The Egoist, by George Meredith

Chapter 7

The Betrothed

During the drive from Upton to Patterne, Miss Middleton hoped, she partly believed, that there was to be a change in Sir Willoughby’s manner of courtship. He had been so different a wooer. She remembered with some half-conscious desperation of fervour what she had thought of him at his first approaches, and in accepting him. Had she seen him with the eyes of the world, thinking they were her own? That look of his, the look of “indignant contentment”, had then been a most noble conquering look, splendid as a general’s plume at the gallop. It could not have altered. Was it that her eyes had altered?

The spirit of those days rose up within her to reproach, her and whisper of their renewal: she remembered her rosy dreams and the image she had of him, her throbbing pride in him, her choking richness of happiness: and also her vain attempting to be very humble, usually ending in a carol, quaint to think of, not without charm, but quaint, puzzling.

Now men whose incomes have been restricted to the extent that they must live on their capital, soon grow relieved of the forethoughtful anguish wasting them by the hilarious comforts of the lap upon which they have sunk back, insomuch that they are apt to solace themselves for their intolerable anticipations of famine in the household by giving loose to one fit or more of reckless lavishness. Lovers in like manner live on their capital from failure of income: they, too, for the sake of stifling apprehension and piping to the present hour, are lavish of their stock, so as rapidly to attenuate it: they have their fits of intoxication in view of coming famine: they force memory into play, love retrospectively, enter the old house of the past and ravage the larder, and would gladly, even resolutely, continue in illusion if it were possible for the broadest honey-store of reminiscences to hold out for a length of time against a mortal appetite: which in good sooth stands on the alternative of a consumption of the hive or of the creature it is for nourishing. Here do lovers show that they are perishable. More than the poor clay world they need fresh supplies, right wholesome juices; as it were, life in the burst of the bud, fruits yet on the tree, rather than potted provender. The latter is excellent for by-and-by, when there will be a vast deal more to remember, and appetite shall have but one tooth remaining. Should their minds perchance have been saturated by their first impressions and have retained them, loving by the accountable light of reason, they may have fair harvests, as in the early time; but that case is rare. In other words, love is an affair of two, and is only for two that can be as quick, as constant in intercommunication as are sun and earth, through the cloud or face to face. They take their breath of life from one another in signs of affection, proofs of faithfulness, incentives to admiration. Thus it is with men and women in love’s good season. But a solitary soul dragging a log must make the log a God to rejoice in the burden. That is not love.

Clara was the least fitted of all women to drag a log. Few girls would be so rapid in exhausting capital. She was feminine indeed, but she wanted comradeship, a living and frank exchange of the best in both, with the deeper feelings untroubled. To be fixed at the mouth of a mine, and to have to descend it daily, and not to discover great opulence below; on the contrary, to be chilled in subterranean sunlessness, without any substantial quality that she could grasp, only the mystery of the inefficient tallow-light in those caverns of the complacent-talking man: this appeared to her too extreme a probation for two or three weeks. How of a lifetime of it!

She was compelled by her nature to hope, expect and believe that Sir Willoughby would again be the man she had known when she accepted him. Very singularly, to show her simple spirit at the time, she was unaware of any physical coldness to him; she knew of nothing but her mind at work, objecting to this and that, desiring changes. She did not dream of being on the giddy ridge of the passive or negative sentiment of love, where one step to the wrong side precipitates us into the state of repulsion.

Her eyes were lively at their meeting — so were his. She liked to see him on the steps, with young Crossjay under his arm. Sir Willoughby told her in his pleasantest humour of the boy’s having got into the laboratory that morning to escape his task-master, and blown out the windows. She administered a chiding to the delinquent in the same spirit, while Sir Willoughby led her on his arm across the threshold, whispering: “Soon for good!” In reply to the whisper, she begged for more of the story of young Crossjay. “Come into the laboratory,” said he, a little less laughingly than softly; and Clara begged her father to come and see young Crossjay’s latest pranks. Sir Willoughby whispered to her of the length of their separation, and his joy to welcome her to the house where she would reign as mistress very won. He numbered the weeks. He whispered: “Come.” In the hurry of the moment she did not examine a lightning terror that shot through her. It passed, and was no more than the shadow which bends the summer grasses, leaving a ruffle of her ideas, in wonder of her having feared herself for something. Her father was with them. She and Willoughby were not yet alone.

Young Crossjay had not accomplished so fine a piece of destruction as Sir Willoughby’s humour proclaimed of him. He had connected a battery with a train of gunpowder, shattering a window-frame and unsettling some bricks. Dr. Middleton asked if the youth was excluded from the library, and rejoiced to hear that it was a sealed door to him. Thither they went. Vernon Whitford was away on one of his long walks.

“There, papa, you see he is not so very faithful to you,” said Clara.

Dr Middleton stood frowning over MS notes on the table, in Vernon’s handwriting. He flung up the hair from his forehead and dropped into a seat to inspect them closely. He was now immoveable. Clara was obliged to leave him there. She was led to think that Willoughby had drawn them to the library with the design to be rid of her protector, and she began to fear him. She proposed to pay her respects to the ladies Eleanor and Isabel. They were not seen, and a footman reported in the drawing-room that they were out driving. She grasped young Crossjay’s hand. Sir Willoughby dispatched him to Mrs. Montague, the housekeeper, for a tea of cakes and jam.

“Off!” he said, and the boy had to run.

Clara saw herself without a shield.

“And the garden!” she cried. “I love the garden; I must go and see what flowers are up with you. In spring I care most for wild flowers, and if you will show me daffodils and crocuses and anemones. . . ”

“My dearest Clara! my bride!” said he.

“Because they are vulgar flowers?” she asked him, artlessly, to account for his detaining her.

Why would he not wait to deserve her! — no, not deserve — to reconcile her with her real position; not reconcile, but to repair the image of him in her mind, before he claimed his apparent right!

He did not wait. He pressed her to his bosom.

“You are mine, my Clara — utterly mine; every thought, every feeling. We are one: the world may do its worst. I have been longing for you, looking forward. You save me from a thousand vexations. One is perpetually crossed. That is all outside us. We two! With you I am secure! Soon! I could not tell you whether the world’s alive or dead. My dearest!”

She came out of it with the sensations of the frightened child that has had its dip in sea-water, sharpened to think that after all it was not so severe a trial. Such was her idea; and she said to herself immediately: What am I that I should complain? Two minutes earlier she would not have thought it; but humiliated pride falls lower than humbleness.

She did not blame him; she fell in her own esteem; less because she was the betrothed Clara Middleton, which was now palpable as a shot in the breast of a bird, than that she was a captured woman, of whom it is absolutely expected that she must submit, and when she would rather be gazing at flowers. Clara had shame of her sex. They cannot take a step without becoming bondwomen: into what a slavery! For herself, her trial was over, she thought. As for herself, she merely complained of a prematureness and crudity best unanalyzed. In truth, she could hardly be said to complain. She did but criticize him and wonder that a man was unable to perceive, or was not arrested by perceiving, unwillingness, discordance, dull compliance; the bondwoman’s due instead of the bride’s consent. Oh, sharp distinction, as between two spheres!

She meted him justice; she admitted that he had spoken in a lover-like tone. Had it not been for the iteration of “the world”, she would not have objected critically to his words, though they were words of downright appropriation. He had the right to use them, since she was to be married to him. But if he had only waited before playing the privileged lover!

Sir Willoughby was enraptured with her. Even so purely coldly, statue-like, Dian-like, would he have prescribed his bride’s reception of his caress. The suffusion of crimson coming over her subsequently, showing her divinely feminine in reflective bashfulness, agreed with his highest definitions of female character.

“Let me conduct you to the garden, my love,” he said.

She replied: “I think I would rather go to my room.”

“I will send you a wild-flower posy.”

“Flowers, no; I do not like them to be gathered.”

“I will wait for you on the lawn.”

“My head is rather heavy.”

His deep concern and tenderness brought him close.

She assured him sparklingly that she was well. She was ready to accompany him to the garden and stroll over the park.

“Headache it is not,” she added.

But she had to pay the fee for inviting a solicitous accepted gentleman’s proximity.

This time she blamed herself and him, and the world he abused, and destiny into the bargain. And she cared less about the probation; but she craved for liberty. With a frigidity that astonished her, she marvelled at the act of kissing, and at the obligation it forced upon an inanimate person to be an accomplice. Why was she not free? By what strange right was it that she was treated as a possession?

“I will try to walk off the heaviness,” she said.

“My own girl must not fatigue herself.”

“Oh, no; I shall not.”

“Sit with me. Your Willoughby is your devoted attendant.”

“I have a desire for the air.”

“Then we will walk out.”

She was horrified to think how far she had drawn away from him, and now placed her hand on his arm to appease her self-accusations and propitiate duty. He spoke as she had wished, his manner was what she had wished; she was his bride, almost his wife; her conduct was a kind of madness; she could not understand it.

Good sense and duty counselled her to control her wayward spirit.

He fondled her hand, and to that she grew accustomed; her hand was at a distance. And what is a hand? Leaving it where it was, she treated it as a link between herself and dutiful goodness. Two months hence she was a bondwoman for life! She regretted that she had not gone to her room to strengthen herself with a review of her situation, and meet him thoroughly resigned to her fate. She fancied she would have come down to him amicably. It was his present respectfulness and easy conversation that tricked her burning nerves with the fancy. Five weeks of perfect liberty in the mountains, she thought, would have prepared her for the days of bells. All that she required was a separation offering new scenes, where she might reflect undisturbed, feel clear again.

He led her about the flower-beds; too much as if he were giving a convalescent an airing. She chafed at it, and pricked herself with remorse. In contrition she expatiated on the beauty of the garden.

“All is yours, my Clara.”

An oppressive load it seemed to her! She passively yielded to the man in his form of attentive courtier; his mansion, estate, and wealth overwhelmed her. They suggested the price to be paid. Yet she recollected that on her last departure through the park she had been proud of the rolling green and spreading trees. Poison of some sort must be operating in her. She had not come to him today with this feeling of sullen antagonism; she had caught it here.

“You have been well, my Clara?”

“Quite.”

“Not a hint of illness?”

“None.”

“My bride must have her health if all the doctors in the kingdom die for it! My darling!”

“And tell me: the dogs?”

“Dogs and horses are in very good condition.”

“I am glad. Do you know, I love those ancient French chateaux and farms in one, where salon windows look on poultry-yard and stalls. I like that homeliness with beasts and peasants.”

He bowed indulgently.

“I am afraid we can’t do it for you in England, my Clara.”

“No.”

“And I like the farm,” said he. “But I think our drawing-rooms have a better atmosphere off the garden. As to our peasantry, we cannot, I apprehend, modify our class demarcations without risk of disintegrating the social structure.”

“Perhaps. I proposed nothing.”

“My love, I would entreat you to propose if I were convinced that I could obey.”

“You are very good.”

“I find my merit nowhere but in your satisfaction.”

Although she was not thirsting for dulcet sayings, the peacefulness of other than invitations to the exposition of his mysteries and of their isolation in oneness, inspired her with such calm that she beat about in her brain, as if it were in the brain, for the specific injury he had committed. Sweeping from sensation to sensation, the young, whom sensations impel and distract, can rarely date their disturbance from a particular one; unless it be some great villain injury that has been done; and Clara had not felt an individual shame in his caress; the shame of her sex was but a passing protest, that left no stamp. So she conceived she had been behaving cruelly, and said, “Willoughby”; because she was aware of the omission of his name in her previous remarks.

His whole attention was given to her.

She had to invent the sequel. “I was going to beg you, Willoughby, do not seek to spoil me. You compliment me. Compliments are not suited to me. You think too highly of me. It is nearly as bad as to be slighted. I am. . . I am a. ..” But she could not follow his example; even as far as she had gone, her prim little sketch of herself, set beside her real, ugly, earnest feelings, rang of a mincing simplicity, and was a step in falseness. How could she display what she was?

“Do I not know you?” he said.

The melodious bass notes, expressive of conviction on that point, signified as well as the words that no answer was the right answer. She could not dissent without turning his music to discord, his complacency to amazement. She held her tongue, knowing that he did not know her, and speculating on the division made bare by their degrees of the knowledge, a deep cleft.

He alluded to friends in her neighbourhood and his own. The bridesmaids were mentioned.

“Miss Dale, you will hear from my aunt Eleanor, declines, on the plea of indifferent health. She is rather a morbid person, with all her really estimable qualities. It will do no harm to have none but young ladies of your own age; a bouquet of young buds: though one blowing flower among them. . . However, she has decided. My principal annoyance has been Vernon’s refusal to act as my best man.”

“Mr. Whitford refuses?”

“He half refuses. I do not take no from him. His pretext is a dislike to the ceremony.”

“I share it with him.”

“I sympathize with you. If we might say the words and pass from sight! There is a way of cutting off the world: I have it at times completely: I lose it again, as if it were a cabalistic phrase one had to utter. But with you! You give it me for good. It will be for ever, eternally, my Clara. Nothing can harm, nothing touch us; we are one another’s. Let the world fight it out; we have nothing to do with it.”

“If Mr. Whitford should persist in refusing?”

“So entirely one, that there never can be question of external influences. I am, we will say, riding home from the hunt: I see you awaiting me: I read your heart as though you were beside me. And I know that I am coming to the one who reads mine! You have me, you have me like an open book, you, and only you!”

“I am to be always at home?” Clara said, unheeded, and relieved by his not hearing.

“Have you realized it? — that we are invulnerable! The world cannot hurt us: it cannot touch us. Felicity is ours, and we are impervious in the enjoyment of it. Something divine! surely something divine on earth? Clara! — being to one another that between which the world can never interpose! What I do is right: what you do is right. Perfect to one another! Each new day we rise to study and delight in new secrets. Away with the crowd! We have not even to say it; we are in an atmosphere where the world cannot breathe.”

“Oh, the world!” Clara partly carolled on a sigh that sunk deep.

Hearing him talk as one exulting on the mountain-top, when she knew him to be in the abyss, was very strange, provocative of scorn.

“My letters?” he said, incitingly.

“I read them.”

“Circumstances have imposed a long courtship on us, my Clara; and I, perhaps lamenting the laws of decorum — I have done so! — still felt the benefit of the gradual initiation. It is not good for women to be surprised by a sudden revelation of man’s character. We also have things to learn — there is matter for learning everywhere. Some day you will tell me the difference of what you think of me now, from what you thought when we first. . .?”

An impulse of double-minded acquiescence caused Clara to stammer as on a sob.

“I— I daresay I shall.”

She added, “If it is necessary.”

Then she cried out: “Why do you attack the world? You always make me pity it.”

He smiled at her youthfulness. “I have passed through that stage. It leads to my sentiment. Pity it, by all means.”

“No,” said she, “but pity it, side with it, not consider it so bad. The world has faults; glaciers have crevices, mountains have chasms; but is not the effect of the whole sublime? Not to admire the mountain and the glacier because they can be cruel, seems to me. . . And the world is beautiful.”

“The world of nature, yes. The world of men?”

“Yes.”

“My love, I suspect you to be thinking of the world of ballrooms.”

“I am thinking of the world that contains real and great generosity, true heroism. We see it round us.”

“We read of it. The world of the romance writer!”

“No: the living world. I am sure it is our duty to love it. I am sure we weaken ourselves if we do not. If I did not, I should be looking on mist, hearing a perpetual boom instead of music. I remember hearing Mr. Whitford say that cynicism is intellectual dandyism without the coxcomb’s feathers; and it seems to me that cynics are only happy in making the world as barren to others as they have made it for themselves.”

“Old Vernon!” ejaculated Sir Willoughby, with a countenance rather uneasy, as if it had been flicked with a glove. “He strings his phrases by the dozen.”

“Papa contradicts that, and says he is very clever and very simple.”

“As to cynics, my dear Clara, oh, certainly, certainly: you are right. They are laughable, contemptible. But understand me. I mean, we cannot feel, or if we feel we cannot so intensely feel, our oneness, except by dividing ourselves from the world.”

“Is it an art?”

“If you like. It is our poetry! But does not love shun the world? Two that love must have their sustenance in isolation.”

“No: they will be eating themselves up.”

“The purer the beauty, the more it will be out of the world.”

“But not opposed.”

“Put it in this way,” Willoughby condescended. “Has experience the same opinion of the world as ignorance?”

“It should have more charity.”

“Does virtue feel at home in the world?”

“Where it should be an example, to my idea.”

“Is the world agreeable to holiness?”

“Then, are you in favour of monasteries?”

He poured a little runlet of half laughter over her head, of the sound assumed by genial compassion.

It is irritating to hear that when we imagine we have spoken to the point.

“Now in my letters, Clara. . . ”

“I have no memory, Willoughby!”

“You will, however, have observed that I am not completely myself in my letters. . . ”

“In your letters to men you may be.”

The remark threw a pause across his thoughts. He was of a sensitiveness terribly tender. A single stroke on it reverberated swellingly within the man, and most, and infuriately searching, at the spots where he had been wounded, especially where he feared the world might have guessed the wound. Did she imply that he had no hand for love-letters? Was it her meaning that women would not have much taste for his epistolary correspondence? She had spoken in the plural, with an accent on “men”. Had she heard of Constantia? Had she formed her own judgement about the creature? The supernatural sensitiveness of Sir Willoughby shrieked a peal of affirmatives. He had often meditated on the moral obligation of his unfolding to Clara the whole truth of his conduct to Constantia; for whom, as for other suicides, there were excuses. He at least was bound to supply them. She had behaved badly; but had he not given her some cause? If so, manliness was bound to confess it.

Supposing Clara heard the world’s version first! Men whose pride is their backbone suffer convulsions where other men are barely aware of a shock, and Sir Willoughby was taken with galvanic jumpings of the spirit within him, at the idea of the world whispering to Clara that he had been jilted.

“My letters to men, you say, my love?”

“Your letters of business.”

“Completely myself in my letters of business?” He stared indeed.

She relaxed the tension of his figure by remarking: “You are able to express yourself to men as your meaning dictates. In writing to. . . to us it is, I suppose, more difficult.”

“True, my love. I will not exactly say difficult. I can acknowledge no difficulty. Language, I should say, is not fitted to express emotion. Passion rejects it.”

“For dumb-show and pantomime?”

“No; but the writing of it coldly.”

“Ah, coldly!”

“My letters disappoint you?”

“I have not implied that they do.”

“My feelings, dearest, are too strong for transcription. I feel, pen in hand, like the mythological Titan at war with Jove, strong enough to hurl mountains, and finding nothing but pebbles. The simile is a good one. You must not judge of me by my letters.”

“I do not; I like them,” said Clara.

She blushed, eyed him hurriedly, and seeing him complacent, resumed, “I prefer the pebble to the mountain; but if you read poetry you would not think human speech incapable of. . . ”

“My love, I detest artifice. Poetry is a profession.”

“Our poets would prove to you. . . ”

“As I have often observed, Clara, I am no poet.”

“I have not accused you, Willoughby.”

“No poet, and with no wish to be a poet. Were I one, my life would supply material, I can assure you, my love. My conscience is not entirely at rest. Perhaps the heaviest matter troubling it is that in which I was least wilfully guilty. You have heard of a Miss Durham?”

“I have heard — yes — of her.”

“She may be happy. I trust she is. If she is not, I cannot escape some blame. An instance of the difference between myself and the world, now. The world charges it upon her. I have interceded to exonerate her.”

“That was generous, Willoughby.”

“Stay. I fear I was the primary offender. But I, Clara, I, under a sense of honour, acting under a sense of honour, would have carried my engagement through.”

“What had you done?”

“The story is long, dating from an early day, in the ‘downy antiquity of my youth’, as Vernon says.”

“Mr. Whitford says that?”

“One of old Vernon’s odd sayings. It’s a story of an early fascination.”

“Papa tells me Mr. Whitford speaks at times with wise humour.”

“Family considerations — the lady’s health among other things; her position in the calculations of relatives — intervened. Still there was the fascination. I have to own it. Grounds for feminine jealousy.”

“Is it at an end?”

“Now? with you? my darling Clara! indeed at an end, or could I have opened my inmost heart to you! Could I have spoken of myself so unreservedly that in part you know me as I know myself! Oh, but would it have been possible to enclose you with myself in that intimate union? so secret, unassailable!”

“You did not speak to her as you speak to me?”

“In no degree.”

“What could have! . . . ” Clara checked the murmured exclamation.

Sir Willoughby’s expoundings on his latest of texts would have poured forth, had not a footman stepped across the lawn to inform him that his builder was in the laboratory and requested permission to consult with him.

Clara’s plea of a horror of the talk of bricks and joists excused her from accompanying him. He had hardly been satisfied by her manner, he knew not why. He left her, convinced that he must do and say more to reach down to her female intelligence.

She saw young Crossjay, springing with pots of jam in him, join his patron at a bound, and taking a lift of arms, fly aloft, clapping heels. Her reflections were confused. Sir Willoughby was admirable with the lad. “Is he two men?” she thought; and the thought ensued, “Am I unjust?” She headed a run with young Crossjay to divert her mind.

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