The Egoist, by George Meredith

Chapter 40

Midnight: Sir Willoughby and Laetitia: With Young Crossjay Under a Coverlet

Young Crossjay was a glutton at holidays and never thought of home till it was dark. The close of the day saw him several miles away from the Hall, dubious whether he would not round his numerous adventures by sleeping at an inn; for he had lots of money, and the idea of jumping up in the morning in a strange place was thrilling. Besides, when he was shaken out of sleep by Sir Willoughby, he had been told that he was to go, and not to show his face at Patterne again. On the other hand, Miss Middleton had bidden him come back. There was little question with him which person he should obey: he followed his heart.

Supper at an inn, where he found a company to listen to his adventures, delayed him, and a short cut, intended to make up for it, lost him his road. He reached the Hall very late, ready to be in love with the horrible pleasure of a night’s rest under the stars, if necessary. But a candle burned at one of the back windows. He knocked, and a kitchen-maid let him in. She had a bowl of hot soup prepared for him. Crossjay tried a mouthful to please her. His head dropped over it. She roused him to his feet, and he pitched against her shoulder. The dry air of the kitchen department had proved too much for the tired youngster. Mary, the maid, got him to step as firmly as he was able, and led him by the back-way to the hall, bidding him creep noiselessly to bed. He understood his position in the house, and though he could have gone fast to sleep on the stairs, he took a steady aim at his room and gained the door cat-like. The door resisted. He was appalled and unstrung in a minute. The door was locked. Crossjay felt as if he were in the presence of Sir Willoughby. He fled on ricketty legs, and had a fall and bumps down half a dozen stairs. A door opened above. He rushed across the hall to the drawing-room, invitingly open, and there staggered in darkness to the ottoman and rolled himself in something sleek and warm, soft as hands of ladies, and redolent of them; so delicious that he hugged the folds about his head and heels. While he was endeavouring to think where he was, his legs curled, his eyelids shut, and he was in the thick of the day’s adventures, doing yet more wonderful things.

He heard his own name: that was quite certain. He knew that he heard it with his ears, as he pursued the fleetest dreams ever accorded to mortal. It did not mix: it was outside him, and like the danger-pole in the ice, which the skater shooting hither and yonder comes on again, it recurred; and now it marked a point in his career, how it caused him to relax his pace; he began to circle, and whirled closer round it, until, as at a blow, his heart knocked, he tightened himself, thought of bolting, and lay dead-still to throb and hearken.

“Oh! Sir Willoughby,” a voice had said.

The accents were sharp with alarm.

“My friend! my dearest!” was the answer.

“I came to speak of Crossjay.”

“Will you sit here on the ottoman?”

“No, I cannot wait. I hoped I had heard Crossjay return. I would rather not sit down. May I entreat you to pardon him when he comes home?”

“You, and you only, may do so. I permit none else. Of Crossjay tomorrow.”

“He may be lying in the fields. We are anxious.”

“The rascal can take pretty good care of himself.”

“Crossjay is perpetually meeting accidents.”

“He shall be indemnified if he has had excess of punishment.”

“I think I will say good-night, Sir Willoughby.”

“When freely and unreservedly you have given me your hand.”

There was hesitation.

“To say good-night?”

“I ask you for your hand.”

“Good-night, Sir Willoughby.”

“You do not give it. You are in doubt? Still? What language must I use to convince you? And yet you know me. Who knows me but you? You have always known me. You are my home and my temple. Have you forgotten your verses of the day of my majority?

‘The dawn-star has arisen

In plenitude of light. . . ’”

“Do not repeat them, pray!” cried Laetitia, with a gasp.

“I have repeated them to myself a thousand times: in India, America, Japan: they were like our English skylark, carolling to me.

‘My heart, now burst thy prison

With proud aerial flight!’”

“Oh, I beg you will not force me to listen to nonsense that I wrote when I was a child. No more of those most foolish lines! If you knew what it is to write and despise one’s writing, you would not distress me. And since you will not speak of Crossjay to-night, allow me to retire.”

“You know me, and therefore you know my contempt for verses, as a rule, Laetitia. But not for yours to me. Why should you call them foolish? They expressed your feelings — hold them sacred. They are something religious to me, not mere poetry. Perhaps the third verse is my favourite. . . ”

“It will be more than I can bear!”

“You were in earnest when you wrote them?”

“I was very young, very enthusiastic, very silly.”

“You were and are my image of constancy!”

“It is an error, Sir Willoughby; I am far from being the same.”

“We are all older, I trust wiser. I am, I will own; much wiser. Wise at last! I offer you my hand.”

She did not reply. “I offer you my hand and name, Laetitia.”

No response.

“You think me bound in honour to another?”

She was mute.

“I am free. Thank Heaven! I am free to choose my mate — the woman I have always loved! Freely and unreservedly, as I ask you to give your hand, I offer mine. You are the mistress of Patterne Hall; my wife.”

She had not a word.

“My dearest! do you not rightly understand? The hand I am offering you is disengaged. It is offered to the lady I respect above all others. I have made the discovery that I cannot love without respecting; and as I will not marry without loving, it ensues that I am free — I am yours. At last? — your lips move: tell me the words. Have always loved, I said. You carry in your bosom the magnet of constancy, and I, in spite of apparent deviations, declare to you that I have never ceased to be sensible of the attraction. And now there is not an impediment. We two against the world! we are one. Let me confess to an old foible — perfectly youthful, and you will ascribe it to youth: once I desired to absorb. I mistrusted; that was the reason: I perceive it. You teach me the difference of an alliance with a lady of intellect. The pride I have in you, Laetitia, definitely cures me of that insane passion — call it an insatiable hunger. I recognize it as a folly of youth. I have, as it were, gone the tour, to come home to you — at last? — and live our manly life of comparative equals. At last, then! But remember that in the younger man you would have had a despot — perhaps a jealous despot. Young men, I assure you, are orientally inclined in their ideas of love. Love gets a bad name from them. We, my Laetitia, do not regard love as a selfishness. If it is, it is the essence of life. At least it is our selfishness rendered beautiful. I talk to you like a man who has found a compatriot in a foreign land. It seems to me that I have not opened my mouth for an age. I certainly have not unlocked my heart. Those who sing for joy are not unintelligible to me. If I had not something in me worth saying I think I should sing. In every sense you reconcile me to men and the world, Laetitia. Why press you to speak? I will be the speaker. As surely as you know me, I know you: and. . . ”

Laetitia burst forth with: “No!”

“I do not know you?” said he, searchingly mellifluous.

“Hardly.”

“How not?”

“I am changed.”

“In what way?”

“Deeply.”

“Sedater?”

“Materially.”

“Colour will come back: have no fear; I promise it. If you imagine you want renewing, I have the specific, I, my love, I!”

“Forgive me — will you tell me, Sir Willoughby, whether you have broken with Miss Middleton?”

“Rest satisfied, my dear Laetitia. She is as free as I am. I can do no more than a man of honour should do. She releases me. To-morrow or next day she departs. We, Laetitia, you and I, my love, are home birds. It does not do for the home bird to couple with the migratory. The little imperceptible change you allude to, is nothing. Italy will restore you. I am ready to stake my own health — never yet shaken by a doctor of medicine:— I say medicine advisedly, for there are doctors of divinity who would shake giants:— that an Italian trip will send you back — that I shall bring you home from Italy a blooming bride. You shake your head — despondently? My love, I guarantee it. Cannot I give you colour? Behold! Come to the light, look in the glass.”

“I may redden,” said Laetitia. “I suppose that is due to the action of the heart. I am changed. Heart, for any other purpose, I have not. I am like you, Sir Willoughby, in this: I could not marry without loving, and I do not know what love is, except that it is an empty dream.”

“Marriage, my dearest. . . ”

“You are mistaken.”

“I will cure you, my Laetitia. Look to me, I am the tonic. It is not common confidence, but conviction. I, my love, I!”

“There is no cure for what I feel, Sir Willoughby.”

“Spare me the formal prefix, I beg. You place your hand in mine, relying on me. I am pledge for the remainder. We end as we began: my request is for your hand — your hand in marriage.”

“I cannot give it.”

“To be my wife!”

“It is an honour; I must decline it.”

“Are you quite well, Laetitia? I propose in the plainest terms I can employ, to make you Lady Patterne — mine.”

“I am compelled to refuse.”

“Why? Refuse? Your reason!”

“The reason has been named.”

He took a stride to inspirit his wits.

“There’s a madness comes over women at times, I know. Answer me, Laetitia:— by all the evidence a man can have, I could swear it:— but answer me; you loved me once?”

“I was an exceedingly foolish, romantic girl.”

“You evade my question: I am serious. Oh!” he walked away from her booming a sound of utter repudiation of her present imbecility, and hurrying to her side, said: “But it was manifest to the whole world! It was a legend. To love like Laetitia Dale, was a current phrase. You were an example, a light to women: no one was your match for devotion. You were a precious cameo, still gazing! And I was the object. You loved me. You loved me, you belonged to me, you were mine, my possession, my jewel; I was prouder of your constancy than of anything else that I had on earth. It was a part of the order of the universe to me. A doubt of it would have disturbed my creed. Why, good heaven! where are we? Is nothing solid on earth? You loved me!”

“I was childish, indeed.”

“You loved me passionately!”

“Do you insist on shaming me through and through, Sir Willoughby? I have been exposed enough.”

“You cannot blot out the past: it is written, it is recorded. You loved me devotedly, silence is no escape. You loved me.”

“I did.”

“You never loved me, you shallow woman! ‘I did!’ As if there could be a cessation of a love! What are we to reckon on as ours? We prize a woman’s love; we guard it jealously, we trust to it, dream of it; there is our wealth; there is our talisman! And when we open the casket it has flown! — barren vacuity! — we are poorer than dogs. As well think of keeping a costly wine in potter’s clay as love in the heart of a woman! There are women — women! Oh, they are all of a stamp coin! Coin for any hand! It’s a fiction, an imposture — they cannot love. They are the shadows of men. Compared with men, they have as much heart in them as the shadow beside the body. Laetitia!”

“Sir Willoughby.”

“You refuse my offer?”

“I must.”

“You refuse to take me for your husband?”

“I cannot be your wife.”

“You have changed? . . . you have set your heart? . . . you could marry? . . . there is a man? . . . you could marry one! I will have an answer, I am sick of evasions. What was in the mind of Heaven when women were created, will be the riddle to the end of the world! Every good man in turn has made the inquiry. I have a right to know who robs me — We may try as we like to solve it. — Satan is painted laughing! — I say I have a right to know who robs me. Answer me.”

“I shall not marry.”

“That is not an answer.”

“I love no one.”

“You loved me. — You are silent? — but you confessed it. Then you confess it was a love that could die! Are you unable to perceive how that redounds to my discredit? You loved me, you have ceased to love me. In other words you charge me with incapacity to sustain a woman’s love. You accuse me of inspiring a miserable passion that cannot last a lifetime! You let the world see that I am a man to be aimed at for a temporary mark! And simply because I happen to be in your neighbourhood at an age when a young woman is impressionable! You make a public example of me as a for whom women may have a caprice, but that is all; he cannot enchain them; he fascinates passingly; they fall off. Is it just, for me to be taken up and cast down at your will? Reflect on that scandal! Shadows? Why, a man’s shadow is faithful to him at least. What are women? There is not a comparison in nature that does not tower above them! not one that does not hoot at them! I, throughout my life, guided by absolute deference to their weakness — paying them politeness, courtesy — whatever I touch I am happy in, except when I touch women! How is it? What is the mystery? Some monstrous explanation must exist. What can it be? I am favoured by fortune from my birth until I enter into relations with women. But will you be so good as to account for it in your defence of them? Oh! were the relations dishonourable, it would be quite another matter. Then they. . . I could recount. . . I disdain to chronicle such victories. Quite another matter. But they are flies, and I am something more stable. They are flies. I look beyond the day; I owe a duty to my line. They are flies. I foresee it, I shall be crossed in my fate so long as I fail to shun them — flies! Not merely born for the day, I maintain that they are spiritually ephemeral — Well, my opinion of your sex is directly traceable to you. You may alter it, or fling another of us men out on the world with the old bitter experience. Consider this, that it is on your head if my ideal of women is wrecked. It rests with you to restore it. I love you. I discover that you are the one woman I have always loved. I come to you, I sue you, and suddenly — you have changed! ‘I have changed: I am not the same.’ What can it mean? ‘I cannot marry: I love no one.’ And you say you do not know what love is — avowing in the same breath that you did love me! Am I the empty dream? My hand, heart, fortune, name, are yours, at your feet; you kick them hence. I am here — you reject me. But why, for what mortal reason am I here other than my faith in your love? You drew me to you, to repel me, and have a wretched revenge.”

“You know it is not that, Sir Willoughby.”

“Have you any possible suspicion that I am still entangled, not, as I assure you I am, perfectly free in fact and in honour?”

“It is not that.”

“Name it; for you see your power. Would you have me kneel to you, madam?”

“Oh, no; it would complete my grief.”

“You feel grief? Then you believe in my affection, and you hurl it away. I have no doubt that as a poetess you would say, love is eternal. And you have loved me. And you tell me you love me no more. You are not very logical, Laetitia Dale.”

“Poetesses rarely are: if I am one, which I little pretend to be for writing silly verses. I have passed out of that delusion, with the rest.”

“You shall not wrong those dear old days, Laetitia. I see them now; when I rode by your cottage and you were at your window, pen in hand, your hair straying over your forehead. Romantic, yes; not foolish. Why were you foolish in thinking of me? Some day I will commission an artist to paint me that portrait of you from my description. And I remember when we first whispered. . . I remember your trembling. You have forgotten — I remember. I remember our meeting in the park on the path to church. I remember the heavenly morning of my return from my travels, and the same Laetitia meeting me, stedfast and unchangeable. Could I ever forget? Those are ineradicable scenes; pictures of my youth, interwound with me. I may say, that as I recede from them, I dwell on them the more. Tell me, Laetitia, was there not a certain prophecy of your father’s concerning us two? I fancy I heard of one. There was one.”

“He was an invalid. Elderly people nurse illusions.”

“Ask yourself Laetitia, who is the obstacle to the fulfilment of his prediction? — truth, if ever a truth was foreseen on earth. You have not changed so far that you would feel no pleasure in gratifying him? I go to him tomorrow morning with the first light.”

“You will compel me to follow, and undeceive him.”

“Do so, and I denounce an unworthy affection you are ashamed to avow.”

“That would be idle, though it would be base.”

“Proof of love, then! For no one but you should it be done, and no one but you dare accuse me of a baseness.”

“Sir Willoughby, you will let my father die in peace.”

“He and I together will contrive to persuade you.”

“You tempt me to imagine that you want a wife at any cost.”

“You, Laetitia, you.”

“I am tired,” she said. “It is late, I would rather not hear more. I am sorry if I have caused you pain. I suppose you to have spoken with candour. I defend neither my sex nor myself. I can only say I am a woman as good as dead: happy to be made happy in my way, but so little alive that I cannot realize any other way. As for love, I am thankful to have broken a spell. You have a younger woman in your mind; I am an old one: I have no ambition and no warmth. My utmost prayer is to float on the stream — a purely physical desire of life: I have no strength to swim. Such a woman is not the wife for you, Sir Willoughby. Good night.”

“One final word. Weigh it. Express no conventional regrets. Resolutely you refuse?”

“Resolutely I do.”

“You refuse?”

“Yes.”

“I have sacrificed my pride for nothing! You refuse?”

“Yes.”

“Humbled myself! And this is the answer! You do refuse?”

“I do.”

“Good night, Laetitia Dale.”

He gave her passage.

“Good night, Sir Willoughby.”

“I am in your power,” he said, in a voice between supplication and menace that laid a claw on her, and she turned and replied:

“You will not be betrayed.”

“I can trust you. . .?”

“I go home tomorrow before breakfast.”

“Permit me to escort you upstairs.”

“If you please: but I see no one here either to-night or tomorrow.”

“It is for the privilege of seeing the last of you.”

They withdrew.

Young Crossjay listened to the drumming of his head. Somewhere in or over the cavity a drummer rattled tremendously.

Sir Willoughby’s laboratory door shut with a slam.

Crossjay tumbled himself off the ottoman. He stole up to the unclosed drawing-room door, and peeped. Never was a boy more thoroughly awakened. His object was to get out of the house and go through the night avoiding everything human, for he was big with information of a character that he knew to be of the nature of gunpowder, and he feared to explode. He crossed the hall. In the passage to the scullery he ran against Colonel De Craye.

“So there you are,” said the colonel, “I’ve been hunting you.”

Crossjay related that his bedroom door was locked and the key gone, and Sir Willoughby sitting up in the laboratory.

Colonel De Craye took the boy to his own room, where Crossjay lay on a sofa, comfortably covered over and snug in a swelling pillow; but he was restless; he wanted to speak, to bellow, to cry; and he bounced round to his left side, and bounced to his right, not knowing what to think, except that there was treason to his adored Miss Middleton.

“Why, my lad, you’re not half a campaigner,” the colonel called out to him; attributing his uneasiness to the material discomfort of the sofa: and Crossjay had to swallow the taunt, bitter though it was. A dim sentiment of impropriety in unburdening his overcharged mind on the subject of Miss Middleton to Colonel De Craye restrained him from defending himself; and so he heaved and tossed about till daybreak. At an early hour, while his hospitable friend, who looked very handsome in profile half breast and head above the sheets, continued to slumber, Crossjay was on his legs and away. “He says I’m not half a campaigner, and a couple of hours of bed are enough for me,” the boy thought proudly, and snuffed the springing air of the young sun on the fields. A glance back at Patterne Hall dismayed him, for he knew not how to act, and he was immoderately combustible, too full of knowledge for self-containment; much too zealously excited on behalf of his dear Miss Middleton to keep silent for many hours of the day.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/meredith/george/egoist/chapter40.html

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