“You are quite alone, Miss Middleton?”
“I am: I have not brought my maid.”
“You must take off boots and stockings at once, and have them dried. I’ll put you in the hands of the landlady.”
“But my train!”
“You have full fifteen minutes, besides fair chances of delay.”
He seemed reasonable, the reverse of hostile, in spite of his commanding air, and that was not unpleasant in one friendly to her adventure. She controlled her alert distrustfulness, and passed from him to the landlady, for her feet were wet and cold, the skirts of her dress were soiled; generally inspecting herself, she was an object to be shuddered at, and she was grateful to Vernon for his inattention to her appearance.
Vernon ordered Dr. Corney’s dose, and was ushered upstairs to a room of portraits, where the publican’s ancestors and family sat against the walls, flat on their canvas as weeds of the botanist’s portfolio, although corpulency was pretty generally insisted on, and there were formidable battalions of bust among the females. All of them had the aspect of the national energy which has vanquished obstacles to subside on its ideal. They all gazed straight at the guest. “Drink, and come to this!” they might have been labelled to say to him. He was in the private Walhalla of a large class of his countrymen. The existing host had taken forethought to be of the party in his prime, and in the central place, looking fresh-fattened there and sanguine from the performance. By and by a son would shove him aside; meanwhile he shelved his parent, according to the manners of energy.
One should not be a critic of our works of Art in uncomfortable garments. Vernon turned from the portraits to a stuffed pike in a glass case, and plunged into sympathy with the fish for a refuge.
Clara soon rejoined him, saying: “But you, you must be very wet. You were without an umbrella. You must be wet through, Mr. Whitford.”
“We’re all wet through, to-day,” said Vernon. “Crossjay’s wet through, and a tramp he met.”
“The horrid man! But Crossjay should have turned back when I told him. Cannot the landlord assist you? You are not tied to time. I begged Crossjay to turn back when it began to rain: when it became heavy I compelled him. So you met my poor Crossjay?”
“You have not to blame him for betraying you. The tramp did that. I was thrown on your track quite by accident. Now pardon me for using authority, and don’t be alarmed, Miss Middleton; you are perfectly free for me; but you must not run a risk to your health. I met Doctor Corney coming along, and he prescribed hot brandy and water for a wet skin, especially for sitting in it. There’s the stuff on the table; I see you have been aware of a singular odour; you must consent to sip some, as medicine; merely to give you warmth.”
“Impossible, Mr. Whitford: I could not taste it. But pray, obey Dr. Corney, if he ordered it for you.”