Read CHAPTER I - THE CHAMPION OF HIS COUNTRY of Beauchamp Career, free online book, by George Meredith, on ReadCentral.com.

When young Nevil Beauchamp was throwing off his midshipman’s jacket for a holiday in the garb of peace, we had across Channel a host of dreadful military officers flashing swords at us for some critical observations of ours upon their sovereign, threatening Afric’s fires and savagery.  The case occurred in old days now and again, sometimes, upon imagined provocation, more furiously than at others.  We were unarmed, and the spectacle was distressing.  We had done nothing except to speak our minds according to the habit of the free, and such an explosion appeared as irrational and excessive as that of a powder-magazine in reply to nothing more than the light of a spark.  It was known that a valorous General of the Algerian wars proposed to make a clean march to the capital of the British Empire at the head of ten thousand men; which seems a small quantity to think much about, but they wore wide red breeches blown out by Fame, big as her cheeks, and a ten thousand of that sort would never think of retreating.  Their spectral advance on quaking London through Kentish hopgardens, Sussex corn-fields, or by the pleasant hills of Surrey, after a gymnastic leap over the riband of salt water, haunted many pillows.  And now those horrid shouts of the legions of Cæsar, crying to the inheritor of an invading name to lead them against us, as the origin of his title had led the army of Gaul of old gloriously, scared sweet sleep.  We saw them in imagination lining the opposite shore; eagle and standard-bearers, and gallifers, brandishing their fowls and their banners in a manner to frighten the decorum of the universe.  Where were our men?

The returns of the census of our population were oppressively satisfactory, and so was the condition of our youth.  We could row and ride and fish and shoot, and breed largely:  we were athletes with a fine history and a full purse:  we had first-rate sporting guns, unrivalled park-hacks and hunters, promising babies to carry on the renown of England to the next generation, and a wonderful Press, and a Constitution the highest reach of practical human sagacity.  But where were our armed men? where our great artillery? where our proved captains, to resist a sudden sharp trial of the national mettle?  Where was the first line of England’s defence, her navy?  These were questions, and Ministers were called upon to answer them.  The Press answered them boldly, with the appalling statement that we had no navy and no army.  At the most we could muster a few old ships, a couple of experimental vessels of war, and twenty-five thousand soldiers indifferently weaponed.

We were in fact as naked to the Imperial foe as the merely painted Britons.

This being apprehended, by the aid of our own shortness of figures and the agitated images of the red-breeched only waiting the signal to jump and be at us, there ensued a curious exhibition that would be termed, in simple language, writing to the newspapers, for it took the outward form of letters:  in reality, it was the deliberate saddling of our ancient nightmare of Invasion, putting the postillion on her, and trotting her along the high-road with a winding horn to rouse old Panic.  Panic we will, for the sake of convenience, assume to be of the feminine gender, and a spinster, though properly she should be classed with the large mixed race of mental and moral neuters which are the bulk of comfortable nations.  She turned in her bed at first like the sluggard of the venerable hymnist:  but once fairly awakened, she directed a stare toward the terrific foreign contortionists, and became in an instant all stormy nightcap and fingers starving for the bell-rope.  Forthwith she burst into a series of shrieks, howls, and high piercing notes that caused even the parliamentary Opposition, in the heat of an assault on a parsimonious Government, to abandon its temporary advantage and be still awhile.  Yet she likewise performed her part with a certain deliberation and method, as if aware that it was a part she had to play in the composition of a singular people.  She did a little mischief by dropping on the stock-markets; in other respects she was harmless, and, inasmuch as she established a subject for conversation, useful.

Then, lest she should have been taken too seriously, the Press, which had kindled, proceeded to extinguish her with the formidable engines called leading articles, which fling fire or water, as the occasion may require.  It turned out that we had ships ready for launching, and certain regiments coming home from India; hedges we had, and a spirited body of yeomanry; and we had pluck and patriotism, the father and mother of volunteers innumerable.  Things were not so bad.

Panic, however, sent up a plaintive whine.  What country had anything like our treasures to defend? countless riches, beautiful women, an inviolate soil!  True, and it must be done.  Ministers were authoritatively summoned to set to work immediately.  They replied that they had been at work all the time, and were at work now.  They could assure the country, that though they flourished no trumpets, they positively guaranteed the safety of our virgins and coffers.

Then the people, rather ashamed, abused the Press for unreasonably disturbing them.  The Press attacked old Panic and stripped her naked.  Panic, with a desolate scream, arraigned the parliamentary Opposition for having inflated her to serve base party purposes.  The Opposition challenged the allegations of Government, pointed to the trimness of army and navy during its term of office, and proclaimed itself watch-dog of the country, which is at all events an office of a kind.  Hereupon the ambassador of yonder ireful soldiery let fall a word, saying, by the faith of his Master, there was no necessity for watch-dogs to bark; an ardent and a reverent army had but fancied its beloved chosen Chief insulted; the Chief and chosen held them in; he, despite obloquy, discerned our merits and esteemed us.

So, then, Panic, or what remained of her, was put to bed again.  The Opposition retired into its kennel growling.  The People coughed like a man of two minds, doubting whether he has been divinely inspired or has cut a ridiculous figure.  The Press interpreted the cough as a warning to Government; and Government launched a big ship with hurrahs, and ordered the recruiting-sergeant to be seen conspicuously.

And thus we obtained a moderate reinforcement of our arms.

It was not arrived at by connivance all round, though there was a look of it.  Certainly it did not come of accident, though there was a look of that as well.  Nor do we explain much of the secret by attributing it to the working of a complex machinery.  The housewife’s remedy of a good shaking for the invalid who will not arise and dance away his gout, partly illustrates the action of the Press upon the country:  and perhaps the country shaken may suffer a comparison with the family chariot of the last century, built in a previous one, commodious, furnished agreeably, being all that the inside occupants could require of a conveyance, until the report of horsemen crossing the heath at a gallop sets it dishonourably creaking and complaining in rapid motion, and the squire curses his miserly purse that would not hire a guard, and his dame says, I told you so! ­Foolhardy man, to suppose, because we have constables in the streets of big cities, we have dismissed the highwayman to limbo.  And here he is, and he will cost you fifty times the sum you would have laid out to keep him at a mile’s respectful distance!  But see, the wretch is bowing:  he smiles at our carriage, and tells the coachman that he remembers he has been our guest, and really thinks we need not go so fast.  He leaves word for you, sir, on your peril to denounce him on another occasion from the magisterial Bench, for that albeit he is a gentleman of the road, he has a mission to right society, and succeeds legitimately to that bold Good Robin Hood who fed the poor. ­Fresh from this polite encounter, the squire vows money for his personal protection:  and he determines to speak his opinion of Sherwood’s latest captain as loudly as ever.  That he will, I do not say.  It might involve a large sum per annum.

Similes are very well in their way.  None can be sufficient in this case without levelling a finger at the taxpayer ­nay, directly mentioning him.  He is the key of our ingenuity.  He pays his dues; he will not pay the additional penny or two wanted of him, that we may be a step or two ahead of the day we live in, unless he is frightened.  But scarcely anything less than the wild alarum of a tocsin will frighten him.  Consequently the tocsin has to be sounded; and the effect is woeful past measure:  his hugging of his army, his kneeling on the shore to his navy, his implorations of his yeomanry and his hedges, are sad to note.  His bursts of pot-valiancy (the male side of the maiden Panic within his bosom) are awful to his friends.  Particular care must be taken after he has begun to cool and calculate his chances of security, that he do not gather to him a curtain of volunteers and go to sleep again behind them; for they cost little in proportion to the much they pretend to be to him.  Patriotic taxpayers doubtless exist:  prophetic ones, provident ones, do not.  At least we show that we are wanting in them.  The taxpayer of a free land taxes himself, and his disinclination for the bitter task, save under circumstances of screaming urgency ­as when the night-gear and bed-linen of old convulsed Panic are like the churned Channel sea in the track of two hundred hostile steamboats, let me say ­is of the kind the gentle schoolboy feels when death or an expedition has relieved him of his tyrant, and he is entreated notwithstanding to go to his books.

Will you not own that the working of the system for scaring him and bleeding is very ingenious?  But whether the ingenuity comes of native sagacity, as it is averred by some, or whether it shows an instinct labouring to supply the deficiencies of stupidity, according to others, I cannot express an opinion.  I give you the position of the country undisturbed by any moralizings of mine.  The youth I introduce to you will rarely let us escape from it; for the reason that he was born with so extreme and passionate a love for his country, that he thought all things else of mean importance in comparison:  and our union is one in which, following the counsel of a sage and seer, I must try to paint for you what is, not that which I imagine.  This day, this hour, this life, and even politics, the centre and throbbing heart of it (enough, when unburlesqued, to blow the down off the gossamer-stump of fiction at a single breath, I have heard tell), must be treated of men, and the ideas of men, which are ­it is policy to be emphatic upon truisms ­are actually the motives of men in a greater degree than their appetites:  these are my theme; and may it be my fortune to keep them at bloodheat, and myself calm as a statue of Memnon in prostrate Egypt!  He sits there waiting for the sunlight; I here, and readier to be musical than you think.  I can at any rate be impartial; and do but fix your eyes on the sunlight striking him and swallowing the day in rounding him, and you have an image of the passive receptivity of shine and shade I hold it good to aim at, if at the same time I may keep my characters at blood-heat.  I shoot my arrows at a mark that is pretty certain to return them to me.  And as to perfect success, I should be like the panic-stricken shopkeepers in my alarm at it; for I should believe that genii of the air fly above our tree-tops between us and the incognizable spheres, catching those ambitious shafts they deem it a promise of fun to play pranks with.

Young Mr. Beauchamp at that period of the panic had not the slightest feeling for the taxpayer.  He was therefore unable to penetrate the mystery of our roundabout way of enlivening him.  He pored over the journals in perplexity, and talked of his indignation nightly to his pretty partners at balls, who knew not they were lesser Andromedas of his dear Andromeda country, but danced and chatted and were gay, and said they were sure he would defend them.  The men he addressed were civil.  They listened to him, sometimes with smiles and sometimes with laughter, but approvingly, liking the lad’s quick spirit.  They were accustomed to the machinery employed to give our land a shudder and to soothe it, and generally remarked that it meant nothing.  His uncle Everard, and his uncle’s friend Stukely Culbrett, expounded the nature of Frenchmen to him, saying that they were uneasy when not periodically thrashed; it would be cruel to deny them their crow beforehand; and so the pair of gentlemen pooh-poohed the affair; agreeing with him, however, that we had no great reason to be proud of our appearance, and the grounds they assigned for this were the activity and the prevalence of the ignoble doctrines of Manchester ­a power whose very existence was unknown to Mr. Beauchamp.  He would by no means allow the burden of our national disgrace to be cast on one part of the nation.  We were insulted, and all in a poultry-flutter, yet no one seemed to feel it but himself!  Outside the Press and Parliament, which must necessarily be the face we show to the foreigner, absolute indifference reigned.  Navy men and red-coats were willing to join him or anybody in sneers at a clipping and paring miserly Government, but they were insensible to the insult, the panic, the startled-poultry show, the shame of our exhibition of ourselves in Europe.  It looked as if the blustering French Guard were to have it all their own way.  And what would they, what could they but, think of us!  He sat down to write them a challenge.

He is not the only Englishman who has been impelled by a youthful chivalry to do that.  He is perhaps the youngest who ever did it, and consequently there were various difficulties to be overcome.  As regards his qualifications for addressing Frenchmen, a year of his prae-neptunal time had been spent in their capital city for the purpose of acquiring French of Paris, its latest refinements of pronunciation and polish, and the art of conversing.  He had read the French tragic poets and Moliere; he could even relish the Gallic-classic ­’Qu’il mourut!’ and he spoke French passably, being quite beyond the Bullish treatment of the tongue.  Writing a letter in French was a different undertaking.  The one he projected bore no resemblance to an ordinary letter.  The briefer the better, of course; but a tone of dignity was imperative, and the tone must be individual, distinctive, Nevil Beauchamp’s, though not in his native language.  First he tried his letter in French, and lost sight of himself completely.  ‘Messieurs de la Garde Francaise,’ was a good beginning; the remainder gave him a false air of a masquerader, most uncomfortable to see; it was Nevil Beauchamp in moustache and imperial, and bagbreeches badly fitting.  He tried English, which was really himself, and all that heart could desire, supposing he addressed a body of midshipmen just a little loftily.  But the English, when translated, was bald and blunt to the verge of offensiveness.

   ’Gentlemen of the French guard,

   ’I take up the glove you have tossed us.  I am an Englishman. 
   That will do for a reason.’

This might possibly pass with the gentlemen of the English Guard.  But read: 

   ’Messieurs de la Garde Francaise,

   ‘J’accepte vôtre gantJe suis Anglais.  La raison est suffisante.’

And imagine French Guardsmen reading it!

Mr. Beauchamp knew the virtue of punctiliousness in epithets and phrases of courtesy toward a formal people, and as the officers of the French Guard were gentlemen of birth, he would have them to perceive in him their equal at a glance.  On the other hand, a bare excess of phrasing distorted him to a likeness of Mascarille playing Marquis.  How to be English and think French!  The business was as laborious as if he had started on the rough sea of the Channel to get at them in an open boat.

The lady governing his uncle Everard’s house, Mrs. Rosamund Culling, entered his room and found him writing with knitted brows.  She was young, that is, she was not in her middleage; and they were the dearest of friends; each had given the other proof of it.  Nevil looked up and beheld her lifted finger.

‘You are composing a love-letter, Nevil!’ The accusation sounded like irony.

‘No,’ said he, puffing; ’I wish I were!

‘What can it be, then?’

He thrust pen and paper a hand’s length on the table, and gazed at her.

‘My dear Nevil, is it really anything serious?’ said she.

‘I am writing French, ma’am.’

’Then I may help you.  It must be very absorbing, for you did not hear my knock at your door.’

Now, could he trust her?  The widow of a British officer killed nobly fighting for his country in India, was a person to be relied on for active and burning sympathy in a matter that touched the country’s honour.  She was a woman, and a woman of spirit.  Men had not pleased him of late.  Something might be hoped from a woman.

He stated his occupation, saying that if she would assist him in his French she would oblige him; the letter must be written and must go.  This was uttered so positively that she bowed her head, amused by the funny semi-tone of defiance to the person to whom he confided the secret.  She had humour, and was ravished by his English boyishness, with the novel blush of the heroical-nonsensical in it.

Mrs. Culling promised him demurely that she would listen, objecting nothing to his plan, only to his French.

‘Messieurs de la Garde Francaise!’ he commenced.

Her criticism followed swiftly.

‘I think you are writing to the Garde Impériale.’

He admitted his error, and thanked her warmly.

Messieurs de la Garde Impériale!’

‘Does not that,’ she said, ’include the non-commissioned officers, the privates, and the cooks, of all the regiments?’

He could scarcely think that, but thought it provoking the French had no distinctive working title corresponding to gentlemen, and suggested ‘Messieurs les Officiers’:  which might, Mrs. Culling assured him, comprise the barbers.  He frowned, and she prescribed his writing, ‘Messieurs les Colonels de la Garde Impériale.’  This he set down.  The point was that a stand must be made against the flood of sarcasms and bullyings to which the country was exposed in increasing degrees, under a belief that we would fight neither in the mass nor individually.  Possibly, if it became known that the colonels refused to meet a midshipman, the gentlemen of our Household troops would advance a step.

Mrs. Calling’s adroit efforts to weary him out of his project were unsuccessful.  He was too much on fire to know the taste of absurdity.

Nevil repeated what he had written in French, and next the English of what he intended to say.

The lady conscientiously did her utmost to reconcile the two languages.  She softened his downrightness, passed with approval his compliments to France and the ancient high reputation of her army, and, seeing that a loophole was left for them to apologize, asked how many French colonels he wanted to fight.

‘I do not want, ma’am,’ said Nevil.

He had simply taken up the glove they had again flung at our feet:  and he had done it to stop the incessant revilings, little short of positive contempt, which we in our indolence exposed ourselves to from the foreigner, particularly from Frenchmen, whom he liked; and precisely because he liked them he insisted on forcing them to respect us.  Let his challenge be accepted, and he would find backers.  He knew the stuff of Englishmen:  they only required an example.

‘French officers are skilful swordsmen,’ said Mrs. Culling.  ’My husband has told me they will spend hours of the day thrusting and parrying.  They are used to duelling.’

‘We,’ Nevil answered, ’don’t get apprenticed to the shambles to learn our duty on the field.  Duelling is, I know, sickening folly.  We go too far in pretending to despise every insult pitched at us.  A man may do for his country what he wouldn’t do for himself.’

Mrs. Culling gravely said she hoped that bloodshed would be avoided, and Mr. Beauchamp nodded.

She left him hard at work.

He was a popular boy, a favourite of women, and therefore full of engagements to Balls and dinners.  And he was a modest boy, though his uncle encouraged him to deliver his opinions freely and argue with men.  The little drummer attached to wheeling columns thinks not more of himself because his short legs perform the same strides as the grenadiers’; he is happy to be able to keep the step; and so was Nevil; and if ever he contradicted a senior, it was in the interests of the country.  Veneration of heroes, living and dead, kept down his conceit.  He worshipped devotedly.  From an early age he exacted of his flattering ladies that they must love his hero.  Not to love his hero was to be strangely in error, to be in need of conversion, and he proselytized with the ardour of the Moslem.  His uncle Everard was proud of his good looks, fire, and nonsense, during the boy’s extreme youth.  He traced him by cousinships back to the great Earl Beauchamp of Froissart, and would have it so; and he would have spoilt him had not the young fellow’s mind been possessed by his reverence for men of deeds.  How could he think of himself, who had done nothing, accomplished nothing, so long as he brooded on the images of signal Englishmen whose names were historic for daring, and the strong arm, and artfulness, all given to the service of the country? ­men of a magnanimity overcast with simplicity, which Nevil held to be pure insular English; our type of splendid manhood, not discoverable elsewhere.  A method of enraging him was to distinguish one or other of them as Irish, Scottish, or Cambrian.  He considered it a dismemberment of the country.  And notwithstanding the pleasure he had in uniting in his person the strong red blood of the chivalrous Lord Beauchamp with the hard and tenacious Romfrey blood, he hated the title of Norman.  We are English ­British, he said.  A family resting its pride on mere ancestry provoked his contempt, if it did not show him one of his men.  He had also a disposition to esteem lightly the family which, having produced a man, settled down after that effort for generations to enjoy the country’s pay.  Boys are unjust; but Nevil thought of the country mainly, arguing that we should not accept the country’s money for what we do not ourselves perform.  These traits of his were regarded as characteristics hopeful rather than the reverse; none of his friends and relatives foresaw danger in them.  He was a capital boy for his elders to trot out and banter.

Mrs. Rosamund Culling usually went to his room to see him and doat on him before he started on his rounds of an evening.  She suspected that his necessary attention to his toilet would barely have allowed him time to finish his copy of the letter.  Certain phrases had bothered him.  The thrice recurrence of ‘ma patrie’ jarred on his ear.  ‘Sentiments’ afflicted his acute sense of the declamatory twice.  ’C’est avec les sentiments du plus profond regret’:  and again, ’Je suis bien scar que vous comprendrez mes sentiments, et m’accorderez l’honneur que je réclame au nom de ma patrie outrage.’  The word ‘patrie’ was broadcast over the letter, and ‘honneur’ appeared four times, and a more delicate word to harp on than the others!

‘Not to Frenchmen,’ said his friend Rosamund.  ’I would put “Je suis convaincu”:  it is not so familiar.’

’But I have written out the fair copy, ma’am, and that alteration seems a trifle.’

‘I would copy it again and again, Nevil, to get it right.’

‘No:  I’d rather see it off than have it right,’ said Nevil, and he folded the letter.

How the deuce to address it, and what direction to write on it, were further difficulties.  He had half a mind to remain at home to conquer them by excogitation.

Rosamund urged him not to break his engagement to dine at the Halketts’, where perhaps from his friend Colonel Halkett, who would never imagine the reason for the inquiry, he might learn how a letter to a crack French regiment should be addressed and directed.

This proved persuasive, and as the hour was late Nevil had to act on her advice in a hurry.

His uncle Everard enjoyed a perusal of the manuscript in his absence.