The Egoist, by George Meredith

Chapter 9

Clara and Laetitia Meet: They are Compared

An hour before the time for lessons next morning young Crossjay was on the lawn with a big bunch of wild flowers. He left them at the hall door for Miss Middleton, and vanished into bushes.

These vulgar weeds were about to be dismissed to the dustheap by the great officials of the household; but as it happened that Miss Middleton had seen them from the window in Crossjay’s hands, the discovery was made that they were indeed his presentation-bouquet, and a footman received orders to place them before her. She was very pleased. The arrangement of the flowers bore witness to fairer fingers than the boy’s own in the disposition of the rings of colour, red campion and anemone, cowslip and speedwell, primroses and wood-hyacinths; and rising out of the blue was a branch bearing thick white blossom, so thick, and of so pure a whiteness, that Miss Middleton, while praising Crossjay for soliciting the aid of Miss Dale, was at a loss to name the tree.

“It is a gardener’s improvement on the Vestal of the forest, the wild cherry,” said Dr. Middleton, “and in this case we may admit the gardener’s claim to be valid, though I believe that, with his gift of double blossom, he has improved away the fruit. Call this the Vestal of civilization, then; he has at least done something to vindicate the beauty of the office as well as the justness of the title.”

“It is Vernon’s Holy Tree the young rascal has been despoiling,” said Sir Willoughby merrily.

Miss Middleton was informed that this double-blossom wild cherry-tree was worshipped by Mr. Whitford.

Sir Willoughby promised he would conduct her to it.

“You,” he said to her, “can bear the trial; few complexions can; it is to most ladies a crueller test than snow. Miss Dale, for example, becomes old lace within a dozen yards of it. I should like to place her under the tree beside you.”

“Dear me, though; but that is investing the hamadryad with novel and terrible functions,” exclaimed Dr. Middleton.

Clara said: “Miss Dale could drag me into a superior Court to show me fading beside her in gifts more valuable than a complexion.”

“She has a fine ability,” said Vernon.

All the world knew, so Clara knew of Miss Dales romantic admiration of Sir Willoughby; she was curious to see Miss Dale and study the nature of a devotion that might be, within reason, imitable — for a man who could speak with such steely coldness of the poor lady he had fascinated? Well, perhaps it was good for the hearts of women to be beneath a frost; to be schooled, restrained, turned inward on their dreams. Yes, then, his coldness was desireable; it encouraged an ideal of him. It suggested and seemed to propose to Clara’s mind the divineness of separation instead of the deadly accuracy of an intimate perusal. She tried to look on him as Miss Dale might look, and while partly despising her for the dupery she envied, and more than criticizing him for the inhuman numbness of sentiment which offered up his worshipper to point a complimentary comparison, she was able to imagine a distance whence it would be possible to observe him uncritically, kindly, admiringly; as the moon a handsome mortal, for example.

In the midst of her thoughts, she surprised herself by saying: “I certainly was difficult to instruct. I might see things clearer if I had a fine ability. I never remember to have been perfectly pleased with my immediate lesson.. .”

She stopped, wondering whither her tongue was leading her; then added, to save herself, “And that may be why I feel for poor Crossjay.”

Mr. Whitford apparently did not think it remarkable that she should have been set off gabbling of “a fine ability”, though the eulogistic phrase had been pronounced by him with an impressiveness to make his ear aware of an echo.

Sir Willoughby dispersed her vapourish confusion. “Exactly,” he said. “I have insisted with Vernon, I don’t know how often, that you must have the lad by his affections. He won’t bear driving. It had no effect on me. Boys of spirit kick at it. I think I know boys, Clara.”

He found himself addressing eyes that regarded him as though he were a small speck, a pin’s head, in the circle of their remote contemplation. They were wide; they closed.

She opened them to gaze elsewhere.

He was very sensitive.

Even then, when knowingly wounding him, or because of it, she was trying to climb back to that altitude of the thin division of neutral ground, from which we see a lover’s faults and are above them, pure surveyors. She climbed unsuccessfully, it is true; soon despairing and using the effort as a pretext to fall back lower.

Dr. Middleton withdrew Sir Willoughby’s attention from the imperceptible annoyance. “No, sir, no: the birch! the birch! Boys of spirit commonly turn into solid men, and the solider the men the more surely do they vote for Busby. For me, I pray he may be immortal in Great Britain. Sea-air nor mountain-air is half so bracing. I venture to say that the power to take a licking is better worth having than the power to administer one. Horse him and birch him if Crossjay runs from his books.”

“It is your opinion, sir?” his host bowed to him affably, shocked on behalf of the ladies.

“So positively so, sir, that I will undertake, without knowledge of their antecedents, to lay my finger on the men in public life who have not had early Busby. They are ill-balanced men. Their seat of reason is not a concrete. They won’t take rough and smooth as they come. They make bad blood, can’t forgive, sniff right and left for approbation, and are excited to anger if an East wind does not flatter them. Why, sir, when they have grown to be seniors, you find these men mixed up with the nonsense of their youth; you see they are unthrashed. We English beat the world because we take a licking well. I hold it for a surety of a proper sweetness of blood.”

The smile of Sir Willoughby waxed ever softer as the shakes of his head increased in contradictoriness. “And yet,” said he, with the air of conceding a little after having answered the Rev. Doctor and convicted him of error, “Jack requires it to keep him in order. On board ship your argument may apply. Not, I suspect, among gentlemen. No.”

“Good-night to you, gentlemen!” said Dr. Middleton.

Clara heard Miss Eleanor and Miss Isabel interchange remarks:

“Willoughby would not have suffered it!”

“It would entirely have altered him!”

She sighed and put a tooth on her under-lip. The gift of humourous fancy is in women fenced round with forbidding placards; they have to choke it; if they perceive a piece of humour, for instance, the young Willoughby grasped by his master — and his horrified relatives rigid at the sight of preparations for the seed of sacrilege, they have to blindfold the mind’s eye. They are society’s hard-drilled soldiery. Prussians that must both march and think in step. It is for the advantage of the civilized world, if you like, since men have decreed it, or matrons have so read the decree; but here and there a younger woman, haply an uncorrected insurgent of the sex matured here and there, feels that her lot was cast with her head in a narrower pit than her limbs.

Clara speculated as to whether Miss Dale might be perchance a person of a certain liberty of mind. She asked for some little, only some little, free play of mind in a house that seemed to wear, as it were, a cap of iron. Sir Willoughby not merely ruled, he throned, he inspired: and how? She had noticed an irascible sensitiveness in him alert against a shadow of disagreement; and as he was kind when perfectly appeased, the sop was offered by him for submission. She noticed that even Mr. Whitford forbore to alarm the sentiment of authority in his cousin. If he did not breathe Sir Willoughby, like the ladies Eleanor and Isabel, he would either acquiesce in a syllable or be silent. He never strongly dissented. The habit of the house, with its iron cap, was on him, as it was on the servants, and would be, oh, shudders of the shipwrecked that see their end in drowning! on the wife.

“When do I meet Miss Dale?” she inquired.

“This very evening, at dinner,” replied Sir Willoughby.

Then, thought she, there is that to look forward to.

She indulged her morbid fit, and shut up her senses that she might live in the anticipation of meeting Miss Dale; and, long before the approach of the hour, her hope of encountering any other than another dull adherent of Sir Willoughby had fled. So she was languid for two of the three minutes when she sat alone with Laetitia in the drawing-room before the rest had assembled.

“It is Miss Middleton?” Laetitia said, advancing to her. “My jealousy tells me; for you have won my boy Crossjay’s heart, and done more to bring him to obedience in a few minutes than we have been able to do in months.”

“His wild flowers were so welcome to me,” said Clara.

“He was very modest over them. And I mention it because boys of his age usually thrust their gifts in our faces fresh as they pluck them, and you were to be treated quite differently.”

“We saw his good fairy’s hand.”

“She resigns her office; but I pray you not to love him too well in return; for he ought to be away reading with one of those men who get boys through their examinations. He is, we all think, a born sailor, and his place is in the navy.”

“But, Miss Dale, I love him so well that I shall consult his interests and not my own selfishness. And, if I have influence, he will not be a week with you longer. It should have been spoke of today; I must have been in some dream; I thought of it, I know. I will not forget to do what may be in my power.”

Clara’s heart sank at the renewed engagement and plighting of herself involved in her asking a favour, urging any sort of petition. The cause was good. Besides, she was plighted already.

“Sir Willoughby is really fond of the boy,” she said.

“He is fond of exciting fondness in the boy,” said Miss Dale. “He has not dealt much with children. I am sure he likes Crossjay; he could not otherwise be so forbearing; it is wonderful what he endures and laughs at.”

Sir Willoughby entered. The presence of Miss Dale illuminated him as the burning taper lights up consecrated plate. Deeply respecting her for her constancy, esteeming her for a model of taste, he was never in her society without that happy consciousness of shining which calls forth the treasures of the man; and these it is no exaggeration to term unbounded, when all that comes from him is taken for gold.

The effect of the evening on Clara was to render her distrustful of her later antagonism. She had unknowingly passed into the spirit of Miss Dale, Sir Willoughby aiding; for she could sympathize with the view of his constant admirer on seeing him so cordially and smoothly gay; as one may say, domestically witty, the most agreeable form of wit. Mrs Mountstuart Jenkinson discerned that he had a leg of physical perfection; Miss Dale distinguished it in him in the vital essence; and before either of these ladies he was not simply a radiant, he was a productive creature, so true it is that praise is our fructifying sun. He had even a touch of the romantic air which Clara remembered as her first impression of the favourite of the county; and strange she found it to observe this resuscitated idea confronting her experience. What if she had been captious, inconsiderate? Oh, blissful revival of the sense of peace! The happiness of pain departing was all that she looked for, and her conception of liberty was to learn to love her chains, provided that he would spare her the caress. In this mood she sternly condemned Constantia. “We must try to do good; we must not be thinking of ourselves; we must make the best of our path in life.” She revolved these infantile precepts with humble earnestness; and not to be tardy in her striving to do good, with a remote but pleasurable glimpse of Mr. Whitford hearing of it, she took the opportunity to speak to Sir Willoughby on the subject of young Crossjay, at a moment when, alighting from horseback, he had shown himself to advantage among a gallant cantering company. He showed to great advantage on horseback among men, being invariably the best mounted, and he had a cavalierly style, possibly cultivated, but effective. On foot his raised head and half-dropped eyelids too palpably assumed superiority. “Willoughby, I want to speak,” she said, and shrank as she spoke, lest he should immediately grant everything in the mood of courtship, and invade her respite; “I want to speak of that dear boy Crossjay. You are fond of him. He is rather an idle boy here, and wasting time. . . ”

“Now you are here, and when you are here for good, my love for good. . . ” he fluttered away in loverliness, forgetful of Crossjay, whom he presently took up. “The boy recognizes his most sovereign lady, and will do your bidding, though you should order him to learn his lessons! Who would not obey? Your beauty alone commands. But what is there beyond? — a grace, a hue divine, that sets you not so much above as apart, severed from the world.”

Clara produced an active smile in duty, and pursued: “If Crossjay were sent at once to some house where men prepare boys to pass for the navy, he would have his chance, and the navy is distinctly his profession. His father is a brave man, and he inherits bravery, and he has a passion for a sailor’s life; only he must be able to pass his examination, and he has not much time.”

Sir Willoughby gave a slight laugh in sad amusement.

“My dear Clara, you adore the world; and I suppose you have to learn that there is not a question in this wrangling world about which we have not disputes and contests ad nauseam. I have my notions concerning Crossjay, Vernon has his. I should wish to make a gentleman of him. Vernon marks him for a sailor. But Vernon is the lad’s protector, I am not. Vernon took him from his father to instruct him, and he has a right to say what shall be done with him. I do not interfere. Only I can’t prevent the lad from liking me. Old Vernon seems to feel it. I assure you I hold entirely aloof. If I am asked, in spite of my disapproval of Vernon’s plans for the boy, to subscribe to his departure, I can but shrug, because, as you see, I have never opposed. Old Vernon pays for him, he is the master, he decides, and if Crossjay is blown from the masthead in a gale, the blame does not fall on me. These, my dear, are matters of reason.”

“I would not venture to intrude on them,” said Clara, “if I had not suspected that money. . . ”

“Yes,” cried Willoughby; “and it is a part. And let old Vernon surrender the boy to me, I will immediately relieve him of the burden on his purse. Can I do that, my dear, for the furtherance of a scheme I condemn? The point is thus: latterly I have invited Captain Patterne to visit me: just previous to his departure for the African Coast, where Government despatches Marines when there is no other way of killing them, I sent him a special invitation. He thanked me and curtly declined. The man, I may almost say, is my pensioner. Well, he calls himself a Patterne, he is undoubtedly a man of courage, he has elements of our blood, and the name. I think I am to be approved for desiring to make a better gentleman of the son than I behold in the father: and seeing that life from an early age on board ship has anything but made a gentleman of the father, I hold that I am right in shaping another course for the son.”

“Naval officers. . . ” Clara suggested.

“Some,” said Willoughby. “But they must be men of birth, coming out of homes of good breeding. Strip them of the halo of the title of naval officers, and I fear you would not often say gentlemen when they step into a drawing-room. I went so far as to fancy I had some claim to make young Crossjay something different. It can be done: the Patterne comes out in his behaviour to you, my love; it can be done. But if I take him, I claim undisputed sway over him. I cannot make a gentleman of the fellow if I am to compete with this person and that. In fine, he must look up to me, he must have one model.”

“Would you, then, provide for him subsequently?”

“According to his behaviour.”

“Would not that be precarious for him?”

“More so than the profession you appear inclined to choose for him?”

“But there he would be under clear regulations.”

“With me he would have to respond to affection.”

“Would you secure to him a settled income? For an idle gentleman is bad enough; a penniless gentleman. . . ”

“He has only to please me, my dear, and he will be launched and protected.”

“But if he does not succeed in pleasing you?”

“Is it so difficult?”

“Oh!” Clara fretted.

“You see, my love, I answer you,” said Sir Willoughby.

He resumed: “But let old Vernon have his trial with the lad. He has his own ideas. Let him carry them out. I shall watch the experiment.”

Clara was for abandoning her task in sheer faintness.

“Is not the question one of money?” she said, shyly, knowing Mr. Whitford to be poor.

“Old Vernon chooses to spend his money that way.” replied Sir Willoughby. “If it saves him from breaking his shins and risking his neck on his Alps, we may consider it well employed.”

“Yes,” Clara’s voice occupied a pause.

She seized her languor as it were a curling snake and cast it off. “But I understand that Mr. Whitford wants your assistance. Is he not — not rich? When he leaves the Hall to try his fortune in literature in London, he may not be so well able to support Crossjay and obtain the instruction necessary for the boy: and it would be generous to help him.”

“Leaves the Hall!” exclaimed Willoughby. “I have not heard a word of it. He made a bad start at the beginning, and I should have thought that would have tamed him: had to throw over his Fellowship; ahem. Then he received a small legacy some time back, and wanted to be off to push his luck in Literature: rank gambling, as I told him. Londonizing can do him no good. I thought that nonsense of his was over years ago. What is it he has from me? — about a hundred and fifty a year: and it might be doubled for the asking: and all the books he requires: and these writers and scholars no sooner think of a book than they must have it. And do not suppose me to complain. I am a man who will not have a single shilling expended by those who serve immediately about my person. I confess to exacting that kind of dependency. Feudalism is not an objectionable thing if you can be sure of the lord. You know, Clara, and you should know me in my weakness too, I do not claim servitude, I stipulate for affection. I claim to be surrounded by persons loving me. And with one? . . . dearest! So that we two can shut out the world; we live what is the dream of others. Nothing imaginable can be sweeter. It is a veritable heaven on earth. To be the possessor of the whole of you! Your thoughts, hopes, all.”

Sir Willoughby intensified his imagination to conceive more: he could not, or could not express it, and pursued: “But what is this talk of Vernon’s leaving me? He cannot leave. He has barely a hundred a year of his own. You see, I consider him. I do not speak of the ingratitude of the wish to leave. You know, my dear, I have a deadly abhorrence of partings and such like. As far as I can, I surround myself with healthy people specially to guard myself from having my feelings wrung; and excepting Miss Dale, whom you like — my darling does like her?”— the answer satisfied him; “with that one exception, I am not aware of a case that threatens to torment me. And here is a man, under no compulsion, talking of leaving the Hall! In the name of goodness, why? But why? Am I to imagine that the sight of perfect felicity distresses him? We are told that the world is ‘desperately wicked’. I do not like to think it of my friends; yet otherwise their conduct is often hard to account for.”

“If it were true, you would not punish Crossjay?” Clara feebly interposed.

“I should certainly take Crossjay and make a man of him after my own model, my dear. But who spoke to you of this?”

“Mr. Whitford himself. And let me give you my opinion, Willoughby, that he will take Crossjay with him rather than leave him, if there is a fear of the boy’s missing his chance of the navy.”

“Marines appear to be in the ascendant,” said Sir Willoughby, astonished at the locution and pleading in the interests of a son of one. “Then Crossjay he must take. I cannot accept half the boy. I am,” he laughed, “the legitimate claimant in the application for judgement before the wise king. Besides, the boy has a dose of my blood in him; he has none of Vernon’s, not one drop.”

“Ah!”

“You see, my love?”

“Oh, I do see; yes.”

“I put forth no pretensions to perfection,” Sir Willoughby continued. “I can bear a considerable amount of provocation; still I can be offended, and I am unforgiving when I have been offended. Speak to Vernon, if a natural occasion should spring up. I shall, of course, have to speak to him. You may, Clara, have observed a man who passed me on the road as we were cantering home, without a hint of a touch to his hat. That man is a tenant of mine, farming six hundred acres, Hoppner by name: a man bound to remember that I have, independently of my position, obliged him frequently. His lease of my ground has five years to run. I must say I detest the churlishness of our country population, and where it comes across me I chastise it. Vernon is a different matter: he will only require to be spoken to. One would fancy the old fellow laboured now and then under a magnetic attraction to beggary. My love,” he bent to her and checked their pacing up and down, “you are tired?”

“I am very tired today,” said Clara.

His arm was offered. She laid two fingers on it, and they dropped when he attempted to press them to his rib.

He did not insist. To walk beside her was to share in the stateliness of her walking.

He placed himself at a corner of the door-way for her to pass him into the house, and doated on her cheek, her ear, and the softly dusky nape of her neck, where this way and that the little lighter-coloured irreclaimable curls running truant from the comb and the knot — curls, half-curls, root-curls, vine-ringlets, wedding-rings, fledgling feathers, tufts of down, blown wisps — waved or fell, waved over or up or involutedly, or strayed, loose and downward, in the form of small silken paws, hardly any of them much thicker than a crayon shading, cunninger than long round locks of gold to trick the heart.

Laetitia had nothing to show resembling such beauty.

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