The Egoist, by George Meredith

Chapter 28

The Return

Posted in observation at a corner of the window Clara saw Vernon cross the road to Mrs. Mountstuart Jenkinson’s carriage, transformed to the leanest pattern of himself by narrowed shoulders and raised coat-collar. He had such an air of saying, “Tom’s a-cold”, that her skin crept in sympathy.

Presently he left the carriage and went into the station: a bell had rung. Was it her train? He approved her going, for he was employed in assisting her to go: a proceeding at variance with many things he had said, but he was as full of contradiction today as women are accused of being. The train came up. She trembled: no signal had appeared, and Vernon must have deceived her.

He returned; he entered the carriage, and the wheels were soon in motion. Immediately thereupon, Flitch’s fly drove past, containing Colonel De Craye.

Vernon could not but have perceived him!

But what was it that had brought the colonel to this place? The pressure of Vernon’s mind was on her and foiled her efforts to assert her perfect innocence, though she knew she had done nothing to allure the colonel hither. Excepting Willoughby, Colonel De Craye was the last person she would have wished to encounter.

She had now a dread of hearing the bell which would tell her that Vernon had not deceived her, and that she was out of his hands, in the hands of some one else.

She bit at her glove; she glanced at the concentrated eyes of the publican’s family portraits, all looking as one; she noticed the empty tumbler, and went round to it and touched it, and the silly spoon in it.

A little yielding to desperation shoots us to strange distances!

Vernon had asked her whether she was alone. Connecting that inquiry, singular in itself, and singular in his manner of putting it, with the glass of burning liquid, she repeated: “He must have seen Colonel De Craye!” and she stared at the empty glass, as at something that witnessed to something: for Vernon was not your supple cavalier assiduously on the smirk to pin a gallantry to commonplaces. But all the doors are not open in a young lady’s consciousness, quick of nature though she may be: some are locked and keyless, some will not open to the key, some are defended by ghosts inside. She could not have said what the something witnessed to. If we by chance know more, we have still no right to make it more prominent than it was with her. And the smell of the glass was odious; it disgraced her. She had an impulse to pocket the spoon for a memento, to show it to grandchildren for a warning. Even the prelude to the morality to be uttered on the occasion sprang to her lips: “Here, my dears, is a spoon you would be ashamed to use in your teacups, yet it was of more value to me at one period of my life than silver and gold in pointing out, etc.”: the conclusion was hazy, like the conception; she had her idea.

And in this mood she ran down-stairs and met Colonel De Craye on the station steps.

The bright illumination of his face was that of the confident man confirmed in a risky guess in the crisis of doubt and dispute.

“Miss Middleton!” his joyful surprise predominated; the pride of an accurate forecast, adding: “I am not too late to be of service?”

She thanked him for the offer.

“Have you dismissed the fly, Colonel De Craye?”

“I have just been getting change to pay Mr. Flitch. He passed me on the road. He is interwound with our fates to a certainty. I had only to jump in; I knew it, and rolled along like a magician commanding a genie.”

“Have I been. . . ”

“Not seriously, nobody doubts you being under shelter. You will allow me to protect you? My time is yours.”

“I was thinking of a running visit to my friend Miss Darleton.”

“May I venture? I had the fancy that you wished to see Miss Darleton today. You cannot make the journey unescorted.”

“Please retain the fly. Where is Willoughby?”

“He is in jack-boots. But may I not, Miss Middleton? I shall never be forgiven if you refuse me.”

“There has been searching for me?”

“Some hallooing. But why am I rejected? Besides, I don’t require the fly; I shall walk if I am banished. Flitch is a wonderful conjurer, but the virtue is out of him for the next four-and-twenty hours. And it will be an opportunity to me to make my bow to Miss Darleton!”

“She is rigorous on the conventionalities, Colonel De Craye.”

“I’ll appear before her as an ignoramus or a rebel, whichever she likes best to take in leading-strings. I remember her. I was greatly struck by her.”

“Upon recollection!”

“Memory didn’t happen to be handy at the first mention of the lady’s name. As the general said of his ammunition and transport, there’s the army! — but it was leagues in the rear. Like the footman who went to sleep after smelling fire in the house, I was thinking of other things. It will serve me right to be forgotten — if I am. I’ve a curiosity to know: a remainder of my coxcombry. Not that exactly: a wish to see the impression I made on your friend. — None at all? But any pebble casts a ripple.”

“That is hardly an impression,” said Clara, pacifying her irresoluteness with this light talk.

“The utmost to be hoped for by men like me! I have your permission? — one minute — I will get my ticket.”

“Do not,” said Clara.

“Your man-servant entreats you!”

She signified a decided negative with the head, but her eyes were dreamy. She breathed deep: this thing done would cut the cord. Her sensation of languor swept over her.

De Craye took a stride. He was accosted by one of the railway-porters. Flitch’s fly was in request for a gentleman. A portly old gentleman bothered about luggage appeared on the landing.

“The gentleman can have it,” said De Craye, handing Flitch his money.

“Open the door.” Clara said to Flitch.

He tugged at the handle with enthusiasm. The door was open: she stepped in.

“Then mount the box and I’ll jump up beside you,” De Craye called out, after the passion of regretful astonishment had melted from his features.

Clara directed him to the seat fronting her; he protested indifference to the wet; she kept the door unshut. His temper would have preferred to buffet the angry weather. The invitation was too sweet.

She heard now the bell of her own train. Driving beside the railway embankment she met the train: it was eighteen minutes late, by her watch. And why, when it flung up its whale-spouts of steam, she was not journeying in it, she could not tell. She had acted of her free will: that she could say. Vernon had not induced her to remain; assuredly her present companion had not; and her whole heart was for flight: yet she was driving back to the Hall, not devoid of calmness. She speculated on the circumstance enough to think herself incomprehensible, and there left it, intent on the scene to come with Willoughby.

“I must choose a better day for London,” she remarked.

De Craye bowed, but did not remove his eyes from her.

“Miss Middleton, you do not trust me.”

She answered: “Say in what way. It seems to me that I do.”

“I may speak?”

“If it depends on my authority.”

“Fully?”

“Whatever you have to say. Let me stipulate, be not very grave. I want cheering in wet weather.”

“Miss Middleton, Flitch is charioteer once more. Think of it. There’s a tide that carries him perpetually to the place where he was cast forth, and a thread that ties us to him in continuity. I have not the honour to be a friend of long standing: one ventures on one’s devotion: it dates from the first moment of my seeing you. Flitch is to blame, if any one. Perhaps the spell would be broken, were he reinstated in his ancient office.”

“Perhaps it would,” said Clara, not with her best of smiles. Willoughby’s pride of relentlessness appeared to her to be receiving a blow by rebound, and that seemed high justice.

“I am afraid you were right; the poor fellow has no chance,” De Craye pursued. He paused, as for decorum in the presence of misfortune, and laughed sparklingly: “Unless I engage him, or pretend to! I verily believe that Flitch’s melancholy person on the skirts of the Hall completes the picture of the Eden within. — Why will you not put some trust in me, Miss Middleton?”

“But why should you not pretend to engage him then, Colonel De Craye?”

“We’ll plot it, if you like. Can you trust me for that?”

“For any act of disinterested kindness, I am sure.”

“You mean it?”

“Without reserve. You could talk publicly of taking him to London.”

“Miss Middleton, just now you were going. My arrival changed your mind. You distrust me: and ought I to wonder? The wonder would be all the other way. You have not had the sort of report of me which would persuade you to confide, even in a case of extremity. I guessed you were going. Do you ask me how? I cannot say. Through what they call sympathy, and that’s inexplicable. There’s natural sympathy, natural antipathy. People have to live together to discover how deep it is!”

Clara breathed her dumb admission of his truth.

The fly jolted and threatened to lurch.

“Flitch, my dear man!” the colonel gave a murmuring remonstrance; “for,” said he to Clara, whom his apostrophe to Flitch had set smiling, “we’re not safe with him, however we make believe, and he’ll be jerking the heart out of me before he has done. — But if two of us have not the misfortune to be united when they come to the discovery, there’s hope. That is, if one has courage and the other has wisdom. Otherwise they may go to the yoke in spite of themselves. The great enemy is Pride, who has them both in a coach and drives them to the fatal door, and the only thing to do is to knock him off his box while there’s a minute to spare. And as there’s no pride like the pride of possession, the deadliest wound to him is to make that doubtful. Pride won’t be taught wisdom in any other fashion. But one must have the courage to do it!”

De Craye trifled with the window-sash, to give his words time to sink in solution.

Who but Willoughby stood for Pride? And who, swayed by languor, had dreamed of a method that would be surest and swiftest to teach him the wisdom of surrendering her?

“You know, Miss Middleton, I study character,” said the colonel.

“I see that you do,” she answered.

“You intend to return?”

“Oh, decidedly.”

“The day is unfavourable for travelling, I must say.”

“It is.”

“You may count on my discretion in the fullest degree. I throw myself on your generosity when I assure you that it was not my design to surprise a secret. I guessed the station, and went there, to put myself at your disposal.”

“Did you,” said Clara, reddening slightly, “chance to see Mrs. Mountstuart Jenkinson’s carriage pass you when you drove up to the station?”

De Craye had passed a carriage. “I did not see the lady. She was in it?”

“Yes. And therefore it is better to put discretion on one side: we may be certain she saw you.”

“But not you, Miss Middleton.”

“I prefer to think that I am seen. I have a description of courage, Colonel De Craye, when it is forced on me.”

“I have not suspected the reverse. Courage wants training, as well as other fine capacities. Mine is often rusty and rheumatic.”

“I cannot hear of concealment or plotting.”

“Except, pray, to advance the cause of poor Flitch!”

“He shall be excepted.”

The colonel screwed his head round for a glance at his coachman’s back.

“Perfectly guaranteed today!” he said of Flitch’s look of solidity. “The convulsion of the elements appears to sober our friend; he is only dangerous in calms. Five minutes will bring us to the park-gates.”

Clara leaned forward to gaze at the hedgeways in the neighbourhood of the Hall strangely renewing their familiarity with her. Both in thought and sensation she was like a flower beaten to earth, and she thanked her feminine mask for not showing how nerveless and languid she was. She could have accused Vernon of a treacherous cunning for imposing it on her free will to decide her fate.

Involuntarily she sighed.

“There is a train at three,” said De Craye, with splendid promptitude.

“Yes, and one at five. We dine with Mrs. Mountstuart tonight. And I have a passion for solitude! I think I was never intended for obligations. The moment I am bound I begin to brood on freedom.”

“Ladies who say that, Miss Middleton! . . . ”

“What of them?”

“They’re feeling too much alone.”

She could not combat the remark: by her self-assurance that she had the principle of faithfulness, she acknowledged to herself the truth of it:— there is no freedom for the weak. Vernon had said that once. She tried to resist the weight of it, and her sheer inability precipitated her into a sense of pitiful dependence.

Half an hour earlier it would have been a perilous condition to be traversing in the society of a closely scanning reader of fair faces. Circumstances had changed. They were at the gates of the park.

“Shall I leave you?” said De Craye.

“Why should you?” she replied.

He bent to her gracefully.

The mild subservience flattered Clara’s languor. He had not compelled her to be watchful on her guard, and she was unaware that he passed it when she acquiesced to his observation, “An anticipatory story is a trap to the teller.”

“It is,” she said. She had been thinking as much.

He threw up his head to consult the brain comically with a dozen little blinks.

“No, you are right, Miss Middleton, inventing beforehand never prospers; ’t is a way to trip our own cleverness. Truth and mother-wit are the best counsellors: and as you are the former, I’ll try to act up to the character you assign me.”

Some tangle, more prospective than present, seemed to be about her as she reflected. But her intention being to speak to Willoughby without subterfuge, she was grateful to her companion for not tempting her to swerve. No one could doubt his talent for elegant fibbing, and she was in the humour both to admire and adopt the art, so she was glad to be rescued from herself. How mother-wit was to second truth she did not inquire, and as she did not happen to be thinking of Crossjay, she was not troubled by having to consider how truth and his tale of the morning would be likely to harmonize.

Driving down the park, she had full occupation in questioning whether her return would be pleasing to Vernon, who was the virtual cause of it, though he had done so little to promote it: so little that she really doubted his pleasure in seeing her return.

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