The Egoist, by George Meredith

Chapter 47

Sir Willoughby and His Friend Horace De Craye

Willoughby shut himself up in his laboratory to brood awhile after the conflict. Sounding through himself, as it was habitual with him to do, for the plan most agreeable to his taste, he came on a strange discovery among the lower circles of that microcosm. He was no longer guided in his choice by liking and appetite: he had to put it on the edge of a sharp discrimination, and try it by his acutest judgement before it was acceptable to his heart: and knowing well the direction of his desire, he was nevertheless unable to run two strides on a wish. He had learned to read the world: his partial capacity for reading persons had fled. The mysteries of his own bosom were bare to him; but he could comprehend them only in their immediate relation to the world outside. This hateful world had caught him and transformed him to a machine. The discovery he made was, that in the gratification of the egoistic instinct we may so beset ourselves as to deal a slaughtering wound upon Self to whatsoever quarter we turn.

Surely there is nothing stranger in mortal experience. The man was confounded. At the game of Chess it is the dishonour of our adversary when we are stale-mated: but in life, combatting the world, such a winning of the game questions our sentiments.

Willoughby’s interpretation of his discovery was directed by pity: he had no other strong emotion left in him. He pitied himself, and he reached the conclusion that he suffered because he was active; he could not be quiescent. Had it not been for his devotion to his house and name, never would he have stood twice the victim of womankind. Had he been selfish, he would have been the happiest of men! He said it aloud. He schemed benevolently for his unborn young, and for the persons about him: hence he was in a position forbidding a step under pain of injury to his feelings. He was generous: otherwise would he not in scorn of soul, at the outset, straight off have pitched Clara Middleton to the wanton winds? He was faithful in his affection: Laetitia Dale was beneath his roof to prove it. Both these women were examples of his power of forgiveness, and now a tender word to Clara might fasten shame on him — such was her gratitude! And if he did not marry Laetitia, laughter would be devilish all around him — such was the world’s! Probably Vernon would not long be thankful for the chance which varied the monotony of his days. What of Horace? Willoughby stripped to enter the ring with Horace: he cast away disguise. That man had been the first to divide him in the all but equal slices of his egoistic from his amatory self: murder of his individuality was the crime of Horace De Craye. And further, suspicion fixed on Horace (he knew not how, except that The Book bids us be suspicious of those we hate) as the man who had betrayed his recent dealings with Laetitia.

Willoughby walked the thoroughfares of the house to meet Clara and make certain of her either for himself, or, if it must be, for Vernon, before he took another step with Laetitia Dale. Clara could reunite him, turn him once more into a whole and an animated man; and she might be willing. Her willingness to listen to Vernon promised it. “A gentleman with a tongue would have a chance”, Mrs. Mountstuart had said. How much greater the chance of a lover! For he had not yet supplicated her: he had shown pride and temper. He could woo, he was a torrential wooer. And it would be glorious to swing round on Lady Busshe and the world, with Clara nestling under an arm, and protest astonishment at the erroneous and utterly unfounded anticipations of any other development. And it would righteously punish Laetitia.

Clara came downstairs, bearing her letter to Miss Darleton.

“Must it be posted?” Willoughby said, meeting her in the hall.

“They expect us any day, but it will be more comfortable for papa,” was her answer. She looked kindly in her new shyness.

She did not seem to think he had treated her contemptuously in flinging her to his cousin, which was odd.

“You have seen Vernon?”

“It was your wish.”

“You had a talk?”

“We conversed.”

“A long one?”

“We walked some distance.”

“Clara, I tried to make the best arrangement I could.”

“Your intention was generous.”

“He took no advantage of it?”

“It could not be treated seriously.”

“It was meant seriously.”

“There I see the generosity.”

Willoughby thought this encomium, and her consent to speak on the subject, and her scarcely embarrassed air and richness of tone in speaking, very strange: and strange was her taking him quite in earnest. Apparently she had no feminine sensation of the unwontedness and the absurdity of the matter!

“But, Clara, am I to understand that he did not speak out?”

“We are excellent friends.”

“To miss it, though his chance were the smallest!”

“You forget that it may not wear that appearance to him.”

“He spoke not one word of himself?”

“No.”

“Ah! the poor old fellow was taught to see it was hopeless — chilled. May I plead? Will you step into the laboratory for a minute? We are two sensible persons. . . ”

“Pardon me, I must go to papa.”

“Vernon’s personal history, perhaps. . . ”

“I think it honourable to him.”

“Honourable! —‘hem!”

“By comparison.”

“Comparison with what?”

“With others.”

He drew up to relieve himself of a critical and condemnatory expiration of a certain length. This young lady knew too much. But how physically exquisite she was!

“Could you, Clara, could you promise me — I hold to it. I must have it, I know his shy tricks — promise me to give him ultimately another chance? Is the idea repulsive to you?”

“It is one not to be thought of.”

“It is not repulsive?”

“Nothing could be repulsive in Mr. Whitford.”

“I have no wish to annoy you, Clara.”

“I feel bound to listen to you, Willoughby. Whatever I can do to please you, I will. It is my life-long duty.”

“Could you, Clara, could you conceive it, could you simply conceive it — give him your hand?”

“As a friend. Oh, yes.”

“In marriage.”

She paused. She, so penetrative of him when he opposed her, was hoodwinked when he softened her feelings: for the heart, though the clearest, is not the most constant instructor of the head; the heart, unlike the often obtuser head, works for itself and not for the commonwealth.

“You are so kind. . . I would do much. . . ” she said.

“Would you accept him — marry him? He is poor.”

“I am not ambitious of wealth.”

“Would you marry him?”

“Marriage is not in my thoughts.”

“But could you marry him?”

Willoughby expected no. In his expectation of it he hung inflated.

She said these words: “I could engage to marry no one else.” His amazement breathed without a syllable.

He flapped his arms, resembling for the moment those birds of enormous body which attempt a rise upon their wings and achieve a hop.

“Would you engage it?” he said, content to see himself stepped on as an insect if he could but feel the agony of his false friend Horace — their common pretensions to win her were now of that comparative size.

“Oh! there can be no necessity. And an oath — no!” said Clara, inwardly shivering at a recollection.

“But you could?”

“My wish is to please you.”

“You could?”

“I said so.”

It has been known to the patriotic mountaineer of a hoary pile of winters, with little life remaining in him, but that little on fire for his country, that by the brink of the precipice he has flung himself on a young and lusty invader, dedicating himself exultingly to death if only he may score a point for his country by extinguishing in his country’s enemy the stronger man. So likewise did Willoughby, in the blow that deprived him of hope, exult in the toppling over of Horace De Craye. They perished together, but which one sublimely relished the headlong descent? And Vernon taken by Clara would be Vernon simply tolerated. And Clara taken by Vernon would be Clara previously touched, smirched. Altogether he could enjoy his fall.

It was at least upon a comfortable bed, where his pride would be dressed daily and would never be disagreeably treated.

He was henceforth Laetitia’s own. The bell telling of Dr. Corney’s return was a welcome sound to Willoughby, and he said good-humouredly: “Wait, Clara, you will see your hero Crossjay.”

Crossjay and Dr. Corney tumbled into the hall. Willoughby caught Crossjay under the arms to give him a lift in the old fashion pleasing to Clara to see. The boy was heavy as lead.

“I had work to hook him and worse to net him,” said Dr. Corney. “I had to make him believe he was to nurse every soul in the house, you among them, Miss Middleton.”

Willoughby pulled the boy aside.

Crossjay came back to Clara heavier in looks than his limbs had been. She dropped her letter in the hall-box, and took his hand to have a private hug of him. When they were alone, she said: “Crossjay, my dear, my dear! you look unhappy.”

“Yes, and who wouldn’t be, and you’re not to marry Sir Willoughby!” his voice threatened a cry. “I know you’re not, for Dr. Corney says you are going to leave.”

“Did you so very much wish it, Crossjay?”

“I should have seen a lot of you, and I sha’n’t see you at all, and I’m sure if I’d known I wouldn’t have — And he has been and tipped me this.”

Crossjay opened his fist in which lay three gold pieces.

“That was very kind of him,” said Clara.

“Yes, but how can I keep it?”

“By handing it to Mr. Whitford to keep for you.”

“Yes, but, Miss Middleton, oughtn’t I to tell him? I mean Sir Willoughby.”

“What?”

“Why, that I”— Crossjay got close to her —“why, that I, that I— you know what you used to say. I wouldn’t tell a lie, but oughtn’t I, without his asking. . . and this money! I don’t mind being turned out again.”

“Consult Mr. Whitford,” said Clara.

“I know what you think, though.”

“Perhaps you had better not say anything at present, dear boy.”

“But what am I to do with this money?”

Crossjay held the gold pieces out as things that had not yet mingled with his ideas of possession.

“I listened, and I told of him,” he said. “I couldn’t help listening, but I went and told; and I don’t like being here, and his money, and he not knowing what I did. Haven’t you heard? I’m certain I know what you think, and so do I, and I must take my luck. I’m always in mischief, getting into a mess or getting out of it. I don’t mind, I really don’t, Miss Middleton, I can sleep in a tree quite comfortably. If you’re not going to be here, I’d just as soon be anywhere. I must try to earn my living some day. And why not a cabin-boy? Sir Cloudesley Shovel was no better. And I don’t mind his being wrecked at last, if you’re drowned an admiral. So I shall go and ask him to take his money back, and if he asks me I shall tell him, and there. You know what it is: I guessed that from what Dr. Corney said. I’m sure I know you’re thinking what’s manly. Fancy me keeping his money, and you not marrying him! I wouldn’t mind driving a plough. I shouldn’t make a bad gamekeeper. Of course I love boats best, but you can’t have everything.”

“Speak to Mr. Whitford first,” said Clara, too proud of the boy for growing as she had trained him, to advise a course of conduct opposed to his notions of manliness, though now that her battle was over she would gladly have acquiesced in little casuistic compromises for the sake of the general peace.

Some time later Vernon and Dr. Corney were arguing upon the question. Corney was dead against the sentimental view of the morality of the case propounded by Vernon as coming from Miss Middleton and partly shared by him. “If it’s on the boy’s mind,” Vernon said, “I can’t prohibit his going to Willoughby and making a clean breast of it, especially as it involves me, and sooner or later I should have to tell him myself.”

Dr. Corney said no at all points. “Now hear me,” he said, finally. “This is between ourselves, and no breach of confidence, which I’d not be guilty of for forty friends, though I’d give my hand from the wrist-joint for one — my left, that’s to say. Sir Willoughby puts me one or two searching interrogations on a point of interest to him, his house and name. Very well, and good night to that, and I wish Miss Dale had been ten years younger, or had passed the ten with no heartrisings and sinkings wearing to the tissues of the frame and the moral fibre to boot. She’ll have a fairish health, with a little occasional doctoring; taking her rank and wealth in right earnest, and shying her pen back to Mother Goose. She’ll do. And, by the way, I think it’s to the credit of my sagacity that I fetched Mr. Dale here fully primed, and roused the neighbourhood, which I did, and so fixed our gentleman, neat as a prodded eel on a pair of prongs — namely, the positive fact and the general knowledge of it. But, mark me, my friend. We understand one another at a nod. This boy, young Squire Crossjay, is a good stiff hearty kind of a Saxon boy, out of whom you may cut as gallant a fellow as ever wore epaulettes. I like him, you like him, Miss Dale and Miss Middleton like him; and Sir Willoughby Patterne, of Patterne Hall and other places, won’t be indisposed to like him mightily in the event of the sun being seen to shine upon him with a particular determination to make him appear a prominent object, because a solitary, and a Patterne.” Dr. Corney lifted his chest and his finger: “Now mark me, and verbum sap: Crossjay must not offend Sir Willoughby. I say no more. Look ahead. Miracles happen, but it’s best to reckon that they won’t. Well, now, and Miss Dale. She’ll not be cruel.”

“It appears as if she would,” said Vernon, meditating on the cloudy sketch Dr. Corney had drawn.

“She can’t, my friend. Her position’s precarious; her father has little besides a pension. And her writing damages her health. She can’t. And she likes the baronet. Oh, it’s only a little fit of proud blood. She’s the woman for him. She’ll manage him — give him an idea he’s got a lot of ideas. It’d kill her father if she were obstinate. He talked to me, when I told him of the business, about his dream fulfilled, and if the dream turns to vapour, he’ll be another example that we hang more upon dreams than realities for nourishment, and medicine too. Last week I couldn’t have got him out of his house with all my art and science. Oh, she’ll come round. Her father prophesied this, and I’ll prophesy that. She’s fond of him.”

“She was.”

“She sees through him?”

“Without quite doing justice to him now,” said Vernon. “He can be generous — in his way.”

“How?” Corney inquired, and was informed that he should hear in time to come.

Meanwhile Colonel De Craye, after hovering over the park and about the cottage for the opportunity of pouncing on Miss Middleton alone, had returned crest-fallen for once, and plumped into Willoughby’s hands.

“My dear Horace,” Willoughby said, “I’ve been looking for you all the afternoon. The fact is — I fancy you’ll think yourself lured down here on false pretences: but the truth is, I am not so much to blame as the world will suppose. In point of fact, to be brief, Miss Dale and I. . . I never consult other men how they would have acted. The fact of the matter is, Miss Middleton. . . I fancy you have partly guessed it.”

“Partly,” said De Craye.

“Well, she has a liking that way, and if it should turn out strong enough, it’s the best arrangement I can think of,” The lively play of the colonel’s features fixed in a blank inquiry.

“One can back a good friend for making a good husband,” said Willoughby. “I could not break with her in the present stage of affairs without seeing to that. And I can speak of her highly, though she and I have seen in time that we do not suit one another. My wife must have brains.”

“I have always thought it,” said Colonel De Craye, glistening, and looking hungry as a wolf through his wonderment.

“There will not be a word against her, you understand. You know my dislike of tattle and gossip. However, let it fall on me; my shoulders are broad. I have done my utmost to persuade her, and there seems a likelihood of her consenting. She tells me her wish is to please me, and this will please me.”

“Certainly. Who’s the gentleman?”

“My best friend, I tell you. I could hardly have proposed another. Allow this business to go on smoothly just now.” There was an uproar within the colonel to blind his wits, and Willoughby looked so friendly that it was possible to suppose the man of projects had mentioned his best friend to Miss Middleton.

And who was the best friend?

Not having accused himself of treachery, the quick-eyed colonel was duped.

“Have you his name handy, Willoughby?”

“That would be unfair to him at present, Horace — ask yourself — and to her. Things are in a ticklish posture at present. Don’t be hasty.”

“Certainly. I don’t ask. Initials’ll do.”

“You have a remarkable aptitude for guessing, Horace, and this case offers you no tough problem — if ever you acknowledged toughness. I have a regard for her and for him — for both pretty equally; you know I have, and I should be thoroughly thankful to bring the matter about.”

“Lordly!” said De Craye.

“I don’t see it. I call it sensible.”

“Oh, undoubtedly. The style, I mean. Tolerably antique?”

“Novel, I should say, and not the worse for that. We want plain practical dealings between men and women. Usually we go the wrong way to work. And I loathe sentimental rubbish.”

De Craye hummed an air. “But the lady?” said he.

“I told you, there seems a likelihood of her consenting.”

Willoughby’s fish gave a perceptible little leap now that he had been taught to exercise his aptitude for guessing.

“Without any of the customary preliminaries on the side of the gentleman?” he said.

“We must put him through his paces, friend Horace. He’s a notorious blunderer with women; hasn’t a word for them, never marked a conquest.”

De Craye crested his plumes under the agreeable banter. He presented a face humourously sceptical.

“The lady is positively not indisposed to give the poor fellow a hearing?”

“I have cause to think she is not,” said Willoughby, glad of acting the indifference to her which could talk of her inclinations.

“Cause?”

“Good cause.”

“Bless us!”

“As good as one can have with a woman.”

“Ah?”

“I assure you.”

“Ah! Does it seem like her, though?”

“Well, she wouldn’t engage herself to accept him.”

“Well, that seems more like her.”

“But she said she could engage to marry no one else.”

The colonel sprang up, crying: “Clara Middleton said it?” He curbed himself “That’s a bit of wonderful compliancy.”

“She wishes to please me. We separate on those terms. And I wish her happiness. I’ve developed a heart lately and taken to think of others.”

“Nothing better. You appear to make cock sure of the other party — our friend?”

“You know him too well, Horace, to doubt his readiness.”

“Do you, Willoughby?”

“She has money and good looks. Yes, I can say I do.”

“It wouldn’t be much of a man who’d want hard pulling to that lighted altar!”

“And if he requires persuasion, you and I, Horace, might bring him to his senses.”

“Kicking, ’t would be!”

“I like to see everybody happy about me,” said Willoughby, naming the hour as time to dress for dinner.

The sentiment he had delivered was De Craye’s excuse for grasping his hand and complimenting him; but the colonel betrayed himself by doing it with an extreme fervour almost tremulous.

“When shall we hear more?” he said.

“Oh, probably tomorrow,” said Willoughby. “Don’t be in such a hurry.”

“I’m an infant asleep!” the colonel replied, departing.

He resembled one, to Willoughby’s mind: or a traitor drugged.

“There is a fellow I thought had some brains!”

Who are not fools to beset spinning if we choose to whip them with their vanity! it is the consolation of the great to watch them spin. But the pleasure is loftier, and may comfort our unmerited misfortune for a while, in making a false friend drunk.

Willoughby, among his many preoccupations, had the satisfaction of seeing the effect of drunkenness on Horace De Craye when the latter was in Clara’s presence. He could have laughed. Cut in keen epigram were the marginal notes added by him to that chapter of The Book which treats of friends and a woman; and had he not been profoundly preoccupied, troubled by recent intelligence communicated by the ladies, his aunts, he would have played the two together for the royal amusement afforded him by his friend Horace.

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