The Egoist, by George Meredith

Chapter 6

His Courtship

The world was the principal topic of dissension between these lovers. His opinion of the world affected her like a creature threatened with a deprivation of air. He explained to his darling that lovers of necessity do loathe the world. They live in the world, they accept its benefits, and assist it as well as they can. In their hearts they must despise it, shut it out, that their love for one another may pour in a clear channel, and with all the force they have. They cannot enjoy the sense of security for their love unless they fence away the world. It is, you will allow, gross; it is a beast. Formally we thank it for the good we get of it; only we two have an inner temple where the worship we conduct is actually, if you would but see it, an excommunication of the world. We abhor that beast to adore that divinity. This gives us our oneness, our isolation, our happiness. This is to love with the soul. Do you see, darling?

She shook her head; she could not see it. She would admit none of the notorious errors, of the world; its backbiting, selfishness, coarseness, intrusiveness, infectiousness. She was young. She might, Willoughby thought, have let herself be led; she was not docile. She must be up in arms as a champion of the world; and one saw she was hugging her dream of a romantic world, nothing else. She spoilt the secret bower-song he delighted to tell over to her. And how, Powers of Love! is love-making to be pursued if we may not kick the world out of our bower and wash our hands of it? Love that does not spurn the world when lovers curtain themselves is a love — is it not so? — that seems to the unwhipped, scoffing world to go slinking into basiation’s obscurity, instead of on a glorious march behind the screen. Our hero had a strong sentiment as to the policy of scorning the world for the sake of defending his personal pride and (to his honour, be it said) his lady’s delicacy.

The act of seeming put them both above the world, said retro Sathanas! So much, as a piece of tactics: he was highly civilized: in the second instance, he knew it to be the world which must furnish the dry sticks for the bonfire of a woman’s worship. He knew, too, that he was prescribing poetry to his betrothed, practicable poetry. She had a liking for poetry, and sometimes quoted the stuff in defiance of his pursed mouth and pained murmur: “I am no poet;” but his poetry of the enclosed and fortified bower, without nonsensical rhymes to catch the ears of women, appeared incomprehensible to her, if not adverse. She would not burn the world for him; she would not, though a purer poetry is little imaginable, reduce herself to ashes, or incense, or essence, in honour of him, and so, by love’s transmutation, literally be the man she was to marry. She preferred to be herself, with the egoism of women. She said it: she said: “I must be myself to be of any value to you, Willoughby.” He was indefatigable in his lectures on the aesthetics of love. Frequently, for an indemnification to her (he had no desire that she should be a loser by ceasing to admire the world), he dwelt on his own youthful ideas; and his original fancies about the world were presented to her as a substitute for the theme.

Miss Middleton bore it well, for she was sure that he meant well. Bearing so well what was distasteful to her, she became less well able to bear what she had merely noted in observation before; his view of scholarship; his manner toward Mr. Vernon Whitford, of whom her father spoke warmly; the rumour concerning his treatment of a Miss Dale. And the country tale of Constantia Durham sang itself to her in a new key. He had no contempt for the world’s praises. Mr. Whitford wrote the letters to the county paper which gained him applause at various great houses, and he accepted it, and betrayed a tingling fright lest he should be the victim of a sneer of the world he contemned. Recollecting his remarks, her mind was afflicted by the “something illogical” in him that we readily discover when our natures are no longer running free, and then at once we yearn for a disputation. She resolved that she would one day, one distant day, provoke it — upon what? The special point eluded her. The world is too huge a client, and too pervious, too spotty, for a girl to defend against a man. That “something illogical” had stirred her feelings more than her intellect to revolt. She could not constitute herself the advocate of Mr. Whitford. Still she marked the disputation for an event to come.

Meditating on it, she fell to picturing Sir Willoughby’s face at the first accents of his bride’s decided disagreement with him. The picture once conjured up would not be laid. He was handsome; so correctly handsome, that a slight unfriendly touch precipitated him into caricature. His habitual air of happy pride, of indignant contentment rather, could easily be overdone. Surprise, when he threw emphasis on it, stretched him with the tall eyebrows of a mask — limitless under the spell of caricature; and in time, whenever she was not pleased by her thoughts, she had that, and not his likeness, for the vision of him. And it was unjust, contrary to her deeper feelings; she rebuked herself, and as much as her naughty spirit permitted, she tried to look on him as the world did; an effort inducing reflections upon the blessings of ignorance. She seemed to herself beset by a circle of imps, hardly responsible for her thoughts.

He outshone Mr. Whitford in his behaviour to young Crossjay. She had seen him with the boy, and he was amused, indulgent, almost frolicsome, in contradistinction to Mr. Whitford’s tutorly sharpness. He had the English father’s tone of a liberal allowance for boys’ tastes and pranks, and he ministered to the partiality of the genus for pocket-money. He did not play the schoolmaster, like bookworms who get poor little lads in their grasp.

Mr. Whitford avoided her very much. He came to Upton Park on a visit to her father, and she was not particularly sorry that she saw him only at table. He treated her by fits to a level scrutiny of deep-set eyes unpleasantly penetrating. She had liked his eyes. They became unbearable; they dwelt in the memory as if they had left a phosphorescent line. She had been taken by playmate boys in her infancy to peep into hedge-leaves, where the mother-bird brooded on the nest; and the eyes of the bird in that marvellous dark thickset home, had sent her away with worlds of fancy. Mr. Whitford’s gaze revived her susceptibility, but not the old happy wondering. She was glad of his absence, after a certain hour that she passed with Willoughby, a wretched hour to remember. Mr. Whitford had left, and Willoughby came, bringing bad news of his mother’s health. Lady Patterne was fast failing. Her son spoke of the loss she would be to him; he spoke of the dreadfulness of death. He alluded to his own death to come carelessly, with a philosophical air.

“All of us must go! our time is short.”

“Very,” she assented.

It sounded like want of feeling.

“If you lose me, Clara!”

“But you are strong, Willoughby.”

“I may be cut off tomorrow.”

“Do not talk in such a manner.”

“It is as well that it should be faced.”

“I cannot see what purpose it serves.”

“Should you lose me, my love!”

“Willoughby!”

“Oh, the bitter pang of leaving you!”

“Dear Willoughby, you are distressed; your mother may recover; let us hope she will; I will help to nurse her; I have offered, you know; I am ready, most anxious. I believe I am a good nurse.”

“It is this belief — that one does not die with death!”

“That is our comfort.”

“When we love?”

“Does it not promise that we meet again?”

“To walk the world and see you perhaps — with another!”

“See me? — Where? Here?”

“Wedded. . . to another. You! my bride; whom I call mine; and you are! You would be still — in that horror! But all things are possible; women are women; they swim in infidelity, from wave to wave! I know them.”

“Willoughby, do not torment yourself and me, I beg you.”

He meditated profoundly, and asked her: “Could you be such a saint among women?”

“I think I am a more than usually childish girl.”

“Not to forget me?”

“Oh! no.”

“Still to be mine?”

“I am yours.”

“To plight yourself?”

“It is done.”

“Be mine beyond death?”

“Married is married, I think.”

“Clara! to dedicate your life to our love! Never one touch; not one whisper! not a thought, not a dream! Could you — it agonizes me to imagine. . . be inviolate? mine above? — mine before all men, though I am gone:— true to my dust? Tell me. Give me that assurance. True to my name! — Oh, I hear them. ‘His relict!’ Buzzings about Lady Patterne. ‘The widow.’ If you knew their talk of widows! Shut your ears, my angel! But if she holds them off and keeps her path, they are forced to respect her. The dead husband is not the dishonoured wretch they fancied him, because he was out of their way. He lives in the heart of his wife. Clara! my Clara! as I live in yours, whether here or away; whether you are a wife or widow, there is no distinction for love — I am your husband — say it — eternally. I must have peace; I cannot endure the pain. Depressed, yes; I have cause to be. But it has haunted me ever since we joined hands. To have you — to lose you!”

“Is it not possible that I may be the first to die?” said Miss Middleton.

“And lose you, with the thought that you, lovely as you are, and the dogs of the world barking round you, might . . . Is it any wonder that I have my feeling for the world? This hand! — the thought is horrible. You would be surrounded; men are brutes; the scent of unfaithfulness excites them, overjoys them. And I helpless! The thought is maddening. I see a ring of monkeys grinning. There is your beauty, and man’s delight in desecrating. You would be worried night and day to quit my name, to. . . I feel the blow now. You would have no rest for them, nothing to cling to without your oath.”

“An oath!” said Miss Middleton.

“It is no delusion, my love, when I tell you that with this thought upon me I see a ring of monkey faces grinning at me; they haunt me. But you do swear it! Once, and I will never trouble you on the subject again. My weakness! if you like. You will learn that it is love, a man’s love, stronger than death.”

“An oath?” she said, and moved her lips to recall what she might have said and forgotten. “To what? what oath?”

“That you will be true to me dead as well as living! Whisper it.”

“Willoughby, I shall be true to my vows at the altar.”

“To me! me!”

“It will be to you.”

“To my soul. No heaven can be for me — I see none, only torture, unless I have your word, Clara. I trust it. I will trust it implicitly. My confidence in you is absolute.”

“Then you need not be troubled.”

“It is for you, my love; that you may be armed and strong when I am not by to protect you.”

“Our views of the world are opposed, Willoughby.”

“Consent; gratify me; swear it. Say: ‘Beyond death.’ Whisper it. I ask for nothing more. Women think the husband’s grave breaks the bond, cuts the tie, sets them loose. They wed the flesh — pah! What I call on you for is nobility; the transcendent nobility of faithfulness beyond death. ‘His widow!’ let them say; a saint in widowhood.”

“My vows at the altar must suffice.”

“You will not? Clara!”

“I am plighted to you.”

“Not a word? — a simple promise? But you love me?”

“I have given you the best proof of it that I can.”

“Consider how utterly I place confidence in you.”

“I hope it is well placed.”

“I could kneel to you, to worship you, if you would, Clara!”

“Kneel to Heaven, not to me, Willoughby. I am-I wish I were able to tell what I am. I may be inconstant; I do not know myself. Think; question yourself whether I am really the person you should marry. Your wife should have great qualities of mind and soul. I will consent to hear that I do not possess them, and abide by the verdict.”

“You do; you do possess them!” Willoughby cried. “When you know better what the world is, you will understand my anxiety. Alive, I am strong to shield you from it; dead, helpless — that is all. You would be clad in mail, steel-proof, inviolable, if you would. . . But try to enter into my mind; think with me, feel with me. When you have once comprehended the intensity of the love of a man like me, you will not require asking. It is the difference of the elect and the vulgar; of the ideal of love from the coupling of the herds. We will let it drop. At least, I have your hand. As long as I live I have your hand. Ought I not to be satisfied? I am; only I see further than most men, and feel more deeply. And now I must ride to my mother’s bedside. She dies Lady Patterne! It might have been that she. . . But she is a woman of women! With a father-inlaw! Just heaven! Could I have stood by her then with the same feelings of reverence? A very little, my love, and everything gained for us by civilization crumbles; we fall back to the first mortar-bowl we were bruised and stirred in. My thoughts, when I take my stand to watch by her, come to this conclusion, that, especially in women, distinction is the thing to be aimed at. Otherwise we are a weltering human mass. Women must teach us to venerate them, or we may as well be bleating and barking and bellowing. So, now enough. You have but to think a little. I must be off. It may have happened during my absence. I will write. I shall hear from you? Come and see me mount Black Norman. My respects to your father. I have no time to pay them in person. One!”

He took the one — love’s mystical number — from which commonly spring multitudes; but, on the present occasion, it was a single one, and cold. She watched him riding away on his gallant horse, as handsome a cavalier as the world could show, and the contrast of his recent language and his fine figure was a riddle that froze her blood. Speech so foreign to her ears, unnatural in tone, unmanlike even for a lover (who is allowed a softer dialect), set her vainly sounding for the source and drift of it. She was glad of not having to encounter eyes like Mr. Vernon Whitford’s.

On behalf of Sir Willoughby, it is to be said that his mother, without infringing on the degree of respect for his decisions and sentiments exacted by him, had talked to him of Miss Middleton, suggesting a volatility of temperament in the young lady that struck him as consentaneous with Mrs Mountstuart’s “rogue in porcelain”, and alarmed him as the independent observations of two world-wise women. Nor was it incumbent upon him personally to credit the volatility in order, as far as he could, to effect the soul-insurance of his bride, that he might hold the security of the policy. The desire for it was in him; his mother had merely tolled a warning bell that he had put in motion before. Clara was not a Constantia. But she was a woman, and he had been deceived by women, as a man fostering his high ideal of them will surely be. The strain he adopted was quite natural to his passion and his theme. The language of the primitive sentiments of men is of the same expression at all times, minus the primitive colours when a modern gentleman addresses his lady.

Lady Patterne died in the winter season of the new year. In April Dr Middleton had to quit Upton Park, and he had not found a place of residence, nor did he quite know what to do with himself in the prospect of his daughter’s marriage and desertion of him. Sir Willoughby proposed to find him a house within a circuit of the neighbourhood of Patterne. Moreover, he invited the Rev. Doctor and his daughter to come to Patterne from Upton for a month, and make acquaintance with his aunts, the ladies Eleanor and Isabel Patterne, so that it might not be so strange to Clara to have them as her housemates after her marriage. Dr. Middleton omitted to consult his daughter before accepting the invitation, and it appeared, when he did speak to her, that it should have been done. But she said, mildly, “Very well, papa.”

Sir Willoughby had to visit the metropolis and an estate in another county, whence he wrote to his betrothed daily. He returned to Patterne in time to arrange for the welcome of his guests; too late, however, to ride over to them; and, meanwhile, during his absence, Miss Middleton had bethought herself that she ought to have given her last days of freedom to her friends. After the weeks to be passed at Patterne, very few weeks were left to her, and she had a wish to run to Switzerland or Tyrol and see the Alps; a quaint idea, her father thought. She repeated it seriously, and Dr. Middleton perceived a feminine shuttle of indecision at work in her head, frightful to him, considering that they signified hesitation between the excellent library and capital wine-cellar of Patterne Hall, together with the society of that promising young scholar, Mr. Vernon Whitford, on the one side, and a career of hotels — equivalent to being rammed into monster artillery with a crowd every night, and shot off on a day’s journey through space every morning — on the other.

“You will have your travelling and your Alps after the ceremony,” he said.

“I think I would rather stay at home,” said she.

Dr Middleton rejoined: “I would.”

“But I am not married yet papa.”

“As good, my dear.”

“A little change of scene, I thought. . . ”

“We have accepted Willoughby’s invitation. And he helps me to a house near you.”

“You wish to be near me, papa?”

“Proximate — at a remove: communicable.”

“Why should we separate?”

“For the reason, my dear, that you exchange a father for a husband.”

“If I do not want to exchange?”

“To purchase, you must pay, my child. Husbands are not given for nothing.”

“No. But I should have you, papa!”

“Should?”

“They have not yet parted us, dear papa.”

“What does that mean?” he asked, fussily. He was in a gentle stew already, apprehensive of a disturbance of the serenity precious to scholars by postponements of the ceremony and a prolongation of a father’s worries.

“Oh, the common meaning, papa,” she said, seeing how it was with him.

“Ah!” said he, nodding and blinking gradually back to a state of composure, glad to be appeased on any terms; for mutability is but another name for the sex, and it is the enemy of the scholar.

She suggested that two weeks of Patterne would offer plenty of time to inspect the empty houses of the district, and should be sufficient, considering the claims of friends, and the necessity of going the round of London shops.

“Two or three weeks,” he agreed, hurriedly, by way of compromise with that fearful prospect.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/meredith/george/egoist/chapter6.html

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