The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, by George Meredith

15. Ferdinand and Miranda

He had landed on an island of the still-vexed Bermoothes. The world lay wrecked behind him: Raynham hung in mists, remote, a phantom to the vivid reality of this white hand which had drawn him thither away thousands of leagues in an eye-twinkle. Hark, how Ariel sang overhead! What splendour in the heavens! What marvels of beauty about his enchanted brows! And, O you wonder! Fair Flame! by whose light the glories of being are now first seen. . . . Radiant Miranda! Prince Ferdinand is at your feet.

Or is it Adam, his rib taken from his side in sleep, and thus transformed, to make him behold his Paradise, and lose it? . . .

The youth looked on her with as glowing an eye. It was the First Woman to him.

And she—mankind was all Caliban to her, saving this one princely youth.

So to each other said their changing eyes in the moment they stood together; he pale, and she blushing.

She was indeed sweetly fair, and would have been held fair among rival damsels. On a magic shore, and to a youth educated by a System, strung like an arrow drawn to the head, he, it might be guessed, could fly fast and far with her. The soft rose in her cheeks, the clearness of her eyes, bore witness to the body’s virtue; and health and happy blood were in her bearing. Had she stood before Sir Austin among rival damsels, that Scientific Humanist, for the consummation of his System, would have thrown her the handkerchief for his son. The wide summer-hat, nodding over her forehead to her brows, seemed to flow with the flowing heavy curls, and those fire-threaded mellow curls, only half-curls, waves of hair call them, rippling at the ends, went like a sunny red-veined torrent down her back almost to her waist: a glorious vision to the youth, who embraced it as a flower of beauty, and read not a feature. There were curious features of colour in her face for him to have read. Her brows, thick and brownish against a soft skin showing the action of the blood, met in the bend of a bow, extending to the temples long and level: you saw that she was fashioned to peruse the sights of earth, and by the pliability of her brows that the wonderful creature used her faculty, and was not going to be a statue to the gazer. Under the dark thick brows an arch of lashes shot out, giving a wealth of darkness to the full frank blue eyes, a mystery of meaning—more than brain was ever meant to fathom: richer, henceforth, than all mortal wisdom to Prince Ferdinand. For when nature turns artist, and produces contrasts of colour on a fair face, where is the Sage, or what the Oracle, shall match the depth of its lightest look?

Prince Ferdinand was also fair. In his slim boating-attire his figure looked heroic. His hair, rising from the parting to the right of his forehead, in what his admiring Lady Blandish called his plume, fell away slanting silkily to the temples across the nearly imperceptible upward curve of his brows there—felt more than seen, so slight it was—and gave to his profile a bold beauty, to which his bashful, breathless air was a flattering charm. An arrow drawn to the head, capable of flying fast and far with her! He leaned a little forward, drinking her in with all his eyes, and young Love has a thousand. Then truly the System triumphed, just ere it was to fall; and could Sir Austin have been content to draw the arrow to the head, and let it fly, when it would fly, he might have pointed to his son again, and said to the world, “Match him!” Such keen bliss as the youth had in the sight of her, an innocent youth alone has powers of soul in him to experience.

“O Women!” says THE PILGRIM’S SCRIP, in one of its solitary outbursts, “Women, who like, and will have for hero, a rake! how soon are you not to learn that you have taken bankrupts to your bosoms, and that the putrescent gold that attracted you is the slime of the Lake of Sin!”

If these two were Ferdinand and Miranda, Sir Austin was not Prospero, and was not present, or their fates might have been different.

So they stood a moment, changing eyes, and then Miranda spoke, and they came down to earth, feeling no less in heaven.

She spoke to thank him for his aid. She used quite common simple words; and used them, no doubt, to express a common simple meaning: but to him she was uttering magic, casting spells, and the effect they had on him was manifested in the incoherence of his replies, which were too foolish to be chronicled.

The couple were again mute. Suddenly Miranda, with an exclamation of anguish, and innumerable lights and shadows playing over her lovely face, clapped her hands, crying aloud, “My book! my book!” and ran to the bank.

Prince Ferdinand was at her side. “What have you lost?” he said.

“My book!” she answered, her delicious curls swinging across her shoulders to the stream. Then turning to him, “Oh, no, no! let me entreat you not to,” she said; “I do not so very much mind losing it.” And in her eagerness to restrain him she unconsciously laid her gentle hand upon his arm, and took the force of motion out of him.

“Indeed, I do not really care for the silly book,” she continued, withdrawing her hand quickly, and reddening. “Pray, do not!”

The young gentleman had kicked off his shoes. No sooner was the spell of contact broken than he jumped in. The water was still troubled and discoloured by his introductory adventure, and, though he ducked his head with the spirit of a dabchick, the book was missing. A scrap of paper floating from the bramble just above the water, and looking as if fire had caught its edges and it had flown from one adverse element to the other, was all he could lay hold of; and he returned to land disconsolately, to hear Miranda’s murmured mixing of thanks and pretty expostulations.

“Let me try again,” he said.

“No, indeed!” she replied, and used the awful threat: “I will run away if you do,” which effectually restrained him.

Her eye fell on the fire-stained scrap of paper, and brightened, as she cried, “There, there! you have what I want. It is that. I do not care for the book. No, please! You are not to look at it. Give it me.”

Before her playfully imperative injunction was fairly spoken, Richard had glanced at the document and discovered a Griffin between two Wheatsheaves: his crest in silver: and below—O wonderment immense! his own handwriting!

He handed it to her. She took it, and put it in her bosom.

Who would have thought, that, where all else perished, Odes, Idyls, Lines, Stanzas, this one Sonnet to the stars should be miraculously reserved for such a starry fate—passing beatitude!

As they walked silently across the meadow, Richard strove to remember the hour and the mood of mind in which he had composed the notable production. The stars were invoked, as seeing and foreseeing all, to tell him where then his love reclined, and so forth; Hesper was complacent enough to do so, and described her in a couplet —

“Through sunset’s amber see me shining fair,

As her blue eyes shine through her golden hair.”

And surely no words could be more prophetic. Here were two blue eyes and golden hair; and by some strange chance, that appeared like the working of a divine finger, she had become the possessor of the prophecy, she that was to fulfil it! The youth was too charged with emotion to speak. Doubtless the damsel had less to think of, or had some trifling burden on her conscience, for she seemed to grow embarrassed. At last she drew up her chin to look at her companion under the nodding brim of her hat (and the action gave her a charmingly freakish air), crying, “But where are you going to? You are wet through. Let me thank you again; and, pray, leave me, and go home and change instantly.”

“Wet?” replied the magnetic muser, with a voice of tender interest; “not more than one foot, I hope. I will leave you while you dry your stockings in the sun.”

At this she could not withhold a shy laugh.

“Not I, but you. You would try to get that silly book for me, and you are dripping wet. Are you not very uncomfortable?”

In all sincerity he assured her that he was not.

“And you really do not feel that you are wet?”

He really did not: and it was a fact that he spoke truth.

She pursed her dewberry mouth in the most comical way, and her blue eyes lightened laughter out of the half-closed lids.

“I cannot help it,” she said, her mouth opening, and sounding harmonious bells of laughter in his ears. “Pardon me, won’t you?”

His face took the same soft smiling curves in admiration of her.

“Not to feel that you have been in the water, the very moment after!” she musically interjected, seeing she was excused.

“It’s true,” he said; and his own gravity then touched him to join a duet with her, which made them no longer feel strangers, and did the work of a month of intimacy. Better than sentiment, laughter opens the breast to love; opens the whole breast to his full quiver, instead of a corner here and there for a solitary arrow. Hail the occasion propitious, O British young! and laugh and treat love as an honest God, and dabble not with the sentimental rouge. These two laughed, and the souls of each cried out to the other, “It is I, it is I.”

They laughed and forgot the cause of their laughter, and the sun dried his light river clothing, and they strolled toward the blackbird’s copse, and stood near a stile in sight of the foam of the weir and the many-coloured rings of eddies streaming forth from it.

Richard’s boat, meanwhile, had contrived to shoot the weir, and was swinging, bottom upward, broadside with the current down the rapid backwater.

“Will you let it go?” said the damsel, eyeing it curiously.

“It can’t be stopped,” he replied, and could have added: “What do I care for it now!”

His old life was whirled away with it, dead, drowned. His new life was with her, alive, divine.

She flapped low the brim of her hat. “You must really not come any farther,” she softly said.

“And will you go, and not tell me who you are?” he asked, growing bold as the fears of losing her came across him. “And will you not tell me before you go”—his face burned—“how you came by that—that paper?”

She chose to select the easier question for answer: “You ought to know me; we have been introduced.” Sweet was her winning off-hand affability.

“Then who, in heaven’s name, are you? Tell me! I never could have forgotten you.”

“You have, I think,” she said.

“Impossible that we could ever have met, and I forget you!”

She looked up at him.

“Do you remember Belthorpe?”

“Belthorpe! Belthorpe!” quoth Richard, as if he had to touch his brain to recollect there was such a place. “Do you mean old Blaize’s farm?”

“Then I am old Blaize’s niece.” She tripped him a soft curtsey.

The magnetized youth gazed at her. By what magic was it that this divine sweet creature could be allied with that old churl!

“Then what—what is your name?” said his mouth, while his eyes added, “O wonderful creature! How came you to enrich the earth?”

“Have you forgot the Desboroughs of Dorset, too?” she peered at him from a side-bend of the flapping brim.

“The Desboroughs of Dorset?” A light broke in on him. “And have you grown to this? That little girl I saw there!”

He drew close to her to read the nearest features of the vision. She could no more laugh off the piercing fervour of his eyes. Her volubility fluttered under his deeply wistful look, and now neither voice was high, and they were mutually constrained.

“You see,” she murmured, “we are old acquaintances.”

Richard, with his eyes still intently fixed on her, returned, “You are very beautiful!”

The words slipped out. Perfect simplicity is unconsciously audacious. Her overpowering beauty struck his heart, and, like an instrument that is touched and answers to the touch, he spoke.

Miss Desborough made an effort to trifle with this terrible directness; but his eyes would not be gainsaid, and checked her lips. She turned away from them, her bosom a little rebellious. Praise so passionately spoken, and by one who has been a damsel’s first dream, dreamed of nightly many long nights, and clothed in the virgin silver of her thoughts in bud, praise from him is coin the heart cannot reject, if it would. She quickened her steps.

“I have offended you!” said a mortally wounded voice across her shoulder.

That he should think so were too dreadful.

“Oh no, no! you would never offend me.” She gave him her whole sweet face.

“Then why—why do you leave me?”

“Because,” she hesitated, “I must go.”

“No. You must not go. Why must you go? Do not go.”

“Indeed I must,” she said, pulling at the obnoxious broad brim of her hat; and, interpreting a pause he made for his assent to her rational resolve, shyly looking at him, she held her hand out, and said, “Good-bye,” as if it were a natural thing to say.

The hand was pure white—white and fragrant as the frosted blossom of a Maynight. It was the hand whose shadow, cast before, he had last night bent his head reverentially above, and kissed—resigning himself thereupon over to execution for payment of the penalty of such daring—by such bliss well rewarded.

He took the hand, and held it, gazing between her eyes.

“Good-bye,” she said again, as frankly as she could, and at the same time slightly compressing her fingers on his in token of adieu. It was a signal for his to close firmly upon hers.

“You will not go?”

“Pray, let me,” she pleaded, her sweet brows suing in wrinkles.

“You will not go?” Mechanically he drew the white hand nearer his thumping heart.

“I must,” she faltered piteously.

“You will not go?”

“Oh yes! yes!”

“Tell me. Do you wish to go?”

The question was a subtle one. A moment or two she did not answer, and then forswore herself, and said, Yes.

“Do you—you wish to go?” He looked with quivering eyelids under hers.

A fainter Yes responded.

“You wish—wish to leave me?” His breath went with the words.

“Indeed I must.”

Her hand became a closer prisoner.

All at once an alarming delicious shudder went through her frame. From him to her it coursed, and back from her to him. Forward and back love’s electric messenger rushed from heart to heart, knocking at each, till it surged tumultuously against the bars of its prison, crying out for its mate. They stood trembling in unison, a lovely couple under these fair heavens of the morning.

When he could get his voice it said, “Will you go?”

But she had none to reply with, and could only mutely bend upward her gentle wrist.

“Then, farewell!” he said, and, dropping his lips to the soft fair hand, kissed it, and hung his head, swinging away from her, ready for death.

Strange, that now she was released she should linger by him. Strange, that his audacity, instead of the executioner, brought blushes and timid tenderness to his side, and the sweet words, “You are not angry with me?”

“With you, O Beloved!” cried his soul. “And you forgive me, fair charity!”

“I think it was rude of me to go without thanking you again,” she said, and again proffered her hand.

The sweet heaven-bird shivered out his song above him. The gracious glory of heaven fell upon his soul. He touched her hand, not moving his eyes from her, nor speaking, and she, with a soft word of farewell, passed across the stile, and up the pathway through the dewy shades of the copse, and out of the arch of the light, away from his eyes.

And away with her went the wild enchantment. He looked on barren air. But it was no more the world of yesterday. The marvellous splendours had sown seeds in him, ready to spring up and bloom at her gaze; and in his bosom now the vivid conjuration of her tones, her face, her shape, makes them leap and illumine him like fitful summer lightnings—ghosts of the vanished sun.

There was nothing to tell him that he had been making love and declaring it with extraordinary rapidity; nor did he know it. Soft flushed cheeks! sweet mouth! strange sweet brows! eyes of softest fire! how could his ripe eyes behold you, and not plead to keep you? Nay, how could he let you go? And he seriously asked himself that question.

To-morrow this place will have a memory—the river and the meadow, and the white falling weir: his heart will build a temple here; and the skylark will be its high-priest, and the old blackbird its glossy-gowned chorister, and there will be a sacred repast of dewberries. To-day the grass is grass: his heart is chased by phantoms and finds rest nowhere. Only when the most tender freshness of his flower comes across him does he taste a moment’s calm; and no sooner does it come than it gives place to keen pangs for fear that she may not be his for ever.

Erelong he learns that her name is Lucy. Erelong he meets Ralph, and discovers that in a day he has distanced him by a sphere. He and Ralph and the curate of Lobourne join in their walks, and raise classical discussions on ladies’ hair, fingering a thousand delicious locks, from those of Cleopatra to the Borgia’s. “Fair! fair! all of them fair!” sighs the melancholy curate, “as are those women formed for our perdition! I think we have in this country what will match the Italian or the Greek.” His mind flutters to Mrs. Doria, Richard blushes before the vision of Lucy, and Ralph, whose heroine’s hair is a dark luxuriance, dissents, and claims a noble share in the slaughter of men for dark-haired Wonders. They have no mutual confidences, but they are singularly kind to each other, these three children of instinct.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57