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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesBeauchamp's Career - Book 4 - Chapter 33. The First Encounter At Steynham
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Beauchamp's Career - Book 4 - Chapter 33. The First Encounter At Steynham Post by :hectoryrosa Category :Long Stories Author :George Meredith Date :May 2012 Read :2732

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Beauchamp's Career - Book 4 - Chapter 33. The First Encounter At Steynham

BOOK IV CHAPTER XXXIII. THE FIRST ENCOUNTER AT STEYNHAM

The judge pronouncing sentence of condemnation on the criminal is proverbially a sorrowfully-minded man; and still more would he be so had he to undertake the part of executioner as well. This is equivalent to saying that the simple pleasures are no longer with us; it must be a personal enemy now to give us any satisfaction in chastising and slaying. Perhaps by-and-by that will be savourless: we degenerate. There is, nevertheless, ever (and let nature be praised for it) a strong sustainment in the dutiful exertion of our physical energies, and Mr. Everard Romfrey experienced it after he had fulfilled his double office on the person of Dr. Shrapnel by carrying out his own decree. His conscience approved him cheerlessly, as it is the habit of that secret monitor to do when we have no particular advantage coming of the act we have performed; but the righteous labour of his arm gave him high breathing and an appetite.

He foresaw that he and Nevil would soon be having a wrestle over the matter, hand and thigh; but a gentleman in the right engaged with a fellow in the wrong has nothing to apprehend; is, in fact, in the position of a game-preserver with a poacher. The nearest approach to gratification in that day's work which Mr. Romfrey knew was offered by the picture of Nevil's lamentable attitude above his dirty idol. He conceived it in the mock-mediaeval style of our caricaturists:--Shrapnel stretched at his length, half a league, in slashed yellows and blacks, with his bauble beside him, and prodigious pointed toes; Nevil in parti-coloured tights, on one leg, raising his fists in imprecation to a nose in the firmament.

Gentlemen of an unpractised imaginative capacity cannot vision for themselves exactly what they would, being unable to exercise authority over the proportions and the hues of the objects they conceive, which are very much at the mercy of their sportive caprices; and the state of mind of Mr. Romfrey is not to be judged by his ridiculous view of the pair. In the abstract he could be sorry for Shrapnel. As he knew himself magnanimous, he promised himself to be forbearing with Nevil.

Moreover, the month of September was drawing nigh; he had plenty to think of. The entire land (signifying all but all of those who occupy the situation of thinkers in it) may be said to have been exhaling the same thought in connection with September. Our England holds possession of a considerable portion of the globe, and it keeps the world in awe to see her bestowing so considerable a portion of her intelligence upon her recreations. To prosecute them with her whole heart is an ingenious exhibition of her power. Mr. Romfrey was of those who said to his countrymen, 'Go yachting; go cricketing; go boat-racing; go shooting; go horseracing, nine months of the year, while the other Europeans go marching and drilling.' Those occupations he considered good for us; and our much talking, writing, and thinking about them characteristic, and therefore good. And he was not one of those who do penance for that sweating indolence in the fits of desperate panic. Beauchamp's argument that the rich idler begets the idling vagabond, the rich wagerer the brutal swindler, the general thirst for a mad round of recreation a generally-increasing disposition to avoid serious work, and the unbraced moral tone of the country an indifference to national responsibility (an argument doubtless extracted from Shrapnel, talk tall as the very demagogue when he stood upright), Mr. Romfrey laughed at scornfully, affirming that our manufactures could take care of themselves. As for invasion, we are circled by the sea. Providence has done that for us, and may be relied on to do more in an emergency.--The children of wealth and the children of the sun alike believe that Providence is for them, and it would seem that the former can do without it less than the latter, though the former are less inclined to give it personification.

This year, however, the array of armaments on the Continent made Mr. Romfrey anxious about our navy. Almost his first topic in welcoming Colonel Halkett and Cecilia to Steynham was the rottenness of navy administration; for if Providence is to do anything for us it must have a sea-worthy fleet for the operation. How loudly would his contemptuous laughter have repudiated the charge that he trusted to supernatural agency for assistance in case of need! But so it was: and he owned to believing in English luck. Partly of course he meant that steady fire of combat which his countrymen have got heated to of old till fortune blessed them.

'Nevil is not here?' the colonel asked.

'No, I suspect he's gruelling and plastering a doctor of his acquaintance,' Mr. Romfrey said, with his nasal laugh composed of scorn and resignation.

'Yes, yes, I've heard,' said Colonel Halkett hastily.

He would have liked to be informed of Dr. Shrapnel's particular offence: he mentioned the execrable letter.

Mr. Romfrey complacently interjected: 'Drug-vomit!' and after an interval: 'Gallows!'

'That man has done Nevil Beauchamp a world of mischief, Romfrey.'

'We'll hope for a cure, colonel.'

'Did the man come across you?'

'He did.'

Mr. Romfrey was mute on the subject. Colonel Halkett abstained from pushing his inquiries.

Cecilia could only tell her father when they were alone in the drawing-room a few minutes before dinner that Mrs. Culling was entirely ignorant of any cause to which Nevil's absence might be attributed.

'Mr. Romfrey had good cause,' the colonel said, emphatically.

He repeated it next day, without being a bit wiser of the cause.

Cecilia's happiness or hope was too sensitive to allow of a beloved father's deceiving her in his opposition to it.

She saw clearly now that he had fastened on this miserable incident, expecting an imbroglio that would divide Nevil and his uncle, and be an excuse for dividing her and Nevil. O for the passionate will to make head against what appeared as a fate in this matter! She had it not.

Mr. and Mrs. Wardour-Devereux, Sir John and Lady Baskelett, and the Countess of Welshpool, another sister of Mr. Romfrey's, arrived at Steynham for a day and a night. Lady Baskelett and Lady Welshpool came to see their brother, not to countenance his household; and Mr. Wardour-Devereux could not stay longer than a certain number of hours under a roof where tobacco was in evil odour. From her friend Louise, his wife, Cecilia learnt that Mr. Lydiard had been summoned to Dr. Shrapnel's bedside, as Mrs. Devereux knew by a letter she had received from Mr. Lydiard, who was no political devotee of that man, she assured Cecilia, but had an extraordinary admiration for the Miss Denham living with him. This was kindly intended to imply that Beauchamp was released from his attendance on Dr. Shrapnel, and also that it was not he whom the Miss Denham attracted.

'She is in Switzerland,' said Cecilia.

'She is better there,' said Mrs. Devereux.

Mr. Stukely Culbrett succeeded to these visitors. He heard of the case of Dr. Shrapnel from Colonel Halkett, and of Beauchamp's missing of his chance with the heiress from Mr. Romfrey.

Rosamund Culling was in great perplexity about Beauchamp's prolonged absence; for he had engaged to come, he had written to her to say he would be sure to come; and she feared he was ill. She would have persuaded Mr. Culbrett to go down to Bevisham to see him: she declared that she could even persuade herself to call on Dr. Shrapnel a second time, in spite of her horror of the man. Her anger at the thought of his keeping Nevil away from good fortune and happiness caused her to speak in resentment and loathing of the man.

'He behaved badly when you saw him, did he?' said Stukely.

'Badly, is no word. He is detestable,' Rosamund replied.

'You think he ought to be whipped?'

She feigned an extremity of vindictiveness, and twisted her brows in comic apology for the unfeminine sentiment, as she said: 'I really do.'

The feminine gentleness of her character was known to Stukely, so she could afford to exaggerate the expression of her anger, and she did not modify it, forgetful that a woman is the representative of the sex with cynical men, and escapes from contempt at the cost of her sisterhood.

Looking out of an upper window in the afternoon she beheld Nevil Beauchamp in a group with his uncle Everard, the colonel and Cecilia, and Mr. Culbrett. Nevil was on his feet; the others were seated under the great tulip-tree on the lawn.

A little observation of them warned her that something was wrong. There was a vacant chair; Nevil took it in his hand at times, stamped it to the ground, walked away and sharply back fronting his uncle, speaking vehemently, she perceived, and vainly, as she judged by the cast of his uncle's figure. Mr. Romfrey's head was bent, and wagged slightly, as he screwed his brows up and shot his eyes, queerly at the agitated young man. Colonel Halkett's arms crossed his chest. Cecilia's eyelids drooped their lashes. Mr. Culbrett was balancing on the hind-legs of his chair. No one appeared to be speaking but Nevil.

It became evident that Nevil was putting a series of questions to his uncle. Mechanical nods were given him in reply.

Presently Mr. Romfrey rose, thundering out a word or two, without a gesture.

Colonel Halkett rose.

Nevil flung his hand out straight to the house.

Mr. Romfrey seemed to consent; the colonel shook his head: Nevil insisted.

A footman carrying a tea-tray to Miss Halkett received some commission and swiftly disappeared, making Rosamund wonder whether sugar, milk or cream had been omitted.

She met him on the first landing, and heard that Mr. Romfrey requested her to step out on the lawn.

Expecting to hear of a piece of misconduct on the part of the household servants, she hurried forth, and found that she had to traverse the whole space of the lawn up to the tuliptree. Colonel Halkett and Mr. Romfrey had resumed their seats. The colonel stood up and bowed to her.

Mr. Romfrey said: 'One question to you, ma'am, and you shall not be detained. Did not that man Shrapnel grossly insult you on the day you called on him to see Captain Beauchamp about a couple of months before the Election?'

'Look at me when you speak, ma'am,' said Beauchamp.

Rosamund looked at him.

The whiteness of his face paralyzed her tongue. A dreadful levelling of his eyes penetrated and chilled her. Instead of thinking of her answer she thought of what could possibly have happened.

'Did he insult you at all, ma'am?' said Beauchamp.

Mr. Romfrey reminded him that he was not a cross-examining criminal barrister.

They waited for her to speak.

She hesitated, coloured, betrayed confusion; her senses telling her of a catastrophe, her conscience accusing her as the origin of it.

'Did Dr. Shrapnel, to your belief, intentionally hurt your feelings or your dignity?' said Beauchamp, and made the answer easier:

'Not intentionally, surely: not... I certainly do not accuse him.'

'Can you tell me you feel that he wounded you in the smallest degree? And if so, how? I ask you this, because he is anxious, if he lives, to apologize to you for any offence that he may have been guilty of: he was ignorant of it. I have his word for that, and his commands to me to bear it to you. I may tell you I have never known him injure the most feeble thing--anything alive, or wish to.'

Beauchamp's voice choked. Rosamund saw tears leap out of the stern face of her dearest now in wrath with her.

'Is he ill?' she faltered.

'He is. You own to a strong dislike of him, do you not?'

'But not to desire any harm to him.'

'Not a whipping,' Mr. Culbrett murmured.

Everard Romfrey overheard it.

He had allowed Mrs. Culling to be sent for, that she might with a bare affirmative silence Nevil, when his conduct was becoming intolerable before the guests of the house.

'That will do, ma'am,' he dismissed her.

Beauchamp would not let her depart.

'I must have your distinct reply, and in Mr. Romfrey's presence:--say, that if you accused him you were mistaken, or that they were mistaken who supposed you had accused him. I must have the answer before you go.'

'Sir, will you learn manners!' Mr. Romfrey said to him, with a rattle of the throat.

Beauchamp turned his face from-her.

Colonel Halkett offered her his arm to lead her away.

'What is it? Oh, what is it?' she whispered, scarcely able to walk, but declining the colonel's arm.

'You ought not to have been dragged out here,' said he. 'Any one might have known there would be no convincing of Captain Beauchamp. That old rascal in Bevisham has been having a beating; that's all. And a very beautiful day it is!--a little too hot, though. Before we leave, you must give me a lesson or two in gardening.'

'Dr. Shrapnel--Mr. Romfrey!' said Rosamund half audibly under the oppression of the more she saw than what she said.

The colonel talked of her renown in landscape-gardening. He added casually: 'They met the other day.'

'By accident?'

'By chance, I suppose. Shrapnel defends one of your Steynham poaching vermin.'

'Mr. Romfrey struck him?--for that? Oh, never!' Rosamund exclaimed.

'I suppose he had a long account to settle.'

She fetched her breath painfully. 'I shall never be forgiven.'

'And I say that a gentleman has no business with idols,' the colonel fumed as he spoke. 'Those letters of Shrapnel to Nevil Beauchamp are a scandal on the name of Englishman.'

'You have read that shocking one, Colonel Halkett?'

'Captain Baskelett read it out to us.'

'He? Oh! then...' She stopped:--Then the author of this mischief is clear to me! her divining hatred of Cecil would have said, but her humble position did not warrant such speech. A consideration of the lowliness necessitating this restraint at a moment when loudly to denounce another's infamy with triumphant insight would have solaced and supported her, kept Rosamund dumb.

She could not bear to think of her part in the mischief.

She was not bound to think of it, knowing actually nothing of the occurrence.

Still she felt that she was on her trial. She detected herself running in and out of her nature to fortify it against accusations rather than cleanse it for inspection. It was narrowing in her own sight. The prospect of her having to submit to a further interrogatory, shut it up entrenched in the declaration that Dr. Shrapnel had so far outraged her sentiments as to be said to have offended her: not insulted, perhaps, but certainly offended.

And this was a generous distinction. It was generous; and, having recognized the generosity, she was unable to go beyond it.

She was presently making the distinction to Miss Halkett. The colonel had left her at the door of the house: Miss Halkett sought admission to her private room on an errand of condolence, for she had sympathized with her very much in the semi-indignity Nevil had forced her to undergo: and very little indeed had she been able to sympathize with Nevil, who had been guilty of the serious fault of allowing himself to appear moved by his own commonplace utterances; or, in other words, the theme being hostile to his audience, he had betrayed emotion over it without first evoking the spirit of pathos.

'As for me,' Rosamund replied, to some comforting remarks of Miss Halkett's, 'I do not understand why I should be mixed up in Dr. Shrapnel's misfortunes: I really am quite unable to recollect his words to me or his behaviour: I have only a positive impression that I left his house, where I had gone to see Captain Beauchamp, in utter disgust, so repelled by his language that I could hardly trust myself to speak of the man to Mr. Romfrey when he questioned me. I did not volunteer it. I am ready to say that I believe Dr. Shrapnel did not intend to be insulting. I cannot say that he was not offensive.

You know, Miss Halkett, I would willingly, gladly have saved him from anything like punishment.'

'You are too gentle to have thought of it,' said Cecilia.

'But I shall never be forgiven by Captain Beauchamp. I see in his eyes that he accuses me and despises me.'

'He will not be so unjust, Mrs. Culling.'

Rosamund begged that she might hear what Nevil had first said on his arrival.

Cecilia related that they had seen him walking swiftly across the park, and that Mr. Romfrey had hailed him, and held his hand out; and that Captain Beauchamp had overlooked it, saying he feared Mr. Romfrey's work was complete. He had taken her father's hand and hers and his touch was like ice.

'His worship of that Dr. Shrapnel is extraordinary,' quoth Rosamund. 'And how did Mr. Romfrey behave to him?'

'My father thinks, very forbearingly.'

Rosamund sighed and made a semblance of wringing her hands. 'It seems to me that I anticipated ever since I heard of the man... or at least ever since I saw him and heard him, he would be the evil genius of us all: if I dare include myself. But I am not permitted to escape! And, Miss Halkett, can you tell me how it was that my name--that I became involved? I cannot imagine the circumstances which would bring me forward in this unhappy affair.'

Cecilia replied: 'The occasion was, that Captain Beauchamp so scornfully contrasted the sort of injury done by Dr. Shrapnel's defence of a poacher on his uncle's estate, with the severe chastisement inflicted by Mr. Romfrey in revenge for it. He would not leave the subject.'

'I see him--see his eyes!' cried Rosamund, her bosom heaving and sinking deep, as her conscience quavered within her. 'At last Mr. Romfrey mentioned me?'

'He stood up and said you had been personally insulted by Dr. Shrapnel.'

Rosamund meditated in a distressing doubt of her conscientious truthfulness.

'Captain Beauchamp will be coming to me; and how can I answer him? Heaven knows I would have shielded the poor man, if possible--poor wretch! Wicked though he is, one has only to hear of him suffering! But what can I answer? I do recollect now that Mr. Romfrey compelled me from question to question to confess that the man had vexed me. Insulted, I never said. At the worst, I said vexed. I would not have said insulted, or even offended, because Mr. Romfrey... ah! we know him. What I did say, I forget. I have no guide to what I said but my present feelings, and they are pity for the unfortunate man much more than dislike.--Well, I must go through the scene with Nevil!' Rosamund concluded her outcry of ostensible exculpation.

She asked in a cooler moment how it was that Captain Beauchamp had so far forgotten himself as to burst out on his uncle before the guests of the house. It appeared that he had wished his uncle to withdraw with him, and Mr. Romfrey had bidden him postpone private communications. Rosamund gathered from one or two words of Cecilia's that Mr. Romfrey, until finally stung by Nevil, had indulged in his best-humoured banter.

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