The Egoist, by George Meredith

50. Upon which the Curtain Falls

“Plain sense upon the marriage question is my demand upon man and woman, for the stopping of many a tragedy.”

These were Dr. Middleton’s words in reply to Willoughby’s brief explanation.

He did not say that he had shown it parentally while the tragedy was threatening, or at least there was danger of a precipitate descent from the levels of comedy. The parents of hymeneal men and women he was indisposed to consider as dramatis personae. Nor did he mention certain sympathetic regrets he entertained in contemplation of the health of Mr. Dale, for whom, poor gentleman, the proffer of a bottle of the Patterne Port would be an egregious mockery. He paced about, anxious for his departure, and seeming better pleased with the society of Colonel De Craye than with that of any of the others. Colonel De Craye assiduously courted him, was anecdotal, deferential, charmingly vivacious, the very man the Rev. Doctor liked for company when plunged in the bustle of the preliminaries to a journey.

“You would be a cheerful travelling comrade, sir,” he remarked, and spoke of his doom to lead his daughter over the Alps and Alpine lakes for the Summer months.

Strange to tell, the Alps, for the Summer months, was a settled project of the colonel’s.

And thence Dr. Middleton was to be hauled along to the habitable quarters of North Italy in high Summer-tide.

That also had been traced for a route on the map of Colonel De Craye.

“We are started in June, I am informed,” said Dr. Middleton.

June, by miracle, was the month the colonel had fixed upon.

“I trust we shall meet, sir,” said he.

“I would gladly reckon it in my catalogue of pleasures,” the Rev. Doctor responded; “for in good sooth it is conjecturable that I shall be left very much alone.”

“Paris, Strasburg, Basle?” the colonel inquired.

“The Lake of Constance, I am told,” said Dr. Middleton. Colonel De Craye spied eagerly for an opportunity of exchanging a pair of syllables with the third and fairest party of this glorious expedition to come.

Willoughby met him, and rewarded the colonel’s frankness in stating that he was on the look-out for Miss Middleton to take his leave of her, by furnishing him the occasion. He conducted his friend Horace to the Blue Room, where Clara and Laetitia were seated circling a half embrace with a brook of chatter, and contrived an excuse for leading Laetitia forth. Some minutes later Mrs. Mountstuart called aloud for the colonel, to drive him away. Willoughby, whose good offices were unabated by the services he performed to each in rotation, ushered her into the Blue Room, hearing her say, as she stood at the entrance: “Is the man coming to spend a day with me with a face like that?”

She was met and detained by Clara.

De Craye came out.

“What are you thinking of?” said Willoughby.

“I was thinking,” said the colonel, “of developing a heart, like you, and taking to think of others.”

“At last!”

“Ay, you’re a true friend, Willoughby, a true friend. And a cousin to boot!”

“What! has Clara been communicative?”

“The itinerary of a voyage Miss Middleton is going to make.”

“Do you join them?”

“Why, it would be delightful, Willoughby, but it happens I’ve got a lot of powder I want to let off, and so I’ve an idea of shouldering my gun along the sea-coast and shooting gulls: which’ll be a harmless form of committing patricide and matricide and fratricide—for there’s my family, and I come of it!—the gull! And I’ve to talk lively to Mrs. Mountstuart for something like a matter of twelve hours, calculating that she goes to bed at midnight: and I wouldn’t bet on it; such is the energy of ladies of that age!”

Willoughby scorned the man who could not conceal a blow, even though he joked over his discomfiture.

“Gull!” he muttered.

“A bird that’s easy to be had, and better for stuffing than for eating,” said De Craye. “You’ll miss your cousin.”

“I have,” replied Willoughby, “one fully equal to supplying his place.”

There was confusion in the hall for a time, and an assembly of the household to witness the departure of Dr. Middleton and his daughter. Vernon had been driven off by Dr. Corney, who further recommended rest for Mr. Dale, and promised to keep an eye for Crossjay along the road.

“I think you will find him at the station, and if you do, command him to come straight back here,” Laetitia said to Clara. The answer was an affectionate squeeze, and Clara’s hand was extended to Willoughby, who bowed over it with perfect courtesy, bidding her adieu.

So the knot was cut. And the next carriage to Dr. Middleton’s was Mrs. Mountstuart’s, conveying the great lady and Colonel De Craye.

“I beg you not to wear that face with me,” she said to him.

“I have had to dissemble, which I hate, and I have quite enough to endure, and I must be amused, or I shall run away from you and enlist that little countryman of yours, and him I can count on to be professionally restorative. Who can fathom the heart of a girl! Here is Lady Busshe right once more! And I was wrong. She must be a gambler by nature. I never should have risked such a guess as that. Colonel De Craye, you lengthen your face preternaturally, you distort it purposely.”

“Ma’am,” returned De Craye, “the boast of our army is never to know when we are beaten, and that tells of a great-hearted soldiery. But there’s a field where the Briton must own his defeat, whether smiling or crying, and I’m not so sure that a short howl doesn’t do him honour.”

“She was, I am certain, in love with Vernon Whitford all along. Colonel De Craye!”

“Ah!” the colonel drank it in. “I have learnt that it was not the gentleman in whom I am chiefly interested. So it was not so hard for the lady to vow to friend Willoughby she would marry no one else?”

“Girls are unfathomable! And Lady Busshe—I know she did not go by character—shot one of her random guesses, and she triumphs. We shall never hear the last of it. And I had all the opportunities. I’m bound to confess I had.”

“Did you by chance, ma’am,” De Craye said, with a twinkle, “drop a hint to Willoughby of her turn for Vernon Whitford?”

“No,” said Mrs. Mountstuart, “I’m not a mischief-maker; and the policy of the county is to keep him in love with himself, or Patterne will be likely to be as dull as it was without a lady enthroned. When his pride is at ease he is a prince. I can read men. Now, Colonel De Craye, pray, be lively.”

“I should have been livelier, I’m afraid, if you had dropped a bit of a hint to Willoughby. But you’re the magnanimous person, ma’am, and revenge for a stroke in the game of love shows us unworthy to win.”

Mrs. Mountstuart menaced him with her parasol. “I forbid sentiments, Colonel De Craye. They are always followed by sighs.”

“Grant me five minutes of inward retirement, and I’ll come out formed for your commands, ma’am,” said he.

Before the termination of that space De Craye was enchanting Mrs. Mountstuart, and she in consequence was restored to her natural wit.

So, and much so universally, the world of his dread and his unconscious worship wagged over Sir Willoughby Patterne and his change of brides, until the preparations for the festivities of the marriage flushed him in his county’s eyes to something of the splendid glow he had worn on the great day of his majority. That was upon the season when two lovers met between the Swiss and Tyrol Alps over the Lake of Constance. Sitting beside them the Comic Muse is grave and sisterly. But taking a glance at the others of her late company of actors, she compresses her lips.

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