The Egoist, by George Meredith

Chapter 11

The Double-Blossom Wild Cherry-Tree

Sir Willoughby chose a moment when Clara was with him and he had a good retreat through folding-windows to the lawn, in case of cogency on the enemy’s part, to attack his cousin regarding the preposterous plot to upset the family by a scamper to London: “By the way, Vernon, what is this you’ve been mumbling to everybody save me, about leaving us to pitch yourself into the stew-pot and be made broth of? London is no better, and you are fit for considerably better. Don’t, I beg you, continue to annoy me. Take a run abroad, if you are restless. Take two or three months, and join us as we are travelling home; and then think of settling, pray. Follow my example, if you like. You can have one of my cottages, or a place built for you. Anything to keep a man from destroying the sense of stability about one. In London, my dear old fellow, you lose your identity. What are you there? I ask you, what? One has the feeling of the house crumbling when a man is perpetually for shifting and cannot fix himself. Here you are known, you can study at your ease; up in London you are nobody; I tell you honestly, I feel it myself, a week of London literally drives me home to discover the individual where I left him. Be advised. You don’t mean to go.”

“I have the intention,” said Vernon.

“Why?”

“I’ve mentioned it to you.”

“To my face?”

“Over your shoulder is generally the only chance you give me.”

“You have not mentioned it to me, to my knowledge. As to the reason, I might hear a dozen of your reasons, and I should not understand one. It’s against your interests and against my wishes. Come, friend, I am not the only one you distress. Why, Vernon, you yourself have said that the English would be very perfect Jews if they could manage to live on the patriarchal system. You said it, yes, you said it! — but I recollect it clearly. Oh, as for your double-meanings, you said the thing, and you jeered at the incapacity of English families to live together, on account of bad temper; and now you are the first to break up our union! I decidedly do not profess to be a perfect Jew, but I do. . . ”

Sir Willoughby caught signs of a probably smiling commerce between his bride and his cousin. He raised his face, appeared to be consulting his eyelids, and resolved to laugh: “Well, I own it. I do like the idea of living patriarchally.” He turned to Clara. “The Rev. Doctor one of us!”

“My father?” she said.

“Why not?”

“Papa’s habits are those of a scholar.”

“That you might not be separated from him, my dear!”

Clara thanked Sir Willoughby for the kindness of thinking of her father, mentally analysing the kindness, in which at least she found no unkindness, scarcely egoism, though she knew it to be there.

“We might propose it,” said he.

“As a compliment?”

“If he would condescend to accept it as a compliment. These great scholars! . . . And if Vernon goes, our inducement for Dr. Middleton to stay. . . But it is too absurd for discussion. . . Oh, Vernon, about Master Crossjay; I will see to it.”

He was about to give Vernon his shoulder and step into the garden, when Clara said, “You will have Crossjay trained for the navy, Willoughby? There is not a day to lose.”

“Yes, yes; I will see to it. Depend on me for holding the young rascal in view.”

He presented his hand to her to lead her over the step to the gravel, surprised to behold how flushed she was.

She responded to the invitation by putting her hand forth from a bent elbow, with hesitating fingers. “It should not be postponed, Willoughby.”

Her attitude suggested a stipulation before she touched him.

“It’s an affair of money, as you know, Willoughby,” said Vernon. “If I’m in London, I can’t well provide for the boy for some time to come, or it’s not certain that I can.”

“Why on earth should you go?”

“That’s another matter. I want you to take my place with him.”

“In which case the circumstances are changed. I am responsible for him, and I have a right to bring him up according to my own prescription.”

“We are likely to have one idle lout the more.”

“I guarantee to make a gentleman of him.”

“We have too many of your gentlemen already.”

“You can’t have enough, my good Vernon.”

“They’re the national apology for indolence. Training a penniless boy to be one of them is nearly as bad as an education in a thieves’ den; he will be just as much at war with society, if not game for the police.”

“Vernon, have you seen Crossjay’s father, the now Captain of Marines? I think you have.”

“He’s a good man and a very gallant officer.”

“And in spite of his qualities he’s a cub, and an old cub. He is a captain now, but he takes that rank very late, you will own. There you have what you call a good man, undoubtedly a gallant officer, neutralized by the fact that he is not a gentleman. Holding intercourse with him is out of the question. No wonder Government declines to advance him rapidly. Young Crossjay does not bear your name. He bears mine, and on that point alone I should have a voice in the settlement of his career. And I say emphatically that a drawing-room approval of a young man is the best certificate for his general chances in life. I know of a City of London merchant of some sort, and I know a firm of lawyers, who will have none but University men at their office; at least, they have the preference.”

“Crossjay has a bullet head, fit neither for the University nor the drawing-room,” said Vernon; “equal to fighting and dying for you, and that’s all.”

Sir Willoughby contented himself with replying, “The lad is a favourite of mine.”

His anxiety to escape a rejoinder caused him to step into the garden, leaving Clara behind him. “My love!” said he, in apology, as he turned to her. She could not look stern, but she had a look without a dimple to soften it, and her eyes shone. For she had wagered in her heart that the dialogue she provoked upon Crossjay would expose the Egoist. And there were other motives, wrapped up and intertwisted, unrecognizable, sufficient to strike her with worse than the flush of her self-knowledge of wickedness when she detained him to speak of Crossjay before Vernon.

At last it had been seen that she was conscious of suffering in her association with this Egoist! Vernon stood for the world taken into her confidence. The world, then, would not think so ill of her, she thought hopefully, at the same time that she thought most evilly of herself. But self-accusations were for the day of reckoning; she would and must have the world with her, or the belief that it was coming to her, in the terrible struggle she foresaw within her horizon of self, now her utter boundary. She needed it for the inevitable conflict. Little sacrifices of her honesty might be made. Considering how weak she was, how solitary, how dismally entangled, daily disgraced beyond the power of any veiling to conceal from her fiery sensations, a little hypocrisy was a poor girl’s natural weapon. She crushed her conscientious mind with the assurance that it was magnifying trifles: not entirely unaware that she was thereby preparing it for a convenient blindness in the presence of dread alternatives; but the pride of laying such stress on small sins gave her purity a blush of pleasure and overcame the inner warning. In truth she dared not think evilly of herself for long, sailing into battle as she was. Nuns and anchorites may; they have leisure. She regretted the forfeits she had to pay for self-assistance, and, if it might be won, the world’s; regretted, felt the peril of the loss, and took them up and flung them.

“You see, old Vernon has no argument,” Willoughby said to her.

He drew her hand more securely on his arm to make her sensible that she leaned on a pillar of strength.

“Whenever the little brain is in doubt, perplexed, undecided which course to adopt, she will come to me, will she not? I shall always listen,” he resumed, soothingly. “My own! and I to you when the world vexes me. So we round our completeness. You will know me; you will know me in good time. I am not a mystery to those to whom I unfold myself. I do not pretend to mystery: yet, I will confess, your home — your heart’s — Willoughby is not exactly identical with the Willoughby before the world. One must be armed against that rough beast.”

Certain is the vengeance of the young upon monotony; nothing more certain. They do not scheme it, but sameness is a poison to their systems; and vengeance is their heartier breathing, their stretch of the limbs, run in the fields; nature avenges them.

“When does Colonel De Craye arrive?” said Clara.

“Horace? In two or three days. You wish him to be on the spot to learn his part, my love?”

She had not flown forward to the thought of Colonel De Craye’s arrival; she knew not why she had mentioned him; but now she flew back, shocked, first into shadowy subterfuge, and then into the criminal’s dock.

“I do not wish him to be here. I do not know that he has a part to learn. I have no wish. Willoughby, did you not say I should come to you and you would listen? — will you listen? I am so commonplace that I shall not be understood by you unless you take my words for the very meaning of the words. I am unworthy. I am volatile. I love my liberty. I want to be free. . . ”

“Flitch!” he called.

It sounded necromantic.

“Pardon me, my love,” he said. “The man you see yonder violates my express injunction that he is not to come on my grounds, and here I find him on the borders of my garden!”

Sir Willoughby waved his hand to the abject figure of a man standing to intercept him.

“Volatile, unworthy, liberty — my dearest!” he bent to her when the man had appeased him by departing, “you are at liberty within the law, like all good women; I shall control and direct your volatility; and your sense of worthiness must be reestablished when we are more intimate; it is timidity. The sense of unworthiness is a guarantee of worthiness ensuing. I believe I am in the vein of a sermon! Whose the fault? The sight of that man was annoying. Flitch was a stable-boy, groom, and coachman, like his father before him, at the Hall thirty years; his father died in our service. Mr. Flitch had not a single grievance here; only one day the demon seizes him with the notion of bettering himself he wants his independence, and he presents himself to me with a story of a shop in our county town. — Flitch! remember, if you go you go for good. — Oh, he quite comprehended. — Very well; good-bye, Flitch — the man was respectful: he looked the fool he was very soon to turn out to be. Since then, within a period of several years, I have had him, against my express injunctions, ten times on my grounds. It’s curious to calculate. Of course the shop failed, and Flitch’s independence consists in walking about with his hands in his empty pockets, and looking at the Hall from some elevation near.”

“Is he married? Has he children?” said Clara.

“Nine; and a wife that cannot cook or sew or wash linen.”

“You could not give him employment?”

“After his having dismissed himself?”

“It might be overlooked.”

“Here he was happy. He decided to go elsewhere, to be free — of course, of my yoke. He quitted my service against my warning. Flitch, we will say, emigrated with his wife and children, and the ship foundered. He returns, but his place is filled; he is a ghost here, and I object to ghosts.”

“Some work might be found for him.”

“It will be the same with old Vernon, my dear. If he goes, he goes for good. It is the vital principle of my authority to insist on that. A dead leaf might as reasonably demand to return to the tree. Once off, off for all eternity! I am sorry, but such was your decision, my friend. I have, you see, Clara, elements in me —”

“Dreadful!”

“Exert your persuasive powers with Vernon. You can do well-nigh what you will with the old fellow. We have Miss Dale this evening for a week or two. Lead him to some ideas of her. — Elements in me, I was remarking, which will no more bear to be handled carelessly than gunpowder. At the same time, there is no reason why they should not be respected, managed with some degree of regard for me and attention to consequences. Those who have not done so have repented.”

“You do not speak to others of the elements in you,” said Clara.

“I certainly do not: I have but one bride,” was his handsome reply.

“Is it fair to me that you should show me the worst of you?”

“All myself, my own?”

His ingratiating droop and familiar smile rendered “All myself” so affectionately meaningful in its happy reliance upon her excess of love, that at last she understood she was expected to worship him and uphold him for whatsoever he might be, without any estimation of qualities: as indeed love does, or young love does: as she perhaps did once, before he chilled her senses. That was before her “little brain” had become active and had turned her senses to revolt.

It was on the full river of love that Sir Willoughby supposed the whole floating bulk of his personality to be securely sustained; and therefore it was that, believing himself swimming at his ease, he discoursed of himself.

She went straight away from that idea with her mental exclamation: “Why does he not paint himself in brighter colours to me!” and the question: “Has he no ideal of generosity and chivalry?”

But the unfortunate gentleman imagined himself to be loved, on Love’s very bosom. He fancied that everything relating to himself excited maidenly curiosity, womanly reverence, ardours to know more of him, which he was ever willing to satisfy by repeating the same things. His notion of women was the primitive black and white: there are good women, bad women; and he possessed a good one. His high opinion of himself fortified the belief that Providence, as a matter of justice and fitness, must necessarily select a good one for him — or what are we to think of Providence? And this female, shaped by that informing hand, would naturally be in harmony with him, from the centre of his profound identity to the raying circle of his variations. Know the centre, you know the circle, and you discover that the variations are simply characteristics, but you must travel on the rays from the circle to get to the centre. Consequently Sir Willoughby put Miss Middleton on one or other of these converging lines from time to time. Us, too, he drags into the deeps, but when we have harpooned a whale and are attached to the rope, down we must go; the miracle is to see us rise again.

Women of mixed essences shading off the divine to the considerably lower were outside his vision of woman. His mind could as little admit an angel in pottery as a rogue in porcelain. For him they were what they were when fashioned at the beginning; many cracked, many stained, here and there a perfect specimen designed for the elect of men. At a whisper of the world he shut the prude’s door on them with a slam; himself would have branded them with the letters in the hue of fire. Privately he did so; and he was constituted by his extreme sensitiveness and taste for ultra-feminine refinement to be a severe critic of them during the carnival of egoism, the love-season. Constantia. . . can it be told? She had been, be it said, a fair and frank young merchant with him in that season; she was of a nature to be a mother of heroes; she met the salute, almost half-way, ingenuously unlike the coming mothers of the regiments of marionettes, who retire in vapours, downcast, as by convention; ladies most flattering to the egoistical gentleman, for they proclaim him the “first”. Constantia’s offence had been no greater, but it was not that dramatic performance of purity which he desired of an affianced lady, and so the offence was great.

The love-season is the carnival of egoism, and it brings the touchstone to our natures. I speak of love, not the mask, and not of the flutings upon the theme of love, but of the passion; a flame having, like our mortality, death in it as well as life, that may or may not be lasting. Applied to Sir Willoughby, as to thousands of civilized males, the touchstone found him requiring to be dealt with by his betrothed as an original savage. She was required to play incessantly on the first reclaiming chord which led our ancestral satyr to the measures of the dance, the threading of the maze, and the setting conformably to his partner before it was accorded to him to spin her with both hands and a chirrup of his frisky heels. To keep him in awe and hold him enchained, there are things she must never do, dare never say, must not think. She must be cloistral. Now, strange and awful though it be to hear, women perceive this requirement of them in the spirit of the man; they perceive, too, and it may be gratefully, that they address their performances less to the taming of the green and prankish monsieur of the forest than to the pacification of a voracious aesthetic gluttony, craving them insatiably, through all the tenses, with shrieks of the lamentable letter “I” for their purity. Whether they see that it has its foundation in the sensual, and distinguish the ultra-refined but lineally great-grandson of the Hoof in this vast and dainty exacting appetite is uncertain. They probably do not; the more the damage; for in the appeasement of the glutton they have to practise much simulation; they are in their way losers like their ancient mothers. It is the palpable and material of them still which they are tempted to flourish, wherewith to invite and allay pursuit: a condition under which the spiritual, wherein their hope lies, languishes. The capaciously strong in soul among women will ultimately detect an infinite grossness in the demand for purity infinite, spotless bloom. Earlier or later they see they have been victims of the singular Egoist, have worn a mask of ignorance to be named innocent, have turned themselves into market produce for his delight, and have really abandoned the commodity in ministering to the lust for it, suffered themselves to be dragged ages back in playing upon the fleshly innocence of happy accident to gratify his jealous greed of possession, when it should have been their task to set the soul above the fairest fortune and the gift of strength in women beyond ornamental whiteness. Are they not of nature warriors, like men? — men’s mates to bear them heroes instead of puppets? But the devouring male Egoist prefers them as inanimate overwrought polished pure metal precious vessels, fresh from the hands of the artificer, for him to walk away with hugging, call all his own, drink of, and fill and drink of, and forget that he stole them.

This running off on a by-road is no deviation from Sir Willoughby Patterne and Miss Clara Middleton. He, a fairly intelligent man, and very sensitive, was blinded to what was going on within her visibly enough, by her production of the article he demanded of her sex. He had to leave the fair young lady to ride to his county-town, and his design was to conduct her through the covert of a group of laurels, there to revel in her soft confusion. She resisted; nay, resolutely returned to the lawn-sward. He contrasted her with Constantia in the amorous time, and rejoiced in his disappointment. He saw the goddess Modesty guarding Purity; and one would be bold to say that he did not hear the Precepts, Purity’s aged grannams maternal and paternal, cawing approval of her over their munching gums. And if you ask whether a man, sensitive and a lover, can be so blinded, you are condemned to reperuse the foregoing paragraph.

Miss Middleton was not sufficiently instructed in the position of her sex to know that she had plunged herself in the thick of the strife of one of their great battles. Her personal position, however, was instilling knowledge rapidly, as a disease in the frame teaches us what we are and have to contend with. Could she marry this man? He was evidently manageable. Could she condescend to the use of arts in managing him to obtain a placable life? — a horror of swampy flatness! So vividly did the sight of that dead heaven over an unvarying level earth swim on her fancy, that she shut her eyes in angry exclusion of it as if it were outside, assailing her; and she nearly stumbled upon young Crossjay.

“Oh, have I hurt you?” he cried.

“No,” said she, “it was my fault. Lead me somewhere away from everybody.”

The boy took her hand, and she resumed her thoughts; and, pressing his fingers and feeling warm to him both for his presence and silence, so does the blood in youth lead the mind, even cool and innocent blood, even with a touch, that she said to herself, “And if I marry, and then. . . Where will honour be then? I marry him to be true to my word of honour, and if then. . .!” An intolerable languor caused her to sigh profoundly. It is written as she thought it; she thought in blanks, as girls do, and some women. A shadow of the male Egoist is in the chamber of their brains overawing them.

“Were I to marry, and to run!” There is the thought; she is offered up to your mercy. We are dealing with a girl feeling herself desperately situated, and not a fool.

“I’m sure you’re dead tired, though,” said Crossjay.

“No, I am not; what makes you think so?” said Clara.

“I do think so.”

“But why do you think so?”

“You’re so hot.”

“What makes you think that?”

“You’re so red.”

“So are you, Crossjay.”

“I’m only red in the middle of the cheeks, except when I’ve been running. And then you talk to yourself, just as boys do when they are blown.”

“Do they?”

“They say: ‘I know I could have kept up longer’, or, ‘my buckle broke’, all to themselves, when they break down running.”

“And you have noticed that?”

“And, Miss Middleton, I don’t wish you were a boy, but I should like to live near you all my life and be a gentleman. I’m coming with Miss Dale this evening to stay at the Hall and be looked after, instead of stopping with her cousin who takes care of her father. Perhaps you and I’ll play chess at night.”

“At night you will go to bed, Crossjay.”

“Not if I have Sir Willoughby to catch hold of. He says I’m an authority on birds’ eggs. I can manage rabbits and poultry. Isn’t a farmer a happy man? But he doesn’t marry ladies. A cavalry officer has the best chance.”

“But you are going to be a naval officer.”

“I don’t know. It’s not positive. I shall bring my two dormice, and make them perform gymnastics on the dinnertable. They’re such dear little things. Naval officers are not like Sir Willoughby.”

“No, they are not,” said Clara, “they give their lives to their country.”

“And then they’re dead,” said Crossjay.

Clara wished Sir Willoughby were confronting her: she could have spoken.

She asked the boy where Mr. Whitford was. Crossjay pointed very secretly in the direction of the double-blossom wild-cherry. Coming within gaze of the stem, she beheld Vernon stretched at length, reading, she supposed; asleep, she discovered: his finger in the leaves of a book; and what book? She had a curiosity to know the title of the book he would read beneath these boughs, and grasping Crossjay’s hand fast she craned her neck, as one timorous of a fall in peeping over chasms, for a glimpse of the page; but immediately, and still with a bent head, she turned her face to where the load of virginal blossom, whiter than summer-cloud on the sky, showered and drooped and clustered so thick as to claim colour and seem, like higher Alpine snows in noon-sunlight, a flush of white. From deep to deeper heavens of white, her eyes perched and soared. Wonder lived in her. Happiness in the beauty of the tree pressed to supplant it, and was more mortal and narrower. Reflection came, contracting her vision and weighing her to earth. Her reflection was: “He must be good who loves to be and sleep beneath the branches of this tree!” She would rather have clung to her first impression: wonder so divine, so unbounded, was like soaring into homes of angel-crowded space, sweeping through folded and on to folded white fountain-bow of wings, in innumerable columns; but the thought of it was no recovery of it; she might as well have striven to be a child. The sensation of happiness promised to be less short-lived in memory, and would have been had not her present disease of the longing for happiness ravaged every corner of it for the secret of its existence. The reflection took root. “He must be good. . .!” That reflection vowed to endure. Poor by comparison with what it displaced, it presented itself to her as conferring something on him, and she would not have had it absent though it robbed her.

She looked down. Vernon was dreamily looking up.

She plucked Crossjay hurriedly away, whispering that he had better not wake Mr. Whitford, and then she proposed to reverse their previous chase, and she be the hound and he the hare. Crossjay fetched a magnificent start. On his glancing behind he saw Miss Middleton walking listlessly, with a hand at her side.

“There’s a regular girl!” said he in some disgust; for his theory was, that girls always have something the matter with them to spoil a game.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 17:11