|THE EGOIST, by George Meredith (1879)
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THE FIRST EFFORT AFTER FREEDOM
Crossjay's accident was only another proof, as Vernon told Miss Dale,
that the boy was but half monkey.
"Something fresh?" she exclaimed on seeing him brought into the Hall, where she had just arrived.
"Simply a continuation," said Vernon. "He is not so prehensile as he should be. He probably in extremity relies on the tail that has been docked. Are you a man, Crossjay?"
"I should think I was!" Crossjay replied, with an old man's voice, and a ghastly twitch for a smile overwhelmed the compassionate ladies.
Miss Dale took possession of him. "You err in the other direction," she remarked to Vernon.
"But a little bracing roughness is better than spoiling him." said Miss Middleton.
She did not receive an answer, and she thought: "Whatever Willoughby does is right, to this lady!"
Clara's impression was renewed when Sir Willoughby sat beside Miss Dale in the evening; and certainly she had never seen him shine so picturesquely as in his bearing with Miss Dale. The sprightly sallies of the two, their rallyings, their laughter, and her fine eyes, and his handsome gestures, won attention like a fencing match of a couple keen with the foils to display the mutual skill. And it was his design that she should admire the display; he was anything but obtuse; enjoying the match as he did and necessarily did to act so excellent a part in it, he meant the observer to see the man he was with a lady not of raw understanding. So it went on from day to day for three days.
She fancied once that she detected the agreeable stirring of the brood of jealousy, and found it neither in her heart nor in her mind, but in the book of wishes, well known to the young where they write matter which may sometimes be independent of both those volcanic albums. Jealousy would have been a relief to her, a dear devil's aid. She studied the complexion of jealousy to delude herself with the sense of the spirit being in her, and all the while she laughed, as at a vile theatre whereof the imperfection of the stage machinery rather than the performance is the wretched source of amusement.
Vernon had deeply depressed her. She was hunted by the figure 4. Four happy instead of two miserable. He had said it, involving her among the four; and so it must be, she considered, and she must be as happy as she could; for not only was he incapable of perceiving her state, he was unable to imagine other circumstances to surround her. How, to be just to him, were they imaginable by him or any one?
Her horrible isolation of secrecy in a world amiable in unsuspectingness frightened her. To fling away her secret, to conform, to be unrebellious, uncritical, submissive, became an impatient desire; and the task did not appear so difficult since Miss Dale's arrival. Endearments had been rare, more formal; living bodily untroubled and unashamed, and, as she phrased it, having no one to care for her, she turned insensibly in the direction where she was due; she slightly imitated Miss Dale's colloquial responsiveness. To tell truth, she felt vivacious in a moderate way with Willoughby after seeing him with Miss Dale. Liberty wore the aspect of a towering prison-wall; the desperate undertaking of climbing one side and dropping to the other was more than she, unaided, could resolve on; consequently, as no one cared for her, a worthless creature might as well cease dreaming and stipulating for the fulfilment of her dreams; she might as well yield to her fate; nay, make the best of it.
Sir Willoughby was flattered and satisfied. Clara's adopted vivacity proved his thorough knowledge of feminine nature; nor did her feebleness in sustaining it displease him. A steady look of hers had of late perplexed the man, and he was comforted by signs of her inefficiency where he excelled. The effort and the failure were both of good omen.
But she could not continue the effort. He had overweighted her too much for the mimicry of a sentiment to harden and have an apparently natural place among her impulses; and now an idea came to her that he might, it might be hoped, possibly see in Miss Dale, by present contrast, the mate he sought; by contrast with an unanswering creature like herself, he might perhaps realize in Miss Dale's greater accomplishments and her devotion to him the merit of suitability; he might be induced to do her justice. Dim as the loop-hole was, Clara fixed her mind on it till it gathered light. And as a prelude to action, she plunged herself into a state of such profound humility, that to accuse it of being simulated would be venturesome, though it was not positive. The tempers of the young are liquid fires in isles of quicksand; the precious metals not yet cooled in a solid earth. Her compassion for Laetitia was less forced, but really she was almost as earnest in her self-abasement, for she had not latterly been brilliant, not even adequate to the ordinary requirements of conversation. She had no courage, no wit, no diligence, nothing that she could distinguish save discontentment like a corroding acid, and she went so far in sincerity as with a curious shift of feeling to pity the man plighted to her. If it suited her purpose to pity Sir Willoughby, she was not moved by policy, be assured; her needs were her nature, her moods her mind; she had the capacity to make anything serve her by passing into it with the glance which discerned its usefulness; and this is how it is that the young, when they are in trouble, without approaching the elevation of scientific hypocrites, can teach that able class lessons in hypocrisy.
"Why should not Willoughby be happy?" she said; and the exclamation was pushed forth by the second thought: "Then I shall be free!" Still that thought came second.
The desire for the happiness of Willoughby was fervent on his behalf and wafted her far from friends and letters to a narrow Tyrolean valley, where a shallow river ran, with the indentations of a remotely seen army of winding ranks in column, topaz over the pebbles to hollows of ravishing emerald. There sat Liberty, after her fearful leap over the prison-wall, at peace to watch the water and the falls of sunshine on the mountain above, between descending pine-stem shadows. Clara's wish for his happiness, as soon as she had housed herself in the imagination of her freedom, was of a purity that made it seem exceedingly easy for her to speak to him.
The opportunity was offered by Sir Willoughby. Every morning after breakfast Miss Dale walked across the park to see her father, and on this occasion Sir Willoughby and Miss Middleton went with her as far as the lake, all three discoursing of the beauty of various trees, birches, aspens, poplars, beeches, then in their new green. Miss Dale loved the aspen, Miss Middleton the beech, Sir Willoughby the birch, and pretty things were said by each in praise of the favoured object, particularly by Miss Dale. So much so that when she had gone on he recalled one of her remarks, and said: "I believe, if the whole place were swept away to-morrow, Laetitia Dale could reconstruct it and put those aspens on the north of the lake in number and situation correctly where you have them now. I would guarantee her description of it in absence correct."
"Why should she be absent?" said Clara, palpitating.
"Well, why!" returned Sir Willoughby. "As you say, there is no reason why. The art of life, and mine will be principally a country life town is not life, but a tornado whirling atoms the art is to associate a group of sympathetic friends in our neighbourhood; and it is a fact worth noting that if ever I feel tired of the place, a short talk with Laetitia Dale refreshes it more than a month or two on the Continent. She has the well of enthusiasm. And there is a great advantage in having a cultivated person at command, with whom one can chat of any topic under the sun. I repeat, you have no need of town if you have friends like Laetitia Dale within call. My mother esteemed her highly."
"Willoughby, she is not obliged to go."
"I hope not. And, my love, I rejoice that you have taken to her. Her father's health is poor. She would be a young spinster to live alone in a country cottage."
"What of your scheme?"
"Old Vernon is a very foolish fellow."
"He has declined?"
"Not a word on the subject! I have only to propose it to be snubbed, I know."
"You may not be aware how you throw him into the shade with her."
"Nothing seems to teach him the art of dialogue with ladies."
"Are not gentlemen shy when they see themselves outshone?"
"He hasn't it, my love: Vernon is deficient in the lady's tongue."
"I respect him for that."
"Outshone, you say? I do not know of any shining save to one, who lights me, path and person!"
The identity of the one was conveyed to her in a bow and a soft pressure.
"Not only has he not the lady's tongue, which I hold to be a man's proper accomplishment," continued Sir Willoughby, "he cannot turn his advantages to account. Here has Miss Dale been with him now four days in the house. They are exactly on the same footing as when she entered it. You ask? I will tell you. It is this: it is want of warmth. Old Vernon is a scholar and a fish. Well, perhaps he has cause to be shy of matrimony; but he is a fish."
"You are reconciled to his leaving you?"
"False alarm! The resolution to do anything unaccustomed is quite beyond old Vernon."
"But if Mr. Oxford Whitford . . . your swans coming sailing up the lake, how beautiful they look when they are indignant! I was going to ask you, surely men witnessing a marked admiration for some one else will naturally be discouraged?"
Sir Willoughby stiffened with sudden enlightenment.
Though the word jealousy had not been spoken, the drift of her observations was clear. Smiling inwardly, he said, and the sentences were not enigmas to her: "Surely, too, young ladies . . . a little? Too far? But an old friendship! About the same as the fitting of an old glove to a hand. Hand and glove have only to meet. Where there is natural harmony you would not have discord. Ay, but you have it if you check the harmony. My dear girl! You child!"
He had actually, in this parabolic, and commendable, obscureness, for which she thanked him in her soul, struck the very point she had not named and did not wish to hear named, but wished him to strike; he was anything but obtuse. His exultation, of the compressed sort, was extreme, on hearing her cry out:
"Young ladies may be. Oh! not I, not I. I can convince you. Not that. Believe me, Willoughby. I do not know what it is to feel that, or anything like it. I cannot conceive a claim on any one's life as a claim: or the continuation of an engagement not founded on perfect, perfect sympathy. How should I feel it, then? It is, as you say of Mr. Ox Whitford, beyond me."
Sir Willoughby caught up the Ox Whitford.
Bursting with laughter in his joyful pride, he called it a portrait of old Vernon in society. For she thought a trifle too highly of Vernon, as here and there a raw young lady does think of the friends of her plighted man, which is waste of substance properly belonging to him, as it were, in the loftier sense, an expenditure in genuflexions to wayside idols of the reverence she should bring intact to the temple. Derision instructs her.
Of the other subject her jealousy he had no desire to hear more. She had winced: the woman had been touched to smarting in the girl: enough. She attempted the subject once, but faintly, and his careless parrying threw her out. Clara could have bitten her tongue for that reiterated stupid slip on the name of Whitford; and because she was innocent at heart she persisted in asking herself how she could be guilty of it.
"You both know the botanic titles of these wild flowers," she said.
"Who?" he inquired.
"You and Miss Dale."
Sir Willoughby shrugged. He was amused.
"No woman on earth will grace a barouche so exquisitely as my Clara."
"Where?" said she.
"During our annual two months in London. I drive a barouche there, and venture to prophesy that my equipage will create the greatest excitement of any in London. I see old Horace De Craye gazing!"
She sighed. She could not drag him to the word, or a hint of it necessary to her subject.
But there it was; she saw it. She had nearly let it go, and blushed at being obliged to name it.
"Jealousy, do you mean. Willoughby? the people in London would be jealous? Colonel De Craye? How strange! That is a sentiment I cannot understand."
Sir Willoughby gesticulated the "Of course not" of an established assurance to the contrary.
"Indeed, Willoughby, I do not."
He was now in her trap. And he was imagining himself to be anatomizing her feminine nature.
"Can I give you a proof, Willoughby? I am so utterly incapable of it that listen to me were you to come to me to tell me, as you might, how much better suited to you Miss Dale has appeared than I am and I fear I am not; it should be spoken plainly; unsuited altogether, perhaps I would, I beseech you to believe you must believe me give you . . . give you your freedom instantly; most truly; and engage to speak of you as I should think of you. Willoughby, you would have no one to praise you in public and in private as I should, for you would be to me the most honest, truthful, chivalrous gentleman alive. And in that case I would undertake to declare that she would not admire you more than I; Miss Dale would not; she would not admire you more than I; not even Miss Dale."
This, her first direct leap for liberty, set Clara panting, and so much had she to say that the nervous and the intellectual halves of her dashed like cymbals, dazing and stunning her with the appositeness of things to be said, and dividing her in indecision as to the cunningest to move him of the many pressing.
The condition of feminine jealousy stood revealed.
He had driven her farther than he intended.
"Come, let me allay these . . ." he soothed her with hand and voice, while seeking for his phrase; "these magnified pinpoints. Now, my Clara! on my honour! and when I put it forward in attestation, my honour has the most serious meaning speech can have; ordinarily my word has to suffice for bonds, promises, or asseverations; on my honour! not merely is there, my poor child! no ground of suspicion, I assure you, I declare to you, the fact of the case is the very reverse. Now, mark me; of her sentiments I cannot pretend to speak; I did not, to my knowledge, originate, I am not responsible for them, and I am, before the law, as we will say, ignorant of them; that is, I have never heard a declaration of them, and I, am, therefore, under pain of the stigma of excessive fatuity, bound to be non-cognizant. But as to myself I can speak for myself and, on my honour! Clara to be as direct as possible, even to baldness, and you know I loathe it I could not, I repeat, I could not marry Laetitia Dale! Let me impress it on you. No flatteries we are all susceptible more or less no conceivable condition could bring it about; no amount of admiration. She and I are excellent friends; we cannot be more. When you see us together, the natural concord of our minds is of course misleading. She is a woman of genius. I do not conceal, I profess my admiration of her. There are times when, I confess, I require a Laetitia Dale to bring me out, give and take. I am indebted to her for the enjoyment of the duet few know, few can accord with, fewer still are allowed the privilege of playing with a human being. I am indebted, I own, and I feel deep gratitude; I own to a lively friendship for Miss Dale, but if she is displeasing in the sight of my bride by . . . by the breadth of an eyelash, then . . ."
Sir Willoughby's arm waved Miss Dale off away into outer darkness in the wilderness.
Clara shut her eyes and rolled her eyeballs in a frenzy of unuttered revolt from the Egoist.
But she was not engaged in the colloquy to be an advocate of Miss Dale or of common humanity.
"Ah!" she said, simply determining that the subject should not drop.
"And, ah!" he mocked her tenderly. "True, though! And who knows better than my Clara that I require youth, health, beauty, and the other undefinable attributes fitting with mine and beseeming the station of the lady called to preside over my household and represent me? What says my other self? my fairer? But you are! my love, you are! Understand my nature rightly, and you . . . "
"I do! I do!" interposed Clara; "if I did not by this time I should be idiotic. Let me assure you, I understand it. Oh! listen to me: one moment. Miss Dale regards me as the happiest woman on earth. Willoughby, if I possessed her good qualities, her heart and mind, no doubt I should be. It is my wish you must hear me, hear me out my wish, my earnest wish, my burning prayer, my wish to make way for her. She appreciates you: I do not to my shame, I do not. She worships you: I do not, I cannot. You are the rising sun to her. It has been so for years. No one can account for love; I daresay not for the impossibility of loving . . . loving where we should; all love bewilders me. I was not created to understand it. But she loves you, she has pined. I believe it has destroyed the health you demand as one item in your list. But you, Willoughby, can restore that. Travelling, and . . . and your society, the pleasure of your society would certainly restore it. You look so handsome together! She has unbounded devotion! as for me, I cannot idolize. I see faults: I see them daily. They astonish and wound me. Your pride would not bear to hear them spoken of, least of all by your wife. You warned me to beware that is, you said, you said something."
Her busy brain missed the subterfuge to cover her slip of the tongue.
Sir Willoughby struck in: "And when I say that the entire concatenation is based on an erroneous observation of facts, and an erroneous deduction from that erroneous observation! ? No, no. Have confidence in me. I propose it to you in this instance, purely to save you from deception. You are cold, my love? you shivered."
"I am not cold," said Clara. "Some one, I suppose, was walking over my grave."
The gulf of a caress hove in view like an enormous billow hollowing under the curled ridge.
She stooped to a buttercup; the monster swept by.
"Your grave!" he exclaimed over her head; "my own girl!"
"Is not the orchid naturally a stranger in ground so far away from the chalk, Willoughby?"
"I am incompetent to pronounce an opinion on such important matters. My mother had a passion for every description of flower. I fancy I have some recollection of her scattering the flower you mention over the park."
"If she were living now!"
"We should be happy in the blessing of the most estimable of women, my Clara."
"She would have listened to me. She would have realized what I mean."
"Indeed, Clara poor soul!" he murmured to himself, aloud; "indeed you are absolutely in error. If I have seemed but I repeat, you are deceived. The idea of 'fitness' is a total hallucination. Supposing you I do it even in play painfully entirely out of the way, unthought of. . ."
"Extinct," Clara said low.
"Non-existent for me," he selected a preferable term. "Suppose it; I should still, in spite of an admiration I have never thought it incumbent on me to conceal, still be I speak emphatically utterly incapable of the offer of my hand to Miss Dale. It may be that she is embedded in my mind as a friend, and nothing but a friend. I received the stamp in early youth. People have noticed it we do, it seems, bring one another out, reflecting, counter-reflecting."
She glanced up at him with a shrewd satisfaction to see that her wicked shaft had stuck.
"You do; it is a common remark," she said. "The instantaneous difference when she comes near, any one might notice."
"My love," he opened the iron gate into the garden, "you encourage the naughty little suspicion."
"But it is a beautiful sight, Willoughby. I like to see you together. I like it as I like to see colours match."
"Very well. There is no harm then. We shall often be together. I like my fair friend. But the instant! you have only to express a sentiment of disapprobation."
"And you dismiss her."
"I dismiss her. That is, as to the word, I constitute myself your echo, to clear any vestige of suspicion. She goes."
"That is a case of a person doomed to extinction without offending."
"Not without: for whoever offends my bride, my wife, my sovereign lady, offends me: very deeply offends me."
"Then the caprices of your wife . . ." Clara stamped her foot imperceptibly on the lawn-sward, which was irresponsively soft to her fretfulness. She broke from the inconsequent meaningless mild tone of irony, and said: "Willoughby, women have their honour to swear by equally with men: girls have: they have to swear an oath at the altar; may I to you now? Take it for uttered when I tell you that nothing would make me happier than your union with Miss Dale. I have spoken as much as I can. Tell me you release me."
With the well-known screw-smile of duty upholding weariness worn to inanition, he rejoined: "Allow me once more to reiterate, that it is repulsive, inconceivable, that I should ever, under any mortal conditions, bring myself to the point of taking Miss Dale for my wife. You reduce me to this perfectly childish protestation pitiably childish! But, my love, have I to remind you that you and I are plighted, and that I am an honourable man?"
"I know it, I feel it release me!" cried Clara.
Sir Willoughby severely reprehended his short-sightedness for seeing but the one proximate object in the particular attention he had bestowed on Miss Dale. He could not disavow that they had been marked, and with an object, and he was distressed by the unwonted want of wisdom through which he had been drawn to overshoot his object. His design to excite a touch of the insane emotion in Clara's bosom was too successful, and, "I was not thinking of her," he said to himself in his candour, contrite.
She cried again: "Will you not, Willoughby release me?"
He begged her to take his arm.
To consent to touch him while petitioning for a detachment, appeared discordant to Clara, but, if she expected him to accede, it was right that she should do as much as she could, and she surrendered her hand at arm's length, disdaining the imprisoned fingers. He pressed them and said: "Dr Middleton is in the library. I see Vernon is at work with Crossjay in the West-room the boy has had sufficient for the day. Now, is it not like old Vernon to drive his books at a cracked head before it's half mended?"
He signalled to young Crossjay, who was up and out through the folding windows in a twinkling.
"And you will go in, and talk to Vernon of the lady in question," Sir Willoughby whispered to Clara. "Use your best persuasions in our joint names. You have my warrant for saying that money is no consideration; house and income are assured. You can hardly have taken me seriously when I requested you to undertake Vernon before. I was quite in earnest then as now. I prepare Miss Dale. I will not have a wedding on our wedding-day; but either before or after it, I gladly speed their alliance. I think now I give you the best proof possible, and though I know that with women a delusion may be seen to be groundless and still be cherished, I rely on your good sense."
Vernon was at the window and stood aside for her to enter. Sir Willoughby used a gentle insistence with her. She bent her head as if she were stepping into a cave. So frigid was she, that a ridiculous dread of calling Mr. Whitford Mr. Oxford was her only present anxiety when Sir Willoughby had closed the window on them.