Read CHAPTER XV - CECILIA HALKETT of Beauchamp Career, free online book, by George Meredith, on ReadCentral.com.

Beauchamp walked down to the pier, where he took a boat for H.M.S.  Isis, to see Jack Wilmore, whom he had not met since his return from his last cruise, and first he tried the efficacy of a dive in salt water, as a specific for irritation.  It gave the edge to a fine appetite that he continued to satisfy while Wilmore talked of those famous dogs to which the navy has ever been going.

‘We want another panic, Beauchamp,’ said Lieutenant Wilmore.  ’No one knows better than you what a naval man has to complain of, so I hope you’ll get your Election, if only that we may reckon on a good look-out for the interests of the service.  A regular Board with a permanent Lord High Admiral, and a regular vote of money to keep it up to the mark.  Stick to that.  Hardist has a vote in Bevisham.  I think I can get one or two more.  Why aren’t you a Tory?  No Whigs nor Liberals look after us half so well as the Tories.  It’s enough to break a man’s heart to see the troops of dockyard workmen marching out as soon as ever a Liberal Government marches in.  Then it’s one of our infernal panics again, and patch here, patch there; every inch of it make-believe!  I’ll prove to you from examples that the humbug of Government causes exactly the same humbugging workmanship.  It seems as if it were a game of “rascals all.”  Let them sink us! but, by heaven! one can’t help feeling for the country.  And I do say it’s the doing of those Liberals.  Skilled workmen, mind you, not to be netted again so easily.  America reaps the benefit of our folly ....  That was a lucky run of yours up the Niger; the admiral was friendly, but you deserved your luck.  For God’s sake, don’t forget the state of our service when you’re one of our cherubs up aloft, Beauchamp.  This I’ll say, I’ve never heard a man talk about it as you used to in old midshipmite days, whole watches through ­don’t you remember? on the North American station, and in the Black Sea, and the Mediterranean.  And that girl at Malta!  I wonder what has become of her?  What a beauty she was!  I dare say she wasn’t so fine a girl as the Armenian you unearthed on the Bosphorus, but she had something about her a fellow can’t forget.  That was a lovely creature coming down the hills over Granada on her mule.  Ay, we’ve seen handsome women, Nevil Beauchamp.  But you always were lucky, invariably, and I should bet on you for the Election.’

‘Canvass for me, Jack,’ said Beauchamp, smiling at his friend’s unconscious double-skeining of subjects.  ’If I turn out as good a politician as you are a seaman, I shall do.  Pounce on Hardist’s vote without losing a day.  I would go to him, but I’ve missed the Halketts twice.  They ’re on the Otley river, at a place called Mount Laurels, and I particularly want to see the colonel.  Can you give me a boat there, and come?’

‘Certainly,’ said Wilmore.  ’I’ve danced there with the lady, the handsomest girl, English style, of her time.  And come, come, our English style’s the best.  It wears best, it looks best.  Foreign women... they’re capital to flirt with.  But a girl like Cecilia Halkett ­one can’t call her a girl, and it won’t do to say Goddess, and queen and charmer are out of the question, though she’s both, and angel into the bargain; but, by George! what a woman to call wife, you say; and a man attached to a woman like that never can let himself look small.  No such luck for me; only I swear if I stood between a good and a bad action, the thought of that girl would keep me straight, and I’ve only danced with her once!’

Not long after sketching this rough presentation of the lady, with a masculine hand, Wilmore was able to point to her in person on the deck of her father’s yacht, the Esperanza, standing out of Otley river.  There was a gallant splendour in the vessel that threw a touch of glory on its mistress in the minds of the two young naval officers, as they pulled for her in the ship’s gig.

Wilmore sang out, ‘Give way, men!’

The sailors bent to their oars, and presently the schooner’s head was put to the wind.

‘She sees we’re giving chase,’ Wilmore said.  ’She can’t be expecting me, so it must be you.  No, the colonel doesn’t race her.  They’ve only been back from Italy six months:  I mean the schooner.  I remember she talked of you when I had her for a partner.  Yes, now I mean Miss Halkett.  Blest if I think she talked of anything else.  She sees us.  I’ll tell you what she likes:  she likes yachting, she likes Italy, she likes painting, likes things old English, awfully fond of heroes.  I told her a tale of one of our men saving life.  “Oh!” said she, “didn’t your friend Nevil Beauchamp save a man from drowning, off the guardship, in exactly the same place?” And next day she sent me a cheque for three pounds for the fellow.  Steady, men!  I keep her letter.’

The boat went smoothly alongside the schooner.  Miss Halkett had come to the side.  The oars swung fore and aft, and Beauchamp sprang on deck.

Wilmore had to decline Miss Halkett’s invitation to him as well as his friend, and returned in his boat.  He left the pair with a ruffling breeze, and a sky all sail, prepared, it seemed to him, to enjoy the most delicious you-and-I on salt water that a sailor could dream of; and placidly envying, devoid of jealousy, there was just enough of fancy quickened in Lieutenant Wilmore to give him pictures of them without disturbance of his feelings ­one of the conditions of the singular visitation we call happiness, if he could have known it.

For a time his visionary eye followed them pretty correctly.  So long since they had parted last! such changes in the interval! and great animation in Beauchamp’s gaze, and a blush on Miss Halkett’s cheeks.

She said once, ‘Captain Beauchamp.’  He retorted with a solemn formality.  They smiled, and immediately took footing on their previous intimacy.

‘How good it was of you to come twice to Mount Laurels,’ said she.  ’I have not missed you to-day.  No address was on your card.  Where are you staying in the neighbourhood?  At Mr. Lespel’s?’

‘I’m staying at a Bevisham hotel,’ said Beauchamp.

’You have not been to Steynham yet?  Papa comes home from Steynham to-night.’

’Does he?  Well, the Ariadne is only just paid off, and I can’t well go to Steynham yet.  I ­’ Beauchamp was astonished at the hesitation he found in himself to name it:  ‘I have business in Bevisham.’

‘Naval business?’ she remarked.

‘No,’ said he.

The sensitive prescience we have of a critical distaste of our proceedings is, the world is aware, keener than our intuition of contrary opinions; and for the sake of preserving the sweet outward forms of friendliness, Beauchamp was anxious not to speak of the business in Bevisham just then, but she looked and he had hesitated, so he said flatly, ‘I am one of the candidates for the borough.’

‘Indeed!’

‘And I want the colonel to give me his vote.’

The young lady breathed a melodious ‘Oh!’ not condemnatory or reproachful ­a sound to fill a pause.  But she was beginning to reflect.

‘Italy and our English Channel are my two Poles,’ she said.  ’I am constantly swaying between them.  I have told papa we will not lay up the yacht while the weather holds fair.  Except for the absence of deep colour and bright colour, what can be more beautiful than these green waves and that dark forest’s edge, and the garden of an island!  The yachting-water here is an unrivalled lake; and if I miss colour, which I love, I remind myself that we have temperate air here, not a sun that fiends you under cover.  We can have our fruits too, you see.’  One of the yachtsmen was handing her a basket of hot-house grapes, reclining beside crisp home-made loaflets.  ’This is my luncheon.  Will you share it, Nevil?’

His Christian name was pleasant to hear from her lips.  She held out a bunch to him.

‘Grapes take one back to the South,’ said he.  ’How do you bear compliments?  You have been in Italy some years, and it must be the South that has worked the miracle.’

‘In my growth?’ said Cecilia, smiling.  ’I have grown out of my Circassian dress, Nevil.’

‘You received it, then?’

’I wrote you a letter of thanks ­and abuse, for your not coming to Steynham.  You may recognize these pearls.’

The pearls were round her right wrist.  He looked at the blue veins.

‘They’re not pearls of price,’ he said.

‘I do not wear them to fascinate the jewellers,’ rejoined Miss Halkett.  ’So you are a candidate at an Election.  You still have a tinge of Africa, do you know?  But you have not abandoned the navy?’

‘ ­Not altogether.’

’Oh! no, no:  I hope not.  I have heard of you,... but who has not?  We cannot spare officers like you.  Papa was delighted to hear of your promotion.  Parliament!’

The exclamation was contemptuous.

‘It’s the highest we can aim at,’ Beauchamp observed meekly.

’I think I recollect you used to talk politics when you were a midshipman,’ she said.  ‘You headed the aristocracy, did you not?’

‘The aristocracy wants a head,’ said Beauchamp.

‘Parliament, in my opinion, is the best of occupations for idle men,’ said she.

‘It shows that it is a little too full of them.’

‘Surely the country can go on very well without so much speech-making?’

‘It can go on very well for the rich.’

Miss Halkett tapped with her foot.

‘I should expect a Radical to talk in that way, Nevil.’

‘Take me for one.’

‘I would not even imagine it.’

‘Say Liberal, then.’

’Are you not’ ­her eyes opened on him largely, and narrowed from surprise to reproach, and then to pain ­are you not one of us?  Have you gone over to the enemy, Nevil?’

’I have taken my side, Cecilia; but we, on our side, don’t talk of an enemy.’

’Most unfortunate!  We are Tories, you know, Nevil.  Papa is a thorough Tory.  He cannot vote for you.  Indeed I have heard him say he is anxious to defeat the plots of an old Republican in Bevisham ­some doctor there; and I believe he went to London to look out for a second Tory candidate to oppose to the Liberals.  Our present Member is quite safe, of course.  Nevil, this makes me unhappy.  Do you not feel that it is playing traitor to one’s class to join those men?’

Such was the Tory way of thinking, Nevil Beauchamp said:  the Tories upheld their Toryism in the place of patriotism.

‘But do we not owe the grandeur of the country to the Tories?’ she said, with a lovely air of conviction.  ’Papa has told me how false the Whigs played the Duke in the Peninsula:  ruining his supplies, writing him down, declaring, all the time he was fighting his first hard battles, that his cause was hopeless ­that resistance to Napoleon was impossible.  The Duke never, never had loyal support but from the Tory Government.  The Whigs, papa says, absolutely preached submission to Napoleon!  The Whigs, I hear, were the Liberals of those days.  The two Pitts were Tories.  The greatness of England has been built up by the Tories.  I do and will defend them:  it is the fashion to decry them now.  They have the honour and safety of the country at heart.  They do not play disgracefully at reductions of taxes, as the Liberals do.  They have given us all our heroes.  Non fu mai gloria senza invidia.  They have done service enough to despise the envious mob.  They never condescend to supplicate brute force for aid to crush their opponents.  You feel in all they do that the instincts of gentlemen are active.’

Beauchamp bowed.

‘Do I speak too warmly?’ she asked.  ’Papa and I have talked over it often, and especially of late.  You will find him your delighted host and your inveterate opponent.’

‘And you?’

‘Just the same.  You will have to pardon me; I am a terrible foe.’

’I declare to you, Cecilia, I would prefer having you against me to having you indifferent.’

’I wish I had not to think it right that you should be beaten.  And now ­can you throw off political Nevil, and be sailor Nevil?  I distinguish between my old friend, and my... our...’

‘Dreadful antagonist?’

’Not so dreadful, except in the shock he gives us to find him in the opposite ranks.  I am grieved.  But we will finish our sail in peace.  I detest controversy.  I suppose, Nevil, you would have no such things as yachts? they are the enjoyments of the rich!’

He reminded her that she wished to finish her sail in peace; and he had to remind her of it more than once.  Her scattered resources for argumentation sprang up from various suggestions, such as the flight of yachts, mention of the shooting season, sight of a royal palace; and adopted a continually heightened satirical form, oddly intermixed with an undisguised affectionate friendliness.  Apparently she thought it possible to worry him out of his adhesion to the wrong side in politics.  She certainly had no conception of the nature of his political views, for one or two extreme propositions flung to him in jest, he swallowed with every sign of a perfect facility, as if the Radical had come to regard stupendous questions as morsels barely sufficient for his daily sustenance.  Cecilia reflected that he must be playing, and as it was not a subject for play she tacitly reproved him by letting him be the last to speak of it.  He may not have been susceptible to the delicate chastisement, probably was not, for when he ceased it was to look on the beauty of her lowered eyelids, rather with an idea that the weight of his argument lay on them.  It breathed from him; both in the department of logic and of feeling, in his plea for the poor man and his exposition of the poor man’s rightful claims, he evidently imagined that he had spoken overwhelmingly; and to undeceive him in this respect, for his own good, Cecilia calmly awaited the occasion when she might show the vanity of arguments in their effort to overcome convictions.  He stood up to take his leave of her, on their return to the mouth of the Otley river, unexpectedly, so that the occasion did not arrive; but on his mentioning an engagement he had to give a dinner to a journalist and a tradesman of the town of Bevisham, by way of excuse for not complying with her gentle entreaty that he would go to Mount Laurels and wait to see the colonel that evening, ’Oh! then your choice must be made irrevocably, I am sure,’ Miss Halkett said, relying upon intonation and manner to convey a great deal more, and not without a minor touch of resentment for his having dragged her into the discussion of politics, which she considered as a slime wherein men hustled and tussled, no doubt worthily enough, and as became them; not however to impose the strife upon the elect ladies of earth.  What gentleman ever did talk to a young lady upon the dreary topic seriously?  Least of all should Nevil Beauchamp have done it.  That object of her high imagination belonged to the exquisite sphere of the feminine vision of the pure poetic, and she was vexed by the discord he threw between her long-cherished dream and her unanticipated realization of him, if indeed it was he presenting himself to her in his own character, and not trifling, or not passing through a phase of young man’s madness.

Possibly he might be the victim of the latter and more pardonable state, and so thinking she gave him her hand.

‘Good-bye, Nevil.  I may tell papa to expect you tomorrow?’

‘Do, and tell him to prepare for a field-day.’

She smiled.  ’A sham fight that will not win you a vote!  I hope you will find your guests this evening agreeable companions.’

Beauchamp half-shrugged involuntarily.  He obliterated the piece of treason toward them by saying that he hoped so; as though the meeting them, instead of slipping on to Mount Laurels with her, were an enjoyable prospect.

He was dropped by the Esperanza’s boat near Otley ferry, to walk along the beach to Bevisham, and he kept eye on the elegant vessel as she glided swan-like to her moorings off Mount Laurels park through dusky merchant craft, colliers, and trawlers, loosely shaking her towering snow-white sails, unchallenged in her scornful supremacy; an image of a refinement of beauty, and of a beautiful servicelessness.

As the yacht, so the mistress:  things of wealth, owing their graces to wealth, devoting them to wealth ­splendid achievements of art both! and dedicated to the gratification of the superior senses.

Say that they were precious examples of an accomplished civilization; and perhaps they did offer a visible ideal of grace for the rough world to aim at.  They might in the abstract address a bit of a monition to the uncultivated, and encourage the soul to strive toward perfection, in beauty:  and there is no contesting the value of beauty when the soul is taken into account.  But were they not in too great a profusion in proportion to their utility?  That was the question for Nevil Beauchamp.  The democratic spirit inhabiting him, temporarily or permanently, asked whether they were not increasing to numbers which were oppressive?  And further, whether it was good, for the country, the race, ay, the species, that they should be so distinctly removed from the thousands who fought the grand, and the grisly, old battle with nature for bread of life.  Those grimy sails of the colliers and fishing-smacks, set them in a great sea, would have beauty for eyes and soul beyond that of elegance and refinement.  And do but look on them thoughtfully, the poor are everlastingly, unrelievedly, in the abysses of the great sea....

One cannot pursue to conclusions a line of meditation that is half-built on the sensations as well as on the mind.  Did Beauchamp at all desire to have those idly lovely adornments of riches, the Yacht and the Lady, swept away?  Oh, dear, no.  He admired them, he was at home with them.  They were much to his taste.  Standing on a point of the beach for a last look at them before he set his face to the town, he prolonged the look in a manner to indicate that the place where business called him was not in comparison at all so pleasing:  and just as little enjoyable were his meditations opposed to predilections.  Beauty plucked the heart from his breast.  But he had taken up arms; he had drunk of the questioning cup, that which denieth peace to us, and which projects us upon the missionary search of the How, the Wherefore, and the Why not, ever afterward.  He questioned his justification, and yours, for gratifying tastes in an ill-regulated world of wrong-doing, suffering, sin, and bounties unrighteously dispensed ­not sufficiently dispersed.  He said by-and-by to pleasure, battle to-day.  From his point of observation, and with the store of ideas and images his fiery yet reflective youth had gathered, he presented himself as it were saddled to that hard-riding force known as the logical impetus, which spying its quarry over precipices, across oceans and deserts, and through systems and webs, and into shops and cabinets of costliest china, will come at it, will not be refused, let the distances and the breakages be what they may.  He went like the meteoric man with the mechanical legs in the song, too quick for a cry of protestation, and reached results amazing to his instincts, his tastes, and his training, not less rapidly and naturally than tremendous Ergo is shot forth from the clash of a syllogism.