The Egoist, by George Meredith

26. Vernon in Pursuit

The lodge-keeper had a son, who was a chum of Master Crossjay’s, and errant-fellow with him upon many adventures; for this boy’s passion was to become a gamekeeper, and accompanied by one of the head-gamekeeper’s youngsters, he and Crossjay were in the habit of rangeing over the country, preparing for a profession delightful to the tastes of all three. Crossjay’s prospective connection with the mysterious ocean bestowed the title of captain on him by common consent; he led them, and when missing for lessons he was generally in the society of Jacob Croom or Jonathan Fernaway. Vernon made sure of Crossjay when he perceived Jacob Croom sitting on a stool in the little lodge-parlour. Jacob’s appearance of a diligent perusal of a book he had presented to the lad, he took for a decent piece of trickery. It was with amazement that he heard from the mother and daughter, as well as Jacob, of Miss Middleton’s going through the gate before ten o’clock with Crossjay beside her, the latter too hurried to spare a nod to Jacob. That she, of all on earth, should be encouraging Crossjay to truancy was incredible. Vernon had to fall back upon Greek and Latin aphoristic shots at the sex to believe it.

Rain was universal; a thick robe of it swept from hill to hill; thunder rumbled remote, and between the ruffled roars the downpour pressed on the land with a great noise of eager gobbling, much like that of the swine’s trough fresh filled, as though a vast assembly of the hungered had seated themselves clamorously and fallen to on meats and drinks in a silence, save of the chaps. A rapid walker poetically and humourously minded gathers multitudes of images on his way. And rain, the heaviest you can meet, is a lively companion when the resolute pacer scorns discomfort of wet clothes and squealing boots. South-western rain-clouds, too, are never long sullen: they enfold and will have the earth in a good strong glut of the kissing overflow; then, as a hawk with feathers on his beak of the bird in his claw lifts head, they rise and take veiled feature in long climbing watery lines: at any moment they may break the veil and show soft upper cloud, show sun on it, show sky, green near the verge they spring from, of the green of grass in early dew; or, along a travelling sweep that rolls asunder overhead, heaven’s laughter of purest blue among titanic white shoulders: it may mean fair smiling for awhile, or be the lightest interlude; but the watery lines, and the drifting, the chasing, the upsoaring, all in a shadowy fingering of form, and the animation of the leaves of the trees pointing them on, the bending of the tree-tops, the snapping of branches, and the hurrahings of the stubborn hedge at wrestle with the flaws, yielding but a leaf at most, and that on a fling, make a glory of contest and wildness without aid of colour to inflame the man who is at home in them from old association on road, heath, and mountain. Let him be drenched, his heart will sing. And thou, trim cockney, that jeerest, consider thyself, to whom it may occur to be out in such a scene, and with what steps of a nervous dancing-master it would be thine to play the hunted rat of the elements, for the preservation of the one imagined dryspot about thee, somewhere on thy luckless person! The taking of rain and sun alike befits men of our climate, and he who would have the secret of a strengthening intoxication must court the clouds of the South-west with a lover’s blood.

Vernon’s happy recklessness was dashed by fears for Miss Middleton. Apart from those fears, he had the pleasure of a gull wheeling among foam-streaks of the wave. He supposed the Swiss and Tyrol Alps to have hidden their heads from him for many a day to come, and the springing and chiming South-west was the next best thing. A milder rain descended; the country expanded darkly defined underneath the moving curtain; the clouds were as he liked to see them, scaling; but their skirts dragged. Torrents were in store, for they coursed streamingly still and had not the higher lift, or eagle ascent, which he knew for one of the signs of fairness, nor had the hills any belt of mist-like vapour.

On a step of the stile leading to the short-cut to Rendon young Crossjay was espied. A man-tramp sat on the top-bar.

“There you are; what are you doing there? Where’s Miss Middleton?” said Vernon. “Now, take care before you open your mouth.”

Crossjay shut the mouth he had opened.

“The lady has gone away over to a station, sir,” said the tramp.

“You fool!” roared Crossjay, ready to fly at him.

“But ain’t it now, young gentleman? Can you say it ain’t?”

“I gave you a shilling, you ass!”

“You give me that sum, young gentleman, to stop here and take care of you, and here I stopped.”

“Mr. Whitford!” Crossjay appealed to his master, and broke of in disgust. “Take care of me! As if anybody who knows me would think I wanted taking care of! Why, what a beast you must be, you fellow!”

“Just as you like, young gentleman. I chaunted you all I know, to keep up your downcast spirits. You did want comforting. You wanted it rarely. You cried like an infant.”

“I let you ‘chaunt’, as you call it, to keep you from swearing.”

“And why did I swear, young gentleman? because I’ve got an itchy coat in the wet, and no shirt for a lining. And no breakfast to give me a stomach for this kind of weather. That’s what I’ve come to in this world! I’m a walking moral. No wonder I swears, when I don’t strike up a chaunt.”

“But why are you sitting here wet through, Crossjay! Be off home at once, and change, and get ready for me.”

“Mr. Whitford, I promised, and I tossed this fellow a shilling not to go bothering Miss Middleton.”

“The lady wouldn’t have none o” the young gentleman, sir, and I offered to go pioneer for her to the station, behind her, at a respectful distance.”

“As if!—you treacherous cur!” Crossjay ground his teeth at the betrayer. “Well, Mr. Whitford, and I didn’t trust him, and I stuck to him, or he’d have been after her whining about his coat and stomach, and talking of his being a moral. He repeats that to everybody.”

“She has gone to the station?” said Vernon.

Not a word on that subject was to be won from Crossjay.

“How long since?” Vernon partly addressed Mr. Tramp.

The latter became seized with shivers as he supplied the information that it might be a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes. “But what’s time to me, sir? If I had reglar meals, I should carry a clock in my inside. I got the rheumatics instead.”

“Way there!” Vernon cried, and took the stile at a vault.

“That’s what gentlemen can do, who sleeps in their beds warm,” moaned the tramp. “They’ve no joints.”

Vernon handed him a half-crown piece, for he had been of use for once.

“Mr. Whitford, let me come. If you tell me to come I may. Do let me come,” Crossjay begged with great entreaty. “I sha’n’t see her for. . . ”

“Be off, quick!” Vernon cut him short and pushed on.

The tramp and Crossjay were audible to him; Crossjay spurning the consolations of the professional sad man.

Vernon spun across the fields, timing himself by his watch to reach Rendon station ten minutes before eleven, though without clearly questioning the nature of the resolution which precipitated him. Dropping to the road, he had better foothold than on the slippery field-path, and he ran. His principal hope was that Clara would have missed her way. Another pelting of rain agitated him on her behalf. Might she not as well be suffered to go?—and sit three hours and more in a railway-carriage with wet feet!

He clasped the visionary little feet to warm them on his breast.—But Willoughby’s obstinate fatuity deserved the blow!—But neither she nor her father deserved the scandal. But she was desperate. Could reasoning touch her? if not, what would? He knew of nothing. Yesterday he had spoken strongly to Willoughby, to plead with him to favour her departure and give her leisure to sound her mind, and he had left his cousin, convinced that Clara’s best measure was flight: a man so cunning in a pretended obtuseness backed by senseless pride, and in petty tricks that sprang of a grovelling tyranny, could only be taught by facts.

Her recent treatment of him, however, was very strange; so strange that he might have known himself better if he had reflected on the bound with which it shot him to a hard suspicion. De Craye had prepared the world to hear that he was leaving the Hall. Were they in concert? The idea struck at his heart colder than if her damp little feet had been there.

Vernon’s full exoneration of her for making a confidant of himself, did not extend its leniency to the young lady’s character when there was question of her doing the same with a second gentleman. He could suspect much: he could even expect to find De Craye at the station.

That idea drew him up in his run, to meditate on the part he should play; and by drove little Dr. Corney on the way to Rendon and hailed him, and gave his cheerless figure the nearest approach to an Irish bug in the form of a dry seat under an umbrella and water-proof covering.

“Though it is the worst I can do for you, if you decline to supplement it with a dose of hot brandy and water at the Dolphin,” said he: “and I’ll see you take it, if you please. I’m bound to ease a Rendon patient out of the world. Medicine’s one of their superstitions, which they cling to the harder the more useless it gets. Pill and priest launch him happy between them.—‘And what’s on your conscience, Pat?—It’s whether your blessing, your Riverence, would disagree with another drop. Then put the horse before the cart, my son, and you shall have the two in harmony, and God speed ye!’—Rendon station, did you say, Vernon? You shall have my prescription at the Railway Arms, if you’re hurried. You have the look. What is it? Can I help?”

“No. And don’t ask.”

“You’re like the Irish Grenadier who had a bullet in a humiliating situation. Here’s Rendon, and through it we go with a spanking clatter. Here’s Doctor Corney’s dog-cart post-haste again. For there’s no dying without him now, and Repentance is on the death-bed for not calling him in before. Half a charge of humbug hurts no son of a gun, friend Vernon, if he’d have his firing take effect. Be tender to’t in man or woman, particularly woman. So, by goes the meteoric doctor, and I’ll bring noses to window-panes, you’ll see, which reminds me of the sweetest young lady I ever saw, and the luckiest man. When is she off for her bridal trousseau? And when are they spliced? I’ll not call her perfection, for that’s a post, afraid to move. But she’s a dancing sprig of the tree next it. Poetry’s wanted to speak of her. I’m Irish and inflammable, I suppose, but I never looked on a girl to make a man comprehend the entire holy meaning of the word rapturous, like that one. And away she goes! We’ll not say another word. But you’re a Grecian, friend Vernon. Now, couldn’t you think her just a whiff of an idea of a daughter of a peccadillo-Goddess?”

“Deuce take you, Corney, drop me here; I shall be late for the train,” said Vernon, laying hand on the doctor’s arm to check him on the way to the station in view.

Dr Corney had a Celtic intelligence for a meaning behind an illogical tongue. He drew up, observing. “Two minutes run won’t hurt you.”

He slightly fancied he might have given offence, though he was well acquainted with Vernon and had a cordial grasp at the parting.

The truth must be told that Vernon could not at the moment bear any more talk from an Irishman. Dr. Corney had succeeded in persuading him not to wonder at Clara Middleton’s liking for Colonel de Craye.

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