The Egoist, by George Meredith

Chapter 29

In which the Sensitiveness of Sir Willoughby is Explained: And he Receives Much Instruction

THE Hall-dock over the stables was then striking twelve. It was the hour for her flight to be made known, and Clara sat in a turmoil of dim apprehension that prepared her nervous frame for a painful blush on her being asked by Colonel De Craye whether she had set her watch correctly. He must, she understood, have seen through her at the breakfast table: and was she not cruelly indebted to him for her evasion of Willoughby? Such perspicacity of vision distressed and frightened her; at the same time she was obliged to acknowledge that he had not presumed on it. Her dignity was in no way the worse for him. But it had been at a man’s mercy, and there was the affliction.

She jumped from the fly as if she were leaving danger behind. She could at the moment have greeted Willoughby with a conventionally friendly smile. The doors were thrown open and young Crossjay flew out to her. He hung and danced on her hand, pressed the hand to his mouth, hardly believing that he saw and touched her, and in a lingo of dashes and asterisks related how Sir Willoughby had found him under the boathouse eaves and pumped him, and had been sent off to Hoppner’s farm, where there was a sick child, and on along the road to a labourer’s cottage: “For I said you’re so kind to poor people, Miss Middleton; that’s true, now that is true. And I said you wouldn’t have me with you for fear of contagion!” This was what she had feared.

“Every crack and bang in a boys vocabulary,” remarked the colonel, listening to him after he had paid Flitch.

The latter touched his hat till he had drawn attention to himself, when he exclaimed, with rosy melancholy: “Ah! my lady, ah! colonel, if ever I lives to drink some of the old port wine in the old Hall at Christmastide!” Their healths would on that occasion be drunk, it was implied. He threw up his eyes at the windows, humped his body and drove away.

“Then Mr. Whitford has not come back?” said Clara to Crossjay.

“No, Miss Middleton. Sir Willoughby has, and he’s upstairs in his room dressing.”

“Have you seen Barclay?”

“She has just gone into the laboratory. I told her Sir Willoughby wasn’t there.”

“Tell me, Crossjay, had she a letter?”

“She had something.”

“Run: say I am here; I want the letter, it is mine.”

Crossjay sprang away and plunged into the arms of Sir Willoughby.

“One has to catch the fellow like a football,” exclaimed the injured gentleman, doubled across the boy and holding him fast, that he might have an object to trifle with, to give himself countenance: he needed it. “Clara, you have not been exposed to the weather?”

“Hardly at all.”

“I rejoice. You found shelter?”

“Yes.”

“In one of the cottages?”

“Not in a cottage; but I was perfectly sheltered. Colonel De Craye passed a fly before he met me. . . ”

“Flitch again!” ejaculated the colonel.

“Yes, you have luck, you have luck,” Willoughby addressed him, still clutching Crossjay and treating his tugs to get loose as an invitation to caresses. But the foil barely concealed his livid perturbation.

“Stay by me, sir,” he said at last sharply to Crossjay, and Clara touched the boy’s shoulder in admonishment of him.

She turned to the colonel as they stepped into the hall: “I have not thanked you, Colonel De Craye.” She dropped her voice to its lowest: “A letter in my handwriting in the laboratory.”

Crossjay cried aloud with pain.

“I have you!” Willoughby rallied him with a laugh not unlike the squeak of his victim.

“You squeeze awfully hard, sir.”

“Why, you milksop!”

“Am I! But I want to get a book.”

“Where is the book?”

“In the laboratory.”

Colonel De Craye, sauntering by the laboratory door, sung out: “I’ll fetch you your book. What is it? EARLY NAVIGATORS? INFANT HYMNS? I think my cigar-case is in here.”

“Barclay speaks of a letter for me,” Willoughby said to Clara, “marked to be delivered to me at noon!”

“In case of my not being back earlier; it was written to avert anxiety,” she replied.

“You are very good.”

“Oh, good! Call me anything but good. Here are the ladies. Dear ladies!” Clara swam to meet them as they issued from a morning-room into the hall, and interjections reigned for a couple of minutes.

Willoughby relinquished his grasp of Crossjay, who darted instantaneously at an angle to the laboratory, whither he followed, and he encountered De Craye coming out, but passed him in silence.

Crossjay was rangeing and peering all over the room. Willoughby went to his desk and the battery-table and the mantelpiece. He found no letter. Barclay had undoubtedly informed him that she had left a letter for him in the laboratory, by order of her mistress after breakfast.

He hurried out and ran upstairs in time to see De Craye and Barclay breaking a conference.

He beckoned to her. The maid lengthened her upper lip and beat her dress down smooth: signs of the apprehension of a crisis and of the getting ready for action.

“My mistress’s bell has just rung, Sir Willoughby.”

“You had a letter for me.”

“I said. . . ”

“You said when I met you at the foot of the stairs that you had left a letter for me in the laboratory.”

“It is lying on my mistress’s toilet-table.”

“Get it.”

Barclay swept round with another of her demure grimaces. It was apparently necessary with her that she should talk to herself in this public manner.

Willoughby waited for her; but there was no reappearance of the maid.

Struck by the ridicule of his posture of expectation, and of his whole behaviour, he went to his bedroom suite, shut himself in, and paced the chambers, amazed at the creature he had become. Agitated like the commonest of wretches, destitute of self-control, not able to preserve a decent mask, be, accustomed to inflict these emotions and tremours upon others, was at once the puppet and dupe of an intriguing girl. His very stature seemed lessened. The glass did not say so, but the shrunken heart within him did, and wailfully too. Her compunction —‘Call me anything but good’— coming after her return to the Hall beside De Craye, and after the visible passage of a secret between them in his presence, was a confession: it blew at him with the fury of a furnace-blast in his face. Egoist agony wrung the outcry from him that dupery is a more blessed condition. He desired to be deceived.

He could desire such a thing only in a temporary transport; for above all he desired that no one should know of his being deceived; and were he a dupe the deceiver would know it, and her accomplice would know it, and the world would soon know of it: that world against whose tongue he stood defenceless. Within the shadow of his presence he compressed opinion, as a strong frost binds the springs of earth, but beyond it his shivering sensitiveness ran about in dread of a stripping in a wintry atmosphere. This was the ground of his hatred of the world: it was an appalling fear on behalf of his naked eidolon, the tender infant Self swaddled in his name before the world, for which he felt as the most highly civilized of men alone can feel, and which it was impossible for him to stretch out hands to protect. There the poor little loveable creature ran for any mouth to blow on; and frostnipped and bruised, it cried to him, and he was of no avail! Must we not detest a world that so treats us? We loathe it the more, by the measure of our contempt for them, when we have made the people within the shadow-circle of our person slavish.

And he had been once a young prince in popularity: the world had been his possession. Clara’s treatment of him was a robbery of land and subjects. His grander dream had been a marriage with a lady of so glowing a fame for beauty and attachment to her lord that the world perforce must take her for witness to merits which would silence detraction and almost, not quite (it was undesireable), extinguish envy. But for the nature of women his dream would have been realized. He could not bring himself to denounce Fortune. It had cost him a grievous pang to tell Horace De Craye he was lucky; he had been educated in the belief that Fortune specially prized and cherished little Willoughby: hence of necessity his maledictions fell upon women, or he would have forfeited the last blanket of a dream warm as poets revel in.

But if Clara deceived him, he inspired her with timidity. There was matter in that to make him wish to be deceived. She had not looked him much in the face: she had not crossed his eyes: she had looked deliberately downward, keeping her head up, to preserve an exterior pride. The attitude had its bewitchingness: the girl’s physical pride of stature scorning to bend under a load of conscious guilt, had a certain black-angel beauty for which he felt a hugging hatred: and according to his policy when these fits of amorous meditation seized him, he burst from the present one in the mood of his more favourable conception of Clara, and sought her out.

The quality of the mood of hugging hatred is, that if you are disallowed the hug, you do not hate the fiercer.

Contrariwise the prescription of a decorous distance of two feet ten inches, which is by measurement the delimitation exacted of a rightly respectful deportment, has this miraculous effect on the great creature man, or often it has: that his peculiar hatred returns to the reluctant admiration begetting it, and his passion for the hug falls prostrate as one of the Faithful before the shrine; he is reduced to worship by fasting.

(For these mysteries, consult the sublime chapter in the GREAT BOOK, the Seventy-first on LOVE, wherein nothing is written, but the Reader receives a Lanthorn, a Powder-cask and a Pick-axe, and therewith pursues his yellow-dusking path across the rubble of preceding excavators in the solitary quarry: a yet more instructive passage than the overscrawled Seventieth, or French Section, whence the chapter opens, and where hitherto the polite world has halted.)

The hurry of the hero is on us, we have no time to spare for mining works: he hurried to catch her alone, to wreak his tortures on her in a bitter semblance of bodily worship, and satiated, then comfortably to spurn. He found her protected by Barclay on the stairs.

“That letter for me?” he said.

“I think I told you, Willoughby, there was a letter I left with Barclay to reassure you in case of my not returning early,” said Clara. “It was unnecessary for her to deliver it.”

“Indeed? But any letter, any writing of yours, and from you to me! You have it still?”

“No, I have destroyed it.”

“That was wrong.”

“It could not have given you pleasure.”

“My dear Clara, one line from you!”

“There were but three.”

Barclay stood sucking her lips. A maid in the secrets of her mistress is a purchaseable maid, for if she will take a bribe with her right hand she will with her left; all that has to be calculated is the nature and amount of the bribe: such was the speculation indulged by Sir Willoughby, and he shrank from the thought and declined to know more than that he was on a volcanic hillside where a thin crust quaked over lava. This was a new condition with him, representing Clara’s gain in their combat. Clara did not fear his questioning so much as he feared her candour.

Mutually timid, they were of course formally polite, and no plain speaking could have told one another more distinctly that each was defensive. Clara stood pledged to the fib; packed, scaled and posted; and he had only to ask to have it, supposing that he asked with a voice not exactly peremptory.

She said in her heart, “It is your fault: you are relentless and you would ruin Crossjay to punish him for devoting himself to me, like the poor thoughtless boy he is! and so I am bound in honour to do my utmost for him.”

The reciprocal devotedness, moreover, served two purposes: it preserved her from brooding on the humiliation of her lame flight, and flutter back, and it quieted her mind in regard to the precipitate intimacy of her relations with Colonel De Craye. Willoughby’s boast of his implacable character was to blame. She was at war with him, and she was compelled to put the case in that light. Crossjay must be shielded from one who could not spare an offender, so Colonel De Craye quite naturally was called on for his help, and the colonel’s dexterous aid appeared to her more admirable than alarming.

Nevertheless, she would not have answered a direct question falsely. She was for the fib, but not the lie; at a word she could be disdainful of subterfuges. Her look said that. Willoughby perceived it. She had written him a letter of three lines: “There were but three”: and she had destroyed the letter. Something perchance was repented by her? Then she had done him an injury! Between his wrath at the suspicion of an injury, and the prudence enjoined by his abject coveting of her, he consented to be fooled for the sake of vengeance, and something besides.

“Well! here you are, safe; I have you!” said he, with courtly exultation: “and that is better than your handwriting. I have been all over the country after you.”

“Why did you? We are not in a barbarous land,” said Clara.

“Crossjay talks of your visiting a sick child, my love:— you have changed your dress?”

“You see.”

“The boy declared you were going to that farm of Hoppner’s, and some cottage. I met at my gates a tramping vagabond who swore to seeing you and the boy in a totally contrary direction.”

“Did you give him money?”

“I fancy so.”

“Then he was paid for having seen me.”

Willoughby tossed his head: it might be as she suggested; beggars are liars.

“But who sheltered you, my dear Clara? You had not been heard of at Hoppner’s.”

“The people have been indemnified for their pains. To pay them more would be to spoil them. You disperse money too liberally. There was no fever in the place. Who could have anticipated such a downpour! I want to consult Miss Dale on the important theme of a dress I think of wearing at Mrs Mountstuart’s to-night.”

“Do. She is unerring.”

“She has excellent taste.”

“She dresses very simply herself.”

“But it becomes her. She is one of the few women whom I feel I could not improve with a touch.”

“She has judgement.”

He reflected and repeated his encomium.

The shadow of a dimple in Clara’s cheek awakened him to the idea that she had struck him somewhere: and certainly he would never again be able to put up the fiction of her jealousy of Laetitia. What, then, could be this girl’s motive for praying to be released? The interrogation humbled him: he fled from the answer.

Willoughby went in search of De Craye. That sprightly intriguer had no intention to let himself be caught solus. He was undiscoverable until the assembly sounded, when Clara dropped a public word or two, and he spoke in perfect harmony with her. After that, he gave his company to Willoughby for an hour at billiards, and was well beaten.

The announcement of a visit of Mrs. Mountstuart Jenkinson took the gentlemen to the drawing-room, rather suspecting that something stood in the way of her dinner-party. As it happened, she was lamenting only the loss of one of the jewels of the party: to wit, the great Professor Crooklyn, invited to meet Dr. Middleton at her table; and she related how she had driven to the station by appointment, the professor being notoriously a bother-headed traveller: as was shown by the fact that he had missed his train in town, for he had not arrived; nothing had been seen of him. She cited Vernon Whitford for her authority that the train had been inspected, and the platform scoured to find the professor.

“And so,” said she, “I drove home your Green Man to dry him; he was wet through and chattering; the man was exactly like a skeleton wrapped in a sponge, and if he escapes a cold he must be as invulnerable as he boasts himself. These athletes are terrible boasters.”

“They climb their Alps to crow,” said Clara, excited by her apprehension that Mrs. Mountstuart would speak of having seen the colonel near the station.

There was a laugh, and Colonel De Craye laughed loudly as it flashed through him that a quick-witted impressionable girl like Miss Middleton must, before his arrival at the Hall, have speculated on such obdurate clay as Vernon Whitford was, with humourous despair at his uselessness to her. Glancing round, he saw Vernon standing fixed in a stare at the young lady.

“You heard that, Whitford?” he said, and Clara’s face betokening an extremer contrition than he thought was demanded, the colonel rallied the Alpine climber for striving to be the tallest of them — Signor Excelsior! — and described these conquerors of mountains pancaked on the rocks in desperate embraces, bleached here, burned there, barked all over, all to be able to say they had been up “so high”— had conquered another mountain! He was extravagantly funny and self-satisfied: a conqueror of the sex having such different rewards of enterprise.

Vernon recovered in time to accept the absurdities heaped on him.

“Climbing peaks won’t compare with hunting a wriggler,” said he.

His allusion to the incessant pursuit of young Crossjay to pin him to lessons was appreciated.

Clara felt the thread of the look he cast from herself to Colonel De Craye. She was helpless, if he chose to misjudge her. Colonel De Craye did not!

Crossjay had the misfortune to enter the drawing-room while Mrs. Mountstuart was compassionating Vernon for his ducking in pursuit of the wriggler; which De Craye likened to “going through the river after his eel:” and immediately there was a cross-questioning of the boy between De Craye and Willoughby on the subject of his latest truancy, each gentleman trying to run him down in a palpable fib. They were succeeding brilliantly when Vernon put a stop to it by marching him off to hard labour. Mrs. Mountstuart was led away to inspect the beautiful porcelain service, the present of Lady Busshe. “Porcelain again!” she said to Willoughby, and would have signalled to the “dainty rogue” to come with them, had not Clara been leaning over to Laetitia, talking to her in an attitude too graceful to be disturbed. She called his attention to it, slightly wondering at his impatience. She departed to meet an afternoon train on the chance that it would land the professor. “But tell Dr. Middleton,” said she, “I fear I shall have no one worthy of him! And,” she added to Willoughby, as she walked out to her carriage, “I shall expect you to do the great-gunnery talk at table.”

“Miss Dale keeps it up with him best,” said Willoughby.

“She does everything best! But my dinner-table is involved, and I cannot count on a young woman to talk across it. I would hire a lion of a menagerie, if one were handy, rather than have a famous scholar at my table, unsupported by another famous scholar. Doctor Middleton would ride down a duke when the wine is in him. He will terrify my poor flock. The truth is, we can’t leaven him: I foresee undigested lumps of conversation, unless you devote yourself.”

“I will devote myself,” said Willoughby.

“I can calculate on Colonel De Craye and our porcelain beauty for any quantity of sparkles, if you promise that. They play well together. You are not to be one of the gods to-night, but a kind of Jupiter’s cup-bearer — Juno’s, if you like; and Lady Busshe and Lady Culmer, and all your admirers shall know subsequently what you have done. You see my alarm. I certainly did not rank Professor Crooklyn among the possibly faithless, or I never would have ventured on Doctor Middleton at my table. My dinner-parties have hitherto been all successes. Naturally I feel the greater anxiety about this one. For a single failure is all the more conspicuous. The exception is everlastingly cited! It is not so much what people say, but my own sentiments. I hate to fail. However, if you are true, we may do.”

“Whenever the great gun goes off I will fall on my face, madam!”

“Something of that sort,” said the dame, smiling, and leaving him to reflect on the egoism of women. For the sake of her dinner-party he was to be a cipher in attendance on Dr. Middleton, and Clara and De Craye were to be encouraged in sparkling together! And it happened that he particularly wished to shine. The admiration of his county made him believe he had a flavour in general society that was not yet distinguished by his bride, and he was to relinquish his opportunity in order to please Mrs. Mountstuart! Had she been in the pay of his rival, she could not have stipulated for more.

He remembered young Crossjay’s instant quietude, after struggling in his grasp, when Clara laid her hand on the boy: and from that infinitesimal circumstance he deduced the boy’s perception of a differing between himself and his bride, and a transfer of Crossjay’s allegiance from him to her. She shone; she had the gift of female beauty; the boy was attracted to it. That boy must be made to feel his treason. But the point of the cogitation was, that similarly were Clara to see her affianced shining, as shine he could when lighted up by admirers, there was the probability that the sensation of her littleness would animate her to take aim at him once more. And then was the time for her chastisement.

A visit to Dr. Middleton in the library satisfied him that she had not been renewing her entreaties to leave Patterne. No, the miserable coquette had now her pastime, and was content to stay. Deceit was in the air: he heard the sound of the shuttle of deceit without seeing it; but, on the whole, mindful of what he had dreaded during the hours of her absence, he was rather flattered, witheringly flattered. What was it that he had dreaded? Nothing less than news of her running away. Indeed a silly fancy, a lover’s fancy! yet it had led him so far as to suspect, after parting with De Craye in the rain, that his friend and his bride were in collusion, and that he should not see them again. He had actually shouted on the rainy road the theatric call “Fooled!” one of the stage-cries which are cries of nature! particularly the cry of nature with men who have driven other men to the cry.

Constantia Durham had taught him to believe women capable of explosions of treason at half a minute’s notice. And strangely, to prove that women are all of a pack, she had worn exactly the same placidity of countenance just before she fled, as Clara yesterday and today; no nervousness, no flushes, no twitches of the brows, but smoothness, ease of manner — an elegant sisterliness, one might almost say: as if the creature had found a midway and borderline to walk on between cruelty and kindness, and between repulsion and attraction; so that up to the verge of her breath she did forcefully attract, repelling at one foot’s length with her armour of chill serenity. Not with any disdain, with no passion: such a line as she herself pursued she indicated to him on a neighbouring parallel. The passion in her was like a place of waves evaporated to a crust of salt. Clara’s resemblance to Constantia in this instance was ominous. For him whose tragic privilege it had been to fold each of them in his arms, and weigh on their eyelids, and see the dissolving mist-deeps in their eyes, it was horrible. Once more the comparison overcame him. Constantia he could condemn for revealing too much to his manly sight: she had met him almost half-way: well, that was complimentary and sanguine: but her frankness was a baldness often rendering it doubtful which of the two, lady or gentleman, was the object of the chase — an extreme perplexity to his manly soul. Now Clara’s inner spirit was shyer, shy as a doe down those rose-tinged abysses; she allured both the lover and the hunter; forests of heavenliness were in her flitting eyes. Here the difference of these fair women made his present fate an intolerable anguish. For if Constantia was like certain of the ladies whom he had rendered unhappy, triumphed over, as it is queerly called, Clara was not. Her individuality as a woman was a thing he had to bow to. It was impossible to roll her up in the sex and bestow a kick on the travelling bundle. Hence he loved her, though she hurt him. Hence his wretchedness, and but for the hearty sincerity of his faith in the Self he loved likewise and more, he would have been hangdog abject.

As for De Craye, Willoughby recollected his own exploits too proudly to put his trust in a man. That fatal conjunction of temper and policy had utterly thrown him off his guard, or he would not have trusted the fellow even in the first hour of his acquaintance with Clara. But he had wished her to be amused while he wove his plans to retain her at the Hall:— partly imagining that she would weary of his neglect: vile delusion! In truth he should have given festivities, he should have been the sun of a circle, and have revealed himself to her in his more dazzling form. He went near to calling himself foolish after the tremendous reverberation of “Fooled!” had ceased to shake him.

How behave? It slapped the poor gentleman’s pride in the face to ask. A private talk with her would rouse her to renew her supplications. He saw them flickering behind the girl’s transparent calmness. That calmness really drew its dead ivory hue from the suppression of them: something as much he guessed; and he was not sure either of his temper or his policy if he should hear her repeat her profane request.

An impulse to address himself to Vernon and discourse with him jocularly on the childish whim of a young lady, moved perhaps by some whiff of jealousy, to shun the yoke, was checked. He had always taken so superior a pose with Vernon that he could not abandon it for a moment: on such a subject too! Besides, Vernon was one of your men who entertain the ideas about women of fellows that have never conquered one: or only one, we will say in his case, knowing his secret history; and that one no flag to boast of. Densely ignorant of the sex, his nincompoopish idealizations, at other times preposterous, would now be annoying. He would probably presume on Clara’s inconceivable lapse of dignity to read his master a lecture: he was quite equal to a philippic upon woman’s rights. This man had not been afraid to say that he talked common sense to women. He was an example of the consequence!

Another result was that Vernon did not talk sense to men. Willoughby’s wrath at Clara’s exposure of him to his cousin dismissed the proposal of a colloquy so likely to sting his temper, and so certain to diminish his loftiness. Unwilling to speak to anybody, he was isolated, yet consciously begirt by the mysterious action going on all over the house, from Clara and De Craye to Laetitia and young Crossjay, down to Barclay the maid. His blind sensitiveness felt as we may suppose a spider to feel when plucked from his own web and set in the centre of another’s. Laetitia looked her share in the mystery. A burden was on her eyelashes. How she could have come to any suspicion of the circumstances, he was unable to imagine. Her intense personal sympathy, it might be; he thought so with some gentle pity for her — of the paternal pat-back order of pity. She adored him, by decree of Venus; and the Goddess had not decreed that he should find consolation in adoring her. Nor could the temptings of prudent counsel in his head induce him to run the risk of such a total turnover as the incurring of Laetitia’s pity of himself by confiding in her. He checked that impulse also, and more sovereignly. For him to be pitied by Laetitia seemed an upsetting of the scheme of Providence. Providence, otherwise the discriminating dispensation of the good things of life, had made him the beacon, her the bird: she was really the last person to whom he could unbosom. The idea of his being in a position that suggested his doing so, thrilled him with fits of rage; and it appalled him. There appeared to be another Power. The same which had humiliated him once was menacing him anew. For it could not be Providence, whose favourite he had ever been. We must have a couple of Powers to account for discomfort when Egoism is the kernel of our religion. Benevolence had singled him for uncommon benefits: malignancy was at work to rob him of them. And you think well of the world, do you!

Of necessity he associated Clara with the darker Power pointing the knife at the quick of his pride. Still, he would have raised her weeping: he would have stanched her wounds bleeding: he had an infinite thirst for her misery, that he might ease his heart of its charitable love. Or let her commit herself, and be cast off. Only she must commit herself glaringly, and be cast off by the world as well. Contemplating her in the form of a discarded weed, he had a catch of the breath: she was fair. He implored his Power that Horace De Craye might not be the man! Why any man? An illness, fever, fire, runaway horses, personal disfigurement, a laming, were sufficient. And then a formal and noble offer on his part to keep to the engagement with the unhappy wreck: yes, and to lead the limping thing to the altar, if she insisted. His imagination conceived it, and the world’s applause besides.

Nausea, together with a sense of duty to his line, extinguished that loathsome prospect of a mate, though without obscuring his chivalrous devotion to his gentleman’s word of honour, which remained in his mind to compliment him permanently.

On the whole, he could reasonably hope to subdue her to admiration. He drank a glass of champagne at his dressing; an unaccustomed act, but, as he remarked casually to his man Pollington, for whom the rest of the bottle was left, he had taken no horse-exercise that day.

Having to speak to Vernon on business, he went to the schoolroom, where he discovered Clara, beautiful in full evening attire, with her arm on young Crossjay’s shoulder, and heard that the hard task-master had abjured Mrs. Mountstuart’s party, and had already excused himself, intending to keep Crossjay to the grindstone. Willoughby was for the boy, as usual, and more sparklingly than usual. Clara looked at him in some surprise. He rallied Vernon with great zest, quite silencing him when he said: “I bear witness that the fellow was here at his regular hour for lessons, and were you?” He laid his hand on Crossjay, touching Clara’s.

“You will remember what I told you, Crossjay,” said she, rising from the seat gracefully to escape the touch. “It is my command.”

Crossjay frowned and puffed.

“But only if I’m questioned,” he said.

“Certainly,” she replied.

“Then I question the rascal,” said Willoughby, causing a start. “What, sir, is your opinion of Miss Middleton in her robe of state this evening?”

“Now, the truth, Crossjay!” Clara held up a finger; and the boy could see she was playing at archness, but for Willoughby it was earnest. “The truth is not likely to offend you or me either,” he murmured to her.

“I wish him never, never, on any excuse, to speak anything else.”

“I always did think her a Beauty,” Crossjay growled. He hated the having to say it.

“There!” exclaimed Sir Willoughby, and bent, extending an arm to her. “You have not suffered from the truth, my Clara!”

Her answer was: “I was thinking how he might suffer if he were taught to tell the reverse.”

“Oh! for a fair lady!”

“That is the worst of teaching, Willoughby.”

“We’ll leave it to the fellow’s instinct; he has our blood in him. I could convince you, though, if I might cite circumstances. Yes! But yes! And yes again! The entire truth cannot invariably be told. I venture to say it should not.”

“You would pardon it for the ‘fair lady’?”

“Applaud, my love.”

He squeezed the hand within his arm, contemplating her.

She was arrayed in a voluminous robe of pale blue silk vapourous with trimmings of light gauze of the same hue, gaze de Chambery, matching her fair hair and dear skin for the complete overthrow of less inflammable men than Willoughby.

“Clara!” sighed be.

“If so, it would really be generous,” she said, “though the teaching h bad.”

“I fancy I can be generous.”

“Do we ever know?”

He turned his head to Vernon, issuing brief succinct instructions for letters to be written, and drew her into the hall, saying: “Know? There are people who do not know themselves and as they are the majority they manufacture the axioms. And it is assumed that we have to swallow them. I may observe that I think I know. I decline to be engulphed in those majorities. ‘Among them, but not of them.’ I know this, that my aim in life is to be generous.”

“Is it not an impulse or disposition rather than an aim?”

“So much I know,” pursued Willoughby, refusing to be tripped. But she rang discordantly in his ear. His “fancy that he could be generous” and his “aim at being generous” had met with no response. “I have given proofs,” he said, briefly, to drop a subject upon which he was not permitted to dilate; and he murmured, “People acquainted with me. . .!” She was asked if she expected him to boast of generous deeds. “From childhood!” she heard him mutter; and she said to herself, “Release me, and you shall be everything!”

The unhappy gentleman ached as he talked: for with men and with hosts of women to whom he was indifferent, never did he converse in this shambling, third-rate, sheepish manner, devoid of all highness of tone and the proper precision of an authority. He was unable to fathom the cause of it, but Clara imposed it on him, and only in anger could he throw it off. The temptation to an outburst that would flatter him with the sound of his authoritative voice had to be resisted on a night when he must be composed if he intended to shine, so he merely mentioned Lady Busshe’s present, to gratify spleen by preparing the ground for dissension, and prudently acquiesced in her anticipated slipperiness. She would rather not look at it now, she said.

“Not now; very well,” said he.

His immediate deference made her regretful. “There is hardly time, Willoughby.”

“My dear, we shall have to express our thanks to her.”

“I cannot.”

His arm contracted sharply. He was obliged to be silent.

Dr Middleton, Laetitia, and the ladies Eleanor and Isabel joining them in the hall, found two figures linked together in a shadowy indication of halves that have fallen apart and hang on the last thread of junction. Willoughby retained her hand on his arm; he held to it as the symbol of their alliance, and oppressed the girl’s nerves by contact, with a frame labouring for breath. De Craye looked on them from overhead. The carriages were at the door, and Willoughby said, “Where’s Horace? I suppose he’s taking a final shot at his Book of Anecdotes and neat collection of Irishisms.”

“No,” replied the colonel, descending. “That’s a spring works of itself and has discovered the secret of continuous motion, more’s the pity! — unless you’ll be pleased to make it of use to Science.”

He gave a laugh of good-humour.

“Your laughter, Horace, is a capital comment on your wit.”

Willoughby said it with the air of one who has flicked a whip.

“’Tis a genial advertisement of a vacancy,” said De Craye.

“Precisely: three parts auctioneer to one for the property.”

“Oh, if you have a musical quack, score it a point in his favour, Willoughby, though you don’t swallow his drug.”

“If he means to be musical, let him keep time.”

“Am I late?” said De Craye to the ladies, proving himself an adept in the art of being gracefully vanquished, and so winning tender hearts.

Willoughby had refreshed himself. At the back of his mind there was a suspicion that his adversary would not have yielded so flatly without an assurance of practically triumphing, secretly getting the better of him; and it filled him with venom for a further bout at the next opportunity: but as he had been sarcastic and mordant, he had shown Clara what he could do in a way of speaking different from the lamentable cooing stuff, gasps and feeble protestations to which, he knew not how, she reduced him. Sharing the opinion of his race, that blunt personalities, or the pugilistic form, administered directly on the salient features, are exhibitions of mastery in such encounters, he felt strong and solid, eager for the successes of the evening. De Craye was in the first carriage as escort to the ladies Eleanor and Isabel. Willoughby, with Clara, Laetitia, and Dr. Middleton, followed, all silent, for the Rev. Doctor was ostensibly pondering; and Willoughby was damped a little when he unlocked his mouth to say:

“And yet I have not observed that Colonel de Craye is anything of a Celtiberian Egnatius meriting fustigation for an untimely display of well-whitened teeth, sir: ‘quicquid est, ubicunque est, quodcunque agit, renidet:’:— ha? a morbus neither charming nor urbane to the general eye, however consolatory to the actor. But this gentleman does not offend so, or I am so strangely prepossessed in his favour as to be an incompetent witness.”

Dr Middleton’s persistent ha? eh? upon an honest frown of inquiry plucked an answer out of Willoughby that was meant to be humourously scornful, and soon became apologetic under the Doctor’s interrogatively grasping gaze.

“These Irishmen,” Willoughby said, “will play the professional jester as if it were an office they were born to. We must play critic now and then, otherwise we should have them deluging us with their Joe Millerisms.”

“With their O’Millerisms you would say, perhaps?”

Willoughby did his duty to the joke, but the Rev. Doctor, though he wore the paternal smile of a man that has begotten hilarity, was not perfectly propitiated, and pursued: “Nor to my apprehension is ‘the man’s laugh the comment on his wit’ unchallengeably new: instances of cousinship germane to the phrase will recur to you. But it has to be noted that it was a phrase of assault; it was ostentatiously battery; and I would venture to remind you, friend, that among the elect, considering that it is as fatally facile to spring the laugh upon a man as to deprive him of his life, considering that we have only to condescend to the weapon, and that the more popular necessarily the more murderous that weapon is — among the elect, to which it is your distinction to aspire to belong, the rule holds to abstain from any employment of the obvious, the percoct, and likewise, for your own sake, from the epitonic, the overstrained; for if the former, by readily assimilating with the understandings of your audience, are empowered to commit assassination on your victim, the latter come under the charge of unseemliness, inasmuch as they are a description of public suicide. Assuming, then, manslaughter to be your pastime, and hari-kari not to be your bent, the phrase, to escape criminality, must rise in you as you would have it fall on him, ex improviso. Am I right?”

“I am in the habit of thinking it impossible, sir, that you can be in error,” said Willoughby.

Dr Middleton left it the more emphatic by saying nothing further.

Both his daughter and Miss Dale, who had disapproved the waspish snap at Colonel De Craye, were in wonderment of the art of speech which could so soothingly inform a gentleman that his behaviour had not been gentlemanly.

Willoughby was damped by what he comprehended of it for a few minutes. In proportion as he realized an evening with his ancient admirers he was restored, and he began to marvel greatly at his folly in not giving banquets and Balls, instead of making a solitude about himself and his bride. For solitude, thought he, is good for the man, the man being a creature consumed by passion; woman’s love, on the contrary, will only be nourished by the reflex light she catches of you in the eyes of others, she having no passion of her own, but simply an instinct driving her to attach herself to whatsoever is most largely admired, most shining. So thinking, he determined to change his course of conduct, and he was happier. In the first gush of our wisdom drawn directly from experience there is a mental intoxication that cancels the old world and establishes a new one, not allowing us to ask whether it is too late.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/meredith/george/egoist/chapter29.html

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