.”

“Your heart has forgiven him?”

“My heart has taken what he gave.”

“And quite forgiven him?”

“You will hear no complaints of mine.”

The lady paused despondingly, and looked at him in a wistful manner, saying with a sigh, “Yes! I know how noble you are, and different from others!”

He drew one of his hands from her relaxed hold.

“You ought to be in bed, Emmeline.”

“I cannot sleep.”

“Go, and talk to me another time.”

“No, it must be now. You have helped me when I struggled to rise into a clearer world, and I think, humble as I am, I can help you now. I have had a thought this night that if you do not pray for him and bless him . . . it will end miserably. My friend, have you done so?”

He was stung and offended, and could hardly help showing it in spite of his mask.

“Have you done so, Austin?”

“This is assuredly a new way of committing fathers to the follies of their sons, Emmeline!”

“No, not that. But will you pray for your boy, and bless him, before the day comes?”

He restrained himself to pronounce his words calmly:—“And I must do this, or it will end in misery? How else can it end? Can I save him from the seed he has sown? Consider, Emmeline, what you say. He has repeated his cousin’s sin. You see the end of that.” . . .

“Oh, so different! This young person is not, is not of the class poor Austin Wentworth allied himself to. Indeed it is different. And he — be just and admit his nobleness. I fancied you did. This young person has great beauty, she has the elements of good breeding, she — indeed I think, had she been in another position, you would not have looked upon her unfavourably.”

“She may be too good for my son!” The baronet spoke with sublime bitterness.

“No woman is too good for Richard, and you know it.”

“Pass her.”

“Yes, I will speak only of him. He met her by a fatal accident. We thought his love dead, and so did he till he saw her again. He met her, he thought we were plotting against him, he thought he should lose her for ever, and in the madness of an hour he did this.” . . .

“My Emmeline pleads bravely for clandestine matches.”

“Ah! do not trifle, my friend. Say: would you have had him act as young men in his position generally do to young women beneath them?”

Sir Austin did not like the question. It probed him very severely.

“You mean,” he said, “that fathers must fold their arms, and either submit to infamous marriages, or have these creatures ruined.”

“I do not mean that,” exclaimed the lady, striving for what she did mean, and how to express it. “I mean that . . . he loved her. Is it not a madness at his age? But what I chiefly mean is — save him from the consequences. No, you shall not withdraw your hand. Think of his pride, his sensitiveness, his great wild nature — wild when he is set wrong: think how intense it is, set upon love; think, my friend, do not forget his love for you.”

Sir Austin smiled an admirable smile of pity.

“That I should save him, or any one, from consequences, is asking more than the order of things will allow to you, Emmeline, and is not in the disposition of this world. I cannot. Consequences are the natural offspring of acts. My child, you are talking sentiment, which is the distraction of our modern age in everything — a phantasmal vapour distorting the image of the life we live. You ask me to give him a golden age in spite of himself. All that could be done, by keeping him in the paths of virtue and truth, I did. He is become a man, and as a man he must reap his own sowing.”

The baffled lady sighed. He sat so rigid: he spoke so securely, as if wisdom were to him more than the love of his son. And yet he did love his son. Feeling sure that he loved his son while he spoke so loftily, she reverenced him still, baffled as she was, and sensible that she had been quibbled with.

“All I ask of you is to open your heart to him,” she said.

He kept silent.

“Call him a man — he is, and must ever be the child of your education, my friend.”

“You would console me, Emmeline, with the prospect that, if he ruins himself, he spares the world of young women. Yes, that is something!”

Closely she scanned the mask. It was impenetrable. He could meet her eyes, and respond to the pressure of her hand, and smile, and not show what he felt. Nor did he deem it hypocritical to seek to maintain his elevation in her soft soul, by simulating supreme philosophy over offended love. Nor did he know that he had an angel with him then: a blind angel, and a weak one, but one who struck upon his chance.

“Am I pardoned for coming to you?” she said, after a pause.

“Surely I can read my Emmeline’s intentions,” he gently replied.

“Very poor ones. I feel my weakness. I cannot utter half I have been thinking. Oh, if I could!”

“You speak very well, Emmeline.”

“At least, I am pardoned!”

“Surely so.”

“And before I leave you, dear friend, shall I be forgiven? — may I beg it? — will you bless him?”

He was again silent.

“Pray for him, Austin! pray for him ere the night is over.”

As she spoke she slid down to his feet and pressed his hand to her bosom.

The baronet was startled. In very dread of the soft fit that wooed him, he pushed back his chair, and rose, and went to the window.

“It’s day already!” he said with assumed vivacity, throwing open the shutters, and displaying the young light on the lawn.

Lady Blandish dried her tears as she knelt, and then joined him, and glanced up silently at Richard’s moon standing in wane toward the West. She hoped it was because of her having been premature in pleading so earnestly, that she had failed to move him, and she accused herself more than the baronet. But in acting as she had done, she had treated him as no common man, and she was compelled to perceive that his heart was at present hardly superior to the hearts of ordinary men, however composed his face might be, and apparently serene his wisdom. From that moment she grew critical of him, and began to study her idol — a process dangerous to idols. He, now that she seemed to have relinquished the painful subject, drew to her, and as one who wished to smooth a foregone roughness, murmured: “God’s rarest blessing is, after all, a good woman! My Emmeline bears her sleepless night well. She does not shame the day.” He gazed down on her with a fondling tenderness.

“I could bear many, many!” she replied, meeting his eyes, “and you would see me look better and better, if . . . if only . . . ” but she had no encouragement to end the sentence.

Perhaps he wanted some mute form of consolation; perhaps the handsome placid features of the dark-eyed dame touched him: at any rate their Platonism was advanced by his putting an arm about her. She felt the arm and talked of the morning.

Thus proximate, they by and by both heard something very like a groan behind them, and looking round, beheld the Saurian eye. Lady Blandish smiled, but the baronet’s discomposure was not to be concealed. By a strange fatality every stage of their innocent loves was certain to have a human beholder.

“Oh, I’m sure I beg pardon,” Benson mumbled, arresting his head in a melancholy pendulosity. He was ordered out of the room.

“And I think I shall follow him, and try to get forty winks,” said Lady Blandish. They parted with a quiet squeeze of hands.

The baronet then called in Benson.

“Get me my breakfast as soon as you can,” he said, regardless of the aspect of injured conscience Benson sombrely presented to him. “I am going to town early. And, Benson,” he added, “you will also go to town this afternoon, or tomorrow, if it suits you, and take your book with you to Mr. Thompson. You will not return here. A provision will be made for you. You can go.”

The heavy butler essayed to speak, but the tremendous blow and the baronet’s gesture choked him. At the door he made another effort which shook the rolls of his loose skin pitiably. An impatient signal sent him out dumb — and Raynham was quit of the one believer in the Great Shaddock dogma.

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