The Egoist, by George Meredith

Chapter 37

Contains Clever Fencing and Intimations of the Need for it

That woman, Lady Busshe, had predicted, after the event, Constantia Durham’s defection. She had also, subsequent to Willoughby’s departure on his travels, uttered sceptical things concerning his rooted attachment to Laetitia Dale. In her bitter vulgarity, that beaten rival of Mrs. Mountstuart Jenkinson for the leadership of the county had taken his nose for a melancholy prognostic of his fortunes; she had recently played on his name: she had spoken the hideous English of his fate. Little as she knew, she was alive to the worst interpretation of appearances. No other eulogy occurred to her now than to call him the best of cousins, because Vernon Whitford was housed and clothed and fed by him. She had nothing else to say for a man she thought luckless! She was a woman barren of wit, stripped of style, but she was wealthy and a gossip — a forge of showering sparks — and she carried Lady Culmer with her. The two had driven from his house to spread the malignant rumour abroad; already they blew the biting world on his raw wound. Neither of them was like Mrs. Mountstuart, a witty woman, who could be hoodwinked; they were dull women, who steadily kept on their own scent of the fact, and the only way to confound such inveterate forces was to be ahead of them, and seize and transform the expected fact, and astonish them, when they came up to him, with a totally unanticipated fact.

“You see, you were in error, ladies.”

“And so we were, Sir Willoughby, and we acknowledge it. We never could have guessed that!”

Thus the phantom couple in the future delivered themselves, as well they might at the revelation. He could run far ahead.

Ay, but to combat these dolts, facts had to be encountered, deeds done, in groaning earnest. These representatives of the pig-sconces of the population judged by circumstances: airy shows and seems had no effect on them. Dexterity of fence was thrown away.

A flying peep at the remorseless might of dulness in compelling us to a concrete performance counter to our inclinations, if we would deceive its terrible instinct, gave Willoughby for a moment the survey of a sage. His intensity of personal feeling struck so vivid an illumination of mankind at intervals that he would have been individually wise, had he not been moved by the source of his accurate perceptions to a personal feeling of opposition to his own sagacity. He loathed and he despised the vision, so his mind had no benefit of it, though he himself was whipped along. He chose rather (and the choice is open to us all) to be flattered by the distinction it revealed between himself and mankind.

But if he was not as others were, why was he discomfited, solicitous, miserable? To think that it should be so, ran dead against his conqueror’s theories wherein he had been trained, which, so long as he gained success awarded success to native merit, grandeur to the grand in soul, as light kindles light: nature presents the example. His early training, his bright beginning of life, had taught him to look to earth’s principal fruits as his natural portion, and it was owing to a girl that he stood a mark for tongues, naked, wincing at the possible malignity of a pair of harridans. Why not whistle the girl away?

Why, then he would be free to enjoy, careless, younger than his youth in the rebound to happiness!

And then would his nostrils begin to lift and sniff at the creeping up of a thick pestiferous vapour. Then in that volume of stench would he discern the sullen yellow eye of malice. A malarious earth would hunt him all over it. The breath of the world, the world’s view of him, was partly his vital breath, his view of himself. The ancestry of the tortured man had bequeathed him this condition of high civilization among their other bequests. Your withered contracted Egoists of the hut and the grot reck not of public opinion; they crave but for liberty and leisure to scratch themselves and soothe an excessive scratch. Willoughby was expansive, a blooming one, born to look down upon a tributary world, and to exult in being looked to. Do we wonder at his consternation in the prospect of that world’s blowing foul on him? Princes have their obligations to teach them they are mortal, and the brilliant heir of a tributary world is equally enchained by the homage it brings him — more, inasmuch as it is immaterial, elusive, not gathered by the tax, and he cannot capitally punish the treasonable recusants. Still must he be brilliant; he must court his people. He must ever, both in his reputation and his person, aching though he be, show them a face and a leg.

The wounded gentleman shut himself up in his laboratory, where he could stride to and fro, and stretch out his arms for physical relief, secure from observation of his fantastical shapes, under the idea that he was meditating. There was perhaps enough to make him fancy it in the heavy fire of shots exchanged between his nerves and the situation; there were notable flashes. He would not avow that he was in an agony: it was merely a desire for exercise.

Quintessence of worldliness, Mrs. Mountstuart appeared through his farthest window, swinging her skirts on a turn at the end of the lawn, with Horace De Craye smirking beside her. And the woman’s vaunted penetration was unable to detect the histrionic Irishism of the fellow. Or she liked him for his acting and nonsense; nor she only. The voluble beast was created to snare women. Willoughby became smitten with an adoration of stedfastness in women. The incarnation of that divine quality crossed his eyes. She was clad in beauty. A horrible nondescript convulsion composed of yawn and groan drove him to his instruments, to avert a renewal of the shock; and while arranging and fixing them for their unwonted task, he compared himself advantageously with men like Vernon and De Craye, and others of the county, his fellows in the hunting-field and on the Magistrate’s bench, who neither understood nor cared for solid work, beneficial practical work, the work of Science.

He was obliged to relinquish it: his hand shook.

“Experiments will not advance much at this rate,” he said, casting the noxious retardation on his enemies.

It was not to be contested that he must speak with Mrs Mountstuart, however he might shrink from the trial of his facial muscles. Her not coming to him seemed ominous: nor was her behaviour at the luncheon-table quite obscure. She had evidently instigated the gentlemen to cross and counterchatter Lady Busshe and Lady Culmer. For what purpose?

Clara’s features gave the answer.

They were implacable. And he could be the same.

In the solitude of his room he cried right out: “I swear it, I will never yield her to Horace De Craye! She shall feel some of my torments, and try to get the better of them by knowing she deserves them.” He had spoken it, and it was an oath upon the record.

Desire to do her intolerable hurt became an ecstasy in his veins, and produced another stretching fit that terminated in a violent shake of the body and limbs; during which he was a spectacle for Mrs. Mountstuart at one of the windows. He laughed as he went to her, saying: “No, no work today; it won’t be done, positively refuses.”

“I am taking the Professor away,” said she; “he is fidgety about the cold he caught.”

Sir Willoughby stepped out to her. “I was trying at a bit of work for an hour, not to be idle all day.”

“You work in that den of yours every day?”

“Never less than an hour, if I can snatch it.”

“It is a wonderful resource!”

The remark set him throbbing and thinking that a prolongation of his crisis exposed him to the approaches of some organic malady, possibly heart-disease.

“A habit,” he said. “In there I throw off the world.”

“We shall see some results in due time.”

“I promise none: I like to be abreast of the real knowledge of my day, that is all.”

“And a pearl among country gentlemen!”

“In your gracious consideration, my dear lady. Generally speaking, it would be more advisable to become a chatterer and keep an anecdotal note-book. I could not do it, simply because I could not live with my own emptiness for the sake of making an occasional display of fireworks. I aim at solidity. It is a narrow aim, no doubt; not much appreciated.”

“Laetitia Dale appreciates it.”

A smile of enforced ruefulness, like a leaf curling in heat, wrinkled his mouth.

Why did she not speak of her conversation with Clara?

“Have they caught Crossjay?” he said.

“Apparently they are giving chase to him.”

The likelihood was, that Clara had been overcome by timidity.

“Must you leave us?”

“I think it prudent to take Professor Crooklyn away.”

“He still. . .?”

“The extraordinary resemblance!”

“A word aside to Dr. Middleton will dispel that.”

“You are thoroughly good.”

This hateful encomium of commiseration transfixed him. Then she knew of his calamity!

“Philosophical,” he said, “would be the proper term, I think.”

“Colonel De Craye, by the way, promises me a visit when he leaves you.”

“To-morrow?”

“The earlier the better. He is too captivating; he is delightful. He won me in five minutes. I don’t accuse him. Nature gifted him to cast the spell. We are weak women, Sir Willoughby.”

She knew!

“Like to like: the witty to the witty, ma’am.”

“You won’t compliment me with a little bit of jealousy?”

“I forbear from complimenting him.”

“Be philosophical, of course, if you have the philosophy.”

“I pretend to it. Probably I suppose myself to succeed because I have no great requirement of it; I cannot say. We are riddles to ourselves.”

Mrs. Mountstuart pricked the turf with the point of her parasol. She looked down and she looked up.

“Well?” said he to her eyes.

“Well, and where is Laetitia Dale?”

He turned about to show his face elsewhere.

When he fronted her again, she looked very fixedly, and set her head shaking.

“It will not do, my dear Sir Willoughby!”

“What?”

“I never could solve enigmas.”

“Playing ta-ta-ta-ta ad infinitum, then. Things have gone far. All parties would be happier for an excursion. Send her home.”

“Laetitia? I can’t part with her.”

Mrs. Mountstuart put a tooth on her under lip as her head renewed its brushing negative.

“In what way can it be hurtful that she should be here, ma’am?” he ventured to persist.

“Think.”

“She is proof.”

“Twice!”

The word was big artillery. He tried the affectation of a staring stupidity. She might have seen his heart thump, and he quitted the mask for an agreeable grimace.

“She is inaccessible. She is my friend. I guarantee her, on my honour. Have no fear for her. I beg you to have confidence in me. I would perish rather. No soul on earth is to be compared with her.”

Mrs. Mountstuart repeated “Twice!”

The low monosyllable, musically spoken in the same tone of warning of a gentle ghost, rolled a thunder that maddened him, but he dared not take it up to fight against it on plain terms.

“Is it for my sake?” he said.

“It will not do, Sir Willoughby.”

She spurred him to a frenzy.

“My dear Mrs. Mountstuart, you have been listening to tales. I am not a tyrant. I am one of the most easy-going of men. Let us preserve the forms due to society: I say no more. As for poor old Vernon, people call me a good sort of cousin; I should like to see him comfortably married; decently married this time. I have proposed to contribute to his establishment. I mention it to show that the case has been practically considered. He has had a tolerably souring experience of the state; he might be inclined if, say, you took him in hand, for another venture. It’s a demoralizing lottery. However, Government sanctions it.”

“But, Sir Willoughby, what is the use of my taking him in hand when, as you tell me, Laetitia Dale holds back?”

“She certainly does.”

“Then we are talking to no purpose, unless you undertake to melt her.”

He suffered a lurking smile to kindle to some strength of meaning.

“You are not over-considerate in committing me to such an office.”

“You are afraid of the danger?” she all but sneered.

Sharpened by her tone, he said, “I have such a love of stedfastness of character, that I should be a poor advocate in the endeavour to break it. And frankly, I know the danger. I saved my honour when I made the attempt: that is all I can say.”

“Upon my word,” Mrs. Mountstuart threw back her head to let her eyes behold him summarily over their fine aquiline bridge, “you have the art of mystification, my good friend.”

“Abandon the idea of Laetitia Dale.”

“And marry your cousin Vernon to whom? Where are we?”

“As I said, ma’am, I am an easy-going man. I really have not a spice of the tyrant in me. An intemperate creature held by the collar may have that notion of me, while pulling to be released as promptly as it entered the noose. But I do strictly and sternly object to the scandal of violent separations, open breaches of solemn engagements, a public rupture. Put it that I am the cause, I will not consent to a violation of decorum. Is that clear? It is just possible for things to be arranged so that all parties may be happy in their way without much hubbub. Mind, it is not I who have willed it so. I am, and I am forced to be, passive. But I will not be obstructive.”

He paused, waving his hand to signify the vanity of the more that might be said.

Some conception of him, dashed by incredulity, excited the lady’s intelligence.

“Well!” she exclaimed, “you have planted me in the land of conjecture. As my husband used to say, I don’t see light, but I think I see the lynx that does. We won’t discuss it at present. I certainly must be a younger woman than I supposed, for I am learning hard. — Here comes the Professor, buttoned up to the ears, and Dr. Middleton flapping in the breeze. There will be a cough, and a footnote referring to the young lady at the station, if we stand together, so please order my carriage.”

“You found Clara complacent? roguish?”

“I will call tomorrow. You have simplified my task, Sir Willoughby, very much; that is, assuming that I have not entirely mistaken you. I am so far in the dark that I have to help myself by recollecting how Lady Busshe opposed my view of a certain matter formerly. Scepticism is her forte. It will be the very oddest thing if after all. . .! No, I shall own, romance has not departed. Are you fond of dupes?”

“I detest the race.”

“An excellent answer. I could pardon you for it.” She refrained from adding, “If you are making one of me.”

Sir Willoughby went to ring for her carriage.

She knew. That was palpable: Clara had betrayed him.

“The earlier Colonel De Craye leaves Patterne Hall the better:” she had said that: and, “all parties would be happier for an excursion.” She knew the position of things and she guessed the remainder. But what she did not know, and could not divine, was the man who fenced her. He speculated further on the witty and the dull. These latter are the redoubtable body. They will have facts to convince them: they had, he confessed it to himself, precipitated him into the novel sphere of his dark hints to Mrs. Mountstuart; from which the utter darkness might allow him to escape, yet it embraced him singularly, and even pleasantly, with the sense of a fact established.

It embraced him even very pleasantly. There was an end to his tortures. He sailed on a tranquil sea, the husband of a stedfast woman — no rogue. The exceeding beauty of stedfastness in women clothed Laetitia in graces Clara could not match. A tried stedfast woman is the one jewel of the sex. She points to her husband like the sunflower; her love illuminates him; she lives in him, for him; she testifies to his worth; she drags the world to his feet; she leads the chorus of his praises; she justifies him in his own esteem. Surely there is not on earth such beauty!

If we have to pass through anguish to discover it and cherish the peace it gives to clasp it, calling it ours, is a full reward. Deep in his reverie, he said his adieus to Mrs. Mountstuart, and strolled up the avenue behind the carriage-wheels, unwilling to meet Laetitia till he had exhausted the fresh savour of the cud of fancy.

Supposing it done! —

It would be generous on his part. It would redound to his credit.

His home would be a fortress, impregnable to tongues. He would have divine security in his home.

One who read and knew and worshipped him would be sitting there star-like: sitting there, awaiting him, his fixed star.

It would be marriage with a mirror, with an echo; marriage with a shining mirror, a choric echo.

It would be marriage with an intellect, with a fine understanding; to make his home a fountain of repeatable wit: to make his dear old Patterne Hall the luminary of the county.

He revolved it as a chant: with anon and anon involuntarily a discordant animadversion on Lady Busshe. Its attendant imps heard the angry inward cry.

Forthwith he set about painting Laetitia in delectable human colours, like a miniature of the past century, reserving her ideal figure for his private satisfaction. The world was to bow to her visible beauty, and he gave her enamel and glow, a taller stature, a swimming air, a transcendency that exorcized the image of the old witch who had driven him to this.

The result in him was, that Laetitia became humanly and avowedly beautiful. Her dark eyelashes on the pallor of her cheeks lent their aid to the transformation, which was a necessity to him, so it was performed. He received the waxen impression.

His retinue of imps had a revel. We hear wonders of men, and we see a lifting up of hands in the world. The wonders would be explained, and never a hand need to interject, if the mystifying man were but accompanied by that monkey-eyed confraternity. They spy the heart and its twists.

The heart is the magical gentleman. None of them would follow where there was no heart. The twists of the heart are the comedy.

“The secret of the heart is its pressing love of self “, says the Book.

By that secret the mystery of the organ is legible: and a comparison of the heart to the mountain rillet is taken up to show us the unbaffled force of the little channel in seeking to swell its volume, strenuously, sinuously, ever in pursuit of self; the busiest as it is the most single-aiming of forces on our earth. And we are directed to the sinuosities for posts of observation chiefly instructive.

Few maintain a stand there. People see, and they rush away to interchange liftings of hands at the sight, instead of patiently studying the phenomenon of energy.

Consequently a man in love with one woman, and in all but absolute consciousness, behind the thinnest of veils, preparing his mind to love another, will be barely credible. The particular hunger of the forceful but adaptable heart is the key of him. Behold the mountain rillet, become a brook, become a torrent, how it inarms a handsome boulder: yet if the stone will not go with it, on it hurries, pursuing self in extension, down to where perchance a dam has been raised of a sufficient depth to enfold and keep it from inordinate restlessness. Laetitia represented this peaceful restraining space in prospect.

But she was a faded young woman. He was aware of it; and systematically looking at himself with her upturned orbs, he accepted her benevolently as a God grateful for worship, and used the divinity she imparted to paint and renovate her. His heart required her so. The heart works the springs of imagination; imagination received its commission from the heart, and was a cunning artist.

Cunning to such a degree of seductive genius that the masterpiece it offered to his contemplation enabled him simultaneously to gaze on Clara and think of Laetitia. Clara came through the park-gates with Vernon, a brilliant girl indeed, and a shallow one: a healthy creature, and an animal; attractive, but capricious, impatient, treacherous, foul; a woman to drag men through the mud. She approached.

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