Somehow, he is not sure how, he cannot feel that he has made some definite decision in the matter, it seems easier to do than not to, Sandy finds himself dining somewhat more frequently than once a week with Geoffrey Merrett. Occasionally he thinks that there is somewhat ironic about this arrangement: for is that not what he at first supposed there was with Gervase? A matter of convenience for two fellows of like desires to gratify them most discreet. It is only now that he apprehends what a difference there was.
He is sitting having a peaceful quiet evening with Clorinda, both of them reading, and he looks up and says, somewhat to his own surprize, that he cannot fathom how that trick of substituting one person for another in bed could work –
Well, my dear, I think we may suppose that Angelo had not had carnal knowledge of Mariana, nor Bertram of Helena, and that both encounters took place in the dark. And perchance there was a matter of sprinkling with some perfume – she gives a small private smile – that was that of one lady rather than another. But sure one would suppose that Count Almaviva would know his own wife! Indeed, 'tis like the convention that does one put on a domino, even one’s intimates will be deceived.
I am not persuaded, she goes on, that 'tis entire true that all cats are grey at night - for there are other distinctions in the matter, the size, the length of the hair, do they have an ear missing, the sound of the purring – by which one might distinguish one cat from another even in the dark. Should never confuse Motley with Fribble.
He smiles at her.
It begins to dawn upon him that Geoffrey is not taking the matter in the same prudential spirit as himself. Will mention gentlemen that have set up a joint household for the convenience and economy of the thing – says that he dares suppose they may see a deal of one another over the summer even is Society out of Town, for he hears that Sandy is invited to Dambert Chase? And he is sure that he can prevail upon his brother to extend an invitation to Monks Garrowby – sure there are opportunities they may make –
He does not know why this should cast him into such gloom, but it does so. Had been thinking of the invitation to Hampshire, where he might talk classics with Lady Jane, and the latest discoveries in science with Jacob Samuels, and whatever came into Martha Samuels' head. And watch Raoul de Clérault painting, and would all be soothing to his spirits. At Dambert Chase it was the prospect of good talk with Tony Offgrange, walks to the Rectory and fine conversation with the Lucases. Not spaniel devotion –
My dear, says Clorinda one morn as they are at the breakfast table, I should not be perturbed did I see the dour Calvinistical glare, but latterly you look most extreme miserable – not, she goes on, that I should expect you to look lightsome and cheerful, but you do appear out of the common distressed about somewhat. Was you not a freethinker I should suppose you had come to some consideration that you were eternally damned.
Dear sibyl, he says at length, I am in an entire muddle, but you have disentangled mayhap worse muddles of mine in former days. And proceeds to lay the matter before her.
Clorinda begins to laugh quite immoderate, and then forces herself into sobriety. My dear, I do not laugh at you and your predicament, but I daresay I should disclose that some years ago Mr Merrett asked for my hand in marriage –
La, I had shown kind to him, and perchance – 'twas a time when Society was but slowly returning to Town, you and Milord had gone that jaunt to the Highlands, there was some matter to do with the ironworks detained my darlings from their return – I paid him a little more attention than I might otherwise have done. And listened most sympathetic to the account of his very particular difficulties, &C. And it came to him that marrying a lady that knew what's what and had seen life might answer, for these young women on the marriage market are very ignorant and one could not raise the matter before the wedding –
Indeed, Sandy finds himself surprized into laughter. Did he so? he gasps at length.
Clorinda puts on a demure expression. He did so. So, I said that I apprehended that he would claim a certain liberty within those bonds, and sure, was I ever minded to remarry, should desire a similar liberty, would tie up my fortune, and moreover the profession have give it out that I am unlike to see increase but that might be of no moment to him –
To be just, she adds, I do not think he had any particular thought to my pleasing competence; but he then looked at me and I think went consider what 'twould mean to marry a woman with a mind and will of her own that has seen the things I have seen, and that we had had a most agreeable and amusing interlude but that marriage was a very different proposition.
You were not obliged to go about as you did with that fellow Croce in Naples?
Clorinda giggles and says, most fortunately, no. But, she goes on, putting on a serious expression, I think I must go speak to Mr Merrett, about taking advantage of a fellow that still grieves – for indeed, 'tis like unto widows, that may show pliant to suitors not because they are so used to having a man, as idle tongues will have it, but because they are in a daze.
What, I am a readily beguiled widow?
Dearest Sandy, you were together with Milord nigh upon thirty years. 'Twould reflect poorly upon the both of you did you not mourn. But 'tis the worse for you that you may not show it, dress in weeds, eschew society, &C –
You must know somewhat of that.
'Tis true, she says a little tearfully, but I had my good people about me, took care of me. But I will go write Mr Merrett a note desiring him to call upon me. Can be nothing exceptionable in summoning him: I daresay he will suppose I wish put some deserving case in his way. I might also go suggest to him that although his family quite accepts the pretty devotion of the Ladies of Attervale, might be somewhat of a different matter when 'tis gentlemen –
Do you go tell me that Lady Emily and Miss Fenster are of the Sapphic disposition?
La, my dear, had you not guessed?
Indeed I am a fool, dear sibyl, but - sure women are entire a mystery to me.
O, poo, Mr MacDonald, sure you have not been immured in some monastery, you have several good female friends, women cannot be so entire a mystery to you –
Oh, I see what 'tis – I do not think women of them, I think Hannah or Lady Jane or Susannah Wallace.
She smiles at him. Did you not, o, many years ago, write to me of those among your peripatetic philosophical set that talked of women as if they had never met one and as if they were some rare creature of which they had heard report? There are indeed certain aspects of women you have not encountered, but as a sex they are not strangers to you.
I will also concede, he says, that I have at times been out in my judgements of my own sex.
They smile at one another.
Sandy is greatly tempted to be out of the house when Geoffrey Merrett calls, but merely goes seclude himself in the library. Where he finds himself in a considerable curiosity as to what Clorinda is telling him, indeed is unable to settle to anything.
At length, Hector comes in to ask whether he is at home to Mr Merrett?
It would be cowardly, unmanly and a little cruel to shirk this interview.
Comes in Geoffrey most chastened and quite abject apologetic for the very poor ton he has manifested. Alas, the admiration he had so long borne towards Mr MacDonald led him into this unmannerly imposition.
This is so pretty and touching a sight that Sandy pulls Geoffrey into his arms, kisses him fondly and apologises that he himself, alas, is yet unable to love again.
Indeed, cries Geoffrey, how could it be otherwise?
(Sandy wonders, not for the first time, whether Gervase had succumbed to that melting adoration during that time the two of them were so horribly at outs and he had fled to Naples to beg Clorinda to return to her wonted haunts. Fencing lessons – instruction in driving – considerable opportunities. )
But, he continues, perchance, someday - ?
Sandy makes some non-committal reply. Adoration and admiration are all very well, but he cannot envision Geoffrey teazing him out of his gloomy moods, or having Gervase’s way of dealing with a dour Calvinistical glare.
Geoffrey steps back and looks about their surroundings. I see you have your library around you already.
'Tis Lady Bexbury's, he says.
Oh – an inheritance from her late husband?
(It pleases Sandy more than it should to apprehend that Mr Merrett may have shared Clorinda’s bed – in a far more conventional sense than he himself ever has – but has no notion that she is a lady keeps a fine library for use rather than ornament.)