Sir Willoughby, as he frequently had occasion to protest to Clara, was no poet: he was a more than commonly candid English gentleman in his avowed dislike of the poet’s nonsense, verbiage, verse; not one of those latterly terrorized by the noise made about the fellow into silent contempt; a sentiment that may sleep, and has not to be defended. He loathed the fellow, fought the fellow. But he was one with the poet upon that prevailing theme of verse, the charms of women. He was, to his ill-luck, intensely susceptible, and where he led men after him to admire, his admiration became a fury. He could see at a glance that Horace De Craye admired Miss Middleton. Horace was a man of taste, could hardly, could not, do other than admire; but how curious that in the setting forth of Clara and Miss Dale, to his own contemplation and comparison of them, Sir Willoughby had given but a nodding approbation of his bride’s appearance! He had not attached weight to it recently.
Her conduct, and foremost, if not chiefly, her having been discovered, positively met by his friend Horace, walking on the high-road without companion or attendant, increased a sense of pain so very unusual with him that he had cause to be indignant. Coming on this condition, his admiration of the girl who wounded him was as bitter a thing as a man could feel. Resentment, fed from the main springs of his nature, turned it to wormwood, and not a whit the less was it admiration when he resolved to chastise her with a formal indication of his disdain. Her present gaiety sounded to him like laughter heard in the shadow of the pulpit.
“You have escaped!” he said to her, while shaking the hand of his friend Horace and cordially welcoming him. “My dear fellow! and, by the way, you had a squeak for it, I hear from Flitch.”
“I, Willoughby? not a bit,” said the colonel; “we get into a fly to get, out of it; and Flitch helped me out as well as in, good fellow; just dusting my coat as he did it. The only bit of bad management was that Miss Middleton had to step aside a trifle hurriedly.”
“You knew Miss Middleton at once?”
“Flitch did me the favour to introduce me. He first precipitated me at Miss Middleton’s feet, and then he introduced me, in old oriental fashion, to my sovereign.”
Sir Willoughby’s countenance was enough for his friend Horace. Quarter-wheeling to Clara, he said: “’Tis the place I’m to occupy for life, Miss Middleton, though one is not always fortunate to have a bright excuse for taking it at the commencement.”
Clara said: “Happily you were not hurt, Colonel De Craye.”
“I was in the hands of the Loves. Not the Graces, I’m afraid; I’ve an image of myself. Dear, no! My dear Willoughby, you never made such a headlong declaration as that. It would have looked like a magnificent impulse, if the posture had only been choicer. And Miss Middleton didn’t laugh. At least I saw nothing but pity.”