The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, by George Meredith

6. Juvenile Stratagems

As soon as they could escape, the boys got away together into an obscure corner of the park, and there took counsel of their extremity.

“Whatever shall we do now?” asked Ripton of his leader.

Scorpion girt with fire was never in a more terrible prison-house than poor Ripton, around whom the raging element he had assisted to create seemed to be drawing momentary narrower circles.

“There’s only one chance,” said Richard, coming to a dead halt, and folding his arms resolutely.

His comrade inquired with the utmost eagerness what that chance might be.

Richard fixed his eyes on a flint, and replied: “We must rescue that fellow from jail.”

Ripton gazed at his leader, and fell back with astonishment. “My dear Ricky! but how are we to do it?”

Richard, still perusing his flint, replied: “We must manage to get a file in to him and a rope. It can be done, I tell you. I don’t care what I pay. I don’t care what I do. He must be got out.”

“Bother that old Blaize!” exclaimed Ripton, taking off his cap to wipe his frenzied forehead, and brought down his friend’s reproof.

“Never mind old Blaize now. Talk about letting it out! Look at you. I’m ashamed of you. You talk about Robin Hood and King Richard! Why, you haven’t an atom of courage. Why, you let it out every second of the day. Whenever Rady begins speaking you start; I can see the perspiration rolling down you. Are you afraid?—And then you contradict yourself. You never keep to one story. Now, follow me. We must risk everything to get him out. Mind that! And keep out of Adrian’s way as much as you can. And keep to one story.”

With these sage directions the young leader marched his companion-culprit down to inspect the jail where Tom Bakewell lay groaning over the results of the super-mundane conflict, and the victim of it that he was.

In Lobourne Austin Wentworth had the reputation of the poor man’s friend; a title he earned more largely ere he went to the reward God alone can give to that supreme virtue. Dame Bakewell, the mother of Tom, on hearing of her son’s arrest, had run to comfort him and render him what help she could; but this was only sighs and tears, and, oh deary me! which only perplexed poor Tom, who bade her leave an unlucky chap to his fate, and not make himself a thundering villain. Whereat the dame begged him to take heart, and he should have a true comforter. “And though it’s a gentleman that’s coming to you, Tom—for he never refuses a poor body,” said Mrs. Bakewell, “it’s a true Christian, Tom! and the Lord knows if the sight of him mayn’t be the saving of you, for he’s light to look on, and a sermon to listen to, he is!”

Tom was not prepossessed by the prospect of a sermon, and looked a sullen dog enough when Austin entered his cell. He was surprised at the end of half-an-hour to find himself engaged in man-to-man conversation with a gentleman and a Christian. When Austin rose to go, Tom begged permission to shake his hand.

“Take and tell young master up at the Abbey that I an’t the chap to peach. He’ll know. He’s a young gentleman as’ll make any man do as he wants ’em! He’s a mortal wild young gentleman! And I’m a Ass! That’s where ’tis. But I an’t a blackguard. Tell him that, sir!”

This was how it came that Austin eyed young Richard seriously while he told the news at Raynham. The boy was shy of Austin more than of Adrian. Why, he did not know; but he made it a hard task for Austin to catch him alone, and turned sulky that instant. Austin was not clever like Adrian: he seldom divined other people’s ideas, and always went the direct road to his object; so instead of beating about and setting the boy on the alert at all points, crammed to the muzzle with lies, he just said, “Tom Bakewell told me to let you know he does not intend to peach on you,” and left him.

Richard repeated the intelligence to Ripton, who cried aloud that Tom was a brick.

“He shan’t suffer for it,” said Richard, and pondered on a thicker rope and sharper file.

“But will your cousin tell?” was Ripton’s reflection.

“He!” Richard’s lip expressed contempt. “A ploughman refuses to peach, and you ask if one of our family will?”

Ripton stood for the twentieth time reproved on this point.

The boys had examined the outer walls of the jail, and arrived at the conclusion that Tom’s escape might be managed if Tom had spirit, and the rope and file could be anyway reached to him. But to do this, somebody must gain admittance to his cell, and who was to be taken into their confidence?

“Try your cousin,” Ripton suggested, after much debate.

Richard, smiling, wished to know if he meant Adrian.

“No, no!” Ripton hurriedly reassured him. “Austin.”

The same idea was knocking at Richard’s head.

“Let’s get the rope and file first,” said he, and to Bursley they went for those implements to defeat the law, Ripton procuring the file at one shop and Richard the rope at another, with such masterly cunning did they lay their measures for the avoidance of every possible chance of detection. And better to assure this, in a wood outside Bursley Richard stripped to his shirt and wound the rope round his body, tasting the tortures of anchorites and penitential friars, that nothing should be risked to make Tom’s escape a certainty. Sir Austin saw the marks at night as his son lay asleep, through the half-opened folds of his bed-gown.

It was a severe stroke when, after all their stratagems and trouble, Austin Wentworth refused the office the boys had zealously designed for him. Time pressed. In a few days poor Tom would have to face the redoubtable Sir Miles, and get committed, for rumours of overwhelming evidence to convict him were rife about Lobourne, and Farmer Blaize’s wrath was unappeasable. Again and again young Richard begged his cousin not to see him disgraced, and to help him in this extremity. Austin smiled on him.

“My dear Ricky,” said he, “there are two ways of getting out of a scrape: a long way and a short way. When you’ve tried the roundabout method, and failed, come to me, and I’ll show you the straight route.”

Richard was too entirely bent upon the roundabout method to consider this advice more than empty words, and only ground his teeth at Austin’s unkind refusal.

He imparted to Ripton, at the eleventh hour, that they must do it themselves, to which Ripton heavily assented.

On the day preceding poor Tom’s doomed appearance before the magistrate, Dame Bakewell had an interview with Austin, who went to Raynham immediately, and sought Adrian’s counsel upon what was to be done. Homeric laughter and nothing else could be got out of Adrian when he heard of the doings of these desperate boys: how they had entered Dame Bakewell’s smallest of retail shops, and purchased tea, sugar, candles, and comfits of every description, till the shop was clear of customers: how they had then hurried her into her little back-parlour, where Richard had torn open his shirt and revealed the coils of rope, and Ripton displayed the point of a file from a serpentine recess in his jacket: how they had then told the astonished woman that the rope she saw and the file she saw were instruments for the liberation of her son; that there existed no other means on earth to save him, they, the boys, having unsuccessfully attempted all: how upon that Richard had tried with the utmost earnestness to persuade her to disrobe and wind the rope round her own person: and Ripton had aired his eloquence to induce her to secrete the file: how, when she resolutely objected to the rope, both boys began backing the file, and in an evil hour, she feared, said Dame Bakewell, she had rewarded the gracious permission given her by Sir Miles Papworth to visit her son, by tempting Tom to file the Law. Though, thanks be to the Lord! Dame Bakewell added, Tom had turned up his nose at the file, and so she had told young Master Richard, who swore very bad for a young gentleman.

“Boys are like monkeys,” remarked Adrian, at the close of his explosions, “the gravest actors of farcical nonsense that the world possesses. May I never be where there are no boys! A couple of boys left to themselves will furnish richer fun than any troop of trained comedians. No: no Art arrives at the artlessness of nature in matters of comedy. You can’t simulate the ape. Your antics are dull. They haven’t the charming inconsequence of the natural animal. Look at these two! Think of the shifts they are put to all day long! They know I know all about it, and yet their serenity of innocence is all but unruffled in my presence. You’re sorry to think about the end of the business, Austin? So am I! I dread the idea of the curtain going down. Besides, it will do Ricky a world of good. A practical lesson is the best lesson.”

“Sinks deepest,” said Austin, “but whether he learns good or evil from it is the question at stake.”

Adrian stretched his length at ease.

“This will be his first nibble at experience, old Time’s fruit, hateful to the palate of youth! for which season only hath it any nourishment! Experience! You know Coleridge’s capital simile?—Mournful you call it? Well! all wisdom is mournful. ’Tis therefore, coz, that the wise do love the Comic Muse. Their own high food would kill them. You shall find great poets, rare philosophers, night after night on the broad grin before a row of yellow lights and mouthing masks. Why? Because all’s dark at home. The stage is the pastime of great minds. That’s how it comes that the stage is now down. An age of rampant little minds, my dear Austin! How I hate that cant of yours about an Age of Work—you, and your Mortons, and your parsons Brawnley, rank radicals all of you, base materialists! What does Diaper Sandoe sing of your Age of Work? Listen!

‘An Age of petty tit for tat,

An Age of busy gabble:

An age that’s like a brewer’s vat,

Fermenting for the rabble!

‘An Age that’s chaste in Love, but lax

To virtuous abuses:

Whose gentlemen and ladies wax

Too dainty for their uses.

‘An Age that drives an Iron Horse,

Of Time and Space defiant;

Exulting in a Giant’s Force,

And trembling at the Giant.

‘An Age of Quaker hue and cut,

By Mammon misbegotten;

See the mad Hamlet mouth and strut!

And mark the Kings of Cotton!

‘From this unrest, lo, early wreck’d,

A Future staggers crazy,

Ophelia of the Ages, deck’d

With woeful weed and daisy!’”

Murmuring, “Get your parson Brawnley to answer that!” Adrian changed the resting-place of a leg, and smiled. The AGE was an old battle-field between him and Austin.

“My parson Brawnley, as you call him, has answered it,” said Austin, “not by hoping his best, which would probably leave the Age to go mad to your satisfaction, but by doing it. And he has and will answer your Diaper Sandoe in better verse, as he confutes him in a better life.”

“You don’t see Sandoe’s depth,” Adrian replied. “Consider that phrase, ‘Ophelia of the Ages’! Is not Brawnley, like a dozen other leading spirits—I think that’s your term—just the metaphysical Hamlet to drive her mad? She, poor maid! asks for marriage and smiling babes, while my lord lover stands questioning the Infinite, and rants to the Impalpable.”

Austin laughed. “Marriage and smiling babes she would have in abundance, if Brawnley legislated. Wait till you know him. He will be over at Poer Hall shortly, and you will see what a Man of the Age means. But now, pray, consult with me about these boys.”

“Oh, those boys!” Adrian tossed a hand. “Are there boys of the Age as well as men? Not? Then boys are better than men: boys are for all Ages. What do you think, Austin? They’ve been studying Latude’s Escape. I found the book open in Ricky’s room, on the top of Jonathan Wild. Jonathan preserved the secrets of his profession, and taught them nothing. So they’re going to make a Latude of Mr. Tom Bakewell. He’s to be Bastille Bakewell, whether he will or no. Let them. Let the wild colt run free! We can’t help them. We can only look on. We should spoil the play.”

Adrian always made a point of feeding the fretful beast Impatience with pleasantries—a not congenial diet; and Austin, the most patient of human beings, began to lose his self-control.

“You talk as if Time belonged to you, Adrian. We have but a few hours left us. Work first, and joke afterwards. The boy’s fate is being decided now.”

“So is everybody’s, my dear Austin!” yawned the epicurean.

“Yes, but this boy is at present under our guardianship—under yours especially.”

“Not yet! not yet!” Adrian interjected languidly. “No getting into scrapes when I have him. The leash, young hound! the collar, young colt! I’m perfectly irresponsible at present.”

“You may have something different to deal with when you are responsible, if you think that.”

“I take my young prince as I find him, coz: a Julian, or a Caracalla: a Constantine, or a Nero. Then, if he will play the fiddle to a conflagration, he shall play it well: if he must be a disputatious apostate, at any rate he shall understand logic and men, and have the habit of saying his prayers.”

“Then you leave me to act alone?” said Austin, rising.

“Without a single curb!” Adrian gesticulated an acquiesced withdrawal. “I’m sure you would not, still more certain you cannot, do harm. And be mindful of my prophetic words: Whatever’s done, old Blaize will have to be bought off. There’s the affair settled at once. I suppose I must go to the chief to-night and settle it myself. We can’t see this poor devil condemned, though it’s nonsense to talk of a boy being the prime instigator.”

Austin cast an eye at the complacent languor of the wise youth, his cousin, and the little that he knew of his fellows told him he might talk for ever here, and not be comprehended. The wise youth’s two ears were stuffed with his own wisdom. One evil only Adrian dreaded, it was clear—the action of the law.

As he was moving away, Adrian called out to him, “Stop, Austin! There! don’t be anxious! You invariably take the glum side. I’ve done something. Never mind what. If you go down to Belthorpe, be civil, but not obsequious. You remember the tactics of Scipio Africanus against the Punic elephants? Well, don’t say a word—in thine ear, coz: I’ve turned Master Blaize’s elephants. If they charge, ’twill be a feint, and back to the destruction of his serried ranks! You understand. Not? Well, ’tis as well. Only, let none say that I sleep. If I must see him to-night, I go down knowing he has not got us in his power.” The wise youth yawned, and stretched out a hand for any book that might be within his reach. Austin left him to look about the grounds for Richard.

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