“That Willoughby proposed to Laetitia for his cousin Vernon, Doctor Middleton meant,” said Miss Eleanor.
Her sister followed: “Hence this really ridiculous misconception! —sad, indeed,” she added, for balm to Mr. Dale.
“Willoughby was Vernon’s proxy. His cousin, if not his first, is ever the second thought with him.”
“But can we continue . . . ?”
“Such a discussion!”
Mrs. Mountstuart gave them a judicial hearing. They were regarded in the county as the most indulgent of nonentities, and she as little as Lady Busshe was restrained from the burning topic in their presence. She pronounced:
“Each party is right, and each is wrong.”
A dry: “I shall shriek!” came from Lady Busshe.
“Cruel!” groaned Lady Culmer.
“Mixed, you are all wrong. Disentangled, you are each of you right. Sir Willoughby does think of his cousin Vernon; he is anxious to establish him; he is the author of a proposal to that effect.”
“We know it!” the Patterne ladies exclaimed. “And Laetitia rejected poor Vernon once more!”
“Who spoke of Miss Dale’s rejection of Mr. Whitford?”
“Is he not rejected?” Lady Culmer inquired.
“It is in debate, and at this moment being decided.”
“Oh! do he seated, Mr. Dale,” Lady Busshe implored him, rising to thrust him back to his chair if necessary. “Any dislocation, and we are thrown out again! We must hold together if this riddle is ever to be read. Then, dear Mrs. Mountstuart, we are to say that there is-no truth in the other story?”
“You are to say nothing of the sort, dear Lady Busshe.”
“Be merciful! And what of the fatality?”
“As positive as the Pole to the needle.”
“She has not refused him?”
“Ask your own sagacity.”
“And all the world’s ahead of me! Now, Mrs. Mountstuart, you are oracle. Riddles, if you like, only speak. If we can’t have corn, why, give us husks.”
“Is any one of us able to anticipate events, Lady Busshe?”
“Yes, I believe that you are. I bow to you. I do sincerely. So it’s another person for Mr. Whitford? You nod. And it is our Laetitia for Sir Willoughby? You smile. You would not deceive me? A very little, and I run about crazed and howl at your doors. And Dr. Middleton is made to play blind man in the midst? And the other person is—now I see day! An amicable rupture, and a smooth new arrangement. She has money; she was never the match for our hero; never; I saw it yesterday, and before, often; and so he hands her over—tuthe-rum-tum-tum, tuthe-rum-tum-tum,” Lady Busshe struck a quick march on her knee. “Now isn’t that clever guessing? The shadow of a clue for me. And because I know human nature. One peep, and I see the combination in a minute. So he keeps the money in the family, becomes a benefactor to his cousin by getting rid of the girl, and succumbs to his fatality. Rather a pity he let it ebb and flow so long. Time counts the tides, you know. But it improves the story. I defy any other county in the kingdom to produce one fresh and living to equal it. Let me tell you I suspected Mr. Whitford, and I hinted it yesterday.”