The Egoist, by George Meredith

Chapter 38

In which We Take a Step to the Centre of Egoism

They met; Vernon soon left them.

“You have not seen Crossjay?” Willoughby inquired.

“No,” said Clara. “Once more I beg you to pardon him. He spoke falsely, owing to his poor boy’s idea of chivalry.”

“The chivalry to the sex which commences in lies ends by creating the woman’s hero, whom we see about the world and in certain courts of law.”

His ability to silence her was great: she could not reply to speech like that.

“You have,” said he, “made a confidante of Mrs. Mountstuart.”

“Yes.”

“This is your purse.”

“I thank you.”

“Professor Crooklyn has managed to make your father acquainted with your project. That, I suppose, is the railway ticket in the fold of the purse. He was assured at the station that you had taken a ticket to London, and would not want the fly.”

“It is true. I was foolish.”

“You have had a pleasant walk with Vernon — turning me in and out?”

“We did not speak of you. You allude to what he would never consent to.”

“He’s an honest fellow, in his old-fashioned way. He’s a secret old fellow. Does he ever talk about his wife to you?”

Clara dropped her purse, and stooped and picked it up.

“I know nothing of Mr. Whitford’s affairs,” she said, and she opened the purse and tore to pieces the railway ticket.

“The story’s a proof that romantic spirits do not furnish the most romantic history. You have the word ‘chivalry’ frequently on your lips. He chivalrously married the daughter of the lodging-house where he resided before I took him. We obtained information of the auspicious union in a newspaper report of Mrs. Whitford’s drunkenness and rioting at a London railway terminus — probably the one whither your ticket would have taken you yesterday, for I heard the lady was on her way to us for supplies, the connubial larder being empty.”

“I am sorry; I am ignorant; I have heard nothing; I know nothing,” said Clara.

“You are disgusted. But half the students and authors you hear of marry in that way. And very few have Vernon’s luck.”

“She had good qualities?” asked Clara.

Her under lip hung.

It looked like disgust; he begged her not indulge the feeling.

“Literary men, it is notorious, even with the entry to society, have no taste in women. The housewife is their object. Ladies frighten and would, no doubt, be an annoyance and hindrance to them at home.”

“You said he was fortunate.”

“You have a kindness for him.”

“I respect him.”

“He is a friendly old fellow in his awkward fashion; honourable, and so forth. But a disreputable alliance of that sort sticks to a man. The world will talk. Yes, he was fortunate so far; he fell into the mire and got out of it. Were he to marry again. . . ”

“She. . . ”

“Died. Do not be startled; it was a natural death. She responded to the sole wishes left to his family. He buried the woman, and I received him. I took him on my tour. A second marriage might cover the first: there would be a buzz about the old business: the woman’s relatives write to him still, try to bleed him, I dare say. However, now you understand his gloominess. I don’t imagine he regrets his loss. He probably sentimentalizes, like most men when they are well rid of a burden. You must not think the worse of him.”

“I do not,” said Clara.

“I defend him whenever the matter’s discussed.”

“I hope you do.”

“Without approving his folly. I can’t wash him clean.”

They were at the Hall-doors. She waited for any personal communications he might be pleased to make, and as there was none, she ran upstairs to her room.

He had tossed her to Vernon in his mind, not only painlessly, but with a keen acid of satisfaction. The heart is the wizard.

Next he bent his deliberate steps to Laetitia.

The mind was guilty of some hesitation; the feet went forward.

She was working at an embroidery by an open window. Colonel De Craye leaned outside, and Willoughby pardoned her air of demure amusement, on hearing him say: “No, I have had one of the pleasantest half-hours of my life, and would rather idle here, if idle you will have it, than employ my faculties on horse-back,”

“Time is not lost in conversing with Miss Dale,” said Willoughby.

The light was tender to her complexion where she sat in partial shadow.

De Craye asked whether Crossjay had been caught.

Laetitia murmured a kind word for the boy. Willoughby examined her embroidery.

The ladies Eleanor and Isabel appeared.

They invited her to take carriage exercise with them.

Laetitia did not immediately answer, and Willoughby remarked: “Miss Dale has been reproving Horace for idleness and I recommend you to enlist him to do duty, while I relieve him here.”

The ladies had but to look at the colonel. He was at their disposal, if they would have him. He was marched to the carriage.

Laetitia plied her threads.

“Colonel De Craye spoke of Crossjay,” she said. “May I hope you have forgiven the poor boy, Sir Willoughby?”

He replied: “Plead for him.”

“I wish I had eloquence.”

“In my opinion you have it.”

“If he offends, it is never from meanness. At school, among comrades, he would shine. He is in too strong a light; his feelings and his moral nature are over-excited.”

“That was not the case when he was at home with you.”

“I am severe; I am stern.”

“A Spartan mother!”

“My system of managing a boy would be after that model: except in this: he should always feet that he could obtain forgiveness.”

“Not at the expense of justice?”

“Ah! young creatures are not to be arraigned before the higher Courts. It seems to me perilous to terrify their imaginations. If we do so, are we not likely to produce the very evil we are combating? The alternations for the young should be school and home: and it should be in their hearts to have confidence that forgiveness alternates with discipline. They are of too tender an age for the rigours of the world; we are in danger of hardening them. I prove to you that I am not possessed of eloquence. You encouraged me to speak, Sir Willoughby.”

“You speak wisely, Laetitia.”

“I think it true. Will not you reflect on it? You have only to do so to forgive him. I am growing bold indeed, and shall have to beg forgiveness for myself.”

“You still write? you continue to work with your pen?” said Willoughby.

“A little; a very little.”

“I do not like you to squander yourself, waste yourself, on the public. You are too precious to feed the beast. Giving out incessantly must end by attenuating. Reserve yourself for your friends. Why should they be robbed of so much of you? Is it not reasonable to assume that by lying fallow you would be more enriched for domestic life? Candidly, had I authority I would confiscate your pen: I would ‘away with that bauble’. You will not often find me quoting Cromwell, but his words apply in this instance. I would say rather, that lancet. Perhaps it is the more correct term. It bleeds you, it wastes you. For what? For a breath of fame!”

“I write for money.”

“And there — I would say of another — you subject yourself to the risk of mental degradation. Who knows? — moral! Trafficking the brains for money must bring them to the level of the purchasers in time. I confiscate your pen, Laetitia.”

“It will be to confiscate your own gift, Sir Willoughby.”

“Then that proves — will you tell me the date?”

“You sent me a gold pen-holder on my sixteenth birthday.”

“It proves my utter thoughtlessness then, and later. And later!”

He rested an elbow on his knee, and covered his eyes, murmuring in that profound hollow which is haunted by the voice of a contrite past: “And later!”

The deed could be done. He had come to the conclusion that it could be done, though the effort to harmonize the figure sitting near him, with the artistic figure of his purest pigments, had cost him labour and a blinking of the eyelids. That also could be done. Her pleasant tone, sensible talk, and the light favouring her complexion, helped him in his effort. She was a sober cup; sober and wholesome. Deliriousness is for adolescence. The men who seek intoxicating cups are men who invite their fates.

Curiously, yet as positively as things can be affirmed, the husband of this woman would be able to boast of her virtues and treasures abroad, as he could not — impossible to say why not — boast of a beautiful wife or a blue-stocking wife. One of her merits as a wife would be this extraordinary neutral merit of a character that demanded colour from the marital hand, and would take it.

Laetitia had not to learn that he had much to distress him. Her wonder at his exposure of his grief counteracted a fluttering of vague alarm. She was nervous; she sat in expectation of some burst of regrets or of passion.

“I may hope that you have pardoned Crossjay?” she said.

“My friend,” said he, uncovering his face, “I am governed by principles. Convince me of an error, I shall not obstinately pursue a premeditated course. But you know me. Men who have not principles to rule their conduct are — well, they are unworthy of a half hour of companionship with you. I will speak to you to-night. I have letters to dispatch. To-night: at twelve: in the room where we spoke last. Or await me in the drawing-room. I have to attend to my guests till late.”

He bowed; he was in a hurry to go.

The deed could be done. It must be done; it was his destiny.

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