The Egoist, by George Meredith

Chapter 33

In which the Comic Muse has an Eye on Two Good Souls

Clara met Vernon on the bowling-green among the laurels. She asked him where her father was.

“Don’t speak to him now,” said Vernon.

“Mr. Whitford, will you?”

“It is not advisable just now. Wait.”

“Wait? Why not now?”

“He is not in the right humour.”

She choked. There are times when there is no medicine for us in sages, we want slaves; we scorn to temporize, we must overbear. On she sped, as if she had made the mistake of exchanging words with a post.

The scene between herself and Willoughby was a thick mist in her head, except the burden and result of it, that he held to her fast, would neither assist her to depart nor disengage her.

Oh, men! men! They astounded the girl; she could not define them to her understanding. Their motives, their tastes, their vanity, their tyranny, and the domino on their vanity, the baldness of their tyranny, clinched her in feminine antagonism to brute power. She was not the less disposed to rebellion by a very present sense of the justice of what could be said to reprove her. She had but one answer: “Anything but marry him!” It threw her on her nature, our last and headlong advocate, who is quick as the flood to hurry us from the heights to our level, and lower, if there be accidental gaps in the channel. For say we have been guilty of misconduct: can we redeem it by violating that which we are and live by? The question sinks us back to the luxuriousness of a sunny relinquishment of effort in the direction against tide. Our nature becomes ingenious in devices, penetrative of the enemy, confidently citing its cause for being frankly elvish or worse. Clara saw a particular way of forcing herself to be surrendered. She shut her eyes from it: the sight carried her too violently to her escape; but her heart caught it up and huzzaed. To press the points of her fingers at her bosom, looking up to the sky as she did, and cry: “I am not my own; I am his!” was instigation sufficient to make her heart leap up with all her body’s blush to urge it to recklessness. A despairing creature then may say she has addressed the heavens and has had no answer to restrain her.

Happily for Miss Middleton, she had walked some minutes in her chafing fit before the falcon eye of Colonel De Craye spied her away on one of the beech-knots.

Vernon stood irresolute. It was decidedly not a moment for disturbing Dr. Middleton’s composure. He meditated upon a conversation, as friendly as possible, with Willoughby. Round on the front-lawn, he beheld Willoughby and Dr. Middleton together, the latter having halted to lend attentive ear to his excellent host. Unnoticed by them or disregarded, Vernon turned back to Laetitia, and sauntered, talking with her of things current for as long as he could endure to listen to praise of his pure self-abnegation; proof of how well he had disguised himself, but it smacked unpleasantly to him. His humourous intimacy with men’s minds likened the source of this distaste to the gallant all-or-nothing of the gambler, who hates the little when he cannot have the much, and would rather stalk from the tables clean-picked than suffer ruin to be tickled by driblets of the glorious fortune he has played for and lost. If we are not to be beloved, spare us the small coin of compliments on character; especially when they compliment only our acting. It is partly endurable to win eulogy for our stately fortitude in losing, but Laetitia was unaware that he flung away a stake; so she could not praise him for his merits.

“Willoughby makes the pardoning of Crossjay conditional,” he said, “and the person pleading for him has to grant the terms. How could you imagine Willoughby would give her up! How could he! Who! . . . He should, is easily said. I was no witness of the scene between them just now, but I could have foretold the end of it; I could almost recount the passages. The consequence is, that everything depends upon the amount of courage she possesses. Dr. Middleton won’t leave Patterne yet. And it is of no use to speak to him today. And she is by nature impatient, and is rendered desperate.”

“Why is it of no use to speak to Dr. Middleton today?” cried Laetitia.

“He drank wine yesterday that did not agree with him; he can’t work. To-day he is looking forward to Patterne Port. He is not likely to listen to any proposals to leave today.”

“Goodness!”

“I know the depth of that cry!”

“You are excluded, Mr. Whitford.”

“Not a bit of it; I am in with the rest. Say that men are to be exclaimed at. Men have a right to expect you to know your own minds when you close on a bargain. You don’t know the world or yourselves very well, it’s true; still the original error is on your side, and upon that you should fix your attention. She brought her father here, and no sooner was he very comfortably established than she wished to dislocate him.”

“I cannot explain it; I cannot comprehend it,” said Laetitia.

“You are Constancy.”

“No.” She coloured. “I am ‘in with rest’. I do not say I should have done the same. But I have the knowledge that I must not sit in judgement on her. I can waver.”

She coloured again. She was anxious that he should know her to be not that stupid statue of Constancy in a corner doating on the antic Deception. Reminiscences of the interview overnight made it oppressive to her to hear herself praised for always pointing like the needle. Her newly enfranchised individuality pressed to assert its existence. Vernon, however, not seeing this novelty, continued, to her excessive discomfort, to baste her old abandoned image with his praises. They checked hers; and, moreover, he had suddenly conceived an envy of her life-long, uncomplaining, almost unaspiring, constancy of sentiment. If you know lovers when they have not reason to be blissful, you will remember that in this mood of admiring envy they are given to fits of uncontrollable maundering. Praise of constancy, moreover, smote shadowily a certain inconstant, enough to seem to ruffle her smoothness and do no hurt. He found his consolation in it, and poor Laetitia writhed. Without designing to retort, she instinctively grasped at a weapon of defence in further exalting his devotedness; which reduced him to cast his head to the heavens and implore them to partially enlighten her. Nevertheless, maunder he must; and he recurred to it in a way so utterly unlike himself that Laetitia stared in his face. She wondered whether there could be anything secreted behind this everlasting theme of constancy. He took her awakened gaze for a summons to asseverations of sincerity, and out they came. She would have fled from him, but to think of flying was to think how little it was that urged her to fly, and yet the thought of remaining and listening to praises undeserved and no longer flattering, was a torture.

“Mr. Whitford, I bear no comparison with you.”

“I do and must set you for my example, Miss Dale.”

“Indeed, you do wrongly; you do not know me.”

“I could say that. For years. . . ”

“Pray, Mr. Whitford!”

“Well, I have admired it. You show us how self can be smothered.”

“An echo would be a retort on you!”

“On me? I am never thinking of anything else.”

“I could say that.”

“You are necessarily conscious of not swerving.”

“But I do; I waver dreadfully; I am not the same two days running.”

“You are the same, with ‘ravishing divisions’ upon the same.”

“And you without the ‘divisions.’ I draw such support as I have from you.”

“From some simulacrum of me, then. And that will show you how little you require support.”

“I do not speak my own opinion only.”

“Whose?”

“I am not alone.”

“Again let me say, I wish I were like you!”

“Then let me add, I would willingly make the exchange!”

“You would be amazed at your bargain.”

“Others would be!”

“Your exchange would give me the qualities I’m in want of, Miss Dale.”

“Negative, passive, at the best, Mr. Whitford. But I should have. . . ”

“Oh! — pardon me. But you inflict the sensations of a boy, with a dose of honesty in him, called up to receive a prize he has won by the dexterous use of a crib.”

“And how do you suppose she feels who has a crown of Queen o’ the May forced on her head when she is verging on November?”

He rejected her analogy, and she his. They could neither of them bring to light the circumstances which made one another’s admiration so unbearable. The more he exalted her for constancy, the more did her mind become bent upon critically examining the object of that imagined virtue; and the more she praised him for possessing the spirit of perfect friendliness, the fiercer grew the passion in him which disdained the imputation, hissing like a heated iron-bar that flings the waterdrops to steam. He would none of it; would rather have stood exposed in his profound foolishness.

Amiable though they were, and mutually affectionate, they came to a stop in their walk, longing to separate, and not seeing how it was to be done, they had so knit themselves together with the pelting of their interlaudation.

“I think it is time for me to run home to my father for an hour,” said Laetitia.

“I ought to be working,” said Vernon.

Good progress was made to the disgarlanding of themselves thus far; yet, an acutely civilized pair, the abruptness of the transition from floweriness to commonplace affected them both, Laetitia chiefly, as she had broken the pause, and she remarked:—“I am really Constancy in my opinions.”

“Another title is customary where stiff opinions are concerned. Perhaps by and by you will learn your mistake, and then you will acknowledge the name for it.”

“How?” said she. “What shall I learn?”

“If you learn that I am a grisly Egoist?”

“You? And it would not be egoism,” added Laetitia, revealing to him at the same instant as to herself that she swung suspended on a scarce credible guess.

“— Will nothing pierce your ears, Mr. Whitford?”

He heard the intruding voice, but he was bent on rubbing out the cloudy letters Laetitia had begun to spell, and he stammered, in a tone of matter-of-fact: “Just that and no better”; then turned to Mrs. Mountstuart Jenkinson.

“— Or are you resolved you will never see Professor Crooklyn when you look on him?” said the great lady.

Vernon bowed to the Professor and apologized to him shufflingly and rapidly, incoherently, and with a red face; which induced Mrs. Mountstuart to scan Laetitia’s.

After lecturing Vernon for his abandonment of her yesterday evening, and flouting his protestations, she returned to the business of the day. “We walked from the lodge-gates to see the park and prepare ourselves for Dr. Middleton. We parted last night in the middle of a controversy and are rageing to resume it. Where is our redoubtable antagonist?”

Mrs. Mountstuart wheeled Professor Crooklyn round to accompany Vernon.

“We,” she said, “are for modern English scholarship, opposed to the champion of German.”

“The contrary,” observed Professor Crooklyn.

“Oh! We,” she corrected the error serenely, “are for German scholarship opposed to English.”

“Certain editions.”

“We defend certain editions.”

“Defend is a term of imperfect application to my position, ma’am.”

“My dear Professor, you have in Dr. Middleton a match for you in conscientious pugnacity, and you will not waste it upon me. There, there they are; there he is. Mr. Whitford will conduct you. I stand away from the first shock.”

Mrs. Mountstuart fell back to Laetitia, saying: “He pores over a little inexactitude in phrases, and pecks at it like a domestic fowl.”

Professor Crooklyn’s attitude and air were so well described that Laetitia could have laughed.

“These mighty scholars have their flavour,” the great lady hastened to add, lest her younger companion should be misled to suppose that they were not valuable to a governing hostess: “their shadow-fights are ridiculous, but they have their flavour at a table. Last night, no: I discard all mention of last night. We failed: as none else in this neighbourhood could fail, but we failed. If we have among us a cormorant devouring young lady who drinks up all the — ha! — brandy and water — of our inns and occupies all our flys, why, our condition is abnormal, and we must expect to fail: we are deprived of accommodation for accidental circumstances. How Mr. Whitford could have missed seeing Professor Crooklyn! And what was he doing at the station, Miss Dale?”

“Your portrait of Professor Crooklyn was too striking, Mrs Mountstuart, and deceived him by its excellence. He appears to have seen only the blank side of the slate.”

“Ah! He is a faithful friend of his cousin, do you not think?”

“He is the truest of friends.”

“As for Dr. Middleton,” Mrs. Mountstuart diverged from her inquiry, “he will swell the letters of my vocabulary to gigantic proportions if I see much of him: he is contagious.”

“I believe it is a form of his humour.”

“I caught it of him yesterday at my dinner-table in my distress, and must pass it off as a form of mine, while it lasts. I talked Dr. Middleton half the dreary night through to my pillow. Your candid opinion, my dear, come! As for me, I don’t hesitate. We seemed to have sat down to a solitary performance on the bass-viol. We were positively an assembly of insects during thunder. My very soul thanked Colonel De Craye for his diversions, but I heard nothing but Dr. Middleton. It struck me that my table was petrified, and every one sat listening to bowls played overhead.”

“I was amused.”

“Really? You delight me. Who knows but that my guests were sincere in their congratulations on a thoroughly successful evening? I have fallen to this, you see! And I know, wretched people! that as often as not it is their way of condoling with one. I do it myself: but only where there have been amiable efforts. But imagine my being congratulated for that! — Good-morning, Sir Willoughby. — The worst offender! and I am in no pleasant mood with him,” Mrs. Mountstuart said aside to Laetitia, who drew back, retiring.

Sir Willoughby came on a step or two. He stopped to watch Laetitia’s figure swimming to the house.

So, as, for instance, beside a stream, when a flower on the surface extends its petals drowning to subside in the clear still water, we exercise our privilege to be absent in the charmed contemplation of a beautiful natural incident.

A smile of pleased abstraction melted on his features.

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