Read CHAPTER XLIX - A FABRIC OF BARONIAL DESPOTISM CRUMBLE of Beauchamp Career, free online book, by George Meredith, on ReadCentral.com.

The earl’s precautions did duty night and day in all the avenues leading to the castle and his wife’s apartments; and he could believe that he had undertaken as good a defence as the mountain guarding the fertile vale from storms:  but him the elements pelted heavily.  Letters from acquaintances of Nevil, from old shipmates and from queer political admirers and opponents, hailed on him; things not to be frigidly read were related of the fellow.

Lord Romfrey’s faith in the power of constitution to beat disease battled sturdily with the daily reports of his physician and friends, whom he had directed to visit the cottage on the common outside Bevisham, and with Miss Denham’s intercepted letters to the countess.  Still he had to calculate on the various injuries Nevil had done to his constitution, which had made of him another sort of man for a struggle of life and death than when he stood like a riddled flag through the war.  That latest freak of the fellow’s, the abandonment of our natural and wholesome sustenance in animal food, was to be taken in the reckoning.  Dr. Gannet did not allude to it; the Bevisham doctor did; and the earl meditated with a fury of wrath on the dismal chance that such a folly as this of one old vegetable idiot influencing a younger noodle, might strike his House to the dust.

His watch over his wife had grown mechanical:  he failed to observe that her voice was missing.  She rarely spoke.  He lost the art of observing himself:  the wrinkling up and dropping of his brows became his habitual language.  So long as he had not to meet inquiries or face tears, he enjoyed the sense of security.  He never quitted his wife save to walk to the Southern park lodge, where letters and telegrams were piled awaiting him; and she was forbidden to take the air on the castle terrace without his being beside her, lest a whisper, some accident of the kind that donkeys who nod over their drowsy nose-length-ahead precautions call fatality, should rouse her to suspect, and in a turn of the hand undo his labour:  for the race was getting terrible:  Death had not yet stepped out of that evil chamber in Dr. Shrapnel’s cottage to aim his javelin at the bosom containing the prized young life to come, but, like the smoke of waxing fire, he shadowed forth his presence in wreaths blacker and thicker day by day:  and Everard Romfrey knew that the hideous beast of darkness had only to spring up and pass his guard to deal a blow to his House the direr from all he supposed himself to have gained by masking it hitherto.  The young life he looked to for renewal swallowed him:  he partly lost human feeling for his wife in the tremendous watch and strain to hurry her as a vessel round the dangerous headland.  He was oblivious that his eyebrows talked, that his head was bent low, that his mouth was shut, and that where a doubt had been sown, silence and such signs are like revelations in black night to the spirit of a woman who loves.

One morning after breakfast Rosamund hung on his arm, eyeing him neither questioningly nor invitingly, but long.  He kissed her forehead.  She clung to him and closed her eyes, showing him a face of slumber, like a mask of the dead.

Mrs. Devereux was present.  Cecilia had entreated her to stay with Lady Romfrey.  She stole away, for the time had come which any close observer of the countess must have expected.

The earl lifted his wife, and carried her to her sitting-room.  A sunless weltering September day whipped the window-panes and brought the roar of the beaten woods to her ears.  He was booted and gaitered for his customary walk to the park lodge, and as he bent a knee beside her, she murmured:  ‘Don’t wait; return soon.’

He placed a cord attached to the bellrope within her reach.  This utter love of Nevil Beauchamp was beyond his comprehension, but there it was, and he had to submit to it and manoeuvre.  His letters and telegrams told the daily tale.  ‘He’s better,’ said the earl, preparing himself to answer what his wife’s look had warned him would come.

She was an image of peace, in the same posture on the couch where he had left her, when he returned.  She did not open her eyes, but felt about for his hand, and touching it, she seemed to weigh the fingers.

At last she said:  ‘The fever should be at its height.’

‘Why, my dear brave girl, what ails you?’ said he.

‘Ignorance.’

She raised her eyelids.  His head was bent down over her, like a raven’s watching, a picture of gravest vigilance.

Her bosom rose and sank.  ‘What has Miss Denham written to-day?’

‘To-day?’ he asked her gently.

‘I shall bear it,’ she answered.  ’You were my master before you were my husband.  I bear anything you think is good for my government.  Only, my ignorance is fever; I share Nevil’s.’

‘Have you been to my desk at all?’

’No.  I read your eyes and your hands:  I have been living on them.  To-day I find that I have not gained by it, as I hoped I should.  Ignorance kills me.  I really have courage to bear to hear just at this moment I have.’

‘There’s no bad news, my love,’ said the earl.

‘High fever, is it?’

’The usual fever.  Gannet’s with him.  I sent for Gannet to go there, to satisfy you.’

‘Nevil is not dead?’

‘Lord! ma’am, my dear soul!’

‘He is alive?’

’Quite:  certainly alive; as much alive as I am; only going a little faster, as fellows do in the jumps of a fever.  The best doctor in England is by his bed.  He ’s doing fairly.  You should have let me know you were fretting, my Rosamund.’

‘I did not wish to tempt you to lie, my dear lord.’

’Well, there are times when a woman... as you are:  but you’re a brave woman, a strong heart, and my wife.  You want some one to sit with you, don’t you?  Louise Devereux is a pleasant person, but you want a man to amuse you.  I’d have sent to Stukely, but you want a serious man, I fancy.’

So much had the earl been thrown out of his plan for protecting his wife, that he felt helpless, and hinted at the aids and comforts of religion.  He had not rejected the official Church, and regarding it now as in alliance with great Houses, he considered that its ministers might also be useful to the troubled women of noble families.  He offered, if she pleased, to call in the rector to sit with her ­the bishop of the diocese, if she liked.

‘But just as you like, my love,’ he added.  ’You know you have to avoid fretting.  I’ve heard my sisters talk of the parson doing them good off and on about the time of their being brought to bed.  He elevated their minds, they said.  I’m sure I’ve no objection.  If he can doctor the minds of women he’s got a profession worth something.’

Rosamund smothered an outcry.  ‘You mean that Nevil is past hope!’

’Not if he’s got a fair half of our blood in him.  And Richard Beauchamp gave the fellow good stock.  He has about the best blood in England.  That’s not saying much when they’ve taken to breed as they build ­stuff to keep the plasterers at work; devil a thought of posterity!’

‘There I see you and Nevil one, my dear lord,’ said Rosamund.  ’You think of those that are to follow us.  Talk to me of him.  Do not say, “the fellow.”  Say “Nevil.”  No, no; call him “the fellow.”  He was alive and well when you used to say it.  But smile kindly, as if he made you love him down in your heart, in spite of you.  We have both known that love, and that opposition to him; not liking his ideas, yet liking him so:  we were obliged to laugh ­I have seen you! as love does laugh!  If I am not crying over his grave, Everard?  Oh!’

The earl smoothed her forehead.  All her suspicions were rekindled.  ‘Truth! truth! give me truth.  Let me know what world I am in.’

’My dear, a ship’s not lost because she’s caught in a squall; nor a man buffeting the waves for an hour.  He’s all right:  he keeps up.’

‘He is delirious?  I ask you ­I have fancied I heard him.’

Lord Romfrey puffed from his nostrils:  but in affecting to blow to the winds her foolish woman’s wildness of fancy, his mind rested on Nevil, and he said:  ’Poor boy!  It seems he’s chattering hundreds to the minute.’

His wife’s looks alarmed him after he had said it, and he was for toning it and modifying it, when she gasped to him to help her to her feet; and standing up, she exclaimed:  ’O heaven! now I hear you; now I know he lives.  See how much better it is for me to know the real truth.  It takes me to his bedside.  Ignorance and suspense have been poison.  I have been washed about like a dead body.  Let me read all my letters now.  Nothing will harm me now.  You will do your best for me, my husband, will you not?’ She tore at her dress at her throat for coolness, panting and smiling.  ’For me ­us ­yours ­ours!  Give me my letters, lunch with me, and start for Bevisham.  Now you see how good it is for me to hear the very truth, you will give me your own report, and I shall absolutely trust in it, and go down with it if it’s false!  But you see I am perfectly strong for the truth.  It must be you or I to go.  I burn to go; but your going will satisfy me.  If you look on him, I look.  I feel as if I had been nailed down in a coffin, and have got fresh air.  I pledge you my word, sir, my honour, my dear husband, that I will think first of my duty.  I know it would be Nevil’s wish.  He has not quite forgiven me ­he thought me ambitious ­ah! stop:  he said that the birth of our child would give him greater happiness than he had known for years:  he begged me to persuade you to call a boy Nevil Beauchamp, and a girl Renee.  He has never believed in his own long living.’

Rosamund refreshed her lord’s heart by smiling archly as she said:  ’The boy to be educated to take the side of the people, of course!  The girl is to learn a profession.’

‘Ha! bless the fellow!’ Lord Romfrey interjected.  ’Well, I might go there for an hour.  Promise me, no fretting!  You have hollows in your cheeks, and your underlip hangs:  I don’t like it.  I haven’t seen that before.’

‘We do not see clearly when we are trying to deceive,’ said Rosamund.  ‘My letters! my letters!’

Lord Romfrey went to fetch them.  They were intact in his desk.  His wife, then, had actually been reading the facts through a wall!  For he was convinced of Mrs. Devereux’s fidelity, as well as of the colonel’s and Cecilia’s.  He was not a man to be disobeyed:  nor was his wife the woman to court or to acquiesce in trifling acts of disobedience to him.  He received the impression, consequently, that this matter of the visit to Nevil was one in which the poor loving soul might be allowed to guide him, singular as the intensity of her love of Nevil Beauchamp was, considering that they were not of kindred blood.

He endeavoured to tone her mind for the sadder items in Miss Denham’s letters.

‘Oh!’ said Rosamund, ’what if I shed the “screaming eyedrops,” as you call them?  They will not hurt me, but relieve.  I was sure I should someday envy that girl!  If he dies she will have nursed him and had the last of him.’

‘He’s not going to die!’ said Everard powerfully.

’We must be prepared.  These letters will do that for me.  I have written out the hours of your trains.  Stanton will attend on you.  I have directed him to telegraph to the Dolphin in Bevisham for rooms for the night:  that is to-morrow night.  To-night you sleep at your hotel in London, which will be ready to receive you, and is more comfortable than the empty house.  Stanton takes wine, madeira and claret, and other small necessaries.  If Nevil should be very unwell, you will not leave him immediately.  I shall look to the supplies.  You will telegraph to me twice a day, and write once.  We lunch at half-past twelve, so that you may hit the twenty-minutes-to-two o’clock train.  And now I go to see that the packing is done.’

She carried off her letters to her bedroom, where she fell upon the bed, shutting her eyelids hard before she could suffer her eyes to be the intermediaries of that fever-chamber in Bevisham and her bursting heart.  But she had not positively deceived her husband in the reassurance she had given him by her collectedness and by the precise directions she had issued for his comforts, indicating a mind so much more at ease.  She was firmer to meet the peril of her beloved:  and being indeed, when thrown on her internal resources, one among the brave women of earth, though also one who required a lift from circumstances to take her stand calmly fronting a menace to her heart, she saw the evidence of her influence with Lord Romfrey:  the level she could feel that they were on together so long as she was courageous, inspirited her sovereignly.

He departed at the hour settled for him.  Rosamund sat at her boudoir window, watching the carriage that was conducting him to the railway station.  Neither of them had touched on the necessity of his presenting himself at the door of Dr. Shrapnel’s house.  That, and the disgust belonging to it, was a secondary consideration with Lord Romfrey, after he had once resolved on it as the right thing to do:  and his wife admired and respected him for so supreme a loftiness.  And fervently she prayed that it might not be her evil fate to disappoint his hopes.  Never had she experienced so strong a sense of devotedness to him as when she saw the carriage winding past the middle oak-wood of the park, under a wet sky brightened from the West, and on out of sight.