Read CHAPTER VII - AN AWAKENING FOR BOTH of Beauchamp Career, free online book, by George Meredith, on ReadCentral.com.

Renee was downcast.  Had she not coquetted?  The dear young Englishman had reduced her to defend herself, the which fair ladies, like besieged garrisons, cannot always do successfully without an attack at times, which, when the pursuer is ardent, is followed by a retreat, which is a provocation; and these things are coquettry.  Her still fresh convent-conscience accused her of it pitilessly.  She could not forgive her brother, and yet she dared not reproach him, for that would have inculpated Nevil.  She stepped on to the Piazzetta thoughtfully.  Her father was at Florian’s, perusing letters from France.  ’We are to have the marquis here in a week, my child,’ he said.  Renee nodded.  Involuntarily she looked at Nevil.  He caught the look, with a lover’s quick sense of misfortune in it.

She heard her brother reply to him:  ’Who? the Marquis de Rouaillout?  It is a jolly gaillard of fifty who spoils no fun.’

‘You mistake his age, Roland,’ she said.

‘Forty-nine, then, my sister.’

‘He is not that.’

‘He looks it.’

‘You have been absent.’

’Probably, my arithmetical sister, he has employed the interval to grow younger.  They say it is the way with green gentlemen of a certain age.  They advance and they retire.  They perform the first steps of a quadrille ceremoniously, and we admire them.’

‘What’s that?’ exclaimed the Comte de Croisnel.  ’You talk nonsense, Roland.  M. marquis is hardly past forty.  He is in his prime.’

’Without question, mon pere.  For me, I was merely offering proof that he can preserve his prime unlimitedly.’

‘He is not a subject for mockery, Roland.’

‘Quite the contrary; for reverence!’

‘Another than you, my boy, and he would march you out.’

‘I am to imagine, then, that his hand continues firm?’

’Imagine to the extent of your capacity; but remember that respect is always owing to your own family, and deliberate before you draw on yourself such a chastisement as mercy from an accepted member of it.’

Roland bowed and drummed on his knee.

The conversation had been originated by Renee for the enlightenment of Nevil and as a future protection to herself.  Now that it had disclosed its burden she could look at him no more, and when her father addressed her significantly:  ’Marquise, you did me the honour to consent to accompany me to the Church of the Frari this afternoon?’ she felt her self-accusation of coquettry biting under her bosom like a thing alive.

Roland explained the situation to Nevil.

’It is the mania with us, my dear Nevil, to marry our girls young to established men.  Your established man carries usually all the signs, visible to the multitude or not, of the stages leading to that eminence.  We cannot, I believe, unless we have the good fortune to boast the paternity of Hercules, disconnect ourselves from the steps we have mounted; not even, the priests inform us, if we are ascending to heaven; we carry them beyond the grave.  However, it seems that our excellent marquis contrives to keep them concealed, and he is ready to face marriage ­the Grandest Inquisitor, next to Death.  Two furious matchmakers ­our country, beautiful France, abounds in them ­met one day; they were a comtesse and a baronne, and they settled the alliance.  The bell was rung, and Renee came out of school.  There is this to be said:  she has no mother; the sooner a girl without a mother has a husband the better.  That we are all agreed upon.  I have no personal objection to the marquis; he has never been in any great scandals.  He is Norman, and has estates in Normandy, Dauphiny, Touraine; he is hospitable, luxurious.  Renee will have a fine hotel in Paris.  But I am eccentric:  I have read in our old Fabliaux of December and May.  Say the marquis is November, say October; he is still some distance removed from the plump Spring month.  And we in our family have wits and passions.  In fine, a bud of a rose in an old gentleman’s button-hole! it is a challenge to the whole world of youth; and if the bud should leap?  Enough of this matter, friend Nevil; but sometimes a friend must allow himself to be bothered.  I have perfect confidence in my sister, you see; I simply protest against her being exposed to...  You know men.  I protest, that is, in the privacy of my cigar-case, for I have no chance elsewhere.  The affair is on wheels.  The very respectable matchmakers have kindled the marquis on the one hand, and my father on the other, and Renee passes obediently from the latter to the former.  In India they sacrifice the widows, in France the virgins.’

Roland proceeded to relate his adventure.  Nevil’s inattention piqued him to salt and salt it wonderfully, until the old story of He and She had an exciting savour in its introductory chapter; but his friend was flying through the circles of the Inferno, and the babble of an ephemeral upper world simply affected him by its contrast with the overpowering horrors, répugnances, despairs, pities, rushing at him, surcharging his senses.  Those that live much by the heart in their youth have sharp foretastes of the issues imaged for the soul.  St. Mark’s was in a minute struck black for him.  He neither felt the sunlight nor understood why column and campanile rose, nor why the islands basked, and boats and people moved.  All were as remote little bits of mechanism.

Nevil escaped, and walked in the direction of the Frari down calle and campiello.  Only to see her ­to compare her with the Renee of the past hour!  But that Renee had been all the while a feast of delusion; she could never be resuscitated in the shape he had known, not even clearly visioned.  Not a day of her, not an hour, not a single look had been his own.  She had been sold when he first beheld her, and should, he muttered austerely, have been ticketed the property of a middle-aged man, a worn-out French marquis, whom she had agreed to marry, unwooed, without love ­the creature of a transaction.  But she was innocent, she was unaware of the sin residing in a loveless marriage; and this restored her to him somewhat as a drowned body is given back to mourners.

After aimless walking he found himself on the Zattere, where the lonely Giudecca lies in front, covering mud and marsh and lagune-flames of later afternoon, and you have sight of the high mainland hills which seem to fling forth one over other to a golden sea-cape.

Midway on this unadorned Zattere, with its young trees and spots of shade, he was met by Renee and her father.  Their gondola was below, close to the riva, and the count said, ’She is tired of standing gazing at pictures.  There is a Veronese in one of the churches of the Giudecca opposite.  Will you, M. Nevil, act as parade-escort to her here for half an hour, while I go over?  Renee complains that she loses the vulgar art of walking in her complaisant attention to the fine Arts.  I weary my poor child.’

Renee protested in a rapid chatter.

‘Must I avow it?’ said the count; ‘she damps my enthusiasm a little.’

Nevil mutely accepted the office.

Twice that day was she surrendered to him:  once in his ignorance, when time appeared an expanse of many sunny fields.  On this occasion it puffed steam; yet, after seeing the count embark, he commenced the parade in silence.

‘This is a nice walk,’ said Renee; ’we have not the steps of the Riva dei Schiavoni.  It is rather melancholy though.  How did you discover it?  I persuaded my papa to send the gondola round, and walk till we came to the water.  Tell me about the Giudecca.’

’The Giudecca was a place kept apart for the Jews, I believe.  You have seen their burial-ground on the Lido.  Those are, I think, the Euganean hills.  You are fond of Petrarch.’

’M.  Nevil, omitting the allusion to the poet, you have, permit me to remark, the brevity without the precision of an accredited guide to notabilities.’

‘I tell you what I know,’ said Nevil, brooding on the finished tone and womanly aplomb of her language.  It made him forget that she was a girl entrusted to his guardianship.  His heart came out.

’Renee, if you loved him, I, on my honour, would not utter a word for myself.  Your heart’s inclinations are sacred for me.  I would stand by, and be your friend and his.  If he were young, that I might see a chance of it!’

She murmured, ‘You should not have listened to Roland.’

’Roland should have warned me.  How could I be near you and not...  But I am nothing.  Forget me; do not think I speak interestedly, except to save the dearest I have ever known from certain wretchedness.  To yield yourself hand and foot for life!  I warn you that it must end miserably.  Your countrywomen...  You have the habit in France; but like what are you treated?  You! none like you in the whole world!  You consent to be extinguished.  And I have to look on!  Listen to me now.’

Renee glanced at the gondola conveying her father.  And he has not yet landed! she thought, and said, ’Do you pretend to judge of my welfare better than my papa?’

’Yes; in this.  He follows a fashion.  You submit to it.  His anxiety is to provide for you.  But I know the system is cursed by nature, and that means by heaven.’

‘Because it is not English?’

’O Renee, my beloved for ever!  Well, then, tell me, tell me you can say with pride and happiness that the Marquis de Rouaillout is to be your ­there’s the word ­husband!’

Renee looked across the water.

‘Friend, if my father knew you were asking me!’

‘I will speak to him.’

‘Useless.’

‘He is generous, he loves you.’

‘He cannot break an engagement binding his honour.’

’Would you, Renee, would you ­it must be said ­consent to have it known to him ­I beg for more than life ­that your are not averse... that you support me?’

His failing breath softened the bluntness.

She replied, ’I would not have him ever break an engagement binding his honour.’

‘You stretch the point of honour.’

’It is our way.  Dear friend, we are French.  And I presume to think that our French system is not always wrong, for if my father had not broken it by treating you as one of us and leaving me with you, should I have heard...?’

‘I have displeased you.’

‘Do not suppose that.  But, I mean, a mother would not have left me.’

‘You wished to avoid it.’

‘Do not blame me.  I had some instinct; you were very pale.’

‘You knew I loved you.’

‘No.’

‘Yes; for this morning...’

This morning it seemed to me, and I regretted my fancy, that you were inclined to trifle, as, they say, young men do.’

‘With Renee?’

’With your friend Renee.  And those are the hills of Petrarch’s tomb?  They are mountains.’

They were purple beneath a large brooding cloud that hung against the sun, waiting for him to enfold him, and Nevil thought that a tomb there would be a welcome end, if he might lift Renee in one wild flight over the chasm gaping for her.  He had no language for thoughts of such a kind, only tumultuous feeling.

She was immoveable, in perfect armour.

He said despairingly, ’Can you have realized what you are consenting to?’

She answered, ‘It is my duty.’

’Your duty! it’s like taking up a dice-box, and flinging once, to certain ruin!’

’I must oppose my father to you, friend.  Do you not understand duty to parents?  They say the English are full of the idea of duty.’

’Duty to country, duty to oaths and obligations; but with us the heart is free to choose.’

‘Free to choose, and when it is most ignorant?’

‘The heart? ask it.  Nothing is surer.’

’That is not what we are taught.  We are taught that the heart deceives itself.  The heart throws your dicebox; not prudent parents.’

She talked like a woman, to plead the cause of her obedience as a girl, and now silenced in the same manner that she had previously excited him.

‘Then you are lost to me,’ he said.

They saw the gondola returning.

‘How swiftly it comes home; it loitered when it went,’ said Renee.  ’There sits my father, brimming with his picture; he has seen one more!  We will congratulate him.  This little boulevard is not much to speak of.  The hills are lovely.  Friend,’ she dropped her voice on the gondola’s approach, ‘we have conversed on common subjects.’

Nevil had her hand in his, to place her in the gondola.

She seemed thankful that he should prefer to go round on foot.  At least, she did not join in her father’s invitation to him.  She leaned back, nestling her chin and half closing her eyes, suffering herself to be divided from him, borne away by forces she acquiesced in.

Roland was not visible till near midnight on the Piazza.  The promenaders, chiefly military of the garrison, were few at that period of social protestation, and he could declare his disappointment aloud, ringingly, as he strolled up to Nevil, looking as if the cigar in his mouth and the fists entrenched in his wide trowsers-pockets were mortally at feud.  His adventure had not pursued its course luminously.  He had expected romance, and had met merchandize, and his vanity was offended.  To pacify him, Nevil related how he had heard that since the Venetian rising of ’49, Venetian ladies had issued from the ordeal of fire and famine of another pattern than the famous old Benzon one, in which they touched earthiest earth.  He praised Republicanism for that.  The spirit of the new and short-lived Republic wrought that change in Venice.

‘Oh, if they’re republican as well as utterly decayed,’ said Roland, ’I give them up; let them die virtuous.’

Nevil told Roland that he had spoken to Renee.  He won sympathy, but Roland could not give him encouragement.  They crossed and recrossed the shadow of the great campanile, on the warm-white stones of the square, Nevil admitting the weight of whatsoever Roland pointed to him in favour of the arrangement according to French notions, and indeed, of aristocratic notions everywhere, saving that it was imperative for Renee to be disposed of in marriage early.  Why rob her of her young springtime!

‘French girls,’ replied Roland, confused by the nature of the explication in his head ­’well, they’re not English; they want a hand to shape them, otherwise they grow all awry.  My father will not have one of her aunts to live with him, so there she is.  But, my dear Nevil, I owe my life to you, and I was no party to this affair.  I would do anything to help you.  What says Renee?’

‘She obeys.’

’Exactly.  You see!  Our girls are chess-pieces until they ’re married.  Then they have life and character sometimes too much.’

’She is not like them, Roland; she is like none.  When I spoke to her first, she affected no astonishment; never was there a creature so nobly sincere.  She’s a girl in heart, not in mind.  Think of her sacrificed to this man thrice her age!’

’She differs from other girls only on the surface, Nevil.  As for the man, I wish she were going to marry a younger.  I wish, yes, my friend,’ Roland squeezed Nevil’s hand, ’I wish!  I’m afraid it’s hopeless.  She did not tell you to hope?’

‘Not by one single sign,’ said Nevil.

‘You see, my friend!’

‘For that reason,’ Nevil rejoined, with the calm fanaticism of the passion of love, ’I hope all the more... because I will not believe that she, so pure and good, can be sacrificed.  Put me aside ­I am nothing.  I hope to save her from that.’

‘We have now,’ said Roland, ’struck the current of duplicity.  You are really in love, my poor fellow.’

Lover and friend came to no conclusion, except that so lovely a night was not given for slumber.  A small round brilliant moon hung almost globed in the depths of heaven, and the image of it fell deep between San Giorgio and the Dogana.

Renee had the scene from her window, like a dream given out of sleep.  She lay with both arms thrown up beneath her head on the pillow, her eyelids wide open, and her visage set and stern.  Her bosom rose and sank regularly but heavily.  The fluctuations of a night stormy for her, hitherto unknown, had sunk her to this trance, in which she lay like a creature flung on shore by the waves.  She heard her brother’s voice and Nevil’s, and the pacing of their feet.  She saw the long shaft of moonlight broken to zigzags of mellow lightning, and wavering back to steadiness; dark San Giorgio, and the sheen of the Dogana’s front.  But the visible beauty belonged to a night that had shivered repose, humiliated and wounded her, destroyed her confident happy half-infancy of heart, and she had flown for a refuge to hard feelings.  Her predominant sentiment was anger; an anger that touched all and enveloped none, for it was quite fictitious, though she felt it, and suffered from it.  She turned it on Nevil, as against an enemy, and became the victim in his place.  Tears for him filled in her eyes, and ran over; she disdained to notice them, and blinked offendedly to have her sight clear of the weakness; but these interceding tears would flow; it was dangerous to blame him, harshly.  She let them roll down, figuring to herself with quiet simplicity of mind that her spirit was independent of them as long as she restrained her hands from being accomplices by brushing them away, as weeping girls do that cry for comfort.  Nevil had saved her brother’s life, and had succoured her countrymen; he loved her, and was a hero.  He should not have said he loved her; that was wrong; and it was shameful that he should have urged her to disobey her father.  But this hero’s love of her might plead excuses she did not know of; and if he was to be excused, he, unhappy that he was, had a claim on her for more than tears.  She wept resentfully.  Forces above her own swayed and hurried her like a lifeless body dragged by flying wheels:  they could not unnerve her will, or rather, what it really was, her sense of submission to a destiny.  Looked at from the height of the palm-waving cherubs over the fallen martyr in the picture, she seemed as nerveless as a dreamy girl.  The raised arms and bent elbows were an illusion of indifference.  Her shape was rigid from hands to feet, as if to keep in a knot the resolution of her mind; for the second and in that young season the stronger nature grafted by her education fixed her to the religious duty of obeying and pleasing her father, in contempt, almost in abhorrence, of personal inclinations tending to thwart him and imperil his pledged word.  She knew she had inclinations to be tender.  Her hands released, how promptly might she not have been confiding her innumerable perplexities of sentiment and emotion to paper, undermining self-governance; self-respect, perhaps!  Further than that, she did not understand the feelings she struggled with; nor had she any impulse to gaze on him, the cause of her trouble, who walked beside her brother below, talking betweenwhiles in the night’s grave undertones.  Her trouble was too overmastering; it had seized her too mysteriously, coming on her solitariness without warning in the first watch of the night, like a spark crackling serpentine along dry leaves to sudden flame.  A thought of Nevil and a regret had done it.