The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, by George Meredith

Chapter 44

The Last Scene

The watch consulted by Hippias alternately with his pulse, in occult calculation hideous to mark, said half-past eleven on the midnight. Adrian, wearing a composedly amused expression on his dimpled plump face — held slightly sideways, aloof from paper and pen — sat writing at the library table. Round the baronet’s chair, in a semi-circle, were Lucy, Lady Blandish, Mrs. Doria, and Ripton, that very ill bird at Raynham. They were silent as those who question the flying minutes. Ripton had said that Richard was sure to come; but the feminine eyes reading him ever and anon, had gathered matter for disquietude, which increased as time sped. Sir Austin persisted in his habitual air of speculative repose.

Remote as he appeared from vulgar anxiety, he was the first to speak and betray his state.

“Pray, put up that watch. Impatience serves nothing,” he said, half-turning hastily to his brother behind him.

Hippias relinquished his pulse and mildly groaned: “It’s no nightmare, this!”

His remark was unheard, and the bearing of it remained obscure. Adrian’s pen made a louder flourish on his manuscript; whether in commiseration or infernal glee, none might say.

“What are you writing?” the baronet inquired testily of Adrian, after a pause; twitched, it may be, by a sort of jealousy of the wise youth’s coolness.

“Do I disturb you, sir?” rejoined Adrian. “I am engaged on a portion of a Proposal for uniting the Empires and Kingdoms of Europe under one Paternal Head, on the model of the ever-to-beadmired and lamented Holy Roman. This treats of the management of Youths and Maids, and of certain magisterial functions connected therewith. ‘It is decreed that these officers be all and every men of science,’ etc.” And Adrian cheerily drove his pen afresh.

Mrs. Doria took Lucy’s hand, mutely addressing encouragement to her, and Lucy brought as much of a smile as she could command to reply with.

“I fear we must give him up to-night,” observed Lady Blandish.

“If he said he would come, he will come,” Sir Austin interjected. Between him and the lady there was something of a contest secretly going on. He was conscious that nothing save perfect success would now hold this self-emancipating mind. She had seen him through.

“He declared to me he would be certain to come,” said Ripton; but he could look at none of them as he said it, for he was growing aware that Richard might have deceived him, and was feeling like a black conspirator against their happiness. He determined to tell the baronet what he knew, if Richard did not come by twelve.

“What is the time?” he asked Hippias in a modest voice.

“Time for me to be in bed,” growled Hippias, as if everybody present had been treating him badly.

Mrs. Berry came in to apprise Lucy that she was wanted above. She quietly rose. Sir Austin kissed her on the forehead, saying: “You had better not come down again, my child.” She kept her eyes on him. “Oblige me by retiring for the night,” he added. Lucy shook their hands, and went out, accompanied by Mrs. Doria.

“This agitation will be bad for the child,” he said, speaking to himself aloud.

Lady Blandish remarked: “I think she might just as well have returned. She will not sleep.”

“She will control herself for the child’s sake.”

“You ask too much of her.”

“Of her, not,” he emphasized.

It was twelve o’clock when Hippias shut his watch, and said with vehemence: “I’m convinced my circulation gradually and steadily decreases!”

“Going back to the preHarvey period?” murmured Adrian as he wrote.

Sir Austin and Lady Blandish knew well that any comment would introduce them to the interior of his machinery, the external view of which was sufficiently harrowing; so they maintained a discreet reserve. Taking it for acquiescence in his deplorable condition, Hippias resumed despairingly: “It’s a fact. I’ve brought you to see that. No one can be more moderate than I am, and yet I get worse. My system is organically sound — I believe: I do every possible thing, and yet I get worse. Nature never forgives! I’ll go to bed.”

The Dyspepsy departed unconsoled.

Sir Austin took up his brother’s thought: “I suppose nothing short of a miracle helps us when we have offended her.”

“Nothing short of a quack satisfies us,” said Adrian, applying wax to an envelope of official dimensions.

Ripton sat accusing his soul of cowardice while they talked; haunted by Lucy’s last look at him. He got up his courage presently and went round to Adrian, who, after a few whispered words, deliberately rose and accompanied him out of the room, shrugging. When they had gone, Lady Blandish said to the baronet: “He is not coming.”

“To-morrow, then, if not to-night,” he replied. “But I say he will come to-night.”

“You do really wish to see him united to his wife?”

The question made the baronet raise his brows with some displeasure.

“Can you ask me?”

“I mean,” said the ungenerous woman, “your System will require no further sacrifices from either of them?”

When he did answer, it was to say: “I think her altogether a superior person. I confess I should scarcely have hoped to find one like her.”

“Admit that your science does not accomplish everything.”

“No: it was presumptuous — beyond a certain point,” said the baronet, meaning deep things.

Lady Blandish eyed him. “Ah me!” she sighed, “if we would always be true to our own wisdom!”

“You are very singular to-night, Emmeline,” Sir Austin stopped his walk in front of her.

In truth, was she not unjust? Here was an offending son freely forgiven. Here was a young woman of humble birth freely accepted into his family and permitted to stand upon her qualities. Who would have done more — or as much? This lady, for instance, had the case been hers, would have fought it. All the people of position that he was acquainted with would have fought it, and that without feeling it so peculiarly. But while the baronet thought this, he did not think of the exceptional education his son had received. He took the common ground of fathers, forgetting his System when it was absolutely on trial. False to his son it could not be said that he had been: false to his System he was. Others saw it plainly, but he had to learn his lesson by and by.

Lady Blandish gave him her face; then stretched her hand to the table, saying, “Well! well!” She fingered a half-opened parcel lying there, and drew forth a little book she recognized. “Ha! what is this?” she said.

“Benson returned it this morning,” he informed her. “The stupid fellow took it away with him — by mischance, I am bound to believe.”

It was nothing other than the old Note-book. Lady Blandish turned over the leaves, and came upon the later jottings.

She read: “A maker of Proverbs — what is he but a narrow mind with the mouthpiece of narrower?”

“I do not agree with that,” she observed. He was in no humour for argument.

“Was your humility feigned when you wrote it?”

He merely said: “Consider the sort of minds influenced by set sayings. A proverb is the half-way-house to an Idea, I conceive; and the majority rest there content: can the keeper of such a house be flattered by his company?”

She felt her feminine intelligence swaying under him again. There must be greatness in a man who could thus speak of his own special and admirable aptitude.

Further she read, “Which is the coward among us? —He who sneers at the failings of Humanity!

“Oh! that is true! How much I admire that!” cried the dark-eyed dame as she beamed intellectual raptures.

Another Aphorism seemed closely to apply to him: “There is no more grievous sight, as there is no greater perversion, than a wise man at the mercy of his feelings.”

“He must have written it,” she thought, “when he had himself for an example — strange man that he is!”

Lady Blandish was still inclined to submission, though decidedly insubordinate. She had once been fairly conquered: but if what she reverenced as a great mind could conquer her, it must be a great man that should hold her captive. The Autumn Primrose blooms for the loftiest manhood; is a vindictive flower in lesser hands. Nevertheless Sir Austin had only to be successful, and this lady’s allegiance was his for ever. The trial was at hand.

She said again: “He is not coming to-night,” and the baronet, on whose visage a contemplative pleased look had been rising for a minute past, quietly added: “He is come.”

Richard’s voice was heard in the hall.

There was commotion all over the house at the return of the young heir. Berry, seizing every possible occasion to approach his Bessy now that her involuntary coldness had enhanced her value —“Such is men!” as the soft woman reflected — Berry ascended to her and delivered the news in pompous tones and wheedling gestures. “The best word you’ve spoke for many a day,” says she, and leaves him unfee’d, in an attitude, to hurry and pour bliss into Lucy’s ears.

“Lord be praised!” she entered the adjoining room exclaiming, “we’re goin’ to be happy at last. They men have come to their senses. I could cry to your Virgin and kiss your Cross, you sweet!”

“Hush!” Lucy admonished her, and crooned over the child on her knees. The tiny open hands, full of sleep, clutched; the large blue eyes started awake; and his mother, all trembling and palpitating, knowing, but thirsting to hear it, covered him with her tresses, and tried to still her frame, and rocked, and sang low, interdicting even a whisper from bursting Mrs. Berry.

Richard had come. He was under his father’s roof, in the old home that had so soon grown foreign to him. He stood close to his wife and child. He might embrace them both; and now the fulness of his anguish and the madness of the thing he had done smote the young man: now first he tasted hard earthly misery.

Had not God spoken to him in the tempest? Had not the finger of heaven directed him homeward? And he had come: here he stood: congratulations were thick in his ears: the cup of happiness was held to him, and he was invited to drink of it. Which was the dream? his work for the morrow, or this? But for a leaden load that he felt like a bullet in his breast, he might have thought the morrow with death sitting on it was the dream. Yes; he was awake. Now first the cloud of phantasms cleared away: he beheld his real life, and the colours of true human joy: and on the morrow perhaps he was to close his eyes on them. That leaden bullet dispersed all unrealities.

They stood about him in the hall, his father, Lady Blandish, Mrs. Doria, Adrian, Ripton; people who had known him long. They shook his hand: they gave him greetings he had never before understood the worth of or the meaning. Now that he did they mocked him. There was Mrs. Berry in the background bobbing, there was Martin Berry bowing, there was Tom Bakewell grinning. Somehow he loved the sight of these better.

“Ah, my old Penelope!” he said, breaking through the circle of his relatives to go to her. “Tom! how are you?”

“Bless ye, my Mr. Richard,” whimpered Mrs. Berry, and whispered rosily, “all’s agreeable now. She’s waiting up in bed for ye, like a new-born.”

The person who betrayed most agitation was Mrs. Doria. She held close to him, and eagerly studied his face and every movement, as one accustomed to masks. “You are pale, Richard?” He pleaded exhaustion. “What detained you, dear?” “Business,” he said. She drew him imperiously apart from the others. “Richard! is it over?” He asked what she meant. “The dreadful duel, Richard.” He looked darkly. “Is it over? is it done, Richard?” Getting no immediate answer, she continued — and such was her agitation that the words were shaken by pieces from her mouth: “Don’t pretend not to understand me, Richard! Is it over? Are you going to die the death of my child — Clare’s death? Is not one in a family enough? Think of your dear young wife — we love her so! — your child! — your father! Will you kill us all?”

Mrs. Doria had chanced to overhear a trifle of Ripton’s communication to Adrian, and had built thereon with the dark forces of a stricken soul.

Wondering how this woman could have divined it, Richard calmly said: “It’s arranged — the matter you allude to.”

“Indeed! truly, dear?”

“Yes.”

“Tell me”— but he broke away from her, saying: “You shall hear the particulars tomorrow,” and she, not alive to double meaning just then, allowed him to leave her.

He had eaten nothing for twelve hours, and called for food, but he would take only dry bread and claret, which was served on a tray in the library. He said, without any show of feeling, that he must eat before he saw the younger hope of Raynham: so there he sat, breaking bread, and eating great mouthfuls, and washing them down with wine, talking of what they would. His father’s studious mind felt itself years behind him, he was so completely altered. He had the precision of speech, the bearing of a man of thirty. Indeed he had all that the necessity for cloaking an infinite misery gives. But let things be as they might he was there. For one night in his life Sir Austin’s perspective of the future was bounded by the night.

“Will you go to your wife now?” he had asked, and Richard had replied with a strange indifference. The baronet thought it better that their meeting should be private, and sent word for Lucy to wait upstairs. The others perceived that father and son should now be left alone. Adrian went up to him, and said: “I can no longer witness this painful sight, so Good-night, Sir Famish! You may cheat yourself into the belief that you’ve made a meal, but depend upon it your progeny — and it threatens to be numerous — will cry aloud and rue the day. Nature never forgives! A lost dinner can never be replaced! Good-night, my dear boy. And here — oblige me by taking this,” he handed Richard the enormous envelope containing what he had written that evening. “Credentials!” he exclaimed humorously, slapping Richard on the shoulder. Ripton heard also the words “propagator — species,” but had no idea of their import. The wise youth looked: You see we’ve made matters all right for you here, and quitted the room on that unusual gleam of earnestness.

Richard shook his hand, and Ripton’s. Then Lady Blandish said her good-night, praising Lucy, and promising to pray for their mutual happiness. The two men who knew what was hanging over him, spoke together outside. Ripton was for getting a positive assurance that the duel would not be fought, but Adrian said: “Time enough tomorrow. He’s safe enough while he’s here. I’ll stop it tomorrow:” ending with banter of Ripton and allusions to his adventures with Miss Random, which must, Adrian said, have led him into many affairs of the sort. Certainly Richard was there, and while he was there he must be safe. So thought Ripton, and went to his bed. Mrs. Doria deliberated likewise, and likewise thought him safe while he was there. For once in her life she thought it better not to trust to her instinct, for fear of useless disturbance where peace should be. So she said not a syllable of it to her brother. She only looked more deeply into Richard’s eyes, as she kissed him, praising Lucy. “I have found a second daughter in her, dear. Oh! may you both be happy!”

They all praised Lucy, now. His father commenced the moment they were alone. “Poor Helen! Your wife has been a great comfort to her, Richard. I think Helen must have sunk without her. So lovely a young person, possessing mental faculty, and a conscience for her duties, I have never before met.”

He wished to gratify his son by these eulogies of Lucy, and some hours back he would have succeeded. Now it had the contrary effect.

“You compliment me on my choice, sir?”

Richard spoke sedately, but the irony was perceptible, and he could speak no other way, his bitterness was so intense.

“I think you very fortunate,” said his father.

Sensitive to tone and manner as he was, his ebullition of paternal feeling was frozen. Richard did not approach him. He leaned against the chimney-piece, glancing at the floor, and lifting his eyes only when he spoke. Fortunate! very fortunate! As he revolved his later history, and remembered how clearly he had seen that his father must love Lucy if he but knew her, and remembered his efforts to persuade her to come with him, a sting of miserable rage blackened his brain. But could he blame that gentle soul? Whom could he blame? Himself? Not utterly. His father? Yes, and no. The blame was here, the blame was there: it was everywhere and nowhere, and the young man cast it on the Fates, and looked angrily at heaven, and grew reckless.

“Richard,” said his father, coming close to him, “It is late to-night. I do not wish Lucy to remain in expectation longer, or I should have explained myself to you thoroughly, and I think — or at least hope — you would have justified me. I had cause to believe that you had not only violated my confidence, but grossly deceived me. It was not so, I now know. I was mistaken. Much of our misunderstanding has resulted from that mistake. But you were married — a boy: you knew nothing of the world, little of yourself. To save you in after-life — for there is a period when mature men and women who have married young are more impelled to temptation than in youth — though not so exposed to it — to save you, I say, I decreed that you should experience self-denial and learn something of your fellows of both sexes, before settling into a state that must have been otherwise precarious, however excellent the woman who is your mate. My System with you would have been otherwise imperfect, and you would have felt the effects of it. It is over now. You are a man. The dangers to which your nature was open are, I trust, at an end. I wish you to be happy, and I give you both my blessing, and pray God to conduct and strengthen you both.”

Sir Austin’s mind was unconscious of not having spoken devoutly. True or not, his words were idle to his son: his talk of dangers over, and happiness, mockery.

Richard coldly took his father’s extended hand.

“We will go to her,” said the baronet. “I will leave you at her door.”

Not moving: looking fixedly at his father with a hard face on which the colour rushed, Richard said: “A husband who has been unfaithful to his wife may go to her there, sir?”

It was horrible, it was cruel: Richard knew that. He wanted no advice on such a matter, having fully resolved what to do. Yesterday he would have listened to his father, and blamed himself alone, and done what was to be done humbly before God and her: now in the recklessness of his misery he had as little pity for any other soul as for his own. Sir Austin’s brows were deep drawn down.

“What did you say, Richard?”

Clearly his intelligence had taken it, but this — the worst he could hear — this that he had dreaded once and doubted, and smoothed over, and cast aside — could it be?

Richard said: “I told you all but the very words when we last parted. What else do you think would have kept me from her?”

Angered at his callous aspect, his father cried: “What brings you to her now?”

“That will be between us two,” was the reply.

Sir Austin fell into his chair. Meditation was impossible. He spoke from a wrathful heart: “You will not dare to take her without”——

“No, sir,” Richard interrupted him, “I shall not. Have no fear.”

“Then you did not love your wife?”

“Did I not?” A smile passed faintly over Richard’s face.

“Did you care so much for this — this other person?”

“So much? If you ask me whether I had affection for her, I can say I had none.”

O base human nature! Then how? then why? A thousand questions rose in the baronet’s mind. Bessy Berry could have answered them every one.

“Poor child! poor child!” he apostrophized Lucy, pacing the room. Thinking of her, knowing her deep love for his son — her true forgiving heart — it seemed she should be spared this misery.

He proposed to Richard to spare her. Vast is the distinction between women and men in this one sin, he said, and supported it with physical and moral citations. His argument carried him so far, that to hear him one would have imagined he thought the sin in men small indeed. His words were idle.

“She must know it,” said Richard, sternly. “I will go to her now, sir, if you please.”

Sir Austin detained him, expostulated, contradicted himself, confounded his principles, made nonsense of all his theories. He could not induce his son to waver in his resolve. Ultimately, their good-night being interchanged, he understood that the happiness of Raynham depended on Lucy’s mercy. He had no fears of her sweet heart, but it was a strange thing to have come to. On which should the accusation fall — on science, or on human nature?

He remained in the library pondering over the question, at times breathing contempt for his son, and again seized with unwonted suspicion of his own wisdom: troubled, much to be pitied, even if he deserved that blow from his son which had plunged him into wretchedness.

Richard went straight to Tom Bakewell, roused the heavy sleeper, and told him to have his mare saddled and waiting at the park gates East within an hour. Tom’s nearest approach to a hero was to be a faithful slave to his master, and in doing this he acted to his conception of that high and glorious character. He got up and heroically dashed his head into cold water. “She shall be ready, sir,” he nodded.

“Tom! if you don’t see me back here at Raynham, your money will go on being paid to you.”

“Rather see you than the money, Mr. Richard,” said Tom.

“And you will always watch and see no harm comes to her, Tom.”

“Mrs. Richard, sir?” Tom stared. “God bless me, Mr. Richard”——

“No questions. You’ll do what I say.”

“Ay, sir; that I will. Did’n Isle o’ Wight.”

The very name of the Island shocked Richard’s blood, and he had to walk up and down before he could knock at Lucy’s door. That infamous conspiracy to which he owed his degradation and misery scarce left him the feelings of a man when he thought of it.

The soft beloved voice responded to his knock. He opened the door, and stood before her. Lucy was half-way toward him. In the moment that passed ere she was in his arms, he had time to observe the change in her. He had left her a girl: he beheld a woman — a blooming woman: for pale at first, no sooner did she see him than the colour was rich and deep on her face and neck and bosom half shown through the loose dressing-robe, and the sense of her exceeding beauty made his heart thump and his eyes swim.

“My darling!” each cried, and they clung together, and her mouth was fastened on his.

They spoke no more. His soul was drowned in her kiss. Supporting her, whose strength was gone, he, almost as weak as she, hung over her, and clasped her closer, closer, till they were as one body, and in the oblivion her lips put upon him he was free to the bliss of her embrace. Heaven granted him that. He placed her in a chair and knelt at her feet with both arms around her. Her bosom heaved; her eyes never quitted him: their light as the light on a rolling wave. This young creature, commonly so frank and straightforward, was broken with bashfulness in her husband’s arms — womanly bashfulness on the torrent of womanly love; tenfold more seductive than the bashfulness of girlhood. Terrible tenfold the loss of her seemed now, as distantly — far on the horizon of memory — the fatal truth returned to him.

Lose her? lose this? He looked up as if to ask God to confirm it.

The same sweet blue eyes! the eyes that he had often seen in the dying glories of evening; on him they dwelt, shifting, and fluttering, and glittering, but constant: the light of them as the light on a rolling wave.

And true to him! true, good, glorious, as the angels of heaven! And his she was! a woman — his wife! The temptation to take her, and be dumb, was all powerful: the wish to die against her bosom so strong as to be the prayer of his vital forces. Again he strained her to him, but this time it was as a robber grasps priceless treasure — with exultation and defiance. One instant of this. Lucy, whose pure tenderness had now surmounted the first wild passion of their meeting, bent back her head from her surrendered body, and said almost voicelessly, her underlids wistfully quivering: “Come and see him — baby;” and then in great hope of the happiness she was going to give her husband, and share with him, and in tremour and doubt of what his feelings would be, she blushed, and her brows worked: she tried to throw off the strangeness of a year of separation, misunderstanding, and uncertainty.

“Darling! come and see him. He is here.” She spoke more clearly, though no louder.

Richard had released her, and she took his hand, and he suffered himself to be led to the other side of the bed. His heart began rapidly throbbing at the sight of a little rosy-curtained cot covered with lace like milky summer cloud.

It seemed to him he would lose his manhood if he looked on that child’s face.

“Stop!” he cried suddenly.

Lucy turned first to him, and then to her infant, fearing it should have been disturbed.

“Lucy, come back.”

“What is it, darling?” said she, in alarm at his voice and the grip he had unwittingly given her hand.

O God! what an Ordeal was this! that tomorrow he must face death, perhaps die and be torn from his darling — his wife and his child; and that ere he went forth, ere he could dare to see his child and lean his head reproachfully on his young wife’s breast — for the last time, it might be-he must stab her to the heart, shatter the image she held of him.

“Lucy!” She saw him wrenched with agony, and her own face took the whiteness of his — she bending forward to him, all her faculties strung to hearing.

He held her two hands that she might look on him and not spare the horrible wounds he was going to lay open to her eyes.

“Lucy. Do you know why I came to you to-night?”

She moved her lips repeating his words.

“Lucy. Have you guessed why I did not come before?”

Her head shook widened eyes.

“Lucy. I did not come because I was not worthy of my wife! Do you understand?”

“Darling,” she faltered plaintively, and hung crouching under him, “what have I done to make you angry with me?”

“O beloved!” cried he, the tears bursting out of his eyes. “O beloved!” was all he could say, kissing her hands passionately.

She waited, reassured, but in terror.

“Lucy. I stayed away from you — I could not come to you, because . . . I dared not come to you, my wife, my beloved! I could not come because I was a coward: because — hear me — this was the reason: I have broken my marriage oath.”

Again her lips moved. She caught at a dim fleshless meaning in them. “But you love me? Richard! My husband! you love me?”

“Yes. I have never loved, I never shall love, woman but you.”

“Darling! Kiss me.”

“Have you understood what I have told you?”

“Kiss me,” she said.

He did not join lips. “I have come to you to-night to ask your forgiveness.”

Her answer was: “Kiss me.”

“Can you forgive a man so base?”

“But you love me, Richard?”

“Yes: that I can say before God. I love you, and I have betrayed you, and am unworthy of you — not worthy to touch your hand, to kneel at your feet, to breathe the same air with you.”

Her eyes shone brilliantly. “You love me! you love me, darling!” And as one who has sailed through dark fears into daylight, she said: “My husband! my darling! you will never leave me? We never shall be parted again?”

He drew his breath painfully. To smooth her face growing rigid with fresh fears of his silence, he met her mouth. That kiss in which she spoke what her soul had to say, calmed her, and she smiled happily from it, and in her manner reminded him of his first vision of her on the summer morning in the field of the meadow-sweet. He held her to him, and thought then of a holier picture: of Mother and Child: of the sweet wonders of the life she had made real to him.

Had he not absolved his conscience? At least the pangs to come made him think so. He now followed her leading hand. Lucy whispered: “You mustn’t disturb him — mustn’t touch him, dear!” and with dainty fingers drew off the covering to the little shoulder. One arm of the child was out along the pillow; the small hand open. His baby-mouth was pouted full; the dark lashes of his eyes seemed to lie on his plump cheeks. Richard stooped lower down to him, hungering for some movement as a sign that he lived. Lucy whispered. “He sleeps like you, Richard — one arm under his head.” Great wonder, and the stir of a grasping tenderness was in Richard. He breathed quick and soft, bending lower, till Lucy’s curls, as she nestled and bent with him, rolled on the crimson quilt of the cot. A smile went up the plump cheeks: forthwith the bud of a mouth was in rapid motion. The young mother whispered, blushing: “He’s dreaming of me,” and the simple words did more than Richard’s eyes to make him see what was. Then Lucy began to hum and buzz sweet baby-language, and some of the tiny fingers stirred, and he made as if to change his cosy position, but reconsidered, and deferred it, with a peaceful little sigh. Lucy whispered: “He is such a big fellow. Oh! when you see him awake he is so like you, Richard.”

He did not hear her immediately: it seemed a bit of heaven dropped there in his likeness: the more human the fact of the child grew the more heavenly it seemed. His son! his child! should he ever see him awake? At the thought, he took the words that had been spoken, and started from the dream he had been in. “Will he wake soon, Lucy?”

“Oh no! not yet, dear: not for hours. I would have kept him awake for you, but he was so sleepy.”

Richard stood back from the cot. He thought that if he saw the eyes of his boy, and had him once on his heart, he never should have force to leave him. Then he looked down on him, again struggled to tear himself away. Two natures warred in his bosom, or it may have been the Magian Conflict still going on. He had come to see his child once and to make peace with his wife before it should be too late. Might he not stop with them? Might he not relinquish that devilish pledge? Was not divine happiness here offered to him? — If foolish Ripton had not delayed to tell him of his interview with Mountfalcon all might have been well. But pride said it was impossible. And then injury spoke. For why was he thus base and spotted to the darling of his love? A mad pleasure in the prospect of wreaking vengeance on the villain who had laid the trap for him, once more blackened his brain. If he would stay he could not. So he resolved, throwing the burden on Fate. The struggle was over, but oh, the pain!

Lucy beheld the tears streaming hot from his face on the child’s cot. She marvelled at such excess of emotion. But when his chest heaved, and the extremity of mortal anguish appeared to have seized him, her heart sank, and she tried to get him in her arms. He turned away from her and went to the window. A half-moon was over the lake.

“Look!” he said, “do you remember our rowing there one night, and we saw the shadow of the cypress? I wish I could have come early to-night that we might have had another row, and I have heard you sing there!”

“Darling!” said she, “will it make you happier if I go with you now? I will.”

“No, Lucy. Lucy, you are brave!”

“Oh, no! that I’m not. I thought so once. I know I am not now.”

“Yes! to have lived — the child on your heart — and never to have uttered a complaint! — you are brave. O my Lucy! my wife! you that have made me man! I called you a coward. I remember it. I was the coward —I the wretched vain fool! Darling! I am going to leave you now. You are brave, and you will bear it. Listen: in two days, or three, I may be back — back for good, if you will accept me. Promise me to go to bed quietly. Kiss the child for me, and tell him his father has seen him. He will learn to speak soon. Will he soon speak, Lucy?”

Dreadful suspicion kept her speechless; she could only clutch one arm of his with both her hands.

“Going?” she presently gasped.

“For two or three days. No more — I hope.”

“To-night?”

“Yes. Now.”

“Going now? my husband!” her faculties abandoned her.

“You will be brave, my Lucy!”

“Richard! my darling husband! Going? What is it takes you from me?” But questioning no further, she fell on her knees, and cried piteously to him to stay — not to leave them. Then she dragged him to the little sleeper, and urged him to pray by his side, and he did, but rose abruptly from his prayer when he had muttered a few broken words — she praying on with tight-strung nerves, in the faith that what she said to the interceding Mother above would be stronger than human hands on him. Nor could he go while she knelt there.

And he wavered. He had not reckoned on her terrible suffering. She came to him, quiet. “I knew you would remain.” And taking his hand, innocently fondling it: “Am I so changed from her he loved? You will not leave me, dear?” But dread returned, and the words quavered as she spoke them.

He was almost vanquished by the loveliness of her womanhood. She drew his hand to her heart, and strained it there under one breast. “Come: lie on my heart,” she murmured with a smile of holy sweetness.

He wavered more, and drooped to her, but summoning the powers of hell, kissed her suddenly, cried the words of parting, and hurried to the door. It was over in an instant. She cried out his name, clinging to him wildly, and was adjured to be brave, for he would be dishonoured if he did not go. Then she was shaken off.

Mrs. Berry was aroused by an unusual prolonged wailing of the child, which showed that no one was comforting it, and failing to get any answer to her applications for admittance, she made bold to enter. There she saw Lucy, the child in her lap, sitting on the floor senseless:— she had taken it from its sleep and tried to follow her husband with it as her strongest appeal to him, and had fainted.

“Oh my! oh my!” Mrs. Berry moaned, “and I just now thinkin’ they was so happy!”

Warming and caressing the poor infant, she managed by degrees to revive Lucy, and heard what had brought her to that situation.

“Go to his father,” said Mrs. Berry. “Ta-te-tiddle-te-heighty-O! Go, my love, and every horse in Raynham shall be out after ‘m. This is what men brings us to! Heighty-oighty-iddlety-Ah! Or you take blessed baby, and I’ll go.”

The baronet himself knocked at the door. “What is this?” he said. “I heard a noise and a step descend.”

“It’s Mr. Richard have gone, Sir Austin! have gone from his wife and babe! Rum-te-um-te-iddledy — Oh, my goodness! what sorrow’s come on us!” and Mrs. Berry wept, and sang to baby, and baby cried vehemently, and Lucy, sobbing, took him and danced him and sang to him with drawn lips and tears dropping over him. And if the Scientific Humanist to the day of his death forgets the sight of those two poor true women jigging on their wretched hearts to calm the child, he must have very little of the human in him.

There was no more sleep for Raynham that night.

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