The Egoist, by George Meredith

Chapter 18

Colonel De Craye

Clara came along chatting and laughing with Colonel De Craye, young Crossjay’s hand under one of her arms, and her parasol flashing; a dazzling offender; as if she wished to compel the spectator to recognize the dainty rogue in porcelain; really insufferably fair: perfect in height and grace of movement; exquisitely tressed; red-lipped, the colour striking out to a distance from her ivory skin; a sight to set the woodland dancing, and turn the heads of the town; though beautiful, a jury of art critics might pronounce her not to be. Irregular features are condemned in beauty. Beautiful figure, they could say. A description of her figure and her walking would have won her any praises: and she wore a dress cunning to embrace the shape and flutter loose about it, in the spirit of a Summer’s day. Calypso-clad, Dr. Middleton would have called her. See the silver birch in a breeze: here it swells, there it scatters, and it is puffed to a round and it streams like a pennon, and now gives the glimpse and shine of the white stem’s line within, now hurries over it, denying that it was visible, with a chatter along the sweeping folds, while still the white peeps through. She had the wonderful art of dressing to suit the season and the sky. To-day the art was ravishingly companionable with her sweet-lighted face: too sweet, too vividly meaningful for pretty, if not of the strict severity for beautiful. Millinery would tell us that she wore a fichu of thin white muslin crossed in front on a dress of the same light stuff, trimmed with deep rose. She carried a grey-silk parasol, traced at the borders with green creepers, and across the arm devoted to Crossjay a length of trailing ivy, and in that hand a bunch of the first long grasses. These hues of red rose and pale green ruffled and pouted in the billowy white of the dress ballooning and valleying softly, like a yacht before the sail bends low; but she walked not like one blown against; resembling rather the day of the South-west driving the clouds, gallantly firm in commotion; interfusing colour and varying in her features from laugh to smile and look of settled pleasure, like the heavens above the breeze.

Sir Willoughby, as he frequently had occasion to protest to Clara, was no poet: he was a more than commonly candid English gentleman in his avowed dislike of the poet’s nonsense, verbiage, verse; not one of those latterly terrorized by the noise made about the fellow into silent contempt; a sentiment that may sleep, and has not to be defended. He loathed the fellow, fought the fellow. But he was one with the poet upon that prevailing theme of verse, the charms of women. He was, to his ill-luck, intensely susceptible, and where he led men after him to admire, his admiration became a fury. He could see at a glance that Horace De Craye admired Miss Middleton. Horace was a man of taste, could hardly, could not, do other than admire; but how curious that in the setting forth of Clara and Miss Dale, to his own contemplation and comparison of them, Sir Willoughby had given but a nodding approbation of his bride’s appearance! He had not attached weight to it recently.

Her conduct, and foremost, if not chiefly, her having been discovered, positively met by his friend Horace, walking on the high-road without companion or attendant, increased a sense of pain so very unusual with him that he had cause to be indignant. Coming on this condition, his admiration of the girl who wounded him was as bitter a thing as a man could feel. Resentment, fed from the main springs of his nature, turned it to wormwood, and not a whit the less was it admiration when he resolved to chastise her with a formal indication of his disdain. Her present gaiety sounded to him like laughter heard in the shadow of the pulpit.

“You have escaped!” he said to her, while shaking the hand of his friend Horace and cordially welcoming him. “My dear fellow! and, by the way, you had a squeak for it, I hear from Flitch.”

“I, Willoughby? not a bit,” said the colonel; “we get into a fly to get, out of it; and Flitch helped me out as well as in, good fellow; just dusting my coat as he did it. The only bit of bad management was that Miss Middleton had to step aside a trifle hurriedly.”

“You knew Miss Middleton at once?”

“Flitch did me the favour to introduce me. He first precipitated me at Miss Middleton’s feet, and then he introduced me, in old oriental fashion, to my sovereign.”

Sir Willoughby’s countenance was enough for his friend Horace. Quarter-wheeling to Clara, he said: “’Tis the place I’m to occupy for life, Miss Middleton, though one is not always fortunate to have a bright excuse for taking it at the commencement.”

Clara said: “Happily you were not hurt, Colonel De Craye.”

“I was in the hands of the Loves. Not the Graces, I’m afraid; I’ve an image of myself. Dear, no! My dear Willoughby, you never made such a headlong declaration as that. It would have looked like a magnificent impulse, if the posture had only been choicer. And Miss Middleton didn’t laugh. At least I saw nothing but pity.”

“You did not write,” said Willoughby.

“Because it was a toss-up of a run to Ireland or here, and I came here not to go there; and, by the way, fetched a jug with me to offer up to the gods of ill-luck; and they accepted the propitiation.”

“Wasn’t it packed in a box?”

“No, it was wrapped in paper, to show its elegant form. I caught sight of it in the shop yesterday and carried it off this morning, and presented it to Miss Middleton at noon, without any form at all.”

Willoughby knew his friend Horace’s mood when the Irish tongue in him threatened to wag.

“You see what may happen,” he said to Clara.

“As far as I am in fault I regret it,” she answered.

“Flitch says the accident occurred through his driving up the bank to save you from the wheels.”

“Flitch may go and whisper that down the neck of his empty whisky-flask,” said Horace De Craye. “And then let him cork it.”

“The consequence is that we have a porcelain vase broken. You should not walk on the road alone, Clara. You ought to have a companion, always. It is the rule here.”

“I had left Miss Dale at the cottage.”

“You ought to have had the dogs.”

“Would they have been any protection to the vase?”

Horace De Craye crowed cordially.

“I’m afraid not, Miss Middleton. One must go to the witches for protection to vases; and they’re all in the air now, having their own way with us, which accounts for the confusion in politics and society, and the rise in the price of broomsticks, to prove it true, as they tell us, that every nook and corner wants a mighty sweeping. Miss Dale looks beaming,” said De Craye, wishing to divert Willoughby from his anger with sense as well as nonsense.

“You have not been visiting Ireland recently?” said Sir Willoughby.

“No, nor making acquaintance with an actor in an Irish part in a drama cast in the Green Island. ’Tis Flitch, my dear Willoughby, has been and stirred the native in me, and we’ll present him to you for the like good office when we hear after a number of years that you’ve not wrinkled your forehead once at your liege lady. Take the poor old dog back home, will you? He’s crazed to be at the Hall. I say, Willoughby, it would be a good bit of work to take him back. Think of it; you’ll do the popular thing, I’m sure. I’ve a superstition that Flitch ought to drive you from the church-door. If I were in luck, I’d have him drive me.”

“The man’s a drunkard, Horace.”

“He fuddles his poor nose. ’Tis merely unction to the exile. Sober struggles below. He drinks to rock his heart, because he has one. Now let me intercede for poor Flitch.”

“Not a word of him. He threw up his place.”

“To try his fortune in the world, as the best of us do, though livery runs after us to tell us there’s no being an independent gentleman, and comes a cold day we haul on the metal-button coat again, with a good ha! of satisfaction. You’ll do the popular thing. Miss Middleton joins in the pleading.”

“No pleading!”

“When I’ve vowed upon my eloquence, Willoughby, I’d bring you to pardon the poor dog?”

“Not a word of him!”

“Just one!”

Sir Willoughby battled with himself to repress a state of temper that put him to marked disadvantage beside his friend Horace in high spirits. Ordinarily he enjoyed these fits of Irish of him, which were Horace’s fun and play, at times involuntary, and then they indicated a recklessness that might embrace mischief. De Craye, as Willoughby had often reminded him, was properly Norman. The blood of two or three Irish mothers in his line, however, was enough to dance him, and if his fine profile spoke of the stiffer race, his eyes and the quick run of the lip in the cheek, and a number of his qualities, were evidence of the maternal legacy.

“My word has been said about the man,” Willoughby replied.

“But I’ve wagered on your heart against your word, and cant afford to lose; and there’s a double reason for revoking for you!”

“I don’t see either of them. Here are the ladies.”

“You’ll think of the poor beast, Willoughby.”

“I hope for better occupation.”

“If he drives a wheelbarrow at the Hall he’ll be happier than on board a chariot at large. He’s broken-hearted.”

“He’s too much in the way of breakages, my dear Horace.”

“Oh, the vase! the bit of porcelain!” sung De Craye. “Well, we’ll talk him over by and by.”

“If it pleases you; but my rules are never amended.”

“Inalterable, are they? — like those of an ancient people, who might as well have worn a jacket of lead for the comfort they had of their boast. The beauty of laws for human creatures is their adaptability to new stitchings.”

Colonel De Craye walked at the heels of his leader to make his bow to the ladies Eleanor and Isabel.

Sir Willoughby had guessed the person who inspired his friend Horace to plead so pertinaciously and inopportunely for the man Flitch: and it had not improved his temper or the pose of his rejoinders; he had winced under the contrast of his friend Horace’s easy, laughing, sparkling, musical air and manner with his own stiffness; and he had seen Clara’s face, too, scanning the contrast — he was fatally driven to exaggerate his discontentment, which did not restore him to serenity. He would have learned more from what his abrupt swing round of the shoulder precluded his beholding. There was an interchange between Colonel De Craye and Miss Middleton; spontaneous on both sides. His was a look that said: “You were right”; hers: “I knew it”. Her look was calmer, and after the first instant clouded as by wearifulness of sameness; his was brilliant, astonished, speculative, and admiring, pitiful: a look that poised over a revelation, called up the hosts of wonder to question strange fact.

It had passed unseen by Sir Willoughby. The observer was the one who could also supply the key of the secret. Miss Dale had found Colonel De Craye in company with Miss Middleton at her gateway. They were laughing and talking together like friends of old standing, De Craye as Irish as he could be: and the Irish tongue and gentlemanly manner are an irresistible challenge to the opening steps of familiarity when accident has broken the ice. Flitch was their theme; and: “Oh, but if we go tip to Willoughby hand in hand; and bob a courtesy to ‘m and beg his pardon for Mister Flitch, won’t he melt to such a pair of suppliants? of course he will!” Miss Middleton said he would not. Colonel De Craye wagered he would; he knew Willoughby best. Miss Middleton looked simply grave; a way of asserting the contrary opinion that tells of rueful experience. “We’ll see,” said the colonel. They chatted like a couple unexpectedly discovering in one another a common dialect among strangers. Can there be an end to it when those two meet? They prattle, they fill the minutes, as though they were violently to be torn asunder at a coming signal, and must have it out while they can; it is a meeting of mountain brooks; not a colloquy, but a chasing, impossible to say which flies, which follows, or what the topic, so interlinguistic are they and rapidly counterchanging. After their conversation of an hour before, Laetitia watched Miss Middleton in surprise at her lightness of mind. Clara bathed in mirth. A boy in a summer stream shows not heartier refreshment of his whole being. Laetitia could now understand Vernon’s idea of her wit. And it seemed that she also had Irish blood. Speaking of Ireland, Miss Middleton said she had cousins there, her only relatives.

“The laugh told me that,” said Colonel De Craye.

Laetitia and Vernon paced up and down the lawn. Colonel De Craye was talking with English sedateness to the ladies Eleanor and Isabel. Clara and young Crossjay strayed.

“If I might advise, I would say, do not leave the Hall immediately, not yet,” Laetitia said to Vernon.

“You know, then?”

“I cannot understand why it was that I was taken into her confidence.”

“I counselled it.”

“But it was done without an object that I can see.”

“The speaking did her good.”

“But how capricious! how changeful!”

“Better now than later.”

“Surely she has only to ask to be released? — to ask earnestly: if it is her wish.”

“You are mistaken.”

“Why does she not make a confidant of her father?”

“That she will have to do. She wished to spare him.”

“He cannot be spared if she is to break the engagement.”

She thought of sparing him the annoyance. “Now there’s to be a tussle, he must share in it.”

“Or she thought he might not side with her?”

“She has not a single instinct of cunning. You judge her harshly.”

“She moved me on the walk out. Coming home I felt differently.”

Vernon glanced at Colonel De Craye.

“She wants good guidance,” continued Laetitia.

“She has not an idea of treachery.”

“You think so? It may be true. But she seems one born devoid of patience, easily made reckless. There is a wildness. .. I judge by her way of speaking; that at least appeared sincere. She does not practise concealment. He will naturally find it almost incredible. The change in her, so sudden, so wayward, is unintelligible to me. To me it is the conduct of a creature untamed. He may hold her to her word and be justified.”

“Let him look out if he does!”

“Is not that harsher than anything I have said of her?”

“I’m not appointed to praise her. I fancy I read the case; and it’s a case of opposition of temperaments. We never can tell the person quite suited to us; it strikes us in a flash.”

“That they are not suited to us? Oh, no; that comes by degrees.”

“Yes, but the accumulation of evidence, or sentience, if you like, is combustible; we don’t command the spark; it may be late in falling. And you argue in her favour. Consider her as a generous and impulsive girl, outwearied at last.”

“By what?”

“By anything; by his loftiness, if you like. He flies too high for her, we will say.”

“Sir Willoughby an eagle?”

“She may be tired of his eyrie.”

The sound of the word in Vernon’s mouth smote on a consciousness she had of his full grasp of Sir Willoughby and her own timid knowledge, though he was not a man who played on words.

If he had eased his heart in stressing the first syllable, it was only temporary relief. He was heavy-browed enough.

“But I cannot conceive what she expects me to do by confiding her sense of her position to me,” said Laetitia.

“We none of us know what will be done. We hang on Willoughby, who hangs on whatever it is that supports him: and there we are in a swarm.”

“You see the wisdom of staying, Mr. Whitford.”

“It must be over in a day or two. Yes, I stay.”

“She inclines to obey you.”

“I should be sorry to stake my authority on her obedience. We must decide something about Crossjay, and get the money for his crammer, if it is to be got. If not, I may get a man to trust me. I mean to drag the boy away. Willoughby has been at him with the tune of gentleman, and has laid hold of him by one ear. When I say ‘her obedience,’ she is not in a situation, nor in a condition to be led blindly by anybody. She must rely on herself, do everything herself. It’s a knot that won’t bear touching by any hand save hers.”

“I fear. . . ” said Laetitia.

“Have no such fear.”

“If it should come to his positively refusing.”

“He faces the consequences.”

“You do not think of her.”

Vernon looked at his companion.

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