Read CHAPTER XXXVI - PURSUIT OF THE APOLOGY OF Mr. ROMFREY TO DR. SHRAPNEL of Beauchamp Career, free online book, by George Meredith, on ReadCentral.com.

The contest, which was an alternation of hard hitting and close wrestling, had recommenced when Colonel Halkett stepped into the drawing-room.

‘Colonel, I find they’ve been galloping to Bevisham and back,’ said Mr. Romfrey.

‘I’ve heard of it,’ the colonel replied.  Not perceiving a sign of dissatisfaction on his friend’s face, he continued:  ’To that man Shrapnel.’

‘Cecilia did not dismount,’ said Beauchamp.

’You took her to that man’s gate.  It was not with my sanction.  You know my ideas of the man.’

’If you were to see him now, colonel, I don’t think you would speak harshly of him.’

’We ’re not obliged to go and look on men who have, had their measure dealt them.’

‘Barbarously,’ said Beauchamp.

Mr. Romfrey in the most placid manner took a chair.  ‘Windy talk, that!’ he said.

Colonel Halkett seated himself.  Stukely Culbrett turned a sheet of manuscript he was reading.

Beauchamp began a caged lion’s walk on the rug under the mantelpiece.

‘I shall not spare you from hearing what I think of it, sir.’

’We ‘ve had what you think of it twice over,’ said Mr. Romfrey.  ’I suppose it was the first time for information, the second time for emphasis, and the rest counts to keep it alive in your recollection.’

’This is what you have to take to heart, sir; that Dr. Shrapnel is now seriously ill.’

‘I’m sorry for it, and I’ll pay the doctor’s bill.’

‘You make it hard for me to treat you with respect.’

’Fire away.  Those Radical friends of yours have to learn a lesson, and it’s worth a purse to teach them that a lady, however feeble she may seem to them, is exactly of the strength of the best man of her acquaintance.’

‘That’s well said!’ came from Colonel Halkett.

Beauchamp stared at him, amazed by the commendation of empty language.

‘You acted in error; barbarously, but in error,’ he addressed his uncle.

‘And you have got a fine topic for mouthing,’ Mr. Romfrey rejoined.

‘You mean to sit still under Dr. Shrapnel’s forgiveness?’

‘He’s taken to copy the Christian religion, has he?’

‘You know you were deluded when you struck him.’

‘Not a whit.’

‘Yes, you know it now:  Mrs. Culling ­’

‘Drag in no woman, Nevil Beauchamp!’

’She has confessed to you that Dr. Shrapnel neither insulted her nor meant to ruffle her.’

‘She has done no such nonsense.’

‘If she has not! ­but I trust her to have done it.’

‘You play the trumpeter, you terrorize her.’

’Into opening her lips wider; nothing else.  I’ll have the truth from her, and no mincing:  and from Cecil Baskelett and Palmet.’

‘Give Cecil a second licking, if you can, and have him off to Shrapnel.’

‘You!’ cried Beauchamp.

At this juncture Stukely Culbrett closed the manuscript in his hands, and holding it out to Beauchamp, said: 

’Here’s your letter, Nevil.  It’s tolerably hard to decipher.  It’s mild enough; it’s middling good pulpit.  I like it.’

‘What have you got there?’ Colonel Halkett asked him.

’A letter of his friend Dr. Shrapnel on the Country.  Read a bit, colonel.’

‘I?  That letter!  Mild, do you call it?’ The colonel started back his chair in declining to touch the letter.

‘Try it,’ said Stukely.  ’It’s the letter they have been making the noise about.  It ought to be printed.  There’s a hit or two at the middle-class that I should like to see in print.  It’s really not bad pulpit; and I suspect that what you object to, colonel, is only the dust of a well-thumped cushion.  Shrapnel thumps with his fist.  He doesn’t say much that’s new.  If the parsons were men they’d be saying it every Sunday.  If they did, colonel, I should hear you saying, amen.’

‘Wait till they do say it.’

’That’s a long stretch.  They’re turn-cocks of one Water-company ­to wash the greasy citizens!’

‘You’re keeping Nevil on the gape;’ said Mr. Romfrey, with a whimsical shrewd cast of the eye at Beauchamp, who stood alert not to be foiled, arrow-like in look and readiness to repeat his home-shot.  Mr. Romfrey wanted to hear more of that unintelligible ‘You!’ of Beauchamp’s.  But Stukely Culbrett intended that the latter should be foiled, and he continued his diversion from the angry subject.

‘We’ll drop the sacerdotals,’ he said.  ’They’re behind a veil for us, and so are we for them.  I’m with you, colonel; I wouldn’t have them persecuted; they sting fearfully when whipped.  No one listens to them now except the class that goes to sleep under them, to “set an example” to the class that can’t understand them.  Shrapnel is like the breeze shaking the turf-grass outside the church-doors; a trifle fresher.  He knocks nothing down.’

‘He can’t!’ ejaculated the colonel.

‘He sermonizes to shake, that’s all.  I know the kind of man.’

‘Thank heaven, it’s not a common species in England!’

‘Common enough to be classed.’

Beauchamp struck through the conversation of the pair:  ’Can I see you alone to-night, sir, or to-morrow morning?’

‘You may catch me where you can,’ was Mr. Romfrey’s answer.

’Where’s that?  It’s for your sake and mine, not for Dr. Shrapnel’s.  I have to speak to you, and must.  You have done your worst with him; you can’t undo it.  You have to think of your honour as a gentleman.  I intend to treat you with respect, but wolf is the title now, whether I say it or not.’

‘Shrapnel’s a rather long-legged sheep?’

‘He asks for nothing from you.’

‘He would have got nothing, at a cry of peccavi!’

’He was innocent, perfectly blameless; he would not lie to save himself. 
You mistook that for ­but you were an engine shot along a line of rails. 
He does you the justice to say you acted in error.’

‘And you’re his parrot.’

‘He pardons you.’

‘Ha! t’ other cheek!’

’You went on that brute’s errand in ignorance.  Will you keep to the character now you know the truth?  Hesitation about it doubles the infamy.  An old man! the best of men! the kindest and truest! the most unselfish!’

‘He tops me by half a head, and he’s my junior.’

Beauchamp suffered himself to give out a groan of sick derision:  ‘Ah!’

‘And it was no joke holding him tight,’ said Mr. Romfrey, ’I ’d as lief snap an ash.  The fellow (he leaned round to Colonel Halkett) must be a fellow of a fine constitution.  And he took his punishment like a man.  I’ve known worse:  and far worse:  gentlemen by birth.  There’s the choice of taking it upright or fighting like a rabbit with a weasel in his hole.  Leave him to think it over, he’ll come right.  I think no harm of him, I’ve no animus.  A man must have his lesson at some time of life.  I did what I had to do.’

‘Look here, Nevil,’ Stukely Culbrett checked Beauchamp in season:  ’I beg to inquire what Dr. Shrapnel means by “the people.”  We have in our country the nobles and the squires, and after them, as I understand it, the people:  that’s to say, the middle-class and the working-class ­fat and lean.  I’m quite with Shrapnel when he lashes the fleshpots.  They want it, and they don’t get it from “their organ,” the Press.  I fancy you and I agree about their organ; the dismallest organ that ever ground a hackneyed set of songs and hymns to madden the thoroughfares.’

‘The Press of our country!’ interjected Colonel Halkett in moaning parenthesis.

’It’s the week-day Parson of the middle-class, colonel.  They have their thinking done for them as the Chinese have their dancing.  But, Nevil, your Dr. Shrapnel seems to treat the traders as identical with the aristocracy in opposition to his “people.”  The traders are the cursed middlemen, bad friends of the “people,” and infernally treacherous to the nobles till money hoists them.  It’s they who pull down the country.  They hold up the nobles to the hatred of the democracy, and the democracy to scare the nobles.  One’s when they want to swallow a privilege, and the other’s when they want to ring-fence their gains.  How is it Shrapnel doesn’t expose the trick?  He must see through it.  I like that letter of his.  People is one of your Radical big words that burst at a query.  He can’t mean Quince, and Bottom, and Starveling, Christopher Sly, Jack Cade, Caliban, and poor old Hodge?  No, no, Nevil.  Our clowns are the stupidest in Europe.  They can’t cook their meals.  They can’t spell; they can scarcely speak.  They haven’t a jig in their legs.  And I believe they’re losing their grin!  They’re nasty when their blood’s up.  Shakespeare’s Cade tells you what he thought of Radicalizing the people.  “And as for your mother, I ’ll make her a duke”; that ’s one of their songs.  The word people, in England, is a dyspeptic agitator’s dream when he falls nodding over the red chapter of French history.  Who won the great liberties for England?  My book says, the nobles.  And who made the great stand later? ­the squires.  What have the middlemen done but bid for the people they despise and fear, dishonour us abroad and make a hash of us at home?  Shrapnel sees that.  Only he has got the word people in his mouth.  The people of England, my dear fellow, want heading.  Since the traders obtained power we have been a country on all fours.  Of course Shrapnel sees it:  I say so.  But talk to him and teach him where to look for the rescue.’

Colonel Halkett said to Stukely:  ’If you have had a clear idea in what you have just spoken, my head’s no place for it!’

Stukely’s unusually lengthy observations had somewhat heated him, and he protested with earnestness:  ‘It was pure Tory, my dear colonel.’

But the habitually and professedly cynical should not deliver themselves at length:  for as soon as they miss their customary incision of speech they are apt to aim to recover it in loquacity, and thus it may be that the survey of their ideas becomes disordered.

Mr. Culbrett endangered his reputation for epigram in a good cause, it shall be said.

These interruptions were torture to Beauchamp.  Nevertheless the end was gained.  He sank into a chair silent.

Mr. Romfrey wished to have it out with his nephew, of whose comic appearance as a man full of thunder, and occasionally rattling, yet all the while trying to be decorous and politic, he was getting tired.  He foresaw that a tussle between them in private would possibly be too hot for his temper, admirably under control though it was.

‘Why not drag Cecil to Shrapnel?’ he said, for a provocation.

Beauchamp would not be goaded.

Colonel Halkett remarked that he would have to leave Steynham the next day.  His host remonstrated with him.  The colonel said:  ‘Early.’  He had very particular business at home.  He was positive, and declined every inducement to stay.  Mr. Romfrey glanced at Nevil, thinking, You poor fool!  And then he determined to let the fellow have five minutes alone with him.

This occurred at midnight, in that half-armoury, half-library, which was his private room.

Rosamund heard their voices below.  She cried out to herself that it was her doing, and blamed her beloved, and her master, and Dr. Shrapnel, in the breath of her self-recrimination.  The demagogue, the over-punctilious gentleman, the faint lover, surely it must be reason wanting in the three for each of them in turn to lead the other, by an excess of some sort of the quality constituting their men’s natures, to wreck a calm life and stand in contention!  Had Shrapnel been commonly reasonable he would have apologized to Mr. Romfrey, or had Mr. Romfrey, he would not have resorted to force to punish the supposed offender, or had Nevil, he would have held his peace until he had gained his bride.  As it was; the folly of the three knocked at her heart, uniting to bring the heavy accusation against one poor woman, quite in the old way:  the Who is she? of the mocking Spaniard at mention of a social catastrophe.  Rosamund had a great deal of the pride of her sex, and she resented any slur on it.  She felt almost superciliously toward Mr. Romfrey and Nevil for their not taking hands to denounce the plotter, Cecil Baskelett.  They seemed a pair of victims to him, nearly as much so as the wretched man Shrapnel.  It was their senselessness which made her guilty!  And simply because she had uttered two or three exclamations of dislike of a revolutionary and infidel she was compelled to groan under her present oppression!  Is there anything to be hoped of men?  Rosamund thought bitterly of Nevil’s idea of their progress.  Heaven help them!  But the unhappy creatures have ceased to look to a heaven for help.

We see the consequence of it in this Shrapnel complication.

Three men:  and one struck down; the other defeated in his benevolent intentions; the third sacrificing fortune and happiness:  all three owing their mischance to one or other of the vague ideas disturbing men’s heads!  Where shall we look for mother wit? ­or say, common suckling’s instinct?  Not to men, thought Rosamund.

She was listening to the voices of Mr. Romfrey and Beauchamp in a fever.  Ordinarily the lord of Steynham was not out of his bed later than twelve o’clock at night.  His door opened at half-past one.  Not a syllable was exchanged by the couple in the hall.  They had fought it out.  Mr. Romfrey came upstairs alone, and on the closing of his chamber-door she slipped down to Beauchamp and had a dreadful hour with him that subdued her disposition to sit in judgement upon men.  The unavailing attempt to move his uncle had wrought him to the state in which passionate thoughts pass into speech like heat to flame.  Rosamund strained her mental sight to gain a conception of his prodigious horror of the treatment of Dr. Shrapnel that she might think him sane:  and to retain a vestige of comfort in her bosom she tried to moderate and make light of as much as she could conceive.  Between the two efforts she had no sense but that of helplessness.  Once more she was reduced to promise that she would speak the whole truth to Mr. Romfrey, even to the fact that she had experienced a common woman’s jealousy of Dr. Shrapnel’s influence, and had alluded to him jealously, spitefully, and falsely.  There was no mercy in Beauchamp.  He was for action at any cost, with all the forces he could gather, and without delays.  He talked of Cecilia as his uncle’s bride to him.  Rosamund could hardly trust her ears when he informed her he had told his uncle of his determination to compel him to accomplish the act of penitence.  ‘Was it prudent to say it, Nevil?’ she asked.  But, as in his politics, he disdained prudence.  A monstrous crime had been committed, involving the honour of the family.  No subtlety of insinuation, no suggestion, could wean him from the fixed idea that the apology to Dr. Shrapnel must be spoken by his uncle in person.

‘If one could only imagine Mr. Romfrey doing it!’ Rosamund groaned.

‘He shall:  and you will help him,’ said Beauchamp.

‘If you loved a woman half as much as you do that man!’

‘If I knew a woman as good, as wise, as noble as he!’

‘You are losing her.’

’You expect me to go through ceremonies of courtship at a time like this!  If she cares for me she will feel with me.  Simple compassion ­but let Miss Halkett be.  I’m afraid I overtasked her in taking her to Bevisham.  She remained outside the garden.  Ma’am, she is unsullied by contact with a single shrub of Dr. Shrapnel’s territory.’

’Do not be so bitterly ironical, Nevil.  You have not seen her as I have.’

Rosamund essayed a tender sketch of the fair young lady, and fancied that she drew forth a sigh; she would have coloured the sketch, but he commanded her to hurry off to bed, and think of her morning’s work.

A commission of which we feel we can accurately forecast the unsuccessful end is not likely to be undertaken with an ardour that might perhaps astound the presageing mind with unexpected issues.  Rosamund fulfilled hers in the style of one who has learnt a lesson, and, exactly as she had anticipated, Mr. Romfrey accused her of coming to him from a conversation with that fellow Nevil overnight.  He shrugged and left the house for his morning’s walk across the fields.

Colonel Halkett and Cecilia beheld him from the breakfast-room returning with Beauchamp, who had waylaid him and was hammering his part in the now endless altercation.  It could be descried at any distance; and how fine was Mr. Romfrey’s bearing! ­truly noble by contrast, as of a grave big dog worried by a small barking dog.  There is to an unsympathetic observer an intense vexatiousness in the exhibition of such pertinacity.  To a soldier accustomed at a glance to estimate powers of attack and defence, this repeated puny assailing of a fortress that required years of siege was in addition ridiculous.  Mr. Romfrey appeared impregnable, and Beauchamp mad.  ‘He’s foaming again!’ said the colonel, and was only ultra-pictorial.  ‘Before breakfast!’ was a further slur on Beauchamp.

Mr. Romfrey was elevated by the extraordinary comicality of the notion of the proposed apology to heights of humour beyond laughter, whence we see the unbounded capacity of the general man for folly, and rather commiserate than deride him.  He was quite untroubled.  It demanded a steady view of the other side of the case to suppose of one whose control of his temper was perfect, that he could be in the wrong.  He at least did not think so, and Colonel Halkett relied on his common sense.  Beauchamp’s brows were smouldering heavily, except when he had to talk.  He looked paleish and worn, and said he had been up early.  Cecilia guessed that he had not been to bed.

It was dexterously contrived by her host, in spite of the colonel’s manifest anxiety to keep them asunder, that she should have some minutes with Beauchamp out in the gardens.  Mr. Romfrey led them out, and then led the colonel away to offer him a choice of pups of rare breed.

‘Nevil,’ said Cecilia, ’you will not think it presumption in me to give you advice?’

Her counsel to him was, that he should leave Steynham immediately, and trust to time for his uncle to reconsider his conduct.

Beauchamp urged the counter-argument of the stain on the family honour.

She hinted at expediency; he frankly repudiated it.

The downs faced them, where the heavenly vast ‘might have been’ of yesterday wandered thinner than a shadow of to-day; weaving a story without beginning, crisis, or conclusion, flowerless and fruitless, but with something of infinite in it sweeter to brood on than the future of her life to Cecilia.

‘If meanwhile Dr. Shrapnel should die, and repentance comes too late!’ said Beauchamp.

She had no clear answer to that, save the hope of its being an unfounded apprehension.  ’As far as it is in my power, Nevil, I will avoid injustice to him in my thoughts.’

He gazed at her thankfully.  ‘Well,’ said he, ’that’s like sighting the cliffs.  But I don’t feel home round me while the colonel is so strangely prepossessed.  For a high-spirited gentleman like your father to approve, or at least accept, an act so barbarous is incomprehensible.  Speak to him, Cecilia, will you?  Let him know your ideas.’

She assented.  He said instantly, ’Persuade him to speak to my uncle Everard.’

She was tempted to smile.

‘I must do only what I think wise, if I am to be of service, Nevil.’

’True, but paint that scene to him.  An old man, utterly defenceless, making no defence! a cruel error.  The colonel can’t, or he doesn’t, clearly get it inside him, otherwise I’m certain it would revolt him:  just as I am certain my uncle Everard is at this moment a stone-blind man.  If he has done a thing, he can’t question it, won’t examine it.  The thing becomes a part of him, as much as his hand or his head.  He ’s a man of the twelfth century.  Your father might be helped to understand him first.’

‘Yes,’ she said, not very warmly, though sadly.

’Tell the colonel how it must have been brought about.  For Cecil Baskelett called on Dr. Shrapnel two days before Mr. Romfrey stood at his gate.’

The name of Cecil caused her to draw in her shoulders in a half-shudder.  ‘It may indeed be Captain Baskelett who set this cruel thing in motion!’

’Then point that out to your father, said he, perceiving a chance of winning her to his views through a concrete object of her dislike, and cooling toward the woman who betrayed a vulgar characteristic of her sex; who was merely woman, unable sternly to recognize the doing of a foul wrong because of her antipathy, until another antipathy enlightened her.

He wanted in fact a ready-made heroine, and did not give her credit for the absence of fire in her blood, as well as for the unexercised imagination which excludes young women from the power to realize unwonted circumstances.  We men walking about the world have perhaps no more imagination of matters not domestic than they; but what we have is quick with experience:  we see the thing we hear of:  women come to it how they can.

Cecilia was recommended to weave a narrative for her father, and ultimately induce him, if she could, to give a gentleman’s opinion of the case to Mr. Romfrey.

Her sensitive ear caught a change of tone in the directions she received.  ’Your father will say so and so:  answer him with this and that.’  Beauchamp supplied her with phrases.  She was to renew and renew the attack; hammer as he did.  Yesterday she had followed him:  to-day she was to march beside him ­hardly as an equal.  Patience! was the word she would have uttered in her detection of the one frailty in his nature which this hurrying of her off her feet opened her eyes to with unusual perspicacity.  Still she leaned to him sufficiently to admit that he had grounds for a deep disturbance of his feelings.

He said:  ’I go to Dr. Shrapnel’s cottage, and don’t know how to hold up my head before Miss Denham.  She confided him to me when she left for Switzerland!’

There was that to be thought of, certainly.

Colonel Halkett came round a box-bush and discovered them pacing together in a fashion to satisfy his paternal scrutiny.

‘I’ve been calling you several times, my dear,’ he complained.  ’We start in seven minutes.  Bustle, and bonnet at once.  Nevil, I’m sorry for this business.  Good-bye.  Be a good boy, Nevil,’ he murmured kindheartedly, and shook Beauchamp’s hand with the cordiality of an extreme relief in leaving him behind.

The colonel and Mr. Romfrey and Beauchamp were standing on the hall-steps when Rosamund beckoned the latter and whispered a request for that letter of Dr. Shrapnel’s.  ‘It is for Miss Halkett, Nevil.’

He plucked the famous epistle from his bulging pocketbook, and added a couple of others in the same handwriting.

‘Tell her, a first reading ­it’s difficult to read at first,’ he said, and burned to read it to Cecilia himself:  to read it to her with his comments and explanations appeared imperative.  It struck him in a flash that Cecilia’s counsel to him to quit Steynham for awhile was good.  And if he went to Bevisham he would be assured of Dr. Shrapnel’s condition:  notes and telegrams from the cottage were too much tempered to console and deceive him.

‘Send my portmanteau and bag after me to Bevisham,’ he said Rosamund, and announced to the woefully astonish colonel that he would have the pleasure of journeying in his company as far as the town.

‘Are you ready?  No packing?’ said the colonel.

‘It’s better to have your impediments in the rear of you, and march!’ said Mr. Romfrey.

Colonel Halkett declined to wait for anybody.  He shouted for his daughter.  The lady’s maid appeared, and then Cecilia with Rosamund.

‘We can’t entertain you, Nevil; we’re away to the island:  I’m sorry,’ said the colonel; and observing Cecilia’s face in full crimson, he looked at her as if he had lost a battle by the turn of events at the final moment.

Mr. Romfrey handed Cecilia into the carriage.  He exchanged a friendly squeeze with the colonel, and offered his hand to his nephew.  Beauchamp passed him with a nod and ‘Good-bye, sir.’

‘Have ready at Holdesbury for the middle of the month,’ said Mr. Romfrey, unruffled, and bowed to Cecilia.

‘If you think of bringing my cousin Baskelett, give me warning, sir,’ cried Beauchamp.

‘Give me warning, if you want the house for Shrapnel,’ replied his uncle, and remarked to Rosamund, as the carriage wheeled round the mounded laurels to the avenue, ’He mayn’t be quite cracked.  The fellow seems to have a turn for catching his opportunity by the tail.  He had better hold fast, for it’s his last.’