The Egoist/Chapter XVI

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The Egoist by George Meredith
Chapter XVI

CLARA AND LAETITIA

In spite of his honourable caution, Vernon had said things to render Miss Middleton more angrily determined than she had been in the scene with Sir Willoughby. His counting on pitched battles and a defeat for her in all of them, made her previous feelings appear slack in comparison with the energy of combat now animating her. And she could vehemently declare that she had not chosen; she was too young, too ignorant to choose. He had wrongly used that word; it sounded malicious; and to call consenting the same in fact as choosing was wilfully unjust. Mr. Whitford meant well; he was conscientious, very conscientious. But he was not the hero descending from heaven bright-sworded to smite a woman's fetters of her limbs and deliver her from the yawning mouth-abyss.

His logical coolness of expostulation with her when she cast aside the silly mission entrusted to her by Sir Willoughby and wept for herself, was unheroic in proportion to its praiseworthiness. He had left it to her to do everything she wished done, stipulating simply that there should be a pause of four-and-twenty hours for her to consider of it before she proceeded in the attempt to extricate herself. Of consolation there had not been a word. Said he, "I am the last man to give advice in such a case". Yet she had by no means astonished him when her confession came out. It came out, she knew not how. It was led up to by his declining the idea of marriage, and her congratulating him on his exemption from the prospect of the yoke, but memory was too dull to revive the one or two fiery minutes of broken language when she had been guilty of her dire misconduct.

This gentleman was no flatterer, scarcely a friend. He could look on her grief without soothing her. Supposing he had soothed her warmly? All her sentiments collected in her bosom to dash in reprobation of him at the thought. She nevertheless condemned him for his excessive coolness; his transparent anxiety not to be compromised by a syllable; his air of saying, "I guessed as much, but why plead your case to me?" And his recommendation to her to be quite sure she did know what she meant, was a little insulting. She exonerated him from the intention; he treated her as a girl. By what he said of Miss Dale, he proposed that lady for imitation.

"I must be myself or I shall be playing hypocrite to dig my own pitfall," she said to herself, while taking counsel with Laetitia as to the route for their walk, and admiring a becoming curve in her companion's hat.

Sir Willoughby, with many protestations of regret that letters of business debarred him from the pleasure of accompanying them, remarked upon the path proposed by Miss Dale, "In that case you must have a footman."

"Then we adopt the other," said Clara, and they set forth.

"Sir Willoughby," Miss Dale said to her, "is always in alarm about our unprotectedness."

Clara glanced up at the clouds and closed her parasol. She replied, "It inspires timidity."

There was that in the accent and character of the answer which warned Laetitia to expect the reverse of a quiet chatter with Miss Middleton.

"You are fond of walking?" She chose a peaceful topic.

"Walking or riding; yes, of walking," said Clara. "The difficulty is to find companions."

"We shall lose Mr. Whitford next week."

"He goes?"

"He will be a great loss to me, for I do not ride," Laetitia replied to the off-hand inquiry.

"Ah!"

Miss Middleton did not fan conversation when she simply breathed her voice.

Laetitia tried another neutral theme.

"The weather to-day suits our country," she said.

"England, or Patterne Park? I am so devoted to mountains that I have no enthusiasm for flat land."

"Do you call our country flat, Miss Middleton? We have undulations, hills, and we have sufficient diversity, meadows, rivers, copses, brooks, and good roads, and pretty by-paths."

"The prettiness is overwhelming. It is very pretty to see; but to live with, I think I prefer ugliness. I can imagine learning to love ugliness. It's honest. However young you are, you cannot be deceived by it. These parks of rich people are a part of the prettiness. I would rather have fields, commons."

"The parks give us delightful green walks, paths through beautiful woods."

"If there is a right-of-way for the public."

"There should be," said Miss Dale, wondering; and Clara cried: "I chafe at restraint: hedges and palings everywhere! I should have to travel ten years to sit down contented among these fortifications. Of course I can read of this rich kind of English country with pleasure in poetry. But it seems to me to require poetry. What would you say of human beings requiring it?"

"That they are not so companionable but that the haze of distance improves the view."

"Then you do know that you are the wisest?"

Laetitia raised her dark eyelashes; she sought to understand. She could only fancy she did; and if she did, it meant that Miss Middleton thought her wise in remaining single.

Clara was full of a sombre preconception that her "jealousy" had been hinted to Miss Dale.

"You knew Miss Durham?" she said.

"Not intimately."

"As well as you know me?"

"Not so well."

"But you saw more of her?"

"She was more reserved with me."

"Oh! Miss Dale, I would not be reserved with you."

The thrill of the voice caused Laetitia to steal a look. Clara's eyes were bright, and she had the readiness to run to volubility of the fever-stricken; otherwise she did not betray excitement.

"You will never allow any of these noble trees to be felled, Miss Middleton?"

"The axe is better than decay, do you not think?"

"I think your influence will be great and always used to good purpose."

"My influence, Miss Dale? I have begged a favour this morning and can not obtain the grant."

It was lightly said, but Clara's face was more significant, and "What?" leaped from Laetitia's lips.

Before she could excuse herself, Clara had answered: "My liberty."

In another and higher tone Laetitia said, "What?" and she looked round on her companion; she looked in the doubt that is open to conviction by a narrow aperture, and slowly and painfully yields access. Clara saw the vacancy of her expression gradually filling with woefulness.

"I have begged him to release me from my engagement, Miss Dale."

"Sir Willoughby?"

"It is incredible to you. He refuses. You see I have no influence."

"Miss Middleton, it is terrible!"

"To be dragged to the marriage service against one's will? Yes."

"Oh! Miss Middleton!"

"Do you not think so?"

"That cannot be your meaning."

"You do not suspect me of trifling? You know I would not. I am as much in earnest as a mouse in a trap."

"No, you will not misunderstand me! Miss Middleton, such a blow to Sir Willoughby would be shocking, most cruel! He is devoted to you."

"He was devoted to Miss Durham."

"Not so deeply: differently."

"Was he not very much courted at that time? He is now; not so much: he is not so young. But my reason for speaking of Miss Durham was to exclaim at the strangeness of a girl winning her freedom to plunge into wedlock. Is it comprehensible to you? She flies from one dungeon into another. These are the acts which astonish men at our conduct, and cause them to ridicule and, I dare say, despise us."

"But, Miss Middleton, for Sir Willoughby to grant such a request, if it was made . . ."

"It was made, and by me, and will be made again. I throw it all on my unworthiness, Miss Dale. So the county will think of me, and quite justly. I would rather defend him than myself. He requires a different wife from anything I can be. That is my discovery; unhappily a late one. The blame is all mine. The world cannot be too hard on me. But I must be free if I am to be kind in my judgements even of the gentleman I have injured."

"So noble a gentleman!" Laetitia sighed.

"I will subscribe to any eulogy of him," said Clara, with a penetrating thought as to the possibility of a lady experienced in him like Laetitia taking him for noble. "He has a noble air. I say it sincerely, that your appreciation of him proves his nobility." Her feeling of opposition to Sir Willoughby pushed her to this extravagance, gravely perplexing Laetitia. "And it is," added Clara, as if to support what she had said, "a withering rebuke to me; I know him less, at least have not had so long an experience of him."

Laetitia pondered on an obscurity in these words which would have accused her thick intelligence but for a glimmer it threw on another most obscure communication. She feared it might be, strange though it seemed, jealousy, a shade of jealousy affecting Miss Middleton, as had been vaguely intimated by Sir Willoughby when they were waiting in the hall. "A little feminine ailment, a want of comprehension of a perfect friendship;" those were his words to her: and he suggested vaguely that care must be taken in the eulogy of her friend.

She resolved to be explicit.

"I have not said that I think him beyond criticism, Miss Middleton."

"Noble?"

"He has faults. When we have known a person for years the faults come out, but custom makes light of them; and I suppose we feel flattered by seeing what it would be difficult to be blind to! A very little flatters us! Now, do you not admire that view? It is my favourite."

Clara gazed over rolling richness of foliage, wood and water, and a church-spire, a town and horizon hills. There sung a sky-lark.

"Not even the bird that does not fly away!" she said; meaning, she had no heart for the bird satisfied to rise and descend in this place.

Laetitia travelled to some notion, dim and immense, of Miss Middleton's fever of distaste. She shrunk from it in a kind of dread lest it might be contagious and rob her of her one ever-fresh possession of the homely picturesque; but Clara melted her by saying, "For your sake I could love it . . . in time; or some dear old English scene. Since . . . since this . . . this change in me, I find I cannot separate landscape from associations. Now I learn how youth goes. I have grown years older in a week.—Miss Dale, if he were to give me my freedom? if he were to cast me off? if he stood alone?"

"I should pity him."

"Him—not me! Oh! right! I hoped you would; I knew you would."

Laetitia's attempt to shift with Miss Middleton's shiftiness was vain; for now she seemed really listening to the language of Jealousy:—jealous of the ancient Letty Dale—and immediately before the tone was quite void of it.

"Yes," she said, "but you make me feel myself in the dark, and when I do I have the habit of throwing myself for guidance upon such light as I have within. You shall know me, if you will, as well as I know myself. And do not think me far from the point when I say I have a feeble health. I am what the doctors call anaemic; a rather bloodless creature. The blood is life, so I have not much life. Ten years back—eleven, if I must be precise, I thought of conquering the world with a pen! The result is that I am glad of a fireside, and not sure of always having one: and that is my achievement. My days are monotonous, but if I have a dread, it is that there will be an alteration in them. My father has very little money. We subsist on what private income he has, and his pension: he was an army doctor. I may by-and-by have to live in a town for pupils. I could be grateful to any one who would save me from that. I should be astonished at his choosing to have me burden his household as well.—Have I now explained the nature of my pity? It would be the pity of common sympathy, pure lymph of pity, as nearly disembodied as can be. Last year's sheddings from the tree do not form an attractive garland. Their merit is, that they have not the ambition. I am like them. Now, Miss Middleton, I cannot make myself more bare to you. I hope you see my sincerity."

"I do see it," Clara said.

With the second heaving of her heart, she cried: "See it, and envy you that humility! proud if I could ape it! Oh, how proud if I could speak so truthfully true!—You would not have spoken so to me without some good feeling out of which friends are made. That I am sure of. To be very truthful to a person, one must have a liking. So I judge by myself. Do I presume too much?"

Kindness was on Laetitia's face.

"But now," said Clara, swimming on the wave in her bosom, "I tax you with the silliest suspicion ever entertained by one of your rank. Lady, you have deemed me capable of the meanest of our vices!—Hold this hand, Laetitia; my friend, will you? Something is going on in me."

Laetitia took her hand, and saw and felt that something was going on.

Clara said, "You are a woman."

It was her effort to account for the something.

She swam for a brilliant instant on tears, and yielded to the overflow.

When they had fallen, she remarked upon her first long breath quite coolly: "An encouraging picture of a rebel, is it not?"

Her companion murmured to soothe her.

"It's little, it's nothing," said Clara, pained to keep her lips in line.

They walked forward, holding hands, deep-hearted to one another.

"I like this country better now," the shaken girl resumed. "I could lie down in it and ask only for sleep. I should like to think of you here. How nobly self-respecting you must be, to speak as you did! Our dreams of heroes and heroines are cold glitter beside the reality. I have been lately thinking of myself as an outcast of my sex, and to have a good woman liking me a little . . . loving? Oh, Laetitia, my friend, I should have kissed you, and not made this exhibition of myself—and if you call it hysterics, woe to you! for I bit my tongue to keep it off when I had hardly strength to bring my teeth together—if that idea of jealousy had not been in your head. You had it from him."

"I have not alluded to it in any word that I can recollect."

"He can imagine no other cause for my wish to be released. I have noticed, it is his instinct to reckon on women as constant by their nature. They are the needles, and he the magnet. Jealousy of you, Miss Dale! Laetitia, may I speak?"

"Say everything you please."

"I could wish:—Do you know my baptismal name?"

"Clara."

"At last! I could wish . . . that is, if it were your wish. Yes, I could wish that. Next to independence, my wish would be that. I risk offending you. Do not let your delicacy take arms against me. I wish him happy in the only way that he can be made happy. There is my jealousy."

"Was it what you were going to say just now?"

"No."

"I thought not."

"I was going to say—and I believe the rack would not make me truthful like you, Laetitia—well, has it ever struck you: remember, I do see his merits; I speak to his faithfullest friend, and I acknowledge he is attractive, he has manly tastes and habits; but has it never struck you . . . I have no right to ask; I know that men must have faults, I do not expect them to be saints; I am not one; I wish I were."

"Has it never struck me . . . ?" Laetitia prompted her.

"That very few women are able to be straightforwardly sincere in their speech, however much they may desire to be?"

"They are differently educated. Great misfortune brings it to them."

"I am sure your answer is correct. Have you ever known a woman who was entirely an Egoist?"

"Personally known one? We are not better than men."

"I do not pretend that we are. I have latterly become an Egoist, thinking of no one but myself, scheming to make use of every soul I meet. But then, women are in the position of inferiors. They are hardly out of the nursery when a lasso is round their necks; and if they have beauty, no wonder they turn it to a weapon and make as many captives as they can. I do not wonder! My sense of shame at my natural weakness and the arrogance of men would urge me to make hundreds captive, if that is being a coquette. I should not have compassion for those lofty birds, the hawks. To see them with their wings clipped would amuse me. Is there any other way of punishing them?"

"Consider what you lose in punishing them."

"I consider what they gain if we do not."

Laetitia supposed she was listening to discursive observations upon the inequality in the relations of the sexes. A suspicion of a drift to a closer meaning had been lulled, and the colour flooded her swiftly when Clara said: "Here is the difference I see; I see it; I am certain of it: women who are called coquettes make their conquests not of the best of men; but men who are Egoists have good women for their victims; women on whose devoted constancy they feed; they drink it like blood. I am sure I am not taking the merely feminine view. They punish themselves too by passing over the one suitable to them, who could really give them what they crave to have, and they go where they . . ." Clara stopped. "I have not your power to express ideas," she said.

"Miss Middleton, you have a dreadful power," said Laetitia.

Clara smiled affectionately. "I am not aware of any. Whose cottage is this?"

"My father's. Will you not come in? into the garden?"

Clara took note of ivied windows and roses in the porch. She thanked Laetitia and said: "I will call for you in an hour."

"Are you walking on the road alone?" said Laetitia, incredulously, with an eye to Sir Willoughby's dismay.

"I put my trust in the high-road," Clara replied, and turned away, but turned back to Laetitia and offered her face to be kissed.

The "dreadful power" of this young lady had fervently impressed Laetitia, and in kissing her she marvelled at her gentleness and girlishness.

Clara walked on, unconscious of her possession of power of any kind.