George Meredith, The Egoist: Ch. 30

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"How did he hear of that?" cried Vernon, roused by the malignity of the
Fates.

"From the landlady, trying to comfort him. And a story of her lending shoes and stockings while those of the young lady were drying. He has the dreadful snappish humourous way of recounting which impresses it; the table took up the subject of this remarkable young lady, and whether she was a lady of the neighbourhood, and who she could be that went abroad on foot in heavy rain. It was painful to me; I knew enough to be sure of who she was."

"Did she betray it?"

"No."

"Did Willoughby look at her?"

"Without suspicion then."

"Then?"

"Colonel De Craye was diverting us, and he was very amusing. Mrs. Mountstuart told him afterward that he ought to be paid salvage for saving the wreck of her party. Sir Willoughby was a little too cynical; he talked well; what he said was good, but it was not good-humoured; he has not the reckless indifference of Colonel De Craye to uttering nonsense that amusement may come of it. And in the drawing-room he lost such gaiety as he had. I was close to Mrs. Mountstuart when Professor Crooklyn approached her and spoke in my hearing of that gentleman and that young lady. They were, you could see by his nods, Colonel De Craye and Miss Middleton."

"And she at once mentioned it to Willoughby?"

"Colonel De Craye gave her no chance, if she sought it. He courted her profusely. Behind his rattle he must have brains. It ran in all directions to entertain her and her circle."

"Willoughby knows nothing?"

"I cannot judge. He stood with Mrs. Mountstuart a minute as we were taking leave. She looked strange. I heard her say: 'The rogue!' He laughed. She lifted her shoulders. He scarcely opened his mouth on the way home."

"The thing must run its course," Vernon said, with the philosophical air which is desperation rendered decorous. "Willoughby deserves it. A man of full growth ought to know that nothing on earth tempts Providence so much as the binding of a young woman against her will. Those two are mutually attracted: they're both . . . They meet, and the mischief's done: both are bright. He can persuade with a word. Another might discourse like an angel and it would be useless. I said everything I could think of, to no purpose. And so it is: there are those attractions!—just as, with her, Willoughby is the reverse, he repels. I'm in about the same predicament—or should be if she were plighted to me. That is, for the length of five minutes; about the space of time I should require for the formality of handing her back her freedom. How a sane man can imagine a girl like that . . . ! But if she has changed, she has changed! You can't conciliate a withered affection. This detaining her, and tricking, and not listening, only increases her aversion; she learns the art in turn. Here she is, detained by fresh plots to keep Dr. Middleton at the Hall. That's true, is it not?" He saw that it was. "No, she's not to blame! She has told him her mind; he won't listen. The question then is, whether she keeps to her word, or breaks it. It's a dispute between a conventional idea of obligation and an injury to her nature. Which is the more dishonourable thing to do? Why, you and I see in a moment that her feelings guide her best. It's one of the few cases in which nature may be consulted like an oracle."

"Is she so sure of her nature?" said Miss Dale.

"You may doubt it; I do not. I am surprised at her coming back. De Craye is a man of the world, and advised it, I suppose. He—well, I never had the persuasive tongue, and my failing doesn't count for much."

"But the suddenness of the intimacy!"