The Egoist, by George Meredith

22. The Ride

Crossjay darted up to her a nose ahead of the colonel.

“I say, Miss Middleton, we’re to have the whole day to ourselves, after morning lessons. Will you come and fish with me and see me bird’s-nest?”

“Not for the satisfaction of beholding another cracked crown, my son,” the colonel interposed: and bowing to Clara: “Miss Middleton is handed over to my exclusive charge for the day, with her consent?”

“I scarcely know,” said she, consulting a sensation of languor that seemed to contain some reminiscence. “If I am here. My father’s plans are uncertain. I will speak to him. If I am here, perhaps Crossjay would like a ride in the afternoon.”

“Oh, yes,” cried the boy; “out over Bournden, through Mewsey up to Closharn Beacon, and down on Aspenwell, where there’s a common for racing. And ford the stream!”

“An inducement for you,” De Craye said to her.

She smiled and squeezed the boy’s hand.

“We won’t go without you, Crossjay.”

“You don’t carry a comb, my man, when you bathe?”

At this remark of the colonel’s young Crossjay conceived the appearance of his matted locks in the eyes of his adorable lady. He gave her one dear look through his redness, and fled.

“I like that boy,” said De Craye.

“I love him,” said Clara.

Crossjay’s troubled eyelids in his honest young face became a picture for her.

“After all, Miss Middleton, Willoughby’s notions about him are not so bad, if we consider that you will be in the place of a mother to him.”

“I think them bad.”

“You are disinclined to calculate the good fortune of the boy in having more of you on land than he would have in crown and anchor buttons!”

“You have talked of him with Willoughby.”

“We had a talk last night.”

Of how much? thought she.

“Willoughby returns?” she said.

“He dines here, I know; for he holds the key of the inner cellar, and Doctor Middleton does him the honour to applaud his wine. Willoughby was good enough to tell me that he thought I might contribute to amuse you.”

She was brooding in stupefaction on her father and the wine as she requested Colonel De Craye to persuade Willoughby to take the general view of Crossjay’s future and act on it.

“He seems fond of the boy, too,” said De Craye, musingly.

“You speak in doubt?”

“Not at all. But is he not—men are queer fish!—make allowance for us—a trifle tyrannical, pleasantly, with those he is fond of?”

“If they look right and left?”

It was meant for an interrogation; it was not with the sound of one that the words dropped. “My dear Crossjay!” she sighed. “I would willingly pay for him out of my own purse, and I will do so rather than have him miss his chance. I have not mustered resolution to propose it.”

“I may be mistaken, Miss Middleton. He talked of the boy’s fondness of him.”

“He would.”

“I suppose he is hardly peculiar in liking to play Pole-star.”

“He may not be.”

“For the rest, your influence should be all-powerful.”

“It is not.”

De Craye looked with a wandering eye at the heavens.

“We are having a spell of weather perfectly superb. And the odd thing is, that whenever we have splendid weather at home we’re all for rushing abroad. I’m booked for a Mediterranean cruise—postponed to give place to your ceremony.”

“That?” she could not control her accent.

“What worthier?”

She was guilty of a pause.

De Craye saved it from an awkward length. “I have written half an essay on Honeymoons, Miss Middleton.”

“Is that the same as a half-written essay, Colonel De Craye?”

“Just the same, with the difference that it’s a whole essay written all on one side.”

“On which side?”

“The bachelor’s.”

“Why does he trouble himself with such topics?”

“To warm himself for being left out in the cold.”

“Does he feel envy?”

“He has to confess it.”

“He has liberty.”

“A commodity he can’t tell the value of if there’s no one to buy.”

“Why should he wish to sell?”

“He’s bent on completing his essay.”

“To make the reading dull.”

“There we touch the key of the subject. For what is to rescue the pair from a monotony multiplied by two? And so a bachelor’s recommendation, when each has discovered the right sort of person to be dull with, pushes them from the churchdoor on a round of adventures containing a spice of peril, if ’tis to be had. Let them be in danger of their lives the first or second day. A bachelor’s loneliness is a private affair of his own; he hasn’t to look into a face to be ashamed of feeling it and inflicting it at the same time; ’tis his pillow; he can punch it an he pleases, and turn it over t’other side, if he’s for a mighty variation; there’s a dream in it. But our poor couple are staring wide awake. All their dreaming’s done. They’ve emptied their bottle of elixir, or broken it; and she has a thirst for the use of the tongue, and he to yawn with a crony; and they may converse, they’re not aware of it, more than the desert that has drunk a shower. So as soon as possible she’s away to the ladies, and he puts on his Club. That’s what your bachelor sees and would like to spare them; and if he didn’t see something of the sort he’d be off with a noose round his neck, on his knees in the dew to the morning milkmaid.”

“The bachelor is happily warned and on his guard,” said Clara, diverted, as he wished her to be. “Sketch me a few of the adventures you propose.”

“I have a friend who rowed his bride from the Houses of Parliament up the Thames to the Severn on into North Wales. They shot some pretty weirs and rapids.”

“That was nice.”

“They had an infinity of adventures, and the best proof of the benefit they derived is, that they forgot everything about them except that the adventures occurred.”

“Those two must have returned bright enough to please you.”

“They returned, and shone like a wrecker’s beacon to the mariner. You see, Miss Middleton, there was the landscape, and the exercise, and the occasional bit of danger. I think it’s to be recommended. The scene is always changing, and not too fast; and ’tis not too sublime, like big mountains, to tire them of their everlasting big Ohs. There’s the difference between going into a howling wind and launching among zephyrs. They have fresh air and movement, and not in a railway carriage; they can take in what they look on. And she has the steering ropes, and that’s a wise commencement. And my lord is all day making an exhibition of his manly strength, bowing before her some sixty to the minute; and she, to help him, just inclines when she’s in the mood. And they’re face to face in the nature of things, and are not under the obligation of looking the unutterable, because, you see, there’s business in hand; and the boat’s just the right sort of third party, who never interferes, but must be attended to. And they feel they’re labouring together to get along, all in the proper proportion; and whether he has to labour in life or not, he proves his ability. What do you think of it, Miss Middleton?”

“I think you have only to propose it, Colonel De Craye.”

“And if they capsize, why, ’tis a natural ducking!”

“You forgot the lady’s dressing-bag.”

“The stain on the metal for a constant reminder of his prowess in saving it! Well, and there’s an alternative to that scheme, and a finer:—This, then: they read dramatic pieces during courtship, to stop the saying of things over again till the drum of the car becomes nothing but a drum to the poor head, and a little before they affix their signatures to the fatal Registry-book of the vestry, they enter into an engagement with a body of provincial actors to join the troop on the day of their nuptials, and away they go in their coach and four, and she is Lady Kitty Caper for a month, and he Sir Harry Highflyer. See the honeymoon spinning! The marvel to me is that none of the young couples do it. They could enjoy the world, see life, amuse the company, and come back fresh to their own characters, instead of giving themselves a dose of Africa without a savage to diversify it: an impression they never get over, I’m told. Many a character of the happiest auspices has irreparable mischief done it by the ordinary honeymoon. For my part, I rather lean to the second plan of campaign.”

Clara was expected to reply, and she said: “Probably because you are fond of acting. It would require capacity on both sides.”

“Miss Middleton, I would undertake to breathe the enthusiasm for the stage and the adventure.”

“You are recommending it generally.”

“Let my gentleman only have a fund of enthusiasm. The lady will kindle. She always does at a spark.”

“If he has not any?”

“Then I’m afraid they must be mortally dull.”

She allowed her silence to speak; she knew that it did so too eloquently, and could not control the personal adumbration she gave to the one point of light revealed in, “if he has not any”. Her figure seemed immediately to wear a cap and cloak of dulness.

She was full of revolt and anger, she was burning with her situation; if sensible of shame now at anything that she did, it turned to wrath and threw the burden on the author of her desperate distress. The hour for blaming herself had gone by, to be renewed ultimately perhaps in a season of freedom. She was bereft of her insight within at present, so blind to herself that, while conscious of an accurate reading of Willoughby’s friend, she thanked him in her heart for seeking simply to amuse her and slightly succeeding. The afternoon’s ride with him and Crossjay was an agreeable beguilement to her in prospect.

Laetitia came to divide her from Colonel De Craye. Dr. Middleton was not seen before his appearance at the breakfast-table, where a certain air of anxiety in his daughter’s presence produced the semblance of a raised map at intervals on his forehead. Few sights on earth are more deserving of our sympathy than a good man who has a troubled conscience thrust on him.

The Rev. Doctor’s perturbation was observed. The ladies Eleanor and Isabel, seeing his daughter to be the cause of it, blamed her, and would have assisted him to escape, but Miss Dale, whom he courted with that object, was of the opposite faction. She made way for Clara to lead her father out. He called to Vernon, who merely nodded while leaving the room by the window with Crossjay.

Half an eye on Dr. Middleton’s pathetic exit in captivity sufficed to tell Colonel De Craye that parties divided the house. At first he thought how deplorable it would be to lose Miss Middleton for two days or three: and it struck him that Vernon Whitford and Laetitia Dale were acting oddly in seconding her, their aim not being discernible. For he was of the order of gentlemen of the obscurely-clear in mind who have a predetermined acuteness in their watch upon the human play, and mark men and women as pieces of a bad game of chess, each pursuing an interested course. His experience of a section of the world had educated him—as gallant, frank, and manly a comrade as one could wish for—up to this point. But he soon abandoned speculations, which may be compared to a shaking anemometer that will not let the troubled indicator take station. Reposing on his perceptions and his instincts, he fixed his attention on the chief persons, only glancing at the others to establish a postulate, that where there are parties in a house the most bewitching person present is the origin of them. It is ever Helen’s achievement. Miss Middleton appeared to him bewitching beyond mortal; sunny in her laughter, shadowy in her smiling; a young lady shaped for perfect music with a lover.

She was that, and no less, to every man’s eye on earth. High breeding did not freeze her lovely girlishness.—But Willoughby did. This reflection intervened to blot luxurious picturings of her, and made itself acceptable by leading him back to several instances of an evident want of harmony of the pair.

And now (for purely undirected impulse all within us is not, though we may be eye-bandaged agents under direction) it became necessary for an honourable gentleman to cast vehement rebukes at the fellow who did not comprehend the jewel he had won. How could Willoughby behave like so complete a donkey! De Craye knew him to be in his interior stiff, strange, exacting: women had talked of him; he had been too much for one woman—the dashing Constantia: he had worn one woman, sacrificing far more for him than Constantia, to death. Still, with such a prize as Clara Middleton, Willoughby’s behaviour was past calculating in its contemptible absurdity. And during courtship! And courtship of that girl! It was the way of a man ten years after marriage.

The idea drew him to picture her doatingly in her young matronly bloom ten years after marriage: without a touch of age, matronly wise, womanly sweet: perhaps with a couple of little ones to love, never having known the love of a man.

To think of a girl like Clara Middleton never having at nine-and-twenty, and with two fair children! known the love of a man or the loving of a man, possibly, became torture to the Colonel.

For a pacification he had to reconsider that she was as yet only nineteen and unmarried.

But she was engaged, and she was unloved. One might swear to it, that she was unloved. And she was not a girl to be satisfied with a big house and a high-nosed husband.

There was a rapid alteration of the sad history of Clara the unloved matron solaced by two little ones. A childless Clara tragically loving and beloved flashed across the dark glass of the future.

Either way her fate was cruel.

Some astonishment moved De Craye in the contemplation of the distance he had stepped in this morass of fancy. He distinguished the choice open to him of forward or back, and he selected forward. But fancy was dead: the poetry hovering about her grew invisible to him: he stood in the morass; that was all he knew; and momently he plunged deeper; and he was aware of an intense desire to see her face, that he might study her features again: he understood no more.

It was the clouding of the brain by the man’s heart, which had come to the knowledge that it was caught.

A certain measure of astonishment moved him still. It had hitherto been his portion to do mischief to women and avoid the vengeance of the sex. What was there in Miss Middleton’s face and air to ensnare a veteran handsome man of society numbering six-and-thirty years, nearly as many conquests? “Each bullet has got its commission.” He was hit at last. That accident effected by Mr. Flitch had fired the shot. Clean through the heart, does not tell us of our misfortune, till the heart is asked to renew its natural beating. It fell into the condition of the porcelain vase over a thought of Miss Middleton standing above his prostrate form on the road, and walking beside him to the Hall. Her words? What have they been? She had not uttered words, she had shed meanings. He did not for an instant conceive that he had charmed her: the charm she had cast on him was too thrilling for coxcombry to lift a head; still she had enjoyed his prattle. In return for her touch upon the Irish fountain in him, he had manifestly given her relief And could not one see that so sprightly a girl would soon be deadened by a man like Willoughby? Deadened she was: she had not responded to a compliment on her approaching marriage. An allusion to it killed her smiling. The case of Mr. Flitch, with the half wager about his reinstation in the service of the Hall, was conclusive evidence of her opinion of Willoughby.

It became again necessary that he should abuse Willoughby for his folly. Why was the man worrying her? In some way he was worrying her.

What if Willoughby as well as Miss Middleton wished to be quit of the engagement? . . .

For just a second, the handsome, woman-flattered officer proved his man’s heart more whole than he supposed it. That great organ, instead of leaping at the thought, suffered a check.

Bear in mind that his heart was not merely man’s, it was a conqueror’s. He was of the race of amorous heroes who glory in pursuing, overtaking, subduing: wresting the prize from a rival, having her ripe from exquisitely feminine inward conflicts, plucking her out of resistance in good old primitive fashion. You win the creature in her delicious flutterings. He liked her thus, in cooler blood, because of society’s admiration of the capturer, and somewhat because of the strife, which always enhances the value of a prize, and refreshes our vanity in recollection.

Moreover, he had been matched against Willoughby: the circumstance had occurred two or three times. He could name a lady he had won, a lady he had lost. Willoughby’s large fortune and grandeur of style had given him advantages at the start. But the start often means the race—with women, and a bit of luck.

The gentle check upon the galloping heart of Colonel De Craye endured no longer than a second—a simple side-glance in a headlong pace. Clara’s enchantingness for a temperament like his, which is to say, for him specially, in part through the testimony her conquest of himself presented as to her power of sway over the universal heart known as man’s, assured him she was worth winning even from a hand that dropped her.

He had now a double reason for exclaiming at the folly of Willoughby. Willoughby’s treatment of her showed either temper or weariness. Vanity and judgement led De Craye to guess the former. Regarding her sentiments for Willoughby, he had come to his own conclusion. The certainty of it caused him to assume that he possessed an absolute knowledge of her character: she was an angel, born supple; she was a heavenly soul, with half a dozen of the tricks of earth. Skittish filly was among his phrases; but she had a bearing and a gaze that forbade the dip in the common gutter for wherewithal to paint the creature she was.

Now, then, to see whether he was wrong for the first time in his life! If not wrong, he had a chance.

There could be nothing dishonourable in rescuing a girl from an engagement she detested. An attempt to think it a service to Willoughby faded midway. De Craye dismissed that chicanery. It would be a service to Willoughby in the end, without question. There was that to soothe his manly honour. Meanwhile he had to face the thought of Willoughby as an antagonist, and the world looking heavy on his honour as a friend.

Such considerations drew him tenderly close to Miss Middleton. It must, however, be confessed that the mental ardour of Colonel De Craye had been a little sobered by his glance at the possibility of both of the couple being of one mind on the subject of their betrothal. Desirable as it was that they should be united in disagreeing, it reduced the romance to platitude, and the third person in the drama to the appearance of a stick. No man likes to play that part. Memoirs of the favourites of Goddesses, if we had them, would confirm it of men’s tastes in this respect, though the divinest be the prize. We behold what part they played.

De Craye chanced to be crossing the hall from the laboratory to the stables when Clara shut the library-door behind her. He said something whimsical, and did not stop, nor did he look twice at the face he had been longing for.

What he had seen made him fear there would be no ride out with her that day. Their next meeting reassured him; she was dressed in her riding-habit, and wore a countenance resolutely cheerful. He gave himself the word of command to take his tone from her.

He was of a nature as quick as Clara’s. Experience pushed him farther than she could go in fancy; but experience laid a sobering finger on his practical steps, and bade them hang upon her initiative. She talked little. Young Crossjay cantering ahead was her favourite subject. She was very much changed since the early morning: his liveliness, essayed by him at a hazard, was unsuccessful; grave English pleased her best. The descent from that was naturally to melancholy. She mentioned a regret she had that the Veil was interdicted to women in Protestant countries. De Craye was fortunately silent; he could think of no other veil than the Moslem, and when her meaning struck his witless head, he admitted to himself that devout attendance on a young lady’s mind stupefies man’s intelligence. Half an hour later, he was as foolish in supposing it a confidence. He was again saved by silence.

In Aspenwell village she drew a letter from her bosom and called to Crossjay to post it. The boy sang out, “Miss Lucy Darleton! What a nice name!”

Clara did not show that the name betrayed anything.

She said to De Craye. “It proves he should not be here thinking of nice names.”

Her companion replied, “You may be right.” He added, to avoid feeling too subservient: “Boys will.”

“Not if they have stern masters to teach them their daily lessons, and some of the lessons of existence.”

“Vernon Whitford is not stern enough?”

“Mr. Whitford has to contend with other influences here.”

“With Willoughby?”

“Not with Willoughby.”

He understood her. She touched the delicate indication firmly. The man’s, heart respected her for it; not many girls could be so thoughtful or dare to be so direct; he saw that she had become deeply serious, and he felt her love of the boy to be maternal, past maiden sentiment.

By this light of her seriousness, the posting of her letter in a distant village, not entrusting it to the Hall post-box, might have import; not that she would apprehend the violation of her private correspondence, but we like to see our letter of weighty meaning pass into the mouth of the public box.

Consequently this letter was important. It was to suppose a sequency in the conduct of a variable damsel. Coupled with her remark about the Veil, and with other things, not words, breathing from her (which were the breath of her condition), it was not unreasonably to be supposed. She might even be a very consistent person. If one only had the key of her!

She spoke once of an immediate visit to London, supposing that she could induce her father to go. De Craye remembered the occurrence in the Hall at night, and her aspect of distress.

They raced along Aspenwell Common to the ford; shallow, to the chagrin of young Crossjay, between whom and themselves they left a fitting space for his rapture in leading his pony to splash up and down, lord of the stream.

Swiftness of motion so strikes the blood on the brain that our thoughts are lightnings, the heart is master of them.

De Craye was heated by his gallop to venture on the angling question: “Am I to hear the names of the bridesmaids?”

The pace had nerved Clara to speak to it sharply: “There is no need.”

“Have I no claim?”

She was mute.

“Miss Lucy Darleton, for instance; whose name I am almost as much in love with as Crossjay.”

“She will not be bridesmaid to me.”

“She declines? Add my petition, I beg.”

“To all? or to her?”

“Do all the bridesmaids decline?”

“The scene is too ghastly.”

“A marriage?”

“Girls have grown sick of it.”

“Of weddings? We’ll overcome the sickness.”

“With some.”

“Not with Miss Darleton? You tempt my eloquence.”

“You wish it?”

“To win her consent? Certainly.”

“The scene?”

“Do I wish that?”

“Marriage!” exclaimed Clara, dashing into the ford, fearful of her ungovernable wildness and of what it might have kindled.—You, father! you have driven me to unmaidenliness!—She forgot Willoughby, in her father, who would not quit a comfortable house for her all but prostrate beseeching; would not bend his mind to her explanations, answered her with the horrid iteration of such deaf misunderstanding as may be associated with a tolling bell.

De Craye allowed her to catch Crossjay by herself. They entered a narrow lane, mysterious with possible birds’ eggs in the May-green hedges. As there was not room for three abreast, the colonel made up the rear-guard, and was consoled by having Miss Middleton’s figure to contemplate; but the readiness of her joining in Crossjay’s pastime of the nest-hunt was not so pleasing to a man that she had wound to a pitch of excitement. Her scornful accent on “Marriage” rang through him. Apparently she was beginning to do with him just as she liked, herself entirely unconcerned.

She kept Crossjay beside her till she dismounted, and the colonel was left to the procession of elephantine ideas in his head, whose ponderousness he took for natural weight. We do not with impunity abandon the initiative. Men who have yielded it are like cavalry put on the defensive; a very small force with an ictus will scatter them.

Anxiety to recover lost ground reduced the dimensions of his ideas to a practical standard.

Two ideas were opposed like duellists bent on the slaughter of one another. Either she amazed him by confirming the suspicions he had gathered of her sentiments for Willoughby in the moments of his introduction to her; or she amazed him as a model for coquettes—the married and the widow might apply to her for lessons.

These combatants exchanged shots, but remained standing; the encounter was undecided. Whatever the result, no person so seductive as Clara Middleton had he ever met. Her cry of loathing, “Marriage!” coming from a girl, rang faintly clear of an ancient virginal aspiration of the sex to escape from their coil, and bespoke a pure, cold, savage pride that transplanted his thirst for her to higher fields.

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