THE ORDEAL OF RICHARD FEVEREL
By George Meredith
CONTENTS I. THE INMATES OF RAYNHAM ABBEY II. FATES SELECTED THE FOURTEENTH BIRTHDAY TO TRY THE STRENGTH III. THE MAGIAN CONFLICT IV. ARSON V. ADRIAN PLIES HIS HOOK VI. JUVENILE STRATAGEMS VII. DAPHNE'S BOWER VIII. THE BITTER CUP IX. A FINE DISTINCTION X. RICHARD PASSES THROUGH HIS PRELIMINARY ORDEAL XI. THE LAST ACT OF THE BAKEWELL COMEDY IS CLOSED IN A LETTER XII. THE BLOSSOMING SEASON XIII. THE MAGNETIC AGE XIV. AN ATTRACTION XV. FERDINAND AND MIRANDA XVI. UNMASKING OF MASTER RIPTON THOMPSON XVII. GOOD WINE AND GOOD BLOOD XVIII. THE SYSTEM ENCOUNTERS THE WILD OATS SPECIAL PLEA XIX. A DIVERSION PLAYED ON A PENNY WHISTLE XX. CELEBRATES THE TIME-HONOURED TREATMENT OF A DRAGON BY THE HERO XXI. RICHARD IS SUMMONED TO TOWN TO HEAR A SERMON XXII. INDICATES THE APPROACHES OF FEVER XXIII. CRISIS IN THE APPLE-DISEASE XXIV. OF THE SPRING PRIMROSE AND THE AUTUMNAL XXV. IN WHICH THE HERO TAKES A STEP XXVI. RECORDS THE RAPID DEVELOPMENT OF THE HERO XXVII. CONTAINS AN INTERCESSION FOR THE HEROINE XXVIII. PREPARATIONS FOR ACTION WERE CONDUCTED UNDER THE APRIL OF LOVERS XIX. THE LAST ACT OF THE COMEDY TAKES THE PLACE OF THE FIRST XXX. CELEBRATES THE BREAKFAST XXXI. THE PHILOSOPHER APPEARS IN PERSON XXXII. PROCESSION OF THE CAKE XXXIII. NURSING THE DEVIL XXXIV. CONQUEST OF AN EPICURE XXXV. CLARE'S MARRIAGE XXXVI. A DINNER-PARTY AT RICHMOND XXXVII. MRS. BERRY ON MATRIMONY XXXVIII. AN ENCHANTRESS XXXIX. THE LITTLE BIRD AND THE FALCON: A BERRY TO THE RESCUE! XL. CLARE'S DIARY XLI. AUSTIN RETURNS XLII. NATURE SPEAKS XLIII. AGAIN THE MAGIAN CONFLICT XLIV. THE LAST SCENE XLV. LADY BLANDISH TO AUSTIN WENTWORTH
Some years ago a book was published under the title of "The Pilgrim's Scrip." It consisted of a selection of original aphorisms by an anonymous gentleman, who in this bashful manner gave a bruised heart to the world.
He made no pretension to novelty. "Our new thoughts have thrilled dead bosoms," he wrote; by which avowal it may be seen that youth had manifestly gone from him, since he had ceased to be jealous of the ancients. There was a half-sigh floating through his pages for those days of intellectual coxcombry, when ideas come to us affecting the embraces of virgins, and swear to us they are ours alone, and no one else have they ever visited: and we believe them.
For an example of his ideas of the sex he said:
"I expect that Woman will be the last thing civilized by Man."
Some excitement was produced in the bosoms of ladies by so monstrous a scorn of them.
One adventurous person betook herself to the Heralds' College, and there ascertained that a Griffin between two Wheatsheaves, which stood on the title-page of the book, formed the crest of Sir Austin Absworthy Bearne Feverel, Baronet, of Raynham Abbey, in a certain Western county folding Thames: a man of wealth and honour, and a somewhat lamentable history.
The outline of the baronet's story was by no means new. He had a wife, and he had a friend. His marriage was for love; his wife was a beauty; his friend was a sort of poet. His wife had his whole heart, and his friend all his confidence. When he selected Denzil Somers from among his college chums, it was not on account of any similarity of disposition between them, but from his intense worship of genius, which made him overlook the absence of principle in his associate for the sake of such brilliant promise. Denzil had a small patrimony to lead off with, and that he dissipated before he left college; thenceforth he was dependent upon his admirer, with whom he lived, filling a nominal post of bailiff to the estates, and launching forth verse of some satiric and sentimental quality; for being inclined to vice, and occasionally, and in a quiet way, practising it, he was of course a sentimentalist and a satirist, entitled to lash the Age and complain of human nature. His earlier poems, published under the pseudonym of Diaper Sandoe, were so pure and bloodless in their love passages, and at the same time so biting in their moral tone, that his reputation was great among the virtuous, who form the larger portion of the English book-buying public. Election-seasons called him to ballad-poetry on behalf of the Tory party. Dialer possessed undoubted fluency, but did tittle, though Sir Austin was ever expecting much of him.
A languishing, inexperienced woman, whose husband in mental and in moral stature is more than the ordinary height above her, and who, now that her first romantic admiration of his lofty bearing has worn off, and her fretful little refinements of taste and sentiment are not instinctively responded to, is thrown into no wholesome household collision with a fluent man, fluent in prose and rhyme. Lady Feverel, when she first entered on her duties at Raynham, was jealous of her husband's friend. By degrees she tolerated him. In time he touched his guitar in her chamber, and they played Rizzio and Mary together.
"For I am not the first who found The name of Mary fatal!"
says a subsequent sentimental alliterative love-poem of Diaper's.
Such was the outline of the story. But the baronet could fill it up. He had opened his soul to these two. He had been noble Love to the one, and to the other perfect Friendship. He had bid them be brother and sister whom he loved, and live a Golden Age with him at Raynham. In fact, he had been prodigal of the excellences of his nature, which it is not good to be, and, like Timon, he became bankrupt, and fell upon bitterness.
The faithless lady was of no particular family; an orphan daughter of an admiral who educated her on his half-pay, and her conduct struck but at the man whose name she bore.
After five years of marriage, and twelve of friendship, Sir Austin was left to his loneliness with nothing to ease his heart of love upon save a little baby boy in a cradle. He forgave the man: he put him aside as poor for his wrath. The woman he could not forgive; she had sinned every way. Simple ingratitude to a benefactor was a pardonable transgression, for he was not one to recount and crush the culprit under the heap of his good deeds. But her he had raised to be his equal, and he judged her as his equal. She had blackened the world's fair aspect for him.
In the presence of that world, so different to him now, he preserved his wonted demeanor, and made his features a flexible mask. Mrs. Doria Forey, his widowed sister, said that Austin might have retired from his Parliamentary career for a time, and given up gaieties and that kind of thing; her opinion, founded on observation of him in public and private, was, that the light thing who had taken flight was but a feather on her brother's Feverel-heart, and his ordinary course of life would be resumed. There are times when common men cannot bear the weight of just so much. Hippias Feverel, one of his brothers, thought him immensely improved by his misfortune, if the loss of such a person could be so designated; and seeing that Hippias received in consequence free quarters at Raynham, and possession of the wing of the Abbey she had inhabited, it is profitable to know his thoughts. If the baronet had given two or three blazing dinners in the great hall he would have deceived people generally, as he did his relatives and intimates. He was too sick for that: fit only for passive acting.
The nursemaid waking in the night beheld a solitary figure darkening a lamp above her little sleeping charge, and became so used to the sight as never to wake with a start. One night she was strangely aroused by a sound of sobbing. The baronet stood beside the cot in his long black cloak and travelling cap. His fingers shaded a lamp, and reddened against the fitful darkness that ever and anon went leaping up the wall. She could hardly believe her senses to see the austere gentleman, dead silent, dropping tear upon tear before her eyes. She lay stone-still in a trance of terror and mournfulness, mechanically counting the tears as they fell, one by one. The hidden face, the fall and flash of those heavy drops in the light of the lamp he held, the upright, awful figure, agitated at regular intervals like a piece of clockwork by the low murderous catch of his breath: it was so piteous to her poor human nature that her heart began wildly palpitating. Involuntarily the poor girl cried out to him, "Oh, sir!" and fell a-weeping. Sir Austin turned the lamp on her pillow, and harshly bade her go to sleep, striding from the room forthwith. He dismissed her with a purse the next day.
Once, when he was seven years old, the little fellow woke up at night to see a lady bending over him. He talked of this the neat day, but it was treated as a dream; until in the course of the day his uncle Algernon was driven home from Lobourne cricket-ground with a broken leg. Then it was recollected that there was a family ghost; and, though no member of the family believed in the ghost, none would have given up a circumstance that testified to its existence; for to possess a ghost is a distinction above titles.
Algernon Feverel lost his leg, and ceased to be a gentleman in the Guards. Of the other uncles of young Richard, Cuthbert, the sailor, perished in a spirited boat expedition against a slaving negro chief up the Niger. Some of the gallant lieutenant's trophies of war decorated the little boy's play-shed at Raynham, and he bequeathed his sword to Richard, whose hero he was. The diplomatist and beau, Vivian, ended his flutterings from flower to flower by making an improper marriage, as is the fate of many a beau, and was struck out of the list of visitors. Algernon generally occupied the baronet's disused town-house, a wretched being, dividing his time between horse and card exercise: possessed, it was said, of the absurd notion that a man who has lost his balance by losing his leg may regain it by sticking to the bottle. At least, whenever he and his brother Hippias got together, they never failed to try whether one leg, or two, stood the bottle best. Much of a puritan as Sir Austin was in his habits, he was too good a host, and too thorough a gentleman, to impose them upon his guests. The brothers, and other relatives, might do as they would while they did not disgrace the name, and then it was final: they must depart to behold his countenance no more.
Algernon Feverel was a simple man, who felt, subsequent to his misfortune, as he had perhaps dimly fancied it before, that his career lay in his legs, and was now irrevocably cut short. He taught the boy boxing, and shooting, and the arts of fence, and superintended the direction of his animal vigour with a melancholy vivacity. The remaining energies of Algernon's mind were devoted to animadversions on swift bowling. He preached it over the county, struggling through laborious literary compositions, addressed to sporting newspapers, on the Decline of Cricket. It was Algernon who witnessed and chronicled young Richard's first fight, which was with young Tom Blaize of Belthorpe Farm, three years the boy's senior.
Hippias Feverel was once thought to be the genius of the family. It was his ill luck to have strong appetites and a weak stomach; and, as one is not altogether fit for the battle of life who is engaged in a perpetual contention with his dinner, Hippias forsook his prospects at the Bar, and, in the embraces of dyspepsia, compiled his ponderous work on the Fairy Mythology of Europe. He had little to do with the Hope of Raynham beyond what he endured from his juvenile tricks.
A venerable lady, known as Great-Aunt Grantley, who had money to bequeath to the heir, occupied with Hippias the background of the house and shared her candles with him. These two were seldom seen till the dinner hour, for which they were all day preparing, and probably all night remembering, for the Eighteenth Century was an admirable trencherman, and cast age aside while there was a dish on the table.
Mrs. Doris Foray was the eldest of the three sisters of the baronet, a florid affable woman, with fine teeth, exceedingly fine light wavy hair, a Norman nose, and a reputation for understanding men; and that, with these practical creatures, always means the art of managing them. She had married an expectant younger son of a good family, who deceased before the fulfilment of his prospects; and, casting about in her mind the future chances of her little daughter and sole child, Clare, she marked down a probability. The far sight, the deep determination, the resolute perseverance of her sex, where a daughter is to be provided for and a man to be overthrown, instigated her to invite herself to Raynham, where, with that daughter, she fixed herself.
The other two Feverel ladies were the wife of Colonel Wentworth and the widow of Mr. Justice Harley: and the only thing remarkable about them was that they were mothers of sons of some distinction.
Austin Wentworth's story was of that wretched character which to be comprehended, that justice should be dealt him, must be told out and openly; which no one dares now do.
For a fault in early youth, redeemed by him nobly, according to his light, he was condemned to undergo the world's harsh judgment: not for the fault—for its atonement.
"—Married his mother's housemaid," whispered Mrs. Doria, with a ghastly look, and a shudder at young men of republican sentiments, which he was reputed to entertain. "'The compensation for Injustice,' says the 'Pilgrim's Scrip,' is, that in that dark Ordeal we gather the worthiest around us."
And the baronet's fair friend, Lady Blandish, and some few true men and women, held Austin Wentworth high.
He did not live with his wife; and Sir Austin, whose mind was bent on the future of our species, reproached him with being barren to posterity, while knaves were propagating.
The principal characteristic of the second nephew, Adrian Harley, was his sagacity. He was essentially the wise youth, both in counsel and in action.
"In action," the "Pilgrim's Scrip" observes, "Wisdom goes by majorities."
Adrian had an instinct for the majority, and, as the world invariably found him enlisted in its ranks, his appellation of wise youth was acquiesced in without irony.
The wise youth, then, had the world with him, but no friends. Nor did he wish for those troublesome appendages of success. He caused himself to be required by people who could serve him; feared by such as could injure. Not that he went out of the way to secure his end, or risked the expense of a plot. He did the work as easily as he ate his daily bread. Adrian was an epicurean; one whom Epicurus would have scourged out of his garden, certainly: an epicurean of our modern notions. To satisfy his appetites without rashly staking his character, was the wise youth's problem for life. He had no intimates except Gibbon and Horace, and the society of these fine aristocrats of literature helped him to accept humanity as it had been, and was; a supreme ironic procession, with laughter of Gods in the background. Why not laughter of mortals also? Adrian had his laugh in his comfortable corner. He possessed peculiar attributes of a heathen God. He was a disposer of men: he was polished, luxurious, and happy—at their cost. He lived in eminent self-content, as one lying on soft cloud, lapt in sunshine. Nor Jove, nor Apollo, cast eye upon the maids of earth with cooler fire of selection, or pursued them in the covert with more sacred impunity. And he enjoyed his reputation for virtue as something additional. Stolen fruits are said to be sweet; undeserved rewards are exquisite.
The best of it was, that Adrian made no pretences. He did not solicit the favourable judgment of the world. Nature and he attempted no other concealment than the ordinary mask men wear. And yet the world would proclaim him moral, as well as wise, and the pleasing converse every way of his disgraced cousin Austin.
In a word, Adrian Harley had mastered his philosophy at the early age of one-and-twenty. Many would be glad to say the same at that age twice-told: they carry in their breasts a burden with which Adrian's was not loaded. Mrs. Doria was nearly right about his heart. A singular mishap (at his birth, possibly, or before it) had unseated that organ, and shaken it down to his stomach, where it was a much lighter, nay, an inspiring weight, and encouraged him merrily onward. Throned there it looked on little that did not arrive to gratify it. Already that region was a trifle prominent in the person of the wise youth, and carried, as it were, the flag of his philosophical tenets in front of him. He was charming after dinner, with men or with women: delightfully sarcastic: perhaps a little too unscrupulous in his moral tone, but that his moral reputation belied him, and it must be set down to generosity of disposition.
Such was Adrian Harley, another of Sir Austin's intellectual favourites, chosen from mankind to superintend the education of his son at Raynham. Adrian had been destined for the Church. He did not enter into Orders. He and the baronet had a conference together one day, and from that time Adrian became a fixture in the Abbey. His father died in his promising son's college term, bequeathing him nothing but his legal complexion, and Adrian became stipendiary officer in his uncle's household.
A playfellow of Richard's occasionally, and the only comrade of his age that he ever saw, was Master Ripton Thompson, the son of Sir Austin's solicitor, a boy without a character.
A comrade of some description was necessary, for Richard was neither to go to school nor to college. Sir Austin considered that the schools were corrupt, and maintained that young lads might by parental vigilance be kept pretty secure from the Serpent until Eve sided with him: a period that might be deferred, he said. He had a system of education for his son. How it worked we shall see.
October, shone royally on Richard's fourteenth birthday. The brown beechwoods and golden birches glowed to a brilliant sun. Banks of moveless cloud hung about the horizon, mounded to the west, where slept the wind. Promise of a great day for Raynham, as it proved to be, though not in the manner marked out.
Already archery-booths and cricketing-tents were rising on the lower grounds towards the river, whither the lads of Bursley and Lobourne, in boats and in carts, shouting for a day of ale and honour, jogged merrily to match themselves anew, and pluck at the lining laurel from each other's brows, line manly Britons. The whole park was beginning to be astir and resound with holiday cries. Sir Austin Feverel, a thorough good Tory, was no game-preserver, and could be popular whenever he chose, which Sir Males Papworth, on the other side of the river, a fast-handed Whig and terror to poachers, never could be. Half the village of Lobourne was seen trooping through the avenues of the park. Fiddlers and gipsies clamoured at the gates for admission: white smocks, and slate, surmounted by hats of serious brim, and now and then a scarlet cloak, smacking of the old country, dotted the grassy sweeps to the levels.
And all the time the star of these festivities was receding further and further, and eclipsing himself with his reluctant serf Ripton, who kept asking what they were to do and where they were going, and how late it was in the day, and suggesting that the lads of Lobourne would be calling out for them, and Sir Austin requiring their presence, without getting any attention paid to his misery or remonstrances. For Richard had been requested by his father to submit to medical examination like a boor enlisting for a soldier, and he was in great wrath.
He was flying as though he would have flown from the shameful thought of what had been asked of him. By-and-by he communicated his sentiments to Ripton, who said they were those of a girl: an offensive remark, remembering which, Richard, after they had borrowed a couple of guns at the bailiff's farm, and Ripton had fired badly, called his friend a fool.
Feeling that circumstances were making him look wonderfully like one, Ripton lifted his head and retorted defiantly, "I'm not!"
This angry contradiction, so very uncalled for, annoyed Richard, who was still smarting at the loss of the birds, owing to Ripton's bad shot, and was really the injured party. He, therefore bestowed the abusive epithet on Ripton anew, and with increase of emphasis.
"You shan't call me so, then, whether I am or not," says Ripton, and sucks his lips.
This was becoming personal. Richard sent up his brows, and stared at his defier an instant. He then informed him that he certainly should call him so, and would not object to call him so twenty times.
"Do it, and see!" returns Ripton, rocking on his feet, and breathing quick.
With a gravity of which only boys and other barbarians are capable, Richard went through the entire number, stressing the epithet to increase the defiance and avoid monotony, as he progressed, while Ripton bobbed his head every time in assent, as it were, to his comrade's accuracy, and as a record for his profound humiliation. The dog they had with them gazed at the extraordinary performance with interrogating wags of the tail.
Twenty times, duly and deliberately, Richard repeated the obnoxious word.
At the twentieth solemn iteration of Ripton's capital shortcoming, Ripton delivered a smart back-hander on Richard's mouth, and squared precipitately; perhaps sorry when the deed was done, for he was a kind-hearted lad, and as Richard simply bowed in acknowledgment of the blow he thought he had gone too far. He did not know the young gentleman he was dealing with. Richard was extremely cool.
"Shall we fight here?" he said.
"Anywhere you like," replied Ripton.
"A little more into the wood, I think. We may be interrupted." And Richard led the way with a courteous reserve that somewhat chilled Ripton's ardour for the contest. On the skirts of the wood, Richard threw off his jacket and waistcoat, and, quite collected, waited for Ripton to do the same. The latter boy was flushed and restless; older and broader, but not so tight-limbed and well-set. The Gods, sole witnesses of their battle, betted dead against him. Richard had mounted the white cockade of the Feverels, and there was a look in him that asked for tough work to extinguish. His brows, slightly lined upward at the temples, converging to a knot about the well-set straight nose; his full grey eyes, open nostrils, and planted feet, and a gentlemanly air of calm and alertness, formed a spirited picture of a young combatant. As for Ripton, he was all abroad, and fought in school-boy style—that is, he rushed at the foe head foremost, and struck like a windmill. He was a lumpy boy. When he did hit, he made himself felt; but he was at the mercy of science. To see him come dashing in, blinking and puffing and whirling his arms abroad while the felling blow went straight between them, you perceived that he was fighting a fight of desperation, and knew it. For the dreaded alternative glared him in the face that, if he yielded, he must look like what he had been twenty times calumniously called; and he would die rather than yield, and swing his windmill till he dropped. Poor boy! he dropped frequently. The gallant fellow fought for appearances, and down he went. The Gods favour one of two parties. Prince Turnus was a noble youth; but he had not Pallas at his elbow. Ripton was a capital boy; he had no science. He could not prove he was not a fool! When one comes to think of it, Ripton did choose the only possible way, and we should all of us have considerable difficulty in proving the negative by any other. Ripton came on the unerring fist again and again; and if it was true, as he said in short colloquial gasps, that he required as much beating as an egg to be beaten thoroughly, a fortunate interruption alone saved our friend from resembling that substance. The boys heard summoning voices, and beheld Mr. Morton of Poer Hall and Austin Wentworth stepping towards them.
A truce was sounded, jackets were caught up, guns shouldered, and off they trotted in concert through the depths of the wood, not stopping till that and half-a-dozen fields and a larch plantation were well behind them.
When they halted to take breath, there was a mutual study of faces. Ripton's was much discoloured, and looked fiercer with its natural war-paint than the boy felt. Nevertheless, he squared up dauntlessly on the new ground, and Richard, whose wrath was appeased, could not refrain from asking him whether he had not really had enough.
"Never!" shouts the noble enemy.
"Well, look here," said Richard, appealing to common sense, "I'm tired of knocking you down. I'll say you're not a fool, if you'll give me your hand."
Ripton demurred an instant to consult with honour, who bade him catch at his chance.
He held out his hand. "There!" and the boys grasped hands and were fast friends. Ripton had gained his point, and Richard decidedly had the best of it. So, they were on equal ground. Both, could claim a victory, which was all the better for their friendship.
Ripton washed his face and comforted his nose at a brook, and was now ready to follow his friend wherever he chose to lead. They continued to beat about for birds. The birds on the Raynham estates were found singularly cunning, and repeatedly eluded the aim of these prime shots, so they pushed their expedition into the lands of their neighbors, in search of a stupider race, happily oblivious of the laws and conditions of trespass; unconscious, too, that they were poaching on the demesne of the notorious Farmer Blaize, the free-trade farmer under the shield of the Papworths, no worshipper of the Griffin between two Wheatsheaves; destined to be much allied with Richard's fortunes from beginning to end. Farmer Blaize hated poachers, and, especially young chaps poaching, who did it mostly from impudence. He heard the audacious shots popping right and left, and going forth to have a glimpse at the intruders, and observing their size, swore he would teach my gentlemen a thing, lords or no lords.
Richard had brought down a beautiful cock-pheasant, and was exulting over it, when the farmer's portentous figure burst upon them, cracking an avenging horsewhip. His salute was ironical.
"Havin' good sport, gentlemen, are ye?"
"Just bagged a splendid bird!" radiant Richard informed him.
"Oh!" Farmer Blaize gave an admonitory flick of the whip.
"Just let me clap eye on't, then."
"Say, please," interposed Ripton, who was not blind to doubtful aspects.
Farmer Blaize threw up his chin, and grinned grimly.
"Please to you, sir? Why, my chap, you looks as if ye didn't much mind what come t'yer nose, I reckon. You looks an old poacher, you do. Tall ye what 'tis'!" He changed his banter to business, "That bird's mine! Now you jest hand him over, and sheer off, you dam young scoundrels! I know ye!" And he became exceedingly opprobrious, and uttered contempt of the name of Feverel.
Richard opened his eyes.
"If you wants to be horsewhipped, you'll stay where y'are!" continued the farmer. "Giles Blaize never stands nonsense!"
"Then we'll stay," quoth Richard.
"Good! so be't! If you will have't, have't, my men!"
As a preparatory measure, Farmer Blaize seized a wing of the bird, on which both boys flung themselves desperately, and secured it minus the pinion.
"That's your game," cried the farmer. "Here's a taste of horsewhip for ye. I never stands nonsense!" and sweetch went the mighty whip, well swayed. The boys tried to close with him. He kept his distance and lashed without mercy. Black blood was made by Farmer Blaize that day! The boys wriggled, in spite of themselves. It was like a relentless serpent coiling, and biting, and stinging their young veins to madness. Probably they felt the disgrace of the contortions they were made to go through more than the pain, but the pain was fierce, for the farmer laid about from a practised arm, and did not consider that he had done enough till he was well breathed and his ruddy jowl inflamed. He paused, to receive the remainder of the cock-pheasant in his face.
"Take your beastly bird," cried Richard.
"Money, my lads, and interest," roared the farmer, lashing out again.
Shameful as it was to retreat, there was but that course open to them. They decided to surrender the field.
"Look! you big brute," Richard shook his gun, hoarse with passion, "I'd have shot you, if I'd been loaded. Mind if I come across you when I'm loaded, you coward, I'll fire!" The un-English nature of this threat exasperated Farmer Blaize, and he pressed the pursuit in time to bestow a few farewell stripes as they were escaping tight-breeched into neutral territory. At the hedge they parleyed a minute, the farmer to inquire if they had had a mortal good tanning and were satisfied, for when they wanted a further instalment of the same they were to come for it to Belthorpe Farm, and there it was in pickle: the boys meantime exploding in menaces and threats of vengeance, on which the farmer contemptuously turned his back. Ripton had already stocked an armful of flints for the enjoyment of a little skirmishing. Richard, however, knocked them all out, saying, "No! Gentlemen don't fling stones; leave that to the blackguards."
"Just one shy at him!" pleaded Ripton, with his eye on Farmer Blaize's broad mark, and his whole mind drunken with a sudden revelation of the advantages of light troops in opposition to heavies.
"No," said Richard, imperatively, "no stones," and marched briskly away. Ripton followed with a sigh. His leader's magnanimity was wholly beyond him. A good spanking mark at the farmer would have relieved Master Ripton; it would have done nothing to console Richard Feverel for the ignominy he had been compelled to submit to. Ripton was familiar with the rod, a monster much despoiled of his terrors by intimacy. Birch-fever was past with this boy. The horrible sense of shame, self-loathing, universal hatred, impotent vengeance, as if the spirit were steeped in abysmal blackness, which comes upon a courageous and sensitive youth condemned for the first time to taste this piece of fleshly bitterness, and suffer what he feels is a defilement, Ripton had weathered and forgotten. He was seasoned wood, and took the world pretty wisely; not reckless of castigation, as some boys become, nor oversensitive as to dishonour, as his friend and comrade beside him was.
Richard's blood was poisoned. He had the fever on him severely. He would not allow stone-flinging, because it was a habit of his to discountenance it. Mere gentlemanly considerations has scarce shielded Farmer Blaize, and certain very ungentlemanly schemes were coming to ghastly heads in the tumult of his brain; rejected solely from their glaring impracticability even to his young intelligence. A sweeping and consummate vengeance for the indignity alone should satisfy him. Something tremendous must be done; and done without delay. At one moment he thought of killing all the farmer's cattle; next of killing him; challenging him to single combat with the arms, and according to the fashion of gentlemen. But the farmer was a coward; he would refuse. Then he, Richard Feverel, would stand by the farmer's bedside, and rouse him; rouse him to fight with powder and ball in his own chamber, in the cowardly midnight, where he might tremble, but dare not refuse.
"Lord!" cried simple Ripton, while these hopeful plots were raging in his comrade's brain, now sparkling for immediate execution, and anon lapsing disdainfully dark in their chances of fulfilment, "how I wish you'd have let me notch him, Ricky! I'm a safe shot. I never miss. I should feel quite jolly if I'd spanked him once. We should have had the beat of him at that game. I say!" and a sharp thought drew Ripton's ideas nearer home, "I wonder whether my nose is as bad as he says! Where can I see myself?"
To these exclamations Richard was deaf, and he trudged steadily forward, facing but one object.
After tearing through innumerable hedges, leaping fences, jumping dykes, penetrating brambly copses, and getting dirty, ragged, and tired, Ripton awoke from his dream of Farmer Blaize and a blue nose to the vivid consciousness of hunger; and this grew with the rapidity of light upon him, till in the course of another minute he was enduring the extremes of famine, and ventured to question his leader whither he was being conducted. Raynham was out of sight. They were a long way down the valley, miles from Lobourne, in a country of sour pools, yellow brooks, rank pasturage, desolate heath. Solitary cows were seen; the smoke of a mud cottage; a cart piled with peat; a donkey grazing at leisure, oblivious of an unkind world; geese by a horse-pond, gabbling as in the first loneliness of creation; uncooked things that a famishing boy cannot possibly care for, and must despise. Ripton was in despair.
"Where are you going to?" he inquired with a voice of the last time of asking, and halted resolutely.
Richard now broke his silence to reply, "Anywhere."
"Anywhere!" Ripton took up the moody word. "But ain't you awfully hungry?" he gasped vehemently, in a way that showed the total emptiness of his stomach.
"No," was Richard's brief response.
"Not hungry!" Ripton's amazement lent him increased vehemence. "Why, you haven't had anything to eat since breakfast! Not hungry? I declare I'm starving. I feel such a gnawing I could eat dry bread and cheese!"
Richard sneered: not for reasons that would have actuated a similar demonstration of the philosopher.
"Come," cried Ripton, "at all events, tell us where you're going to stop."
Richard faced about to make a querulous retort. The injured and hapless visage that met his eye disarmed him. The lad's nose, though not exactly of the dreaded hue, was really becoming discoloured. To upbraid him would be cruel. Richard lifted his head, surveyed the position, and exclaiming "Here!" dropped down on a withered bank, leaving Ripton to contemplate him as a puzzle whose every new move was a worse perplexity.
Among boys there are laws of honour and chivalrous codes, not written or formally taught, but intuitively understood by all, and invariably acted upon by the loyal and the true. The race is not nearly civilized, we must remember. Thus, not to follow your leader whithersoever he may think proper to lead; to back out of an expedition because the end of it frowns dubious, and the present fruit of it is discomfort; to quit a comrade on the road, and return home without him: these are tricks which no boy of spirit would be guilty of, let him come to any description of mortal grief in consequence. Better so than have his own conscience denouncing him sneak. Some boys who behave boldly enough are not troubled by this conscience, and the eyes and the lips of their fellows have to supply the deficiency. They do it with just as haunting, and even more horrible pertinacity, than the inner voice, and the result, if the probation be not very severe and searching, is the same. The leader can rely on the faithfulness of his host: the comrade is sworn to serve. Master Ripton Thompson was naturally loyal. The idea of turning off and forsaking his friend never once crossed his mind, though his condition was desperate, and his friend's behaviour that of a Bedlamite. He announced several times impatiently that they would be too late for dinner. His friend did not budge. Dinner seemed nothing to him. There he lay plucking grass, and patting the old dog's nose, as if incapable of conceiving what a thing hunger was. Ripton took half-a-dozen turns up and down, and at last flung himself down beside the taciturn boy, accepting his fate.
Now, the chance that works for certain purposes sent a smart shower from the sinking sun, and the wet sent two strangers for shelter in the lane behind the hedge where the boys reclined. One was a travelling tinker, who lit a pipe and spread a tawny umbrella. The other was a burly young countryman, pipeless and tentless. They saluted with a nod, and began recounting for each other's benefit the daylong-doings of the weather, as it had affected their individual experience and followed their prophecies. Both had anticipated and foretold a bit of rain before night, and therefore both welcomed the wet with satisfaction. A monotonous betweenwhiles kind of talk they kept droning, in harmony with the still hum of the air. From the weather theme they fell upon the blessings of tobacco; how it was the poor man's friend, his company, his consolation, his comfort, his refuge at night, his first thought in the morning.
"Better than a wife!" chuckled the tinker. "No curtain-lecturin' with a pipe. Your pipe an't a shrew."
"That be it!" the other chimed in. "Your pipe doan't mak' ye out wi' all the cash Saturday evenin'."
"Take one," said the tinker, in the enthusiasm of the moment, handing a grimy short clay. Speed-the-Plough filled from the tinker's pouch, and continued his praises.
"Penny a day, and there y'are, primed! Better than a wife? Ha, ha!"
"And you can get rid of it, if ye wants for to, and when ye wants," added tinker.
"So ye can!" Speed-the-Plough took him up. "And ye doan't want for to. Leastways, t'other case. I means pipe."
"And," continued tinker, comprehending him perfectly, it don't bring repentance after it."
"Not nohow, master, it doan't! And"—Speed-the-Plough cocked his eye—"it doan't eat up half the victuals, your pipe doan't."
Here the honest yeoman gesticulated his keen sense of a clincher, which the tinker acknowledged; and having, so to speak, sealed up the subject by saying the best thing that could be said, the two smoked for some time in silence to the drip and patter of the shower.
Ripton solaced his wretchedness by watching them through the briar hedge. He saw the tinker stroking a white cat, and appealing to her, every now and then, as his missus, for an opinion or a confirmation; and he thought that a curious sight. Speed-the-Plough was stretched at full length, with his boots in the rain, and his head amidst the tinker's pots, smoking, profoundly contemplative. The minutes seemed to be taken up alternately by the grey puffs from their mouths.
It was the tinker who renewed the colloquy. Said he, "Times is bad!"
His companion assented, "Sure-ly!"
"But it somehow comes round right," resumed the tinker. "Why, look here. Where's the good o' moping? I sees it all come round right and tight. Now I travels about. I've got my beat. 'Casion calls me t'other day to Newcastle!—Eh?"
"Coals!" ejaculated Speed-the-Plough sonorously.
"Coals!" echoed the tinker. "You ask what I goes there for, mayhap? Never you mind. One sees a mort o' life in my trade. Not for coals it isn't. And I don't carry 'em there, neither. Anyhow, I comes back. London's my mark. Says I, I'll see a bit o' the sea, and steps aboard a collier. We were as nigh wrecked as the prophet Paul."
"—A—who's him?" the other wished to know.
"Read your Bible," said the tinker. "We pitched and tossed—'tain't that game at sea 'tis on land, I can tell ye! I thinks, down we're a-going—say your prayers, Bob Tiles! That was a night, to be sure! But God's above the devil, and here I am, ye see." Speed-the-Plough lurched round on his elbow and regarded him indifferently. "D'ye call that doctrin'? He bean't al'ays, or I shoo'n't be scrapin' my heels wi' nothin' to do, and, what's warse, nothin' to eat. Why, look heer. Luck's luck, and bad luck's the con-trary. Varmer Bollop, t'other day, has's rick burnt down. Next night his gran'ry's burnt. What do he tak' and go and do? He takes and goes and hangs unsel', and turns us out of his employ. God warn't above the devil then, I thinks, or I can't make out the reckonin'."
The tinker cleared his throat, and said it was a bad case.
"And a darn'd bad case. I'll tak' my oath on't!" cried Speed-the-Plough. "Well, look heer! Heer's another darn'd bad case. I threshed for Varmer Blaize Blaize o' Beltharpe afore I goes to Varmer Bollop. Varmer Blaize misses pilkins. He swears our chaps steals pilkins. 'Twarn't me steals 'em. What do he tak' and go and do? He takes and tarns us off, me and another, neck and crop, to scuffle about and starve, for all he keers. God warn't above the devil then, I thinks. Not nohow, as I can see!"
The tinker shook his head, and said that was a bad case also.
"And you can't mend it," added Speed-the-Plough. "It's bad, and there it be. But I'll tell ye what, master. Bad wants payin' for." He nodded and winked mysteriously. "Bad has its wages as well's honest work, I'm thinkin'. Varmer Bollop I don't owe no grudge to: Varmer Blaize I do. And I shud like to stick a Lucifer in his rick some dry windy night." Speed-the-Plough screwed up an eye villainously. "He wants hittin' in the wind,—jest where the pocket is, master, do Varmer Blaize, and he'll cry out 'O Lor'!' Varmer Blaize will. You won't get the better o' Varmer Blaize by no means, as I makes out, if ye doan't hit into him jest there."
The tinker sent a rapid succession of white clouds from his mouth, and said that would be taking the devil's side of a bad case. Speed-the-Plough observed energetically that, if Farmer Blaize was on the other, he should be on that side.
There was a young gentleman close by, who thought with him. The hope of Raynham had lent a careless half-compelled attention to the foregoing dialogue, wherein a common labourer and a travelling tinker had propounded and discussed one of the most ancient theories of transmundane dominion and influence on mundane affairs. He now started to his feet, and came tearing through the briar hedge, calling out for one of them to direct them the nearest road to Bursley. The tinker was kindling preparations for his tea, under the tawny umbrella. A loaf was set forth, oh which Ripton's eyes, stuck in the edge, fastened ravenously. Speed-the-Plough volunteered information that Bursley was a good three mile from where they stood, and a good eight mile from Lobourne.
"I'll give you half-a-crown for that loaf, my good fellow," said Richard to the tinker.
"It's a bargain;" quoth the tinker, "eh, missus?"
His cat replied by humping her back at the dog.
The half-crown was tossed down, and Ripton, who had just succeeded in freeing his limbs from the briar, prickly as a hedgehog, collared the loaf.
"Those young squires be sharp-set, and no mistake," said the tinker to his companion. "Come! we'll to Bursley after 'em, and talk it out over a pot o' beer." Speed-the-Plough was nothing loath, and in a short time they were following the two lads on the road to Bursley, while a horizontal blaze shot across the autumn and from the Western edge of the rain-cloud.
Search for the missing boys had been made everywhere over Raynham, and Sir Austin was in grievous discontent. None had seen them save Austin Wentworth and Mr. Morton. The baronet sat construing their account of the flight of the lads when they were hailed, and resolved it into an act of rebellion on the part of his son. At dinner he drank the young heir's health in ominous silence. Adrian Harley stood up in his place to propose the health. His speech was a fine piece of rhetoric. He warmed in it till, after the Ciceronic model, inanimate objects were personified, and Richard's table-napkin and vacant chair were invoked to follow the steps of a peerless father, and uphold with his dignity the honour of the Feverels. Austin Wentworth, whom a soldier's death compelled to take his father's place in support of the toast, was tame after such magniloquence. But the reply, the thanks which young Richard should have delivered in person were not forthcoming. Adrian's oratory had given but a momentary life to napkin and chair. The company of honoured friends, and aunts and uncles, remotest cousins, were glad to disperse and seek amusement in music and tea. Sir Austin did his utmost to be hospitable cheerful, and requested them to dance. If he had desired them to laugh he would have been obeyed, and in as hearty a manner.
"How triste!" said Mrs. Doria Forey to Lobourne's curate, as that most enamoured automaton went through his paces beside her with professional stiffness.
"One who does not suffer can hardly assent," the curate answered, basking in her beams.
"Ah, you are good!" exclaimed the lady. "Look at my Clare. She will not dance on her cousin's birthday with anyone but him. What are we to do to enliven these people?"
"Alas, madam! you cannot do for all what you do for one," the curate sighed, and wherever she wandered in discourse, drew her back with silken strings to gaze on his enamoured soul.
He was the only gratified stranger present. The others had designs on the young heir. Lady Attenbury of Longford House had brought her highly-polished specimen of market-ware, the Lady Juliana Jaye, for a first introduction to him, thinking he had arrived at an age to estimate and pine for her black eyes and pretty pert mouth. The Lady Juliana had to pair off with a dapper Papworth, and her mama was subjected to the gallantries of Sir Miles, who talked land and steam-engines to her till she was sick, and had to be impertinent in self-defence. Lady Blandish, the delightful widow, sat apart with Adrian, and enjoyed his sarcasms on the company. By ten at night the poor show ended, and the rooms were dark, dark as the prognostics multitudinously hinted by the disappointed and chilled guests concerning the probable future of the hope of Raynham. Little Clare kissed her mama, curtsied to the lingering curate, and went to bed like a very good girl. Immediately the maid had departed, little Clare deliberately exchanged night, attire for that of day. She was noted as an obedient child. Her light was allowed to burn in her room for half-an-hour, to counteract her fears of the dark. She took the light, and stole on tiptoe to Richard's room. No Richard was there. She peeped in further and further. A trifling agitation of the curtains shot her back through the door and along the passage to her own bedchamber with extreme expedition. She was not much alarmed, but feeling guilty she was on her guard. In a short time she was prowling about the passages again. Richard had slighted and offended the little lady, and was to be asked whether he did not repent such conduct toward his cousin; not to be asked whether he had forgotten to receive his birthday kiss from her; for, if he did not choose to remember that, Miss Clare would never remind him of it, and to-night should be his last chance of a reconciliation. Thus she meditated, sitting on a stair, and presently heard Richard's voice below in the hall, shouting for supper.
"Master Richard has returned," old Benson the butler tolled out intelligence to Sir Austin.
"Well?" said the baronet.
"He complains of being hungry," the butler hesitated, with a look of solemn disgust.
"Let him eat."
Heavy Benson hesitated still more as he announced that the boy had called for wine. It was an unprecedented thing. Sir Austin's brows were portending an arch, but Adrian suggested that he wanted possibly to drink his birthday, and claret was conceded.
The boys were in the vortex of a partridge-pie when Adrian strolled in to them. They had now changed characters. Richard was uproarious. He drank a health with every glass; his cheeks were flushed and his eyes brilliant. Ripton looked very much like a rogue on the tremble of detection, but his honest hunger and the partridge-pie shielded him awhile from Adrian's scrutinizing glance. Adrian saw there was matter for study, if it were only on Master Ripton's betraying nose, and sat down to hear and mark.
"Good sport, gentlemen, I trust to hear?" he began his quiet banter, and provoked a loud peal of laughter from Richard.
"Ha, ha! I say, Rip: 'Havin' good sport, gentlemen, are ye?' You remember the farmer! Your health, parson! We haven't had our sport yet. We're going to have some first-rate sport. Oh, well! we haven't much show of birds. We shot for pleasure, and returned them to the proprietors. You're fond of game, parson! Ripton is a dead shot in what Cousin Austin calls the Kingdom of 'would-have-done' and 'might-have-been.' Up went the birds, and cries Rip, 'I've forgotten to load!' Oh, ho!—Rip! some more claret.—Do just leave that nose of yours alone.—Your health, Ripton Thompson! The birds hadn't the decency to wait for him, and so, parson, it's their fault, and not Rip's, you haven't a dozen brace at your feet. What have you been doing at home, Cousin Rady?"
"Playing Hamlet, in the absence of the Prince of Denmark. The day without you, my dear boy, must be dull, you know."
"'He speaks: can I trust what he says is sincere? There's an edge to his smile that cuts much like a sneer.'
"Sandoe's poems! You know the couplet, Mr. Rady. Why shouldn't I quote Sandoe? You know you like him, Rady. But, if you've missed me, I'm sorry. Rip and I have had a beautiful day. We've made new acquaintances. We've seen the world. I'm the monkey that has seen the world, and I'm going to tell you all about it. First, there's a gentleman who takes a rifle for a fowling-piece. Next, there's a farmer who warns everybody, gentleman and beggar, off his premises. Next, there's a tinker and a ploughman, who think that God is always fighting with the devil which shall command the kingdoms of the earth. The tinker's for God, and the ploughman"—
"I'll drink your health, Ricky," said Adrian, interrupting.
"Oh, I forgot, parson;—I mean no harm, Adrian. I'm only telling what I've heard."
"No harm, my dear boy," returned Adrian. "I'm perfectly aware that Zoroaster is not dead. You have been listening to a common creed. Drink the Fire-worshippers, if you will."
"Here's to Zoroaster, then!" cried Richard. "I say, Rippy! we'll drink the Fire-worshippers to-night won't we?"
A fearful conspiratorial frown, that would not have disgraced Guido Fawkes, was darted back from the, plastic features of Master Ripton.
Richard gave his lungs loud play.
"Why, what did you say about Blaizes, Rippy? Didn't you say it was fun?"
Another hideous and silencing frown was Ripton's answer. Adrian matched the innocent youths, and knew that there was talking under the table. "See," thought he, "this boy has tasted his first scraggy morsel of life today, and already he talks like an old stager, and has, if I mistake not, been acting too. My respected chief," he apostrophized Sir Austin, "combustibles are only the more dangerous for compression. This boy will be ravenous for Earth when he is let loose, and very soon make his share of it look as foolish as yonder game-pie!"—a prophecy Adrian kept to himself.
Uncle Algernon shambled in to see his nephew before the supper was finished, and his more genial presence brought out a little of the plot.
"Look here, uncle!" said Richard. "Would you let a churlish old brute of a farmer strike you without making him suffer for it?"
"I fancy I should return the compliment, my lad," replied his uncle.
"Of course you would! So would I. And he shall suffer for it." The boy looked savage, and his uncle patted him down.
"I've boxed his son; I'll box him," said Richard, shouting for more wine.
"What, boy! Is it old Blaize has been putting you up!"
"Never mind, uncle!" The boy nodded mysteriously.
'Look there!' Adrian read on Ripton's face, he says 'never mind,' and lets it out!
"Did we beat to-day, uncle?"
"Yes, boy; and we'd beat them any day they bowl fair. I'd beat them on one leg. There's only Watkins and Featherdene among them worth a farthing."
"We beat!" cries Richard. "Then we'll have some more wine, and drink their healths."
The bell was rung; wine ordered. Presently comes in heavy Benson, to say supplies are cut off. One bottle, and no more. The Captain whistled: Adrian shrugged.
The bottle, however, was procured by Adrian subsequently. He liked studying intoxicated urchins.
One subject was at Richard's heart, about which he was reserved in the midst of his riot. Too proud to inquire how his father had taken his absence, he burned to hear whether he was in disgrace. He led to it repeatedly, and it was constantly evaded by Algernon and Adrian. At last, when the boy declared a desire to wish his father good-night, Adrian had to tell him that he was to go straight to bed from the supper-table. Young Richard's face fell at that, and his gaiety forsook him. He marched to his room without another word.
Adrian gave Sir Austin an able version of his son's behaviour and adventures; dwelling upon this sudden taciturnity when he heard of his father's resolution not to see him. The wise youth saw that his chief was mollified behind his moveless mask, and went to bed, and Horace, leaving Sir Austin in his study. Long hours the baronet sat alone. The house had not its usual influx of Feverels that day. Austin Wentworth was staying at Poer Hall, and had only come over for an hour. At midnight the house breathed sleep. Sir Austin put on his cloak and cap, and took the lamp to make his rounds. He apprehended nothing special, but with a mind never at rest he constituted himself the sentinel of Raynham. He passed the chamber where the Great-Aunt Grantley lay, who was to swell Richard's fortune, and so perform her chief business on earth. By her door he murmured, "Good creature! you sleep with a sense of duty done," and paced on, reflecting, "She has not made money a demon of discord," and blessed her. He had his thoughts at Hippias's somnolent door, and to them the world might have subscribed.
A monomaniac at large, watching over sane people in slumber! thinks Adrian Harley, as he hears Sir Austin's footfall, and truly that was a strange object to see.—Where is the fortress that has not one weak gate? where the man who is sound at each particular angle? Ay, meditates the recumbent cynic, more or less mad is not every mother's son? Favourable circumstances—good air, good company, two or three good rules rigidly adhered to—keep the world out of Bedlam. But, let the world fly into a passion, and is not Bedlam the safest abode for it?
Sir Austin ascended the stairs, and bent his steps leisurely toward the chamber where his son was lying in the left wing of the Abbey. At the end of the gallery which led to it he discovered a dim light. Doubting it an illusion, Sir Austin accelerated his pace. This wing had aforetime a bad character. Notwithstanding what years had done to polish it into fair repute, the Raynham kitchen stuck to tradition, and preserved certain stories of ghosts seen there, that effectually blackened it in the susceptible minds of new house-maids and under-crooks, whose fears would not allow the sinner to wash his sins. Sir Austin had heard of the tales circulated by his domestics underground. He cherished his own belief, but discouraged theirs, and it was treason at Raynham to be caught traducing the left wing. As the baronet advanced, the fact of a light burning was clear to him. A slight descent brought him into the passage, and he beheld a poor human candle standing outside his son's chamber. At the same moment a door closed hastily. He entered Richard's room. The boy was absent. The bed was unpressed: no clothes about: nothing to show that he had been there that night. Sir Austin felt vaguely apprehensive. Has he gone to my room to await me? thought the father's heart. Something like a tear quivered in his arid eyes as he meditated and hoped this might be so. His own sleeping-room faced that of his son. He strode to it with a quick heart. It was empty. Alarm dislodged anger from his jealous heart, and dread of evil put a thousand questions to him that were answered in air. After pacing up and down his room he determined to go and ask the boy Thompson, as he called Ripton, what was known to him.
The chamber assigned to Master Ripton Thompson was at the northern extremity of the passage, and overlooked Lobourne and the valley to the West. The bed stood between the window and the door. Six Austin found the door ajar, and the interior dark. To his surprise, the boy Thompson's couch, as revealed by the rays of his lamp, was likewise vacant. He was turning back when he fancied he heard the sibilation of a whispering in the room. Sir Austin cloaked the lamp and trod silently toward the window. The heads of his son Richard and the boy Thompson were seen crouched against the glass, holding excited converse together. Sir Austin listened, but he listened to a language of which he possessed not the key. Their talk was of fire, and of delay: of expected agrarian astonishment: of a farmer's huge wrath: of violence exercised upon gentlemen, and of vengeance: talk that the boys jerked out by fits, and that came as broken links of a chain impossible to connect. But they awake curiosity. The baronet condescended to play the spy upon his son.
Over Lobourne and the valley lay black night and innumerable stars.
"How jolly I feel!" exclaimed Ripton, inspired by claret; and then, after a luxurious pause—"I think that fellow has pocketed his guinea, and cut his lucky."
Richard allowed a long minute to pass, during which the baronet waited anxiously for his voice, hardly recognizing it when he heard its altered tones.
"If he has, I'll go; and I'll do it myself."
"You would?" returned Master Ripton. "Well, I'm hanged!—I say, if you went to school, wouldn't you get into rows! Perhaps he hasn't found the place where the box was stuck in. I think he funks it. I almost wish you hadn't done it, upon my honour—eh? Look there! what was that? That looked like something.—I say! do you think we shall ever be found out?"
Master Ripton intoned this abrupt interrogation verb seriously.
"I don't think about it," said Richard, all his faculties bent on signs from Lobourne.
"Well, but," Ripton persisted, "suppose we are found out?"
"If we are, I must pay for it."
Sir Austin breathed the better for this reply. He was beginning to gather a clue to the dialogue. His son was engaged in a plot, and was, moreover, the leader of the plot. He listened for further enlightenment.
"What was the fellow's name?" inquired Ripton.
His companion answered, "Tom Bakewell."
"I'll tell you what," continued Ripton. "You let it all clean out to your cousin and uncle at supper.—How capital claret is with partridge-pie! What a lot I ate!—Didn't you see me frown?"
The young sensualist was in an ecstasy of gratitude to his late refection, and the slightest word recalled him to it. Richard answered him:
"Yes; and felt your kick. It doesn't matter. Rady's safe, and uncle never blabs."
"Well, my plan is to keep it close. You're never safe if you don't.—I never drank much claret before," Ripton was off again. "Won't I now, though! claret's my wine. You know, it may come out any day, and then we're done for," he rather incongruously appended.
Richard only took up the business-thread of his friend's rambling chatter, and answered:
"You've got nothing to do with it, if we are."
"Haven't I, though! I didn't stick-in the box but I'm an accomplice, that's clear. Besides," added Ripton, "do you think I should leave you to bear it all on your shoulders? I ain't that sort of chap, Ricky, I can tell you."
Sir Austin thought more highly of the boy Thompson. Still it looked a detestable conspiracy, and the altered manner of his son impressed him strangely. He was not the boy of yesterday. To Sir Austin it seemed as if a gulf had suddenly opened between them. The boy had embarked, and was on the waters of life in his own vessel. It was as vain to call him back as to attempt to erase what Time has written with the Judgment Blood! This child, for whom he had prayed nightly in such a fervour and humbleness to God, the dangers were about him, the temptations thick on him, and the devil on board piloting. If a day had done so much, what would years do? Were prayers and all the watchfulness he had expended of no avail?
A sensation of infinite melancholy overcame the poor gentleman—a thought that he was fighting with a fate in this beloved boy.
He was half disposed to arrest the two conspirators on the spot, and make them confess, and absolve themselves; but it seemed to him better to keep an unseen eye over his son: Sir Austin's old system prevailed.
Adrian characterized this system well, in saying that Sir Austin wished to be Providence to his son.
If immeasurable love were perfect wisdom, one human being might almost impersonate Providence to another. Alas! love, divine as it is, can do no more than lighten the house it inhabits—must take its shape, sometimes intensify its narrowness—can spiritualize, but not expel, the old lifelong lodgers above-stairs and below.
Sir Austin decided to continue quiescent.
The valley still lay black beneath the large autumnal stars, and the exclamations of the boys were becoming fevered and impatient. By-and-by one insisted that he had seen a twinkle. The direction he gave was out of their anticipations. Again the twinkle was announced. Both boys started to their feet. It was a twinkle in the right direction now.
"He's done it!" cried Richard, in great heat. "Now you may say old Blaize'll soon be old Blazes, Rip. I hope he's asleep."
"I'm sure he's snoring!—Look there! He's alight fast enough. He's dry. He'll burn.—I say," Ripton re-assumed the serious intonation, "do you think they'll ever suspect us?"
"What if they do? We must brunt it."
"Of course we will. But, I say! I wish you hadn't given them the scent, though. I like to look innocent. I can't when I know people suspect me. Lord! look there! Isn't it just beginning to flare up!"
The farmer's grounds were indeed gradually standing out in sombre shadows.
"I'll fetch my telescope," said Richard. Ripton, somehow not liking to be left alone, caught hold of him.
"No; don't go and lose the best of it. Here, I'll throw open the window, and we can see."
The window was flung open, and the boys instantly stretched half their bodies out of it; Ripton appearing to devour the rising flames with his mouth: Richard with his eyes.
Opaque and statuesque stood the figure of the baronet behind them. The wind was low. Dense masses of smoke hung amid the darting snakes of fire, and a red malign light was on the neighbouring leafage. No figures could be seen. Apparently the flames had nothing to contend against, for they were making terrible strides into the darkness.
"Oh!" shouted Richard, overcome by excitement, "if I had my telescope! We must have it! Let me go and fetch it! I Will!"
The boys struggled together, and Sir Austin stepped back. As he did so, a cry was heard in the passage. He hurried out, closed the chamber, and came upon little Clare lying senseless along the door.
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 Pick 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 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 ordinary newspaper incident; only when the report particularized the garments damaged, and the unwonted distressing position Farmer Blaize was reduced to in his bed, 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 had 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 the 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 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 with 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 forever 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.
As soon as they could escape, the boys got 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 momently 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. Lack 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 betty 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 forever 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 bye 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.
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 Feverals 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."
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.