The Egoist, by George Meredith

46. The Scene of Sir Willoughby’s Generalship

History, we may fear, will never know the qualities of leadership inherent in Sir Willoughby Patterne to fit him for the post of Commander of an army, seeing that he avoided the fatigues of the service and preferred the honours bestowed in his country upon the quiet administrators of their own estates: but his possession of particular gifts, which are military, and especially of the proleptic mind, which is the stamp and sign-warrant of the heaven-sent General, was displayed on every urgent occasion when, in the midst of difficulties likely to have extinguished one less alert than he to the threatening aspect of disaster, he had to manoeuvre himself.

He had received no intimation of Mr. Dale’s presence in his house, nor of the arrival of the dreaded women Lady Busshe and Lady Culmer: his locked door was too great a terror to his domestics. Having finished with Vernon, after a tedious endeavour to bring the fellow to a sense of the policy of the step urged on him, he walked out on the lawn with the desire to behold the opening of an interview not promising to lead to much, and possibly to profit by its failure. Clara had been prepared, according to his directions, by Mrs. Mountstuart Jenkinson, as Vernon had been prepared by him. His wishes, candidly and kindly expressed both to Vernon and Mrs Mountstuart, were, that since the girl appeared disinclined to make him a happy man, she would make one of his cousin. Intimating to Mrs. Mountstuart that he would be happier without her, he alluded to the benefit of the girl’s money to poor old Vernon, the general escape from a scandal if old Vernon could manage to catch her as she dropped, the harmonious arrangement it would be for all parties. And only on the condition of her taking Vernon would he consent to give her up. This he said imperatively, adding that such was the meaning of the news she had received relating to Laetitia Dale. From what quarter had she received it? he asked. She shuffled in her reply, made a gesture to signify that it was in the air, universal, and fell upon the proposed arrangement. He would listen to none of Mrs. Mountstuart’s woman-of-the-world instances of the folly of pressing it upon a girl who had shown herself a girl of spirit. She foretold the failure. He would not be advised; he said: “It is my scheme”; and perhaps the look of mad benevolence about it induced the lady to try whether there was a chance that it would hit the madness in our nature, and somehow succeed or lead to a pacification. Sir Willoughby condescended to arrange things thus for Clara’s good; he would then proceed to realize his own. Such was the face he put upon it. We can wear what appearance we please before the world until we are found out, nor is the world’s praise knocking upon hollowness always hollow music; but Mrs Mountstuart’s laudation of his kindness and simplicity disturbed him; for though he had recovered from his rebuff enough to imagine that Laetitia could not refuse him under reiterated pressure, he had let it be supposed that she was a submissive handmaiden throbbing for her elevation; and Mrs Mountstuart’s belief in it afflicted his recent bitter experience; his footing was not perfectly secure. Besides, assuming it to be so, he considered the sort of prize he had won; and a spasm of downright hatred of a world for which we make mighty sacrifices to be repaid in a worn, thin, comparatively valueless coin, troubled his counting of his gains. Laetitia, it was true, had not passed through other hands in coming to him, as Vernon would know it to be Clara’s case: time only had worn her: but the comfort of the reflection was annoyed by the physical contrast of the two. Hence an unusual melancholy in his tone that Mrs. Mountstuart thought touching. It had the scenic effect on her which greatly contributes to delude the wits. She talked of him to Clara as being a man who had revealed an unsuspected depth.

Vernon took the communication curiously. He seemed readier to be in love with his benevolent relative than with the lady. He was confused, undisguisedly moved, said the plan was impossible, out of the question, but thanked Willoughby for the best of intentions, thanked him warmly. After saying that the plan was impossible, the comical fellow allowed himself to be pushed forth on the lawn to see how Miss Middleton might have come out of her interview with Mrs. Mountstuart. Willoughby observed Mrs. Mountstuart meet him, usher him to the place she had quitted among the shrubs, and return to the open turf-spaces. He sprang to her.

“She will listen.” Mrs. Mountstuart said: “She likes him, respects him, thinks he is a very sincere friend, clever, a scholar, and a good mountaineer; and thinks you mean very kindly. So much I have impressed on her, but I have not done much for Mr. Whitford.”

“She consents to listen,” said Willoughby, snatching at that as the death-blow to his friend Horace.

“She consents to listen, because you have arranged it so that if she declined she would be rather a savage.”

“You think it will have no result?”

“None at all.”

“Her listening will do.”

“And you must be satisfied with it.”

“We shall see.”

“‘Anything for peace’, she says: and I don’t say that a gentleman with a tongue would not have a chance. She wishes to please you.”

“Old Vernon has no tongue for women, poor fellow! You will have us be spider or fly, and if a man can’t spin a web all he can hope is not to be caught in one. She knows his history, too, and that won’t be in his favour. How did she look when you left them?”

“Not so bright: like a bit of china that wants dusting. She looked a trifle gauche, it struck me; more like a country girl with the hoyden taming in her than the well-bred creature she is. I did not suspect her to have feeling. You must remember, Sir Willoughby, that she has obeyed your wishes, done her utmost: I do think we may say she has made some amends; and if she is to blame she repents, and you will not insist too far.”

“I do insist,” said he.

“Beneficent, but a tyrant!”

“Well, well.” He did not dislike the character.

They perceived Dr. Middleton wandering over the lawn, and Willoughby went to him to put him on the wrong track: Mrs. Mountstuart swept into the drawing-room. Willoughby quitted the Rev. Doctor, and hung about the bower where he supposed his pair of dupes had by this time ceased to stutter mutually:—or what if they had found the word of harmony? He could bear that, just bear it. He rounded the shrubs, and, behold, both had vanished. The trellis decorated emptiness. His idea was, that they had soon discovered their inability to be turtles: and desiring not to lose a moment while Clara was fretted by the scene, he rushed to the drawing-room with the hope of lighting on her there, getting her to himself, and finally, urgently, passionately offering her the sole alternative of what she had immediately rejected. Why had he not used passion before, instead of limping crippled between temper and policy? He was capable of it: as soon as imagination in him conceived his personal feelings unwounded and unimperiled, the might of it inspired him with heroical confidence, and Clara grateful, Clara softly moved, led him to think of Clara melted. Thus anticipating her he burst into the room.

One step there warned him that he was in the jaws of the world. We have the phrase, that a man is himself under certain trying circumstances. There is no need to say it of Sir Willoughby: he was thrice himself when danger menaced, himself inspired him. He could read at a single glance the Polyphemus eye in the general head of a company. Lady Busshe, Lady Culmer, Mrs. Mountstuart, Mr. Dale, had a similarity in the variety of their expressions that made up one giant eye for him perfectly, if awfully, legible. He discerned the fact that his demon secret was abroad, universal. He ascribed it to fate. He was in the jaws of the world, on the world’s teeth. This time he thought Laetitia must have betrayed him, and bowing to Lady Busshe and Lady Culmer, gallantly pressing their fingers and responding to their becks and archnesses, he ruminated on his defences before he should accost her father. He did not want to be alone with the man, and he considered how his presence might be made useful.

“I am glad to see you, Mr. Dale. Pray, be seated. Is it nature asserting her strength? or the efficacy of medicine? I fancy it can’t be both. You have brought us back your daughter?”

Mr. Dale sank into a chair, unable to resist the hand forcing him.

“No, Sir Willoughby, no. I have not; I have not seen her since she came home this morning from Patterne.”

“Indeed? She is unwell?”

“I cannot say. She secludes herself.”

“Has locked herself in,” said Lady Busshe.

Willoughby threw her a smile. It made them intimate.

This was an advantage against the world, but an exposure of himself to the abominable woman.

Dr. Middleton came up to Mr. Dale to apologize for not presenting his daughter Clara, whom he could find neither in nor out of the house.

“We have in Mr. Dale, as I suspected,” he said to Willoughby, “a stout ally.”

“If I may beg two minutes with you, Sir Willoughby,” said Mr. Dale.

“Your visits are too rare for me to allow of your numbering the minutes,” Willoughby replied. “We cannot let Mr. Dale escape us now that we have him, I think, Dr. Middleton.”

“Not without ransom,” said the Rev. Doctor.

Mr. Dale shook his head. “My strength, Sir Willoughby, will not sustain me long.”

“You are at home, Mr. Dale.”

“Not far from home, in truth, but too far for an invalid beginning to grow sensible of weakness.”

“You will regard Patterne as your home, Mr. Dale,” Willoughby repeated for the world to hear.

“Unconditionally?” Dr. Middleton inquired, with a humourous air of dissenting.

Willoughby gave him a look that was coldly courteous, and then he looked at Lady Busshe. She nodded imperceptibly. Her eyebrows rose, and Willoughby returned a similar nod.

Translated, the signs ran thus:

“—Pestered by the Rev. gentleman:—I see you are. Is the story I have heard correct?—Possibly it may err in a few details.”

This was fettering himself in loose manacles.

But Lady Busshe would not be satisfied with the compliment of the intimate looks and nods. She thought she might still be behind Mrs. Mountstuart; and she was a bold woman, and anxious about him, half-crazed by the riddle of the pot she was boiling in, and having very few minutes to spare. Not extremely reticent by nature, privileged by station, and made intimate with him by his covert looks, she stood up to him. “One word to an old friend. Which is the father of the fortunate creature? I don’t know how to behave to them.” No time was afforded him to be disgusted with her vulgarity and audacity.

He replied, feeling her rivet his gyves: “The house will be empty tomorrow.”

“I see. A decent withdrawal, and very well cloaked. We had a tale here of her running off to decline the honour, afraid, or on her dignity or something.”

How was it that the woman was ready to accept the altered posture of affairs in his house—if she had received a hint of them? He forgot that he had prepared her in self-defence.

“From whom did you have that?” he asked.

“Her father. And the lady aunts declare it was the cousin she refused!” Willoughby’s brain turned over. He righted it for action, and crossed the room to the ladies Eleanor and Isabel. His ears tingled. He and his whole story discussed in public! Himself unroofed! And the marvel that he of all men should be in such a tangle, naked and blown on, condemned to use his cunningest arts to unwind and cover himself, struck him as though the lord of his kind were running the gauntlet of a legion of imps. He felt their lashes.

The ladies were talking to Mrs. Mountstuart and Lady Culmer of Vernon and the suitableness of Laetitia to a scholar. He made sign to them, and both rose.

“It is the hour for your drive. To the cottage! Mr. Dale is in. She must come. Her sick father! No delay, going or returning. Bring her here at once.”

“Poor man!” they sighed; and “Willoughby,” said one, and the other said: “There is a strange misconception you will do well to correct.”

They were about to murmur what it was. He swept his hand round, and excusing themselves to their guests, obediently they retired.

Lady Busshe at his entreaty remained, and took a seat beside Lady Culmer and Mrs. Mountstuart.

She said to the latter: “You have tried scholars. What do you think?”

“Excellent, but hard to mix,” was the reply.

“I never make experiments,” said Lady Culmer.

“Some one must!” Mrs. Mountstuart groaned over her dull dinner-party.

Lady Busshe consoled her. “At any rate, the loss of a scholar is no loss to the county.”

“They are well enough in towns,” Lady Culmer said.

“And then I am sure you must have them by themselves.”

“We have nothing to regret.”

“My opinion.”

The voice of Dr. Middleton in colloquy with Mr. Dale swelled on a melodious thunder: “For whom else should I plead as the passionate advocate I proclaimed myself to you, sir? There is but one man known to me who would move me to back him upon such an adventure. Willoughby, join me. I am informing Mr. Dale. . . ”

Willoughby stretched his hands out to Mr. Dale to support him on his legs, though he had shown no sign of a wish to rise.

“You are feeling unwell, Mr. Dale.”

“Do I look very ill, Sir Willoughby?”

“It will pass. Laetitia will be with us in twenty minutes.” Mr. Dale struck his hands in a clasp. He looked alarmingly ill, and satisfactorily revealed to his host how he could be made to look so.

“I was informing Mr. Dale that the petitioner enjoys our concurrent good wishes: and mine in no degree less than yours, Willoughby,” observed Dr. Middleton, whose billows grew the bigger for a check. He supposed himself speaking confidentially. “Ladies have the trick, they have, I may say, the natural disposition for playing enigma now and again. Pressure is often a sovereign specific. Let it be tried upon her all round from every radiating line of the circle. You she refuses. Then I venture to propose myself to appeal to her. My daughter has assuredly an esteem for the applicant that will animate a woman’s tongue in such a case. The ladies of the house will not be backward. Lastly, if necessary, we trust the lady’s father to add his instances. My prescription is, to fatigue her negatives; and where no rooted objection exists, I maintain it to be the unfailing receipt for the conduct of the siege. No woman can say No forever. The defence has not such resources against even a single assailant, and we shall have solved the problem of continuous motion before she will have learned to deny in perpetuity. That I stand on.”

Willoughby glanced at Mrs. Mountstuart.

“What is that?” she said. “Treason to our sex, Dr. Middleton?”

“I think I heard that no woman can say No forever!” remarked Lady Busshe.

“To a loyal gentleman, ma’am: assuming the field of the recurring request to be not unholy ground; consecrated to affirmatives rather.”

Dr Middleton was attacked by three angry bees. They made him say yes and no alternately so many times that he had to admit in men a shiftier yieldingness than women were charged with.

Willoughby gesticulated as mute chorus on the side of the ladies; and a little show of party spirit like that, coming upon their excitement under the topic, inclined them to him genially. He drew Mr. Dale away while the conflict subsided in sharp snaps of rifles and an interval rejoinder of a cannon. Mr. Dale had shown by signs that he was growing fretfully restive under his burden of doubt.

“Sir Willoughby, I have a question. I beg you to lead me where I may ask it. I know my head is weak.”

“Mr. Dale, it is answered when I say that my house is your home, and that Laetitia will soon be with us.”

“Then this report is true?”

“I know nothing of reports. You are answered.”

“Can my daughter be accused of any shadow of falseness, dishonourable dealing?”

“As little as I.”

Mr. Dale scanned his face. He saw no shadow.

“For I should go to my grave bankrupt if that could be said of her; and I have never yet felt poor, though you know the extent of a pensioner’s income. Then this tale of a refusal. . .?”

“Is nonsense.”

“She has accepted?”

“There are situations, Mr. Dale, too delicate to be clothed in positive definitions.”

“Ah, Sir Willoughby, but it becomes a father to see that his daughter is not forced into delicate situations. I hope all is well. I am confused. It may be my head. She puzzles me. You are not. . . Can I ask it here? You are quite. . .? Will you moderate my anxiety? My infirmities must excuse me.”

Sir Willoughby conveyed by a shake of the head and a pressure of Mr. Dale’s hand, that he was not, and that he was quite.

“Dr Middleton?” said Mr. Dale.

“He leaves us tomorrow.”

“Really!” The invalid wore a look as if wine had been poured into him. He routed his host’s calculations by calling to the Rev. Doctor. “We are to lose you, sir?”

Willoughby attempted an interposition, but Dr. Middleton crashed through it like the lordly organ swallowing a flute.

“Not before I score my victory, Mr. Dale, and establish my friend upon his rightful throne.”

“You do not leave tomorrow, sir?”

“Have you heard, sir, that I leave tomorrow?”

Mr. Dale turned to Sir Willoughby.

The latter said: “Clara named today. To-morrow I thought preferable.”

“Ah!” Dr. Middleton towered on the swelling exclamation, but with no dark light. He radiated splendidly. “Yes, then, tomorrow. That is, if we subdue the lady.”

He advanced to Willoughby, seized his hand, squeezed it, thanked him, praised him. He spoke under his breath, for a wonder; but: “We are in your debt lastingly, my friend”, was heard, and he was impressive, he seemed subdued, and saying aloud: “Though I should wish to aid in the reduction of that fortress”, he let it be seen that his mind was rid of a load.

Dr. Middleton partly stupefied Willoughby by his way of taking it, but his conduct was too serviceable to allow of speculation on his readiness to break the match. It was the turning-point of the engagement.

Lady Busshe made a stir.

“I cannot keep my horses waiting any longer,” she said, and beckoned. Sir Willoughby was beside her immediately.

“You are admirable! perfect! Don’t ask me to hold my tongue. I retract, I recant. It is a fatality. I have resolved upon that view. You could stand the shot of beauty, not of brains. That is our report. There! And it’s delicious to feel that the county wins you. No tea. I cannot possibly wait. And, oh! here she is. I must have a look at her. My dear Laetitia Dale!”

Willoughby hurried to Mr. Dale.

“You are not to be excited, sir: compose yourself. You will recover and be strong tomorrow: you are at home; you are in your own house; you are in Laetitia’s drawing-room. All will be clear tomorrow. Till tomorrow we talk riddles by consent. Sit, I beg. You stay with us.”

He met Laetitia and rescued her from Lady Busshe, murmuring, with the air of a lover who says, “my love! my sweet!” that she had done rightly to come and come at once. Her father had been thrown into the proper condition of clammy nervousness to create the impression. Laetitia’s anxiety sat prettily on her long eyelashes as she bent over him in his chair.

Hereupon Dr. Corney appeared; and his name had a bracing effect on Mr. Dale. “Corney has come to drive me to the cottage,” he said. “I am ashamed of this public exhibition of myself, my dear. Let us go. My head is a poor one.”

Dr. Corney had been intercepted. He broke from Sir Willoughby with a dozen little nods of accurate understanding of him, even to beyond the mark of the communications. He touched his patient’s pulse lightly, briefly sighed with professional composure, and pronounced: “Rest. Must not be moved. No, no, nothing serious,” he quieted Laetitia’s fears, “but rest, rest. A change of residence for a night will tone him. I will bring him a draught in the course of the evening. Yes, yes, I’ll fetch everything wanted from the cottage for you and for him. Repose on Corney’s forethought.”

“You are sure, Dr. Corney?” said Laetitia, frightened on her father’s account and on her own.

“Which aspect will be the best for Mr. Dale’s bedroom?” the hospitable ladies Eleanor and Isabel inquired.

“Southeast, decidedly: let him have the morning sun: a warm air, a vigorous air, and a bright air, and the patient wakes and sings in his bed.”

Still doubtful whether she was in a trap, Laetitia whispered to her father of the privacy and comforts of his home. He replied to her that he thought he would rather be in his own home.

Dr Corney positively pronounced No to it.

Laetitia breathed again of home, but with the sigh of one overborne.

The ladies Eleanor and Isabel took the word from Willoughby, and said: “But you are at home, my dear. This is your home. Your father will be at least as well attended here as at the cottage.”

She raised her eyelids on them mournfully, and by chance diverted her look to Dr. Middleton, quite by chance.

It spoke eloquently to the assembly of all that Willoughby desired to be imagined.

“But there is Crossjay,” she cried. “My cousin has gone, and the boy is left alone. I cannot have him left alone. If we, if, Dr. Corney, you are sure it is unsafe for papa to be moved today, Crossjay must. . . he cannot be left.”

“Bring him with you, Corney,” said Sir Willoughby; and the little doctor heartily promised that he would, in the event of his finding Crossjay at the cottage, which he thought a distant probability.

“He gave me his word he would not go out till my return,” said Laetitia.

“And if Crossjay gave you his word,” the accents of a new voice vibrated close by, “be certain that he will not come back with Dr. Corney unless he has authority in your handwriting.”

Clara Middleton stepped gently to Laetitia, and with a manner that was an embrace, as much as kissed her for what she was doing on behalf of Crossjay. She put her lips in a pouting form to simulate saying: “Press it.”

“He is to come,” said Laetitia.

“Then write him his permit.”

There was a chatter about Crossjay and the sentinel true to his post that he could be, during which Laetitia distressfully scribbled a line for Dr. Corney to deliver to him. Clara stood near. She had rebuked herself for want of reserve in the presence of Lady Busshe and Lady Culmer, and she was guilty of a slightly excessive containment when she next addressed Laetitia. It was, like Laetitia’s look at Dr. Middleton, opportune: enough to make a man who watched as Willoughby did a fatalist for life: the shadow of a difference in her bearing toward Laetitia sufficed to impute acting either to her present coolness or her previous warmth. Better still, when Dr. Middleton said: “So we leave tomorrow, my dear, and I hope you have written to the Darletons,” Clara flushed and beamed, and repressed her animation on a sudden, with one grave look, that might be thought regretful, to where Willoughby stood.

Chance works for us when we are good captains.

Willoughby’s pride was high, though he knew himself to be keeping it up like a fearfully dexterous juggler, and for an empty reward: but he was in the toils of the world.

“Have you written? The post-bag leaves in half an hour,” he addressed her.

“We are expected, but I will write,” she replied: and her not having yet written counted in his favour.

She went to write the letter. Dr. Corney had departed on his mission to fetch Crossjay and medicine. Lady Busshe was impatient to be gone. “Corney,” she said to Lady Culmer, “is a deadly gossip.”

“Inveterate,” was the answer.

“My poor horses!”

“Not the young pair of bays?”

“Luckily they are, my dear. And don’t let me hear of dining to-night!”

Sir Willoughby was leading out Mr. Dale to a quiet room, contiguous to the invalid gentleman’s bedchamber. He resigned him to Laetitia in the hall, that he might have the pleasure of conducting the ladies to their carriage.

“As little agitation as possible. Corney will soon be back,” he said, bitterly admiring the graceful subservience of Laetitia’s figure to her father’s weight on her arm.

He had won a desperate battle, but what had he won?

What had the world given him in return for his efforts to gain it? Just a shirt, it might be said: simple scanty clothing, no warmth. Lady Busshe was unbearable; she gabbled; she was ill-bred, permitted herself to speak of Dr. Middleton as ineligible, no loss to the county. And Mrs. Mountstuart was hardly much above her, with her inevitable stroke of caricature:—“You see Doctor Middleton’s pulpit scampering after him with legs!” Perhaps the Rev. Doctor did punish the world for his having forsaken his pulpit, and might be conceived as haunted by it at his heels, but Willoughby was in the mood to abhor comic images; he hated the perpetrators of them and the grinners. Contempt of this laughing empty world, for which he had performed a monstrous immolation, led him to associate Dr. Middleton in his mind, and Clara too, with the desireable things he had sacrificed—a shape of youth and health; a sparkling companion; a face of innumerable charms; and his own veracity; his inner sense of his dignity; and his temper, and the limpid frankness of his air of scorn, that was to him a visage of candid happiness in the dim retrospect. Haply also he had sacrificed more: he looked scientifically into the future: he might have sacrificed a nameless more. And for what? he asked again. For the favourable looks and tongues of these women whose looks and tongues he detested!

“Dr Middleton says he is indebted to me: I am deeply in his debt,” he remarked.

“It is we who are in your debt for a lovely romance, my dear Sir Willoughby,” said Lady Busshe, incapable of taking a correction, so thoroughly had he imbued her with his fiction, or with the belief that she had a good story to circulate. Away she drove, rattling her tongue to Lady Culmer.

“A hat and horn, and she would be in the old figure of a post-boy on a hue-and-cry sheet,” said Mrs. Mountstuart.

Willoughby thanked the great lady for her services, and she complimented the polished gentleman on his noble self-possession. But she complained at the same time of being defrauded of her “charmer” Colonel De Craye, since luncheon. An absence of warmth in her compliment caused Willoughby to shrink and think the wretched shirt he had got from the world no covering after all: a breath flapped it.

“He comes to me tomorrow, I believe,” she said, reflecting on her superior knowledge of facts in comparison with Lady Busshe, who would presently be hearing of something novel, and exclaiming: “So, that is why you patronized the colonel!” And it was nothing of the sort, for Mrs. Mountstuart could honestly say she was not the woman to make a business of her pleasure.

“Horace is an enviable fellow,” said Willoughby, wise in The Book, which bids us ever, for an assuagement to fancy our friend’s condition worse than our own, and recommends the deglutition of irony as the most balsamic for wounds in the whole moral pharmacopoeia.

“I don’t know,” she replied, with a marked accent of deliberation.

“The colonel is to have you to himself tomorrow!”

“I can’t be sure of what I shall have in the colonel!”

“Your perpetual sparkler?”

Mrs. Mountstuart set her head in motion. She left the matter silent.

“I’ll come for him in the morning,” she said, and her carriage whirled her off. Either she had guessed it, or Clara had confided to her the treacherous passion of Horace De Craye.

However, the world was shut away from Patterne for the night.

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