Read CHAPTER LII - QUESTION OF A PILGRIMAGE AND AN ACT OF PENANCE of Beauchamp Career, free online book, by George Meredith, on ReadCentral.com.

Then came a glorious morning for sportsmen.  One sniffed the dews, and could fancy fresh smells of stubble earth and dank woodland grass in the very streets of dirty Bevisham.  Sound sleep, like hearty dining, endows men with a sense of rectitude, and sunlight following the former, as a pleasant spell of conversational ease or sweet music the latter, smiles a celestial approval of the performance:  Lord Romfrey dismissed his anxieties.  His lady slightly ruffled him at breakfast in a letter saying that she wished to join him.  He was annoyed at noon by a message, wherein the wish was put as a request.  And later arrived another message, bearing the character of an urgent petition.  True, it might be laid to the account of telegraphic brevity.

He saw Dr. Shrapnel, and spoke to him, as before, to thank him for the permission to visit his nephew.  Nevil he contemplated for the space of five minutes.  He cordially saluted Miss Denham.  He kissed Cecilia’s hand.

’All here is going on so well that I am with you for a day or two to-morrow,’ he despatched the message to his wife.

Her case was now the gravest.  He could not understand why she desired to be in Bevisham.  She must have had execrable dreams! ­rank poison to mothers.

However, her constitutional strength was great, and his pride in the restoration of his House by her agency flourished anew, what with fair weather and a favourable report from Dr. Gannet:  The weather was most propitious to the hopes of any soul bent on dispersing the shadows of death, and to sportsmen.  From the windows of his railway carriage he beheld the happy sportsmen stalking afield.  The birds whirred and dropped just where he counted on their dropping.  The smoke of the guns threaded to dazzling silver in the sunshine.  Say what poor old Nevil will, or did say, previous to the sobering of his blood, where is there a land like England?  Everard rejoiced in his country temperately.  Having Nevil as well, ­of which fact the report he was framing in his mind to deliver to his wife assured him ­he was rich.  And you that put yourselves forward for republicans and democrats, do you deny the aristocracy of an oaklike man who is young upon the verge of eighty?

These were poetic flights, but he knew them not by name, and had not to be ashamed of them.

Rosamund met him in the hall of the castle.  ’You have not deceived me, my dear lord,’ she said, embracing him.  ’You have done what you could for me.  The rest is for me to do.’

He reciprocated her embrace warmly, in commendation of her fresher good looks.

She asked him, ‘You have spoken to Dr. Shrapnel?’

He answered her, ‘Twice.’

The word seemed quaint.  She recollected that he was quaint.

He repeated, ‘I spoke to him the first day I saw him, and the second.’

‘We are so much indebted to him,’ said Rosamund.  ’His love of Nevil surpasses ours.  Poor man! poor man!  At least we may now hope the blow will be spared him which would have carried off his life with Nevil’s.  I have later news of Nevil than you.’

‘Good, of course?’

‘Ah me! the pleasure of the absence of pain.  He is not gone.’

Lord Romfrey liked her calm resignation.

‘There’s a Mr. Lydiard,’ he said, ’a friend of Nevil’s, and a friend of Louise Devereux’s.’

‘Yes; we hear from him every four hours,’ Rosamund rejoined.  ’Mention him to her before me.’

‘That’s exactly what I was going to tell you to do before me,’ said her husband, smiling.

’Because, Everard, is it not so? ­widows... and she loves this gentleman!’

’Certainly, my dear; I think with you about widows.  The world asks them to practise its own hypocrisy.  Louise Devereux was married to a pipe; she’s the widow of tobacco ash.  We’ll make daylight round her.’

’How good, how kind you are, my lord!  I did not think so shrewd!  But benevolence is almost all-seeing:  You said you spoke to Dr. Shrapnel twice.  Was he... polite?’

‘Thoroughly upset, you know.’

‘What did he say?’

’What was it?  “Beauchamp!  Beauchamp!” the first time; and the second time he said he thought it had left off raining.’

‘Ah!’ Rosamund drooped her head.

She looked up.  ’Here is Louise.  My lord has had a long conversation with Mr. Lydiard.’

‘I trust he will come here before you leave us,’ added the earl.

Rosamund took her hand.  ’My lord has been more acute than I, or else your friend is less guarded than you.’

‘What have you seen?’ said the blushing lady.

’Stay.  I have an idea you are one of the women I promised to Cecil Baskelett,’ said the earl.  ‘Now may I tell him there’s no chance?’

‘Oh! do.’

They spent so very pleasant an evening that the earl settled down into a comfortable expectation of the renewal of his old habits in the September and October season.  Nevil’s frightful cry played on his ear-drum at whiles, but not too affectingly.  He conducted Rosamund to her room, kissed her, hoped she would sleep well, and retired to his good hard bachelor’s bed, where he confidently supposed he would sleep.  The sleep of a dyspeptic, with a wilder than the monstrous Bevisham dream, befell him, causing him to rise at three in the morning and proceed to his lady’s chamber, to assure himself that at least she slept well.  She was awake.

‘I thought you might come,’ she said.

He reproached her gently for indulging foolish nervous fears.

She replied, ’No, I do not; I am easier about Nevil.  I begin to think he will live.  I have something at my heart that prevents me from sleeping.  It concerns me.  Whether he is to live or die, I should like him to know he has not striven in vain ­not in everything:  not where my conscience tells me he was right, and we, I, wrong ­utterly wrong, wickedly wrong.’

‘My dear girl, you are exciting yourself.’

’No; feel my pulse.  The dead of night brings out Nevil to me like the Writing on the Wall.  It shall not be said he failed in everything.  Shame to us if it could be said!  He tried to make me see what my duty was, and my honour.’

‘He was at every man Jack of us.’

’I speak of one thing.  I thought I might not have to go.  Now I feel I must.  I remember him at Steynham, when Colonel Halkett and Cecilia were there.  But for me, Cecilia would now be his wife.  Of that there is no doubt; that is not the point; regrets are fruitless.  I see how the struggle it cost him to break with his old love ­that endearing Madame de Rouaillout, his Renee ­broke his heart; and then his loss of Cecilia Halkett.  But I do believe, true as that I am lying here, and you hold my hand, my dear husband, those losses were not so fatal to him as his sufferings he went through on account of his friend Dr. Shrapnel.  I will not keep you here.

Go and have some rest.  What I shall beg of you tomorrow will not injure my health in the slightest:  the reverse:  it will raise me from a bitter depression.  It shall not be said that those who loved him were unmoved by him.  Before he comes back to life, or is carried to his grave, he shall know that I was not false to my love of him.’

‘My dear, your pulse is at ninety,’ said the earl.

’Look lenient, be kind, be just, my husband.  Oh! let us cleanse our hearts.  This great wrong was my doing.  I am not only quite strong enough to travel to Bevisham, I shall be happy in going:  and when I have done it ­said:  “The wrong was all mine,” I shall rejoice like the pure in spirit.  Forgiveness does not matter, though I now believe that poor loving old man who waits outside his door weeping, is wrong-headed only in his political views.  We women can read men by their power to love.  Where love exists there is goodness.  But it is not for the sake of the poor old man himself that I would go:  it is for Nevil’s; it is for ours, chiefly for me, for my child’s, if ever...!’ Rosamund turned her head on her pillow.

The earl patted her cheek.  ’We ‘ll talk it over in the morning,’ he said.  ‘Now go to sleep.’

He could not say more, for he did not dare to attempt cajolery with her.  Shading his lamp he stepped softly away to wrestle with a worse nightmare than sleep’s.  Her meaning was clear:  and she was a woman to insist on doing it.  She was nevertheless a woman not impervious to reason, if only he could shape her understanding to perceive that the state of her nerves, incident to her delicate situation and the shock of that fellow Nevil’s illness ­poor lad! ­was acting on her mind, rendering her a victim of exaggerated ideas of duty, and so forth.

Naturally, apart from allowing her to undertake the journey by rail, he could not sanction his lady’s humbling of herself so egregiously and unnecessarily.  Shrapnel had behaved unbecomingly, and had been punished for it.  He had spoken to Shrapnel, and the affair was virtually at an end.  With his assistance she would see that, when less excited.  Her eternal brooding over Nevil was the cause of these mental vagaries.

Lord Romfrey was for postponing the appointed discussion in the morning after breakfast.  He pleaded business engagements.

‘None so urgent as this of mine,’ said Rosamund.

‘But we have excellent news of Nevil:  you have Gannet’s word for it,’ he argued.  ‘There’s really nothing to distress you.’

‘My heart:  I must be worthy of good news, to know happiness,’ she answered.  ’I will say, let me go to Bevisham two, three, four days hence, if you like, but there is peace for me, and nowhere else.’

’My precious Rosamund! have you set your two eyes on it?  What you are asking, is for permission to make an apology to Shrapnel!’

‘That is the word.’

‘That’s Nevil’s word.’

‘It is a prescription to me.’

‘An apology?’

The earl’s gorge rose.  Why, such an act was comparable to the circular mission of the dog!

‘If I do not make the apology, the mother of your child is a coward,’ said Rosamund.

‘She’s not.’

‘I trust not.’

’You are a reasonable woman, my dear.  Now listen the man insulted you.  It’s past:  done with.  He insulted you...’

‘He did not.’

‘What?’

’He was courteous to me, hospitable to me, kind to me.  He did not insult me.  I belied him.’

‘My dear saint, you’re dreaming.  He spoke insultingly of you to Cecil.’

’Is my lord that man’s dupe?  I would stand against him before the throne of God, with what little I know of his interview with Dr. Shrapnel, to confront him and expose his lie.  Do not speak of him.  He stirs my evil passions, and makes me feel myself the creature I was when I returned to Steynham from my first visit to Bevisham, enraged with jealousy of Dr. Shrapnel’s influence over Nevil, spiteful, malicious:  Oh! such a nest of vileness as I pray to heaven I am not now, if it is granted me to give life to another.  Nevil’s misfortunes date from that,’ she continued, in reply to the earl’s efforts to soothe her.  ’Not the loss of the Election:  that was no misfortune, but a lesson.  He would not have shone in Parliament:  he runs too much from first principles to extremes.  You see I am perfectly reasonable, Everard:  ’I can form an exact estimate of character and things.’  She smiled in his face.  ’And I know my husband too:  what he will grant; what he would not, and justly would not.  I know to a certainty that vexatious as I must be to you now, you are conscious of my having reason for being so.’

‘You carry it so far ­fifty miles beyond the mark,’ said he.  ’The man roughed you, and I taught him manners.’

‘No!’ she half screamed her interposition.  ’I repeat, he was in no way discourteous or disobliging to me.  He offered me a seat at his table, and, heaven forgive me!  I believe a bed in his house, that I might wait and be sure of seeing Nevil, because I was very anxious to see him.’

‘All the same, you can’t go to the man.’

‘I should have said so too, before my destiny touched me.’

’A certain dignity of position, my dear, demands a corresponding dignity of conduct:  you can’t go.’

’If I am walking in the very eye of heaven, and feeling it shining on me where I go, there is no question for me of human dignity.’

Such flighty talk offended Lord Romfrey.

‘It comes to this:  you’re in want of a parson.’

Rosamund was too careful to hint that she would have expected succour and seconding from one or other of the better order of clergymen.

She shook her head.  ’To this, my dear lord:  I have a troubled mind; and it is not to listen nor to talk, that I am in need of, but to act.’

’Yes, my dear girl, but not to act insanely.  I do love soundness of head.  You have it, only just now you’re a little astray.  We’ll leave this matter for another time.’

Rosamund held him by the arm.  ‘Not too long!’

Both of them applied privately to Mrs. Wardour-Devereux for her opinion and counsel on the subject of the proposal to apologize to Dr. Shrapnel.  She was against it with the earl, and became Rosamund’s echo when with her.  When alone, she was divided into two almost equal halves:  deeming that the countess should not insist, and the earl should not refuse:  him she condemned for lack of sufficient spiritual insight to perceive the merits of his wife’s request:  her she accused of some vestige of something underbred in her nature, for putting such fervid stress upon the supplication:  i.e. making too much of it ­a trick of the vulgar:  and not known to the languid.

She wrote to Lydiard for advice.

He condensed a paragraph into a line: 

‘It should be the earl.  She is driving him to it, intentionally or not.’

Mrs. Devereux doubted that the countess could have so false an idea of her husband’s character as to think it possible he would ever be bent to humble himself to the man he had castigated.  She was right.  It was by honestly presenting to his mind something more loathsome still, the humbling of herself, that Rosamund succeeded in awakening some remote thoughts of a compromise, in case of necessity.  Better I than she!

But the necessity was inconceivable.

He had really done everything required of him, if anything was really required, by speaking to Shrapnel civilly.  He had spoken to Shrapnel twice.

Besides, the castle was being gladdened by happier tidings of Beauchamp.  Gannet now pledged his word to the poor fellow’s recovery, and the earl’s particular friends arrived, and the countess entertained them.  October passed smoothly.

She said once:  ’Ancestresses of yours, my lord, have undertaken pilgrimages as acts of penance for sin, to obtain heaven’s intercession in their extremity.’

‘I dare say they did,’ he replied.  ‘The monks got round them.’

‘It is not to be laughed at, if it eased their hearts.’

Timidly she renewed her request for permission to perform the pilgrimage to Bevisham.

‘Wait,’ said he, ‘till Nevil is on his legs.’

‘Have you considered where I may then be, Everard?’

‘My love, you sleep well, don’t you?’

‘You see me every night.’

‘I see you sound asleep.’

‘I see you watching me.’

‘Let’s reason,’ said the earl; and again they went through the argument upon the apology to Dr. Shrapnel.

He was willing to indulge her in any amount of it:  and she perceived why.  Fox! she thought.  Grand fox, but fox downright.  For her time was shortening to days that would leave her no free-will.

On the other hand, the exercise of her free-will in a fast resolve, was growing all the more a privilege that he was bound to respect.  As she became sacreder and doubly precious to him, the less would he venture to thwart her, though he should think her mad.  There would be an analogy between his manner of regarding her and the way that superstitious villagers look on their crazy innocents, she thought sadly.  And she bled for him too:  she grieved to hurt his pride.  But she had come to imagine that there was no avoidance of this deed of personal humiliation.

Nevil had scrawled a note to her.  She had it in her hand one forenoon in mid November, when she said to her husband:  ’I have ordered the carriage for two o’clock to meet the quarter to three train to London, and I have sent Stanton on to get the house ready for us tonight.’

Lord Romfrey levelled a marksman’s eye at her.

‘Why London?  You know my wish that it should be here at the castle.’

‘I have decided to go to Bevisham.  I have little time left.’

‘None, to my thinking.’

’Oh I yes; my heart will be light.  I shall gain.  You come with me to
London?’

‘You can’t go.’

‘Don’t attempt to reason with me, please, please!’

‘I command, madam.’

‘My lord, it is past the hour of commanding.’

He nodded his head, with the eyes up amid the puckered brows, and blowing one of his long nasal expirations, cried, ’Here we are, in for another bout of argument.’

’No; I can bear the journey, rejoice in confessing my fault, but more argument I cannot bear.  I will reason with you when I can:  submit to me in this.’

‘Feminine reasoning!’ he interjected.

’I have nothing better to offer.  It will be prudent to attend to me.  Take my conduct for the portion I bring you.  Before I put myself in God’s care I must be clean.  I am unclean.  Language like that offends you.  I have no better.  My reasoning has not touched you; I am helpless, except in this determination that my contrition shall be expressed to Dr. Shrapnel.  If I am to have life, to be worthy of living and being a mother, it must be done.  Now, my dear lord, see that, and submit.  You’re but one voice:  I am two.’

He jumped off his chair, frowning up his forehead, and staring awfully at the insulting prospect.  ’An apology to the man?  By you?  Away with it.’

’Make allowances for me if you can, my dear lord that is what I am going to do.’

‘My wife going there?’ He strode along furiously.  ‘No!’

‘You will not stop her.’

‘There’s a palsy in my arm if I don’t.’

She plucked at her watch.

‘Why, ma’am, I don’t know you,’ he said, coming close to her.  ’Let ’s reason.  Perhaps you overshot it; you were disgusted with Shrapnel.  Perhaps I was hasty; I get fired by an insult to a woman.  There was a rascal kissed a girl once against her will, and I heard her cry out; I laid him on his back for six months; just to tell you; I’d do the same to lord or beggar.  Very well, my dear heart, we’ll own I might have looked into the case when that dog Cecil... what’s the matter?’

‘Speak on, my dear husband,’ said Rosamund, panting.

‘But your making the journey to Bevisham is a foolish notion.’

‘Yes? well?’

‘Well, we’ll wait.’

‘Oh! have we to travel over it all again?’ she exclaimed in despair at the dashing out of a light she had fancied.  ’You see the wrong.  You know the fever it is in my blood, and you bid me wait.’

‘Drop a line to Nevil.’

’To trick my conscience!  I might have done that, and done well, once.  Do you think I dislike the task I propose to myself?  It is for your sake that I would shun it.  As for me, the thought of going there is an ecstasy.  I shall be with Nevil, and be able to look in his face.  And how can I be actually abasing you when I am so certain that I am worthier of you in what I do?’

Her exaltation swept her on.  ’Hurry there, my lord, if you will.  If you think it prudent that you should go in my place, go:  you deprive me of a great joy, but I will not put myself in your way, and I consent.  The chief sin was mine; remember that.  I rank it viler than Cecil Baskelett’s.  And listen:  when ­can you reckon? ­when will he confess his wickedness?  We separate ourselves from a wretch like that.’

‘Pooh,’ quoth the earl.

‘But you will go?’ She fastened her arms round the arm nearest:  ’You or I!  Does it matter which?  We are one.  You speak for me; I should have been forced to speak for you.  You spare me the journey.  I do not in truth suppose it would have injured me; but I would not run one unnecessary risk.’

Lord Romfrey sighed profoundly.  He could not shake her off.  How could he refuse her?

How on earth had it come about that suddenly he was expected to be the person to go?

She would not let him elude her; and her stained cheeks and her trembling on his arm pleaded most pressingly and masteringly.  It might be that she spoke with a knowledge of her case.  Positive it undoubtedly was that she meant to go if he did not.  Perhaps the hopes of his House hung on it.  Having admitted that a wrong had been done, he was not the man to leave it unamended; only he would have chosen his time, and the manner.  Since Nevil’s illness, too, he had once or twice been clouded with a little bit of regret at the recollection of poor innocent old Shrapnel posted like a figure of total inebriation beside the doorway of the dreadful sickroom.

There had been women of the earl’s illustrious House who would have given their hands to the axe rather than conceal a stain and have to dread a scandal.  His Rosamund, after all, was of their pattern; even though she blew that conscience she prattled of into trifles, and swelled them, as women of high birth in this country, out of the clutches of the priests, do not do.

She clung to him for his promise to go.

He said:  ‘Well, well.’

‘That means, you will,’ said she.

His not denying it passed for the affirmative.

Then indeed she bloomed with love of him.

‘Yet do say yes,’ she begged.

‘I’ll go, ma’am,’ shouted the earl.  ‘I’ll go, my love,’ he said softly.