The Egoist, by George Meredith

Chapter 48

The Lovers

The hour was close upon eleven at night. Laetitia sat in the room adjoining her father’s bedchamber. Her elbow was on the table beside her chair, and two fingers pressed her temples. The state between thinking and feeling, when both are molten and flow by us, is one of our natures coming after thought has quieted the fiery nerves, and can do no more. She seemed to be meditating. She was conscious only of a struggle past.

She answered a tap at the door, and raised her eyes on Clara. Clara stepped softly. “Mr. Dale is asleep?”

“I hope so.”

“Ah! dear friend.”

Laetitia let her hand be pressed.

“Have you had a pleasant evening?”

“Mr. Whitford and papa have gone to the library.”

“Colonel De Craye has been singing?”

“Yes — with a voice! I thought of you upstairs, but could not ask him to sing piano.”

“He is probably exhilarated.”

“One would suppose it: he sang well.”

“You are not aware of any reason?”

“It cannot concern me.”

Clara was in rosy colour, but could meet a steady gaze.

“And Crossjay has gone to bed?”

“Long since. He was at dessert. He would not touch anything.”

“He is a strange boy.”

“Not very strange, Laetitia.”

“He did not come to me to wish me good-night.”

“That is not strange.”

“It is his habit at the cottage and here; and he professes to like me.”

“Oh, he does. I may have wakened his enthusiasm, but you he loves.”

“Why do you say it is not strange, Clara?”

“He fears you a little.”

“And why should Crossjay fear me?”

“Dear, I will tell you. Last night — You will forgive him, for it was by accident: his own bed-room door was locked and he ran down to the drawing-room and curled himself up on the ottoman, and fell asleep, under that padded silken coverlet of the ladies — boots and all, I am afraid!”

Laetitia profited by this absurd allusion, thanking Clara in her heart for the refuge.

“He should have taken off his boots,” she said.

“He slept there, and woke up. Dear, he meant no harm. Next day he repeated what he had heard. You will blame him. He meant well in his poor boy’s head. And now it is over the county. Ah! do not frown.”

“That explains Lady Busshe!” exclaimed Laetitia.

“Dear, dear friend,” said Clara. “Why — I presume on your tenderness for me; but let me: tomorrow I go — why will you reject your happiness? Those kind good ladies are deeply troubled. They say your resolution is inflexible; you resist their entreaties and your father’s. Can it be that you have any doubt of the strength of this attachment? I have none. I have never had a doubt that it was the strongest of his feelings. If before I go I could see you. . . both happy, I should be relieved, I should rejoice.”

Laetitia said, quietly: “Do you remember a walk we had one day together to the cottage?”

Clara put up her hands with the motion of intending to stop her ears.

“Before I go!” said she. “If I might know this was to be, which all desire, before I leave, I should not feel as I do now. I long to see you happy. . . him, yes, him too. Is it like asking you to pay my debt? Then, please! But, no; I am not more than partly selfish on this occasion. He has won my gratitude. He can be really generous.”

“An Egoist?”

“Who is?”

“You have forgotten our conversation on the day of our walk to the cottage?”

“Help me to forget it — that day, and those days, and all those days! I should be glad to think I passed a time beneath the earth, and have risen again. I was the Egoist. I am sure, if I had been buried, I should not have stood up seeing myself more vilely stained, soiled, disfigured — oh! Help me to forget my conduct, Laetitia. He and I were unsuited — and I remember I blamed myself then. You and he are not: and now I can perceive the pride that can be felt in him. The worst that can be said is that he schemes too much.”

“Is there any fresh scheme?” said Laetitia.

The rose came over Clara’s face.

“You have not heard? It was impossible, but it was kindly intended. Judging by my own feeling at this moment, I can understand his. We love to see our friends established.”

Laetitia bowed. “My curiosity is piqued, of course.”

“Dear friend, tomorrow we shall be parted. I trust to be thought of by you as a little better in grain than I have appeared, and my reason for trusting it is that I know I have been always honest — a boorish young woman in my stupid mad impatience: but not insincere. It is no lofty ambition to desire to be remembered in that character, but such is your Clara, she discovers. I will tell you. It is his wish. . . his wish that I should promise to give my hand to Mr. Whitford. You see the kindness.”

Laetitia’s eyes widened and fixed:

“You think it kindness?”

“The intention. He sent Mr. Whitford to me, and I was taught to expect him.”

“Was that quite kind to Mr. Whitford?”

“What an impression I must have made on you during that walk to the cottage, Laetitia! I do not wonder; I was in a fever.”

“You consented to listen?”

“I really did. It astonishes me now, but I thought I could not refuse.”

“My poor friend Vernon Whitford tried a love speech?”

“He? no: Oh! no.”

“You discouraged him?”

“I? No.”

“Gently, I mean.”

“No.”

“Surely you did not dream of trifling? He has a deep heart.”

“Has he?”

“You ask that: and you know something of him.”

“He did not expose it to me, dear; not even the surface of the mighty deep.”

Laetitia knitted her brows.

“No,” said Clara, “not a coquette: she is not a coquette, I assure you.”

With a laugh, Laetitia replied: “You have still the ‘dreadful power’ you made me feel that day.”

“I wish I could use it to good purpose!”

“He did not speak?”

“Of Switzerland, Tyrol, the Iliad, Antigone.”

“That was all?”

“No, Political Economy. Our situation, you will own, was unexampled: or mine was. Are you interested in me?”

“I should be if I knew your sentiments.”

“I was grateful to Sir Willoughby: grieved for Mr. Whitford.”

“Real grief?”

“Because the task unposed on him of showing me politely that he did not enter into his cousin’s ideas was evidently very great, extremely burdensome.”

“You, so quick-eyed in some things, Clara!”

“He felt for me. I saw that in his avoidance of. . . And he was, as he always is, pleasant. We rambled over the park for I know not how long, though it did not seem long.”

“Never touching that subject?”

“Not ever neighbouring it, dear. A gentleman should esteem the girl he would ask. . . certain questions. I fancy he has a liking for me as a volatile friend.”

“If he had offered himself?”

“Despising me?”

“You can be childish, Clara. Probably you delight to tease. He had his time of it, and it is now my turn.”

“But he must despise me a little.”

“Are you blind?”

“Perhaps, dear, we both are, a little.”

The ladies looked deeper into one another.

“Will you answer me?” said Laetitia.

“Your if? If he had, it would have been an act of condescension.”

“You are too slippery.”

“Stay, dear Laetitia. He was considerate in forbearing to pain me.”

“That is an answer. You allowed him to perceive that it would have pained you.”

“Dearest, if I may convey to you what I was, in a simile for comparison: I think I was like a fisherman’s float on the water, perfectly still, and ready to go down at any instant, or up. So much for my behaviour.”

“Similes have the merit of satisfying the finder of them, and cheating the hearer,” said Laetitia. “You admit that your feelings would have been painful.”

“I was a fisherman’s float: please admire my simile; any way you like, this way or that, or so quiet as to tempt the eyes to go to sleep. And suddenly I might have disappeared in the depths, or flown in the air. But no fish bit.”

“Well, then, to follow you, supposing the fish or the fisherman, for I don’t know which is which. . . Oh! no, no: this is too serious for imagery. I am to understand that you thanked him at least for his reserve.”

“Yes.”

“Without the slightest encouragement to him to break it?”

“A fisherman’s float, Laetitia!”

Baffled and sighing, Laetitia kept silence for a space. The simile chafed her wits with a suspicion of a meaning hidden in it.

“If he had spoken?” she said.

“He is too truthful a man.”

“And the railings of men at pussy women who wind about and will not be brought to a mark, become intelligible to me.”

“Then Laetitia, if he had spoken, if, and one could have imagined him sincere. . . ”

“So truthful a man?”

“I am looking at myself If! — why, then, I should have burnt to death with shame. Where have I read? — some story — of an inextinguishable spark. That would have been shot into my heart.”

“Shame, Clara? You are free.”

“As much as remains of me.”

“I could imagine a certain shame, in such a position, where there was no feeling but pride.”

“I could not imagine it where there was no feeling but pride.”

Laetitia mused. “And you dwell on the kindness of a proposition so extraordinary!” Gaining some light, impatiently she cried: “Vernon loves you.”

“Do not say it!”

“I have seen it.”

“I have never had a sign of it.”

“There is the proof.”

“When it might have been shown again and again!”

“The greater proof!”

“Why did he not speak when he was privileged? — strangely, but privileged.”

“He feared.”

“Me?”

“Feared to wound you — and himself as well, possibly. Men may be pardoned for thinking of themselves in these cases.”

“But why should he fear?”

“That another was dearer to you?”

“What cause had I given. . . Ah I see! He could fear that; suspect it! See his opinion of me! Can he care for such a girl? Abuse me, Laetitia. I should like a good round of abuse. I need purification by fire. What have I been in this house? I have a sense of whirling through it like a madwoman. And to be loved, after it all! — No! we must be hearing a tale of an antiquary prizing a battered relic of the battle-field that no one else would look at. To be loved, I see, is to feel our littleness, hollowness — feel shame. We come out in all our spots. Never to have given me one sign, when a lover would have been so tempted! Let me be incredulous, my own dear Laetitia. Because he is a man of honour, you would say! But are you unconscious of the torture you inflict? For if I am-you say it — loved by this gentleman, what an object it is he loves — that has gone clamouring about more immodestly than women will bear to hear of, and she herself to think of! Oh, I have seen my own heart. It is a frightful spectre. I have seen a weakness in me that would have carried me anywhere. And truly I shall be charitable to women — I have gained that. But loved! by Vernon Whitford! The miserable little me to be taken up and loved after tearing myself to pieces! Have you been simply speculating? You have no positive knowledge of it! Why do you kiss me?”

“Why do you tremble and blush so?”

Clara looked at her as clearly as she could. She bowed her head. “It makes my conduct worse!”

She received a tenderer kiss for that. It was her avowal, and it was understood: to know that she had loved or had been ready to love him, shadowed her in the retrospect.

“Ah! you read me through and through,” said Clara, sliding to her for a whole embrace.

“Then there never was cause for him to fear?” Laetitia whispered.

Clara slid her head more out of sight. “Not that my heart. . . But I said I have seen it; and it is unworthy of him. And if, as I think now, I could have been so rash, so weak, wicked, unpardonable — such thoughts were in me! — then to hear him speak would make it necessary for me to uncover myself and tell him — incredible to you, yes! — that while. . . yes, Laetitia, all this is true: and thinking of him as the noblest of men, I could have welcomed any help to cut my knot. So there,” said Clara, issuing from her nest with winking eyelids, “you see the pain I mentioned.”

“Why did you not explain it to me at once?”

“Dearest, I wanted a century to pass.”

“And you feel that it has passed?”

“Yes; in Purgatory — with an angel by me. My report of the place will be favourable. Good angel, I have yet to say something.”

“Say it, and expiate.”

“I think I did fancy once or twice, very dimly, and especially today. . . properly I ought not to have had any idea: but his coming to me, and his not doing as another would have done, seemed. . . A gentleman of real nobleness does not carry the common light for us to read him by. I wanted his voice; but silence, I think, did tell me more: if a nature like mine could only have had faith without bearing the rattle of a tongue.”

A knock at the door caused the ladies to exchange looks. Laetitia rose as Vernon entered.

“I am just going to my father for a few minutes,” she said.

“And I have just come from yours.” Vernon said to Clara. She observed a very threatening expression in him. The sprite of contrariety mounted to her brain to indemnify her for her recent self-abasement. Seeing the bedroom door shut on Laetitia, she said: “And of course papa has gone to bed”; implying, “otherwise. . . ”

“Yes, he has gone. He wished me well.”

“His formula of good-night would embrace that wish.”

“And failing, it will be good-night for good to me!”

Clara’s breathing gave a little leap. “We leave early tomorrow.”

“I know. I have an appointment at Bregenz for June.”

“So soon? With papa?”

“And from there we break into Tyrol, and round away to the right, Southward.”

“To the Italian Alps! And was it assumed that I should be of this expedition?”

“Your father speaks dubiously.”

“You have spoken of me, then?”

“I ventured to speak of you. I am not over-bold, as you know.”

Her lovely eyes troubled the lids to hide their softness.

“Papa should not think of my presence with him dubiously.”

“He leaves it to you to decide.”

“Yes, then: many times: all that can be uttered.”

“Do you consider what you are saying?”

“Mr. Whitford, I shut my eyes and say Yes.”

“Beware. I give you one warning. If you shut your eyes. . . ”

“Of course,” she flew from him, “big mountains must be satisfied with my admiration at their feet.”

“That will do for a beginning.”

“They speak encouragingly.”

“One of them.” Vernon’s breast heaved high.

“To be at your feet makes a mountain of you?” said she.

“With the heart of a mouse if that satisfies me!”

“You tower too high; you are inaccessible.”

“I give you a second warning. You may be seized and lifted.”

“Some one would stoop, then.”

“To plant you like the flag on the conquered peak!”

“You have indeed been talking to papa, Mr. Whitford.”

Vernon changed his tone.

“Shall I tell you what he said?”

“I know his language so well.”

“He said —”

“But you have acted on it?”

“Only partly. He said —”

“You will teach me nothing.”

“He said. . . ”

“Vernon, no! oh! not in this house!”

That supplication coupled with his name confessed the end to which her quick vision perceived she was being led, where she would succumb.

She revived the same shrinking in him from a breath of their great word yet: not here; somewhere in the shadow of the mountains.

But he was sure of her. And their hands might join. The two hands thought so, or did not think, behaved like innocents.

The spirit of Dr. Middleton, as Clara felt, had been blown into Vernon, rewarding him for forthright outspeaking. Over their books, Vernon had abruptly shut up a volume and related the tale of the house. “Has this man a spice of religion in him?” the Rev. Doctor asked midway. Vernon made out a fair general case for his cousin in that respect. “The complemental dot on his i of a commonly civilized human creature!” said Dr. Middleton, looking at his watch and finding it too late to leave the house before morning. The risky communication was to come. Vernon was proceeding with the narrative of Willoughby’s generous plan when Dr. Middleton electrified him by calling out: “He whom of all men living I should desire my daughter to espouse!” and Willoughby rose in the Rev. Doctor’s esteem: he praised that sensibly minded gentleman, who could acquiesce in the turn of mood of a little maid, albeit Fortune had withheld from him a taste of the switch at school. The father of the little maid’s appreciation of her volatility was exhibited in his exhortation to Vernon to be off to her at once with his authority to finish her moods and assure him of peace in the morning. Vernon hesitated. Dr. Middleton remarked upon being not so sure that it was not he who had done the mischief. Thereupon Vernon, to prove his honesty, made his own story bare. “Go to her,” said Dr. Middleton. Vernon proposed a meeting in Switzerland, to which Dr. Middleton assented, adding: “Go to her”: and as he appeared a total stranger to the decorum of the situation, Vernon put his delicacy aside, and taking his heart up, obeyed. He too had pondered on Clara’s consent to meet him after she knew of Willoughby’s terms, and her grave sweet manner during the ramble over the park. Her father’s breath had been blown into him; so now, with nothing but the faith lying in sensation to convince him of his happy fortune (and how unconvincing that may be until the mind has grasped and stamped it, we experience even then when we acknowledge that we are most blessed), he held her hand. And if it was hard for him, for both, but harder for the man, to restrain their particular word from a flight to heaven when the cage stood open and nature beckoned, he was practised in self-mastery, and she loved him the more.

Laetitia was a witness of their union of hands on her coming back to the room.

They promised to visit her very early in the morning, neither of them conceiving that they left her to a night of storm and tears.

She sat meditating on Clara’s present appreciation of Sir Willoughby’s generosity.

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