The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, by George Meredith

21. Richard is Summoned to Town to Hear a Sermon

By twelve o’clock at noon next day the inhabitants of Raynham Abbey knew that Berry, the baronet’s man, had arrived post-haste from town, with orders to conduct Mr. Richard thither, and that Mr. Richard had refused to go, had sworn he would not, defied his father, and despatched Berry to the Shades. Berry was all that Benson was not. Whereas Benson hated woman, Berry admired her warmly. Second to his own stately person, woman occupied his reflections, and commanded his homage. Berry was of majestic port, and used dictionary words. Among the maids of Raynham his conscious calves produced all the discord and the frenzy those adornments seem destined to create in tender bosoms. He had, moreover, the reputation of having suffered for the sex; which assisted his object in inducing the sex to suffer for him. What with his calves, and his dictionary words, and the attractive halo of the mysterious vindictiveness of Venus surrounding him, this Adonis of the lower household was a mighty man below, and he moved as one.

On hearing the tumult that followed Berry’s arrival, Adrian sent for him, and was informed of the nature of his mission, and its result.

“You should come to me first,” said Adrian. “I should have imagined you were shrewd enough for that, Berry?”

“Pardon me, Mr. Adrian,” Berry doubled his elbow to explain. “Pardon me, sir. Acting recipient of special injunctions I was not a free agent.”

“Go to Mr. Richard again, Berry. There will be a little confusion if he holds back. Perhaps you had better throw out a hint or so of apoplexy. A slight hint will do. And here—Berry! when you return to town, you had better not mention anything—to quote Johnson—of Benson’s spiflication.”

“Certainly not, sir.”

The wise youth’s hint had the desired effect on Richard.

He dashed off a hasty letter by Tom to Belthorpe, and, mounting his horse, galloped to the Bellingham station.

Sir Austin was sitting down to a quiet early dinner at his hotel, when the Hope of Raynham burst into his room.

The baronet was not angry with his son. On the contrary, for he was singularly just and self-accusing while pride was not up in arms, he had been thinking all day after the receipt of Benson’s letter that he was deficient in cordiality, and did not, by reason of his excessive anxiety, make himself sufficiently his son’s companion: was not enough, as he strove to be, mother and father to him; preceptor and friend; previsor and associate. He had not to ask his conscience where he had lately been to blame towards the System. He had slunk away from Raynham in the very crisis of the Magnetic Age, and this young woman of the parish (as Benson had termed sweet Lucy in his letter) was the consequence.

Yes! pride and sensitiveness were his chief foes, and he would trample on them. To begin, he embraced his son: hard upon an Englishman at any time—doubly so to one so shamefaced at emotion in cool blood, as it were. It gave him a strange pleasure, nevertheless. And the youth seemed to answer to it; he was excited. Was his love, then, beginning to correspond with his father’s as in those intimate days before the Blossoming Season?

But when Richard, inarticulate at first in his haste, cried out, “My dear, dear father! You are safe! I feared——You are better, sir? Thank God!” Sir Austin stood away from him.

“Safe?” he said. “What has alarmed you?”

Instead of replying, Richard dropped into a chair, and seized his hand and kissed it.

Sir Austin took a seat, and waited for his son to explain.

“Those doctors are such fools!” Richard broke out. “I was sure they were wrong. They don’t know headache from apoplexy. It’s worth the ride, sir, to see you. You left Raynham so suddenly.—But you are well! It was not an attack of real apoplexy?”

His father’s brows contorted, and he said, No, it was not. Richard pursued:

“If you were ill, I couldn’t come too soon, though, if coroners’ inquests sat on horses, those doctors would be found guilty of mare-slaughter. Cassandra’ll be knocked up. I was too early for the train at Bellingham, and I wouldn’t wait. She did the distance in four hours and three-quarters. Pretty good, sir, wasn’t it?”

“It has given you appetite for dinner, I hope,” said the baronet, not so well pleased to find that it was not simple obedience that had brought the youth to him in such haste.

“I’m ready,” replied Richard. “I shall be in time to return by the last train to-night. I will leave Cassandra in your charge for a rest.”

His father quietly helped him to soup, which he commenced gobbling with an eagerness that might pass for appetite.

“All well at Raynham?” said the baronet.

“Quite, sir.”

“Nothing new?”

“Nothing, sir.”

“The same as when I left?”

“No change whatever!”

“I shall be glad to get back to the old place,” said the baronet. “My stay in town has certainly been profitable. I have made some pleasant acquaintances who may probably favour us with a visit there in the late autumn—people you may be pleased to know. They are very anxious to see Raynham.”

“I love the old place,” cried Richard. “I never wish to leave it.”

“Why, boy, before I left you were constantly begging to see town.”

“Was I, sir? How odd! Well! I don’t want to remain here. I’ve seen enough of it.”

“How did you find your way to me?”

Richard laughed, and related his bewilderment at the miles of brick, and the noise, and the troops of people, concluding, “There’s no place like home!”

The baronet watched his symptomatic brilliant eyes, and favoured him with a double-dealing sentence —

“To anchor the heart by any object ere we have half traversed the world, is youth’s foolishness, my son. Reverence time! A better maxim that than your Horatian.”

“He knows all!” thought Richard, and instantly drew away leagues from his father, and threw up fortifications round his love and himself.

Dinner over, Richard looked hurriedly at his watch, and said, with much briskness, “I shall just be in time, sir, if we walk. Will you come with me to the station?”

The baronet did not answer.

Richard was going to repeat the question, but found his father’s eyes fixed on him so meaningly that he wavered, and played with his empty glass.

“I think we will have a little more claret,” said the baronet.

Claret was brought, and they were left alone.

The baronet then drew within arm’s-reach of his son, and began:

“I am not aware what you may have thought of me, Richard, during the years we have lived together; and indeed I have never been in a hurry to be known to you; and, if I had died before my work was done, I should not have complained at losing half my reward, in hearing you thank me. Perhaps, as it is, I never may. Everything, save selfishness, has its recompense. I shall be content if you prosper.”

He fetched a breath and continued: “You had in your infancy a great loss.” Father and son coloured simultaneously. “To make that good to you I chose to isolate myself from the world, and devote myself entirely to your welfare; and I think it is not vanity that tells me now that the son I have reared is one of the most hopeful of God’s creatures. But for that very reason you are open to be tempted the most, and to sink the deepest. It was the first of the angels who made the road to hell.”

He paused again. Richard fingered at his watch.

“In our House, my son, there is peculiar blood. We go to wreck very easily. It sounds like superstition; I cannot but think we are tried as most men are not. I see it in us all. And you, my son, are compounded of two races. Your passions are violent. You have had a taste of revenge. You have seen, in a small way, that the pound of flesh draws rivers of blood. But there is now in you another power. You are mounting to the table-land of life, where mimic battles are changed to real ones. And you come upon it laden equally with force to create and to destroy.” He deliberated to announce the intelligence, with deep meaning: “There are women in the world, my son!”

The young man’s heart galloped back to Raynham.

“It is when you encounter them that you are thoroughly on trial. It is when you know them that life is either a mockery to you, or, as some find it, a gift of blessedness. They are our ordeal. Love of any human object is the soul’s ordeal; and they are ours, loving them, or not.”

The young man heard the whistle of the train. He saw the moon-lighted wood, and the vision of his beloved. He could barely hold himself down and listen.

“I believe,” the baronet spoke with little of the cheerfulness of belief, “good women exist.”

Oh, if he knew Lucy!

“But,” and he gazed on Richard intently, “it is given to very few to meet them on the threshold—I may say, to none. We find them after hard buffeting, and usually, when we find the one fitted for us, our madness has misshaped our destiny, our lot is cast. For women are not the end, but the means, of life. In youth we think them the former, and thousands, who have not even the excuse of youth, select a mate—or worse—with that sole view. I believe women punish us for so perverting their uses. They punish Society.”

The baronet put his hand to his brow as his mind travelled into consequences.

“Our most diligent pupil learns not so much as an earnest teacher,” says The Pilgrim’s Scrip; and Sir Austin, in schooling himself to speak with moderation of women, was beginning to get a glimpse of their side of the case.

Cold Blood now touched on love to Hot Blood.

Cold Blood said, “It is a passion coming in the order of nature, the ripe fruit of our animal being.”

Hot Blood felt: “It is a divinity! All that is worth living for in the world.”

Cold Blood said: “It is a fever which tests our strength, and too often leads to perdition.”

Hot Blood felt: “Lead whither it will, I follow it.”

Cold Blood said: “It is a name men and women are much in the habit of employing to sanctify their appetites.”

Hot Blood felt: “It is worship; religion; life!”

And so the two parallel lines ran on.

The baronet became more personal:

“You know my love for you, my son. The extent of it you cannot know; but you must know that it is something very deep, and—I do not wish to speak of it—but a father must sometimes petition for gratitude, since the only true expression of it is his son’s moral good. If you care for my love, or love me in return, aid me with all your energies to keep you what I have made you, and guard you from the snares besetting you. It was in my hands once. It is ceasing to be so. Remember, my son, what my love is. It is different, I fear, with most fathers: but I am bound up in your welfare: what you do affects me vitally. You will take no step that is not intimate with my happiness, or my misery. And I have had great disappointments, my son.”

So far it was well. Richard loved his father, and even in his frenzied state he could not without emotion hear him thus speak.

Unhappily, the baronet, who by some fatality never could see when he was winning the battle, thought proper in his wisdom to water the dryness of his sermon with a little jocoseness, on the subject of young men fancying themselves in love, and, when they were raw and green, absolutely wanting to be-that most awful thing, which, the wisest and strongest of men undertake in hesitation and after self-mortification and penance—married! He sketched the Foolish Young Fellow—the object of general ridicule and covert contempt. He sketched the Woman—the strange thing made in our image, and with all our faculties—passing to the rule of one who in taking her proved that he could not rule himself, and had no knowledge of her save as a choice morsel which he would burn the whole world, and himself in the bargain, to possess. He harped upon the Foolish Young Fellow, till the foolish young fellow felt his skin tingle and was half-suffocated with shame and rage.

After this, the baronet might be as wise as he pleased: he had quite undone his work. He might analyze Love and anatomize Woman. He might accord to her her due position, and paint her fair: he might be shrewd, jocose, gentle, pathetic, wonderfully wise: he spoke to deaf ears.

Closing his sermon with the question, softly uttered: “Have you anything to tell me, Richard?” and hoping for a confession, and a thorough reestablishment of confidence, the callous answer struck him cold: “I have not.”

The baronet relapsed in his chair, and made diagrams of his fingers.

Richard turned his back on further dialogue by going to the window. In the section of sky over the street twinkled two or three stars; shining faintly, feeling the moon. The moon was rising: the woods were lifting up to her: his star of the woods would be there. A bed of moss set about flowers in a basket under him breathed to his nostril of the woodland keenly, and filled him with delirious longing.

A succession of hard sighs brought his father’s hand on his shoulder.

“You have nothing you could say to me, my son? Tell me, Richard! Remember, there is no home for the soul where dwells a shadow of untruth!”

“Nothing at all, sir,” the young man replied, meeting him with the full orbs of his eyes.

The baronet withdrew his hand, and paced the room.

At last it grew impossible for Richard to control his impatience, and he said: “Do you intend me to stay here, sir? Am I not to return to Raynham at all to-night?”

His father was again falsely jocular:

“What? and catch the train after giving it ten minutes’ start?”

“Cassandra will take me,” said the young man earnestly. “I needn’t ride her hard, sir. Or perhaps you would lend me your Winkelried? I should be down with him in little better than three hours.”

“Even then, you know, the park-gates would be locked.”

“Well, I could stable him in the village. Dowling knows the horse, and would treat him properly. May I have him, sir?”

The cloud cleared off Richard’s face as he asked. At least, if he missed his love that night he would be near her, breathing the same air, marking what star was above her bedchamber, hearing the hushed night-talk of the trees about her dwelling: looking on the distances that were like hope half-fulfilled and a bodily presence bright as Hesper, since he knew her. There were two swallows under the eaves shadowing Lucy’s chamber-windows: two swallows, mates in one nest, blissful birds, who twittered and cheep-cheeped to the sole-lying beauty in her bed. Around these birds the lover’s heart revolved, he knew not why. He associated them with all his close-veiled dreams of happiness. Seldom a morning passed when he did not watch them leave the nest on their breakfast-flight, busy in the happy stillness of dawn. It seemed to him now that if he could be at Raynham to see them in tomorrow’s dawn he would be compensated for his incalculable loss of to-night: he would forgive and love his father, London, the life, the world. Just to see those purple backs and white breasts flash out into the quiet morning air! He wanted no more.

The baronet’s trifling had placed this enormous boon within the young man’s visionary grasp.

He still went on trying the boy’s temper.

“You know there would be nobody ready for you at Raynham. It is unfair to disturb the maids.”

Richard overrode every objection.

“Well, then, my son,” said the baronet, preserving his half-jocular air, “I must tell you that it is my wish to have you in town.”

“Then you have not been ill at all, sir!” cried Richard, as in his despair he seized the whole plot.

“I have been as well as you could have desired me to be,” said his father.

“Why did they lie to me?” the young man wrathfully exclaimed.

“I think, Richard, you can best answer that,” rejoined Sir Austin, kindly severe.

Dread of being signalized as the Foolish Young Fellow prevented Richard from expostulating further. Sir Austin saw him grinding his passion into powder for future explosion, and thought it best to leave him for awhile.

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