“You are too absurd. Or a baby, you might have added.”
“I hadn’t the daring.”
“I’ll tell you what, Colonel De Craye, I shall end by falling in love with you; and without esteeming you, I fear.”
“The second follows as surely as the flavour upon a draught of Bacchus, if you’ll but toss off the glass, ma’am.”
“We women, sir, think it should be first.”
“’Tis to transpose the seasons, and give October the blossom and April the apple, and no sweet one! Esteem’s a mellow thing that comes after bloom and fire, like an evening at home; because if it went before it would have no father and couldn’t hope for progeny; for there’d be no nature in the business. So please, ma’am, keep to the original order, and you’ll be nature’s child, and I the most blessed of mankind.”
“Really, were I fifteen years younger. I am not so certain . . . I might try and make you harmless.”
“Draw the teeth of the lamb so long as you pet him!”
“I challenged you, colonel, and I won’t complain of your pitch. But now lay your wit down beside your candour, and descend to an every-day level with me for a minute.”
“Is it innuendo?”
“No; though I daresay it would be easier for you to respond to if it were.”
“I’m the straightforwardest of men at a word of command.”
“This is a whisper. Be alert, as you were last night. Shuffle the table well. A little liveliness will do it. I don’t imagine malice, but there’s curiosity, which is often as bad, and not so lightly foiled. We have Lady Busshe and Lady Culmer here.”
“To sweep the cobwebs out of the sky!”
“Well, then, can you fence with broomsticks?”
“I have had a bout with them in my time.”
“They are terribly direct.”
“They ‘give point’, as Napoleon commanded his cavalry to do.”
“You must help me to ward it.”
“They will require variety in the conversation.”
“Constant. You are an angel of intelligence, and if I have the judgeing of you, I’m afraid you’ll be allowed to pass, in spite of the scandal above. Open the door; I don’t unbonnet.”
De Craye threw the door open.
Lady Busshe was at that moment saying, “And are we indeed to have you for a neighbour, Dr. Middleton?”
The Rev. Doctor’s reply was drowned by the new arrivals.
“I thought you had forsaken us,” observed Sir Willoughby to Mrs. Mountstuart.
“And run away with Colonel De Craye? I’m too weighty, my dear friend. Besides, I have not looked at the wedding-presents yet.”
“The very object of our call!” exclaimed Lady Culmer.
“I have to confess I am in dire alarm about mine,” Lady Busshe nodded across the table at Clara. “Oh! you may shake your head, but I would rather hear a rough truth than the most complimentary evasion.”
“How would you define a rough truth, Dr. Middleton?” said Mrs. Mountstuart.