George Meredith, The Egoist: Ch. 36

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CHAPTER XXXVI

ANIMATED CONVERSATION AT A LUNCHEON-TABLE

Vernon was crossing the hall to the dining-room as Mrs Mountstuart stepped in. She called to him: "Are the champions reconciled?"

He replied: "Hardly that, but they have consented to meet at an altar to offer up a victim to the gods in the shape of modern poetic imitations of the classical."

"That seems innocent enough. The Professor has not been anxious about his chest?"

"He recollects his cough now and then."

"You must help him to forget it."

"Lady Busshe and Lady Culmer are here," said Vernon, not supposing it to be a grave announcement until the effect of it on Mrs. Mountstuart admonished him.

She dropped her voice: "Engage my fair friend for one of your walks the moment we rise from table. You may have to rescue her; but do. I mean it."

"She's a capital walker." Vernon remarked in simpleton style.

"There's no necessity for any of your pedestrian feats," Mrs Mountstuart said, and let him go, turning to Colonel De Craye to pronounce an encomium on him: "The most open-minded man I know! Warranted to do perpetual service, and no mischief. If you were all . . . instead of catching at every prize you covet! Yes, you would have your reward for unselfishness, I assure you. Yes, and where you seek it! That is what none of you men will believe."

"When you behold me in your own livery!" cried the colonel.

"Do I?" said she, dallying with a half-formed design to be confidential. "How is it one is always tempted to address you in the language of innuendo? I can't guess."

"Except that as a dog doesn't comprehend good English we naturally talk bad to him."

The great lady was tickled. Who could help being amused by this man? And after all, if her fair Middleton chose to be a fool there could be no gainsaying her, sorry though poor Sir Willoughby's friends must feel for him.

She tried not to smile.

"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!"