Read CHAPTER L - AT THE COTTAGE ON THE COMMON of Beauchamp Career, free online book, by George Meredith, on ReadCentral.com.

Rain went with Lord Romfrey in a pursuing cloud all the way to Bevisham, and across the common to the long garden and plain little green-shuttered, neat white cottage of Dr. Shrapnel.  Carriages were driving from the door; idle men with hands deep in their pockets hung near it, some women pointing their shoulders under wet shawls, and boys.  The earl was on foot.  With no sign of discomposure, he stood at the half-open door and sent in his card, bearing the request for permission to visit his nephew.  The reply failing to come to him immediately, he began striding to and fro.  That garden gate where he had flourished the righteous whip was wide.  Foot-farers over the sodden common were attracted to the gateway, and lingered in it, looking at the long, green-extended windows, apparently listening, before they broke away to exchange undertone speech here and there.  Boys had pushed up through the garden to the kitchen area.  From time to time a woman in a dripping bonnet whimpered aloud.

An air of a country churchyard on a Sunday morning when the curate has commenced the service prevailed.  The boys were subdued by the moisture, as they are when they sit in the church aisle or organ-loft, before their members have been much cramped.

The whole scene, and especially the behaviour of the boys, betokened to Lord Romfrey that an event had come to pass.

In the chronicle of a sickness the event is death.

He bethought him of various means of stopping the telegraph and smothering the tale, if matters should have touched the worst here.  He calculated abstrusely the practicable shortness of the two routes from Bevisham to Romfrey, by post-horses on the straightest line of road, or by express train on the triangle of railway, in case of an extreme need requiring him to hasten back to his wife and renew his paternal-despotic system with her.  She had but persuaded him of the policy of a liberal openness and confidence for the moment’s occasion:  she could not turn his nature, which ran to strokes of craft and blunt decision whenever the emergency smote him and he felt himself hailed to show generalship.

While thus occupied in thoughtfulness he became aware of the monotony of a tuneless chant, as if, it struck him, an insane young chorister or canon were galloping straight on end hippomaniacally through the Psalms.  There was a creak at intervals, leading him to think it a machine that might have run away with the winder’s arm.

The earl’s humour proposed the notion to him that this perhaps was one of the forms of Radical lamentation, ululation, possibly practised by a veteran impietist like Dr. Shrapnel for the loss of his youngster, his political cub ­poor lad!

Deriding any such paganry, and aught that could be set howling, Lord Romfrey was presently moved to ask of the small crowd at the gate what that sound was.

‘It’s the poor commander, sir,’ said a wet-shawled woman, shivering.

‘He’s been at it twenty hours already, sir,’ said one of the boys.

’Twenty-foor hour he ‘ve been at it,’ said another.

A short dispute grew over the exact number of hours.  One boy declared that thirty hours had been reached.  ’Father heerd’n yesterday morning as he was aff to ’s work in the town afore six:  that brings ’t nigh thirty and he ha’n’t stopped yet.’

The earl was invited to step inside the gate, a little way up to the house, and under the commander’s window, that he might obtain a better hearing.

He swung round, walked away, walked back, and listened.

If it was indeed a voice, the voice, he would have said, was travelling high in air along the sky.

Yesterday he had described to his wife Nevil’s chattering of hundreds to the minute.  He had not realized the description, which had been only his manner of painting delirium:  there had been no warrant for it.  He heard the wild scudding voice imperfectly:  it reminded him of a string of winter geese changeing waters.  Shower gusts, and the wail and hiss of the rows of fir-trees bordering the garden, came between, and allowed him a moment’s incredulity as to its being a human voice.  Such a cry will often haunt the moors and wolds from above at nightfall.  The voice hied on, sank, seemed swallowed; it rose, as if above water, in a hush of wind and trees.  The trees bowed their heads rageing, the voice drowned; once more to rise, chattering thrice rapidly, in a high-pitched key, thin, shrill, weird, interminable, like winds through a crazy chamber-door at midnight.

The voice of a broomstick-witch in the clouds could not be thinner and stranger:  Lord Romfrey had some such thought.

Dr. Gannet was the bearer of Miss Denham’s excuses to Lord Romfrey for the delay in begging him to enter the house:  in the confusion of the household his lordship’s card had been laid on the table below, and she was in the sick-room.

‘Is my nephew a dead man?’ said the earl.

The doctor weighed his reply.  ’He lives.  Whether he will, after the exhaustion of this prolonged fit of raving, I don’t dare to predict.  In the course of my experience I have never known anything like it.  He lives:  there’s the miracle, but he lives.’

‘On brandy?’

‘That would soon have sped him.’

‘Ha.  You have everything here that you want?’

‘Everything.’

‘He’s in your hands, Gannet.’

The earl was conducted to a sitting-room, where Dr. Gannet left him for a while.

Mindful that he was under the roof of his enemy, he remained standing, observing nothing.

The voice overheard was off at a prodigious rate, like the far sound of a yell ringing on and on.

The earl unconsciously sought a refuge from it by turning the leaves of a book upon the table, which was a complete edition of Harry Denham’s Poems, with a preface by a man named Lydiard; and really, to read the preface one would suppose that these poets were the princes of the earth.  Lord Romfrey closed the volume.  It was exquisitely bound, and presented to Miss Denham by the Mr. Lydiard.  ’The works of your illustrious father,’ was written on the title-page.  These writers deal queerly with their words of praise of one another.  There is no law to restrain them.  Perhaps it is the consolation they take for the poor devil’s life they lead!

A lady addressing him familiarly, invited him to go upstairs.

He thanked her.  At the foot of the stairs he turned; he had recognized Cecilia Halkett.

Seeing her there was more strange to him than being there himself; but he bowed to facts.

‘What do you think?’ he said.

She did not answer intelligibly.

He walked up.

The crazed gabbling tongue had entire possession of the house, and rang through it at an amazing pitch to sustain for a single minute.

A reflection to the effect that dogs die more decently than we men, saddened the earl.  But, then, it is true, we shorten their pangs by shooting them.

A dismal figure loomed above him at the head of the stairs.

He distinguished it in the vast lean length he had once whipped and flung to earth.

Dr. Shrapnel was planted against the wall outside that raving chamber, at the salient angle of a common prop or buttress.  The edge of a shoulder and a heel were the supports to him sideways in his distorted attitude.  His wall arm hung dead beside his pendent frock-coat; the hair of his head had gone to wildness, like a field of barley whipped by tempest.  One hand pressed his eyeballs:  his unshaven jaw dropped.

Lord Romfrey passed him by.

The dumb consent of all present affirmed the creature lying on the bed to be Nevil Beauchamp.

Face, voice, lank arms, chicken neck:  what a sepulchral sketch of him!

It was the revelry of a corpse.

Shudders of alarm for his wife seized Lord Romfrey at the sight.  He thought the poor thing on the bed must be going, resolving to a cry, unwinding itself violently in its hurricane of speech, that was not speech nor exclamation, rather the tongue let loose to run to the death.  It seemed to be out in mid-sea, up wave and down wave.

A nurse was at the pillow smoothing it.  Miss Denham stood at the foot of the bed.

‘Is that pain?’ Lord Romfrey said low to Dr. Gannet.

‘Unconscious,’ was the reply.

Miss Denham glided about the room and disappeared.

Her business was to remove Dr. Shrapnel, that he might be out of the way when Lord Romfrey should pass him again:  but Dr. Shrapnel heard one voice only, and moaned, ‘My Beauchamp!’ She could not get him to stir.

Miss Denham saw him start slightly as the earl stepped forth and, bowing to him, said:  ‘I thank you, sir, for permitting me to visit my nephew.’

Dr. Shrapnel made a motion of the hand, to signify freedom of access to his house.  He would have spoken the effort fetched a burst of terrible chuckles.  He covered his face.

Lord Romfrey descended.  The silly old wretch had disturbed his equanimity as a composer of fiction for the comfort and sustainment of his wife:  and no sooner had he the front door in view than the calculation of the three strides requisite to carry him out of the house plucked at his legs, much as young people are affected by a dancing measure; for he had, without deigning to think of matters disagreeable to him in doing so, performed the duty imposed upon him by his wife, and now it behoved him to ward off the coming blow from that double life at Romfrey Castle.

He was arrested in his hasty passage by Cecilia Halkett.

She handed him a telegraphic message:  Rosamund requested him to stay two days in Bevisham.  She said additionally:  ’Perfectly well.  Shall fear to see you returning yet.  Have sent to Tourdestelle.  All his friends.  Ni espoir, ni crainte, maïs point de deceptions.  Lumiere.  Ce sont les ténèbres qui tuent.’

Her nimble wits had spied him on the road he was choosing, and outrun him.

He resigned himself to wait a couple of days at Bevisham.  Cecilia begged him to accept a bed at Mount Laurels.  He declined, and asked her:  ’How is it you are here?’

‘I called here,’ said she, compressing her eyelids in anguish at a wilder cry of the voice overhead, and forgetting to state why she had called at the house and what services she had undertaken.  A heap of letters in her handwriting explained the nature of her task.

Lord Romfrey asked her where the colonel was.

’He drives me down in the morning and back at night, but they will give me a bed or a sofa here to-night ­I can’t...’  Cecilia stretched her hand out, blinded, to the earl.

He squeezed her hand.

’These letters take away my strength:  crying is quite useless, I know that,’ said she, glancing at a pile of letters that she had partly replied to.  ’Some are from people who can hardly write.  There were people who distrusted him!  Some are from people who abused him and maltreated him.  See those poor creatures out in the rain!’

Lord Romfrey looked through the venetian blinds of the parlour window.

‘It’s as good as a play to them,’ he remarked.

Cecilia lit a candle and applied a stick of black wax to the flame, saying:  ’Envelopes have fallen short.  These letters will frighten the receivers.  I cannot help it.’

‘I will bring letter paper and envelopes in the afternoon,’ said Lord Romfrey.  ‘Don’t use black wax, my dear.’

’I can find no other:  I do not like to trouble Miss Denham.  Letter paper has to be sealed.  These letters must go by the afternoon post:  I do not like to rob the poor anxious people of a little hope while he lives.  Let me have note paper and envelopes quickly:  not black-edged.’

‘Plain; that’s right,’ said Lord Romfrey.

Black appeared to him like the torch of death flying over the country.

‘There may be hope,’ he added.

She sighed:  ‘Oh! yes.’

‘Gannet will do everything that man can do to save him.’

‘He will, I am sure.’

‘You don’t keep watch in the room, my dear, do you?’

’Miss Denham allows me an hour there in the day:  it is the only rest she takes.  She gives me her bedroom.’

‘Ha:  well:  women!’ ejaculated the earl, and paused.  ’That sounded like him!’

‘At times,’ murmured Cecilia.  ’All yesterday! all through the night! and to-day!’

‘He’ll be missed.’

Any sudden light of happier expectation that might have animated him was extinguished by the flight of chatter following the cry which had sounded like Beauchamp.

He went out into the rain, thinking that Beauchamp would be missed.  The fellow had bothered the world, but the world without him would be heavy matter.

The hour was mid-day, workmen’s meal-time.  A congregation of shipyard workmen and a multitude of children crowded near the door.  In passing through them, Lord Romfrey was besought for the doctor’s report of Commander Beauchamp, variously named Beesham, Bosham, Bitcham, Bewsham.  The earl heard his own name pronounced as he particularly disliked to hear it ­Rumfree.  Two or three men scowled at him.

It had not occurred to him ever before in his meditations to separate his blood and race from the common English; and he was not of a character to dwell on fantastical and purposeless distinctions, but the mispronunciation of his name and his nephew’s at an instant when he was thinking of Nevil’s laying down his life for such men as these gross excessive breeders, of ill shape and wooden countenance, pushed him to reflections on the madness of Nevil in endeavouring to lift them up and brush them up; and a curious tenderness for Nevil’s madness worked in his breast as he contrasted this much-abused nephew of his with our general English ­the so-called nobles, who were sunk in the mud of the traders:  the traders, who were sinking in the mud of the workmen:  the workmen, who were like harbour-flats at ebb tide round a stuck-fast fleet of vessels big and little.

Decidedly a fellow like Nevil would be missed by him!

These English, huddling more and more in flocks, turning to lumps, getting to be cut in a pattern and marked by a label ­how they bark and snap to rend an obnoxious original!  One may chafe at the botheration everlastingly raised by the fellow; but if our England is to keep her place she must have him, and many of him.  Have him?  He’s gone!

Lord Romfrey reasoned himself into pathetic sentiment by degrees.

He purchased the note paper and envelopes in the town for Cecilia.  Late in the afternoon he deposited them on the parlour table at Dr. Shrapnel’s.  Miss Denham received him.  She was about to lie down for her hour of rest on the sofa.  Cecilia was upstairs.  He inquired if there was any change in his nephew’s condition.

‘Not any,’ said Miss Denham.

The voice was abroad for proof of that.

He stood with a swelling heart.

Jenny flung out a rug to its length beside the sofa, and; holding it by one end, said:  ‘I must have my rest, to be of service, my lord.’

He bowed.  He was mute and surprised.

The young lady was like no person of her age and sex that he remembered ever to have met.

‘I will close the door,’ he said, retiring softly.

‘Do not, my lord.’

The rug was over her, up to her throat, and her eyes were shut.  He looked back through the doorway in going out.  She was asleep.

‘Some delirium.  Gannet of good hope.  All in the usual course’; he transmitted intelligence to his wife.

A strong desire for wine at his dinner-table warned him of something wrong with his iron nerves.