Read CHAPTER XIII - A SUPERFINE CONSCIENCE of Beauchamp Career, free online book, by George Meredith, on

However much Mr. Everard Romfrey may have laughed at Nevil Beauchamp with his ‘banana-wreath,’ he liked the fellow for having volunteered for that African coast-service, and the news of his promotion by his admiral to the post of commander through a death vacancy, had given him an exalted satisfaction, for as he could always point to the cause of failures, he strongly appreciated success.  The circumstance had offered an occasion for the new commander to hit him hard upon a matter of fact.  Beauchamp had sent word of his advance in rank, but requested his uncle not to imagine him wearing an additional epaulette; and he corrected the infallible gentleman’s error (which had of course been reported to him when he was dreaming of Renee, by Mrs. Culling) concerning a lieutenant’s shoulder decorations, most gravely; informing him of the anchor on the lieutenant’s pair of épaulettes, and the anchor and star on a commander’s, and the crown on a captain’s, with a well-feigned solicitousness to save his uncle from blundering further.  This was done in the dry neat manner which Mr. Romfrey could feel to be his own turned on him.

He began to conceive a vague respect for the fellow who had proved him wrong upon a matter of fact.  Beauchamp came from Africa rather worn by the climate, and immediately obtained the command of the Ariadne corvette, which had been some time in commission in the Mediterranean, whither he departed, without visiting Steynham; allowing Rosamund to think him tenacious of his wrath as well as of love.  Mr. Romfrey considered him to be insatiable for service.  Beauchamp, during his absence, had shown himself awake to the affairs of his country once only, in an urgent supplication he had forwarded for all his uncle’s influence to be used to get him appointed to the first vacancy in Robert Hall’s naval brigade, then forming a part of our handful in insurgent India.  The fate of that chivalrous Englishman, that born sailor-warrior, that truest of heroes, imperishable in the memory of those who knew him, and in our annals, young though he was when death took him, had wrung from Nevil Beauchamp such a letter of tears as to make Mr. Romfrey believe the naval crown of glory his highest ambition.  Who on earth could have guessed him to be bothering his head about politics all the while!  Or was the whole stupid business a freak of the moment?

It became necessary for Mr. Romfrey to contemplate his eccentric nephew in the light of a mannikin once more.  Consequently he called to mind, and bade Rosamund Culling remember, that he had foreseen and had predicted the mounting of Nevil Beauchamp on his political horse one day or another; and perhaps the earlier the better.  And a donkey could have sworn that when he did mount he would come galloping in among the Radical rough-riders.  Letters were pouring upon Steynham from men and women of Romfrey blood and relationship concerning the positive tone of Radicalism in the commander’s address.  Everard laughed at them.  As a practical man, his objection lay against the poor fool’s choice of the peccant borough of Bevisham.  Still, in view of the needfulness of his learning wisdom, and rapidly, the disbursement of a lot of his money, certain to be required by Bevisham’s electors, seemed to be the surest method for quickening his wits.  Thus would he be acting as his own chirurgeon, gaily practising phlebotomy on his person to cure him of his fever.  Too much money was not the origin of the fever in Nevil’s case, but he had too small a sense of the value of what he possessed, and the diminishing stock would be likely to cry out shrilly.

To this effect, never complaining that Nevil Beauchamp had not come to him to take counsel with him, the high-minded old gentleman talked.  At the same time, while indulging in so philosophical a picture of himself as was presented by a Romfrey mildly accounting for events and smoothing them under the infliction of an offence, he could not but feel that Nevil had challenged him:  such was the reading of it; and he waited for some justifiable excitement to fetch him out of the magnanimous mood, rather in the image of an angler, it must be owned.

’Nevil understands that I am not going to pay a farthing of his expenses in Bevisham?’ he said to Mrs. Culling.

She replied blandly and with innocence, ‘I have not seen him, sir.’

He nodded.  At the next mention of Nevil between them, he asked, ’Where is it he’s lying perdu, ma’am?’

‘I fancy in that town, in Bevisham.’

‘At the Liberal, Radical, hotel?’

‘I dare say; some place; I am not certain....’

‘The rascal doctor’s house there?  Shrapnel’s?’

‘Really...  I have not seen him.’

‘Have you heard from him?’

‘I have had a letter; a short one.’

‘Where did he date his letter from?’

‘From Bevisham.’

‘From what house?’

Rosamund glanced about for a way of escaping the question.  There was none but the door.  She replied, ‘From Dr. Shrapnel’s.’

‘That’s the Anti-Game-Law agitator.’

’You do not imagine, sir, that Nevil subscribes to every thing the horrid man agitates for?’

‘You don’t like the man, ma’am?’

‘I detest him.’

‘Ha!  So you have seen Shrapnel?’

’Only for a moment; a moment or two.  I cannot endure him.  I am sure I have reason.’

Rosamund flushed exceedingly red.  The visit to Dr. Shrapnel’s house was her secret, and the worming of it out made her feel guilty, and that feeling revived and heated her antipathy to the Radical doctor.

‘What reason?’ said Mr. Romfrey, freshening at her display of colour.

She would not expose Nevil to the accusation of childishness by confessing her positive reason, so she answered, ’The man is a kind of man...  I was not there long; I was glad to escape.  He...’ she hesitated:  for in truth it was difficult to shape the charge against him, and the effort to be reticent concerning Nevil, and communicative, now that he had been spoken of, as to the detested doctor, reduced her to some confusion.  She was also fatally anxious to be in the extreme degree conscientious, and corrected and modified her remarks most suspiciously.

‘Did he insult you, ma’am?’ Mr. Romfrey inquired.

She replied hastily, ’Oh no.  He may be a good man in his way.  He is one of those men who do not seem to think a woman may have opinions.  He does not scruple to outrage those we hold.  I am afraid he is an infidel.  His ideas of family duties and ties, and his manner of expressing himself, shocked me, that is all.  He is absurd.  I dare say there is no harm in him, except for those who are so unfortunate as to fall under his influence ­and that, I feel sure, cannot be permanent.  He could not injure me personally.  He could not offend me, I mean.  Indeed, I have nothing whatever to say against him, as far as I...’

‘Did he fail to treat you as a lady, ma’am?’

Rosamund was getting frightened by the significant pertinacity of her lord.

‘I am sure, sir, he meant no harm.’

‘Was the man uncivil to you, ma’am?’ came the emphatic interrogation.

She asked herself, had Dr. Shrapnel been uncivil toward her?  And so conscientious was she, that she allowed the question to be debated in her mind for half a minute, answering then, ’No, not uncivil.  I cannot exactly explain....  He certainly did not intend to be uncivil.  He is only an unpolished, vexatious man; enormously tall.’

Mr. Romfrey ejaculated, ‘Ha! humph!’

His view of Dr. Shrapnel was taken from that instant.  It was, that this enormously big blustering agitator against the preservation of birds, had behaved rudely toward the lady officially the chief of his household, and might be considered in the light of an adversary one would like to meet.  The size of the man increased his aspect of villany, which in return added largely to his giant size.  Everard Romfrey’s mental eye could perceive an attractiveness about the man little short of magnetic; for he thought of him so much that he had to think of what was due to his pacifical disposition (deeply believed in by him) to spare himself the trouble of a visit to Bevisham.

The young gentleman whom he regarded as the Radical doctor’s dupe, fell in for a share of his view of the doctor, and Mr. Romfrey became less fitted to observe Nevil Beauchamp’s doings with the Olympian gravity he had originally assumed.

The extreme delicacy of Rosamund’s conscience was fretted by a remorseful doubt of her having conveyed a just impression of Dr. Shrapnel, somewhat as though the fine sleek coat of it were brushed the wrong way.  Reflection warned her that her deliberative intensely sincere pause before she responded to Mr. Romfrey’s last demand, might have implied more than her words.  She consoled herself with the thought that it was the dainty susceptibility of her conscientiousness which caused these noble qualms, and so deeply does a refined nature esteem the gift, that her pride in it helped her to overlook her moral perturbation.  She was consoled, moreover, up to the verge of triumph in her realization of the image of a rivalling and excelling power presented by Mr. Romfrey, though it had frightened her at the time.  Let not Dr. Shrapnel come across him!  She hoped he would not.  Ultimately she could say to herself, ‘Perhaps I need not have been so annoyed with the horrid man.’  It was on Nevil’s account.  Shrapnel’s contempt of the claims of Nevil’s family upon him was actually a piece of impudence, impudently expressed, if she remembered correctly.  And Shrapnel was a black malignant, the foe of the nation’s Constitution, deserving of punishment if ever man was; with his ridiculous metaphors, and talk of organs and pianos, orchestras and despotisms, and flying to the sun!  How could Nevil listen to the creature!  Shrapnel must be a shameless, hypocrite to mask his wickedness from one so clear-sighted as Nevil, and no doubt he indulged in his impudence out of wanton pleasure in it.  His business was to catch young gentlemen of family, and to turn them against their families, plainly.  That was thinking the best of him.  No doubt he had his objects to gain.  ’He might have been as impudent as he liked to me; I would have pardoned him!’ Rosamund exclaimed.  Personally, you see, she was generous.  On the whole, knowing Everard Romfrey as she did, she wished that she had behaved, albeit perfectly discreet in her behaviour, and conscientiously just, a shade or two differently.  But the evil was done.