The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, by George Meredith

4. Arson

Search for the missing boys had been made everywhere over Raynham, and Sir Austin was in grievous discontent. None had seen them save Austin Wentworth and Mr. Morton. The baronet sat construing their account of the flight of the lads when they were hailed, and resolved it into an act of rebellion on the part of his son. At dinner he drank the young heir’s health in ominous silence. Adrian Harley stood up in his place to propose the health. His speech was a fine piece of rhetoric. He warmed in it till, after the Ciceronic model, inanimate objects were personified, and Richard’s table-napkin and vacant chair were invoked to follow the steps of a peerless father, and uphold with his dignity the honour of the Feverels. Austin Wentworth, whom a soldier’s death compelled to take his father’s place in support of the toast, was tame after such magniloquence. But the reply, the thanks which young Richard should have delivered in person were not forthcoming. Adrian’s oratory had given but a momentary life to napkin and chair. The company of honoured friends, and aunts, and uncles, and remotest cousins, were glad to disperse and seek amusement in music and tea. Sir Austin did his utmost to be hospitably cheerful, and requested them to dance. If he had desired them to laugh he would have been obeyed, and in as hearty a manner.

“How triste!” said Mrs. Doria Forey to Lobourne’s curate, as that most enamoured automaton went through his paces beside her with professional stiffness.

“One who does not suffer can hardly assent,” the curate answered, basking in her beams.

“Ah, you are good!” exclaimed the lady. “Look at my Clare. She will not dance on her cousin’s birthday with any one but him. What are we to do to enliven these people?”

“Alas, madam! you cannot do for all what you do for one,” the curate sighed, and wherever she wandered in discourse, drew her back with silken strings to gaze on his enamoured soul.

He was the only gratified stranger present. The others had designs on the young heir. Lady Attenbury of Longford House had brought her highly-polished specimen of marketware, the Lady Juliana Jaye, for a first introduction to him, thinking he had arrived at an age to estimate and pine for her black eyes and pretty pert mouth. The Lady Juliana had to pair off with a dapper Papworth, and her mama was subjected to the gallantries of Sir Miles, who talked land and steam-engines to her till she was sick, and had to be impertinent in self-defence. Lady Blandish, the delightful widow, sat apart with Adrian, and enjoyed his sarcasms on the company. By ten at night the poor show ended, and the rooms were dark, dark as the prognostics multitudinously hinted by the disappointed and chilled guests concerning the probable future of the hope of Raynham. Little Clare kissed her mama, curtsied to the lingering curate, and went to bed like a very good girl. Immediately the maid had departed, little Clare deliberately exchanged night attire for that of day. She was noted as an obedient child. Her light was always allowed to burn in her room for half-an-hour, to counteract her fears of the dark. She took the light, and stole on tiptoe to Richard’s room. No Richard was there. She peeped in further and further. A trifling agitation of the curtains shot her back through the door and along the passage to her own bedchamber with extreme expedition. She was not much alarmed, but feeling guilty she was on her guard. In a short time she was prowling about the passages again. Richard had slighted and offended the little lady, and was to be asked whether he did not repent such conduct toward his cousin; not to be asked whether he had forgotten to receive his birthday kiss from her; for, if he did not choose to remember that, Miss Clare would never remind him of it, and to-night should be his last chance of a reconciliation. Thus she meditated, sitting on a stair, and presently heard Richard’s voice below in the hall, shouting for supper.

“Master Richard has returned,” old Benson the butler tolled out intelligence to Sir Austin.

“Well?” said the baronet.

“He complains of being hungry,” the butler hesitated, with a look of solemn disgust.

“Let him eat.”

Heavy Benson hesitated still more as he announced that the boy had called for wine. It was an unprecedented thing. Sir Austin’s brows were portending an arch, but Adrian suggested that he wanted possibly to drink his birthday, and claret was conceded.

The boys were in the vortex of a partridge-pie when Adrian strolled in to them. They had now changed characters. Richard was uproarious. He drank a health with every glass; his cheeks were flushed and his eyes brilliant. Ripton looked very much like a rogue on the tremble of detection, but his honest hunger and the partridge-pie shielded him awhile from Adrian’s scrutinizing glance. Adrian saw there was matter for study, if it were only on Master Ripton’s betraying nose, and sat down to hear and mark.

“Good sport, gentlemen, I trust to hear?” he began his quiet banter, and provoked a loud peal of laughter from Richard.

“Ha, ha! I say, Rip: ‘Havin’ good sport, gentlemen, are ye?’ You remember the farmer! Your health, parson! We haven’t had our sport yet. We’re going to have some first-rate sport. Oh, well! we haven’t much show of birds. We shot for pleasure, and returned them to the proprietors. You’re fond of game, parson! Ripton is a dead shot in what Cousin Austin calls the Kingdom of ‘would-have-done’ and ‘might-have-been.’ Up went the birds, and cries Rip, ‘I’ve forgotten to load!’ Oh, ho!—Rip! some more claret—Do just leave that nose of yours alone.—Your health, Ripton Thompson! The birds hadn’t the decency to wait for him, and so, parson, it’s their fault, and not Rip’s, you haven’t a dozen brace at your feet. What have you been doing at home, Cousin Rady?”

“Playing Hamlet, in the absence of the Prince of Denmark. The day without you, my dear boy, must be dull, you know.”

“‘He speaks: can I trust what he says is sincere?

There’s an edge to his smile that cuts much like a sneer.’

Sandoe’s poems! You know the couplet, Mr. Rady. Why shouldn’t I quote Sandoe? You know you like him, Rady. But, if you’ve missed me, I’m sorry. Rip and I have had a beautiful day. We’ve made new acquaintances. We’ve seen the world. I’m the monkey that has seen the world, and I’m going to tell you all about it. First, there’s a gentleman who takes a rifle for a fowling-piece. Next, there’s a farmer who warns everybody, gentleman and beggar, off his premises. Next, there’s a tinker and a ploughman, who think that God is always fighting with the devil which shall command the kingdoms of the earth. The tinker’s for God, and the ploughman——”

“I’ll drink your health, Ricky,” said Adrian, interrupting.

“Oh, I forgot, parson—I mean no harm, Adrian. I’m only telling what I’ve heard.”

“No harm, my dear boy,” returned Adrian. “I’m perfectly aware that Zoroaster is not dead. You have been listening to a common creed. Drink the Fire-worshippers, if you will.”

“Here’s to Zoroaster, then!” cried Richard. “I say, Rippy! we’ll drink the Fire-worshippers to-night, won’t we?”

A fearful conspiratorial frown, that would not have disgraced Guido Fawkes, was darted back from the plastic features of Master Ripton.

Richard gave his lungs loud play.

“Why, what did you say about Blaizes, Rippy? Didn’t you say it was fun?”

Another hideous and silencing frown was Ripton’s answer. Adrian watched the innocent youths, and knew that there was talking under the table. “See,” thought he, “this boy has tasted his first scraggy morsel of life today, and already he talks like an old stager, and has, if I mistake not, been acting too. My respected chief,” he apostrophized Sir Austin, “combustibles are only the more dangerous for compression. This boy will be ravenous for Earth when he is let loose, and very soon make his share of it look as foolish as yonder game-pie!”—a prophecy Adrian kept to himself.

Uncle Algernon shambled in to see his nephew before the supper was finished, and his more genial presence brought out a little of the plot.

“Look here, uncle!” said Richard. “Would you let a churlish old brute of a farmer strike you without making him suffer for it?”

“I fancy I should return the compliment, my lad,” replied his uncle.

“Of course you would! So would I. And he shall suffer for it.” The boy looked savage, and his uncle patted him down.

“I’ve boxed his son; I’ll box him,” said Richard, shouting for more wine.

“What, boy! Is it old Blaize has been putting you up?”

“Never mind, uncle!” The boy nodded mysteriously.

Look there! Adrian read on Ripton’s face, he says “never mind,” and lets it out!

“Did we beat today, uncle?”

“Yes, boy; and we’d beat them any day they bowl fair. I’d beat them on one leg. There’s only Natkins and Featherdene among them worth a farthing.”

“We beat!” cries Richard. “Then we’ll have some more wine, and drink their healths.”

The bell was rung; wine ordered. Presently comes in heavy Benson, to say supplies are cut off. One bottle, and no more. The Captain whistled; Adrian shrugged.

The bottle, however, was procured by Adrian subsequently. He liked studying intoxicated urchins.

One subject was at Richard’s heart, about which he was reserved in the midst of his riot. Too proud to inquire how his father had taken his absence, he burned to hear whether he was in disgrace. He led to it repeatedly, and it was constantly evaded by Algernon and Adrian. At last, when the boy declared a desire to wish his father good-night, Adrian had to tell him that he was to go straight to bed from the supper-table. Young Richard’s face fell at that, and his gaiety forsook him. He marched to his room without another word.

Adrian gave Sir Austin an able version of his son’s behaviour and adventures; dwelling upon this sudden taciturnity when he heard of his father’s resolution not to see him. The wise youth saw that his chief was mollified behind his moveless mask, and went to bed, and Horace, leaving Sir Austin in his study. Long hours the baronet sat alone. The house had not its usual influx of Feverels that day. Austin Wentworth was staying at Poer Hall, and had only come over for an hour. At midnight the house breathed sleep. Sir Austin put on his cloak and cap, and took the lamp to make his rounds. He apprehended nothing special, but with a mind never at rest he constituted himself the sentinel of Raynham. He passed the chamber where the Great–Aunt Grantley lay, who was to swell Richard’s fortune, and so perform her chief business on earth. By her door he murmured, “Good creature! you sleep with a sense of duty done,” and paced on, reflecting, “She has not made money a demon of discord,” and blessed her. He had his thoughts at Hippias’s somnolent door, and to them the world might have subscribed.

A monomaniac at large, watching over sane people in slumber! thinks Adrian Harley, as he hears Sir Austin’s footfall, and truly that was a strange object to see.—Where is the fortress that has not one weak gate? where the man who is sound at each particular angle? Ay, meditates the recumbent cynic, more or less mad is not every mother’s son? Favourable circumstances—good air, good company, two or three good rules rigidly adhered to—keep the world out of Bedlam. But, let the world fly into a passion, and is not Bedlam the safest abode for it?

Sir Austin ascended the stairs, and bent his steps leisurely toward the chamber where his son was lying in the left wing of the Abbey. At the end of the gallery which led to it he discovered a dim light. Doubting it an illusion, Sir Austin accelerated his pace. This wing had aforetime a bad character. Notwithstanding what years had done to polish it into fair repute, the Raynham kitchen stuck to tradition, and preserved certain stories of ghosts seen there, that effectually blackened it in the susceptible minds of new housemaids and under-cooks, whose fears would not allow the sinner to wash his sins. Sir Austin had heard of the tales circulated by his domestics underground. He cherished his own belief, but discouraged theirs, and it was treason at Raynham to be caught traducing the left wing. As the baronet advanced, the fact of a light burning was clear to him. A slight descent brought him into the passage, and he beheld a poor human candle standing outside his son’s chamber. At the same moment a door closed hastily. He entered Richard’s room. The boy was absent. The bed was unpressed: no clothes about: nothing to show that he had been there that night. Sir Austin felt vaguely apprehensive. Has he gone to my room to await me? thought the father’s heart. Something like a tear quivered in his arid eyes as he meditated and hoped this might be so. His own sleeping-room faced that of his son. He strode to it with a quick heart. It was empty. Alarm dislodged anger from his jealous heart, and dread of evil put a thousand questions to him that were answered in air. After pacing up and down his room he determined to go and ask the boy Thompson, as he called Ripton, what was known to him.

The chamber assigned to Master Ripton Thompson was at the northern extremity of the passage, and overlooked Lobourne and the valley to the West. The bed stood between the window and the door. Sir Austin found the door ajar, and the interior dark. To his surprise, the boy Thompson’s couch, as revealed by the rays of his lamp, was likewise vacant. He was turning back when he fancied he heard the sibilation of a whispering in the room. Sir Austin cloaked the lamp and trod silently toward the window. The heads of his son Richard and the boy Thompson were seen crouched against the glass, holding excited converse together. Sir Austin listened, but he listened to a language of which he possessed not the key. Their talk was of fire, and of delay: of expected agrarian astonishment: of a farmer’s huge wrath: of violence exercised upon gentlemen, and of vengeance: talk that the boys jerked out by fits, and that came as broken links of a chain impossible to connect. But they awoke curiosity. The baronet condescended to play the spy upon his son.

Over Lobourne and the valley lay black night and innumerable stars.

“How jolly I feel!” exclaimed Ripton, inspired by claret; and then, after a luxurious pause—“I think that fellow has pocketed his guinea, and cut his lucky.”

Richard allowed a long minute to pass, during which the baronet waited anxiously for his voice, hardly recognizing it when he heard its altered tones.

“If he has, I’ll go; and I’ll do it myself.”

“You would?” returned Master Ripton. “Well, I’m hanged!—I say, if you went to school, wouldn’t you get into rows! Perhaps he hasn’t found the place where the box was stuck in. I think he funks it. I almost wish you hadn’t done it, upon my honour—eh? Look there! what was that? That looked like something.—I say! do you think we shall ever be found out?”

Master Ripton intoned this abrupt interrogation very seriously.

“I don’t think about it,” said Richard, all his faculties bent on signs from Lobourne.

“Well, but,” Ripton persisted, “suppose we are found out?”

“If we are, I must pay for it.”

Sir Austin breathed the better for this reply. He was beginning to gather a clue to the dialogue. His son was engaged in a plot, and was, moreover, the leader of the plot. He listened for further enlightenment.

“What was the fellow’s name?” inquired Ripton.

His companion answered, “Tom Bakewell.”

“I’ll tell you what,” continued Ripton. “You let it all clean out to your cousin and uncle at supper. How capital claret is with partridge-pie! What a lot I ate!—Didn’t you see me frown?”

The young sensualist was in an ecstasy of gratitude to his late refection, and the slightest word recalled him to it. Richard answered him —

“Yes; and felt your kick. It doesn’t matter. Rady’s safe, and uncle never blabs.”

“Well, my plan is to keep it close. You’re never safe if you don’t.—I never drank much claret before,” Ripton was off again. “Won’t I now, though! claret’s my wine. You know, it may come out any day, and then we’re done for,” he rather incongruously appended.

Richard only took up the business-thread of his friend’s rambling chatter, and answered —

“You’ve got nothing to do with it, if we are.”

“Haven’t I, though! I didn’t stick in the box, but I’m an accomplice, that’s clear. Besides,” added Ripton, “do you think I should leave you to bear it all on your shoulders? I ain’t that sort of chap, Ricky, I can tell you.”

Sir Austin thought more highly of the boy Thompson. Still it looked a detestable conspiracy, and the altered manner of his son impressed him strangely. He was not the boy of yesterday. To Sir Austin it seemed as if a gulf had suddenly opened between them. The boy had embarked, and was on the waters of life in his own vessel. It was as vain to call him back as to attempt to erase what Time has written with the Judgment Blood! This child, for whom he had prayed nightly in such a fervour and humbleness to God, the dangers were about him, the temptations thick on him, and the devil on board piloting. If a day had done so much, what would years do? Were prayers and all the watchfulness he had expended of no avail?

A sensation of infinite melancholy overcame the poor gentleman—a thought that he was fighting with a fate in this beloved boy.

He was half disposed to arrest the two conspirators on the spot, and make them confess, and absolve themselves; but it seemed to him better to keep an unseen eye over his son: Sir Austin’s old system prevailed.

Adrian characterized this system well, in saying that Sir Austin wished to be Providence to his son.

If immeasurable love were perfect wisdom, one human being might almost impersonate Providence to another. Alas! love, divine as it is, can do no more than lighten the house it inhabits—must take its shape, sometimes intensify its narrowness—can spiritualize, but not expel, the old life-long lodgers above-stairs and below.

Sir Austin decided to continue quiescent.

The valley still lay black beneath the large autumnal stars, and the exclamations of the boys were becoming fevered and impatient. By-and-by one insisted that he had seen a twinkle. The direction he gave was out of their anticipations. Again the twinkle was announced. Both boys started to their feet. It was a twinkle in the right direction now.

“He’s done it!” cried Richard, in great heat. “Now you may say old Blaize’ll soon be old Blazes, Rip. I hope he’s asleep.”

“I’m sure he’s snoring!—Look there! He’s alight fast enough. He’s dry. He’ll burn.—I say,” Ripton reassumed the serious intonation, “do you think they’ll ever suspect us?”

“What if they do? We must brunt it.”

“Of course we will. But, I say! I wish you hadn’t given them the scent, though. I like to look innocent. I can’t when I know people suspect me. Lord! look there! Isn’t it just beginning to flare up!”

The farmer’s grounds were indeed gradually standing out in sombre shadows.

“I’ll fetch my telescope,” said Richard. Ripton, somehow not liking to be left alone, caught hold of him.

“No; don’t go and lose the best of it. Here, I’ll throw open the window, and we can see.”

The window was flung open, and the boys instantly stretched half their bodies out of it; Ripton appearing to devour the rising flames with his mouth: Richard with his eyes.

Opaque and statuesque stood the figure of the baronet behind them. The wind was low. Dense masses of smoke hung amid the darting snakes of fire, and a red malign light was on the neighbouring leafage. No figures could be seen. Apparently the flames had nothing to contend against, for they were making terrible strides into the darkness.

“Oh!” shouted Richard, overcome by excitement, “if I had my telescope! We must have it! Let me go and fetch it! I will!”

The boys struggled together, and Sir Austin stepped back. As he did so, a cry was heard in the passage. He hurried out, closed the chamber, and came upon little Clare lying senseless along the floor.

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