The Egoist, by George Meredith

Chapter 12

Miss Middleton and Mr. Vernon Whitford

Looking upward, not quite awakened out of a transient doze, at a fair head circled in dazzling blossom, one may temporize awhile with common sense, and take it for a vision after the eyes have regained direction of the mind. Vernon did so until the plastic vision interwound with reality alarmingly. This is the embrace of a Melusine who will soon have the brain if she is encouraged. Slight dalliance with her makes the very diminutive seem as big as life. He jumped to his feet, rattled his throat, planted firmness on his brows and mouth, and attacked the dream-giving earth with tremendous long strides, that his blood might be lively at the throne of understanding. Miss Middleton and young Crossjay were within hail: it was her face he had seen, and still the idea of a vision, chased from his reasonable wits, knocked hard and again for readmission. There was little for a man of humble mind toward the sex to think of in the fact of a young lady’s bending rather low to peep at him asleep, except that the poise of her slender figure, between an air of spying and of listening, vividly recalled his likening of her to the Mountain Echo. Man or maid sleeping in the open air provokes your tiptoe curiosity. Men, it is known, have in that state cruelly been kissed; and no rights are bestowed on them, they are teased by a vapourish rapture; what has happened to them the poor fellows barely divine: they have a crazy step from that day. But a vision is not so distracting; it is our own, we can put it aside and return to it, play at rich and poor with it, and are not to be summoned before your laws and rules for secreting it in our treasury. Besides, it is the golden key of all the possible; new worlds expand beneath the dawn it brings us. Just outside reality, it illumines, enriches and softens real things — and to desire it in preference to the simple fact is a damning proof of enervation.

Such was Vernon’s winding up of his brief drama of fantasy. He was aware of the fantastical element in him and soon had it under. Which of us who is of any worth is without it? He had not much vanity to trouble him, and passion was quiet, so his task was not gigantic. Especially be it remarked, that he was a man of quick pace, the sovereign remedy for the dispersing of the mental fen-mist. He had tried it and knew that nonsense is to be walked off.

Near the end of the park young Crossjay overtook him, and after acting the pumped one a trifle more than needful, cried: “I say, Mr. Whitford, there’s Miss Middleton with her handkerchief out.”

“What for, my lad?” said Vernon.

“I’m sure I don’t know. All of a sudden she bumped down. And, look what fellows girls are! — here she comes as if nothing had happened, and I saw her feel at her side.”

Clara was shaking her head to express a denial. “I am not at all unwell,” she said, when she came near. “I guessed Crossjay’s business in running up to you; he’s a good-for-nothing, officious boy. I was tired, and rested for a moment.”

Crossjay peered at her eyelids. Vernon looked away and said: “Are you too tired for a stroll?”

“Not now.”

“Shall it be brisk?”

“You have the lead.”

He led at a swing of the legs that accelerated young Crossjay’s to the double, but she with her short, swift, equal steps glided along easily on a fine by his shoulder, and he groaned to think that of all the girls of earth this one should have been chosen for the position of fine lady.

“You won’t tire me,” said she, in answer to his look.

“You remind me of the little Piedmontese Bersaglieri on the march.”

“I have seen them trotting into Como from Milan.”

“They cover a quantity of ground in a day, if the ground’s flat. You want another sort of step for the mountains.”

“I should not attempt to dance up.”

“They soon tame romantic notions of them.”

“The mountains tame luxurious dreams, you mean. I see how they are conquered. I can plod. Anything to be high up!”

“Well, there you have the secret of good work: to plod on and still keep the passion fresh.”

“Yes, when we have an aim in view.”

“We always have one.”

“Captives have?”

“More than the rest of us.”

Ignorant man! What of wives miserably wedded? What aim in view have these most woeful captives? Horror shrouds it, and shame reddens through the folds to tell of innermost horror.

“Take me back to the mountains, if you please, Mr. Whitford,” Miss Middleton said, fallen out of sympathy with him. “Captives have death in view, but that is not an aim.”

“Why may not captives expect a release?”

“Hardly from a tyrant.”

“If you are thinking of tyrants, it may be so. Say the tyrant dies?”

“The prison-gates are unlocked and out comes a skeleton. But why will you talk of skeletons! The very name of mountain seems life in comparison with any other subject.”

“I assure you,” said Vernon, with the fervour of a man lighting on an actual truth in his conversation with a young lady, “it’s not the first time I have thought you would be at home in the Alps. You would walk and climb as well as you dance.”

She liked to hear Clara Middleton talked of, and of her having been thought of, and giving him friendly eyes, barely noticing that he was in a glow, she said: “If you speak so encouragingly I shall fancy we are near an ascent.”

“I wish we were,” said he.

“We can realize it by dwelling on it, don’t you think?”

“We can begin climbing.”

“Oh!” she squeezed herself shadowily.

“Which mountain shall it be?” said Vernon, in the right real earnest tone.

Miss Middleton suggested a lady’s mountain first, for a trial. “And then, if you think well enough of me — if I have not stumbled more than twice, or asked more than ten times how far it is from the top, I should like to be promoted to scale a giant.”

They went up to some of the lesser heights of Switzerland and Styria, and settled in South Tyrol, the young lady preferring this district for the strenuous exercise of her climbing powers because she loved Italian colour; and it seemed an exceedingly good reason to the genial imagination she had awakened in Mr. Whitford. “Though,” said he, abruptly, “you are not so much Italian as French.”

She hoped she was English, she remarked.

“Of course you are English; . . . yes.” He moderated his ascent with the halting affirmative.

She inquired wonderingly why he spoke in apparent hesitation.

“Well, you have French feet, for example: French wits, French impatience,” he lowered his voice, “and charm”

“And love of compliments.”

“Possibly. I was not conscious of paying them”

“And a disposition to rebel?”

“To challenge authority, at least.”

“That is a dreadful character.”

“At all events, it is a character.”

“Fit for an Alpine comrade?”

“For the best of comrades anywhere.”

“It is not a piece of drawing-room sculpture: that is the most one can say for it!” she dropped a dramatic sigh.

Had he been willing she would have continued the theme, for the pleasure a poor creature long gnawing her sensations finds in seeing herself from the outside. It fell away. After a silence, she could not renew it; and he was evidently indifferent, having to his own satisfaction dissected and stamped her a foreigner. With it passed her holiday. She had forgotten Sir Willoughby: she remembered him and said. “You knew Miss Durham, Mr. Whitford?”

He answered briefly, “I did.”

“Was she? . . . ” some hot-faced inquiry peered forth and withdrew.

“Very handsome,” said Vernon.

“English?”

“Yes; the dashing style of English.”

“Very courageous.”

“I dare say she had a kind of courage.”

“She did very wrong.”

“I won’t say no. She discovered a man more of a match with herself; luckily not too late. We’re at the mercy.. .”

“Was she not unpardonable?”

“I should be sorry to think that of any one.”

“But you agree that she did wrong.”

“I suppose I do. She made a mistake and she corrected it. If she had not, she would have made a greater mistake.”

“The manner. . . ”

“That was bad — as far as we know. The world has not much right to judge. A false start must now and then be made. It’s better not to take notice of it, I think.”

“What is it we are at the mercy of?”

“Currents of feeling, our natures. I am the last man to preach on the subject: young ladies are enigmas to me; I fancy they must have a natural perception of the husband suitable to them, and the reverse; and if they have a certain degree of courage, it follows that they please themselves.”

“They are not to reflect on the harm they do?” said Miss Middleton.

“By all means let them reflect; they hurt nobody by doing that.”

“But a breach of faith!”

“If the faith can be kept through life, all’s well.”

“And then there is the cruelty, the injury!”

“I really think that if a young lady came to me to inform me she must break our engagement — I have never been put to the proof, but to suppose it:— I should not think her cruel.”

“Then she would not be much of a loss.”

“And I should not think so for this reason, that it is impossible for a girl to come to such a resolution without previously showing signs of it to her. . . the man she is engaged to. I think it unfair to engage a girl for longer than a week or two, just time enough for her preparations and publications.”

“If he is always intent on himself, signs are likely to be unheeded by him,” said Miss Middleton.

He did not answer, and she said, quickly:

“It must always be a cruelty. The world will think so. It is an act of inconstancy.”

“If they knew one another well before they were engaged.”

“Are you not singularly tolerant?” said she.

To which Vernon replied with airy cordiality:—

“In some cases it is right to judge by results; we’ll leave severity to the historian, who is bound to be a professional moralist and put pleas of human nature out of the scales. The lady in question may have been to blame, but no hearts were broken, and here we have four happy instead of two miserable.”

His persecuting geniality of countenance appealed to her to confirm this judgement by results, and she nodded and said: “Four,” as the awe-stricken speak.

From that moment until young Crossjay fell into the green-rutted lane from a tree, and was got on his legs half stunned, with a hanging lip and a face like the inside of a flayed eel-skin, she might have been walking in the desert, and alone, for the pleasure she had in society.

They led the fated lad home between them, singularly drawn together by their joint ministrations to him, in which her delicacy had to stand fire, and sweet good-nature made naught of any trial. They were hand in hand with the little fellow as physician and professional nurse.

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