The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, by George Meredith

37. Mrs. Berry on Matrimony

Behold the hero embarked in the redemption of an erring beautiful woman.

“Alas!” writes the Pilgrim at this very time to Lady Blandish, “I cannot get that legend of the Serpent from me, the more I think. Has he not caught you, and ranked you foremost in his legions? For see: till you were fashioned, the fruits hung immobile on the boughs. They swayed before us, glistening and cold. The hand must be eager that plucked them. They did not come down to us, and smile, and speak our language, and read our thoughts, and know when to fly, when to follow! how surely to have us!

“Do but mark one of you standing openly in the track of the Serpent. What shall be done with her? I fear the world is wiser than its judges! Turn from her, says the world. By day the sons of the world do. It darkens, and they dance together downward. Then comes there one of the world’s elect who deems old counsel devilish; indifference to the end of evil worse than its pursuit. He comes to reclaim her. From deepest bane will he bring her back to highest blessing. Is not that a bait already? Poor fish! ’tis wondrous flattering. The Serpent has slimed her so to secure him! With slow weary steps he draws her into light: she clings to him; she is human; part of his work, and he loves it. As they mount upward, he looks on her more, while she, it may be, looks above. What has touched him? What has passed out of her, and into him? The Serpent laughs below. At the gateways of the Sun they fall together!”

This alliterative production was written without any sense of the peril that makes prophecy.

It suited Sir Austin to write thus. It was a channel to his acrimony moderated through his philosophy. The letter was a reply to a vehement entreaty from Lady Blandish for him to come up to Richard and forgive him thoroughly: Richard’s name was not mentioned in it.

“He tries to be more than he is,” thought the lady: and she began insensibly to conceive him less than he was.

The baronet was conscious of a certain false gratification in his son’s apparent obedience to his wishes and complete submission; a gratification he chose to accept as his due, without dissecting or accounting for it. The intelligence reiterating that Richard waited, and still waited; Richard’s letters, and more his dumb abiding and practical penitence; vindicated humanity sufficiently to stop the course of virulent aphorisms. He could speak, we have seen, in sorrow for this frail nature of ours, that he had once stood forth to champion. “But how long will this last?” he demanded, with the air of Hippias. He did not reflect how long it had lasted. Indeed, his indigestion of wrath had made of him a moral Dyspepsy.

It was not mere obedience that held Richard from the arms of his young wife: nor was it this new knightly enterprise he had presumed to undertake. Hero as he was, a youth, open to the insane promptings of hot blood, he was not a fool. There had been talk between him and Mrs. Doria of his mother. Now that he had broken from his father, his heart spoke for her. She lived, he knew: he knew no more. Words painfully hovering along the borders of plain speech had been communicated to him, filling him with moody imaginings. If he thought of her, the red was on his face, though he could not have said why. But now, after canvassing the conduct of his father, and throwing him aside as a terrible riddle, he asked Mrs. Doria to tell him of his other parent. As softly as she could she told the story. To her the shame was past: she could weep for the poor lady. Richard dropped no tears. Disgrace of this kind is always present to a son, and, educated as he had been, these tidings were a vivid fire in his brain. He resolved to hunt her out, and take her from the man. Here was work set to his hand. All her dear husband did was right to Lucy. She encouraged him to stay for that purpose, thinking it also served another. There was Tom Bakewell to watch over Lucy: there was work for him to do. Whether it would please his father he did not stop to consider. As to the justice of the act, let us say nothing.

On Ripton devolved the humbler task of grubbing for Sandoe’s place of residence; and as he was unacquainted with the name by which the poet now went in private, his endeavours were not immediately successful. The friends met in the evening at Lady Blandish’s town-house, or at the Foreys’, where Mrs. Doria procured the reverer of the Royal Martyr, and staunch conservative, a favourable reception. Pity, deep pity for Richard’s conduct Ripton saw breathing out of Mrs. Doria. Algernon Feverel treated his nephew with a sort of rough commiseration, as a young fellow who had run off the road.

Pity was in Lady Blandish’s eyes, though for a different cause. She doubted if she did well in seconding his father’s unwise scheme—supposing him to have a scheme. She saw the young husband encompassed by dangers at a critical time. Not a word of Mrs. Mount had been breathed to her, but the lady had some knowledge of life. She touched on delicate verges to the baronet in her letters, and he understood her well enough. “If he loves this person to whom he has bound himself, what fear for him? Or are you coming to think it something that bears the name of love because we have to veil the rightful appellation?” So he responded, remote among the mountains. She tried very hard to speak plainly. Finally he came to say, that he denied himself the pleasure of seeing his son specially, that he for a time might be put to the test the lady seemed to dread. This was almost too much for Lady Blandish. Love’s charity boy so loftily serene now that she saw him half denuded—a thing of shanks and wrists—was a trial for her true heart.

Going home at night Richard would laugh at the faces made about his marriage. “We’ll carry the day, Rip, my Lucy and I! or I’ll do it alone—what there is to do.” He slightly adverted to a natural want of courage in women, which Ripton took to indicate that his Beauty was deficient in that quality. Up leapt the Old Dog; “I’m sure there never was a braver creature upon earth, Richard! She’s as brave as she’s lovely, I’ll swear she is! Look how she behaved that day! How her voice sounded! She was trembling. . . . Brave? She’d follow you into battle Richard!”

And Richard rejoined: “Talk on, dear old Rip! She’s my darling love, whatever she is! And she is gloriously lovely. No eyes are like hers. I’ll go down tomorrow morning the first thing.”

Ripton only wondered the husband of such a treasure could remain apart from it. So thought Richard for a space.

“But if I go, Rip,” he said despondently, “if I go for a day even I shall have undone all my work with my father. She says it herself—you saw it in her last letter.”

“Yes,” Ripton assented, and the words “Please remember me to dear Mr. Thompson,” fluttered about the Old Dog’s heart.

It came to pass that Mrs. Berry, having certain business that led her through Kensington Gardens, spied a figure that she had once dandled in long clothes, and helped make a man of, if ever woman did. He was walking under the trees beside a lady, talking to her, not indifferently. The gentleman was her bridegroom and her babe. “I know his back,” said Mrs. Berry, as if she had branded a mark on it in infancy. But the lady was not her bride. Mrs. Berry diverged from the path, and got before them on the left flank; she stared, retreated, and came round upon the right. There was that in the lady’s face which Mrs. Berry did not like. Her innermost question was, why he was not walking with his own wife? She stopped in front of them. They broke, and passed about her. The lady made a laughing remark to him, whereat he turned to look, and Mrs. Berry bobbed. She had to bob a second time, and then he remembered the worthy creature, and hailed her Penelope, shaking her hand so that he put her in countenance again. Mrs. Berry was extremely agitated. He dismissed her, promising to call upon her in the evening. She heard the lady slip out something from a side of her lip, and they both laughed as she toddled off to a sheltering tree to wipe a corner of each eye. “I don’t like the looks of that woman,” she said, and repeated it resolutely.

“Why doesn’t he walk arm-inarm with her?” was her next inquiry. “Where’s his wife?” succeeded it. After many interrogations of the sort, she arrived at naming the lady a bold-faced thing; adding subsequently, brazen. The lady had apparently shown Mrs. Berry that she wished to get rid of her, and had checked the outpouring of her emotions on the breast of her babe. “I know a lady when I see one,” said Mrs. Berry. “I haven’t lived with ’em for nothing; and if she’s a lady bred and born, I wasn’t married in the church alive.”

Then, if not a lady, what was she? Mrs. Berry desired to know. “She’s imitation lady, I’m sure she is!” Berry vowed. “I say she don’t look proper.”

Establishing the lady to be a spurious article, however, what was one to think of a married man in company with such? “Oh no! it ain’t that!” Mrs. Berry returned immediately on the charitable tack. “Belike it’s some one of his acquaintance’ve married her for her looks, and he’ve just met her. . . . Why it’d be as bad as my Berry!” the relinquished spouse of Berry ejaculated, in horror at the idea of a second man being so monstrous in wickedness. “Just coupled, too!” Mrs. Berry groaned on the suspicious side of the debate. “And such a sweet young thing for his wife! But no, I’ll never believe it. Not if he tell me so himself! And men don’t do that,” she whimpered.

Women are swift at coming to conclusions in these matters; soft women exceedingly swift: and soft women who have been betrayed are rapid beyond measure. Mrs. Berry had not cogitated long ere she pronounced distinctly and without a shadow of dubiosity: “My opinion is—married or not married, and wheresomever he pick her up—she’s nothin’ more nor less than a Bella Donna!” as which poisonous plant she forthwith registered the lady in the botanical note-book of her brain. It would have astonished Mrs. Mount to have heard her person so accurately hit off at a glance.

In the evening Richard made good his promise, accompanied by Ripton. Mrs. Berry opened the door to them. She could not wait to get him into the parlour. “You’re my own blessed babe; and I’m as good as your mother—though I didn’t suck ye, bein’ a maid!” she cried, falling into his arms, while Richard did his best to support the unexpected burden. Then reproaching him tenderly for his guile—at mention of which Ripton chuckled, deeming it his own most honourable portion of the plot—Mrs. Berry led them into the parlour, and revealed to Richard who she was, and how she had tossed him, and hugged him, and kissed him all over, when he was only that big—showing him her stumpy fat arm. “I kissed ye from head to tail, I did,” said Mrs. Berry, “and you needn’t be ashamed of it. It’s be hoped you’ll never have nothin’ worse come t’ye, my dear!”

Richard assured her he was not a bit ashamed, but warned her that she must not do it now, Mrs. Berry admitting it was out of the question now, and now that he had a wife, moreover. The young men laughed, and Ripton laughing over-loudly drew on himself Mrs. Berry’s attention: “But that Mr. Thompson there—however he can look me in the face after his inn’cence! helping blindfold an old woman!—though I ain’t sorry for what I did—that I’m free for to say, and it’s over, and blessed be all! Amen! So now where is she and how is she, Mr. Richard, my dear—it’s only cuttin’ off the ‘s’ and you are as you was.—Why didn’t ye bring her with ye to see her old Berry?”

Richard hurriedly explained that Lucy was still in the Isle of Wight.

“Oh! and you’ve left her for a day or two?” said Mrs. Berry.

“Good God! I wish it had been a day or two,” cried Richard.

“Ah! and how long have it been?” asked Mrs. Berry, her heart beginning to beat at his manner of speaking.

“Don’t talk about it,” said Richard.

“Oh! you never been dudgeonin’ already? Oh! you haven’t been peckin’ at one another yet?” Mrs. Berry exclaimed.

Ripton interposed to tell her such fears were unfounded.

“Then how long ha’ you been divided?”

In a guilty voice Ripton stammered “since September.”

“September!” breathed Mrs. Berry, counting on her fingers, “September, October, Nov—two months and more! nigh three! A young married husband away from the wife of his bosom nigh three months! Oh my! Oh my! what do that mean?”

“My father sent for me—I’m waiting to see him,” said Richard. A few more words helped Mrs. Berry to comprehend the condition of affairs. Then Mrs. Berry spread her lap, flattened out her hands, fixed her eyes, and spoke.

“My dear young gentleman!—I’d like to call ye my darlin’ babe! I’m going to speak as a mother to ye, whether ye likes it or no; and what old Berry says, you won’t mind, for she’s had ye when there was no conventionals about ye, and she has the feelin’s of a mother to you, though humble her state. If there’s one that know matrimony it’s me, my dear, though Berry did give me no more but nine months of it: and I’ve known the worst of matrimony, which, if you wants to be woful wise, there it is for ye. For what have been my gain? That man gave me nothin’ but his name; and Bessy Andrews was as good as Bessy Berry, though both is ‘Bs,’ and says he, you was ‘A,’ and now you’s ‘B,’ so you’re my A B, he says, write yourself down that, he says, the bad man, with his jokes!—Berry went to service.” Mrs. Berry’s softness came upon her. “So I tell ye, Berry went to service. He left the wife of his bosom forlorn and he went to service; because he were al’ays an ambitious man, and wasn’t, so to speak, happy out of his uniform—which was his livery—not even in my arms: and he let me know it. He got among them kitchen sluts, which was my mournin’ ready made, and worse than a widow’s cap to me, which is no shame to wear, and some say becoming. There’s no man as ever lived known better than my Berry how to show his legs to advantage, and gals look at ’em. I don’t wonder now that Berry was prostrated. His temptations was strong, and his flesh was weak. Then what I say is, that for a young married man—be he whomsoever he may be-to be separated from the wife of his bosom—a young sweet thing, and he an innocent young gentleman!—so to sunder, in their state, and be kep’ from each other, I say it’s as bad as bad can be! For what is matrimony, my dears? We’re told it’s a holy Ordnance. And why are ye so comfortable in matrimony? For that ye are not a sinnin’! And they that severs ye they tempts ye to stray: and you learn too late the meanin’ o’ them blessin’s of the priest—as it was ordained. Separate—what comes? Fust it’s like the circulation of your blood a-stoppin’—all goes wrong. Then there’s misunderstandings—ye’ve both lost the key. Then, behold ye, there’s birds o’ prey hoverin’ over each on ye, and it’s which’ll be snapped up fust. Then—Oh, dear! Oh, dear! it be like the devil come into the world again.” Mrs. Berry struck her hands and moaned. “A day I’ll give ye: I’ll go so far as a week: but there’s the outside. Three months dwellin’ apart! That’s not matrimony, it’s divorcin’! what can it be to her but widowhood? widowhood with no cap to show for it! And what can it be to you, my dear? Think! you been a bachelor three months! and a bachelor man,” Mrs. Berry shook her head most dolefully, “he ain’t a widow woman. I don’t go to compare you to Berry, my dear young gentleman. Some men’s hearts is vagabonds born—they must go astray—it’s their natur’ to. But all men are men, and I know the foundation of ’em, by reason of my woe.”

Mrs. Berry paused. Richard was humorously respectful to the sermon. The truth in the good creature’s address was not to be disputed, or despised, notwithstanding the inclination to laugh provoked by her quaint way of putting it. Ripton nodded encouragingly at every sentence, for he saw her drift, and wished to second it.

Seeking for an illustration of her meaning, Mrs. Berry solemnly continued: “We all know what checked prespiration is.” But neither of the young gentlemen could resist this. Out they burst in a roar of laughter.

“Laugh away,” said Mrs. Berry. “I don’t mind ye. I say agin, we all do know what checked prespiration is. It fly to the lungs, it gives ye mortal inflammation, and it carries ye off. Then I say checked matrimony is as bad. It fly to the heart, and it carries off the virtue that’s in ye, and you might as well be dead! Them that is joined it’s their salvation not to separate! It don’t so much matter before it. That Mr. Thompson there—if he go astray, it ain’t from the blessed fold. He hurt himself alone—not double, and belike treble, for who can say now what may be? There’s time for it. I’m for holding back young people so that they knows their minds, howsomever they rattles about their hearts. I ain’t a speeder of matrimony, and good’s my reason! but where it’s been done—where they’re lawfully joined, and their bodies made one, I do say this, that to put division between ’em then, it’s to make wanderin’ comets of ’em-creatures without a objeck, and no soul can say what they’s good for but to rush about!”

Mrs. Berry here took a heavy breath, as one who has said her utmost for the time being.

“My dear old girl,” Richard went up to her and, applauding her on the shoulder, “you’re a very wise old woman. But you mustn’t speak to me as if I wanted to stop here. I’m compelled to. I do it for her good chiefly.”

“It’s your father that’s doin’ it, my dear?”

“Well, I’m waiting his pleasure.”

“A pretty pleasure! puttin’ a snake in the nest of young turtle-doves! And why don’t she come up to you?”

“Well, that you must ask her. The fact is, she’s a little timid girl—she wants me to see him first, and when I’ve made all right, then she’ll come.”

“A little timid girl!” cried Mrs. Berry. “Oh, lor’, how she must ha’ deceived ye to make ye think that! Look at that ring,” she held out her finger, “he’s a stranger: he’s not my lawful! You know what ye did to me, my dear. Could I get my own wedding-ring back from her? ‘No!’ says she, firm as a rock, ‘he said, with this ring I thee wed’—I think I see her now, with her pretty eyes and lovesome locks—a darlin’!—And that ring she’d keep to, come life, come death. And she must ha’ been a rock for me to give in to her in that. For what’s the consequence? Here am I,” Mrs. Berry smoothed down the back of her hand mournfully, “here am I in a strange ring, that’s like a strange man holdin’ of me, and me a-wearin’ of it just to seem decent, and feelin’ all over no better than a b——a big—that nasty name I can’t abide!—I tell you, my dear, she ain’t soft, no!—except to the man of her heart; and the best of women’s too soft there—more’s our sorrow!”

“Well, well!” said Richard, who thought he knew.

“I agree with you, Mrs. Berry,” Ripton struck in, “Mrs. Richard would do anything in the world her husband asked her, I’m quite sure.”

“Bless you for your good opinion, Mr. Thompson! Why, see her! she ain’t frail on her feet; she looks ye straight in the eyes; she ain’t one of your hang-down misses. Look how she behaved at the ceremony!”

“Ah!” sighed Ripton.

“And if you’d ha’ seen her when she spoke to me about my ring! Depend upon it, my dear Mr. Richard, if she blinded you about the nerve she’ve got, it was somethin’ she thought she ought to do for your sake, and I wish I’d been by to counsel her, poor blessed babe!—And how much longer, now, can ye stay divided from that darlin’?”

Richard paced up and down.

“A father’s will,” urged Mrs. Berry, “that’s a son’s law; but he mustn’t go again’ the laws of his nature to do it.”

“Just be quiet at present—talk of other things, there’s a good woman,” said Richard.

Mrs. Berry meekly folded her arms.

“How strange, now, our meetin’ like this! meetin’ at all, too!” she remarked contemplatively. “It’s them advertisements! They brings people together from the ends of the earth, for good or for bad. I often say, there’s more lucky accidents, or unlucky ones, since advertisements was the rule, than ever there was before. They make a number of romances, depend upon it! Do you walk much in the Gardens, my dear?”

“Now and then,” said Richard.

“Very pleasant it is there with the fine folks and flowers and titled people,” continued Mrs. Berry. “That was a handsome woman you was a-walkin’ beside, this mornin’.”

“Very,” said Richard.

“She was a handsome woman! or I should say, is, for her day ain’t past, and she know it. I thought at first—by her back—it might ha’ been your aunt, Mrs. Forey; for she do step out well and hold up her shoulders: straight as a dart she be! But when I come to see her face—Oh, dear me! says I, this ain’t one of the family. They none of ’em got such bold faces—nor no lady as I know have. But she’s a fine woman—that nobody can gainsay.”

Mrs. Berry talked further of the fine woman. It was a liberty she took to speak in this disrespectful tone of her, and Mrs. Berry was quite aware that she was laying herself open to rebuke. She had her end in view. No rebuke was uttered, and during her talk she observed intercourse passing between the eyes of the young men.

“Look here, Penelope,” Richard stopped her at last. “Will it make you comfortable if I tell you I’ll obey the laws of my nature and go down at the end of the week?”

“I’ll thank the Lord of heaven if you do!” she exclaimed.

“Very well, then—be happy—I will. Now listen. I want you to keep your rooms for me—those she had. I expect, in a day or two, to bring a lady here——”

“A lady?” faltered Mrs. Berry.

“Yes. A lady.”

“May I make so bold as to ask what lady?”

“You may not. Not now. Of course you will know.”

Mrs. Berry’s short neck made the best imitation it could of an offended swan’s action. She was very angry. She said she did not like so many ladies, which natural objection Richard met by saying that there was only one lady.

“And Mrs. Berry,” he added, dropping his voice. “You will treat her as you did my dear girl, for she will require not only shelter but kindness. I would rather leave her with you than with any one. She has been very unfortunate.”

His serious air and habitual tone of command fascinated the softness of Berry, and it was not until he had gone that she spoke out. “Unfort’nate! He’s going to bring me an unfort’nate female! Oh! not from my babe can I bear that! Never will I have her here! I see it. It’s that bold-faced woman he’s got mixed up in, and she’ve been and made the young man think he’ll go for to reform her. It’s one o’ their arts—that is; and he’s too innocent a young man to mean anythin’ else. But I ain’t a house of Magdalens—no! and sooner than have her here I’d have the roof fall over me, I would.”

She sat down to eat her supper on the sublime resolve.

In love, Mrs. Berry’s charity was all on the side of the law, and this is the case with many of her sisters. The PILGRIM sneers at them for it, and would have us credit that it is their admirable instinct which, at the expense of every virtue save one, preserves the artificial barrier simply to impose upon us. Men, I presume, are hardly fair judges, and should stand aside and mark.

Early next day Mrs. Berry bundled off to Richard’s hotel to let him know her determination. She did not find him there. Returning homeward through the park, she beheld him on horseback riding by the side of the identical lady. The sight of this public exposure shocked her more than the secret walk under the trees. “You don’t look near your reform yet,” Mrs. Berry apostrophized her. “You don’t look to me one that’d come the Fair Penitent till you’ve left off bein’ fair—if then you do, which some of ye don’t. Laugh away and show yer airs! Spite o’ your hat and feather, and your ridin’ habit, you’re a Bella Donna.” Setting her down again absolutely for such, whatever it might signify, Mrs. Berry had a virtuous glow.

In the evening she heard the noise of wheels stopping at the door. “Never!” she rose from her chair to exclaim. “He ain’t rided her out in the mornin’, and been and made a Magdalen of her afore dark?”

A lady veiled was brought into the house by Richard. Mrs. Berry feebly tried to bar his progress in the passage. He pushed past her, and conducted the lady into the parlour without speaking. Mrs. Berry did not follow. She heard him murmur a few sentences within. Then he came out. All her crest stood up, as she whispered vigorously, “Mr. Richard! if that woman stay here, I go forth. My house ain’t a penitentiary for unfort’nate females, sir——”

He frowned at her curiously; but as she was on the point of renewing her indignant protest, he clapped his hand across her mouth, and spoke words in her ear that had awful import to her. She trembled, breathing low: “My God, forgive me! Lady Feverel is it? Your mother, Mr. Richard?” And her virtue was humbled.

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