The Egoist, by George Meredith

Chapter 34

Mrs. Mountstuart and Sir Willoughby

“Good morning, my dear Mrs. Mountstuart,” Sir Willoughby wakened himself to address the great lady. “Why has she fled?”

“Has any one fled?”

“Laetitia Dale.”

“Letty Dale? Oh, if you call that flying. Possibly to renew a close conversation with Vernon Whitford, that I cut short. You frightened me with your ‘Shepherds-tell-me’ air and tone. Lead me to one of your garden-seats: out of hearing to Dr. Middleton, I beg. He mesmerizes me, he makes me talk Latin. I was curiously susceptible last night. I know I shall everlastingly associate him with an abortive entertainment and solos on big instruments. We were flat.”

“Horace was in good vein.”

“You were not.”

“And Laetitia — Miss Dale talked well, I thought.”

“She talked with you, and no doubt she talked well. We did not mix. The yeast was bad. You shot darts at Colonel De Craye: you tried to sting. You brought Dr. Middleton down on you. Dear me, that man is a reverberation in my head. Where is your lady and love?”

“Who?”

“Am I to name her?”

“Clara? I have not seen her for the last hour. Wandering, I suppose.”

“A very pretty summer bower,” said Mrs. Mountstuart, seating herself “Well, my dear Sir Willoughby, preferences, preferences are not to be accounted for, and one never knows whether to pity or congratulate, whatever may occur. I want to see Miss Middleton.”

“Your ‘dainty rogue in porcelain’ will be at your beck — you lunch with us? — before you leave.”

“So now you have taken to quoting me, have you?”

“But ‘a romantic tale on her eyelashes’ is hardly descriptive any longer.”

“Descriptive of whom? Now you are upon Laetitia Dale!”

“I quote you generally. She has now a graver look.”

“And well may have!”

“Not that the romance has entirely disappeared.”

“No; it looks as if it were in print.”

“You have hit it perfectly, as usual, ma’am.”

Sir Willoughby mused.

Like one resuming his instrument to take up the melody in a concerted piece, he said: “I thought Laetitia Dale had a singularly animated air last night.”

“Why! —” Mrs. Mountstuart mildly gaped.

“I want a new description of her. You know, I collect your mottoes and sentences.”

“It seems to me she is coming three parts out of her shell, and wearing it as a hood for convenience.”

“Ready to issue forth at an invitation? Admirable! exact!”

“Ay, my good Sir Willoughby, but are we so very admirable and exact? Are we never to know our own minds?”

He produced a polysyllabic sigh, like those many-jointed compounds of poets in happy languages, which are copious in a single expression: “Mine is known to me. It always has been. Cleverness in women is not uncommon. Intellect is the pearl. A woman of intellect is as good as a Greek statue; she is divinely wrought, and she is divinely rare.”

“Proceed,” said the lady, confiding a cough to the air.

“The rarity of it: and it is not mere intellect, it is a sympathetic intellect; or else it is an intellect in perfect accord with an intensely sympathetic disposition — the rarity of it makes it too precious to be parted with when once we have met it. I prize it the more the older I grow.”

“Are we on the feminine or the neuter?”

“I beg pardon?”

“The universal or the individual?”

He shrugged. “For the rest, psychological affinities may exist coincident with and entirely independent of material or moral prepossessions, relations, engagements, ties.”

“Well, that is not the raving of passion, certainly,” said Mrs Mountstuart, “and it sounds as if it were a comfortable doctrine for men. On that plea, you might all of you be having Aspasia and a wife. We saw your fair Middleton and Colonel de Craye at a distance as we entered the park. Professor Crooklyn is under some hallucination.”

“What more likely?”

The readiness and the double-bearing of the reply struck her comic sense with awe.

“The Professor must hear that. He insists on the fly, and the inn, and the wet boots, and the warming mixture, and the testimony of the landlady and the railway porter.”

“I say, what more likely?”

“Than that he should insist?”

“If he is under the hallucination!”

“He may convince others.”

“I have only to repeat. . . ”

“‘What more likely?’ It’s extremely philosophical. Coincident with a pursuit of the psychological affinities.”

“Professor Crooklyn will hardly descend, I suppose, from his classical altitudes to lay his hallucinations before Dr. Middleton?”

“Sir Willoughby, you are the pink of chivalry!”

By harping on Laetitia, he had emboldened Mrs. Mountstuart to lift the curtain upon Clara. It was offensive to him, but the injury done to his pride had to be endured for the sake of his general plan of self-protection.

“Simply desirous to save my guests from annoyance of any kind”, he said. “Dr Middleton can look ‘Olympus and thunder’, as Vernon calls it.”

“Don’t. I see him. That look! It is Dictionary-bitten! Angry, homed Dictionary! — an apparition of Dictionary in the night — to a dunce!”

“One would undergo a good deal to avoid the sight.”

“What the man must be in a storm! Speak as you please of yourself: you are a true and chivalrous knight to dread it for her. But now, candidly, how is it you cannot condescend to a little management? Listen to an old friend. You are too lordly. No lover can afford to be incomprehensible for half an hour. Stoop a little. Sermonizings are not to be thought of. You can govern unseen. You are to know that I am one who disbelieves in philosophy in love. I admire the look of it, I give no credit to the assumption. I rather like lovers to be out at times: it makes them picturesque, and it enlivens their monotony. I perceived she had a spot of wildness. It’s proper that she should wear it off before marriage.”

“Clara? The wildness of an infant!” said Willoughby, paternally, musing over an inward shiver. “You saw her at a distance just now, or you might have heard her laughing. Horace diverts her excessively.”

“I owe him my eternal gratitude for his behaviour last night. She was one of my bright faces. Her laughter was delicious; rain in the desert! It will tell you what the load on me was, when I assure you those two were merely a spectacle to me — points I scored in a lost game. And I know they were witty.”

“They both have wit; a kind of wit,” Willoughby assented.

“They struck together like a pair of cymbals.”

“Not the highest description of instrument. However, they amuse me. I like to hear them when I am in the vein.”

“That vein should be more at command with you, my friend. You can be perfect, if you like.”

“Under your tuition.”

Willoughby leaned to her, bowing languidly. He was easier in his pain for having hoodwinked the lady. She was the outer world to him; she could tune the world’s voice; prescribe which of the two was to be pitied, himself or Clara; and he did not intend it to be himself, if it came to the worst. They were far away from that at present, and he continued:

“Probably a man’s power of putting on a face is not equal to a girl’s. I detest petty dissensions. Probably I show it when all is not quite smooth. Little fits of suspicion vex me. It is a weakness, not to play them off, I know. Men have to learn the arts which come to women by nature. I don’t sympathize with suspicion, from having none myself.”

His eyebrows shot up. That ill-omened man Flitch had sidled round by the bushes to within a few feet of him. Flitch primarily defended himself against the accusation of drunkenness, which was hurled at him to account for his audacity in trespassing against the interdict; but he admitted that he had taken “something short” for a fortification in visiting scenes where he had once been happy — at Christmastide, when all the servants, and the butler at head, grey old Mr. Chessington, sat in rows, toasting the young heir of the old Hall in the old port wine! Happy had he been then, before ambition for a shop, to be his own master and an independent gentleman, had led him into his quagmire:— to look back envying a dog on the old estate, and sigh for the smell of Patterne stables: sweeter than Arabia, his drooping nose appeared to say.

He held up close against it something that imposed silence on Sir Willoughby as effectively as a cunning exordium in oratory will enchain mobs to swallow what is not complimenting them; and this he displayed secure in its being his licence to drivel his abominable pathos. Sir Willoughby recognized Clara’s purse. He understood at once how the must have come by it: he was not so quick in devising a means of stopping the tale. Flitch foiled him. “Intact,” he replied to the question: “What have you there?” He repeated this grand word. And then he turned to Mrs. Mountstuart to speak of Paradise and Adam, in whom he saw the prototype of himself: also the Hebrew people in the bondage of Egypt, discoursed of by the clergymen, not without a likeness to him.

“Sorrows have done me one good, to send me attentive to church, my lady,” said Flitch, “when I might have gone to London, the coachman’s home, and been driving some honourable family, with no great advantage to my morals, according to what I hear of. And a purse found under the seat of a fly in London would have a poor chance of returning intact to the young lady losing it.”

“Put it down on that chair; inquiries will be made, and you will see Sir Willoughby,” said Mrs. Mountstuart. “Intact, no doubt; it is not disputed.”

With one motion of a finger she set the man rounding.

Flitch halted; he was very regretful of the termination of his feast of pathos, and he wished to relate the finding of the purse, but he could not encounter Mrs. Mountstuart’s look; he slouched away in very close resemblance to the ejected Adam of illustrated books.

“It’s my belief that naturalness among the common people has died out of the kingdom,” she said.

Willoughby charitably apologized for him. “He has been fuddling himself.”

Her vigilant considerateness had dealt the sensitive gentleman a shock, plainly telling him she had her ideas of his actual posture. Nor was he unhurt by her superior acuteness and her display of authority on his grounds.

He said, boldly, as he weighed the purse, half tossing it: “It’s not unlike Clara’s.”

He feared that his lips and cheeks were twitching, and as he grew aware of a glassiness of aspect that would reflect any suspicion of a keen-eyed woman, he became bolder still!

“Laetitia’s, I know it is not. Hers is an ancient purse.”

“A present from you!”

“How do you hit on that, my dear lady?”

“Deductively.”

“Well, the purse looks as good as new in quality, like the owner.”

“The poor dear has not much occasion for using it.”

“You are mistaken: she uses it daily.”

“If it were better filled, Sir Willoughby, your old scheme might be arranged. The parties do not appear so unwilling. Professor Crooklyn and I came on them just now rather by surprise, and I assure you their heads were close, faces meeting, eyes musing.”

“Impossible.”

“Because when they approach the point, you won’t allow it! Selfish!”

“Now,” said Willoughby, very animatedly, “question Clara. Now, do, my dear Mrs. Mountstuart, do speak to Clara on that head; she will convince you I have striven quite recently against myself, if you like. I have instructed her to aid me, given her the fullest instructions, carte blanche. She cannot possibly have a doubt. I may look to her to remove any you may entertain from your mind on the subject. I have proposed, seconded, and chorussed it, and it will not be arranged. If you expect me to deplore that fact, I can only answer that my actions are under my control, my feelings are not. I will do everything consistent with the duties of a man of honour perpetually running into fatal errors because he did not properly consult the dictates of those feelings at the right season. I can violate them: but I can no more command them than I can my destiny. They were crushed of old, and so let them be now. Sentiments we won’t discuss; though you know that sentiments have a bearing on social life: are factors, as they say in their later jargon. I never speak of mine. To you I could. It is not necessary. If old Vernon, instead of flattening his chest at a desk, had any manly ambition to take part in public affairs, she would be the woman for him. I have called her my Egeria. She would be his Cornelia. One could swear of her that she would have noble offspring! — But old Vernon has had his disappointment, and will moan over it up to the end. And she? So it appears. I have tried; yes, personally: without effect. In other matters I may have influence with her: not in that one. She declines. She will live and die Laetitia Dale. We are alone: I confess to you, I love the name. It’s an old song in my ears. Do not be too ready with a name for me. Believe me — I speak from my experience hitherto — there is a fatality in these things. I cannot conceal from my poor girl that this fatality exists . . . ”

“Which is the poor girl at present?” said Mrs. Mountstuart, cool in a mystification.

“And though she will tell you that I have authorized and Clara Middleton — done as much as man can to institute the union you suggest, she will own that she is conscious of the presence of this — fatality, I call it for want of a better title between us. It drives her in one direction, me in another — or would, if I submitted to the pressure. She is not the first who has been conscious of it.”

“Are we laying hold of a third poor girl?” said Mrs. Mountstuart. “Ah! I remember. And I remember we used to call it playing fast and loose in those days, not fatality. It is very strange. It may be that you were unblushingly courted in those days, and excusable; and we all supposed. . . but away you went for your tour.”

“My mother’s medical receipt for me. Partially it succeeded. She was for grand marriages: not I. I could make, I could not be, a sacrifice. And then I went in due time to Dr. Cupid on my own account. She has the kind of attraction . . . But one changes! On revient toujours. First we begin with a liking; then we give ourselves up to the passion of beauty: then comes the serious question of suitableness of the mate to match us; and perhaps we discover that we were wiser in early youth than somewhat later. However, she has beauty. Now, Mrs Mountstuart, you do admire her. Chase the idea of the ‘dainty rogue’ out of your view of her: you admire her: she is captivating; she has a particular charm of her own, nay, she has real beauty.”

Mrs. Mountstuart fronted him to say: “Upon my word, my dear Sir Willoughby, I think she has it to such a degree that I don’t know the man who could hold out against her if she took the field. She is one of the women who are dead shots with men. Whether it’s in their tongues or their eyes, or it’s an effusion and an atmosphere — whatever it is, it’s a spell, another fatality for you!”

“Animal; not spiritual!”

“Oh, she hasn’t the head of Letty Dale.”

Sir Willoughby allowed Mrs. Mountstuart to pause and follow her thoughts.

“Dear me!” she exclaimed. “I noticed a change in Letty Dale last night; and today. She looked fresher and younger; extremely well: which is not what I can say for you, my friend. Fatalizing is not good for the complexion.”

“Don’t take away my health, pray,” cried Willoughby, with a snapping laugh.

“Be careful,” said Mrs. Mountstuart. “You have got a sentimental tone. You talk of ‘feelings crushed of old’. It is to a woman, not to a man that you speak, but that sort of talk is a way of making the ground slippery. I listen in vain for a natural tongue; and when I don’t hear it, I suspect plotting in men. You show your under-teeth too at times when you draw in a breath, like a condemned high-caste Hindoo my husband took me to see in a jail in Calcutta, to give me some excitement when I was pining for England. The creature did it regularly as he breathed; you did it last night, and you have been doing it today, as if the air cut you to the quick. You have been spoilt. You have been too much anointed. What I’ve just mentioned is a sign with me of a settled something on the brain of a man.”

“The brain?” said Sir Willoughby, frowning.

“Yes, you laugh sourly, to look at,” said she. “Mountstuart told me that the muscles of the mouth betray men sooner than the eyes, when they have cause to be uneasy in their minds.”

“But, ma’am, I shall not break my word; I shall not, not; I intend, I have resolved to keep it. I do not fatalize, let my complexion be black or white. Despite my resemblance to a high-caste malefactor of the Calcutta prison-wards.. .”

“Friend! friend! you know how I chatter.”

He saluted her finger-ends. “Despite the extraordinary display of teeth, you will find me go to execution with perfect calmness; with a resignation as good as happiness.”

“Like a Jacobite lord under the Georges.”

“You have told me that you wept to read of one: like him, then. My principles have not changed, if I have. When I was younger, I had an idea of a wife who would be with me in my thoughts as well as aims: a woman with a spirit of romance, and a brain of solid sense. I shall sooner or later dedicate myself to a public life; and shall, I suppose, want the counsellor or comforter who ought always to be found at home. It may be unfortunate that I have the ideal in my head. But I would never make rigorous demands for specific qualities. The cruellest thing in the world is to set up a living model before a wife, and compel her to copy it. In any case, here we are upon the road: the die is cast. I shall not reprieve myself. I cannot release her. Marriage represents facts, courtship fancies. She will be cured by-and-by of that coveting of everything that I do, feel, think, dream, imagine. . . ta-ta-ta-ta ad infinitum. Laetitia was invited here to show her the example of a fixed character — solid as any concrete substance you would choose to build on, and not a whit the less feminine.”

“Ta-ta-ta-ta ad infinitum. You need not tell me you have a design in all that you do, Willoughby Patterne.”

“You smell the autocrat? Yes, he can mould and govern the creatures about him. His toughest rebel is himself! If you see Clara. . . You wish to see her, I think you said?”

“Her behaviour to Lady Busshe last night was queer.”

“If you will. She makes a mouth at porcelain. Toujours la porcelaine! For me, her pettishness is one of her charms, I confess it. Ten years younger, I could not have compared them.”

“Whom?”

“Laetitia and Clara.”

“Sir Willoughby, in any case, to quote you, here we are all upon the road, and we must act as if events were going to happen; and I must ask her to help me on the subject of my wedding-present, for I don’t want to have her making mouths at mine, however pretty — and she does it prettily.”

“‘Another dedicatory offering to the rogue in me!’ she says of porcelain.”

“Then porcelain it shall not be. I mean to consult her; I have come determined upon a chat with her. I think I understand. But she produces false impressions on those who don’t know you both. ‘I shall have that porcelain back,’ says Lady Busshe to me, when we were shaking hands last night: ‘I think,’ says she, ‘it should have been the Willow Pattern.’ And she really said: ‘He’s in for being jilted a second time!’”

Sir Willoughby restrained a bound of his body that would have sent him up some feet into the air. He felt his skull thundered at within.

“Rather than that it should fan upon her!” ejaculated he, correcting his resemblance to the high-caste culprit as soon as it recurred to him.

“But you know Lady Busshe,” said Mrs. Mountstuart, genuinely solicitous to ease the proud man of his pain. She could see through him to the depth of the skin, which his fencing sensitiveness vainly attempted to cover as it did the heart of him. “Lady Busshe is nothing without her flights, fads, and fancies. She has always insisted that you have an unfortunate nose. I remember her saying on the day of your majority, it was the nose of a monarch destined to lose a throne.”

“Have I ever offended Lady Busshe?”

“She trumpets you. She carries Lady Culmer with her too, and you may expect a visit of nods and hints and pots of alabaster. They worship you: you are the hope of England in their eyes, and no woman is worthy of you: but they are a pair of fatalists, and if you begin upon Letty Dale with them, you might as well forbid your banns. They will be all over the country exclaiming on predestination and marriages made in heaven.”

“Clara and her father!” cried Sir Willoughby.

Dr Middleton and his daughter appeared in the circle of shrubs and flowers.

“Bring her to me, and save me from the polyglot,” said Mrs Mountstuart, in afright at Dr. Middleton’s manner of pouring forth into the ears of the downcast girl.

The leisure he loved that he might debate with his genius upon any next step was denied to Willoughby: he had to place his trust in the skill with which he had sown and prepared Mrs Mountstuart’s understanding to meet the girl — beautiful abhorred that she was! detested darling! thing to squeeze to death and throw to the dust, and mourn over!

He had to risk it; and at an hour when Lady Busshe’s prognostic grievously impressed his intense apprehensiveness of nature.

As it happened that Dr. Middleton’s notion of a disagreeable duty in colloquy was to deliver all that he contained, and escape the listening to a syllable of reply, Willoughby withdrew his daughter from him opportunely.

“Mrs. Mountstuart wants you, Clara.”

“I shall be very happy,” Clara replied, and put on a new face. An imperceptible nervous shrinking was met by another force in her bosom, that pushed her to advance without a sign of reluctance. She seemed to glitter.

She was handed to Mrs. Mountstuart.

Dr Middleton laid his hand over Willoughby’s shoulder, retiring on a bow before the great lady of the district. He blew and said: “An opposition of female instincts to masculine intellect necessarily creates a corresponding antagonism of intellect to instinct.”

“Her answer, sir? Her reasons? Has she named any?”

“The cat,” said Dr. Middleton, taking breath for a sentence, “that humps her back in the figure of the letter H, or a Chinese bridge has given the dog her answer and her reasons, we may presume: but he that undertakes to translate them into human speech might likewise venture to propose an addition to the alphabet and a continuation of Homer. The one performance would be not more wonderful than the other. Daughters, Willoughby, daughters! Above most human peccancies, I do abhor a breach of faith. She will not be guilty of that. I demand a cheerful fulfilment of a pledge: and I sigh to think that I cannot count on it without administering a lecture.”

“She will soon be my care, sir.”

“She shall be. Why, she is as good as married. She is at the altar. She is in her house. She is — why, where is she not? She has entered the sanctuary. She is out of the market. This maenad shriek for freedom would happily entitle her to the Republican cap — the Phrygian — in a revolutionary Parisian procession. To me it has no meaning; and but that I cannot credit child of mine with mania, I should be in trepidation of her wits.”

Sir Willoughby’s livelier fears were pacified by the information that Clara had simply emitted a cry. Clara had once or twice given him cause for starting and considering whether to think of her sex differently or condemningly of her, yet he could not deem her capable of fully unbosoming herself even to him, and under excitement. His idea of the cowardice of girls combined with his ideal of a waxwork sex to persuade him that though they are often (he had experienced it) wantonly desperate in their acts, their tongues are curbed by rosy prudency. And this was in his favour. For if she proved speechless and stupid with Mrs. Mountstuart, the lady would turn her over, and beat her flat, beat her angular, in fine, turn her to any shape, despising her, and cordially believe him to be the model gentleman of Christendom. She would fill in the outlines he had sketched to her of a picture that he had small pride in by comparison with his early vision of a fortune-favoured, triumphing squire, whose career is like the sun’s, intelligibly lordly to all comprehensions. Not like your model gentleman, that has to be expounded — a thing for abstract esteem! However, it was the choice left to him. And an alternative was enfolded in that. Mrs. Mountstuart’s model gentleman could marry either one of two women, throwing the other overboard. He was bound to marry: he was bound to take to himself one of them: and whichever one he selected would cast a lustre on his reputation. At least she would rescue him from the claws of Lady Busshe, and her owl’s hoot of “Willow Pattern”, and her hag’s shriek of “twice jilted”. That flying infant Willoughby — his unprotected little incorporeal omnipresent Self (not thought of so much as passionately felt for)— would not be scoffed at as the luckless with women. A fall indeed from his original conception of his name of fame abroad! But Willoughby had the high consolation of knowing that others have fallen lower. There is the fate of the devils to comfort us, if we are driven hard. “For one of your pangs another bosom is racked by ten”, we read in the solacing Book.

With all these nice calculations at work, Willoughby stood above himself, contemplating his active machinery, which he could partly criticize but could not stop, in a singular wonderment at the aims and schemes and tremours of one who was handsome, manly, acceptable in the world’s eyes: and had he not loved himself most heartily he would have been divided to the extent of repudiating that urgent and excited half of his being, whose motions appeared as those of a body of insects perpetually erecting and repairing a structure of extraordinary pettiness. He loved himself too seriously to dwell on the division for more than a minute or so. But having seen it, and for the first time, as he believed, his passion for the woman causing it became surcharged with bitterness, atrabiliar.

A glance behind him, as he walked away with Dr. Middleton, showed Clara, cunning creature that she was, airily executing her malicious graces in the preliminary courtesies with Mrs. Mountstuart.

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