The Egoist, by George Meredith

Chapter 27

At the Railway Station

Clara stood in the waiting-room contemplating the white rails of the rain-swept line. Her lips parted at the sight of Vernon.

“You have your ticket?” said he.

She nodded, and breathed more freely; the matter-of-fact question was reassuring.

“You are wet,” he resumed; and it could not be denied.

“A little. I do not feel it.”

“I must beg you to come to the inn hard by — half a dozen steps. We shall see your train signalled. Come.”

She thought him startlingly authoritative, but he had good sense to back him; and depressed as she was by the dampness, she was disposed to yield to reason if he continued to respect her independence. So she submitted outwardly, resisted inwardly, on the watch to stop him from taking any decisive lead.

“Shall we be sure to see the signal, Mr. Whitford?”

“I’ll provide for that.”

He spoke to the station-clerk, and conducted her across the road.

“You are quite alone, Miss Middleton?”

“I am: I have not brought my maid.”

“You must take off boots and stockings at once, and have them dried. I’ll put you in the hands of the landlady.”

“But my train!”

“You have full fifteen minutes, besides fair chances of delay.”

He seemed reasonable, the reverse of hostile, in spite of his commanding air, and that was not unpleasant in one friendly to her adventure. She controlled her alert distrustfulness, and passed from him to the landlady, for her feet were wet and cold, the skirts of her dress were soiled; generally inspecting herself, she was an object to be shuddered at, and she was grateful to Vernon for his inattention to her appearance.

Vernon ordered Dr. Corney’s dose, and was ushered upstairs to a room of portraits, where the publican’s ancestors and family sat against the walls, flat on their canvas as weeds of the botanist’s portfolio, although corpulency was pretty generally insisted on, and there were formidable battalions of bust among the females. All of them had the aspect of the national energy which has vanquished obstacles to subside on its ideal. They all gazed straight at the guest. “Drink, and come to this!” they might have been labelled to say to him. He was in the private Walhalla of a large class of his countrymen. The existing host had taken forethought to be of the party in his prime, and in the central place, looking fresh-fattened there and sanguine from the performance. By and by a son would shove him aside; meanwhile he shelved his parent, according to the manners of energy.

One should not be a critic of our works of Art in uncomfortable garments. Vernon turned from the portraits to a stuffed pike in a glass case, and plunged into sympathy with the fish for a refuge.

Clara soon rejoined him, saying: “But you, you must be very wet. You were without an umbrella. You must be wet through, Mr. Whitford.”

“We’re all wet through, today,” said Vernon. “Crossjay’s wet through, and a tramp he met.”

“The horrid man! But Crossjay should have turned back when I told him. Cannot the landlord assist you? You are not tied to time. I begged Crossjay to turn back when it began to rain: when it became heavy I compelled him. So you met my poor Crossjay?”

“You have not to blame him for betraying you. The tramp did that. I was thrown on your track quite by accident. Now pardon me for using authority, and don’t be alarmed, Miss Middleton; you are perfectly free for me; but you must not run a risk to your health. I met Doctor Corney coming along, and he prescribed hot brandy and water for a wet skin, especially for sitting in it. There’s the stuff on the table; I see you have been aware of a singular odour; you must consent to sip some, as medicine; merely to give you warmth.”

“Impossible, Mr. Whitford: I could not taste it. But pray, obey Dr. Corney, if he ordered it for you.”

“I can’t, unless you do.”

“I will, then: I will try.”

She held the glass, attempted, and was baffled by the reek of it.

“Try: you can do anything,” said Vernon.

“Now that you find me here, Mr. Whitford! Anything for myself it would seem, and nothing to save a friend. But I will really try.”

“It must be a good mouthful.”

“I will try. And you will finish the glass?”

“With your permission, if you do not leave too much.”

They were to drink out of the same glass; and she was to drink some of this infamous mixture: and she was in a kind of hotel alone with him: and he was drenched in running after her:— all this came of breaking loose for an hour!

“Oh! what a misfortune that it should be such a day, Mr. Whitford!”

“Did you not choose the day?”

“Not the weather.”

“And the worst of it is, that Willoughby will come upon Crossjay wet to the bone, and pump him and get nothing but shufflings, blank lies, and then find him out and chase him from the house.”

Clara drank immediately, and more than she intended. She held the glass as an enemy to be delivered from, gasping, uncertain of her breath.

“Never let me be asked to endure such a thing again!”

“You are unlikely to be running away from father and friends again.”

She panted still with the fiery liquid she had gulped: and she wondered that it should belie its reputation in not fortifying her, but rendering her painfully susceptible to his remarks.

“Mr. Whitford, I need not seek to know what you think of me.”

“What I think? I don’t think at all; I wish to serve you if I can.”

“Am I right in supposing you a little afraid of me? You should not be. I have deceived no one. I have opened my heart to you, and am not ashamed of having done so.”

“It is an excellent habit, they say.”

“It is not a habit with me.”

He was touched, and for that reason, in his dissatisfaction with himself, not unwilling to hurt. “We take our turn, Miss Middleton. I’m no hero, and a bad conspirator, so I am not of much avail.”

“You have been reserved — but I am going, and I leave my character behind. You condemned me to the poison-bowl; you have not touched it yourself”

“In vino veritas: if I do I shall be speaking my mind.”

“Then do, for the sake of mind and body.”

“It won’t be complimentary.”

“You can be harsh. Only say everything.”

“Have we time?”

They looked at their watches.

“Six minutes,” Clara said.

Vernon’s had stopped, penetrated by his total drenching.

She reproached herself. He laughed to quiet her. “My dies solemnes are sure to give me duckings; I’m used to them. As for the watch, it will remind me that it stopped when you went.”

She raised the glass to him. She was happier and hoped for some little harshness and kindness mixed that she might carry away to travel with and think over.

He turned the glass as she had given it, turned it round in putting it to his lips: a scarce perceptible manoeuvre, but that she had given it expressly on one side.

It may be hoped that it was not done by design. Done even accidentally, without a taint of contrivance, it was an affliction to see, and coiled through her, causing her to shrink and redden.

Fugitives are subject to strange incidents; they are not vessels lying safe in harbour. She shut her lips tight, as if they had stung. The realizing sensitiveness of her quick nature accused them of a loss of bloom. And the man who made her smart like this was formal as a railway official on a platform.

“Now we are both pledged in the poison-bowl,” said he. “And it has the taste of rank poison, I confess. But the doctor prescribed it, and at sea we must be sailors. Now, Miss Middleton, time presses: will you return with me?”

“No! no!”

“Where do you propose to go?”

“To London; to a friend — Miss Darleton.”

“What message is there for your father?”

“Say I have left a letter for him in a letter to be delivered to you.”

“To me! And what message for Willoughby?”

“My maid Barclay will hand him a letter at noon.”

“You have sealed Crossjay’s fate.”

“How?”

“He is probably at this instant undergoing an interrogation. You may guess at his replies. The letter will expose him, and Willoughby does not pardon.”

“I regret it. I cannot avoid it. Poor boy! My dear Crossjay! I did not think of how Willoughby might punish him. I was very thoughtless. Mr. Whitford, my pin-money shall go for his education. Later, when I am a little older, I shall be able to support him.”

“That’s an encumbrance; you should not tie yourself to drag it about. You are unalterable, of course, but circumstances are not, and as it happens, women are more subject to them than we are.”

“But I will not be!”

“Your command of them is shown at the present moment.”

“Because I determine to be free?”

“No: because you do the contrary; you don’t determine: you run away from the difficulty, and leave it to your father and friends to bear. As for Crossjay, you see you destroy one of his chances. I should have carried him off before this, if I had not thought it prudent to keep him on terms with Willoughby. We’ll let Crossjay stand aside. He’ll behave like a man of honour, imitating others who have had to do the same for ladies.”

“Have spoken falsely to shelter cowards, you mean, Mr. Whitford. Oh, I know. — I have but two minutes. The die is cast. I cannot go back. I must get ready. Will you see me to the station? I would rather you should hurry home.”

“I will see the last of you. I will wait for you here. An express runs ahead of your train, and I have arranged with the clerk for a signal; I have an eye on the window.”

“You are still my best friend, Mr. Whitford.”

“Though?”

“Well, though you do not perfectly understand what torments have driven me to this.”

“Carried on tides and blown by winds?”

“Ah! you do not understand.”

“Mysteries?”

“Sufferings are not mysteries, they are very simple facts.”

“Well, then, I don’t understand. But decide at once. I wish you to have your free will.”

She left the room.

Dry stockings and boots are better for travelling in than wet ones, but in spite of her direct resolve, she felt when drawing them on like one that has been tripped. The goal was desirable, the ardour was damped. Vernon’s wish that she should have her free will compelled her to sound it: and it was of course to go, to be liberated, to cast off incubus and hurt her father? injure Crossjay? distress her friends? No, and ten times no!

She returned to Vernon in haste, to shun the reflex of her mind.

He was looking at a closed carriage drawn up at the station door.

“Shall we run over now, Mr. Whitford?”

“There’s no signal. Here it’s not so chilly.”

“I ventured to enclose my letter to papa in yours, trusting you would attend to my request to you to break the news to him gently and plead for me.”

“We will all do the utmost we can.”

“I am doomed to vex those who care for me. I tried to follow your counsel.”

“First you spoke to me, and then you spoke to Miss Dale; and at least you have a clear conscience.”

“No.”

“What burdens it?”

“I have done nothing to burden it.”

“Then it’s a clear conscience.”

“No.”

Vernon’s shoulders jerked. Our patience with an innocent duplicity in women is measured by the place it assigns to us and another. If he had liked he could have thought: “You have not done but meditated something to trouble conscience.” That was evident, and her speaking of it was proof too of the willingness to be dear. He would not help her. Man’s blood, which is the link with women and responsive to them on the instant for or against, obscured him. He shrugged anew when she said: “My character would have been degraded utterly by my staying there. Could you advise it?”

“Certainly not the degradation of your character,” he said, black on the subject of De Craye, and not lightened by feelings which made him sharply sensible of the beggarly dependant that he was, or poor adventuring scribbler that he was to become.

“Why did you pursue me and wish to stop me, Mr. Whitford?” said Clara, on the spur of a wound from his tone.

He replied: “I suppose I’m a busybody; I was never aware of it till now.”

“You are my friend. Only you speak in irony so much. That was irony, about my clear conscience. I spoke to you and to Miss Dale: and then I rested and drifted. Can you not feel for me, that to mention it is like a scorching furnace? Willoughby has entangled papa. He schemes incessantly to keep me entangled. I fly from his cunning as much as from anything. I dread it. I have told you that I am more to blame than he, but I must accuse him. And wedding-presents! and congratulations! And to be his guest!”

“All that makes up a plea in mitigation,” said Vernon.

“Is it not sufficient for you?” she asked him timidly.

“You have a masculine good sense that tells you you won’t be respected if you run. Three more days there might cover a retreat with your father.”

“He will not listen to me. He confuses me; Willoughby has bewitched him.”

“Commission me: I will see that he listens.”

“And go back? Oh, no! To London! Besides, there is the dining with Mrs. Mountstuart this evening; and I like her very well, but I must avoid her. She has a kind of idolatry. . . And what answers can I give? I supplicate her with looks. She observes them, my efforts to divert them from being painful produce a comic expression to her, and I am a charming ‘rogue’, and I am entertained on the topic she assumes to be principally interesting me. I must avoid her. The thought of her leaves me no choice. She is clever. She could tattoo me with epigrams.”

“Stay. . . there you can hold your own.”

“She has told me you give me credit for a spice of wit. I have not discovered my possession. We have spoken of it; we call it your delusion. She grants me some beauty; that must be hers.”

“There’s no delusion in one case or the other, Miss Middleton. You have beauty and wit; public opinion will say, wildness: indifference to your reputation will be charged on you, and your friends will have to admit it. But you will be out of this difficulty.”

“Ah — to weave a second?”

“Impossible to judge until we see how you escape the first. And I have no more to say. I love your father. His humour of sententiousness and doctorial stilts is a mask he delights in, but you ought to know him and not be frightened by it. If you sat with him an hour at a Latin task, and if you took his hand and told him you could not leave him, and no tears! — he would answer you at once. It would involve a day or two further; disagreeable to you, no doubt: preferable to the present mode of escape, as I think. But I have no power whatever to persuade. I have not the ‘lady’s tongue’. My appeal is always to reason.”

“It is a compliment. I loathe the ‘lady’s tongue’.”

“It’s a distinctly good gift, and I wish I had it. I might have succeeded instead of failing, and appearing to pay a compliment.”

“Surely the express train is very late, Mr. Whitford?”

“The express has gone by.”

“Then we will cross over.”

“You would rather not be seen by Mrs. Mountstuart. That is her carriage drawn up at the station, and she is in it.”

Clara looked, and with the sinking of her heart said: “I must brave her!”

“In that case I will take my leave of you here, Miss Middleton.”

She gave him her hand. “Why is Mrs. Mountstuart at the station today?”

“I suppose she has driven to meet one of the guests for her dinner-party. Professor Crooklyn was promised to your father, and he may be coming by the down-train.”

“Go back to the Hall!” exclaimed Clara. “How can I? I have no more endurance left in me. If I had some support! — if it were the sense of secretly doing wrong, it might help me through. I am in a web. I cannot do right, whatever I do. There is only the thought of saving Crossjay. Yes, and sparing papa. — Good-bye, Mr. Whitford. I shall remember your kindness gratefully. I cannot go back.”

“You will not?” said he, tempting her to hesitate.

“No.”

“But if you are seen by Mrs. Mountstuart, you must go back. I’ll do my best to take her away. Should she see you, you must patch up a story and apply to her for a lift. That, I think, is imperative.”

“Not to my mind,” said Clara.

He bowed hurriedly, and withdrew. After her confession, peculiar to her, of possibly finding sustainment in secretly doing wrong, her flying or remaining seemed to him a choice of evils: and whilst she stood in bewildered speculation on his reason for pursuing her — which was not evident — he remembered the special fear inciting him, and so far did her justice as to have at himself on that subject. He had done something perhaps to save her from a cold: such was his only consolatory thought. He had also behaved like a man of honour, taking no personal advantage of her situation; but to reflect on it recalled his astonishing dryness. The strict man of honour plays a part that he should not reflect on till about the fall of the curtain, otherwise he will be likely sometimes to feel the shiver of foolishness at his good conduct.

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