“She has a fine ability,” said Vernon.
All the world knew, so Clara knew of Miss Dales romantic admiration of Sir Willoughby; she was curious to see Miss Dale and study the nature of a devotion that might be, within reason, imitable—for a man who could speak with such steely coldness of the poor lady he had fascinated? Well, perhaps it was good for the hearts of women to be beneath a frost; to be schooled, restrained, turned inward on their dreams. Yes, then, his coldness was desireable; it encouraged an ideal of him. It suggested and seemed to propose to Clara’s mind the divineness of separation instead of the deadly accuracy of an intimate perusal. She tried to look on him as Miss Dale might look, and while partly despising her for the dupery she envied, and more than criticizing him for the inhuman numbness of sentiment which offered up his worshipper to point a complimentary comparison, she was able to imagine a distance whence it would be possible to observe him uncritically, kindly, admiringly; as the moon a handsome mortal, for example.
In the midst of her thoughts, she surprised herself by saying: “I certainly was difficult to instruct. I might see things clearer if I had a fine ability. I never remember to have been perfectly pleased with my immediate lesson . . .”
She stopped, wondering whither her tongue was leading her; then added, to save herself, “And that may be why I feel for poor Crossjay.”
Mr. Whitford apparently did not think it remarkable that she should have been set off gabbling of “a fine ability”, though the eulogistic phrase had been pronounced by him with an impressiveness to make his ear aware of an echo.
Sir Willoughby dispersed her vapourish confusion. “Exactly,” he said. “I have insisted with Vernon, I don’t know how often, that you must have the lad by his affections. He won’t bear driving. It had no effect on me. Boys of spirit kick at it. I think I know boys, Clara.”
He found himself addressing eyes that regarded him as though he were a small speck, a pin’s head, in the circle of their remote contemplation. They were wide; they closed.
She opened them to gaze elsewhere.
He was very sensitive.
Even then, when knowingly wounding him, or because of it, she was trying to climb back to that altitude of the thin division of neutral ground, from which we see a lover’s faults and are above them, pure surveyors. She climbed unsuccessfully, it is true; soon despairing and using the effort as a pretext to fall back lower.
Dr. Middleton withdrew Sir Willoughby’s attention from the imperceptible annoyance. “No, sir, no: the birch! the birch! Boys of spirit commonly turn into solid men, and the solider the men the more surely do they vote for Busby. For me, I pray he may be immortal in Great Britain. Sea-air nor mountain-air is half so bracing. I venture to say that the power to take a licking is better worth having than the power to administer one. Horse him and birch him if Crossjay runs from his books.”