The Egoist, by George Meredith

Chapter 8

A Run with the Truant; a Walk with the Master

The sight of Miss Middleton running inflamed young Crossjay with the passion of the game of hare and hounds. He shouted a view-halloo, and flung up his legs. She was fleet; she ran as though a hundred little feet were bearing her onward smooth as water over the lawn and the sweeps of grass of the park, so swiftly did the hidden pair multiply one another to speed her. So sweet was she in her flowing pace, that the boy, as became his age, translated admiration into a dogged frenzy of pursuit, and continued pounding along, when far outstripped, determined to run her down or die. Suddenly her flight wound to an end in a dozen twittering steps, and she sank. Young Crossjay attained her, with just breath enough to say: “You are a runner!”

“I forgot you had been having your tea, my poor boy,” said she.

“And you don’t pant a bit!” was his encomium.

“Dear me, no; not more than a bird. You might as well try to catch a bird.”

Young Crossjay gave a knowing nod. “Wait till I get my second wind.”

“Now you must confess that girls run faster than boys.”

“They may at the start.”

“They do everything better.”

“They’re flash-inthe-pans.”

“They learn their lessons.”

“You can’t make soldiers or sailors of them, though.”

“And that is untrue. Have you never read of Mary Ambree? and Mistress Hannah Snell of Pondicherry? And there was the bride of the celebrated William Taylor. And what do you say to Joan of Arc? What do you say to Boadicea? I suppose you have never heard of the Amazons.”

“They weren’t English.”

“Then it is your own countrywomen you decry, sir!”

Young Crossjay betrayed anxiety about his false position, and begged for the stories of Mary Ambree and the others who were English.

“See, you will not read for yourself, you hide and play truant with Mr. Whitford, and the consequence is you are ignorant of your country’s history.”

Miss Middleton rebuked him, enjoying his wriggle between a perception of her fun and an acknowledgment of his peccancy. She commanded him to tell her which was the glorious Valentine’s day of our naval annals; the name of the hero of the day, and the name of his ship. To these questions his answers were as ready as the guns of the good ship Captain, for the Spanish four-decker.

“And that you owe to Mr. Whitford,” said Miss Middleton.

“He bought me the books,” young Crossjay growled, and plucked at grass blades and bit them, foreseeing dimly but certainly the termination of all this.

Miss Middleton lay back on the grass and said: “Are you going to be fond of me, Crossjay?”

The boy sat blinking. His desire was to prove to her that lie was immoderately fond of her already; and he might have flown at her neck had she been sitting up, but her recumbency and eyelids half closed excited wonder in him and awe. His young heart beat fast.

“Because, my dear boy,” she said, leaning on her elbow, “you are a very nice boy, but an ungrateful boy, and there is no telling whether you will not punish any one who cares for you. Come along with me; pluck me some of these cowslips, and the speedwells near them; I think we both love wild-flowers.” She rose and took his arm. “You shall row me on the lake while I talk to you seriously.”

It was she, however, who took the sculls at the boat-house, for she had been a playfellow with boys, and knew that one of them engaged in a manly exercise is not likely to listen to a woman.

“Now, Crossjay,” she said. Dense gloom overcame him like a cowl. She bent across her hands to laugh. “As if I were going to lecture you, you silly boy!” He began to brighten dubiously. “I used to be as fond of birdsnesting as you are. I like brave boys, and I like you for wanting to enter the Royal Navy. Only, how can you if you do not learn? You must get the captains to pass you, you know. Somebody spoils you: Miss Dale or Mr. Whitford.”

“Do they?” sung out young Crossjay.

“Sir Willoughby does?”

“I don’t know about spoil. I can come round him.”

“I am sure he is very kind to you. I dare say you think Mr. Whitford rather severe. You should remember he has to teach you, so that you may pass for the navy. You must not dislike him because he makes you work. Supposing you had blown yourself up today! You would have thought it better to have been working with Mr. Whitford.”

“Sir Willoughby says, when he’s married, you won’t let me hide.”

“Ah! It is wrong to pet a big boy like you. Does not he what you call tip you, Crossjay?”

“Generally half-crown pieces. I’ve had a crown-piece. I’ve had sovereigns.”

“And for that you do as he bids you? And he indulges you because you. . . Well, but though Mr. Whitford does not give you money, he gives you his time, he tries to get you into the navy.”

“He pays for me.”

“What do you say?”

“My keep. And, as for liking him, if he were at the bottom of the water here, I’d go down after him. I mean to learn. We’re both of us here at six o’clock in the morning, when it’s light, and have a swim. He taught me. Only, I never cared for schoolbooks.”

“Are you quite certain that Mr. Whitford pays for you.”

“My father told me he did, and I must obey him. He heard my father was poor, with a family. He went down to see my father. My father came here once, and Sir Willoughby wouldn’t see him. I know Mr. Whitford does. And Miss Dale told me he did. My mother says she thinks he does it to make up to us for my father’s long walk in the rain and the cold he caught coming here to Patterne.”

“So you see you should not vex him, Crossjay. He is a good friend to your father and to you. You ought to love him.”

“I like him, and I like his face.”

“Why his face?”

“It’s not like those faces! Miss Dale and I talk about him. She thinks that Sir Willoughby is the best-looking man ever born.”

“Were you not speaking of Mr. Whitford?”

“Yes; old Vernon. That’s what Sir Willoughby calls him,” young Crossjay excused himself to her look of surprise. “Do you know what he makes me think of? — his eyes, I mean. He makes me think of Robinson Crusoe’s old goat in the cavern. I like him because he’s always the same, and you’re not positive about some people. Miss Middleton, if you look on at cricket, in comes a safe man for ten runs. He may get more, and he never gets less; and you should hear the old farmers talk of him in the booth. That’s just my feeling.”

Miss Middleton understood that some illustration from the cricketing-field was intended to throw light on the boy’s feeling for Mr. Whitford. Young Crossjay was evidently warming to speak from his heart. But the sun was low, she had to dress for the dinner-table, and she landed him with regret, as at a holiday over. Before they parted, he offered to swim across the lake in his clothes, or dive to the bed for anything she pleased to throw, declaring solemnly that it should not be lost.

She walked back at a slow pace, and sung to herself above her darker-flowing thoughts, like the reed-warbler on the branch beside the night-stream; a simple song of a lighthearted sound, independent of the shifting black and grey of the flood underneath.

A step was at her heels.

“I see you have been petting my scapegrace.”

“Mr. Whitford! Yes; not petting, I hope. I tried to give him a lecture. He’s a dear lad, but, I fancy, trying.”

She was in fine sunset colour, unable to arrest the mounting tide. She had been rowing, she said; and, as he directed his eyes, according to his wont, penetratingly, she defended herself by fixing her mind on Robinson Crusoe’s old goat in the recess of the cavern.

“I must have him away from here very soon,” said Vernon. “Here he’s quite spoiled. Speak of him to Willoughby. I can’t guess at his ideas of the boy’s future, but the chance of passing for the navy won’t bear trifling with, and if ever there was a lad made for the navy, it’s Crossjay.”

The incident of the explosion in the laboratory was new to Vernon.

“And Willoughby laughed?” he said. “There are sea-port crammers who stuff young fellows for examination, and we shall have to pack off the boy at once to the best one of the lot we can find. I would rather have had him under me up to the last three months, and have made sure of some roots to what is knocked into his head. But he’s ruined here. And I am going. So I shall not trouble him for many weeks longer. Dr. Middleton is well?”

“My father is well, yes. He pounced like a falcon on your notes in the library.”

Vernon came out with a chuckle.

“They were left to attract him. I am in for a controversy.”

“Papa will not spare you, to judge from his look.”

“I know the look.”

“Have you walked far today?”

“Nine and a half hours. My Flibbertigibbet is too much for me at times, and I had to walk off my temper.”

She cast her eyes on him, thinking of the pleasure of dealing with a temper honestly coltish, and manfully open to a specific.

“All those hours were required?”

“Not quite so long.”

“You are training for your Alpine tour.”

“It’s doubtful whether I shall get to the Alps this year. I leave the Hall, and shall probably be in London with a pen to sell.”

“Willoughby knows that you leave him?”

“As much as Mont Blanc knows that he is going to be climbed by a party below. He sees a speck or two in the valley.”

“He has not spoken of it.”

“He would attribute it to changes. . . ”

Vernon did not conclude the sentence.

She became breathless, without emotion, but checked by the barrier confronting an impulse to ask, what changes? She stooped to pluck a cowslip.

“I saw daffodils lower down the park,” she said. “One or two; they’re nearly over.”

“We are well off for wild flowers here,” he answered.

“Do not leave him, Mr. Whitford.”

“He will not want me.”

“You are devoted to him.”

“I can’t pretend that.”

“Then it is the changes you imagine you foresee. . . If any occur, why should they drive you away?”

“Well, I’m two and thirty, and have never been in the fray: a kind of nondescript, half scholar, and by nature half billman or bowman or musketeer; if I’m worth anything, London’s the field for me. But that’s what I have to try.”

“Papa will not like your serving with your pen in London: he will say you are worth too much for that.”

“Good men are at it; I should not care to be ranked above them.”

“They are wasted, he says.”

“Error! If they have their private ambition, they may suppose they are wasted. But the value to the world of a private ambition, I do not clearly understand.”

“You have not an evil opinion of the world?” said Miss Middleton, sick at heart as she spoke, with the sensation of having invited herself to take a drop of poison.

He replied: “One might as well have an evil opinion of a river: here it’s muddy, there it’s clear; one day troubled, another at rest. We have to treat it with common sense.”

“Love it?”

“In the sense of serving it.”

“Not think it beautiful?”

“Part of it is, part of it the reverse.”

“Papa would quote the ‘mulier formosa’”.

“Except that ‘fish’ is too good for the black extremity. ‘Woman’ is excellent for the upper.”

“How do you say that? — not cynically, I believe. Your view commends itself to my reason.”

She was grateful to him for not stating it in ideal contrast with Sir Willoughby’s view. If he had, so intensely did her youthful blood desire to be enamoured of the world, that she felt he would have lifted her off her feet. For a moment a gulf beneath had been threatening. When she said, “Love it?” a little enthusiasm would have wafted her into space fierily as wine; but the sober, “In the sense of serving it”, entered her brain, and was matter for reflection upon it and him.

She could think of him in pleasant liberty, uncorrected by her woman’s instinct of peril. He had neither arts nor graces; nothing of his cousin’s easy social front-face. She had once witnessed the military precision of his dancing, and had to learn to like him before she ceased to pray that she might never be the victim of it as his partner. He walked heroically, his pedestrian vigour being famous, but that means one who walks away from the sex, not excelling in the recreations where men and women join hands. He was not much of a horseman either. Sir Willoughby enjoyed seeing him on horseback. And he could scarcely be said to shine in a drawingroom, unless when seated beside a person ready for real talk. Even more than his merits, his demerits pointed him out as a man to be a friend to a young woman who wanted one. His way of life pictured to her troubled spirit an enviable smoothness; and his having achieved that smooth way she considered a sign of strength; and she wished to lean in idea upon some friendly strength. His reputation for indifference to the frivolous charms of girls clothed him with a noble coldness, and gave him the distinction of a far-seen solitary iceberg in Southern waters. The popular notion of hereditary titled aristocracy resembles her sentiment for a man that would not flatter and could not be flattered by her sex: he appeared superior almost to awfulness. She was young, but she had received much flattery in her ears, and by it she had been snared; and he, disdaining to practise the fowler’s arts or to cast a thought on small fowls, appeared to her to have a pride founded on natural loftiness.

They had not spoken for awhile, when Vernon said abruptly, “The boy’s future rather depends on you, Miss Middleton. I mean to leave as soon as possible, and I do not like his being here without me, though you will look after him, I have no doubt. But you may not at first see where the spoiling hurts him. He should be packed off at once to the crammer, before you are Lady Patterne. Use your influence. Willoughby will support the lad at your request. The cost cannot be great. There are strong grounds against my having him in London, even if I could manage it. May I count on you?”

“I will mention it: I will do my best,” said Miss Middleton, strangely dejected.

They were now on the lawn, where Sir Willoughby was walking with the ladies Eleanor and Isabel, his maiden aunts.

“You seem to have coursed the hare and captured the hart.” he said to his bride.

“Started the truant and run down the paedagogue,” said Vernon.

“Ay, you won’t listen to me about the management of that boy,” Sir Willoughby retorted.

The ladies embraced Miss Middleton. One offered up an ejaculation in eulogy of her looks, the other of her healthfulness: then both remarked that with indulgence young Crossjay could be induced to do anything. Clara wondered whether inclination or Sir Willoughby had disciplined their individuality out of them and made them his shadows, his echoes. She gazed from them to him, and feared him. But as yet she had not experienced the power in him which could threaten and wrestle to subject the members of his household to the state of satellites. Though she had in fact been giving battle to it for several months, she had held her own too well to perceive definitely the character of the spirit opposing her.

She said to the ladies, “Ah, no! Mr. Whitford has chosen the only method for teaching a boy like Crossjay.”

“I propose to make a man of him,” said Sir Willoughby.

“What is to become of him if he learns nothing?”

“If he pleases me, he will be provided for. I have never abandoned a dependent.”

Clara let her eyes rest on his and, without turning or dropping, shut them.

The effect was discomforting to him. He was very sensitive to the intentions of eyes and tones; which was one secret of his rigid grasp of the dwellers in his household. They were taught that they had to render agreement under sharp scrutiny. Studious eyes, devoid of warmth, devoid of the shyness of sex, that suddenly closed on their look, signified a want of comprehension of some kind, it might be hostility of understanding. Was it possible he did not possess her utterly? He frowned up.

Clara saw the lift of his brows, and thought, “My mind is my own, married or not.”

It was the point in dispute.

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