Here poor Louisa paused, and put her hand on his arm, and looked up wistfully into his face. She wanted to convince herself that she was right, and that the faltering dread she had behind all this, of something more mysterious than candles or crosses—something which she did not attempt to understand—was no real spectre after all. "Oh, Frank, I am sure I never would oppose him, nor your father, nor anybody; and why should he go and take some dreadful step, and upset everything?" said Mrs Wentworth. "Oh, Frank! we will not even have enough to live upon; and as for me, if Gerald leaves me, how shall I ever hold up my head again, or how will anybody know how to behave to me? I can't call myself Miss Leighton again, after being married so long; and if I am not his wife, what shall I be?" Her crying became hysterical as she came back to this point; and Mr Wentworth sat by her trying to soothe her, as wretched as herself.
"But I must see Gerald, Louisa," said the Curate; "he has never written to me about this. Perhaps things have not gone so far as you think; but as for the crosses and the candles, you know, and not being interfered with—"
"I would promise to do anything he likes," cried the weeping woman. "I never would worry him any more about anything. After aunt Leonora was here, perhaps I said things I should not have said; but, oh Frank, whatever he likes to do I am sure I will give in to it. I don't really mind seeing him preach in his surplice, only you know poor papa was so very Low-Church; and as for the candles, what are they to pleasing one's husband? Oh, Frank, if you would only tell him—I can't argue about things like a man—tell him nobody will ever interfere, and he shall do whatever he pleases. I trust to you to say everything," said the poor wife. "You can reason with him and explain things. Nobody understands Gerald like you. You will not forsake me in my trouble, Frank? I thought immediately of you. I knew you could help us, if anybody could. You will tell him all I have said," she continued, rising as Mr Wentworth rose, and going after him to the door, to impress once more upon him the necessities of the case. "Oh, Frank, remember how much depends upon it!—everything in the world for me, and all the children's prospects in life; and he would be miserable himself if he were to leave us. You know he would?" said Louisa, looking anxiously into his face, and putting her hand on his arm. "Oh, Frank, you don't think Gerald could be happy without the children—and me?"
The terrible thought silenced her. She stopped crying, and a kind of tearless horror and dread came over her face. She was not very wise, but her heart was tender and full of love in its way. What if perhaps this life, which had gone so smoothly over her unthinking head without any complications, should turn out to be a lie, and her happiness a mere delusion? She could not have put her thoughts into words, but the doubt suddenly came over her, putting a stop to all her lamentations. If perhaps Gerald could be happy without the children and herself, what dreadful fiction had all her joy been built upon! Such an inarticulate terror seemed to stop the very beating of her heart. It was not a great calamity only but an overthrowal of all confidence in life; and she shivered before it like a dumb creature piteously beholding an approaching agony which it could not comprehend. The utterance of her distress was arrested upon her lips,—she looked up to her brother with an entreating look, so suddenly intensified and grown desperate that he was startled by it. It alarmed him so much that he turned again to lead her back to her sofa, wondering what momentary passion it could be which had woke such a sudden world of confused meaning in Louisa's eyes.
"You may be sure he could not," said the Curate, warmly. "Not happy, certainly; but to men like Gerald there are things in the world dearer than happiness," he said, after a little pause, with a sigh, wondering to himself whether, if Lucy Wodehouse were his, his dearest duty could make him consent to part with her. "If he thinks of such a step, he must think of it as of martyrdom—is that a comfort to you?" he continued, bending, in his pity and wonder, over the trembling wife, who burst forth into fresh tears as he spoke, and forgot her momentary horror.
"Oh, Frank, go and speak to him, and tell him how miserable I am, and what a dreadful thing it would be; tell him everything, Frank. Oh, don't leave him till you have persuaded him. Go, go; never mind me," cried Mrs Wentworth; and then she went to the door after him once more—"Don't say I sent for you. He—he might not be pleased," she said, in her faltering, eager voice; "and oh, Frank, consider how much hangs upon what you say." When he left her, Louisa stood at the door watching him as he went along the passage towards her husband's room. It was a forlorn-hope; but still the unreasoning, uncomprehending heart took a little comfort from it. She watched his figure disappearing along the narrow passage with a thrill of mingled anxiety and hope; arguing with Gerald, though it was so ineffectual when she tried it, might still be of some avail in stronger hands. His brother understood him, and could talk to him better than anybody else could; and though she had never convinced anybody of anything all her life, Mrs Wentworth had an inalienable confidence in the effect of "being talked to." In the momentary stimulus she went back to her darkened room and drew up the blind, and went to work in a tremulous way; but as the slow time went on, and Frank did not return, poor Louisa's courage failed her; her fingers refused their office, and she began to imagine all sorts of things that might be going on in Gerald's study. Perhaps the argument might be going the wrong way; perhaps Gerald might be angry at his brother's interference; perhaps they might come to words—they who had been such good friends—and it would be her fault. She jumped up with her heart beating loud when she heard a door opened somewhere; but when nobody came, grew sick and faint, and hid her face, in the impatience of her misery. Then the feeling grew upon her that those precious moments were decisive, and that she must make one last appeal, or her heart would burst. She tried to resist the impulse in a feeble way, but it was not her custom to resist impulses, and it got the better of her; and this was why poor Louisa rushed into the library, just as Frank thought he had made a little advance in his pleading, and scattered his eloquence to the winds with a set of dreadful arguments which were all her own.
The Curate of St Roque's found his brother in his library, looking very much as he always looked at first glance. But Gerald was not reading nor writing nor doing anything. He was seated in his usual chair, by his usual table, with all the ordinary things around. Some manuscript—lying loosely about, and looking as if he had thrown down his pen in disgust, and pushed it away from him in the middle of a sentence—was on the table, and an open book in his other hand; but neither the book nor the manuscript occupied him; he was sitting leaning his head in his hands, gazing blankly out through the window, as it appeared, at the cedar, which flung its serene shadow over the lawn outside. He jumped up at the sound of his brother's voice, but seemed to recall himself with a little difficulty even for that, and did not look much surprised to see him. In short, Frank read in Gerald's eyes that he would not at that moment have been surprised to see any one, and that, in his own consciousness, the emergency was great enough to justify any unlooked-for appearance, though it might be from heaven or from the grave.
"I am glad you have come," he said, after they had greeted each other, his mouth relaxing ever so slightly into the ghost of his old smile; "you and I always understood each other, and it appears I want interpretation now. And one interpretation supposes many," he said with a gleam, half of pathos half of amusement, lighting up his face for a moment; "there is no such thing as accepting a simple version even of one man's thoughts. You have come at a very fit time, Frank—that is, for me."
"I am glad you think so," said the other brother; and then there was a pause, neither liking to enter upon the grand subject which stood between them.
"Have you seen Louisa?" said Gerald. He spoke like a man who was ill, in a preoccupied interrupted way. Like a sick man, he was occupied with himself, with the train of thought which was always going on in his mind whatever he might be doing, whether he was working or resting, alone or in company. For months back he had carried it with him everywhere. The cedar-tree outside, upon which his thoughtful eyes fell as he looked straight before him out of the library window, was all garlanded with the reasonings and questionings of this painful spring. To Frank's eyes, Gerald's attention was fixed upon the fluttering of a certain twig at the extremity of one of those broad solemn immovable branches. Gerald, however, saw not the twig, but one of his hardest difficulties which was twined and twined in the most inextricable way round that little sombre cluster of spikes; and so kept looking out, not at the cedar, but at the whole confused yet distinct array of his own troubled thoughts.
"If you have seen Louisa, she has been talking to you, no doubt," he said, after another little pause, with again the glimmer of a smile. "We have fallen upon troubles, and we don't understand each other, Frank. That's all very natural; she does not see things from my point of view: I could not expect she should. If I could see from hers, it might be easier for us all; but that is still less to be expected; and it is hard upon her, Frank—very hard," said Gerald, turning round in his old ingenuous way, with that faculty for seeing other people's difficulties which was so strong a point in his character. "She is called upon to make, after all, perhaps, the greater sacrifice of the two; and she does not see any duty in it—the reverse, indeed. She thinks it a sin. It is a strange view of life, to look at it from Louisa's point. Here will be an unwilling, unintentional martyrdom; and it is hard to think I should take all the merit, and leave my poor little wife the suffering without any compensation!" He began to walk up and down the room with uneasy steps, as if the thought was painful, and had to be got rid of by some sudden movement. "It must be that God reckons with women for what they have endured, as with men for what they have done," said Gerald. He spoke with a kind of grieved certainty, which made his brother feel, to start with, the hopelessness of all argument.
"But must this be? Is it necessary to take such a final, such a terrible step?" said the Perpetual Curate.
"I think so." Gerald went to the window, to resume his contemplation of the cedar, and stood there with his back turned to Frank, and his eyes going slowly over all the long processes of his self-argument, laid up as they were upon those solemn levels of shadow. "Yes—you have gone so far with me; but I don't want to take you any farther, Frank. Perhaps, when I have reached the perfect peace to which I am looking forward, I may try to induce you to share it, but at present there are so many pricks of the flesh. You did not come to argue with me, did you?" and again the half-humorous gleam of old came over Gerald's face as he looked round. "Louisa believes in arguing," he said, as he came back to the table and took his seat again; "not that she has ever gained much by it, so far as I am aware. Poor girl! she talks and talks, and fancies she is persuading me; and all the time my heart is bleeding for her. There it is!" he exclaimed, suddenly hiding his face in his hands. "This is what crushes one to think of. The rest is hard enough, Heaven knows—separation from my friends, giving up my own people, wounding and grieving, as I know I shall, everybody who loves me. I could bear that; but Louisa and her children—God help me, there's the sting!"
They were both men, and strong men, not likely to fall into any sentimental weakness; but something between a groan and a sob, wrung out of the heart of the elder brother at the thought of the terrible sacrifice before him, echoed with a hard sound of anguish into the quiet. It was very different from his wife's trembling, weeping, hoping agony; but it reduced the Curate more than ever to that position of spectator which he felt was so very far from the active part which his poor sister expected of him.
"I don't know by what steps you have reached this conclusion," said Frank Wentworth; "but even if you feel it your duty to give up the Anglican Church (in which, of course, I think you totally wrong," added the High Churchman in a parenthesis), "I cannot see why you are bound to abandon all duties whatever. I have not come to argue with you; I daresay poor Louisa may expect it of me, but I can't, and you know very well I can't. I should like to know how it has come about all the same; but one thing only, Gerald—a man may be a Christian without being a priest. Louisa—"
"Hush, I am a priest, or nothing. I can't relinquish my life!" cried the elder brother, lifting his hands suddenly, as if to thrust away something which threatened him. Then he rose up again and went towards the window and his cedar, which stood dark in the sunshine, slightly fluttered at its extremities by the light summer-wind, but throwing glorious level lines of shadow, which the wind could not disturb, upon the grass. The limes near, and that one delicate feathery birch which was Mrs Wentworth's pride, had all some interest of their own on hand, and went on waving, rustling, coquetting with the breezes and the sunshine in a way which precluded any arbitrary line of shade. But the cedar stood immovable, like a verdant monument, sweeping its long level branches over the lawn, passive under the light, and indifferent, except at its very tops and edges, to the breeze. If there had been any human sentiment in that spectator of the ways of man, how it must have groaned and trembled under the pitiless weight of thoughts, the sad lines of discussion and argument and doubt, which were entangled in its branches! Gerald Wentworth went to his window to refer to it, as if it were a book in which all his contests had been recorded. The thrill of the air in it tingled through him as he stood looking out; and there, without looking at Frank, except now and then for a moment when he got excited with his subject, he went into the history of his struggle—a history not unprecedented or unparalleled, such as has been told to the world before now by men who have gone through it, in various shapes, with various amounts of sophistry and simplicity. But it is a different thing reading of such a conflict in a book, and hearing it from lips pallid with the meaning of the words they uttered, and a heart which was about to prove its sincerity by voluntary pangs more hard than death. Frank Wentworth listened to his brother with a great deal of agreement in what he said, and again with an acute perception of mistakes on Gerald's part, and vehement impulses of contradiction, to which, at the same time, it was impossible to give utterance; for there was something very solemn in the account he was giving of himself, as he stood with his face half turned to the anxious listener, leaning on the window, looking into the cedar. Gerald did not leave any room for argument or remonstrance; he told his brother how he had been led from one step to another, without any lingering touch of possibility in the narrative that he might be induced to retrace again that painful way. It was a path, once trod, never to be returned upon; and already he stood steadfast at the end, looking back mournfully, yet with a strange composure. It would be impossible to describe the mixture of love, admiration, impatience—even intolerance—which swelled through the mind of the spectator as he looked on at this wonderful sight, nor how hard he found it to restrain the interruptions which rushed to his lips, the eager arguments which came upon him in a flood, all his own favourite fences against the overflow of the tide which ran in lawful bounds in his own mind, but which had inundated his brother's. But though it was next to impossible to keep silence, it was altogether impossible to break in upon Gerald's history of this great battle through which he had just come. He had come through it, it was plain; the warfare was accomplished, the weapons hung up, the conflict over; and nothing could be more apparent than that he had no intention of entering the battle-field again. When he had ended, there was another pause.
"I am not going to argue with you," said Frank Wentworth; "I don't even need to tell you that I am grieved to the heart. It isn't so very many years ago," said the younger brother, almost too much touched by the recollection to preserve his composure, "since I took all my opinions from you; and since the time came for independent action, I too have gone over all this ground. My conclusions have been very different from yours, Gerald. I see you are convinced, and I can say nothing; but they do not convince me—you do not convince me, nor the sight of your faith, though that is the most touching of all arguments. Will you go back and go over it again?" said the Curate, spurred, by a thought of poor Louisa, to contradict himself, while the words were still on his lips.
"No," said Gerald; "it would be of no use, Frank. We should only grieve each other more."
"Then I give up that subject," said the younger brother: "but there is one matter which I must go back to. You may go to Rome, and cease to be a priest of the Anglican Church, but you cannot cease to be a man, to bear the weight of your natural duties. Don't turn away, but hear me. Gerald, Louisa—"
"Don't say any more. Do you imagine I have not thought of that?" said Gerald, once more, with a gesture of pain, and something like terror; "I have put my hand to the plough and I cannot go back. If I am not a priest, I am nothing." But when he came to that point, his cedar-tree no longer gave him any assistance; he came back to his chair, and covered his face with his hands.
"Louisa is your wife; you are not like a man free from the bonds of nature," said the Curate of St Roque's. "It is not for me to speak of the love between you; but I hold it, as the Scripture says, for a holy mystery, like the love of Christ for his Church—the most sacred of all bonds," said the young man, with a certain touch of awe and emotion, as became a young man and a true lover. He made a little pause to regain command of himself before he continued, "And she is dependent on you—outwardly, for all the comfort of her life—and in her heart, for everything, Gerald. I do not comprehend what that duty is which could make you leave her, all helpless and tender, as you know her to be, upon the mercies of the world. She herself says"—and poor Louisa's complaint grew into pathos under the subliming force of her advocate's sympathy—"that she would be like a widow, and worse than a widow. I am not the man to bid you suppress your convictions because they will be your ruin, in the common sense of the word; but, Gerald—your wife—"
Gerald had bent his head down upon his clasped hands; sometimes a great heave of his frame showed the last struggle that was going on within him—a struggle more painful, more profound, than anything that had gone before. And the voice of the Curate, who, like his brother, was nothing if not a priest, was choked, and painful with the force of his emotion. He drew his breath hard between his words: it was not an argument, but an admonition; an appeal, not from a brother only, but from one who spoke with authority, as feeling himself accredited from God. He drew closer towards the voluntary martyr beside him, the humbleness of his reverential love for his elder brother mingling in that voice of the priest, which was natural to him, and which he did not scruple to adopt. "Gerald,—your wife," he said, in softened but firm tones, laying his hand on his brother's arm. And it was at this moment, when in his heart he felt that his influence might be of some avail, and when all the powers of his mind were gathering to bear upon this last experiment, that the door opened suddenly, and poor Louisa, all flushed and tearful, in womanish hot impatience and misery that knew no prudence, burst, without any warning, into the room.
"I can't bear it any longer," cried the poor wife. "I knew you were talking it all over, and deciding what it was to be; and when one's life is hanging on a chance, how can one keep quiet and not interfere? Oh, Gerald, Gerald! I have been a true wife to you. I know I am not clever; but I would have died to do you any good. You are not going to forsake me!" cried poor Louisa, going up to him and putting her arms round him. "I said Frank was to tell you everything, but a man can never tell what is in a woman's heart. Oh, Gerald, why should you go and kill me! I will never oppose you any more; whatever you want, I will give in to it as freely as if it were my own way. I will make that my own way, Gerald, if you will only listen to me. Whatever changes you please, oh Gerald, I will never say a word, nor your father, nor any one! If the Bishop should interfere, we would all stand up for you. There is not a soul in Wentworth to oppose—you know there is not. Put anything you please in the church—preach how you please—light the candles or anything. Gerald, you know it is true I am saying—I am not trying to deceive you!" cried the poor soul, bewildered in her folly and her grief.
"No, Louisa, no—only you don't understand," said her husband, with a groan: he had raised his head, and was looking at her with a hopeless gleam of impatience in the pity and anguish of his eyes. He took her little hand and held it between his own, which were trembling with all this strain—her little tender helpless woman's hand, formed only for soft occupations and softer caresses; it was not a hand which could help a man in such an emergency; it was without any grasp in it to take hold upon him, or force of love to part—a clinging impotent hand, such as holds down, but cannot raise up. He held it in a close tremulous pressure, as she stood looking down upon him, questioning him with eager hopeful eyes, and taking comfort in her ignorance from his silence, and the way in which he held her. Poor Louisa concluded she was yet to win the day.
"I will turn Puseyite too," she said with a strange little touch of attempted laughter. "I don't want to have any opinions different from my husband's; and you don't think your father is likely to do anything to drive you out of the church? You have only given us a terrible fright, dear," she continued, beginning to tremble again, as he shook his head and turned away from her. "You did not really mean such a dreadful thing as sending me away. You could not do without me, Gerald—you know you could not." Her breath was getting short, her heart quickening in its throbs—the smile that was quivering on her face got no response from her husband's downcast eyes. And then poor Louisa lost all her courage; she threw herself down at his feet, kneeling to him. "Oh, Gerald, it is not because you want to get rid of me? You are not doing it for that? If you don't stay in the Rectory, we shall be ruined—we shall not have enough to eat! and the Rectory will go to Frank, and your children will be cast upon the world—and what, oh what is it for, unless it is to get rid of me?" cried Mrs Wentworth. "You could have as much freedom as you like here at your own living—nobody would ever interfere or say what are you doing? and the Bishop is papa's old friend. Oh, Gerald, be wise in time, and don't throw away all our happiness for a fancy. If it was anything that could not be arranged, I would not mind so much; but if we all promise to give in to you, and that you shall do what you please, and nobody will interfere, how can you have the heart to make us all so wretched? We will not even be respectable," said the weeping woman; "a family without any father, and a wife without her husband—and he living all the time! Oh, Gerald, though I think I surely might be considered as much as candles, have the altar covered with lights if you wish it; and if you never took off your surplice any more, I would never say a word. You can do all that and stay in the Rectory. You have not the heart—surely—surely you have not the heart—all for an idea of your own, to bring this terrible distress upon the children and me?"
"God help us all!" said Gerald, with a sigh of despair, as he lifted her up sobbing in a hysterical fit, and laid her on the sofa. He had to stand by her side for a long time holding her hand, and soothing her, with deeper and deeper shadows growing over his face. As for Frank, after pacing the room in great agitation for some time, after trying to interpose, and failing, he went away in a fever of impatience and distress into the garden, wondering whether he could ever find means to take up the broken thread, and urge again upon his brother the argument which, but for this fatal interruption, he thought might have moved him. But gathering thoughts came thick upon the Perpetual Curate. He did not go back to make another attempt, even when he knew by the sounds through the open windows that Louisa had been led to her own room up-stairs. He stood outside and looked at the troubled house, which seemed to stand so serene and secure in the sunshine. Who could have supposed that it was torn asunder in such a hopeless fashion? And Louisa's suggestion came into his mind, and drove him wild with a sense of horror and involuntary guilt, as though he had been conspiring against them. "The Rectory will go to Frank." Was it his fault that at that moment a vision of Lucy Wodehouse, sweet and strong and steadfast—a delicate, firm figure, on which a man could lean in his trouble—suddenly rose up before the Curate's eyes? Fair as the vision was, he would have banished it if he could, and hated himself for being capable of conjuring it up at such a time. Was it for him to profit by the great calamity which would make his brother's house desolate? He could not endure the thought, nor himself for finding it possible; and he was ashamed to look in Gerald's face with even the shadow of such an imagination on his own. He tapped at the library window after a while, and told his brother that he was going up to the Hall. Louisa had gone up-stairs, and her husband sat once more, vacant yet occupied, by his writing-table. "I will follow you presently," said Gerald. "Speak to my father without any hesitation, Frank; it is better to have it over while we are all together—for it must be concluded now." And the Curate saw in the shadow of the dim apartment that his brother lifted from the table the grand emblem of all anguish and victory, and pressed upon it his pale lips. The young man turned away with the shadow of that cross standing black between him and the sunshine. His heart ached at the sight of the symbol most sacred and most dear in the world. In an agony of grief and impatience, he went away sadly through the familiar road to his father's house. Here had he to stand by and see this sacrifice accomplished. This was all that had come of his mission of consolation and help.
The Curate of St Roque's went sadly along the road he knew so well from Wentworth Rectory to the Hall. There was scarcely a tree nor the turning of a hedgerow which had not its own individual memories to the son of the soil. Here he had come to meet Gerald returning from Eton—coming back from the university in later days. Here he had rushed down to the old Rector, his childless uncle, with the copy of the prize-list when his brother took his first-class. Gerald, and the family pride in him, was interwoven with the very path, and now—The young man pressed on to the Hall with a certain bitter moisture stealing to the corner of his eye. He felt indignant and aggrieved in his love, not at Gerald, but at the causes which were conspiring to detach him from his natural sphere and duties. When he recollected how he had himself dallied with the same thoughts, he grew angry with his brother's nobleness and purity, which never could see less than its highest ideal soul in anything, and with a certain fierce fit of truth, glanced back at his own Easter lilies and choristers, feeling involuntarily that he would like to tear off the flowers and surplices and tread them under his feet. Why was it that he, an inferior man, should be able to confine himself to the mere accessories which pleased his fancy, and could judge and reject the dangerous principles beneath; while Gerald, the loftier, purer intelligence, should get so hopelessly lost in mazes of sophistry and false argument, to the peril of his work, his life, and all that he could ever know of happiness? Such were the thoughts that passed through the mind of the Perpetual Curate as he went rapidly through the winding country-road going "home." Perhaps he was wrong in thinking that Gerald was thus superior to himself; but the error was a generous one, and the Curate held it in simplicity and with all his heart.
Before he reached the house he saw his father walking under the lime-trees, which formed a kind of lateral aisle to the great avenue, which was one of the boasts of the Wentworths. The Squire was like most squires of no particular character; a hale, ruddy, clear-complexioned, well-preserved man, looking his full age, but retaining all the vigour of his youth. He was not a man of any intellect to speak of, nor did he pretend to it; but he had that glimmering of sense which keeps many a stupid man straight, and a certain amount of natural sensibility and consideration for other people's feelings which made persons who knew no better give Mr Wentworth credit for tact, a quality unknown to him. He was walking slowly in a perplexed manner under the lime-trees. They were all in glorious blossom, filling the air with that mingling sense of fragrance and music which is the soul of the murmurous tree: but the short figure of the Squire, in his morning-coat, with his perplexed looks, was not at all an accessory in keeping with the scene. He was taking his walk in a subdued way, pondering something—and it puzzled him sorely in his straightforward, unprofound understanding. He shook his head sometimes as he went along, sad and perplexed and unsatisfactory, among his limes. He had got a note from Gerald that morning; and how his son could intend to give up living and station, and wife and children, for anything in heaven or earth, was more than the Squire could understand. He started very much when he heard Frank's voice calling to him. Frank, indeed, was said to be, if any one was, the Squire's weakness in the family; he was as clever as Gerald, and he had the practical sense which Mr Wentworth prized as knowing himself to possess it. If he could have wished for any one in the present emergency, it would have been Frank—and he turned round overjoyed.
"Frank, my boy, you're heartily welcome home!" he said, holding out his hand to him as became a British parent—"always welcome, but particularly just now. Where did you come from? how did you come? have you eaten anything this morning? it's close upon lunch, and we'll go in directly; but, my dear boy, wait here a moment, if you're not particularly hungry; I can't tell you how glad I am you're come. I'd rather see you than a hundred pound!"
When Frank had thanked him, and returned his greetings, and answered his questions (which the Squire had forgotten), and made his own inquiries, to which Mr Wentworth replied only by a hasty nod, and an "Oh yes, thank you, all well—all well," the two came to a momentary pause: they had nothing particular to add about their happiness in seeing each other; and as Frank wrote to his sisters pretty regularly, there was nothing to tell. They were quite free to plunge at once, as is to British relatives under the trying circumstances of a meeting a blessed possibility, into the first great subject which happened to be at hand.
"Have you heard anything about Gerald?" said Mr Wentworth, abruptly; "perhaps you called there on your way from the station? Gerald has got into a nice mess. He wrote to tell me about it, and I can't make head nor tail of it. Do you think he's a little touched here?" and the Squire tapped his own round forehead, with a troubled look: "there's no other explanation possible that I can see: a good living, a nice house, a wife that just suits him (and it's not everybody that would suit Gerald), and a lot of fine children—and he talks to me of giving up everything; as if a man could give up everything! It's all very well talking of self-renunciation, and so forth; and if it meant simply considering other people, and doing anything disagreeable for anybody's sake, I don't know a man more likely than my son Gerald. Your brother's a fine fellow, Frank—a noble sort of fellow, though he has his crotchets," said the father, with a touch of involuntary pathos; "but you don't mean to tell me that my son, a man like Gerald Wentworth, has a mind to throw away his position, and give up all the duties of his life? He can't do it, sir! I tell you it's impossible, and I won't believe it." Mr Wentworth drew up his shirt-collar, and kicked away a fallen branch with his foot, and looked insulted and angry. It was a dereliction of which he would not suppose the possibility of a Wentworth being guilty. It did not strike him as a conflict between belief and non-belief; but on the question of a man abandoning his post, whatever it might be, the head of the house held strong views.
"I agree it's impossible; but it looks as if it were true," said the Curate. "I don't understand it any more than you do; but I am afraid we shall have to address ourselves to the reality all the same. Gerald has made up his mind that the Church of Rome is the only true Church, and therefore he is in a false position in the Church of England: he can't remain a priest of the Anglican communion with such views, any more than a man could fight against his country, or in a wrong quarrel—"
"But, good heavens, sir!" said the Squire, interrupting him, "is it a time to inquire into the quarrel when you're on the ground? Will you tell me, sir, that my son Charley should have gone into the question between Russia and England when he was before Sebastopol—and deserted," said Mr Wentworth, with a snort of infinite scorn, "if he found the Czar had right on his side? God bless my soul! that's striking at the root of everything. As for the Church of Rome, it's Antichrist—why, every child in the village school could tell you that; and if Gerald entertains any such absurd ideas, the thing for him to do is to read up all that's been written on the subject, and get rid of his doubts as soon as possible. The short and the long of it is," said the troubled Squire, who found it much the easiest way to be angry, "that you ask me to believe that your brother Gerald is a fool and a coward; and I won't believe it, Frank, if you should preach to me for a year."
"And for my part, I would stake my life on his wisdom and his courage," said the Curate, with a little heat; "but that is not the question—he believes that truth and honour require him to leave his post. There is something more involved which we might yet prevent. I have been trying, but Louisa interrupted me—I don't know if you realise fully what he intends. Gerald cannot cease to be a priest—he will become a Catholic priest when he ceases to be Rector of Wentworth—and that implies—"
"God bless my soul!" cried the bewildered Squire—he was silent for a long time after he had uttered that benediction. He took out Gerald's letter and read it over while the two walked on in silence under the lime-trees, and the paper shook in his hands, notwithstanding all his steadiness. When he spoke again, it was only after two or three efforts to clear his voice. "I can't make out that he says that, Frank—I don't see that that's what he means," said Mr Wentworth, in a fainter tone than usual; and then he continued, with more agitation, "Louisa is a dear good soul, you know; but she's a bit of a fool, like most women. She always takes the worst view—if she can get a good cry out of anything, she will. It's she that's put this fancy into your head, eh? You don't say you had it from Gerald himself? You don't mean to tell me that? By Jove, sir!—by heaven, sir!" cried the excited Squire, blazing up suddenly in a burst of passion, "he can't be any son of mine—For any damnable Papistical madness to give up his wife! Why, God bless us, he was a man, wasn't he, before he became a priest? A priest! He's not a priest—he's a clergyman, and the Rector of Wentworth. I can't believe it—I won't believe it!" said the head of the house, with vehemence. "Tell me one of my sons is a sneak and a traitor!—and if you weren't another of my sons, sir, I'd knock you down for your pains." In the excitement of the moment Mr Wentworth came full force against a projecting branch which he did not see, as he spoke these words; but though the sudden blow half stunned him, he did not stop in his vehement contradiction. "It can't be. I tell you it can't—it shan't be, Frank!" cried the Squire. He would not pay any attention to the Curate's anxieties, or accept the arm Frank offered, though he could not deny feeling faint and giddy after the blow. It took away all the colour from his ruddy face, and left him pale, with a red welt across his forehead, and wonderfully unlike himself. "Confound it! I told Miles to look after that tree weeks ago. If he thinks I'll stand his carelessness, he's mistaken," said Mr Wentworth, by way of relieving himself. He was a man who always eased his mind by being angry with somebody when anything happened to put him out.
"My dear father," said the Curate as soon as it was practicable, "I want you to listen to me and help me; there's only one thing to be done that I can see. Gerald is in a state of high excitement, fit for any martyrdom. We can't keep him back from one sacrifice, but by all the force we can gather we must detain him from the other. He must be shown that he can't abandon his natural duties. He was a man before he was a priest, as you say; he can no more give up his duty to Louisa than he can give up his own life. It is going on a false idea altogether; but falsehood in anything except in argument could never be named or dreamed of in connection with Gerald," said his brother, with some emotion; "we all know that."
There was another pause of a few minutes, during which they walked on side by side without even the heart to look at each other. "If it had been Huxtable or Plumstead, or any other fool," burst forth the Squire, after that interval, "but Gerald!" Huxtable was the husband of the eldest Miss Wentworth, and Plumstead was the Squire's sister's son, so the comparison was all in the family. "I suppose your aunt Leonora would say such a thing was sent to bring down my pride and keep me low," said Mr Wentworth, bitterly. "Jack being what he is, was it anything but natural that I should be proud of Gerald? There never was any evil in him, that I could see, from a child; but crotchety, always crotchety, Frank. I can see it now. It must have been their mother," said the Squire, meditatively; "she died very young, poor girl! her character was not formed. As for your dear mother, my boy, she was always equal to an emergency; she would have given us the best of advice, had she been spared to us this day. Mrs Wentworth is absorbed in her nursery, as is natural, and I should not care to consult her much on such a subject. But, Frank, whatever you can do or say, trust to me to back you out," said the anxious father of three families. "Your mother was the most sensible woman I ever knew," he continued, with a patriarchal composure. "Nobody could ever manage Jack and Gerald as she did. She'd have seen at a glance what to do now. As for Jack, he is not assistance to anybody; but I consider you very like your mother, Frank. If anybody can help Gerald, it will be you. He has got into some ridiculous complications, you know—that must be the explanation of it. You have only to talk to him, and clear up the whole affair," said the Squire, recovering himself a little. He believed in "talking to," like Louisa, and like most people who are utterly incapable of talking to any purpose. He took some courage from the thought, and recovered his colour a little. "There is the bell for luncheon, and I am very glad of it," he said; "a glass of sherry will set me all right. Don't say anything to alarm Mrs Wentworth. When Gerald comes we'll retire to the library, and go into the matter calmly, and between us we will surely be able to convince him. I'll humour him, for my part, as far as my conscience will allow me. We must not give in to him, Frank. He will give it up if we show a very firm front and yield nothing," said the Squire, looking with an unusually anxious eye in his son's face.
"For my part, I will not enter into the controversy between the Churches," said the Curate; "it is mere waste of time. I must confine myself to the one point. If he must forsake us, he must, and I can't stop him: but he must not forsake his wife."
"Tut—it's impossible!" said the Squire; "it's not to be thought of for a moment. You must have given undue importance to something that was said. Things will turn out better than you think." They were very nearly at the great entrance when these words were said, and Mr Wentworth took out his handkerchief and held it to his forehead to veil the mark, until he could explain it, from the anxious eye of his wife. "If the worst should come to the worst, as you seem to think," he said, with a kind of sigh, "I should at least be able to provide for you, Frank. Of course, the Rectory would go to you; and you don't seem to have much chance of Skelmersdale, so far as I can learn. Leonora's a very difficult person to deal with. God bless my soul!" exclaimed the Squire—"depend upon it, she has had something to do with this business of Gerald's. She's goaded him into it, with her Low-Church ways. She's put poor Louisa up to worrying him; there's where it is. I did not see how your brother could possibly have fallen into such a blunder of his own accord. But come to luncheon; you must be hungry. You will think the boys grown, Frank; and I must ask you what you think, when you have a little leisure, of Cuthbert and Guy."
So saying, the Squire led the way into the house; he had been much appalled by the first hint of this threatened calamity, and was seriously distressed and anxious still; but he was the father of many sons, and the misfortunes or blunders of one could not occupy all his heart. And even the Curate, as he followed his father into the house, felt that Louisa's words, so calmly repeated, "Of course, the Rectory will go to you," went tingling to his heart like an arrow, painfully recalling him, in the midst of his anxiety, to a sense of his own interests and cares. Gerald was coming up the avenue at the moment slowly, with all the feelings of a man going to the stake. He was looking at everything round as a dying man might, not knowing what terrible revolution of life might have happened before he saw them again—
"He looked on hill, and sea, and shore, As he might never see them more."
Life was darkened over to his preoccupied eyes, and the composure of nature jarred upon him, as though it were carelessness and indifference to the fate which he felt to be coming in the air. He thought nothing less than that his father and brother were discussing him with hearts as heavy and clouded as his own; for even he, in all his tolerance and impartiality, did not make due account of the fact, that every man has his own concerns next to him, close enough to ameliorate and lighten the weight of his anxieties for others. The prospect was all gloom to Gerald, who was the sufferer; but the others found gleams of comfort in their own horizon, which threw reflected lights upon his; for perfect sympathy is not, except in dreams. There was quite a joyful little commotion at the luncheon table when Frank's arrival was discovered; and his sisters were kissing him, and his young brothers shaking his hand off, while Gerald came slowly up, with preoccupied, lingering steps, underneath the murmurous limes. All kinds of strange miseries were appearing to him as he pursued his way. Glimpses of scenes to come—a dark phantasmagoria of anticipated pain. He saw his wife and his children going away out of their happy house; he saw himself severed from all human ties, among alien faces and customs, working out a hard novitiate. What could he do? His heart, so long on the rack, was aching with dull throbs of anguish, but he did not see any way of escape. He was a priest by all the training, all the habits of his life; how could he give up that service to which he was called before everything, the most momentous work on earth? For ease, for happiness, for even sacred love, could he defraud God of the service he had vowed, and go back to secular work just at the moment when the true meaning of ecclesiastical work seemed dawning upon him? He had decided that question before, but it came back and back. His eyes were heavy with thought and conflict as he went up to his father's house. All this was wearing out his strength, and sapping his very life. The sooner it was over the better would it be for all.
Very little came, as was natural, of the talk in the library, to which the entire afternoon was devoted. The Squire, in his way, was as great an interruption to the arguments of the Curate as was poor Louisa in hers; and Gerald sat patiently to listen to his father's indignant monologue, broken as it was by Frank's more serious attacks. He was prepared for all they could say to him, and listened to it, sometimes with a kind of wondering smile, knowing well how much more strongly, backed by all his prejudices and interests, he had put the same arguments to himself. All this time nobody discussed the practicability of the matter much, nor what steps he meant to take: what immediately occupied both his father and brother was his determination itself, and the reasons which had led him to it, which the Squire, like Louisa, could not understand.
"If I had made myself disagreeable," said Mr Wentworth; "if I had remonstrated with him, as Leonora urged me to do; if I had put a stop to the surplice and so forth, and interfered with his decorations or his saints' days, or anything, it might have been comprehensible. But I never said a syllable on the subject. I give you my word, I never did. Why couldn't he have sent down for Louisa now, and dined at the Hall, as usual, when any of my sons come home? I suppose a man may change his religion, sir, without getting rid of his natural affections," said the Squire, gazing out with puzzled looks to watch Gerald going slowly down the avenue. "A man who talks of leaving his wife, and declines to dine at his father's house with his brothers and sisters, is a mystery I can't understand."
"I don't suppose he cares for a lively party like ours at this moment," said the Curate: "I don't take it as any sign of a want of affection for me."
The Squire puffed forth a large sigh of trouble and vexation as he came from the window. "If I were to give in to trouble when it appears, what would become of our lively party, I wonder?" he said. "I'm getting an old man, Frank; but there's not a young man in Christendom has more need to take care of himself, and preserve his health, than I have. I am very well, thank God, though I have had a touch of our Wentworth complaint—just one touch. My father had it ten years earlier in life, and lived to eighty, all the same; but that is an age I shall never see. Such worries as I have would kill any man. I've not spoken to anybody about it," said the Squire, hastily, "but Jack is going a terrible pace just now. I've had a good deal of bother about bills and things. He gets worse every year; and what would become of the girls and the little children if the estate were to come into Jack's hands, is a thought I don't like to dwell upon, Frank. I suppose he never writes to you?"
"Not for years past," said the Curate—"not since I was at Oxford. Where is he now?"
"Somewhere about town, I suppose," said the aggrieved father, "or wherever the greatest scamps collect when they go out of town—that's where he is. I could show you a little document or two, Frank—but now," said the Squire, shutting up a drawer which he had unlocked and partly opened, "I won't; you've enough on your mind with Gerald, and I told you I should be glad of your advice about Cuthbert and Guy."
Upon which the father and son plunged into family affairs. Cuthbert and Guy were the youngest of the Squire's middle family—a "lot" which included Frank and Charley and the three sisters, one of whom was married. The domestic relations of the Wentworths were complicated in this generation. Jack and Gerald were of the first marriage, a period in his history which Mr Wentworth himself had partly forgotten; and the troop of children at present in the Hall nursery were quite beyond the powers of any grown-up brother to recognise or identify. It was vaguely understood that "the girls" knew all the small fry by head and name, but even the Squire himself was apt to get puzzled. With such a household, and with an heir impending over his head like Jack, it may be supposed that Mr Wentworth's anxiety to get his younger boys disposed of was great. Cuthbert and Guy were arrows in the hand of the giant, but he had his quiver so full that the best thing he could do was to draw his bow and shoot them away into as distant and as fresh a sphere as possible. They were sworn companions and allies, but they were not clever, Mr Wentworth believed, and he was very glad to consult over New Zealand and Australia, and which was best, with their brother Frank.
"They are good boys," said their father, "but they have not any brains to speak of—not like Gerald and you;—though, after all, I begin to be doubtful what's the good of brains," added the Squire, disconsolately, "if this is all that comes of them. After building so much on Gerald for years, and feeling that one might live to see him a bishop—but, however, there's still you left; you're all right, Frank?"
"Oh yes, I am all right," said the Curate, with a sigh; "but neither Gerald nor I are the stuff that bishops are made of," he added, laughing. "I hope you don't dream of any such honour for me."
But the Squire was too troubled in his mind for laughter. "Jack was always clever, too," he said, dolefully, "and little good has come of that. I hope he won't disgrace the family any more than he has done, in my time, Frank. You young fellows have all your life before you; but when a man comes to my age, and expects a little comfort, it's hard to be dragged into the mire after his children. I did my duty by Jack too—I can say that for myself. He had the same training as Gerald had—the same tutor at the university—everything just the same. How do you account for that, sir, you that are a philosopher?" said Mr Wentworth again, with a touch of irritation. "Own brothers both by father and mother; brought up in the same house, same school and college and everything; and all the time as different from each other as light and darkness. How do you account for that? Though, to be sure, here's Gerald taken to bad ways too. It must have been some weakness by their mother's side. Poor girl! she died too young to show it herself; but it's come out in her children," said the vexed Squire. "Though it's a poor sort of thing to blame them that are gone," he added, with penitence; and he got up and paced uneasily about the room. Who was there else to blame? Not himself, for he had done his duty by his boys. Mr Wentworth never was disturbed in mind, without, as his family were well aware, becoming excited in temper too; and the unexpected nature of the new trouble had somehow added a keener touch of exasperation to his perennial dissatisfaction with his heir. "If Jack had been the man he ought to have been, his advice might have done some good—for a clergyman naturally sees things in a different light from a man of the world," said the troubled father; and Frank perceived that he too shared in his father's displeasure, because he was not Jack, nor a man of the world; notwithstanding that, being Frank and a clergyman, he was acknowledged by public opinion to be the Squire's favourite in the family. Things continued in this uncomfortable state up to the dinner-hour, so that the Curate, even had his own feelings permitted it, had but little comfort in his home visit. At dinner Mr Wentworth did not eat, and awoke the anxiety of his wife, who drove the old gentleman into a state of desperation by inquiries after his health.
"Indeed, I wish you would remonstrate with your papa, Frank," said his stepmother, who was not a great deal older than the Curate. "After his attack he ought to be more careful. But he never takes the least trouble about himself, no more than if he were five-and-twenty. After getting such a knock on the forehead too; and you see he eats nothing. I shall be miserable if the doctor is not sent for to-night."
"Stuff!" cried the Squire, testily. "Perhaps you will speak to the cook about these messes she insists on sending up to disgust one, and leave me to take care of my own health. Don't touch that dish, Frank; it's poison. I am glad Gerald is not here: he'd think we never had a dinner without that confounded mixture. And then the wonder is that one can't eat!" said Mr Wentworth, in a tone which spread consternation round the table. Mrs Wentworth secretly put her handkerchief to her eyes behind the great cover, which had not yet been removed; and one of the girls dashed in violently to the rescue, of course making everything worse.
"Why did not Gerald and Louisa come to dinner?" cried the ignorant sister. "Surely, when they knew Frank had come, they would have liked to be here. How very odd it was of you not to ask them, papa! they always do come when anybody has arrived. Why aren't they here to-night?"
"Because they don't choose to come," said the Squire, abruptly. "If Gerald has reasons for staying away from his father's house, what is that to you? Butterflies," said Mr Wentworth, looking at them in their pretty dresses, as they sat regarding him with dismay, "that don't understand any reason for doing anything except liking it or not liking it. I daresay by this time your sister knows better."
"My sister is married, papa," said Letty, with her saucy look.
"I advise you to get married too, and learn what life is like," said the savage Squire; and conversation visibly flagged after this effort. When the ladies got safely into the drawing-room, they gathered into a corner to consult over it. They were all naturally anxious about him after his "attack."
"Don't you remember he was just like this before it came on?" said Mrs Wentworth, nervously; "so cross, and finding fault with the made dishes. Don't you think I might send over a message to Dr Small—not to come on purpose, you know, but just as if it were a call in passing?"
But the girls both agreed this would make matters worse.
"It must be something about Jack," they both said in a breath, in a kind of awe of their elder brother, of whom they had a very imperfect knowledge. "And it seems we never are to have a chance of a word with Frank!" cried Letty, who was indignant and exasperated. But at least it was a consolation that "the boys" were no better off. All next day Cuthbert and Guy hung about in the vain hope of securing the company and attention of the visitor. He was at the Rectory the whole morning, sometimes with Gerald, sometimes with Louisa, as the scouts of the family, consisting of a variety of brothers, little and big, informed the anxious girls. And Louisa was seen to cry on one of these occasions; and Gerald looked cross, said one little spy, whereupon he had his ears boxed, and was dismissed from the service. "As if Gerald ever looked anything but a saint!" said the younger sister, who was an advanced Anglican. Letty, however, holding other views, confuted this opinion strongly: "When one thinks of a saint, it is aunt Leonora one thinks of," said this profane young woman. "I'll tell you what Gerald looks like—something just half-way between a conqueror and a martyr. I think, of all the men I ever saw, he is my hero," said Letty, meditatively. The youngest Miss Wentworth was not exactly of this latter opinion, but she did not contradict her sister. They were kept in a state of watchfulness all day, but Frank's mission remained a mystery which they could not penetrate; and in the evening Gerald alone made his appearance at the hall to dinner, explaining that Louisa had a headache. Now Louisa's headaches were not unfrequent, but they were known to improve in the prospect of going out to dinner. On the whole, the matter was wrapt in obscurity, and the Wentworth household could not explain it. The sisters sat up brushing their hair, and looking very pretty in their dressing-gowns, with their bright locks (for the Wentworth hair was golden-brown of a Titian hue) over their shoulders, discussing the matter till it was long past midnight; but they could make nothing of it, and the only conclusion they came to was, that their two clergymen brothers were occupied in negotiating with the Squire about some secret not known to the rest of the family, but most probably concerning Jack. Jack was almost unknown to his sisters, and awoke no very warm anxiety in their minds; so they went to sleep at last in tolerable quiet, concluding that whatever mystery there was concerned only the first-born and least loved of the house.
While the girls pursued these innocent deliberations, and reasoned themselves into conviction, the Squire too sat late—much later than usual. He had gone with Frank to the library, and sat there in half-stupefied quietness, which the Curate could not see without alarm, and from which he roused himself up now and then to wander off into talk, which always began with Gerald, and always came back to his own anxieties and his disappointed hopes in his eldest son. "If Jack had been the man he ought to have been, I'd have telegraphed for him, and he'd have managed it all," said the Squire, and then relapsed once more into silence. "For neither you nor I are men of the world, Frank," he would resume again, after a pause of half an hour, revealing pitifully how his mind laboured under the weight of this absorbing thought. The Curate sat up with him in the dimly-lighted library, feeling the silence and the darkness to his heart. He could not assist his father in those dim ranges of painful meditation. Grieved as he was, he could not venture to compare his own distress with the bitterness of the Squire, disappointed in all his hopes and in the pride of his heart; and then the young man saw compensations and heroisms in Gerald's case which were invisible to the unheroic eyes of Mr Wentworth, who looked at it entirely from a practical point of view, and regarded with keen mortification an event which would lay all the affairs of the Wentworths open to general discussion, and invite the eye of the world to a renewed examination of his domestic skeletons. Everything had been hushed and shut up in the Hall for at least an hour, when the Squire got up at last and lighted his candle, and held out his hand to his son—"This isn't a very cheerful visit for you, Frank," he said; "but we'll try again to-morrow, and have one other talk with Gerald. Couldn't you read up some books on the subject, or think of something new to say to him? God bless my soul! if I were as young and as much accustomed to talking as you are, I'd surely find out some argument," said the Squire, with a momentary spark of temper, which made his son feel more comfortable about him. "It's your business to convince a man when he's wrong. We'll try Gerald once more, and perhaps something may come of it; and as for Jack—" Here the Squire paused, and shook his head, and let go his son's hand. "I suppose it's sitting up so late that makes one feel so cold and wretched, and as if one saw ghosts," said Mr Wentworth. "Don't stay here any longer, and take care of the candles. I ought to have been in bed two hours ago. Good-night."
And as he walked away, the Curate could not but observe what an aged figure it looked, moving with a certain caution to the door. The great library was so dim that the light of the candle which the Squire carried in his hand was necessary to reveal his figure clearly, and there was no mistaking his air of age and feebleness. The Curate's thoughts were not very agreeable when he was left by himself in the half-lighted room. His imagination jumped to a picture very possible, but grievous to think of—Jack seated in his father's place, and "the girls" and the little children turned out upon the world. In such a case, who would be their protector and natural guardian? Not Gerald, who was about to divest himself of ties still closer and more sacred. The Curate lit his candle too, and went hastily to his room when that thought came upon him. There might be circumstances still more hopeless and appalling than the opposition of a rector or the want of a benefice. He preferred to return to his anxiety about Gerald, and to put away that thought, as he went hurriedly up-stairs.
"The sum of it all is, that you won't hear any reason, Gerald," said the Squire. "What your brother says, and what I say, are nothing; your poor wife is nothing; and all a man's duties, sir, in life—all your responsibilities, everything that is considered most sacred—"
"You may say what you will to me, father," said Gerald. "I can't expect you should speak differently. But you may imagine I have looked at it in every possible light before I came to this resolution. A man does not decide easily when everything he prizes on earth is at stake. I cannot see with Frank's eyes, or with yours; according to the light God has given me, I must see with my own."
"But, God bless my soul! what do you mean by seeing with your own eyes?" said the Squire. "Don't you know that is a Protestant doctrine, sir? Do you think they'll let you see with any eyes but theirs when you get among a set of Papists? Instead of an easy-going bishop, and friendly fellows for brother clergymen, and parishioners that think everything that's good of you, how do you suppose you'll feel as an Englishman when you get into a dead Frenchified system, with everything going by rule and measure, and bound to believe just as you're told? It'll kill you, sir—that's what will be the end of it. If you are in your grave within the year, it will be no wonder to me."
"Amen!" said Gerald, softly. "If that is to be all, we will not quarrel with the result;" and he got up and went to the window, as if to look for his cedar, which was not there. Perhaps the absence of his silent referee gave him a kind of comfort, though at the same time it disappointed him in some fantastical way, for he turned with a curious look of relief and vexation to his brother. "We need not be always thinking of it, even if this were to be the end," he said. "Come down the avenue with me, Frank, and let us talk of something else. The girls will grumble, but they can have you later: come, I want to hear about yourself."
Unfortunately the Squire got up when his sons did, which was by no means their intention; but Mr Wentworth was vexed and restless, and was not willing to let Gerald off so easily. If he were mad, at least he ought to be made duly wretched in his madness, Mr Wentworth thought; and he went out with them, and arrested the words on their lips. Somehow everything seemed to concur in hindering any appeal on the part of the Curate. And Gerald, like most imaginative men, had a power of dismissing his troubles after they had taken their will of him. It was he who took the conversation on himself when they went out of doors. Finding Frank slow in his report, Gerald went into all the country news for the instruction of his brother. He had been down to the very depths during the two previous days, and now he had come aloft again; for a man cannot be miserable every moment of his life, however heavy his burden may be. The "girls," whose anxieties had been much stimulated by the renewed conference held with closed doors in the library, stood watching them from one of the drawing-room windows. The boldest of the two had, indeed, got her hat to follow them, not comprehending why Frank should be monopolised for days together by anybody but herself, his favourite sister; but something in the aspect of the three men, when they first appeared under the lime-trees, had awed even the lively Letty out of her usual courage. "But Gerald is talking and laughing just as usual," she said, as she stood at the window dangling her hat in her hand—"more than usual, for he has been very glum all this spring. Poor fellow! I daresay Louisa worries him out of his life;" and with this easy conclusion the elder brother was dismissed by the girls. "Perhaps Frank is going to be married," said the other sister, who, under the lively spur of this idea, came back to the window to gaze at him again, and find out whether any intimation of this alarming possibility could be gathered from the fit of his long clerical coat, or his manner of walk, as he sauntered along under the limes. "As if a Perpetual Curate could marry!" said Letty, with scorn, who knew the world. As for little Janet, who was a tender-hearted little soul, she folded her two hands together, and looked at her brother's back with a great increase of interest. "If one loved him, one would not mind what he was," said the little maiden, who had been in some trouble herself, and understood about such matters. So the girls talked at their window, Mrs Wentworth being, as usual, occupied with her nursery, and nobody else at hand to teach them wisdom, and soon branched off into speculations about the post-bag, which was "due," and which, perhaps, was almost more interesting, to one of them at least, than even a brother who was going to be married.
In the mean time Gerald was talking of Huxtable and Plumstead, the brother-in-law and cousin, who were both clergymen in the same district, and about the people in the village whom they had known when they were boys, and who never grew any older. "There is old Kilweed, for example, who was Methuselah in those days—he's not eighty yet," he said, with a smile and a sigh; "it is we who grow older and come nearer to the winter and the sunset. My father even has come down a long way off the awful eminence on which I used to behold him: every year that falls on my head seems to take one off his: if we both live long enough, we shall feel like contemporaries by-and-by," said Gerald: "just now the advantage of years is all on my side; and you are my junior, sir." He was switching down the weeds among the grass with his cane as he spoke, like any schoolboy; the air, and perhaps a little excitement, had roused the blood to his cheek. He did not look the same man as the pale martyr in the library—not that he had any reason for appearing different, but only that inalienable poetic waywardness which kept him up through his trouble. As for Mr Wentworth, he resented the momentary brightening, which he took for levity.
"I thought we came out here to prolong our discussion," said the Squire. "I don't understand this light way of talking. If you mean what you have said, sir, I should never expect to see you smile more."
"The smiling makes little difference," said Gerald; but he stopped short in his talk, and there was a pause among them till the postboy came up to them with his bag, which Mr Wentworth, with much importance, paused to open. The young men, who had no special interest in its contents, went on. Perhaps the absence of their father was a relief to them. They were nearer to each other, understood each other better than he could do; and they quickened their pace insensibly as they began to talk. It is easy to imagine what kind of talk it was—entire sympathy, yet disagreement wide as the poles—here for a few steps side by side, there darting off at the most opposite tangent; but they had begun to warm to it, and to forget everything else, when a succession of lusty hollos from the Squire brought them suddenly to themselves, and to a dead stop. When they looked round, he was making up to them with choleric strides. "What the deuce do you mean, sir, by having telegrams sent here?" cried Mr Wentworth, pitching at his son Frank an ominous ugly envelope, in blue and red, such as the unsophisticated mind naturally trembles at. "Beg your pardon, Gerald; but I never can keep my temper when I see a telegraph. I daresay it's something about Charley," said the old man, in a slightly husky voice—"to make up to us for inventing troubles." The Squire was a good deal disturbed by the sight of that ill-omened message; and it was the better way, as he knew by experience, to throw his excitement into the shape of anger rather than that of grief.
"It's nothing about Charley," said Frank; and Mr Wentworth blew his nose violently and drew a long breath. "I don't understand it," said the Curate, who looked scared and pale; "it seems to be from Jack; though why he is in Carlingford, or what he has to do—"
"He's ill, sir, I suppose—dying; nothing else was to be looked for," said the Squire, and held out his hand, which trembled, for the telegram. "Stuff! why shouldn't I be able to bear it? Has he been any comfort to me? Can't you read it, one of you?" cried the old man.
"'John Wentworth to the Reverend—'"
"God bless my soul! can't you come to what he says?"
"'Come back directly—you are wanted here; I am in trouble, as usual; and T.W.—'"
Here the Squire took a step backwards, and set himself against a tree. "The sun comes in one's eyes," he said, rather feebly. "There's something poisonous in the air today. Here's Gerald going out of the Church; and here's Frank in Jack's secrets. God forgive him! Lads, it seems you think I've had enough of this world's good. My heir's a swindling villain, and you know it; and here's Frank going the same road too."
The Squire did not hear the words that both the brothers addressed to him; he was unconscious of the Curate's disclaimer and eager explanation that he knew nothing about Jack, and could not understand his presence in Carlingford. The blow he had got the previous day had confused his brain outside, and these accumulated vexations had bewildered it within. "And I could have sworn by Frank!" said the old man, piteously, to himself, as he put up his hand unawares and tugged at the dainty starched cravat which was his pride. If they had not held him in their arms, he would have slid down at the foot of the tree, against which he had instinctively propped himself. The attack was less alarming to Gerald, who had seen it before, than to Frank, who had only heard of it; but the postboy was still within call, by good fortune, and was sent off for assistance. They carried him to the Hall, gasping for breath, and in a state of partial unconsciousness, but still feebly repeating those words which went to the Curate's heart—"I could have sworn by Frank!" The house was in a great fright and tumult, naturally, before they reached it, Mrs Wentworth fainting, the girls looking on in dismay, and the whole household moved to awe and alarm, knowing that one time or other Death would come so. As for the Curate of St Roque's, he had already made up his mind, with unexpected anguish, not only that his father was dying, but that his father would die under a fatal misconception about himself; and between this overwhelming thought, and the anxiety which nobody understood or could sympathise with respecting Jack's message, the young man was almost beside himself. He went away in utter despair from the anxious consultations of the family after the doctor had come, and kept walking up and down before the house, waiting to hear the worst, as he thought; but yet unable, even while his father lay dying, to keep from thinking what miserable chance, what folly or crime, had taken Jack to Carlingford, and what his brother could have to do with the owner of the initials named in his telegram. He was lost in this twofold trouble when Gerald came out to him with brightened looks.
"He is coming round, and the doctor says there is no immediate danger," said Gerald; "and it is only immediate danger one is afraid of. He was as well as ever last time in a day or two. It is the complaint of the Wentworths, you know—we all die of it; but, Frank, tell me what is this about Jack?"
"I know no more than you do," said the Curate, when he had recovered himself a little. "I must go back, not having done much good here, to see."
"And T.W.?" said Gerald. The elder brother looked at the younger suspiciously, as if he were afraid for him; and it was scarcely in human nature not to feel a momentary flash of resentment.
"I tell you I know nothing about it," said Frank, "except what is evident to any one, that Jack has gone to Carlingford in my absence, being in trouble somehow. I suppose he always is in trouble. I have not heard from him since I went there; but as it don't seem I can be of any use here, as soon as my father is safe, I will go back. Louisa imagined, you know—; but she was wrong."
"Yes," said Gerald, quietly. That subject was concluded, and there was no more to say.
The same evening, as the Squire continued to improve, and had been able to understand his energetic explanation that he was entirely ignorant of Jack's secrets, Frank Wentworth went back again with a very disturbed mind. He went into the Rectory as he passed down to the station, to say good-bye to Louisa, who was sitting in the drawing-room with her children round her, and her trouble considerably lightened, though there was no particular cause for it. Dressing for dinner had of itself a beneficial effect upon Louisa: she could not understand how a life could ever be changed which was so clearly ordained of Heaven; for if Gerald was not with her, what inducement could she possibly have to dress for dinner? and then what would be the good of all the pretty wardrobe with which Providence had endowed her? Must not Providence take care that its gifts were not thus wasted? So the world was once more set fast on its foundations, and the pillars of earth remained unshaken, when Frank glanced in on his way to the station to say good-bye.
"Don't be afraid, Louisa; I don't believe he would be allowed to do it," said the Curate in her ear. "The Church of Rome does not go in the face of nature. She will not take him away from you. Keep your heart at ease as much as you can. Good-bye."
"You mean about Gerald. Oh, you don't really think he could ever have had the heart?" said Mrs Wentworth. "I am so sorry you are going away without any dinner or anything comfortable; and it was so good of you to come, and I feel so much better. I shall always be grateful to you, dear Frank, for showing Gerald his mistake; and tell dear aunt Dora I am so much obliged to her for thinking of the blanket for the bassinet. I am sure it will be lovely. Must you go? Good-bye. I am sure you have always been like my own brother—Frank, dear, good-bye. Come and kiss your dear uncle, children, and say good-bye."
This was how Louisa dismissed him after all his efforts on her behalf. The girls were waiting for him on the road, still full of anxiety to know why he had come so suddenly, and was going away so soon. "We have not had half a peep of you," said Letty; "and it is wicked of you not to tell us; as if anybody could sympathise like your sisters—your very own sisters, Frank," said the young lady, with a pressure on his arm. In such a mixed family the words meant something.
"We had made up our minds you had come to tell papa," said Janet, with her pretty shy look; "that was my guess—you might tell us her name, Frank."
"Whose name?" said the unfortunate Curate; and the dazzling vision of Lucy Wodehouse's face, which came upon him at the moment, was such, that the reluctant blood rose high in his cheeks—which, of course, the girls were quick enough to perceive.
"It is about some girl, after all," said Letty; "oh me! I did not think you had been like all the rest. I thought you had other things to think of. Janet may say what she likes—but I do think it's contemptible always to find out, when a man, who can do lots of things, is in trouble, that it's about some girl or other like one's self! I did not expect it of you, Frank—but all the same, tell us who she is?" said the favourite sister, clasping his arm confidentially, and dropping her voice.
"There is the train. Good-bye, girls, and be sure you write to me to-morrow how my father is," said the Curate. He had taken his seat before they could ask further questions, and in a minute or two more was dashing out of the little station, catching their smiles and adieus as he went, and turning back last of all for another look at Gerald, who stood leaning on his stick, looking after the train, with the mist of preoccupation gathering again over his smiling eyes. The Curate went back to his corner after that, and lost himself in thoughts and anxieties still more painful. What had Jack to do in Carlingford? what connection had he with those initials, or how did he know their owner? All sorts of horrible fears came over the Curate of St Roque's. He had not seen his elder brother for years, and Jack's career was not one for the family to be proud of. Had he done something too terrible to be hidden—too clamorous to let his name drop out of remembrance, as was to be desired for the credit of the Wentworths? This speculation whiled the night away but drearily, as the Perpetual Curate went back to the unknown tide of cares which had surged in his absence into his momentarily abandoned place.
Mr Wentworth got back to Carlingford by a happy concurrence of trains before the town had gone to sleep. It was summer, when the days are at the longest, and the twilight was just falling into night as he took his way through George Street. He went along the familiar street with a certain terror of looking into people's faces whom he met, and of asking questions, such as was natural to a man who did not know whether something of public note might not have happened in his absence to call attention to his name. He imagined, indeed, that he did see a strange expression in the looks of the townsfolk he encountered on his way. He thought they looked at him askance as they made their salutations, and said something to each other after they passed, which, indeed, in several cases was true enough, though the cause was totally different from anything suspected by Mr Wentworth. Anxious to know, and yet unwilling to ask, it was with a certain relief that the Curate saw the light gleaming out from the open door of Elsworthy's shop as he approached. He went in and tossed down his travelling-bag on the counter, and threw himself on the solitary chair which stood outside for the accommodation of customers, with a suppressed excitement, which made his question sound abrupt and significant to the ears of Elsworthy. "Has anything happened since I went away?" said Mr Wentworth, throwing a glance round the shop which alarmed his faithful retainer. Somehow, though nothing was farther from his mind than little Rosa, or any thought of her, the Curate missed the pretty little figure at the first glance.
"Well—no, sir; not much as I've heard of," said Elsworthy, with a little confusion. He was tying up his newspapers as usual, but it did not require the touch of suspicion and anxiety which gave sharpness to the Curate's eyes to make it apparent that the cord was trembling in Mr Elsworthy's hand. "I hope you've had a pleasant journey, sir, and a comfortable visit—it's been but short—but we always miss you in Carlingford, Mr Wentworth, if it was only for a day."
"I'll take my paper," said the young man, who was not satisfied—"so there's no news, isn't there?—all well, and everything going on as usual?" And the look which the suspicious Curate bent upon Mr Elsworthy made that virtuous individual, as he himself described it, "shake in his shoes."
"Much as usual, sir," said the frightened clerk,—"nothing new as I hear of but gossip, and that aint a thing to interest a clergyman. There's always one report or another flying about, but them follies aint for your hearing. Nothing more," continued Mr Elsworthy, conscious of guilt, and presenting a very tremulous countenance to the inspection of his suspicious auditor, "not if it was my last word—nothing but gossip, as you wouldn't care to hear."
"I might possibly care to hear if it concerned myself," said the Curate,—"or anybody I am interested in," he added, after a little pause, with rather a forced smile—which convinced Mr Elsworthy that his clergyman had heard all about Rosa, and that the days of his incumbency as clerk of St Roque's were numbered.
"Well, sir, if you did hear, it aint no blame of mine," said the injured bookseller; "such a notion would never have come into my mind—no man, I make bold to say, is more particular about keeping to his own rank of life nor me. What you did, sir, you did out of the kindness of your heart, and I'd sooner sell up and go off to the end of the world than impose upon a gentleman. Her aunt's took her away," continued Mr Elsworthy, lowering his voice, and cautiously pointing to the back of the shop—"She'll not bother you no more."
"She!—who?" cried the Perpetual Curate, in sudden consternation. He was utterly bewildered by the introduction of a female actor into the little drama, and immediately ran over in his mind all the women he could think of who could, by any possibility, be involved in mysterious relations with his brother Jack.
"She's but a child," said Elsworthy, pathetically; "she don't know nothing about the ways o' the world. If she was a bit proud o' being noticed, there wasn't no harm in that. But seeing as there's nothing in this world that folks won't make a talk of when they've started, her aunt, as is very partic'lar, has took her away. Not as I'm meaning no reproach to you, Mr Wentworth; but she's a loss to us, is Rosa. She was a cheerful little thing, say the worst of her," said Mr Elsworthy; "going a-singing and a-chirping out and in the shop; and I won't deny as the place looks desolate, now she's away. But that aint neither here nor there. It was for her good, as my missis says. Most things as is unpleasant is sent for good, they tell me; and I wouldn't—not for any comfort to myself—have a talk got up about the clergyman—"
By this time Mr Wentworth had awakened to a sense of the real meaning of Elsworthy's talk. He sat upright on his chair, and looked into the face of the worthy shopkeeper until the poor man trembled. "A talk about the clergyman?" said the Curate. "About me, do you mean? and what has little Rosa to do with me? Have you gone crazy in Carlingford—what is the meaning of it all?" He sat with his elbows on the counter, looking at his trembling adherent—looking through and through him, as Elsworthy said. "I should be glad of an explanation; what does it mean?" said Mr Wentworth, with a look which there was no evading; and the clerk of St Roque's cast an anxious glance round him for help. He would have accepted it from any quarter at that overwhelming moment; but there was not even an errand-boy to divert from him the Curate's terrible eyes.
"I—I don't know—I—can't tell how it got up," said the unhappy man, who had not even his "missis" in the parlour as a moral support. "One thing as I know is, it wasn't no blame o' mine. I as good as went down on my knees to them three respected ladies when they come to inquire. I said as it was kindness in you a-seeing of the child home, and didn't mean nothing more. I ask you, sir, what could I do?" cried Mr Elsworthy. "Folks in Carlingford will talk o' two straws if they're a-seen a-blowing up Grange Lane on the same breath o' wind. I couldn't do no more nor contradict it," cried Rosa's guardian, getting excited in his self-defence; "and to save your feelings, Mr Wentworth, and put it out o' folks's power to talk, the missis has been and took her away."
"To save my feelings!" said the Curate, with a laugh of contempt and vexation and impatience which it was not pleasant to hear. At another moment an accusation so ridiculous would have troubled him very little; but just now, with a sudden gleam of insight, he saw all the complications which might spring out of it to confuse further the path which he already felt to be so burdened. "I'll tell you what, Elsworthy," said Mr Wentworth; "if you don't want to make me your enemy instead of your friend, you'll send for this child instantly, without a day's delay. Tell your wife that my orders are that she should come back directly. My feelings! do the people in Carlingford think me an idiot, I wonder?" said the Curate, walking up and down to relieve his mind.
"I don't know, sir, I'm sure," said Elsworthy, who thought some answer was required of him. To tell the truth, Rosa's uncle felt a little spiteful. He did not see matters in exactly the same light as Mr Wentworth did. At the bottom of his heart, after all, lay a thrill of awakened ambition. Kings and princes had been known to marry far out of their degree for the sake of a beautiful face; and why a Perpetual Curate should be so much more lofty in his sentiments, puzzled and irritated the clerk of St Roque's. "There aint a worm but will turn when he's trod upon," said Mr Elsworthy to himself; and when his temper was roused, he became impertinent, according to the manner of his kind.
Mr Wentworth gave him a quick look, struck by the changed tone, but unable to make out whether it might not be stupidity. "You understand what I mean, Elsworthy," he said, with his loftiest air. "If Rosa does not return instantly, I shall be seriously offended. How you and your friends could be such utter idiots as to get up this ridiculous fiction, I can't conceive; but the sooner it's over the better. I expect to see her back to-morrow," said the Curate, taking up his bag and looking with an absolute despotism, which exasperated the man, in Elsworthy's face.
"You may be sure, sir, if she knows as you want to see her, she'll come," said the worm which had been trampled on; "and them as asks me why, am I to say it was the clergyman's orders?" said Elsworthy, looking up in his turn with a consciousness of power. "That means a deal, does that. I wouldn't take it upon me to say as much, not of myself; but if them's your orders, Mr Wentworth—"
"It appears to me, Elsworthy," said the Curate, who was inwardly in a towering passion, though outwardly calm enough, "either that you've been drinking or that you mean to be impertinent—which is it?"
"Me!—drinking, sir?" cried the shopkeeper. "If I had been one as was given that way, I wouldn't have attended to your interests not as I have done. There aint another man in Carlingford as has stood up for his clergyman as I have; and as for little Rosa, sir, most folks as had right notions would have inquired into that; but being as I trusted in you, I wasn't the one to make any talk. I've said to everybody as has asked me that there wasn't nothing in it but kindness. I don't say as I hadn't my own thoughts—for gentlemen don't go walking up Grange Lane with a pretty little creature like that all for nothing; but instead o' making anything of that, or leading of you on, or putting it in the child's head to give you encouragement, what was it I did but send her away afore you came home, that you mightn't be led into temptation! And instead of feelin' grateful, you say I've been drinking! It's a thing as I scorn to answer," said Mr Elsworthy; "there aint no need to make any reply—all Carlingford knows me; but as for Rosa, if it is understood plain between us that it's your wish, I aint the man to interfere," continued Rosa's guardian, with a smile which drove the Curate frantic; "but she hasn't got no father, poor thing, and it's my business to look after her; and I'll not bring her back, Mr Wentworth, unless it's understood between us plain."
Strong language, forcible, but unclerical, was on the Curate's lips, and it was only with an effort that he restrained himself. "Look here, Elsworthy," he said; "it will be better for you not to exasperate me. You understand perfectly what I mean. I repeat, Rosa must come back, and that instantly. It is quite unnecessary to explain to you why I insist upon this, for you comprehend it. Pshaw! don't let us have any more of this absurdity," he exclaimed, impatiently. "No more, I tell you. Your wife is not such a fool. Let anybody who inquires about me understand that I have come back, and am quite able to account for all my actions," said the Curate, shouldering his bag. He was just about leaving the shop when Elsworthy rushed after him in an access of alarm and repentance.
"One moment, sir," cried the shopkeeper; "there aint no offence, Mr Wentworth? I am sure there aint nobody in Carlingford as means better, or would do as much for his clergyman. One moment, sir; there was one thing I forgot to mention. Mr Wodehouse, sir, has been took bad. There was a message up a couple of hours ago to know when you was expected home. He's had a stroke, and they don't think as he'll get over it—being a man of a full 'abit of body," said Mr Elsworthy in haste, lest the Curate should break in on his unfinished speech, "makes it dangerous. I've had my fears this long time past."
"A stroke," said the Curate—"a fit, do you mean? When, and how? and, good heavens! to think that you have been wasting my time with rubbish, and knew this!" Mr Wentworth tossed down his travelling-bag again, and wiped his forehead nervously. He had forgotten his real anxiety in the irritation of the moment. Now it returned upon him with double force. "How did it come on?" he asked, "and when?" and stood waiting for the answer, with a world of other questions, which he could not put to Elsworthy, hanging on his lips.
"I have a deal of respect for that family, sir," said Elsworthy; "they have had troubles as few folks in Carlingford know of. How close they have kep' things, to be sure!—but not so close as them that has good memories, and can put two and two together, couldn't call to mind. My opinion, sir, if you believe me," said the clerk of St Roque's, approaching close to the Curate's ear, "is, that it's something concerning the son."
"The son!" said Mr Wentworth, with a troubled look. Then, after a pause, he added, as if his exclamation had been an oversight, "What son? has Mr Wodehouse a son?"
"To think as they should have been so close with the clergyman!" said Elsworthy, innocently; "though he aint no credit that they should talk of him. He's been gone out o' Carlingford nigh upon twenty year; but he aint dead for all that; and I'm told as he's been seen about Grange Lane this last spring. I am one as hears all the talk that's a-going on, being, as you might say, in a public position of life. Such a thing mightn't maybe come to your ears, sir?" he continued, looking inquisitively in Mr Wentworth's face; "but wherever he is, you may be sure it's something about him as has brought on this attack on the old man. It was last night as he was took so bad, and a couple of hours ago a message came up. Miss Wodehouse (as is the nicest lady in Grange Lane, and a great friend to me) had took a panic, and she was a-crying for you, the man said, and wouldn't take no denial. If I had known where you was to be found, I'd have sent word."
"Send down my bag to my house," said the Curate, hastily interrupting him. "Good-night—don't forget what I said about the other matter." Mr Wentworth went out of the shop with a disagreeable impression that Elsworthy had been examining his face like an inquisitor, and was already forming conclusions from what he had seen there. He went away hurriedly, with a great many vague fears in his mind. Mr Wodehouse's sudden illness seemed to him a kind of repetition and echo of the Squire's, and in the troubled and uncertain state of his thoughts, he got to confusing them together in the centre of this whirl of unknown disaster and perplexity. Perhaps even thus it was not all bitterness to the young man to feel his family united with that of Lucy Wodehouse. He went down Grange Lane in the summer darkness under the faint stars, full of anxiety and alarm, yet not without a thrill in his heart, a sweeter under-current of conscious agitation in the knowledge that he was hastening to her presence. Sudden breaks in his thoughts revealed her, as if behind a curtain, rising to receive him, giving him her hand, meeting his look with a smile; so that, on the whole, neither Gerald's distress, nor Jack's alarming call, nor his father's attack, nor Mr Wodehouse's illness, nor the general atmosphere of vexation and trouble surrounding his way, could succeed in making the young man totally wretched. He had this little stronghold of his own to retire into. The world could not fall to pieces so long as he continued with eager steps to devour the road which led to Mr Wodehouse's garden-door.
Before he had reached that goal, however, he met a group who were evidently returning from some little dinner in Grange Lane. Mr Wentworth took off his hat hastily in recognition of Mrs Morgan, who was walking by her husband's side, with a bright-coloured hood over her head instead of a bonnet. The Curate, who was a man of taste, could not help observing, even in the darkness, and amid all his preoccupations, how utterly the cherry-coloured trimmings of her head-dress were out of accordance with the serious countenance of the Rector's wife, who was a little heated with her walk. She was a good woman, but she was not fair to look upon; and it occurred to Mr Wentworth to wonder, if Lucy were to wait ten years for him, would the youthful grace dry and wither out of her like this! And then all at once another idea flashed upon his mind, without any wish of his. Like the unhappy lover in the ballad, he was suddenly aware of a temptation—
"How there looked him in the face An angel beautiful and bright, And how he knew it was a fiend."
"Of course the Rectory will go to Frank." He could not tell why at that moment the words rang into his ear with such a penetrating sound. That he hated himself for being able to think of such a possibility made no difference. It came darting and tingling into his mind like one of those suggestions of blasphemy which the devils whispered in Christian's ear as he went through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. He went on faster than ever to escape from it, scarcely observing that Mrs Morgan, instead of simply acknowledging his bow as she passed, stopped to shake hands, and to say how glad she was he had come back again. He thought of it afterwards with wonder and a strange gratitude. The Rector's wife was not like the conventional type of a pitying angel; and even had she been so, he had not time to recognise her at that moment as he went struggling with his demons to Mr Wodehouse's green door.
When the green door was opened, Mr Wentworth saw at a glance that there was agitation and trouble in the house. Lights were twinkling irregularly in the windows here and there, but the family apartment, the cheerful drawing-room, which generally threw its steady, cheerful blaze over the dark garden, shone but faintly with half-extinguished lights and undrawn curtains. It was evident at a glance that the room was deserted, and its usual occupants engaged elsewhere. "Master's very bad, sir," said the servant who opened the door; "the young ladies is both with him, and a hired nurse come in besides. The doctor don't seem to have no great hopes, but it will be a comfort to know as you have come back. Miss Wodehouse wanted you very bad an hour or two ago, for they thought as master was reviving, and could understand. I'll go and let them know you are here."