The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, by George Meredith

Chapter 45

Lady Blandish to Austin Wentworth

“His ordeal is over. I have just come from his room and seen him bear the worst that could be. Return at once — he has asked for you. I can hardly write intelligibly, but I will tell you what we know.

“Two days after the dreadful night when he left us, his father heard from Ralph Morton. Richard had fought a duel in France with Lord Mountfalcon, and was lying wounded at a hamlet on the coast. His father started immediately with his poor wife, and I followed in company with his aunt and his child. The wound was not dangerous. He was shot in the side somewhere, but the ball injured no vital part. We thought all would be well. Oh! how sick I am of theories, and Systems, and the pretensions of men! There was his son lying all but dead, and the man was still unconvinced of the folly he had been guilty of. I could hardly bear the sight of his composure. I shall hate the name of Science till the day I die. Give me nothing but commonplace unpretending people!

“They were at a wretched French cabaret, smelling vilely, where we still remain, and the people try as much as they can do to compensate for our discomforts by their kindness. The French poor people are very considerate where they see suffering. I will say that for them. The doctors had not allowed his poor Lucy to go near him. She sat outside his door, and none of us dared disturb her. That was a sight for Science. His father and myself, and Mrs. Berry, were the only ones permitted to wait on him, and whenever we came out, there she sat, not speaking a word — for she had been told it would endanger his life — but she looked such awful eagerness. She had the sort of eye I fancy mad persons have. I was sure her reason was going. We did everything we could think of to comfort her. A bed was made up for her and her meals were brought to her there. Of course there was no getting her to eat. What do you suppose his alarm was fixed on? He absolutely said to me — but I have not patience to repeat his words. He thought her to blame for not commanding herself for the sake of her maternal duties. He had absolutely an idea of insisting that she should make an effort to suckle the child. I shall love that Mrs. Berry to the end of my days. I really believe she has twice the sense of any of us — Science and all. She asked him plainly if he wished to poison the child, and then he gave way, but with a bad grace.

“Poor man! perhaps I am hard on him. I remember that you said Richard had done wrong. Yes; well, that may be. But his father eclipsed his wrong in a greater wrong — a crime, or quite as bad; for if he deceived himself in the belief that he was acting righteously in separating husband and wife, and exposing his son as he did, I can only say that there are some who are worse than people who deliberately commit crimes. No doubt Science will benefit by it. They kill little animals for the sake of Science.

“We have with us Doctor Bairam, and a French physician from Dieppe, a very skilful man. It was he who told us where the real danger lay. We thought all would be well. A week had passed, and no fever supervened. We told Richard that his wife was coming to him, and he could bear to hear it. I went to her and began to circumlocute, thinking she listened — she had the same eager look. When I told her she might go in with me to see her dear husband, her features did not change. M. Després, who held her pulse at the time, told me, in a whisper, it was cerebral fever — brain fever coming on. We have talked of her since. I noticed that though she did not seem to understand me, her bosom heaved, and she appeared to be trying to repress it, and choke something. I am sure now, from what I know of her character, that she — even in the approaches of delirium — was preventing herself from crying out. Her last hold of reason was a thought for Richard. It was against a creature like this that we plotted! I have the comfort of knowing that I did my share in helping to destroy her. Had she seen her husband a day or two before — but no! there was a new System to interdict that! Or had she not so violently controlled her nature as she did, I believe she might have been saved.

“He said once of a man, that his conscience was a coxcomb. Will you believe that when he saw his son’s wife — poor victim! lying delirious, he could not even then see his error. You said he wished to take Providence out of God’s hands. His mad self-deceit would not leave him. I am positive, that while he was standing over her, he was blaming her for not having considered the child. Indeed he made a remark to me that it was unfortunate —‘disastrous,’ I think he said — that the child should have to be fed by hand. I dare say it is. All I pray is that this young child may be saved from him. I cannot bear to see him look on it. He does not spare himself bodily fatigue — but what is that? that is the vulgarest form of love. I know what you will say. You will say I have lost all charity, and I have. But I should not feel so, Austin, if I could be quite sure that he is an altered man even now the blow has struck him. He is reserved and simple in his speech, and his grief is evident, but I have doubts. He heard her while she was senseless call him cruel and harsh, and cry that she had suffered, and I saw then his mouth contract as if he had been touched. Perhaps, when he thinks, his mind will be clearer, but what he has done cannot be undone. I do not imagine he will abuse women any more. The doctor called her a ‘forte et belle jeune femme:’ and he said she was as noble a soul as ever God moulded clay upon. A noble soul ‘forte et belle!’ She lies upstairs. If he can look on her and not see his sin, I almost fear God will never enlighten him.

“She died five days after she had been removed. The shock had utterly deranged her. I was with her. She died very quietly, breathing her last breath without pain — asking for no one — a death I should like to die.

“Her cries at one time were dreadfully loud. She screamed that she was ‘drowning in fire,’ and that her husband would not come to her to save her. We deadened the sound as much as we could, but it was impossible to prevent Richard from hearing. He knew her voice, and it produced an effect like fever on him. Whenever she called he answered. You could not hear them without weeping. Mrs. Berry sat with her, and I sat with him, and his father moved from one to the other.

“But the trial for us came when she was gone. How to communicate it to Richard — or whether to do so at all! His father consulted with us. We were quite decided that it would be madness to breathe it while he was in that state. I can admit now — as things have turned out — we were wrong. His father left us — I believe he spent the time in prayer — and then leaning on me, he went to Richard, and said in so many words, that his Lucy was no more. I thought it must kill him. He listened, and smiled. I never saw a smile so sweet and so sad. He said he had seen her die, as if he had passed through his suffering a long time ago. He shut his eyes. I could see by the motion of his eyeballs up that he was straining his sight to some inner heaven. — I cannot go on.

“I think Richard is safe. Had we postponed the tidings, till he came to his clear senses, it must have killed him. His father was right for once, then. But if he has saved his son’s body, he has given the death-blow to his heart. Richard will never be what he promised.

“A letter found on his clothes tells us the origin of the quarrel. I have had an interview with Lord M. this morning. I cannot say I think him exactly to blame: Richard forced him to fight. At least I do not select him the foremost for blame. He was deeply and sincerely affected by the calamity he has caused. Alas! he was only an instrument. Your poor aunt is utterly prostrate and talks strange things of her daughter’s death. She is only happy in drudging. Dr. Bairam says we must under any circumstances keep her employed. Whilst she is doing something, she can chat freely, but the moment her hands are not occupied she gives me an idea that she is going into a fit.

“We expect the dear child’s uncle today. Mr. Thompson is here. I have taken him upstairs to look at her. That poor young man has a true heart.

“Come at once. You will not be in time to see her. She will lie at Raynham. If you could you would see an angel. He sits by her side for hours. I can give you no description of her beauty.

“You will not delay, I know, dear Austin, and I want you, for your presence will make me more charitable than I find it possible to be. Have you noticed the expression in the eyes of blind men? That is just how Richard looks, as he lies there silent in his bed — striving to image her on his brain.”

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