George Meredith, The Egoist: Ch. 29

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He turned his head to Vernon, issuing brief succinct instructions for letters to be written, and drew her into the hall, saying: "Know? There are people who do not know themselves and as they are the majority they manufacture the axioms. And it is assumed that we have to swallow them. I may observe that I think I know. I decline to be engulphed in those majorities. 'Among them, but not of them.' I know this, that my aim in life is to be generous."

"Is it not an impulse or disposition rather than an aim?"

"So much I know," pursued Willoughby, refusing to be tripped. But she rang discordantly in his ear. His "fancy that he could be generous" and his "aim at being generous" had met with no response. "I have given proofs," he said, briefly, to drop a subject upon which he was not permitted to dilate; and he murmured, "People acquainted with me . . . !" She was asked if she expected him to boast of generous deeds. "From childhood!" she heard him mutter; and she said to herself, "Release me, and you shall be everything!"

The unhappy gentleman ached as he talked: for with men and with hosts of women to whom he was indifferent, never did he converse in this shambling, third-rate, sheepish manner, devoid of all highness of tone and the proper precision of an authority. He was unable to fathom the cause of it, but Clara imposed it on him, and only in anger could he throw it off. The temptation to an outburst that would flatter him with the sound of his authoritative voice had to be resisted on a night when he must be composed if he intended to shine, so he merely mentioned Lady Busshe's present, to gratify spleen by preparing the ground for dissension, and prudently acquiesced in her anticipated slipperiness. She would rather not look at it now, she said.

"Not now; very well," said he.

His immediate deference made her regretful. "There is hardly time,
Willoughby."

"My dear, we shall have to express our thanks to her."

"I cannot."

His arm contracted sharply. He was obliged to be silent.

Dr Middleton, Laetitia, and the ladies Eleanor and Isabel joining them in the hall, found two figures linked together in a shadowy indication of halves that have fallen apart and hang on the last thread of junction. Willoughby retained her hand on his arm; he held to it as the symbol of their alliance, and oppressed the girl's nerves by contact, with a frame labouring for breath. De Craye looked on them from overhead. The carriages were at the door, and Willoughby said, "Where's Horace? I suppose he's taking a final shot at his Book of Anecdotes and neat collection of Irishisms."

"No," replied the colonel, descending. "That's a spring works of itself and has discovered the secret of continuous motion, more's the pity!—unless you'll be pleased to make it of use to Science."

He gave a laugh of good-humour.

"Your laughter, Horace, is a capital comment on your wit."

Willoughby said it with the air of one who has flicked a whip.

"'Tis a genial advertisement of a vacancy," said De Craye.

"Precisely: three parts auctioneer to one for the property."

"Oh, if you have a musical quack, score it a point in his favour,
Willoughby, though you don't swallow his drug."

"If he means to be musical, let him keep time."

"Am I late?" said De Craye to the ladies, proving himself an adept in the art of being gracefully vanquished, and so winning tender hearts.