Read CHAPTER XL - A TRIAL OF HIM of Beauchamp Career, free online book, by George Meredith, on ReadCentral.com.

A low-burning lamp and fire cast a narrow ring on the shadows of the dusky London room.  One of the window-blinds was drawn up.  Beauchamp discerned a shape at that window, and the fear seized him that it might be Madame d’Auffray with evil news of Renee:  but it was Renee’s name he called.  She rose from her chair, saying, ‘I!’

She was trembling.

Beauchamp asked her whisperingly if she had come alone.

‘Alone; without even a maid,’ she murmured.

He pulled down the blind of the window exposing them to the square, and led her into the light to see her face.

The dimness of light annoyed him, and the miserable reception of her; this English weather, and the gloomy house!  And how long had she been waiting for him? and what was the mystery?  Renee in England seemed magical; yet it was nothing stranger than an old dream realized.  He wound up the lamp, holding her still with one hand.  She was woefully pale; scarcely able to bear the increase of light.

‘It is I who come to you’:  she was half audible.

‘This time!’ said he.  ‘You have been suffering?’

‘No.’

Her tone was brief; not reassuring.

‘You came straight to me?’

‘Without a deviation that I know of.’

‘From Tourdestelle?’

‘You have not forgotten Tourdestelle, Nevil?’

The memory of it quickened his rapture in reading her features.  It was his first love, his enchantress, who was here:  and how?  Conjectures shot through him like lightnings in the dark.

Irrationally, at a moment when reason stood in awe, he fancied it must be that her husband was dead.  He forced himself to think it, and could have smiled at the hurry of her coming, one, without even a maid:  and deeper down in him the devouring question burned which dreaded the answer.

But of old, in Normandy, she had pledged herself to join him with no delay when free, if ever free!

So now she was free.

One side of him glowed in illumination; the other was black as Winter night; but light subdues darkness; and in a situation like Beauchamp’s, the blood is livelier than the prophetic mind.

‘Why did you tell me to marry?  What did that mean?’ said he.  ’Did you wish me to be the one in chains?  And you have come quite alone! ­you will give me an account of everything presently: ­You are here! in England! and what a welcome for you!  You are cold.’

‘I am warmly clad,’ said Renee, suffering her hand to be drawn to his breast at her arm’s-length, not bending with it.

Alive to his own indirectness, he was conscious at once of the slight sign of reservation, and said:  ‘Tell me...’ and swerved sheer away from his question:  ‘how is Madame d’Auffray?’

‘Agnes?  I left her at Tourdestelle,’ said Renee.

‘And Roland?  He never writes to me.’

’Neither he nor I write much.  He is at the military camp of instruction in the North.’

‘He will run over to us.’

‘Do not expect it.’

‘Why not?’

Renee sighed.  ‘We shall have to live longer than I look for...’ she stopped.  ’Why do you ask me why not?  He is fond of us both, and sorry for us; but have you forgotten Roland that morning on the Adriatic?’

Beauchamp pressed her hand.  The stroke of Then and Now rang in his breast like a bell instead of a bounding heart.  Something had stunned his heart.  He had no clear central feeling; he tried to gather it from her touch, from his joy in beholding her and sitting with her alone, from the grace of her figure, the wild sweetness of her eyes, and the beloved foreign lips bewitching him with their exquisite French and perfection of speech.

His nature was too prompt in responding to such a call on it for resolute warmth.

‘If I had been firmer then, or you one year older!’ he said.

‘That girl in Venice had no courage,’ said Renee.

She raised her head and looked about the room.

Her instinct of love sounded her lover through, and felt the deficiency or the contrariety in him, as surely as musical ears are pained by a discord that they require no touchstone to detect.  Passion has the sensitiveness of fever, and is as cruelly chilled by a tepid air.

‘Yes, a London house after Venice and Normandy!’ said Beauchamp, following her look.

’Sicily:  do not omit Syracuse; you were in your naval uniform:  Normandy was our third meeting,’ said Renee.  ’This is the fourth.  I should have reckoned that.’

‘Why?  Superstitiously?’

’We cannot be entirely wise when we have staked our fate.  Sailors are credulous:  you know them.  Women are like them when they embark...  Three chances!  Who can boast of so many, and expect one more!  Will you take me to my hotel, Nevil?’

The fiction of her being free could not be sustained.

’Take you and leave you?  I am absolutely at your command.  But leave you?  You are alone:  and you have told me nothing.’

What was there to tell?  The desperate act was apparent, and told all.

Renee’s dark eyelashes lifted on him, and dropped.

‘Then things are as I left them in Normandy?’ said he.

She replied:  ‘Almost.’

He quivered at the solitary word; for his conscience was on edge.  It ran the shrewdest irony through him, inexplicably.  ‘Almost’:  that is, ’with this poor difference of one person, now finding herself worthless, subtracted from the list; no other; it should be little to them as it is little to you’:  or, reversing it, the substance of the word became magnified and intensified by its humble slightness:  ’Things are the same, but for the jewel of the province, a lustre of France, lured hither to her eclipse’ ­meanings various, indistinguishable, thrilling and piercing sad as the half-tones humming round the note of a strung wire, which is a blunt single note to the common ear.

Beauchamp sprang to his feet and bent above her:  ’You have come to me, for the love of me, to give yourself to me, and for ever, for good, till death?  Speak, my beloved Renee.’

Her eyes were raised to his:  ‘You see me here.  It is for you to speak.’

‘I do.  There’s nothing I ask for now ­if the step can’t be retrieved.’

‘The step retrieved, my friend?  There is no step backward in life.’

‘I am thinking of you, Renee.’

‘Yes, I know,’ she answered hurriedly.

‘If we discover that the step is a wrong one?’ he pursued:  ’why is there no step backward?’

‘I am talking of women,’ said Renee.

‘Why not for women?’

‘Honourable women, I mean,’ said Renee.

Beauchamp inclined to forget his position in finding matter to contest.

Yet it is beyond contest that there is no step backward in life.  She spoke well; better than he, and she won his deference by it.  Not only she spoke better:  she was truer, distincter, braver:  and a man ever on the look-out for superior qualities, and ready to bow to them, could not refuse her homage.  With that a saving sense of power quitted him.

‘You wrote to me that you were unchanged, Nevil.’

‘I am.’

‘So, then, I came.’

His rejoinder was the dumb one, commonly eloquent and satisfactory.

Renee shut her eyes with a painful rigour of endurance.  She opened them to look at him steadily.

The desperate act of her flight demanded immediate recognition from him in simple language and a practical seconding of it.  There was the test.

‘I cannot stay in this house, Nevil; take me away.’

She named her hotel in her French English, and the sound of it penetrated him with remorseful pity.  It was for him, and of his doing, that she was in an alien land and an outcast!

‘This house is wretched for you,’ said he:  ’and you must be hungry.  Let me...’

‘I cannot eat.  I will ask you’:  she paused, drawing on her energies, and keeping down the throbs of her heart:  ‘this:  do you love me?’

‘I love you with all my heart and soul.’

‘As in Normandy?’

‘Yes.’

‘In Venice?’

‘As from the first, Renee!  That I can swear.’

’Oaths are foolish.  I meant to ask you ­my friend, there is no question in my mind of any other woman:  I see you love me:  I am so used to consider myself the vain and cowardly creature, and you the boldest and faithfullest of men, that I could not abandon the habit if I would:  I started confiding in you, sure that I should come to land.  But I have to ask you:  to me you are truth:  I have no claim on my lover for anything but the answer to this: ­Am I a burden to you?’

His brows flew up in furrows.  He drew a heavy breath, for never had he loved her more admiringly, and never on such equal terms.  She was his mate in love and daring at least.  A sorrowful comparison struck him, of a little boat sailing out to a vessel in deep seas and left to founder.

Without knotting his mind to acknowledge or deny the burden, for he could do neither, he stood silent, staring at her, not so much in weakness as in positive mental division.  No, would be false; and Yes, not less false; and if the step was irretrievable, to say Yes would be to plunge a dagger in her bosom; but No was a vain deceit involving a double wreck.  Assuredly a man standing against the world in a good cause, with a runaway wife on his hands, carries a burden, however precious it be to him.

A smile of her lips, parted in an anguish of expectancy, went to death over Renee’s face.  She looked at him tenderly.  ‘The truth,’ she murmured to herself, and her eyelids fell.

‘I am ready to bear anything,’ said Beauchamp.  ’I weigh what you ask me, that is all.  You a burden to me?  But when you ask me, you make me turn round and inquire how we stand before the world.’

‘The world does not stone men,’ said Renee.

‘Can’t I make you feel that I am not thinking of myself?’ Beauchamp stamped in his extreme perplexity.  He was gagged; he could not possibly talk to her, who had cast the die, of his later notions of morality and the world’s dues, fees, and claims on us.

‘No, friend, I am not complaining.’  Renee put out her hand to him; with compassionate irony feigning to have heard excuses.  ’What right have I to complain?  I have not the sensation.  I could not expect you to be everlastingly the sentinel of love.  Three times I rejected you!  Now that I have lost my father ­Oh! poor father:  I trifled with my lover, I tricked him that my father might live in peace.  He is dead.  I wished you to marry one of your own countrywomen, Nevil.  You said it was impossible; and I, with my snake at my heart, and a husband grateful for nursing and whimpering to me for his youth like a beggar on the road, I thought I owed you this debt of body and soul, to prove to you I have some courage; and for myself, to reward myself for my long captivity and misery with one year of life:  and adieu to Roland my brother! adieu to friends! adieu to France!  Italy was our home.  I dreamed of one year in Italy; I fancied it might be two; more than that was unimaginable.  Prisoners of long date do not hope; they do not calculate:  air, light, they say; to breathe freely and drop down!  They are reduced to the instincts of the beasts.  I thought I might give you happiness, pay part of my debt to you.  Are you remembering Count Henri?  That paints what I was!  I could fly to that for a taste of life! a dance to death!  And again you ask:  Why, if I loved you then, not turn to you in preference?  No, you have answered it yourself, Nevil; ­on that day in the boat, when generosity in a man so surprised me, it seemed a miracle to me; and it was, in its divination.  How I thank my dear brother Roland for saving me the sight of you condemned to fight, against your conscience!  He taught poor M. d’Henriel his lesson.  You, Nevil, were my teacher.  And see how it hangs:  there was mercy for me in not having drawn down my father’s anger on my heart’s beloved.  He loved you.  He pitied us.  He reproached himself.  In his last days he was taught to suspect our story:  perhaps from Roland; perhaps I breathed it without speaking.  He called heaven’s blessings on you.  He spoke of you with tears, clutching my hand.  He made me feel he would have cried out:  “If I were leaving her with Nevil Beauchamp!” and “Beauchamp,” I heard him murmuring once:  “take down Froissart”:  he named a chapter.  It was curious:  if he uttered my name Renee, yours, “Nevil,” soon followed.  That was noticed by Roland.  Hope for us, he could not have had; as little as I!  But we were his two:  his children.  I buried him ­I thought he would know our innocence, and now pardon our love.  I read your letters, from my name at the beginning, to yours at the end, and from yours back to mine, and between the lines, for any doubtful spot:  and oh, rash!  But I would not retrace the step for my own sake.  I am certain of your love for me, though...’  She paused:  ‘Yes, I am certain of it.  And if I am a burden to you?’

’About as much as the air, which I can’t do without since I began to breathe it,’ said Beauchamp, more clear-mindedly now that he supposed he was addressing a mind, and with a peril to himself that escaped his vigilance.  There was a secret intoxication for him already in the half-certainty that the step could not be retraced.  The idea that he might reason with her, made her seductive to the heart and head of him.

‘I am passably rich, Nevil,’ she said.  ’I do not care for money, except that it gives wings.  Roland inherits the chateau in Touraine.  I have one in Burgundy, and rentes and shares, my notary informs me.’

‘I have money,’ said he.  His heart began beating violently.  He lost sight of his intention of reasoning.  ‘Good God! if you were free!’

She faltered:  ‘At Tourdestelle...’

‘Yes, and I am unchanged,’ Beauchamp cried out.  ’Your life there was horrible, and mine’s intolerable.’  He stretched his arms cramped like the yawning of a wretch in fetters.  That which he would and would not became so intervolved that he deemed it reasonable to instance their common misery as a ground for their union against the world.  And what has that world done for us, that a joy so immeasurable should be rejected on its behalf?  And what have we succeeded in doing, that the childish effort to move it should be continued at such a cost?

For years, down to one year back, and less ­yesterday, it could be said ­all human blessedness appeared to him in the person of Renee, given him under any condition whatsoever.  She was not less adorable now.  In her decision, and a courage that he especially prized in women, she was a sweeter to him than when he was with her in France:  too sweet to be looked at and refused.

‘But we must live in England,’ he cried abruptly out of his inner mind.

‘Oh! not England, Italy, Italy!’ Renee exclaimed:  ’Italy, or Greece:  anywhere where we have sunlight.  Mountains and valleys are my dream.  Promise it, Nevil.  I will obey you; but this is my wish.  Take me through Venice, that I may look at myself and wonder.  We can live at sea, in a yacht; anywhere with you but in England.  This country frowns on me; I can hardly fetch my breath here, I am suffocated.  The people all walk in lines in England.  Not here, Nevil!  They are good people, I am sure; and it is your country:  but their faces chill me, their voices grate; I should never understand them; they would be to me like their fogs eternally; and I to them?  O me! it would be like hearing sentence in the dampness of the shroud perpetually.  Again I say I do not doubt that they are very good:  they claim to be; they judge others; they may know how to make themselves happy in their climate; it is common to most creatures to do so, or to imagine it.  Nevil! not England!’

Truly ‘the mad commander and his French marquise’ of the Bevisham Election ballad would make a pretty figure in England!

His friends of his own class would be mouthing it.  The story would be a dogging shadow of his public life, and, quite as bad, a reflection on his party.  He heard the yelping tongues of the cynics.  He saw the consternation and grief of his old Bevisham hero, his leader and his teacher.

‘Florence,’ he said, musing on the prospect of exile and idleness:  ‘there’s a kind of society to be had in Florence.’

Renee asked him if he cared so much for society.

He replied that women must have it, just as men must have exercise.

‘Old women, Nevil; intriguers, tattlers.’

‘Young women, Renee.’

She signified no.

He shook the head of superior knowledge paternally.

Her instinct of comedy set a dimple faintly working in her cheek.

‘Not if they love, Nevil.’

‘At least,’ said he, ’a man does not like to see the woman he loves banished by society and browbeaten.’

‘Putting me aside, do you care for it, Nevil?’

‘Personally not a jot.’

‘I am convinced of that,’ said Renee.

She spoke suspiciously sweetly, appearing perfect candour.

The change in him was perceptible to her.  The nature of the change was unfathomable.

She tried her wits at the riddle.  But though she could be an actress before him with little difficulty, the torment of her situation roused the fever within her at a bare effort to think acutely.  Scarlet suffused her face:  her brain whirled.

’Remember, dearest, I have but offered myself:  you have your choice.  I can pass on.  Yes, I know well I speak to Nevil Beauchamp; you have drilled me to trust you and your word as a soldier trusts to his officer ­once a faint-hearted soldier!  I need not remind you:  fronting the enemy now, in hard truth.  But I want your whole heart to decide.  Give me no silly, compassion!  Would it have been better to me to have written to you?  If I had written I should have clipped my glorious impulse, brought myself down to earth with my own arrow.  I did not write, for I believed in you.’

So firm had been her faith in him that her visions of him on the passage to England had resolved all to one flash of blood-warm welcome awaiting her:  and it says much for her natural generosity that the savage delicacy of a woman placed as she now was, did not take a mortal hurt from the apparent voidness of this home of his bosom.  The passionate gladness of the lover was wanting:  the chivalrous valiancy of manful joy.

Renee shivered at the cloud thickening over her new light of intrepid defiant life.

’Think it not improbable that I have weighed everything I surrender in quitting France,’ she said.

Remorse wrestled with Beauchamp and flung him at her feet.

Renee remarked on the lateness of the hour.

He promised to conduct her to her hotel immediately.

‘And to-morrow?’ said Renee, simply, but breathlessly.

’To-morrow, let it be Italy!  But first I telegraph to Roland and Tourdestelle.  I can’t run and hide.  The step may be retrieved:  or no, you are right; the step cannot, but the next to it may be stopped ­that was the meaning I had!  I ’ll try.  It ’s cutting my hand off, tearing my heart out; but I will.  O that you were free!  You left your husband at Tourdestelle?’

‘I presume he is there at present:  he was in Paris when I left.’

Beauchamp spoke hoarsely and incoherently in contrast with her composure:  ’You will misunderstand me for a day or two, Renee.  I say if you were free I should have my first love mine for ever.  Don’t fear me:  I have no right even to press your fingers.  He may throw you into my arms.  Now you are the same as if you were in your own home:  and you must accept me for your guide.  By all I hope for in life, I’ll see you through it, and keep the dogs from barking, if I can.  Thousands are ready to give tongue.  And if they can get me in the character of a law-breaker! ­I hear them.’

’Are you imagining, Nevil, that there is a possibility of my returning to him?’

‘To your place in the world!  You have not had to endure tyranny?’

’I should have had a certain respect for a tyrant, Nevil.  At least I should have had an occupation in mocking him and conspiring against him.  Tyranny!  There would have been some amusement to me in that.’

‘It was neglect.’

’If I could still charge it on neglect, Nevil!  Neglect is very endurable.  He rewards me for nursing him... he rewards me with a little persecution:  wives should be flattered by it:  it comes late.’

‘What?’ cried Beauchamp, oppressed and impatient.

Renee sank her voice.

Something in the run of the unaccented French:  ‘Son amour, mon ami’:  drove the significance of the bitterness of the life she had left behind her burningly through him.  This was to have fled from a dragon! was the lover’s thought:  he perceived the motive of her flight:  and it was a vindication of it that appealed to him irresistibly.  The proposal for her return grew hideous:  and this ever multiplying horror and sting of the love of a married woman came on him with a fresh throbbing shock, more venom.

He felt for himself now, and now he was full of feeling for her.  Impossible that she should return!  Tourdestelle shone to him like a gaping chasm of fire.  And becoming entirely selfish he impressed his total abnegation of self upon Renee so that she could have worshipped him.  A lover that was like a starry frost, froze her veins, bewildered her intelligence.  She yearned for meridian warmth, for repose in a directing hand; and let it be hard as one that grasps a sword:  what matter? unhesitatingness was the warrior virtue of her desire.  And for herself the worst might happen if only she were borne along.  Let her life be torn and streaming like the flag of battle, it must be forward to the end.

That was a quality of godless young heroism not unexhausted in Beauchamp’s blood.  Reanimated by him, she awakened his imagination of the vagrant splendours of existence and the rebel delights which have their own laws and ‘nature’ for an applauding mother.  Radiant Alps rose in his eyes, and the morning born in the night suns that from mountain and valley, over sea and desert, called on all earth to witness their death.  The magnificence of the contempt of humanity posed before him superbly satanesque, grand as thunder among the crags and it was not a sensual cry that summoned him from his pedlar labours, pack on back along the level road, to live and breathe deep, gloriously mated:  Renee kindled his romantic spirit, and could strike the feeling into him that to be proud of his possession of her was to conquer the fretful vanity to possess.  She was not a woman of wiles and lures.

Once or twice she consulted her watch:  but as she professed to have no hunger, Beauchamp’s entreaty to her to stay prevailed, and the subtle form of compliment to his knightly manliness in her remaining with him, gave him a new sense of pleasure that hung round her companionable conversation, deepening the meaning of the words, or sometimes contrasting the sweet surface commonplace with the undercurrent of strangeness in their hearts, and the reality of a tragic position.  Her musical volubility flowed to entrance and divert him, as it did.

Suddenly Beauchamp glanced upward.

Renee turned from a startled contemplation of his frown, and beheld Mrs.
Rosamund Culling in the room.