“You are my friend. Only you speak in irony so much. That was irony, about my clear conscience. I spoke to you and to Miss Dale: and then I rested and drifted. Can you not feel for me, that to mention it is like a scorching furnace? Willoughby has entangled papa. He schemes incessantly to keep me entangled. I fly from his cunning as much as from anything. I dread it. I have told you that I am more to blame than he, but I must accuse him. And wedding-presents! and congratulations! And to be his guest!”
“All that makes up a plea in mitigation,” said Vernon.
“Is it not sufficient for you?” she asked him timidly.
“You have a masculine good sense that tells you you won’t be respected if you run. Three more days there might cover a retreat with your father.”
“He will not listen to me. He confuses me; Willoughby has bewitched him.”
“Commission me: I will see that he listens.”
“And go back? Oh, no! To London! Besides, there is the dining with Mrs. Mountstuart this evening; and I like her very well, but I must avoid her. She has a kind of idolatry . . . And what answers can I give? I supplicate her with looks. She observes them, my efforts to divert them from being painful produce a comic expression to her, and I am a charming ‘rogue’, and I am entertained on the topic she assumes to be principally interesting me. I must avoid her. The thought of her leaves me no choice. She is clever. She could tattoo me with epigrams.”
“Stay . . . there you can hold your own.”
“She has told me you give me credit for a spice of wit. I have not discovered my possession. We have spoken of it; we call it your delusion. She grants me some beauty; that must be hers.”
“There’s no delusion in one case or the other, Miss Middleton. You have beauty and wit; public opinion will say, wildness: indifference to your reputation will be charged on you, and your friends will have to admit it. But you will be out of this difficulty.”
“Ah—to weave a second?”
“Impossible to judge until we see how you escape the first. And I have no more to say. I love your father. His humour of sententiousness and doctorial stilts is a mask he delights in, but you ought to know him and not be frightened by it. If you sat with him an hour at a Latin task, and if you took his hand and told him you could not leave him, and no tears!—he would answer you at once. It would involve a day or two further; disagreeable to you, no doubt: preferable to the present mode of escape, as I think. But I have no power whatever to persuade. I have not the ‘lady’s tongue’. My appeal is always to reason.”
“It is a compliment. I loathe the ’lady’s tongue’.”
“It’s a distinctly good gift, and I wish I had it. I might have succeeded instead of failing, and appearing to pay a compliment.”
“Surely the express train is very late, Mr. Whitford?”