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   Chapter 3 OLD VEUVE

One of Our Conquerors -- Comple By George Meredith Characters: 14695

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:02


They were known at the house of the turtle and the attractive Old Veuve: a champagne of a sobered sweetness, of a great year, a great age, counting up to the extremer maturity attained by wines of stilly depths; and their worthy comrade, despite the wanton sparkles, for the promoting of the state of reverential wonderment in rapture, which an ancient wine will lead to, well you wot. The silly girly sugary crudity his given way to womanly suavity, matronly composure, with yet the sparkles; they ascend; but hue and flavour tell of a soul that has come to a lodgement there. It conducts the youthful man to temples of dusky thought: philosophers partaking of it are drawn by the arms of garlanded nymphs about their necks into the fathomless of inquiries. It presents us with a sphere, for the pursuit of the thing we covet most. It bubbles over mellowness; it has, in the marriage with Time, extracted a spice of individuality from the saccharine: by miracle, one would say, were it not for our knowledge of the right noble issue of Time when he and good things unite. There should be somewhere legends of him and the wine-flask. There must be meanings to that effect in the Mythology, awaiting unravelment. For the subject opens to deeper than cellars, and is a tree with vast ramifications of the roots and the spreading growth, whereon half if not all the mythic Gods, Inferior and Superior, Infernal and Celestial, might be shown sitting in concord, performing in concert, harmoniously receiving sacrificial offerings of the black or the white; and the black not extinguishing the fairer fellow. Tell us of a certainty that Time has embraced the wine-flask, then may it be asserted (assuming the great year for the wine, i.e. combinations above) that a speck of the white within us who drink will conquer, to rise in main ascension over volumes of the black. It may, at a greater venture, but confidently, be said in plain speech, that the Bacchus of auspicious birth induces ever to the worship of the loftier Deities.

Think as you will; forbear to come hauling up examples of malarious men, in whom these pourings of the golden rays of life breed fogs; and be moved, since you are scarcely under an obligation to hunt the meaning, in tolerance of some dithyrambic inebriety of narration (quiverings of the reverent pen) when we find ourselves entering the circle of a most magnetic polarity. Take it for not worse than accompanying choric flourishes, in accord with Mr. Victor Radnor and Mr. Simeon Fenellan at their sipping of the venerable wine.

Seated in a cosy corner, near the grey City window edged with a sooty maze, they praised the wine, in the neuter and in the feminine; that for the glass, this for the widow-branded bottle: not as poets hymning; it was done in the City manner, briefly, part pensively, like men travelling to the utmost bourne of flying flavour (a dell in infinite nether), and still masters of themselves and at home.

Such a wine, in its capturing permeation of us, insists on being for a time a theme.

'I wonder!' said Mr. Radnor, completely restored, eyeing his half-emptied second glass and his boon-fellow.

'Low!' Mr. Fenellan shook his head.

'Half a dozen dozen left?'

'Nearer the half of that. And who's the culprit?'

'Old days! They won't let me have another dozen out of the house now.'

'They'll never hit on such another discovery in their cellar, unless they unearth a fifth corner.'

'I don't blame them for making the price prohibitive. And sound as ever!'

Mr. Radnor watched the deliberate constant ascent of bubbles through their rose-topaz transparency. He drank. That notion of the dish of turtle was an inspiration of the right: he ought always to know it for the want of replenishment when such a man as he went quaking. His latest experiences of himself were incredible; but they passed, as the dimples of the stream. He finished his third glass. The bottle, like the cellar-wine, was at ebb: unlike the cellar-wine, it could be set flowing again: He prattled, in the happy ignorance of compulsion:

'Fenellan, remember, I had a sort of right to the wine-to the best I could get; and this Old Veuve, more than any other, is a bridal wine! We heard of Giulia Sanfredini's marriage to come off with the Spanish Duke, and drank it to the toast of our little Nesta's godmother. I 've told you. We took the girl to the Opera, when quite a little one-that high:-and I declare to you, it was marvellous! Next morning after breakfast, she plants herself in the middle of the room, and strikes her attitude for song, and positively, almost with the Sanfredini's voice-illusion of it, you know,-trills us out more than I could have believed credible to be recollected by a child. But I've told you the story. We called her Fredi from that day. I sent the diva, with excuses and compliments, a nuptial present-necklace, Roman goldwork, locket-pendant, containing sunny curl, and below a fine pearl; really pretty; telling her our grounds for the liberty. She replied, accepting the responsible office; touching letter-we found it so; framed in Fredi's room, under her godmother's photograph. Fredi has another heroine now, though she worships her old one still; she never abandons her old ones. You've heard the story over and over!'

Mr. Fenellan nodded; he had a tenderness for the garrulity of Old Veuve, and for the damsel. Chatter on that subject ran pleasantly with their entertainment.

Mr. Radnor meanwhile scribbled, and despatched a strip of his Note-book, bearing a scrawl of orders, to his office. He was now fully himself, benevolent, combative, gay, alert for amusement or the probeing of schemes to the quick, weighing the good and the bad in them with his fine touch on proportion.

'City dead flat? A monotonous key; but it's about the same as fetching a breath after a run; only, true, it lasts too long-not healthy! Skepsey will bring me my letters. I was down in the country early this morning, looking over the house, with Taplow, my architect; and he speaks fairly well of the contractors. Yes, down at Lakelands; and saw my first lemon butterfly in a dell of sunshine, out of the wind, and had half a mind to catch it for Fredi,-and should have caught it myself, if I had! The truth is, we three are country born and bred; we pine in London. Good for a season; you know my old feeling. They are to learn the secret of Lakelands to-morrow. It 's great fun; they think I don't see they've had their suspicion for some time. You said-somebody said-"the eye of a needle for what they let slip of their secrets, and the point of it for penetrating yours":-women. But no; my dear souls didn't prick and bother. And they dealt with a man in armour. I carry them down to Lakelands to-morrow, if the City's flat.'

'Keeping a secret's the lid on a boiling pot with you,' Mr. Fenellan said; and he mused on the profoundness of the flavour at his lips.

'I do it.'

'You do: up to bursting at the breast.'

'I keep it from Colney!'

'As Vesuvius keeps it from Palmieri when shaking him.'

'Has old Colney an idea of it?'

'He has been foretelling an eruption of an edifice.'

The laugh between them subsided to pensiveness.

Mr. Fenellan's delay in the delivery of his news was eloquent to reveal the one hateful topic; and this

being seen, it waxed to such increase of size with the passing seconds, that prudence called for it.

'Come!' said Mr. Radnor.

The appeal was understood.

'Nothing very particular. I came into the City to look at a warehouse they want to mount double guard on. Your idea of the fireman's night-patrol and wires has done wonders for the office.'

'I guarantee the City if all my directions are followed.'

Mr. Fenellan's remark, that he had nothing very particular to tell, reduced it to the mere touch upon a vexatious matter, which one has to endure in the ears at times; but it may be postponed. So Mr. Radnor encouraged him to talk of an Insurance Office Investment. Where it is all bog and mist, as in the City to-day, the maxim is, not to take a step, they agreed. Whether it was attributable to an unconsumed glut of the markets, or apprehension of a panic, had to be considered. Both gentlemen were angry with the Birds on the flags of foreign nations, which would not imitate a sawdust Lion to couch reposefully. Incessantly they scream and sharpen talons.

'They crack the City bubbles and bladders, at all events,' Mr. Fenellan said. 'But if we let our journals go on making use of them, in the shape of sham hawks overhead, we shall pay for their one good day of the game with our loss of the covey. An unstable London's no world's market-place.'

'No, no; it's a niggardly national purse, not the journals,' Mr. Radnor said. 'The journals are trading engines. Panics are grist to them; so are wars; but they do their duty in warning the taxpayer and rousing Parliament. Dr. Schlesien's right: we go on believing that our God Neptune will do everything for us, and won't see that Steam has paralyzed his Trident: good! You and Colney are hard on Schlesien-or at him, I should say. He's right: if we won't learn that we have become Continentals, we shall be marched over. Laziness, cowardice, he says.'

'Oh, be hanged!' interrupted Fenellan. 'As much of the former as you like. He 's right about our "individualismus" being another name for selfishness, and showing the usual deficiency in external features; it's an individualism of all of a pattern, as when a mob cuts its lucky, each fellow his own way. Well, then, conscript them, and they'll be all of a better pattern. The only thing to do, and the cheapest. By heaven! it's the only honourable thing to do.'

Mr. Radnor disapproved. 'No conscription here.'

'Not till you've got the drop of poison in your blood, in the form of an army landed. That will teach you to catch at the drug.'

'No, Fenellan! Besides they've got to land. I guarantee a trusty army and navy under a contract, at two-thirds of the present cost. We'll start a National Defence Insurance Company after the next panic.'

'During,' said Mr. Fenellan, and there was a flutter of laughter at the unobtrusive hint for seizing Dame England in the mood.

Both dropped a sigh.

'But you must try and run down with us to Lakelands to-morrow,' Mr. Radnor resumed on a cheerfuller theme. 'You have not yet seen all I 've done there. And it 's a castle with a drawbridge: no exchangeing of visits, as we did at Craye Farm and at Creckholt; we are there for country air; we don't court neighbours at all-perhaps the elect; it will depend on Nataly's wishes. We can accommodate our Concert-set, and about thirty or forty more, for as long as they like. You see, that was my intention-to be independent of neighbouring society. Madame Callet guarantees dinners or hot suppers for eighty-and Armandine is the last person to be recklessly boasting.-When was it I was thinking last of Armandine?' He asked himself that, as he rubbed at the back of his head.

Mr. Fenellan was reading his friend's character by the light of his remarks and in opposition to them, after the critical fashion of intimates who know as well as hear: but it was amiably and trippingly, on the dance of the wine in his veins.

His look, however, was one that reminded; and Mr. Radnor cried: 'Now! whatever it is!'

'I had an interview: I assure you,' Mr. Fenellan interposed to pacify: 'the smallest of trifles, and to be expected: I thought you ought to know it:-an interview with her lawyer; office business, increase of Insurance on one of her City warehouses.'

'Speak her name, speak the woman's name; we're talking like a pair of conspirators,' exclaimed Mr. Radnor.

'He informed me that Mrs. Burman has heard of the new mansion.'

'My place at Lakelands?'

Mr. Radnor's clear-water eyes hardened to stony as their vision ran along the consequences of her having heard it.

'Earlier this time!' he added, thrummed on the table, and thumped with knuckles. 'I make my stand at Lakelands for good! Nothing mortal moves me!'

'That butler of hers-'

'Jarniman, you mean: he's her butler, yes, the scoundrel-h'm-pah! Heaven forgive me! she's an honest woman at least; I wouldn't rob her of her little: fifty-nine or sixty next September, fifteenth of the month! with the constitution of a broken drug-bottle, poor soul! She hears everything from Jarniman: he catches wind of everything. All foreseen, Fenellan, foreseen. I have made my stand at Lakelands, and there's my flag till it's hauled down over Victor Radnor. London kills Nataly as well as Fredi-and me: that is-I can use the words to you-I get back to primal innocence in the country. We all three have the feeling. You're a man to understand. My beasts, and the wild flowers, hedge-banks, and stars. Fredi's poetess will tell you. Quiet waters reflecting. I should feel it in Paris as well, though they have nightingales in their Bois. It's the rustic I want to bathe me; and I had the feeling at school, biting at Horace. Well, this is my Sabine Farm, rather on a larger scale, for the sake of friends. Come, and pure air, water from the springs, walks and rides in lanes, high sand-lanes; Nataly loves them; Fredi worships the old roots of trees: she calls them the faces of those weedy sandy lanes. And the two dear souls on their own estate, Fenellan! And their poultry, cows, cream. And a certain influence one has in the country socially. I make my stand on a home-not empty punctilio.'

Mr. Fenellan repeated, in a pause, 'Punctilio,' and not emphatically.

'Don't bawl the word,' said Mr. Radnor, at the drum of whose ears it rang and sang. 'Here in the City the woman's harmless; and here,' he struck his breast. 'But she can shoot and hit another through me. Ah, the witch!-poor wretch! poor soul! Only, she's malignant. I could swear! But Colney 's right for once in something he says about oaths-"dropping empty buckets," or something.'

'"Empty buckets to haul up impotent demons, whom we have to pay as heavily as the ready devil himself,"' Mr. Fenellan supplied the phrase. 'Only, the moment old Colney moralizes, he's what the critics call sententious. We've all a parlous lot too much pulpit in us.'

'Come, Fenellan, I don't think...'

'Oh, yes, but it's true of me too.'

'You reserve it for your enemies.'

'I 'd like to distract it a bit from the biggest of 'em.' He pointed finger at the region of the heart.

'Here we have Skepsey,' said Mr. Radnor, observing the rapid approach of a lean small figure, that in about the time of a straight-aimed javelin's cast, shot from the doorway to the table.

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