“So, it is understood?” said Miss Eleanor.
“I see your kindness, ladies.”
“And I am to be Aunt Eleanor again?”
“And I Aunt Isabel?”
Clara could have wrung her hands at the impediment which prohibited her delicacy from telling them why she could not name them so as she had done in the earlier days of Willoughby’s courtship. She kissed them warmly, ashamed of kissing, though the warmth was real.
They retired with a flow of excuses to Dr. Middleton for disturbing him. He stood at the door to bow them out, and holding the door for Clara, to wind up the procession, discovered her at a far corner of the room.
He was debating upon the advisability of leaving her there, when Vernon Whitford crossed the hall from the laboratory door, a mirror of himself in his companion air of discomposure.
That was not important, so long as Vernon was a check on Clara; but the moment Clara, thus baffled, moved to quit the library, Dr. Middleton felt the horror of having an uncomfortable face opposite.
“No botheration, I hope? It’s the worst thing possible to work on. Where have you been? I suspect your weak point is not to arm yourself in triple brass against bother and worry, and no good work can you do unless you do. You have come out of that laboratory.”
“I have, sir.—Can I get you any book?” Vernon said to Clara.
She thanked him, promising to depart immediately.
“Now you are at the section of Italian literature, my love,” said Dr Middleton. “Well, Mr. Whitford, the laboratory—ah!—where the amount of labour done within the space of a year would not stretch an electric current between this Hall and the railway station: say, four miles, which I presume the distance to be. Well, sir, and a dilettantism costly in time and machinery is as ornamental as foxes’ tails and deers’ horns to an independent gentleman whose fellows are contented with the latter decorations for their civic wreath. Willoughby, let me remark, has recently shown himself most considerate for my girl. As far as I could gather—I have been listening to a dialogue of ladies—he is as generous as he is discreet. There are certain combats in which to be the one to succumb is to claim the honours;—and that is what women will not learn. I doubt their seeing the glory of it.”
“I have heard of it; I have been with Willoughby,” Vernon said, hastily, to shield Clara from her father’s allusive attacks. He wished to convey to her that his interview with Willoughby had not been profitable in her interests, and that she had better at once, having him present to support her, pour out her whole heart to her father. But how was it to be conveyed? She would not meet his eyes, and he was too poor an intriguer to be ready on the instant to deal out the verbal obscurities which are transparencies to one.
“I shall regret it, if Willoughby has annoyed you, for he stands high in my favour,” said Dr. Middleton.