Read CHAPTER III - CONTAINS BARONIAL VIEWS OF THE PRESENT TIME of Beauchamp Career, free online book, by George Meredith, on ReadCentral.com.

Upon the word of honour of Rosamund, the letter to the officers of the French Guard was posted.

‘Post it, post it,’ Everard said, on her consulting him, with the letter in her hand.  ‘Let the fellow stand his luck.’  It was addressed to the Colonel of the First Regiment of the Imperial Guard, Paris.  That superscription had been suggested by Colonel Halkett.  Rosamund was in favour of addressing it to Versailles, Nevil to the Tuileries; but Paris could hardly fail to hit the mark, and Nevil waited for the reply, half expecting an appointment on the French sands:  for the act of posting a letter, though it be to little short of the Pleiades even, will stamp an incredible proceeding as a matter of business, so ready is the ardent mind to take footing on the last thing done.  The flight of Mr. Beauchamp’s letter placed it in the common order of occurrences for the youthful author of it.  Jack Wilmore, a messmate, offered to second him, though he should be dismissed the service for it.  Another second would easily be found somewhere; for, as Nevil observed, you have only to set these affairs going, and British blood rises:  we are not the people you see on the surface.  Wilmore’s father was a parson, for instance.  What did he do?  He could not help himself:  he supplied the army and navy with recruits!  One son was in a marching regiment, the other was Jack, and three girls had vowed never to quit the rectory save as brides of officers.  Nevil thought that seemed encouraging; we were evidently not a nation of shopkeepers at heart; and he quoted sayings of Mr. Stukely Culbrett’s, in which neither his ear nor Wilmore’s detected the under-ring Stukely was famous for:  as that England had saddled herself with India for the express purpose of better obeying the Commandments in Europe; and that it would be a lamentable thing for the Continent and our doctrines if ever beef should fail the Briton, and such like.  ‘Depend upon it we’re a fighting nation naturally, Jack,’ said Nevil.  ’How can we submit!... however, I shall not be impatient.  I dislike duelling, and hate war, but I will have the country respected.’  They planned a defence of the country, drawing their strategy from magazine articles by military pens, reverberations of the extinct voices of the daily and weekly journals, customary after a panic, and making bloody stands on spots of extreme pastoral beauty, which they visited by coach and rail, looking back on unfortified London with particular melancholy.

Rosamund’s word may be trusted that she dropped the letter into a London post-office in pursuance of her promise to Nevil.  The singular fact was that no answer to it ever arrived.  Nevil, without a doubt of her honesty, proposed an expedition to Paris; he was ordered to join his ship, and he lay moored across the water in the port of Bevisham, panting for notice to be taken of him.  The slight of the total disregard of his letter now affected him personally; it took him some time to get over this indignity put upon him, especially because of his being under the impression that the country suffered, not he at all.  The letter had served its object:  ever since the transmission of it the menaces and insults had ceased.

But they might be renewed, and he desired to stop them altogether.  His last feeling was one of genuine regret that Frenchmen should have behaved unworthily of the high estimation he held them in.  With which he dismissed the affair.

He was rallied about it when he next sat at his uncle’s table, and had to pardon Rosamund for telling.

Nevil replied modestly:  ’I dare say you think me half a fool, sir.  All I know is, I waited for my betters to speak first.  I have no dislike of Frenchmen.’

Everard shook his head to signify, ‘not half.’  But he was gentle enough in his observations.  ’There’s a motto, Ex pede Herculem.  You stepped out for the dogs to judge better of us.  It’s an infernally tripping motto for a composite structure like the kingdom of Great Britain and Manchester, boy Nevil.  We can fight foreigners when the time comes.’  He directed Nevil to look home, and cast an eye on the cotton-spinners, with the remark that they were binding us hand and foot to sell us to the biggest buyer, and were not Englishmen but ’Germans and Jews, and quakers and hybrids, diligent clerks and speculators, and commercial travellers, who have raised a fortune from foisting drugged goods on an idiot population.’

He loathed them for the curse they were to the country.  And he was one of the few who spoke out.  The fashion was to pet them.  We stood against them; were halfhearted, and were beaten; and then we petted them, and bit by bit our privileges were torn away.  We made lords of them to catch them, and they grocers of us by way of a return.  ‘Already,’ said Everard, ’they have knocked the nation’s head off, and dry-rotted the bone of the people.’

‘Don’t they,’ Nevil asked, ‘belong to the Liberal party?’

‘I’ll tell you,’ Everard replied, ’they belong to any party that upsets the party above them.  They belong to the George Foxe party, and my poultry-roosts are the mark they aim at.  You shall have a glance at the manufacturing district some day.  You shall see the machines they work with.  You shall see the miserable lank-jawed half-stewed pantaloons they’ve managed to make of Englishmen there.  My blood ’s past boiling.  They work young children in their factories from morning to night.  Their manufactories are spreading like the webs of the devil to suck the blood of the country.  In that district of theirs an epidemic levels men like a disease in sheep.  Skeletons can’t make a stand.  On the top of it all they sing Sunday tunes!’

This behaviour of corn-law agitators and protectors of poachers was an hypocrisy too horrible for comment.  Everard sipped claret.  Nevil lashed his head for the clear idea which objurgation insists upon implanting, but batters to pieces in the act.

‘Manchester’s the belly of this country!’ Everard continued.  ’So long as Manchester flourishes, we’re a country governed and led by the belly.  The head and the legs of the country are sound still; I don’t guarantee it for long, but the middle’s rapacious and corrupt.  Take it on a question of foreign affairs, it ’s an alderman after a feast.  Bring it upon home politics, you meet a wolf.’

The faithful Whig veteran spoke with jolly admiration of the speech of a famous Tory chief.

’That was the way to talk to them!  Denounce them traitors!  Up whip, and set the ruffians capering!  Hit them facers!  Our men are always for the too-clever trick.  They pluck the sprouts and eat them, as if the loss of a sprout or two thinned Manchester!  Your policy of absorption is good enough when you’re dealing with fragments.  It’s a devilish unlucky thing to attempt with a concrete mass.  You might as well ask your head to absorb a wall by running at it like a pugnacious nigger.  I don’t want you to go into Parliament ever.  You’re a fitter man out of it; but if ever you’re bitten ­and it’s the curse of our country to have politics as well as the other diseases ­don’t follow a flag, be independent, keep a free vote; remember how I’ve been tied, and hold foot against Manchester.  Do it blindfold; you don’t want counselling, you’re sure to be right.  I’ll lay you a blood-brood mare to a cabstand skeleton, you’ll have an easy conscience and deserve the thanks of the country.’

Nevil listened gravely.  The soundness of the head and legs of the country he took for granted.  The inflated state of the unchivalrous middle, denominated Manchester, terrified him.  Could it be true that England was betraying signs of decay? and signs how ignoble!  Half-a-dozen crescent lines cunningly turned, sketched her figure before the world, and the reflection for one ready to die upholding her was that the portrait was no caricature.  Such an emblematic presentation of the land of his filial affection haunted him with hideous mockeries.  Surely the foreigner hearing our boasts of her must compare us to showmen bawling the attractions of a Fat Lady at a fair!

Swoln Manchester bore the blame of it.  Everard exulted to hear his young echo attack the cotton-spinners.  But Nevil was for a plan, a system, immediate action; the descending among the people, and taking an initiative, leading them, insisting on their following, not standing aloof and shrugging.

‘We lead them in war,’ said he; ’why not in peace?  There’s a front for peace as well as war, and that’s our place rightly.  We’re pushed aside; why, it seems to me we’re treated like old-fashioned ornaments!  The fault must be ours.  Shrugging and sneering is about as honourable as blazing fireworks over your own defeat.  Back we have to go! that’s the point, sir.  And as for jeering the cotton-spinners, I can’t while they’ve the lead of us.  We let them have it!  And we have thrice the stake in the country.  I don’t mean properties and titles.’

‘Deuce you don’t,’ said his uncle.

’I mean our names, our histories; I mean our duties.  As for titles, the way to defend them is to be worthy of them.’

‘Damned fine speech,’ remarked Everard.  ’Now you get out of that trick of prize-orationing.  I call it snuffery, sir; it’s all to your own nose!  You’re talking to me, not to a gallery.  “Worthy of them!” Cæsar wraps his head in his robe:  he gets his dig in the ribs for all his attitudinizing.  It’s very well for a man to talk like that who owns no more than his barebodkin life, poor devil.  Tall talk’s his jewelry:  he must have his dandification in bunkum.  You ought to know better.  Property and titles are worth having, whether you are “worthy of them” or a disgrace to your class.  The best way of defending them is to keep a strong fist, and take care you don’t draw your fore-foot back more than enough.’

‘Please propose something to be done,’ said Nevil, depressed by the recommendation of that attitude.

Everard proposed a fight for every privilege his class possessed.  ’They say,’ he said, ’a nobleman fighting the odds is a sight for the gods:  and I wouldn’t yield an inch of ground.  It’s no use calling things by fine names ­the country’s ruined by cowardice.  Poursuivez!  I cry.  Haro! at them!  The biggest hart wins in the end.  I haven’t a doubt about that.  And I haven’t a doubt we carry the tonnage.’

‘There’s the people,’ sighed Nevil, entangled in his uncle’s haziness.

‘What people?’

‘I suppose the people of Great Britain count, sir.’

‘Of course they do; when the battle’s done, the fight lost and won.’

‘Do you expect the people to look on, sir?’

‘The people always wait for the winner, boy Nevil.’

The young fellow exclaimed despondingly, ‘If it were a race!’

‘It’s like a race, and we’re confoundedly out of training,’ said Everard.

There he rested.  A mediaeval gentleman with the docile notions of the twelfth century, complacently driving them to grass and wattling them in the nineteenth, could be of no use to a boy trying to think, though he could set the youngster galloping.  Nevil wandered about the woods of Steynham, disinclined to shoot and lend a hand to country sports.  The popping of the guns of his uncle and guests hung about his ears much like their speech, which was unobjectionable in itself, but not sufficient; a little hard, he thought, a little idle.  He wanted something, and wanted them to give their time and energy to something, that was not to be had in a market.  The nobles, he felt sure, might resume their natural alliance with the people, and lead them, as they did of old, to the battle-field.  How might they?  A comely Sussex lass could not well tell him how.  Sarcastic reports of the troublesome questioner represented him applying to a nymph of the country for enlightenment.  He thrilled surprisingly under the charm of feminine beauty.  ‘The fellow’s sound at bottom,’ his uncle said, hearing of his having really been seen walking in the complete form proper to his budding age, that is, in two halves.  Nevil showed that he had gained an acquaintance with the struggles of the neighbouring agricultural poor to live and rear their children.  His uncle’s table roared at his enumeration of the sickly little beings, consumptive or bandy-legged, within a radius of five miles of Steynham.  Action was what he wanted, Everard said.  Nevil perhaps thought the same, for he dashed out of his mooning with a wave of the Tory standard, delighting the ladies, though in that conflict of the Lion and the Unicorn (which was a Tory song) he seemed rather to wish to goad the dear lion than crush the one-horned intrusive upstart.  His calling on the crack corps of Peers to enrol themselves forthwith in the front ranks, and to anticipate opposition by initiating measures, and so cut out that funny old crazy old galleon, the People, from under the batteries of the enemy, highly amused the gentlemen.

Before rejoining his ship, Nevil paid his customary short visit of ceremony to his great-aunt Beauchamp ­a venerable lady past eighty, hitherto divided from him in sympathy by her dislike of his uncle Everard, who had once been his living hero.  That was when he was in frocks, and still the tenacious fellow could not bear to hear his uncle spoken ill of.

’All the men of that family are heartless, and he is a man of wood, my dear, and a bad man,’ the old lady said.  ’He should have kept you at school, and sent you to college.  You want reading and teaching and talking to.  Such a house as that is should never be a home for you.’  She hinted at Rosamund.  Nevil defended the persecuted woman, but with no better success than from the attacks of the Romfrey ladies; with this difference, however, that these decried the woman’s vicious arts, and Mistress Elizabeth Mary Beauchamp put all the sin upon the man.  Such a man! she said.  ’Let me hear that he has married her, I will not utter another word.’  Nevil echoed, ‘Married!’ in a different key.

’I am as much of an aristocrat as any of you, only I rank morality higher,’ said Mrs. Beauchamp.  ’When you were a child I offered to take you and make you my heir, and I would have educated you.  You shall see a great-nephew of mine that I did educate; he is eating his dinners for the bar in London, and comes to me every Sunday.  I shall marry him to a good girl, and I shall show your uncle what my kind of man-making is.’

Nevil had no desire to meet the other great-nephew, especially when he was aware of the extraordinary circumstance that a Beauchamp great-niece, having no money, had bestowed her hand on a Manchester man defunct, whereof this young Blackburn Tuckham, the lawyer, was issue.  He took his leave of Mrs. Elizabeth Beauchamp, respecting her for her constitutional health and brightness, and regretting for the sake of the country that she had not married to give England men and women resembling her.  On the whole he considered her wiser in her prescription for the malady besetting him than his uncle.  He knew that action was but a temporary remedy.  College would have been his chronic medicine, and the old lady’s acuteness in seeing it impressed him forcibly.  She had given him a peaceable two days on the Upper Thames, in an atmosphere of plain good sense and just-mindedness.  He wrote to thank her, saying: 

’My England at sea will be your parlour-window looking down the grass to the river and rushes; and when you do me the honour to write, please tell me the names of those wildflowers growing along the banks in Summer.’  The old lady replied immediately, enclosing a cheque for fifty pounds:  ’Colonel Halkett informs me you are under a cloud at Steynham, and I have thought you may be in want of pocket-money.  The wild-flowers are willowherb, meadow-sweet, and loosestrife.  I shall be glad when you are here in Summer to see them.’

Nevil despatched the following:  ’I thank you, but I shall not cash the cheque.  The Steynham tale is this: 

I happened to be out at night, and stopped the keepers in chase of a young fellow trespassing.  I caught him myself, but recognized him as one of a family I take an interest in, and let him run before they came up.  My uncle heard a gun; I sent the head gamekeeper word in the morning to out with it all.  Uncle E. was annoyed, and we had a rough parting.  If you are rewarding me for this, I have no right to it.’

Mrs. Beauchamp rejoined:  ’Your profession should teach you subordination, if it does nothing else that is valuable to a Christian gentleman.  You will receive from the publisher the “Life and Letters of Lord Collingwood,” whom I have it in my mind that a young midshipman should task himself to imitate.  Spend the money as you think fit.’

Nevil’s ship, commanded by Captain Robert Hall (a most gallant officer, one of his heroes, and of Lancashire origin, strangely!), flew to the South American station, in and about Lord Cochrane’s waters; then as swiftly back.  For, like the frail Norwegian bark on the edge of the maelstrom, liker to a country of conflicting interests and passions, that is not mentally on a level with its good fortune, England was drifting into foreign complications.  A paralyzed Minister proclaimed it.  The governing people, which is looked to for direction in grave dilemmas by its representatives and reflectors, shouted that it had been accused of pusillanimity.  No one had any desire for war, only we really had (and it was perfectly true) been talking gigantic nonsense of peace, and of the everlastingness of the exchange of fruits for money, with angels waving raw-groceries of Eden in joy of the commercial picture.  Therefore, to correct the excesses of that fit, we held the standing by the Moslem, on behalf of the Mediterranean (and the Moslem is one of our customers, bearing an excellent reputation for the payment of debts), to be good, granting the necessity.  We deplored the necessity.  The Press wept over it.  That, however, was not the politic tone for us while the Imperial berg of Polar ice watched us keenly; and the Press proceeded to remind us that we had once been bull-dogs.  Was there not an animal within us having a right to a turn now and then?  And was it not (Falstaff, on a calm world, was quoted) for the benefit of our constitutions now and then to loosen the animal?  Granting the necessity, of course.  By dint of incessantly speaking of the necessity we granted it unknowingly.  The lighter hearts regarded our period of monotonously lyrical prosperity as a man sensible of fresh morning air looks back on the snoring bolster.  Many of the graver were glad of a change.  After all that maundering over the blessed peace which brings the raisin and the currant for the pudding, and shuts up the cannon with a sheep’s head, it became a principle of popular taste to descant on the vivifying virtues of war; even as, after ten months of money-mongering in smoky London, the citizen hails the sea-breeze and an immersion in unruly brine, despite the cost, that breeze and brine may make a man of him, according to the doctor’s prescription:  sweet is home, but health is sweeter!  Then was there another curious exhibition of us.  Gentlemen, to the exact number of the Graces, dressed in drab of an ancient cut, made a pilgrimage to the icy despot, and besought him to give way for Piety’s sake.  He, courteous, colossal, and immoveable, waved them homeward.  They returned and were hooted for belying the bellicose by their mission, and interpreting too well the peaceful.  They were the unparalyzed Ministers of the occasion, but helpless.

And now came war, the purifier and the pestilence.

The cry of the English people for war was pretty general, as far as the criers went.  They put on their Sabbath face concerning the declaration of war, and told with approval how the Royal hand had trembled in committing itself to the form of signature to which its action is limited.  If there was money to be paid, there was a bugbear to be slain for it; and a bugbear is as obnoxious to the repose of commercial communities as rivals are to kings.

The cry for war was absolutely unanimous, and a supremely national cry, Everard Romfrey said, for it excluded the cotton-spinners.

He smacked his hands, crowing at the vociférations of disgust of those negrophiles and sweaters of Christians, whose isolated clamour amid the popular uproar sounded of gagged mouths.

One of the half-stifled cotton-spinners, a notorious one, a spouter of rank sedition and hater of aristocracy, a political poacher, managed to make himself heard.  He was tossed to the Press for morsel, and tossed back to the people in strips.  Everard had a sharp return of appetite in reading the daily and weekly journals.  They printed logic, they printed sense; they abused the treasonable barking cur unmercifully.  They printed almost as much as he would have uttered, excepting the strong salt of his similes, likening that rascal and his crew to the American weed in our waters, to the rotting wild bees’ nest in our trees, to the worm in our ships’ timbers, and to lamentable afflictions of the human frame, and of sheep, oxen, honest hounds.  Manchester was in eclipse.  The world of England discovered that the peace-party which opposed was the actual cause of the war:  never was indication clearer.  But my business is with Mr. Beauchamp, to know whom, and partly understand his conduct in after-days, it will be as well to take a bird’seye glance at him through the war.

‘Now,’ said Everard, ’we shall see what staff there is in that fellow Nevil.’

He expected, as you may imagine, a true young Beauchamp-Romfrey to be straining his collar like a leash-hound.