One wonders if, when George Meredith had finished the fifteenth chapter of "The Ordeal of Richard Feverel," he knew that he had just completed the most wonderful love scene of modern times. Some consciousness of achievement he must have had. There is the whole of spring in the meeting between Richard, the eighteen-year old son of the squire, and Lucy, the farmer's niece.
Richard has been dallying with pleasant, idle thoughts of his cousin Clare as he sculls his boat down the river. Just above the weir a girl hung over the meadowsweet-laden banks.
She was simply dressed, befitting decency and the season. On a closer inspection you might see that her lips were stained. This blooming young person was regaling on dewberries. Apparently she found the fruit abundant, for her hands were making pretty progress to her mouth. Fastidious youth, which shudders and revolts at woman plumping her exquisite proportions on bread-and-butter, can hardly object to dewberries. Indeed, the act of eating them is dainty and induces musing. The dewberry is a sister to the lotus, and an innocent sister. You eat: mouth, eye, and hand are occupied, and the undrugged mind free to roam. And so it was with the damsel who knelt there. The little skylark went up above her, all song, to the smooth southern cloud lying along the blue; from a dewy copse standing dark over her nodding hat the blackbird fluted, calling to her with thrice mellow note; the kingfisher flashed emerald out of green osiers; a bow-winged heron travelled aloft, seeking solitude; a boat slipped towards her, containing a dreamy youth; and still she plucked the fruit and ate, and mused, as if no fairy prince were invading her territories, and as if she wished not for one, or knew not her wishes. Surrounded by the green shaven meadows, the pastoral summer buzz, the weir-fall's thundering white, amid the breath and beauty of the flowers, she was a bit of lovely human life in a fair setting.
. . . Just then one most enticing dewberry caught her eyes. He was floating by unheeded, and saw that her hand stretched low, and could not gather what -it sought. A stroke from his right brought him beside her. The damsel glanced up dismayed, and her whole shape trembled over the brink. Richard sprang from his boat into the water. Pressing a hand beneath her foot, which she had thrust against the crumbling wet sides of the bank to save herself, he enabled her to recover her balance, and gain safe earth, whither, emboldened by the incident, touching her finger's tip, he followed her.
. . . Hark, how Ariel sung overhead ! What splendour in the heavens ! What marvels of beauty about his enchanted head! And, oh, you wonder ! Fair flame ! by whose light the glories of being are now first seen . . . Radiant Miranda ! Prince Ferdinand is at your feet.
... So they stood a moment, changing eyes, and then Miranda spoke, and they came down to earth, feeling no less in heaven.
She spoke to thank him for his aid. She used quite common, simple words; and used them, no doubt, to express a common, simple meaning; but to him she was uttering magic, casting spells, and the effect they had on him was manifested in the incoherence of his replies, which were too foolish to be chronicled. The couple were again mute. Suddenly Miranda, with an exclamation of anguish, and innumerable lights and shadows playing over her lovely face, clapped her hands, crying aloud, " My book, my book ! " and ran to the bank.
Prince Ferdinand was at her side. " What have you lost? " he said.
"My book, my book!" she answered, her long, delicious curls swinging across her shoulders to the stream. Then, turning to him, divining his rash intention, " Oh, no, no ! let me entreat you not to," she said; "I do not so very much mind losing it." And in her eagerness to restrain him she unconsciously laid her gentle hand upon his arm, and took the force of motion out of him. "Indeed, I do not really care for the silly book," she continued, withdrawing her hand quickly, and reddening. "Pray do not."
The young gentleman had kicked off his shoes. No sooner was the spell of contact broken than he jumped in. The water was still troubled and discoloured by his introductory adventure, and, though he ducked his head with the spirit of a dabchick, the book was missing. A scrap of paper floating from the bramble just above the water, and looking as if fire had caught its edges and it had flown from one adverse element to another, was all he could lay hold of, and he returned to land disconsolately, to hear Miranda's murmured mixing of thanks and pretty expostulations.
" Let me try again? " he said. "No, indeed," she replied, and used the awful threat, " I will run away if you do," which effectually restrained him.
Her eye fell on the fire-stained scrap of paper, and brightened, as she cried, " There, there, you have what 1 want. It is that. I do not care for the book. No, please! You are not to look at it. Give it me."
Before her playfully imperative injunction was fairly spoken, Richard had glanced at the document, and discovered a griffin between two wheatsheaves-his crest in silver -and below-oh, wonderment immense!-his own handwriting! remnant of his burnt-offering ! a page of the sacrificed poems ! one blossom preserved from the deadly, universal blight.
He handed it to her in silence. She took it, and put it in her bosom.
. . . The youth was too charged with emotion to speak. Doubtless the damsel had less to think of, or had some trifling burden on her conscience, for she seemed to grow embarrassed. At last she drew up her chin to look at her companion under the nodding brim of her hat (and the action gave her a charmingly freakish air), crying, "But where are you going to? You are wet through. Let me thank you again; and pray leave me, and go home and change instantly."
"Wet?" replied the magnetic muser, with a voice of tender interest; " not more than one foot, I hope? I will leave you while you dry your stockings in the sun."
At this she could not withhold a shy and lovely laugh.
"Not I, but you. You know you saved me, and would try to get that silly book for me, and you're dripping wet. Are you not very uncomfortable? "
In all sincerity he assured her that he was not.
"And you really do not feel that you are wet? "
He really did not; and it was a fact that he spoke truth.
She pursed her sweet dewberry mouth in the most comical way, and her blue eyes lightened laughter out of the half-closed lids.
" I cannot help it," she said, her mouth opening, and sounding harmonious bells of laughter in his ears. "Pardonme, won'tyou? "
His face took the same soft smiling curves in admiration of her.
" Not to feel that you have been in the water the very moment after! " she musically interjected, seeing she was excused. To be continued.