Read CHAPTER XXXIV - THE FACE OF RENEE of Beauchamp Career, free online book, by George Meredith, on ReadCentral.com.

Shortly before the ringing of the dinner-bell Rosamund knocked at Beauchamp’s dressing-room door, the bearer of a telegram from Bevisham.  He read it in one swift run of the eyes, and said:  ’Come in, ma’am, I have something for you.  Madame de Rouaillout sends you this.’

Rosamund saw her name written in a French hand on the back of the card.

‘You stay with us, Nevil?’

‘To-night and to-morrow, perhaps.  The danger seems to be over.’

‘Has Dr. Shrapnel been in danger?’

‘He has.  If it’s quite over now!’

‘I declare to you, Nevil...’

’Listen to me, ma’am; I’m in the dark about this murderous business: ­an old man, defenceless, harmless as a child! ­but I know this, that you are somewhere in it.’

‘Nevil, do you not guess at some one else?’

’He! yes, he!  But Cecil Baskelett led no blind man to Dr. Shrapnel’s gate.’

‘Nevil, as I live, I knew nothing of it!’

’No, but you set fire to the train.  You hated the old man, and you taught Mr. Romfrey to think that you had been insulted.  I see it all.  Now you must have the courage to tell him of your error.  There’s no other course for you.  I mean to take Mr. Romfrey to Dr. Shrapnel, to save the honour of our family, as far as it can be saved.’

‘What?  Nevil!’ exclaimed Rosamund, gaping.

’It seems little enough, ma’am.  But he must go.  I will have the apology spoken, and man to man.’

‘But you would never tell your uncle that?’

He laughed in his uncle’s manner.

’But, Nevil, my dearest, forgive me, I think of you ­why are the Halketts here?  It is not entirely with Colonel Halkett’s consent.  It is your uncle’s influence with him that gives you your chance.  Do you not care to avail yourself of it?  Ever since he heard Dr. Shrapnel’s letter to you, Colonel Halkett has, I am sure, been tempted to confound you with him in his mind:  ah!  Nevil, but recollect that it is only Mr. Romfrey who can help to give you your Cecilia.  There is no dispensing with him.  Postpone your attempt to humiliate ­I mean, that is, Oh!  Nevil, whatever you intend to do to overcome your uncle, trust to time, be friends with him; be a little worldly! for her sake! to ensure her happiness!’

Beauchamp obtained the information that his cousin Cecil had read out the letter of Dr. Shrapnel at Mount Laurels.

The bell rang.

’Do you imagine I should sit at my uncle’s table if I did not intend to force him to repair the wrong he has done to himself and to us?’ he said.

‘Oh!  Nevil, do you not see Captain Baskelett at work here?’

’What amends can Cecil Baskelett make?  My uncle is a man of honour:  it is in his power.  There, I leave you to speak to him; you will do it to-night, after we break up in the drawing-room.’

Rosamund groaned:  ’An apology to Dr. Shrapnel from Mr. Romfrey!  It is an impossibility, Nevil! utter!’

‘So you say to sit idle:  but do as I tell you.’

He went downstairs.

He had barely reproached her.  She wondered at that; and then remembered his alien sad half-smile in quitting the room.

Rosamund would not present herself at her lord’s dinner-table when there were any guests at Steynham.  She prepared to receive Miss Halkett in the drawing-room, as the guests of the house this evening chanced to be her friends.

Madame de Rouaillout’s present to her was a photograph of M. de Croisnel, his daughter and son in a group.  Rosamund could not bear to look at the face of Renee, and she put it out of sight.  But she had looked.  She was reduced to look again.

Roland stood beside his father’s chair; Renee sat at his feet, clasping his right hand.  M. de Croisnel’s fallen eyelids and unshorn white chin told the story of the family reunion.  He was dying:  his two children were nursing him to the end.

Decidedly Cecilia was a more beautiful woman than Renee:  but on which does the eye linger longest ­which draws the heart? a radiant landscape, where the tall ripe wheat flashes between shadow and shine in the stately march of Summer, or the peep into dewy woodland on to dark water?

Dark-eyed Renee was not beauty but attraction; she touched the double chords within us which are we know not whether harmony or discord, but a divine discord if an uncertified harmony, memorable beyond plain sweetness or majesty.  There are touches of bliss in anguish that superhumanize bliss, touches of mystery in simplicity, of the eternal in the variable.  These two chords of poignant antiphony she struck throughout the range of the hearts of men, and strangely intervolved them in vibrating unison.  Only to look at her face, without hearing her voice, without the charm of her speech, was to feel it.  On Cecilia’s entering the drawing-room sofa, while the gentlemen drank claret, Rosamund handed her the card of the photographic artist of Tours, mentioning no names.

‘I should say the portrait is correct.  A want of spirituality,’ Rosamund said critically, using one of the insular commonplaces, after that manner of fastening upon what there is not in a piece of Art or nature.

Cecilia’s avidity to see and study the face preserved her at a higher mark.

She knew the person instantly; had no occasion to ask who this was.  She sat over the portrait blushing burningly:  ‘And that is a brother?’ she said.

‘That is her brother Roland, and very like her, except in complexion,’ said Rosamund.

Cecilia murmured of a general resemblance in the features.  Renee enchained her.  Though but a sun-shadow, the vividness of this French face came out surprisingly; air was in the nostrils and speech flew from the tremulous mouth.  The eyes? were they quivering with internal light, or were they set to seem so in the sensitive strange curves of the eyelids whose awakened lashes appeared to tremble on some borderland between lustreful significance and the mists?  She caught at the nerves like certain aoristic combinations in music, like tones of a stringed instrument swept by the wind, enticing, unseizable.  Yet she sat there at her father’s feet gazing out into the world indifferent to spectators, indifferent even to the common sentiment of gracefulness.  Her left hand clasped his right, and she supported herself on the floor with the other hand leaning away from him, to the destruction of conventional symmetry in the picture.  None but a woman of consummate breeding dared have done as she did.  It was not Southern suppleness that saved her from the charge of harsh audacity, but something of the kind of genius in her mood which has hurried the greater poets of sound and speech to impose their naturalness upon accepted laws, or show the laws to have been our meagre limitations.

The writer in this country will, however, be made safest, and the excellent body of self-appointed thongmen, who walk up and down our ranks flapping their leathern straps to terrorize us from experiments in imagery, will best be satisfied, by the statement that she was indescribable:  a term that exacts no labour of mind from him or from them, for it flows off the pen as readily as it fills a vacuum.

That posture of Renee displeased Cecilia and fascinated her.  In an exhibition of paintings she would have passed by it in pure displeasure:  but here was Nevil’s first love, the woman who loved him; and she was French.  After a continued study of her Cecilia’s growing jealousy betrayed itself in a conscious rivalry of race, coming to the admission that Englishwomen cannot fling themselves about on the floor without agonizing the graces:  possibly, too, they cannot look singularly without risks in the direction of slyness and brazen archness; or talk animatedly without dipping in slang.  Conventional situations preserve them and interchange dignity with them; still life befits them; pre-eminently that judicial seat from which in briefest speech they deliver their judgements upon their foreign sisters.  Jealousy it was that plucked Cecilia from her majestic place and caused her to envy in Renee things she would otherwise have disapproved.

At last she had seen the French lady’s likeness!  The effect of it was a horrid trouble in Cecilia’s cool blood, abasement, a sense of eclipse, hardly any sense of deserving worthiness:  ‘What am I but an heiress!’ Nevil had once called her beautiful; his praise had given her beauty.  But what is beauty when it is outshone!  Ask the owners of gems.  You think them rich; they are pining.

Then, too, this Renee, who looked electrical in repose, might really love Nevil with a love that sent her heart out to him in his enterprises, justifying and adoring him, piercing to the hero in his very thoughts.  Would she not see that his championship of the unfortunate man Dr. Shrapnel was heroic?

Cecilia surrendered the card to Rosamund, and it was out of sight when Beauchamp stepped in the drawing-room.  His cheeks were flushed; he had been one against three for the better part of an hour.

‘Are you going to show me the downs to-morrow morning?’ Cecilia said to him; and he replied, ‘You will have to be up early.’

‘What’s that?’ asked the colonel, at Beauchamp’s heels.

He was volunteering to join the party of two for the early morning’s ride to the downs.  Mr. Romfrey pressed his shoulder, saying, ’There’s no third horse can do it in my stables.’

Colonel Halkett turned to him.

’I had your promise to come over the kennels with me and see how I treat a cry of mad dog, which is ninety-nine times out of a hundred mad fool man,’ Mr. Romfrey added.

By that the colonel knew he meant to stand by Nevil still and offer him his chance of winning Cecilia.

Having pledged his word not to interfere, Colonel Halkett submitted, and muttered, ‘Ah! the kennels.’  Considering however what he had been witnessing of Nevil’s behaviour to his uncle, the colonel was amazed at Mr. Romfrey’s magnanimity in not cutting him off and disowning him.

‘Why the downs?’ he said.

‘Why the deuce, colonel?’ A question quite as reasonable, and Mr. Romfrey laughed under his breath.  To relieve an uncertainty in Cecilia’s face, that might soon have become confusion, he described the downs fronting the paleness of earliest dawn, and then their arch and curve and dip against the pearly grey of the half-glow; and then, among their hollows, lo, the illumination of the East all around, and up and away, and a gallop for miles along the turfy thymy rolling billows, land to left, sea to right, below you.  ’It’s the nearest hit to wings we can make, Cecilia.’  He surprised her with her Christian name, which kindled in her the secret of something he expected from that ride on the downs.  Compare you the Alps with them?  If you could jump on the back of an eagle, you might.  The Alps have height.  But the downs have swiftness.  Those long stretching lines of the downs are greyhounds in full career.  To look at them is to set the blood racing!  Speed is on the downs, glorious motion, odorous air of sea and herb, exquisite as in the isles of Greece.  And the Continental travelling ninnies leave England for health! ­run off and forth from the downs to the steamboat, the railway, the steaming hotel, the tourist’s shivering mountain-top, in search of sensations!  There on the downs the finest and liveliest are at their bidding ready to fly through them like hosts of angels.

He spoke somewhat in that strain, either to relieve Cecilia or prepare the road for Nevil, not in his ordinary style; on the contrary, with a swing of enthusiasm that seemed to spring of ancient heartfelt fervours.  And indeed soon afterward he was telling her that there on those downs, in full view of Steynham, he and his wife had first joined hands.

Beauchamp sat silent.  Mr. Romfrey despatched orders to the stables, and Rosamund to the kitchen.  Cecilia was rather dismayed by the formal preparations for the ride.  She declined the early cup of coffee.  Mr. Romfrey begged her to take it.  ’Who knows the hour when you ’ll be back?’ he said.  Beauchamp said nothing.

The room grew insufferable to Cecilia.  She would have liked to be wafted to her chamber in a veil, so shamefully unveiled did she seem to be.  But the French lady would have been happy in her place!  Her father kissed her as fathers do when they hand the bride into the travelling-carriage.  His ‘Good-night, my darling!’ was in the voice of a soldier on duty.  For a concluding sign that her dim apprehensions pointed correctly, Mr. Romfrey kissed her on the forehead.  She could not understand how it had come to pass that she found herself suddenly on this incline, precipitated whither she would fain be going, only less hurriedly, less openly, and with her secret merely peeping, like a dove in the breast.