He pressed her for an answer. She gave the best she could. He was dissatisfied, and to her hearing it was hardly in the tone of manliness that he entreated her to reassure him; he womanized his language. She had to say: “I am afraid I can not undertake to make it an appointment, Sir Willoughby,” before he recovered his alertness, which he did, for he was anything but obtuse, with the reply, “You would keep it if you promised, and freeze at your post. So, as accidents happen, we must leave it to fate. The will’s the thing. You know my detestation of changes. At least I have you for my tenant, and wherever I am, I see your light at the end of my park.”
“Neither my father nor I would willingly quit Ivy Cottage,” said Laetitia.
“So far, then,” he murmured. “You will give me a long notice, and it must be with my consent if you think of quitting?”
“I could almost engage to do that,” she said.
“You love the place?”
“Yes; I am the most contented of cottagers.”
“I believe, Miss Dale, it would be well for my happiness were I a cottager.”
“That is the dream of the palace. But to be one, and not to wish to be other, is quiet sleep in comparison.”
“You paint a cottage in colours that tempt one to run from big houses and households.”
“You would run back to them faster, Sir Willoughby.”
“You may know me,” said he, bowing and passing on contentedly. He stopped. “But I am not ambitious.”
“Perhaps you are too proud for ambition, Sir Willoughby.”
“You hit me to the life!”
He passed on regretfully. Clara Middleton did not study and know him like Laetitia Dale.
Laetitia was left to think it pleased him to play at cat and mouse. She had not “hit him to the life”, or she would have marvelled in acknowledging how sincere he was.
At her next sitting by the bedside of Lady Patterne she received a certain measure of insight that might have helped her to fathom him, if only she could have kept her feelings down.
The old lady was affectionately confidential in talking of her one subject, her son. “And here is another dashing girl, my dear; she has money and health and beauty; and so has he; and it appears a fortunate union; I hope and pray it may be; but we begin to read the world when our eyes grow dim, because we read the plain lines, and I ask myself whether money and health and beauty on both sides have not been the mutual attraction. We tried it before; and that girl Durham was honest, whatever we may call her. I should have desired an appreciative thoughtful partner for him, a woman of mind, with another sort of wealth and beauty. She was honest, she ran away in time; there was a worse thing possible than that. And now we have the same chapter, and the same kind of person, who may not be quite as honest; and I shall not see the end of it. Promise me you will always be good to him; be my son’s friend; his Egeria, he names you. Be what you were to him when that girl broke his heart, and no one, not even his mother, was allowed to see that he suffered anything. Comfort him in his sensitiveness. Willoughby has the most entire faith in you. Were that destroyed—I shudder! You are, he says, and he has often said, his image of the constant woman.”