The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, by George Meredith

29. In which the Last Act of a Comedy Takes the Place of the First

Although it blew hard when Cæsar crossed the Rubicon, the passage of that river is commonly calm; calm as Acheron. So long as he gets his fare, the ferryman does not need to be told whom he carries: he pulls with a will, and heroes may be over in half-an-hour. Only when they stand on the opposite bank, do they see what a leap they have taken. The shores they have relinquished shrink to an infinite remoteness. There they have dreamed: here they must act. There lie youth and irresolution: here manhood and purpose. They are veritably in another land: a moral Acheron divides their life. Their memories scarce seem their own! The PHILOSOPHICAL GEOGRAPHY (about to be published) observes that each man has, one time or other, a little Rubicon—a clear or a foul water to cross. It is asked him: “Wilt thou wed this Fate, and give up all behind thee?” And “I will,” firmly pronounced, speeds him over. The above-named manuscript authority informs us, that by far the greater number of carcases rolled by this heroic flood to its sister stream below, are those of fellows who have repented their pledge, and have tried to swim back to the bank they have blotted out. For though every man of us may be a hero for one fatal minute, very few remain so after a day’s march even: and who wonders that Madam Fate is indignant, and wears the features of the terrible Universal Fate to him? Fail before her, either in heart or in act, and lo, how the alluring loves in her visage wither and sicken to what it is modelled on! Be your Rubicon big or small, clear or foul, it is the same: you shall not return. On—or to Acheron!—I subscribe to that saying of THE PILGRIM’S SCRIP:

“The danger of a little knowledge of things is disputable: but beware the little knowledge of one’s self!

Richard Feverel was now crossing the River of his Ordeal. Already the mists were stealing over the land he had left: his life was cut in two, and he breathed but the air that met his nostrils. His father, his father’s love, his boyhood and ambition, were shadowy. His poetic dreams had taken a living attainable shape. He had a distincter impression of the Autumnal Berry and her household than of anything at Raynham. And yet the young man loved his father, loved his home: and I daresay Cæsar loved Rome: but whether he did or no, Cæsar when he killed the Republic was quite bald, and the hero we are dealing with is scarce beginning to feel his despotic moustache. Did he know what he was made of? Doubtless, nothing at all. But honest passion has an instinct that can be safer than conscious wisdom. He was an arrow drawn to the head, flying to the bow. His audacious mendacities and subterfuges did not strike him as in any way criminal; for he was perfectly sure that the winning and securing of Lucy would in the end be boisterously approved of, and in that case, were not the means justified? Not that he took trouble to argue thus, as older heroes and self-convicting villains are in the habit of doing, to deduce a clear conscience. Conscience and Lucy went together.

It was a soft fair day. The Rubicon sparkled in the morning sun. One of those days when London embraces the prospect of summer, and troops forth all its babies. The pavement, the squares, the parks, were early alive with the cries of young Britain. Violet and primrose girls, and organ boys with military monkeys, and systematic bands very determined in tone if not in tune, filled the atmosphere, and crowned the blazing procession of omnibuses, freighted with business men, Cityward, where a column of reddish brown smoke—blown aloft by the South-west, marked the scene of conflict to which these persistent warriors repaired. Richard had seen much of early London that morning. His plans were laid. He had taken care to ensure his personal liberty against accidents, by leaving his hotel and his injured uncle Hippias at sunrise. To-day or tomorrow his father was to arrive. Farmer Blaize, Tom Bakewell reported to him, was raging in town. Another day and she might be torn from him: but today this miracle of creation would be his, and then from those glittering banks yonder, let them summon him to surrender her who dared! The position of things looked so propitious that he naturally thought the powers waiting on love conspired in his behalf. And she, too—since she must cross this river, she had sworn to him to be brave, and do him honour, and wear the true gladness of her heart in her face. Without a suspicion of folly in his acts, or fear of results, Richard strolled into Kensington Gardens, breakfasting on the foreshadow of his great joy, now with a vision of his bride, now of the new life opening to him. Mountain masses of clouds, rounded in sunlight, swung up the blue. The flowering chestnut pavilions overhead rustled and hummed. A sound in his ears as of a banner unfolding in the joyful distance lulled him.

He was to meet his bride at the church at a quarter past eleven. His watch said a quarter to ten. He strolled on beneath the long-stemmed trees toward the well dedicated to a saint obscure. Some people were drinking at the well. A florid lady stood by a younger one, who had a little silver mug half-way to her mouth, and evinced undisguised dislike to the liquor of the salutary saint.

“Drink, child!” said the maturer lady. “That is only your second mug. I insist upon your drinking three full ones every morning we’re in town. Your constitution positively requires iron!”

“But, mama,” the other expostulated, “it’s so nasty. I shall be sick.”

“Drink!” was the harsh injunction. “Nothing to the German waters, my dear. Here, let me taste.” She took the mug and gave it a flying kiss. “I declare I think it almost nice—not at all objectionable. Pray, taste it,” she said to a gentleman standing below them to act as cup-bearer.

An unmistakable cis-Rubicon voice replied: “Certainly, if it’s good fellowship; though I confess I don’t think mutual sickness a very engaging ceremony.”

Can one never escape from one’s relatives? Richard ejaculated inwardly.

Without a doubt those people were Mrs. Doria, Clare, and Adrian. He had them under his eyes.

Clare, peeping up from her constitutional dose to make sure no man was near to see the possible consequence of it, was the first to perceive him. Her hand dropped.

“Now, pray, drink, and do not fuss!” said Mrs. Doria.

“Mama!” Clare gasped.

Richard came forward and capitulated honourably, since retreat was out of the question. Mrs. Doria swam to meet him: “My own boy! My dear Richard!” profuse of exclamations. Clare shyly greeted him. Adrian kept in the background.

“Why, we were coming for you today, Richard,” said Mrs. Doria, smiling effusion; and rattled on, “We want another cavalier. This is delightful! My dear nephew! You have grown from a boy to a man. And there’s down on his lip! And what brings you here at such an hour in the morning? Poetry, I suppose! Here, take my arm, child.—Clare! finish that mug and thank your cousin for sparing you the third. I always bring her, when we are by a chalybeate, to take the waters before breakfast. We have to get up at unearthly hours. Think, my dear boy! Mothers are sacrifices! And so you’ve been alone a fortnight with your agreeable uncle! A charming time of it you must have had! Poor Hippias! what may be his last nostrum?”

“Nephew!” Adrian stretched his head round to the couple. “Doses of nephew taken morning and night fourteen days! And he guarantees that it shall destroy an iron constitution in a month.”

Richard mechanically shook Adrian’s hand as he spoke.

“Quite well, Ricky?”

“Yes: well enough,” Richard answered.

“Well?” resumed his vigorous aunt, walking on with him, while Clare and Adrian followed. “I really never saw you looking so handsome. There’s something about your face—look at me—you needn’t blush. You’ve grown to an Apollo. That blue buttoned-up frock coat becomes you admirably—and those gloves, and that easy neck-tie. Your style is irreproachable, quite a style of your own! And nothing eccentric. You have the instinct of dress. Dress shows blood, my dear boy, as much as anything else. Boy!—you see, I can’t forget old habits. You were a boy when I left, and now!—Do you see any change in him, Clare?” she turned half round to her daughter.

“Richard is looking very well, mama,” said Clare, glancing at him under her eyelids.

“I wish I could say the same of you, my dear.—Take my arm, Richard. Are you afraid of your aunt? I want to get used to you. Won’t it be pleasant, our being all in town together in the season? How fresh the Opera will be to you! Austin, I hear, takes stalls. You can come to the Forey’s box when you like. We are staying with the Foreys close by here. I think it’s a little too far out, you know; but they like the neighbourhood. This is what I have always said: Give him more liberty! Austin has seen it at last. How do you think Clare looking?”

The question had to be repeated. Richard surveyed his cousin hastily, and praised her looks.

“Pale!” Mrs. Doria sighed.

“Rather pale, aunt.”

“Grown very much—don’t you think, Richard?”

“Very tall girl indeed, aunt.”

“If she had but a little more colour, my dear Richard! I’m sure I give her all the iron she can swallow, but that pallor still continues. I think she does not prosper away from her old companion. She was accustomed to look up to you, Richard——”

“Did you get Ralph’s letter, aunt?” Richard interrupted her.

“Absurd!” Mrs. Doria pressed his arm. “The nonsense of a boy! Why did you undertake to forward such stuff?”

“I’m certain he loves her,” said Richard, in a serious way.

The maternal eyes narrowed on him. “Life, my dear Richard, is a game of cross-purposes,” she observed, dropping her fluency, and was rather angered to hear him laugh. He excused himself by saying that she spoke so like his father.

“You breakfast with us,” she freshened off again. “The Foreys wish to see you; the girls are dying to know you. Do you know, you have a reputation on account of that”—she crushed an intruding adjective—“System you were brought up on. You mustn’t mind it. For my part, I think you look a credit to it. Don’t be bashful with young women, mind! As much as you please with the old ones. You know how to behave among men. There you have your Drawing-room Guide! I’m sure I shall be proud of you. Am I not?”

Mrs. Doria addressed his eyes coaxingly.

A benevolent idea struck Richard, that he might employ the minutes to spare, in pleading the case of poor Ralph; and, as he was drawn along, he pulled out his watch to note the precise number of minutes he could dedicate to this charitable office.

“Pardon me,” said Mrs. Doria. “You want manners, my dear boy. I think it never happened to me before that a man consulted his watch in my presence.”

Richard mildly replied that he had an engagement at a particular hour, up to which he was her servant.

“Fiddlededee!” the vivacious lady sang. “Now I’ve got you, I mean to keep you. Oh! I’ve heard all about you. This ridiculous indifference that your father makes so much of! Why, of course, you wanted to see the world! A strong, healthy young man shut up all his life in a lonely house—no friends, no society, no amusements but those of rustics! Of course you were indifferent! Your intelligence and superior mind alone saved you from becoming a dissipated country boor.—Where are the others?”

Clare and Adrian came up at a quick pace.

“My damozel dropped something,” Adrian explained.

Her mother asked what it was.

“Nothing, mama,” said Clare, demurely, and they proceeded as before.

Overborne by his aunt’s fluency of tongue, and occupied in acute calculation of the flying minutes, Richard let many pass before he edged in a word for Ralph. When he did, Mrs. Doria stopped him immediately.

“I must tell you, child, that I refuse to listen to such rank idiotcy.”

“It’s nothing of the kind, aunt.”

“The fancy of a boy.”

“He’s not a boy. He’s half-a-year older than I am!”

“You silly child! The moment you fall in love, you all think yourselves men.”

“On my honour, aunt! I believe he loves her thoroughly.”

“Did he tell you so, child?”

“Men don’t speak openly of those things,” said Richard.

“Boys do,” said Mrs. Doria.

“But listen to me in earnest, aunt. I want you to be kind to Ralph. Don’t drive him to—You may be sorry for it. Let him—do let him write to her, and see her. I believe women are as cruel as men in these things.”

“I never encourage absurdity, Richard.”

“What objection have you to Ralph, aunt?”

“Oh, they’re both good families. It’s not that absurdity, Richard. It will be to his credit to remember that his first fancy wasn’t a dairymaid.” Mrs. Doria pitched her accent tellingly. It did not touch her nephew.

“Don’t you want Clare ever to marry?” He put the last point of reason to her.

Mrs. Doria laughed. “I hope so, child. We must find some comfortable old gentleman for her.”

“What infamy!” mutters Richard.

“And I engage Ralph shall be ready to dance at her wedding, or eat a hearty breakfast—We don’t dance at weddings now, and very properly. It’s a horrid sad business, not to be treated with levity.—Is that his regiment?” she said, as they passed out of the hussar-sentinelled gardens. “Tush, tush, child; Master Ralph will recover, as—hem! others have done. A little headache—you call it heartache—and up you rise again, looking better than ever. No doubt, to have a grain of sense forced into your brains, you poor dear children! must be painful. Girls suffer as much as boys, I assure you. More, for their heads are weaker, and their appetites less constant. Do I talk like your father now? Whatever makes the boy fidget at his watch so?”

Richard stopped short. Time spoke urgently.

“I must go,” he said.

His face did not seem good for trifling. Mrs. Doria would trifle in spite.

“Listen, Clare! Richard is going. He says he has an engagement. What possible engagement can a young man have at eleven o’clock in the morning?—unless it’s to be married!” Mrs. Doria laughed at the ingenuity of her suggestion.

“Is the church handy, Ricky?” said Adrian. “You can still give us half-an-hour if it is. The celibate hours strike at Twelve.” And he also laughed in his fashion.

“Won’t you stay with us, Richard?” Clare asked. She blushed timidly, and her voice shook.

Something indefinite—a sharp-edged thrill in the tones made the burning bridegroom speak gently to her.

“Indeed, I would, Clare; I should like to please you, but I have a most imperative appointment—that is, I promised—I must go. I shall see you again——”

Mrs. Doria took forcible possession of him. “Now, do come, and don’t waste words. I insist upon your having some breakfast first, and then, if you really must go, you shall. Look! there’s the house. At least you will accompany your aunt to the door.”

Richard conceded this. She little imagined what she required of him. Two of his golden minutes melted into nothingness. They were growing to be jewels of price, one by one more and more precious as they ran, and now so costly-rare—rich as his blood! not to kindest relations, dearest friends, could he give another. The die is cast! Ferryman! push off.

“Good-bye!” he cried, nodding bluffly at the three as one, and fled.

They watched his abrupt muscular stride through the grounds of the house. He looked like resolution on the march. Mrs. Doria, as usual with her out of her brother’s hearing, began rating the System.

“See what becomes of that nonsensical education! The boy really does not know how to behave like a common mortal. He has some paltry appointment, or is mad after some ridiculous idea of his own, and everything must be sacrificed to it! That’s what Austin calls concentration of the faculties. I think it’s more likely to lead to downright insanity than to greatness of any kind. And so I shall tell Austin. It’s time he should be spoken to seriously about him.”

“He’s an engine, my dear aunt,” said Adrian. “He isn’t a boy, or a man, but an engine. And he appears to have been at high pressure since he came to town—out all day and half the night.”

“He’s mad!” Mrs. Doria interjected.

“Not at all. Extremely shrewd is Master Ricky, and carries as open an eye ahead of him as the ships before Troy. He’s more than a match for any of us. He is for me, I confess.”

“Then,” said Mrs. Doria, “he does astonish me!”

Adrian begged her to retain her astonishment till the right season, which would not be long arriving.

Their common wisdom counselled them not to tell the Foreys of their hopeful relative’s ungracious behaviour. Clare had left them. When Mrs. Doria went to her room her daughter was there, gazing down at something in her hand, which she guiltily closed.

In answer to an inquiry why she had not gone to take off her things, Clare said she was not hungry. Mrs. Doria lamented the obstinacy of a constitution that no quantity of iron could affect, and eclipsed the looking-glass, saying: “Take them off here, child, and learn to assist yourself.”

She disentangled her bonnet from the array of her spreading hair, talking of Richard, and his handsome appearance, and extraordinary conduct. Clare kept opening and shutting her hand, in an attitude half pensive, half-listless. She did not stir to undress. A joyous dimple hung in one pale cheek, and she drew long, even breaths.

Mrs. Doria, assured by the glass that she was ready to show, came to her daughter.

“Now, really,” she said, “you are too helpless, my dear. You cannot do a thing without a dozen women at your elbow. What will become of you? You will have to marry a millionaire.—What’s the matter with you, child?”

Clare undid her tight-shut fingers, as if to some attraction of her eyes, and displayed a small gold hoop on the palm of a green glove.

“A wedding-ring!” exclaimed Mrs. Doria, inspecting the curiosity most daintily.

There on Clare’s pale green glove lay a wedding-ring!

Rapid questions as to where, when, how, it was found, beset Clare, who replied: “In the Gardens, mama. This morning. When I was walking behind Richard.”

“Are you sure he did not give it you, Clare?”

“Oh no, mama! he did not give it me!”

“Of course not! only he does such absurd things! I thought, perhaps—these boys are so exceedingly ridiculous!” Mrs. Doria had an idea that it might have been concerted between the two young gentlemen, Richard and Ralph, that the former should present this token of hymeneal devotion from the latter to the young lady of his love; but a moment’s reflection, exonerated boys even from such preposterous behaviour.

“Now, I wonder,” she speculated on Clare’s cold face, “I do wonder whether it’s lucky to find a wedding-ring. What very quick eyes you have, my darling!” Mrs. Doria kissed her. She thought it must be lucky, and the circumstance made her feel tender to her child. Her child did not move to the kiss.

“Let’s see whether it fits,” said Mrs. Doria, almost infantine with surprise and pleasure.

Clare suffered her glove to be drawn off. The ring slid down her long thin finger, and settled comfortably.

“It does!” Mrs. Doria whispered. To find a wedding-ring is open to any woman; but to find a wedding-ring that fits may well cause a superstitious emotion. Moreover, that it should be found while walking in the neighbourhood of the identical youth whom a mother has destined for her daughter, gives significance to the gentle perturbation of ideas consequent on such a hint from Fortune.

“It really fits!” she pursued. “Now I never pay any attention to the nonsense of omens and that kind of thing” (had the ring been a horseshoe Mrs. Doria would have picked it up and dragged it obediently home), “but this, I must say, is odd—to find a ring that fits!—singular! It never happened to me. Sixpence is the most I ever discovered, and I have it now. Mind you keep it, Clare—this ring. And,” she laughed, “offer it to Richard when he comes; say, you think he must have dropped it.”

The dimple in Clare’s cheek quivered.

Mother and daughter had never spoken explicitly of Richard. Mrs. Doria, by exquisite management, had contrived to be sure that on one side there would be no obstacle to her project of general happiness, without, as she thought, compromising her daughter’s feelings unnecessarily. It could do no harm to an obedient young girl to hear that there was no youth in the world like a certain youth. He the prince of his generation, she might softly consent, when requested, to be his princess; and if never requested (for Mrs. Doria envisaged failure), she might easily transfer her softness to squires of lower degree. Clare had always been blindly obedient to her mother (Adrian called them Mrs. Doria Battledoria and the fair Shuttlecockiana), and her mother accepted in this blind obedience the text of her entire character. It is difficult for those who think very earnestly for their children to know when their children are thinking on their own account. The exercise of their volition we construe as revolt. Our love does not like to be invalided and deposed from its command, and here I think yonder old thrush on the lawn who has just kicked the last of her lank offspring out of the nest to go shift for itself, much the kinder of the two, though sentimental people do shrug their shoulders at these unsentimental acts of the creatures who never wander from nature. Now, excess of obedience is, to one who manages most exquisitely, as bad as insurrection. Happily Mrs. Doria saw nothing in her daughter’s manner save a want of iron. Her pallor, her lassitude, the tremulous nerves in her face, exhibited an imperious requirement of the mineral.

“The reason why men and women are mysterious to us, and prove disappointing,” we learn from THE PILGRIM’S SCRIP, “is, that we will read them from our own book; just as we are perplexed by reading ourselves from theirs.”

Mrs. Doria read her daughter from her own book, and she was gay; she laughed with Adrian at the breakfast-table, and mock-seriously joined in his jocose assertion that Clare was positively and by all hymeneal auspices betrothed to the owner of that ring, be he who he may, and must, whenever he should choose to come and claim her, give her hand to him (for everybody agreed the owner must be masculine, as no woman would drop a wedding-ring), and follow him whither he listed all the world over. Amiable giggling Forey girls called Clare, The Betrothed. Dark man, or fair? was mooted. Adrian threw off the first strophe of Clare’s fortune in burlesque rhymes, with an insinuating gipsy twang. Her aunt Forey warned her to have her dresses in readiness. Her grandpapa Forey pretended to grumble at bridal presents being expected from grandpapas. This one smelt orange-flower, another spoke solemnly of an old shoe. The finding of a wedding-ring was celebrated through all the palpitating accessories and rosy ceremonies involved by that famous instrument. In the midst of the general hilarity, Clare showed her deplorable want of iron by bursting into tears.

Did the poor mocked-at heart divine what might be then enacting? Perhaps, dimly, as we say: that is, without eyes.

At an altar stand two fair young creatures, ready with their oaths. They are asked to fix all time to the moment, and they do so. If there is hesitation at the immense undertaking, it is but maidenly. She conceives as little mental doubt of the sanity of the act as he. Over them hangs a cool young curate in his raiment of office. Behind are two apparently lucid people, distinguished from each other by sex and age; the foremost a bunch of simmering black satin; under her shadow a cock-robin in the dress of a gentleman, big joy swelling out his chest, and pert satisfaction cocking his head. These be they who stand here in place of parents to the young couple. All is well. The service proceeds.

Firmly the bridegroom tells forth his words. This hour of the complacent giant at least is his, and that he means to hold him bound through the eternities, men may hear. Clearly, and with brave modesty, speaks she: no less firmly, though her body trembles: her voice just vibrating while the tone travels on, like a smitten vase.

Time hears sentence pronounced on him: the frail hands bind his huge limbs and lock the chains. He is used to it: he lets them do as they will.

Then comes that period when they are to give their troth to each other. The Man with his right hand takes the Woman by her right hand: the Woman with her right hand takes the Man by his right hand.—Devils dare not laugh at whom Angels crowd to contemplate.

Their hands are joined; their blood flows as one stream. Adam and fair Eve front the generations. Are they not lovely? Purer fountains of life were never in two bosoms.

And then they loose their hands, and the cool curate doth bid the Man to put a ring on the Woman’s fourth finger, counting thumb. And the Man thrusts his hand into one pocket, and into another, forward and back many times: into all his pockets. He remembers that he felt for it, and felt it in his waistcoat pocket, when in the Gardens. And his hand comes forth empty. And the Man is ghastly to look at!

Yet, though Angels smile, shall not Devils laugh! The curate deliberates. The black satin bunch ceases to simmer. He in her shadow changes from a beaming cock-robin to an inquisitive sparrow. Eyes multiply questions: lips have no reply. Time ominously shakes his chain, and in the pause a sound of mockery stings their ears.

Think ye a hero is one to be defeated in his first battle? Look at the clock! there are but seven minutes to the stroke of the celibate hours: the veteran is surely lifting his two hands to deliver fire, and his shot will sunder them in twain so nearly united. All the jewellers of London speeding down with sacks full of the nuptial circlet cannot save them!

The battle must be won on the field, and what does the hero now? It is an inspiration! For who else would dream of such a reserve in the rear? None see what he does; only that the black-satin bunch is remonstratingly agitated, stormily shaken, and subdued: and as though the menacing cloud had opened, and dropped the dear token from the skies at his demand, he produces the symbol of their consent, and the service proceeds: “With this ring I thee wed.”

They are prayed over and blest. For good, or for ill, this deed is done. The names are registered; fees fly right and left: they thank, and salute, the curate, whose official coolness melts into a smile of monastic gallantry: the beadle on the steps waves off a gaping world as they issue forth: bridegroom and bridesman recklessly scatter gold on him: carriage doors are banged to: the coachmen drive off, and the scene closes, everybody happy.

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