The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, by George Meredith

8. The Bitter Cup

Farmer Blaize was not so astonished at the visit of Richard Feverel as that young gentleman expected him to be. The farmer, seated in his easy-chair in the little low-roofed parlour of an old-fashioned farm-house, with a long clay pipe on the table at his elbow, and a veteran pointer at his feet, had already given audience to three distinguished members of the Feverel blood, who had come separately, according to their accustomed secretiveness, and with one object. In the morning it was Sir Austin himself. Shortly after his departure, arrived Austin Wentworth; close on his heels, Algernon, known about Lobourne as the Captain, popular wherever he was known. Farmer Blaize reclined in considerable elation. He had brought these great people to a pretty low pitch. He had welcomed them hospitably, as a British yeoman should; but not budged a foot in his demands: not to the baronet: not to the Captain: not to good young Mr. Wentworth. For Farmer Blaize was a solid Englishman; and, on hearing from the baronet a frank confession of the hold he had on the family, he determined to tighten his hold, and only relax it in exchange for tangible advantages—compensation to his pocket, his wounded person, and his still more wounded sentiments: the total indemnity being, in round figures, three hundred pounds, and a spoken apology from the prime offender, young Mister Richard. Even then there was a reservation. Provided, the farmer said, nobody had been tampering with any of his witnesses. In that case Farmer Blaize declared the money might go, and he would transport Tom Bakewell, as he had sworn he would. And it goes hard, too, with an accomplice, by law, added the farmer, knocking the ashes leisurely out of his pipe. He had no wish to bring any disgrace anywhere; he respected the inmates of Raynham Abbey, as in duty bound; he should be sorry to see them in trouble. Only no tampering with his witnesses. He was a man for Law. Rank was much: money was much: but Law was more. In this country Law was above the sovereign. To tamper with the Law was treason to the realm.

“I come to you direct,” the baronet explained. “I tell you candidly in what way I discovered my son to be mixed up in this miserable affair. I promise you indemnity for your loss, and an apology that shall, I trust, satisfy your feelings, assuring you that to tamper with witnesses is not the province of a Feverel. All I ask of you in return is, not to press the prosecution. At present it rests with you. I am bound to do all that lies in my power for this imprisoned man. How and wherefore my son was prompted to suggest, or assist in, such an act, I cannot explain, for I do not know.”

“Hum!” said the farmer. “I think I do.”

“You know the cause?” Sir Austin stared. “I beg you to confide it to me.”

“‘Least, I can pretty nigh neighbour it with a guess,” said the farmer. “We an’t good friends, Sir Austin, me and your son, just now—not to say cordial. I, ye see, Sir Austin, I’m a man as don’t like young gentlemen a-poachin’ on his grounds without his permission—in special when birds is plentiful on their own. It appear he do like it. Consequently I has to flick this whip—as them fellers at the races: All in this ’ere Ring’s mine! as much as to say; and who’s been hit, he’s had fair warnin’. I’m sorry for’t, but that’s just the case.”

Sir Austin retired to communicate with his son, when he should find him.

Algernon’s interview passed off in ale and promises. He also assured Farmer Blaize that no Feverel could be affected by his proviso.

No less did Austin Wentworth. The farmer was satisfied.

“Money’s safe, I know,” said he; “now for the ‘pology!” and Farmer Blaize thrust his legs further out, and his head further back.

The farmer naturally reflected that the three separate visits had been conspired together. Still the baronet’s frankness, and the baronet’s not having reserved himself for the third and final charge, puzzled him. He was considering whether they were a deep, or a shallow lot, when young Richard was announced.

A pretty little girl with the roses of thirteen springs in her cheeks, and abundant beautiful bright tresses, tripped before the boy, and loitered shyly by the farmer’s armchair to steal a look at the handsome new-comer. She was introduced to Richard as the farmer’s niece, Lucy Desborough, the daughter of a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, and, what was better, though the farmer did not pronounce it so loudly, a real good girl.

Neither the excellence of her character, nor her rank in life, tempted Richard to inspect the little lady. He made an awkward bow, and sat down.

The farmer’s eyes twinkled. “Her father,” he continued, “fought and fell for his coontry. A man as fights for’s coontry’s a right to hould up his head—ay! with any in the land. Desb’roughs o’ Dorset! d’ye know that family, Master Feverel?”

Richard did not know them, and, by his air, did not desire to become acquainted with any offshoot of that family.

“She can make puddens and pies,” the farmer went on, regardless of his auditor’s gloom. “She’s a lady, as good as the best of ’em. I don’t care about their being Catholics—the Desb’roughs o’ Dorset are gentlemen. And she’s good for the pianer, too! She strums to me of evenin’s. I’m for the old tunes: she’s for the new. Gal-like! While she’s with me she shall be taught things use’l. She can parley-voo a good ’un and foot it, as it goes; been in France a couple of year. I prefer the singin’ of ’t to the talkin’ of ’t. Come, Luce! toon up—eh?—Ye wun’t? That song about the Viffendeer—a female”—Farmer Blaize volunteered the translation of the title—“who wears the—you guess what! and marches along with the French sojers: a pretty brazen bit o’ goods, I sh’d fancy.”

Mademoiselle Lucy corrected her uncle’s French, but objected to do more. The handsome cross boy had almost taken away her voice for speech, as it was, and sing in his company she could not; so she stood, a hand on her uncle’s chair to stay herself from falling, while she wriggled a dozen various shapes of refusal, and shook her head at the farmer with fixed eyes.

“Aha!” laughed the farmer, dismissing her, “they soon learn the difference ‘twixt the young ’un and the old ’un. Go along, Luce! and learn yer lessons for tomorrow.”

Reluctantly the daughter of the Royal Navy glided away. Her uncle’s head followed her to the door, where she dallied to catch a last impression of the young stranger’s lowering face, and darted through.

Farmer Blaize laughed and chuckled. “She an’t so fond of her uncle as that, every day! Not that she an’t a good nurse—the kindest little soul you’d meet of a winter’s walk! She’ll read t’ ye, and make drinks, and sing, too, if ye likes it, and she won’t be tired. A obstinate good ’un, she be! Bless her!”

The farmer may have designed, by these eulogies of his niece, to give his visitor time to recover his composure, and establish a common topic. His diversion only irritated and confused our shame-eaten youth. Richard’s intention had been to come to the farmer’s threshold: to summon the farmer thither, and in a loud and haughty tone then and there to take upon himself the whole burden of the charge against Tom Bakewell. He had strayed, during his passage to Belthorpe, somewhat back to his old nature; and his being compelled to enter the house of his enemy, sit in his chair, and endure an introduction to his family, was more than he bargained for. He commenced blinking hard in preparation for the horrible dose to which delay and the farmer’s cordiality added inconceivable bitters. Farmer Blaize was quite at his ease; nowise in a hurry. He spoke of the weather and the harvest: of recent doings up at the Abbey: glanced over that year’s cricketing; hoped that no future Feverel would lose a leg to the game. Richard saw and heard Arson in it all. He blinked harder as he neared the cup. In a moment of silence, he seized it with a gasp.

“Mr. Blaize! I have come to tell you that I am the person who set fire to your rick the other night.”

An odd contraction formed about the farmer’s mouth. He changed his posture, and said, “Ay? that’s what ye’re come to tell me, sir?”

“Yes!” said Richard, firmly.

“And that be all?”

“Yes!” Richard reiterated.

The farmer again changed his posture. “Then, my lad, ye’ve come to tell me a lie!”

Farmer Blaize looked straight at the boy, undismayed by the dark flush of ire he had kindled.

“You dare to call me a liar!” cried Richard, starting up.

“I say,” the farmer renewed his first emphasis, and smacked his thigh thereto, “that’s a lie!”

Richard held out his clenched fist. “You have twice insulted me. You have struck me: you have dared to call me a liar. I would have apologized—I would have asked your pardon, to have got off that fellow in prison. Yes! I would have degraded myself that another man should not suffer for my deed——”

“Quite proper!” interposed the farmer.

“And you take this opportunity of insulting me afresh. You’re a coward, sir! nobody but a coward would have insulted me in his own house.”

“Sit ye down, sit ye down, young master,” said the farmer, indicating the chair and cooling the outburst with his hand. “Sit ye down. Don’t ye be hasty. If ye hadn’t been hasty t’other day, we sh’d a been friends yet. Sit ye down, sir. I sh’d be sorry to reckon you out a liar, Mr. Feverel, or anybody o’ your name. I respects yer father though we’re opp’site politics. I’m willin’ to think well o’ you. What I say is, that as you say an’t the trewth. Mind! I don’t like you none the worse for’t. But it an’t what is. That’s all! You knows it as well’s I!”

Richard, disdaining to show signs of being pacified, angrily reseated himself. The farmer spoke sense, and the boy, after his late interview with Austin, had become capable of perceiving vaguely that a towering passion is hardly the justification for a wrong course of conduct.

“Come,” continued the farmer, not unkindly, “what else have you to say?”

Here was the same bitter cup he had already once drained brimming at Richard’s lips again! Alas, poor human nature! that empties to the dregs a dozen of these evil drinks, to evade the single one which Destiny, less cruel, had insisted upon.

The boy blinked and tossed it off.

“I came to say that I regretted the revenge I had taken on you for your striking me.”

Farmer Blaize nodded.

“And now ye’ve done, young gentleman?”

Still another cupful!

“I should be very much obliged,” Richard formally began, but his stomach was turned; he could but sip and sip, and gather a distaste which threatened to make the penitential act impossible. “Very much obliged,” he repeated: “much obliged, if you would be so kind,” and it struck him that had he spoken this at first he would have given it a wording more persuasive with the farmer and more worthy of his own pride: more honest, in fact: for a sense of the dishonesty of what he was saying caused him to cringe and simulate humility to deceive the farmer, and the more he said the less he felt his words, and, feeling them less, he inflated them more. “So kind,” he stammered, “so kind” (fancy a Feverel asking this big brute to be so kind!) “as to do me the favour” (me the favour!) “to exert yourself” (it’s all to please Austin) “to endeavour to—hem! to” (there’s no saying it!)——

The cup was full as ever. Richard dashed at it again.

“What I came to ask is, whether you would have the kindness to try what you could do” (what an infamous shame to have to beg like this!) “do to save—do to ensure—whether you would have the kindness——” It seemed out of all human power to gulp it down. The draught grew more and more abhorrent. To proclaim one’s iniquity, to apologize for one’s wrongdoing; thus much could be done; but to beg a favour of the offended party—that was beyond the self-abasement any Feverel could consent to. Pride, however, whose inevitable battle is against itself, drew aside the curtains of poor Tom’s prison, crying a second time, “Behold your Benefactor!” and, with the words burning in his ears, Richard swallowed the dose:

“Well, then, I want you, Mr. Blaize—if you don’t mind—will you help me to get this man Bakewell off his punishment?”

To do Farmer Blaize justice, he waited very patiently for the boy, though he could not quite see why he did not take the gate at the first offer.

“Oh!” said he, when he heard and had pondered on the request. “Hum! ha! we’ll see about it t’morrow. But if he’s innocent, you know, we shan’t mak’n guilty.”

“It was I did it!” Richard declared.

The farmer’s half-amused expression sharpened a bit.

“So, young gentleman! and you’re sorry for the night’s work?”

“I shall see that you are paid the full extent of your losses.”

“Thank’ee,” said the farmer drily.

“And, if this poor man is released tomorrow, I don’t care what the amount is.”

Farmer Blaize deflected his head twice in silence. “Bribery,” one motion expressed: “Corruption,” the other.

“Now,” said he, leaning forward, and fixing his elbows on his knees, while he counted the case at his fingers’ ends, “excuse the liberty, but wishin’ to know where this ’ere money’s to come from, I sh’d like jest t’ask if so be Sir Austin know o’ this?”

“My father knows nothing of it,” replied Richard.

The farmer flung back in his chair. “Lie number Two,” said his shoulders, soured by the British aversion to being plotted at, and not dealt with openly.

“And ye’ve the money ready, young gentleman?”

“I shall ask my father for it.”

“And he’ll hand’t out?”

“Certainly he will!”

Richard had not the slightest intention of ever letting his father into his counsels.

“A good three hundred pounds, ye know?” the farmer suggested.

No consideration of the extent of damages, and the size of the sum, affected young Richard, who said boldly, “He will not object when I tell him I want that sum.”

It was natural Farmer Blaize should be a trifle suspicious that a youth’s guarantee would hardly be given for his father’s readiness to disburse such a thumping bill, unless he had previously received his father’s sanction and authority.

“Hum!” said he, “why not ‘a told him before?”

The farmer threw an objectionable shrewdness into his query, that caused Richard to compress his mouth and glance high.

Farmer Blaize was positive ’twas a lie.

“Hum! Ye still hold to’t you fired the rick?” he asked.

“The blame is mine!” quoth Richard, with the loftiness of a patriot of old Rome.

“Na, na!” the straightforward Briton put him aside. “Ye did’t, or ye didn’t do’t. Did ye do’t, or no?”

Thrust in a corner, Richard said, “I did it.”

Farmer Blaize reached his hand to the bell. It was answered in an instant by little Lucy, who received orders to fetch in a dependent at Belthorpe going by the name of the Bantam, and made her exit as she had entered, with her eyes on the young stranger.

“Now,” said the farmer, “these be my principles. I’m a plain man, Mr. Feverel. Above board with me, and you’ll find me handsome. Try to circumvent me, and I’m a ugly customer. I’ll show you I’ve no animosity. Your father pays—you apologize. That’s enough for me! Let Tom Bakewell fight’t out with the Law, and I’ll look on. The Law wasn’t on the spot, I suppose? so the Law ain’t much witness. But I am. Leastwise the Bantam is. I tell you, young gentleman, the Bantam saw’t! It’s no moral use whatever your denyin’ that ev’dence. And where’s the good, sir, I ask? What comes of ’t? Whether it be you, or whether it be Tom Bakewell—ain’t all one? If I holds back, ain’t it sim’lar? It’s the trewth I want! And here’t comes,” added the farmer, as Miss Lucy ushered in the Bantam, who presented a curious figure for that rare divinity to enliven.

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