DR MIDDLETON: THE LADIES ELEANOR AND ISABEL: AND MR. DALE
Clara looked up at the flying clouds. She travelled with them now, and tasted freedom, but she prudently forbore to vex her father; she held herself in reserve.
They were summoned by the midday bell.
Few were speakers at the meal, few were eaters. Clara was impelled to join it by her desire to study Mrs. Mountstuart’s face. Willoughby was obliged to preside. It was a meal of an assembly of mutes and plates, that struck the ear like the well-known sound of a collection of offerings in church after an impressive exhortation from the pulpit. A sally of Colonel De Craye’s met the reception given to a charity-boy’s muffled burst of animal spirits in the silence of the sacred edifice. Willoughby tried politics with Dr. Middleton, whose regular appetite preserved him from uncongenial speculations when the hour for appeasing it had come; and he alone did honour to the dishes, replying to his host:
“Times are bad, you say, and we have a Ministry doing with us what they will. Well, sir, and that being so, and opposition a manner of kicking them into greater stability, it is the time for wise men to retire within themselves, with the steady determination of the seed in the earth to grow. Repose upon nature, sleep in firm faith, and abide the seasons. That is my counsel to the weaker party.”
The counsel was excellent, but it killed the topic.
Dr. Middleton’s appetite was watched for the signal to rise and breathe freely; and such is the grace accorded to a good man of an untroubled conscience engaged in doing his duty to himself, that he perceived nothing of the general restlessness; he went through the dishes calmly, and as calmly he quoted Milton to the ladies Eleanor and Isabel, when the company sprung up all at once upon his closing his repast. Vernon was taken away from him by Willoughby. Mrs Mountstuart beckoned covertly to Clara. Willoughby should have had something to say to him, Dr. Middleton thought: the position was not clear. But the situation was not disagreeable; and he was in no serious hurry, though he wished to be enlightened.
“This,” Dr. Middleton said to the spinster aunts, as he accompanied them to the drawing-room, “shall be no lost day for me if I may devote the remainder of it to you.”
“The thunder, we fear, is not remote,” murmured one.
“We fear it is imminent,” sighed the other.
They took to chanting in alternation.
“—We are accustomed to peruse our Willoughby, and we know him by a shadow.”
“—From his infancy to his glorious youth and his established manhood.”
“—He was ever the soul of chivalry.”
“—Duty: duty first. The happiness of his family. The well-being of his dependants.”
“—If proud of his name it was not an overweening pride; it was founded in the conscious possession of exalted qualities. He could be humble when occasion called for it.”