The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, by George Meredith

5. Adrian Plies His Hook

In the morning that followed this night, great gossip was interchanged between Raynham and Lobourne. The village told how Farmer Blaize, of Belthorpe Farm, had his rick feloniously set fire to; his stables had caught fire, himself had been all but roasted alive in the attempt to rescue his cattle, of which numbers had perished in the flames. Raynham counterbalanced arson with an authentic ghost seen by Miss Clare in the left wing of the Abbey—the ghost of a lady, dressed in deep mourning, a scar on her forehead, and a bloody handkerchief at her breast, frightful to behold! and no wonder the child was frightened out of her wits, and lay in a desperate State awaiting the arrival of the London doctors. It was added that the servants had all threatened to leave in a body, and that Sir Austin to appease them had promised to pull down the entire left wing, like a gentleman; for no decent creature, said Lobourne, could consent to live in a haunted house.

Rumour for the nonce had a stronger spice of truth than usual. Poor little Clare lay ill, and the calamity that had befallen Farmer Blaize, as regards his rick, was not much exaggerated. Sir Austin caused an account of it to be given him at breakfast, and appeared so scrupulously anxious to hear the exact extent of injury sustained by the farmer that heavy Benson went down to inspect the scene. Mr. Benson returned, and, acting under Adrian’s malicious advice, framed a formal report of the catastrophe, in which the farmer’s breeches figured, and certain cooling applications to a part of the farmer’s person. Sir Austin perused it without a smile. He took occasion to have it read out before the two boys, who listened very demurely, as to an ordinary newspaper incident; only when the report particularized the garments damaged, and the unwonted distressing position Farmer Blaize was reduced to in his bed, an indecorous fit of sneezing laid hold of Master Ripton Thompson, and Richard bit his lip and burst into loud laughter, Ripton joining him, lost to consequences.

“I trust you feel for this poor man,” said Sir Austin to his son, somewhat sternly. He saw no sign of feeling.

It was a difficult task for Sir Austin to keep his old countenance toward the hope of Raynham, knowing him the accomplice-incendiary, and believing the deed to have been unprovoked and wanton. But he must do so, he knew, to let the boy have a fair trial against himself. Be it said, moreover, that the baronet’s possession of his son’s secret flattered him. It allowed him to act, and in a measure to feel, like Providence; enabled him to observe and provide for the movements of creatures in the dark. He therefore treated the boy as he commonly did, and Richard saw no change in his father to make him think he was suspected.

The youngster’s game was not so easy against Adrian. Adrian did not shoot or fish. Voluntarily he did nothing to work off the destructive nervous fluid, or whatever it may be, which is in man’s nature; so that two culprit boys once in his power were not likely to taste the gentle hand of mercy, and Richard and Ripton paid for many a trout and partridge spared. At every minute of the day Ripton was thrown into sweats of suspicion that discovery was imminent, by some stray remark or message from Adrian. He was as a fish with the hook in his gills, mysteriously caught without having nibbled; and dive into what depths he would he was sensible of a summoning force that compelled him perpetually towards the gasping surface, which he seemed inevitably approaching when the dinner-bell sounded. There the talk was all of Farmer Blaize. If it dropped, Adrian revived it, and his caressing way with Ripton was just such as a keen sportsman feels toward the creature that has owned his skill, and is making its appearance for the world to acknowledge the same. Sir Austin saw the manoeuvres, and admired Adrian’s shrewdness. But he had to check the young natural lawyer, for the effect of so much masked examination upon Richard was growing baneful. This fish also felt the hook in his gills, but this fish was more of a pike, and lay in different waters, where there were old stumps and black roots to wind about, and defy alike strong pulling and delicate handling. In other words, Richard showed symptoms of a disposition to take refuge in lies.

“You know the grounds, my dear boy,” Adrian observed to him. “Tell me; do you think it easy to get to the rick unperceived? I hear they suspect one of the farmer’s turned-off hands.”

“I tell you I don’t know the grounds,” Richard sullenly replied.

“Not?” Adrian counterfeited courteous astonishment. “I thought Mr. Thompson said you were over there yesterday?”

Ripton, glad to speak a truth, hurriedly assured Adrian that it was not he had said so.

“Not? You had good sport, gentlemen, hadn’t you?”

“Oh, yes!” mumbled the wretched victims, reddening as they remembered, in Adrian’s slightly drawled rusticity of tone, Farmer Blaize’s first address to them.

“I suppose you were among the Fire-worshippers last night, too?” persisted Adrian. “In some countries, I hear, they manage their best sport at night-time, and beat up for game with torches. It must be a fine sight. After all, the country would be dull if we hadn’t a rip here and there to treat us to a little conflagration.”

“A rip!” laughed Richard, to his friend’s disgust and alarm at his daring. “You don’t mean this Rip, do you?”

“Mr. Thompson fire a rick? I should as soon suspect you, my dear boy.—You are aware, young gentlemen, that it is rather a serious thing—eh? In this country, you know, the landlord has always been the pet of the Laws. By the way,” Adrian continued, as if diverging to another topic, “you met two gentlemen of the road in your explorations yesterday, Magians. Now, if I were a magistrate of the county, like Sir Miles Papworth, my suspicions would light upon those gentlemen. A tinker and a ploughman, I think you said, Mr. Thompson. Not? Well, say two ploughmen.”

“More likely two tinkers,” said Richard.

“Oh! if you wish to exclude the ploughman—was he out of employ?”

Ripton, with Adrian’s eyes inveterately fixed on him, stammered an affirmative.

“The tinker, or the ploughman?”

“The ploughm—” Ingenuous Ripton looking about, as if to aid himself whenever he was able to speak the truth, beheld Richard’s face blackening at him, and swallowed back half the word.

“The ploughman!” Adrian took him up cheerily. “Then we have here a ploughman out of employ. Given a ploughman out of employ, and a rick burnt. The burning of a rick is an act of vengeance, and a ploughman out of employ is a vengeful animal. The rick and the ploughman are advancing to a juxtaposition. Motive being established, we have only to prove their proximity at a certain hour, and our ploughman voyages beyond seas.”

“Is it transportation for rick-burning?” inquired Ripton aghast.

Adrian spoke solemnly: “They shave your head. You are manacled. Your diet is sour bread and cheese-parings. You work in strings of twenties and thirties. ARSON is branded on your backs in an enormous A. Theological works are the sole literary recreation of the well-conducted and deserving. Consider the fate of this poor fellow, and what an act of vengeance brings him to! Do you know his name?”

“How should I know his name?” said Richard, with an assumption of innocence painful to see.

Sir Austin remarked that no doubt it would soon be known, and Adrian perceived that he was to quiet his line, marvelling a little at the baronet’s blindness to what was so clear. He would not tell, for that would ruin his future influence with Richard; still he wanted some present credit for his discernment and devotion. The boys got away from dinner, and, after deep consultation, agreed upon a course of conduct, which was to commiserate Farmer Blaize loudly, and make themselves look as much like the public as it was possible for two young malefactors to look, one of whom already felt Adrian’s enormous A devouring his back with the fierceness of the Promethean eagle, and isolating him for ever from mankind. Adrian relished their novel tactics sharply, and led them to lengths of lamentation for Farmer Blaize. Do what they might, the hook was in their gills. The farmer’s whip had reduced them to bodily contortions: these were decorous compared with the spiritual writhings they had to perform under Adrian’s manipulation. Ripton was fast becoming a coward, and Richard a liar, when next morning Austin Wentworth came over from Poer Hall bringing news that one Mr. Thomas Bakewell, yeoman, had been arrested on suspicion of the crime of Arson and lodged in jail, awaiting the magisterial pleasure of Sir Miles Papworth. Austin’s eye rested on Richard as he spoke these terrible tidings. The hope of Raynham returned his look, perfectly calm, and had, moreover, the presence of mind not to look at Ripton.

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