The Egoist, by George Meredith

Chapter 44

Dr Middleton: The Ladies Eleanor and Isabel: And Mr. Dale

Clara looked up at the flying clouds. She travelled with them now, and tasted freedom, but she prudently forbore to vex her father; she held herself in reserve.

They were summoned by the midday bell.

Few were speakers at the meal, few were eaters. Clara was impelled to join it by her desire to study Mrs. Mountstuart’s face. Willoughby was obliged to preside. It was a meal of an assembly of mutes and plates, that struck the ear like the well-known sound of a collection of offerings in church after an impressive exhortation from the pulpit. A sally of Colonel De Craye’s met the reception given to a charity-boy’s muffled burst of animal spirits in the silence of the sacred edifice. Willoughby tried politics with Dr. Middleton, whose regular appetite preserved him from uncongenial speculations when the hour for appeasing it had come; and he alone did honour to the dishes, replying to his host:

“Times are bad, you say, and we have a Ministry doing with us what they will. Well, sir, and that being so, and opposition a manner of kicking them into greater stability, it is the time for wise men to retire within themselves, with the steady determination of the seed in the earth to grow. Repose upon nature, sleep in firm faith, and abide the seasons. That is my counsel to the weaker party.”

The counsel was excellent, but it killed the topic.

Dr. Middleton’s appetite was watched for the signal to rise and breathe freely; and such is the grace accorded to a good man of an untroubled conscience engaged in doing his duty to himself, that he perceived nothing of the general restlessness; he went through the dishes calmly, and as calmly he quoted Milton to the ladies Eleanor and Isabel, when the company sprung up all at once upon his closing his repast. Vernon was taken away from him by Willoughby. Mrs Mountstuart beckoned covertly to Clara. Willoughby should have had something to say to him, Dr. Middleton thought: the position was not clear. But the situation was not disagreeable; and he was in no serious hurry, though he wished to be enlightened.

“This,” Dr. Middleton said to the spinster aunts, as he accompanied them to the drawing-room, “shall be no lost day for me if I may devote the remainder of it to you.”

“The thunder, we fear, is not remote,” murmured one.

“We fear it is imminent,” sighed the other.

They took to chanting in alternation.

“— We are accustomed to peruse our Willoughby, and we know him by a shadow.”

“— From his infancy to his glorious youth and his established manhood.”

“— He was ever the soul of chivalry.”

“— Duty: duty first. The happiness of his family. The well-being of his dependants.”

“— If proud of his name it was not an overweening pride; it was founded in the conscious possession of exalted qualities. He could be humble when occasion called for it.”

Dr Middleton bowed to the litany, feeling that occasion called for humbleness from him.

“Let us hope. . .!” he said, with unassumed penitence on behalf of his inscrutable daughter.

The ladies resumed:—

“— Vernon Whitford, not of his blood, is his brother!”

“— A thousand instances! Laetitia Dale remembers them better than we.”

“— That any blow should strike him!”

“— That another should be in store for him!”

“— It seems impossible he can be quite misunderstood!”

“Let us hope. . .!” said Dr. Middleton.

“— One would not deem it too much for the dispenser of goodness to expect to be a little looked up to!”

“— When he was a child he one day mounted a chair, and there he stood in danger, would not let us touch him because he was taller than we, and we were to gaze. Do you remember him, Eleanor? ‘I am the sun of the house!’ It was inimitable!”

“— Your feelings; he would have your feelings! He was fourteen when his cousin Grace Whitford married, and we lost him. They had been the greatest friends; and it was long before he appeared among us. He has never cared to see her since.”

“— But he has befriended her husband. Never has he failed in generosity. His only fault is —”

“— His sensitiveness. And that is —”

“— His secret. And that —”

“— You are not to discover! It is the same with him in manhood. No one will accuse Willoughby Patterne of a deficiency of manlinesss: but what is it? — he suffers, as none suffer, if he is not loved. He himself is inalterably constant in affection.”

“— What it is no one can say. We have lived with him all his life, and we know him ready to make any sacrifice; only, he does demand the whole heart in return. And if he doubts, he looks as we have seen him today.”

“— Shattered: as we have never seen him look before.”

“We will hope,” said Dr. Middleton, this time hastily. He tingled to say, “what it was”: he had it in him to solve perplexity in their inquiry. He did say, adopting familiar speech to suit the theme, “You know, ladies, we English come of a rough stock. A dose of rough dealing in our youth does us no harm, braces us. Otherwise we are likely to feel chilly: we grow too fine where tenuity of stature is necessarily buffetted by gales, namely, in our self-esteem. We are barbarians, on a forcing soil of wealth, in a conservatory of comfortable security; but still barbarians. So, you see, we shine at our best when we are plucked out of that, to where hard blows are given, in a state of war. In a state of war we are at home, our men are high-minded fellows, Scipios and good legionaries. In the state of peace we do not live in peace: our native roughness breaks out in unexpected places, under extraordinary aspects — tyrannies, extravagances, domestic exactions: and if we have not had sharp early training. . . within and without. . . the old-fashioned island-instrument to drill into us the civilization of our masters, the ancients, we show it by running here and there to some excess. Ahem. Yet,” added the Rev. Doctor, abandoning his effort to deliver a weighty truth obscurely for the comprehension of dainty spinster ladies, the superabundance of whom in England was in his opinion largely the cause of our decay as a people, “Yet I have not observed this ultra-sensitiveness in Willoughby. He has borne to hear more than I, certainly no example of the frailty, could have endured.”

“He concealed it,” said the ladies. “It is intense.”

“Then is it a disease?”

“It bears no explanation; it is mystic.”

“It is a cultus, then, a form of self-worship.”

“Self!” they ejaculated. “But is not Self indifferent to others? Is it Self that craves for sympathy, love, and devotion?”

“He is an admirable host, ladies.”

“He is admirable in all respects.”

“Admirable must he be who can impress discerning women, his life-long housemates, so favourably. He is, I repeat, a perfect host.”

“He will be a perfect husband.”

“In all probability.”

“It is a certainty. Let him be loved and obeyed, he will be guided. That is the secret for her whom he so fatally loves. That, if we had dared, we would have hinted to her. She will rule him through her love of him, and through him all about her. And it will not be a rule he submits to, but a love he accepts. If she could see it!”

“If she were a metaphysician!” sighed Dr. Middleton.

“— But a sensitiveness so keen as his might —”

“— Fretted by an unsympathizing mate —”

“— In the end become, for the best of us is mortal —”

“— Callous!”

“— He would feel perhaps as much —”

“— Or more! —”

“— He would still be tender —”

“— But he might grow outwardly hard!”

Both ladies looked up at Dr. Middleton, as they revealed the dreadful prospect.

“It is the story told of corns!” he said, sad as they.

The three stood drooping: the ladies with an attempt to digest his remark; the Rev. Doctor in dejection lest his gallantry should no longer continue to wrestle with his good sense.

He was rescued.

The door opened and a footman announced:—

“Mr. Dale.”

Miss Eleanor and Miss Isabel made a sign to one another of raising their hands.

They advanced to him, and welcomed him.

“Pray be seated, Mr. Dale. You have not brought us bad news of our Laetitia?”

“So rare is the pleasure of welcoming you here, Mr. Dale, that we are in some alarm, when, as we trust, it should be matter for unmixed congratulation.”

“Has Doctor Corney been doing wonders?”

“I am indebted to him for the drive to your house, ladies,” said Mr. Dale, a spare, close-buttoned gentleman, with an Indian complexion deadened in the sick-chamber. “It is unusual for me to stir from my precincts.”

“The Rev. Dr. Middleton.”

Mr. Dale bowed. He seemed surprised.

“You live in a splendid air, sir,” observed the Rev. Doctor.

“I can profit little by it, sir,” replied Mr. Dale. He asked the ladies: “Will Sir Willoughby be disengaged?”

They consulted. “He is with Vernon. We will send to him.”

The bell was rung.

“I have had the gratification of making the acquaintance of your daughter, Mr. Dale, a most estimable lady,” said Dr. Middleton.

Mr. Dale bowed. “She is honoured by your praises, sir. To the best of my belief — I speak as a father — she merits them. Hitherto I have had no doubts.”

“Of Laetitia?” exclaimed the ladies; and spoke of her as gentleness and goodness incarnate.

“Hitherto I have devoutly thought so,” said Mr. Dale.

“Surely she is the very sweetest nurse, the most devoted of daughters.”

“As far as concerns her duty to her father, I can say she is that, ladies.”

“In all her relations, Mr. Dale!”

“It is my prayer,” he said.

The footman appeared. He announced that Sir Willoughby was in the laboratory with Mr. Whitford, and the door locked.

“Domestic business,” the ladies remarked. “You know Willoughby’s diligent attention to affairs, Mr. Dale.”

“He is well?” Mr. Dale inquired.

“In excellent health.”

“Body and mind?”

“But, dear Mr. Dale, he is never ill.”

“Ah! for one to hear that who is never well! And Mr. Whitford is quite sound?”

“Sound? The question alarms me for myself,” said Dr. Middleton. “Sound as our Constitution, the Credit of the country, the reputation of our Prince of poets. I pray you to have no fears for him.”

Mr. Dale gave the mild little sniff of a man thrown deeper into perplexity.

He said: “Mr. Whitford works his head; he is a hard student; he may not be always, if I may so put it, at home on worldly affairs.”

“Dismiss that defamatory legend of the student, Mr. Dale; and take my word for it, that he who persistently works his head has the strongest for all affairs.”

“Ah! Your daughter, sir, is here?”

“My daughter is here, sir, and will be most happy to present her respects to the father of her friend, Miss Dale.”

“They are friends?”

“Very cordial friends.”

Mr. Dale administered another feebly pacifying sniff to himself.

“Laetitia!” he sighed, in apostrophe, and swept his forehead with a hand seen to shake.

The ladies asked him anxiously whether he felt the heat of the room; and one offered him a smelling-bottle.

He thanked them. “I can hold out until Sir Willoughby comes.”

“We fear to disturb him when his door is locked, Mr. Dale; but, if you wish it, we will venture on a message. You have really no bad news of our Laetitia? She left us hurriedly this morning, without any leave-taking, except a word to one of the maids, that your condition required her immediate presence.”

“My condition! And now her door is locked to me! We have spoken through the door, and that is all. I stand sick and stupefied between two locked doors, neither of which will open, it appears, to give me the enlightenment I need more than medicine.”

“Dear me!” cried Dr. Middleton, “I am struck by your description of your position, Mr. Dale. It would aptly apply to our humanity of the present generation; and were these the days when I sermonized, I could propose that it should afford me an illustration for the pulpit. For my part, when doors are closed I try not their locks; and I attribute my perfect equanimity, health even, to an uninquiring acceptation of the fact that they are closed to me. I read my page by the light I have. On the contrary, the world of this day, if I may presume to quote you for my purpose, is heard knocking at those two locked doors of the secret of things on each side of us, and is beheld standing sick and stupefied because it has got no response to its knocking. Why, sir, let the world compare the diverse fortunes of the beggar and the postman: knock to give, and it is opened unto you: knock to crave, and it continues shut. I say, carry a letter to your locked door, and you shall have a good reception: but there is none that is handed out. For which reason. . . ”

Mr. Dale swept a perspiring forehead, and extended his hand in supplication. “I am an invalid, Dr. Middleton,” he said. “I am unable to cope with analogies. I have but strength for the slow digestion of facts.”

“For facts, we are bradypeptics to a man, sir. We know not yet if nature be a fact or an effort to master one. The world has not yet assimilated the first fact it stepped on. We are still in the endeavour to make good blood of the fact of our being.” Pressing his hands at his temples, Mr. Dale moaned: “My head twirls; I did unwisely to come out. I came on an impulse; I trust, honourable. I am unfit — I cannot follow you, Dr. Middleton. Pardon me.”

“Nay, sir, let me say, from my experience of my countrymen, that if you do not follow me and can abstain from abusing me in consequence, you are magnanimous,” the Rev. Doctor replied, hardly consenting to let go the man he had found to indemnify him for his gallant service of acquiescing as a mute to the ladies, though he knew his breathing robustfulness to be as an East wind to weak nerves, and himself an engine of punishment when he had been torn for a day from his books.

Miss Eleanor said: “The enlightenment you need, Mr. Dale? Can we enlighten you?”

“I think not,” he answered, faintly. “I think I will wait for Sir Willoughby. . . or Mr. Whitford. If I can keep my strength. Or could I exchange — I fear to break down — two words with the young lady who is, was. . . ”

“Miss Middleton, my daughter, sir? She shall be at your disposition; I will bring her to you.” Dr. Middleton stopped at the window. “She, it is true, may better know the mind of Miss Dale than I. But I flatter myself I know the gentleman better. I think, Mr. Dale, addressing you as the lady’s father, you will find me a persuasive, I could be an impassioned, advocate in his interests.”

Mr. Dale was confounded; the weakly sapling caught in a gust falls back as he did.

“Advocate?” he said. He had little breath.

“His impassioned advocate, I repeat; for I have the highest opinion of him. You see, sir, I am acquainted with the circumstances. I believe,” Dr. Middleton half turned to the ladies, “we must, until your potent inducements, Mr. Dale, have been joined to my instances, and we overcome what feminine scruples there may be, treat the circumstances as not generally public. Our Strephon may be chargeable with shyness. But if for the present it is incumbent on us, in proper consideration for the parties, not to be nominally precise, it is hardly requisite in this household that we should be. He is now for protesting indifference to the state. I fancy we understand that phase of amatory frigidity. Frankly, Mr. Dale, I was once in my life myself refused by a lady, and I was not indignant, merely indifferent to the marriage-tie.”

“My daughter has refused him, sir?”

“Temporarily it would appear that she has declined the proposal.”

“He was at liberty? . . . he could honourably? . . . ”

“His best friend and nearest relative is your guarantee.”

“I know it; I hear so; I am informed of that: I have heard of the proposal, and that he could honourably make it. Still, I am helpless, I cannot move, until I am assured that my daughter’s reasons are such as a father need not underline.”

“Does the lady, perchance, equivocate?”

“I have not seen her this morning; I rise late. I hear an astounding account of the cause for her departure from Patterne, and I find her door locked to me — no answer.”

“It is that she had no reasons to give, and she feared the demand for them.”

“Ladies!” dolorously exclaimed Mr. Dale.

“We guess the secret, we guess it!” they exclaimed in reply; and they looked smilingly, as Dr. Middleton looked.

“She had no reasons to give?” Mr. Dale spelled these words to his understanding. “Then, sir, she knew you not adverse?”

“Undoubtedly, by my high esteem for the gentleman, she must have known me not adverse. But she would not consider me a principal. She could hardly have conceived me an obstacle. I am simply the gentleman’s friend. A zealous friend, let me add.”

Mr. Dale put out an imploring hand; it was too much for him.

“Pardon me; I have a poor head. And your daughter the same, sir?”

“We will not measure it too closely, but I may say, my daughter the same, sir. And likewise — may I not add — these ladies.”

Mr. Dale made sign that he was overfilled. “Where am I! And Laetitia refused him?”

“Temporarily, let us assume. Will it not partly depend on you, Mr. Dale?”

“But what strange things have been happening during my daughter’s absence from the cottage!” cried Mr. Dale, betraying an elixir in his veins. “I feel that I could laugh if I did not dread to be thought insane. She refused his hand, and he was at liberty to offer it? My girl! We are all on our heads. The fairy-tales were right and the lesson-books were wrong. But it is really, it is really very demoralizing. An invalid — and I am one, and no momentary exhilaration will be taken for the contrary — clings to the idea of stability, order. The slightest disturbance of the wonted course of things unsettles him. Why, for years I have been prophesying it! and for years I have had everything against me, and now when it is confirmed, I am wondering that I must not call myself a fool!”

“And for years, dear Mr. Dale, this union, in spite of counter-currents and human arrangements, has been our Willoughby’s constant preoccupation,” said Miss Eleanor.

“His most cherished aim,” said Miss Isabel.

“The name was not spoken by me,” said Dr. Middleton.

“But it is out, and perhaps better out, if we would avoid the chance of mystifications. I do not suppose we are seriously committing a breach of confidence, though he might have wished to mention it to you first himself. I have it from Willoughby that last night he appealed to your daughter, Mr. Dale — not for the first time, if I apprehend him correctly; and unsuccessfully. He despairs. I do not: supposing, that is, your assistance vouchsafed to us. And I do not despair, because the gentleman is a gentleman of worth, of acknowledged worth. You know him well enough to grant me that. I will bring you my daughter to help me in sounding his praises.”

Dr Middleton stepped through the window to the lawn on an elastic foot, beaming with the happiness he felt charged to confer on his friend Mr. Whitford.

“Ladies! it passes all wonders,” Mr. Dale gasped.

“Willoughby’s generosity does pass all wonders,” they said in chorus.

The door opened; Lady Busshe and Lady Culmer were announced.

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