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.
He shook his head. “Persuade her.”
She nodded. “Example may have some effect.”
He looked extremely abstracted. “Yes, it is time. Where is the man you could recommend for her complement? She has now what was missing before, a ripe intelligence in addition to her happy disposition—romantic, you would say. I can’t think women the worse for that.”
“A dash of it.”
“She calls it ’leafage’.”
“Very pretty. And have you relented about your horse Achmet?”
“I don’t sell him under four hundred.”
“Poor Johnny Busshe! You forget that his wife doles him out his money. You’re a hard bargainer, Sir Willoughby.”
“I mean the price to be prohibitive.”
“Very well; and ‘leafage’ is good for hide-and-seek; especially when there is no rogue in ambush. And that’s the worst I can say of Laetitia Dale. An exaggerated devotion is the scandal of our sex. They say you’re the hardest man of business in the county too, and I can believe it; for at home and abroad your aim is to get the best of everybody. You see I’ve no leafage, I am perfectly matter-of-fact, bald.”