"But pardon me, my dear Miss Wodehouse—" said Jack Wentworth.
"My sister is Miss Wodehouse," said Lucy. "What there is to settle had better be arranged with our—our brother. If he will tell us precisely when he wishes us to go away, we shall be ready. Mary is going to be married," she went on, turning round so as to face Wodehouse, and addressing him pointedly, though she did not look at him—to the exclusion of Jack, who, experienced man as he was, felt disconcerted, and addressed himself with more precaution to a task which was less easy than he supposed.
"Oh, Lucy!" cried Miss Wodehouse, with a blush worthy of eighteen. It was perhaps the first time that the fact had been so broadly stated, and the sudden announcement made before two men overwhelmed the timid woman. Then she was older than Lucy, and had picked up in the course of her career one or two inevitable scraps of experience, and she could not but wonder with a momentary qualm what Mr Proctor might think of his brother-in-law. Lucy, who thought Mr Proctor only too well off, went on without regarding her sister's exclamation.
"I do not know when the marriage is to be—I don't suppose they have fixed it yet," said Lucy; "but it appears to me that it would save us all some trouble if we were allowed to remain until that time. I do not mean to ask any favour," she said, with a little more sharpness and less dignity. "We could pay rent for that matter, if—if it were desired. She is your sister," said Lucy, suddenly looking Wodehouse in the face, "as well as mine. I daresay she has done as much for you as she has for me. I don't ask any favour for her—but I would cut off my little finger if that would please her," cried the excited young woman, with a wildness of illustration so totally out of keeping with the matter referred to, that Miss Wodehouse, in the midst of her emotion, could scarcely restrain a scream of terror; "and you too might be willing to do something; you cannot have any kind of feeling for me," Lucy continued, recovering herself; "but you might perhaps have some feeling for Mary. If we can be permitted to remain until her marriage takes place, it may perhaps bring about—a feeling—more like—relations; and I shall be able to—"
"Forgive you," Lucy was about to say, but fortunately stopped herself in time; for it was the fact of his existence that she had to forgive, and naturally such an amount of toleration was difficult to explain. As for Wodehouse himself, he listened to this appeal with very mingled feelings. Some natural admiration and liking woke in his dull mind as Lucy spoke. He was not destitute of good impulses, nor of the ordinary human affections. His little sister was pretty, and a lady, and clever enough to put Jack Wentworth much more in the background than usual. He said, "By Jove" to himself three or four times over in his beard, and showed a little emotion when she said he could have no feeling for her. At that point of Lucy's address he moved about uneasily in his chair, and plucked at his beard, and felt himself anything but comfortable. "By Jove! I never had a chance," the prodigal said, in his undertone. "I might have cared a deal for her if I had had a chance. She might have done a fellow good, by Jove!" mutterings of which Lucy took no manner of notice, but proceeded with her speech. When she had ended, and it became apparent that an answer was expected of him, Wodehouse flushed all over with the embarrassment of the position. He cleared his throat, he shifted his eyes, which were embarrassed by Lucy's gaze, he pushed his chair from the table, and made various attempts to collect himself, but at last ended by a pitiful appeal to Jack Wentworth, who had been looking seriously on. "You might come to a fellow's assistance!" cried Wodehouse. "By Jove! it was for that you came here."
"The Miss Wodehouses evidently prefer to communicate with their brother direct," said Jack Wentworth, "which is a very natural sentiment. If I interfere, it is simply because I have had the advantage of talking the matter over, and understanding a little of what you mean. Miss Wodehouse, your brother is not disposed to act the part of a domestic tyrant. He has come here to offer you the house, which must have so many tender associations for you, not for a short period, as you wish, but for—"
"I didn't know she was going to be married!" exclaimed Wodehouse—"that makes all the difference, by Jove! Lucy will marry fast enough; but as for Mary, I never thought she would hook any one at her time of life," said the vagabond, with a rude laugh. He turned to Lucy, not knowing any better, and with some intention of pleasing her; but being met by a look of indignation under which he faltered, he went back to his natural role of sulky insolence. "By Jove! when I gave in to make such an offer, I never thought she had a chance of getting married," said the heir. "I aint going to give what belongs to me to another man—"
"Your brother wishes," said Jack Wentworth, calmly, "to make over the house and furniture as it stands to you and your sister, Miss Wodehouse. Of course it is not to be expected that he should be sorry to get his father's property; but he is sorry that there should be no—no provision for you. He means that you should have the house—"
"But I never thought she was going to be married, by Jove!" protested the rightful owner. "Look here, Molly; you shall have the furniture. The house would sell for a good bit of money. I tell you, Wentworth—"
Jack Wentworth did not move from the mantlepiece where he was standing, but he cast a glance upon his unlucky follower which froze the words on his lips. "My good fellow, you are quite at liberty to decline my mediation in your affairs. Probably you can manage them better your own way," said Wodehouse's hero. "I can only beg the Miss Wodehouses to pardon my intrusion." Jack Wentworth's first step towards the door let loose a flood of nameless terrors upon the soul of his victim. If he were abandoned by his powerful protector, what would become of him? His very desire of money, and the avarice which prompted him to grudge making any provision for his sisters, was, after all, not real avarice, but the spendthrift's longing for more to spend. The house which he was sentenced to give up represented not so much gold and silver, but so many pleasures, fine dinners, and bad company. He could order the dinners by himself, it is true, and get men like himself to eat them; but the fine people—the men who had once been fine, and who still retained a certain tarnished glory—were, so far as Wodehouse was concerned, entirely in Jack Wentworth's keeping. He made a piteous appeal to his patron as the great man turned to go away.
"I don't see what good it can do you to rob a poor fellow!" cried Wodehouse. "But look here, I aint going to turn against your advice. I'll give it them, by Jove, for life—that is, for Mary's life," said the munificent brother. "She's twenty years older than Lucy—"
"How do you dare to subject us to such insults?" cried the indignant Lucy, whose little hand clenched involuntarily in her passion. She had a great deal of self-control, but she was not quite equal to such an emergency; and it was all she could do to keep from stamping her foot, which was the only utterance of rage possible to a gentlewoman in her position. "I would rather see my father's house desecrated by you living in it," she cried, passionately, "than accept it as a gift from your hands. Mary, we are not obliged to submit to this. Let us rather go away at once. I will not remain in the same room with this man!" cried Lucy. She was so overwhelmed with her unwonted passion that she lost all command of the position, and even of herself, and was false for the moment to all her sweet codes of womanly behaviour. "How dare you, sir!" she cried in the sudden storm for which nobody was prepared. "We will remove the things belonging to us, with which nobody has any right to interfere, and we will leave immediately. Mary, come with me!" When she had said this, Lucy swept out of the room, pale as a little fury, and feeling in her heart a savage female inclination to strike Jack Wentworth, who opened the door for her, with her little white clenched hand. Too much excited to remark whether her sister had followed her, Lucy ran up-stairs to her room, and there gave way to the inevitable tears. Coming to herself after that was a terribly humbling process to the little Anglican. She had never fallen into a "passion" before that she knew of, certainly never since nursery times; and often enough her severe serene girlhood had looked reproving and surprised upon the tumults of Prickett's Lane, awing the belligerents into at least temporary silence. Now poor Lucy sat and cried over her downfall; she had forgotten herself; she had been conscious of an inclination to stamp, to scold, even to strike, in the vehemence of her indignation; and she was utterly overpowered by the thought of her guiltiness. "The very first temptation!" she said to herself; and made terrible reflections upon her own want of strength and endurance. To-day, too, of all days, when God had been so good to her! "If I yield to the first temptation like this, how shall I ever endure to the end?" cried Lucy, and in her heart thought, with a certain longing, of the sacrament of penance, and tried to think what she could do that would be most disagreeable, to the mortifying of the flesh. Perhaps if she had possessed a more lively sense of humour, another view of the subject might have struck Lucy; but humour, fortunately for the unity of human sentiment, is generally developed at a later period of life, and Lucy's fit of passion only made her think with greater tenderness and toleration of her termagants in Prickett's Lane.
The three who were left down-stairs were in their different ways impressed by Lucy's passion. Jack Wentworth, being a man of humour and cultivation, was amused, but respectful, as having still a certain faculty of appreciating absolute purity when he saw it. As for Wodehouse, he gave another rude laugh, but was cowed, in spite of himself, and felt involuntarily what a shabby wretch he was, recognising that fact more impressively from the contempt of Lucy's pale face than he could have done through hours of argument. Miss Wodehouse, for her part, though very anxious and nervous, was not without an interest in the question under discussion. She was not specially horrified by her brother, or anything he could say or do. He was Tom to her—a boy with whom she had once played, and whom she had shielded with all her sisterly might in his first transgressions. She had suffered a great deal more by his means than Lucy could ever suffer, and consequently was more tolerant of him. She kept her seat with the St Agnes in the chair behind, and watched the course of events with anxious steadiness. She did not care for money any more than Lucy did; but she could not help thinking it would be very pleasant if she could produce one good action on "poor Tom's" part to plead for him against any possible criticisms of the future. Miss Wodehouse was old enough to know that her Rector was not an ideal hero, but an ordinary man, and it was quite possible that he might point a future moral now and then with "that brother of yours, my dear." The elder sister waited accordingly, with her heart beating quick, to know the decision, very anxious that she might have at least one generous deed to record to the advantage of poor Tom.
"I think we are quite decided on the point," said Jack Wentworth. "Knowing your sentiments, Wodehouse, I left directions with Waters about the papers. I think you will find him to be trusted, Miss Wodehouse, if you wish to consult him about letting or selling—"
"By Jove!" exclaimed Wodehouse, under his breath.
"Which, I suppose," continued the superb Jack, "you will wish to do under the pleasant circumstances, upon which I beg to offer you my congratulations. Now, Tom, my good fellow, I am at your service. I think we have done our business here."
Wodehouse got up in his sulky reluctant way like a lazy dog. "I suppose you won't try to move the furniture now?" he said. These were the only adieux he intended to make, and perhaps they might have been expressed with still less civility, had not Jack Wentworth been standing waiting for him at the door.
"Oh, Tom! I am so thankful you have done it!" cried Miss Wodehouse. "It is not that I care for the money; but oh, Tom, I am so glad to think nobody can say anything now." She followed them wistfully to the door, not giving up hopes of a kinder parting. "I think it is very kind and nice of you, and what dear papa would have wished," said the elder sister, forgetting how all her father's plans had been brought to nothing; "and of course you will live here all the same?" she said, with a little eagerness, "that is, till—till—as long as we are here—"
"Good-bye, Miss Wodehouse," said Jack Wentworth. "I don't think either your brother or I will stay much longer in Carlingford. You must accept my best wishes for your happiness all the same."
"You are very kind, I am sure," said the embarrassed bride; "and oh, Tom, you will surely say good-bye? Say good-bye once as if you meant it; don't go away as if you did not care. Tom, I always was very fond of you; and don't you feel a little different to us, now you've done us a kindness?" cried Miss Wodehouse, going out after him to the landing-place. But Wodehouse was in no humour to be gracious. Instead of paying any attention to her, he looked regretfully at the property he had lost.
"Good-bye," he said, vaguely. "By Jove! I know better than Jack Wentworth does the value of property. We might have had a jolly month at Homburg out of that old place," said the prodigal, with regret, as he went down the old-fashioned oak stair. That was his farewell to the house which he had entered so disastrously on the day of his father's funeral. He followed his leader with a sulky aspect through the garden, not venturing to disobey, but yet feeling the weight of his chains. And this was how Wodehouse accomplished his personal share in the gift to his sisters, of which Miss Wodehouse told everybody that it was "so good of Tom!"
"Going to be married!" said the Squire; "and to a sister of—I thought you told me she was as old as Dora, Frank? I did not expect to meet with any further complications," the old man said, plaintively: "of course you know very well I don't object to your marrying; but why on earth did you let me speak of Wentworth Rectory to Huxtable?" cried Mr Wentworth. He was almost more impatient about this new variety in the family circumstances than he had been of more serious family distresses. "God bless me, sir," said the Squire, "what do you mean by it? You take means to affront your aunts and lose Skelmersdale; and then you put it into my head to have Mary at Wentworth; and then you quarrel with the Rector, and get into hot water in Carlingford; and, to make an end of all, you coolly propose to an innocent young woman, and tell me you are going to marry—what on earth do you mean?"
"I am going to marry some time, sir, I hope," said the Perpetual Curate, with more cheerfulness than he felt; "but not at the present moment. Of course we both know that is impossible. I should like you to come with me and see her before you leave Carlingford. She would like it, and so should I."
"Well, well," said the Squire. Naturally, having been married so often himself, he could not refuse a certain response to such a call upon his sympathy. "I hope you have made a wise choice," said the experienced father, not without a sigh; "a great deal depends upon that—not only your own comfort, sir, but very often the character of your children and the credit of the family. You may laugh," said Mr Wentworth, to whom it was no laughing matter; "but long before you are as old as I am, you will know the truth of what I say. Your mother, Frank, was a specimen of what a woman ought to be—not to speak of her own children, there was nobody else who ever knew how to manage Gerald and Jack. Of course I am not speaking of Mrs Wentworth, who has her nursery to occupy her," said the Squire, apologetically. "I hope you have made a judicious choice."
"I hope so, too," said Frank, who was somewhat amused by this view of the question—"though I am not aware of having exercised any special choice in the matter," he added, with a laugh. "However, I want you to come with me and see her, and then you will be able to judge for yourself."
The Squire shook his head, and looked as if he had travelled back into the heavy roll of family distresses. "I don't mean to upbraid you, Frank," he said—"I daresay you have done what you thought was your duty—but I think you might have taken a little pains to satisfy your aunt Leonora. You see what Gerald has made of it, with all his decorations and nonsense. That is a dreadful drawback with you clergymen. You fix your eyes so on one point that you get to think things important that are not in the least important. Could you imagine a man of the world like Jack—he is not what I could wish, but still he is a man of the world," said the Squire, who was capable of contradicting himself with perfect composure without knowing it. "Can you imagine him risking his prospects for a bit of external decoration? I don't mind it myself," said Mr Wentworth, impartially—"I don't pretend to see, for my own part, why flowers at Easter should be considered more superstitious than holly at Christmas; but, bless my soul, sir, when your aunt thought so, what was the good of running right in her face for such a trifle? I never could understand you parsons," the Squire said, with an impatient sigh—"nobody, that I know of, ever considered me mercenary; but to ruin your own prospects, all for a trumpery bunch of flowers, and then to come and tell me you want to marry—"
This was before luncheon, when Frank and his father were together in the dining-room waiting for the other members of the family, who began to arrive at this moment, and prevented any further discussion. After all, perhaps, it was a little ungenerous of the Squire to press his son so hard on the subject of those innocent Easter lilies, long ago withered, which certainly, looked at from this distance, did not appear important enough to sacrifice any prospects for. This was all the harder upon the unfortunate Curate, as even at the time his conviction of their necessity had not proved equal to the satisfactory settlement of the question. Miss Wentworth's cook was an artiste so irreproachable that the luncheon provided was in itself perfect; but notwithstanding it was an uncomfortable meal. Miss Leonora, in consequence of the contest going on in her own mind, was in an explosive and highly dangerous condition, not safe to be spoken to; and as for the Squire, he could not restrain the chance utterances of his impatience. Frank, who did his best to make himself agreeable as magnanimity required, had the mortification of hearing himself discussed in different tones of disapprobation while he ate his cold beef; for Mr Wentworth's broken sentences were not long of putting the party in possession of the new event, and the Perpetual Curate found himself the object of many wondering and pitying glances, in none of which could he read pure sympathy, much less congratulation. Even Gerald looked at him with a little elevation of his eyebrows, as if wondering how anybody could take the trouble to occupy his mind with such trifling temporal affairs as love and marriage. It was a wonderful relief to the unfortunate Curate when Miss Leonora had finished her glass of madeira, and rose from the table. He had no inclination to go up-stairs, for his own part. "When you are ready, sir, you will find me in the garden," he said to his father, who was to leave Carlingford next morning, and whom he had set his heart on taking to see Lucy. But his walk in the garden was far from being delightful to Frank. It even occurred to him, for a moment, that it would be a very good thing if a man could cut himself adrift from his relations at such a crisis of his life. After all, it was his own business—the act most essentially personal of his entire existence; and then, with a little softening, he began to think of the girls at home—of the little sister, who had a love-story of her own; and of Letty, who was Frank's favourite, and had often confided to him the enthusiasm she would feel for his bride. "If she is nice," Letty was in the habit of adding, "and of course she will be nice,"—and at that thought the heart of the young lover escaped, and put forth its wings, and went off into that heaven of ideal excellence and beauty, more sweet, because more vague, than anything real, which stands instead of the old working-day skies and clouds at such a period of life. He had to drop down from a great height, and get rid in all haste of his celestial pinions, when he heard his aunt Dora calling him; and his self-command was not sufficient to conceal, as he obeyed that summons, a certain annoyed expression in his face.
"Frank," said Miss Dora, coming softly after him with her handkerchief held over her head as a defence from the sun—"oh, Frank, I want to speak to you. I couldn't say anything at lunch because of everybody being there. If you would only stop a moment till I get my breath. Frank, my dear boy, I wish you joy. I do wish you joy with all my heart. I should so like just to go and kiss her, and tell her I shall love her for your sake."
"You will soon love her for her own sake," said Frank, to whom even this simple-minded sympathy was very grateful; "she is a great deal better than I am."
"There is just one thing," said Miss Dora. "Oh, Frank, my dear, you know I don't pretend to be clever, like Leonora, or able to give you advice; but there is one thing. You know you have nothing to marry upon, and all has gone wrong. You are not to have Wentworth, and you are not to have Skelmersdale, and I think the family is going out of its senses not to see who is the most worthy. You have got nothing to live upon, my dear, dear boy!" said Miss Dora, withdrawing the handkerchief from her head in the excitement of the moment to apply it to her eyes.
"That is true enough," said the Perpetual Curate; "but then we have not made up our minds that we must marry immediately—"
"Frank," said aunt Dora, with solemnity, breaking into his speech, "there is just one thing; and I can't hold my tongue, though it may be very foolish, and they will all say it is my fault." It was a very quiet summer-day, but still there was a faint rustle in the branches which alarmed the timid woman. She put her hand upon her nephew's arm, and hastened him on to the little summer-house in the wall, which was her special retirement. "Nobody ever comes here," said Miss Dora; "they will never think of looking for us here. I am sure I never interfere with Leonora's arrangements, nor take anything upon myself; but there is one thing, Frank—"
"Yes," said the Curate, "I understand what you mean: you are going to warn me about love in a cottage, and how foolish it would be to marry upon nothing; but, my dear aunt, we are not going to do anything rash; there is no such dreadful haste; don't be agitated about it," said the young man, with a smile. He was half amused and half irritated by the earnestness which almost took away the poor lady's breath.
"You don't know what I mean," said aunt Dora. "Frank, you know very well I never interfere; but I can't help being agitated when I see you on the brink of such a precipice. Oh, my dear boy, don't be over-persuaded. There is one thing, and I must say it if I should die." She had to pause a little to recover her voice, for haste and excitement had a tendency to make her inarticulate. "Frank," said Miss Dora again, more solemnly than ever, "whatever you may be obliged to do—though you were to write novels, or take pupils, or do translations—oh, Frank, don't look at me like that, as if I was going crazy. Whatever you may have to do, oh my dear, there is one thing—don't go and break people's hearts, and put it off, and put it off, till it never happens!" cried the trembling little woman, with a sudden burst of tears. "Don't say you can wait, for you can't wait, and you oughtn't to!" sobbed Miss Dora. She subsided altogether into her handkerchief and her chair as she uttered this startling and wholly unexpected piece of advice, and lay there in a little heap, all dissolving and floating away, overcome with her great effort, while her nephew stood looking at her from a height of astonishment almost too extreme for wondering. If the trees could have found a voice and counselled his immediate marriage, he could scarcely have been more surprised.
"You think I am losing my senses too," said aunt Dora; "but that is because you don't understand me. Oh Frank, my dear boy, there was once a time!—perhaps everybody has forgotten it except me, but I have not forgotten it. They treated me like a baby, and Leonora had everything her own way. I don't mean to say it was not for the best," said the aggrieved woman. "I know everything is for the best, if we could but see it: and perhaps Leonora was right when she said I never could have struggled with—with a family, nor lived on a poor man's income. My dear, it was before your uncle Charley died; and when we became rich, it—didn't matter," said Miss Dora; "it was all over before then. Oh Frank! if I hadn't experience I wouldn't say a word. I don't interfere about your opinions, like Leonora. There is just one thing," cried the poor lady through her tears. Perhaps it was the recollection of the past which overcame Miss Dora, perhaps the force of habit which had made it natural for her to cry when she was much moved; but the fact is certain, that the Squire, when he came to the door of the summer-house in search of Frank, found his sister weeping bitterly, and his son making efforts to console her, in which some sympathy was mingled with a certain half-amusement. Frank, like Lucy, felt tempted to laugh at the elderly romance; and yet his heart expanded warmly to his tender little foolish aunt, who, after all, might once have been young and in love like himself, though it was so odd to realise it. Mr Wentworth, for his part, saw no humour whatever in the scene. He thought nothing less than that some fresh complication had taken place. Jack had committed some new enormity, or there was bad news from Charley in Malta, or unpleasant letters had come from home. "Bless my soul, sir, something new has happened," said the Squire; and he was scarcely reassured, when Miss Dora stumbled up from her chair in great confusion, and wiped the tears from her eyes. He was suspicious of this meeting in the summer-house, which seemed a quite unnecessary proceeding to Mr Wentworth; and though he flattered himself he understood women, he could not give any reasonable explanation to himself of Dora's tears.
"It is nothing—nothing at all," said Miss Dora: "it was not Frank's doing in the least; he is always so considerate, and such a dear fellow. Thank you, my dear boy; my head is a little better; I think I will go in and lie down," said the unlucky aunt. "You are not to mind me now, for I have quite got over my little attack; I always was so nervous," said Miss Dora; "and I sometimes wonder whether it isn't the Wentworth complaint coming on," she added, with a natural female artifice which was not without its effect.
"I wish you would not talk nonsense," said the Squire. "The Wentworth complaint is nothing to laugh at, but you are perfectly aware that it never attacks women." Mr Wentworth spoke with a little natural irritation, displeased to have his prerogative interfered with. When a man has all the suffering attendant upon a special complaint, it is hard not to have all the dignity. He felt so much and so justly annoyed by Miss Dora's vain pretensions, that he forgot his anxiety about the secret conference in the summer-house. "Women take such fantastic ideas into their heads," he said to his son as they went away together. "Your aunt Dora is the kindest soul in the world; but now and then, sir, she is very absurd," said the Squire. He could not get this presumptuous notion out of his head, but returned to it again and again, even after they had got into Grange Lane. "It has been in our family for two hundred years," said Mr Wentworth; "and I don't think there is a single instance of its attacking a woman—not even slightly, sir," the Squire added, with irritation, as if Frank had taken the part of the female members of the family, which indeed the Curate had no thought of doing.
Miss Dora, for her part, having made this very successful diversion, escaped to the house, and to her own room, where she indulged in a headache all the afternoon, and certain tender recollections which were a wonderful resource at all times to the soft-hearted woman. "Oh, my dear boy, don't be over-persuaded," she had whispered into Frank's ear as she left him; and her remonstrance, simple as it was, had no doubt produced a considerable effect upon the mind of the Perpetual Curate. He could not help thinking, as they emerged into the road, that it was chiefly the impatient and undutiful who secured their happiness. Those who were constant and patient, and able to deny themselves, instead of being rewarded for their higher qualities, were, on the contrary, put to the full test of the strength that was in them; while those who would not wait attained what they wanted, and on the whole, as to other matters, got on just as well as their stronger-minded neighbours. This germ of thought, it may be supposed, was stimulated into very warm life by the reflection that Lucy would have to leave Carlingford with her sister, without any definite prospect of returning again; and a certain flush of impatience came over the young man, not unnatural in the circumstances. It seemed to him that everybody else took their own way without waiting; and why should it be so certain that he alone, whose "way" implied harm to no one, should be the only man condemned to wait? Thus it will be seen that the "just one thing" insisted on by Miss Dora was far from being without effect on the mind of her nephew; upon whom, indeed, the events of the morning had wrought various changes of sentiment. When he walked up Grange Lane for the first time, it had been without any acknowledged intention of opening his mind to Lucy, and yet he had returned along the same prosaic and unsympathetic line of road her accepted lover; her accepted lover, triumphant in that fact, but without the least opening of any hope before him as to the conclusion of the engagement, which prudence had no hand in making. Now the footsteps of the Perpetual Curate fell firmly, not to say a little impatiently, upon the road over which he had carried so many varying thoughts. He was as penniless as ever, and as prospectless; but in the tossings of his natural impatience the young man had felt the reins hang loosely about his head, and knew that he was no more restrained than other men, but might, if he chose it, have his way like the rest of the world. It was true enough that he might have to pay for it after, as other people had done; but in the mean time the sense that he was his own master was sweet, and to have his will for once seemed no more than his right in the world. While these rebellious thoughts were going on in the Curate's mind, his father, who suspected nothing, went steadily by his side, not without a little reluctance at the thought of the errand on which he was bound. "But they can't marry for years, and nobody can tell what may happen in that time," Mr Wentworth said to himself, with the callousness of mature age, not suspecting the different ideas that were afloat in the mind of his son. Perhaps, on the whole, he was not sorry that Skelmersdale was destined otherwise, and that Huxtable had been spoken to about Wentworth Rectory; for, of course, Frank would have plunged into marriage at once if he had been possessed of anything to marry on; and it looked providential under the circumstances, as the Squire argued with himself privately, that at such a crisis the Perpetual Curate should have fallen between two stools of possible preferment, and should still be obliged to content himself with St Roque's. It was hard for Mr Wentworth to reconcile himself to the idea that the wife of his favourite son should be the sister of—; for the Squire forgot that his own girls were Jack Wentworth's sisters, and as such might be objected to in their turn by some other father. So the two gentlemen went to see Lucy, who was then in a very humble frame of mind, just recovered from her passion—one of them rather congratulating himself on the obstacles which lay before the young couple, the other tossing his youthful head a little in the first impulses of self-will, feeling the reins lie loose upon him, and making up his mind to have his own way.
While Mr Frank Wentworth's affairs were thus gathering to a crisis, other events likely to influence his fate were also taking place in Carlingford. Breakfast had been served a full half-hour later than usual in the Rectory, which had not improved the temper of the household. Everything was going on with the most wonderful quietness in that well-arranged house; but it was a quietness which would have made a sensitive visitor uncomfortable, and which woke horrible private qualms in the mind of the Rector. As for Mrs Morgan, she fulfilled all her duties with a precision which was terrible to behold: instead of taking part in the conversation as usual, and having her own opinion, she had suddenly become possessed of such a spirit of meekness and acquiescence as filled her husband with dismay. The Rector was fond of his wife, and proud of her good sense, and her judgment, and powers of conversation. If she had been angry and found fault with him, he might have understood that mode of procedure; but as she was not angry, but only silent, the excellent man was terribly disconcerted, and could not tell what to do. He had done all he could to be conciliatory, and had already entered upon a great many explanations which had come to nothing for want of any response; and now she sat at the head of the table making tea with an imperturbable countenance, sometimes making little observations about the news, perfectly calm and dignified, but taking no part in anything more interesting, and turning off any reference that was made to her in the most skilful manner. "Mr Morgan knows I never take any part in the gossip of Carlingford," she said to Mr Proctor, without any intention of wounding that good man; and he who had been in the midst of something about Mr Wentworth came to an abrupt stop with the sense of having shown himself as a gossip, which was very injurious to his dignity. The late Rector, indeed, occupied a very uncomfortable position between the married people thus engaged in the absorbing excitement of their first quarrel. The quiet little arrows, which Mrs Morgan intended only for her husband, grazed and stung him as they passed, without missing at the same time their intended aim; and he was the auditor, besides, of a great deal of information intended by the Rector for his wife's benefit, to which Mrs Morgan paid no manner of attention. Mr Proctor was not a man of very lively observation, but he could not quite shut his eyes to the position of affairs; and the natural effect upon his mind, in the circumstances, was to turn his thoughts towards his mild Mary, whom he did not quite recognise as yet under her Christian name. He called her Miss Wodehouse in his heart even while in the act of making comparisons very unfavourable to the Rector's wife, and then he introduced benevolently the subject of his new rectory, which surely must be safe ground.
"It is a pretty little place," Mr Proctor said, with satisfaction: "of course it is but a small living compared to Carlingford. I hope you will come and see me, after—it is furnished," said the bashful bridegroom: "it is a nuisance to have all that to look after for one's self—"
"I hope you will have somebody to help you," said Mrs Morgan, with a little earnestness; "gentlemen don't understand about such things. When you have one piece of furniture in bad taste, it spoils a whole room—carpets, for instance—" said the Rector's wife. She looked at Mr Proctor so severely that the good man faltered, though he was not aware of the full extent of his guiltiness.
"I am sure I don't know," he said: "I told the man here to provide everything as it ought to be; and I think we were very successful," continued Mr Proctor, with a little complacency: to be sure, they were in the dining-room at the moment, being still at the breakfast-table. "Buller knows a great deal about that sort of thing, but then he is too ecclesiological for my taste. I like things to look cheerful," said the unsuspicious man. "Buller is the only man that could be reckoned on if any living were to fall vacant. It is very odd nowadays how indifferent men are about the Church. I don't say that it is not very pleasant at All-Souls; but a house of one's own, you know—" said Mr Proctor, looking with a little awkward enthusiasm at his recently-married brother; "of course I mean a sphere—a career—"
"Oh, ah, yes," said Mr Morgan, with momentary gruffness; "but everything has its drawbacks. I don't think Buller would take a living. He knows too well what's comfortable," said the suffering man. "The next living that falls will have to go to some one out of the college," said Mr Morgan. He spoke with a tone of importance and significance which moved Mr Proctor, though he was not rapid in his perceptions, to look across at him for further information.
"Most people have some crotchet or other," said the Rector. "When a man's views are clear about subscription, and that sort of thing, he generally goes as far wrong the other way. Buller might go out to Central Africa, perhaps, if there was a bishopric of Wahuma—or what is the name, my dear, in that Nile book?"
"I have not read it," said Mrs Morgan, and she made no further remark.
Thus discouraged in his little attempt at amity, the Rector resumed after a moment, "Wentworth's brother has sent in his resignation to his bishop. There is no doubt about it any longer. I thought that delusion had been over, at all events; and I suppose now Wentworth will be provided for," said Mr Morgan, not without a little anxiety.
"No; they are all equally crotchety, I think," said Mr Proctor. "I know about them, through my—my connection with the Wodehouses, you know. I should not wonder, for my own part, if he went after his brother, who is a very intelligent man, though mistaken," the late Rector added, with respect. "As for Frank Wentworth, he is a little hot-headed. I had a long conversation the other night with the elder brother. I tried to draw him out about Burgon's book, but he declined to enter into the question. Frank has made up his mind to stay in Carlingford. I understand he thinks it right on account of his character being called in question here; though, of course, no one in his senses could have had any doubt how that would turn out," said Mr Proctor, forgetting that he himself had been very doubtful about the Curate. "From what I hear, they are all very crotchety," he continued, and finished his breakfast calmly, as if that settled the question. As for Mrs Morgan, even this interesting statement had no effect upon her. She looked up suddenly at one moment as if intending to dart a reproachful glance at her husband, but bethought herself in time, and remained passive as before; not the less, however, was she moved by what she had just heard. It was not Mr Wentworth she was thinking of, except in a very secondary degree. What occupied her, and made her reflections bitter, was the thought that her husband—the man to whom she had been faithful for ten weary years—had taken himself down off the pedestal on which she had placed him. "To make idols, and to find them clay," she said plaintively in her own mind. Women were all fools to spend their time and strength in constructing such pedestals, Mrs Morgan thought to herself with bitterness; and as to the men who were so perpetually dethroning themselves, how were they to be designated? To think of her William, of whom she had once made a hero, ruining thus, for a little petty malice and rivalry, the prospects of another man! While these painful reflections were going through her mind, she was putting away her tea-caddy, and preparing to leave the gentlemen to their own affairs. "We shall see you at dinner at six," she said, with a constrained little smile, to Mr Proctor, and went up-stairs with her key-basket in her hand without taking any special notice of the Rector. Mr Leeson was to come to dinner that day legitimately by invitation, and Mrs Morgan, who felt it would be a little consolation to disappoint the hungry Curate for once, was making up her mind, as she went up-stairs, not to have the All-Souls pudding, of which he showed so high an appreciation. It almost seemed to her as if this spark of ill-nature was receiving a summary chastisement, when she heard steps ascending behind her. Mrs Morgan objected to have men lounging about her drawing-room in the morning. She thought Mr Proctor was coming to bestow a little more of his confidence upon her, and perhaps to consult her about his furnishing; and being occupied by her own troubles, she had no patience for a tiresome, middle-aged lover, who no doubt was going to disappoint and disenchant another woman. She sat down, accordingly, with a sigh of impatience at her work-table, turning her back to the door. Perhaps, when he saw her inhospitable attitude, he might go away and not bother her. And Mrs Morgan took out some stockings to darn, as being a discontented occupation, and was considering within herself what simple preparation she could have instead of the All-Souls pudding, when, looking up suddenly, she saw, not Mr Proctor, but the Rector, standing looking down upon her within a few steps of her chair. When she perceived him, it was not in nature to refrain from certain symptoms of agitation. The thoughts she had been indulging in brought suddenly a rush of guilty colour to her face; but she commanded herself as well as she could, and went on darning her stockings, with her heart beating very loud in her breast.
"My dear," said the Rector, taking a seat near her, "I don't know what it is that has risen between us. We look as if we had quarrelled; and I thought we had made up our minds never to quarrel." The words were rather soft in their signification, but Mr Morgan could not help speaking severely, as was natural to his voice; which was perhaps, in the present case, all the better for his wife.
"I don't know what you may consider quarrelling, William," said Mrs Morgan, "but I am sure I have never made any complaint."
"No," said the Rector; "I have seen women do that before. You don't make any complaint, but you look as if you disapproved of everything. I feel it all the more just now because I want to consult you; and, after all, the occasion was no such—"
"I never said there was any occasion. I am sure I never made any complaint. You said you wanted to consult me, William?" Mrs Morgan went on darning her stockings while she was speaking, and the Rector, like most other men, objected to be spoken to by the lips only. He would have liked to toss the stocking out of the window, though it was his own, and the task of repairing it was one of a devoted wife's first duties, according to the code of female proprieties in which both the husband and wife had been brought up.
"Yes," said the Rector, with a sigh. "The truth is, I have just got a letter from Harry Scarsfield, who was my pet pupil long ago. He tells me my father's old rectory is vacant, where we were all brought up. There used to be a constant intercourse between the Hall and the Rectory when I was a lad. They are very nice people the Scarsfields—at least they used to be very nice people; and Harry has his mother living with him, and the family has never been broken up, I believe. We used to know everybody about there," said Mr Morgan, abandoning himself to recollections in a manner most mysterious to his wife. "There is the letter, my dear," and he put it down upon her table, and began to play with the reels of cotton in her workbox unconsciously, as he had not done for a long time; which, unawares to herself, had a softening influence upon Mrs Morgan's heart.
"I do not know anything about the Scarsfields," she said, without taking up the letter, "and I cannot see what you have to do with this. Does he wish you to recommend some one?" Mrs Morgan added, with a momentary interest; for she had, of course, like other people, a relation in a poor living, whom it would have been satisfactory to recommend.
"He says I may have it if I have a mind," said the Rector curtly, betraying a little aggravation in his tone.
"You, William?" said Mrs Morgan. She was so much surprised that she laid down her stocking and looked him straight in the face, which she had not done for many days; and it was wonderful how hard she found it to keep up her reserve, after having once looked her husband in the eyes. "But it is not much more than six months since you were settled in Carlingford," she said, still lost in amazement. "You cannot possibly mean to make a change so soon? and then the difference of the position," said the Rector's wife. As she looked at him, she became more and more aware of some meaning in his face which she did not understand; and more and more, as it became necessary to understand him, the reserves and self-defences of the first quarrel gave way and dispersed. "I don't think I quite know what you mean," she said, faltering a little. "I don't understand why you should think of a change."
"A good country living is a very good position," said the Rector; "it is not nearly so troublesome as a town like Carlingford. There is no Dissent that I know of, and no—" (here Mr Morgan paused for a moment, not knowing what word to use)—"no disturbing influences: of course I would not take such a step without your concurrence, my dear," the Rector continued; and then there followed a bewildering pause. Mrs Morgan's first sensation after the astonishment with which she heard this strange proposal was mortification—the vivid shame and vexation of a woman when she is obliged to own to herself that her husband has been worsted, and is retiring from the field.
"If you think it right—if you think it best—of course I can have nothing to say," said the Rector's wife; and she took up her stocking with a stinging sense of discomfiture. She had meant that her husband should be the first man in Carlingford—that he should gain everybody's respect and veneration, and become the ideal parish-priest of that favourite and fortunate place. Every kind of good work and benevolent undertaking was to be connected with his name, according to the visions which Mrs Morgan had framed when she came first to Carlingford, not without such a participation on her own part as should entitle her to the milder glory appertaining to the good Rector's wife. All these hopes were now to be blotted out ignominiously. Defeat and retreat and failure were to be the conclusion of their first essay at life. "You are the best judge of what you ought to do," she said, with as much calmness as she could muster, but she could have dropped bitter tears upon the stocking she was mending if that would have done any good.
"I will do nothing without your consent," said the Rector. "Young Wentworth is going to stay in Carlingford. You need not look up so sharply, as if you were vexed to think that had anything to do with it. If he had not behaved like a fool, I never could have been led into such a mistake," said Mr Morgan, with indignation, taking a little walk to the other end of the room to refresh himself. "At the same time," said the Rector, severely, coming back after a pause, "to show any ill-feeling would be very unchristian either on your side or mine. If I were to accept Harry Scarsfield's offer, Proctor and I would do all we could to have young Wentworth appointed to Carlingford. There is nobody just now at All-Souls to take the living; and however much you may disapprove of him, my dear," said Mr Morgan, with increasing severity, "there is nothing that I know to be said against him as a clergyman. If you can make up your mind to consent to it, and can see affairs in the same light as they appear to me, that is what I intend to do—"
Mrs Morgan's stocking had dropped on her knees as she listened; then it dropped on the floor, and she took no notice of it. When the Rector had finally delivered himself of his sentiments, which he did in the voice of a judge who was condemning some unfortunate to the utmost penalties of the law, his wife marked the conclusion of the sentence by a sob of strange excitement. She kept gazing at him for a few moments without feeling able to speak, and then she put down her face into her hands. Words were too feeble to give utterance to her feelings at such a supreme moment. "Oh, William, I wonder if you can ever forgive me," sobbed the Rector's wife, with a depth of compunction which he, good man, was totally unprepared to meet, and knew no occasion for. He was even at the moment a little puzzled to have such a despairing petition addressed to him. "I hope so, my dear," he said, very sedately, as he came and sat down beside her, and could not refrain from uttering a little lecture upon temper, which fortunately Mrs Morgan was too much excited to pay any attention to. "It would be a great deal better if you did not give way to your feelings," said the Rector; "but in the mean time, my dear, it is your advice I want, for we must not take such a step unadvisedly," and he lifted up the stocking that had fallen, and contemplated, not without surprise, the emotion of his wife. The excellent man was as entirely unconscious that he was being put up again at that moment with acclamations upon his pedestal, as that he had at a former time been violently displaced from it, and thrown into the category of broken idols. All this would have been as Sanscrit to the Rector of Carlingford; and the only resource he had was to make in his own mind certain half-pitying, half-affectionate remarks upon the inexplicable weakness of women, and to pick up the stocking which his wife was darning, and finally to stroke her hair, which was still as pretty and soft and brown as it had been ten years ago. Under such circumstances a man does not object to feel himself on a platform of moral superiority. He even began to pet her a little, with a pleasant sense of forgiveness and forbearance. "You were perhaps a little cross, my love, but you don't think I am the man to be hard upon you," said the Rector. "Now you must dry your eyes and give me your advice—you know how much confidence I have always had in your advice—"
"Forgive me, William. I don't think there is any one so good as you are; and as long as we are together it does not matter to me where we are," said the repentant woman. But as she lifted up her head, her eye fell on the carpet, and a gleam of sudden delight passed through Mrs Morgan's mind. To be delivered from all her suspicions and injurious thoughts about her husband would have been a deliverance great enough for one day; but at the same happy moment to see a means of deliverance from the smaller as well as the greater cross of her existence seemed almost too good to be credible. She brightened up immediately when that thought occurred to her. "I think it is the very best thing you could do," she said. "We are both so fond of the country, and it is so much nicer to manage a country parish than a town one. We might have lived all our lives in Carlingford without knowing above half of the poor people," said Mrs Morgan, growing in warmth as she went on; "it is so different in a country parish. I never liked to say anything," she continued, with subtle feminine policy, "but I never—much—cared for Carlingford." She gave a sigh as she spoke, for she thought of the Virginian creeper and the five feet of new wall at that side of the garden, which had just been completed, to shut out the view of the train. Life does not contain any perfect pleasure. But when Mrs Morgan stooped to lift up some stray reels of cotton which the Rector's clumsy fingers had dropped out of her workbox, her eye was again attracted by the gigantic roses and tulips on the carpet, and content and satisfaction filled her heart.
"I have felt the same thing, my dear," said Mr Morgan. "I don't say anything against Mr Finial as an architect, but Scott himself could make nothing of such a hideous church. I don't suppose Wentworth will mind," said the Rector, with a curious sense of superiority. He felt his own magnanimous conduct at the moment almost as much as his wife had done, and could not help regarding Carlingford Church as the gift-horse which was not to be examined too closely in the mouth.
"No," said Mrs Morgan, not without a passing sensation of doubt on this point; "if he had only been frank and explained everything, there never could have been any mistake; but I am glad it has all happened," said the Rector's wife, with a little enthusiasm. "Oh, William, I have been such a wretch—I have been thinking—but now you are heaping coals of fire on his head," she cried, with a hysterical sound in her throat. It was no matter to her that she herself scarcely knew what she meant, and that the good Rector had not the faintest understanding of it. She was so glad, that it was almost necessary to be guilty of some extravagance by way of relieving her mind. "After all Mr Proctor's care in fitting the furniture, you would not, of course, think of removing it," said Mrs Morgan; "Mr Wentworth will take it as we did; and as for Mrs Scarsfield, if you like her, William, you may be sure I shall," the penitent wife said softly, in the flutter and tremor of her agitation. As he saw himself reflected in her eyes, the Rector could not but feel himself a superior person, elevated over other men's shoulders. Such a sense of goodness promotes the amiability from which it springs. The Rector kissed his wife as he got up from his seat beside her, and once more smoothed down, with a touch which made her feel like a girl again, her pretty brown hair.
"That is all settled satisfactorily," said Mr Morgan, "and now I must go to my work again. I thought, if you approved of it, I would write at once to Scarsfield, and also to Buller of All-Souls."
"Do," said the Rector's wife—and she too bestowed, in her middle-aged way, a little caress, which was far from being unpleasant to the sober-minded man. He went down-stairs in a more agreeable frame of mind than he had known for a long time back. Not that he understood why she had cried about it when he laid his intentions before her. Had Mr Morgan been a Frenchman, he probably would have imagined his wife's heart to be touched by the graces of the Perpetual Curate; but, being an Englishman, and rather more certain, on the whole, of her than of himself, it did not occur to him to speculate on the subject. He was quite able to content himself with the thought that women were incomprehensible, as he went back to his study. To be sure, it was best to understand them, if you could; but if not, it did not so very much matter, Mr Morgan thought; could in this pleasant condition of mind he went down-stairs and wrote a little sermon, which ever after was a great favourite, preached upon all special occasions, and always listened to with satisfaction, especially by the Rector's wife.
When Mrs Morgan was left alone she sat doing nothing for an entire half-hour, thinking of the strange and unhoped-for change that in a moment had occurred to her. Though she was not young, she had that sense of grievousness, the unbearableness of trouble, which belongs to youth; for, after all, whatever female moralists may say on the subject, the patience of an unmarried woman wearing out her youth in the harassments of a long engagement, is something very different from the hard and many-sided experience of actual life. She had been accustomed for years to think that her troubles would be over when the long-expected event arrived; and when new and more vexatious troubles still sprang up after that event, the woman of one idea was not much better fitted to meet them than if she had been a girl. Now that the momentary cloud had been driven off, Mrs Morgan's heart rose more warmly than ever. She changed her mind in a moment about the All-Souls pudding, and even added, in her imagination, another dish to the dinner, without pausing to think that that also was much approved by Mr Leeson; and then her thoughts took another turn, and such a vision of a perfect carpet for a drawing-room—something softer and more exquisite than ever came out of mortal loom; full of repose and tranquillity, yet not without seducing beauties of design; a carpet which would never obtrude itself, but yet would catch the eye by dreamy moments in the summer twilight or over the winter fire—flashed upon the imagination of the Rector's wife. It would be sweet to have a house of one's own arranging, where everything would be in harmony; and though this sweetness was very secondary to the other satisfaction of having a husband who was not a clay idol, but really deserved his pedestal, it yet supplemented the larger delight, and rounded off all the corners of Mrs Morgan's present desires. She wished everybody as happy as herself, in the effusion of the moment, and thought of Lucy Wodehouse, with a little glow of friendliness in which there was still a tincture of admiring envy. All this that happy girl would have without the necessity of waiting for it; but then was it not the Rector, the rehabilitated husband, who would be the means of producing so much happiness? Mrs Morgan rose up as lightly as a girl when she had reached this stage, and opened her writing-desk, which was one of her wedding-presents, and too fine to be used on common occasions. She took out her prettiest paper, with her monogram in violet, which was her favourite colour. One of those kind impulses which are born of happiness moved her relieved spirit. To give to another the consolation of a brighter hope, seemed at the moment the most natural way of expressing her own thankful feelings. Instead of going down-stairs immediately to order dinner, she sat down instead at the table, and wrote the following note:—
"MY DEAR MR WENTWORTH,—I don't know whether you will think me a fair-weather friend seeking you only when everybody else is seeking you, and when you are no longer in want of support and sympathy. Perhaps you will exculpate me when you remember the last conversation we had; but what I write for at present is to ask if you would waive ceremony and come to dinner with us to-night. I am aware that your family are still in Carlingford, and of course I don't know what engagements you may have; but if you are at liberty, pray come. If Mr Morgan and you had but known each other a little better things could never have happened which have been a great grief and vexation to me; and I know the Rector wishes very much to have a little conversation with you, and has something to speak of in which you would be interested. Perhaps my husband might feel a little strange in asking you to overstep the barrier which somehow has been raised between you two; but I am sure if you knew each other better you would understand each other, and this is one of the things we women ought to be good for. I will take it as a proof that you consider me a friend if you accept my invitation. Our hour is half-past six.—Believe me, very sincerely, yours,
When she had written this note Mrs Morgan went down-stairs, stopping at the library door in passing. "I thought I might as well ask Mr Wentworth to come to us to-night, as we are to have some people to dinner," she said, looking in at the door. "I thought you might like to talk to him, William; and if his people are going away to-day, I daresay he will feel rather lonely to-night." Such was the Jesuitical aspect in which she represented the flag of truce she was sending. Mr Morgan was a little startled by action so prompt.
"I should like to hear from Buller first," said the Rector; "he might like to come to Carlingford himself, for anything I can tell; but, to be sure, it can do no harm to have Wentworth to dinner," said Mr Morgan, doubtfully; "only Buller, you know, might wish—and in that case it might not be worth our trouble to make any change."
In spite of herself, Mrs Morgan's countenance fell; her pretty scheme of poetic justice, her vision of tasteful and appropriate furniture, became obscured by a momentary mist. "At least it is only right to ask him to dinner," she said, in subdued tones, and went to speak to the cook in a frame of mind more like the common level of human satisfaction than the exultant and exalted strain to which she had risen at the first moment. Then she put on a black dress, and went to call on the Miss Wodehouses, who naturally came into her mind when she thought of the Perpetual Curate. As she went along Grange Lane she could not but observe a hackney cab, one of those which belong to the railway station, lounging—if a cab could ever be said to lounge—in the direction of Wharfside. Its appearance specially attracted Mrs Morgan's attention in consequence of the apparition of Elsworthy's favourite errand-boy, who now and then poked his head furtively through the window, and seemed to be sitting in state inside. When she had gone a little further she encountered Wodehouse and Jack Wentworth, who had just come from paying their visit to the sisters. The sight of these two revived her sympathies for the lonely women who had fallen so unexpectedly out of wealth into poverty; but yet she felt a little difficulty in framing her countenance to be partly sorrowful and partly congratulatory, as was necessary under these circumstances; for though she knew nothing of the accident which had happened that morning, when Lucy and the Perpetual Curate saw each other alone, she was aware of Miss Wodehouse's special position, and was sympathetic as became a woman who had "gone through" similar experiences. When she had got through her visit and was going home, it struck her with considerable surprise to see the cab still lingering about the corner of Prickett's Lane. Was Elsworthy's pet boy delivering his newspapers from that dignified elevation? or were they seizing the opportunity of conveying away the unfortunate little girl who had caused so much annoyance to everybody? When she went closer, with a little natural curiosity to see what else might be inside besides the furtive errand-boy, the cab made a little rush away from her, and the blinds were drawn down. Mrs Morgan smiled a little to herself with dignified calm. "As if it was anything to me!" she said to herself; and so went home to put out the dessert with her own hands. She even cut a few fronds of her favourite maidenhair to decorate the peaches, of which she could not help being a little proud. "I must speak to Mr Wentworth, if he comes, to keep on Thompson," she said to herself, and then gave a momentary sigh at the thought of the new flue, which was as good as her own invention, and which it had cost her both time and money to arrange to her satisfaction. The peaches were lovely, but who could tell what they might be next year if a new Rector came who took no interest in the garden?—for Thomson, though he was a very good servant, required to be looked after, as indeed most good servants do. Mrs Morgan sighed a little when she thought of all her past exertions and the pains, of which she was scarcely yet beginning to reap the fruit. One man labours, and another enters into his labours. One thing, however, was a little consolatory, that she could take her ferns with her. But on the whole, after the first outburst of feeling, the idea of change, notwithstanding all its advantages, was in itself, like most human things, a doubtful pleasure. To be sure, it was only through its products that her feelings were interested about the new flue, whereas the drawing-room carpet was a standing grievance. When it was time to dress for dinner, the Rector's wife was not nearly so sure as before that she had never liked Carlingford. She began to forget the thoughts she had entertained about broken idols, and to remember a number of inconveniences attending a removal. Who would guarantee the safe transit of the china, not to speak of the old china, which was one of the most valuable decorations of the Rectory? This kind of breakage, if not more real, was at least likely to force itself more upon the senses than the other kind of fracture which this morning's explanation had happily averted; and altogether it was with mingled feelings that Mrs Morgan entered the drawing-room, and found it occupied by Mr Leeson, who always came too early, and who, on the present occasion, had some sufficiently strange news to tell.
Mr Wentworth did not accept Mrs Morgan's sudden invitation, partly because his "people" did not leave Carlingford that evening, and partly because, though quite amiably disposed towards the Rector, whom he had worsted in fair fight, he was not sufficiently interested in anything he was likely to hear or see in Mr Morgan's house to move him to spend his evening there. He returned a very civil answer to the invitation of the Rector's wife, thanking her warmly for her friendliness, and explaining that he could not leave his father on the last night of his stay in Carlingford; after which he went to dinner at his aunts', where the household was still much agitated. Not to speak of all the events which had happened and were happening, Jack, who had begun to tire of his new character of the repentant prodigal, had shown himself in a new light that evening, and was preparing to leave, to the relief of all parties. The prodigal, who no longer pretended to be penitent, had taken the conversation into his own hands at dinner. "I have had things my own way since I came here," said Jack; "somehow it appears I have a great luck for having things my own way. It is you scrupulous people who think of others and of such antiquated stuff as duty, and so forth, that get yourselves into difficulties. My dear aunt, I am going away; if I were to remain an inmate of this house—I mean to say, could I look forward to the privilege of continuing a member of this Christian family—another day, I should know better how to conduct myself; but I am going back to my bad courses, aunt Dora; I am returning to the world—"
"Oh! Jack, my dear, I hope not," said aunt Dora, who was much bewildered, and did not know what to say.
"Too true," said the relapsed sinner; "and considering all the lessons you have taught me, don't you think it is the best thing I could do? There is my brother Frank, who has been carrying other people about on his shoulders, and doing his duty; but I don't see that you good people are at all moved in his behalf. You leave him to fight his way by himself, and confer your benefits elsewhere, which is an odd sort of lesson for a worldling like me. As for Gerald, you know he's a virtuous fool, as I have heard you all declare. There is nothing in the world that I can see to prevent him keeping his living and doing as he pleases, as most parsons do. However, that's his own business. It is Frank's case which is the edifying case to me. If my convictions of sin had gone just a step farther," said the pitiless critic, "if I had devoted myself to bringing others to repentance, as is the first duty of a reformed sinner, my aunt Leonora would not have hesitated to give Skelmersdale to me—"
"Jack, hold your tongue," said Miss Leonora; but though her cheeks burned, her voice was not so firm as usual, and she actually failed in putting down the man who had determined to have his say.
"Fact, my dear aunt," said Jack; "if I had been a greater rascal than I am, and gone a little farther, you and your people would have thought me quite fit for a cure of souls. I'd have come in for your good things that way as well as other ways; but here is Frank, who even I can see is a right sort of parson. I don't pretend to fixed theological opinions," said this unlooked-for oracle, with a comic glance aside at Gerald, the most unlikely person present to make any response; "but, so far as I can see, he's a kind of fellow most men would be glad to make a friend of when they were under a cloud—not that he was ever very civil to me. I tell you, so far from rewarding him for being of the true sort, you do nothing but snub him, that I can see. He looks to me as good for work as any man I know; but you'll give your livings to any kind of wretched make-believe before you'll give them to Frank. I am aware," said the heir of the Wentworths, with a momentary flush, "that I have never been considered much of a credit to the family; but if I were to announce my intention of marrying and settling, there is not one of the name that would not lend a hand to smooth matters. That is the reward of wickedness," said Jack, with a laugh; "as for Frank, he's a perpetual curate, and may marry perhaps fifty years hence; that's the way you good people treat a man who never did anything to be ashamed of in his life; and you expect me to give up my evil courses after such a lesson? I trust I am not such a fool," said the relapsed prodigal. He sat looking at them all in his easy way, enjoying the confusion, the indignation, and wrath with which his address was received. "The man who gets his own way is the man who takes it," he concluded, with his usual composure, pouring out Miss Leonora's glass of claret as he spoke.
Nobody had ever before seen the strong-minded woman in so much agitation. "Frank knows what my feelings are," she said, abruptly. "I have a great respect for himself, but I have no confidence in his principles. I—I have explained my ideas about Church patronage—"
But here the Squire broke in. "I always said, sir," said the old man, with an unsteady voice, "that if I ever lived to see a thing or two amended that was undoubtedly objectionable, your brother Jack's advice would be invaluable to the family as a—as a man of the world. I have nothing to say against clergymen, sir," continued the Squire, without it being apparent whom he was addressing, "but I have always expressed my conviction of—of the value of your brother Jack's advice as—as a man of the world."
This speech had a wonderful effect upon the assembled family, but most of all upon the son thus commended, who lost all his ease and composure as his father spoke, and turned his head stiffly to one side, as if afraid to meet the Squire's eyes, which indeed were not seeking his, but were fixed upon the table, as was natural, considering the state of emotion in which Mr Wentworth was. As for Jack, when he had steadied himself a little, he got up from his seat and tried to laugh, though the effort was far from being a successful one.
"Even my father applauds me, you see, because I am a scamp and don't deserve it," he said, with a voice which was partially choked. "Good-bye, sir; I am going away."
The Squire rose too, with the hazy bewildered look of which his other children were afraid.
"Good-bye, sir," said the old man, and then made a pause before he held out his hand. "You'll not forget what I've said, Jack," he added, with a little haste. "It's true enough, though I haven't that confidence in you that—that I might have had. I am getting old, and I have had two attacks, sir," said Mr Wentworth, with dignity; "and anyhow, I can't live for ever. Your brothers can make their own way in the world, but I haven't saved all that I could have wished. When I am gone, Jack, be just to the girls and the little children," said the Squire; and with that took his son's hand and grasped it hard, and looked his heir full in the face.
Jack Wentworth was not prepared for any such appeal; he was still less prepared to discover the unexpected and inevitable sequence with which one good sentiment leads to another. He quite faltered and broke down in this unlooked-for emergency. "Father," he said unawares, for the first time for ten years, "if you wish it, I will join you in breaking the entail."
"No such thing, sir," said the Squire, who, so far from being pleased, was irritated and disturbed by the proposal. "I ask you to do your duty, sir, and not to shirk it," the head of the house said, with natural vehemence, as he stood with that circle of Wentworths round him, giving forth his code of honour to his unworthy heir.
While his father was speaking, Jack recovered a little from his momentary attendrissement. "Good-bye, sir; I hope you'll live a hundred years," he said, wringing his father's hand, "if you don't last out half-a-dozen of me, as you ought to do. But I'd rather not anticipate such a change. In that case," the prodigal went on with a certain huskiness in his voice, "I daresay I should not turn out so great a rascal as—as I ought to do. To-day and yesterday it has even occurred to me by moments that I was your son, sir," said Jack Wentworth; and then he made an abrupt stop and dropped the Squire's hand, and came to himself in a surprising way. When he turned towards the rest of the family, he was in perfect possession of his usual courtesy and good spirits. He nodded to them all round—with superb good-humour. "Good-bye, all of you; I wish you better luck, Frank, and not so much virtue. Perhaps you will have a better chance now the lost sheep has gone back to the wilderness. Good-bye to you all. I don't think I've any other last words to say." He lighted his cigar with his ordinary composure in the hall, and whistled one of his favourite airs as he went through the garden. "Oddly enough, however, our friend Wodehouse can beat me in that," he said, with a smile, to Frank, who had followed him out, "perhaps in other things too, who knows? Good-bye, and good-luck, old fellow." And thus the heir of the Wentworths disappeared into the darkness, which swallowed him up, and was seen no more.
But naturally there was a good deal of commotion in the house. Miss Leonora, who never had known what it was to have nerves in the entire course of her existence, retired to her own room with a headache, to the entire consternation of the family. She had been a strong-minded woman all her life, and managed everybody's affairs without being distracted and hampered in her career by those doubts of her own wisdom, and questions as to her own motives, which will now and then afflict the minds of weaker people when they have to decide for others. But this time an utterly novel and unexpected accident had befallen Miss Leonora; a man of no principles at all had delivered his opinion upon her conduct—and so far from finding his criticism contemptible, or discovering in it the ordinary outcry of the wicked against the righteous, she had found it true, and by means of it had for perhaps the first time in her life seen herself as others saw her. Neither was the position in which she found herself one from which she could get extricated even by any daring arbitrary exertion of will, such as a woman in difficulties is sometimes capable of. To be sure, she might still have cut the knot in a summary feminine way; might have said "No" abruptly to Julia Trench and her curate, and, after all, have bestowed Skelmersdale, like any other prize or reward of virtue, upon her nephew Frank—a step which Miss Dora Wentworth would have concluded upon at once without any hesitation. The elder sister, however, was gifted with a truer perception of affairs. Miss Leonora knew that there were some things which could be done, and yet could not be done—a piece of knowledge difficult to a woman. She recognised the fact that she had committed herself, and got into a corner from which there was but one possible egress; and as she acknowledged this to herself, she saw at the same time that Julia Trench (for whom she had been used to entertain a good-humoured contempt as a clever sort of girl enough) had managed matters very cleverly, and that, instead of dispensing her piece of patronage like an optimist to the best, she had, in fact, given it up to the most skilful and persevering angler, as any other woman might have done. The blow was bitter, and Miss Leonora did not seek to hide it from herself, not to say that the unpleasant discovery was aggravated by having been thus pointed out by Jack, who in his own person had taken her in, and cheated his sensible aunt. She felt humbled, and wounded in the tenderest point, to think that her reprobate nephew had seen through her, but that she had not been able to see through him, and had been deceived by his professions of penitence. The more she turned it over in her mind, the more Miss Leonora's head ached; for was it not growing apparent that she, who prided herself so much on her impartial judgment, had been moved, not by heroic and stoical justice and the love of souls, but a good deal by prejudice and a good deal by skilful artifice, and very little indeed by that highest motive which she called the glory of God? And it was Jack who had set all this before her clear as daylight. No wonder the excellent woman was disconcerted. She went to bed gloomily with her headache, and would tolerate no ministrations, neither of sal-volatile nor eau-de-Cologne, nor even of green tea. "It always does Miss Dora a power of good," said the faithful domestic who made this last suggestion; but Miss Leonora answered only by turning the unlucky speaker out of the room, and locking the door against any fresh intrusion. Miss Dora's innocent headaches were articles of a very different kind from this, which proceeded neither from the heart nor the digestion, but from the conscience, as Miss Leonora thought—with, possibly, a little aid from the temper, though she was less conscious of that. It was indeed a long series of doubts and qualms, and much internal conflict, which resulted through the rapidly-maturing influences of mortification and humbled self-regard, in this ominous and awe-inspiring Headache which startled the entire assembled family, and added fresh importance to the general crisis of Wentworth affairs.
"I should not wonder if it was the Wentworth complaint," said Miss Dora, with a sob of fright, to the renewed and increased indignation of the Squire.
"I have already told you that the Wentworth complaint never attacks females," Mr Wentworth said emphatically, glad to employ what sounded like a contemptuous title for the inferior sex.
"Yes, oh yes; but then Leonora is not exactly what you would call—a female," said poor Miss Dora, from whom an emergency so unexpected had taken all her little wits.
While the house was in such an agitated condition, it is not to be supposed that it could be very comfortable for the gentlemen when they came up-stairs to the drawing-room, and found domestic sovereignty overthrown by a headache which nobody could comprehend, and chaos reigning in Miss Leonora's place. Naturally there was, for one of the party at least, a refuge sweet and close at hand, to which his thoughts had escaped already. Frank Wentworth did not hesitate to follow his thoughts. Against the long years when family bonds make up all that is happiest in life, there must always be reckoned those moments of agitation and revolution, during which the bosom of a family is the most unrestful and disturbing place in existence, from which it is well to have a personal refuge and means of escape. The Perpetual Curate gave himself a little shake, and drew a long breath, as he emerged from one green door in Grange Lane and betook himself to another. He shook himself clear of all the Wentworth perplexities, all the family difficulties and doubts, and betook himself into the paradise which was altogether his own, and where there were no conflicting interests or differences of opinion. He was in such a hurry to get there that he did not pay any attention to the general aspect of Grange Lane, or to the gossips who were gathered round Elsworthy's door: all that belonged to a previous stage of existence. At present he was full of the grand discovery, boldly stated by his brother Jack—"The man who gets his own way is the man who takes it." It was not an elevated doctrine, or one that had hitherto commended itself specially to the mind of the Perpetual Curate; but he could not help thinking of his father's pathetic reliance upon Jack's advice as a man of the world, as he laid up in his mind the prodigal's maxim, and felt, with a little thrill of excitement, that he was about to act on it; from which manner of stating the case Mr Wentworth's friends will perceive that self-will had seized upon him in the worst form; for he was not going boldly up to the new resolution with his eyes open, but had resigned himself to the tide, which was gradually rising in one united flux of love, pride, impatience, sophistry, and inclination; which he watched with a certain passive content, knowing that the stormy current would carry him away.
Mr Wentworth, however, reckoned without his host, as is now and then the case with most men, Perpetual Curates included. He walked into the other drawing-room, which was occupied only by two ladies, where the lamp was burning softly on the little table in the corner, and the windows, half open, admitted the fragrant air, the perfumed breath and stillness and faint inarticulate noises of the night. Since the visit of Wodehouse in the morning, which had driven Lucy into her first fit of passion, an indescribable change had come over the house, which had now returned to the possession of its former owners, and looked again like home. It was very quiet in the familiar room which Mr Wentworth knew so well, for it was only when excited by events "beyond their control," as Miss Wodehouse said, that the sisters could forget what had happened so lately—the loss which had made a revolution in their world. Miss Wodehouse, who for the first time in her life was busy, and had in hand a quantity of mysterious calculations and lists to make out, sat at the table in the centre of the room, with her desk open, and covered with long slips of paper. Perhaps it was to save her Rector the trouble that the gentle woman gave herself so much labour; perhaps she liked putting down on paper all the things that were indispensable for the new establishment. At all events, she looked up only to give Mr Wentworth a smile and sisterly nod of welcome as he came in and made his way to the corner where Lucy sat, not unexpectant. Out of the disturbed atmosphere he had just left, the Perpetual Curate came softly into that familiar corner, feeling that he had suddenly reached his haven, and that Eden itself could not have possessed a sweeter peace. Lucy in her black dress, with traces of the exhaustion of nature in her face, which was the loveliest face in the world to Mr Wentworth, looked up and welcomed him with that look of satisfaction and content which is the highest compliment one human creature can pay to another. His presence rounded off all the corners of existence to Lucy for that moment at least, and made the world complete and full. He sat down beside her at her work-table with no further interruption to the tete-a-tete than the presence of the kind elder sister at the table, who was absorbed in her lists, and who, even had that pleasant business been wanting, was dear and familiar enough to both to make her spectatorship just the sweet restraint which endears such intercourse all the more. Thus the Perpetual Curate seated himself, feeling in some degree master of the position; and surely here, if nowhere else in the world, the young man was justified in expecting to have his own way.
"They have settled about their marriage," said Lucy, whose voice was sufficiently audible to be heard at the table, where Miss Wodehouse seized her pen hastily and plunged it into the ink, doing her best to appear unconscious, but failing sadly in the attempt. "Mr Proctor is going away directly to make everything ready, and the marriage is to be on the 15th of next month."
"And ours?" said Mr Wentworth, who had not as yet approached that subject. Lucy knew that this event must be far off, and was not agitated about it as yet; on the contrary, she met his look sympathetically and with deprecation after the first natural blush, and soothed him in her feminine way, patting softly with her pretty hand the sleeve of his coat.
"Nobody knows," said Lucy. "We must wait, and have patience. We have more time to spare than they have," she added, with a little laugh. "We must wait."
"I don't see the must," said the Perpetual Curate. "I have been thinking it all over since the morning. I see no reason why I should always have to give in, and wait; self-sacrifice is well enough when it can't be helped, but I don't see any reason for postponing my happiness indefinitely. Look here, Lucy. It appears to me at present that there are only two classes of people in the world—those who will wait, and those who won't. I don't mean to enrol myself among the martyrs. The man who gets his own way is the man who takes it. I don't see any reason in the world for concluding that I must wait."
Lucy Wodehouse was a very good young woman, a devoted Anglican, and loyal to all her duties; but she had always been known to possess a spark of spirit, and this rebellious quality came to a sudden blaze at so unlooked-for a speech. "Mr Wentworth," said Lucy, looking the Curate in the face with a look which was equivalent to making him a low curtsy, "I understood there were two people to be consulted as to the must or must not;" and having entered this protest, she withdrew her chair a little farther off, and bestowed her attention absolutely upon the piece of needlework in her hand.
If the ground had suddenly been cut away underneath Frank Wentworth's feet, he could not have been more surprised; for, to tell the truth, it had not occurred to him to doubt that he himself was the final authority on this point, though, to be sure, it was part of the conventional etiquette that the lady should "fix the day." He sat gazing at her with so much surprise that for a minute or two he could say nothing. "Lucy, I am not going to have you put yourself on the other side," he said at last; "there is not to be any opposition between you and me."
"That is as it may be," said Lucy, who was not mollified. "You seem to have changed your sentiments altogether since the morning, and there is no change in the circumstances, at least that I can see."
"Yes, there is a great change," said the young man. "If I could have sacrificed myself in earnest and said nothing—"
"Which you were quite free to do," interrupted Lucy, who, having given way to temper once to-day, found in herself an alarming proclivity towards a repetition of the offence.
"Which I was quite free to do," said the Perpetual Curate, with a smile, "but could not, and did not, all the same. Things are altogether changed. Now, be as cross as you please, you belong to me, Lucia mia. To be sure, I have no money—"
"I was not thinking of that," said the young lady, under her breath.
"Of course one has to think about it," said Mr Wentworth; "but the question is, whether we shall be happier and better going on separate in our usual way, or making up our minds to give up something for the comfort of being together. Perhaps you will forgive me for taking that view of the question," said the Curate, with a little enthusiasm. "I have got tired of ascetic principles. I don't see why it must be best to deny myself and postpone myself to other things and other people. I begin to be of my brother Jack's opinion. The children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light. A man who will wait has to wait. Providence does not invariably reward him after he has been tried, as we used to suppose. I am willing to be a poor man because I can't help it; but I am not willing to wait and trust my happiness to the future when it is in my reach now," said the unreasonable young man, to whom it was of course as easy as it was to Lucy to change the position of his chair, and prevent the distance between them being increased. Perhaps he might have carried his point even at that moment, had not Miss Wodehouse, who had heard enough to alarm her, come forward hastily in a fright on the prudential side.
"I could not help hearing what you were saying," said the elder sister. "Oh, Mr Wentworth, I hope you don't mean to say that you can't trust Providence? I am sure that is not Lucy's way of thinking. I would not mind, and I am sure she would not mind, beginning very quietly; but then you have nothing, next to nothing, neither of you. It might not matter, just at the first," said Miss Wodehouse, with serious looks; "but then—afterwards, you know," and a vision of a nursery flashed upon her mind as she spoke. "Clergymen always have such large families," she said half out before she was aware, and stopped, covered with confusion, not daring to look at Lucy to see what effect such a suggestion might have had upon her. "I mean," cried Miss Wodehouse, hurrying on to cover over her inadvertence if possible, "I have seen such cases; and a poor clergyman who has to think of the grocer's bill and the baker's bill instead of his parish and his duty—there are some things you young people know a great deal better than I do, but you don't know how dreadful it is to see that."
Here Lucy, on her part, was touched on a tender point, and interposed. "For a man to be teased about bills," said the young housekeeper, with flushed cheeks and an averted countenance, "it must be not his poverty, but his—his wife's fault."
"Oh, Lucy, don't say so," cried Miss Wodehouse; "what is a poor woman to do, especially when she has no money of her own, as you wouldn't have? and then the struggling, and getting old before your time, and all the burdens—"
"Please don't say any more," said Lucy; "there was no intention on—on any side to drive things to a decision. As for me, I have not a high opinion of myself. I would not be the means of diminishing anyone's comforts," said the spiteful young woman. "How can I be sure that I might not turn out a very poor compensation? We settled this morning how all that was to be, and I for one have not changed my mind—as yet," said Lucy. That was all the encouragement Mr Wentworth got when he propounded his new views. Things looked easy enough when he was alone, and suffered himself to drift on pleasantly on the changed and heightened current of personal desires and wishes; but it became apparent to him, after that evening's discussion, that even in Eden itself, though the dew had not yet dried on the leaves, it would be highly incautious for any man to conclude that he was sure of having his own way. The Perpetual Curate returned a sadder and more doubtful man to Mrs Hadwin's, to his own apartments; possibly, as the two states of mind so often go together, a wiser individual too.
The dinner-party at the Rectory, to which Mr Wentworth did not go, was much less interesting and agreeable than it might have been had he been present. As for the Rector and his wife, they could not but feel themselves in a somewhat strange position, having between them a secret unsuspected by the company. It was difficult to refrain from showing a certain flagging of interest in the question of the church's restoration, about which, to be sure, Mr Finial was just as much concerned as he had been yesterday; though Mr Morgan, and even Mrs Morgan, had suffered a great and unexplainable diminution of enthusiasm. And then Mr Leeson, who was quite unaware of the turn that things had taken, and who was much too obtuse to understand how the Rector could be anything but exasperated against the Perpetual Curate by the failure of the investigation, did all that he could to make himself disagreeable, which was saying a good deal. When Mrs Morgan came into the drawing-room, and found this obnoxious individual occupying the most comfortable easy-chair, and turning over at his ease the great book of ferns, nature-printed, which was the pet decoration of the table, her feelings may be conceived by any lady who has gone through a similar trial; for Mr Leeson's hands were not of the irreproachable purity which becomes the fingers of a gentleman when he goes out to dinner. "I know some people who always wear gloves when they turn over a portfolio of prints," Mrs Morgan said, coming to the Curate's side to protect her book if possible, "and these require quite as much care;" and she had to endure a discussion upon the subject, which was still more trying to her feelings, for Mr Leeson pretended to know about ferns on the score of having a Wardian case in his lodgings (which belonged to his landlady), though in reality he could scarcely tell the commonest spleenwort from a lycopodium. While Mrs Morgan went through this trial, it is not to be wondered at if she hugged to her heart the new idea of leaving Carlingford, and thought to herself that whatever might be the character of the curate (if there was one) at Scarsfield, any change from Mr Leeson must be for the better. And then the unfortunate man, as if he was not disagreeable enough already, began to entertain his unwilling hostess with the latest news.