Read CHAPTER VIII - A NIGHT ON THE ADRIATIC of Beauchamp Career, free online book, by George Meredith, on ReadCentral.com.

The lovers met after Roland had spoken to his sister ­not exactly to advocate the cause of Nevil, though he was under the influence of that grave night’s walk with him, but to sound her and see whether she at all shared Nevil’s view of her situation.  Roland felt the awfulness of a French family arrangement of a marriage, and the impertinence of a foreign Cupid’s intrusion, too keenly to plead for his friend:  at the same time he loved his friend and his sister, and would have been very ready to smile blessings on them if favourable circumstances had raised a signal; if, for example, apoplexy or any other cordial ex machina intervention had removed the middle-aged marquis; and, perhaps, if Renee had shown the repugnance to her engagement which Nevil declared she must have in her heart, he would have done more than smile; he would have laid the case deferentially before his father.  His own opinion was that young unmarried women were incapable of the passion of love, being, as it were, but half-feathered in that state, and unable to fly; and Renee confirmed it.  The suspicion of an advocacy on Nevil’s behalf steeled her.  His tentative observations were checked at the outset.

’Can such things be spoken of to me, Roland?  I am plighted.  You know it.’

He shrugged, said a word of pity for Nevil, and went forth to let his friend know that it was as he had predicted:  Renee was obedience in person, like a rightly educated French girl.  He strongly advised his friend to banish all hope of her from his mind.  But the mind he addressed was of a curious order; far-shooting, tough, persistent, and when acted on by the spell of devotion, indomitable.  Nevil put hope aside, or rather, he clad it in other garments, in which it was hardly to be recognized by himself, and said to Roland:  ’You must bear this from me; you must let me follow you to the end, and if she wavers she will find me near.’

Roland could not avoid asking the use of it, considering that Renee, however much she admired and liked, was not in love with him.

Nevil resigned himself to admit that she was not:  and therefore,’ said he, ‘you won’t object to my remaining.’

Renee greeted Nevil with as clear a conventional air as a woman could assume.

She was going, she said, to attend High Mass in the church of S. Moise, and she waved her devoutest Roman Catholicism to show the breadth of the division between them.  He proposed to go likewise.  She was mute.  After some discourse she contrived to say inoffensively that people who strolled into her churches for the music, or out of curiosity, played the barbarian.

‘Well, I will not go,’ said Nevil.

‘But I do not wish to number you among them,’ she said.

‘Then,’ said Nevil, ’I will go, for it cannot be barbarous to try to be with you.’

‘No, that is wickedness,’ said Renee.

She was sensible that conversation betrayed her, and Nevil’s apparently deliberate pursuit signified to her that he must be aware of his mastery, and she resented it, and stumbled into pitfalls whenever she opened her lips.  It seemed to be denied to them to utter what she meant, if indeed she had a meaning in speaking, save to hurt herself cruelly by wounding the man who had caught her in the toils:  and so long as she could imagine that she was the only one hurt, she was the braver and the harsher for it; but at the sight of Nevil in pain her heart relented and shifted, and discovering it to be so weak as to be almost at his mercy, she defended it with an aggressive unkindness, for which, in charity to her sweeter nature, she had to ask his pardon, and then had to fib to give reasons for her conduct, and then to pretend to herself that her pride was humbled by him; a most humiliating round, constantly recurring; the worse for the reflection that she created it.  She attempted silence.  Nevil spoke, and was like the magical piper:  she was compelled to follow him and dance the round again, with the wretched thought that it must resemble coquettry.  Nevil did not think so, but a very attentive observer now upon the scene, and possessed of his half of the secret, did, and warned him.  Rosamund Culling added that the French girl might be only an unconscious coquette, for she was young.  The critic would not undertake to pronounce on her suggestion, whether the candour apparent in merely coquettish instincts was not more dangerous than a battery of the arts of the sex.  She had heard Nevil’s frank confession, and seen Renee twice, when she tried in his service, though not greatly wishing for success, to stir the sensitive girl for an answer to his attachment.  Probably she went to work transparently, after the insular fashion of opening a spiritual mystery with the lancet.  Renee suffered herself to be probed here and there, and revealed nothing of the pain of the operation.  She said to Nevil, in Rosamund’s hearing: 

‘Have you the sense of honour acute in your country?’ Nevil inquired for the apropos.

‘None,’ said she.

Such pointed insolence disposed Rosamund to an irritable antagonism, without reminding her that she had given some cause for it.

Renee said to her presently:  ‘He saved my brother’s life’; the apropos being as little perceptible as before.

Her voice dropped to her sweetest deep tones, and there was a supplicating beam in her eyes, unintelligible to the direct Englishwoman, except under the heading of a power of witchery fearful to think of in one so young, and loved by Nevil.

The look was turned upon her, not upon her hero, and Rosamund thought, ‘Does she want to entangle me as well?’

It was, in truth, a look of entreaty from woman to woman, signifying need of womanly help.  Renee would have made a confidante of her, if she had not known her to be Nevil’s, and devoted to him.  ’I would speak to you, but that I feel you would betray me,’ her eyes had said.  The strong sincerity dwelling amid multiform complexities might have made itself comprehensible to the English lady for a moment or so, had Renee spoken words to her ears; but belief in it would hardly have survived the girl’s next convolutions.  ‘She is intensely French,’ Rosamund said to Nevil ­a volume of insular criticism in a sentence.

‘You do not know her, ma’am,’ said Nevil.  ’You think her older than she is, and that is the error I fell into.  She is a child.’

’A serpent in the egg is none the less a serpent, Nevil.  Forgive me; but when she tells you the case is hopeless!’

’No case is hopeless till a man consents to think it is; and I shall stay.’

‘But then again, Nevil, you have not consulted your uncle.’

‘Let him see her! let him only see her!’

Rosamund Culling reserved her opinion compassionately.  His uncle would soon be calling to have him home:  society panted for him to make much of him and here he was, cursed by one of his notions of duty, in attendance on a captious ’young French beauty, who was the less to be excused for not dismissing him peremptorily, if she cared for him at all.  His career, which promised to be so brilliant, was spoiling at the outset.  Rosamund thought of Renee almost with detestation, as a species of sorceress that had dug a trench in her hero’s road, and unhorsed and fast fettered him.

The marquis was expected immediately.  Renee sent up a little note to Mrs. Calling’s chamber early in the morning, and it was with an air of one-day-more-to-ourselves, that, meeting her, she entreated the English lady to join the expedition mentioned in her note.  Roland had hired a big Chioggian fishing-boat to sail into the gulf at night, and return at dawn, and have sight of Venice rising from the sea.  Her father had declined; but M. Nevil wished to be one of the party, and in that case....  Renee threw herself beseechingly into the mute interrogation, keeping both of Rosamund’s hands.  They could slip away only by deciding to, and this rare Englishwoman had no taste for the petty overt hostilities.  ‘If I can be of use to you,’ she said.

’If you can bear sea-pitching and tossing for the sake of the loveliest sight in the whole world,’ said Renee.

‘I know it well,’ Rosamund replied.

Renee rippled her eyebrows.  She divined a something behind that remark, and as she was aware of the grief of Rosamund’s life, her quick intuition whispered that it might be connected with the gallant officer dead on the battle-field.

‘Madame, if you know it too well...’ she said.

‘No; it is always worth seeing,’ said Rosamund, ’and I think, mademoiselle, with your permission, I should accompany you.’

‘It is only a whim of mine, madame.  I can stay on shore.’

‘Not when it is unnecessary to forego a pleasure.’

‘Say, my last day of freedom.’

Renee kissed her hand.

She is terribly winning, Rosamund avowed.  Renee was in debate whether the woman devoted to Nevil would hear her and help.

Just then Roland and Nevil returned from their boat, where they had left carpenters and upholsterers at work, and the delicate chance for an understanding between the ladies passed by.

The young men were like waves of ocean overwhelming it, they were so full of their boat, and the scouring and cleaning out of it, and provisioning, and making it worthy of its freight.  Nevil was surprised that Mrs. Culling should have consented to come, and asked her if she really wished it ­really; and ‘Really,’ said Rosamund; ‘certainly.’

‘Without dubitation,’ cried Roland.  ’And now my little Renee has no more shore-qualms; she is smoothly chaperoned, and madame will present us tea on board.  All the etcaeteras of life are there, and a mariner’s eye in me spies a breeze at sunset to waft us out of Malamocco.’

The count listened to the recital of their preparations with his usual absent interest in everything not turning upon Art, politics, or social intrigue.  He said, ‘Yes, good, good,’ at the proper intervals, and walked down the riva to look at the busy boat, said to Nevil, ’You are a sailor; I confide my family to you,’ and prudently counselled Renee to put on the dresses she could toss to the deep without regrets.  Mrs. Culling he thanked fervently for a wonderful stretch of generosity in lending her presence to the madcaps.

Altogether the day was a réanimation of external Venice.  But there was a thunderbolt in it; for about an hour before sunset, when the ladies were superintending and trying not to criticize the ingenious efforts to produce a make-believe of comfort on board for them, word was brought down to the boat by the count’s valet that the Marquis de Rouaillout had arrived.  Renee turned her face to her brother superciliously.  Roland shrugged.  ‘Note this, my sister,’ he said; ’an anticipation of dates in paying visits precludes the ripeness of the sentiment of welcome.  It is, however, true that the marquis has less time to spare than others.’

‘We have started; we are on the open sea.  How can we put back?’ said Renee.

‘You hear, Francois; we are on the open sea,’ Roland addressed the valet.

‘Monsieur has cut loose his communications with land,’ Francois responded, and bowed from the landing.

Nevil hastened to make this a true report; but they had to wait for tide as well as breeze, and pilot through intricate mud-channels before they could see the outside of the Lido, and meanwhile the sun lay like a golden altarplatter on mud-banks made bare by the ebb, and curled in drowsy yellow links along the currents.  All they could do was to push off and hang loose, bumping to right and left in the midst of volleys and countervolleys of fishy Venetian, Chioggian, and Dalmatian, quite as strong as anything ever heard down the Canalaggio.  The representatives of these dialects trotted the decks and hung their bodies half over the sides of the vessels to deliver fire, flashed eyes and snapped fingers, not a whit less fierce than hostile crews in the old wars hurling an interchange of stink-pots, and then resumed the trot, apparently in search of fresh ammunition.  An Austrian sentinel looked on passively, and a police inspector peeringly.  They were used to it.  Happily, the combustible import of the language was unknown to the ladies, and Nevil’s attempts to keep his crew quiet, contrasting with Roland’s phlegm, which a Frenchman can assume so philosophically when his tongue is tied, amused them.  During the clamour, Renee saw her father beckoning from the riva.  She signified that she was no longer in command of circumstances; the vessel was off.  But the count stamped his foot, and nodded imperatively.  Thereupon Roland repeated the eloquent demonstrations of Renee, and the count lost patience, and Roland shouted, ’For the love of heaven, don’t join this babel; we’re nearly bursting.’  The rage of the babel was allayed by degrees, though not appeased, for the boat was behaving wantonly, as the police officer pointed out to the count.

Renee stood up to bend her head.  It was in reply to a salute from the Marquis de Rouaillout, and Nevil beheld his rival.

’M. Marquis, seeing it is out of the question that we can come to you, will you come to us?’ cried Roland.

The marquis gesticulated ‘With alacrity’ in every limb.

’We will bring you back on to-morrow midnight’s tide, safe, we promise you.’

The marquis advanced a foot, and withdrew it.  Could he have heard correctly?  They were to be out a whole night at sea!  The count dejectedly confessed his incapability to restrain them:  the young desperadoes were ready for anything.  He had tried the voice of authority, and was laughed at.  As to Renee, an English lady was with her.

‘The English lady must be as mad as the rest,’ said the marquis.

‘The English are mad,’ said the count; ’but their women are strict upon the proprieties.’

’Possibly, my dear count; but what room is there for the proprieties on board a fishing-boat?’

‘It is even as you say, my dear marquis.’

‘You allow it?’

’Can I help myself?  Look at them.  They tell me they have given the boat the fittings of a yacht.’

‘And the young man?’

’That is the M. Beauchamp of whom I have spoken to you, the very pick of his country, fresh, lively, original; and he can converse.  You will like him.’

‘I hope so,’ said the marquis, and roused a doleful laugh.  ’It would seem that one does not arrive by hastening!’

’Oh! but my dear marquis, you have paid the compliment; you are like Spring thrusting in a bunch of lilac while the winds of winter blow.  If you were not expected, your expeditiousness is appreciated, be sure.’

Roland fortunately did not hear the marquis compared to Spring.  He was saying:  ‘I wonder what those two elderly gentlemen are talking about’; and Nevil confused his senses by trying to realize that one of them was destined to be the husband of his now speechless Renee.  The marquis was clad in a white silken suit, and a dash of red round the neck set off his black beard; but when he lifted his broad straw hat, a baldness of sconce shone.  There was elegance in his gestures; he looked a gentleman, though an ultra-Gallican one, that is, too scrupulously finished for our taste, smelling of the valet.  He had the habit of balancing his body on the hips, as if to emphasize a juvenile vigour, and his general attitude suggested an idea that he had an oration for you.  Seen from a distance, his baldness and strong nasal projection were not winning features; the youthful standard he had evidently prescribed to himself in his dress and his ready jerks of acquiescence and delivery might lead a forlorn rival to conceive him something of an ogre straining at an Adonis.  It could not be disputed that he bore his disappointment remarkably well; the more laudably, because his position was within a step of the ridiculous, for he had shot himself to the mark, despising sleep, heat, dust, dirt, diet, and lo, that charming object was deliberately slipping out of reach, proving his headlong journey an absurdity.

As he stood declining to participate in the lunatic voyage, and bidding them perforce good speed off the tips of his fingers, Renee turned her eyes on him, and away.  She felt a little smart of pity, arising partly from her antagonism to Roland’s covert laughter:  but it was the colder kind of feminine pity, which is nearer to contempt than to tenderness.  She sat still, placid outwardly, in fear of herself, so strange she found it to be borne out to sea by her sailor lover under the eyes of her betrothed.  She was conscious of a tumultuous rush of sensations, none of them of a very healthy kind, coming as it were from an unlocked chamber of her bosom, hitherto of unimagined contents; and the marquis being now on the spot to defend his own, she no longer blamed Nevil:  it was otherwise utterly.  All the sweeter side of pity was for him.

He was at first amazed by the sudden exquisite transition.  Tenderness breathed from her, in voice, in look, in touch; for she accepted his help that he might lead her to the stern of the vessel, to gaze well on setting Venice, and sent lightnings up his veins; she leaned beside him over the vessel’s rails, not separated from him by the breadth of a fluttering riband.  Like him, she scarcely heard her brother when for an instant he intervened, and with Nevil she said adieu to Venice, where the faint red Doge’s palace was like the fading of another sunset north-westward of the glory along the hills.  Venice dropped lower and lower, breasting the waters, until it was a thin line in air.  The line was broken, and ran in dots, with here and there a pillar standing on opal sky.  At last the topmost campanile sank.

Renee looked up at the sails, and back for the submerged city.

‘It is gone!’ she said, as though a marvel had been worked; and swiftly:  ‘we have one night!’

She breathed it half like a question, like a petition, catching her breath.  The adieu to Venice was her assurance of liberty, but Venice hidden rolled on her the sense of the return and plucked shrewdly at her tether of bondage.

They set their eyes toward the dark gulf ahead.  The night was growing starry.  The softly ruffled Adriatic tossed no foam.

‘One night?’ said Nevil; ‘one?  Why only one?’

Renee shuddered.  ‘Oh! do not speak.’

‘Then, give me your hand.’

‘There, my friend.’

He pressed a hand that was like a quivering chord.  She gave it as though it had been his own to claim.  But that it meant no more than a hand he knew by the very frankness of her compliance, in the manner natural to her; and this was the charm, it filled him with her peculiar image and spirit, and while he held it he was subdued.

Lying on the deck at midnight, wrapt in his cloak and a coil of rope for a pillow, considerably apart from jesting Roland, the recollection of that little sanguine spot of time when Renee’s life-blood ran with his, began to heave under him like a swelling sea.  For Nevil the starred black night was Renee.  Half his heart was in it:  but the combative division flew to the morning and the deadly iniquity of the marriage, from which he resolved to save her; in pure devotedness, he believed.  And so he closed his eyes.  She, a girl, with a heart fluttering open and fearing, felt only that she had lost herself somewhere, and she had neither sleep nor symbols, nothing but a sense of infinite strangeness, as though she were borne superhumanly through space.