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The Perpetual Curate
by Mrs [Margaret] Oliphant
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"Glad to see you, Mr Wentworth," said the Rector. "I have been speaking to this worthy man about the necessities of the district. The statistics are far from being satisfactory. Five thousand souls, and no provision for their spiritual wants; it is a very sad state of affairs. I mean to take steps immediately to remedy all that."

"A bit of a Methody chapel, that's all," said the opposition shopkeeper; "and the schoolroom, as Mr Wentworth—"

"Yes, I have heard of that," said the Rector, blandly;—somebody had advised Mr Morgan to change his tactics, and this was the first evidence of the new policy—"I hear you have been doing what little you could to mend matters. It is very laudable zeal in so young a man. But, of course, as you were without authority, and had so little in your power, it could only be a very temporary expedient. I am very much obliged to you for your good intentions."

"I beg your pardon," said the Perpetual Curate, rousing up as at the sound of the trumpet, "I don't care in the least about my good intentions; but you have been much deceived if you have not understood that there is a great work going on in Wharfside. I hope, Saunders, you have had no hand in deceiving Mr Morgan. I shall be glad to show you my statistics, which are more satisfactory than the town list," said Mr Wentworth. "The schoolroom is consecrated; and but that I thought we had better work slowly and steadily, there is many a district in worse condition which has its church and its incumbent. I shall be very happy to give you all possible information; it is best to go to the fountainhead."

"The fountainhead!" said the Rector, who began not unnaturally to lose his temper. "Are you aware, sir, that Wharfside is in my parish?"

"And so is St Roque's, I suppose," said the Curate, affably. "I have no district, but I have my cure of souls all the same. As for Wharfside, the Rector of Carlingford never had had anything to do with it. Mr Bury and Mr Proctor made it over to me. I act upon their authority; but I should like to prove to you it is something more than a temporary expedient," said the young Anglican, with a smile. Mr Morgan was gradually getting very hot and flushed. His temper got the better of him; he could not tolerate to be thus bearded on his own ground.

"It appears to me the most extraordinary assumption," said the Rector. "I can't fancy that you are ignorant of the law. I repeat, Wharfside is in my parish; and on what ground you can possibly justify such an incredible intrusion—"

"Perhaps we might find a fitter place to discuss the matter," said the Curate, with great suavity. "If you care to go to the schoolroom, we could be quiet there."

"No, sir. I don't care to go to the schoolroom. I decline to have anything to do with such an unwarrantable attempt to interfere with my rights," said Mr Morgan. "I don't want to know what plausible arguments you may have to justify yourself. The fact remains, sir, that Wharfside is in my parish. If you have anything to say against that, I will listen to you," said the irascible Rector. His Welsh blood was up; he even raised his voice a little, with a kind of half-feminine excitement, common to the Celtic race; and the consequence was that Mr Wentworth, who stood perfectly calm to receive the storm, had all the advantage in the world over Mr Morgan. The Perpetual Curate bowed with immovable composure, and felt himself master of the field.

"In that case, it will perhaps be better not to say anything," he said; "but I think you will find difficulties in the way. Wharfside has some curious privileges, and pays no rates; but I have never taken up that ground. The two previous rectors made it over to me, and the work is too important to be ignored. I have had thoughts of applying to have it made into an ecclesiastical district," said the Curate, with candour, "not thinking that the Rector of Carlingford, with so much to occupy him, would care to interfere with my labours; but at all events, to begin another mission here would be folly—it would be copying the tactics of the Dissenters, if you will forgive me for saying so," said Mr Wentworth, looking calmly in the Rector's face.

It was all Mr Morgan could do to restrain himself. "I am not in the habit of being schooled by my—juniors," said the Rector, with suppressed fury. He meant to say inferiors, but the aspect of the Perpetual Curate checked him. Then the two stood gazing at each other for a minute in silence. "Anything further you may have to say, you will perhaps communicate to my solicitor," said the elder priest. "It is well known that some gentlemen of your views, Mr Wentworth, think it safe to do evil that good may come;—that is not my opinion; and I don't mean to permit any invasion of my rights. I have the pleasure of wishing you good morning."

Mr Morgan took off his hat, and gave it a little angry flourish in the air before he put it on again. He had challenged his young brother to the only duel permitted by their cloth, and he turned to the opposition tradesman with vehemence, and went in again to the dusty little shop, where a humble assortment of groceries were displayed for the consumption of Prickett's Lane. Mr Wentworth remained standing outside in much amazement, not to say amusement, and a general sense of awakening and recovery. Next to happiness, perhaps enmity is the most healthful stimulant of the human mind. The Perpetual Curate woke up and realised his position with a sense of exhilaration, if the truth must be told. He muttered something to himself, uncomplimentary to Mr Morgan's good sense, as he turned away; but it was astonishing to find how much more lively and interesting Prickett's Lane had become since that encounter. He went along cheerily, saying a word now and then to the people at the doors, every one of whom knew and recognised him, and acknowledged, in a lesser or greater degree, the sway of his bishopric. The groups he addressed made remarks after he had passed, which showed their sense of the improvement in his looks. "He's more like himsel' than he's bin sin' Easter," said one woman, "and none o' that crossed look, as if things had gone contrairy;—Lord bless you, not cross—he's a deal too good a man for that—but crossed-looking; it might be crossed in love for what I can tell." "Them as is handsome like that seldom gets crossed in love," said another experienced observer; "but if it was fortin, or whatever it was, there's ne'er a one in Wharfside but wishes luck to the parson. It aint much matter for us women. Them as won't strive to keep their children decent out o' their own heads, they won't do much for a clergyman; but, bless you, he can do a deal with the men, and it's them as wants looking after." "I'd like to go to his wedding," said another. "I'd give a deal to hear it was all settled;" and amid these affectionate comments, Mr Wentworth issued out of Prickett's Lane. He went direct to Mr Wodehouse's green door, without making any excuses to himself. For the first time for some weeks he went in upon the sisters and told them all that had happened as of old. Lucy was still in her grey cloak as she had returned from the district, and it was with a feeling more distinct than sympathy that she heard of this threatened attack. "It is terrible to think that he could interfere with such a work out of jealousy of us," said the Sister of Charity, with a wonderful light in her blue eyes; and she drew her low chair nearer, and listened with eloquent looks, which were balm to the soul of the Perpetual Curate. "But we are not to give up?" she said, giving him her hand, when he rose to go away. "Never!" said Mr Wentworth; and if he held it more closely and longer than there was any particular occasion for, Lucy did not make any objection at that special moment. Then it turned out that he had business at the other end of the town, at the north end, where some trustee lived who had to do with the Orphan Schools, and whom the curate was obliged to see; and Miss Wodehouse gave him a timid invitation to come back to dinner. "But you are not to go home to dress; we shall be quite alone—and you must be so tired," said the elder sister, who for some reason or other was shy of Mr Wentworth, and kept away from him whenever he called. So he went in on his way back, and dined in happiness and his morning coat, with a sweet conscious return to the familiar intercourse which these few disturbed weeks had interrupted. He was a different man when he went back again down Grange Lane. Once more the darkness was fragrant and musical about him. When he was tired thinking of his affairs, he fell back upon the memories of the evening, and Lucy's looks and the "us" and "we," which were so sweet to his ears. To have somebody behind whom one can fall back upon to fill up the interstices of thought—that makes all the difference, as Mr Wentworth found out, between a bright and a heavy life.

When he opened the garden-door with his key, and went softly in in the darkness, the Perpetual Curate was much surprised to hear voices among the trees. He waited a little, wondering, to see who it was; and profound was his amazement when a minute after little Rosa Elsworthy, hastily tying her hat over her curls, came rapidly along the walk from under the big walnut-tree, and essayed, with rather a tremulous hand, to open the door. Mr Wentworth stepped forward suddenly and laid his hand on her arm. He was very angry and indignant, and no longer the benign superior being to whom Rosa was accustomed. "Whom have you been talking to?" said the Curate. "Why are you here alone so late? What does this mean?" He held the door close, and looked down upon her severely while he spoke. She made a frightened attempt to defend herself.

"Oh, please, I only came with the papers. I was talking to—Sarah," said the little girl, with a sob of shame and terror. "I will never do it again. Oh, please, please, let me go! Please, Mr Wentworth, let me go!"

"How long have you been talking to—Sarah?" said the Curate. "Did you ever do it before? No, Rosa; I am going to take you home. This must not happen any more."

"I will run all the way. Oh, don't tell my aunt, Mr Wentworth. I didn't mean any harm," said the frightened creature. "You are not really coming? Oh, Mr Wentworth, if you tell my aunt I shall die!" cried poor little Rosa. But she was hushed into awe and silence when the curate stalked forth, a grand, half-distinguished figure by her side, keeping pace with her hasty, tremulous steps. She even stopped crying, in the whirlwind of her feelings. What did he mean? Was he going to say anything to her? Was it possible that he could like her, and be jealous of her talk with—Sarah? Poor little foolish Rosa did not know what to think. She had read a great many novels, and knew that it was quite usual for gentlemen to fall in love with pretty little girls who were not of their own station;—why not with her? So she went on, half running, keeping up with Mr Wentworth, and sometimes stealing sly glances at him to see what intention was in his looks. But his looks were beyond Rosa's reading. He walked by her side without speaking, and gave a glance up at the window of the summer-house as they passed. And strange enough, that evening of all others, Miss Dora, who had been the victim of some of Miss Leonora's caustic criticisms, had strayed forth, in melancholy mood, to repose herself at her favourite window, and look out at the faint stars, and comfort herself with a feeble repetition of her favourite plea, that it was not "my fault." The poor lady was startled out of her own troubles by the sight of her nephew's tall unmistakable figure; and, as bad luck would have it, Rosa's hat, tied insecurely by her agitated fingers, blew off at that moment, so that Mr Wentworth's aunt became aware, to her inexpressible horror and astonishment, who his companion was. The unhappy Curate divined all the thoughts that would arise in her perturbed bosom, when he saw the indistinct figure at the window, and said something to himself about espionage, which was barely civil to Miss Dora, as he hurried along on his charitable errand. He was out of one trouble into another, this unlucky young man. He knocked sharply at Elsworthy's closed door, and gave up his charge without speaking to Rosa. "I brought her home because I thought it wrong to let her go up Grange Lane by herself," said the Curate. "Don't thank me; but if you have any regard for the child, don't send her out at night again." He did not even bid Rosa good-night, or look back at her, as she stood blushing and sparkling in confused childish beauty, in the doorway; but turned his back like any savage, and hastened home again. Before he entered his own apartments, he knocked at the door of the green room, and said something to the inmate there which produced from that personage a growl of restrained defiance. And after all these fatigues, it was with a sense of relief that the Curate threw himself upon his sofa, to think over the events of the afternoon, and to take a little rest. He was very tired, and the consolation he had experienced during the evening made him more disposed to yield to his fatigue. He threw himself upon the sofa, and stretched out his hand lazily for his letters, which evidently did not excite any special expectations in his mind. There was one from his sister, and one from an old university friend, full of the news of the season. Last of all, there was a neat little note, directed in a neat little hand, which anybody who received it would naturally have left to the last, as Mr Wentworth did. He opened it quite deliberately, without any appearance of interest. But as he read the first lines, the Curate gradually gathered himself up off the sofa, and stretched out his hand for his boots, which he had just taken off; and before he had finished it, had walked across the room and laid hold of the railway book in use at Carlingford, all the time reading and re-reading the important little epistle. It was not so neat inside as out, and blurred and blotted, and slightly illegible; and this is what the letter said:—

"Oh, Frank, dear, I am so anxious and unhappy about Gerald. I can't tell what is the matter with him. Come directly, for heaven's sake, and tell me what you think, and try what you can do. Don't lose a train after you get this, but come directly—oh, come if you ever loved any of us. I don't know what he means, but he says the most awful things; and if he is not mad, as I sometimes hope, he has forgotten his duty to his family and to me, which is far worse. I can't explain more; but if there is any chance of anybody doing him good, it is you. I beg you, on my knees, come directly, dear Frank. I never was in such a state in my life. I shall be left so that nobody will be able to tell what I am; and my heart is bursting. Never mind business or anything; but come, come directly, whether it is night or day, to your broken-hearted sister,

"LOUISA."

"P.S.—In great haste, and so anxious to see you."

Half an hour after, Mr Wentworth, with a travelling-bag in his hand, was once more hastening up Grange Lane towards the railway station. His face was somewhat grey, as the lamps shone on it. He did not exactly know what he was anxious about, nor what might have happened at Wentworth Rectory before he could get there; but the express train felt slow to his anxious thoughts as it flashed out of the station. Mr Morgan and his wife were in their garden, talking about the encounter in Prickett's Lane, when the train plunged past, waking all the echoes; and Mrs Morgan, by way of making a diversion, appealed to the Rector about those creepers, with which she hoped in a year or two to shut out the sight of the railway. "The Virginian creeper would be the best," said the Rector's wife; and they went in to calculate the expenses of bringing Mr Wentworth before Dr Lushington. Miss Dora, at very nearly the same moment, was confiding to her sister Cecilia, under vows of secrecy, the terrible sight she had seen from the summer-house window. They went to bed with very sad hearts in consequence, both these good women. In the mean time, leaving all these gathering clouds behind him, leaving his reputation and his work to be discussed and quarrelled over as they might, the Perpetual Curate rushed through the night, his heart aching with trouble and anxiety, to help, if he could—and if not, at least to stand by—Gerald, in this unknown crisis of his brother's life.



CHAPTER XI.

Miss Dora Wentworth rose very unrefreshed next morning from her disturbed slumbers. It was hard to sit at breakfast with Leonora, and not betray to her the new anxiety; and the troubled sister ran into a countless number of digressions, which would have inevitably betrayed her had not Miss Leonora been at the moment otherwise occupied. She had her little budget of letters as usual, and some of them were more than ordinarily interesting. She too had a favourite district, which was in London, and where also a great work was going on; and her missionary, and her Scripture-readers, and her colporteur were all in a wonderful state of excitement about a new gin-palace which was being fitted out and decorated in the highest style of art on the borders of their especial domain. They were moving heaven and earth to prevent this temple of Satan from being licensed; and some of them were so very certain of the Divine acquiescence in their measures, that they announced the success of their exertions to be a test of the faithfulness of God; which Miss Leonora read out to her sisters as an instance of very touching and beautiful faith. Miss Wentworth, perhaps, was not so clear on that subject. During the course of her silent life, she had prayed for various things which it had not been God's pleasure to grant; and just now she, too, was very anxious about Frank, who seemed to be in a bad way; so she rather shook her head gently, though she did not contravene the statement, and concluded with sadness that the government of the earth might still go on as usual, and God's goodness remain as certain as ever, even though the public-house was licensed, or Frank did fall away. This was the teaching of experience; but aunt Cecilia did not utter it, for that was not her way. As for Miss Dora, she agreed in all the colporteur's sentiments, and thought them beautiful, as Leonora said, and was not much disturbed by any opinion of her own, expressed or unexpressed, but interspersed her breakfast with little sighing ejaculations of the temptations of the world, and how little one knew what was passing around one, and "let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall," which could not have failed to attract Miss Leonora's attention, and draw forth the whole story of her sister's suspicions, had not that quick-witted iron-grey woman been, as we have already mentioned, too deeply engaged. Perhaps her nephew's imaginary backsliding might have excited even Miss Leonora to an interest deeper than that which was awakened by the new gin-palace; but as it happened, it was the humbler intelligence alone which occupied itself with the supposed domestic calamity. Miss Dora's breakfast was affected by it in a way which did not appear in the morning meal of her sister; for somehow the most fervent love of souls seldom takes away the appetite, as the love of some unlucky individual occasionally does.

When breakfast was over, Miss Dora made a very elaborate excuse for going out by herself. She wanted to match some wool for a blanket she was making, "For Louisa's baby," the devoted aunt said, with a little tremor. "Poor Louisa! if Gerald were to go any further, you know, it would be so sad for her; and one would like to help to keep up her heart, poor dear, as much as one could."

"By means of a blanket for the bassinet in scarlet and white," said Miss Leonora; "but it's quite the kind of comfort for Louisa. I wonder if she ever had the smallest inkling what kind of a husband she has got. I don't think Frank is far wrong about Gerald, though I don't pin my faith to my nephew's judgment. I daresay he'll go mad or do worse with all those crotchets of his—but what he married Louisa for has always been a mystery to me."

"I suppose because he was very fond of her," suggested Miss Dora, with humility.

"But why was he fond of her?—a goose!" said the strong-minded sister, and so went about her letter-writing without further comment, leaving aunt Dora to pursue her independent career. It was with a feeling of relief, and yet of guilt, that this timid inquirer set forth on her mission, exchanging a sympathetic significant look with Miss Wentworth before she went out. If she should meet Frank at the door, looking dignified and virtuous, what could she possibly say to him? and yet, perhaps, he had only been imprudent, and did not mean anything. Miss Dora looked round her on both sides, up and down Grange Lane, as she went out into the lovely summer morning. Neither Frank nor any other soul, except some nurse-maids, was to be seen along the whole line of sunny road. She was relieved, yet she was disappointed at the same time, and went slowly up towards Elsworthy's shop, saying to herself that she was sure Frank could not mean anything. It must have been that forward little thing herself who had come up to him when he was out for his walk, or it must have been an accident. But then she remembered that she had heard the Curate call Rosa pretty; and Miss Dora wondered within herself what it mattered whether she was pretty or not, and what he had to do with it, and shook her head over the strange way men had of finding out such things. For her own part, she was sure she never looked whether the girl was pretty or not; and the anxious aunt had just come round again, by a very circuitous and perplexing course, to her original sentiment, and strengthened herself in the thought that her dear Frank could not mean anything, when she reached Elsworthy's door.

That worthy trader was himself behind the counter, managing matters with his usual exactness. Berlin wool was one of the articles Mr Elsworthy dealt in, besides newspapers, and books when they were ordered. Miss Dora, who wore no crinoline, stumbled over her dress in her agitation as she went in, and saw, at the first glance, little Rosa, looking very blooming and pretty, tying up a parcel at the other end of the shop. The poor lady did not know how to enter upon so difficult a question. She offered her wool humbly to be matched, and listened to Mr Elsworthy's sentiments on the subject. He told her how he always had his wools from the best houses in London, and could match anything as was ever made in that line, and was proud to say as he always gave satisfaction. Miss Dora could not see any opening for the inquiries she hoped to make; for how was it possible to intimate the possibility of disapproval to an establishment so perfect in all its arrangements? The probabilities are, that she would have gone away without saying anything, had not Mr Elsworthy himself given her a chance.

"Miss Wodehouse has been my great help," said the shopkeeper; "she is the nicest lady, is Miss Wodehouse, in all Carlingford. I do respect them people; they've had their troubles, like most families, but there aint many as can lay their finger on the skeleton as is in their cupboard: they've kept things close, and there aint a many as knows; but Miss Wodehouse has spoke up for me, ma'am, right and left, and most persons as count for anything in Carlingford gets their fancy articles out o' my shop. Mr Wentworth, ma'am, our respected clergyman, gets all his papers of me—and partickler he is to a degree—and likes to have 'em first thing afore they're opened out o' the parcel. It's the way with gentlemen when they're young. Mostly people aint so partickler later in life—not as I could tell the reason why, unless it may be that folks gets used to most things, and stop looking for anything new. But there aint a many young gentlemen like our clergyman, though I say it as shouldn't," continued Mr Elsworthy, with a little effusion, as he succeeded in finding an exact match for the scarlet wool.

"And why shouldn't you say it, Mr Elsworthy?" said Miss Dora, a little tartly; "you are not in any way particularly connected with my nephew." Here she gave an angry glance at Rosa, who had drawn near to listen, having always in her vain little heart a certain palpitation at Mr Wentworth's name.

"I ask your pardon, ma'am; I'm clerk at St Roque's. It aint often as we have the pleasure of seeing you there—more's the pity," said the church official, "though I may say there aint a church as perfect, or where the duty is performed more beautiful, in all the country; and there never was a clergyman as had the people's good at heart like Mr Wentworth—not in my time. It aint no matter whether you're rich or poor, young or old, if there's a service as can be done to ever a one in his way, our clergyman is the man to do it. Why, no further gone than last night, ma'am, if you'll believe me, that little girl there—"

"Yes," said Miss Dora, eagerly, looking with what was intended to be a very stern and forbidding aspect in the little girl's face.

"She was a-coming up Grange Lane in the dark," said Mr Elsworthy—"not as there was any need, and me keeping two boys, but she likes a run out of an evening—when Mr Wentworth see her, and come up to her. It aint what many men would have done," said the admiring but unlucky adherent of the suspected Curate: "he come up, seeing as she was by herself, and walked by her, and gave her a deal of good advice, and brought her home. Her aunt and me was struck all of a heap to see the clergyman a-standing at our door. 'I've brought Rosa home,' he said, making believe a bit sharp. 'Don't send her out no more so late at night,' and was off like a shot, not waiting for no thanks. It's my opinion as there aint many such gentlemen. I can't call to mind as I ever met with his fellow before."

"But a young creature like that ought not to have been out so late," said Miss Dora, trying to harden herself into severity. "I wonder very much that you like to walk up Grange Lane in the dark. I should think it very unpleasant, for my part; and I am sure I would not allow it, Mr Elsworthy," she said firmly, "if such a girl belonged to me."

"But, please, I wasn't walking up Grange Lane," said Rosa, with some haste. "I was at Mrs Hadwin's, where Mr Wentworth lives. I am sure I did not want to trouble him," said the little beauty, recovering her natural spirit as she went on, "but he insisted on walking with me; it was all his own doing. I am sure I didn't want him;" and here Rosa broke off abruptly, with a consciousness in her heart that she was being lectured. She rushed to her defensive weapons by natural instinct, and grew crimson all over her pretty little face, and flashed lightning out of her eyes, which at the same time were not disinclined to tears. All this Miss Dora made note of with a sinking heart.

"Do you mean to say that you went to Mrs Hadwin's to see Mr Wentworth?" asked that unlucky inquisitor, with a world of horror in her face.

"I went with the papers," said Rosa, "and I—I met him in the garden. I am sure it wasn't my fault," said the girl, bursting into petulant tears. "Nobody has any occasion to scold me. It was Mr Wentworth as would come;" and Rosa sobbed, and lighted up gleams of defiance behind her tears. Miss Dora sat looking at her with a very troubled, pale face. She thought all her fears were true, and matters worse than she imagined; and being quite unused to private inquisitions, of course she took all possible steps to create the scandal for which she had come to look.

"Did you ever meet him in the garden before?" asked Miss Dora, painfully, in a low voice. During this conversation Mr Elsworthy had been looking on, perplexed, not perceiving the drift of the examination. He roused himself up to answer now—a little alarmed, to tell the truth, by the new lights thrown on the subject, and vexed to see how unconsciously far both the women had gone.

"It aint easy to go into a house in Grange Lane without meeting of some one in the garden," said Mr Elsworthy; "not as I mean to say it was the right thing for Rosa to be going them errands after dark. My orders is against that, as she knows; and what's the good of keeping two boys if things isn't to be done at the right time? Mr Wentworth himself was a-reproving of me for sending out Rosa, as it might be the last time he was here; for she's one of them as sits in the chancel and helps in the singing, and he feels an interest in her, natural," said the apologetic clerk. Miss Dora gave him a troubled look, but took no further notice of his speech. She thought, with an instinctive contempt for the masculine spectator, that it was impossible he could know anything about it, and pursued her own wiser way.

"It is very wrong of you—a girl in your position," said Miss Dora, as severely as she could in her soft old voice, "to be seen walking about with a gentleman, even when he is your clergyman, and, of course, has nothing else in his head. Young men don't think anything of it," said the rash but timid preacher; "of course it was only to take care of you, and keep you out of harm's way. But then you ought to think what a trouble it was to Mr Wentworth, taking him away from his studies—and it is not nice for a young girl like you." Miss Dora paused to take breath, not feeling quite sure in her own mind whether this was the right thing to say. Perhaps it would have been better to have disbelieved the fact altogether, and declared it impossible. She was much troubled about it, as she stood looking into the flushed tearful face, with all that light of defiance behind the tears, and felt instinctively that little Rosa, still only a pretty, obstinate, vain, uneducated little girl, was more than a match for herself, with all her dearly-won experiences. The little thing was bristling with a hundred natural weapons and defences, against which Miss Dora's weak assault had no chance.

"If it was a trouble, he need not have come," said Rosa, more and more convinced that Mr Wentworth must certainly have meant something. "I am sure I did not want him. He insisted on coming, though I begged him not. I don't know why I should be spoke to like this," cried the little coquette, with tears, "for I never was one as looked at a gentleman; it's them," with a sob, "as comes after me."

"Rosa," said Mr Elsworthy, much alarmed, "your aunt is sure to be looking out for you, and I don't want you here, not now; nor I don't want you again for errands, and don't you forget. If it hadn't been that Mr Wentworth thought you a silly little thing, and had a kind feeling for my missis and me, you don't think he'd have took that charge of you?—and I won't have my clergyman, as has always been good to me and mine, made a talk of. You'll excuse me, ma'am," he said, in an under tone, as Rosa reluctantly went away—not to her aunt, however, but again to her parcel at the other end of the shop—"she aint used to being talked to. She's but a child, and don't know no better: and after all," said Rosa's uncle, with a little pride, "she is a tender-hearted little thing—she don't know no better, ma'am; she's led away by a kind word—for nobody can say but she's wonderful pretty, as is very plain to see."

"Is she?" said Miss Dora, following the little culprit to the back-counter with disenchanted eyes. "Then you had better take all the better care of her, Mr Elsworthy," she said, with again a little asperity. The fact was, that Miss Dora had behaved very injudiciously, and was partly aware of it; and then this prettiness of little Rosa's, even though it shone at the present moment before her, was not so plain to her old-maidenly eyes. She did not make out why everybody was so sure of it, nor what it mattered; and very probably, if she could have had her own way, would have liked to give the little insignificant thing a good shake, and asked her how she dared to attract the eye of the Perpetual Curate. As she could not do this, however, Miss Dora gathered up her wool, and refused to permit Mr Elsworthy to send it home for her. "I can carry it quite well myself," said the indignant little woman. "I am sure you must have a great deal too much for your boys to do, or you would not send your niece about with the things. But if you will take my advice, Mr Elsworthy," said Miss Dora, "you will take care of that poor little thing: she will be getting ridiculous notions into her head;" and aunt Dora went out of the shop with great solemnity, quite unaware that she had done more to put ridiculous notions into Rosa's head than could have got there by means of a dozen darkling walks by the side of the majestic Curate, who never paid her any compliments. Miss Dora went away more than ever convinced in her mind that Frank had forgotten himself and his position, and everything that was fit and seemly. She jumped to a hundred horrible conclusions as she went sadly across Grange Lane with her scarlet wool in her hand. What Leonora would say to such an irremediable folly?—and how the Squire would receive his son after such a mesalliance? "He might change his views," said poor Miss Dora to herself, "but he could not change his wife;" and it was poor comfort to call Rosa a designing little wretch, and to reflect that Frank at first could not have meant anything. The poor lady had a bad headache, and was in a terribly depressed condition all day. When she saw from the window of her summer-house the pretty figure of Lucy Wodehouse in her grey cloak pass by, she sank into tears and melancholy reflections. But then Lucy Wodehouse's views were highly objectionable, and she bethought herself of Julia Trench, who had long ago been selected by the sisters as the clergyman's wife of Skelmersdale. Miss Dora shook her head over the blanket she was knitting for Louisa's baby, thinking of clergymen's wives in general, and the way in which marriages came about. Who had the ordering of these inexplicable accidents? It was surely not Providence, but some tricky imp or other who loved confusion; and then Miss Dora paused with compunction, and hoped she would be forgiven for entertaining, even for one passing moment, such a wicked, wicked thought.



CHAPTER XII.

On the afternoon of the same day Mr Morgan went home late, and frightened his wife out of her propriety by the excitement and trouble in his face. He could do nothing but groan as he sat down in the drawing-room, where she had just been gathering her work together, and putting stray matters in order, before she went up-stairs to make herself tidy for dinner. The Rector paid no attention to the fact that the dinner-hour was approaching, and only shook his head and repeated his groan when she asked him anxiously what was the matter. The good man was too much flushed and heated and put out, to be able at first to answer her questions.

"Very bad, very bad," he said, when he had recovered sufficient composure—"far worse than I feared. My dear, I am afraid the beginning of my work in Carlingford will be for ever associated with pain to us both. I am discouraged and distressed beyond measure by what I have heard to-day."

"Dear William, tell me what it is," said the Rector's wife.

"I feared it was a bad business from the first," said the disturbed Rector. "I confess I feared, when I saw a young man so regardless of lawful authority, that his moral principles must be defective, but I was not prepared for what I have heard to-day. My dear, I am sorry to grieve you with such a story; but as you are sure to hear it, perhaps it is better that you should have the facts from me."

"It must be about Mr Wentworth," said Mrs Morgan. She was sorry; for though she had given in to her husband's vehemence, she herself in her own person had always been prepossessed in favour of the Perpetual Curate; but she was also sensible of a feeling of relief to know that the misfortune concerned Mr Wentworth, and was not specially connected with themselves.

"Yes, it's about Mr Wentworth," said the Rector. He wiped his face, which was red with haste and exhaustion, and shook his head. He was sincerely shocked and grieved, to do him justice; but underneath there was also a certain satisfaction in the thought that he had foreseen it, and that his suspicions were verified. "My dear, I am very glad he had not become intimate in our house," said Mr Morgan; "that would have complicated matters sadly. I rejoice that your womanly instincts prevented that inconvenience;" and as the Rector began to recover himself, he looked more severe than ever.

"Yes," said Mrs Morgan, with hesitation; for the truth was, that her womanly instincts had pronounced rather distinctly in favour of the Curate of St Roque's. "I hope he has not done anything very wrong, William. I should be very sorry; for I think he has very good qualities," said the Rector's wife. "We must not let our personal objections prejudice us in respect to his conduct otherwise. I am sure you are the last to do that."

"I have never known an insubordinate man who was a perfect moral character," said the Rector. "It is very discouraging altogether; and you thought he was engaged to Wodehouse's pretty daughter, didn't you? I hope not—I sincerely hope not. That would make things doubly bad; but, to be sure, when a man is faithless to his most sacred engagements, there is very little dependence to be placed on him in other respects."

"But you have not told me what it is," said the Rector's wife, with some anxiety; and she spoke the more hastily as she saw the shadow of a curate—Mr Morgan's own curate, who must inevitably be invited to stop to dinner—crossing the lawn as she spoke. She got up and went a little nearer the window to make sure. "There is Mr Leeson," she said, with some vexation. "I must run up-stairs and get ready for dinner. Tell me what it is!"

Upon which the Rector, with some circumlocution, described the appalling occurrence of the previous night,—how Mr Wentworth had walked home with little Rosa Elsworthy from his own house to hers, as had, of course, been seen by various people. The tale had been told with variations, which did credit to the ingenuity of Carlingford; and Mr Morgan's version was that they had walked arm in arm, in the closest conversation, and at an hour which was quite unseemly for such a little person as Rosa to be abroad. The excellent Rector gave the story with strong expressions of disapproval; for he was aware of having raised his wife's expectations, and had a feeling, as he related them, that the circumstances, after all, were scarcely sufficiently horrifying to justify his preamble. Mrs Morgan listened with one ear towards the door, on the watch for Mr Leeson's knock.

"Was that all?" said the sensible woman. "I think it very likely it might be explained. I suppose Mr Leeson must have stopped to look at my ferns; he is very tiresome with his botany. That was all! Dear, I think it might be explained. I can't fancy Mr Wentworth is a man to commit himself in that way—if that is all!" said Mrs Morgan; "but I must run up-stairs to change my dress."

"That was not all," said the Rector, following her to the door. "It is said that this sort of thing has been habitual, my dear. He takes the 'Evening Mail,' you know, all to himself, instead of having the 'Times' like other people, and she carries it down to his house, and I hear of meetings in the garden, and a great deal that is very objectionable," said Mr Morgan, speaking very fast in order to deliver himself before the advent of Mr Leeson. "I'm afraid it is a very bad business. I don't know what to do about it. I suppose I must ask Leeson to stay to dinner? It is absurd of him to come at six o'clock."

"Meetings in the garden?" said Mrs Morgan, aghast. "I don't feel as if I could believe it. There is that tiresome man at last. Do as you like, dear, about asking him to stay; but I must make my escape," and the Rector's wife hastened up-stairs, divided between vexation about Mr Leeson and regret at the news she had just heard. She put on her dress rather hastily, and was conscious of a little ill-temper, for which she was angry with herself; and the haste of her toilette, and the excitement under which she laboured, aggravated unbecomingly that redness of which Mrs Morgan was painfully sensible. She was not at all pleased with her own appearance as she looked in the glass. Perhaps that sense of looking not so well as usual brought back to her mind a troublesome and painful idea, which recurred to her not unfrequently when she was in any trouble. The real Rector to whom she was married was so different from the ideal one who courted her; could it be possible, if they had married in their youth instead of now, that her husband would have been less open to the ill-natured suggestions of the gossips in Carlingford, and less jealous of the interferences of his young neighbour? It was hard to think that all the self-denial and patience of the past had done more harm than good; but though she was conscious of his defects, she was very loyal to him, and resolute to stand by him whatever he might do or say; though Mrs Morgan's "womanly instincts," which the Rector had quoted, were all on Mr Wentworth's side, and convinced her of his innocence to start with. On the whole, she was annoyed and uncomfortable; what with Mr Leeson's intrusion (which had occurred three or four times before, and which Mrs Morgan felt it her duty to check) and the Rector's uncharitableness, and her own insufficient time to dress, and the disagreeable heightening of her complexion, the Rector's wife felt in rather an unchristian frame of mind. She did not look well, and she did not feel better. She was terribly civil to the Curate when she went down-stairs, and snubbed him in the most unqualified way when he too began to speak about Mr Wentworth. "It does not seem to me to be at all a likely story," she said, courageously, and took away Mr Leeson's breath.

"But I hear a very unfavourable general account," said the Rector, who was almost equally surprised. "I hear he has been playing fast and loose with that very pretty person, Miss Wodehouse, and that her friends begin to be indignant. It is said that he has not been nearly so much there lately, but, on the contrary, always going to Elsworthy's, and has partly educated this little thing. My dear, one false step leads to another. I am not so incredulous as you are. Perhaps I have studied human nature a little more closely, and I know that error is always fruitful;—that is my experience," said Mr Morgan. His wife did not say anything in answer to this deliverance, but she lay in wait for the Curate, as was natural, and had her revenge upon him as soon as his ill fate prompted him to back the Rector out.

"I am afraid Mr Wentworth had always too much confidence in himself," said the unlucky individual who was destined to be scapegoat on this occasion; "and as you very justly observe, one wrong act leads to another. He has thrown himself among the bargemen on such an equal footing that I daresay he has got to like that kind of society. I shouldn't be surprised to find that Rosa Elsworthy suited him better than a lady with refined tastes."

"Mr Wentworth is a gentleman," said the Rector's wife, with emphasis, coming down upon the unhappy Leeson in full battle array. "I don't think he would go into the poorest house, if it were even a bargeman's, without the same respect of the privacy of the family as is customary among—persons of our own class, Mr Leeson. I can't tell how wrong or how foolish he may have been, of course—but that he couldn't behave to anybody in a disrespectful manner, or show himself intrusive, or forget the usages of good society," said Mrs Morgan, who was looking all the time at the unfortunate Curate, "I am perfectly convinced."

It was this speech which made Mr Morgan "speak seriously," as he called it, later the same night, to his wife, about her manner to poor Leeson, who was totally extinguished, as was to be expected. Mrs Morgan busied herself among her flowers all the evening, and could not be caught to be admonished until it was time for prayers: so that it was in the sacred retirement of her own chamber that the remonstrance was delivered at last. The Rector said he was very sorry to find that she still gave way to temper in a manner that was unbecoming in a clergyman's wife; he was surprised, after all her experience, and the way in which they had both been schooled in patience, to find she had still to learn that lesson: upon which Mrs Morgan, who had been thinking much on the subject, broke forth upon her husband in a manner totally unprecedented, and which took the amazed Rector altogether by surprise.

"Oh, William, if we had only forestalled the lesson, and been less prudent!" she cried in a womanish way, which struck the Rector dumb with astonishment; "if we hadn't been afraid to marry ten years ago, but gone into life when we were young, and fought through it like so many people, don't you think it would have been better for us? Neither you nor I would have minded what gossips said, or listened to a pack of stories when we were five-and-twenty. I think I was better then than I am now," said the Rector's wife. Though she filled that elevated position, she was only a woman, subject to outbreaks of sudden passion, and liable to tears like the rest. Mr Morgan looked very blank at her as she sat there crying, sobbing with the force of a sentiment which was probably untranslatable to the surprised, middle-aged man. He thought it must be her nerves which were in fault somehow, and though much startled, did not inquire farther into it, having a secret feeling in his heart that the less that was said the better on that subject. So he did what his good angel suggested to him, kissed his wife, and said he was well aware what heavy calls he had made upon her patience, and soothed her the best way that occurred to him. "But you were very hard upon poor Leeson, my dear," said the Rector, with his puzzled look, when she had regained her composure. Perhaps she was disappointed that she had not been able to convey her real meaning to her husband's matter-of-fact bosom; at all events, Mrs Morgan recovered herself immediately, and flashed forth with all the lively freshness of a temper in its first youth.

"He deserved a great deal more than I said to him," said the Rector's wife. "It might be an advantage to take the furniture, as it was all new, though it is a perpetual vexation to me, and worries me out of my life; but there was no need to take the curate, that I can see. What right has he to come day after day at your dinner-hour? he knows we dine at six as well as we do ourselves; and I do believe he knows what we have for dinner," exclaimed the incensed mistress of the house; "for he always makes his appearance when we have anything he likes. I hope I know my duty, and can put up with what cannot be mended," continued Mrs Morgan, with a sigh, and a mental reference to the carpet in the drawing-room; "but there are some things really that would disturb the temper of an angel. I don't know anybody that could endure the sight of a man always coming unasked to dinner;—and he to speak of Mr Wentworth, who, if he were the greatest sinner in the world, is always a gentleman!" Mrs Morgan broke off with a sparkle in her eye, which showed that she had neither exhausted the subject, nor was ashamed of herself; and the Rector wisely retired from the controversy. He went to bed, and slept, good man, and dreamt that Sir Charles Grandison had come to be his curate in place of Mr Leeson; and when he woke, concluded quietly that Mrs Morgan had "experienced a little attack on the nerves," as he explained afterwards to Dr Marjoribanks. Her compunctions, her longings after the lost life they might have lived together, her wistful womanish sense of the impoverished existence, deprived of so many experiences, on which they had entered in the dry maturity of their middle age, remained for ever a mystery to her faithful husband. He was very fond of her, and had a high respect for her character; but if she had spoken Sanscrit, he could not have had less understanding of the meaning her words were intended to convey.

Notwithstanding, a vague idea that his wife was disposed to side with Mr Wentworth had penetrated the brain of the Rector, and was not without its results. He told her next morning, in his curt way, that he thought it would be best to wait a little before taking any steps in the Wharfside business. "If all I hear is true, we may have to proceed in a different way against the unhappy young man," said Mr Morgan, solemnly; and he took care to ascertain that Mr Leeson had an invitation somewhere else to dinner, which was doing the duty of a tender husband, as everybody will allow.



CHAPTER XIII.

"I want to know what all this means about young Wentworth," said Mr Wodehouse. "He's gone off, it appears, in a hurry, nobody knows where. Well, so they say. To his brother's, is it? I couldn't know that; but look here—that's not all, nor nearly all—they say he meets that little Rosa at Elsworthy's every night, and walks home with her, and all that sort of thing. I tell you I don't know—that's what people say. You ought to understand all the rights of it, you two girls. I confess I thought it was Lucy he was after, for my part—and a very bad match, too, and one I should never have given my consent to. And then there is another fine talk about some fellow he's got at his house. What's the matter, Molly?—she looks as if she was going to faint."

"Oh no," said Miss Wodehouse, faintly; "and I don't believe a word about Rosa Elsworthy," she said, with sudden impetuosity, a minute after. "I am sure Mr Wentworth could vindicate himself whenever he likes. I daresay the one story is just as true as the other; but then," said the gentle elder sister, turning with anxious looks towards Lucy, "he is proud, as is natural; and I shouldn't think he would enter into explanations if he thought people did not trust him without them."

"That is all stuff," said Mr Wodehouse; "why should people trust him? I don't understand trusting a man in all sorts of equivocal circumstances, because he's got dark eyes, &c., and a handsome face—which seems your code of morality; but I thought he was after Lucy—that was my belief—and I want to know if it's all off."

"It never was on, papa," said Lucy, in her clearest voice. "I have been a great deal in the district, you know, and Mr Wentworth and I could not help meeting each other; that is all about it: but people must always have something to talk about in Carlingford. I hope you don't think I and Rosa Elsworthy could go together," she went on, turning round to him with a smile. "I don't think that would be much of a compliment;" and, saying this, Lucy went to get her work out of its usual corner, and sat down opposite to her father, with a wonderfully composed face. She was so composed, indeed, that any interested beholder might have been justified in thinking that the work suffered in consequence, for it seemed to take nearly all Lucy's strength and leisure to keep up that look.

"Oh!" said Mr Wodehouse, "that's how it was? Then I wonder why that confounded puppy came here so constantly? I don't like that sort of behaviour. Don't you go into the district any more and meet him—that's all I've got to say."

"Because of Rosa Elsworthy?" said Lucy, with a little smile, which did not flicker naturally, but was apt to get fixed at the corners of her pretty mouth. "That would never do, papa. Mr Wentworth's private concerns are nothing to us; but, you know, there is a great work going on in the district, and that can't be interfered with," said the young Sister of Mercy, looking up at him with a decision which Mr Wodehouse was aware he could make no stand against. And when she stopped speaking, Lucy did a little work, which was for the district too. All this time she was admitting to herself that she had been much startled by this news about Rosa Elsworthy,—much startled. To be sure, it was not like Mr Wentworth, and very likely it would impair his influence; and it was natural that any friend taking an interest in him and the district, should be taken a little aback by such news. Accordingly, Lucy sat a little more upright than usual, and was conscious that when she smiled, as she had just done, the smile did not glide off again in a natural way, but settled down into the lines of her face with a kind of spasmodic tenacity. She could do a great deal in the way of self-control, but she could not quite command these refractory muscles. Mr Wodehouse, who was not particularly penetrating, could not quite make her out; he saw there was something a little different from her ordinary look about his favourite child, but he had not insight enough to enable him to comprehend what it was.

"And about his man who is staying at Mrs Hadwin's?" said the perplexed churchwarden; "does any one know who the fellow is? I don't understand how Wentworth has got into all this hot water in a moment. Here's the Rector in a state of fury,—and his aunts,—and now here's this little bit of scandal to crown all;—and who is this fellow in his house?"

"It must be somebody he has taken in out of charity," said Miss Wodehouse, with tears in her eyes; "I am sure it is somebody whom he has opened his doors to out of Christian charity and the goodness of his heart. I don't understand how you can all desert him at the first word. All the years he has been here, you know there never was a whisper against him; and is it in reason to think he would go so far wrong all in a moment?" cried the faithful advocate of the Perpetual Curate. Her words were addressed to Mr Wodehouse, but her eyes sought Lucy, who was sitting very upright doing her work, without any leisure to look round. Lucy had quite enough to occupy her within herself at that emergency, and the tearful appeal of her elder sister had no effect upon her. As for Mr Wodehouse, he was more and more puzzled how to interpret these tears in his daughter's eyes.

"I don't make it out at all," said the perplexed father, getting up to leave the room. "I hope you weren't in love with him, Molly? you ought to have too much sense for that. A pretty mess he'll find when he comes home; but he must get out of it the best way he can, for I can't help him, at least. I don't mean to have him asked here any more—you understand, Lucy," he said, turning round at the door, with an emphatic creak of his boots. But Lucy had no mind to be seduced into any such confession of weakness.

"You are always having everybody in Carlingford to dinner," said the young housekeeper, "and all the clergymen, even that Mr Leeson; and I don't see why you should except Mr Wentworth, papa; he has done nothing wicked, so far as we know. I daresay he won't want to bring Rosa Elsworthy with him; and why shouldn't he be asked here?" said Lucy, looking full in his face with her bright eyes. Mr Wodehouse was entirely discomfited, and did not know what to say. "I wonder if you know what you mean yourselves, you women," he muttered; and then, with a shrug of his shoulders, and a hasty "settle it as you please," the churchwarden's boots creaked hastily out of the room, and out of the house.

After this a dead silence fell upon the drawing-room and its two occupants. They did not burst forth into mutual comment upon this last piece of Carlingford news, as they would have done under any other circumstances; on the contrary, they bent over their several occupations with quite an unusual devotion, not exchanging so much as a look. Lucy, over her needlework, was the steadiest of the two; she was still at the same point in her thoughts, owning to herself that she was startled, and indeed shocked, by what she had heard—that it was a great pity for Mr Wentworth; perhaps that it was not quite what might have been expected of him,—and then she checked herself, and went back again to her original acknowledgment. To tell the truth, though she assured herself that she had nothing to do with it, a strange sense of having just passed through an unexpected illness, lay underneath Lucy's composure. It was none of her business, to be sure, but she could not help feeling as if she had just had a fever, or some other sudden unlooked-for attack, and that nobody knew of it, and that she must get well as best she could, without any help from without.

It was quite half an hour before Miss Wodehouse got up from the knitting which she had spoiled utterly, trying to take up the dropped stitches with her trembling fingers, and dropping others by every effort she made. The poor lady went wistfully about the room, wandering from corner to corner, as if in search of something; at last she took courage to speak, when she found herself behind her young sister. "Dear, I am sure it is not true," said Miss Wodehouse, suddenly, with a little sob; and then she came close to Lucy's chair, and put her hand timidly upon her sister's shoulder. "Think how many good things you two have done together, dear; and is it likely you are to be parted like this?" said the injudicious comforter. It felt rather like another attack of fever to Lucy, as unexpected as the last.

"Don't speak so, please," said the poor girl, with a momentary shiver. "It is about Mr Wentworth you mean?" she went on, after a little, without turning her head. "I—am sorry, of course. I am afraid it will do him—harm," and then she made a pause, and stumbled over her sewing with fingers which felt feeble and powerless to the very tips—all on account of this fever she had had. "But I don't know any reason why you and I should discuss it, Mary," she said, getting up in her turn, not quite sure whether she could stand at this early period of her convalescence, but resolved to try. "We are both Mr Wentworth's friends—and we need not say any harm of him. I have to get something out of the storeroom for to-night."

"But, Lucy," said the tender, trembling sister, who did not know how to be wise and silent, "I trust him, and you don't. Oh, my dear, it will break my heart. I know some part of it is not true. I know one thing in which he is quite—quite innocent. Oh, Lucy, my darling, if you distrust him it will be returning evil for good!" cried poor Miss Wodehouse, with tears. As for Lucy, she did not quite know what her sister said. She only felt that it was cruel to stop her, and look at her, and talk to her; and there woke up in her mind a fierce sudden spark of resistance to the intolerable.

"Why do you hold me? I may have been ill, but I can stand well enough by myself," cried Lucy, to her sister's utter bewilderment. "That is, I—I mean, I have other things to attend to," she cried, breaking into a few hot tears of mortification over this self-betrayal; and so went away in a strange glow and tremble of sudden passion, such as had never been seen before in that quiet house. She went direct to the storeroom, as she had said, and got out what was wanted; and only after that was done permitted herself to go up to her own room, and turn the key in her door. Though she was a Sister of Mercy, and much beloved in Prickett's Lane, she was still but one of Eve's poor petulant women-children, and had it in her to fly at an intruder on her suffering, like any other wounded creature. But she did not make any wild demonstration of her pain, even when shut up thus in her fortress. She sat down on the sofa, in a kind of dull heaviness, looking into vacancy. She was not positively thinking of Mr Wentworth, or of any one thing in particular. She was only conscious of a terrible difference somehow in everything about her—in the air which choked her breathing, and the light which blinded her eyes. When she came to herself a little, she said over and over, half-aloud, that everything was just the same as it had always been, and that to her at least nothing had happened; but that declaration, though made with vehemence, did not alter matters. The world altogether had sustained a change. The light that was in it was darkened, and the heart stilled. All at once, instead of a sweet spontaneous career, providing for its own wants day by day, life came to look like something which required such an amount of courage and patience and endurance as Lucy had not at hand to support her in the way; and her heart failed her at the moment when she found this out.

Notwithstanding, the people who dined at Mr Wodehouse's that night thought it a very agreeable little party, and more than once repeated the remark, so familiar to most persons in society in Carlingford—that Wodehouse's parties were the pleasantest going, though he himself was humdrum enough. Two or three of the people present had heard the gossip about Mr Wentworth, and discussed it, as was natural, taking different views of the subject; and poor Miss Wodehouse took up his defence so warmly, and with such tearful vehemence, that there were smiles to be seen on several faces. As for Lucy, she made only a very simple remark on the subject. She said: "Mr Wentworth is a great friend of ours, and I think I would rather not hear any gossip about him." Of course there were one or two keen observers who put a subtle meaning to this, and knew what was signified by her looks and her ways all the evening; but, most likely, they were altogether mistaken in their suppositions, for nobody could possibly watch her so closely as did Miss Wodehouse, who know no more than the man in the moon, at the close of the evening, whether her young sister was very wretched or totally indifferent. The truth was certainly not to be discovered, for that night at least, in Lucy's looks.



CHAPTER XIV.

The next afternoon there were signs of a considerable commotion in Mr Elsworthy's shop. Rosa had disappeared altogether, and Mrs Elsworthy, with an ominous redness on her cheeks, had taken the place generally held by that more agreeable little figure. All the symptoms of having been engaged in an affray from which she had retired not altogether victorious were in Mrs Elsworthy's face, and the errand-boys vanished from her neighbourhood with inconceivable rapidity, and found out little parcels to deliver which would have eluded their most anxious search in other circumstances. Mr Elsworthy himself occupied his usual place in the foreground, without the usual marks of universal content and satisfaction with all his surroundings which generally distinguished him. An indescribable appearance of having been recently snubbed hung about the excellent man, and his glances towards the back-shop, and the glances directed from the back-shop to him, told with sufficient significance the quarter from which his humiliation had proceeded. It had done him good, as such painful discipline generally does; for he was clearing out some drawers in which sundry quires of paper had broken loose and run into confusion, with the air of a man who ought to have done it weeks ago. As for the partner of his bosom, she was standing in the obscure distance behind the counter knitting a blue stocking, which was evidently intended for no foot but his. There was a chair close by, but Mrs Elsworthy disdained to sit down. She stood with her knitting in conscious power, now and then suffering a confession of her faith to escape her. "There's nothing as don't go contrary in this world," said the discontented wife, "when a man's a fool." It was hard upon Mr Elsworthy that his ears were sharp, and that he knew exactly what this agreeable murmur was. But he was wise in his generation, and made no reply.

Things were in this condition when, of all persons in Carlingford, it occurred to Miss Leonora Wentworth to enter Mr Elsworthy's shop. Not that she was alone, or bent upon any errand of inquiry; for Miss Leonora seldom moved about unattended by her sisters, whom she felt it her duty to take out for exercise; and wonderfully enough, she had not found out yet what was the source of Miss Dora's mysteries and depression, having been still occupied meantime by her own "great work" in her London district, and the affair of the gin-palace, which was still undecided. She had been talking a great deal about this gin-palace for the last twenty-four hours; and to hear Miss Leonora, you might have supposed that all the powers of heaven must fail and be discomfited before this potent instrument of evil, and that, after all, Bibles and missionaries were much less effective than the stoppage of the licence, upon which all her agents were bent. At all events, such an object of interest had swept out from her thoughts the vague figure of her nephew Frank, and aunt Dora's mysterious anxieties on his account. When the three ladies approached Elsworthy's, the first thing that attracted their attention was Rosa, the little Rosa who had been banished from the shop, and whom Mrs Elsworthy believed to be expiating her sins in a back room, in tears and darkness; instead of which the little girl was looking out of her favourite window, and amusing herself much with all that was going on in Grange Lane. Though she was fluttered by the scolding she had received, Rosa only looked prettier than usual with her flushed cheeks; and so many things had been put into her nonsensical little head during the last two days, especially by her aunt's denunciations, that her sense of self-importance was very much heightened in consequence. She looked at the Miss Wentworths with a throb of mingled pride and alarm, wondering whether perhaps she might know more of them some day, if Mr Wentworth was really fond of her, as people said—which thought gave Rosa a wonderful sensation of awe and delighted vanity. Meanwhile the three Miss Wentworths looked at her with very diverse feelings. "I must speak to these people about that little girl, if nobody else has sense enough to do it," said Miss Leonora; "she is evidently going wrong as fast as she can, the little fool;" and the iron-grey sister went into Mr Elsworthy's in this perfectly composed and ordinary frame of mind, with her head full of the application which was to be made to the licensing magistrates today, in the parish of St Michael, and totally unaware that anybody belonging to herself could ever be connected with the incautious little coquette at the window. Miss Dora's feelings were very different. It was much against her will that she was going at all into this obnoxious shop, and the eyes which she hastily uplifted to the window and withdrew again with lively disgust and dislike, were both angry and tearful; "Little forward shameless thing," Miss Dora said to herself, with a little toss of her head. As for Miss Wentworth, it was not her custom to say anything—but she, too, looked up, and saw the pretty face at the window, and secretly concluded that it might all be quite true, and that she had known a young man make a fool of himself before now for such another. So they all went in, unwitting that they came at the end of a domestic hurricane, and that the waters were still in a state of disturbance. Miss Wentworth took the only chair, as was natural, and sat down sweetly to wait for Leonora, and Miss Dora lingered behind while her sister made her purchases. Miss Leonora wanted some books—

"And I came here," she said, with engaging candour, "because I see no other shop in this part of the town except Masters's, which, of course, I would not enter. It is easy enough to do without books, but I can't afford to compromise my principles, Mr Elsworthy;" to which Mr Elsworthy had replied, "No, ma'am, of course not—such a thing aint to be expected;" with one eye upon his customer, and one upon his belligerent wife.

"And, by the by, if you will permit me to speak about what does not concern me," said Miss Leonora cheerfully, "I think you should look after that little girl of yours more carefully;—recollect I don't mean any offence; but she's very pretty, you know, and very young, and vain, as a matter of course. I saw her the other evening going down Grange Lane, a great deal too late for such a creature to be out; and though I don't doubt, you are very particular where she goes—"

It was at this conjuncture that Mrs Elsworthy, who could not keep silence any longer, broke in ardently, with all her knitting-needles in front of her, disposed like a kind of porcupine mail—

"I'm well known in Carlingford—better known than most," said Mrs Elsworthy, with a sob; "such a thing as not being particular was never named to me. I strive and I toil from morning to night, as all things should be respectable and kep' in good order; but what's the good? Here's my heart broken, that's all; and Elsworthy standing gaping like a gaby as he is. There aint nothing as don't go contrairy, when folks is tied to a set of fools!" cried the indignant matron. "As for pretty, I don't know nothing about it; I've got too much to do minding my own business. Them as has nothing to think of but stand in the shop and twiddle their thumbs, ought to look to that; but, ma'am, if you'll believe me, it aint no fault of mine. It aint my will to throw her in any young gentleman's way; not to say a clergyman as we're bound to respect. Whatever you does, ladies,—and I shouldn't wonder at your taking away your custom, nor nothing else as was a punishment—don't blame me!"

"But you forget, Mrs Elsworthy, that we have nothing to do with it,—nothing at all; my nephew knows very well what he is about," said Miss Dora, in injudicious haste. "Mr Wentworth is not at all likely to forget himself," continued that poor lady, getting confused as her sister turned round and stared at her. "Of course it was all out of kindness;—I—I know Frank did not mean anything," cried the unfortunate aunt. Leonora's look, as she turned round and fixed her eyes upon her, took away what little breath Miss Dora had.

"Mr Wentworth?" asked Miss Leonora; "I should be glad to know, if anybody would inform me, what Mr Wentworth can possibly have to do with it? I daresay you misunderstood me; I said you were to look after that little girl—your niece, or whatever she is; I did not say anything about Mr Wentworth," said the strong-minded sister, looking round upon them all. For the moment she forgot all about the licence, and turned upon Mr Elsworthy with an emphasis which almost drive that troubled citizen to his knees.

"That was how I understood it," said the clerk of St Roque's, humbly; "there wasn't nothing said about Mr Wentworth—nor there couldn't be as I know of, but what was in his favour, for there aint many young men like our clergyman left in the Church. It aint because I'm speaking to respected ladies as is his relations; folks may talk," said Mr Elsworthy, with a slight faltering, "but I never see his equal; and as for an act of kindness to an orphan child—"

"The orphan child is neither here nor there," said his angry wife, who had taken up her post by his side; "a dozen fathers and mothers couldn't have done better by her than we've done; and to go and lay out her snares for them as is so far above her, if you'll believe me, ma'am, it's nigh broken my heart. She's neither flesh nor blood o' mine," cried the aggrieved woman; "there would have been a different tale to tell if she had belonged to me. I'd have—murdered her, ma'am, though it aint proper to say so, afore we'd have gone and raised a talk like this; it aint my blame, if it was my dying word," cried Mrs Elsworthy, relapsing into angry tears: "I'm one as has always shown her a good example, and never gone flirting about, nor cast my eyes to one side or another for the best man as ever walked; and to think as a respectable family should be brought to shame through her doings, and a gentleman as is a clergyman got himself talked about—it's gone nigh to kill me, that's what it's done," sobbed the virtuous matron; "and I don't see as nobody cares."

Miss Leonora had been woke up suddenly out of her abstract occupations; she penetrated to the heart of the matter while all this talk was going on. She transfixed her sister Dora, who seemed much inclined to cry like Mrs Elsworthy, with a look which overwhelmed that trembling woman; then she addressed herself with great suavity to the matter in hand.

"I suppose it is this poor little foolish child who has been getting herself talked about?" said Miss Leonora. "It's a pity, to be sure, but I daresay it's not so bad as you think. As for her laying snares for people above her, I wouldn't be afraid of that. Poor little thing! It's not so easy as you think laying snares. Perhaps it's the new minister at Salem Chapel who has been paying attention to her? I would not take any notice of it if I were you. Don't let her loll about at the window as she's doing, and don't let her go out so late, and give her plenty of work to do. My maid wants some one to help in her needlework. Perhaps this child would do, Cecilia?" said Miss Leonora. "As for her snares, poor thing, I don't feel much afraid of them. I daresay if Mr Wentworth had Sunday classes for the young people as I wished him to have, and took pains to give them proper instruction, such things would not happen. If you send her to my maid, I flatter myself she will soon come to her senses. Good morning; and you will please to send me the books—there are some others I want you to get for me next week," said Mr Elsworthy's patroness. "I will follow you, Dora, please," and Miss Leonora swept her sisters out before her, and went upon her way with indescribable grandeur. Even little Rosa felt the change, where she sat at the window looking out. The little vain creature no longer felt it possible to believe, as she looked after them, that she ever could be anything to the Miss Wentworths except a little girl in a shop. It shook her confidence in what people said; and it was as well for her that she withdrew from the window at that conjuncture, and so had an opportunity of hearing her aunt come up-stairs, and of darting back again to the penitential darkness of her own chamber at the back of the house—which saved Rosa some angry words at least.

As for Miss Leonora Wentworth, she said nothing to her sisters on this new subject. She saw them safely home to their own apartments, and went out again without explaining her movements. When she was gone, Miss Wentworth listened to Miss Dora's doubts and tears with her usual patience, but did not go into the matter much. "It doesn't matter whether it is your fault or not," said aunt Cecilia, with a larger amount of words than usual, and a sharpness very uncommon with her; "but I daresay Leonora will set it all right." After all, the confidence which the elder sister had in Leonora was justified. She did not entirely agree with her about the "great work," nor was disposed to connect the non-licensing of the gin-palace in any way with the faithfulness of God: but she comprehended in her gentle heart that there were other matters of which Leonora was capable. As for Miss Dora, she went to the summer-house at last, and, seating herself at the window, cried under her breath till she had a very bad headache, and was of no use for any purpose under heaven. She thought nothing less than that Leonora had gone abroad to denounce poor Frank, and tell everybody how wicked he was; and she was so sure her poor dear boy did not mean anything! She sat with her head growing heavier and heavier, watching for her sister's return, and calculating within herself how many places Leonora must have called at, and how utterly gone by this time must be the character of the Perpetual Curate. At last, in utter despair, with her thin curls all limp about her poor cheeks, Miss Dora had to go to bed and have the room darkened, and swallow cups of green tea and other nauseous compounds, at the will and pleasure of her maid, who was learned in headache. The poor lady sobbed herself to sleep after a time, and saw, in a hideous dream, her sister Leonora marching from house to house of poor Frank's friends, and closing door after door with all sorts of clang and dash upon the returning prodigal. "But oh, it was not my fault—oh, my dear, she found it out herself. You do not think I was to blame?" sobbed poor aunt Dora in her troubled slumber; and her headache did not get any better notwithstanding the green tea.

Miss Dora's visions were partly realised, for it was quite true that her iron-grey sister was making a round of calls upon Frank's friends. Miss Leonora Wentworth went out in great state that day. She had her handsomest dress on, and the bonnet which her maid had calculated upon as her own property, because it was much too nice for Miss Leonora. In this impossible attire she went to see Mrs Hadwin, and was very gracious to that unsuspecting woman, and learned a few things of which she had not the least conception previously. Then she went to the Miss Wodehouses, and made the elder sister there mighty uncomfortable by her keen looks and questions; and what Miss Leonora did after that was not distinctly known to any one. She got into Prickett's Lane somehow, and stumbled upon No. 10, much to the surprise of the inhabitants; and before she returned home she had given Mrs Morgan her advice about the Virginian creeper which was intended to conceal the continual passage of the railway trains. "But I would not trust to trellis-work. I would build up the wall a few feet higher, and then you will have some satisfaction in your work," said Miss Leonora, and left the Rector's wife to consider the matter in rather an agreeable state of mind, for that had been Mrs Morgan's opinion all along. After this last visit the active aunt returned home, going leisurely along George Street, and down Grange Lane, with meditative steps. Miss Leonora, of course, would not for kingdoms have confessed that any new light had come into her mind, or that some very ordinary people in Carlingford, no one of whom she could have confidently affirmed to be a converted person, had left a certain vivid and novel impression upon her thoughts. She went along much more slowly than usual in this new mood of reflectiveness. She was not thinking of the licensing magistrates of St Michael's nor the beautiful faith of the colporteur. Other ideas filled her mind at the moment. Whether perhaps, after all, a man who did his duty by rich and poor, and could encounter all things for love and duty's sake, was not about the best man for a parish priest, even though he did have choristers in white surplices, and lilies on the Easter altar? Whether it might not be a comfort to know that in the pretty parsonage at Skelmersdale there was some one ready to start at a moment's notice for the help of a friend or the succour of a soul—brother to Charley who won the Cross for valour, and not unworthy of the race? Some strange moisture came into the corners of Miss Leonora's eyes. There was Gerald too, whom the Perpetual Curate had declared to be the best man he ever knew; and the Evangelical woman, with all her prejudices, could not in her heart deny it. Various other thoughts of a similar description, but too shadowy to bear expression, came in spite of herself through Miss Leonora's mind. "We know that God heareth not sinners; but if any man be a worshipper of God and doeth His will, him He heareth;" and it occurred to her vaguely, for the first time, that she was harder to please than her Master. Not that such an idea could get possession of a mind so well fortified, at the first assault; but it was strange how often the thought came back to her that the man who had thrilled through all those people about Prickett's Lane a kind of vague sense that they were Christians, and not hopeless wretches, forgotten of God; and who had taken in the mysterious lodger at Mrs Hadwin's, bearing the penalty of suspicion without complaint, would be true at his post wherever he might be, and was a priest of God's appointing. Such were the strangely novel ideas which went flashing through Miss Leonora's mind as she went home to dinner, ejecting summarily the new gin-palaces and her favourite colporteur. If anybody had stated them in words, she would have indignantly scouted such latitudinarian stuff; but they kept flickering in the strangest fluctuations, coming and going, bringing in native Wentworth prejudices and natural affections to overcome all other prepossessions, in the most inveterate, unexplainable way. For it will be apparent that Miss Leonora, being a woman of sense, utterly scorned the Rosa Elsworthy hypothesis, and comprehended as nearly how it happened as it was possible for any one unaware of the facts to do.

Such were the good and bad angels who fought over the Curate's fate while he was away. He might have been anxious if he had known anything about them, or had been capable of imagining any such clouds as those which overshadowed his good name in the lively imagination of Carlingford. But Rosa Elsworthy never could have occurred to the unconscious young man as a special danger, any more than the relenting in the heart of his aunt Leonora could have dawned upon him as a possible happiness. To tell the truth, he had left home, so far as he himself was concerned, in rather a happy state of mind than otherwise, with healthful impulses of opposition to the Rector, and confidence in the sympathy of Lucy. To hear that Lucy had given him up, and that Miss Leonora and Mrs Morgan were the only people who believed in him, would have gone pretty far at this moment to make an end of the Perpetual Curate. But fortunately he knew nothing about it; and while Lucy held her head high with pain, and walked over the burning coals a conscious martyr, and Miss Dora sobbed herself asleep in her darkened room, all on his account, there was plenty of trouble, perplexity, and distress in Wentworth Rectory to occupy to the full all the thoughts and powers of the Curate of St Roque's.



CHAPTER XV.

It was mid-day, and more than twelve hours after he had left Carlingford, before Mr Wentworth reached the Rectory. He had snatched a few hours' sleep in London, where he was obliged to pause because of the trains, which did not correspond; and accordingly, though he was very anxious about Gerald, it was with a mien and gait very much like his usual appearance that he jumped out of the railway carriage at the little station which was on his father's property, and where everybody knew the Squire's son. Left in entire uncertainty as he was in respect to the trouble which had overtaken his brother, it was a little comfort to the Curate to find that everybody looked surprised to see him, and that nobody seemed to know of any cause demanding his presence. All was well at the Hall, so far as the station-master knew; and as for the Rector, he had no special place in the local report which the handiest porter supplied "Mr Frank"—a blessed neglect, which was very consolatory to the heart of the anxious brother, to whom it became evident that nothing had happened, and who began to hope that Gerald's wife, who never was very wise, had been seized with some merely fantastic terror. With this hope he walked on briskly upon the familiar road to his brother's house, recovering his courage, and falling back upon his own thoughts, and at last taking pleasure in the idea of telling all his troubles to Gerald, and getting strength and enlightenment from his advice. He had come quite into this view of the subject when he arrived at the Rectory, and saw the pretty old-fashioned house, with its high ivied garden-walls, and the famous cedar on the lawn, standing all secure and sweet in the early sunshine, like something too steadfast to be moved, as if sorrow or conflict could never enter there. Unconsciously to himself, the perfect tranquillity of everything altered the entire scope of Frank Wentworth's thoughts. He was no longer in anxiety about his brother. He was going to ask Gerald's advice upon his own troubles, and lay the difficulties and dangers of his position before the clear and lucid eyes of the best man he ever knew.

It shook him a little out of his position, however, to find himself admitted with a kind of scared expectation by Mrs Gerald Wentworth's maid, who made no exclamation of wonder at the sight of him, but opened the door in a troubled, stealthy way, strangely unlike the usual customs of the place. "Is my brother at home?" said the Curate, going in with a step that rang on the hall, and a voice that sounded into the house. He would have proceeded straight, as usual, to Gerald's study after this question, which was one of form merely, but for the disturbed looks of the woman, who put up her hand imploringly. "Oh hush! Mr Frank; hush! My mistress wants to see you first. She said I was to show you into her sitting-room," said the maid, half in a whisper, and led him hastily down a side-passage to a little out-of-the-way room, which he knew was where Louisa was wont to retire when she had her headaches, as was well known to all the house of Wentworth. The Curate went in with some impatience and some alarm to this retired apartment. His eyes, dazzled by the sunshine, could not penetrate at first the shadowy greenness of the room, which, what with the trees without and the Venetian blind within, was lost in a kind of twilight, grateful enough after a while, but bewildering at the first moment. Out of this darkness somebody rose as he entered, and walked into his arms with trembling eagerness. "Oh Frank, I am so thankful you are come! now perhaps something may be done; for you always understood," said his little sister-in-law, reaching up to kiss him. She was a tiny little woman, with soft eyes and a tender little blooming face, which he had never before seen obscured by any cloud, or indeed moved by any particular sentiment. Now the firmament was all overcast, and Louisa, it was evident, had been sitting in the shade of her drawn blinds, having a quiet cry, and going into all her grievances. To see such a serene creature all clouded over and full of tears, gave the Curate a distinct shock of alarm and anxiety. He led her back to her sofa, seeing clearer and clearer, as he watched her face, the plaintive lines of complaint, the heavy burden of trouble which she was about to cast on his shoulders. He grew more and more afraid as he looked at her. "Is Gerald ill?" he said, with a thrill of terror; but even this could scarcely account for the woeful look of all the accessories to the picture.

"Oh, Frank, I am so glad you are come!" said Louisa through her tears. "I felt sure you would come when you got my letter. Your father thinks I make a fuss about nothing, and Cuthbert and Guy do nothing but laugh at me, as if they could possibly know; but you always understand me, Frank. I knew it was just as good as sending for a brother of my own; indeed better," said Mrs Wentworth, wiping her eyes; "for though Gerald is using me so badly, I would not expose him out of his own family, or have people making remarks—oh, not for the world!"

"Expose him!" said the Curate, with unutterable astonishment. "You don't mean to say you have any complaint to make about Gerald?" The idea was so preposterous that Frank Wentworth laughed; but it was not a laugh pleasant to hear.

"Oh, Frank, if you but knew all," said Louisa; "what I have had to put up with for months—all my best feelings outraged, and so many things to endure that were dreadful to think of. And I that was always brought up so differently; but now," cried the poor little woman, bursting into renewed tears, "it's come to such a pass that it can't be concealed any longer. I think it will break my heart; people will be sure to say I have been to blame; and how I am ever to hold up my head in society, and what is to be my name, and whether I am to be considered a widow—"

"A widow!" cried the Perpetual Curate, in utter consternation.

"Or worse," sobbed Gerald's poor little wife: "it feels like being divorced—as if one had done something wrong; and I am sure I never did anything to deserve it; but when your husband is a Romish priest," cried the afflicted woman, pressing her handkerchief to her eyes, "I would just ask anybody what are you? You can't be his wife, because he is not allowed to have any wife; and you can't go back to your maiden name, because of the children; and how can you have any place in society? Oh, Frank, I think I shall go distracted," said poor Louisa; "it will feel as if one had done something wicked, and been put out of the pale. How can I be called Mrs Wentworth any more when my husband has left me? and even if he is a priest, and can't have any wife, still he will be alive, and I shall not have the satisfaction of being a widow even. I am sure I don't know what I say," she concluded, with a fresh outburst; "for to be a widow would be a poor satisfaction, and I don't know how I could ever, ever live without Gerald; but to feel as if you were an improper person, and all the children's prospects in life!—Oh, Frank!" cried the weeping Louisa, burying her face in her handkerchief, "I think I shall go distracted, and my heart will break."

To all this strange and unexpected revelation the startled Curate listened like a man in a dream. Possibly his sister-in-law's representation of this danger, as seen entirely from her own point of view, had a more alarming effect upon him that any other statement of the case. He could have gone into Gerald's difficulties with so much sympathy and fellow-feeling that the shock would have been trifling in comparison; and between Rome and the highest level of Anglicanism there was no such difference as to frighten the accustomed mind of the Curate of St Roque's. But, seen from Louisa's side, matters appeared very different: here the foundations of the earth were shaking, and life itself going to pieces; even the absurdity of her distress made the whole business more real; and the poor little woman, whose trouble was that she herself would neither be a wife nor a widow, had enough of truth on her side to unfold a miserable picture to the eyes of the anxious spectator. He did not know what answer to make her; and perhaps it was a greater consolation to poor Louisa to be permitted to run on—

"And you know it never needed to have come to this if Gerald had been like other people," she said, drying her tears, and with a tone of remonstrance. "Of course it is a family living, and it is not likely his own father would have made any disturbance; and there is no other family in the parish but the Skipwiths, and they are great friends, and never would have said a word. He might have preached in six surplices if he had liked," cried poor Louisa—"who would have minded? And as for confession, and all that, I don't believe there is anybody in the world who had done any wrong that could have helped confessing to Gerald; he is so good—oh, Frank, you know he is so good!" said the exasperated little wife, overcome with fondness and admiration and impatience, "and there is nobody in the parish that I ever heard of that does not worship him; but when I tell him so, he never pays the least attention. And then Edward Plumstead and he go on talking about subscription, and signing articles, and nonsense, till they make my head swim. Nobody, I am sure, wants Gerald to subscribe or sign articles. I am sure I would subscribe any amount," cried the poor little woman, once more falling into tears—"a thousand pounds if I had it, Frank—only to make him hear reason; for why should he leave Wentworth, where he can do what he likes, and nobody will interfere with him? The Bishop is an old friend of my father's, and I am sure he never would say anything; and as for candles and crosses and—anything he pleases, Frank—"

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