The Egoist, by George Meredith

Chapter 45

The Patterne Ladies: Mr. Dale: Lady Busshe and Lady Culmer: With Mrs. Mountstuart Jenkinson

Lady Busshe and Lady Culmer entered spying to right and left. At the sight of Mr. Dale in the room Lady Busshe murmured to her friend: “Confirmation!”

Lady Culmer murmured: “Corney is quite reliable.”

“The man is his own best tonic.”

“He is invaluable for the country.”

Miss Eleanor and Miss Isabel greeted them.

The amiability of the Patterne ladies combined with their total eclipse behind their illustrious nephew invited enterprising women of the world to take liberties, and they were not backward.

Lady Busshe said: “Well? the news! we have the outlines. Don’t be astonished: we know the points: we have heard the gun. I could have told you as much yesterday. I saw it. And I guessed it the day before. Oh, I do believe in fatalities now. Lady Culmer and I agree to take that view: it is the simplest. Well, and are you satisfied, my dears?”

The ladies grimaced interrogatively: “With what?”

“With it? with all! with her! with him!”

“Our Willoughby?”

“Can it be possible that they require a dose of Corney?” Lady Busshe remarked to Lady Culmer.

“They play discretion to perfection,” said Lady Culmer. “But, my dears, we are in the secret.”

“How did she behave?” whispered Lady Busshe. “No high flights and flutters, I do hope. She was well-connected, they say; though I don’t comprehend what they mean by a line of scholars — one thinks of a row of pinafores: and she was pretty.”

“That is well enough at the start. It never will stand against brains. He had the two in the house to contrast them, and. . . the result! A young woman with brains — in a house — beats all your beauties. Lady Culmer and I have determined on that view. He thought her a delightful partner for a dance, and found her rather tiresome at the end of the gallopade. I saw it yesterday, clear as daylight. She did not understand him, and he did understand her. That will be our report.”

“She is young: she will learn,” said the ladies uneasily, but in total ignorance of her meaning.

“And you are charitable, and always were. I remember you had a good word for that girl Durham.”

Lady Busshe crossed the room to Mr. Dale, who was turning over leaves of a grand book of the heraldic devices of our great Families.

“Study it,” she said, “study it, my dear Mr. Dale; you are in it, by right of possessing a clever and accomplished daughter. At page 300 you will find the Patterne crest. And mark me, she will drag you into the peerage before she has done — relatively, you know. Sir Willoughby and wife will not be contented to sit down and manage the estates. Has not Laetitia immense ambition? And very creditable, I say.”

Mr. Dale tried to protest something. He shut the book, examining the binding, flapped the cover with a finger, hoped her ladyship was in good health, alluded to his own and the strangeness of the bird out of the cage.

“You will probably take up your residence here, in a larger and handsomer cage. Mr. Dale.”

He shook his head. “Do I apprehend. . . ” he said.

“I know,” said she.

“Dear me, can it be?”

Mr. Dale gazed upward, with the feelings of one awakened late to see a world alive in broad daylight.

Lady Busshe dropped her voice. She took the liberty permitted to her with an inferior in station, while treating him to a tone of familiarity in acknowledgment of his expected rise; which is high breeding, or the exact measurement of social dues.

“Laetitia will be happy, you may be sure. I love to see a long and faithful attachment rewarded — love it! Her tale is the triumph of patience. Far above Grizzel! No woman will be ashamed of pointing to Lady Patterne. You are uncertain? You are in doubt? Let me hear — as low as you like. But there is no doubt of the new shifting of the scene? — no doubt of the proposal? Dear Mr. Dale! a very little louder. You are here because —? of course you wish to see Sir Willoughby. She? I did not catch you quite. She? . . . it seems, you say. . .?”

Lady Culmer said to the Patterne ladies:—

“You must have had a distressing time. These affairs always mount up to a climax, unless people are very well bred. We saw it coming. Naturally we did not expect such a transformation of brides: who could? If I had laid myself down on my back to think, I should have had it. I am unerring when I set to speculating on my back. One is cooler: ideas come; they have not to be forced. That is why I am brighter on a dull winter afternoon, on the sofa, beside my tea-service, than at any other season. However, your trouble is over. When did the Middletons leave?”

“The Middletons leave?” said the ladies.

“Dr. Middleton and his daughter.”

“They have not left us.”

“The Middletons are here?”

“They are here, yes. Why should they have left Patterne?”

“Why?”

“Yes. They are likely to stay some days longer.”

“Goodness!”

“There is no ground for any report to the contrary, Lady Culmer.”

“No ground!”

Lady Culmer called out to Lady Busshe.

A cry came back from that startled dame.

“She has refused him!”

“Who?”

“She has.”

“She? — Sir Willoughby?”

“Refused! — declines the honour.”

“Oh, never! No, that carries the incredible beyond romance. But is he perfectly at. . . ”

“Quite, it seems. And she was asked in due form and refused.”

“No, and no again!”

“My dear, I have it from Mr. Dale.”

“Mr. Dale, what can be the signification of her conduct?”

“Indeed, Lady Culmer,” said Mr. Dale, not unpleasantly agitated by the interest he excited, in spite of his astonishment at a public discussion of the matter in this house, “I am in the dark. Her father should know, but I do not. Her door is locked to me; I have not seen her. I am absolutely in the dark. I am a recluse. I have forgotten the ways of the world. I should have supposed her father would first have been addressed.”

“Tut-tut. Modern gentlemen are not so formal; they are creatures of impulse and take a pride in it. He spoke. We settle that. But where did you get this tale of a refusal?”

“I have it from Dr. Middleton.”

“From Dr. Middleton?” shouted Lady Busshe.

“The Middletons are here,” said Lady Culmer.

“What whirl are we in?” Lady Busshe got up, ran two or three steps and seated herself in another chair. “Oh! do let us proceed upon system. If not we shall presently be rageing; we shall be dangerous. The Middletons are here, and Dr. Middleton himself communicates to Mr. Dale that Laetitia Dale has refused the hand of Sir Willoughby, who is ostensibly engaged to his own daughter! And pray, Mr. Dale, how did Dr. Middleton speak of it? Compose yourself; there is no violent hurry, though our sympathy with you and our interest in all the parties does perhaps agitate us a little. Quite at your leisure — speak!”

“Madam. . . Lady Busshe.” Mr. Dale gulped a ball in his throat. “I see no reason why I should not speak. I do not see how I can have been deluded. The Miss Patternes heard him. Dr. Middleton began upon it, not I. I was unaware, when I came, that it was a refusal. I had been informed that there was a proposal. My authority for the tale was positive. The object of my visit was to assure myself of the integrity of my daughter’s conduct. She had always the highest sense of honour. But passion is known to mislead, and there was this most strange report. I feared that our humblest apologies were due to Dr. Middleton and his daughter. I know the charm Laetitia can exercise. Madam, in the plainest language, without a possibility of my misapprehending him, Dr. Middleton spoke of himself as the advocate of the suitor for my daughter’s hand. I have a poor head. I supposed at once an amicable rupture between Sir Willoughby and Miss Middleton, or that the version which had reached me of their engagement was not strictly accurate. My head is weak. Dr. Middleton’s language is trying to a head like mine; but I can speak positively on the essential points: he spoke of himself as ready to be the impassioned advocate of the suitor for my daughter’s hand. Those were his words. I understood him to entreat me to intercede with her. Nay, the name was mentioned. There was no concealment. I am certain there could not be a misapprehension. And my feelings were touched by his anxiety for Sir Willoughby’s happiness. I attributed it to a sentiment upon which I need not dwell. Impassioned advocate, he said.”

“We are in a perfect maelstrom!” cried Lady Busshe, turning to everybody.

“It is a complete hurricane!” cried Lady Culmer.

A light broke over the faces of the Patterne ladies. They exchanged it with one another.

They had been so shocked as to be almost offended by Lady Busshe, but their natural gentleness and habitual submission rendered them unequal to the task of checking her.

“Is it not,” said Miss Eleanor, “a misunderstanding that a change of names will rectify?”

“This is by no means the first occasion,” said Miss Isabel, “that Willoughby has pleaded for his cousin Vernon.”

“We deplore extremely the painful error into which Mr. Dale has fallen.”

“It springs, we now perceive, from an entire misapprehension of Dr. Middleton.”

“Vernon was in his mind. It was clear to us.”

“Impossible that it could have been Willoughby!”

“You see the impossibility, the error!”

“And the Middletons here!” said Lady Busshe. “Oh! if we leave unilluminated we shall be the laughing-stock of the county. Mr. Dale, please, wake up. Do you see? You may have been mistaken.”

“Lady Busshe,” he woke up; “I may have mistaken Dr. Middleton; he has a language that I can compare only to a review-day of the field forces. But I have the story on authority that I cannot question: it is confirmed by my daughter’s unexampled behaviour. And if I live through this day I shall look about me as a ghost tomorrow.”

“Dear Mr. Dale!” said the Patterne ladies, compassionately. Lady Busshe murmured to them: “You know the two did not agree; they did not get on: I saw it; I predicted it.”

“She will understand him in time,” said they.

“Never. And my belief is, they have parted by consent, and Letty Dale wins the day at last. Yes, now I do believe it.”

The ladies maintained a decided negative, but they knew too much not to feel perplexed, and they betrayed it, though they said: “Dear Lady Busshe! is it credible, in decency?”

“Dear Mrs. Mountstuart!” Lady Busshe invoked her great rival appearing among them: “You come most opportunely; we are in a state of inextricable confusion: we are bordering on frenzy. You, and none but you, can help us. You know, you always know; we hang on you. Is there any truth in it? a particle?”

Mrs. Mountstuart seated herself regally “Ah, Mr. Dale!” she said, inclining to him. “Yes, dear Lady Busshe, there is a particle.”

“Now, do not roast us. You can; you have the art. I have the whole story. That is, I have a part. I mean, I have the outlines, I cannot be deceived, but you can fill them in, I know you can. I saw it yesterday. Now, tell us, tell us. It must be quite true or utterly false. Which is it?”

“Be precise.”

“His fatality! you called her. Yes, I was sceptical. But here we have it all come round again, and if the tale is true, I shall own you infallible. Has he? — and she?”

“Both.”

“And the Middletons here? They have not gone; they keep the field. And more astounding, she refuses him. And to add to it, Dr. Middleton intercedes with Mr. Dale for Sir Willoughby.”

“Dr. Middleton intercedes!” This was rather astonishing to Mrs. Mountstuart.

“For Vernon,” Miss Eleanor emphasized.

“For Vernon Whitford, his cousin.” said Miss Isabel, still more emphatically.

“Who,” said Mrs. Mountstuart, with a sovereign lift and turn of her head, “speaks of a refusal?”

“I have it from Mr. Dale,” said Lady Busshe.

“I had it, I thought, distinctly from Dr. Middleton,” said Mr. Dale.

“That Willoughby proposed to Laetitia for his cousin Vernon, Doctor Middleton meant,” said Miss Eleanor.

Her sister followed: “Hence this really ridiculous misconception! — sad, indeed,” she added, for balm to Mr. Dale.

“Willoughby was Vernon’s proxy. His cousin, if not his first, is ever the second thought with him.”

“But can we continue. . .?”

“Such a discussion!”

Mrs. Mountstuart gave them a judicial hearing. They were regarded in the county as the most indulgent of nonentities, and she as little as Lady Busshe was restrained from the burning topic in their presence. She pronounced:

“Each party is right, and each is wrong.”

A dry: “I shall shriek!” came from Lady Busshe.

“Cruel!” groaned Lady Culmer.

“Mixed, you are all wrong. Disentangled, you are each of you right. Sir Willoughby does think of his cousin Vernon; he is anxious to establish him; he is the author of a proposal to that effect.”

“We know it!” the Patterne ladies exclaimed. “And Laetitia rejected poor Vernon once more!”

“Who spoke of Miss Dale’s rejection of Mr. Whitford?”

“Is he not rejected?” Lady Culmer inquired.

“It is in debate, and at this moment being decided.”

“Oh! do he seated, Mr. Dale,” Lady Busshe implored him, rising to thrust him back to his chair if necessary. “Any dislocation, and we are thrown out again! We must hold together if this riddle is ever to be read. Then, dear Mrs. Mountstuart, we are to say that there is-no truth in the other story?”

“You are to say nothing of the sort, dear Lady Busshe.”

“Be merciful! And what of the fatality?”

“As positive as the Pole to the needle.”

“She has not refused him?”

“Ask your own sagacity.”

“Accepted?”

“Wait.”

“And all the world’s ahead of me! Now, Mrs. Mountstuart, you are oracle. Riddles, if you like, only speak. If we can’t have corn, why, give us husks.”

“Is any one of us able to anticipate events, Lady Busshe?”

“Yes, I believe that you are. I bow to you. I do sincerely. So it’s another person for Mr. Whitford? You nod. And it is our Laetitia for Sir Willoughby? You smile. You would not deceive me? A very little, and I run about crazed and howl at your doors. And Dr. Middleton is made to play blind man in the midst? And the other person is — now I see day! An amicable rupture, and a smooth new arrangement. She has money; she was never the match for our hero; never; I saw it yesterday, and before, often; and so he hands her over — tuthe-rum-tum-tum, tuthe-rum-tum-tum,” Lady Busshe struck a quick march on her knee. “Now isn’t that clever guessing? The shadow of a clue for me. And because I know human nature. One peep, and I see the combination in a minute. So he keeps the money in the family, becomes a benefactor to his cousin by getting rid of the girl, and succumbs to his fatality. Rather a pity he let it ebb and flow so long. Time counts the tides, you know. But it improves the story. I defy any other county in the kingdom to produce one fresh and living to equal it. Let me tell you I suspected Mr. Whitford, and I hinted it yesterday.”

“Did you indeed!” said Mrs. Mountstuart, humouring her excessive acuteness.

“I really did. There is that dear good man on his feet again. And looks agitated again.”

Mr. Dale had been compelled both by the lady’s voice and his interest in the subject to listen. He had listened more than enough; he was exceedingly nervous. He held on by his chair, afraid to quit his moorings, and “Manners!” he said to himself unconsciously aloud, as he cogitated on the libertine way with which these chartered great ladies of the district discussed his daughter. He was heard and unnoticed. The supposition, if any, would have been that he was admonishing himself. At this juncture Sir Willoughby entered the drawing-room by the garden window, and simultaneously Dr. Middleton by the door.

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