The Egoist, by George Meredith

24. Contains an Instance of the Generosity of Willoughby

Observers of a gathering complication and a character in action commonly resemble gleaners who are intent only on picking up the cars of grain and huddling their store. Disinterestedly or interestedly they wax over-eager for the little trifles, and make too much of them. Observers should begin upon the precept, that not all we see is worth hoarding, and that the things we see are to be weighed in the scale with what we know of the situation, before we commit ourselves to a measurement. And they may be accurate observers without being good judges. They do not think so, and their bent is to glean hurriedly and form conclusions as hasty, when their business should be sift at each step, and question.

Miss Dale seconded Vernon Whitford in the occupation of counting looks and tones, and noting scraps of dialogue. She was quite disinterested; he quite believed that he was; to this degree they were competent for their post; and neither of them imagined they could be personally involved in the dubious result of the scenes they witnessed. They were but anxious observers, diligently collecting. She fancied Clara susceptible to his advice: he had fancied it, and was considering it one of his vanities. Each mentally compared Clara’s abruptness in taking them into her confidence with her abstention from any secret word since the arrival of Colonel De Craye. Sir Willoughby requested Laetitia to give Miss Middleton as much of her company as she could; showing that he was on the alert. Another Constantia Durham seemed beating her wings for flight. The suddenness of the evident intimacy between Clara and Colonel De Craye shocked Laetitia; their acquaintance could be computed by hours. Yet at their first interview she had suspected the possibility of worse than she now supposed to be; and she had begged Vernon not immediately to quit the Hall, in consequence of that faint suspicion. She had been led to it by meeting Clara and De Craye at her cottage-gate, and finding them as fluent and laughter-breathing in conversation as friends. Unable to realize the rapid advance to a familiarity, more ostensible than actual, of two lively natures, after such an introduction as they had undergone: and one of the two pining in a drought of liveliness: Laetitia listened to their wager of nothing at all—a no against a yes—in the case of poor Flitch; and Clara’s, “Willoughby will not forgive”; and De Craye’s “Oh, he’s human”: and the silence of Clara and De Craye’s hearty cry, “Flitch shall be a gentleman’s coachman in his old seat or I haven’t a tongue!” to which there was a negative of Clara’s head: and it then struck Laetitia that this young betrothed lady, whose alienated heart acknowledged no lord an hour earlier, had met her match, and, as the observer would have said, her destiny. She judged of the alarming possibility by the recent revelation to herself of Miss Middleton’s character, and by Clara’s having spoken to a man as well (to Vernon), and previously. That a young lady should speak on the subject of the inner holies to a man, though he were Vernon Whitford, was incredible to Laetitia; but it had to be accepted as one of the dread facts of our inexplicable life, which drag our bodies at their wheels and leave our minds exclaiming. Then, if Clara could speak to Vernon, which Laetitia would not have done for a mighty bribe, she could speak to De Craye, Laetitia thought deductively: this being the logic of untrained heads opposed to the proceeding whereby their condemnatory deduction hangs.—Clara must have spoken to De Craye!

Laetitia remembered how winning and prevailing Miss Middleton could be in her confidences. A gentleman hearing her might forget his duty to his friend, she thought, for she had been strangely swayed by Clara: ideas of Sir Willoughby that she had never before imagined herself to entertain had been sown in her, she thought; not asking herself whether the searchingness of the young lady had struck them and bidden them rise from where they lay imbedded. Very gentle women take in that manner impressions of persons, especially of the worshipped person, wounding them; like the new fortifications with embankments of soft earth, where explosive missiles bury themselves harmlessly until they are plucked out; and it may be a reason why those injured ladies outlive a Clara Middleton similarly battered.

Vernon less than Laetitia took into account that Clara was in a state of fever, scarcely reasonable. Her confidences to him he had excused, as a piece of conduct, in sympathy with her position. He had not been greatly astonished by the circumstances confided; and, on the whole, as she was excited and unhappy, he excused her thoroughly; he could have extolled her: it was natural that she should come to him, brave in her to speak so frankly, a compliment that she should condescend to treat him as a friend. Her position excused her widely. But she was not excused for making a confidential friend of De Craye. There was a difference.

Well, the difference was, that De Craye had not the smarting sense of honour with women which our meditator had: an impartial judiciary, it will be seen: and he discriminated between himself and the other justly: but sensation surging to his brain at the same instant, he reproached Miss Middleton for not perceiving that difference as clearly, before she betrayed her position to De Craye, which Vernon assumed that she had done. Of course he did. She had been guilty of it once: why, then, in the mind of an offended friend, she would be guilty of it twice. There was evidence. Ladies, fatally predestined to appeal to that from which they have to be guarded, must expect severity when they run off their railed highroad: justice is out of the question: man’s brains might, his blood cannot administer it to them. By chilling him to the bone they may get what they cry for. But that is a method deadening to their point of appeal.

I the evening, Miss Middleton and the colonel sang a duet. She had of late declined to sing. Her voice was noticeably firm. Sir Willoughby said to her, “You have recovered your richness of tone, Clara.” She smiled and appeared happy in pleasing him. He named a French ballad. She went to the music-rack and gave the song unasked. He should have been satisfied, for she said to him at the finish, “Is that as you like it?” He broke from a murmur to Miss Dale, “Admirable.” Some one mentioned a Tuscan popular canzone. She waited for Willoughby’s approval, and took his nod for a mandate.

Traitress! he could have bellowed.

He had read of this characteristic of caressing obedience of the women about to deceive. He had in his time profited by it.

“Is it intuitively or by their experience that our neighbours across Channel surpass us in the knowledge of your sex?” he said to Miss Dale, and talked through Clara’s apostrophe to the ‘Santissinia Virgine Maria,’ still treating temper as a part of policy, without any effect on Clara; and that was matter for sickly green reflections. The lover who cannot wound has indeed lost anchorage; he is woefully adrift: he stabs air, which is to stab himself. Her complacent proof-armour bids him know himself supplanted.

During the short conversational period before the ladies retired for the night, Miss Eleanor alluded to the wedding by chance. Miss Isabel replied to her, and addressed an interrogation to Clara. De Craye foiled it adroitly. Clara did not utter a syllable. Her bosom lifted to a wavering height and sank. Subsequently she looked at De Craye vacantly, like a person awakened, but she looked. She was astonished by his readiness, and thankful for the succour. Her look was cold, wide, unfixed, with nothing of gratitude or of personal in it. The look, however, stood too long for Willoughby’s endurance.

Ejaculating “Porcelain!” he uncrossed his legs; a signal for the ladies Eleanor and Isabel to retire. Vernon bowed to Clara as she was rising. He had not been once in her eyes, and he expected a partial recognition at the good-night. She said it, turning her head to Miss Isabel, who was condoling once more with Colonel De Craye over the ruins of his wedding-present, the porcelain vase, which she supposed to have been in Willoughby’s mind when he displayed the signal. Vernon walked off to his room, dark as one smitten blind: bile tumet jecur: her stroke of neglect hit him there where a blow sends thick obscuration upon eyeballs and brain alike.

Clara saw that she was paining him and regretted it when they were separated. That was her real friend! But he prescribed too hard a task. Besides, she had done everything he demanded of her, except the consenting to stay where she was and wear out Willoughby, whose dexterity wearied her small stock of patience. She had vainly tried remonstrance and supplication with her father hoodwinked by his host, she refused to consider how; through wine?—the thought was repulsive.

Nevertheless, she was drawn to the edge of it by the contemplation of her scheme of release. If Lucy Darleton was at home; if Lucy invited her to come: if she flew to Lucy: oh! then her father would have cause for anger. He would not remember that but for hateful wine! . . .

What was there in this wine of great age which expelled reasonableness, fatherliness? He was her dear father: she was his beloved child: yet something divided them; something closed her father’s ears to her: and could it be that incomprehensible seduction of the wine? Her dutifulness cried violently no. She bowed, stupefied, to his arguments for remaining awhile, and rose clear-headed and rebellious with the reminiscence of the many strong reasons she had urged against them.

The strangeness of men, young and old, the little things (she regarded a grand wine as a little thing) twisting and changing them, amazed her. And these are they by whom women are abused for variability! Only the most imperious reasons, never mean trifles, move women, thought she. Would women do an injury to one they loved for oceans of that—ah, pah!

And women must respect men. They necessarily respect a father. “My dear, dear father!” Clara said in the solitude of her chamber, musing on all his goodness, and she endeavoured to reconcile the desperate sentiments of the position he forced her to sustain, with those of a venerating daughter. The blow which was to fall on him beat on her heavily in advance. “I have not one excuse!” she said, glancing at numbers and a mighty one. But the idea of her father suffering at her hands cast her down lower than self-justification. She sought to imagine herself sparing him. It was too fictitious.

The sanctuary of her chamber, the pure white room so homely to her maidenly feelings, whispered peace, only to follow the whisper with another that went through her swelling to a roar, and leaving her as a suing of music unkindly smitten. If she stayed in this house her chamber would no longer be a sanctuary. Dolorous bondage! Insolent death is not worse. Death’s worm we cannot keep away, but when he has us we are numb to dishonour, happily senseless.

Youth weighed her eyelids to sleep, though she was quivering, and quivering she awoke to the sound of her name beneath her window. “I can love still, for I love him,” she said, as she luxuriated in young Crossjay’s boy’s voice, again envying him his bath in the lake waters, which seemed to her to have the power to wash away grief and chains. Then it was that she resolved to let Crossjay see the last of her in this place. He should be made gleeful by doing her a piece of service; he should escort her on her walk to the railway station next morning, thence be sent flying for a long day’s truancy, with a little note of apology on his behalf that she would write for him to deliver to Vernon at night.

Crossjay came running to her after his breakfast with Mrs Montague, the housekeeper, to tell her he had called her up.

“You won’t tomorrow: I shall be up far ahead of you,” said she; and musing on her father, while Crossjay vowed to be up the first, she thought it her duty to plunge into another expostulation.

Willoughby had need of Vernon on private affairs. Dr. Middleton betook himself as usual to the library, after answering “I will ruin you yet,” to Willoughby’s liberal offer to despatch an order to London for any books he might want.

His fine unruffled air, as of a mountain in still morning beams, made Clara not indisposed to a preliminary scene with Willoughby that might save her from distressing him, but she could not stop Willoughby; as little could she look an invitation. He stood in the Hall, holding Vernon by the arm. She passed him; he did not speak, and she entered the library.

“What now, my dear? what is it?” said Dr. Middleton, seeing that the door was shut on them.

“Nothing, papa,” she replied, calmly.

“You’ve not locked the door, my child? You turned something there: try the handle.”

“I assure you, papa, the door is not locked.”

“Mr. Whitford will be here instantly. We are engaged on tough matter. Women have not, and opinion is universal that they never will have, a conception of the value of time.”

“We are vain and shallow, my dear papa.”

“No, no, not you, Clara. But I suspect you to require to learn by having work in progress how important is . . . is a quiet commencement of the day’s task. There is not a scholar who will not tell you so. We must have a retreat. These invasions!—So you intend to have another ride today? They do you good. To-morrow we dine with Mrs. Mountstuart Jenkinson, an estimable person indeed, though I do not perfectly understand our accepting.—You have not to accuse me of sitting over wine last night, my Clara! I never do it, unless I am appealed to for my judgement upon a wine.”

“I have come to entreat you to take me away, papa.”

In the midst of the storm aroused by this renewal of perplexity, Dr Middleton replaced a book his elbow had knocked over in his haste to dash the hair off his forehead, crying: “Whither? To what spot? That reading of guide-books, and idle people’s notes of Travel, and picturesque correspondence in the newspapers, unsettles man and maid. My objection to the living in hotels is known. I do not hesitate to say that I do cordially abhor it. I have had penitentially to submit to it in your dear mother’s time, [Greek], up to the full ten thousand times. But will you not comprehend that to the older man his miseries are multiplied by his years? But is it utterly useless to solicit your sympathy with an old man, Clara?”

“General Darleton will take us in, papa.”

“His table is detestable. I say nothing of that; but his wine is poison. Let that pass—I should rather say, let it not pass!—but our political views are not in accord. True, we are not under the obligation to propound them in presence, but we are destitute of an opinion in common. We have no discourse. Military men have produced, or diverged in, noteworthy epicures; they are often devout; they have blossomed in lettered men: they are gentlemen; the country rightly holds them in honour; but, in fine, I reject the proposal to go to General Darleton.—Tears?”

“No, papa.”

“I do hope not. Here we have everything man can desire; without contest, an excellent host. You have your transitory tea-cup tempests, which you magnify to hurricanes, in the approved historic manner of the book of Cupid. And all the better; I repeat, it is the better that you should have them over in the infancy of the alliance. Come in!” Dr. Middleton shouted cheerily in response to a knock at the door.

He feared the door was locked: he had a fear that his daughter intended to keep it locked.

“Clara!” he cried.

She reluctantly turned the handle, and the ladies Eleanor and Isabel came in, apologizing with as much coherence as Dr. Middleton ever expected from their sex. They wished to speak to Clara, but they declined to take her away. In vain the Rev. Doctor assured them she was at their service; they protested that they had very few words to say, and would not intrude one moment further than to speak them.

Like a shy deputation of young scholars before the master, these very words to come were preceded by none at all; a dismal and trying cause; refreshing however to Dr. Middleton, who joyfully anticipated that the ladies could be induced to take away Clara when they had finished.

“We may appear to you a little formal,” Miss Isabel began, and turned to her sister.

“We have no intention to lay undue weight on our mission, if mission it can be called,” said Miss Eleanor.

“Is it entrusted to you by Willoughby?” said Clara.

“Dear child, that you may know it all the more earnest with us, and our personal desire to contribute to your happiness: therefore does Willoughby entrust the speaking of it to us.”

Hereupon the sisters alternated in addressing Clara, and she gazed from one to the other, piecing fragments of empty signification to get the full meaning when she might.

“—And in saying your happiness, dear Clara, we have our Willoughby’s in view, which is dependent on yours.”

“—And we never could sanction that our own inclinations should stand in the way.”

“—No. We love the old place; and if it were only our punishment for loving it too idolatrously, we should deem it ground enough for our departure.”

“—Without, really, an idea of unkindness; none, not any.”

“—Young wives naturally prefer to be undisputed queens of their own establishment.”

“—Youth and age!”

“But I,” said Clara, “have never mentioned, never had a thought. . . ”

“—You have, dear child, a lover who in his solicitude for your happiness both sees what you desire and what is due to you.”

“—And for us, Clara, to recognize what is due to you is to act on it.”

“—Besides, dear, a sea-side cottage has always been one of our dreams.”

“—We have not to learn that we are a couple of old maids, incongruous associates for a young wife in the government of a great house.”

“—With our antiquated notions, questions of domestic management might arise, and with the best will in the world to be harmonious!”

“—So, dear Clara, consider it settled.”

“—From time to time gladly shall we be your guests.”

“—Your guests, dear, not censorious critics.”

“And you think me such an Egoist!—dear ladies! The suggestion of so cruel a piece of selfishness wounds me. I would not have had you leave the Hall. I like your society; I respect you. My complaint, if I had one, would be, that you do not sufficiently assert yourselves. I could have wished you to be here for an example to me. I would not have allowed you to go. What can he think of me! Did Willoughby speak of it this morning?”

It was hard to distinguish which was the completer dupe of these two echoes of one another in worship of a family idol.

“Willoughby,” Miss Eleanor presented herself to be stamped with the title hanging ready for the first that should open her lips, “our Willoughby is observant—he is ever generous—and he is not less forethoughtful. His arrangement is for our good on all sides.”

“An index is enough,” said Miss Isabel, appearing in her turn the monster dupe.

“You will not have to leave, dear ladies. Were I mistress here I should oppose it.”

“Willoughby blames himself for not reassuring you before.”

“Indeed we blame ourselves for not undertaking to go.”

“Did he speak of it first this morning?” said Clara; but she could draw no reply to that from them. They resumed the duet, and she resigned herself to have her cars boxed with nonsense.

“So, it is understood?” said Miss Eleanor.

“I see your kindness, ladies.”

“And I am to be Aunt Eleanor again?”

“And I Aunt Isabel?”

Clara could have wrung her hands at the impediment which prohibited her delicacy from telling them why she could not name them so as she had done in the earlier days of Willoughby’s courtship. She kissed them warmly, ashamed of kissing, though the warmth was real.

They retired with a flow of excuses to Dr. Middleton for disturbing him. He stood at the door to bow them out, and holding the door for Clara, to wind up the procession, discovered her at a far corner of the room.

He was debating upon the advisability of leaving her there, when Vernon Whitford crossed the hall from the laboratory door, a mirror of himself in his companion air of discomposure.

That was not important, so long as Vernon was a check on Clara; but the moment Clara, thus baffled, moved to quit the library, Dr. Middleton felt the horror of having an uncomfortable face opposite.

“No botheration, I hope? It’s the worst thing possible to work on. Where have you been? I suspect your weak point is not to arm yourself in triple brass against bother and worry, and no good work can you do unless you do. You have come out of that laboratory.”

“I have, sir.—Can I get you any book?” Vernon said to Clara.

She thanked him, promising to depart immediately.

“Now you are at the section of Italian literature, my love,” said Dr Middleton. “Well, Mr. Whitford, the laboratory—ah!—where the amount of labour done within the space of a year would not stretch an electric current between this Hall and the railway station: say, four miles, which I presume the distance to be. Well, sir, and a dilettantism costly in time and machinery is as ornamental as foxes’ tails and deers’ horns to an independent gentleman whose fellows are contented with the latter decorations for their civic wreath. Willoughby, let me remark, has recently shown himself most considerate for my girl. As far as I could gather—I have been listening to a dialogue of ladies—he is as generous as he is discreet. There are certain combats in which to be the one to succumb is to claim the honours—and that is what women will not learn. I doubt their seeing the glory of it.”

“I have heard of it; I have been with Willoughby,” Vernon said, hastily, to shield Clara from her father’s allusive attacks. He wished to convey to her that his interview with Willoughby had not been profitable in her interests, and that she had better at once, having him present to support her, pour out her whole heart to her father. But how was it to be conveyed? She would not meet his eyes, and he was too poor an intriguer to be ready on the instant to deal out the verbal obscurities which are transparencies to one.

“I shall regret it, if Willoughby has annoyed you, for he stands high in my favour,” said Dr. Middleton.

Clara dropped a book. Her father started higher than the nervous impulse warranted in his chair. Vernon tried to win a glance, and she was conscious of his effort, but her angry and guilty feelings, prompting her resolution to follow her own counsel, kept her eyelids on the defensive.

“I don’t say he annoys me, sir. I am here to give him my advice, and if he does not accept it I have no right to be annoyed. Willoughby seems annoyed that Colonel De Craye should talk of going tomorrow or next day.”

“He likes his friends about him. Upon my word, a man of a more genial heart you might march a day without finding. But you have it on the forehead, Mr. Whitford.”

“Oh! no, sir.”

“There,” Dr. Middleton drew his finger along his brows.

Vernon felt along his own, and coined an excuse for their blackness; not aware that the direction of his mind toward Clara pushed him to a kind of clumsy double meaning, while he satisfied an inward and craving wrath, as he said: “By the way, I have been racking my head; I must apply to you, sir. I have a line, and I am uncertain of the run of the line. Will this pass, do you think?

‘In Asination’s tongue he asinates’;

signifying that he excels any man of us at donkey-dialect.”

After a decent interval for the genius of criticism to seem to have been sitting under his frown, Dr. Middleton rejoined with sober jocularity: “No, sir, it will not pass; and your uncertainty in regard to the run of the line would only be extended were the line centipedal. Our recommendation is, that you erase it before the arrival of the ferule. This might do:

‘In Assignation’s name he assignats’;

signifying that he preeminently flourishes hypothetical promises, to pay by appointment. That might pass. But you will forbear to cite me for your authority.”

“The line would be acceptable if I could get it to apply,” said Vernon.

“Or this. . . ” Dr. Middleton was offering a second suggestion, but Clara fled, astonished at men as she never yet had been. Why, in a burning world they would be exercising their minds in absurdities! And those two were scholars, learned men! And both knew they were in the presence of a soul in a tragic fever!

A minute after she had closed the door they were deep in their work. Dr. Middleton forgot his alternative line.

“Nothing serious?” he said in reproof of the want of honourable clearness on Vernon’s brows.

“I trust not, sir; it’s a case for common sense.”

“And you call that not serious?”

“I take Hermann’s praise of the versus dochmiachus to be not only serious but unexaggerated,” said Vernon.

Dr. Middleton assented and entered on the voiceful ground of Greek metres, shoving your dry dusty world from his elbow.

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