The Egoist, by George Meredith

Chapter 35

Miss Middleton and Mrs. Mountstuart

“Sit beside me, fair Middleton,” said the great lady.

“Gladly,” said Clara, bowing to her title.

“I want to sound you, my dear.”

Clara presented an open countenance with a dim interrogation on the forehead. “Yes?” she said, submissively.

“You were one of my bright faces last night. I was in love with you. Delicate vessels ring sweetly to a finger-nail, and if the wit is true, you answer to it; that I can see, and that is what I like. Most of the people one has at a table are drums. A ruba-dub-dub on them is the only way to get a sound. When they can be persuaded to do it upon one another, they call it conversation.”

“Colonel De Craye was very funny.”

“Funny, and witty too.”

“But never spiteful.”

“These Irish or half Irishmen are my taste. If they’re not politicians, mind; I mean Irish gentlemen. I will never have another dinner-party without one. Our men’s tempers are uncertain. You can’t get them to forget themselves. And when the wine is in them the nature comes out, and they must be buffetting, and up start politics, and good-bye to harmony! My husband, I am sorry to say, was one of those who have a long account of ruined dinners against them. I have seen him and his friends red as the roast and white as the boiled with wrath on a popular topic they had excited themselves over, intrinsically not worth a snap of the fingers. In London!” exclaimed Mrs. Mountstuart, to aggravate the charge against her lord in the Shades. “But town or country, the table should be sacred. I have heard women say it is a plot on the side of the men to teach us our littleness. I don’t believe they have a plot. It would be to compliment them on a talent. I believe they fall upon one another blindly, simply because they are full; which is, we are told, the preparation for the fighting Englishman. They cannot eat and keep a truce. Did you notice that dreadful Mr. Capes?”

“The gentleman who frequently contradicted papa? But Colonel De Craye was good enough to relieve us.”

“How, my dear?”

“You did not hear him? He took advantage of an interval when Mr. Capes was breathing after a paean to his friend, the Governor — I think — of one of the presidencies, to say to the lady beside him: ‘He was a wonderful administrator and great logician; he married an Anglo–Indian widow, and soon after published a pamphlet in favour of Suttee.’”

“And what did the lady say?”

“She said: ‘Oh.’”

“Hark at her! And was it heard?”

“Mr. Capes granted the widow, but declared he had never seen the pamphlet in favour of Suttee, and disbelieved in it. He insisted that it was to be named Sati. He was vehement.”

“Now I do remember:— which must have delighted the colonel. And Mr. Capes retired from the front upon a repetition of ‘in toto, in toto’. As if ‘in toto’ were the language of a dinner-table! But what will ever teach these men? Must we import Frenchmen to give them an example in the art of conversation, as their grandfathers brought over marquises to instruct them in salads? And our young men too! Women have to take to the hunting-field to be able to talk with them, and be on a par with their grooms. Now, there was Willoughby Patterne, a prince among them formerly. Now, did you observe him last night? did you notice how, instead of conversing, instead of assisting me — as he was bound to do doubly owing to the defection of Vernon Whitford: a thing I don’t yet comprehend — there he sat sharpening his lower lip for cutting remarks. And at my best man! at Colonel De Craye! If he had attacked Mr. Capes, with his Governor of Bomby, as the man pronounces it, or Colonel Wildjohn and his Protestant Church in Danger, or Sir Wilson Pettifer harping on his Monarchical Republic, or any other! No, he preferred to be sarcastic upon friend Horace, and he had the worst of it. Sarcasm is so silly! What is the gain if he has been smart? People forget the epigram and remember the other’s good temper. On that field, my dear, you must make up your mind to be beaten by ‘friend Horace’. I have my prejudices and I have my prepossessions, but I love good temper, and I love wit, and when I see a man possessed of both, I set my cap at him, and there’s my flat confession, and highly unfeminine it is.”

“Not at all!” cried Clara.

“We are one, then.”

Clara put up a mouth empty of words: she was quite one with her. Mrs. Mountstuart pressed her hand. “When one does get intimate with a dainty rogue!” she said. “You forgive me all that, for I could vow that Willoughby has betrayed me.”

Clara looked soft, kind, bright, in turns, and clouded instantly when the lady resumed: “A friend of my own sex, and young, and a close neighbour, is just what I would have prayed for. And I’ll excuse you, my dear, for not being so anxious about the friendship of an old woman. But I shall be of use to you, you will find. In the first place, I never tap for secrets. In the second, I keep them. Thirdly, I have some power. And fourth, every young married woman has need of a friend like me. Yes, and Lady Patterne heading all the county will be the stronger for my backing. You don’t look so mighty well pleased, my dear. Speak out.”

“Dear Mrs. Mountstuart!”

“I tell you, I am very fond of Willoughby, but I saw the faults of the boy and see the man’s. He has the pride of a king, and it’s a pity if you offend it. He is prodigal in generosity, but he can’t forgive. As to his own errors, you must be blind to them as a Saint. The secret of him is, that he is one of those excessively civilized creatures who aim at perfection: and I think he ought to be supported in his conceit of having attained it; for the more men of that class, the greater our influence. He excels in manly sports, because he won’t be excelled in anything, but as men don’t comprehend his fineness, he comes to us; and his wife must manage him by that key. You look down at the idea of managing. It has to be done. One thing you may be assured of, he will be proud of you. His wife won’t be very much enamoured of herself if she is not the happiest woman in the world. You will have the best horses, the best dresses, the finest jewels in England; and an incomparable cook. The house will be changed the moment you enter it as Lady Patterne. And, my dear, just where he is, with all his graces, deficient of attraction, yours will tell. The sort of Othello he would make, or Leontes, I don’t know, and none of us ever needs to know. My impression is, that if even a shadow of a suspicion flitted across him, he is a sort of man to double-dye himself in guilt by way of vengeance in anticipation of an imagined offence. Not uncommon with men. I have heard strange stories of them: and so will you in your time to come, but not from me. No young woman shall ever be the sourer for having been my friend. One word of advice now we are on the topic: never play at counter-strokes with him. He will be certain to out-stroke you, and you will be driven further than you meant to go. They say we beat men at that game; and so we do, at the cost of beating ourselves. And if once we are started, it is a race-course ending on a precipice — over goes the winner. We must be moderately slavish to keep our place; which is given us in appearance; but appearances make up a remarkably large part of life, and far the most comfortable, so long as we are discreet at the right moment. He is a man whose pride, when hurt, would run his wife to perdition to solace it. If he married a troublesome widow, his pamphlet on Suttee would be out within the year. Vernon Whitford would receive instructions about it the first frosty moon. You like Miss Dale?”

“I think I like her better than she likes me,” said Clara.

“Have you never warmed together?”

“I have tried it. She is not one bit to blame. I can see how it is that she misunderstands me: or justly condemns me, perhaps I should say.”

“The hero of two women must die and be wept over in common before they can appreciate one another. You are not cold?”

“No.”

“You shuddered, my dear.”

“Did I?”

“I do sometimes. Feet will be walking over ones grave, wherever it lies. Be sure of this: Willoughby Patterne is a man of unimpeachable honour.”

“I do not doubt it.”

“He means to be devoted to you. He has been accustomed to have women hanging around him like votive offerings.”

“I. . .!”

“You cannot: of course not: any one could see that at a glance. You are all the sweeter to me for not being tame. Marriage cures a multitude of indispositions.”

“Oh! Mrs. Mountstuart, will you listen to me?”

“Presently. Don’t threaten me with confidences. Eloquence is a terrible thing in woman. I suspect, my dear, that we both know as much as could be spoken.”

“You hardly suspect the truth, I fear.”

“Let me tell you one thing about jealous men — when they are not blackamoors married to disobedient daughters. I speak of our civil creature of the drawing-rooms: and lovers, mind, not husbands: two distinct species, married or not:— they’re rarely given to jealousy unless they are flighty themselves. The jealousy fixes them. They have only to imagine that we are for some fun likewise and they grow as deferential as my footman, as harmless as the sportsman whose gun has burst. Ah! my fair Middleton, am I pretending to teach you? You have read him his lesson, and my table suffered for it last night, but I bear no rancour.”

“You bewilder me, Mrs. Mountstuart.”

“Not if I tell you that you have driven the poor man to try whether it would be possible for him to give you up.”

“I have?”

“Well, and you are successful.”

“I am?”

“Jump, my dear!”

“He will?”

“When men love stale instead of fresh, withered better than blooming, excellence in the abstract rather than the palpable. With their idle prate of feminine intellect, and a grotto nymph, and a mother of Gracchi! Why, he must think me dazed with admiration of him to talk to me! One listens, you know. And he is one of the men who cast a kind of physical spell on you while he has you by the ear, until you begin to think of it by talking to somebody else. I suppose there are clever people who do see deep into the breast while dialogue is in progress. One reads of them. No, my dear, you have very cleverly managed to show him that it isn’t at all possible: he can’t. And the real cause for alarm, in my humble opinion, is lest your amiable foil should have been a trifle, as he would say, deceived, too much in earnest, led too far. One may reprove him for not being wiser, but men won’t learn without groaning that they are simply weapons taken up to be put down when done with. Leave it to me to compose him. — Willoughby can’t give you up. I’m certain he has tried; his pride has been horridly wounded. You were shrewd, and he has had his lesson. If these little rufflings don’t come before marriage they come after; so it’s not time lost; and it’s good to be able to look back on them. You are very white, my child.”

“Can you, Mrs. Mountstuart, can you think I would be so heartlessly treacherous?”

“Be honest, fair Middleton, and answer me: Can you say you had not a corner of an idea of producing an effect on Willoughby?”

Clara checked the instinct of her tongue to defend her reddening cheeks, with a sense that she was disintegrating and crumbling, but she wanted this lady for a friend, and she had to submit to the conditions, and be red and silent.

Mrs. Mountstuart examined her leisurely.

“That will do. Conscience blushes. One knows it by the conflagration. Don’t be hard on yourself. . . there you are in the other extreme. That blush of yours would count with me against any quantity of evidence — all the Crooklyns in the kingdom. You lost your purse.”

“I discovered that it was lost this morning.”

“Flitch has been here with it. Willoughby has it. You will ask him for it; he will demand payment: you will be a couple of yards’ length or so of cramoisy: and there ends the episode, nobody killed, only a poor man melancholy-wounded, and I must offer him my hand to mend him, vowing to prove to him that Suttee was properly abolished. Well, and now to business. I said I wanted to sound you. You have been overdone with porcelain. Poor Lady Busshe is in despair at your disappointment. Now, I mean my wedding-present to be to your taste.”

“Madam!”

“Who is the madam you are imploring?”

“Dear Mrs. Mountstuart!”

“Well?”

“I shall fall in your esteem. Perhaps you will help me. No one else can. I am a prisoner: I am compelled to continue this imposture. Oh, I shun speaking much: you object to it and I dislike it: but I must endeavour to explain to you that I am unworthy of the position you think a proud one.”

“Tut-tut; we are all unworthy, cross our arms, bow our heads; and accept the honours. Are you playing humble handmaid? What an old organ-tune that is! Well? Give me reasons.”

“I do not wish to marry.”

“He’s the great match of the county!”

“I cannot marry him.”

“Why, you are at the church door with him! Cannot marry him?”

“It does not bind me.”

“The church door is as binding as the altar to an honourable girl. What have you been about? Since I am in for confidences, half ones won’t do. We must have honourable young women as well as men of honour. You can’t imagine he is to be thrown over now, at this hour? What have you against him? come!”

“I have found that I do not. . . ”

“What?”

“Love him.”

Mrs. Mountstuart grimaced transiently. “That is no answer. The cause!” she said. “What has he done?”

“Nothing.”

“And when did you discover this nothing?”

“By degrees: unknown to myself; suddenly.”

“Suddenly and by degrees? I suppose it’s useless to ask for a head. But if all this is true, you ought not to be here.”

“I wish to go; I am unable.”

“Have you had a scene together?”

“I have expressed my wish.”

“In roundabout? — girl’s English?”

“Quite clearly; oh, very clearly.”

“Have you spoken to your father?”

“I have.”

“And what does Dr. Middleton say?”

“It is incredible to him.”

“To me too! I can understand little differences, little whims, caprices: we don’t settle into harness for a tap on the shoulder as a man becomes a knight: but to break and bounce away from an unhappy gentleman at the church door is either madness or it’s one of the things without a name. You think you are quite sure of yourself?”

“I am so sure, that I look back with regret on the time when I was not.”

“But you were in love with him.”

“I was mistaken.”

“No love?”

“I have none to give.”

“Dear me! — Yes, yes, but that tone of sorrowful conviction is often a trick, it’s not new: and I know that assumption of plain sense to pass off a monstrosity.” Mrs. Mountstuart struck her lap. “Soh! but I’ve had to rack my brain for it: feminine disgust? You have been hearing imputations of his past life? moral character? No? Circumstances might make him behave unkindly, not unhandsomely: and we have no claim over a man’s past, or it’s too late to assert it. What is the case?”

“We are quite divided.”

“Nothing in the way of. . . nothing green-eyed?”

“Far from that!”

“Then name it.”

“We disagree.”

“Many a very good agreement is founded on disagreeing. It’s to be regretted that you are not portionless. If you had been, you would have made very little of disagreeing. You are just as much bound in honour as if you had the ring on your finger.”

“In honour! But I appeal to his, I am no wife for him.”

“But if he insists, you consent?”

“I appeal to reason. Is it, madam. . . ”

“But, I say, if he insists, you consent?”

“He will insist upon his own misery as well as mine.”

Mrs. Mountstuart rocked herself “My poor Sir Willoughby! What a fate! — And I took you for a clever girl! Why, I have been admiring your management of him! And here am I bound to take a lesson from Lady Busshe. My dear good Middleton, don’t let it be said that Lady Busshe saw deeper than I! I put some little vanity in it, I own: I won’t conceal it. She declares that when she sent her present — I don’t believe her — she had a premonition that it would come back. Surely you won’t justify the extravagances of a woman without common reverence:— for anatomize him as we please to ourselves, he is a splendid man (and I did it chiefly to encourage and come at you). We don’t often behold such a lordly-looking man: so conversable too when he feels at home; a picture of an English gentleman! The very man we want married for our neighbourhood! A woman who can openly talk of expecting him to be twice jilted! You shrink. It is repulsive. It would be incomprehensible: except, of course, to Lady Busshe, who rushed to one of her violent conclusions, and became a prophetess. Conceive a woman’s imagining it could happen twice to the same man! I am not sure she did not send the identical present that arrived and returned once before: you know, the Durham engagement. She told me last night she had it back. I watched her listening very suspiciously to Professor Crooklyn. My dear, it is her passion to foretell disasters — her passion! And when they are confirmed, she triumphs, of course. We shall have her domineering over us with sapient nods at every trifle occurring. The county will be unendurable. Unsay it, my Middleton! And don’t answer like an oracle because I do all the talking. Pour out to me. You’ll soon come to a stop and find the want of reason in the want of words. I assure you that’s true. Let me have a good gaze at you. No,” said Mrs. Mountstuart, after posturing herself to peruse Clara’s features, “brains you have; one can see it by the nose and the mouth. I could vow you are the girl I thought you; you have your wits on tiptoe. How of the heart?”

“None,” Clara sighed.

The sigh was partly voluntary, though unforced; as one may with ready sincerity act a character that is our own only through sympathy.

Mrs. Mountstuart felt the extra weight in the young lady’s falling breath. There was no necessity for a deep sigh over an absence of heart or confession of it. If Clara did not love the man to whom she was betrothed, sighing about it signified what? some pretence; and a pretence is the cloak of a secret. Girls do not sigh in that way with compassion for the man they have no heart for, unless at the same time they should be oppressed by the knowledge or dread of having a heart for some one else. As a rule, they have no compassion to bestow on him: you might as reasonably expect a soldier to bewail the enemy he strikes in action: they must be very disengaged to have it. And supposing a show of the thing to be exhibited, when it has not been worried out of them, there is a reserve in the background: they are pitying themselves under a mask of decent pity of their wretch.

So ran Mrs. Mountstuart’s calculations, which were like her suspicion, coarse and broad, not absolutely incorrect, but not of an exact measure with the truth. That pin’s head of the truth is rarely hit by design. The search after it of the professionally penetrative in the dark of a bosom may bring it forth by the heavy knocking all about the neighbourhood that we call good guessing, but it does not come out clean; other matter adheres to it; and being more it is less than truth. The unadulterate is to be had only by faith in it or by waiting for it.

A lover! thought the sagacious dame. There was no lover: some love there was: or, rather, there was a preparation of the chamber, with no lamp yet lighted.

“Do you positively tell me you have no heart for the position of first lady of the county?” said Mrs. Mountstuart.

Clara’s reply was firm: “None whatever.”

“My dear, I will believe you on one condition. Look at me. You have eyes. If you are for mischief, you are armed for it. But how much better, when you have won a prize, to settle down and wear it! Lady Patterne will have entire occupation for her flights and whimsies in leading the county. And the man, surely the man — he behaved badly last night: but a beauty like this,” she pushed a finger at Clara’s cheek, and doated a half instant, “you have the very beauty to break in an ogre’s temper. And the man is as governable as he is presentable. You have the beauty the French call — no, it’s the beauty of a queen of elves: one sees them lurking about you, one here, one there. Smile — they dance: be doleful — they hang themselves. No, there’s not a trace of satanic; at least, not yet. And come, come, my Middleton, the man is a man to be proud of. You can send him into Parliament to wear off his humours. To my thinking, he has a fine style: conscious? I never thought so before last night. I can’t guess what has happened to him recently. He was once a young Grand Monarque. He was really a superb young English gentleman. Have you been wounding him?”

“It is my misfortune to be obliged to wound him,” said Clara.

“Quite needlessly, my child, for marry him you must.”

Clara’s bosom rose: her shoulders rose too, narrowing, and her head fell slight back.

Mrs. Mountstuart exclaimed: “But the scandal! You would never, never think of following the example of that Durham girl? — whether she was provoked to it by jealousy or not. It seems to have gone so astonishingly far with you in a very short time, that one is alarmed as to where you will stop. Your look just now was downright revulsion.”

“I fear it is. It is. I am past my own control. Dear madam, you have my assurance that I will not behave scandalously or dishonourably. What I would entreat of you is to help me. I know this of myself. . . I am not the best of women. I am impatient, wickedly. I should be no good wife. Feelings like mine teach me unhappy things of myself.”

“Rich, handsome, lordly, influential, brilliant health, fine estates,” Mrs. Mountstuart enumerated in petulant accents as there started across her mind some of Sir Willoughby’s attributes for the attraction of the soul of woman. “I suppose you wish me to take you in earnest?”

“I appeal to you for help.”

“What help?”

“Persuade him of the folly of pressing me to keep my word.”

“I will believe you, my dear Middleton, on one condition: your talk of no heart is nonsense. A change like this, if one is to believe in the change, occurs through the heart, not because there is none. Don’t you see that? But if you want me for a friend, you must not sham stupid. It’s bad enough in itself: the imitation’s horrid. You have to be honest with me, and answer me right out. You came here on this visit intending to marry Willoughby Patterne.”

“Yes.”

“And gradually you suddenly discovered, since you came here, that you did not intend it, if you could find a means of avoiding it.”

“Oh, madam, yes, it is true.”

“Now comes the test. And, my lovely Middleton, your flaming cheeks won’t suffice for me this time. The old serpent can blush like an innocent maid on occasion. You are to speak, and you are to tell me in six words why that was: and don’t waste one on ‘madam’, or ‘Oh! Mrs. Mountstuart’ Why did you change?”

“I came — When I came I was in some doubt. Indeed I speak the truth. I found I could not give him the admiration he has, I dare say, a right to expect. I turned — it surprised me; it surprises me now. But so completely! So that to think of marrying him is. . . ”

“Defer the simile,” Mrs. Mountstuart interposed. “If you hit on a clever one, you will never get the better of it. Now, by just as much as you have outstripped my limitation of words to you, you show me you are dishonest.”

“I could make a vow.”

“You would forswear yourself.”

“Will you help me?”

“If you are perfectly ingenuous, I may try.”

“Dear lady, what more can I say?”

“It may be difficult. You can reply to a catechism.”

“I shall have your help?”

“Well, yes; though I don’t like stipulations between friends. There is no man living to whom you could willingly give your hand? That is my question. I cannot possibly take a step unless I know. Reply briefly: there is or there is not.” Clara sat back with bated breath, mentally taking the leap into the abyss, realizing it, and the cold prudence of abstention, and the delirium of the confession. Was there such a man? It resembled freedom to think there was: to avow it promised freedom.

“Oh, Mrs. Mountstuart!”

“Well?”

“You will help me?”

“Upon my word, I shall begin to doubt your desire for it.”

“Willingly give my hand, madam?”

“For shame! And with wits like yours, can’t you perceive where hesitation in answering such a question lands you?”

“Dearest lady, will you give me your hand? may I whisper?”

“You need not whisper; I won’t look.”

Clara’s voice trembled on a tense chord.

“There is one. . . compared with him I feel my insignificance. If I could aid him.”

“What necessity have you to tell me more than that there is one?”

“Ah, madam, it is different: not as you imagine. You bid me be scrupulously truthful: I am: I wish you to know the different kind of feeling it is from what might be suspected from. . . a confession. To give my hand, is beyond any thought I have ever encouraged. If you had asked me whether there is one whom I admire — yes, I do. I cannot help admiring a beautiful and brave self-denying nature. It is one whom you must pity, and to pity casts you beneath him: for you pity him because it is his nobleness that has been the enemy of his fortunes. He lives for others.”

Her voice was musically thrilling in that low muted tone of the very heart, impossible to deride or disbelieve.

Mrs. Mountstuart set her head nodding on springs.

“Is he clever?”

“Very.”

“He talks well?”

“Yes.”

“Handsome?”

“He might be thought so.”

“Witty?”

“I think he is.”

“Gay, cheerful?”

“In his manner.”

“Why, the man would be a mountebank if he adopted any other. And poor?”

“He is not wealthy.”

Mrs. Mountstuart preserved a lengthened silence, but nipped Clara’s fingers once or twice to reassure her without approving. “Of course he’s poor,” she said at last; “directly the reverse of what you could have, it must be. Well, my fair Middleton, I can’t say you have been dishonest. I’ll help you as far as I’m able. How, it is quite impossible to tell. We’re in the mire. The best way seems to me to get this pitiable angel to cut some ridiculous capers and present you another view of him. I don’t believe in his innocence. He knew you to be a plighted woman.”

“He has not once by word or sign hinted a disloyalty.”

“Then how do you know.”

“I do not know.”

“He is not the cause of your wish to break your engagement?”

“No.”

“Then you have succeeded in just telling me nothing. What is?”

“Ah! madam!”

“You would break your engagement purely because the admirable creature is in existence?”

Clara shook her head: she could not say she was dizzy. She had spoken out more than she had ever spoken to herself, and in doing so she had cast herself a step beyond the line she dared to contemplate.

“I won’t detain you any longer,” said Mrs. Mountstuart. “The more we learn, the more we are taught that we are not so wise as we thought we were. I have to go to school to Lady Busshe! I really took you for a very clever girl. If you change again, you will notify the important circumstance to me, I trust.”

“I will,” said Clara, and no violent declaration of the impossibility of her changing again would have had such an effect on her hearer.

Mrs. Mountstuart scanned her face for a new reading of it to match with her later impressions.

“I am to do as I please with the knowledge I have gained?”

“I am utterly in your hands, madam.”

“I have not meant to be unkind.”

“You have not been unkind; I could embrace you.”

“I am rather too shattered, and kissing won’t put me together. I laughed at Lady Busshe! No wonder you went off like a rocket with a disappointing bouquet when I told you you had been successful with poor Sir Willoughby and he could not give you up. I noticed that. A woman like Lady Busshe, always prying for the lamentable, would have required no further enlightenment. Has he a temper?”

Clara did not ask her to signalize the person thus abruptly obtruded.

“He has faults,” she said.

“There’s an end to Sir Willoughby, then! Though I don’t say he will give you up even when he hears the worst, if he must hear it, as for his own sake he should. And I won’t say he ought to give you up. He’ll be the pitiable angel if he does. For you — but you don’t deserve compliments; they would be immoral. You have behaved badly, badly, badly. I have never had such a right-about-face in my life. You will deserve the stigma: you will be notorious: you will be called Number Two. Think of that! Not even original! We will break the conference, or I shall twaddle to extinction. I think I heard the luncheon bell.”

“It rang.”

“You don’t look fit for company, but you had better come.”

“Oh, yes; every day it’s the same.”

“Whether you’re in my hands or I’m in yours, we’re a couple of arch-conspirators against the peace of the family whose table we’re sitting at, and the more we rattle the viler we are, but we must do it to ease our minds.”

Mrs. Mountstuart spread the skirts of her voluminous dress, remarking further: “At a certain age our teachers are young people: we learn by looking backward. It speaks highly for me that I have not called you mad. — Full of faults, goodish-looking, not a bad talker, cheerful, poorish — and she prefers that to this!” the great lady exclaimed in her reverie while emerging from the circle of shrubs upon a view of the Hall. Colonel De Craye advanced to her; certainly good-looking, certainly cheerful, by no means a bad talker, nothing of a Croesus, and variegated with faults.

His laughing smile attacked the irresolute hostility of her mien, confident as the sparkle of sunlight in a breeze. The effect of it on herself angered her on behalf of Sir Willoughby’s bride.

“Good-morning, Mrs. Mountstuart; I believe I am the last to greet you.”

“And how long do you remain here, Colonel De Craye?”

“I kissed earth when I arrived, like the Norman William, and consequently I’ve an attachment to the soil, ma’am.”

“You’re not going to take possession of it, I suppose?”

“A handful would satisfy me.”

“You play the Conqueror pretty much, I have heard. But property is held more sacred than in the times of the Norman William.”

“And speaking of property, Miss Middleton, your purse is found.” he said.

“I know it is,” she replied as unaffectedly as Mrs. Mountstuart could have desired, though the ingenuous air of the girl incensed her somewhat.

Clara passed on.

“You restore purses,” observed Mrs. Mountstuart.

Her stress on the word and her look thrilled De Craye; for there had been a long conversation between the young lady and the dame.

“It was an article that dropped and was not stolen,” said he.

“Barely sweet enough to keep, then!”

“I think I could have felt to it like poor Flitch, the flyman, who was the finder.”

“If you are conscious of these temptations to appropriate what is not your own, you should quit the neighbourhood.”

“And do it elsewhere? But that’s not virtuous counsel.”

“And I’m not counselling in the interests of your virtue, Colonel De Craye.”

“And I dared for a moment to hope that you were, ma’am,” he said, ruefully drooping.

They were close to the dining-room window, and Mrs Mountstuart preferred the terminating of a dialogue that did not promise to leave her features the austerely iron cast with which she had commenced it. She was under the spell of gratitude for his behaviour yesterday evening at her dinner-table; she could not be very severe.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 17:11