The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, by George Meredith

Chapter 41

Austin Returns

A man with a beard saluted the wise youth Adrian in the full blaze of Piccadilly with a clap on the shoulder. Adrian glanced leisurely behind.

“Do you want to try my nerves, my dear fellow? I’m not a man of fashion, happily, or you would have struck the seat of them. How are you?”

That was his welcome to Austin Wentworth after his long absence.

Austin took his arm, and asked for news, with the hunger of one who had been in the wilderness five years.

“The Whigs have given up the ghost, my dear Austin. The free Briton is to receive Liberty’s pearl, the Ballot. The Aristocracy has had a cycle’s notice to quit. The Monarchy and old Madeira are going out; Demos and Cape wines are coming in. They call it Reform. So, you see, your absence has worked wonders. Depart for another five years, and you will return to ruined stomachs, cracked sconces, general upset, an equality made perfect by universal prostration.”

Austin indulged him in a laugh. “I want to hear about ourselves. How is old Ricky?”

“You know of his — what do they call it when greenhorns are licenced to jump into the milkpails of dairymaids? — a very charming little woman she makes, by the way — presentable! quite old Anacreon’s rose in milk. Well! everybody thought the System must die of it. Not a bit. It continued to flourish in spite. It’s in a consumption now, though — emaciated, lean, raw, spectral! I’ve this morning escaped from Raynham to avoid the sight of it. I have brought our genial uncle Hippias to town — a delightful companion! I said to him: ‘We’ve had a fine Spring.’ ‘Ugh!’ he answers, ‘there’s a time when you come to think the Spring old.’ You should have heard how he trained out the ‘old.’ I felt something like decay in my sap just to hear him. In the prize-fight of life, my dear Austin, our uncle Hippias has been unfairly hit below the belt. Let’s guard ourselves there, and go and order dinner.”

“But where’s Ricky now, and what is he doing?” said Austin.

“Ask what he has done. The miraculous boy has gone and got a baby!”

“A child? Richard has one?” Austin’s clear eyes shone with pleasure.

“I suppose it’s not common among your tropical savages. He has one: one as big as two. That has been the death-blow to the System. It bore the marriage — the baby was too much for it. Could it swallow the baby, ‘twould live. She, the wonderful woman, has produced a large boy. I assure you it’s quite amusing to see the System opening its mouth every hour of the day, trying to gulp him down, aware that it would be a consummate cure, or happy release.”

By degrees Austin learnt the baronet’s proceedings, and smiled sadly.

“How has Ricky turned out?” he asked. “What sort of a character has he?”

“The poor boy is ruined by his excessive anxiety about it. Character? he has the character of a bullet with a treble charge of powder behind it. Enthusiasm is the powder. That boy could get up an enthusiasm for the maiden days of Ops! He was going to reform the world, after your fashion, Austin — you have something to answer for. Unfortunately he began with the feminine side of it. Cupid proud of Phoebus newly slain, or Pluto wishing to people his kingdom, if you like, put it into the soft head of one of the guileless grateful creatures to kiss him for his good work. Oh, horror! he never expected that. Conceive the System in the flesh, and you have our Richard. The consequence is, that this male Peri refuses to enter his Paradise, though the gates are open for him, the trumpets blow, and the fair unspotted one awaits him fruitful within. We heard of him last that he was trying the German waters — preparatory to his undertaking the release of Italy from the subjugation of the Teuton. Let’s hope they’ll wash him. He is in the company of Lady Judith Felle — your old friend, the ardent female Radical who married the decrepit lord to carry out her principles. They always marry English lords, or foreign princes. I admire their tactics.”

“Judith is bad for him in such a state. I like her, but she was always too sentimental,” said Austin.

“Sentiment made her marry the old lord, I suppose? I like her for her sentiment, Austin. Sentimental people are sure to live long and die fat. Feeling, that’s the slayer, coz. Sentiment! ’tis the cajolery of existence: the soft bloom which whoso weareth, he or she is enviable. Would that I had more!”

“You’re not much changed, Adrian.”

“I’m not a Radical, Austin.”

Further inquiries, responded to in Adrian’s figurative speech, instructed Austin that the baronet was waiting for his son, in a posture of statuesque offended paternity, before he would receive his daughter-inlaw and grandson. That was what Adrian meant by the efforts of the System to swallow the baby.

“We’re in a tangle,” said the wise youth. “Time will extricate us, I presume, or what is the venerable signor good for?”

Austin mused some minutes, and asked for Lucy’s place of residence.

“We’ll go to her by and by,” said Adrian.

“I shall go and see her now,” said Austin.

“Well, we’ll go and order the dinner first, coz.”

“Give me her address.”

“Really, Austin, you carry matters with too long a beard,” Adrian objected. “Don’t you care what you eat?” he roared hoarsely, looking humorously hurt. “I daresay not. A slice out of him that’s handy — sauce du ciel! Go, batten on the baby, cannibal. Dinner at seven.”

Adrian gave him his own address, and Lucy’s, and strolled off to do the better thing.

Overnight Mrs. Berry had observed a long stranger in her tea-cup. Posting him on her fingers and starting him with a smack, he had vaulted lightly and thereby indicated that he was positively coming the next day. She forgot him in the bustle of her duties and the absorption of her faculties in thoughts of the incomparable stranger Lucy had presented to the world, till a knock at the street-door reminded her. “There he is!” she cried, as she ran to open to him. “There’s my stranger come!” Never was a woman’s faith in omens so justified. The stranger desired to see Mrs. Richard Feverel. He said his name was Mr. Austin Wentworth. Mrs. Berry clasped her hands, exclaiming, “Come at last!” and ran bolt out of the house to look up and down the street. Presently she returned with many excuses for her rudeness, saying: “I expected to see her comin’ home, Mr. Wentworth. Every day twice a day she go out to give her blessed angel an airing. No leavin’ the child with nursemaids for her! She is a mother! and good milk, too, thank the Lord! though her heart’s so low.”

Indoors Mrs. Berry stated who she was, related the history of the young couple, and her participation in it, and admired the beard. “Though I’d swear you don’t wear it for ornament, now!” she said, having in the first impulse designed a stroke at man’s vanity.

Ultimately Mrs. Berry spoke of the family complication, and with dejected head and joined hands threw out dark hints about Richard.

While Austin was giving his cheerfuller views of the case, Lucy came in, preceding the baby.

“I am Austin Wentworth,” he said, taking her hand. They read each other’s faces, these two, and smiled kinship.

“Your name is Lucy?”

She affirmed it softly.

“And mine is Austin, as you know.”

Mrs. Berry allowed time for Lucy’s charms to subdue him, and presented Richard’s representative, who, seeing a new face, suffered himself to be contemplated before he commenced crying aloud and knocking at the doors of Nature for something that was due to him.

“Ain’t he a lusty darlin’?” says Mrs. Berry. “Ain’t he like his own father? There can’t be no doubt about zoo, zoo pitty pet. Look at his fists. Ain’t he got passion? Ain’t he a splendid roarer? Oh!” and she went off rapturously into baby-language.

A fine boy, certainly. Mrs. Berry exhibited his legs for further proof, desiring Austin’s confirmation as to their being dumplings.

Lucy murmured a word of excuse, and bore the splendid roarer out of the room.

“She might a done it here,” said Mrs. Berry. “There’s no prettier sight, I say. If her dear husband could but see that! He’s off in his heroics — he want to be doin’ all sort o’ things: I say he’ll never do anything grander than that baby. You should ‘a seen her uncle over that baby — he came here, for I said, you shall see your own fam’ly, my dear, and so she thinks. He come, and he laughed over the baby in the joy of his heart, poor man! he cried, he did. You should see that Mr. Thompson, Mr. Wentworth — a friend o’ Mr. Richard’s, and a very modest-minded young gentleman — he worships her in his innocence. It’s a sight to see him with that baby. My belief is he’s unhappy ‘cause he can’t anyways be nurse-maid to him. O Mr. Wentworth! what do you think of her, sir?”

Austin’s reply was as satisfactory as a man’s poor speech could make it. He heard that Lady Feverel was in the house, and Mrs. Berry prepared the way for him to pay his respects to her. Then Mrs. Berry ran to Lucy, and the house buzzed with new life. The simple creatures felt in Austin’s presence something good among them. “He don’t speak much,” said Mrs. Berry, “but I see by his eye he mean a deal. He ain’t one o’ yer long-word gentry, who’s all gay deceivers, every one of ’em.”

Lucy pressed the hearty suckling into her breast. “I wonder what he thinks of me, Mrs. Berry? I could not speak to him. I loved him before I saw him. I knew what his face was like.”

“He looks proper even with a beard, and that’s a trial for a virtuous man,” said Mrs. Berry. “One sees straight through the hair with him. Think! he’ll think what any man’d think — you a-suckin’ spite o’ all your sorrow, my sweet — and my Berry talkin’ of his Roman matrons! — here’s a English wife’ll match ’em all! that’s what he thinks. And now that leetle dark under yer eye’ll clear, my darlin’, now he’ve come.”

Mrs. Berry looked to no more than that; Lucy to no more than the peace she had in being near Richard’s best friend. When she sat down to tea it was with a sense that the little room that held her was her home perhaps for many a day.

A chop procured and cooked by Mrs. Berry formed Austin’s dinner. During the meal he entertained them with anecdotes of his travels. Poor Lucy had no temptation to try to conquer Austin. That heroic weakness of hers was gone.

Mrs. Berry had said: “Three cups — I goes no further,” and Lucy had rejected the proffer of more tea, when Austin, who was in the thick of a Brazilian forest, asked her if she was a good traveller.

“I mean, can you start at a minute’s notice?”

Lucy hesitated, and then said, “Yes,” decisively, to which Mrs. Berry added, that she was not a “luggage-woman.”

“There used to be a train at seven o’clock,” Austin remarked, consulting his watch.

The two women were silent.

“Could you get ready to come with me to Raynham in ten minutes?”

Austin looked as if he had asked a commonplace question.

Lucy’s lips parted to speak. She could not answer.

Loud rattled the teaboard to Mrs. Berry’s dropping hands.

“Joy and deliverance!” she exclaimed with a foundering voice.

“Will you come?” Austin kindly asked again.

Lucy tried to stop her beating heart, as she answered, “Yes.” Mrs. Berry cunningly pretended to interpret the irresolution in her tones with a mighty whisper: “She’s thinking what’s to be done with baby.”

“He must learn to travel,” said Austin.

“Oh!” cried Mrs. Berry, “and I’ll be his nuss, and bear him, a sweet! Oh! and think of it! me nurse-maid once more at Raynham Abbey! but it’s nurse-woman now, you must say. Let us be goin’ on the spot.”

She started up and away in hot haste, fearing delay would cool the heaven-sent resolve. Austin smiled, eying his watch and Lucy alternately. She was wishing to ask a multitude of questions. His face reassured her, and saying: “I will be dressed instantly,” she also left the room. Talking, bustling, preparing, wrapping up my lord, and looking to their neatnesses, they were nevertheless ready within the time prescribed by Austin, and Mrs. Berry stood humming over the baby. “He’ll sleep it through,” she said. “He’s had enough for an alderman, and goes to sleep sound after his dinner, he do, a duck!” Before they departed, Lucy ran up to Lady Feverel. She returned for the small one.

“One moment, Mr. Wentworth!”

“Just two,” said Austin.

Master Richard was taken up, and when Lucy came back her eyes were full of tears.

“She thinks she is never to see him again, Mr. Wentworth.”

“She shall,” Austin said simply.

Off they went, and with Austin near her, Lucy forgot to dwell at all upon the great act of courage she was performing.

“I do hope baby will not wake,” was her chief solicitude.

“He!” cries nurse-woman Berry from the rear, “his little tum-tum’s as tight as he can hold, a pet! a lamb! a bird! a beauty! and ye may take yer oath he never wakes till that’s slack. He’ve got character of his own, a blessed!”

There are some tremendous citadels that only want to be taken by storm. The baronet sat alone in his library, sick of resistance, and rejoicing in the pride of no surrender; a terror to his friends and to himself. Hearing Austin’s name sonorously pronounced by the man of calves, he looked up from his book, and held out his hand. “Glad to see you, Austin.” His appearance betokened complete security. The next minute he found himself escaladed.

It was a cry from Mrs. Berry that told him others were in the room besides Austin. Lucy stood a little behind the lamp; Mrs. Berry close to the door. The door was half open, and passing through it might be seen the petrified figure of a fine man. The baronet glancing over the lamp rose at Mrs. Berry’s signification of a woman’s personality. Austin stepped back and led Lucy to him by the hand. “I have brought Richard’s wife, sir,” he said with a pleased, perfectly uncalculating, countenance, that was disarming. Very pale and trembling Lucy bowed. She felt her two hands taken, and heard a kind voice. Could it be possible it belonged to the dreadful father of her husband? She lifted her eyes nervously: her hands were still detained. The baronet contemplated Richard’s choice. Had he ever had a rivalry with those pure eyes? He saw the pain of her position shooting across her brows, and, uttering gentle inquiries as to her health, placed her in a seat. Mrs. Berry had already fallen into a chair.

“What aspect do you like for your bedroom? — East?” said the baronet.

Lucy was asking herself wonderingly: “Am I to stay?”

“Perhaps you had better take to Richard’s room at once,” he pursued. “You have the Lobourne valley there and a good morning air, and will feel more at home.”

Lucy’s colour mounted. Mrs. Berry gave a short cough, as one who should say, “The day is ours!” Undoubtedly — strange as it was to think it — the fortress was carried.

“Lucy is rather tired,” said Austin, and to hear her Christian name thus bravely spoken brought grateful dew to her eyes.

The baronet was about to touch the bell. “But have you come alone?” he asked.

At this Mrs. Berry came forward. Not immediately: it seemed to require effort for her to move, and when she was within the region of the lamp, her agitation could not escape notice. The blissful bundle shook in her arms.

“By the way, what is he to me?” Austin inquired generally as he went and unveiled the younger hope of Raynham. “My relationship is not so defined as yours, sir.”

An observer might have supposed that the baronet peeped at his grandson with the courteous indifference of one who merely wished to compliment the mother of anybody’s child.

“I really think he’s like Richard,” Austin laughed. Lucy looked: I am sure he is!

“As like as one to one,” Mrs. Berry murmured feebly; but Grandpapa not speaking she thought it incumbent on her to pluck up. “And he’s as healthy as his father was, Sir Austin — spite o’ the might ‘a beens. Reg’lar as the clock! We never want a clock since he come. We knows the hour o’ the day, and of the night.”

“You nurse him yourself, of course?” the baronet spoke to Lucy, and was satisfied on that point.

Mrs. Berry was going to display his prodigious legs. Lucy, fearing the consequent effect on the prodigious lungs, begged her not to wake him. “’T’d take a deal to do that,” said Mrs. Berry, and harped on Master Richard’s health and the small wonder it was that he enjoyed it, considering the superior quality of his diet, and the lavish attentions of his mother, and then suddenly fell silent on a deep sigh.

“He looks healthy,” said the baronet, “but I am not a judge of babies.”

Thus, having capitulated, Raynham chose to acknowledge its new commandant, who was now borne away, under the directions of the housekeeper, to occupy the room Richard had slept in when an infant.

Austin cast no thought on his success. The baronet said: “She is extremely well-looking.” He replied: “A person you take to at once.” There it ended.

But a much more animated colloquy was taking place aloft, where Lucy and Mrs. Berry sat alone. Lucy expected her to talk about the reception they had met with, and the house, and the peculiarities of the rooms, and the solid happiness that seemed in store. Mrs. Berry all the while would persist in consulting the looking-glass. Her first distinct answer was, “My dear! tell me candid, how do I look?”

“Very nice indeed, Mrs. Berry; but could you have believed he would be so kind, so considerate?”

“I am sure I looked a frump,” returned Mrs. Berry. “Oh dear! two birds at a shot. What do you think, now?”

“I never saw so wonderful a likeness,” says Lucy.

“Likeness! look at me.” Mrs. Berry was trembling and hot in the palms.

“You’re very feverish, dear Berry. What can it be?”

“Ain’t it like the love-flutters of a young gal, my dear.”

“Go to bed, Berry, dear,” says Lucy, pouting in her soft caressing way. “I will undress you, and see to you, dear heart! You’ve had so much excitement.”

“Ha! ha!” Berry laughed hysterically; “she thinks it’s about this business of hers. Why, it’s child’s-play, my darlin’. But I didn’t look for tragedy, to-night. Sleep in this house I can’t, my love!”

Lucy was astonished. “Not sleep here, Mrs. Berry? — Oh! why, you silly old thing? I know.”

“Do ye!” said Mrs. Berry, with a sceptical nose.

“You’re afraid of ghosts.”

“Belike I am when they’re six foot two in their shoes, and bellows when you stick a pin into their calves. I seen my Berry!”

“Your husband?”

“Large as life!”

Lucy meditated on optical delusions, but Mrs. Berry described him as the Colossus who had marched them into the library, and vowed that he had recognized her and quaked. “Time ain’t aged him,” said Mrs. Berry, “whereas me! he’ve got his excuse now. I know I look a frump.”

Lucy kissed her: “You look the nicest, dearest old thing.”

“You may say an old thing, my dear.”

“And your husband is really here?”

“Berry’s below!”

Profoundly uttered as this was, it chased every vestige of incredulity.

“What will you do, Mrs. Berry?”

“Go, my dear. Leave him to be happy in his own way. It’s over atween us, I see that. When I entered the house I felt there was something comin’ over me, and lo and behold ye! no sooner was we in the hall-passage — if it hadn’t been for that blessed infant I should ‘a dropped. I must ‘a known his step, for my heart began thumpin’, and I knew I hadn’t got my hair straight — that Mr. Wentworth was in such a hurry — nor my best gown. I knew he’d scorn me. He hates frumps.”

“Scorn you!” cried Lucy, angrily. “He who has behaved so wickedly!”

Mrs. Berry attempted to rise. “I may as well go at once,” she whimpered. “If I see him I shall only be disgracin’ of myself. I feel it all on my side already. Did ye mark him, my dear? I know I was vexin’ to him at times, I was. Those big men are se touchy about their dignity — nat’ral. Hark at me! I’m goin’ all soft in a minute. Let me leave the house, my dear. I daresay it was good half my fault. Young women don’t understand men sufficient — not altogether — and I was a young woman then; and then what they goes and does they ain’t quite answerable for: they feel, I daresay, pushed from behind. Yes. I’ll go. I’m a frump. I’ll go. ‘Tain’t in natur’ for me to sleep in the same house.”

Lucy laid her hands on Mrs. Berry’s shoulders, and forcibly fixed her in her seat. “Leave baby, naughty woman? I tell you he shall come to you, and fall on his knees to you and beg your forgiveness.”

“Berry on his knees!”

“Yes. And he shall beg and pray you to forgive him.”

“If you get more from Martin Berry than breath-away words, great’ll be my wonder!” said Mrs. Berry.

“We will see,” said Lucy, thoroughly determined to do something for the good creature that had befriended her.

Mrs. Berry examined her gown. “Won’t it seem we’re runnin’ after him?” she murmured faintly.

“He is your husband, Mrs. Berry. He may be wanting to come to you now.”

“Oh! Where is all I was goin’ to say to that man when we met!” Mrs. Berry ejaculated. Lucy had left the room.

On the landing outside the door Lucy met a lady dressed in black, who stopped her and asked if she was Richard’s wife, and kissed her, passing from her immediately. Lucy despatched a message for Austin, and related the Berry history. Austin sent for the great man, and said: “Do you know your wife is here?” Before Berry had time to draw himself up to enunciate his longest, he was requested to step upstairs, and as his young mistress at once led the way, Berry could not refuse to put his legs in motion and carry the stately edifice aloft.

Of the interview Mrs. Berry gave Lucy a slight sketch that night. “He began in the old way, my dear, and says I, a true heart and plain words, Martin Berry. So there he cuts himself and his Johnson short, and down he goes — down on his knees. I never could ‘a believed it. I kep my dignity as a woman till I see that sight, but that done for me. I was a ripe apple in his arms ‘fore I knew where I was. There’s something about a fine man on his knees that’s too much for us women. And it reely was the penitent on his two knees, not the lover on his one. If he mean it! But ah! what do you think he begs of me, my dear? — not to make it known in the house just yet! I can’t, I can’t say that look well.”

Lucy attributed it to his sense of shame at his conduct, and Mrs. Berry did her best to look on it in that light.

“Did the bar’net kiss ye when you wished him good-night?” she asked. Lucy said he had not. “Then bide awake as long as ye can,” was Mrs. Berry’s rejoinder. “And now let us pray blessings on that simple-speaking gentleman who does so much ‘cause he says so little.”

Like many other natural people, Mrs. Berry was only silly where her own soft heart was concerned. As she secretly anticipated, the baronet came into her room when all was quiet. She saw him go and bend over Richard the Second, and remain earnestly watching him. He then went to the half-opened door of the room where Lucy slept, leaned his ear a moment, knocked gently, and entered. Mrs. Berry heard low words interchanging within. She could not catch a syllable, yet she would have sworn to the context. “He’ve called her his daughter, promised her happiness, and given a father’s kiss to her.” When Sir Austin passed out she was in a deep sleep.

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