The Egoist, by George Meredith

Chapter 49

Laetitia and Sir Willoughby

We cannot be abettors of the tribes of imps whose revelry is in the frailties of our poor human constitution. They have their place and their service, and so long as we continue to be what we are now, they will hang on to us, restlessly plucking at the garments which cover our nakedness, nor ever ceasing to twitch them and strain at them until they have stripped us for one of their horrible Walpurgis nights: when the laughter heard is of a character to render laughter frightful to the ears of men throughout the remainder of their days. But if in these festival hours under the beam of Hecate they are uncontrollable by the Comic Muse, she will not flatter them with her presence during the course of their insane and impious hilarities, whereof a description would out-Brocken Brockens and make Graymalkin and Paddock too intimately our familiars.

It shall suffice to say that from hour to hour of the midnight to the grey-eyed morn, assisted at intervals by the ladies Eleanor and Isabel, and by Mr. Dale awakened and reawakened — hearing the vehemence of his petitioning outcry to soften her obduracy — Sir Willoughby pursued Laetitia with solicitations to espouse him, until the inveteracy of his wooing wore the aspect of the life-long love he raved of aroused to a state of mania. He appeared, he departed, he returned; and all the while his imps were about him and upon him, riding him, prompting, driving, inspiring him with outrageous pathos, an eloquence to move any one but the dead, which its object seemed to be in her torpid attention. He heard them, he talked to them, caressed them; he flung them off, and ran from them, and stood vanquished for them to mount him again and swarm on him. There are men thus imp-haunted. Men who, setting their minds upon an object, must have it, breed imps. They are noted for their singularities, as their converse with the invisible and amazing distractions are called. Willoughby became aware of them that night. He said to himself, upon one of his dashes into solitude: I believe I am possessed! And if he did not actually believe it, but only suspected it, or framed speech to account for the transformation he had undergone into a desperately beseeching creature, having lost acquaintance with his habitual personality, the operations of an impish host had undoubtedly smitten his consciousness.

He had them in his brain: for while burning with an ardour for Laetitia, that incited him to frantic excesses of language and comportment, he was aware of shouts of the names of Lady Busshe and Mrs. Mountstuart Jenkinson, the which, freezing him as they did, were directly the cause of his hurrying to a wilder extravagance and more headlong determination to subdue before break of day the woman he almost dreaded to behold by daylight, though he had now passionately persuaded himself of his love of her. He could not, he felt, stand in the daylight without her. She was his morning. She was, he raved, his predestinated wife. He cried, “Darling!” both to her and to solitude. Every prescription of his ideal of demeanour as an example to his class and country, was abandoned by the enamoured gentleman. He had lost command of his countenance. He stooped so far as to kneel, and not gracefully. Nay, it is in the chronicles of the invisible host around him, that in a fit of supplication, upon a cry of “Laetitia!” twice repeated, he whimpered.

Let so much suffice. And indeed not without reason do the multitudes of the servants of the Muse in this land of social policy avoid scenes of an inordinate wantonness, which detract from the dignity of our leaders and menace human nature with confusion. Sagacious are they who conduct the individual on broad lines, over familiar tracks, under well-known characteristics. What men will do, and amorously minded men will do, is less the question than what it is politic they should be shown to do.

The night wore through. Laetitia was bent, but had not yielded. She had been obliged to say — and how many times she could not bear to recollect: “I do not love you; I have no love to give”; and issuing from such a night to look again upon the face of day, she scarcely felt that she was alive.

The contest was renewed by her father with the singing of the birds. Mr. Dale then produced the first serious impression she had received. He spoke of their circumstances, of his being taken from her and leaving her to poverty, in weak health; of the injury done to her health by writing for bread; and of the oppressive weight he would be relieved of by her consenting.

He no longer implored her; he put the case on common ground.

And he wound up: “Pray do not be ruthless, my girl.”

The practical statement, and this adjuration incongruously to conclude it, harmonized with her disordered understanding, her loss of all sentiment and her desire to be kind. She sighed to herself. “Happily, it is over!”

Her father was too weak to rise. He fell asleep. She was bound down to the house for hours; and she walked through her suite, here at the doors, there at the windows, thinking of Clara’s remark “of a century passing”. She had not wished it, but a light had come on her to show her what she would have supposed a century could not have effected: she saw the impossible of overnight a possible thing: not desireable, yet possible, wearing the features of the possible. Happily, she had resisted too firmly to be again besought.

Those features of the possible once beheld allured the mind to reconsider them. Wealth gives us the power to do good on earth. Wealth enables us to see the world, the beautiful scenes of the earth. Laetitia had long thirsted both for a dowering money-bag at her girdle, and the wings to fly abroad over lands which had begun to seem fabulous in her starved imagination. Then, moreover, if her sentiment for this gentleman was gone, it was only a delusion gone; accurate sight and knowledge of him would not make a woman the less helpful mate. That was the mate he required: and he could be led. A sentimental attachment would have been serviceless to him. Not so the woman allied by a purely rational bond: and he wanted guiding. Happily, she had told him too much of her feeble health and her lovelessness to be reduced to submit to another attack.

She busied herself in her room, arranging for her departure, so that no minutes might be lost after her father had breakfasted and dressed.

Clara was her earliest visitor, and each asked the other whether she had slept, and took the answer from the face presented to her. The rings of Laetitia’s eyes were very dark. Clara was her mirror, and she said: “A singular object to be persecuted through a night for her hand! I know these two damp dead leaves I wear on my cheeks to remind me of midnight vigils. But you have slept well, Clara.”

“I have slept well, and yet I could say I have not slept at all, Laetitia. I was with you, dear, part in dream and part in thought: hoping to find you sensible before I go.”

“Sensible. That is the word for me.”

Laetitia briefly sketched the history of the night; and Clara said, with a manifest sincerity that testified of her gratitude to Sir Willoughby: “Could you resist him, so earnest as he is?” Laetitia saw the human nature, without sourness: and replied, “I hope, Clara, you will not begin with a large stock of sentiment, for there is nothing like it for making you hard, matter-of-fact, worldly, calculating.”

The next visitor was Vernon, exceedingly anxious for news of Mr. Dale. Laetitia went into her father’s room to obtain it for him. Returning, she found them both with sad visages, and she ventured, in alarm for them, to ask the cause.

“It’s this,” Vernon said: “Willoughby will everlastingly tease that boy to be loved by him. Perhaps, poor fellow, he had an excuse last night. Anyhow, he went into Crossjay’s room this morning, woke him up and talked to him, and set the lad crying, and what with one thing and another Crossjay got a berry in his throat, as he calls it, and poured out everything he knew and all he had done. I needn’t tell you the consequence. He has ruined himself here for good, so I must take him.”

Vernon glanced at Clara. “You must indeed,” said she. “He is my boy as well as yours. No chance of pardon?”

“It’s not likely.”

“Laetitia!”

“What can I do?”

“Oh! what can you not do?”

“I do not know.”

“Teach him to forgive!”

Laetitia’s brows were heavy and Clara forbore to torment her.

She would not descend to the family breakfast-table. Clara would fain have stayed to drink tea with her in her own room, but a last act of conformity was demanded of the liberated young lady. She promised to run up the moment breakfast was over. Not unnaturally, therefore, Laetitia supposed it to be she to whom she gave admission, half an hour later, with a glad cry of, “Come in, dear.”

The knock had sounded like Clara’s.

Sir Willoughby entered.

He stepped forward. He seized her hands. “Dear!” he said.

“You cannot withdraw that. You call me dear. I am, I must be dear to you. The word is out, by accident or not, but, by heaven, I have it and I give it up to no one. And love me or not — marry me, and my love will bring it back to you. You have taught me I am not so strong. I must have you by my side. You have powers I did not credit you with.”

“You are mistaken in me, Sir Willoughby.” Laetitia said feebly, outworn as she was.

“A woman who can resist me by declining to be my wife, through a whole night of entreaty, has the quality I need for my house, and I will batter at her ears for months, with as little rest as I had last night, before I surrender my chance of her. But I told you last night I want you within the twelve hours. I have staked my pride on it. By noon you are mine: you are introduced to Mrs. Mountstuart as mine, as the lady of my life and house. And to the world! I shall not let you go.”

“You will not detain me here, Sir Willoughby?”

“I will detain you. I will use force and guile. I will spare nothing.”

He raved for a term, as he had done overnight.

On his growing rather breathless, Laetitia said: “You do not ask me for love?”

“I do not. I pay you the higher compliment of asking for you, love or no love. My love shall be enough. Reward me or not. I am not used to be denied.”

“But do you know what you ask for? Do you remember what I told you of myself? I am hard, materialistic; I have lost faith in romance, the skeleton is present with me all over life. And my health is not good. I crave for money. I should marry to be rich. I should not worship you. I should be a burden, barely a living one, irresponsive and cold. Conceive such a wife, Sir Willoughby!”

“It will be you!”

She tried to recall how this would have sung in her cars long back. Her bosom rose and fell in absolute dejection. Her ammunition of arguments against him had been expended overnight.

“You are so unforgiving,” she said.

“Is it I who am?”

“You do not know me.”

“But you are the woman of all the world who knows me, Laetitia.”

“Can you think it better for you to be known?”

He was about to say other words: he checked them. “I believe I do not know myself. Anything you will, only give me your hand; give it; trust to me; you shall direct me. If I have faults, help me to obliterate them.”

“Will you not expect me to regard them as the virtues of meaner men?”

“You will be my wife!”

Laetitia broke from him, crying: “Your wife, your critic! Oh, I cannot think it possible. Send for the ladies. Let them hear me.”

“They are at hand,” said Willoughby, opening the door.

They were in one of the upper rooms anxiously on the watch.

“Dear ladies,” Laetitia said to them, as they entered. “I am going to wound you, and I grieve to do it: but rather now than later, if I am to be your housemate. He asks me for a hand that cannot carry a heart, because mine is dead. I repeat it. I used to think the heart a woman’s marriage portion for her husband. I see now that she may consent, and he accept her, without one. But it is right that you should know what I am when I consent. I was once a foolish, romantic girl; now I am a sickly woman, all illusions vanished. Privation has made me what an abounding fortune usually makes of others — I am an Egoist. I am not deceiving you. That is my real character. My girl’s view of him has entirely changed; and I am almost indifferent to the change. I can endeavour to respect him, I cannot venerate.”

“Dear child!” the ladies gently remonstrated.

Willoughby motioned to them.

“If we are to live together, and I could very happily live with you,” Laetitia continued to address them, “you must not be ignorant of me. And if you, as I imagine, worship him blindly, I do not know how we are to live together. And never shall you quit this house to make way for me. I have a hard detective eye. I see many faults.”

“Have we not all of us faults, dear child?”

“Not such as he has; though the excuses of a gentleman nurtured in idolatry may be pleaded. But he should know that they are seen, and seen by her he asks to be his wife, that no misunderstanding may exist, and while it is yet time he may consult his feelings. He worships himself.”

“Willoughby?”

“He is vindictive!”

“Our Willoughby?”

“That is not your opinion, ladies. It is firmly mine. Time has taught it me. So, if you and I are at such variance, how can we live together? It is an impossibility.”

They looked at Willoughby. He nodded imperiously.

“We have never affirmed that our dear nephew is devoid of faults, if he is offended. . . And supposing he claims to be foremost, is it not his rightful claim, made good by much generosity? Reflect, dear Laetitia. We are your friends too.”

She could not chastise the kind ladies any further.

“You have always been my good friends.”

“And you have no other charge against him?”

Laetitia was milder in saying, “He is unpardoning.”

“Name one instance, Laetitia.”

“He has turned Crossjay out of his house, interdicting the poor boy ever to enter it again.”

“Crossjay,” said Willoughby, “was guilty of a piece of infamous treachery.”

“Which is the cause of your persecuting me to become your wife!”

There was a cry of “Persecuting!”

“No young fellow behaving so basely can come to good,” said Willoughby, stained about the face with flecks of redness at the lashings he received.

“Honestly,” she retorted. “He told of himself: and he must have anticipated the punishment he would meet. He should have been studying with a master for his profession. He has been kept here in comparative idleness to be alternately petted and discarded: no one but Vernon Whitford, a poor gentleman doomed to struggle for a livelihood by literature — I know something of that struggle — too much for me! — no one but Mr. Whitford for his friend.”

“Crossjay is forgiven,” said Willoughby.

“You promise me that?”

“He shall be packed off to a crammer at once.”

“But my home must be Crossjay’s home.”

“You are mistress of my house, Laetitia.”

She hesitated. Her eyelashes grew moist. “You can be generous.”

“He is, dear child!” the ladies cried. “He is. Forget his errors, in his generosity, as we do.”

“There is that wretched man Flitch.”

“That sot has gone about the county for years to get me a bad character,” said Willoughby.

“It would have been generous in you to have offered him another chance. He has children.”

“Nine. And I am responsible for them?”

“I speak of being generous.”

“Dictate.” Willoughby spread out his arms.

“Surely now you should be satisfied, Laetitia?” said the ladies.

“Is he?”

Willoughby perceived Mrs. Mountstuart’s carriage coming down the avenue.

“To the full.” He presented his hand.

She raised hers with the fingers catching back before she ceased to speak and dropped it:—

“Ladies. You are witnesses that there is no concealment, there has been no reserve, on my part. May Heaven grant me kinder eyes than I have now. I would not have you change your opinion of him; only that you should see how I read him. For the rest, I vow to do my duty by him. Whatever is of worth in me is at his service. I am very tired. I feel I must yield or break. This is his wish, and I submit.”

“And I salute my wife,” said Willoughby, making her hand his own, and warming to his possession as he performed the act.

Mrs. Mountstuart’s indecent hurry to be at the Hall before the departure of Dr. Middleton and his daughter, afflicted him with visions of the physical contrast which would be sharply perceptible to her this morning of his Laetitia beside Clara.

But he had the lady with brains! He had: and he was to learn the nature of that possession in the woman who is our wife.

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