Read CHAPTER X - A SINGULAR COUNCIL of Beauchamp Career, free online book, by George Meredith, on ReadCentral.com.

The four sat together under the shadow of the helmsman, by whom they were regarded as voyagers in debate upon the question of some hours further on salt water.  ‘No bora,’ he threw in at intervals, to assure them that the obnoxious wind of the Adriatic need not disturb their calculations.

It was an extraordinary sitting, but none of the parties to it thought of it so when Nevil Beauchamp had plunged them into it.  He compelled them, even Renee ­and she would have flown had there been wings on her shoulders ­to feel something of the life and death issues present to his soul, and submit to the discussion, in plain language of the market-place, of the most delicate of human subjects for her, for him, and hardly less for the other two.  An overmastering fervour can do this.  It upsets the vessel we float in, and we have to swim our way out of deep waters by the directest use of the natural faculties, without much reflection on the change in our habits.  To others not under such an influence the position seems impossible.  This discussion occurred.  Beauchamp opened the case in a couple of sentences, and when the turn came for Renee to speak, and she shrank from the task in manifest pain, he spoke for her, and no one heard her contradiction.  She would have wished the fearful impetuous youth to succeed if she could have slept through the storm he was rousing.

Roland appealed to her.  ’You! my sister! it is you that consent to this wild freak, enough to break your father’s heart?’

He had really forgotten his knowledge of her character ­what much he knew ­in the dust of the desperation flung about her by Nevil Beauchamp.

She shook her head; she had not consented.

‘The man she loves is her voice and her will,’ said Beauchamp.  ’She gives me her hand and I lead her.’

Roland questioned her.  It could not be denied that she had given her hand, and her bewildered senses made her think that it had been with an entire abandonment; and in the heat of her conflict of feelings, the deliciousness of yielding to him curled round and enclosed her, as in a cool humming sea-shell.

‘Renee!’ said Roland.

‘Brother!’ she cried.

‘You see that I cannot suffer you to be borne away.’

‘No; do not!’

But the boat was flying fast from Venice, and she could have fallen at his feet and kissed them for not countermanding it.

‘You are in my charge, my sister.’

‘Yes.’

‘And now, Nevil, between us two,’ said Roland.

Beauchamp required no challenge.  He seemed, to Rosamund Culling, twice older than he was, strangely adept, yet more strangely wise of worldly matters, and eloquent too.  But it was the eloquence of frenzy, madness, in Roland’s ear.  The arrogation of a terrible foresight that harped on present and future to persuade him of the righteousness of this headlong proceeding advocated by his friend, vexed his natural equanimity.  The argument was out of the domain of logic.  He could hardly sit to listen, and tore at his moustache at each end.  Nevertheless his sister listened.  The mad Englishman accomplished the miracle of making her listen, and appear to consent.

Roland laughed scornfully.  ’Why Trieste?  I ask you, why Trieste?  You can’t have a Catholic priest at your bidding, without her father’s sanction.’

‘We leave Renee at Trieste, under the care of madame,’ said Beauchamp, ’and we return to Venice, and I go to your father.  This method protects Renee from annoyance.’

’It strikes me that if she arrives at any determination she must take the consequences.’

’She does.  She is brave enough for that.  But she is a girl; she has to fight the battle of her life in a day, and I am her lover, and she leaves it to me.’

‘Is my sister such a coward?’ said Roland.

Renee could only call out his name.

’It will never do, my dear Nevil; Roland tried to deal with his unreasonable friend affectionately.  ’I am responsible for her.  It’s your own fault ­if you had not saved my life I should not have been in your way.  Here I am, and your proposal can’t be heard of.  Do as you will, both of you, when you step ashore in Venice.’

‘If she goes back she is lost,’ said Beauchamp, and he attacked Roland on the side of his love for Renee, and for him.

Roland was inflexible.  Seeing which, Renee said, ’To Venice, quickly, my brother!’ and now she almost sighed with relief to think that she was escaping from this hurricane of a youth, who swept her off her feet and wrapt her whole being in a delirium.

‘We were in sight of the city just now!’ cried Roland, staring and frowning.  ‘What’s this?’

Beauchamp answered him calmly, ‘The boat’s under my orders.’

‘Talk madness, but don’t act it,’ said Roland.  ’Round with the boat at once.  Hundred devils! you haven’t your wits.’

To his amazement, Beauchamp refused to alter the boat’s present course.

‘You heard my sister?’ said Roland.

‘You frighten her,’ said Beauchamp.

‘You heard her wish to return to Venice, I say.’

‘She has no wish that is not mine.’

It came to Roland’s shouting his command to the men, while Beauchamp pointed the course on for them.

‘You will make this a ghastly pleasantry,’ said Roland.

‘I do what I know to be right,’ said Beauchamp.

‘You want an altercation before these fellows?’

‘There won’t be one; they obey me.’

Roland blinked rapidly in wrath and doubt of mind.

‘Madame,’ he stooped to Rosamund Culling, with a happy inspiration, ’convince him; you have known him longer than I, and I desire not to lose my friend.  And tell me, madame ­I can trust you to be truth itself, and you can see it is actually the time for truth to be spoken ­is he justified in taking my sister’s hand?  You perceive that I am obliged to appeal to you.  Is he not dependent on his uncle?  And is he not, therefore, in your opinion, bound in reason as well as in honour to wait for his uncle’s approbation before he undertakes to speak for my sister?  And, since the occasion is urgent, let me ask you one thing more:  whether, by your knowledge of his position, you think him entitled to presume to decide upon my sister’s destiny?  She, you are aware, is not so young but that she can speak for herself...’

‘There you are wrong, Roland,’ said Beauchamp; ’she can neither speak nor think for herself:  you lead her blindfolded.’

’And you, my friend, suppose that you are wiser than any of us.  It is understood.  I venture to appeal to madame on the point in question.’

The poor lady’s heart beat dismally.  She was constrained to answer, and said, ‘His uncle is one who must be consulted.’

‘You hear that, Nevil,’ said Roland.

Beauchamp looked at her sharply; angrily, Rosamund feared.  She had struck his hot brain with the vision of Everard Romfrey as with a bar of iron.  If Rosamund had inclined to the view that he was sure of his uncle’s support, it would have seemed to him a simple confirmation of his sentiments, but he was not of the same temper now as when he exclaimed, ‘Let him see her!’ and could imagine, give him only Renee’s love, the world of men subservient to his wishes.

Then he was dreaming; he was now in fiery earnest, for that reason accessible to facts presented to him; and Rosamund’s reluctantly spoken words brought his stubborn uncle before his eyes, inflicting a sense of helplessness of the bitterest kind.

They were all silent.  Beauchamp stared at the lines of the deck-planks.

His scheme to rescue Renee was right and good; but was he the man that should do it?  And was she, moreover, he thought ­speculating on her bent head ­the woman to be forced to brave the world with him, and poverty?  She gave him no sign.  He was assuredly not the man to pretend to powers he did not feel himself to possess, and though from a personal, and still more from a lover’s, inability to see all round him at one time and accurately to weigh the forces at his disposal, he had gone far, he was not a wilful dreamer nor so very selfish a lover.  The instant his consciousness of a superior strength failed him he acknowledged it.

Renee did not look up.  She had none of those lightnings of primitive energy, nor the noble rashness and reliance on her lover, which his imagination had filled her with; none.  That was plain.  She could not even venture to second him.  Had she done so he would have held out.  He walked to the head of the boat without replying.

Soon after this the boat was set for Venice again.

When he rejoined his companions he kissed Rosamund’s hand, and Renee, despite a confused feeling of humiliation and anger, loved him for it.

Glittering Venice was now in sight; the dome of Sta.  Maria Salute shining like a globe of salt.

Roland flung his arm round his friend’s neck, and said, ‘Forgive me.’

‘You do what you think right,’ said Beauchamp.

’You are a perfect man of honour, my friend, and a woman would adore you.  Girls are straws.  It’s part of Renee’s religion to obey her father.  That’s why I was astonished!...  I owe you my life, and I would willingly give you my sister in part payment, if I had the giving of her; most willingly.  The case is, that she’s a child, and you?’

‘Yes, I’m dependent,’ Beauchamp assented.  ’I can’t act; I see it.  That scheme wants two to carry it out:  she has no courage.  I feel that I could carry the day with my uncle, but I can’t subject her to the risks, since she dreads them; I see it.  Yes, I see that!  I should have done well, I believe; I should have saved her.’

‘Run to England, get your uncle’s consent, and then try.’

‘No; I shall go to her father.’

’My dear Nevil, and supposing you have Renee to back you ­supposing it, I say ­won’t you be falling on exactly the same bayonet-point?’

‘If I leave her!’ Beauchamp interjected.  He perceived the quality of Renee’s unformed character which he could not express.

‘But we are to suppose that she loves you?’

‘She is a girl.’

’You return, my friend, to the place you started from, as you did on the canal without knowing it.  In my opinion, frankly, she is best married.  And I think so all the more after this morning’s lesson.  You understand plainly that if you leave her she will soon be pliant to the legitimate authorities; and why not?’

’Listen to me, Roland.  I tell you she loves me.  I am bound to her, and when ­if ever I see her unhappy, I will not stand by and look on quietly.’

Roland shrugged.  ’The future not being born, my friend, we will abstain from baptizing it.  For me, less privileged than my fellows, I have never seen the future.  Consequently I am not in love with it, and to declare myself candidly I do not care for it one snap of the fingers.  Let us follow our usages, and attend to the future at the hour of its delivery.  I prefer the sage-femme to the prophet.  From my heart, Nevil, I wish I could help you.  We have charged great guns together, but a family arrangement is something different from a hostile battery.  There’s Venice! and, as soon as you land, my responsibility’s ended.  Reflect, I pray you, on what I have said about girls.  Upon my word, I discover myself talking wisdom to you.  Girls are precious fragilities.  Marriage is the mould for them; they get shape, substance, solidity:  that is to say, sense, passion, a will of their own:  and grace and tenderness, delicacy; all out of the rude, raw, quaking creatures we call girls.  Paris! my dear Nevil.  Paris!  It’s the book of women.’

The grandeur of the decayed sea-city, where folly had danced Parisianly of old, spread brooding along the waters in morning light; beautiful; but with that inner light of history seen through the beauty Venice was like a lowered banner.  The great white dome and the campanili watching above her were still brave emblems.  Would Paris leave signs of an ancient vigour standing to vindicate dignity when her fall came?  Nevil thought of Renee in Paris.

She avoided him.  She had retired behind her tent-curtains, and reappeared only when her father’s voice hailed the boat from a gondola.  The count and the marquis were sitting together, and there was a spare gondola for the voyagers, so that they should not have to encounter another babel of the riva.  Salutes were performed with lifted hats, nods, and bows.

‘Well, my dear child, it has all been very wonderful and uncomfortable?’ said the count.

‘Wonderful, papa; splendid.’

‘No qualms of any kind?’

‘None, I assure you.’  And madame?’

‘Madame will confirm it, if you find a seat for her.’

Rosamund Culling was received in the count’s gondola, cordially thanked, and placed beside the marquis.

‘I stay on board and pay these fellows,’ said Roland.

Renee was told by her father to follow madame.  He had jumped into the spare gondola and offered a seat to Beauchamp.

‘No,’ cried Renee, arresting Beauchamp, ’it is I who mean to sit with papa.’

Up sprang the marquis with an entreating, ‘Mademoiselle!’

‘M.  Beauchamp will entertain you, M. Marquis.’

‘I want him here,’ said the count; and Beauchamp showed that his wish was to enter the count’s gondola, but Renee had recovered her aplomb, and decisively said ‘No,’ and Beauchamp had to yield.

That would have been an opportunity of speaking to her father without a formal asking of leave.  She knew it as well as Nevil Beauchamp.

Renee took his hand to be assisted in the step down to her father’s arms, murmuring: 

‘Do nothing ­nothing! until you hear from me.’