Read CHAPTER XXXV - THE RIDE IN THE WRONG DIRECTION of Beauchamp Career, free online book, by George Meredith, on

That pure opaque of the line of downs ran luminously edged against the pearly morning sky, with its dark landward face crepusculine yet clear in every combe, every dotting copse and furze-bush, every wavy fall, and the ripple, crease, and rill-like descent of the turf.  Beauty of darkness was there, as well as beauty of light above.

Beauchamp and Cecilia rode forth before the sun was over the line, while the West and North-west sides of the rolling downs were stamped with such firmness of dusky feature as you see on the indentations of a shield of tarnished silver.  The mounting of the sun behind threw an obscurer gloom, and gradually a black mask overcame them, until the rays shot among their folds and windings, and shadows rich as the black pansy, steady as on a dialplate rounded with the hour.

Mr. Everard Romfrey embraced this view from Steynham windows, and loved it.  The lengths of gigantic ‘greyhound backs’ coursing along the South were his vision of delight; no image of repose for him, but of the life in swiftness.  He had known them when the great bird of the downs was not a mere tradition, and though he owned conscientiously to never having beheld the bird, a certain mystery of holiness hung about the region where the bird had been in his time.  There, too, with a timely word he had gained a wealthy and good wife.  He had now sent Nevil to do the same.

This astute gentleman had caught at the idea of a ride of the young couple to the downs with his customary alacrity of perception as being the very best arrangement for hurrying them to the point.  At Steynham Nevil was sure to be howling all day over his tumbled joss Shrapnel.  Once away in the heart of the downs, and Cecilia beside him, it was a matter of calculation that two or three hours of the sharpening air would screw his human nature to the pitch.  In fact, unless each of them was reluctant, they could hardly return unbetrothed.  Cecilia’s consent was foreshadowed by her submission in going:  Mr. Romfrey had noticed her fright at the suggestive formalities he cast round the expedition, and felt sure of her.  Taking Nevil for a man who could smell the perfume of a ripe affirmative on the sweetest of lips, he was pretty well sure of him likewise.  And then a truce to all that Radical rageing and hot-pokering of the country! and lie in peace, old Shrapnel! and get on your legs when you can, and offend no more; especially be mindful not to let fly one word against a woman!  With Cecilia for wife, and a year of marriage devoted to a son and heir, Nevil might be expected to resume his duties as a naval officer, and win an honourable name for the inheritance of the young one he kissed.

There was benevolence in these previsions of Mr. Romfrey, proving how good it is for us to bow to despotic authority, if only we will bring ourselves unquestioningly to accept the previous deeds of the directing hand.

Colonel Halkett gave up his daughter for lost when she did not appear at the breakfast-table:  for yet more decidedly lost when the luncheon saw her empty place; and as time drew on toward the dinner-hour, he began to think her lost beyond hope, embarked for good and all with the madbrain.  Some little hope of a dissension between the pair, arising from the natural antagonism of her strong sense to Nevil’s extravagance, had buoyed him until it was evident that they must have alighted at an inn to eat, which signified that they had overleaped the world and its hurdles, and were as dreamy a leash of lovers as ever made a dreamland of hard earth.  The downs looked like dreamland through the long afternoon.  They shone as in a veil of silk-softly fair, softly dark.  No spot of harshness was on them save where a quarry South-westward gaped at the evening sun.

Red light struck into that round chalk maw, and the green slopes and channels and half-circle hollows were brought a mile-stride higher Steynham by the level beams.

The poor old colonel fell to a more frequent repetition of the ‘Well!’ with which he had been unconsciously expressing his perplexed mind in the kennels and through the covers during the day.  None of the gentlemen went to dress.  Mr. Culbrett was indoors conversing with Rosamund Culling.

‘What’s come to them?’ the colonel asked of Mr. Romfrey, who said shrugging, ‘Something wrong with one of the horses.’  It had happened to him on one occasion to set foot in the hole of a baked hedgehog that had furnished a repast, not without succulence, to some shepherd of the downs.  Such a case might have recurred; it was more likely to cause an upset at a walk than at a gallop:  or perhaps a shoe had been cast; and young people break no bones at a walking fall; ten to one if they do at their top speed.  Horses manage to kill their seniors for them:  the young are exempt from accident.

Colonel Halkett nodded and sighed:  ’I daresay they’re safe.  It’s that man Shrapnel’s letter ­that letter, Romfrey!  A private letter, I know; but I’ve not heard Nevil disown the opinions expressed in it.  I submit.  It’s no use resisting.  I treat my daughter as a woman capable of judging for herself.  I repeat, I submit.  I haven’t a word against Nevil except on the score of his politics.  I like him.  All I have to say is, I don’t approve of a republican and a sceptic for my son-in-law.  I yield to you, and my daughter, if she...!’

’I think she does, colonel.  Marriage ’ll cure the fellow.  Nevil will slough his craze.  Off! old coat.  Cissy will drive him in strings.  “My wife!” I hear him.’  Mr. Romfrey laughed quietly.  ’It’s all “my country,” now.  The dog’ll be uxorious.  He wants fixing; nothing worse.’

‘How he goes on about Shrapnel!’

‘I shouldn’t think much of him if he didn’t.’

’You’re one in a thousand, Romfrey.  I object to seeing a man worshipped.’

‘It’s Nevil’s green-sickness, and Shrapnel’s the god of it.’

’I trust to heaven you’re right.  It seems to me young fellows ought to be out of it earlier.’

‘They generally are.’  Mr. Romfrey named some of the processes by which they are relieved of brain-flightiness, adding philosophically, ’This way or that.’

His quick ear caught a sound of hoofs cantering down the avenue on the Northern front of the house.

He consulted his watch.  ’Ten minutes to eight.  Say a quarter-past for dinner.  They’re here, colonel.’

Mr. Romfrey met Nevil returning from the stables.  Cecilia had disappeared.

‘Had a good day?’ said Mr. Romfrey.

Beauchamp replied:  ‘I’ll tell you of it after dinner,’ and passed by him.

Mr. Romfrey edged round to Colonel Halkett, conjecturing in his mind:  They have not hit it; as he remarked:  ’Breakfast and luncheon have been omitted in this day’s fare,’ which appeared to the colonel a confirmation of his worst fears, or rather the extinction of his last spark of hope.

He knocked at his daughter’s door in going upstairs to dress.

Cecilia presented herself and kissed him.

‘Well?’ said he.

‘By-and-by, papa,’ she answered.  ’I have a headache.  Beg Mr. Romfrey to excuse me.’

‘No news for me?’

She had no news.

Mrs. Culling was with her.  The colonel stepped on mystified to his room.

When the door had closed Cecilia turned to Rosamund and burst into tears.  Rosamund felt that it must be something grave indeed for the proud young lady so to betray a troubled spirit.

‘He is ill ­Dr. Shrapnel is very ill,’ Cecilia responded to one or two subdued inquiries in as clear a voice as she could command.

‘Where have you heard of him?’ Rosamund asked.

‘We have been there.’

‘Bevisham? to Bevisham?’ Rosamund was considering the opinion Mr. Romfrey would form of the matter from the point of view of his horses.

‘It was Nevil’s wish,’ said Cecilia.

‘Yes? and you went with him,’ Rosamund encouraged her to proceed, gladdened at hearing her speak of Nevil by that name; ’you have not been on the downs at all?’

Cecilia mentioned a junction railway station they had ridden to; and thence, boxing the horses, by train to Bevisham.  Rosamund understood that some haunting anxiety had fretted Nevil during the night; in the morning he could not withstand it, and he begged Cecilia to change their destination, apparently with a vehemence of entreaty that had been irresistible, or else it was utter affection for him had reduced her to undertake the distasteful journey.  She admitted that she was not the most sympathetic companion Nevil could have had on the way, either going or coming.  She had not entered Dr. Shrapnel’s cottage.  Remaining on horseback she had seen the poor man reclining in his garden chair.  Mr. Lydiard was with him, and also his ward Miss Denham, who had been summoned by telegraph by one of the servants from Switzerland.  And Cecilia had heard Nevil speak of his uncle to her, and too humbly, she hinted.  Nor had the expression of Miss Denham’s countenance in listening to him pleased her; but it was true that a heavily burdened heart cannot be expected to look pleasing.  On the way home Cecilia had been compelled in some degree to defend Mr. Romfrey.  Blushing through her tears at the remembrance of a past emotion that had been mixed with foresight, she confessed to Rosamund she thought it now too late to prevent a rupture between Nevil and his uncle.  Had some one whom Nevil trusted and cared for taken counsel with him and advised him before uncle and nephew met to discuss this most unhappy matter, then there might have been hope.  As it was, the fate of Dr. Shrapnel had gained entire possession of Nevil.  Every retort of his uncle’s in reference to it rose up in him:  he used language of contempt neighbouring abhorrence:  he stipulated for one sole thing to win back his esteem for his uncle; and that was, the apology to Dr. Shrapnel.

‘And to-night,’ Cecilia concluded, ’he will request Mr. Romfrey to accompany him to Bevisham to-morrow morning, to make the apology in person.  He will not accept the slightest evasion.  He thinks Dr. Shrapnel may die, and the honour of the family ­what is it he says of it?’ Cecilia raised her eyes to the ceiling, while Rosamund blinked in impatience and grief, just apprehending the alien state of the young lady’s mind in her absence of recollection, as well as her bondage in the effort to recollect accurately.

‘Have you not eaten any food to-day, Miss Halkett?’ she said; for it might be the want of food which had broken her and changed her manner.

Cecilia replied that she had ridden for an hour to Mount Laurels.

‘Alone?  Mr. Romfrey must not hear of that,’ said Rosamund.

Cecilia consented to lie down on her bed.  She declined the dainties Rosamund pressed on her.  She was feverish with a deep and unconcealed affliction, and behaved as if her pride had gone.  But if her pride had gone she would have eased her heart by sobbing outright.  A similar division harassed her as when her friend Nevil was the candidate for Bevisham.  She condemned his extreme wrath with his uncle, yet was attracted and enchained by the fire of passionate attachment which aroused it:  and she was conscious that she had but shown obedience to his wishes throughout the day, not sympathy with his feelings.  Under cover of a patient desire to please she had nursed irritation and jealousy; the degradation of the sense of jealousy increasing the irritation.  Having consented to the ride to Dr. Shrapnel, should she not, to be consistent, have dismounted there?  O half heart!  A whole one, though it be an erring, like that of the French lady, does at least live, and has a history, and makes music:  but the faint and uncertain is jarred in action, jarred in memory, ever behind the day and in the shadow of it!  Cecilia reviewed herself:  jealous, disappointed, vexed, ashamed, she had been all day a graceless companion, a bad actress:  and at the day’s close she was loving Nevil the better for what had dissatisfied, distressed, and wounded her.  She was loving him in emulation of his devotedness to another person:  and that other was a revolutionary common people’s doctor! an infidel, a traitor to his country’s dearest interests!  But Nevil loved him, and it had become impossible for her not to covet the love, or to think of the old offender without the halo cast by Nevil’s attachment being upon him.  So intensely was she moved by her intertwisting reflections that in an access of bodily fever she stood up and moved before the glass, to behold the image of the woman who could be the victim of these childish emotions:  and no wonderful contrast struck her eyes; she appeared to herself as poor and small as they.  How could she aspire to a man like Nevil Beauchamp?  If he had made her happy by wooing her she would not have adored him as she did now.  He likes my hair, she said, smoothing it out, and then pressing her temples, like one insane.  Two minutes afterward she was telling Rosamund her head ached less.

‘This terrible Dr. Shrapnel!’ Rosamund exclaimed, but reported that no loud voices were raised in the dining-room.

Colonel Halkett came to see his daughter, full of anxiety and curiosity.  Affairs had been peaceful below, for he was ignorant of the expedition to Bevisham.  On hearing of it he frowned, questioned Cecilia as to whether she had set foot on that man’s grounds, then said:  ’Ah! well, we leave to-morrow:  I must go, I have business at home; I can’t delay it.  I sanctioned no calling there, nothing of the kind.  From Steynham to Bevisham?  Goodness, it’s rank madness.  I’m not astonished you’re sick and ill.’

He waited till he was assured Cecilia had no special matter to relate, and recommending her to drink the tea Mrs. Culling had made for her, and then go to bed and sleep, he went down to the drawing-room, charged with the worst form of hostility toward Nevil, the partly diplomatic.

Cecilia smiled at her father’s mention of sleep.  She was in the contest of the two men, however inanimately she might be lying overhead, and the assurance in her mind that neither of them would give ground, so similar were they in their tenacity of will, dissimilar in all else, dragged her this way and that till she swayed lifeless between them.  One may be as a weed of the sea while one’s fate is being decided.  To love is to be on the sea, out of sight of land:  to love a man like Nevil Beauchamp is to be on the sea in tempest.  Still to persist in loving would be noble, and but for this humiliation of utter helplessness an enviable power.  Her thoughts ran thus in shame and yearning and regret, dimly discerning where her heart failed in the strength which was Nevil’s, though it was a full heart, faithful and not void of courage.  But he never brooded, he never blushed from insufficiency-the faintness of a desire, the callow passion that cannot fly and feed itself:  he never tottered; he walked straight to his mark.  She set up his image and Renee’s, and cowered under the heroical shapes till she felt almost extinct.  With her weak limbs and head worthlessly paining, the little infantile I within her ceased to wail, dwindled beyond sensation.  Rosamund, waiting on her in the place of her maid, saw two big drops come through her closed eyelids, and thought that if it could be granted to Nevil to look for a moment on this fair and proud young lady’s loveliness in abandonment, it would tame, melt, and save him.  The Gods presiding over custom do not permit such renovating sights to men.