Read CHAPTER II - UNCLE, NEPHEW, AND ANOTHER of Beauchamp Career, free online book, by George Meredith, on ReadCentral.com.

The Honourable Everard Romfrey came of a race of fighting earls, toughest of men, whose high, stout, Western castle had weathered our cyclone periods of history without changeing hands more than once, and then but for a short year or two, as if to teach the original possessors the wisdom of inclining to the stronger side.  They had a queen’s chamber in it, and a king’s; and they stood well up against the charge of having dealt darkly with the king.  He died among them ­how has not been told.  We will not discuss the conjectures here.  A savour of North Sea foam and ballad pirates hangs about the early chronicles of the family.  Indications of an ancestry that had lived between the wave and the cloud were discernible in their notions of right and wrong.  But a settlement on solid earth has its influences.  They were chivalrous knights bannerets, and leaders in the tented field, paying and taking fair ransom for captures; and they were good landlords, good masters blithely followed to the wars.  Sing an old battle of Normandy, Picardy, Gascony, and you celebrate deeds of theirs.  At home they were vexatious neighbours to a town of burghers claiming privileges:  nor was it unreasonable that the Earl should flout the pretensions of the town to read things for themselves, documents, titleships, rights, and the rest.  As well might the flat plain boast of seeing as far as the pillar.  Earl and town fought the fight of Barons and Commons in epitome.  The Earl gave way; the Barons gave way.  Mighty men may thrash numbers for a time; in the end the numbers will be thrashed into the art of beating their teachers.  It is bad policy to fight the odds inch by inch.  Those primitive school masters of the million liked it, and took their pleasure in that way.  The Romfreys did not breed warriors for a parade at Court; wars, though frequent, were not constant, and they wanted occupation:  they may even have felt that they were bound in no common degree to the pursuit of an answer to what may be called the parent question of humanity:  Am I thy master, or thou mine?  They put it to lords of other castles, to town corporations, and sometimes brother to brother:  and notwithstanding that the answer often unseated and once discastled them, they swam back to their places, as born warriors, urged by a passion for land, are almost sure to do; are indeed quite sure, so long as they multiply sturdily, and will never take no from Fortune.  A family passion for land, that survives a generation, is as effective as genius in producing the object it conceives; and through marriages and conflicts, the seizure of lands, and brides bearing land, these sharp-feeding eagle-eyed earls of Romfrey spied few spots within their top tower’s wide circle of the heavens not their own.

It is therefore manifest that they had the root qualities, the prime active elements, of men in perfection, and notably that appetite to flourish at the cost of the weaker, which is the blessed exemplification of strength, and has been man’s cheerfulest encouragement to fight on since his comparative subjugation (on the whole, it seems complete) of the animal world.  By-and-by the struggle is transferred to higher ground, and we begin to perceive how much we are indebted to the fighting spirit.  Strength is the brute form of truth.  No conspicuously great man was born of the Romfreys, who were better served by a succession of able sons.  They sent undistinguished able men to army and navy ­lieutenants given to be critics of their captains, but trustworthy for their work.  In the later life of the family, they preferred the provincial state of splendid squires to Court and political honours.  They were renowned shots, long-limbed stalking sportsmen in field and bower, fast friends, intemperate enemies, handsome to feminine eyes, resembling one another in build, and mostly of the Northern colour, or betwixt the tints, with an hereditary nose and mouth that cried Romfrey from faces thrice diluted in cousinships.

The Hon. Everard (Stephen Denely Craven Romfrey), third son of the late Earl, had some hopes of the title, and was in person a noticeable gentleman, in mind a mediaeval baron, in politics a crotchety unintelligible Whig.  He inherited the estate of Holdesbury, on the borders of Hampshire and Wilts, and espoused that of Steynham in Sussex, where he generally resided.  His favourite in the family had been the Lady Emily, his eldest sister, who, contrary to the advice of her other brothers and sisters, had yielded her hand to his not wealthy friend, Colonel Richard Beauchamp.  After the death of Nevil’s parents, he adopted the boy, being himself childless, and a widower.  Childlessness was the affliction of the family.  Everard, having no son, could hardly hope that his brother the Earl, and Craven, Lord Avonley, would have one, for he loved the prospect of the title.  Yet, as there were no cousins of the male branch extant, the lack of an heir was a serious omission, and to become the Earl of Romfrey, and be the last Earl of Romfrey, was a melancholy thought, however brilliant.  So sinks the sun:  but he could not desire the end of a great day.  At one time he was a hot Parliamentarian, calling himself a Whig, called by the Whigs a Radical, called by the Radicals a Tory, and very happy in fighting them all round.  This was during the decay of his party, before the Liberals were defined.  A Liberal deprived him of the seat he had held for fifteen years, and the clearness of his understanding was obscured by that black vision of popular ingratitude which afflicts the free fighting man yet more than the malleable public servant.  The latter has a clerkly humility attached to him like a second nature, from his habit of doing as others bid him:  the former smacks a voluntarily sweating forehead and throbbing wounds for witness of his claim upon your palpable thankfulness.  It is an insult to tell him that he fought for his own satisfaction.  Mr. Romfrey still called himself a Whig, though it was Whig mean vengeance on account of his erratic vote and voice on two or three occasions that denied him a peerage and a seat in haven.  Thither let your good sheep go, your echoes, your wag-tail dogs, your wealthy pursy manufacturers!  He decried the attractions of the sublimer House, and laughed at the transparent Whiggery of his party in replenishing it from the upper shoots of the commonalty:  ’Dragging it down to prop it up! swamping it to keep it swimming!’ he said.

He was nevertheless a vehement supporter of that House.  He stood for King, Lords, and Commons, in spite of his personal grievances, harping the triad as vigorously as bard of old Britain.  Commons he added out of courtesy, or from usage or policy, or for emphasis, or for the sake of the Constitutional number of the Estates of the realm, or it was because he had an intuition of the folly of omitting them; the same, to some extent, that builders have regarding bricks when they plan a fabric.  Thus, although King and Lords prove the existence of Commons in days of the political deluge almost syllogistically, the example of not including one of the Estates might be imitated, and Commons and King do not necessitate the conception of an intermediate third, while Lords and Commons suggest the decapitation of the leading figure.  The united three, however, no longer cast reflections on one another, and were an assurance to this acute politician that his birds were safe.  He preserved game rigorously, and the deduction was the work of instinct with him.  To his mind the game-laws were the corner-stone of Law, and of a man’s right to hold his own; and so delicately did he think the country poised, that an attack on them threatened the structure of justice.  The three conjoined Estates were therefore his head gamekeepers; their duty was to back him against the poacher, if they would not see the country tumble.  As to his under-gamekeepers, he was their intimate and their friend, saying, with none of the misanthropy which proclaims the virtues of the faithful dog to the confusion of humankind, he liked their company better than that of his equals, and learnt more from them.  They also listened deferentially to their instructor.

The conversation he delighted in most might have been going on in any century since the Conquest.  Grant him his not unreasonable argument upon his property in game, he was a liberal landlord.  No tenants were forced to take his farms.  He dragged none by the collar.  He gave them liberty to go to Australia, Canada, the Americas, if they liked.  He asked in return to have the liberty to shoot on his own grounds, and rear the marks for his shot, treating the question of indemnification as a gentleman should.  Still there were grumbling tenants.  He swarmed with game, and, though he was liberal, his hares and his birds were immensely destructive:  computation could not fix the damage done by them.  Probably the farmers expected them not to eat.  ’There are two parties to a bargain,’ said Everard, ’and one gets the worst of it.  But if he was never obliged to make it, where’s his right to complain?’ Men of sense rarely obtain satisfactory answers:  they are provoked to despise their kind.  But the poacher was another kind of vermin than the stupid tenant.  Everard did him the honour to hate him, and twice in a fray had he collared his ruffian, and subsequently sat in condemnation of the wretch:  for he who can attest a villany is best qualified to punish it.  Gangs from the metropolis found him too determined and alert for their sport.  It was the factiousness of here and there an unbroken young scoundrelly colt poacher of the neighbourhood, a born thief, a fellow damned in an inveterate taste for game, which gave him annoyance.  One night he took Master Nevil out with him, and they hunted down a couple of sinners that showed fight against odds.  Nevil attempted to beg them off because of their boldness.  ‘I don’t set my traps for nothing,’ said his uncle, silencing him.  But the boy reflected that his uncle was perpetually lamenting the cowed spirit of the common English-formerly such fresh and merry men!  He touched Rosamund Culling’s heart with his description of their attitudes when they stood resisting and bawling to the keepers, ‘Come on we’ll die for it.’  They did not die.  Everard explained to the boy that he could have killed them, and was contented to have sent them to gaol for a few weeks.  Nevil gaped at the empty magnanimity which his uncle presented to him as a remarkably big morsel.  At the age of fourteen he was despatched to sea.

He went unwillingly; not so much from an objection to a naval life as from a wish, incomprehensible to grown men and boys, and especially to his cousin, Cecil Baskelett, that he might remain at school and learn.  ‘The fellow would like to be a parson!’ Everard said in disgust.  No parson had ever been known of in the Romfrey family, or in the Beauchamp.  A legend of a parson that had been a tutor in one of the Romfrey houses, and had talked and sung blandly to a damsel of the blood ­degenerate maid ­to receive a handsome trouncing for his pains, instead of the holy marriage-tie he aimed at, was the only connection of the Romfreys with the parsonry, as Everard called them.  He attributed the boy’s feeling to the influence of his great-aunt Beauchamp, who would, he said, infallibly have made a parson of him.  ’I’d rather enlist for a soldier,’ Nevil said, and he ceased to dream of rebellion, and of his little property of a few thousand pounds in the funds to aid him in it.  He confessed to his dear friend Rosamund Culling that he thought the parsons happy in having time to read history.  And oh, to feel for certain which side was the wrong side in our Civil War, so that one should not hesitate in choosing!  Such puzzles are never, he seemed to be aware, solved in a midshipman’s mess.  He hated bloodshed, and was guilty of the ‘cotton-spinners’ babble,’ abhorred of Everard, in alluding to it.  Rosamund liked him for his humanity; but she, too, feared he was a slack Romfrey when she heard him speak in precocious contempt of glory.  Somewhere, somehow, he had got hold of Manchester sarcasms concerning glory:  a weedy word of the newspapers had been sown in his bosom perhaps.  He said:  ’I don’t care to win glory; I know all about that; I ‘ve seen an old hat in the Louvre.’  And he would have had her to suppose that he had looked on the campaigning head-cover of Napoleon simply as a shocking bad, bald, brown-rubbed old tricorne rather than as the nod of extinction to thousands, the great orb of darkness, the still-trembling gloomy quiver ­the brain of the lightnings of battles.

Now this boy nursed no secret presumptuous belief that he was fitted for the walks of the higher intellect; he was not having his impudent boy’s fling at superiority over the superior, as here and there a subtle-minded vain juvenile will; nor was he a parrot repeating a line from some Lancastrian pamphlet.  He really disliked war and the sword; and scorning the prospect of an idle life, confessing that his abilities barely adapted him for a sailor’s, he was opposed to the career opened to him almost to the extreme of shrinking and terror.  Or that was the impression conveyed to a not unsympathetic hearer by his forlorn efforts to make himself understood, which were like the tappings of the stick of a blind man mystified by his sense of touch at wrong corners.  His bewilderment and speechlessness were a comic display, tragic to him.

Just as his uncle Everard predicted, he came home from his first voyage a pleasant sailor lad.  His features, more than handsome to a woman, so mobile they were, shone of sea and spirit, the chance lights of the sea, and the spirit breathing out of it.  As to war and bloodshed, a man’s first thought must be his country, young Jacket remarked, and ‘Ich dien’ was the best motto afloat.  Rosamund noticed the peculiarity of the books he selected for his private reading.  They were not boys’ books, books of adventure and the like.  His favourite author was one writing of Heroes, in (so she esteemed it) a style resembling either early architecture or utter dilapidation, so loose and rough it seemed; a wind-in-the-orchard style, that tumbled down here and there an appreciable fruit with uncouth bluster; sentences without commencements running to abrupt endings and smoke, like waves against a sea-wall, learned dictionary words giving a hand to street-slang, and accents falling on them haphazard, like slant rays from driving clouds; all the pages in a breeze, the whole book producing a kind of electrical agitation in the mind and the joints.  This was its effect on the lady.  To her the incomprehensible was the abominable, for she had our country’s high critical feeling; but he, while admitting that he could not quite master it, liked it.  He had dug the book out of a bookseller’s shop in Malta, captivated by its title, and had, since the day of his purchase, gone at it again and again, getting nibbles of golden meaning by instalments, as with a solitary pick in a very dark mine, until the illumination of an idea struck him that there was a great deal more in the book than there was in himself.  This was sufficient to secure the devoted attachment of young Mr. Beauchamp.  Rosamund sighed with apprehension to think of his unlikeness to boys and men among his countrymen in some things.  Why should he hug a book he owned he could not quite comprehend?  He said he liked a bone in his mouth; and it was natural wisdom, though unappreciated by women.  A bone in a boy’s mind for him to gnaw and worry, corrects the vagrancies and promotes the healthy activities, whether there be marrow in it or not.  Supposing it furnishes only dramatic entertainment in that usually vacant tenement, or powder-shell, it will be of service.

Nevil proposed to her that her next present should be the entire list of his beloved Incompréhensible’s published works, and she promised, and was not sorry to keep her promise dangling at the skirts of memory, to drop away in time.  For that fire-and-smoke writer dedicated volumes to the praise of a regicide.  Nice reading for her dear boy!  Some weeks after Nevil was off again, she abused herself for her half-hearted love of him, and would have given him anything ­the last word in favour of the Country versus the royal Martyr, for example, had he insisted on it.  She gathered, bit by bit, that he had dashed at his big blustering cousin Cecil to vindicate her good name.  The direful youths fought in the Steynham stables, overheard by the grooms.  Everard received a fine account of the tussle from these latter, and Rosamund, knowing him to be of the order of gentlemen who, whatsoever their sins, will at all costs protect a woman’s delicacy, and a dependant’s, man or woman, did not fear to have her ears shocked in probing him on the subject.

Everard was led to say that Nevil’s cousins were bedevilled with womanfolk.

From which Rosamund perceived that women had been at work; and if so, it was upon the business of the scandal-monger; and if so, Nevil fought his cousin to protect her good name from a babbler of the family gossip.

She spoke to Stukely Culbrett, her dead husband’s friend, to whose recommendation she was indebted for her place in Everard Romfrey’s household.

‘Nevil behaved like a knight, I hear.’

‘Your beauty was disputed,’ said he, ’and Nevil knocked the blind man down for not being able to see.’

She thought, ’Not my beauty!  Nevil struck his cousin on behalf of the only fair thing I have left to me!’

This was a moment with her when many sensations rush together and form a knot in sensitive natures.  She had been very good-looking.  She was good-looking still, but she remembered the bloom of her looks in her husband’s days (the tragedy of the mirror is one for a woman to write:  I am ashamed to find myself smiling while the poor lady weeps), she remembered his praises, her pride; his death in battle, her anguish:  then, on her strange entry to this house, her bitter wish to be older; and then, the oppressive calm of her recognition of her wish’s fulfilment, the heavy drop to dead earth, when she could say, or pretend to think she could say ­I look old enough:  will they tattle of me now?  Nevil’s championship of her good name brought her history spinning about her head, and threw a finger of light on her real position.  In that she saw the slenderness of her hold on respect, as well as felt her personal stainlessness.  The boy warmed her chill widowhood.  It was written that her, second love should be of the pattern of mother’s love.  She loved him hungrily and jealously, always in fear for him when he was absent, even anxiously when she had him near.  For some cause, born, one may fancy, of the hour of her love’s conception, his image in her heart was steeped in tears.  She was not, happily, one of the women who betray strong feeling, and humour preserved her from excesses of sentiment.