“Say everything you please.”
“I could wish:—Do you know my baptismal name?”
“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?”
“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.