The Egoist, by George Meredith

Chapter 19

Colonel De Craye and Clara Middleton

MISS MIDDLETON finished her stroll with Crossjay by winding her trailer of ivy in a wreath round his hat and sticking her bunch of grasses in the wreath. She then commanded him to sit on the ground beside a big rhododendron, there to await her return. Crossjay had informed her of a design he entertained to be off with a horde of boys nesting in high trees, and marking spots where wasps and hornets were to be attacked in Autumn: she thought it a dangerous business, and as the boy’s dinner-bell had very little restraint over him when he was in the flush of a scheme of this description, she wished to make tolerably sure of him through the charm she not unreadily believed she could fling on lads of his age. “Promise me you will not move from here until I come back, and when I come I will give you a kiss.” Crossjay promised. She left him and forgot him.

Seeing by her watch fifteen minutes to the ringing of the bell, a sudden resolve that she would speak to her father without another minute’s delay had prompted her like a superstitious impulse to abandon her aimless course and be direct. She knew what was good for her; she knew it now more clearly than in the morning. To be taken away instantly! was her cry. There could be no further doubt. Had there been any before? But she would not in the morning have suspected herself of a capacity for evil, and of a pressing need to be saved from herself. She was not pure of nature: it may be that we breed saintly souls which are: she was pure of will: fire rather than ice. And in beginning to see the elements she was made of she did not shuffle them to a heap with her sweet looks to front her. She put to her account some strength, much weakness; she almost dared to gaze unblinking at a perilous evil tendency. The glimpse of it drove her to her father.

“He must take me away at once; tomorrow!”

She wished to spare her father. So unsparing of herself was she, that, in her hesitation to speak to him of her change of feeling for Sir Willoughby, she would not suffer it to be attributed in her own mind to a daughter’s anxious consideration about her father’s loneliness; an idea she had indulged formerly. Acknowledging that it was imperative she should speak, she understood that she had refrained, even to the inflicting upon herself of such humiliation as to run dilating on her woes to others, because of the silliest of human desires to preserve her reputation for consistency. She had heard women abused for shallowness and flightiness: she had heard her father denounce them as veering weather-vanes, and his oft-repeated quid femina possit: for her sex’s sake, and also to appear an exception to her sex, this reasoning creature desired to be thought consistent.

Just on the instant of her addressing him, saying: “Father,” a note of seriousness in his ear, it struck her that the occasion for saying all had not yet arrived, and she quickly interposed: “Papa”; and helped him to look lighter. The petition to be taken away was uttered.

“To London?” said Dr. Middleton. “I don’t know who’ll take us in.”

“To France, papa?”

“That means hotel-life.”

“Only for two or three weeks.”

“Weeks! I am under an engagement to dine with Mrs Mountstuart Jenkinson five days hence: that is, on Thursday.”

“Could we not find an excuse?”

“Break an engagement? No, my dear, not even to escape drinking a widow’s wine.”

“Does a word bind us?”

“Why, what else should?”

“I think I am not very well.”

“We’ll call in that man we met at dinner here: Corney: a capital doctor; an old-fashioned anecdotal doctor. How is it you are not well, my love? You look well. I cannot conceive your not being well.”

“It is only that I want change of air, papa.”

“There we are — a change! semper eadem! Women will be wanting a change of air in Paradise; a change of angels too, I might surmise. A change from quarters like these to a French hotel would be a descent! —‘this the seat, this mournful gloom for that celestial light.’ I am perfectly at home in the library here. That excellent fellow Whitford and I have real days: and I like him for showing fight to his elder and better.”

“He is going to leave.”

“I know nothing of it, and I shall append no credit to the tale until I do know. He is headstrong, but he answers to a rap.”

Clara’s bosom heaved. The speechless insurrection threatened her eyes.

A South-west shower lashed the window-panes and suggested to Dr. Middleton shuddering visions of the Channel passage on board a steamer.

“Corney shall see you: he is a sparkling draught in person; probably illiterate, if I may judge from one interruption of my discourse when he sat opposite me, but lettered enough to respect Learning and write out his prescription: I do not ask more of men or of physicians.” Dr. Middleton said this rising, glancing at the clock and at the back of his hands. “‘Quod autem secundum litteras difficillimum esse artificium?’ But what after letters is the more difficult practice? ‘Ego puto medicum.’ The medicus next to the scholar: though I have not to my recollection required him next me, nor ever expected child of mine to be crying for that milk. Daughter she is — of the unexplained sex: we will send a messenger for Corney. Change, my dear, you will speedily have, to satisfy the most craving of women, if Willoughby, as I suppose, is in the neoteric fashion of spending a honeymoon on a railway: apt image, exposition and perpetuation of the state of mania conducting to the institution! In my time we lay by to brood on happiness; we had no thought of chasing it over a continent, mistaking hurly-burly clothed in dust for the divinity we sought. A smaller generation sacrifices to excitement. Dust and hurly-burly must perforce be the issue. And that is your modern world. Now, my dear, let us go and wash our hands. Midday-bells expect immediate attention. They know of no anteroom of assembly.”

Clara stood gathered up, despairing at opportunity lost. He had noticed her contracted shape and her eyes, and had talked magisterially to smother and overbear the something disagreeable prefigured in her appearance.

“You do not despise your girl, father?”

“I do not; I could not; I love her; I love my girl. But you need not sing to me like a gnat to propound that question, my dear.”

“Then, father, tell Willoughby today we have to leave tomorrow. You shall return in time for Mrs. Mountstuart’s dinner. Friends will take us in, the Darletons, the Erpinghams. We can go to Oxford, where you are sure of welcome. A little will recover me. Do not mention doctors. But you see I am nervous. I am quite ashamed of it; I am well enough to laugh at it, only I cannot overcome it; and I feel that a day or two will restore me. Say you will. Say it in First–Lesson-Book language; anything above a primer splits my foolish head today.”

Dr Middleton shrugged, spreading out his arms.

“The office of ambassador from you to Willoughby, Clara? You decree me to the part of ball between two bats. The Play being assured, the prologue is a bladder of wind. I seem to be instructed in one of the mysteries of erotic esotery, yet on my word I am no wiser. If Willoughby is to hear anything from you, he will hear it from your lips.”

“Yes, father, yes. We have differences. I am not fit for contests at present; my head is giddy. I wish to avoid an illness. He and I. . . I accuse myself.”

“There is the bell!” ejaculated Dr. Middleton. “I’ll debate on it with Willoughby.”

“This afternoon?”

“Somewhen, before the dinner-bell. I cannot tie myself to the minute-hand of the clock, my dear child. And let me direct you, for the next occasion when you shall bring the vowels I and A, in verbally detached letters, into collision, that you do not fill the hiatus with so pronounced a Y. It is the vulgarization of our tongue of which I accuse you. I do not like my girl to be guilty of it.”

He smiled to moderate the severity of the correction, and kissed her forehead.

She declared her inability to sit and eat; she went to her room, after begging him very earnestly to send her the assurance that he had spoken. She had not shed a tear, and she rejoiced in her self-control; it whispered to her of true courage when she had given herself such evidence of the reverse.

Shower and sunshine alternated through the half-hours of the afternoon, like a procession of dark and fair holding hands and passing. The shadow came, and she was chill; the light yellow in moisture, and she buried her face not to be caught up by cheerfulness. Believing that her head ached, she afflicted herself with all the heavy symptoms, and oppressed her mind so thoroughly that its occupation was to speculate on Laetitia Dale’s modest enthusiasm for rural pleasures, for this place especially, with its rich foliage and peeps of scenic peace. The prospect of an escape from it inspired thoughts of a loveable round of life where the sun was not a naked ball of fire, but a friend clothed in woodland; where park and meadow swept to well-known features East and West; and distantly circling hills, and the hearts of poor cottagers too — sympathy with whom assured her of goodness — were familiar, homely to the dweller in the place, morning and night. And she had the love of wild flowers, the watchful happiness in the seasons; poets thrilled her, books absorbed. She dwelt strongly on that sincerity of feeling; it gave her root in our earth; she needed it as she pressed a hand on her eyeballs, conscious of acting the invalid, though the reasons she had for languishing under headache were so convincing that her brain refused to disbelieve in it and went some way to produce positive throbs. Otherwise she had no excuse for shutting herself in her room. Vernon Whitford would be sceptical. Headache or none, Colonel De Craye must be thinking strangely of her; she had not shown him any sign of illness. His laughter and his talk sung about her and dispersed the fiction; he was the very sea-wind for bracing unstrung nerves. Her ideas reverted to Sir Willoughby, and at once they had no more cohesion than the foam on a torrent-water.

But soon she was undergoing a variation of sentiment. Her maid Barclay brought her this pencilled line from her father:

“Factum est; laetus est; amantium irae, etc.”

That it was done, that Willoughby had put on an air of glad acquiescence, and that her father assumed the existence of a lovers’ quarrel, was wonderful to her at first sight, simple the succeeding minute. Willoughby indeed must be tired of her, glad of her going. He would know that it was not to return. She was grateful to him for perhaps hinting at the amantium irae, though she rejected the folly of the verse. And she gazed over dear homely country through her windows now. Happy the lady of the place, if happy she can be in her choice! Clara Middleton envied her the double-blossom wild cherry-tree, nothing else. One sprig of it, if it had not faded and gone to dust-colour like crusty Alpine snow in the lower hollows, and then she could depart, bearing away a memory of the best here! Her fiction of the headache pained her no longer. She changed her muslin dress for silk; she was contented with the first bonnet Barclay presented. Amicable toward every one in the house, Willoughby included, she threw up her window, breathed, blessed mankind; and she thought: “If Willoughby would open his heart to nature, he would be relieved of his wretched opinion of the world.” Nature was then sparkling refreshed in the last drops of a sweeping rain-curtain, favourably disposed for a background to her joyful optimism. A little nibble of hunger within, real hunger, unknown to her of late, added to this healthy view, without precipitating her to appease it; she was more inclined to foster it, for the sake of the sinewy activity of mind and limb it gave her; and in the style of young ladies very light of heart, she went downstairs like a cascade, and like the meteor observed in its vanishing trace she alighted close to Colonel De Craye and entered one of the rooms off the hall.

He cocked an eye at the half-shut door.

Now you have only to be reminded that it is the habit of the sportive gentleman of easy life, bewildered as he would otherwise be by the tricks, twists, and windings of the hunted sex, to parcel out fair women into classes; and some are flyers and some are runners; these birds are wild on the wing, those exposed their bosoms to the shot. For him there is no individual woman. He grants her a characteristic only to enroll her in a class. He is our immortal dunce at learning to distinguish her as a personal variety, of a separate growth.

Colonel De Craye’s cock of the eye at the door said that he had seen a rageing coquette go behind it. He had his excuse for forming the judgement. She had spoken strangely of the fall of his wedding-present, strangely of Willoughby; or there was a sound of strangeness in an allusion to her appointed husband: and she had treated Willoughby strangely when they met. Above all, her word about Flitch was curious. And then that look of hers! And subsequently she transferred her polite attentions to Willoughby’s friend. After a charming colloquy, the sweetest give and take rattle he had ever enjoyed with a girl, she developed headache to avoid him; and next she developed blindness, for the same purpose.

He was feeling hurt, but considered it preferable to feel challenged.

Miss Middleton came out of another door. She had seen him when she had passed him and when it was too late to convey her recognition; and now she addressed him with an air of having bowed as she went by.

“No one?” she said. “Am I alone in the house?”

“There is a figure naught,” said he, “but it’s as good as annihilated, and no figure at all, if you put yourself on the wrong side of it, and wish to be alone in the house.”

“Where is Willoughby?”

“Away on business.”

“Riding?”

“Achmet is the horse, and pray don’t let him be sold, Miss Middleton. I am deputed to attend on you.”

“I should like a stroll.”

“Are you perfectly restored?”

“Perfectly.”

“Strong?”

“I was never better.”

“It was the answer of the ghost of the wicked old man’s wife when she came to persuade him he had one chance remaining. Then, says he, I’ll believe in heaven if ye’ll stop that bottle, and hurls it; and the bottle broke and he committed suicide, not without suspicion of her laying a trap for him. These showers curling away and leaving sweet scents are divine, Miss Middleton. I have the privilege of the Christian name on the nuptial-day. This park of Willoughby’s is one of the best things in England. There’s a glimpse over the lake that smokes of a corner of Killarney; tempts the eye to dream, I mean.” De Craye wound his finger spirally upward, like a smoke-wreath. “Are you for Irish scenery?”

“Irish, English, Scottish.”

“All’s one so long as it’s beautiful: yes, you speak for me. Cosmopolitanism of races is a different affair. I beg leave to doubt the true union of some; Irish and Saxon, for example, let Cupid be master of the ceremonies and the dwelling-place of the happy couple at the mouth of a Cornucopia. Yet I have seen a flower of Erin worn by a Saxon gentleman proudly; and the Hibernian courting a Rowena! So we’ll undo what I said, and consider it cancelled.”

“Are you of the rebel party, Colonel De Craye?”

“I am Protestant and Conservative, Miss Middleton.”

“I have not a head for politics.”

“The political heads I have seen would tempt me to that opinion.”

“Did Willoughby say when he would be back?”

“He named no particular time. Doctor Middleton and Mr. Whitford are in the library upon a battle of the books.”

“Happy battle!”

“You are accustomed to scholars. They are rather intolerant of us poor fellows.”

“Of ignorance perhaps; not of persons.”

“Your father educated you himself, I presume?”

“He gave me as much Latin as I could take. The fault is mine that it is little.”

“Greek?”

“A little Greek.”

“Ah! And you carry it like a feather.”

“Because it is so light.”

“Miss Middleton, I could sit down to be instructed, old as I am. When women beat us, I verily believe we are the most beaten dogs in existence. You like the theatre?”

“Ours?”

“Acting, then.”

“Good acting, of course.”

“May I venture to say you would act admirably?”

“The venture is bold, for I have never tried.”

“Let me see; there is Miss Dale and Mr. Whitford; you and I; sufficient for a two-act piece. THE IRISHMAN IN SPAIN would do.” He bent to touch the grass as she stepped on it. “The lawn is wet.”

She signified that she had no dread of wet, and said: “English women afraid of the weather might as well be shut up.”

De Craye proceeded: “Patrick O’Neill passes over from Hibernia to Iberia, a disinherited son of a father in the claws of the lawyers, with a letter of introduction to Don Beltran d’Arragon, a Grandee of the First Class, who has a daughter Dona Seraphina (Miss Middleton), the proudest beauty of her day, in the custody of a duenna (Miss Dale), and plighted to Don Fernan, of the Guzman family (Mr. Whitford). There you have our dramatis personae.”

“You are Patrick?”

“Patrick himself. And I lose my letter, and I stand on the Prado of Madrid with the last portrait of Britannia in the palm of my hand, and crying in the purest brogue of my native land: ‘It’s all through dropping a letter I’m here in Iberia instead of Hibernia, worse luck to the spelling!’”

“But Patrick will be sure to aspirate the initial letter of Hibernia.”

“That is clever criticism, upon my word, Miss Middleton! So he would. And there we have two letters dropped. But he’d do it in a groan, so that it wouldn’t count for more than a ghost of one; and everything goes on the stage, since it’s only the laugh we want on the brink of the action. Besides you are to suppose the performance before a London audience, who have a native opposite to the aspirate and wouldn’t bear to hear him spoil a joke, as if he were a lord or a constable. It’s an instinct of the English democracy. So with my bit of coin turning over and over in an undecided way, whether it shall commit suicide to supply me a supper, I behold a pair of Spanish eyes like violet lightning in the black heavens of that favoured clime. Won’t you have violet?”

“Violet forbids my impersonation.”

“But the lustre on black is dark violet blue.”

“You remind me that I have no pretension to black.”

Colonel De Craye permitted himself to take a flitting gaze at Miss Middleton’s eyes. “Chestnut,” he said. “Well, and Spain is the land of chestnuts.”

“Then it follows that I am a daughter of Spain.”

“Clearly.”

“Logically?”

“By positive deduction.”

“And do I behold Patrick?”

“As one looks upon a beast of burden.”

“Oh!”

Miss Middleton’s exclamation was louder than the matter of the dialogue seemed to require. She caught her hands up.

In the line of the outer extremity of the rhododendron, screened from the house windows, young Crossjay lay at his length, with his head resting on a doubled arm, and his ivy-wreathed hat on his cheek, just where she had left him, commanding him to stay. Half-way toward him up the lawn, she saw the poor boy, and the spur of that pitiful sight set her gliding swiftly. Colonel De Craye followed, pulling an end of his moustache.

Crossjay jumped to his feet.

“My dear, dear Crossjay!” she addressed him and reproached him. “And how hungry you must be! And you must be drenched! This is really too had.”

“You told me to wait here,” said Crossjay, in shy self-defence.

“I did, and you should not have done it, foolish boy! I told him to wait for me here before luncheon, Colonel De Craye, and the foolish, foolish boy! — he has had nothing to eat, and he must have been wet through two or three times:— because I did not come to him!”

“Quite right. And the lava might overflow him and take the mould of him, like the sentinel at Pompeii, if he’s of the true stuff.”

“He may have caught cold, he may have a fever.”

“He was under your orders to stay.”

“I know, and I cannot forgive myself. Run in, Crossjay, and change your clothes. Oh, run, run to Mrs. Montague, and get her to give you a warm bath, and tell her from me to prepare some dinner for you. And change every garment you have. This is unpardonable of me. I said —‘not for politics!’— I begin to think I have not a head for anything. But could it be imagined that Crossjay would not move for the dinner-bell! through all that rain! I forgot you, Crossjay. I am so sorry; so sorry! You shall make me pay any forfeit you like. Remember, I am deep, deep in your debt. And now let me see you run fast. You shall come in to dessert this evening.”

Crossjay did not run. He touched her hand.

“You said something?”

“What did I say, Crossjay?”

“You promised.”

“What did I promise?”

“Something.”

“Name it, my dear boy.”

He mumbled, “ . . . kiss me.”

Clara plumped down on him, enveloped him and kissed him.

The affectionately remorseful impulse was too quick for a conventional note of admonition to arrest her from paying that portion of her debt. When she had sped him off to Mrs Montague, she was in a blush.

“Dear, dear Crossjay!” she said, sighing.

“Yes, he’s a good lad,” remarked the colonel. “The fellow may well be a faithful soldier and stick to his post, if he receives promise of such a solde. He is a great favourite with you.”

“He is. You will do him a service by persuading Willoughby to send him to one of those men who get boys through their naval examination. And, Colonel De Craye, will you be kind enough to ask at the dinner-table that Crossjay may come in to dessert?”

“Certainly,” said he, wondering.

“And will you look after him while you are here? See that no one spoils him. If you could get him away before you leave, it would be much to his advantage. He is born for the navy and should be preparing to enter it now.”

“Certainly, certainly,” said De Craye, wondering more.

“I thank you in advance.”

“Shall I not be usurping. . . ”

“No, we leave tomorrow.”

“For a day?”

“For longer.”

“Two?”

“It will be longer.”

“A week? I shall not see you again?”

“I fear not.”

Colonel De Craye controlled his astonishment; he smothered a sensation of veritable pain, and amiably said: “I feel a blow, but I am sure you would not willingly strike. We are all involved in the regrets.”

Miss Middleton spoke of having to see Mrs. Montague, the housekeeper, with reference to the bath for Crossjay, and stepped off the grass. He bowed, watched her a moment, and for parallel reasons, running close enough to hit one mark, he commiserated his friend Willoughby. The winning or the losing of that young lady struck him as equally lamentable for Willoughby.

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