The Egoist, by George Meredith

15. The Petition for a Release

Neither Clara nor Vernon appeared at the mid-day table. Dr. Middleton talked with Miss Dale on classical matters, like a good-natured giant giving a child the jump from stone to stone across a brawling mountain ford, so that an unedified audience might really suppose, upon seeing her over the difficulty, she had done something for herself. Sir Willoughby was proud of her, and therefore anxious to settle her business while he was in the humour to lose her. He hoped to finish it by shooting a word or two at Vernon before dinner. Clara’s petition to be set free, released from him, had vaguely frightened even more than it offended his pride.

Miss Isabel quitted the room.

She came back, saying: “They decline to lunch.”

“Then we may rise,” remarked Sir Willoughby.

“She was weeping,” Miss Isabel murmured to him.

“Girlish enough,” he said.

The two elderly ladies went away together. Miss Dale, pursuing her theme with the Rev. Doctor, was invited by him to a course in the library. Sir Willoughby walked up and down the lawn, taking a glance at the West-room as he swung round on the turn of his leg. Growing impatient, he looked in at the window and found the room vacant.

Nothing was to be seen of Clara and Vernon during the afternoon. Near the dinner-hour the ladies were informed by Miss Middleton’s maid that her mistress was lying down on her bed, too unwell with headache to be present. Young Crossjay brought a message from Vernon (delayed by birds’ eggs in the delivery), to say that he was off over the hills, and thought of dining with Dr. Corney.

Sir Willoughby despatched condolences to his bride. He was not well able to employ his mind on its customary topic, being, like the dome of a bell, a man of so pervading a ring within himself concerning himself, that the recollection of a doubtful speech or unpleasant circumstance touching him closely deranged his inward peace; and as dubious and unpleasant things will often occur, he had great need of a worshipper, and was often compelled to appeal to her for signs of antidotal idolatry. In this instance, when the need of a worshipper was sharply felt, he obtained no signs at all. The Rev. Doctor had fascinated Miss Dale; so that, both within and without, Sir Willoughby was uncomforted. His themes in public were those of an English gentleman; horses, dogs, game, sport, intrigue, scandal, politics, wines, the manly themes; with a condescension to ladies’ tattle, and approbation of a racy anecdote. What interest could he possibly take in the Athenian Theatre and the girl whose flute-playing behind the scenes, imitating the nightingale, enraptured a Greek audience! He would have suspected a motive in Miss Dale’s eager attentiveness, if the motive could have been conceived. Besides, the ancients were not decorous; they did not, as we make our moderns do, write for ladies. He ventured at the dinner-table to interrupt Dr. Middleton once:—

“Miss Dale will do wisely, I think, sir, by confining herself to your present edition of the classics.”

“That,” replied Dr. Middleton, “is the observation of a student of the dictionary of classical mythology in the English tongue.”

“The Theatre is a matter of climate, sir. You will grant me that.”

“If quick wits come of climate, it is as you say, sir.”

“With us it seems a matter of painful fostering, or the need of it,” said Miss Dale, with a question to Dr. Middleton, excluding Sir Willoughby, as though he had been a temporary disturbance of the flow of their dialogue.

The ladies Eleanor and Isabel, previously excellent listeners to the learned talk, saw the necessity of coming to his rescue; but you cannot converse with your aunts, inmates of your house, on general subjects at table; the attempt increased his discomposure; he considered that he had ill-chosen his father-inlaw; that scholars are an impolite race; that young or youngish women are devotees of power in any form, and will be absorbed by a scholar for a variation of a man; concluding that he must have a round of dinner-parties to friends, especially ladies, appreciating him, during the Doctor’s visit. Clara’s headache above, and Dr. Middleton’s unmannerliness below, affected his instincts in a way to make him apprehend that a stroke of misfortune was impending; thunder was in the air. Still he learned something, by which he was to profit subsequently. The topic of wine withdrew the doctor from his classics; it was magical on him. A strong fraternity of taste was discovered in the sentiments of host and guest upon particular wines and vintages; they kindled one another by naming great years of the grape, and if Sir Willoughby had to sacrifice the ladies to the topic, he much regretted a condition of things that compelled him to sin against his habit, for the sake of being in the conversation and probing an elderly gentleman’s foible.

Late at night he heard the house-bell, and meeting Vernon in the hall, invited him to enter the laboratory and tell him Dr. Corney’s last. Vernon was brief, Corney had not let fly a single anecdote, he said, and lighted his candle.

“By the way, Vernon, you had a talk with Miss Middleton?”

“She will speak to you tomorrow at twelve.”

“To-morrow at twelve?”

“It gives her four-and-twenty hours.”

Sir Willoughby determined that his perplexity should be seen; but Vernon said good-night to him, and was shooting up the stairs before the dramatic exhibition of surprise had yielded to speech.

Thunder was in the air and a blow coming. Sir Willoughby’s instincts were awake to the many signs, nor, though silenced, were they hushed by his harping on the frantic excesses to which women are driven by the passion of jealousy. He believed in Clara’s jealousy because he really had intended to rouse it; under the form of emulation, feebly. He could not suppose she had spoken of it to Vernon. And as for the seriousness of her desire to be released from her engagement, that was little credible. Still the fixing of an hour for her to speak to him after an interval of four-and-twenty hours, left an opening for the incredible to add its weight to the suspicious mass; and who would have fancied Clara Middleton so wild a victim of the intemperate passion! He muttered to himself several assuaging observations to excuse a young lady half demented, and rejected them in a lump for their nonsensical inapplicability to Clara. In order to obtain some sleep, he consented to blame himself slightly, in the style of the enamoured historian of erring beauties alluding to their peccadilloes. He had done it to edify her. Sleep, however, failed him. That an inordinate jealousy argued an overpowering love, solved his problem until he tried to fit the proposition to Clara’s character. He had discerned nothing southern in her. Latterly, with the blushing Day in prospect, she had contracted and frozen. There was no reading either of her or of the mystery.

In the morning, at the breakfast-table, a confession of sleeplessness was general. Excepting Miss Dale and Dr. Middleton, none had slept a wink. “I, sir,” the Doctor replied to Sir Willoughby, “slept like a lexicon in your library when Mr. Whitford and I are out of it.”

Vernon incidentally mentioned that he had been writing through the night.

“You fellows kill yourselves,” Sir Willoughby reproved him. “For my part, I make it a principle to get through my work without self-slaughter.”

Clara watched her father for a symptom of ridicule. He gazed mildly on the systematic worker. She was unable to guess whether she would have in him an ally or a judge. The latter, she feared. Now that she had embraced the strife, she saw the division of the line where she stood from that one where the world places girls who are affianced wives; her father could hardly be with her; it had gone too far. He loved her, but he would certainly take her to be moved by a maddish whim; he would not try to understand her case. The scholar’s detestation of a disarrangement of human affairs that had been by miracle contrived to run smoothly, would of itself rank him against her; and with the world to back his view of her, he might behave like a despotic father. How could she defend herself before him? At one thought of Sir Willoughby, her tongue made ready, and feminine craft was alert to prompt it; but to her father she could imagine herself opposing only dumbness and obstinacy.

“It is not exactly the same kind of work,” she said.

Dr Middleton rewarded her with a bushy eyebrow’s beam of his revolting humour at the baronet’s notion of work.

So little was needed to quicken her that she sunned herself in the beam, coaxing her father’s eyes to stay with hers as long as she could, and beginning to hope he might be won to her side, if she confessed she had been more in the wrong than she felt; owned to him, that is, her error in not earlier disturbing his peace.

“I do not say it is the same,” observed Sir Willoughby, bowing to their alliance of opinion. “My poor work is for the day, and Vernon’s, no doubt, for the day to come. I contend, nevertheless, for the preservation of health as the chief implement of work.”

“Of continued work; there I agree with you,” said Dr. Middleton, cordially.

Clara’s heart sunk; so little was needed to deaden her.

Accuse her of an overweening antagonism to her betrothed; yet remember that though the words had not been uttered to give her good reason for it, nature reads nature; captives may be stript of everything save that power to read their tyrant; remember also that she was not, as she well knew, blameless; her rage at him was partly against herself.

The rising from table left her to Sir Willoughby. She swam away after Miss Dale, exclaiming: “The laboratory! Will you have me for a companion on your walk to see your father? One breathes earth and heaven today out of doors. Isn’t it Summer with a Spring Breeze? I will wander about your garden and not hurry your visit, I promise.”

“I shall be very happy indeed. But I am going immediately,” said Laetitia, seeing Sir Willoughby hovering to snap up his bride.

“Yes; and a garden-hat and I am on the march.”

“I will wait for you on the terrace.”

“You will not have to wait.”

“Five minutes at the most,” Sir Willoughby said to Laetitia, and she passed out, leaving them alone together.

“Well, and my love!” he addressed his bride almost huggingly; “and what is the story? and how did you succeed with old Vernon yesterday? He will and he won’t? He’s a very woman in these affairs. I can’t forgive him for giving you a headache. You were found weeping.”

“Yes, I cried,” said Clara.

“And now tell me about it. You know, my dear girl, whether he does or doesn’t, our keeping him somewhere in the neighbourhood—perhaps not in the house—that is the material point. It can hardly be necessary in these days to urge marriages on. I’m sure the country is over. . . Most marriages ought to be celebrated with the funeral knell!”

“I think so,” said Clara.

“It will come to this, that marriages of consequence, and none but those, will be hailed with joyful peals.”

“Do not say such things in public, Willoughby.”

“Only to you, to you! Don’t think me likely to expose myself to the world. Well, and I sounded Miss Dale, and there will be no violent obstacle. And now about Vernon?”

“I will speak to you, Willoughby, when I return from my walk with Miss Dale, soon after twelve.”

“Twelve!” said he

“I name an hour. It seems childish. I can explain it. But it is named, I cannot deny, because I am a rather childish person perhaps, and have it prescribed to me to delay my speaking for a certain length of time. I may tell you at once that Mr. Whitford is not to be persuaded by me, and the breaking of our engagement would not induce him to remain.”

“Vernon used those words?”

“It was I.”

“‘The breaking of our engagement!’ Come into the laboratory, my love.”

“I shall not have time.”

“Time shall stop rather than interfere with our conversation! ‘The breaking. . . ’! But it’s a sort of sacrilege to speak of it.”

“That I feel; yet it has to be spoken of”

“Sometimes? Why? I can’t conceive the occasion. You know, to me, Clara, plighted faith, the affiancing of two lovers, is a piece of religion. I rank it as holy as marriage; nay, to me it is holier; I really cannot tell you how; I can only appeal to you in your bosom to understand me. We read of divorces with comparative indifference. They occur between couples who have rubbed off all romance.”

She could have asked him in her fit of ironic iciness, on hearing him thus blindly challenge her to speak out, whether the romance might be his piece of religion.

He propitiated the more unwarlike sentiments in her by ejaculating, “Poor souls! let them go their several ways. Married people no longer lovers are in the category of the unnameable. But the hint of the breaking of an engagement—our engagement!—between us? Oh!”

“Oh!” Clara came out with a swan’s note swelling over mechanical imitation of him to dolorousness illimitable. “Oh!” she breathed short, “let it be now. Do not speak till you have heard me. My head may not be clear by-and-by. And two scenes—twice will be beyond my endurance. I am penitent for the wrong I have done you. I grieve for you. All the blame is mine. Willoughby, you must release me. Do not let me hear a word of that word; jealousy is unknown to me . . . Happy if I could call you friend and see you with a worthier than I, who might by-and-by call me friend! You have my plighted troth. . . given in ignorance of my feelings. Reprobate a weak and foolish girl’s ignorance. I have thought of it, and I cannot see wickedness, though the blame is great, shameful. You have none. You are without any blame. You will not suffer as I do. You will be generous to me? I have no respect for myself when I beg you to be generous and release me.”

“But was this the. . . ” Willoughby preserved his calmness, “this, then, the subject of your interview with Vernon?”

“I have spoken to him. I did my commission, and I spoke to him.”

“Of me?”

“Of myself. I see how I hurt you; I could not avoid it. Yes, of you, as far as we are related. I said I believed you would release me. I said I could be true to my plighted word, but that you would not insist. Could a gentleman insist? But not a step beyond; not love; I have none. And, Willoughby, treat me as one perfectly worthless; I am. I should have known it a year back. I was deceived in myself. There should be love.”

“Should be!” Willoughby’s tone was a pungent comment on her.

“Love, then, I find I have not. I think I am antagonistic to it. What people say of it I have not experienced. I find I was mistaken. It is lightly said, but very painful. You understand me, that my prayer is for liberty, that I may not be tied. If you can release and pardon me, or promise ultimately to pardon me, or say some kind word, I shall know it is because I am beneath you utterly that I have been unable to give you the love you should have with a wife. Only say to me, go! It is you who break the match, discovering my want of a heart. What people think of me matters little. My anxiety will be to save you annoyance.”

She waited for him; he seemed on the verge of speaking.

He perceived her expectation; he had nothing but clownish tumult within, and his dignity counselled him to disappoint her.

Swaying his head, like the oriental palm whose shade is a blessing to the perfervid wanderer below, smiling gravely, he was indirectly asking his dignity what he could say to maintain it and deal this mad young woman a bitterly compassionate rebuke. What to think, hung remoter. The thing to do struck him first.

He squeezed both her hands, threw the door wide open, and said, with countless blinkings: “In the laboratory we are uninterrupted. I was at a loss to guess where that most unpleasant effect on the senses came from. They are always ‘guessing’ through the nose. I mean, the remainder of breakfast here. Perhaps I satirized them too smartly—if you know the letters. When they are not ‘calculating’. More offensive than debris of a midnight banquet! An American tour is instructive, though not so romantic. Not so romantic as Italy, I mean. Let us escape.”

She held back from his arm. She had scattered his brains; it was pitiable: but she was in the torrent and could not suffer a pause or a change of place.

“It must be here; one minute more—I cannot go elsewhere to begin again. Speak to me here; answer my request. Once; one word. If you forgive me, it will be superhuman. But, release me.”

“Seriously,” he rejoined, “tea-cups and coffee-cups, breadcrumbs. egg-shells, caviare, butter, beef, bacon! Can we? The room reeks.”

“Then I will go for my walk with Miss Dale. And you will speak to me when I return?”

“At all seasons. You shall go with Miss Dale. But, my dear! my love! Seriously, where are we? One hears of lover’s quarrels. Now I never quarrel. It is a characteristic of mine. And you speak of me to my cousin Vernon! Seriously, plighted faith signifies plighted faith, as much as an iron-cable is iron to hold by. Some little twist of the mind? To Vernon, of all men! Tush! she has been dreaming of a hero of perfection, and the comparison is unfavourable to her Willoughby. But, my Clara, when I say to you, that bride is bride, and you are mine, mine!”

“Willoughby, you mentioned them—those separations of two married. You said, if they do not love. . . Oh! say, is it not better—instead of later?”

He took advantage of her modesty in speaking to exclaim. “Where are we now? Bride is bride, and wife is wife, and affianced is, in honour, wedded. You cannot be released. We are united. Recognize it; united. There is no possibility of releasing a wife!”

“Not if she ran. . .?”

This was too direct to be histrionically misunderstood. He had driven her to the extremity of more distinctly imagining the circumstance she had cited, and with that cleared view the desperate creature gloried in launching such a bolt at the man’s real or assumed insensibility as must, by shivering it, waken him.

But in a moment she stood in burning rose, with dimmed eyesight. She saw his horror, and, seeing, shared it; shared just then only by seeing it; which led her to rejoice with the deepest of sighs that some shame was left in her.

“Ran? ran? ran?” he said as rapidly as he blinked. “How? where? what idea. . .?”

Close was he upon an explosion that would have sullied his conception of the purity of the younger members of the sex hauntingly.

That she, a young lady, maiden, of strictest education, should, and without his teaching, know that wives ran!—know that by running they compelled their husbands to abandon pursuit, surrender possession!—and that she should suggest it of herself as a wife!—that she should speak of running!

His ideal, the common male Egoist ideal of a waxwork sex, would have been shocked to fragments had she spoken further to fill in the outlines of these awful interjections.

She was tempted: for during the last few minutes the fire of her situation had enlightened her understanding upon a subject far from her as the ice-fields of the North a short while before; and the prospect offered to her courage if she would only outstare shame and seem at home in the doings of wickedness, was his loathing and dreading so vile a young woman. She restrained herself; chiefly, after the first bridling of maidenly timidity, because she could not bear to lower the idea of her sex even in his esteem.

The door was open. She had thoughts of flying out to breathe in an interval of truce.

She reflected on her situation hurriedly askance:

“If one must go through this, to be disentangled from an engagement, what must it be to poor women seeking to be free of a marriage?”

Had she spoken it, Sir Willoughby might have learned that she was not so iniquitously wise of the things of this world as her mere sex’s instinct, roused to the intemperateness of a creature struggling with fetters, had made her appear in her dash to seize a weapon, indicated moreover by him.

Clara took up the old broken vow of women to vow it afresh: “Never to any man will I give my hand.”

She replied to Sir Willoughby, “I have said all. I cannot explain what I have said.”

She had heard a step in the passage. Vernon entered.

Perceiving them, he stated his mission in apology: “Doctor Middleton left a book in this room. I see it; it’s a Heinsius.”

“Ha! by the way, a book; books would not be left here if they were not brought here, with my compliments to Doctor Middleton, who may do as he pleases, though, seriously, order is order,” said Sir Willoughby. “Come away to the laboratory, Clara. It’s a comment on human beings that wherever they have been there’s a mess, and you admirers of them,” he divided a sickly nod between Vernon and the stale breakfast-table, “must make what you can of it. Come, Clara.”

Clara protested that she was engaged to walk with Miss Dale.

“Miss Dale is waiting in the hall,” said Vernon.

“Miss Dale is waiting?” said Clara.

“Walk with Miss Dale; walk with Miss Dale,” Sir Willoughby remarked, pressingly. “I will beg her to wait another two minutes. You shall find her in the hall when you come down.”

He rang the bell and went out.

“Take Miss Dale into your confidence; she is quite trustworthy,” Vernon said to Clara.

“I have not advanced one step,” she replied.

“Recollect that you are in a position of your own choosing; and if, after thinking over it, you mean to escape, you must make up your mind to pitched battles, and not be dejected if you are beaten in all of them; there is your only chance.”

“Not my choosing; do not say choosing, Mr. Whitford. I did not choose. I was incapable of really choosing. I consented.”

“It’s the same in fact. But be sure of what you wish.”

“Yes,” she assented, taking it for her just punishment that she should be supposed not quite to know her wishes. “Your advice has helped me today.”

“Did I advise?”

“Do you regret advising?”

“I should certainly regret a word that intruded between you and him.”

“But you will not leave the Hall yet? You will not leave me without a friend? If papa and I were to leave tomorrow, I foresee endless correspondence. I have to stay at least some days, and wear through it, and then, if I have to speak to my poor father, you can imagine the effect on him.”

Sir Willoughby came striding in, to correct the error of his going out.

“Miss Dale awaits you, my dear. You have bonnet, hat?—No? Have you forgotten your appointment to walk with her?”

“I am ready,” said Clara, departing.

The two gentlemen behind her separated in the passage. They had not spoken.

She had read of the reproach upon women, that they divide the friendships of men. She reproached herself but she was in action, driven by necessity, between sea and rock. Dreadful to think of! she was one of the creatures who are written about.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57