WHEN Magdalen and her father met in the shrubbery Mr. Vanstone's face
showed plainly that something had happened to please him since he had left
home in the morning. He answered the question which his daughter's curiosity at
once addressed to him by informing her that he had just come from Mr. Clare's
cottage; and that he had picked up, in that unpromising locality, a startling piece
of news for the family at Combe-Raven.
On entering the philosopher's study that morning, Mr. Vanstone had found him
still dawdling over his late breakfast, with an open letter by his side, in place of
the book which, on other occasions, lay ready to his hand at meal-times. He held
up the letter the moment his visitor came into the room, and abruptly opened the
conversation by asking Mr. Vanstone if his nerves were in good order, and if he
felt himself strong enough for the shock of an overwhelming surprise.
"Nerves!" repeated Mr. Vanstone. "Thank God, I know nothing about my nerves.
If you have got anything to tell me, shock or no shock, out with it on the spot."
Mr. Clare held the letter a little higher, and frowned at his visitor across the
breakfast-table. "What have I always told you?" he asked, with his sourest
solemnity of look and manner.
"A great deal more than I could ever keep in my head," answered Mr. Vanstone.
"In your presence and out of it," continued Mr. Clare, "I have always maintained
that the one important phenomenon presented by modern society is -- the
enormous prosperity of Fools. Show me an individual Fool, and I will show you
an aggregate Society which gives that highly-favored personage nine chances
out of ten -- and grudges the tenth to the wisest man in existence. Look where
you will, in every high place there sits an Ass, settled beyond the reach of all the
greatest intellects in this world to pull him down. Over our whole social system,