Clara dropped a book. Her father started higher than the nervous impulse warranted in his chair. Vernon tried to win a glance, and she was conscious of his effort, but her angry and guilty feelings, prompting her resolution to follow her own counsel, kept her eyelids on the defensive.
“I don’t say he annoys me, sir. I am here to give him my advice, and if he does not accept it I have no right to be annoyed. Willoughby seems annoyed that Colonel De Craye should talk of going to-morrow or next day.”
“He likes his friends about him. Upon my word, a man of a more genial heart you might march a day without finding. But you have it on the forehead, Mr. Whitford.”
“Oh! no, sir.”
“There,” Dr. Middleton drew his finger along his brows.
Vernon felt along his own, and coined an excuse for their blackness; not aware that the direction of his mind toward Clara pushed him to a kind of clumsy double meaning, while he satisfied an inward and craving wrath, as he said: “By the way, I have been racking my head; I must apply to you, sir. I have a line, and I am uncertain of the run of the line. Will this pass, do you think?
‘In Asination’s tongue he asinates’;
signifying that he excels any man of us at donkey-dialect.”
After a decent interval for the genius of criticism to seem to have been sitting under his frown, Dr. Middleton rejoined with sober jocularity: “No, sir, it will not pass; and your uncertainty in regard to the run of the line would only be extended were the line centipedal. Our recommendation is, that you erase it before the arrival of the ferule. This might do:
‘In Assignation’s name he assignats’;
signifying that he pre-eminently flourishes hypothetical promises, to pay by appointment. That might pass. But you will forbear to cite me for your authority.”
“The line would be acceptable if I could get it to apply,” said Vernon.
“Or this . . .” Dr. Middleton was offering a second suggestion, but Clara fled, astonished at men as she never yet had been. Why, in a burning world they would be exercising their minds in absurdities! And those two were scholars, learned men! And both knew they were in the presence of a soul in a tragic fever!
A minute after she had closed the door they were deep in their work. Dr. Middleton forgot his alternative line.
“Nothing serious?” he said in reproof of the want of honourable clearness on Vernon’s brows.
“I trust not, sir; it’s a case for common sense.”
“And you call that not serious?”
“I take Hermann’s praise of the versus dochmiachus to be not only serious but unexaggerated,” said Vernon.
Dr. Middleton assented and entered on the voiceful ground of Greek metres, shoving your dry dusty world from his elbow.