The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, by George Meredith

7. Daphne’s Bower

A little laurel-shaded temple of white marble looked out on the river from a knoll bordering the Raynham beechwoods, and was dubbed by Adrian Daphne’s Bower. To this spot Richard had retired, and there Austin found him with his head buried in his hands, a picture of desperation, whose last shift has been defeated. He allowed Austin to greet him and sit by him without lifting his head. Perhaps his eyes were not presentable.

“Where’s your friend?” Austin began.

“Gone!” was the answer, sounding cavernous from behind hair and fingers. An explanation presently followed, that a summons had come for him in the morning from Mr. Thompson; and that Mr. Ripton had departed against his will.

In fact, Ripton had protested that he would defy his parent and remain by his friend in the hour of adversity and at the post of danger. Sir Austin signified his opinion that a boy should obey his parent, by giving orders to Benson for Ripton’s box to be packed and ready before noon; and Ripton’s alacrity in taking the baronet’s view of filial duty was as little feigned as his offer to Richard to throw filial duty to the winds. He rejoiced that the Fates had agreed to remove him from the very hot neighbourhood of Lobourne, while he grieved, like an honest lad, to see his comrade left to face calamity alone. The boys parted amicably, as they could hardly fail to do, when Ripton had sworn fealty to the Feverels with a warmth that made him declare himself bond, and due to appear at any stated hour and at any stated place to fight all the farmers in England, on a mandate from the heir of the house.

“So you’re left alone,” said Austin, contemplating the boy’s shapely head. “I’m glad of it. We never know what’s in us till we stand by ourselves.”

There appeared to be no answer forthcoming. Vanity, however, replied at last, “He wasn’t much support.”

“Remember his good points now he’s gone, Ricky.”

“Oh! he was staunch,” the boy grumbled.

“And a staunch friend is not always to be found. Now, have you tried your own way of rectifying this business, Ricky?”

“I have done everything.”

“And failed!”

There was a pause, and then the deep-toned evasion —

“Tom Bakewell’s a coward!”

“I suppose, poor fellow,” said Austin, in his kind way, “he doesn’t want to get into a deeper mess. I don’t think he’s a coward.”

“He is a coward,” cried Richard. “Do you think if I had a file I would stay in prison? I’d be out the first night! And he might have had the rope, too—a rope thick enough for a couple of men his size and weight. Ripton and I and Ned Markham swung on it for an hour, and it didn’t give way. He’s a coward, and deserves his fate. I’ve no compassion for a coward.”

“Nor I much,” said Austin.

Richard had raised his head in the heat of his denunciation of poor Tom. He would have hidden it had he known the thought in Austin’s clear eyes while he faced them.

“I never met a coward myself,” Austin continued. “I have heard of one or two. One let an innocent man die for him.”

“How base!” exclaimed the boy.

“Yes, it was bad,” Austin acquiesced.

“Bad!” Richard scorned the poor contempt. “How I would have spurned him! He was a coward!”

“I believe he pleaded the feelings of his family in his excuse, and tried every means to get the man off. I have read also in the confessions of a celebrated philosopher, that in his youth he committed some act of pilfering, and accused a young servant-girl of his own theft, who was condemned and dismissed for it, pardoning her guilty accuser.”

“What a coward!” shouted Richard. “And he confessed it publicly?”

“You may read it yourself.”

“He actually wrote it down, and printed it?”

“You have the book in your father’s library. Would you have done so much?”

Richard faltered. No! he admitted that he never could have told people.

“Then who is to call that man a coward?” said Austin. “He expiated his cowardice as all who give way in moments of weakness, and are not cowards, must do. The coward chooses to think ‘God does not see. I shall escape.’ He who is not a coward, and has succumbed, knows that God has seen all, and it is not so hard a task for him to make his heart bare to the world. Worse, I should fancy it, to know myself an impostor when men praised me.”

Young Richard’s eyes were wandering on Austin’s gravely cheerful face. A keen intentness suddenly fixed them, and he dropped his head.

“So I think you’re wrong, Ricky, in calling this poor Tom a coward because he refuses to try your means of escape,” Austin resumed. “A coward hardly objects to drag in his accomplice. And, where the person involved belongs to a great family, it seems to me that for a poor plough-lad to volunteer not to do so speaks him anything but a coward.”

Richard was dumb. Altogether to surrender his rope and file was a fearful sacrifice, after all the time, trepidation, and study he had spent on those two saving instruments. If he avowed Tom’s manly behaviour, Richard Feverel was in a totally new position. Whereas, by keeping Tom a coward, Richard Feverel was the injured one, and to seem injured is always a luxury; sometimes a necessity, whether among boys or men.

In Austin the Magian conflict would not have lasted long. He had but a blind notion of the fierceness with which it raged in young Richard. Happily for the boy, Austin was not a preacher. A single instance, a cant phrase, a fatherly manner, might have wrecked him, by arousing ancient or latent opposition. The born preacher we feel instinctively to be our foe. He may do some good to the wretches that have been struck down and lie gasping on the battlefield: he rouses antagonism in the strong. Richard’s nature, left to itself, wanted little more than an indication of the proper track, and when he said, “Tell me what I can do, Austin?” he had fought the best half of the battle. His voice was subdued. Austin put his hand on the boy’s shoulder.

“You must go down to Farmer Blaize.”

“Well!” said Richard, sullenly divining the deed of penance.

“You’ll know what to say to him when you’re there.”

The boy bit his lip and frowned. “Ask a favour of that big brute, Austin? I can’t!”

“Just tell him the whole case, and that you don’t intend to stand by and let the poor fellow suffer without a friend to help him out of his scrape.”

“But, Austin,” the boy pleaded, “I shall have to ask him to help off Tom Bakewell! How can I ask him, when I hate him?”

Austin bade him go, and think nothing of the consequences till he got there.

Richard groaned in soul.

“You’ve no pride, Austin.”

“Perhaps not.”

“You don’t know what it is to ask a favour of a brute you hate.”

Richard stuck to that view of the case, and stuck to it the faster the more imperatively the urgency of a movement dawned upon him.

“Why,” continued the boy, “I shall hardly be able to keep my fists off him!”

“Surely you’ve punished him enough, boy!” said Austin.

“He struck me!” Richard’s lip quivered. “He dared not come at me with his hands. He struck me with a whip. He’ll be telling everybody that he horsewhipped me, and that I went down and begged his pardon. Begged his pardon! A Feverel beg his pardon! Oh, if I had my will!”

“The man earns his bread, Ricky. You poached on his grounds. He turned you off, and you fired his rick.”

“And I’ll pay him for his loss. And I won’t do any more.”

“Because you won’t ask a favour of him?”

“No! I will not ask a favour of him.”

Austin looked at the boy steadily. “You prefer to receive a favour from poor Tom Bakewell?”

At Austin’s enunciation of this obverse view of the matter Richard raised his brow. Dimly a new light broke in upon him. “Favour from Tom Bakewell, the ploughman? How do you mean, Austin?”

“To save yourself an unpleasantness you permit a country lad to sacrifice himself for you? I confess I should not have so much pride.”

“Pride!” shouted Richard, stung by the taunt, and set his sight hard at the blue ridges of the hills.

Not knowing for the moment what else to do, Austin drew a picture of Tom in prison, and repeated Tom’s volunteer statement. The picture, though his intentions were far from designing it so, had to Richard, whose perception of humour was infinitely keener, a horrible chaw-bacon smack about it. Visions of a grinning lout, open from ear to ear, unkempt, coarse, splay-footed, rose before him and afflicted him with the strangest sensations of disgust and comicality, mixed up with pity and remorse—a sort of twisted pathos. There lay Tom; hob-nail Tom! a bacon-munching, reckless, beer-swilling animal! and yet a man; a dear brave human heart notwithstanding; capable of devotion and unselfishness. The boy’s better spirit was touched, and it kindled his imagination to realize the abject figure of poor clodpole Tom, and surround it with a halo of mournful light. His soul was alive. Feelings he had never known streamed in upon him as from an ethereal casement, an unwonted tenderness, an embracing humour, a consciousness of some ineffable glory, an irradiation of the features of humanity. All this was in the bosom of the boy, and through it all the vision of an actual hob-nail Tom, coarse, unkempt, open from ear to ear; whose presence was a finger of shame to him and an oppression of clodpole; yet toward whom he felt just then a loving-kindness beyond what he felt for any living creature. He laughed at him, and wept over him. He prized him, while he shrank from him. It was a genial strife of the angel in him with constituents less divine; but the angel was uppermost and led the van—extinguished loathing, humanized laughter, transfigured pride—pride that would persistently contemplate the corduroys of gaping Tom, and cry to Richard, in the very tone of Adrian’s ironic voice, “Behold your benefactor!”

Austin sat by the boy, unaware of the sublimer tumult he had stirred. Little of it was perceptible in Richard’s countenance. The lines of his mouth were slightly drawn; his eyes hard set into the distance. He remained thus many minutes. Finally he jumped to his legs, saying, “I’ll go at once to old Blaize and tell him.”

Austin grasped his hand, and together they issued out of Daphne’s Bower, in the direction of Lobourne.

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