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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Tragic Comedians: A Study In A Well-known Story - Book 3 - Chapter 14
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The Tragic Comedians: A Study In A Well-known Story - Book 3 - Chapter 14 Post by :blakekr Category :Long Stories Author :George Meredith Date :May 2012 Read :1910

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The Tragic Comedians: A Study In A Well-known Story - Book 3 - Chapter 14

BOOK III CHAPTER XIV

Late in the day Alvan was himself able to inform her that he had overcome Clotilde's father after a struggle of hours. The General had not consented to everything: he had granted enough, evidently in terror of the man who had captured Count Hollinger; and it way arranged that Tresten and Storchel were to wait on Clotilde next morning, and hear from her mouth whether she yielded or not to Alvan's request to speak with her alone before the official interview in the presence of the notary, when she was publicly to state her decision and freedom of choice, according to Count Hollinger's amicable arrangement through his envoy.

'She will see me-and the thing is done!' said Alvan. 'But I have worked for it--I have worked! I have been talking to-day for six hours uninterruptedly at a stretch to her father, who reminds me of a caged bear I saw at a travelling menagerie, and the beast would perform none of his evolutions for the edification of us lads till his keeper touched a particular pole, and the touch of it set him to work like the winding of a key. Hollinger's name was my magic wand with the General. I could get no sense from him, nor any acquiescence in sense, till I called up Hollinger, when the General's alacrity was immediately that of the bear, or a little boy castigated for his share of original sin. They have been hard at her, the whole family! and I shall want the two hours I stipulated for to the full. What do you say?--come, I wager I do it within one hour! They have stockaded her pretty closely, and it will be some time before I shall get her to have a clear view of me behind her defences; but an hour's an age with a woman. Clotilde? I wager I have her on her knees in half an hour! These notions of duty, and station, and her fiddle-de-dee betrothal to that Danube osier with Indian-idol eyes, count for so much mist. She was and is mine. I swear to strike to her heart in ten minutes! But, madam, if not, you may pronounce me incapable of conquering any woman, or of taking an absolute impression of facts. I say I will do it! I am insane if I may not judge from antecedents that my voice, my touch, my face, will draw her to me at one signal--at a look! I am prepared to stake my reason on her running to me before I speak a word:--and I will not beckon. I promise to fold my arms and simply look.'

'Your task of two hours, then, will be accomplished, I compute, in about half a minute--but it is on the assumption that she consents to see you alone,' said the baroness.

Alvan opened his eyes. He perceived in his deep sagaciousness woman at the bottom of her remark, and replied: 'You will know Clotilde in time. She points to me straight; but of course if you agitate the compass the needle's all in a tremble: and the vessel is weak, I admit, but the instinct's positive. To doubt it would upset my understanding. I have had three distinct experiences of my influence over her, and each time, curiously each time exactly in proportion to my degree of resolve--but, baroness, I tell you it was minutely in proportion to it; weighed down to the grain!--each time did that girl respond to me with a similar degree of earnestness. As I waned, she waned; as I heated, so did she, and from spark-heat to flame and to furnace-heat!'

'A refraction of the rays according to the altitude of the orb,' observed the baroness in a tone of assent, and she smiled to herself at the condition of the man who could accept it for that.

He did not protest beyond presently a transient frown as at a bad taste on his tongue, and a rather petulant objection to her use of analogies, which he called the sapping of language. She forbore to remind him in retort of his employment of metaphor when the figure served his purpose.

'Marvellously,' cried Alvan, 'marvellously that girl answered to my lead! and to-morrow--you'll own me right--I must double the attraction. I shall have to hand her back to her people for twenty-four hours, and the dose must be doubled to keep her fast and safe. You see I read her flatly. I read and am charitable. I have a perfect philosophical tolerance. I'm in the mood to-day of Horace hymning one of his fair Greeks.'

'No, no that is a comparison past my endurance,' interposed the baroness. 'Friend Sigismund, you have no philosophy, you never had any; and the small crow and croon of Horace would be the last you could take up. It is the chanted philosophy of comfortable stipendiaries, retired merchants, gouty patients on a restricted allowance of the grape, old men who have given over thinking, and young men who never had feeling--the philosophy of swine grunting their carmen as they turn to fat in the sun. Horace avaunt! You have too much poetry in you to quote that unsanguine sensualist for your case. His love distressed his liver, and gave him a jaundice once or twice, but where his love yields its poor ghost to his philosophy, yours begins its labours. That everlasting Horace! He is the versifier of the cushioned enemy, not of us who march along flinty ways: the piper of the bourgeois in soul, poet of the conforming unbelievers!'

'Pyrrha, Lydia, Lalage, Chloe, Glycera,' Alvan murmured, amorous of the musical names. 'Clotilde is a Greek of one of the Isles, an Ionian. I see her in the Horatian ode as in one of those old round shield-mirrors which give you a speck of the figure on a silver-solar beam, brilliant, not much bigger than a dewdrop. And so should a man's heart reflect her! Take her on the light in it, she is perfection. We won't take her in the shady part or on your flat looking-glasses. There never was necessity for accuracy of line in the portraiture of women. The idea of them is all we want: it's the best of them. You will own she's Greek; she's a Perinthian, Andrian, Olythian, Saurian, Messenian. One of those delicious girls in the New Comedy, I remember, was called THE POSTPONER, THE DEFERRER, or, as we might say, THE TO-MORROWER. There you have Clotilde: she's a TO-MORROWER. You climb the peak of to-morrow, and to see her at all you must see her on the next peak: but she leaves you her promise to hug on every yesterday, and that keeps you going. Ay, so we have patience! Feeding on a young woman's promises of yesterday in one's fortieth year!--it must end to-morrow, though I kill something.'

Kill, he meant, the aerial wild spirit he could admire as her character, when he had the prospect of extinguishing it in his grasp.

'What do you meditate killing?' said the baroness.

'The fool of the years behind me,' he replied, 'and entering on my forty-first a sage.'

'To be the mate and equal of your companion?'

'To prove I have had good training under the wisest to act as her guide and master.'

'If she--' the baroness checked her exclamation, saying: 'She declined to come to me. I would have plumbed her for some solid ground, something to rest one's faith on. Your Pyrrhas, Glyceras, and others of the like, were not stable persons for a man of our days to bind his life to one of them. Harness is harness, and a light yoke-fellow can make a proud career deviate.'

'But I give her a soul!' said Alvan. 'I am the wine, and she the crystal cup. She has avowed it again and again. You read her as she is when away from me. Then she is a reed, a weed, what you will; she is unfit to contend when she stands alone. But when I am beside her, when we are together--the moment I have her at arms' length she will be part of me by the magic I have seen each time we encountered. She knows it well.'

'She may know it too well.'

'For what?' He frowned.

'For the chances of your meeting.'

'You think it possible she will refuse?'

A blackness passing to lividness crossed his face. He fetched a big breath.

'Then finish my history, shut up the book; I am a phantom of a man, and everything written there is imposture! I can account for all that she has done hitherto, but not that she should refuse to see me. Not that she should refuse to see me now when I come armed to demand it! Refuse? But I have done my work, done what I said I would do. I stand in my order of battle, and she refuses? No! I stake my head on it! I have not a clod's perception, I have not a spark of sense to distinguish me from a flat-headed Lapp, if she refuses:--call me a mountebank who has gained his position by clever tumbling; a lucky gamester; whatever plays blind with chance.'

He started up in agitation. 'Lucie! I am a grinning skull without a brain if that girl refuses! She will not.' He took his hat to leave, adding, to seem rational to the cool understanding he addressed: 'She will not refuse; I am bound to think so in common respect for myself; I have done tricks to make me appear a rageing ape if she--oh! she cannot, she will not refuse. Never! I have eyes, I have wits, I am not tottering yet on my grave--or it's blindly, if I am. I have my clear judgement, I am not an imbecile. It seems to me a foolish suspicion that she can possibly refuse. Her manners are generally good; freakish, but good in the main. Perhaps she takes a sting... but there is no sting here. It would be bad manners to refuse; to say nothing of... she has a heart! Well, then, good manners and right feeling forbid her to refuse. She is an exceedingly intelligent girl, and I half fear I have helped you to a wrong impression of her. You will really appreciate her wit; you will indeed; believe me, you will. We pardon nonsense in a girl. Married, she will put on the matron with becoming decency, and I am responsible for her then; I stand surety for her then; when I have her with me I warrant her mine and all mine, head and heels, at a whistle, like the Cossack's horse. I fancy that at forty I am about as young as most young men. I promise her another forty manful working years. Are you dubious of that?'

'I nod to you from the palsied summit of ninety,' said the baroness.

Alvan gave a short laugh and stammered excuses for his naked egoism, comparing himself to a forester who has sharpened such an appetite in toiling to slay his roe that he can think of nothing but the fire preparing the feast.

'Hymen and things hymenaeal!' he said, laughing at himself for resuming the offence on the apology for it. 'I could talk with interest of a trousseau. I have debated in my mind with parliamentary acrimony about a choice of wedding-presents. As she is legally free to bestow her hand on me--and only a brute's horns could contest the fact--she may decide to be married the day after to-morrow, and get the trousseau in Paris. She has a turn for startling. I can imagine that if I proposed a run for it she would be readier to spring to be on the road with me than in acquiescing in a quiet arrangement about a ceremonial day; partly because, in the first case, she would throw herself and the rest of the adventure on me, at no other cost than the enjoyment of one of her impulses; and in the second, because she is a girl who would require a full band of the best Berlin orchestra in perpetual play to keep up her spirits among her people during the preparations for espousing a democrat, demagogue, and Jew, of a presumed inferior station by birth to her own. Give Momus a sister, Clotilde is the lady! I know her. I would undertake to put a spell on her and keep her contented on a frontier--not Russian, any barbarous frontier where there is a sun. She must have sun. One might wrap her in sables, but sun is best. She loves it best, though she looks remarkably well in sables. Never shall I forget... she is frileuse, and shivers into them! There are Frenchmen who could paint it--only Frenchmen. Our artists, no. She is very French. Born in France she would have been a matchless Parisienne. Oh! she's a riddle of course. I don't pretend to spell every letter of her. The returning of my presents is odd. No, I maintain that she is a coward acting under domination, and there's no other way of explaining the puzzle. I was out of sight, they bullied her, and she yielded--bewilderingly, past comprehension it seems--cat!--until you remember what she's made of: she's a reed. Now I reappear armed with powers to give her a free course, and she, that abject whom you beheld recently renouncing me, is, you will see, the young Aurora she was when she came striking at my door on the upper Alp. That was a morning! That morning is Clotilde till my eyes turn over! She is all young heaven and the mountains for me! She's the filmy light above the mountains that weds white snow and sky. By the way, I dreamt last night she was half a woman, half a tree, and her hair was like a dead yewbough, which is as you know of a brown burnt-out colour, suitable to the popular conception of widows. She stood, and whatever turning you took, you struck back on her. Whether my widow, I can't say: she must first be my wife. Oh, for tomorrow!'

'What sort of evening is it?' said the baroness.

'A Mont Blanc evening: I saw him as I came along,' Alvan replied, and seized his hat to be out to look on the sovereign mountain again. They touched hands. He promised to call in the forenoon next day.

'Be cool,' she counselled him.

'Oh!' He flung back his head, making light of the crisis. 'After all, it's only a girl. But, you know, what I set myself to win!... The thing's too small--I have been at such pains about it that I should be ridiculous if I allowed myself to be beaten. There is no other reason for the trouble we 're at, except that, as I have said a thousand times, she suits me. No man can be cooler than I.'

'Keep so,' said the baroness.

He walked to where the strenuous blue lake, finding outlet, propels a shoulder, like a bright-muscled athlete in action, and makes the Rhone-stream. There he stood for an hour, disfevered by the limpid liquid tumult, inspirited by the glancing volumes of a force that knows no abatement, and is the skiey Alps behind, the great historic citied plains ahead.

His meditation ended with a resolution half in the form of a prayer (to mixed deities undefined) never to ask for a small thing any more if this one were granted him!

He had won it, of course, having brought all his powers to bear on the task; and he rejoiced in winning it: his heart leapt, his imagination spun radiant webs of colour: but he was a little ashamed of his frenzies, though he did not distinctly recall them; he fancied he had made some noise, loud or not, because his intentions were so pure that it was infamous to thwart them. At a certain age honest men made sacrifice of their liberty to society, and he had been ready to perform the duty of husbanding a woman. A man should have a wife and rear children, not to be forgotten in the land, and to help mankind by transmitting to future times qualities he has proved priceless: he thought of the children, and yearned to the generations of men physically and morally through them.

This was his apology to the world for his distantly-recollected excesses of temper.

Was she so small a thing? Not if she succumbed. She was petty, vexatious, irritating, stinging, while she resisted: she cast an evil beam on his reputation, strength and knowledge of himself, and roused the giants of his nature to discharge missiles at her, justified as they were by his pure intentions and the approbation of society. But he had a broad full heart for the woman who would come to him, forgiving her, uplifting her, richly endowing her. No meanness of heart was in him. He lay down at night thinking of Clotilde in an abandonment of tenderness. 'Tomorrow! you bird of to-morrow!' he let fly his good-night to her.

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