The Egoist, by George Meredith

Chapter 30

Treating of the Dinner-Party at Mrs. Mountstuart Jenkinson’s

Vernon and young Crossjay had tolerably steady work together for a couple of hours, varied by the arrival of a plate of meat on a tray for the master, and some interrogations put to him from time to time by the boy in reference to Miss Middleton. Crossjay made the discovery that if he abstained from alluding to Miss Middleton’s beauty he might water his dusty path with her name nearly as much as he liked. Mention of her beauty incurred a reprimand. On the first occasion his master was wistful. “Isn’t she glorious!” Crossjay fancied he had started a sovereign receipt for blessed deviations. He tried it again, but paedagogue-thunder broke over his head.

“Yes, only I can’t understand what she means, Mr. Whitford,” he excused himself “First I was not to tell; I know I wasn’t, because she said so; she quite as good as said so. Her last words were: ‘Mind, Crossjay, you know nothing about me’, when I stuck to that beast of a tramp, who’s a ‘walking moral,’ and gets money out of people by snuffling it.”

“Attend to your lesson, or you’ll be one,” said Vernon.

“Yes, but, Mr. Whitford, now I am to tell. I’m to answer straight out to every question.”

“Miss Middleton is anxious that you should be truthful.”

“Yes; but in the morning she told me not to tell.”

“She was in a hurry. She has it on her conscience that you may have misunderstood her, and she wishes you never to be guilty of an untruth, least of all on her account.”

Crossjay committed an unspoken resolution to the air in a violent sigh: “Ah!” and said: “If I were sure!”

“Do as she bids you, my boy.”

“But I don’t know what it is she wants.”

“Hold to her last words to you.”

“So I do. If she told me to run till I dropped, on I’d go.”

“She told you to study your lessons; do that.”

Crossjay buckled to his book, invigorated by an imagination of his liege lady on the page.

After a studious interval, until the impression of his lady had subsided, he resumed: “She’s so funny. She’s just like a girl, and then she’s a lady, too. She’s my idea of a princess. And Colonel De Craye! Wasn’t he taught dancing! When he says something funny he ducks and seems to be setting to his partner. I should like to be as clever as her father. That is a clever man. I dare say Colonel De Craye will dance with her tonight. I wish I was there.”

“It’s a dinner-party, not a dance,” Vernon forced himself to say, to dispel that ugly vision.

“Isn’t it, sir? I thought they danced after dinner-parties, Mr. Whitford, have you ever seen her run?”

Vernon pointed him to his task.

They were silent for a lengthened period.

“But does Miss Middleton mean me to speak out if Sir Willoughby asks me?” said Crossjay.

“Certainly. You needn’t make much of it. All’s plain and simple.”

“But I’m positive, Mr. Whitford, he wasn’t to hear of her going to the post-office with me before breakfast. And how did Colonel De Craye find her and bring her back, with that old Flitch? He’s a man and can go where he pleases, and I’d have found her, too, give me the chance. You know. I’m fond of Miss Dale, but she — I’m very fond of her — but you can’t think she’s a girl as well. And about Miss Dale, when she says a thing, there it is, clear. But Miss Middleton has a lot of meanings. Never mind; I go by what’s inside, and I’m pretty sure to please her.”

“Take your chin off your hand and your elbow off the book, and fix yourself,” said Vernon, wrestling with the seduction of Crossjay’s idolatry, for Miss Middleton’s appearance had been preternaturally sweet on her departure, and the next pleasure to seeing her was hearing of her from the lips of this passionate young poet.

“Remember that you please her by speaking truth,” Vernon added, and laid himself open to questions upon the truth, by which he learnt, with a perplexed sense of envy and sympathy, that the boy’s idea of truth strongly approximated to his conception of what should be agreeable to Miss Middleton.

He was lonely, bereft of the bard, when he had tucked Crossjay up in his bed and left him. Books he could not read; thoughts were disturbing. A seat in the library and a stupid stare helped to pass the hours, and but for the spot of sadness moving meditation in spite of his effort to stun himself, he would have borne a happy resemblance to an idiot in the sun. He had verily no command of his reason. She was too beautiful! Whatever she did was best. That was the refrain of the fountain-song in him; the burden being her whims, variations, inconsistencies, wiles; her tremblings between good and naughty, that might be stamped to noble or to terrible; her sincereness, her duplicity, her courage, cowardice, possibilities for heroism and for treachery. By dint of dwelling on the theme, he magnified the young lady to extraordinary stature. And he had sense enough to own that her character was yet liquid in the mould, and that she was a creature of only naturally youthful wildness provoked to freakishness by the ordeal of a situation shrewd as any that can happen to her sex in civilized life. But he was compelled to think of her extravagantly, and he leaned a little to the discrediting of her, because her actual image ummanned him and was unbearable; and to say at the end of it: “She is too beautiful! whatever she does is best,” smoothed away the wrong he did her. Had it been in his power he would have thought of her in the abstract — the stage contiguous to that which he adopted: but the attempt was luckless; the Stagyrite would have faded in it. What philosopher could have set down that face of sun and breeze and nymph in shadow as a point in a problem?

The library door was opened at midnight by Miss Dale. She dosed it quietly. “You are not working, Mr. Whitford? I fancied you would wish to hear of the evening. Professor Crooklyn arrived after all! Mrs. Mountstuart is bewildered: she says she expected you, and that you did not excuse yourself to her, and she cannot comprehend, et caetera. That is to say, she chooses bewilderment to indulge in the exclamatory. She must be very much annoyed. The professor did come by the train she drove to meet!”

“I thought it probable,” said Vernon.

“He had to remain a couple of hours at the Railway Inn; no conveyance was to be found for him. He thinks he has caught a cold, and cannot stifle his fretfulness about it. He may be as learned as Doctor Middleton; he has not the same happy constitution. Nothing more unfortunate could have occurred; he spoilt the party. Mrs. Mountstuart tried petting him, which drew attention to him, and put us all in his key for several awkward minutes, more than once. She lost her head; she was unlike herself I may be presumptuous in criticizing her, but should not the president of a dinner-table treat it like a battlefield, and let the guest that sinks descend, and not allow the voice of a discordant, however illustrious, to rule it? Of course, it is when I see failures that I fancy I could manage so well: comparison is prudently reserved in the other cases. I am a daring critic, no doubt, because I know I shall never be tried by experiment. I have no ambition to be tried.”

She did not notice a smile of Vernon’s, and continued: “Mrs Mountstuart gave him the lead upon any subject he chose. I thought the professor never would have ceased talking of a young lady who had been at the inn before him drinking hot brandy and water with a gentleman!”

“How did he hear of that?” cried Vernon, roused by the malignity of the Fates.

“From the landlady, trying to comfort him. And a story of her lending shoes and stockings while those of the young lady were drying. He has the dreadful snappish humourous way of recounting which impresses it; the table took up the subject of this remarkable young lady, and whether she was a lady of the neighbourhood, and who she could be that went abroad on foot in heavy rain. It was painful to me; I knew enough to be sure of who she was.”

“Did she betray it?”

“No.”

“Did Willoughby look at her?”

“Without suspicion then.”

“Then?”

“Colonel De Craye was diverting us, and he was very amusing. Mrs. Mountstuart told him afterward that he ought to be paid salvage for saving the wreck of her party. Sir Willoughby was a little too cynical; he talked well; what he said was good, but it was not good-humoured; he has not the reckless indifference of Colonel De Craye to uttering nonsense that amusement may come of it. And in the drawing-room he lost such gaiety as he had. I was close to Mrs. Mountstuart when Professor Crooklyn approached her and spoke in my hearing of that gentleman and that young lady. They were, you could see by his nods, Colonel De Craye and Miss Middleton.”

“And she at once mentioned it to Willoughby?”

“Colonel De Craye gave her no chance, if she sought it. He courted her profusely. Behind his rattle he must have brains. It ran in all directions to entertain her and her circle.”

“Willoughby knows nothing?”

“I cannot judge. He stood with Mrs. Mountstuart a minute as we were taking leave. She looked strange. I heard her say: ‘The rogue!’ He laughed. She lifted her shoulders. He scarcely opened his mouth on the way home.”

“The thing must run its course,” Vernon said, with the philosophical air which is desperation rendered decorous. “Willoughby deserves it. A man of full growth ought to know that nothing on earth tempts Providence so much as the binding of a young woman against her will. Those two are mutually attracted: they’re both. . . They meet, and the mischief’s done: both are bright. He can persuade with a word. Another might discourse like an angel and it would be useless. I said everything I could think of, to no purpose. And so it is: there are those attractions! — just as, with her, Willoughby is the reverse, he repels. I’m in about the same predicament — or should be if she were plighted to me. That is, for the length of five minutes; about the space of time I should require for the formality of handing her back her freedom. How a sane man can imagine a girl like that. . .! But if she has changed, she has changed! You can’t conciliate a withered affection. This detaining her, and tricking, and not listening, only increases her aversion; she learns the art in turn. Here she is, detained by fresh plots to keep Dr. Middleton at the Hall. That’s true, is it not?” He saw that it was. “No, she’s not to blame! She has told him her mind; he won’t listen. The question then is, whether she keeps to her word, or breaks it. It’s a dispute between a conventional idea of obligation and an injury to her nature. Which is the more dishonourable thing to do? Why, you and I see in a moment that her feelings guide her best. It’s one of the few cases in which nature may be consulted like an oracle.”

“Is she so sure of her nature?” said Miss Dale.

“You may doubt it; I do not. I am surprised at her coming back. De Craye is a man of the world, and advised it, I suppose. He — well, I never had the persuasive tongue, and my failing doesn’t count for much.”

“But the suddenness of the intimacy!”

“The disaster is rather famous ‘at first sight’. He came in a fortunate hour. . . for him. A pigmy’s a giant if he can manage to arrive in season. Did you not notice that there was danger, at their second or third glance? You counselled me to hang on here, where the amount of good I do in proportion to what I have to endure is microscopic.”

“It was against your wishes, I know,” said Laetitia, and when the words were out she feared that they were tentative. Her delicacy shrank from even seeming to sound him in relation to a situation so delicate as Miss Middleton’s.

The same sentiment guarded him from betraying himself, and he said: “Partly against. We both foresaw the possible — because, like most prophets, we knew a little more of circumstances enabling us to see the fatal. A pigmy would have served, but De Craye is a handsome, intelligent, pleasant fellow.”

“Sir Willoughby’s friend!”

“Well, in these affairs! A great deal must be charged on the goddess.”

“That is really Pagan fatalism!”

“Our modern word for it is Nature. Science condescends to speak of natural selection. Look at these! They are both graceful and winning and witty, bright to mind and eye, made for one another, as country people say. I can’t blame him. Besides, we don’t know that he’s guilty. We’re quite in the dark, except that we’re certain how it must end. If the chance should occur to you of giving Willoughby a word of counsel — it may — you might, without irritating him as my knowledge of his plight does, hint at your eyes being open. His insane dread of a detective world makes him artificially blind. As soon as he fancies himself seen, he sets to work spinning a web, and he discerns nothing else. It’s generally a clever kind of web; but if it’s a tangle to others it’s the same to him, and a veil as well. He is preparing the catastrophe, he forces the issue. Tell him of her extreme desire to depart. Treat her as mad, to soothe him. Otherwise one morning he will wake a second time. . .! It is perfectly certain. And the second time it will be entirely his own fault. Inspire him with some philosophy.”

“I have none.”

“I if I thought so, I would say you have better. There are two kinds of philosophy, mine and yours. Mine comes of coldness, yours of devotion.”

“He is unlikely to choose me for his confidante.”

Vernon meditated. “One can never quite guess what he will do, from never knowing the heat of the centre in him which precipitates his actions: he has a great art of concealment. As to me, as you perceive, my views are too philosophical to let me be of use to any of them. I blame only the one who holds to the bond. The sooner I am gone! — in fact, I cannot stay on. So Dr. Middleton and the Professor did not strike fire together?”

“Doctor Middleton was ready, and pursued him, but Professor Crooklyn insisted on shivering. His line of blank verse, ‘A Railway platform and a Railway inn!’ became pathetic in repetition. He must have suffered.”

“Somebody has to!”

“Why the innocent?”

“He arrives a propos. But remember that Fridolin sometimes contrives to escape and have the guilty scorched. The Professor would not have suffered if he had missed his train, as he appears to be in the habit of doing. Thus his unaccustomed good-fortune was the cause of his bad.”

“You saw him on the platform?”

“I am unacquainted with the professor. I had to get Mrs Mountstuart out of the way.”

“She says she described him to you. ‘Complexion of a sweetbread, consistency of a quenelle, grey, and like a Saint without his dish behind the head.’”

“Her descriptions are strikingly accurate, but she forgot to sketch his back, and all that I saw was a narrow sloping back and a broad hat resting the brim on it. My report to her spoke of an old gentleman of dark complexion, as the only traveller on the platform. She has faith in the efficiency of her descriptive powers, and so she was willing to drive off immediately. The intention was a start to London. Colonel De Craye came up and effected in five minutes what I could not compass in thirty.”

“But you saw Colonel De Craye pass you?”

“My work was done; I should have been an intruder. Besides I was acting wet jacket with Mrs. Mountstuart to get her to drive off fast, or she might have jumped out in search of her Professor herself.”

“She says you were lean as a fork, with the wind whistling through the prongs.”

“You see how easy it is to deceive one who is an artist in phrases. Avoid them, Miss Dale; they dazzle the penetration of the composer. That is why people of ability like Mrs Mountstuart see so little; they are so bent on describing brilliantly. However, she is kind and charitable at heart. I have been considering to-night that, to cut this knot as it is now, Miss Middleton might do worse than speak straight out to Mrs. Mountstuart. No one else would have such influence with Willoughby. The simple fact of Mrs. Mountstuart’s knowing of it would be almost enough. But courage would be required for that. Good-night, Miss Dale.”

“Good-night, Mr. Whitford. You pardon me for disturbing you?”

Vernon pressed her hand reassuringly. He had but to look at her and review her history to think his cousin Willoughby punished by just retribution. Indeed, for any maltreatment of the dear boy Love by man or by woman, coming under your cognizance, you, if you be of common soundness, shall behold the retributive blow struck in your time.

Miss Dale retired thinking how like she and Vernon were to one another in the toneless condition they had achieved through sorrow. He succeeded in masking himself from her, owing to her awe of the circumstances. She reproached herself for not having the same devotion to the cold idea of duty as he had; and though it provoked inquiry, she would not stop to ask why he had left Miss Middleton a prey to the sparkling colonel. It seemed a proof of the philosophy he preached.

As she was passing by young Crossjay’s bedroom door a face appeared. Sir Willoughby slowly emerged and presented himself in his full length, beseeching her to banish alarm.

He said it in a hushed voice, with a face qualified to create sentiment.

“Are you tired? sleepy?” said he.

She protested that she was not: she intended to read for an hour.

He begged to have the hour dedicated to him. “I shall be relieved by conversing with a friend.”

No subterfuge crossed her mind; she thought his midnight visit to the boy’s bedside a pretty feature in him; she was full of pity, too; she yielded to the strange request, feeling that it did not become “an old woman” to attach importance even to the public discovery of midnight interviews involving herself as one, and feeling also that she was being treated as an old friend in the form of a very old woman. Her mind was bent on arresting any recurrence to the project she had so frequently outlined in the tongue of innuendo, of which, because of her repeated tremblings under it, she thought him a master.

He conducted her along the corridor to the private sitting-room of the ladies Eleanor and Isabel.

“Deceit!” he said, while lighting the candles on the mantelpiece.

She was earnestly compassionate, and a word that could not relate to her personal destinies refreshed her by displacing her apprehensive antagonism and giving pity free play.

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