George Meredith, The Egoist: Ch. 17

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CHAPTER XVII

THE PORCELAIN VASE

During the term of Clara's walk with Laetitia, Sir Willoughby's shrunken self-esteem, like a garment hung to the fire after exposure to tempestuous weather, recovered some of the sleekness of its velvet pile in the society of Mrs. Mountstuart Jenkinson, who represented to him the world he feared and tried to keep sunny for himself by all the arts he could exercise. She expected him to be the gay Sir Willoughby, and her look being as good as an incantation summons, he produced the accustomed sprite, giving her sally for sally. Queens govern the polite. Popularity with men, serviceable as it is for winning favouritism with women, is of poor value to a sensitive gentleman, anxious even to prognostic apprehension on behalf of his pride, his comfort and his prevalence. And men are grossly purchasable; good wines have them, good cigars, a goodfellow air: they are never quite worth their salt even then; you can make head against their ill looks. But the looks of women will at one blow work on you the downright difference which is between the cock of lordly plume and the moulting. Happily they may be gained: a clever tongue will gain them, a leg. They are with you to a certainty if Nature is with you; if you are elegant and discreet: if the sun is on you, and they see you shining in it; or if they have seen you well-stationed and handsome in the sun. And once gained they are your mirrors for life, and far more constant than the glass. That tale of their caprice is absurd. Hit their imaginations once, they are your slaves, only demanding common courtier service of you. They will deny that you are ageing, they will cover you from scandal, they will refuse to see you ridiculous. Sir Willoughby's instinct, or skin, or outfloating feelers, told him of these mysteries of the influence of the sex; he had as little need to study them as a lady breathed on.

He had some need to know them in fact; and with him the need of a protection for himself called it forth; he was intuitively a conjurer in self-defence, long-sighted, wanting no directions to the herb he was to suck at when fighting a serpent. His dulness of vision into the heart of his enemy was compensated by the agile sensitiveness obscuring but rendering him miraculously active, and, without supposing his need immediate, he deemed it politic to fascinate Mrs. Mountstuart and anticipate ghastly possibilities in the future by dropping a hint; not of Clara's fickleness, you may be sure; of his own, rather; or, more justly, of an altered view of Clara's character. He touched on the rogue in porcelain.

Set gently laughing by his relishing humour. "I get nearer to it," he said.

"Remember I'm in love with her," said Mrs. Mountstuart.

"That is our penalty."

"A pleasant one for you."

He assented. "Is the 'rogue' to be eliminated?"

"Ask when she's a mother, my dear Sir Willoughby."

"This is how I read you:—"

"I shall accept any interpretation that is complimentary."

"Not one will satisfy me of being sufficiently so, and so I leave it to the character to fill out the epigram."

"Do. What hurry is there? And don't be misled by your objection to rogue; which would be reasonable if you had not secured her."

The door of a hollow chamber of horrible reverberation was opened within him by this remark.

He tried to say in jest, that it was not always a passionate admiration that held the rogue fast; but he muddled it in the thick of his conscious thunder, and Mrs. Mountstuart smiled to see him shot from the smooth-flowing dialogue into the cataracts by one simple reminder to the lover of his luck. Necessarily, after a fall, the pitch of their conversation relaxed.

"Miss Dale is looking well," he said.

"Fairly: she ought to marry," said Mrs. Mountstuart.