The Egoist, by George Meredith

Chapter 36

Animated Conversation at a Luncheon-Table

Vernon was crossing the hall to the dining-room as Mrs Mountstuart stepped in. She called to him: “Are the champions reconciled?”

He replied: “Hardly that, but they have consented to meet at an altar to offer up a victim to the gods in the shape of modern poetic imitations of the classical.”

“That seems innocent enough. The Professor has not been anxious about his chest?”

“He recollects his cough now and then.”

“You must help him to forget it.”

“Lady Busshe and Lady Culmer are here,” said Vernon, not supposing it to be a grave announcement until the effect of it on Mrs. Mountstuart admonished him.

She dropped her voice: “Engage my fair friend for one of your walks the moment we rise from table. You may have to rescue her; but do. I mean it.”

“She’s a capital walker.” Vernon remarked in simpleton style.

“There’s no necessity for any of your pedestrian feats,” Mrs Mountstuart said, and let him go, turning to Colonel De Craye to pronounce an encomium on him: “The most open-minded man I know! Warranted to do perpetual service, and no mischief. If you were all. . . instead of catching at every prize you covet! Yes, you would have your reward for unselfishness, I assure you. Yes, and where you seek it! That is what none of you men will believe.”

“When you behold me in your own livery!” cried the colonel.

“Do I?” said she, dallying with a half-formed design to be confidential. “How is it one is always tempted to address you in the language of innuendo? I can’t guess.”

“Except that as a dog doesn’t comprehend good English we naturally talk bad to him.”

The great lady was tickled. Who could help being amused by this man? And after all, if her fair Middleton chose to be a fool there could be no gainsaying her, sorry though poor Sir Willoughby’s friends must feel for him.

She tried not to smile.

“You are too absurd. Or a baby, you might have added.”

“I hadn’t the daring.”

“I’ll tell you what, Colonel De Craye, I shall end by falling in love with you; and without esteeming you, I fear.”

“The second follows as surely as the flavour upon a draught of Bacchus, if you’ll but toss off the glass, ma’am.”

“We women, sir, think it should be first.”

“’Tis to transpose the seasons, and give October the blossom and April the apple, and no sweet one! Esteem’s a mellow thing that comes after bloom and fire, like an evening at home; because if it went before it would have no father and couldn’t hope for progeny; for there’d be no nature in the business. So please, ma’am, keep to the original order, and you’ll be nature’s child, and I the most blessed of mankind.”

“Really, were I fifteen years younger. I am not so certain. . . I might try and make you harmless.”

“Draw the teeth of the lamb so long as you pet him!”

“I challenged you, colonel, and I won’t complain of your pitch. But now lay your wit down beside your candour, and descend to an every-day level with me for a minute.”

“Is it innuendo?”

“No; though I daresay it would be easier for you to respond to if it were.”

“I’m the straightforwardest of men at a word of command.”

“This is a whisper. Be alert, as you were last night. Shuffle the table well. A little liveliness will do it. I don’t imagine malice, but there’s curiosity, which is often as bad, and not so lightly foiled. We have Lady Busshe and Lady Culmer here.”

“To sweep the cobwebs out of the sky!”

“Well, then, can you fence with broomsticks?”

“I have had a bout with them in my time.”

“They are terribly direct.”

“They ‘give point’, as Napoleon commanded his cavalry to do.”

“You must help me to ward it.”

“They will require variety in the conversation.”

“Constant. You are an angel of intelligence, and if I have the judgeing of you, I’m afraid you’ll be allowed to pass, in spite of the scandal above. Open the door; I don’t unbonnet.”

De Craye threw the door open.

Lady Busshe was at that moment saying, “And are we indeed to have you for a neighbour, Dr. Middleton?”

The Rev. Doctor’s reply was drowned by the new arrivals.

“I thought you had forsaken us,” observed Sir Willoughby to Mrs. Mountstuart.

“And run away with Colonel De Craye? I’m too weighty, my dear friend. Besides, I have not looked at the wedding-presents yet.”

“The very object of our call!” exclaimed Lady Culmer.

“I have to confess I am in dire alarm about mine,” Lady Busshe nodded across the table at Clara. “Oh! you may shake your head, but I would rather hear a rough truth than the most complimentary evasion.”

“How would you define a rough truth, Dr. Middleton?” said Mrs. Mountstuart.

Like the trained warrior who is ready at all hours for the trumpet to arms, Dr. Middleton waked up for judicial allocution in a trice.

“A rough truth, madam, I should define to be that description of truth which is not imparted to mankind without a powerful impregnation of the roughness of the teller.”

“It is a rough truth, ma’am, that the world is composed of fools, and that the exceptions are knaves,” Professor Crooklyn furnished that example avoided by the Rev. Doctor.

“Not to precipitate myself into the jaws of the foregone definition, which strikes me as being as happy as Jonah’s whale, that could carry probably the most learned man of his time inside without the necessity of digesting him,” said De Craye, “a rough truth is a rather strong charge of universal nature for the firing off of a modicum of personal fact.”

“It is a rough truth that Plato is Moses atticizing,” said Vernon to Dr. Middleton, to keep the diversion alive.

“And that Aristotle had the globe under his cranium,” rejoined the Rev. Doctor.

“And that the Moderns live on the Ancients.”

“And that not one in ten thousand can refer to the particular treasury he filches.”

“The Art of our days is a revel of rough truth,” remarked Professor Crooklyn.

“And the literature has laboriously mastered the adjective, wherever it may be in relation to the noun,” Dr. Middleton added.

“Orson’s first appearance at court was in the figure of a rough truth, causing the Maids of Honour, accustomed to Tapestry Adams, astonishment and terror,” said De Craye. That he might not be left out of the sprightly play, Sir Willoughby levelled a lance at the quintain, smiling on Laetitia: “In fine, caricature is rough truth.”

She said, “Is one end of it, and realistic directness is the other.”

He bowed. “The palm is yours.”

Mrs. Mountstuart admired herself as each one trotted forth in turn characteristically, with one exception unaware of the aid which was being rendered to a distressed damsel wretchedly incapable of decent hypocrisy. Her intrepid lead had shown her hand to the colonel and drawn the enemy at a blow.

Sir Willoughby’s “in fine”, however, did not please her: still less did his lackadaisical Lothario-like bowing and smiling to Miss Dale: and he perceived it and was hurt. For how, carrying his tremendous load, was he to compete with these unhandicapped men in the game of nonsense she had such a fondness for starting at a table? He was further annoyed to hear Miss Eleanor and Miss Isabel Patterne agree together that “caricature” was the final word of the definition. Relatives should know better than to deliver these awards to us in public.

“Well?” quoth Lady Busshe, expressive of stupefaction at the strange dust she had raised.

“Are they on view, Miss Middleton?” inquired Lady Culmer.

“There’s a regiment of us on view and ready for inspection.” Colonel De Craye bowed to her, but she would not be foiled.

“Miss Middleton’s admirers are always on view.” said he.

“Are they to be seen?” said Lady Busshe.

Clara made her face a question, with a laudable smoothness.

“The wedding-presents,” Lady Culmer explained.

“No.”

“Otherwise, my dear, we are in danger of duplicating and triplicating and quadruplicating, not at all to the satisfaction of the bride.”

“But there’s a worse danger to encounter in the ‘on view’, my lady,” said De Craye; “and that’s the magnetic attraction a display of wedding-presents is sure to have for the ineffable burglar, who must have a nuptial soul in him, for wherever there’s that collection on view, he’s never a league off. And ’tis said he knows a lady’s dressing-case presented to her on the occasion fifteen years after the event.”

“As many as fifteen?” said Mrs. Mountstuart.

“By computation of the police. And if the presents are on view, dogs are of no use, nor bolts, nor bars:— he’s worse than Cupid. The only protection to be found, singular as it may be thought, is in a couple of bottles of the oldest Jamaica rum in the British isles.”

“Rum?” cried Lady Busshe.

“The liquor of the Royal Navy, my lady. And with your permission, I’ll relate the tale in proof of it. I had a friend engaged to a young lady, niece of an old sea-captain of the old school, the Benbow school, the wooden leg and pigtail school; a perfectly salt old gentleman with a pickled tongue, and a dash of brine in every deed he committed. He looked rolled over to you by the last wave on the shore, sparkling: he was Neptune’s own for humour. And when his present to the bride was opened, sure enough there lay a couple of bottles of the oldest Jamaica rum in the British Isles, born before himself, and his father to boot. ’Tis a fabulous spirit I beg you to believe in, my lady, the sole merit of the story being its portentous veracity. The bottles were tied to make them appear twins, as they both had the same claim to seniority. And there was a label on them, telling their great age, to maintain their identity. They were in truth a pair of patriarchal bottles rivalling many of the biggest houses in the kingdom for antiquity. They would have made the donkey that stood between the two bundles of hay look at them with obliquity: supposing him to have, for an animal, a rum taste, and a turn for hilarity. Wonderful old bottles! So, on the label, just over the date, was written large: UNCLE BENJAMIN’S WEDDING PRESENT TO HIS NIECE BESSY. Poor Bessy shed tears of disappointment and indignation enough to float the old gentleman on his native element, ship and all. She vowed it was done curmudgeonly to vex her, because her uncle hated wedding-presents and had grunted at the exhibition of cups and saucers, and this and that beautiful service, and epergnes and inkstands, mirrors, knives and forks, dressing-cases, and the whole mighty category. She protested, she flung herself about, she declared those two ugly bottles should not join the exhibition in the dining-room, where it was laid out for days, and the family ate their meals where they could, on the walls, like flies. But there was also Uncle Benjamin’s legacy on view, in the distance, so it was ruled against her that the bottles should have their place. And one fine morning down came the family after a fearful row of the domestics; shouting, screaming, cries for the police, and murder topping all. What did they see? They saw two prodigious burglars extended along the floor, each with one of the twin bottles in his hand, and a remainder of the horror of the midnight hanging about his person like a blown fog, sufficient to frighten them whilst they kicked the rascals entirely intoxicated. Never was wilder disorder of wedding-presents, and not one lost! — owing, you’ll own, to Uncle Benjy’s two bottles of ancient Jamaica rum.”

Colonel De Craye concluded with an asseveration of the truth of the story.

“A most provident, far-sighted old sea-captain!” exclaimed Mrs. Mountstuart, laughing at Lady Busshe and Lady Culmer. These ladies chimed in with her gingerly.

“And have you many more clever stories, Colonel De Craye?” said Lady Busshe.

“Ah! my lady, when the tree begins to count its gold ’tis nigh upon bankruptcy.”

“Poetic!” ejaculated Lady Culmer, spying at Miss Middleton’s rippled countenance, and noting that she and Sir Willoughby had not interchanged word or look.

“But that in the case of your Patterne Port a bottle of it would outvalue the catalogue of nuptial presents, Willoughby, I would recommend your stationing some such constabulary to keep watch and ward.” said Dr. Middleton, as he filled his glass, taking Bordeaux in the middle of the day, under a consciousness of virtue and its reward to come at half-past seven in the evening.

“The rascals would require a dozen of that, sir,” said De Craye.

“Then it is not to be thought of. Indeed one!” Dr. Middleton negatived the idea.

“We are no further advanced than when we began,” observed Lady Busshe.

“If we are marked to go by stages,” Mrs. Mountstuart assented.

“Why, then, we shall be called old coaches,” remarked the colonel.

“You,” said Lady Culmer, “have the advantage of us in a closer acquaintance with Miss Middleton. You know her tastes, and how far they have been consulted in the little souvenirs already grouped somewhere, although not yet for inspection. I am at sea. And here is Lady Busshe in deadly alarm. There is plenty of time to effect a change — though we are drawing on rapidly to the fatal day, Miss Middleton. We are, we are very near it. Oh! yes. I am one who thinks that these little affairs should be spoken of openly, without that ridiculous bourgeois affectation, so that we may be sure of giving satisfaction. It is a transaction like everything else in life. I, for my part, wish to be remembered favourably. I put it as a test of breeding to speak of these things as plain matter-of-fact. You marry; I wish you to have something by you to remind you of me. What shall it be? — useful or ornamental. For an ordinary household the choice is not difficult. But where wealth abounds we are in a dilemma.”

“And with persons of decided tastes,” added Lady Busshe.

“I am really very unhappy,” she protested to Clara.

Sir Willoughby dropped Laetitia; Clara’s look of a sedate resolution to preserve silence on the topic of the nuptial gifts made a diversion imperative.

“Your porcelain was exquisitely chosen, and I profess to be a connoisseur,” he said. “I am poor in Old Saxony, as you know; I can match the country in Savres, and my inheritance of China will not easily be matched in the country.”

“You may consider your Dragon vases a present from young Crossjay,” said De Craye.

“How?”

“Hasn’t he abstained from breaking them? the capital boy! Porcelain and a boy in the house together is a case of prospective disaster fully equal to Flitch and a fly.”

“You should understand that my friend Horace — whose wit is in this instance founded on another tale of a boy — brought us a magnificent piece of porcelain, destroyed by the capsizing of his conveyance from the station,” said Sir Willoughby to Lady Busshe.

She and Lady Culmer gave out lamentable Ohs, while Miss Eleanor and Miss Isabel Patterne sketched the incident. Then the lady visitors fixed their eyes in united sympathy upon Clara: recovering from which, after a contemplation of marble, Lady Busshe emphasized, “No, you do not love porcelain, it is evident, Miss Middleton.”

“I am glad to be assured of it,” said Lady Culmer.

“Oh, I know that face: I know that look,” Lady Busshe affected to remark rallyingly: “it is not the first time I have seen it.”

Sir Willoughby smarted to his marrow. “We will rout these fancies of an overscrupulous generosity, my dear Lady Busshe.”

Her unwonted breach of delicacy in speaking publicly of her present, and the vulgar persistency of her sticking to the theme, very much perplexed him. And if he mistook her not, she had just alluded to the demoniacal Constantia Durham.

It might be that he had mistaken her: he was on guard against his terrible sensitiveness. Nevertheless it was hard to account for this behaviour of a lady greatly his friend and admirer, a lady of birth. And Lady Culmer as well! — likewise a lady of birth. Were they in collusion? had they a suspicion? He turned to Laetitia’s face for the antidote to his pain.

“Oh, but you are not one yet, and I shall require two voices to convince me,” Lady Busshe rejoined, after another stare at the marble.

“Lady Busshe, I beg you not to think me ungrateful,” said Clara.

“Fiddle! — gratitude! it is to please your taste, to satisfy you. I care for gratitude as little as for flattery.”

“But gratitude is flattering,” said Vernon.

“Now, no metaphysics, Mr. Whitford.”

“But do care a bit for flattery, my lady,” said De Craye. “’Tis the finest of the Arts; we might call it moral sculpture. Adepts in it can cut their friends to any shape they like by practising it with the requisite skill. I myself, poor hand as I am, have made a man act Solomon by constantly praising his wisdom. He took a sagacious turn at an early period of the dose. He weighed the smallest question of his daily occasions with a deliberation truly oriental. Had I pushed it, he’d have hired a baby and a couple of mothers to squabble over the undivided morsel.”

“I shall hope for a day in London with you,” said Lady Culmer to Clara.

“You did not forget the Queen of Sheba?” said Mrs. Mountstuart to De Craye.

“With her appearance, the game has to be resigned to her entirely,” he rejoined.

“That is,” Lady Culmer continued, “if you do not despise an old woman for your comrade on a shopping excursion.”

“Despise whom we fleece!” exclaimed Dr. Middleton. “Oh, no, Lady Culmer, the sheep is sacred.”

“I am not so sure,” said Vernon.

“In what way, and to what extent, are you not so sure?” said Dr. Middleton.

“The natural tendency is to scorn the fleeced.”

“I stand for the contrary. Pity, if you like: particularly when they bleat.”

“This is to assume that makers of gifts are a fleeced people: I demur,” said Mrs. Mountstuart.

“Madam, we are expected to give; we are incited to give; you have dubbed it the fashion to give; and the person refusing to give, or incapable of giving, may anticipate that he will be regarded as benignly as a sheep of a drooping and flaccid wool by the farmer, who is reminded by the poor beast’s appearance of a strange dog that worried the flock. Even Captain Benjamin, as you have seen, was unable to withstand the demand on him. The hymeneal pair are licensed freebooters levying blackmail on us; survivors of an uncivilized period. But in taking without mercy, I venture to trust that the manners of a happier era instruct them not to scorn us. I apprehend that Mr. Whitford has a lower order of latrons in his mind.”

“Permit me to say, sir, that you have not considered the ignoble aspect of the fleeced,” said Vernon. “I appeal to the ladies: would they not, if they beheld an ostrich walking down a Queen’s Drawing Room, clean-plucked, despise him though they were wearing his plumes?”

“An extreme supposition, indeed,” said Dr. Middleton, frowning over it; “scarcely legitimately to be suggested.”

“I think it fair, sir, as an instance.”

“Has the circumstance occurred, I would ask?”

“In life? a thousand times.”

“I fear so,” said Mrs. Mountstuart.

Lady Busshe showed symptoms of a desire to leave a profitless table.

Vernon started up, glancing at the window.

“Did you see Crossjay?” he said to Clara.

“No; I must, if he is there,” said she.

She made her way out, Vernon after her. They both had the excuse.

“Which way did the poor boy go?” she asked him.

“I have not the slightest idea,” he replied. “But put on your bonnet, if you would escape that pair of inquisitors.”

“Mr. Whitford, what humiliation!”

“I suspect you do not feel it the most, and the end of it can’t be remote,” said he.

Thus it happened that when Lady Busshe and Lady Culmer quitted the dining-room, Miss Middleton had spirited herself away from summoning voice and messenger.

Sir Willoughby apologized for her absence. “If I could be jealous, it would be of that boy Crossjay.”

“You are an excellent man, and the best of cousins,” was Lady Busshe’s enigmatical answer.

The exceedingly lively conversation at his table was lauded by Lady Culmer.

“Though,” said she, “what it all meant, and what was the drift of it, I couldn’t tell to save my life. Is it every day the same with you here?”

“Very much.”

“How you must enjoy a spell of dulness!”

“If you said simplicity and not talking for effect! I generally cast anchor by Laetitia Dale.”

“Ah!” Lady Busshe coughed. “But the fact is, Mrs. Mountstuart is made for cleverness!”

“I think, my lady, Laetitia Dale is to the full as clever as any of the stars Mrs. Mountstuart assembles, or I.”

“Talkative cleverness, I mean.”

“In conversation as well. Perhaps you have not yet given her a chance.”

“Yes, yes, she is clever, of course, poor dear. She is looking better too.”

“Handsome, I thought,” said Lady Culmer.

“She varies,” observed Sir Willoughby.

The ladies took seat in their carriage and fell at once into a close-bonnet colloquy. Not a single allusion had they made to the wedding-presents after leaving the luncheon-table. The cause of their visit was obvious.

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