Willoughby revolved the entire drama in Clara’s presence. It helped him to look on her coolly. Conducting her to the dinner-table, he spoke of Crossjay, not unkindly; and at table, he revolved the set of scenes with a heated animation that took fire from the wine and the face of his friend Horace, while he encouraged Horace to be flowingly Irish. He nipped the fellow good-humouredly once or twice, having never felt so friendly to him since the day of his arrival; but the position of critic is instinctively taken by men who do not flow: and Patterne Port kept Dr Middleton in a benevolent reserve when Willoughby decided that something said by De Craye was not new, and laughingly accused him of failing to consult his anecdotal notebook for the double-cross to his last sprightly sally. “Your sallies are excellent, Horace, but spare us your Aunt Sallies!” De Craye had no repartee, nor did Dr. Middleton challenge a pun. We have only to sharpen our wits to trip your seductive rattler whenever we may choose to think proper; and evidently, if we condescended to it, we could do better than he. The critic who has hatched a witticism is impelled to this opinion. Judging by the smiles of the ladies, they thought so, too.
Shortly before eleven o’clock Dr. Middleton made a Spartan stand against the offer of another bottle of Port. The regulation couple of bottles had been consumed in equal partnership, and the Rev. Doctor and his host were free to pay a ceremonial visit to the drawing-room, where they were not expected. A piece of work of the elder ladies, a silken boudoir sofa-rug, was being examined, with high approval of the two younger. Vernon and Colonel De Craye had gone out in search of Crossjay, one to Mr. Dale’s cottage, the other to call at the head and under-gamekeeper’s. They were said to be strolling and smoking, for the night was fine. Willoughby left the room and came back with the key of Crossjay’s door in his pocket. He foresaw that the delinquent might be of service to him.
Laetitia and Clara sang together. Laetitia was flushed, Clara pale. At eleven they saluted the ladies Eleanor and Isabel. Willoughby said “Good-night” to each of them, contrasting as he did so the downcast look of Laetitia with Clara’s frigid directness. He divined that they were off to talk over their one object of common interest, Crossjay. Saluting his aunts, he took up the rug, to celebrate their diligence and taste; and that he might make Dr. Middleton impatient for bed, he provoked him to admire it, held it out and laid it out, and caused the courteous old gentleman some confusion in hitting on fresh terms of commendation.