The Egoist, by George Meredith

Chapter 31

Sir Willoughby Attempts and Achieves Pathos

Both were seated. Apparently he would have preferred to watch her dark downcast eyelashes in silence under sanction of his air of abstract meditation and the melancholy superinducing it. Blood-colour was in her cheeks; the party had inspirited her features. Might it be that lively company, an absence of economical solicitudes, and a flourishing home were all she required to make her bloom again? The supposition was not hazardous in presence of her heightened complexion.

She raised her eyes. He could not meet her look without speaking.

“Can you forgive deceit?”

“It would be to boast of more charity than I know myself to possess, were I to say that I can, Sir Willoughby. I hope I am able to forgive. I cannot tell. I should like to say yes.”

“Could you live with the deceiver?”

“No.”

“No. I could have given that answer for you. No semblance of union should be maintained between the deceiver and ourselves. Laetitia!”

“Sir Willoughby?”

“Have I no right to your name?”

“If it pleases you to. . . ”

“I speak as my thoughts run, and they did not know a Miss Dale so well as a dear Laetitia: my truest friend! You have talked with Clara Middleton?”

“We had a conversation.”

Her brevity affrighted him. He flew off in a cloud.

“Reverting to that question of deceivers: is it not your opinion that to pardon, to condone, is to corrupt society by passing off as pure what is false? Do we not,” he wore the smile of haggard playfulness of a convalescent child the first day back to its toys, “Laetitia, do we not impose a counterfeit on the currency?”

“Supposing it to be really deception.”

“Apart from my loathing of deception, of falseness in any shape, upon any grounds, I hold it an imperious duty to expose, punish, off with it. I take it to be one of the forms of noxiousness which a good citizen is bound to extirpate. I am not myself good citizen enough, I confess, for much more than passive abhorrence. I do not forgive: I am at heart serious and I cannot forgive:— there is no possible reconciliation, there can be only an ostensible truce, between the two hostile powers dividing this world.”

She glanced at him quickly.

“Good and evil!” he said.

Her face expressed a surprise relapsing on the heart.

He spelt the puckers of her forehead to mean that she feared he might be speaking unchristianly.

“You will find it so in all religions, my dear Laetitia: the Hindoo, the Persian, ours. It is universal; an experience of our humanity. Deceit and sincerity cannot live together. Truth must kill the lie, or the lie will kill truth. I do not forgive. All I say to the person is, go!”

“But that is right! that is generous!” exclaimed Laetitia, glad to approve him for the sake of escaping her critical soul, and relieved by the idea of Clara’s difficulty solved.

“Capable of generosity, perhaps,” he mused, aloud.

She wounded him by not supplying the expected enthusiastic asseveration of her belief in his general tendency to magnanimity.

He said, after a pause: “But the world is not likely to be impressed by anything not immediately gratifying it. People change, I find: as we increase in years we cease to be the heroes we were. I myself am insensible to change: I do not admit the charge. Except in this we will say: personal ambition. I have it no more. And what is it when we have it? Decidedly a confession of inferiority! That is, the desire to be distinguished is an acknowledgement of insufficiency. But I have still the craving for my dearest friends to think well of me. A weakness? Call it so. Not a dishonourable weakness!”

Laetitia racked her brain for the connection of his present speech with the preceding dialogue. She was baffled, from not knowing “the heat of the centre in him”, as Vernon opaquely phrased it in charity to the object of her worship.

“Well,” said he, unappeased, “and besides the passion to excel, I have changed somewhat in the heartiness of my thirst for the amusements incident to my station. I do not care to keep a stud — I was once tempted: nor hounds. And I can remember the day when I determined to have the best kennels and the best breed of horses in the kingdom. Puerile! What is distinction of that sort, or of any acquisition and accomplishment? We ask! one’s self is not the greater. To seek it, owns to our smallness, in real fact; and when it is attained, what then? My horses are good, they are admired, I challenge the county to surpass them: well? These are but my horses; the praise is of the animals, not of me. I decline to share in it. Yet I know men content to swallow the praise of their beasts and be semi-equine. The littleness of one’s fellows in the mob of life is a very strange experience! One may regret to have lost the simplicity of one’s forefathers, which could accept those and other distinctions with a cordial pleasure, not to say pride. As, for instance, I am, as it is called, a dead shot. ‘Give your acclamations, gentlemen, to my ancestors, from whom I inherited a steady hand and quick sight.’ They do not touch me. Where I do not find myself — that I am essentially I— no applause can move me. To speak to you as I would speak to none, admiration — you know that in my early youth I swam in flattery — I had to swim to avoid drowning! — admiration of my personal gifts has grown tasteless. Changed, therefore, inasmuch as there has been a growth of spirituality. We are all in submission to mortal laws, and so far I have indeed changed. I may add that it is unusual for country gentlemen to apply themselves to scientific researches. These are, however, in the spirit of the time. I apprehended that instinctively when at College. I forsook the classics for science. And thereby escaped the vice of domineering self-sufficiency peculiar to classical men, of which you had an amusing example in the carriage, on the way to Mrs. Mountstuart’s this evening. Science is modest; slow, if you like; it deals with facts, and having mastered them, it masters men; of necessity, not with a stupid, loud-mouthed arrogance: words big and oddly garbed as the Pope’s body-guard. Of course, one bows to the Infallible; we must, when his giant-mercenaries level bayonets.”

Sir Willoughby offered Miss Dale half a minute that she might in gentle feminine fashion acquiesce in the implied reproof of Dr. Middleton’s behaviour to him during the drive to Mrs. Mountstuart’s. She did not.

Her heart was accusing Clara of having done it a wrong and a hurt. For while he talked he seemed to her to justify Clara’s feelings and her conduct: and her own reawakened sensations of injury came to the surface a moment to look at him, affirming that they pardoned him, and pitied, but hardly wondered.

The heat of the centre in him had administered the comfort he wanted, though the conclusive accordant notes he loved on woman’s lips, that subservient harmony of another instrument desired of musicians when they have done their solo-playing, came not to wind up the performance: not a single bar. She did not speak. Probably his Laetitia was overcome, as he had long known her to be when they conversed; nerve-subdued, unable to deploy her mental resources or her musical. Yet ordinarily she had command of the latter. — Was she too condoling? Did a reason exist for it? Had the impulsive and desperate girl spoken out to Laetitia to the fullest? — shameless daughter of a domineering sire that she was! Ghastlier inquiry (it struck the centre of him with a sounding ring), was Laetitia pitying him overmuch for worse than the pain of a little difference between lovers — for treason on the part of his bride? Did she know of a rival? know more than he?

When the centre of him was violently struck he was a genius in penetration. He guessed that she did know: and by this was he presently helped to achieve pathos.

“So my election was for Science,” he continued; “and if it makes me, as I fear, a rara avis among country gentlemen, it unites me, puts me in the main, I may say, in the only current of progress — a word sufficiently despicable in their political jargon. — You enjoyed your evening at Mrs. Mountstuart’s?”

“Very greatly.”

“She brings her Professor to dine here the day after tomorrow. Does it astonish you? You started.”

“I did not hear the invitation.”

“It was arranged at the table: you and I were separated — cruelly, I told her: she declared that we see enough of one another, and that it was good for me that we should be separated; neither of which is true. I may not have known what is the best for me: I do know what is good. If in my younger days I egregiously erred, that, taken of itself alone, is, assuming me to have sense and feeling, the surer proof of present wisdom. I can testify in person that wisdom is pain. If pain is to add to wisdom, let me suffer! Do you approve of that, Laetitia?”

“It is well said.”

“It is felt. Those who themselves have suffered should know the benefit of the resolution.”

“One may have suffered so much as to wish only for peace.”

“True: but you! have you?”

“It would be for peace, if I prayed for any earthly gift.”

Sir Willoughby dropped a smile on her. “I mentioned the Pope’s parti-coloured body-guard just now. In my youth their singular attire impressed me. People tell me they have been reuniformed: I am sorry. They remain one of my liveliest recollections of the Eternal City. They affected my sense of humour, always alert in me, as you are aware. We English have humour. It is the first thing struck in us when we land on the Continent: our risible faculties are generally active all through the tour. Humour, or the clash of sense with novel examples of the absurd, is our characteristic. I do not condescend to boisterous displays of it. I observe, and note the people’s comicalities for my correspondence. But you have read my letters — most of them, if not all?”

“Many of them.”

“I was with you then! — I was about to say — that Swiss-guard reminded me — you have not been in Italy. I have constantly regretted it. You are the very woman, you have the soul for Italy. I know no other of whom I could say it, with whom I should not feel that she was out of place, discordant with me. Italy and Laetitia! often have I joined you together. We shall see. I begin to have hopes. Here you have literally stagnated. Why, a dinner-party refreshes you! What would not travel do, and that heavenly climate! You are a reader of history and poetry. Well, poetry! I never yet saw the poetry that expressed the tenth part of what I feel in the presence of beauty and magnificence, and when I really meditate — profoundly. Call me a positive mind. I feel: only I feel too intensely for poetry. By the nature of it, poetry cannot be sincere. I will have sincerity. Whatever touches our emotions should be spontaneous, not a craft. I know you are in favour of poetry. You would win me, if any one could. But history! there I am with you. Walking over ruins: at night: the arches of the solemn black amphitheatre pouring moonlight on us — the moonlight of Italy!”

“You would not laugh there, Sir Willoughby?” said Laetitia, rousing herself from a stupor of apprehensive amazement, to utter something and realize actual circumstances.

“Besides, you, I think, or I am mistaken in you”— he deviated from his projected speech —“you are not a victim of the sense of association and the ludicrous.”

“I can understand the influence of it: I have at least a conception of the humourous, but ridicule would not strike me in the Coliseum of Rome. I could not bear it, no, Sir Willoughby!”

She appeared to be taking him in very strong earnest, by thus petitioning him not to laugh in the Coliseum, and now he said: “Besides, you are one who could accommodate yourself to the society of the ladies, my aunts. Good women, Laetitia! I cannot imagine them de trop in Italy, or in a household. I have of course reason to be partial in my judgement.”

“They are excellent and most amiable ladies; I love them,” said Laetitia, fervently; the more strongly excited to fervour by her enlightenment as to his drift.

She read it that he designed to take her to Italy with the ladies:— after giving Miss Middleton her liberty; that was necessarily implied. And that was truly generous. In his boyhood he had been famous for his bountifulness in scattering silver and gold. Might he not have caused himself to be misperused in later life?

Clara had spoken to her of the visit and mission of the ladies to the library: and Laetitia daringly conceived herself to be on the certain track of his meaning, she being able to enjoy their society as she supposed him to consider that Miss Middleton did not, and would not either abroad or at home.

Sir Willoughby asked her: “You could travel with them?”

“Indeed I could!”

“Honestly?”

“As affirmatively as one may protest. Delightedly.”

“Agreed. It is an undertaking.” He put his hand out.

“Whether I be of the party or not! To Italy, Laetitia! It would give me pleasure to be with you, and it will, if I must be excluded, to think of you in Italy.”

His hand was out. She had to feign inattention or yield her own. She had not the effrontery to pretend not to see, and she yielded it. He pressed it, and whenever it shrunk a quarter inch to withdraw, he shook it up and down, as an instrument that had been lent him for due emphasis to his remarks. And very emphatic an amorous orator can make it upon a captive lady.

“I am unable to speak decisively on that or any subject. I am, I think you once quoted, ‘tossed like a weed on the ocean.’ Of myself I can speak: I cannot speak for a second person. I am infinitely harassed. If I could cry, ‘To Italy tomorrow!’ Ah! . . . Do not set me down for complaining. I know the lot of man. But, Laetitia, deceit! deceit! It is a bad taste in the mouth. It sickens us of humanity. I compare it to an earthquake: we lose all our reliance on the solidity of the world. It is a betrayal not simply of the person; it is a betrayal of humankind. My friend! Constant friend! No, I will not despair. Yes, I have faults; I will remember them. Only, forgiveness is another question. Yes, the injury I can forgive; the falseness never. In the interests of humanity, no. So young, and such deceit!”

Laetitia’s bosom rose: her hand was detained: a lady who has yielded it cannot wrestle to have it back; those outworks which protect her treacherously shelter the enemy aiming at the citadel when he has taken them. In return for the silken armour bestowed on her by our civilization, it is exacted that she be soft and civil nigh up to perishing-point. She breathed tremulously high, saying on her top-breath: “If it — it may not be so; it can scarcely. . . ” A deep sigh intervened. It saddened her that she knew so much.

“For when I love I love,” said Sir Willoughby; “my friends and my servants know that. There can be no medium: not with me. I give all, I claim all. As I am absorbed, so must I absorb. We both cancel and create, we extinguish and we illumine one another. The error may be in the choice of an object: it is not in the passion. Perfect confidence, perfect abandonment. I repeat, I claim it because I give it. The selfishness of love may be denounced: it is a part of us. My answer would be, it is an element only of the noblest of us! Love, Laetitia! I speak of love. But one who breaks faith to drag us through the mire, who betrays, betrays and hands us over to the world, whose prey we become identically because of virtues we were educated to think it a blessing to possess: tell me the name for that! — Again, it has ever been a principle with me to respect the sex. But if we see women false, treacherous. . . Why indulge in these abstract views, you would ask! The world presses them on us, full as it is of the vilest specimens. They seek to pluck up every rooted principle: they sneer at our worship: they rob us of our religion. This bitter experience of the world drives us back to the antidote of what we knew before we plunged into it: of one. . . of something we esteemed and still esteem. Is that antidote strong enough to expel the poison? I hope so! I believe so! To lose faith in womankind is terrible.”

He studied her. She looked distressed: she was not moved.

She was thinking that, with the exception of a strain of haughtiness, he talked excellently to men, at least in the tone of the things he meant to say; but that his manner of talking to women went to an excess in the artificial tongue — the tutored tongue of sentimental deference of the towering male: he fluted exceedingly; and she wondered whether it was this which had wrecked him with Miss Middleton.

His intuitive sagacity counselled him to strive for pathos to move her. It was a task; for while he perceived her to be not ignorant of his plight, he doubted her knowing the extent of it, and as his desire was merely to move her without an exposure of himself, he had to compass being pathetic as it were under the impediments of a mailed and gauntletted knight, who cannot easily heave the bosom, or show it heaving.

Moreover, pathos is a tide: often it carries the awakener of it off his feet, and whirls him over and over armour and all in ignominious attitudes of helpless prostration, whereof he may well be ashamed in the retrospect. We cannot quite preserve our dignity when we stoop to the work of calling forth tears. Moses had probably to take a nimble jump away from the rock after that venerable Law-giver had knocked the water out of it.

However, it was imperative in his mind that he should be sure he had the power to move her.

He began; clumsily at first, as yonder gauntletted knight attempting the briny handkerchief.

“What are we! We last but a very short time. Why not live to gratify our appetites? I might really ask myself why. All the means of satiating them are at my disposal. But no: I must aim at the highest:— at that which in my blindness I took for the highest. You know the sportsman’s instinct, Laetitia; he is not tempted by the stationary object. Such are we in youth, toying with happiness, leaving it, to aim at the dazzling and attractive.”

“We gain knowledge,” said Laetitia.

“At what a cost!”

The exclamation summoned self-pity to his aid, and pathos was handy.

“By paying half our lives for it and all our hopes! Yes, we gain knowledge, we are the wiser; very probably my value surpasses now what it was when I was happier. But the loss! That youthful bloom of the soul is like health to the body; once gone, it leaves cripples behind. Nay, my friend and precious friend, these four fingers I must retain. They seem to me the residue of a wreck: you shall be released shortly: absolutely, Laetitia, I have nothing else remaining — We have spoken of deception; what of being undeceived? — when one whom we adored is laid bare, and the wretched consolation of a worthy object is denied to us. No misfortune can be like that. Were it death, we could worship still. Death would be preferable. But may you be spared to know a situation in which the comparison with your inferior is forced on you to your disadvantage and your loss because of your generously giving up your whole heart to the custody of some shallow, light-minded, self —! . . . We will not deal in epithets. If I were to find as many bad names for the serpent as there are spots on his body, it would be serpent still, neither better nor worse. The loneliness! And the darkness! Our luminary is extinguished. Self-respect refuses to continue worshipping, but the affection will not be turned aside. We are literally in the dust, we grovel, we would fling away self-respect if we could; we would adopt for a model the creature preferred to us; we would humiliate, degrade ourselves; we cry for justice as if it were for pardon . . . ”

“For pardon! when we are straining to grant it!” Laetitia murmured, and it was as much as she could do. She remembered how in her old misery her efforts after charity had twisted her round to feel herself the sinner, and beg forgiveness in prayer: a noble sentiment, that filled her with pity of the bosom in which it had sprung. There was no similarity between his idea and hers, but her idea had certainly been roused by his word “pardon”, and he had the benefit of it in the moisture of her eyes. Her lips trembled, tears fell.

He had heard something; he had not caught the words, but they were manifestly favourable; her sign of emotion assured him of it and of the success he had sought. There was one woman who bowed to him to all eternity! He had inspired one woman with the mysterious, man-desired passion of self-abandonment, self-immolation! The evidence was before him. At any instant he could, if he pleased, fly to her and command her enthusiasm.

He had, in fact, perhaps by sympathetic action, succeeded in striking the same springs of pathos in her which animated his lively endeavour to produce it in himself.

He kissed her hand; then released it, quitting his chair to bend above her soothingly.

“Do not weep, Laetitia, you see that I do not; I can smile. Help me to bear it; you must not unman me.”

She tried to stop her crying, but self-pity threatened to rain all her long years of grief on her head, and she said: “I must go. . . I am unfit. . . good-night, Sir Willoughby.”

Fearing seriously that he had sunk his pride too low in her consideration, and had been carried farther than he intended on the tide of pathos, he remarked: “We will speak about Crossjay tomorrow. His deceitfulness has been gross. As I said, I am grievously offended by deception. But you are tired. Good-night, my dear friend.”

“Good-night, Sir Willoughby.”

She was allowed to go forth.

Colonel De Craye coming up from the smoking-room, met her and noticed the state of her eyelids, as he wished her goodnight. He saw Willoughby in the room she had quitted, but considerately passed without speaking, and without reflecting why he was considerate.

Our hero’s review of the scene made him, on the whole, satisfied with his part in it. Of his power upon one woman he was now perfectly sure:— Clara had agonized him with a doubt of his personal mastery of any. One was a poor feast, but the pangs of his flesh during the last few days and the latest hours caused him to snatch at it, hungrily if contemptuously. A poor feast, she was yet a fortress, a point of succour, both shield and lance; a cover and an impetus. He could now encounter Clara boldly. Should she resist and defy him, he would not be naked and alone; he foresaw that he might win honour in the world’s eye from his position — a matter to be thought of only in most urgent need. The effect on him of his recent exercise in pathos was to compose him to slumber. He was for the period well satisfied.

His attendant imps were well satisfied likewise, and danced around about his bed after the vigilant gentleman had ceased to debate on the question of his unveiling of himself past forgiveness of her to Laetitia, and had surrendered to sleep the present direction of his affairs.

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