The Egoist, by George Meredith

Chapter 20

An Aged and a Great Wine

THE leisurely promenade up and down the lawn with ladies and deferential gentlemen, in anticipation of the dinner-bell, was Dr. Middleton’s evening pleasure. He walked as one who had formerly danced (in Apollo’s time and the young god Cupid’s), elastic on the muscles of the calf and foot, bearing his broad iron-grey head in grand elevation. The hard labour of the day approved the cooling exercise and the crowning refreshments of French cookery and wines of known vintages. He was happy at that hour in dispensing wisdom or nugae to his hearers, like the Western sun whose habit it is, when he is fairly treated, to break out in quiet splendours, which by no means exhaust his treasury. Blessed indeed above his fellows, by the height of the bow-winged bird in a fair weather sunset sky above the pecking sparrow, is he that ever in the recurrent evening of his day sees the best of it ahead and soon to come. He has the rich reward of a youth and manhood of virtuous living. Dr. Middleton misdoubted the future as well as the past of the man who did not, in becoming gravity, exult to dine. That man he deemed unfit for this world and the next.

An example of the good fruit of temperance, he had a comfortable pride in his digestion, and his political sentiments were attuned by his veneration of the Powers rewarding virtue. We must have a stable world where this is to be done.

The Rev. Doctor was a fine old picture; a specimen of art peculiarly English; combining in himself piety and epicurism, learning and gentlemanliness, with good room for each and a seat at one another’s table: for the rest, a strong man, an athlete in his youth, a keen reader of facts and no reader of persons, genial, a giant at a task, a steady worker besides, but easily discomposed. He loved his daughter and he feared her. However much he liked her character, the dread of her sex and age was constantly present to warn him that he was not tied to perfect sanity while the damsel Clara remained unmarried. Her mother had been an amiable woman, of the poetical temperament nevertheless, too enthusiastic, imaginative, impulsive, for the repose of a sober scholar; an admirable woman, still, as you see, a woman, a fire-work. The girl resembled her. Why should she wish to run away from Patterne Hall for a single hour? Simply because she was of the sex born mutable and explosive. A husband was her proper custodian, justly relieving a father. With demagogues abroad and daughters at home, philosophy is needed for us to keep erect. Let the girl be Cicero’s Tullia: well, she dies! The choicest of them will furnish us examples of a strange perversity.

Miss Dale was beside Dr. Middleton. Clara came to them and took the other side.

“I was telling Miss Dale that the signal for your subjection is my enfranchisement,” he said to her, sighing and smiling. “We know the date. The date of an event to come certifies to it as a fact to be counted on.”

“Are you anxious to lose me?” Clara faltered.

“My dear, you have planted me on a field where I am to expect the trumpet, and when it blows I shall be quit of my nerves, no more.”

Clara found nothing to seize on for a reply in these words. She thought upon the silence of Laetitia.

Sir Willoughby advanced, appearing in a cordial mood.

“I need not ask you whether you are better,” he said to Clara, sparkled to Laetitia, and raised a key to the level of Dr. Middleton’s breast, remarking, “I am going down to my inner cellar.”

“An inner cellar!” exclaimed the doctor.

“Sacred from the butler. It is interdicted to Stoneman. Shall I offer myself as guide to you? My cellars are worth a visit.”

“Cellars are not catacombs. They are, if rightly constructed, rightly considered, cloisters, where the bottle meditates on joys to bestow, not on dust misused! Have you anything great?”

“A wine aged ninety.”

“Is it associated with your pedigree that you pronounce the age with such assurance?”

“My grandfather inherited it.”

“Your grandfather, Sir Willoughby, had meritorious offspring, not to speak of generous progenitors. What would have happened had it fallen into the female line! I shall be glad to accompany you. Port? Hermitage?”

“Port.”

“Ah! We are in England!”

“There will just be time,” said Sir Willoughby, inducing Dr. Middleton to step out.

A chirrup was in the reverend doctor’s tone: “Hocks, too, have compassed age. I have tasted senior Hocks. Their flavours are as a brook of many voices; they have depth also. Senatorial Port! we say. We cannot say that of any other wine. Port is deep-sea deep. It is in its flavour deep; mark the difference. It is like a classic tragedy, organic in conception. An ancient Hermitage has the light of the antique; the merit that it can grow to an extreme old age; a merit. Neither of Hermitage nor of Hock can you say that it is the blood of those long years, retaining the strength of youth with the wisdom of age. To Port for that! Port is our noblest legacy! Observe, I do not compare the wines; I distinguish the qualities. Let them live together for our enrichment; they are not rivals like the Idaean Three. Were they rivals, a fourth would challenge them. Burgundy has great genius. It does wonders within its period; it does all except to keep up in the race; it is short-lived. An aged Burgundy runs with a beardless Port. I cherish the fancy that Port speaks the sentences of wisdom, Burgundy sings the inspired Ode. Or put it, that Port is the Homeric hexameter, Burgundy the pindaric dithyramb. What do you say?”

“The comparison is excellent, sir.”

“The distinction, you would remark. Pindar astounds. But his elder brings us the more sustaining cup. One is a fountain of prodigious ascent. One is the unsounded purple sea of marching billows.”

“A very fine distinction.”

“I conceive you to be now commending the similes. They pertain to the time of the first critics of those poets. Touch the Greeks, and you can nothing new; all has been said: ‘Graiis. . . praeter, laudem nullius avaris.’ Genius dedicated to Fame is immortal. We, sir, dedicate genius to the cloacaline floods. We do not address the unforgetting gods, but the popular stomach.”

Sir Willoughby was patient. He was about as accordantly coupled with Dr. Middleton in discourse as a drum duetting with a bass-viol; and when he struck in he received correction from the paedagogue-instrument. If he thumped affirmative or negative, he was wrong. However, he knew scholars to be an unmannered species; and the doctor’s learnedness would be a subject to dilate on.

In the cellar, it was the turn for the drum. Dr. Middleton was tongue-tied there. Sir Willoughby gave the history of his wine in heads of chapters; whence it came to the family originally, and how it had come down to him in the quantity to be seen. “Curiously, my grandfather, who inherited it, was a water-drinker. My father died early.”

“Indeed! Dear me!” the doctor ejaculated in astonishment and condolence. The former glanced at the contrariety of man, the latter embraced his melancholy destiny.

He was impressed with respect for the family. This cool vaulted cellar, and the central square block, or enceinte, where the thick darkness was not penetrated by the intruding lamp, but rather took it as an eye, bore witness to forethoughtful practical solidity in the man who had built the house on such foundations. A house having a great wine stored below lives in our imaginations as a joyful house, fast and splendidly rooted in the soil. And imagination has a place for the heir of the house. His grandfather a water-drinker, his father dying early, present circumstances to us arguing predestination to an illustrious heirship and career. Dr Middleton’s musings were coloured by the friendly vision of glasses of the great wine; his mind was festive; it pleased him, and he chose to indulge in his whimsical, robustious, grandiose-airy style of thinking: from which the festive mind will sometimes take a certain print that we cannot obliterate immediately. Expectation is grateful, you know; in the mood of gratitude we are waxen. And he was a self-humouring gentleman.

He liked Sir Willoughby’s tone in ordering the servant at his heels to take up “those two bottles”: it prescribed, without overdoing it, a proper amount of caution, and it named an agreeable number.

Watching the man’s hand keenly, he said:

“But here is the misfortune of a thing super-excellent:— not more than one in twenty will do it justice.”

Sir Willoughby replied: “Very true, sir; and I think we may pass over the nineteen.”

“Women, for example; and most men.”

“This wine would be a scaled book to them.”

“I believe it would. It would be a grievous waste.”

“Vernon is a claret man; and so is Horace De Craye. They are both below the mark of this wine. They will join the ladies. Perhaps you and I, sir, might remain together.”

“With the utmost good-will on my part.”

“I am anxious for your verdict, sir.”

“You shall have it, sir, and not out of harmony with the chorus preceding me, I can predict. Cool, not frigid.” Dr. Middleton summed the attributes of the cellar on quitting it. “North side and South. No musty damp. A pure air. Everything requisite. One might lie down one’s self and keep sweet here.”

Of all our venerable British of the two Isles professing a suckling attachment to an ancient port-wine, lawyer, doctor, squire, rosy admiral, city merchant, the classic scholar is he whose blood is most nuptial to the webbed bottle. The reason must be, that he is full of the old poets. He has their spirit to sing with, and the best that Time has done on earth to feed it. He may also perceive a resemblance in the wine to the studious mind, which is the obverse of our mortality, and throws off acids and crusty particles in the piling of the years, until it is fulgent by clarity. Port hymns to his conservatism. It is magical: at one sip he is off swimming in the purple flood of the ever-youthful antique.

By comparison, then, the enjoyment of others is brutish; they have not the soul for it; but he is worthy of the wine, as are poets of Beauty. In truth, these should be severally apportioned to them, scholar and poet, as his own good thing. Let it be so.

Meanwhile Dr. Middleton sipped.

After the departure of the ladies, Sir Willoughby had practised a studied curtness upon Vernon and Horace.

“You drink claret,” he remarked to them, passing it round. “Port, I think, Doctor Middleton? The wine before you may serve for a preface. We shall have your wine in five minutes.”

The claret jug empty, Sir Willoughby offered to send for more. De Craye was languid over the question. Vernon rose from the table.

“We have a bottle of Doctor Middleton’s port coming in,” Willoughby said to him.

“Mine, you call it?” cried the doctor.

“It’s a royal wine, that won’t suffer sharing,” said Vernon.

“We’ll be with you, if you go into the billiard-room, Vernon.”

“I shall hurry my drinking of good wine for no man,” said the Rev. Doctor.

“Horace?”

“I’m beneath it, ephemeral, Willoughby. I am going to the ladies.”

Vernon and De Craye retired upon the arrival of the wine; and Dr. Middleton sipped. He sipped and looked at the owner of it.

“Some thirty dozen?” he said.

“Fifty.”

The doctor nodded humbly.

“I shall remember, sir,” his host addressed him, “whenever I have the honour of entertaining you, I am cellarer of that wine.”

The Rev. Doctor set down his glass. “You have, sir, in some sense, an enviable post. It is a responsible one, if that be a blessing. On you it devolves to retard the day of the last dozen.”

“Your opinion of the wine is favourable, sir?”

“I will say this:— shallow souls run to rhapsody:— I will say, that I am consoled for not having lived ninety years back, or at any period but the present, by this one glass of your ancestral wine.”

“I am careful of it,” Sir Willoughby said, modestly; “still its natural destination is to those who can appreciate it. You do, sir.”

“Still my good friend, still! It is a charge; it is a possession, but part in trusteeship. Though we cannot declare it an entailed estate, our consciences are in some sort pledged that it shall be a succession not too considerably diminished.”

“You will not object to drink it, sir, to the health of your grandchildren. And may you live to toast them in it on their marriage-day!”

“You colour the idea of a prolonged existence in seductive hues. Ha! It is a wine for Tithonus. This wine would speed him to the rosy Morning — aha!”

“I will undertake to sit you through it up to morning,” said Sir Willoughby, innocent of the Bacchic nuptiality of the allusion.

Dr Middleton eyed the decanter. There is a grief in gladness, for a premonition of our mortal state. The amount of wine in the decanter did not promise to sustain the starry roof of night and greet the dawn. “Old wine, my friend, denies us the full bottle!”

“Another bottle is to follow.”

“No!”

“It is ordered.”

“I protest.”

“It is uncorked.”

“I entreat.”

“It is decanted.”

“I submit. But, mark, it must be honest partnership. You are my worthy host, sir, on that stipulation. Note the superiority of wine over Venus! — I may say, the magnanimity of wine; our jealousy turns on him that will not share! But the corks, Willoughby. The corks excite my amazement.”

“The corking is examined at regular intervals. I remember the occurrence in my father’s time. I have seen to it once.”

“It must be perilous as an operation for tracheotomy; which I should assume it to resemble in surgical skill and firmness of hand, not to mention the imminent gasp of the patient.”

A fresh decanter was placed before the doctor.

He said: “I have but a girl to give!” He was melted.

Sir Willoughby replied: “I take her for the highest prize this world affords.”

“I have beaten some small stock of Latin into her head, and a note of Greek. She contains a savour of the classics. I hoped once. . . But she is a girl. The nymph of the woods is in her. Still she will bring you her flower-cup of Hippocrene. She has that aristocracy — the noblest. She is fair; a Beauty, some have said, who judge not by lines. Fair to me, Willoughby! She is my sky. There were applicants. In Italy she was besought of me. She has no history. You are the first heading of the chapter. With you she will have her one tale, as it should be. ‘Mulier tum bene olet’, you know. Most fragrant she that smells of naught. She goes to you from me, from me alone, from her father to her husband. ‘Ut flos in septis secretus nascitur hortis.’” He murmured on the lines to, “‘Sic virgo, dum. . . ’ I shall feel the parting. She goes to one who will have my pride in her, and more. I will add, who will be envied. Mr. Whitford must write you a Carmen Nuptiale.”

The heart of the unfortunate gentleman listening to Dr. Middleton set in for irregular leaps. His offended temper broke away from the image of Clara, revealing her as he had seen her in the morning beside Horace De Craye, distressingly sweet; sweet with the breezy radiance of an English soft-breathing day; sweet with sharpness of young sap. Her eyes, her lips, her fluttering dress that played happy mother across her bosom, giving peeps of the veiled twins; and her laughter, her slim figure, peerless carriage, all her terrible sweetness touched his wound to the smarting quick.

Her wish to be free of him was his anguish. In his pain he thought sincerely. When the pain was easier he muffled himself in the idea of her jealousy of Laetitia Dale, and deemed the wish a fiction. But she had expressed it. That was the wound he sought to comfort; for the double reason, that he could love her better after punishing her, and that to meditate on doing so masked the fear of losing her — the dread abyss she had succeeded in forcing his nature to shudder at as a giddy edge possibly near, in spite of his arts of self-defence.

“What I shall do tomorrow evening!” he exclaimed. “I do not care to fling a bottle to Colonel De Craye and Vernon. I cannot open one for myself. To sit with the ladies will be sitting in the cold for me. When do you bring me back my bride, sir?”

“My dear Willoughby!” The Rev. Doctor puffed, composed himself, and sipped. “The expedition is an absurdity. I am unable to see the aim of it. She had a headache, vapours. They are over, and she will show a return of good sense. I have ever maintained that nonsense is not to be encouraged in girls. I can put my foot on it. My arrangements are for staying here a further ten days, in the terms of your hospitable invitation. And I stay.”

“I applaud your resolution, sir. Will you prove firm?”

“I am never false to my engagement, Willoughby.”

“Not under pressure?”

“Under no pressure.”

“Persuasion, I should have said.”

“Certainly not. The weakness is in the yielding, either to persuasion or to pressure. The latter brings weight to bear on us; the former blows at our want of it.”

“You gratify me, Doctor Middleton, and relieve me.”

“I cordially dislike a breach in good habits, Willoughby. But I do remember — was I wrong? — informing Clara that you appeared light-hearted in regard to a departure, or gap in a visit, that was not, I must confess, to my liking.”

“Simply, my dear doctor, your pleasure was my pleasure; but make my pleasure yours, and you remain to crack many a bottle with your son-inlaw.”

“Excellently said. You have a courtly speech, Willoughby. I can imagine you to conduct a lovers’ quarrel with a politeness to read a lesson to well-bred damsels. Aha?”

“Spare me the futility of the quarrel.”

“All’s well?”

“Clara,” replied Sir Willoughby, in dramatic epigram, “is perfection.”

“I rejoice,” the Rev. Doctor responded; taught thus to understand that the lovers’ quarrel between his daughter and his host was at an end.

He left the table a little after eleven o’clock. A short dialogue ensued upon the subject of the ladies. They must have gone to bed? Why, yes; of course they must. It is good that they should go to bed early to preserve their complexions for us. Ladies are creation’s glory, but they are anti-climax, following a wine of a century old. They are anti-climax, recoil, cross-current; morally, they are repentance, penance; imagerially, the frozen North on the young brown buds bursting to green. What know they of a critic in the palate, and a frame all revelry! And mark you, revelry in sobriety, containment in exultation; classic revelry. Can they, dear though they be to us, light up candelabras in the brain, to illuminate all history and solve the secret of the destiny of man? They cannot; they cannot sympathize with them that can. So therefore this division is between us; yet are we not turbaned Orientals, nor are they inmates of the harem. We are not Moslem. Be assured of it in the contemplation of the table’s decanter.

Dr Middleton said: “Then I go straight to bed.”

“I will conduct you to your door, sir,” said his host.

The piano was heard. Dr. Middleton laid his hand on the banisters, and remarked: “The ladies must have gone to bed?”

Vernon came out of the library and was hailed, “Fellow-student!”

He waved a good-night to the Doctor, and said to Willoughby: “The ladies are in the drawing-room.”

“I am on my way upstairs,” was the reply.

“Solitude and sleep, after such a wine as that; and forefend us human society!” the Doctor shouted. “But, Willoughby!”

“Sir.”

“One tomorrow.”

“You dispose of the cellar, sir.”

“I am fitter to drive the horses of the sun. I would rigidly counsel, one, and no more. We have made a breach in the fiftieth dozen. Daily one will preserve us from having to name the fortieth quite so unseasonably. The couple of bottles per diem prognosticates disintegration, with its accompanying recklessness. Constitutionally, let me add, I bear three. I speak for posterity.”

During Dr. Middleton’s allocution the ladies issued from the drawing-room, Clara foremost, for she had heard her father’s voice, and desired to ask him this in reference to their departure: “Papa, will you tell me the hour tomorrow?”

She ran up the stairs to kiss him, saying again: “When will you be ready tomorrow morning?”

Dr Middleton announced a stoutly deliberative mind in the bugle-notes of a repeated ahem. He bethought him of replying in his doctorial tongue. Clara’s eager face admonished him to brevity: it began to look starved. Intruding on his vision of the houris couched in the inner cellar to be the reward of valiant men, it annoyed him. His brows joined. He said: “I shall not be ready tomorrow morning.”

“In the afternoon?”

“Nor in the afternoon.”

“When?”

“My dear, I am ready for bed at this moment, and know of no other readiness. Ladies,” he bowed to the group in the hall below him, “may fair dreams pay court to you this night!”

Sir Willoughby had hastily descended and shaken the hands of the ladies, directed Horace De Craye to the laboratory for a smoking-room, and returned to Dr. Middleton. Vexed by the scene, uncertain of his temper if he stayed with Clara, for whom he had arranged that her disappointment should take place on the morrow, in his absence, he said: “Good-night, good-night,” to her, with due fervour, bending over her flaccid finger-tips; then offered his arm to the Rev. Doctor.

“Ay, son Willoughby, in friendliness, if you will, though I am a man to bear my load,” the father of the stupefied girl addressed him. “Candles, I believe, are on the first landing. Good-night, my love. Clara!”

“Papa!”

“Good-night.”

“Oh!” she lifted her breast with the interjection, standing in shame of the curtained conspiracy and herself, “good night”.

Her father wound up the stairs. She stepped down.

“There was an understanding that papa and I should go to London tomorrow early,” she said, unconcernedly, to the ladies, and her voice was clear, but her face too legible. De Craye was heartily unhappy at the sight.

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