The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, by George Meredith

9. A Fine Distinction

In build of body, gait and stature, Giles Jinkson, the Bantam, was a tolerably fair representative of the Punic elephant, whose part, with diverse anticipations, the generals of the Blaize and Feverel forces, from opposing ranks, expected him to play. Giles, surnamed the Bantam, on account of some forgotten sally of his youth or infancy, moved and looked elephantine. It sufficed that Giles was well fed to assure that Giles was faithful—if uncorrupted. The farm which supplied to him ungrudging provender had all his vast capacity for work in willing exercise: the farmer who held the farm his instinct reverenced as the fountain-source of beef and bacon, to say nothing of beer, which was plentiful at Belthorpe, and good. This Farmer Blaize well knew, and he reckoned consequently that here was an animal always to be relied on—a sort of human composition out of dog, horse, and bull, a cut above each of these quadrupeds in usefulness, and costing proportionately more, but on the whole worth the money, and therefore invaluable, as everything worth its money must be to a wise man. When the stealing of grain had been made known at Belthorpe, the Bantam, a fellow-thresher with Tom Bakewell, had shared with him the shadow of the guilt. Farmer Blaize, if he hesitated which to suspect, did not debate a second as to which he would discard; and, when the Bantam said he had seen Tom secreting pilkins in a sack, Farmer Blaize chose to believe him, and off went poor Tom, told to rejoice in the clemency that spared his appearance at Sessions.

The Bantam’s small sleepy orbits saw many things, and just at the right moment, it seemed. He was certainly the first to give the clue at Belthorpe on the night of the conflagration, and he may, therefore, have seen poor Tom retreating stealthily from the scene, as he averred he did. Lobourne had its say on the subject. Rustic Lobourne hinted broadly at a young woman in the case, and moreover, told a tale of how these fellow-threshers had, in noble rivalry, one day turned upon each other to see which of the two threshed the best; whereof the Bantam still bore marks, and malice, it was said. However, there he stood, and tugged his forelocks to the company, and if Truth really had concealed herself in him she must have been hard set to find her unlikeliest hiding-place.

“Now,” said the farmer, marshalling forth his elephant with the confidence of one who delivers his ace of trumps, “tell this young gentleman what ye saw on the night of the fire, Bantam!”

The Bantam jerked a bit of a bow to his patron, and then swung round, fully obscuring him from Richard.

Richard fixed his eyes on the floor, while the Bantam in rudest Doric commenced his narrative. Knowing what was to come, and thoroughly nerved to confute the main incident, Richard barely listened to his barbarous locution: but when the recital arrived at the point where the Bantam affirmed he had seen “T’m Baak’ll wi’s owen hoies,” Richard faced him, and was amazed to find himself being mutely addressed by a series of intensely significant grimaces, signs, and winks.

“What do you mean? Why are you making those faces at me?” cried the boy indignantly.

Farmer Blaize leaned round the Bantam to have a look at him, and beheld the stolidest mask ever given to man.

“Bain’t makin’ no faces at nobody,” growled the sulky elephant.

The farmer commanded him to face about and finish.

“A see T’m Baak’ll,” the Bantam recommenced, and again the contortions of a horrible wink were directed at Richard. The boy might well believe this churl was lying, and he did, and was emboldened to exclaim —

“You never saw Tom Bakewell set fire to that rick!”

The Bantam swore to it, grimacing an accompaniment.

“I tell you,” said Richard, “I put the lucifers there myself!”

The suborned elephant was staggered. He meant to telegraph to the young gentleman that he was loyal and true to certain gold pieces that had been given him, and that in the right place and at the right time he should prove so. Why was he thus suspected? Why was he not understood?

“A thowt I see ’un, then,” muttered the Bantam, trying a middle course.

This brought down on him the farmer, who roared, “Thought! Ye thought! What d’ye mean? Speak out, and don’t be thinkin’. Thought? What the devil’s that?”

“How could he see who it was on a pitch-dark night?” Richard put in.

“Thought!” the farmer bellowed louder. “Thought—Devil take ye, when ye took yer oath on’t. Hulloa! What are ye screwin’ yer eye at Mr. Feverel for?—I say, young gentleman, have you spoken to this chap before now?”

“I?” replied Richard. “I have not seen him before.”

Farmer Blaize grasped the two arms of the chair he sat on, and glared his doubts.

“Come,” said he to the Bantam, “speak out, and ha’ done wi’t. Say what ye saw, and none o’ yer thoughts. Damn yer thoughts! Ye saw Tom Bakewell fire that there rick!” The farmer pointed at some musk-pots in the window. “What business ha’ you to be a-thinkin’? You’re a witness? Thinkin’ an’t ev’dence. What’ll ye say tomorrow before magistrate! Mind! what you say today, you’ll stick by tomorrow.”

Thus adjured, the Bantam hitched his breech. What on earth the young gentleman meant he was at a loss to speculate. He could not believe that the young gentleman wanted to be transported, but if he had been paid to help that, why, he would. And considering that this day’s evidence rather bound him down to the morrow’s, he determined, after much ploughing and harrowing through obstinate shocks of hair, to be not altogether positive as to the person. It is possible that he became thereby more a mansion of truth than he previously had been; for the night, as he said, was so dark that you could not see your hand before your face; and though, as he expressed it, you might be mortal sure of a man, you could not identify him upon oath, and the party he had taken for Tom Bakewell, and could have sworn to, might have been the young gentleman present, especially as he was ready to swear it upon oath.

So ended the Bantam.

No sooner had he ceased, than Farmer Blaize jumped up from his chair, and made a fine effort to lift him out of the room from the point of his toe. He failed, and sank back groaning with the pain of the exertion and disappointment.

“They’re liars, every one!” he cried. “Liars, perj’rers, bribers, and c’rrupters!—Stop!” to the Bantam, who was slinking away. “You’ve done for yerself already! You swore to it!”

“A din’t!” said the Bantam, doggedly.

“You swore to’t,” the farmer vociferated afresh.

The Bantam played a tune upon the handle of the door, and still affirmed that he did not; a double contradiction at which the farmer absolutely raged in his chair, and was hoarse, as he called out a third time that the Bantam had sworn to it.

“Noa!” said the Bantam, ducking his poll. “Noa!” he repeated in a lower note; and then, while a sombre grin betokening idiotic enjoyment of his profound casuistical quibble worked at his jaw:

“Not up’n o-ath!” he added, with a twitch of the shoulder and an angular jerk of the elbow.

Farmer Blaize looked vacantly at Richard, as if to ask him what he thought of England’s peasantry after the sample they had there. Richard would have preferred not to laugh, but his dignity gave way to his sense of the ludicrous, and he let fly a shout. The farmer was in no laughing mood. He turned a wide eye back to the door. “Lucky for’m,” he exclaimed, seeing the Bantam had vanished, for his fingers itched to break that stubborn head. He grew very puffy, and addressed Richard solemnly:

“Now, look ye here, Mr. Feverel! You’ve been a-tampering with my witness. It’s no use denyin’! I say y’ ‘ave, sir! You, or some of ye. I don’t care about no Feverel! My witness there has been bribed. The Bantam’s been bribed,” and he shivered his pipe with an energetic thump on the table—“bribed! I knows it! I could swear to’t!——”

“Upon oath?” Richard inquired, with a grave face.

“Ay, upon oath!” said the farmer, not observing the impertinence.

“I’d take my Bible oath on’t! He’s been corrupted, my principal witness! Oh, it’s dam cunnin’, but it won’t do the trick. I’ll transpoort Tom Bakewell, sure as a gun. He shall travel, that man shall. Sorry for you, Mr. Feverel—sorry you haven’t seen how to treat me proper—you, or yours. Money won’t do everything—no! it won’t. It’ll c’rrupt a witness, but it won’t clear a felon. I’d ha’ ‘scused you, sir! You’re a boy and’ll learn better. I asked no more than payment and a ‘pology; and that I’d ha’ taken content—always provided my witnesses weren’t tampered with. Now you must stand yer luck, all o’ ye.”

Richard stood up and replied, “Very well, Mr. Blaize.”

“And if,” continued the farmer, “Tom Bakewell don’t drag you into’t after ‘m, why, you’re safe, as I hope ye’ll be, sincere!”

“It was not in consideration of my own safety that I sought this interview with you,” said Richard, head erect.

“Grant ye that,” the farmer responded. “Grant ye that! Yer bold enough, young gentleman—comes of the blood that should be! If y’ had only ha’ spoke trewth!—I believe yer father—believe every word he said. I do wish I could ha’ said as much for Sir Austin’s son and heir.”

“What!” cried Richard, with an astonishment hardly to be feigned, “you have seen my father?”

But Farmer Blaize had now such a scent for lies that he could detect them where they did not exist, and mumbled gruffly,

“Ay, we knows all about that!”

The boy’s perplexity saved him from being irritated. Who could have told his father? An old fear of his father came upon him, and a touch of an old inclination to revolt.

“My father knows of this?” said he, very loudly, and staring, as he spoke, right through the farmer. “Who has played me false? Who would betray me to him? It was Austin! No one knew it but Austin. Yes, and it was Austin who persuaded me to come here and submit to these indignities. Why couldn’t he be open with me? I shall never trust him again!——”

“And why not you with me, young gentleman?” said the farmer. “I sh’d trust you if ye had.”

Richard did not see the analogy. He bowed stiffly and bade him good afternoon.

Farmer Blaize pulled the bell. “‘Company the young gentleman out, Lucy,” he waved to the little damsel in the doorway. “Do the honours. And, Mr. Richard, ye might ha’ made a friend o’ me, sir, and it’s not too late so to do. I’m not cruel, but I hate lies. I whipped my boy Tom, bigger than you, for not bein’ above board, only yesterday—ay! made ’un stand within swing o’ this chair, and take’s measure. Now, if ye’ll come down to me, and speak trewth before the trial—if it’s only five minutes before’t; or if Sir Austin, who’s a gentleman,’ll say there’s been no tamperin’ with any o’ my witnesses, his word for’t—well and good! I’ll do my best to help off Tom Bakewell. And I’m glad, young gentleman, you’ve got a conscience about a poor man, though he’s a villain. Good afternoon, sir.”

Richard marched hastily out of the room, and through the garden, never so much as deigning a glance at his wistful little guide, who hung at the garden gate to watch him up the lane, wondering a world of fancies about the handsome proud boy.

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