Read CHAPTER XXXVIII - LORD AVONLEY of Beauchamp Career, free online book, by George Meredith, on

Mr. Everard Romfrey was now, by consent, Lord Avonley, mounted on his direct heirship and riding hard at the earldom.  His elevation occurred at a period of life that would have been a season of decay with most men; but the prolonged and lusty Autumn of the veteran took new fires from a tangible object to live for.  His brother Craven’s death had slightly stupefied, and it had grieved him:  it seemed to him peculiarly pathetic; for as he never calculated on the happening of mortal accidents to men of sound constitution, the circumstance imparted a curious shake to his own solidity.  It was like the quaking of earth, which tries the balance of the strongest.  If he had not been raised to so splendid a survey of the actual world, he might have been led to think of the imaginary, where perchance a man may meet his old dogs and a few other favourites, in a dim perpetual twilight.  Thither at all events Craven had gone, and goodnight to him!  The earl was a rapidly lapsing invalid.  There could be no doubt that Everard was to be the head of his House.

Outwardly he was the same tolerant gentleman who put aside the poor fools of the world to walk undisturbed by them in the paths he had chosen:  in this aspect he knew himself:  nor was the change so great within him as to make him cognizant of a change.  It was only a secret turn in the bent of the mind, imperceptible as the touch of the cunning artist’s brush on a finished portrait, which will alter the expression without discomposing a feature, so that you cannot say it is another face, yet it is not the former one.  His habits were invariable, as were his meditations.  He thought less of Romfrey Castle than of his dogs and his devices for trapping vermin; his interest in birds and beasts and herbs, ‘what ninnies call Nature in books,’ to quote him, was undiminished; imagination he had none to clap wings to his head and be off with it.  He betrayed as little as he felt that the coming Earl of Romfrey was different from the cadet of the family.

A novel sharpness in the ‘Stop that,’ with which he crushed Beauchamp’s affectedly gentle and unusually roundabout opening of the vexed Shrapnel question, rang like a shot in the room at Steynham, and breathed a different spirit from his customary easy pugnacity that welcomed and lured on an adversary to wild outhitting.  Some sorrowful preoccupation is, however, to be expected in the man who has lost a brother, and some degree of irritability at the intrusion of past disputes.  He chose to repeat a similar brief forbidding of the subject before they started together for the scene of the accident and Romfrey Castle.  No notice was taken of Beauchamp’s remark, that he consented to go though his duty lay elsewhere.  Beauchamp had not the faculty of reading inside men, or he would have apprehended that his uncle was engaged in silently heaping aggravations to shoot forth one fine day a thundering and astonishing counterstroke.

He should have known his uncle Everard better.

In this respect he seemed to have no memory.  But who has much that has given up his brains for a lodging to a single idea?  It is at once a devouring dragon, and an intractable steamforce; it is a tyrant that has eaten up a senate, and a prophet with a message.  Inspired of solitariness and gigantic size, it claims divine origin.  The world can have no peace for it.

Cecilia had not pleased him; none had.  He did not bear in mind that the sight of Dr. Shrapnel sick and weak, which constantly reanimated his feelings of pity and of wrath, was not given to the others of whom he demanded a corresponding energy of just indignation and sympathy.  The sense that he was left unaided to the task of bending his tough uncle, combined with his appreciation of the righteousness of the task to embitter him and set him on a pedestal, from which he descended at every sign of an opportunity for striking, and to which he retired continually baffled and wrathful, in isolation.

Then ensued the dreadful division in his conception of his powers:  for he who alone saw the just and right thing to do, was incapable of compelling it to be done.  Lay on to his uncle as he would, that wrestler shook him off.  And here was one man whom he could not move!  How move a nation?

There came on him a thirst for the haranguing of crowds.  They agree with you or they disagree; exciting you to activity in either case.  They do not interpose cold Tory exclusiveness and inaccessibility.  You have them in the rough; you have nature in them, and all that is hopeful in nature.  You drive at, over, and through them, for their good; you plough them.  You sow them too.  Some of them perceive that it is for their good, and what if they be a minority?  Ghastly as a minority is in an Election, in a lifelong struggle it is refreshing and encouraging.  The young world and its triumph is with the minority.  Oh to be speaking!  Condemned to silence beside his uncle, Beauchamp chafed for a loosed tongue and an audience tossing like the well-whipped ocean, or open as the smooth sea-surface to the marks of the breeze.  Let them be hostile or amicable, he wanted an audience as hotly as the humped Richard a horse.

At Romfrey Castle he fell upon an audience that became transformed into a swarm of chatterers, advisers, and reprovers the instant his lips were parted.  The ladies of the family declared his pursuit of the Apology to be worse and vainer than his politics.  The gentlemen said the same, but they were not so outspoken to him personally, and indulged in asides, with quotations of some of his uncle Everard’s recent observations concerning him:  as for example, ’Politically he’s a mad harlequin jumping his tights and spangles when nobody asks him to jump; and in private life he’s a mad dentist poking his tongs at my sound tooth:’  a highly ludicrous image of the persistent fellow, and a reminder of situations in Moliere, as it was acted by Cecil Baskelett and Lord Welshpool.  Beauchamp had to a certain extent restored himself to favour with his uncle Everard by offering a fair suggestion on the fatal field to account for the accident, after the latter had taken measurements and examined the place in perplexity.  His elucidation of the puzzle was referred to by Lord Avonley at Romfrey, and finally accepted as possible and this from a wiseacre who went quacking about the county, expecting to upset the order of things in England!  Such a mixing of sense and nonsense in a fellow’s noddle was never before met with, Lord Avonley said.  Cecil took the hint.  He had been unworried by Beauchamp:  Dr. Shrapnel had not been mentioned:  and it delighted Cecil to let it be known that he thought old Nevil had some good notions, particularly as to the duties of the aristocracy ­that first war-cry of his when a midshipman.  News of another fatal accident in the hunting-field confirmed Cecil’s higher opinion of his cousin.  On the day of Craven’s funeral they heard at Romfrey that Mr. Wardour-Devereux had been killed by a fall from his horse.  Two English gentlemen despatched by the same agency within a fortnight!  ‘He smoked,’ Lord Avonley said of the second departure, to allay some perturbation in the bosoms of the ladies who had ceased to ride, by accounting for this particular mishap in the most reassuring fashion.  Cecil’s immediate reflection was that the unfortunate smoker had left a rich widow.  Far behind in the race for Miss Halkett, and uncertain of a settled advantage in his other rivalry with Beauchamp, he fixed his mind on the widow, and as Beauchamp did not stand in his way, but on the contrary might help him ­for she, like the generality of women, admired Nevil Beauchamp in spite of her feminine good sense and conservatism ­Cecil began to regard the man he felt less opposed to with some recognition of his merits.  The two nephews accompanied Lord Avonley to London, and slept at his town-house.

They breakfasted together the next morning on friendly terms.  Half an hour afterward there was an explosion; uncle and nephews were scattered fragments:  and if Cecil was the first to return to cohesion with his lord and chief, it was, he protested energetically, common policy in a man in his position to do so:  all that he looked for being a decent pension and a share in the use of the town-house.  Old Nevil, he related, began cross-examining him and entangling him with the cunning of the deuce, in my lord’s presence, and having got him to make an admission, old Nevil flung it at the baron, and even crossed him and stood before him when he was walking out of the room.  A furious wrangle took place.  Nevil and the baron gave it to one another unmercifully.  The end of it was that all three flew apart, for Cecil confessed to having a temper, and in contempt of him for the admission wrung out of him, Lord Avonley had pricked it.  My lord went down to Steynham, Beauchamp to Holdesbury, and Captain Baskelett to his quarters; whence in a few days he repaired penitently to my lord ­the most placable of men when a full submission was offered to him.

Beauchamp did nothing of the kind.  He wrote a letter to Steynham in the form of an ultimatum.

This egregious letter was handed to Rosamund for a proof of her darling’s lunacy.  She in conversation with Stukely Culbrett unhesitatingly accused Cecil of plotting his cousin’s ruin.

Mr. Culbrett thought it possible that Cecil had been a little more than humorous in the part he had played in the dispute, and spoke to him.

Then it came out that Lord Avonley had also delivered an ultimatum to Beauchamp.

Time enough had gone by for Cecil to forget his ruffling, and relish the baron’s grandly comic spirit in appropriating that big word Apology, and demanding it from Beauchamp on behalf of the lady ruling his household.  What could be funnier than the knocking of Beauchamp’s blunderbuss out of his hands, and pointing the muzzle at him!

Cecil dramatized the fun to amuse Mr. Culbrett.  Apparently Beauchamp had been staggered on hearing himself asked for the definite article he claimed.  He had made a point of speaking of the Apology.  Lord Avonley did likewise.  And each professed to exact it for a deeply aggrieved person:  each put it on the ground that it involved the other’s rightful ownership of the title of gentleman.

“’An apology to the amiable and virtuous Mistress Culling?” says old Nevil:  “an apology? what for?” ­“For unbecoming and insolent behaviour,” says my lord.’

‘I am that lady’s friend,’ Stukely warned Captain Baskelett.  ’Don’t let us have a third apology in the field.’

’Perfectly true; you are her friend, and you know what a friend of mine she is,’ rejoined Cecil.  ’I could swear “that lady” flings the whole affair at me.  I give you my word, old Nevil and I were on a capital footing before he and the baron broke up.  I praised him for tickling the aristocracy.  I backed him heartily; I do now; I’ll do it in Parliament.  I know a case of a noble lord, a General in the army, and he received an intimation that he might as well attend the Prussian cavalry manoeuvres last Autumn on the Lower Rhine or in Silesia ­no matter where.  He couldn’t go:  he was engaged to shoot birds!  I give you my word.  Now there I see old Nevil ’s right.  It ’s as well we should know something about the Prussian and Austrian cavalry, and if our aristocracy won’t go abroad to study cavalry, who is to? no class in the kingdom understands horses as they do.  My opinion is, they’re asleep.  Nevil should have stuck to that, instead of trying to galvanize the country and turning against his class.  But fancy old Nevil asked for the Apology!  It petrified him.  “I’ve told her nothing but the truth,” says Nevil.  “Telling the truth to women is an impertinence,” says my lord.  Nevil swore he’d have a revolution in the country before he apologized.’

Mr. Culbrett smiled at the absurdity of the change of positions between Beauchamp and his uncle Everard, which reminded him somewhat of the old story of the highwayman innkeeper and the market farmer who had been thoughtful enough to recharge his pistols after quitting the inn at midnight.  A practical ‘tu quoque’ is astonishingly laughable, and backed by a high figure and manner it had the flavour of triumphant repartee.  Lord Avonley did not speak of it as a retort upon Nevil, though he reiterated the word Apology amusingly.  He put it as due to the lady governing his household; and his ultimatum was, that the Apology should be delivered in terms to satisfy him within three months of the date of the demand for it:  otherwise blank; but the shadowy index pointed to the destitution of Nevil Beauchamp.

No stroke of retributive misfortune could have been severer to Rosamund than to be thrust forward as the object of humiliation for the man she loved.  She saw at a glance how much more likely it was (remote as the possibility appeared) that her lord would perform the act of penitence than her beloved Nevil.  And she had no occasion to ask herself why.  Lord Avonley had done wrong, and Nevil had not.  It was inconceivable that Nevil should apologize to her.  It was horrible to picture the act in her mind.  She was a very rational woman, quite a woman of the world, yet such was her situation between these two men that the childish tale of a close and consecutive punishment for sins, down to our little naughtinesses and naturalnesses, enslaved her intelligence, and amazed her with the example made of her, as it were to prove the tale true of our being surely hauled back like domestic animals learning the habits of good society, to the rueful contemplation of certain of our deeds, however wildly we appeal to nature to stand up for them.

But is it so with all of us?  No, thought Rosamund, sinking dejectedly from a recognition of the heavenliness of the justice which lashed her and Nevil, and did not scourge Cecil Baskelett.  That fine eye for celestially directed consequences is ever haunted by shadows of unfaith likely to obscure it completely when chastisement is not seen to fall on the person whose wickedness is evident to us.  It has been established that we do not wax diviner by dragging down the Gods to our level.

Rosamund knew Lord Avonley too well to harass him with further petitions and explanations.  Equally vain was it to attempt to persuade Beauchamp.  He made use of the house in London, where he met his uncle occasionally, and he called at Steynham for money, that he could have obtained upon the one condition, which was no sooner mentioned than fiery words flew in the room, and the two separated.  The leaden look in Beauchamp, noticed by Cecilia Halkett in their latest interview, was deepening, and was of itself a displeasure to Lord Avonley, who liked flourishing faces, and said:  ‘That fellow’s getting the look of a sweating smith’:  presumptively in the act of heating his poker at the furnace to stir the country.

It now became an offence to him that Beauchamp should continue doing this in the speeches and lectures he was reported to be delivering; he stamped his foot at the sight of his nephew’s name in the daily journals; a novel sentiment of social indignation was expressed by his crying out, at the next request for money:  ’Money to prime you to turn the country into a rat-hole?  Not a square inch of Pennsylvanian paper-bonds!  What right have you to be lecturing and orationing?  You’ve no knowledge.  All you’ve got is your instincts, and that you show in your readiness to exhibit them like a monkey.  You ought to be turned inside out on your own stage.  You’ve lumped your brains on a point or two about Land, and Commonland, and the Suffrage, and you pound away upon them, as if you had the key of the difficulty.  It’s the Scotchman’s metaphysics; you know nothing clear, and your working-classes know nothing at all; and you blow them with wind like an over-stuffed cow.  What you’re driving at is to get hob-nail boots to dance on our heads.  Stukely says you should be off over to Ireland.  There you’d swim in your element, and have speechifying from instinct, and howling and pummelling too, enough to last you out.  I ’ll hand you money for that expedition.  You’re one above the number wanted here.  You’ve a look of bad powder fit only to flash in the pan.  I saved you from the post of public donkey, by keeping you out of Parliament.  You’re braying and kicking your worst for it still at these meetings of yours.  A naval officer preaching about Republicanism and parcelling out the Land!’

Beauchamp replied quietly, ’The lectures I read are Dr. Shrapnel’s.  When I speak I have his knowledge to back my deficiencies.  He is too ill to work, and I consider it my duty to do as much of his work as I can undertake.’

’Ha!  You’re the old infidel’s Amen clerk.  It would rather astonish orthodox congregations to see clerks in our churches getting into the pulpit to read the sermon for sick clergymen,’ said Lord Avonley.  His countenance furrowed.  ‘I’ll pay that bill,’ he added.

‘Pay down half a million!’ thundered Beauchamp; and dropping his voice, ‘or go to him.’

‘You remind me,’ his uncle observed.  ’I recommend you to ring that bell, and have Mrs. Culling here.’

‘If she comes she will hear what I think of her.’

‘Then, out of the house!’

‘Very well, sir.  You decline to supply me with money?’

‘I do.’

‘I must have it!’

‘I dare say.  Money’s a chain-cable for holding men to their senses.’

‘I ask you, my lord, how I am to carry on Holdesbury?’

‘Give it up.’

‘I shall have to,’ said Beauchamp, striving to be prudent.

‘There isn’t a doubt of it,’ said his uncle, upon a series of nods diminishing in their depth until his head assumed a droll interrogative fixity, with an air of ‘What next?’