Beauchamp’s Career by George Meredith

CHAPTER I. THE CHAMPION OF HIS COUNTRY

When young Nevil Beauchamp was throwing off his midshipman’s jacket for
a holiday in the garb of peace, we had across Channel a host of dreadful
military officers flashing swords at us for some critical observations
of ours upon their sovereign, threatening Afric’s fires and savagery.
The case occurred in old days now and again, sometimes, upon imagined
provocation, more furiously than at others. We were unarmed, and the
spectacle was distressing. We had done nothing except to speak our minds
according to the habit of the free, and such an explosion appeared
as irrational and excessive as that of a powder-magazine in reply to
nothing more than the light of a spark. It was known that a valorous
General of the Algerian wars proposed to make a clean march to the
capital of the British Empire at the head of ten thousand men; which
seems a small quantity to think much about, but they wore wide red
breeches blown out by Fame, big as her cheeks, and a ten thousand of
that sort would never think of retreating. Their spectral advance on
quaking London through Kentish hopgardens, Sussex corn-fields, or by the
pleasant hills of Surrey, after a gymnastic leap over the riband of salt
water, haunted many pillows. And now those horrid shouts of the legions
of Caesar, crying to the inheritor of an invading name to lead them
against us, as the origin of his title had led the army of Gaul of old
gloriously, scared sweet sleep. We saw them in imagination lining the
opposite shore; eagle and standard-bearers, and gallifers, brandishing
their fowls and their banners in a manner to frighten the decorum of the
universe. Where were our men?

The returns of the census of our population were oppressively
satisfactory, and so was the condition of our youth. We could row and
ride and fish and shoot, and breed largely: we were athletes with a fine
history and a full purse: we had first-rate sporting guns, unrivalled
park-hacks and hunters, promising babies to carry on the renown
of England to the next generation, and a wonderful Press, and a
Constitution the highest reach of practical human sagacity. But
where were our armed men? where our great artillery? where our proved
captains, to resist a sudden sharp trial of the national mettle? Where
was the first line of England’s defence, her navy? These were questions,
and Ministers were called upon to answer them. The Press answered them
boldly, with the appalling statement that we had no navy and no army.
At the most we could muster a few old ships, a couple of experimental
vessels of war, and twenty-five thousand soldiers indifferently
weaponed.

We were in fact as naked to the Imperial foe as the merely painted
Britons.

This being apprehended, by the aid of our own shortness of figures and
the agitated images of the red-breeched only waiting the signal to jump
and be at us, there ensued a curious exhibition that would be termed, in
simple language, writing to the newspapers, for it took the outward form
of letters: in reality, it was the deliberate saddling of our ancient
nightmare of Invasion, putting the postillion on her, and trotting her
along the high-road with a winding horn to rouse old Panic. Panic we
will, for the sake of convenience, assume to be of the feminine gender,
and a spinster, though properly she should be classed with the large
mixed race of mental and moral neuters which are the bulk of comfortable
nations. She turned in her bed at first like the sluggard of the
venerable hymnist: but once fairly awakened, she directed a stare toward
the terrific foreign contortionists, and became in an instant all stormy
nightcap and fingers starving for the bell-rope. Forthwith she burst
into a series of shrieks, howls, and high piercing notes that caused
even the parliamentary Opposition, in the heat of an assault on a
parsimonious Government, to abandon its temporary advantage and be still
awhile. Yet she likewise performed her part with a certain deliberation
and method, as if aware that it was a part she had to play in the
composition of a singular people. She did a little mischief by dropping
on the stock-markets; in other respects she was harmless, and, inasmuch
as she established a subject for conversation, useful.

Then, lest she should have been taken too seriously, the Press, which
had kindled, proceeded to extinguish her with the formidable engines
called leading articles, which fling fire or water, as the occasion
may require. It turned out that we had ships ready for launching, and
certain regiments coming home from India; hedges we had, and a spirited
body of yeomanry; and we had pluck and patriotism, the father and mother
of volunteers innumerable. Things were not so bad.

Panic, however, sent up a plaintive whine. What country had anything
like our treasures to defend? countless riches, beautiful women,
an inviolate soil! True, and it must be done. Ministers were
authoritatively summoned to set to work immediately. They replied that
they had been at work all the time, and were at work now. They could
assure the country, that though they flourished no trumpets, they
positively guaranteed the safety of our virgins and coffers.

Then the people, rather ashamed, abused the Press for unreasonably
disturbing them. The Press attacked old Panic and stripped her naked.
Panic, with a desolate scream, arraigned the parliamentary Opposition
for having inflated her to serve base party purposes. The Opposition
challenged the allegations of Government, pointed to the trimness of
army and navy during its term of office, and proclaimed itself watch-dog
of the country, which is at all events an office of a kind. Hereupon
the ambassador of yonder ireful soldiery let fall a word, saying, by the
faith of his Master, there was no necessity for watch-dogs to bark;
an ardent and a reverent army had but fancied its beloved chosen Chief
insulted; the Chief and chosen held them in; he, despite obloquy,
discerned our merits and esteemed us.

So, then, Panic, or what remained of her, was put to bed again. The
Opposition retired into its kennel growling. The People coughed like a
man of two minds, doubting whether he has been divinely inspired or has
cut a ridiculous figure. The Press interpreted the cough as a warning to
Government; and Government launched a big ship with hurrahs, and ordered
the recruiting-sergeant to be seen conspicuously.

And thus we obtained a moderate reinforcement of our arms.

It was not arrived at by connivance all round, though there was a look
of it. Certainly it did not come of accident, though there was a look of
that as well. Nor do we explain much of the secret by attributing it
to the working of a complex machinery. The housewife’s remedy of a good
shaking for the invalid who will not arise and dance away his gout,
partly illustrates the action of the Press upon the country: and perhaps
the country shaken may suffer a comparison with the family chariot
of the last century, built in a previous one, commodious, furnished
agreeably, being all that the inside occupants could require of a
conveyance, until the report of horsemen crossing the heath at a gallop
sets it dishonourably creaking and complaining in rapid motion, and the
squire curses his miserly purse that would not hire a guard, and his
dame says, I told you so!–Foolhardy man, to suppose, because we
have constables in the streets of big cities, we have dismissed the
highwayman to limbo. And here he is, and he will cost you fifty times
the sum you would have laid out to keep him at a mile’s respectful
distance! But see, the wretch is bowing: he smiles at our carriage, and
tells the coachman that he remembers he has been our guest, and really
thinks we need not go so fast. He leaves word for you, sir, on your
peril to denounce him on another occasion from the magisterial Bench,
for that albeit he is a gentleman of the road, he has a mission to right
society, and succeeds legitimately to that bold Good Robin Hood who fed
the poor.–Fresh from this polite encounter, the squire vows money
for his personal protection: and he determines to speak his opinion of
Sherwood’s latest captain as loudly as ever. That he will, I do not say.
It might involve a large sum per annum.

Similes are very well in their way. None can be sufficient in this case
without levelling a finger at the taxpayer–nay, directly mentioning
him. He is the key of our ingenuity. He pays his dues; he will not pay
the additional penny or two wanted of him, that we may be a step or
two ahead of the day we live in, unless he is frightened. But scarcely
anything less than the wild alarum of a tocsin will frighten him.
Consequently the tocsin has to be sounded; and the effect is woeful past
measure: his hugging of his army, his kneeling on the shore to his navy,
his implorations of his yeomanry and his hedges, are sad to note. His
bursts of pot-valiancy (the male side of the maiden Panic within his
bosom) are awful to his friends. Particular care must be taken after he
has begun to cool and calculate his chances of security, that he do not
gather to him a curtain of volunteers and go to sleep again behind them;
for they cost little in proportion to the much they pretend to be to
him. Patriotic taxpayers doubtless exist: prophetic ones, provident
ones, do not. At least we show that we are wanting in them. The taxpayer
of a free land taxes himself, and his disinclination for the bitter
task, save under circumstances of screaming urgency–as when the
night-gear and bed-linen of old convulsed Panic are like the churned
Channel sea in the track of two hundred hostile steamboats, let
me say–is of the kind the gentle schoolboy feels when death or
an expedition has relieved him of his tyrant, and he is entreated
notwithstanding to go to his books.

Will you not own that the working of the system for scaring him and
bleeding is very ingenious? But whether the ingenuity comes of native
sagacity, as it is averred by some, or whether it shows an instinct
labouring to supply the deficiencies of stupidity, according to others,
I cannot express an opinion. I give you the position of the country
undisturbed by any moralizings of mine. The youth I introduce to you
will rarely let us escape from it; for the reason that he was born with
so extreme and passionate a love for his country, that he thought all
things else of mean importance in comparison: and our union is one in
which, following the counsel of a sage and seer, I must try to paint for
you what is, not that which I imagine. This day, this hour, this life,
and even politics, the centre and throbbing heart of it (enough, when
unburlesqued, to blow the down off the gossamer-stump of fiction at a
single breath, I have heard tell), must be treated of men, and the
ideas of men, which are–it is policy to be emphatic upon truisms–are
actually the motives of men in a greater degree than their appetites:
these are my theme; and may it be my fortune to keep them at bloodheat,
and myself calm as a statue of Memnon in prostrate Egypt! He sits there
waiting for the sunlight; I here, and readier to be musical than you
think. I can at any rate be impartial; and do but fix your eyes on the
sunlight striking him and swallowing the day in rounding him, and you
have an image of the passive receptivity of shine and shade I hold
it good to aim at, if at the same time I may keep my characters at
blood-heat. I shoot my arrows at a mark that is pretty certain to
return them to me. And as to perfect success, I should be like the
panic-stricken shopkeepers in my alarm at it; for I should believe that
genii of the air fly above our tree-tops between us and the incognizable
spheres, catching those ambitious shafts they deem it a promise of fun
to play pranks with.

Young Mr. Beauchamp at that period of the panic had not the slightest
feeling for the taxpayer. He was therefore unable to penetrate the
mystery of our roundabout way of enlivening him. He pored over the
journals in perplexity, and talked of his indignation nightly to his
pretty partners at balls, who knew not they were lesser Andromedas of
his dear Andromeda country, but danced and chatted and were gay, and
said they were sure he would defend them. The men he addressed were
civil. They listened to him, sometimes with smiles and sometimes with
laughter, but approvingly, liking the lad’s quick spirit. They were
accustomed to the machinery employed to give our land a shudder and
to soothe it, and generally remarked that it meant nothing. His uncle
Everard, and his uncle’s friend Stukely Culbrett, expounded the nature
of Frenchmen to him, saying that they were uneasy when not periodically
thrashed; it would be cruel to deny them their crow beforehand; and
so the pair of gentlemen pooh-poohed the affair; agreeing with him,
however, that we had no great reason to be proud of our appearance, and
the grounds they assigned for this were the activity and the prevalence
of the ignoble doctrines of Manchester–a power whose very existence was
unknown to Mr. Beauchamp. He would by no means allow the burden of
our national disgrace to be cast on one part of the nation. We were
insulted, and all in a poultry-flutter, yet no one seemed to feel it but
himself! Outside the Press and Parliament, which must necessarily be the
face we show to the foreigner, absolute indifference reigned. Navy
men and red-coats were willing to join him or anybody in sneers at a
clipping and paring miserly Government, but they were insensible to
the insult, the panic, the startled-poultry show, the shame of our
exhibition of ourselves in Europe. It looked as if the blustering French
Guard were to have it all their own way. And what would they, what could
they but, think of us! He sat down to write them a challenge.

He is not the only Englishman who has been impelled by a youthful
chivalry to do that. He is perhaps the youngest who ever did it, and
consequently there were various difficulties to be overcome. As regards
his qualifications for addressing Frenchmen, a year of his prae-neptunal
time had been spent in their capital city for the purpose of acquiring
French of Paris, its latest refinements of pronunciation and polish, and
the art of conversing. He had read the French tragic poets and Moliere;
he could even relish the Gallic-classic–‘Qu’il mourut!’ and he spoke
French passably, being quite beyond the Bullish treatment of the tongue.
Writing a letter in French was a different undertaking. The one he
projected bore no resemblance to an ordinary letter. The briefer the
better, of course; but a tone of dignity was imperative, and the tone
must be individual, distinctive, Nevil Beauchamp’s, though not in his
native language. First he tried his letter in French, and lost sight
of himself completely. ‘Messieurs de la Garde Francaise,’ was a good
beginning; the remainder gave him a false air of a masquerader, most
uncomfortable to see; it was Nevil Beauchamp in moustache and imperial,
and bagbreeches badly fitting. He tried English, which was really
himself, and all that heart could desire, supposing he addressed a body
of midshipmen just a little loftily. But the English, when translated,
was bald and blunt to the verge of offensiveness.

‘GENTLEMEN OF THE FRENCH GUARD,

‘I take up the glove you have tossed us. I am an Englishman.
That will do for a reason.’

This might possibly pass with the gentlemen of the English Guard. But
read:

‘MESSIEURS DE LA GARDE FRANCAISE,

‘J’accepte votre gant. Je suis Anglais. La raison est suffisante.’

And imagine French Guardsmen reading it!

Mr. Beauchamp knew the virtue of punctiliousness in epithets and phrases
of courtesy toward a formal people, and as the officers of the French
Guard were gentlemen of birth, he would have them to perceive in him
their equal at a glance. On the other hand, a bare excess of phrasing
distorted him to a likeness of Mascarille playing Marquis. How to be
English and think French! The business was as laborious as if he had
started on the rough sea of the Channel to get at them in an open boat.

The lady governing his uncle Everard’s house, Mrs. Rosamund Culling,
entered his room and found him writing with knitted brows. She was
young, that is, she was not in her middleage; and they were the dearest
of friends; each had given the other proof of it. Nevil looked up and
beheld her lifted finger.

‘You are composing a love-letter, Nevil!’ The accusation sounded like
irony.

‘No,’ said he, puffing; ‘I wish I were!

‘What can it be, then?’

He thrust pen and paper a hand’s length on the table, and gazed at her.

‘My dear Nevil, is it really anything serious?’ said she.

‘I am writing French, ma’am.’

‘Then I may help you. It must be very absorbing, for you did not hear my
knock at your door.’

Now, could he trust her? The widow of a British officer killed nobly
fighting for his country in India, was a person to be relied on for
active and burning sympathy in a matter that touched the country’s
honour. She was a woman, and a woman of spirit. Men had not pleased him
of late. Something might be hoped from a woman.

He stated his occupation, saying that if she would assist him in his
French she would oblige him; the letter must be written and must go.
This was uttered so positively that she bowed her head, amused by
the funny semi-tone of defiance to the person to whom he confided the
secret. She had humour, and was ravished by his English boyishness, with
the novel blush of the heroical-nonsensical in it.

Mrs. Culling promised him demurely that she would listen, objecting
nothing to his plan, only to his French.

‘Messieurs de la Garde Francaise!’ he commenced.

Her criticism followed swiftly.

‘I think you are writing to the Garde Imperiale.’

He admitted his error, and thanked her warmly.

‘Messieurs de la Garde Imperiale!’

‘Does not that,’ she said, ‘include the non-commissioned officers, the
privates, and the cooks, of all the regiments?’

He could scarcely think that, but thought it provoking the French had
no distinctive working title corresponding to gentlemen, and suggested
‘Messieurs les Officiers’: which might, Mrs. Culling assured him,
comprise the barbers. He frowned, and she prescribed his writing,
‘Messieurs les Colonels de la Garde Imperiale.’ This he set down. The
point was that a stand must be made against the flood of sarcasms and
bullyings to which the country was exposed in increasing degrees, under
a belief that we would fight neither in the mass nor individually.
Possibly, if it became known that the colonels refused to meet a
midshipman, the gentlemen of our Household troops would advance a step.

Mrs. Calling’s adroit efforts to weary him out of his project were
unsuccessful. He was too much on fire to know the taste of absurdity.

Nevil repeated what he had written in French, and next the English of
what he intended to say.

The lady conscientiously did her utmost to reconcile the two languages.
She softened his downrightness, passed with approval his compliments to
France and the ancient high reputation of her army, and, seeing that a
loophole was left for them to apologize, asked how many French colonels
he wanted to fight.

‘I do not WANT, ma’am,’ said Nevil.

He had simply taken up the glove they had again flung at our feet: and
he had done it to stop the incessant revilings, little short of positive
contempt, which we in our indolence exposed ourselves to from the
foreigner, particularly from Frenchmen, whom he liked; and precisely
because he liked them he insisted on forcing them to respect us. Let his
challenge be accepted, and he would find backers. He knew the stuff of
Englishmen: they only required an example.

‘French officers are skilful swordsmen,’ said Mrs. Culling. ‘My husband
has told me they will spend hours of the day thrusting and parrying.
They are used to duelling.’

‘We,’ Nevil answered, ‘don’t get apprenticed to the shambles to learn
our duty on the field. Duelling is, I know, sickening folly. We go too
far in pretending to despise every insult pitched at us. A man may do
for his country what he wouldn’t do for himself.’

Mrs. Culling gravely said she hoped that bloodshed would be avoided, and
Mr. Beauchamp nodded.

She left him hard at work.

He was a popular boy, a favourite of women, and therefore full of
engagements to Balls and dinners. And he was a modest boy, though his
uncle encouraged him to deliver his opinions freely and argue with
men. The little drummer attached to wheeling columns thinks not more
of himself because his short legs perform the same strides as the
grenadiers’; he is happy to be able to keep the step; and so was Nevil;
and if ever he contradicted a senior, it was in the interests of the
country. Veneration of heroes, living and dead, kept down his conceit.
He worshipped devotedly. From an early age he exacted of his flattering
ladies that they must love his hero. Not to love his hero was to be
strangely in error, to be in need of conversion, and he proselytized
with the ardour of the Moslem. His uncle Everard was proud of his good
looks, fire, and nonsense, during the boy’s extreme youth. He traced him
by cousinships back to the great Earl Beauchamp of Froissart, and would
have it so; and he would have spoilt him had not the young fellow’s mind
been possessed by his reverence for men of deeds. How could he think
of himself, who had done nothing, accomplished nothing, so long as he
brooded on the images of signal Englishmen whose names were historic for
daring, and the strong arm, and artfulness, all given to the service of
the country?–men of a magnanimity overcast with simplicity, which
Nevil held to be pure insular English; our type of splendid manhood, not
discoverable elsewhere. A method of enraging him was to distinguish one
or other of them as Irish, Scottish, or Cambrian. He considered it a
dismemberment of the country. And notwithstanding the pleasure he had
in uniting in his person the strong red blood of the chivalrous Lord
Beauchamp with the hard and tenacious Romfrey blood, he hated the title
of Norman. We are English–British, he said. A family resting its pride
on mere ancestry provoked his contempt, if it did not show him one of
his men. He had also a disposition to esteem lightly the family which,
having produced a man, settled down after that effort for generations
to enjoy the country’s pay. Boys are unjust; but Nevil thought of the
country mainly, arguing that we should not accept the country’s money
for what we do not ourselves perform. These traits of his were regarded
as characteristics hopeful rather than the reverse; none of his friends
and relatives foresaw danger in them. He was a capital boy for his
elders to trot out and banter.

Mrs. Rosamund Culling usually went to his room to see him and doat on
him before he started on his rounds of an evening. She suspected that
his necessary attention to his toilet would barely have allowed him time
to finish his copy of the letter. Certain phrases had bothered him.
The thrice recurrence of ‘ma patrie’ jarred on his ear. ‘Sentiments’
afflicted his acute sense of the declamatory twice. ‘C’est avec les
sentiments du plus profond regret’: and again, ‘Je suis bien scar
que vous comprendrez mes sentiments, et m’accorderez l’honneur que je
reclame au nom de ma patrie outrage.’ The word ‘patrie’ was broadcast
over the letter, and ‘honneur’ appeared four times, and a more delicate
word to harp on than the others!

‘Not to Frenchmen,’ said his friend Rosamund. ‘I would put “Je suis
convaincu”: it is not so familiar.’

‘But I have written out the fair copy, ma’am, and that alteration seems
a trifle.’

‘I would copy it again and again, Nevil, to get it right.’

‘No: I’d rather see it off than have it right,’ said Nevil, and he
folded the letter.

How the deuce to address it, and what direction to write on it, were
further difficulties. He had half a mind to remain at home to conquer
them by excogitation.

Rosamund urged him not to break his engagement to dine at the Halketts’,
where perhaps from his friend Colonel Halkett, who would never imagine
the reason for the inquiry, he might learn how a letter to a crack
French regiment should be addressed and directed.

This proved persuasive, and as the hour was late Nevil had to act on her
advice in a hurry.

His uncle Everard enjoyed a perusal of the manuscript in his absence.