Read CHAPTER XXXI - SHOWING A CHIVALROUS GENTLEMAN SET IN MOTION of Beauchamp Career, free online book, by George Meredith, on ReadCentral.com.

About noon the day following, on board the steam-yacht of the Countess of Menai, Cecil was very much astonished to see Mr. Romfrey descending into a boat hard by, from Grancey Lespel’s hired cutter.  Steam was up, and the countess was off for a cruise in the Channel, as it was not a race-day, but seeing Mr. Romfrey’s hand raised, she spoke to Cecil, and immediately gave orders to wait for the boat.  This lady was a fervent admirer of the knightly gentleman, and had reason to like him, for he had once been her champion.  Mr. Romfrey mounted the steps, received her greeting, and beckoned to Cecil.  He carried a gold-headed horsewhip under his arm.  Lady Menai would gladly have persuaded him to be one of her company for the day’s voyage, but he said he had business in Bevisham, and moving aside with Cecil, put the question to him abruptly:  ‘What were the words used by Shrapnel?’

‘The identical words?’ Captain Baskelett asked.  He could have tripped out the words with the fluency of ancient historians relating what great kings, ambassadors, or Generals may well have uttered on State occasions, but if you want the identical words, who is to remember them the day after they have been delivered?  He said: 

’Well, as for the identical words, I really, and I was tolerably excited, sir, and upon my honour, the identical words are rather difficult to....’  He glanced at the horsewhip, and pricked by the sight of it to proceed, thought it good to soften the matter if possible.  ’I don’t quite recollect...  I wrote off to you rather hastily.  I think he said ­but Palmet was there.’

‘Shrapnel spoke the words before Lord Palmet?’ said Mr. Romfrey austerely.

Captain Baskelett summoned Palmet to come near, and inquired of him what he had heard Shrapnel say, suggesting:  ’He spoke of a handsome woman for a housekeeper, and all the world knew her character?’

Mr. Romfrey cleared his throat.

‘Or knew she had no character,’ Cecil pursued in a fit of gratified spleen, in scorn of the woman.  ’Don’t you recollect his accent in pronouncing housekeeper?’

The menacing thunder sounded from Mr. Romfrey.  He was patient in appearance, and waited for Cecil’s witness to corroborate the evidence.

It happened (and here we are in one of the circles of small things producing great consequences, which have inspired diminutive philosophers with ironical visions of history and the littleness of man), it happened that Lord Palmet, the humanest of young aristocrats, well-disposed toward the entire world, especially to women, also to men in any way related to pretty women, had just lit a cigar, and it was a cigar that he had been recommended to try the flavour of; and though he, having his wits about him, was fully aware that shipboard is no good place for a trial of the delicacy of tobacco in the leaf, he had begun puffing and sniffing in a critical spirit, and scarcely knew for the moment what to decide as to this particular cigar.  He remembered, however, Mr. Romfrey’s objection to tobacco.  Imagining that he saw the expression of a profound distaste in that gentleman’s more than usually serious face, he hesitated between casting the cigar into the water and retaining it.  He decided upon the latter course, and held the cigar behind his back, bowing to Mr. Romfrey at about a couple of yards distance, and saying to Cecil, ’Housekeeper; yes, I remember hearing housekeeper.  I think so.  Housekeeper? yes, oh yes.’

‘And handsome housekeepers were doubtful characters,’ Captain Baskelett prompted him.

Palmet laughed out a single ‘Ha!’ that seemed to excuse him for lounging away to the forepart of the vessel, where he tugged at his fine specimen of a cigar to rekindle it, and discharged it with a wry grimace, so delicate is the flavour of that weed, and so adversely ever is it affected by a breeze and a moist atmosphere.  He could then return undivided in his mind to Mr. Romfrey and Cecil, but the subject was not resumed in his presence.

The Countess of Menai steamed into Bevisham to land Mr. Romfrey there.  ’I can be out in the Channel any day; it is not every day that I see you,’ she said, in support of her proposal to take him over.

They sat together conversing, apart from the rest of the company, until they sighted Bevisham, when Mr. Romfrey stood up, and a little crowd of men came round him to enjoy his famous racy talk.  Captain Baskelett offered to land with him.  He declined companionship.  Dropping her hand in his, the countess asked him what he had to do in that town, and he replied, ‘I have to demand an apology.’

Answering the direct look of his eyes, she said, ’Oh, I shall not speak of it.’

In his younger days, if the rumour was correct, he had done the same on her account.

He stepped into the boat, and presently they saw him mount the pier-steps, with the riding-whip under his arm, his head more than commonly bent, a noticeable point in a man of his tall erect figure.  The ladies and some of the gentlemen thought he was looking particularly grave, even sorrowful.

Lady Menai inquired of Captain Baskelett whether he knew the nature of his uncle’s business in Bevisham, the town he despised.

What could Cecil say but no?  His uncle had not imparted it to him.

She was flattered in being the sole confidante, and said no more.

The sprightly ingenuity of Captain Baskelett’s mind would have informed him of the nature of his uncle’s expedition, we may be sure, had he put it to the trial; for Mr. Romfrey was as plain to read as a rudimentary sum in arithmetic, and like the tracings of a pedigree-map his preliminary steps to deeds were seen pointing on their issue in lines of straight descent.  But Cecil could protest that he was not bound to know, and considering that he was neither bound to know nor to speculate, he determined to stand on his right.  So effectually did he accomplish the task, that he was frequently surprised during the evening and the night by the effervescence of a secret exultation rising imp-like within him, that was, he assured himself, perfectly unaccountable.