Read CHAPTER XXIV - HIS HOLIDAY of Beauchamp Career, free online book, by George Meredith, on ReadCentral.com.

A single day was to be the term of his holiday at Tourdestelle; but it stood forth as one of those perfect days which are rounded by an evening before and a morning after, giving him two nights under the same roof with Renee, something of a resemblance to three days of her; anticipation and wonder filling the first, she the next, the adieu the last:  every hour filled.  And the first day was not over yet.  He forced himself to calmness, that he might not fritter it, and walked up and down the room he was dressing in, examining its foreign decorations, and peering through the window, to quiet his nerves.  He was in her own France with her!  The country borrowed hues from Renee, and lent some.  This chivalrous France framed and interlaced her image, aided in idealizing her, and was in turn transfigured.  Not half so well would his native land have pleaded for the forgiveness of a British damsel who had wrecked a young man’s immoderate first love.  That glorified self-love requires the touch upon imagination of strangeness and an unaccustomed grace, to subdue it and make it pardon an outrage to its temples and altars, and its happy reading of the heavens, the earth too:  earth foremost, we ought perhaps to say.  It is an exacting heathen, best understood by a glance at what will appease it:  beautiful, however, as everybody has proved; and shall it be decried in a world where beauty is not overcommon, though it would slaughter us for its angry satisfaction, yet can be soothed by a tone of colour, as it were by a novel inscription on a sweetmeat?

The peculiarity of Beauchamp was that he knew the slenderness of the thread which was leading him, and foresaw it twisting to a coil unless he should hold firm.  His work in life was much above the love of a woman in his estimation, so he was not deluded by passion when he entered the chateau; it is doubtful whether he would not hesitatingly have sacrificed one of the precious votes in Bevisham for the pleasure of kissing her hand when they were on the steps.  She was his first love and only love, married, and long ago forgiven: ­married; that is to say, she especially among women was interdicted to him by the lingering shadow of the reverential love gone by; and if the anguish of the lover’s worse than death survived in a shudder of memory at the thought of her not solely lost to him but possessed by another, it did but quicken a hunger that was three parts curiosity to see how she who had suffered this bore the change; how like or unlike she might be to the extinct Renee; what traces she kept of the face he had known.  Her tears were startling, but tears tell of a mood, they do not tell the story of the years; and it was that story he had such eagerness to read in one brief revelation:  an eagerness born only of the last few hours, and broken by fears of a tarnished aspect; these again being partly hopes of a coming disillusion that would restore him his independence and ask him only for pity.  The slavery of the love of a woman chained like Renee was the most revolting of prospects to a man who cherished his freedom that he might work to the end of his time.  Moreover, it swung a thunder-cloud across his holiday.  He recurred to the idea of the holiday repeatedly, and the more he did so the thinner it waned.  He was exhausting the very air and spirit of it with a mind that ran incessantly forward and back; and when he and the lady of so much speculation were again together, an incapacity of observation seemed to have come over him.  In reality it was the inability to reflect on his observations.  Her presence resembled those dark sunsets throwing the spell of colour across the world; when there is no question with us of morning or of night, but of that sole splendour only.

Owing to their arrival late at the chateau, covers were laid for them in the boudoir of Madame la Marquise, where he had his hostess to himself, and certainly the opportunity of studying her.  An English Navy List, solitary on a shelf, and laid within it an extract of a paper announcing the return of the Ariadne to port, explained the mystery of her knowing that he was in England, as well as the correctness of the superscription of her letter to him.  ‘You see, I follow you,’ she said.

Beauchamp asked if she read English now.

’A little; but the paper was dispatched to me by M. Vivian Ducie, of your embassy in Paris.  He is in the valley.’

The name of Ducie recalled Lord Palmet’s description of the dark beauty of the fluttering pale gold ornaments.  She was now dressed without one decoration of gold or jewel, with scarcely a wave in the silk, a modesty of style eloquent of the pride of her form.

Could those eyes fronting him under the lamp have recently shed tears?  They were the living eyes of a brilliant unembarrassed lady; shields flinging light rather than well-depths inviting it.

Beauchamp tried to compare her with the Renee of Venice, and found himself thinking of the glove she had surrendered to the handsomest young man in France.  The effort to recover the younger face gave him a dead creature, with the eyelashes of Renee, the cast of her mouth and throat, misty as a shape in a dream.

He could compare her with Cecilia, who never would have risked a glove, never have betrayed a tear, and was the statelier lady, not without language:  but how much less vivid in feature and the gift of speech!  Renee’s gift of speech counted unnumbered strings which she played on with a grace that clothed the skill, and was her natural endowment ­an art perfected by the education of the world.  Who cannot talk! ­but who can?  Discover the writers in a day when all are writing!  It is as rare an art as poetry, and in the mouths of women as enrapturing, richer than their voices in music.

This was the fascination Beauchamp felt weaving round him.  Would you, that are separable from boys and mobs, and the object malignly called the Briton, prefer the celestial singing of a woman to her excellently talking?  But not if it were given you to run in unison with her genius of the tongue, following her verbal ingenuities and feminine silk-flashes of meaning; not if she led you to match her fine quick perceptions with more or less of the discreet concordance of the violoncello accompanying the viol.  It is not high flying, which usually ends in heavy falling.  You quit the level of earth no more than two birds that chase from bush to bush to bill in air, for mutual delight to make the concert heavenly.  Language flowed from Renee in affinity with the pleasure-giving laws that make the curves we recognize as beauty in sublimer arts.  Accept companionship for the dearest of the good things we pray to have, and what equalled her!  Who could be her rival!

Her girl’s crown of irradiated Alps began to tremble over her dimly, as from moment to moment their intimacy warmed, and Beauchamp saw the young face vanishing out of this flower of womanhood.  He did not see it appearing or present, but vanishing like the faint ray in the rosier.  Nay, the blot of her faithlessness underwent a transformation:  it affected him somewhat as the patch cunningly laid on near a liquid dimple in fair cheeks at once allures and evades a susceptible attention.

Unused in his French of late, he stumbled at times, and she supplied the needed phrase, taking no note of a blunder.  Now men of sweet blood cannot be secretly accusing or criticizing a gracious lady.  Domestic men are charged with thinking instantly of dark death when an ordinary illness befalls them; and it may be so or not:  but it is positive that the gallant man of the world, if he is in the sensitive condition, and not yet established as the lord of her, feels paralyzed in his masculine sense of leadership the moment his lady assumes the initiative and directs him:  he gives up at once; and thus have many nimble-witted dames from one clear start retained their advantage.

Concerning that glove:  well! the handsomest young man in France wore the glove of the loveliest woman.  The loveliest?  The very loveliest in the purity of her French style ­the woman to challenge England for a type of beauty to eclipse her.  It was possible to conceive her country wagering her against all women.

If Renee had faults, Beauchamp thought of her as at sea breasting tempests, while Cecilia was a vessel lying safe in harbour, untried, however promising:  and if Cecilia raised a steady light for him, it was over the shores he had left behind, while Renee had really nothing to do with warning or rescuing, or with imperilling; she welcomed him simply to a holiday in her society.  He associated Cecilia strangely with the political labours she would have had him relinquish; and Renee with a pleasant state of indolence, that her lightest smile disturbed.  Shun comparisons.

It is the tricksy heart which sets up that balance, to jump into it on one side or the other.  Comparisons come of a secret leaning that is sure to play rogue under its mien of honest dealer:  so Beauchamp suffered himself to be unjust to graver England, and lost the strength she would have given him to resist a bewitchment.  The case with him was, that his apprenticeship was new; he had been trotting in harness as a veritable cab-horse of politics ­he by blood a racer; and his nature craved for diversions, against his will, against his moral sense and born tenacity of spirit.

Not a word further of the glove.  But at night, in his bed, the glove was a principal actor in events of extraordinary magnitude and inconsequence.

He was out in the grounds with the early morning light.  Coffee and sweet French bread were brought out to him, and he was informed of the hours of reunion at the chateau, whose mistress continued invisible.  She might be sleeping.  He strolled about, within view of the windows, wondering at her subservience to sleep.  Tourdestelle lay in one of those Norman valleys where the river is the mother of rich pasture, and runs hidden between double ranks of sallows, aspens and poplars, that mark its winding line in the arms of trenched meadows.  The high land on either side is an unwatered flat up to the horizon, little varied by dusty apple-trees planted in the stubble here and there, and brown mud walls of hamlets; a church-top, a copse, an avenue of dwarf limes leading to the three-parts farm, quarter residence of an enriched peasant striking new roots, or decayed proprietor pinching not to be severed from ancient.  Descending on the deep green valley in Summer is like a change of climes.  The chateau stood square at a branch of the river, tossing three light bridges of pretty woodwork to park and garden.  Great bouquets of swelling blue and pink hydrangia nestled at his feet on shaven grass.  An open window showed a cloth of colour, as in a reminiscence of Italy.

Beauchamp heard himself addressed: ­’You are looking for my sister-in-law, M. Beauchamp?’

The speaker was Madame d’Auffray, to whom he had been introduced overnight ­a lady of the aquiline French outline, not ungentle.

Renee had spoken affectionately of her, he remembered.  There was nothing to make him be on his guard, and he stated that he was looking for Madame de Rouaillout, and did not conceal surprise at the information that she was out on horseback.

‘She is a tireless person,’ Madame d’Auffray remarked.  ’You will not miss her long.  We all meet at twelve, as you know.’

‘I grudge an hour, for I go to-morrow,’ said Beauchamp.

The notification of so early a departure, or else his bluntness, astonished her.  She fell to praising Renee’s goodness.  He kept her to it with lively interrogations, in the manner of a guileless boy urging for eulogies of his dear absent friend.  Was it duplicity in him or artlessness?

‘Has she, do you think, increased in beauty?’ Madame d’Auffray inquired:  an insidious question, to which he replied: 

‘Once I thought it would be impossible.’

Not so bad an answer for an Englishman, in a country where speaking is fencing; the race being little famous for dialectical alertness:  but was it artful or simple?

They skirted the chateau, and Beauchamp had the history of Dame Philiberte recounted to him, with a mixture of Gallic irony, innuendo, openness, touchingness, ridicule, and charity novel to his ears.  Madame d’Auffray struck the note of intimacy earlier than is habitual.  She sounded him in this way once or twice, carelessly perusing him, and waiting for the interesting edition of the Book of Man to summarize its character by showing its pages or remaining shut.  It was done delicately, like the tap of a finger-nail on a vase.  He rang clear; he had nothing to conceal; and where he was reserved, that is, in speaking of the developed beauty and grace of Renee, he was transparent.  She read the sort of man he was; she could also hazard a guess as to the man’s present state.  She ventured to think him comparatively harmless ­for the hour:  for she was not the woman to be hoodwinked by man’s dark nature because she inclined to think well of a particular man; nor was she one to trust to any man subject to temptation.  The wisdom of the Frenchwoman’s fortieth year forbade it.  A land where the war between the sexes is honestly acknowledged, and is full of instruction, abounds in precepts; but it ill becomes the veteran to practise rigorously what she would prescribe to young women.  She may discriminate; as thus: ­Trust no man.  Still, this man may be better than that man; and it is bad policy to distrust a reasonably guileless member of the preying sex entirely, and so to lose his good services.  Hawks have their uses in destroying vermin; and though we cannot rely upon the taming of hawks, one tied by the leg in a garden preserves the fruit.

‘There is a necessity for your leaving us to-morrow; M. Beauchamp?’

‘I regret to say, it is imperative, madame.’

’My husband will congratulate me on the pleasure I have, and have long desired, of making your acquaintance, and he will grieve that he has not been so fortunate; he is on service in Africa.  My brother, I need not say, will deplore the mischance which has prevented him from welcoming you.  I have telegraphed to him; he is at one of the Baths in Germany, and will come assuredly, if there is a prospect of finding you here.  None?  Supposing my telegram not to fall short of him, I may count on his being here within four days.’

Beauchamp begged her to convey the proper expressions of his regret to M. Marquis.

’And M. de Croisnel?  And Roland, your old comrade and brother-in-arms?  What will be their disappointment!’ she said.

‘I intend to stop for an hour at Rouen on my way back,’ said Beauchamp.

She asked if her belle-soeur was aware of the short limitation of his visit.

He had not mentioned it to Madame la Marquise.

’Perhaps you may be moved by the grief of a friend:  Renee may persuade you to stay.’

’I came imagining I could be of some use to Madame la Marquise.  She writes as if she were telegraphing.’

’Perfectly true of her!  For that matter, I saw the letter.  Your looks betray a very natural jealousy; but seeing it or not it would have been the same:  she and I have no secrets.  She was, I may tell you, strictly unable to write more words in the letter.  Which brings me to inquire what impression M. d’Henriel made on you yesterday evening.’

‘He is particularly handsome.’

‘We women think so.  Did you take him to be... eccentric?’

Beauchamp gave a French jerk of the shoulders.

It confessed the incident of the glove to one who knew it as well as he:  but it masked the weight he was beginning to attach to that incident, and Madame d’Auffray was misled.  Truly, the Englishman may be just such an ex-lover, uninflammable by virtue of his blood’s native coldness; endued with the frozen vanity called pride, which does not seek to be revenged.  Under wary espionage, he might be a young woman’s friend, though male friend of a half-abandoned wife should write himself down morally saint, mentally sage, medically incurable, if he would win our confidence.

This lady of sharp intelligence was the guardian of Renee during the foolish husband’s flights about Paris and over Europe, and, for a proof of her consummate astuteness, Renee had no secrets and had absolute liberty.  And hitherto no man could build a boast on her reputation.  The liberty she would have had at any cost, as Madame d’Auffray knew; and an attempt to restrict it would have created secrets.

Near upon the breakfast-hour Renee was perceived by them going toward the chateau at a walking pace.  They crossed one of the garden bridges to intercept her.  She started out of some deep meditation, and raised her whip hand to Beauchamp’s greeting.  ’I had forgotten to tell you, monsieur, that I should be out for some hours in the morning.’

‘Are you aware,’ said Madame d’Auffray, ’that M. Beauchamp leaves us to-morrow?’

‘So soon?’ It was uttered hardly with a tone of disappointment.

The marquise alighted, crying hold, to the stables, caressed her horse, and sent him off with a smack on the smoking flanks to meet the groom.

’To-morrow?  That is very soon; but M. Beauchamp is engaged in an Election, and what have we to induce him to stay?’

’Would it not be better to tell M. Beauchamp why he was invited to come?’ rejoined Madame d’Auffray.

The sombre light in Renee’s eyes quickened through shadowy spheres of surprise and pain to resolution.  She cried, ‘You have my full consent,’ and left them.

Madame d’Auffray smiled at Beauchamp, to excuse the childishness of the little story she was about to relate; she gave it in the essence, without a commencement or an ending.  She had in fact but two or three hurried minutes before the breakfast-bell would ring; and the fan she opened and shut, and at times shaded her head with, was nearly as explicit as her tongue.

He understood that Renee had staked her glove on his coming within a certain number of hours to the briefest wording of invitation possible.  Owing to his detention by the storm, M. d’Henriel had won the bet, and now insisted on wearing the glove.  ’He is the privileged young madman our women make of a handsome youth,’ said Madame d’Auffray.

Where am I? thought Beauchamp ­in what land, he would have phrased it, of whirlwinds catching the wits, and whipping the passions?  Calmer than they, but unable to command them, and guessing that Renee’s errand of the morning, by which he had lost hours of her, pertained to the glove, he said quiveringly, ‘Madame la Marquise objects?’

‘We,’ replied Madame d’Auffray, ’contend that the glove was not loyally won.  The wager was upon your coming to the invitation, not upon your conquering the elements.  As to his flaunting the glove for a favour, I would ask you, whom does he advertize by that?  Gloves do not wear white; which fact compromises none but the wearer.  He picked it up from the ground, and does not restore it; that is all.  You see a boy who catches at anything to placard himself.  There is a compatriot of yours, a M. Ducie, who assured us you must be with an uncle in your county of Sussex.  Of course we ran the risk of the letter missing you, but the chance was worth a glove.  Can you believe it, M. Beauchamp? it was I, old woman as I am, I who provoked the silly wager.  I have long desired to meet you; and we have little society here, we are desperate with loneliness, half mad with our whims.  I said, that if you were what I had heard of you, you would come to us at a word.  They dared Madame la Marquise to say the same.  I wished to see the friend of Frenchmen, as M. Roland calls you; not merely to see him ­to know him, whether he is this perfect friend whose absolute devotion has impressed my dear sister Renee’s mind.  She respects you:  that is a sentiment scarcely complimentary to the ideas of young men.  She places you above human creatures:  possibly you may not dislike to be worshipped.  It is not to be rejected when one’s influence is powerful for good.  But you leave us to-morrow!’

‘I’ might stay...’  Beauchamp hesitated to name the number of hours.  He stood divided between a sense of the bubbling shallowness of the life about him, and a thought, grave as an eye dwelling on blood, of sinister things below it.

‘I may stay another day or two,’ he said, ’if I can be of any earthly service.’

Madame d’Auffray bowed as to a friendly decision on his part, saying, ’It would be a thousand pities to disappoint M. Roland; and it will be offering my brother an amicable chance.  I will send him word that you await him; at least, that you defer your departure as long as possible.  Ah! now you perceive, M. Beauchamp, now you have become aware of our purely infantile plan to bring you over to us, how very ostensible a punishment it would be were you to remain so short a period.’

Having no designs, he was neither dupe nor sceptic; but he felt oddly entangled, and the dream of his holiday had fled like morning’s beams, as a self-deception will at a very gentle shaking.