Read CHAPTER XXXVII - CECILIA CONQUERED of Beauchamp Career, free online book, by George Meredith, on ReadCentral.com.

The carriage rolled out of the avenue and through the park, for some time parallel with the wavy downs.  Once away from Steynham Colonel Halkett breathed freely, as if he had dropped a load:  he was free of his bond to Mr. Romfrey, and so great was the sense of relief in him that he resolved to do battle against his daughter, supposing her still lively blush to be the sign of the enemy’s flag run up on a surrendered citadel.  His authority was now to be thought of:  his paternal sanction was in his own keeping.  Beautiful as she looked, it was hardly credible that a fellow in possession of his reason could have let slip his chance of such a prize; but whether he had or had not, the colonel felt that he occupied a position enabling him either to out-manoeuvre, or, if need were, interpose forcibly and punish him for his half-heartedness.

Cecilia looked the loveliest of women to Beauchamp’s eyes, with her blush, and the letters of Dr. Shrapnel in her custody, at her express desire.  Certain terms in the letters here and there, unsweet to ladies, began to trouble his mind.

‘By the way, colonel,’ he said, ’you had a letter of Dr. Shrapnel’s read to you by Captain Baskelett.’

‘Iniquitous rubbish!’

’With his comments on it, I dare say you thought it so.  I won’t speak of his right to make it public.  He wanted to produce his impressions of it and me, and that is a matter between him and me.  Dr. Shrapnel makes use of strong words now and then, but I undertake to produce a totally different impression on you by reading the letter myself ­sparing you’ (he turned to Cecilia) ’a word or two, common enough to men who write in black earnest and have humour.’  He cited his old favourite, the black and bright lecturer on Heroes.  ’You have read him, I know, Cecilia.  Well, Dr. Shrapnel is another, who writes in his own style, not the leading-article style or modern pulpit stuff.  He writes to rouse.’

‘He does that to my temper,’ said the colonel.

‘Perhaps here and there he might offend Cecilia’s taste,’ Beauchamp pursued for her behoof.  ’Everything depends on the mouthpiece.  I should not like the letter to be read without my being by; ­except by men:  any just-minded man may read it:  Seymour Austin, for example.  Every line is a text to the mind of the writer.  Let me call on you to-morrow.’

‘To-morrow?’ Colonel Halkett put on a thoughtful air.  ’To-morrow we’re off to the island for a couple of days; and there’s Lord Croyston’s garden party, and the Yacht Ball.  Come this evening-dine with us.  No reading of letters, please.  I can’t stand it, Nevil.’

The invitation was necessarily declined by a gentleman who could not expect to be followed by supplies of clothes and linen for evening wear that day.

‘Ah, we shall see you some day or other,’ said the colonel.

Cecilia was less alive to Beauchamp’s endeavour to prepare her for the harsh words in the letter than to her father’s insincerity.  She would have asked her friend to come in the morning next day, but for the dread of deepening her blush.

‘Do you intend to start so early in the morning, papa?’ she ventured to say; and he replied, ‘As early as possible.’

’I don’t know what news I shall have in Bevisham, or I would engage to run over to the island,’ said Beauchamp, with a flattering persistency or singular obtuseness.

‘You will dance,’ he subsequently observed to Cecilia, out of the heart of some reverie.  He had been her admiring partner on the night before the drive from Itchincope into Bevisham, and perhaps thought of her graceful dancing at the Yacht Ball, and the contrast it would present to his watch beside a sick man-struck down by one of his own family.

She could have answered, ‘Not if you wish me not to’; while smiling at the quaint sorrowfulness of his tone.

‘Dance!’ quoth Colonel Halkett, whose present temper discerned a healthy antagonism to misanthropic Radicals in the performance, ’all young people dance.  Have you given over dancing?’

‘Not entirely, colonel.’

Cecilia danced with Mr. Tuckham at the Yacht Ball, and was vividly mindful of every slight incident leading to and succeeding her lover’s abrupt, ‘You will dance’ which had all passed by her dream-like up to that hour his attempt to forewarn her of the phrases she would deem objectionable in Dr. Shrapnel’s letter; his mild acceptation of her father’s hostility; his adieu to her, and his melancholy departure on foot from the station, as she drove away to Mount Laurels and gaiety.  Why do I dance? she asked herself.  It was not in the spirit of happiness.  Her heart was not with Dr. Shrapnel, but very near him, and heavy as a chamber of the sick.  She was afraid of her father’s favourite, imagining, from the colonel’s unconcealed opposition to Beauchamp, that he had designs in the interests of Mr. Tuckham.  But the hearty gentleman scattered her secret terrors by his bluffness and openness.  He asked her to remember that she had recommended him to listen to Seymour Austin, and he had done so, he said.  Undoubtedly he was much improved, much less overbearing.

He won her confidence by praising and loving her father, and when she alluded to the wonderful services he had rendered on the Welsh estate, he said simply that her father’s thanks repaid him.  He recalled his former downrightness only in speaking of the case of Dr. Shrapnel, upon which, both with the colonel and with her, he was unreservedly condemnatory of Mr. Romfrey.  Colonel Halkett’s defence of the true knight and guardian of the reputation of ladies, fell to pieces in the presence of Mr. Tuckham.  He had seen Dr. Shrapnel, on a visit to Mr. Lydiard, whom he described as hanging about Bevisham, philandering as a married man should not, though in truth he might soon expect to be released by the death of his crazy wife.  The doctor, he said, had been severely shaken by the monstrous assault made on him, and had been most unrighteously handled.  The doctor was an inoffensive man in his private life, detestable and dangerous though his teachings were.  Outside politics Mr. Tuckham went altogether with Beauchamp.  He promised also that old Mrs. Beauchamp should be accurately informed of the state of matters between Captain Beauchamp and Mr. Romfrey.  He left Mount Laurels to go back in attendance on the venerable lady, without once afflicting Cecilia with a shiver of well-founded apprehension, and she was grateful to him almost to friendly affection in the vanishing of her unjust suspicion, until her father hinted that there was the man of his heart.  Then she closed all avenues to her own.

A period of maidenly distress not previously unknown to her ensued.  Proposals of marriage were addressed to her by two untitled gentlemen, and by the Earl of Lockrace:  three within a fortnight.  The recognition of the young heiress’s beauty at the Yacht Ball was accountable for the bursting out of these fires.  Her father would not have deplored her acceptance of the title of Countess of Lockrace.  In the matter of rejections, however, her will was paramount, and he was on her side against relatives when the subject was debated among them.  He called her attention to the fact impressively, telling her that she should not hear a syllable from him to persuade her to marry:  the emphasis of which struck the unspoken warning on her intelligence:  Bring no man to me of whom I do not approve!

‘Worthier of you, as I hope to become,’ Beauchamp had said.  Cecilia lit on that part of Dr. Shrapnel’s letter where ‘Fight this out within you,’ distinctly alluded to the unholy love.  Could she think ill of the man who thus advised him?  She shared Beauchamp’s painful feeling for him in a sudden tremour of her frame; as it were through his touch.  To the rest of the letter her judgement stood opposed, save when a sentence here and there reminded her of Captain Baskelett’s insolent sing-song declamation of it:  and that would have turned Sacred Writing to absurdity.

Beauchamp had mentioned Seymour Austin as one to whom he would willingly grant a perusal of the letter.  Mr. Austin came to Mount Laurels about the close of the yachting season, shortly after Colonel Halkett had spent his customary days of September shooting at Steynham.  Beauchamp’s folly was the colonel’s theme, for the fellow had dragged Lord Palmet there, and driven his uncle out of patience.  Mr. Romfrey’s monumental patience had been exhausted by him.  The colonel boiled over with accounts of Beauchamp’s behaviour toward his uncle, and Palmet, and Baskelett, and Mrs. Culling:  how he flew at and worried everybody who seemed to him to have had a hand in the proper chastisement of that man Shrapnel.  That pestiferous letter of Shrapnel’s was animadverted on, of course; and, ‘I should like you to have heard it, Austin,’ the colonel said, ’just for you to have a notion of the kind of universal blow-up those men are scheming, and would hoist us with, if they could get a little more blasting-powder than they mill in their lunatic heads.’

Now Cecilia wished for Mr. Austin’s opinion of Dr. Shrapnel; and as the delicate state of her inclinations made her conscious that to give him the letter covertly would be to betray them to him, who had once, not knowing it, moved her to think of a possible great change in her life, she mustered courage to say, ’Captain Beauchamp at my request lent me the letter to read; I have it, and others written by Dr. Shrapnel.’

Her father hummed to himself, and immediately begged Seymour Austin not to waste his time on the stuff, though he had no idea that a perusal of it could awaken other than the gravest reprehension in so rational a Tory gentleman.

Mr. Austin read the letter through.  He asked to see the other letters mentioned by Cecilia, and read them calmly, without a frown or an interjection.  She sat sketching, her father devouring newspaper columns.

‘It’s the writing of a man who means well,’ Mr. Austin delivered his opinion.

‘Why, the man’s an infidel!’ Colonel Halkett exclaimed.

‘There are numbers.’

‘They have the grace not to confess, then.’

’It’s as well to know what the world’s made of, colonel.  The clergy shut their eyes.  There’s no treating a disease without reading it; and if we are to acknowledge a “vice,” as Dr. Shrapnel would say of the so-called middle-class, it is the smirking over what they think, or their not caring to think at all.  Too many time-servers rot the State.  I can understand the effect of such writing on a mind like Captain Beauchamp’s.  It would do no harm to our young men to have those letters read publicly and lectured on-by competent persons.  Half the thinking world may think pretty much the same on some points as Dr. Shrapnel; they are too wise or too indolent to say it:  and of the other half, about a dozen members would be competent to reply to him.  He is the earnest man, and flies at politics as uneasy young brains fly to literature, fancying they can write because they can write with a pen.  He perceives a bad adjustment of things:  which is correct.  He is honest, and takes his honesty for a virtue:  and that entitles him to believe in himself:  and that belief causes him to see in all opposition to him the wrong he has perceived in existing circumstances:  and so in a dream of power he invokes the people:  and as they do not stir, he takes to prophecy.  This is the round of the politics of impatience.  The study of politics should be guided by some light of statesmanship, otherwise it comes to this wild preaching.

These men are theory-tailors, not politicians.  They are the men who make the “strait-waistcoat for humanity.”  They would fix us to first principles like tethered sheep or hobbled horses.  I should enjoy replying to him, if I had time.  The whole letter is composed of variations upon one idea.  Still I must say the man interests me; I should like to talk to him.’

Mr. Austin paid no heed to the colonel’s ‘Dear me! dear me!’ of amazement.  He said of the style of the letters, that it was the puffing of a giant:  a strong wind rather than speech:  and begged Cecilia to note that men who labour to force their dreams on mankind and turn vapour into fact, usually adopt such a style.  Hearing that this private letter had been deliberately read through by Mr. Romfrey, and handed by him to Captain Baskelett, who had read it out in various places, Mr. Austin said: 

‘A strange couple!’ He appeared perplexed by his old friend’s approval of them.  ‘There we decidedly differ,’ said he, when the case of Dr. Shrapnel was related by the colonel, with a refusal to condemn Mr. Romfrey.  He pronounced Mr. Romfrey’s charges against Dr. Shrapnel, taken in conjunction with his conduct, to be baseless, childish, and wanton.  The colonel would not see the case in that light; but Cecilia did.  It was a justification of Beauchamp; and how could she ever have been blind to it? ­scarcely blind, she remembered, but sensitively blinking her eyelids to distract her sight in contemplating it, and to preserve her repose.  As to Beauchamp’s demand of the apology, Mr. Austin considered that it might be an instance of his want of knowledge of men, yet could not be called silly, and to call it insane was the rhetoric of an adversary.

‘I do call it insane,’ said the colonel.

He separated himself from his daughter by a sharp division.

Had Beauchamp appeared at Mount Laurels, Cecilia would have been ready to support and encourage him, boldly.  Backed by Mr. Austin, she saw some good in Dr. Shrapnel’s writing, much in Beauchamp’s devotedness.  He shone clear to her reason, at last:  partly because her father in his opposition to him did not, but was on the contrary unreasonable, cased in mail, mentally clouded.  She sat with Mr. Austin and her father, trying repeatedly, in obedience to Beauchamp’s commands, to bring the latter to a just contemplation of the unhappy case; behaviour on her part which rendered the colonel inveterate.

Beauchamp at this moment was occupied in doing secretary’s work for Dr. Shrapnel.  So Cecilia learnt from Mr. Lydiard, who came to pay his respects to Mrs. Wardour-Devereux at Mount Laurels.  The pursuit of the apology was continued in letters to his uncle and occasional interviews with him, which were by no means instigated by the doctor, Mr. Lydiard informed the ladies.  He described Beauchamp as acting in the spirit of a man who has sworn an oath to abandon every pleasure in life, that he may, as far as it lies in his power, indemnify his friend for the wrong done to him.

‘Such men are too terrible for me,’ said Mrs. Devereux.

Cecilia thought the reverse:  Not for me!  But she felt a strain upon her nature, and she was miserable in her alienation from her father.  Kissing him one night, she laid her head on his breast, and begged his forgiveness.  He embraced her tenderly.  ’Wait, only wait; you will see I am right,’ he said, and prudently said no more, and did not ask her to speak.

She was glad that she had sought the reconciliation from her heart’s natural warmth, on hearing some time later that M. de Croisnel was dead, and that Beauchamp meditated starting for France to console his Renee.  Her continual agitations made her doubtful of her human feelings:  she clung to that instance of her filial stedfastness.

The day before Cecilia and her father left Mount Laurels for their season in Wales, Mr. Tuckham and Beauchamp came together to the house, and were closeted an hour with her father.  Cecilia sat in the drawing-room, thinking that she did indeed wait, and had great patience.  Beauchamp entered the room alone.  He looked worn and thin, of a leaden colour, like the cloud that bears the bolt.  News had reached him of the death of Lord Avonley in the hunting-field, and he was going on to Steynham to persuade his uncle to accompany him to Bevisham and wash the guilt of his wrong-doing off him before applying for the title.  ’You would advise me not to go?’ he said.  ’I must.  I should be dishonoured myself if I let a chance pass.  I run the risk of being a beggar:  I’m all but one now.’

Cecilia faltered:  ‘Do you see a chance?’

‘Hardly more than an excuse for trying it,’ he replied.

She gave him back Dr. Shrapnel’s letters.  ‘I have read them,’ was all she said.  For he might have just returned from France, with the breath of Renee about him, and her pride would not suffer her to melt him in rivalry by saying what she had been led to think of the letters.

Hearing nothing from her, he silently put them in his pocket.  The struggle with his uncle seemed to be souring him or deadening him.

They were not alone for long.  Mr. Tuckham presented himself to take his leave of her.  Old Mrs. Beauchamp was dying, and he had only come to Mount Laurels on special business.  Beauchamp was just as anxious to hurry away.

Her father found her sitting in the solitude of a drawing-room at midday, pale-faced, with unoccupied fingers, not even a book in her lap.

He walked up and down the room until Cecilia, to say something, said:  ‘Mr. Tuckham could not stay.’

‘No,’ said her father; ’he could not.  He has to be back as quick as he can to cut his legacy in halves!’

Cecilia looked perplexed.

‘I’ll speak plainly,’ said the colonel.  ’He sees that Nevil has ruined himself with his uncle.  The old lady won’t allow Nevil to visit her; in her condition it would be an excitement beyond her strength to bear.  She sent Blackburn to bring Nevil here, and give him the option of stating before me whether those reports about his misconduct in France were true or not.  He demurred at first:  however, he says they are not true.  He would have run away with the Frenchwoman, and he would have fought the duel:  but he did neither.  Her brother ran ahead of him and fought for him:  so he declares and she wouldn’t run.  So the reports are false.  We shall know what Blackburn makes of the story when we hear of the legacy.  I have been obliged to write word to Mrs. Beauchamp that I believe Nevil to have made a true statement of the facts.  But I distinctly say, and so I told Blackburn, I don’t think money will do Nevil Beauchamp a farthing’s worth of good.  Blackburn follows his own counsel.  He induced the old lady to send him; so I suppose he intends to let her share the money between them.  I thought better of him; I thought him a wiser man.’

Gratitude to Mr. Tuckham on Beauchamp’s behalf caused Cecilia to praise him, in the tone of compliments.  The difficulty of seriously admiring two gentlemen at once is a feminine dilemma, with the maidenly among women.

‘He has disappointed me,’ said Colonel Halkett.

’Would you have had him allow a falsehood to enrich him and ruin Nevil, papa?’

’My dear child, I’m sick to death of romantic fellows.  I took Blackburn for one of our solid young men.  Why should he share his aunt’s fortune?’

‘You mean, why should Nevil have money?’

’Well, I do mean that.  Besides, the story was not false as far as his intentions went:  he confessed it, and I ought to have put it in a postscript.  If Nevil wants money, let him learn to behave himself like a gentleman at Steynham.’

‘He has not failed.’

’I’ll say, then, behave himself, simply.  He considers it a point of honour to get his uncle Everard to go down on his knees to Shrapnel.  But he has no moral sense where I should like to see it:  none:  he confessed it.’

‘What were his words, papa?’

’I don’t remember words.  He runs over to France, whenever it suits him, to carry on there...’  The colonel ended in a hum and buzz.

‘Has he been to France lately?’ asked Cecilia.

Her breath hung for the answer, sedately though she sat.

‘The woman’s father is dead, I hear,’ Colonel Halkett remarked.

‘But he has not been there?’

‘How can I tell?  He’s anywhere, wherever his passions whisk him.’

‘No!’

’I say, yes.  And if he has money, we shall see him going sky-high and scattering it in sparks, not merely spending; I mean living immorally, infidelizing, republicanizing, scandalizing his class and his country.’

‘Oh no!’ exclaimed Cecilia, rising and moving to the window to feast her eyes on driving clouds, in a strange exaltation of mind, secretly sure now that her idea of Nevil’s having gone over to France was groundless; and feeling that she had been unworthy of him who strove to be ’worthier of her, as he hoped to become.’

Colonel Halkett scoffed at her ‘Oh no,’ and called it woman’s logic.

She could not restrain herself.  ’Have you forgotten Mr. Austin, papa?  It is Nevil’s perfect truthfulness that makes him appear worse to you than men who are timeservers.  Too many time-servers rot the State, Mr. Austin said.  Nevil is not one of them.  I am not able to judge or speculate whether he has a great brain or is likely to distinguish himself out of his profession:  I would rather he did not abandon it:  but Mr. Austin said to me in talking of him...’

’That notion of Austin’s of screwing women’s minds up to the pitch of men’s!’ interjected the colonel with a despairing flap of his arm.

’He said, papa, that honestly active men in a country, who decline to practise hypocrisy, show that the blood runs, and are a sign of health.’

‘You misunderstood him, my dear.’

’I think I thoroughly understood him.  He did not call them wise.  He said they might be dangerous if they were not met in debate.  But he said, and I presume to think truly, that the reason why they are decried is, that it is too great a trouble for a lazy world to meet them.  And, he said, the reason why the honest factions agitate is because they encounter sneers until they appear in force.  If they were met earlier, and fairly ­I am only quoting him ­they would not, I think he said, or would hardly, or would not generally, fall into professional agitation.’

‘Austin’s a speculative Tory, I know; and that’s his weakness,’ observed the colonel.  ’But I’m certain you misunderstood him.  He never would have called us a lazy people.’

‘Not in matters of business:  in matters of thought.’

’My dear Cecilia!  You’ve got hold of a language!... a way of speaking! ....  Who set you thinking on these things?’

’That I owe to Nevil Beauchamp!

Colonel Halkett indulged in a turn or two up and down the room.  He threw open a window, sniffed the moist air, and went to his daughter to speak to her resolutely.

’Between a Radical and a Tory, I don’t know where your head has been whirled to, my dear.  Your heart seems to be gone:  more sorrow for us!  And for Nevil Beauchamp to be pretending to love you while carrying on with this Frenchwoman!’

‘He has never said that he loved me.’

The splendour of her beauty in humility flashed on her father, and he cried out:  ’You are too good for any man on earth!  We won’t talk in the dark, my darling.  You tell me he has never, as they say, made love to you?’

‘Never, papa.’

’Well, that proves the French story.  At any rate, he ’s a man of honour.  But you love him?’

‘The French story is untrue, papa.’

Cecilia stood in a blush like the burning cloud of the sunset.’

’Tell me frankly:  I’m your father, your old dada, your friend, my dear girl! do you think the man cares for you, loves you?’

She replied:  ‘I know, papa, the French story is untrue.’

’But when I tell you, silly woman, he confessed it to me out of his own mouth!’

‘It is not true now.’

‘It’s not going on, you mean?  How do you know?’

‘I know.’

‘Has he been swearing it?’

‘He has not spoken of it to me.’

‘Here I am in a woman’s web!’ cried the colonel.  ’Is it your instinct tells you it’s not true? or what? what?  You have not denied that you love the man.’

‘I know he is not immoral.’

‘There you shoot again!  Haven’t you a yes or a no for your father?’

Cecilia cast her arms round his neck, and sobbed.

She could not bring it to her lips to say (she would have shunned the hearing) that her defence of Beauchamp, which was a shadowed avowal of the state of her heart, was based on his desire to read to her the conclusion of Dr. Shrapnel’s letter touching a passion to be overcome; necessarily therefore a passion that was vanquished, and the fullest and bravest explanation of his shifting treatment of her:  nor would she condescend to urge that her lover would have said he loved her when they were at Steynham, but for the misery and despair of a soul too noble to be diverted from his grief and sense of duty, and, as she believed, unwilling to speak to win her while his material fortune was in jeopardy.

The colonel cherished her on his breast, with one hand regularly patting her shoulder:  a form of consolation that cures the disposition to sob as quickly as would the drip of water.

Cecilia looked up into his eyes, and said, ’We will not be parted, papa, ever.’

The colonel said absently:  ‘No’; and, surprised at himself, added:  ’No, certainly not.  How can we be parted?  You won’t run away from me?  No, you know too well I can’t resist you.  I appeal to your judgement, and I must accept what you decide.  But he is immoral.  I repeat that.  He has no roots.  We shall discover it before it’s too late, I hope.’

Cecilia gazed away, breathing through tremulous dilating nostrils.

‘One night after dinner at Steynham,’ pursued the colonel, ’Nevil was rattling against the Press, with Stukely Culbrett to prime him:  and he said editors of papers were growing to be like priests, and as timid as priests, and arrogant:  and for one thing, it was because they supposed themselves to be guardians of the national morality.  I forget exactly what the matter was:  but he sneered at priests and morality.’

A smile wove round Cecilia’s lips, and in her towering superiority to one who talked nonsense, she slipped out of maiden shame and said:  ’Attack Nevil for his political hérésies and his wrath with the Press for not printing him.  The rest concerns his honour, where he is quite safe, and all are who trust him.’

‘If you find out you’re wrong?’

She shook her head.

‘But if you find out you’re wrong about him,’ her father reiterated piteously, ‘you won’t tear me to strips to have him in spite of it?’

‘No, papa, not I. I will not.’

‘Well, that’s something for me to hold fast to,’ said Colonel Halkett, sighing.