The Egoist, by George Meredith

Chapter 32

Laetitia Dale Discovers a Spiritual Change and Dr Middleton a Physical

Clara tripped over the lawn in the early morning to Laetitia to greet her. She broke away from a colloquy with Colonel De Craye under Sir Willoughby’s windows. The colonel had been one of the bathers, and he stood like a circus-driver flicking a wet towel at Crossjay capering.

“My dear, I am very unhappy!” said Clara.

“My dear, I bring you news,” Laetitia replied.

“Tell me. But the poor boy is to be expelled! He burst into Crossjay’s bedroom last night and dragged the sleeping boy out of bed to question him, and he had the truth. That is one comfort: only Crossjay is to be driven from the Hall, because he was untruthful previously — for me; to serve me; really, I feel it was at my command. Crossjay will be out of the way today, and has promised to come back at night to try to be forgiven. You must help me, Laetitia.”

“You are free, Clara! If you desire it, you have but to ask for your freedom.”

“You mean. . . ”

“He will release you.”

“You are sure?”

“We had a long conversation last night.”

“I owe it to you?”

“Nothing is owing to me. He volunteered it.”

Clara made as if to lift her eyes in apostrophe. “Professor Crooklyn! Professor Crooklyn! I see. I did not guess that.”

“Give credit for some generosity, Clara; you are unjust!”

“By and by: I will be more than just by and by. I will practise on the trumpet: I will lecture on the greatness of the souls of men when we know them thoroughly. At present we do but half know them, and we are unjust. You are not deceived, Laetitia? There is to be no speaking to papa? no delusions? You have agitated me. I feel myself a very small person indeed. I feel I can understand those who admire him. He gives me back my word simply? clearly? without — Oh, that long wrangle in scenes and letters? And it will be arranged for papa and me to go not later than tomorrow? Never shall I be able to explain to any one how I fell into this! I am frightened at myself when I think of it. I take the whole blame: I have been scandalous. And, dear Laetitia! you came out so early in order to tell me?”

“I wished you to hear it.”

“Take my heart.”

“Present me with a part — but for good.”

“Fie! But you have a right to say it.”

“I mean no unkindness; but is not the heart you allude to an alarmingly searching one?”

“Selfish it is, for I have been forgetting Crossjay. If we are going to be generous, is not Crossjay to be forgiven? If it were only that the boy’s father is away fighting for his country, endangering his life day by day, and for a stipend not enough to support his family, we are bound to think of the boy! Poor dear silly lad! with his ‘I say, Miss Middleton, why wouldn’t (some one) see my father when he came here to call on him, and had to walk back ten miles in the rain?’— I could almost fancy that did me mischief. . . But we have a splendid morning after yesterday’s rain. And we will be generous. Own, Laetitia, that it is possible to gild the most glorious day of creation.”

“Doubtless the spirit may do it and make its hues permanent,” said Laetitia.

“You to me, I to you, he to us. Well, then, if he does, it shall be one of my heavenly days. Which is for the probation of experience. We are not yet at sunset.”

“Have you seen Mr. Whitford this morning?”

“He passed me.”

“Do not imagine him ever ill-tempered.”

“I had a governess, a learned lady, who taught me in person the picturesqueness of grumpiness. Her temper was ever perfect, because she was never in the wrong, but I being so, she was grumpy. She carried my iniquity under her brows, and looked out on me through it. I was a trying child.”

Laetitia said, laughing: “I can believe it!”

“Yet I liked her and she liked me: we were a kind of foreground and background: she threw me into relief and I was an apology for her existence.”

“You picture her to me.”

“She says of me now that I am the only creature she has loved. Who knows that I may not come to say the same of her?”

“You would plague her and puzzle her still.”

“Have I plagued and puzzled Mr. Whitford?”

“He reminds you of her?”

“You said you had her picture.”

“Ah! do not laugh at him. He is a true friend.”

“The man who can be a friend is the man who will presume to be a censor.”

“A mild one.”

“As to the sentence he pronounces, I am unable to speak, but his forehead is Rhadamanthine condemnation.”

“Dr Middleton!”

Clara looked round. “Who? I? Did you hear an echo of papa? He would never have put Rhadamanthus over European souls, because it appears that Rhadamanthus judged only the Asiatic; so you are wrong, Miss Dale. My father is infatuated with Mr. Whitford. What can it be? We women cannot sound the depths of scholars, probably because their pearls have no value in our market; except when they deign to chasten an impertinent; and Mr. Whitford stands aloof from any notice of small fry. He is deep, studious, excellent; and does it not strike you that if he descended among us he would be like a Triton ashore?”

Laetitia’s habit of wholly subservient sweetness, which was her ideal of the feminine, not yet conciliated with her acuter character, owing to the absence of full pleasure from her life — the unhealed wound she had sustained and the cramp of a bondage of such old date as to seem iron — induced her to say, as if consenting: “You think he is not quite at home in society?” But she wished to defend him strenuously, and as a consequence she had to quit the self-imposed ideal of her daily acting, whereby — the case being unwonted, very novel to her — the lady’s intelligence became confused through the process that quickened it; so sovereign a method of hoodwinking our bright selves is the acting of a part, however naturally it may come to us! and to this will each honest autobiographical member of the animated world bear witness.

She added: “You have not found him sympathetic? He is. You fancy him brooding, gloomy? He is the reverse, he is cheerful, he is indifferent to personal misfortune. Dr. Corney says there is no laugh like Vernon Whitford’s, and no humour like his. Latterly he certainly. . . But it has not been your cruel word grumpiness. The truth is, he is anxious about Crossjay: and about other things; and he wants to leave. He is at a disadvantage beside very lively and careless gentlemen at present, but your ‘Triton ashore’ is unfair, it is ugly. He is, I can say, the truest man I know.”

“I did not question his goodness, Laetitia.”

“You threw an accent on it.”

“Did I? I must be like Crossjay, who declares he likes fun best.”

“Crossjay ought to know him, if anybody should. Mr. Whitford has defended you against me, Clara, even since I took to calling you Clara. Perhaps when you supposed him so like your ancient governess, he was meditating how he could aid you. Last night he gave me reasons for thinking you would do wisely to confide in Mrs. Mountstuart. It is no longer necessary. I merely mention it. He is a devoted friend.”

“He is an untiring pedestrian.”

“Oh!”

Colonel De Craye, after hovering near the ladies in the hope of seeing them divide, now adopted the system of making three that two may come of it.

As he joined them with his glittering chatter, Laetitia looked at Clara to consult her, and saw the face rosy as a bride’s.

The suspicion she had nursed sprung out of her arms a muscular fact on the spot.

“Where is my dear boy?” Clara said.

“Out for a holiday,” the colonel answered in her tone.

“Advise Mr. Whitford not to waste his time in searching for Crossjay, Laetitia. Crossjay is better out of the way today. At least, I thought so just now. Has he pocket-money, Colonel De Craye?”

“My lord can command his inn.”

“How thoughtful you are!”

Laetitia’s bosom swelled upon a mute exclamation, equivalent to: “Woman! woman! snared ever by the sparkling and frivolous! undiscerning of the faithful, the modest and beneficent!”

In the secret musings of moralists this dramatic rhetoric survives.

The comparison was all of her own making, and she was indignant at the contrast, though to what end she was indignant she could not have said, for she had no idea of Vernon as a rival of De Craye in the favour of a plighted lady. But she was jealous on behalf of her sex: her sex’s reputation seemed at stake, and the purity of it was menaced by Clara’s idle preference of the shallower man. When the young lady spoke so carelessly of being like Crossjay, she did not perhaps know that a likeness, based on a similarity of their enthusiasms, loves, and appetites, had been established between women and boys. Laetitia had formerly chafed at it, rejecting it utterly, save when now and then in a season of bitterness she handed here and there a volatile young lady (none but the young) to be stamped with the degrading brand. Vernon might be as philosophical as he pleased. To her the gaiety of these two, Colonel De Craye and Clara Middleton, was distressingly musical: they harmonized painfully. The representative of her sex was hurt by it.

She had to stay beside them: Clara held her arm. The colonel’s voice dropped at times to something very like a whisper. He was answered audibly and smoothly. The quickwitted gentleman accepted the correction: but in immediately paying assiduous attentions to Miss Dale, in the approved intriguer’s fashion, he showed himself in need of another amounting to a reproof. Clara said: “We have been consulting, Laetitia, what is to be done to cure Professor Crooklyn of his cold.” De Craye perceived that he had taken a wrong step, and he was mightily surprised that a lesson in intrigue should be read to him of all men. Miss Middleton’s audacity was not so astonishing: he recognized grand capabilities in the young lady. Fearing lest she should proceed further and cut away from him his vantage-ground of secrecy with her, he turned the subject and was adroitly submissive.

Clara’s manner of meeting Sir Willoughby expressed a timid disposition to friendliness upon a veiled inquiry, understood by none save Laetitia, whose brain was racked to convey assurances to herself of her not having misinterpreted him. Could there be any doubt? She resolved that there could not be; and it was upon this basis of reason that she fancied she had led him to it. Legitimate or not, the fancy sprang from a solid foundation. Yesterday morning she could not have conceived it. Now she was endowed to feel that she had power to influence him, because now, since the midnight, she felt some emancipation from the spell of his physical mastery. He did not appear to her as a different man, but she had grown sensible of being a stronger woman. He was no more the cloud over her, nor the magnet; the cloud once heaven-suffused, the magnet fatally compelling her to sway round to him. She admired him still: his handsome air, his fine proportions, the courtesy of his bending to Clara and touching of her hand, excused a fanatical excess of admiration on the part of a woman in her youth, who is never the anatomist of the hero’s lordly graces. But now she admired him piecemeal. When it came to the putting of him together, she did it coldly. To compassionate him was her utmost warmth. Without conceiving in him anything of the strange old monster of earth which had struck the awakened girl’s mind of Miss Middleton, Laetitia classed him with other men; he was “one of them”. And she did not bring her disenchantment as a charge against him. She accused herself, acknowledged the secret of the change to be, and her youthfulness was dead:— otherwise could she have given him compassion, and not herself have been carried on the flood of it? The compassion was fervent, and pure too. She supposed he would supplicate; she saw that Clara Middleton was pleasant with him only for what she expected of his generosity. She grieved. Sir Willoughby was fortified by her sorrowful gaze as he and Clara passed out together to the laboratory arm in arm.

Laetitia had to tell Vernon of the uselessness of his beating the house and grounds for Crossjay. Dr. Middleton held him fast in discussion upon an overnight’s classical wrangle with Professor Crooklyn, which was to be renewed that day. The Professor had appointed to call expressly to renew it. “A fine scholar,” said the Rev. Doctor, “but crotchety, like all men who cannot stand their Port.”

“I hear that he had a cold,” Vernon remarked. “I hope the wine was good, sir.”

As when the foreman of a sentimental jury is commissioned to inform an awful Bench exact in perspicuous English, of a verdict that must of necessity be pronounced in favour of the hanging of the culprit, yet would fain attenuate the crime of a palpable villain by a recommendation to mercy, such foreman, standing in the attentive eye of a master of grammatical construction, and feeling the weight of at least three sentences on his brain, together with a prospect of Judicial interrogation for the discovery of his precise meaning, is oppressed, himself is put on trial, in turn, and he hesitates, he recapitulates, the fear of involution leads him to be involved; as far as a man so posted may, he on his own behalf appeals for mercy; entreats that his indistinct statement of preposterous reasons may be taken for understood, and would gladly, were permission to do it credible, throw in an imploring word that he may sink back among the crowd without for the one imperishable moment publicly swinging in his lordship’s estimation:— much so, moved by chivalry toward a lady, courtesy to the recollection of a hostess, and particularly by the knowledge that his hearer would expect with a certain frigid rigour charity of him, Dr. Middleton paused, spoke and paused: he stammered. Ladies, he said, were famous poisoners in the Middle Ages. His opinion was, that we had a class of manufacturing wine merchants on the watch for widows in this country. But he was bound to state the fact of his waking at his usual hour to the minute unassailed by headache. On the other hand, this was a condition of blessedness unanticipated when he went to bed. Mr. Whitford, however, was not to think that he entertained rancour toward the wine. It was no doubt dispensed with the honourable intention of cheering. In point of flavour execrable, judging by results it was innocuous.

“The test of it shall be the effect of it upon Professor Crooklyn, and his appearance in the forenoon according to promise,” Dr. Middleton came to an end with his perturbed balancings. “If I hear more of the eight or twelve winds discharged at once upon a railway platform, and the young lady who dries herself of a drenching by drinking brandy and water with a gentleman at a railway inn, I shall solicit your sanction to my condemnation of the wine as anti-Bacchic and a counterfeit presentment. Do not misjudge me. Our hostess is not responsible. But widows should marry.”

“You must contrive to stop the Professor, sir, if he should attack his hostess in that manner,” said Vernon.

“Widows should marry!” Dr. Middleton repeated.

He murmured of objecting to be at the discretion of a butler; unless, he was careful to add, the aforesaid functionary could boast of an University education; and even then, said he, it requires a line of ancestry to train a man’s taste.

The Rev. Doctor smothered a yawn. The repression of it caused a second one, a real monster, to come, big as our old friend of the sea advancing on the chained-up Beauty.

Disconcerted by this damning evidence of indigestion, his countenance showed that he considered himself to have been too lenient to the wine of an unhusbanded hostess. He frowned terribly.

In the interval Laetitia told Vernon of Crossjay’s flight for the day, hastily bidding the master to excuse him: she had no time to hint the grounds of excuse. Vernon mentally made a guess.

Dr Middleton took his arm and discharged a volley at the crotchetty scholarship of Professor Crooklyn, whom to confute by book, he directed his march to the library. Having persuaded himself that he was dyspeptic, he had grown irascible. He denounced all dining out, eulogized Patterne Hall as if it were his home, and remembered he had dreamed in the night — a most humiliating sign of physical disturbance. “But let me find a house in proximity to Patterne, as I am induced to suppose I shall,” he said, “and here only am I to be met when I stir abroad.”

Laetitia went to her room. She was complacently anxious enough to prefer solitude and be willing to read. She was more seriously anxious about Crossjay than about any of the others. For Clara would be certain to speak very definitely, and how then could a gentleman oppose her? He would supplicate, and could she be brought to yield? It was not to be expected of a young lady who had turned from Sir Willoughby. His inferiors would have had a better chance. Whatever his faults, he had that element of greatness which excludes the intercession of pity. Supplication would be with him a form of condescension. It would be seen to be such. His was a monumental pride that could not stoop. She had preserved this image of the gentleman for a relic in the shipwreck of her idolatry. So she mused between the lines of her book, and finishing her reading and marking the page, she glanced down on the lawn. Dr. Middleton was there, and alone; his hands behind his back, his head bent. His meditative pace and unwonted perusal of the turf proclaimed that a non-sentimental jury within had delivered an unmitigated verdict upon the widow’s wine.

Laetitia hurried to find Vernon.

He was in the hall. As she drew near him, the laboratory door opened and shut.

“It is being decided,” said Laetitia.

Vernon was paler than the hue of perfect calmness.

“I want to know whether I ought to take to my heels like Crossjay, and shun the Professor,” he said.

They spoke in under-tones, furtively watching the door.

“I wish what she wishes, I am sure; but it will go badly with the boy,” said Laetitia.

“Oh, well, then I’ll take him,” said Vernon, “I would rather. I think I can manage it.”

Again the laboratory door opened. This time it shut behind Miss Middleton. She was highly flushed. Seeing them, she shook the storm from her brows, with a dead smile; the best piece of serenity she could put on for public wear.

She took a breath before she moved.

Vernon strode out of the house.

Clara swept up to Laetitia.

“You were deceived!”

The hard sob of anger barred her voice.

Laetitia begged her to come to her room with her.

“I want air: I must be by myself,” said Clara, catching at her garden-hat.

She walked swiftly to the portico steps and turned to the right, to avoid the laboratory windows.

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