Read CHAPTER XVII - HIS FRIEND AND FOE of Beauchamp Career, free online book, by George Meredith, on ReadCentral.com.

Looking from her window very early on a Sunday morning, Miss Halkett saw Beauchamp strolling across the grass of the park.  She dressed hurriedly and went out to greet him, smiling and thanking him for his friendliness in coming.

He said he was delighted, and appeared so, but dashed the sweetness.  ’You know I can’t canvass on Sundays!

‘I suppose not,’ she replied.  ’Have you walked up from Bevisham?  You must be tired.’

‘Nothing tires me,’ said he.

With that they stepped on together.

Mount Laurels, a fair broad house backed by a wood of beeches and firs, lay open to view on the higher grassed knoll of a series of descending turfy mounds dotted with gorseclumps, and faced South-westerly along the run of the Otley river to the gleaming broad water and its opposite border of forest, beyond which the downs of the island threw long interlapping curves.  Great ships passed on the line of the water to and fro; and a little mist of masts of the fishing and coasting craft by Otley village, near the river’s mouth, was like a web in air.  Cecilia led him to her dusky wood of firs, where she had raised a bower for a place of poetical contemplation and reading when the clear lapping salt river beneath her was at high tide.  She could hail the Esperanza from that cover; she could step from her drawing-room window, over the flower-beds, down the gravel walk to the hard, and be on board her yacht within seven minutes, out on her salt-water lake within twenty, closing her wings in a French harbour by nightfall of a summer’s day, whenever she had the whim to fly abroad.  Of these enviable privileges she boasted with some happy pride.

‘It’s the finest yachting-station in England,’ said Beauchamp.

She expressed herself very glad that he should like it so much.  Unfortunately she added, ’I hope you will find it pleasanter to be here than canvassing.’

‘I have no pleasure in canvassing,’ said he.  ’I canvass poor men accustomed to be paid for their votes, and who get nothing from me but what the baron would call a parsonical exhortation.  I’m in the thick of the most spiritless crew in the kingdom.  Our southern men will not compare with the men of the north.  But still, even among these fellows, I see danger for the country if our commerce were to fail, if distress came on them.  There’s always danger in disunion.  That’s what the rich won’t see.  They see simply nothing out of their own circle; and they won’t take a thought of the overpowering contrast between their luxury and the way of living, that’s half-starving, of the poor.  They understand it when fever comes up from back alleys and cottages, and then they join their efforts to sweep the poor out of the district.  The poor are to get to their work anyhow, after a long morning’s walk over the proscribed space; for we must have poor, you know.  The wife of a parson I canvassed yesterday, said to me, “Who is to work for us, if you do away with the poor, Captain Beauchamp?"’

Cecilia quitted her bower and traversed the wood silently.

’So you would blow up my poor Mount Laurels for a peace-offering to the lower classes?’

‘I should hope to put it on a stronger foundation, Cecilia.’

‘By means of some convulsion?’

‘By forestalling one.’

‘That must be one of the new ironclads,’ observed Cecilia, gazing at the black smoke-pennon of a tower that slipped along the water-line.  ’Yes?  You were saying?  Put us on a stronger ?’

’It’s, I think, the Hastings:  she broke down the other day on her trial trip,’ said Beauchamp, watching the ship’s progress animatedly.  ’Peppel commands her ­a capital officer.  I suppose we must have these costly big floating barracks.  I don’t like to hear of everything being done for the defensive.  The defensive is perilous policy in war.  It’s true, the English don’t wake up to their work under half a year.  But, no:  defending and looking to defences is bad for the fighting power; and there’s half a million gone on that ship.  Half a million!  Do you know how many poor taxpayers it takes to make up that sum, Cecilia?’

‘A great many,’ she slurred over them; ’but we must have big ships, and the best that are to be had.’

’Powerful fast rams, sea-worthy and fit for running over shallows, carrying one big gun; swarms of harryers and worriers known to be kept ready for immediate service; readiness for the offensive in case of war ­there’s the best defence against a declaration of war by a foreign State.’

‘I like to hear you, Nevil,’ said Cecilia, beaming:  ’Papa thinks we have a miserable army ­in numbers.  He says, the wealthier we become the more difficult it is to recruit able-bodied men on the volunteering system.  Yet the wealthier we are the more an army is wanted, both to defend our wealth and to preserve order.  I fancy he half inclines to compulsory enlistment.  Do speak to him on that subject.’

Cecilia must have been innocent of a design to awaken the fire-flash in Nevil’s eyes.  She had no design, but hostility was latent, and hence perhaps the offending phrase.

He nodded and spoke coolly.  ’An army to preserve order?  So, then, an army to threaten civil war!’

‘To crush revolutionists.’

’Agitators, you mean.  My dear good old colonel ­I have always loved him ­must not have more troops at his command.’

‘Do you object to the drilling of the whole of the people?’

’Does not the colonel, Cecilia?  I am sure he does in his heart, and, for different reasons, I do.  He won’t trust the working-classes, nor I the middle.’

‘Does Dr. Shrapnel hate the middle-class?’

’Dr. Shrapnel cannot hate.  He and I are of opinion, that as the middle-class are the party in power, they would not, if they knew the use of arms, move an inch farther in Reform, for they would no longer be in fear of the class below them.’

’But what horrible notions of your country have you, Nevil!  It is dreadful to hear.  Oh! do let us avoid politics for ever.  Fear!’

‘All concessions to the people have been won from fear.’

‘I have not heard so.’

‘I will read it to you in the History of England.’

‘You paint us in a condition of Revolution.’

’Happily it’s not a condition unnatural to us.  The danger would be in not letting it be progressive, and there’s a little danger too at times in our slowness.  We change our blood or we perish.’

‘Dr. Shrapnel?’

’Yes, I have heard Dr. Shrapnel say that.  And, by-the-way, Cecilia ­will you? can you? ­take me for the witness to his character.  He is the most guileless of men, and he’s the most unguarded.  My good Rosamund saw him.  She is easily prejudiced when she is a trifle jealous, and you may hear from her that he rambles, talks wildly.  It may seem so.  I maintain there is wisdom in him when conventional minds would think him at his wildest.  Believe me, he is the humanest, the best of men, tenderhearted as a child:  the most benevolent, simple-minded, admirable old man ­the man I am proudest to think of as an Englishman and a man living in my time, of all men existing.  I can’t overpraise him.’

‘He has a bad reputation.’

‘Only with the class that will not meet him and answer him.’

‘Must we invite him to our houses?’

’It would be difficult to get him to come, if you did.  I mean, meet him in debate and answer his arguments.  Try the question by brains.’

‘Before mobs?’

‘Not before mobs.  I punish you by answering you seriously.’

‘I am sensible of the flattery.’

‘Before mobs!’ Nevil ejaculated.  ’It’s the Tories that mob together and cry down every man who appears to them to threaten their privileges.  Can you guess what Dr. Shrapnel compares them to?’

’Indeed, Nevil, I have not an idea.  I only wish your patriotism were large enough to embrace them.’

’He compares them to geese claiming possession of the whole common, and hissing at every foot of ground they have to yield.  They’re always having to retire and always hissing.  “Retreat and menace,” that’s the motto for them.’

‘Very well, Nevil, I am a goose upon a common.’

So saying, Cecilia swam forward like a swan on water to give the morning kiss to her papa, by the open window of the breakfast-room.

Never did bird of Michaelmas fling off water from her feathers more thoroughly than this fair young lady the false title she pretended to assume.

‘I hear you’re of the dinner party at Grancey Lespel’s on Wednesday,’ the colonel said to Beauchamp.  ‘You’ll have to stand fire.’

‘They will, papa,’ murmured Cecilia.  ‘Will Mr. Austin be there?’

‘I particularly wish to meet Mr. Austin,’ said Beauchamp.

‘Listen to him, if you do meet him,’ she replied.

His look was rather grave.

’Lespel ‘s a Whig,’ he said.

The colonel answered.  ’Lespel was a Whig.  Once a Tory always a Tory, ­but court the people and you’re on quicksands, and that’s where the Whigs are.  What he is now I don’t think he knows himself.  You won’t get a vote.’

Cecilia watched her friend Nevil recovering from his short fit of gloom.  He dismissed politics at breakfast and grew companionable, with the charm of his earlier day.  He was willing to accompany her to church too.

‘You will hear a long sermon,’ she warned him.

‘Forty minutes.’  Colonel Halkett smothered a yawn that was both retro and prospective.

‘It has been fifty, papa.’

‘It has been an hour, my dear.’

It was good discipline nevertheless, the colonel affirmed, and Cecilia praised the Rev. Mr. Brisk of Urplesdon vicarage as one of our few remaining Protestant clergymen.

‘Then he ought to be supported,’ said Beauchamp.  ’In the dissensions of religious bodies it is wise to pat the weaker party on the back ­I quote Stukely Culbrett.’

’I ‘ve heard him,’ sighed the colonel.  ’He calls the Protestant clergy the social police of the English middle-class.  Those are the things he lets fly.  I have heard that man say that the Church stands to show the passion of the human race for the drama.  He said it in my presence.  And there ’s a man who calls himself a Tory!

You have rather too much of that playing at grudges and dislikes at Steynham, with squibs, nicknames, and jests at things that ­well, that our stability is bound up in.  I hate squibs.’

‘And I,’ said Beauchamp.  Some shadow of a frown crossed him; but Stukely Culbrett’s humour seemed to be a refuge.  ‘Protestant parson-not clergy,’ he corrected the colonel.  ’Can’t you hear Mr. Culbrett, Cecilia?  The Protestant parson is the policeman set to watch over the respectability of the middle-class.  He has sharp eyes for the sins of the poor.  As for the rich, they support his church; they listen to his sermon ­to set an example:  discipline, colonel.  You discipline the tradesman, who’s afraid of losing your custom, and the labourer, who might be deprived of his bread.  But the people?  It’s put down to the wickedness of human nature that the parson has not got hold of the people.  The parsons have lost them by senseless Conservatism, because they look to the Tories for the support of their Church, and let the religion run down the gutters.  And how many thousands have you at work in the pulpit every Sunday?  I’m told the Dissenting ministers have some vitality.’

Colonel Halkett shrugged with disgust at the mention of Dissenters.

’And those thirty or forty thousand, colonel, call the men that do the work they ought to be doing demagogues.  The parsonry are a power absolutely to be counted for waste, as to progress.’

Cecilia perceived that her father was beginning to be fretted.

She said, with a tact that effected its object:  ’I am one who hear Mr. Culbrett without admiring his wit.’

‘No, and I see no good in this kind of Steynham talk,’ Colonel Halkett said, rising.  ’We’re none of us perfect.  Heaven save us from political parsons!’

Beauchamp was heard to utter, ‘Humanity.’

The colonel left the room with Cecilia, muttering the Steynham tail to that word:  ‘tomtity,’ for the solace of an aside repartee.

She was on her way to dress for church.  He drew her into the library, and there threw open a vast placard lying on the table.  It was printed in blue characters and red.  ’This is what I got by the post this morning.  I suppose Nevil knows about it.  He wants tickling, but I don’t like this kind of thing.  It ’s not fair war.  It ’s as bad as using explosive bullets in my old game.’

‘Can he expect his adversaries to be tender with him?’ Cecilia simulated vehemence in an underbreath.  She glanced down the page: 

French marquees’ caught her eye.

It was a page of verse.  And, oh! could it have issued from a Tory Committee?

‘The Liberals are as bad, and worse,’ her father said.

She became more and more distressed.  ’It seems so very mean, papa; so base.  Ungenerous is no word for it.  And how vulgar!  Now I remember, Nevil said he wished to see Mr. Austin.’

‘Seymour Austin would not sanction it.’

‘No, but Nevil might hold him responsible for it.’

’I suspect Mr. Stukely Culbrett, whom he quotes, and that smoking-room lot at Lespel’s.  I distinctly discountenance it.  So I shall tell them on Wednesday night.  Can you keep a secret?’

’And after all Nevil Beauchamp is very young, papa! ­of course I can keep a secret.’

The colonel exacted no word of honour, feeling quite sure of her.

He whispered the secret in six words, and her cheeks glowed vermilion.

‘But they will meet on Wednesday after this,’ she said, and her sight went dancing down the column of verse, of which the following trotting couplet is a specimen: ­

  ’O did you ever, hot in love, a little British middy see,
   Like Orpheus asking what the deuce to do without Eurydice?’

The middy is jilted by his French marquees, whom he ‘did adore,’ and in his wrath he recommends himself to the wealthy widow Bevisham, concerning whose choice of her suitors there is a doubt:  but the middy is encouraged to persevere: 

   ’Up, up, my pretty middy; take a draught of foaming Sillery;
   Go in and win the uriddy with your Radical artillery.’

And if Sillery will not do, he is advised, he being for superlatives, to try the sparkling Sillery of the Radical vintage, selected grapes.

This was but impudent nonsense.  But the reiterated apostrophe to ’my French marquees’ was considered by Cecilia to be a brutal offence.

She was shocked that her party should have been guilty of it.  Nevil certainly provoked, and he required, hard blows; and his uncle Everard might be right in telling her father that they were the best means of teaching him to come to his understanding.  Still a foul and stupid squib did appear to her a debasing weapon to use.

‘I cannot congratulate you on your choice of a second candidate, papa,’ she said scornfully.

‘I don’t much congratulate myself,’ said the colonel.

’Here’s a letter from Mrs. Beauchamp informing me that her boy Blackburn will be home in a month.  There would have been plenty of time for him.  However, we must make up our minds to it.  Those two ’ll be meeting on Wednesday, so keep your secret.  It will be out tomorrow week.’

‘But Nevil will be accusing Mr. Austin.’

’Austin won’t be at Lespel’s.  And he must bear it, for the sake of peace.’

‘Is Nevil ruined with his uncle, papa?’

‘Not a bit, I should imagine.  It’s Romfrey’s fun.’

‘And this disgraceful squib is a part of the fun?’

’That I know nothing about, my dear.  I’m sorry, but there’s pitch and tar in politics as well as on shipboard.’

‘I do not see that there should be,’ said Cecilia resolutely.

‘We can’t hope to have what should be.’

‘Why not?  I would have it:  I would do my utmost to have it,’ she flamed out.

‘Your utmost?’ Her father was glancing at her foregone mimicry of Beauchamp’s occasional strokes of emphasis.  ’Do your utmost to have your bonnet on in time for us to walk to church.  I can’t bear driving there.’

Cecilia went to her room with the curious reflection, awakened by what her father had chanced to suggest to her mind, that she likewise could be fervid, positive, uncompromising ­who knows?  Radicalish, perhaps, when she looked eye to eye on an evil.  For a moment or so she espied within herself a gulf of possibilities, wherein black night-birds, known as queries, roused by shot of light, do flap their wings. ­Her utmost to have be what should be!  And why not?

But the intemperate feeling subsided while she was doing duty before her mirror, and the visionary gulf closed immediately.

She had merely been very angry on Nevil Beauchamp’s behalf, and had dimly seen that a woman can feel insurgent, almost revolutionary, for a personal cause, Tory though her instinct of safety and love of smoothness make her.

No reflection upon this casual piece of self or sex revelation troubled her head.  She did, however, think of her position as the friend of Nevil in utter antagonism to him.  It beset her with contradictions that blew rough on her cherished serenity; for she was of the order of ladies who, by virtue of their pride and spirit, their port and their beauty, decree unto themselves the rank of princesses among women, before our world has tried their claim to it.  She had lived hitherto in upper air, high above the clouds of earth.  Her ideal of a man was of one similarly disengaged and lofty-loftier.  Nevil, she could honestly say, was not her ideal; he was only her old friend, and she was opposed to him in his present adventure.  The striking at him to cure him of his mental errors and excesses was an obligation; she could descend upon him calmly with the chastening rod, pointing to the better way; but the shielding of him was a different thing; it dragged her down so low, that in her condemnation of the Tory squib she found herself asking herself whether haply Nevil had flung off the yoke of the French lady; with the foolish excuse for the question, that if he had not, he must be bitterly sensitive to the slightest public allusion to her.  Had he?  And if not, how desperately faithful he was! or else how marvellously seductive she!

Perhaps it was a lover’s despair that had precipitated him into the mire of politics.  She conceived the impression that it must be so, and throughout the day she had an inexplicable unsweet pleasure in inciting him to argumentation and combating him, though she was compelled to admit that he had been colloquially charming antecedent to her naughty provocation; and though she was indebted to him for his patient decorum under the weary wave of the Reverend Mr. Brisk.  Now what does it matter what a woman thinks in politics?  But he deemed it of great moment.  Politically, he deemed that women have souls, a certain fire of life for exercise on earth.  He appealed to reason in them; he would not hear of convictions.  He quoted the Bevisham doctor!

’Convictions are generally first impressions that are sealed with later prejudices,’ and insisted there was wisdom in it.  Nothing tired him, as he had said, and addressing woman or man, no prospect of fatigue or of hopeless effort daunted him in the endeavour to correct an error of judgement in politics ­his notion of an error.  The value he put upon speaking, urging his views, was really fanatical.  It appeared that he canvassed the borough from early morning till near midnight, and nothing would persuade him that his chance was poor; nothing that an entrenched Tory like her father, was not to be won even by an assault of all the reserve forces of Radical pathos, prognostication, and statistics.

Only conceive Nevil Beauchamp knocking at doors late at night, the sturdy beggar of a vote! or waylaying workmen, as he confessed without shame that he had done, on their way trooping to their midday meal; penetrating malodoriferous rooms of dismal ten-pound cottagers, to exhort bedraggled mothers and babes, and besotted husbands; and exposed to rebuffs from impertinent tradesmen; and lampooned and travestied, shouting speeches to roaring men, pushed from shoulder to shoulder of the mob!...

Cecilia dropped a curtain on her mind’s picture of him.  But the blinding curtain rekindled the thought that the line he had taken could not but be the desperation of a lover abandoned.  She feared it was, she feared it was not.  Nevil Beauchamp’s foe persisted in fearing that it was not; his friend feared that it was.  Yet why?  For if it was, then he could not be quite in earnest, and might be cured.  Nay, but earnestness works out its own cure more surely than frenzy, and it should be preferable to think him sound of heart, sincere though mistaken.  Cecilia could not decide upon what she dared wish for his health’s good.  Friend and foe were not further separable within her bosom than one tick from another of a clock; they changed places, and next his friend was fearing what his foe had feared:  they were inextricable.

Why had he not sprung up on a radiant aquiline ambition, whither one might have followed him, with eyes and prayers for him, if it was not possible to do so companionably?  At present, in the shape of a canvassing candidate, it was hardly honourable to let imagination dwell on him, save compassionately.

When he rose to take his leave, Cecilia said, ’Must you go to Itchincope on Wednesday, Nevil?’

Colonel Halkett added:  ’I don’t think I would go to Lespel’s if I were you.  I rather suspect Seymour Austin will be coming on Wednesday, and that ’ll detain me here, and you might join us and lend him an ear for an evening.’

’I have particular reasons for going to Lespel’s; I hear he wavers toward a Tory conspiracy of some sort,’ said Beauchamp.

The colonel held his tongue.

The untiring young candidate chose to walk down to Bevisham at eleven o’clock at night, that he might be the readier to continue his canvass of the borough on Monday morning early.  He was offered a bed or a conveyance, and he declined both; the dog-cart he declined out of consideration for horse and groom, which an owner of stables could not but approve.

Colonel Halkett broke into exclamations of pity for so good a young fellow so misguided.

The night was moonless, and Cecilia, looking through the window, said whimsically, ‘He has gone out into the darkness, and is no light in it!’

Certainly none shone.  She however carried a lamp that revealed him footing on with a wonderful air of confidence, and she was rather surprised to hear her father regret that Nevil Beauchamp should be losing his good looks already, owing to that miserable business of his in Bevisham.  She would have thought the contrary, that he was looking as well as ever.

‘He dresses just as he used to dress,’ she observed.

The individual style of a naval officer of breeding, in which you see neatness trifling with disorder, or disorder plucking at neatness, like the breeze a trim vessel, had been caught to perfection by Nevil Beauchamp, according to Cecilia.  It presented him to her mind in a cheerful and a very undemocratic aspect, but in realizing it, the thought, like something flashing black, crossed her ­how attractive such a style must be to a Frenchwoman!

‘He may look a little worn,’ she acquiesced.