Read CHAPTER XLIV - THE NEPHEWS OF THE EARL, AND ANOTHER EXHIBITION OF THE TWO PASSIONS IN BEAUCHAMP of Beauchamp Career, free online book, by George Meredith, on ReadCentral.com.

It was now the season when London is as a lighted tower to her provinces, and, among other gentlemen hurried thither by attraction, Captain Baskelett arrived.  Although not a personage in the House of Commons, he was a vote; and if he never committed himself to the perils of a speech, he made himself heard.  His was the part of chorus, which he performed with a fairly close imitation of the original cries of periods before parliaments were instituted, thus representing a stage in the human development besides the borough of Bevisham.  He arrived in the best of moods for the emission of high-pitched vowel-sounds; otherwise in the worst of tempers.  His uncle had notified an addition of his income to him at Romfrey, together with commands that he should quit the castle instantly:  and there did that woman, Mistress Culling, do the honours to Nevil Beauchamp’s French party.  He assured Lord Palmet of his positive knowledge of the fact, incredible as the sanction of such immoral proceedings by the Earl of Romfrey must appear to that young nobleman.  Additions to income are of course acceptable, but in the form of a palpable stipulation for silence, they neither awaken gratitude nor effect their purpose.  Quite the contrary; they prick the moral mind to sit in judgement on the donor.  It means, she fears me!  Cecil confidently thought and said of the intriguing woman who managed his patron.

The town-house was open to him.  Lord Romfrey was at Steynham.  Cecil could not suppose that he was falling into a pit in entering it.  He happened to be the favourite of the old housekeeper, who liked him for his haughtiness, which was to her thinking the sign of real English nobility, and perhaps it is the popular sign, and a tonic to the people.  She raised lamentations over the shame of the locking of the door against him that awful night, declaring she had almost mustered courage to go down to him herself, in spite of Mrs. Calling’s orders.  The old woman lowered her voice to tell him that her official superior had permitted the French gentleman and ladies to call her countess.  This she knew for a certainty, though she knew nothing of French; but the French lady who came second brought a maid who knew English a little, and she said the very words ­the countess, and said also that her party took Mrs. Culling for the Countess of Romfrey.  What was more, my lord’s coachman caught it up, and he called her countess, and he had a quarrel about it with the footman Kendall; and the day after a dreadful affair between them in the mews, home drives madam, and Kendall is to go up to her, and down the poor man comes, and not a word to be got out of him, but as if he had seen a ghost.  ‘She have such power,’ Cecil’s admirer concluded.

‘I wager I match her,’ Cecil said to himself, pulling at his wristbands and letting his lower teeth shine out.  The means of matching her were not so palpable as the resolution.  First he took men into his confidence.  Then he touched lightly on the story to ladies, with the question, ‘What ought I to do?’ In consideration for the Earl of Romfrey he ought not to pass it over, he suggested.  The ladies of the family urged him to go to Steynham and boldly confront the woman.  He was not prepared for that.  Better, it seemed to him, to blow the rumour, and make it the topic of the season, until Lord Romfrey should hear of it.  Cecil had the ear of the town for a month.  He was in the act of slicing the air with his right hand in his accustomed style, one evening at Lady Elsea’s, to protest how vast was the dishonour done to the family by Mistress Culling, when Stukely Culbrett stopped him, saying, ’The lady you speak of is the Countess of Romfrey.  I was present at the marriage.’

Cecil received the shock in the attitude of those martial figures we see wielding two wooden swords in provincial gardens to tell the disposition of the wind:  abruptly abandoned by it, they stand transfixed, one sword aloft, the other at their heels.  The resemblance extended to his astonished countenance.  His big chest heaved.  Like many another wounded giant before him, he experienced the insufficiency of interjections to solace pain.  For them, however, the rocks were handy to fling, the trees to uproot; heaven’s concave resounded companionably to their bellowings.  Relief of so concrete a kind is not to be obtained in crowded London assemblies.

‘You are jesting? ­you are a jester,’ he contrived to say.

‘It was a private marriage, and I was a witness,’ replied Stukely.

‘Lord Romfrey has made an honest woman of her, has he?’

‘A peeress, you mean.’

Cecil bowed.  ‘Exactly.  I am corrected.  I mean a peeress.’

He got out of the room with as high an air as he could command, feeling as if a bar of iron had flattened his head.

Next day it was intimated to him by one of the Steynham servants that apartments were ready for him at the residence of the late earl:  Lord Romfrey’s house was about to be occupied by the Countess of Romfrey.  Cecil had to quit, and he chose to be enamoured of that dignity of sulking so seductive to the wounded spirit of man.

Rosamund, Countess of Romfrey, had worse to endure from Beauchamp.  He indeed came to the house, and he went through the formalities of congratulation, but his opinion of her step was unconcealed, that she had taken it for the title.  He distressed her by reviving the case of Dr. Shrapnel, as though it were a matter of yesterday, telling her she had married a man with a stain on him; she should have exacted the Apology as a nuptial present; ay, and she would have done it if she had cared for the earl’s honour or her own.  So little did he understand men! so tenacious was he of his ideas!  She had almost forgotten the case of Dr. Shrapnel, and to see it shooting up again in the new path of her life was really irritating.

Rosamund did not defend herself.

‘I am very glad you have come, Nevil,’ she said; ’your uncle holds to the ceremony.  I may be of real use to you now; I wish to be.’

‘You have only to prove it,’ said he.  ’If you can turn his mind to marriage, you can send him to Bevisham.’

‘My chief thought is to serve you.’

‘I know it is, I know it is,’ he rejoined with some fervour.  ’You have served me, and made me miserable for life, and rightly.  Never mind, all’s well while the hand’s to the axe.’  Beauchamp smoothed his forehead roughly, trying hard to inspire himself with the tonic draughts of sentiments cast in the form of proverbs.  ’Lord Romfrey saw her, you say?’

‘He did, Nevil, and admired her.’

’Well, if I suffer, let me think of her!  For courage and nobleness I shall never find her equal.  Have you changed your ideas of Frenchwomen now?  Not a word, you say, not a look, to show her disdain of me whenever my name was mentioned!’

‘She could scarcely feel disdain.  She was guilty of a sad error.’

’Through trusting in me.  Will nothing teach you where the fault lies?  You women have no mercy for women.  She went through the parade to Romfrey Castle and back, and she must have been perishing at heart.  That, you English call acting.  In history you have a respect for such acting up to the scaffold.  Good-bye to her!  There’s a story ended.  One thing you must promise:  you’re a peeress, ma’am:  the story’s out, everybody has heard of it; that babbler has done his worst:  if you have a becoming appreciation of your title, you will promise me honestly ­no, give me your word as a woman I can esteem ­that you will not run about excusing me.  Whatever you hear said or suggested, say nothing yourself.  I insist on your keeping silence.  Press my hand.’

‘Nevil, how foolish!’

‘It’s my will.’

‘It is unreasonable.  You give your enemies licence.’

’I know what’s in your head.  Take my hand, and let me have your word for it.’

‘But if persons you like very much, Nevil, should hear?’

‘Promise.  You are a woman not to break your word.’

‘If I decline?’

‘Your hand!  I’ll kiss it.’

‘Oh! my darling.’  Rosamund flung her arms round him and strained him an instant to her bosom.  ’What have I but you in the world?  My comfort was the hope that I might serve you.’

’Yes! by slaying one woman as an offering to another.  It would be impossible for you to speak the truth.  Don’t you see, it would be a lie against her, and making a figure of me that a man would rather drop to the ground than have shown of him?  I was to blame, and only I. Madame de Rouaillout was as utterly deceived by me as ever a trusting woman by a brute.  I look at myself and hardly believe it ’s the same man.  I wrote to her that I was unchanged ­and I was entirely changed, another creature, anything Lord Romfrey may please to call me.’

‘But, Nevil, I repeat, if Miss Halkett should hear...?’

‘She knows by this time.’

‘At present she is ignorant of it.’

‘And what is Miss Halkett to me?’

’More than you imagined in that struggle you underwent, I think, Nevil.  Oh! if only to save her from Captain Baskelett!  He gained your uncle’s consent when they were at the Castle, to support him in proposing for her.  He is persistent.  Women have been snared without loving.  She is a great heiress.  Reflect on his use of her wealth.  You respect her, if you have no warmer feeling.  Let me assure you that the husband of Cecilia, if he is of Romfrey blood, has the fairest chance of the estates.  That man will employ every weapon.  He will soon be here bowing to me to turn me to his purposes.’

‘Cecilia can see through Baskelett,’ said Beauchamp.

’Single-mindedly selfish men may be seen through and through, and still be dangerous, Nevil.  The supposition is, that we know the worst of them.  He carries a story to poison her mind.  She could resist it, if you and she were in full confidence together.  If she did not love you, she could resist it.  She does, and for some strange reason beyond my capacity to fathom, you have not come to an understanding.  Sanction my speaking to her, just to put her on her guard, privately:  not to injure that poor lady, but to explain.  Shall she not know the truth?  I need say but very little.  Indeed, all I can say is, that finding the marquise in London one evening, you telegraphed for me to attend on her, and I joined you.  You shake your head.  But surely it is due to Miss Halkett.  She should be protected from what will certainly wound her deeply.  Her father is afraid of you, on the score of your theories.  I foresee it:  he will hear the scandal:  he will imagine you as bad in morals as in politics.  And you have lost your friend in Lord Romfrey ­though he shall not be your enemy.  Colonel Halkett and Cecilia called on us at Steynham.  She was looking beautiful; a trifle melancholy.  The talk was of your ­that ­I do not like it, but you hold those opinions ­the Republicanism.  She had read your published letters.  She spoke to me of your sincerity.  Colonel Halkett of course was vexed.

It is the same with all your friends.  She, however, by her tone, led me to think that she sees you as you are, more than in what you do.  They are now in Wales.  They will be in town after Easter.  Then you must expect that her feeling for you will be tried, unless but you will!  You will let me speak to her, Nevil.  My position allows me certain liberties I was previously debarred from.  You have not been so very tender to your Cecilia that you can afford to give her fresh reasons for sorrowful perplexity.  And why should you stand to be blackened by scandalmongers when a few words of mine will prove that instead of weak you have been strong, instead of libertine blameless?  I am not using fine phrases:  I would not.  I would be as thoughtful of you as if you were present.  And for her sake, I repeat, the truth should be told to her.  I have a lock of her hair.’

‘Cecilia’s?  Where?’ said Beauchamp.

‘It is at Steynham.’  Rosamund primmed her lips at the success of her probing touch; but she was unaware of the chief reason for his doting on those fair locks, and how they coloured his imagination since the day of the drive into Bevisham.

‘Now leave me, my dear Nevil,’ she said.  ’Lord Romfrey will soon be here, and it is as well for the moment that you should not meet him, if it can be avoided.’

Beauchamp left her, like a man out-argued and overcome.  He had no wish to meet his uncle, whose behaviour in contracting a misalliance and casting a shadow on the family, in a manner so perfectly objectless and senseless, appeared to him to call for the reverse of compliments.  Cecilia’s lock of hair lying at Steynham hung in his mind.  He saw the smooth flat curl lying secret like a smile.

The graceful head it had fallen from was dimmer in his mental eye.  He went so far in this charmed meditation as to feel envy of the possessor of the severed lock:  passingly he wondered, with the wonder of reproach, that the possessor should deem it enough to possess the lock, and resign it to a drawer or a desk.  And as when life rolls back on us after the long ebb of illness, little whispers and diminutive images of the old joys and prizes of life arrest and fill our hearts; or as, to men who have been beaten down by storms, the opening of a daisy is dearer than the blazing orient which bids it open; so the visionary lock of Cecilia’s hair became Cecilia’s self to Beauchamp, yielding him as much of her as he could bear to think of, for his heart was shattered.

Why had she given it to his warmest friend?  For the asking, probably.

This question was the first ripple of the breeze from other emotions beginning to flow fast.

He walked out of London, to be alone, and to think and from the palings of a road on a South-western run of high land, he gazed, at the great city ­a place conquerable yet, with the proper appliances for subjugating it:  the starting of his daily newspaper, the dawn, say, as a commencement.  It began to seem a possible enterprise.  It soon seemed a proximate one.  If Cecilia!  He left the exclamation a blank, but not an empty dash in the brain; rather like the shroud of night on a vast and gloriously imagined land.

Nay, the prospect was partly visible, as the unknown country becomes by degrees to the traveller’s optics on the dark hill-tops.  It is much, of course, to be domestically well-mated:  but to be fortified and armed by one’s wife with a weapon to fight the world, is rare good fortune; a rapturous and an infinite satisfaction.  He could now support of his own resources a weekly paper.  A paper published weekly, however, is a poor thing, out of the tide, behind the date, mainly a literary periodical, no foremost combatant in politics, no champion in the arena; hardly better than a commentator on the events of the six past days; an echo, not a voice.  It sits on a Saturday bench and pretends to sum up.  Who listens?  The verdict knocks dust out of a cushion.  It has no steady continuous pressure of influence.  It is the organ of sleepers.  Of all the bigger instruments of money, it is the feeblest, Beauchamp thought.  His constant faith in the good effects of utterance naturally inclined him to value six occasions per week above one; and in the fight he was for waging, it was necessary that he should enter the ring and hit blow for blow sans intermission.  A statement that he could call false must be challenged hot the next morning.  The covert Toryism, the fits of flunkeyism, the cowardice, of the relapsing middle-class, which is now England before mankind, because it fills the sails of the Press, must be exposed.  It supports the Press in its own interests, affecting to speak for the people.  It belies the people.  And this Press, declaring itself independent, can hardly walk for fear of treading on an interest here, an interest there.  It cannot have a conscience.  It is a bad guide, a false guardian; its abject claim to be our national and popular interpreter-even that is hollow and a mockery!  It is powerful only while subservient.  An engine of money, appealing to the sensitiveness of money, it has no connection with the mind of the nation.  And that it is not of, but apart from, the people, may be seen when great crises come.  Can it stop a war?  The people would, and with thunder, had they the medium.  But in strong gales the power of the Press collapses; it wheezes like a pricked pigskin of a piper.  At its best Beauchamp regarded our lordly Press as a curiously diapered curtain and delusive mask, behind which the country struggles vainly to show an honest feature; and as a trumpet that deafened and terrorized the people; a mere engine of leaguers banded to keep a smooth face upon affairs, quite soullessly:  he meanwhile having to be dumb.

But a Journal that should be actually independent of circulation and advertisements:  a popular journal in the true sense, very lungs to the people, for them to breathe freely through at last, and be heard out of it, with well-paid men of mark to head and aid them; ­the establishment of such a Journal seemed to him brave work of a life, though one should die early.  The money launching it would be coin washed pure of its iniquity of selfish reproduction, by service to mankind.  This dawn of his conception stood over him like a rosier Aurora for the country.  He beheld it in imagination as a new light rising above hugeous London.  You turn the sheets of the dawn, and it is the manhood of the land addressing you, no longer that alternately puling and insolent cry of the coffers.  The health, wealth, comfort, contentment of the greater number are there to be striven for, in contempt of compromise and ‘unseasonable times.’

Beauchamp’s illuminated dream of the power of his dawn to vitalize old England, liberated him singularly from his wearing regrets and heart-sickness.

Surely Cecilia, who judged him sincere, might be bent to join hands with him for so good a work!  She would bring riches to her husband:  sufficient.  He required the ablest men of the country to write for him, and it was just that they should be largely paid.  They at least in their present public apathy would demand it.  To fight the brewers, distillers, publicans, the shopkeepers, the parsons, the landlords, the law limpets, and also the indifferents, the logs, the cravens and the fools, high talent was needed, and an ardour stimulated by rates of pay outdoing the offers of the lucre-journals.  A large annual outlay would therefore be needed; possibly for as long as a quarter of a century.  Cecilia and her husband would have to live modestly.  But her inheritance would be immense.  Colonel Halkett had never spent a tenth of his income.  In time he might be taught to perceive in the dawn the one greatly beneficent enterprise of his day.  He might through his daughter’s eyes, and the growing success of the Journal.  Benevolent and gallant old man, patriotic as he was, and kind at heart, he might learn to see in the dawn a broader channel of philanthropy and chivalry than any we have yet had a notion of in England! ­a school of popular education into the bargain.

Beauchamp reverted to the shining curl.  It could not have been clearer to vision if it had lain under his eyes.

Ay, that first wild life of his was dead.  He had slain it.  Now for the second and sober life!  Who can say?  The Countess of Romfrey suggested it: ­Cecilia may have prompted him in his unknown heart to the sacrifice of a lawless love, though he took it for simply barren iron duty.  Brooding on her, he began to fancy the victory over himself less and less a lame one:  for it waxed less and less difficult in his contemplation of it.  He was looking forward instead of back.

Who cut off the lock?  Probably Cecilia herself; and thinking at the moment that he would see it, perhaps beg for it.  The lustrous little ring of hair wound round his heart; smiled both on its emotions and its aims; bound them in one.

But proportionately as he grew tender to Cecilia, his consideration for Renee increased; that became a law to him:  pity nourished it, and glimpses of self-contempt, and something like worship of her high-heartedness.

He wrote to the countess, forbidding her sharply and absolutely to attempt a vindication of him by explanations to any persons whomsoever; and stating that he would have no falsehoods told, he desired her to keep to the original tale of the visit of the French family to her as guests of the Countess of Romfrey.  Contradictory indeed.  Rosamund shook her head over him.  For a wilful character that is guilty of issuing contradictory commands to friends who would be friends in spite of him, appears to be expressly angling for the cynical spirit, so surely does it rise and snap at such provocation.  He was even more emphatic when they next met.  He would not listen to a remonstrance; and though, of course, her love of him granted him the liberty to speak to her in what tone he pleased, there were sensations proper to her new rank which his intemperateness wounded and tempted to revolt when he vexed her with unreason.  She had a glimpse of the face he might wear to his enemies.

He was quite as resolute, too, about that slight matter of the Jersey bull.  He had the bull in Bevisham, and would not give him up without the sign manual of Lord Romfrey to an agreement to resign him over to the American Quaker gentleman, after a certain term.  Moreover, not once had he, by exclamation or innuendo, during the period of his recent grief for the loss of his first love, complained of his uncle Everard’s refusal in the old days to aid him in suing for Renee.  Rosamund had expected that he would.  She thought it unloverlike in him not to stir the past, and to bow to intolerable facts.  This idea of him, coming in conjunction with his present behaviour, convinced her that there existed a contradiction in his nature:  whence it ensued that she lost her warmth as an advocate designing to intercede for him with Cecilia; and warmth being gone, the power of the scandal seemed to her unassailable.  How she could ever have presumed to combat it, was an astonishment to her.  Cecilia might be indulgent, she might have faith in Nevil.  Little else could be hoped for.

The occupations, duties, and ceremonies of her new position contributed to the lassitude into which Rosamund sank.  And she soon had a communication to make to her lord, the nature of which was more startling to herself, even tragic.  The bondwoman is a free woman compared with the wife.

Lord Romfrey’s friends noticed a glow of hearty health in the splendid old man, and a prouder animation of eye and stature; and it was agreed that matrimony suited him well.  Luckily for Cecil he did not sulk very long.  A spectator of the earl’s first introduction to the House of Peers, he called on his uncle the following day, and Rosamund accepted his homage in her husband’s presence.  He vowed that my lord was the noblest figure in the whole assembly; that it had been to him the most moving sight he had ever witnessed; that Nevil should have been there to see it and experience what he had felt; it would have done old Nevil incalculable good! and as far as his grief at the idea and some reticence would let him venture, he sighed to think of the last Earl of Romfrey having been seen by him taking the seat of his fathers.

Lord Romfrey shouted ‘Ha!’ like a checked peal of laughter, and glanced at his wife.