Read CHAPTER XLIII - THE EARL OF ROMFREY AND THE COUNTESS of Beauchamp Career, free online book, by George Meredith, on ReadCentral.com.

An extraordinary telegraphic message, followed by a still more extraordinary letter the next morning, from Rosamund Culling, all but interdicted the immediate occupation of his house in town to Everard, now Earl of Romfrey.  She begged him briefly not to come until after the funeral, and proposed to give him good reasons for her request at their meeting.  ‘I repeat, I pledge myself to satisfy you on this point,’ she wrote.  Her tone was that of one of your heroic women of history refusing to surrender a fortress.

Everard’s wrath was ever of a complexion that could suffer postponements without his having to fear an abatement of it.  He had no business to transact in London, and he had much at the Castle, so he yielded himself up to his new sensations, which are not commonly the portion of gentlemen of his years.  He anticipated that Nevil would at least come down to the funeral, but there was no appearance of him, nor a word to excuse his absence.  Cecil was his only supporter.  They walked together between the double ranks of bare polls of the tenantry and peasantry, resembling in a fashion old Froissart engravings the earl used to dote on in his boyhood, representing bodies of manacled citizens, whose humbled heads looked like nuts to be cracked, outside the gates of captured French towns, awaiting the disposition of their conqueror, with his banner above him and prancing knights around.  That was a glory of the past.  He had no successor.  The thought was chilling; the solitariness of childlessness to an aged man, chief of a most ancient and martial House, and proud of his blood, gave him the statue’s outlook on a desert, and made him feel that he was no more than a whirl of the dust, settling to the dust.

He listened to the parson curiously and consentingly.  We are ashes.  Ten centuries had come to an end in him to prove the formula correct.  The chronicle of the House would state that the last Earl of Romfrey left no heir.

Cecil was a fine figure walking beside him.  Measured by feet, he might be a worthy holder of great lands.  But so heartily did the earl despise this nephew that he never thought of trying strength with the fellow, and hardly cared to know what his value was, beyond his immediate uses as an instrument to strike with.  Beauchamp of Romfrey had been his dream, not Baskelett:  and it increased his disgust of Beauchamp that Baskelett should step forward as the man.  No doubt Cecil would hunt the county famously:  he would preserve game with the sleepless eye of a General of the Jesuits.  These things were to be considered.

Two days after the funeral Lord Romfrey proceeded to London.  He was met at the station by Rosamund, and informed that his house was not yet vacated by the French family.

‘And where have you arranged for me to go, ma’am?’ he asked her complacently.

She named an hotel where she had taken rooms for him.

He nodded, and was driven to the hotel, saying little on the road.

As she expected, he was heavily armed against her and Nevil.

’You’re the slave of the fellow, ma’am.  You are so infatuated that you second his amours, in my house.  I must wait for a clearance, it seems.’

He cast a comical glance of disapprobation on the fittings of the hotel apartment, abhorring gilt.

‘They leave us the day after to-morrow,’ said Rosamund, out of breath with nervousness at the commencement of the fray, and skipping over the opening ground of a bold statement of facts.  ’Madame de Rouaillout has been unwell.  She is not yet recovered; she has just risen.  Her sister-in-law has nursed her.  Her husband seems much broken in health; he is perfect on the points of courtesy.’

‘That is lucky, ma’am.’

‘Her brother, Nevil’s comrade in the war, was there also.’

‘Who came first?’

’My lord, you have only heard Captain Baskelett’s version of the story. 
She has been my guest since the first day of her landing in England. 
There cannot possibly be an imputation on her.’

’Ma’am, if her husband manages to be satisfied, what on earth have I to do with it?’

‘I am thinking of Nevil, my lord.’

‘You’re never thinking of any one else, ma’am.’

’He sleeps here, at this hotel.  He left the house to Madame de Rouaillout.  I bear witness to that.’

‘You two seem to have made your preparations to stand a criminal trial.’

‘It is pure truth, my lord.’

‘Do you take me to be anxious about the fellow’s virtue?’

‘She is a lady who would please you.’

‘A scandal in my house does not please me.’

‘The only approach to a scandal was made by Captain Baskelett.’

’A poor devil locked out of his bed on a Winter’s night hullabaloos with pretty good reason.  I suppose he felt the contrast.’

’My lord, this lady did me the honour to come to me on a visit.  I have not previously presumed to entertain a friend.  She probably formed no estimate of my exact position.’

The earl with a gesture implied Rosamund’s privilege to act the hostess to friends.

‘You invited her?’ he said.

‘That is, I had told her I hoped she would come to England.’

‘She expected you to be at the house in town on her arrival?’

‘It was her impulse to come.’

‘She came alone?’

’She may have desired to be away from her own people for a time:  there may have been domestic differences.  These cases are delicate.’

’This case appears to have been so delicate that you had to lock out a fourth party.’

’It is indelicate and base of Captain Baskelett to complain and to hint.  Nevil had to submit to the same; and Captain Baskelett took his revenge on the housedoor and the bells.  The house was visited by the police next morning.’

‘Do you suspect him to have known you were inside the house that night?’

She could not say so:  but hatred of Cecil urged her past the bounds of habitual reticence to put it to her lord whether he, imagining the worst, would have behaved like Cecil.

To this he did not reply, but remarked, ’I am sorry he annoyed you, ma’am.’

’It is not the annoyance to me; it is the shocking, the unmanly insolence to a lady, and a foreign lady.’

‘That’s a matter between him and Nevil.  I uphold him.’

‘Then, my lord, I am silent.’

Silent she remained; but Lord Romfrey was also silent:  and silence being a weapon of offence only when it is practised by one out of two, she had to reflect whether in speaking no further she had finished her business.

‘Captain Baskelett stays at the Castle?’ she asked.

‘He likes his quarters there.’

’Nevil could not go down to Romfrey, my lord.  He was obliged to wait, and see, and help me to entertain, her brother and her husband.’

’Why, ma’am?  But I have no objection to his making the marquis a happy husband.’

’He has done what few men would have done, that she may be a self-respecting wife.’

‘The parson’s in that fellow!’ Lord Romfrey exclaimed.  ’Now I have the story.  She came to him, he declined the gift, and you were turned into the curtain for them.  If he had only been off with her, he would have done the country good service.  Here he’s a failure and a nuisance; he’s a common cock-shy for the journals.  I’m tired of hearing of him; he’s a stench in our nostrils.  He’s tired of the woman.’

‘He loves her.’

’Ma’am, you’re hoodwinked.  If he refused to have her, there ’s a something he loves better.  I don’t believe we’ve bred a downright lackadaisical donkey in our family:  I know him.  He’s not a fellow for abstract morality:  I know him.  It’s bargain against bargain with him; I’ll do him that justice.  I hear he has ordered the removal of the Jersey bull from Holdesbury, and the beast is mine,’ Lord Romfrey concluded in a lower key.

‘Nevil has taken him.’

‘Ha! pull and pull, then!’

’He contends that he is bound by a promise to give an American gentleman the refusal of the bull, and you must sign an engagement to keep the animal no longer than two years.’

‘I sign no engagement.  I stick to the bull.’

‘Consent to see Nevil to-night, my lord.’

‘When he has apologized to you, I may, ma’am.’

‘Surely he did more, in requesting me to render him a service.’

’There’s not a creature living that fellow wouldn’t get to serve him, if he knew the trick.  We should all of us be marching on London at Shrapnel’s heels.  The political mania is just as incurable as hydrophobia, and he’s bitten.  That’s clear.’

’Bitten perhaps:  but not mad.  As you have always contended, the true case is incurable, but it is very rare:  and is this one?’

’It’s uncommonly like a true case, though I haven’t seen him foam at the mouth, and shun water-as his mob does.’

Rosamund restrained some tears, betraying the effort to hide the moisture.  ’I am no match for you, my lord.  I try to plead on his behalf; ­I do worse than if I were dumb.  This I most earnestly say:  he is the Nevil Beauchamp who fought for his country, and did not abandon her cause, though he stood there ­we had it from Colonel Halkett ­a skeleton:  and he is the Nevil who ­I am poorly paying my debt to him! ­defended me from the aspersions of his cousin.’

‘Boys!’ Lord Romfrey ejaculated.

‘It is the same dispute between them as men.’

’Have you forgotten my proposal to shield you from liars and scandalmongers?’

‘Could I ever forget it?’ Rosamund appeared to come shining out of a cloud.  ’Princeliest and truest gentleman, I thought you then, and I know you to be, my dear lord.  I fancied I had lived the scandal down.  I was under the delusion that I had grown to be past backbiting:  and that no man could stand before me to insult and vilify me.  But, for a woman in any so-called doubtful position, it seems that the coward will not be wanting to strike her.  In quitting your service, I am able to affirm that only once during the whole term of it have I consciously overstepped the line of my duties:  it was for Nevil:  and Captain Baskelett undertook to defend your reputation, in consequence.’

‘Has the rascal been questioning your conduct?’ The earl frowned.

’Oh, no! not questioning:  he does not question, he accuses:  he never doubted:  and what he went shouting as a boy, is plain matter of fact to him now.  He is devoted to you.  It was for your sake that he desired me to keep my name from being mixed up in a scandal he foresaw the occurrence of in your house.’

‘He permitted himself to sneer at you?’

’He has the art of sneering.  On this occasion he wished to be direct and personal.’

‘What sort of hints were they?’

Lord Romfrey strode away from her chair that the answer might be easy to her, for she was red, and evidently suffering from shame as well as indignation.

‘The hints we call distinct.’ said Rosamund.

‘In words?’

‘In hard words.’

‘Then you won’t meet Cecil?’

Such a question, and the tone of indifference in which it came, surprised and revolted her so that the unreflecting reply leapt out: 

‘I would rather meet a devil.’

Of how tremblingly, vehemently, and hastily she had said it, she was unaware.  To her lord it was an outcry of nature, astutely touched by him to put her to proof.

He continued his long leisurely strides, nodding over his feet.

Rosamund stood up.  She looked a very noble figure in her broad black-furred robe.  ‘I have one serious confession to make, sir.’

‘What’s that?’ said he.

’I would avoid it, for it cannot lead to particular harm; but I have an enemy who may poison your ear in my absence.  And first I resign my position.  I have forfeited it.’

’Time goes forward, ma’am, and you go round.  Speak to the point.  Do you mean that you toss up the reins of my household?’

‘I do.  You trace it to Nevil immediately?’

‘I do.  The fellow wants to upset the country, and he begins with me.’

’You are wrong, my lord.  What I have done places me at Captain Baskelett’s mercy.  It is too loathsome to think of:  worse than the whip; worse than your displeasure.  It might never be known; but the thought that it might gives me courage.  You have said that to protect a woman everything is permissible.  It is your creed, my lord, and because the world, I have heard you say, is unjust and implacable to women.  In some cases, I think so too.  In reality I followed your instructions; I mean, your example.  Cheap chivalry on my part!  But it pained me not a little.  I beg to urge that in my defence.’

’Well, ma’am, you have tied the knot tight enough; perhaps now you’ll cut it,’ said the earl.

Rosamund gasped softly.  ’M. Marquis is a gentleman who, after a life of dissipation, has been reminded by bad health that he has a young and beautiful wife.’

‘He dug his pit to fall into it: ­he’s jealous?’

She shook her head to indicate the immeasurable.

’Senile jealousy is anxious to be deceived.  He could hardly be deceived so far as to imagine that Madame la Marquise would visit me, such as I am, as my guest.  Knowingly or not, his very clever sister, a good woman, and a friend to husband and wife ­a Frenchwoman of the purest type ­gave me the title.  She insisted on it, and I presumed to guess that she deemed it necessary for the sake of peace in that home.’

Lord Romfrey appeared merely inquisitive; his eyebrows were lifted in permanence; his eyes were mild.

She continued:  ’They leave England in a few hours.  They are not likely to return.  I permitted him to address me with the title of countess.’

‘Of Romfrey?’ said the earl.

Rosamund bowed.

His mouth contracted.  She did not expect thunder to issue from it, but she did fear to hear a sarcasm, or that she would have to endure a deadly silence:  and she was gathering her own lips in imitation of his, to nerve herself for some stroke to come, when he laughed in his peculiar close-mouthed manner.

‘I’m afraid you’ve dished yourself.’

‘You cannot forgive me, my lord?’

He indulged in more of his laughter, and abruptly summoning gravity, bade her talk to him of affairs.  He himself talked of the condition of the Castle, and with a certain off-hand contempt of the ladies of the family, and Cecil’s father, Sir John.  ‘What are they to me?’ said he, and he complained of having been called Last Earl of Romfrey.

‘The line ends undegenerate,’ said Rosamund fervidly, though she knew not where she stood.

‘Ends!’ quoth the earl.

‘I must see Stukely,’ he added briskly, and stooped to her:  ’I beg you to drive me to my Club, countess.’

‘Oh! sir.’

‘Once a countess, always a countess!’

‘But once an impostor, my lord?’

‘Not always, we’ll hope.’

He enjoyed this little variation in the language of comedy; letting it drop, to say:  ’Be here to-morrow early.  Don’t chase that family away from the house.  Do as you will, but not a word of Nevil to me:  he’s a bad mess in any man’s porringer; it’s time for me to claim exemption of him from mine.’

She dared not let her thoughts flow, for to think was to triumph, and possibly to be deluded.  They came in copious volumes when Lord Romfrey, alighting at his Club, called to the coachman:  ’Drive the countess home.’

They were not thoughts of triumph absolutely.  In her cooler mind she felt that it was a bad finish of a gallant battle.  Few women had risen against a tattling and pelting world so stedfastly; and would it not have been better to keep her own ground, which she had won with tears and some natural strength, and therewith her liberty, which she prized?  The hateful Cecil, a reminder of whom set her cheeks burning and turned her heart to serpent, had forced her to it.  So she honestly conceived, owing to the circumstance of her honestly disliking the pomps of life and not desiring to occupy any position of brilliancy.  She thought assuredly of her hoard of animosity toward the scandalmongers, and of the quiet glance she would cast behind on them, and below.  That thought came as a fruit, not as a reflection.

But if ever two offending young gentlemen, nephews of a long-suffering uncle, were circumvented, undermined, and struck to earth, with one blow, here was the instance.  This was accomplished by Lord Romfrey’s resolution to make the lady he had learnt to esteem his countess:  and more, it fixed to him for life one whom he could not bear to think of losing:  and still more, it might be; but what more was unwritten on his tablets.

Rosamund failed to recollect that Everard Romfrey never took a step without seeing a combination of objects to be gained by it.