The Egoist, by George Meredith

Chapter 17

The Porcelain Vase

During the term of Clara’s walk with Laetitia, Sir Willoughby’s shrunken self-esteem, like a garment hung to the fire after exposure to tempestuous weather, recovered some of the sleekness of its velvet pile in the society of Mrs. Mountstuart Jenkinson, who represented to him the world he feared and tried to keep sunny for himself by all the arts he could exercise. She expected him to be the gay Sir Willoughby, and her look being as good as an incantation summons, he produced the accustomed sprite, giving her sally for sally. Queens govern the polite. Popularity with men, serviceable as it is for winning favouritism with women, is of poor value to a sensitive gentleman, anxious even to prognostic apprehension on behalf of his pride, his comfort and his prevalence. And men are grossly purchasable; good wines have them, good cigars, a goodfellow air: they are never quite worth their salt even then; you can make head against their ill looks. But the looks of women will at one blow work on you the downright difference which is between the cock of lordly plume and the moulting. Happily they may be gained: a clever tongue will gain them, a leg. They are with you to a certainty if Nature is with you; if you are elegant and discreet: if the sun is on you, and they see you shining in it; or if they have seen you well-stationed and handsome in the sun. And once gained they are your mirrors for life, and far more constant than the glass. That tale of their caprice is absurd. Hit their imaginations once, they are your slaves, only demanding common courtier service of you. They will deny that you are ageing, they will cover you from scandal, they will refuse to see you ridiculous. Sir Willoughby’s instinct, or skin, or outfloating feelers, told him of these mysteries of the influence of the sex; he had as little need to study them as a lady breathed on.

He had some need to know them in fact; and with him the need of a protection for himself called it forth; he was intuitively a conjurer in self-defence, long-sighted, wanting no directions to the herb he was to suck at when fighting a serpent. His dulness of vision into the heart of his enemy was compensated by the agile sensitiveness obscuring but rendering him miraculously active, and, without supposing his need immediate, he deemed it politic to fascinate Mrs. Mountstuart and anticipate ghastly possibilities in the future by dropping a hint; not of Clara’s fickleness, you may be sure; of his own, rather; or, more justly, of an altered view of Clara’s character. He touched on the rogue in porcelain.

Set gently laughing by his relishing humour. “I get nearer to it,” he said.

“Remember I’m in love with her,” said Mrs. Mountstuart.

“That is our penalty.”

“A pleasant one for you.”

He assented. “Is the ‘rogue’ to be eliminated?”

“Ask when she’s a mother, my dear Sir Willoughby.”

“This is how I read you:—”

“I shall accept any interpretation that is complimentary.”

“Not one will satisfy me of being sufficiently so, and so I leave it to the character to fill out the epigram.”

“Do. What hurry is there? And don’t be misled by your objection to rogue; which would be reasonable if you had not secured her.”

The door of a hollow chamber of horrible reverberation was opened within him by this remark.

He tried to say in jest, that it was not always a passionate admiration that held the rogue fast; but he muddled it in the thick of his conscious thunder, and Mrs. Mountstuart smiled to see him shot from the smooth-flowing dialogue into the cataracts by one simple reminder to the lover of his luck. Necessarily, after a fall, the pitch of their conversation relaxed.

“Miss Dale is looking well,” he said.

“Fairly: she ought to marry,” said Mrs. Mountstuart.

He shook his head. “Persuade her.”

She nodded. “Example may have some effect.”

He looked extremely abstracted. “Yes, it is time. Where is the man you could recommend for her complement? She has now what was missing before, a ripe intelligence in addition to her happy disposition — romantic, you would say. I can’t think women the worse for that.”

“A dash of it.”

“She calls it ‘leafage’.”

“Very pretty. And have you relented about your horse Achmet?”

“I don’t sell him under four hundred.”

“Poor Johnny Busshe! You forget that his wife doles him out his money. You’re a hard bargainer, Sir Willoughby.”

“I mean the price to be prohibitive.”

“Very well; and ‘leafage’ is good for hide-and-seek; especially when there is no rogue in ambush. And that’s the worst I can say of Laetitia Dale. An exaggerated devotion is the scandal of our sex. They say you’re the hardest man of business in the county too, and I can believe it; for at home and abroad your aim is to get the best of everybody. You see I’ve no leafage, I am perfectly matter-of-fact, bald.”

“Nevertheless, my dear Mrs. Mountstuart, I can assure you that conversing with you has much the same exhilarating effect on me as conversing with Miss Dale.”

“But, leafage! leafage! You hard bargainers have no compassion for devoted spinsters.”

“I tell you my sentiments absolutely.”

“And you have mine moderately expressed.”

She recollected the purpose of her morning’s visit, which was to engage Dr. Middleton to dine with her, and Sir Willoughby conducted her to the library-door. “Insist,” he said.

Awaiting her reappearance, the refreshment of the talk he had sustained, not without point, assisted him to distinguish in its complete abhorrent orb the offence committed against him by his bride. And this he did through projecting it more and more away from him, so that in the outer distance it involved his personal emotions less, while observation was enabled to compass its vastness, and, as it were, perceive the whole spherical mass of the wretched girl’s guilt impudently turning on its axis.

Thus to detach an injury done to us, and plant it in space, for mathematical measurement of its weight and bulk, is an art; it may also be an instinct of self-preservation; otherwise, as when mountains crumble adjacent villages are crushed, men of feeling may at any moment be killed outright by the iniquitous and the callous. But, as an art, it should be known to those who are for practising an art so beneficent, that circumstances must lend their aid. Sir Willoughby’s instinct even had sat dull and crushed before his conversation with Mrs. Mountstuart. She lifted him to one of his ideals of himself. Among gentlemen he was the English gentleman; with ladies his aim was the Gallican courtier of any period from Louis Treize to Louis Quinze. He could doat on those who led him to talk in that character — backed by English solidity, you understand. Roast beef stood eminent behind the souffle and champagne. An English squire excelling his fellows at hazardous leaps in public, he was additionally a polished whisperer, a lively dialoguer, one for witty bouts, with something in him — capacity for a drive and dig or two — beyond mere wit, as they soon learned who called up his reserves, and had a bosom for pinking. So much for his ideal of himself. Now, Clara not only never evoked, never responded to it, she repelled it; there was no flourishing of it near her. He considerately overlooked these facts in his ordinary calculations; he was a man of honour and she was a girl of beauty; but the accidental blooming of his ideal, with Mrs. Mountstuart, on the very heels of Clara’s offence, restored him to full command of his art of detachment, and he thrust her out, quite apart from himself, to contemplate her disgraceful revolutions.

Deeply read in the Book of Egoism that he was, he knew the wisdom of the sentence: An injured pride that strikes not out will strike home. What was he to strike with? Ten years younger, Laetitia might have been the instrument. To think of her now was preposterous. Beside Clara she had the hue of Winter under the springing bough. He tossed her away, vexed to the very soul by an ostentatious decay that shrank from comparison with the blooming creature he had to scourge in self-defence, by some agency or other.

Mrs. Mountstuart was on the step of her carriage when the silken parasols of the young ladies were descried on a slope of the park, where the yellow green of May-clothed beeches flowed over the brown ground of last year’s leaves.

“Who’s the cavalier?” she inquired.

A gentleman escorted them.

“Vernon? No! he’s pegging at Crossjay,” quoth Willoughby.

Vernon and Crossjay came out for the boy’s half-hour’s run before his dinner. Crossjay spied Miss Middleton and was off to meet her at a bound. Vernon followed him leisurely.

“The rogue has no cousin, has she?” said Mrs. Mountstuart.

“It’s a family of one son or one daughter for generations,” replied Willoughby.

“And Letty Dale?”

“Cousin!” he exclaimed, as if wealth had been imputed to Miss Dale; adding: “No male cousin.”

A railway station fly drove out of the avenue on the circle to the hall-entrance. Flitch was driver. He had no right to be there, he was doing wrong, but he was doing it under cover of an office, to support his wife and young ones, and his deprecating touches of the hat spoke of these apologies to his former master with dog-like pathos.

Sir Willoughby beckoned to him to approach.

“So you are here,” he said. “You have luggage.”

Flitch jumped from the box and read one of the labels aloud: “Lieutenant–Colonel H. De Craye.”

“And the colonel met the ladies? Overtook them?”

Here seemed to come dismal matter for Flitch to relate.

He began upon the abstract origin of it: he had lost his place in Sir Willoughby’s establishment, and was obliged to look about for work where it was to be got, and though he knew he had no right to be where he was, he hoped to be forgiven because of the mouths he had to feed as a flyman attached to the railway station, where this gentleman, the colonel, hired him, and he believed Sir Willoughby would excuse him for driving a friend, which the colonel was, he recollected well, and the colonel recollected him, and he said, not noticing how he was rigged: “What! Flitch! back in your old place? Am I expected?” and he told the colonel his unfortunate situation. “Not back, colonel; no such luck for me” and Colonel De Craye was a very kind-hearted gentleman, as he always had been, and asked kindly after his family. And it might be that such poor work as he was doing now he might be deprived of, such is misfortune when it once harpoons a man; you may dive, and you may fly, but it sticks in you, once do a foolish thing. “May I humbly beg of you, if you’ll be so good, Sir Willoughby,” said Flitch, passing to evidence of the sad mishap. He opened the door of the fly, displaying fragments of broken porcelain.

“But, what, what! what’s the story of this?” cried Sir Willoughby.

“What is it?” said Mrs. Mountstuart, pricking up her ears.

“It was a vaws,” Flitch replied in elegy.

“A porcelain vase!” interpreted Sir Willoughby.

“China!” Mrs. Mountstuart faintly shrieked.

One of the pieces was handed to her inspection.

She held it close, she held it distant. She sighed horribly.

“The man had better have hanged himself,” said she.

Flitch bestirred his misfortune-sodden features and members for a continuation of the doleful narrative.

“How did this occur?” Sir Willoughby peremptorily asked him.

Flitch appealed to his former master for testimony that he was a good and a careful driver.

Sir Willoughby thundered: “I tell you to tell me how this occurred.”

“Not a drop, my lady! not since my supper last night, if there’s any truth in me!” Flitch implored succour of Mrs Mountstuart.

“Drive straight,” she said, and braced him.

His narrative was then direct.

Near Piper’s mill, where the Wicker brook crossed the Rebdon road, one of Hoppner’s wagons, overloaded as usual, was forcing the horses uphill, when Flitch drove down at an easy pace, and saw himself between Hoppner’s cart come to a stand and a young lady advancing: and just then the carter smacks his whip, the horses pull half mad. The young lady starts behind the cart, and up jumps the colonel, and, to save the young lady, Flitch dashed ahead and did save her, he thanked Heaven for it, and more when he came to see who the young lady was.

“She was alone?” said Sir Willoughby in tragic amazement, staring at Flitch.

“Very well, you saved her, and you upset the fly,” Mountstuart jogged him on.

“Bardett, our old head-keeper, was a witness, my lady, had to drive half up the bank, and it’s true — over the fly did go; and the vaws it shoots out against the twelfth mile-stone, just as though there was the chance for it! for nobody else was injured, and knocked against anything else, it never would have flown all to pieces, so that it took Bardett and me ten minutes to collect every one, down to the smallest piece there was; and he said, and I can’t help thinking myself, there was a Providence in it, for we all come together so as you might say we was made to do as we did.”

“So then Horace adopted the prudent course of walking on with the ladies instead of trusting his limbs again to this capsizing fly,” Sir Willoughby said to Mrs. Mountstuart; and she rejoined: “Lucky that no one was hurt.”

Both of them eyed the nose of poor Flitch, and simultaneously they delivered a verdict in “Humph!”

Mrs. Mountstuart handed the wretch a half-crown from her purse. Sir Willoughby directed the footman in attendance to unload the fly and gather up the fragments of porcelain carefully, bidding Flitch be quick in his departing.

“The colonel’s wedding-present! I shall call tomorrow.” Mrs. Mountstuart waved her adieu.

“Come every day! — Yes, I suppose we may guess the destination of the vase.” He bowed her off, and she cried:

“Well, now, the gift can be shared, if you’re either of you for a division.” In the crash of the carriage-wheels he heard, “At any rate there was a rogue in that porcelain.”

These are the slaps we get from a heedless world.

As for the vase, it was Horace De Craye’s loss. Wedding-present he would have to produce, and decidedly not in chips. It had the look of a costly vase, but that was no question for the moment:— What was meant by Clara being seen walking on the high-road alone? — What snare, traceable ad inferas, had ever induced Willoughby Patterne to make her the repository and fortress of his honour!

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