"What in the world do you want at such an early hour in the morning?" cried Mr Wentworth—"and what do you mean by making such a noise? Is Mr Wodehouse worse? or what has happened?" for, to tell the truth, he was a little relieved to find that the two people outside both belonged to Carlingford, and that nowhere was there any visible apparition of a telegraph boy.
"Don't trifle with me, Mr Wentworth," said Elsworthy. "I'm a poor man; but a worm as is trodden on turns. I want my child, sir!—give me my child. I'll find her out if it was at the end of the world. I've only brought down my neighbour with me as I can trust," he continued, hoarsely—"to save both your characters. I don't want to make no talk; if you do what is right by Rosa, neither me or him will ever say a word. I want Rosa, Mr Wentworth. Where's Rosa? If I had known as it was for this you wanted her home! But I'll take my oath not to make no talk," cried the clerk, with passion and earnestness, which confounded Mr Wentworth—"if you'll promise to do what's right by her, and let me take her home."
"Elsworthy, are you mad?" cried the Curate—"is he out of his senses? Has anything happened to Rosa? For heaven's sake, Hayles, don't stand there like a man of wood, but tell me if the man's crazy, or what he means."
"I'll come in, sir, if you've no objection, and shut the door, not to make a talk," said Elsworthy's companion, Peter Hayles, the druggist. "If it can be managed without any gossip, it'll be best for all parties," said this worthy, shutting the door softly after him. "The thing is, where's Rosa, Mr Wentworth? I can't think as you've got her here."
"She's all the same as my own child!" cried Elsworthy, who was greatly excited. "I've had her and loved her since she was a baby. I don't mean to say as I'd put myself forward to hurt her prospects if she was married in a superior line o' life; but them as harms Rosa has me to reckon with," he said, with a kind of fury which sat strangely on the man. "Mr Wentworth, where's the child? God forgive you both, you've given me a night o' weeping; but if you'll do what's right by Rosa, and send her home in the mean time—"
"Be silent, sir!" cried the Curate. "I know nothing in the world about Rosa. How dare you venture to come on such an errand to me? I don't understand how it is," said the young man, growing red and angry, "that you try so persistently to connect this child with me. I have never had anything to do with her, and I will not submit to any such impertinent suspicion. Leave my house, sir, immediately, and don't insult me by making such inquiries here."
Mr Wentworth was very angry in the first flush of his wrath. He did not think what misery was involved in the question which had been addressed to him, nor did he see for the moment the terrible calamity to Rosa which was suggested by this search for her. He thought only of himself, as was natural, at the first shock—of the injurious and insulting suspicion with which he seemed to be pursued, and of the annoyance which she and her friends were causing him. "What do you mean by rousing a whole household at this hour in the morning?" cried Mr Wentworth, as he saw with vexation, Sarah, very startled and sleepy, come stealing round by the kitchen door.
"You don't look as if you had wanted any rousing," said Elsworthy, who was too much in earnest to own the Curate's authority. "She was seen at your door the last thing last night, and you're in your clothes, as bright as day, and a-waiting for us afore six o'clock in the morning. Do you think as I've shut my eyes because it's my clergyman?" cried the injured man, passionately. "I want my little girl—my little Rosa—as is flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone. If Mr Wentworth didn't know nothing about it, as he says," cried Elsworthy, with sudden insight, "he has a feelin' heart, and he'd be grieved about the child; but he aint grieved, nor concerned, nor nothing in the world but angry; and will you tell me there aint nothing to be drawn from that? But it's far from my intention to raise a talk," said the clerk, drawing closer and touching the arm of the Perpetual Curate; "let her come back, and if you're a man of your word, and behave honourable by her, there shan't be nothing said in Carlingford. I'll stand up for you, sir, against the world."
Mr Wentworth shook off his assailant's hand with a mingled sense of exasperation and sympathy. "I tell you, upon my honour, I know nothing about her," he said. "But it is true enough I have been thinking only of myself," he continued, addressing the other. "How about the girl? When was she lost? and can't you think of any place she can have gone to? Elsworthy, hear reason," cried the Curate anxiously. "I assure you, on my word, that I have never seen her since I closed this garden-gate upon her last night."
"And I would ask you, sir, what had Rosa to do at your garden-gate?" cried the clerk of St Roque's. "He aint denying it, Hayles; you can see as he aint a-denying of it. What was it as she came here for but you? Mr Wentworth, I've always had a great respect for you," said Elsworthy. "I've respected you as my clergyman, sir, as well as for other things; but you're a young man, and human nature is frail. I say again as you needn't have no fear of me. I aint one as likes to make a talk, and no more is Hayles. Give up the girl, and give me your promise, and there aint a man living as will be the wiser; Mr Wentworth—"
"Hold your tongue, sir!" cried the Curate, furious with indignation and resentment. "Leave this place instantly! If you don't want me to pitch you into the middle of the road, hold your tongue and go away. The man is mad!" said Mr Wentworth, turning towards the spectator, Hayles, and pausing to take breath. But it was evident that this third person was by no means on the Curate's side.
"I don't know, sir, I'm sure," said Hayles, with a blank countenance. "It appears to me, sir, as it's an awkward business for all parties. Here's the girl gone, and no one knows where. When a girl don't come back to her own 'ome all night, things look serious, sir; and it has been said as the last place she was seen was at your door."
"Who says so?" cried Mr Wentworth.
"Well—it was—a party, sir—a highly respectable party—as I have good reason to believe," said Hayles, "being a constant customer—one as there's every confidence to be put in. It's better not to name no names, being at this period of the affair."
And at that moment, unluckily for Mr Wentworth, there suddenly floated across his mind the clearest recollection of the Miss Hemmings, and the look they gave him in passing. He felt a hot flush rush over his face as he recalled it. They, then, were his accusers in the first place; and for the first time he began to realise how the tide of accusation would surge through Carlingford, and how circumstances would be patched together, and very plausible evidence concocted out of the few facts which were capable of an inference totally opposed to the truth. The blood rushed to his face in an overpowering glow, and then he felt the warm tide going back upon his heart, and realised the position in which he stood for the first time in its true light.
"And if you'll let me say it, sir," said the judicious Hayles, "though a man may be in a bit of a passion, and speak more strong that is called for, it aint unnatural in the circumstances; things may be better than they appear," said the druggist, mildly; "I don't say nothing against that; it may be as you've took her away, sir (if so be as you have took her away), for to give her a bit of education, or suchlike, before making her your wife; but folks in general aint expected to know that; and when a young girl is kep' out of her 'ome for a whole night, it aint wonderful if her friends take fright. It's a sad thing for Rosa whoever's taken her away, and wherever she is."
Now, Mr Wentworth, notwithstanding the indignant state of mind which he was in, was emphatically of the tolerant temper which is so curiously characteristic of his generation. He could not be unreasonable even in his own cause; he was not partisan enough, even in his own behalf, to forget that there was another side to the question, nor to see how hard and how sad was that other side. He was moved in spite of himself to grieve over Rosa Elsworthy's great misfortune.
"Poor little deluded child," he said, sadly; "I acknowledge it is very dreadful for her and for her friends. I can excuse a man who is mad with grief and wretchedness and anxiety, and doesn't know what he is saying. As for any man in his senses imagining," said the Curate again, with a flush of sudden colour, "that I could possibly be concerned in anything so base, that is simply absurd. When Elsworthy returns to reason, and acknowledges the folly of what he has said, I will do anything in the world to help him. It is unnecessary for you to wait," said Mr Wentworth, turning to Sarah, who had stolen up behind, and caught some of the conversation, and who was staring with round eyes of wonder, partly guessing, partly inquiring, what had happened—"these people want me; go indoors and never mind."
"La, sir! Missis is a-ringing all the bells down to know what 'as 'appened," said Sarah, holding her ground.
This was how it was to be—the name of the Curate of St Roque's was to be linked to that of Rosa Elsworthy, let the truth be what it might, in the mouths of every maid and every mistress in Carlingford. He was seized with a sudden apprehension of this aspect of the matter, and it was not wonderful if Mr Wentworth drew his breath hard and set his teeth, as he ordered the woman away, in a tone which could not be disobeyed.
"I don't want to make no talk," said Elsworthy, who during this time had made many efforts to speak; "I've sait it before, and I say it again—it's Mr Wentworth's fault if there's any talk. She was seen here last night," he went on rapidly, "and afore six o'clock this blessed morning, you, as are never known to be stirring early, meets us at the door, all shaved and dressed; and it aint very difficult to see, to them as watches the clergyman's countenance," said Elsworthy, turning from one to another, "as everything isn't as straight as it ought to be; but I aint going to make no talk, Mr Wentworth," he went on, drawing closer, and speaking with conciliatory softness; "me and her aunt, sir, loves her dearly, but we're not the folks to stand in her way, if a gentleman was to take a fancy to Rosa. If you'll give me your word to make her your wife honourable, and tell me where she is, tortures wouldn't draw no complaints from me. One moment, sir; it aint only that she's pretty, but she's good as well—she won't do you no discredit, Mr Wentworth. Put her to school, or what you please, sir," said Rosa's uncle; "me and my wife will never interfere, so be as you make her your wife honourable; but I aint a worm to be trampled on," cried Elsworthy, as the Curate, finding him approach very closely, thrust him away with vehement indignation; "I aint a slave to be pushed about. Them as brings Rosa to shame shall come to shame by me; I'll ruin the man as ruins that child. You may turn me out," he cried, as the Curate laid his powerful hand upon his shoulder and forced him towards the door, "but I'll come back, and I'll bring all Carlingford. There shan't be a soul in the town as doesn't know. Oh, you young viper, as I thought was a pious clergyman! you aint got rid of me. My child—where's my child?" cried the infuriated clerk, as he found himself ejected into the road outside, and the door suddenly closed upon him. He turned round to beat upon it in blind fury, and kept calling upon Rosa, and wasting his threats and arguments upon the calm air outside. Some of the maid-servants in the other houses came out, broom in hand, to the green doors, to see what was the matter, but they were not near enough to hear distinctly, and no early wayfarers had as yet invaded the morning quiet of Grange Lane.
Mr Wentworth, white with excitement, and terribly calm and self-possessed, turned to the amazed and trembling druggist, who still stood inside. "Look here, Hayles," said the Curate; "I have never seen Rosa Elsworthy since I closed this door upon her last night. What had brought her here I don't know—at least she came with no intention of seeing me—and I reproved her sharply for being out so late. This is all I know about the affair, and all I intend to say to any one. If that idiot outside intends to make a disturbance, he must do it; I shall take no further trouble to clear myself of such an insane accusation. I think it right to say as much to you, because you seem to have your senses about you," said the Curate, pausing, out of breath. He was perfectly calm, but it was impossible to ignore the effect of such a scene upon ordinary flesh and blood. His heart was beating loudly, and his breath came short and quick. He turned away and walked up to the house-door, and then came back again. "You understand me, I suppose?" he said; "and if Elsworthy is not mad, you had better suggest to him not to lose his only chance of recovering Rosa by vain bluster with me, who know nothing about her. I shan't be idle in the mean time," said Mr Wentworth. All this time Elsworthy was beating against the door, and shouting his threats into the quiet of the morning; and Mrs Hadwin had thrown up her window, and stood there visibly in her nightcap, trying to find out what the noise was about, and trembling for the respectability of her house—all which the Curate apprehended with that extraordinary swiftness and breadth of perception which comes to men at the eventful moments of life.
"I'll do my best, sir," said Hayles, who felt that his honour was appealed to; "but it's an awkward business for all parties, that's what it is;" and the druggist backed out in a state of great bewilderment, having a little struggle at the door with Elsworthy to prevent his re-entrance. "There aint nothing to be got out of him," said Mr Hayles, as he succeeded at last in leading his friend away. Such was the conclusion of Mr Wentworth's morning studies, and the sermon which was to have been half written before breakfast upon that eventful Saturday. He went back to the house, as was natural, with very different thoughts in his mind.
The first thing Mr Wentworth did was to hasten up-stairs to Wodehouse's room. Sarah had gone before him, and was by this time talking to her mistress, who had left the window, and stood, still in her nightcap, at the door of her own chamber. "It's something about Rosa Elsworthy, ma'am," said Sarah; "she's gone off with some one, which nothing else was to be expected; and her uncle's been a-raving and a-raging at Mr Wentworth, which proves as a gentleman should never take no notice of them shop-girls. I always heard as she was a bad lot."
"Oh, Mr Wentworth—if you would excuse my nightcap," said Mrs Hadwin—"I am so shaken and all of a tremble with that noise; I couldn't help thinking it must be a murder at the least," said the little old lady; "but I never could believe that there was anything between you and—Sarah, you may go away; I should like to talk to Mr Wentworth by himself," said Mrs Hadwin, suddenly remembering that Mr Wentworth's character must not be discussed in the presence of even her favourite maid.
"Presently," said the unhappy Curate, with mingled impatience and resignation; and, after a hasty knock at the door, he went into Wodehouse's room, which was opposite, so full of a furious anxiety to question him that he had burst into speech before he perceived that the room was empty. "Answer me this instant," he had cried, "where is Rosa Elsworthy?" and then he paused, utterly taken aback. It had not occurred to him that the culprit would be gone. He had parted with him late on the previous night, leaving him, according to appearances, in a state of sulky half-penitence; and now the first impulse of his consternation was to look in all the corners for the fugitive. The room had evidently been occupied that night; part of the Curate's own wardrobe, which he had bestowed upon his guest, lay about on the chairs, and on a little table were his tools and the bits of wood with which he did his carving. The window was open, letting in the fresh air, and altogether the apartment looked so exactly like what it might have done had the occupant gone out for a virtuous morning walk, that Mr Wentworth stopped short in blank amazement. It was a relief to him to hear the curious Sarah still rustling in the passage outside. He came out upon her so hastily that Sarah was startled. Perhaps she had been so far excited out of her usual propriety as to think of the keyhole as a medium of information.
"Where is Wode—Mr Smith?" cried the Curate; "he is not in his room—he does not generally get up so early. Where is he? Did he go out last night?"
"Not as I knows of, sir," said Sarah, who grew a little pale, and gave a second glance at the open door. "Isn't the gentleman in his room? He do take a walk in the morning, now and again," and Sarah cast an alarmed look behind to see if her mistress was still within hearing; but Mrs Hadwin, intent on questioning Mr Wentworth himself, had fortunately retired to put on her cap, and closed her door.
"Where is he?" said the Curate, firmly.
"Oh, please sir, I don't know," said Sarah, who was very near crying. "He's gone out for a walk, that's all. Oh, Mr Wentworth, don't look at me so dreadfully, and I'll tell you hall," cried the frightened girl, "hall—as true as if I was on my oath. He 'as a taking way with him," said poor Sarah, to whom the sulky and shabby rascal was radiant still with the fascinating though faded glory of "a gentleman"—"and he aint one as has been used to regular hours; and seeing as he was a friend of yours, I knew as hall was safe, Mr Wentworth; and oh, sir, if you'll not tell missis, as might be angry. I didn't mean no harm; and knowing as he was a friend of yours, I let him have the key of the little door."
Here Sarah put her apron to her eyes; she did not cry much into it, or wet it with her tears—but under its cover she peeped at Mr Wentworth, and, encouraged by his looks, which did not seem to promise any immediate catastrophe, went on with her explanation.
"He's been and took a walk often in the morning," said Sarah, with little gasps which interrupted her voice, "and come in as steady as steady, and nothing happened. He's gone for a walk now, poor gentleman. Them as goes out first thing in the morning, can't mean no harm, Mr Wentworth. If it was at night, it would be different," said the apologetic Sarah. "He'll be in afore we've done our breakfast in the kitchen; that's his hour, for I always brings him a cup of coffee. If you hadn't been up not till your hour, sir, you'd never have known nothing about it;" and here even Mrs Hadwin's housemaid looked sharply in the Curate's face. "I never knew you so early, sir, not since I've been here," said Sarah; and though she was a partisan of Mr Wentworth, it occurred even to Sarah that perhaps, after all, Elsworthy might be right.
"If he comes in let me know immediately," said the Curate; and he went to his study and shut himself in, to think it all over with a sense of being baited and baffled on every side. As for Sarah, she went off in great excitement to discuss the whole business with the cook, tossing her head as she went. "Rosa Elsworthy, indeed!" said Sarah to herself, thinking her own claims to admiration quite as well worth considering—and Mr Wentworth had already lost one humble follower in Grange Lane.
The Curate sat down at his table as before, and gazed with a kind of exasperation at the paper and the text out of which his sermon was to have come. "When the wicked man turneth away from the evil of his ways"—he began to wonder bitterly whether that ever happened, or if it was any good trying to bring it about. If it were really the case that Wodehouse, whom he had been labouring to save from the consequences of one crime, had, at the very crisis of his fate, perpetrated another of the basest kind, what was the good of wasting strength in behalf of a wretch so abandoned? Why should such a man be permitted to live to bring shame and misery on everybody connected with him? and why, when noxious vermin of every other description were hunted down and exterminated, should the vile human creature be spared to suck the blood of his friends? Mr Wentworth grew sanguinary in his thoughts as he leaned back in his chair, and tried to return to the train of reflection which Elsworthy's arrival had banished. That was totally impossible, but another train of ideas came fast enough to fill up the vacant space. The Curate saw himself hemmed in on every side without any way of escape. If he could not extract any information from Wodehouse, or if Wodehouse denied any knowledge of Rosa, what could he do to clear himself from an imputation so terrible? and if, on the other hand, Wodehouse did not come back, and so pleaded guilty, how could he pursue and put the law upon the track of the man whom he had just been labouring to save from justice, and over whose head a criminal prosecution was impending? Mr Wentworth saw nothing but misery, let him turn where he would—nothing but disgrace, misapprehension, unjust blame. He divined with the instinct of a man in deadly peril, that Elsworthy, who was a mean enough man in common circumstances, had been inspired by the supposed injury he had sustained into a relentless demon; and he saw distinctly how strong the chain of evidence was against him, and how little he could do to clear himself. As his miseries grew upon him, he got up, as was natural, and began to walk about the room to walk down his impatience, if he could, and acquire sufficient composure to enable him to wait for the time when Wodehouse might be expected to arrive. Mr Wentworth had forgotten at the moment that Mrs Hadwin's room was next to his study, and that, as she stood putting on her cap, his footsteps vibrated along the flooring, which thrilled under her feet almost as much as under his own. Mrs Hadwin, as she stood before her glass smoothing her thin little braids of white hair, and putting on her cap, could not but wonder to herself what could make Mr Wentworth walk about the room in such an agitated way. It was not by any means the custom of the Perpetual Curate, who, up to the time of his aunts' arrival in Carlingford, had known no special disturbances in his individual career. And then the old lady thought of that report about little Rosa Elsworthy, which she had never believed, and grew troubled, as old ladies are not unapt to do under such circumstances, with all that lively faith in the seductions of "an artful girl," and all that contemptuous pity for a "poor young man," which seems to come natural to a woman. All the old ladies in Carlingford, male and female, were but too likely to entertain the same sentiments, which at least, if they did nothing else, showed a wonderful faith in the power of love and folly common to human nature. It did not occur to Mrs Hadwin any more than it did to Miss Dora, that Mr Wentworth's good sense and pride, and superior cultivation, were sufficient defences against little Rosa's dimpled cheeks and bright eyes; and with some few exceptions, such was likely to be the opinion of the little world of Carlingford. Mrs Hadwin grew more and more anxious about the business as she felt the boards thrill under her feet, and heard the impatient movements in the next room; and as soon as she had settled her cap to her satisfaction, she left her own chamber and went to knock, as was to be expected, at Mr Wentworth's door.
It was just at this moment that Mr Wentworth saw Wodehouse's shabby figure entering at the garden-gate; he turned round suddenly without hearing Mrs Hadwin's knock, and all but ran over the old lady in his haste and eagerness—"Pardon me; I am in a great hurry," said the Curate, darting past her. Just at the moment when she expected her curiosity to be satisfied, it was rather hard upon Mrs Hadwin to be dismissed so summarily. She went down-stairs in a state of great dignity, with her lace mittens on, and her hands crossed before her. She felt she had more and more reason for doubting human nature in general, and for believing that the Curate of St Roque's in particular could not bear any close examination into his conduct. Mrs Hadwin sat down to her breakfast accordingly with a sense of pitying virtue which was sweet to her spirit, notwithstanding that she was, as she would have frankly acknowledged, very fond of Mr Wentworth; she said, "Poor young man," to herself, and shook her head over him as she poured out her solitary cup of tea. She had never been a beauty herself, nor had she exercised any overwhelming influence that she could remember over any one in the days of her distant youth: but being a true woman, Mrs Hadwin believed in Rosa Elsworthy, and pitied, not without a certain half-conscious female disdain, the weakness of the inevitable victim. He did not dare to stop to explain to her what it meant. He rushed out of her way as soon as he saw she meant to question him. That designing girl had got him entirely under her sway, the poor young man!
Meanwhile the Curate, without a single thought for his landlady, made a rush to Wodehouse's room. He did not wait for any answer to his knock, but went in, not as a matter of policy, but because his eagerness carried him on in spite of himself. To Mr Wentworth's great amazement Wodehouse was undressing, intending, apparently, to return to bed. The shabby fugitive, looking broad and brawny in his shirt-sleeves, turned round when he heard the voice with an angry exclamation. His face grew black as he saw the Curate at the door. "What the deuce have you to do in my room at this hour?" he growled into his beard. "Is a man never to have a little peace?" and with that threw down his coat, which he still had in his hand, and faced round towards the intruder with sullen looks. It was his nature to stand always on the defensive, and he had got so much accustomed to being regarded as a culprit, that he naturally took up the part, whether there might be just occasion or not.
"Where have you been?" exclaimed the Curate; "answer me truly—I can't submit to any evasion. I know it all, Wodehouse. Where is she? where have you hid her? If you do not give her up, I must give you up to justice. Do you hear me? where is Rosa Elsworthy? This is a matter that touches my honour, and I must know the truth."
Mr Wentworth was so full of the subject that it did not occur to him how much time he was giving his antagonist to prepare his answer. Though Wodehouse was not clever, he had the instinct of a baited animal driven to bay; and resistance and denial came natural to a man who had been accused and condemned all his life.
"Rosa Elsworthy?" said the vagabond, "what have I to do with Rosa Elsworthy? A pretty man I should be to run away with a girl; all that I have in the world is a shilling or two, and, by Jove, it's an expensive business, that is. You should ask your brother," he continued, giving a furtive glance at the Curate—"it's more in his way, by Jove, than mine."
Mr Wentworth was recalled to himself by this reply. "Where is she?" he said, sternly,—"no trifling. I did not ask if you had taken her away. I ask, where is she?" He had shut the door behind him, and stood in the middle of the room facing Wodehouse, and overawing him by his superior stature, force, and virtue. Before the Curate's look the eyes of the other fell; but he had fallen by chance on a reasonable defence enough, and so long as he held by that felt himself tolerably safe.
"I don't know anything about her," he repeated; "how should I know anything about her? I aint a fool, by Jove, whatever I may be: a man may talk to a pretty girl without any harm. I mayn't be as good as a parson, but, by Jove, I aint a fool," he muttered through his beard. He had begun to speak with a kind of sulky self-confidence; but his voice sunk lower as he proceeded. Jack Wentworth's elegant levity was a terrible failure in the hands of the coarser rascal. He fell back by degrees upon the only natural quality which enabled him to offer any resistance. "By Jove, I aint an idiot," he repeated with dull obstinacy, and upon that statement made a stand in his dogged, argumentative way.
"Would you like it better if I said you were a villain?" asked the exasperated Curate. "I don't want to discuss your character with you. Where is Rosa Elsworthy? She is scarcely more than a child," said Mr Wentworth, "and a fool, if you like. But where is she? I warn you that unless you tell me you shall have no more assistance from me."
"And I tell you that I don't know," said Wodehouse; and the two men stood facing each other, one glowing with youthful indignation, the other enveloped in a cloud of sullen resistance. Just then there came a soft knock at the door, and Sarah peeped in with a coquettish air, which at no other time in her existence had been visible in the sedate demeanour of Mrs Hadwin's favourite handmaid. The stranger lodger was "a gentleman," notwithstanding his shabbiness, and he was a very civil-spoken gentleman, without a bit of pride; and Sarah was still a woman, though she was plain and a housemaid. "Please, sir, I've brought you your coffee," said Sarah, and she carried in her tray, which contained all the materials for a plentiful breakfast. When she saw Mr Wentworth standing in the room, and Wodehouse in his shirt-sleeves, Sarah said, "La!" and set down her tray hastily and vanished; but the episode, short as it was, had not been without its use to the culprit who was standing on his defence.
"I'm not staying here on my own account," said Wodehouse,—"it's no pleasure to me to be here. I'm staying for your brother's sake and—other people's; it's no pleasure to me, by Jove! I'd go to-morrow if I had my way—but I aint a fool," continued the sulky defendant: "it's of no use asking me such questions. By Jove, I've other things to think of than girls; and you know pretty well how much money I've got," he continued, taking out an old purse and emptying out the few shillings it contained into his hand. When he had thrown them about, out and in, for nearly a minute, he turned once more upon the Curate. "I'd like to have a little more pocket-money before I ran away with any one," said Wodehouse, and tossed the shillings back contemptuously. As for Mr Wentworth, his reasonableness once more came greatly in his way. He began to ask himself whether this penniless vagabond, who seemed to have no dash or daring in his character, could have been the man to carry little Rosa away; and, perplexed by this idea, Mr Wentworth put himself unawares into the position of his opponent, and in that character made an appeal to his imaginary generosity and truth.
"Wodehouse," he said, seriously, "look here. I am likely to be much annoyed about this, and perhaps injured. I entreat you to tell me, if you know, where the girl is. I've been at some little trouble for you; be frank with me for once," said the Curate of St Roque's. Nothing in existence could have prevented himself from responding to such an appeal, and he made it with a kind of absurd confidence that there must be some kindred depths even in the meaner nature with which he had to deal, which would have been to Jack Wentworth, had he seen it, a source of inextinguishable laughter. Even Wodehouse was taken by surprise. He did not understand Mr Wentworth, but a certain vague idea that the Curate was addressing him as if he still were "a gentleman as he used to be"—though it did not alter his resolution in any way—brought a vague flush of shame to his unaccustomed cheek.
"I aint a fool," he repeated rather hastily, and turned away not to meet the Curate's eyes. "I've got no money—how should I know anything about her? If I had, do you think I should have been here?" he continued, with a sidelong look of inquiry: then he paused and put on his coat, and in that garb felt himself more of a match for his opponent. "I'll tell you one thing you'll thank me for," he said,—"the old man is dying, they think. They'll be sending for you presently. That's more important than a talk about a girl. I've been talked to till I'm sick," said Wodehouse, with a little burst of irrepressible nature, "but things may change before you all know where you are." When he had said so much, the fear in his heart awoke again, and he cast another look of inquiry and anxiety at the Curate's face. But Mr Wentworth was disgusted, and had no more to say.
"Everything changes—except the heart of the churl, which can never be made bountiful," said the indignant young priest. It was not a fit sentiment, perhaps, for a preacher who had just written that text about the wicked man turning from the evil of his ways. Mr Wentworth went away in a glow of indignation and excitement, and left his guest to Sarah's bountiful provision of hot coffee and new-laid eggs, to which Wodehouse addressed himself with a perfectly good appetite, notwithstanding all the events of the morning, and all the mystery of the night.
Mr Wentworth retired to his own quarters with enough to think about for one morning. He could not make up his mind about Wodehouse—whether he was guilty or not guilty. It seemed incredible that, penniless as he was, he could have succeeded in carrying off a girl so well known in Carlingford as Rosa Elsworthy; and, if he had taken her away, how did it happen that he himself had come back again? The Curate saw clearly enough that his only chance for exculpating himself in the sight of the multitude was by bringing home the guilt to somebody else; and in proportion to the utter scorn with which he had treated Elsworthy's insinuations at first, was his serious apprehension now of the danger which surrounded him. He divined all that slander would make of it with the quickened intelligence of a man whose entire life, and reputation dearer than life, were at stake. If it could not be cleared up—if even any investigation which he might be able to demand was not perfectly successful—Mr Wentworth was quite well aware that the character of a clergyman was almost as susceptible as that of a woman, and that the vague stigma might haunt and overshadow him all his life. The thought was overwhelming at this moment, when his first hopes of finding a speedy solution of the mystery had come to nothing. If he had but lived a century earlier, the chances are that no doubt of Wodehouse's guilt would have entered his mind; but Mr Wentworth was a man of the present age—reasonable to a fault, and apt to consider other people as much as possible from their own point of view. He did not see, looking at the circumstances, how Wodehouse could be guilty; and the Curate would not permit the strong instinctive certainty that he was guilty, to move his own mind from what he imagined to be its better judgment. He was thinking it over very gloomily when his breakfast was brought to him and his letters, feeling that he could be sure of nobody in such an emergency, and dreading more the doubt of his friends than the clamour of the general world. He could bear (he imagined) to be hooted at in the streets, if it ever came to that; but to see the faces of those who loved him troubled with a torturing doubt of his truth was a terrible thought to the Perpetual Curate. And Lucy? But here the young man got up indignant and threw off his fears. He doubted her regard with a doubt which threw darkness over the whole universe; but that she should be able for a moment to doubt his entire devotion to her, seemed a blindness incredible. No; let who would believe ill of him in this respect, to Lucy such an accusation must look as monstrous as it was untrue. She, at least, knew otherwise; and, taking this false comfort to his heart, Mr Wentworth took up his letters, and presently was deep in the anxieties of his brother Gerald, who wrote to him as to a man at leisure, and without any overwhelming perplexities of his own. It requires a very high amount of unselfishness in the person thus addressed to prevent a degree of irritation which is much opposed to sympathy; and Mr Wentworth, though he was very impartial and reasonable, was not, being still young and meaning to be happy, unselfish to any inhuman degree. He put down Gerald's letter, after he had read through half of it, with an exclamation of impatience which he could not restrain, and then poured out his coffee, which had got cold in the mean time, and gulped it down with a sense of half-comforting disgust—for there are moments when the mortification of the flesh is a relief to the spirit; and then it occurred to him to remember Wodehouse's tray, which was a kind of love-offering to the shabby vagabond, and the perfect good order in which he had his breakfast; and Mr Wentworth laughed at himself with a whimsical perception of all that was absurd in his own position which did him good, and broke the spell of his solitary musings. When he took up Gerald's letter again, he read it through. A man more sympathetic, open-hearted, and unselfish than Gerald Wentworth did not exist in the world, as his brother well knew; but nevertheless, Gerald's mind was so entirely preoccupied that he passed over the Curate's cares with the lightest reference imaginable. "I hope you found all right when you got back, and nothing seriously amiss with Jack," the elder brother wrote, and then went on to his own affairs. All right! nothing seriously amiss! To a man who felt himself standing on the edge of possible ruin, such expressions seemed strange indeed.
The Rector of Wentworth, however, had enough in his mind to excuse him for a momentary forgetfulness of others. Things had taken a different turn with him since his brother left. He had been so busy with his change of faith and sentiment, that the practical possibilities of the step which he contemplated had not disturbed Gerald. He had taken it calmly for granted that he could do what he wanted to do. But a new light had burst upon him in that respect, and changed the character of his thoughts. Notwithstanding the conviction into which he had reasoned himself, the Rector of Wentworth had not contemplated the idea of becoming simply a Catholic layman. He was nothing if not a priest, he had said, passionately. He could have made a martyr of himself—have suffered tortures and deaths with the steadiest endurance; but he could not face the idea of taking all meaning and significance out of his life, by giving up the profession which he felt to be laid upon him by orders indelible, beyond the power of circumstances to revoke. Such was the new complication to which Gerald had come. He was terribly staggered in his previous resolution by this new doubt, and he wrote to pour his difficulties into the ear of his brother. It had been Frank's question which first awoke in his mind a doubt as to the practicability of the step he contemplated; and one of Louisa's relations, appealed to by her in her next access of terror, had brought this aspect of the matter still more distinctly before the Rector of Wentworth. Gerald had been studying Canon law, but his English intelligence did not make very much of it; and the bare idea of a dispensation making that right which in itself was wrong, touched the high-minded gentleman to the quick, and brought him to a sudden standstill. He who was nothing if not a priest, stood sorrowfully looking at his contemplated martyrdom—like Brother Domenico of St Mark's sighing on the edge of the fiery ordeal into which the Church herself would not let him plunge. If it was so, he no longer knew what to do. He would have wrapped the vestment of the new priesthood about him, though it was a garment of fire; but to stand aside in irksome leisure was a harder trial, at which he trembled. This was the new complication in which Gerald asked his brother's sympathy and counsel. It was a long letter, curiously introspective, and full of self-argument; and it was hard work, with a mind so occupied as was that of the Perpetual Curate, to give it due attention. He put it away when he had done with his cold breakfast, and deferred the consideration of the subject, with a kind of vague hope that the family firmament might possibly brighten in that quarter at least; but the far-off and indistinct interest with which he viewed, across his own gloomy surroundings, this matter which had engrossed him so completely a few days before, was wonderful to see.
And then he paused to think what he was to do. To go out and face the slander which must already have crept forth on its way—to see Elsworthy and ascertain whether he had come to his senses, and try if anything could be done for Rosa's discovery—to exert himself somehow, in short, and get rid of the feverish activity which he felt consuming him,—that was what he longed to do. But, on the other hand, it was Saturday, and Mr Wentworth was conscious that it would be more dignified, and in better taste altogether, if he went on writing his sermon and took no notice of this occurrence, with which, in reality, he had nothing to do. It was difficult, but no doubt it was the best; and he tried it accordingly—putting down a great many sentences which had to be scratched out again, and spoiling altogether the appearance of the sermon-paper. When a message came from Mr Wodehouse's about eleven o'clock, bringing the news that he was much worse and not expected to live, and begging Mr Wentworth's immediate presence, the Curate was as nearly glad as it was possible for a man to be under the circumstances. He had "a feeling heart," as even Elsworthy allowed, but in such a moment of excitement any kind of great and terrible event seemed to come natural. He hastened out into the fresh morning sunshine, which still seemed thrilling with life and joy, and went up Grange Lane with a certain sense of curiosity, wondering whether everybody was already aware of what had happened. A long way off a figure which much resembled that of the Rector was visible crossing over to Dr Marjoribanks's door; and it occurred to the Curate that Mr Morgan was crossing to avoid him, which brought a smile of anger and involuntary dislike to his face, and nerved him for any other encounter. The green door at Mr Wodehouse's—a homely sign of the trouble in the house—had been left unlatched, and was swinging ajar with the wind when the Curate came up; and as he went in (closing it carefully after him, for that forlorn little touch of carelessness went to his heart), he encountered in the garden Dr Marjoribanks and Dr Rider, who were coming out together with very grave looks. They did not stop for much conversation, only pausing to tell him that the case was hopeless, and that the patient could not possibly live beyond a day or two at most; but even in the few words that were spoken Mr Wentworth perceived, or thought he perceived, that something had occurred to lessen him in the esteem of the shrewd old Scotch doctor, who contemplated him and his prayer-book with critical eyes. "I confess, after all, that there are cases in which written prayers are a kind of security," Dr Marjoribanks said in an irrelevant manner to Dr Rider when Mr Wentworth had passed them—an observation at which, in ordinary cases, the Curate would have smiled; but to-day the colour rose to his face, and he understood that Dr Marjoribanks did not think him qualified to carry comfort or instruction to a sick-bed. Perhaps the old doctor had no such idea in his mind—perhaps it was simply a relic of his national Presbyterianism, to which the old Scotchman kept up a kind of visionary allegiance. But whether he meant it or not, Mr Wentworth understood it as a reproach to himself, and went on with a bitter feeling of mortification to the sick-room. He had gone with his whole heart into his priestly office, and had been noted for his ministrations to the sick and poor; but now his feelings were much too personal for the atmosphere into which he was just about to enter. He stopped at the door to tell John that he would take a stroll round the garden before he came in, as he had a headache, and went on through the walks which were sacred to Lucy, not thinking of her, but wondering bitterly whether anybody would stand by him, or whether an utterly baseless slander would outweigh all the five years of his life which he had spent among the people of Carlingford. Meanwhile John stood at the door and watched him, and of course thought it was very "queer." "It aint as if he'd a-been sitting up all night, like our young ladies," said John to himself, and unconsciously noted the circumstance down in his memory against the Curate.
When Mr Wentworth entered the sick-room, he found all very silent and still in that darkened chamber. Lucy was seated by the bedside, wrapped in a loose dressing-gown, and looked as if she had not slept for several nights; while Miss Wodehouse, who, notwithstanding all her anxiety to be of use, was far more helpless than Lucy, stood on the side next the door, with her eyes fixed on her sister, watching with pathetic unserviceableness for the moment when she could be of some use. As for the patient himself, he lay in a kind of stupor, from which he scarcely ever could be roused, and showed no tokens at the moment of hearing or seeing anybody. The scene was doubly sad, but it was without the excitement which so often breathes in the atmosphere of death. There was no eager listening for the last word, no last outbreaks of tenderness. The daughters were both hushed into utter silence; and Lucy, who was more reasonable than her sister, had even given up those wistful beseeching looks at the patient, with which Miss Wodehouse still regarded him, as if perhaps he might be thus persuaded to speak. The nurse whom Dr Marjoribanks had sent to assist them was visible through an open door, sleeping very comfortably in the adjoining room. Mr Wentworth came into the silent chamber with all his anxieties throbbing in his heart, bringing life at its very height of agitation and tumult into the presence of death. He went forward to the bed, and tried for an instant to call up any spark of intelligence that might yet exist within the mind of the dying man; but Mr Wodehouse was beyond the voice of any priest. The Curate said the prayers for the dying at the bedside, suddenly filled with a great pity for the man who was thus taking leave unawares of all this mournful splendid world. Though the young man knew many an ordinary sentiment about the vanity of life, and had given utterance to that effect freely in the way of his duty, he was still too fresh in his heart to conceive actually that any one could leave the world without poignant regrets; and when his prayer was finished, he stood looking at the patient with inexpressible compassion. Mr Wodehouse had scarcely reached old age; he was well off, and only a week ago seemed to have so much to enjoy; now, here he lay stupefied, on the edge of the grave, unable to respond even by a look to the love that surrounded him. Once more there rose in the heart of the young priest a natural impulse of resentment and indignation; and when he thought of the cause of this change, he remembered Wodehouse's threat, and roused himself from his contemplation of the dying to think of the probable fate of those who must live.
"Has he made his will?" said Mr Wentworth, suddenly. He forgot that it was Lucy who was standing by him; and it was only when he caught a glance of reproach and horror from her eyes that he recollected how abrupt his question was. "Pardon me," he said; "you think me heartless to speak of it at such a time; but tell me, if you know: Miss Wodehouse, has he made his will?"
"Oh, Mr Wentworth, I don't know anything about business," said the elder sister. "He said he would; but we have had other things to think of—more important things," said poor Miss Wodehouse, wringing her hands, and looking at Mr Wentworth with eyes full of warning and meaning, beseeching him not to betray her secret. She came nearer to the side of the bed on which Lucy and the Curate were standing, and plucked at his sleeve in her anxiety. "We have had very different things to think of. Oh, Mr Wentworth, what does it matter?" said the poor lady, interposing her anxious looks, which suggested every kind of misfortune, between the two.
"It matters everything in the world," said Mr Wentworth. "Pardon me if I wound you—I must speak; if it is possible to rouse him, an effort must be made. Send for Mr Waters. He must not be allowed to go out of the world and leave your interests in the hands of—"
"Oh, hush, Mr Wentworth, hush!—oh, hush, hush! Don't say any more," cried Miss Wodehouse, grasping his arm in her terror.
Lucy rose from where she had been sitting at the bedside. She had grown paler than before, and looked almost stern in her youthful gravity. "I will not permit my father to be disturbed," she said. "I don't know what you mean, or what you are talking of; but he is not to be disturbed. Do you think I will let him be vexed in his last hours about money or anybody's interest?" she said, turning upon the Curate a momentary glance of scorn. Then she sat down again, with a pang of disappointment added to her grief. She could not keep her heart so much apart from him, as not to expect a little comfort from his presence. And there had been comfort in his prayers and his looks; but to hear him speak of wills and worldly affairs by her father's deathbed, as any man might have done, went to Lucy's heart. She sat down again, putting her hand softly upon the edge of the pillow, to guard the peace of those last moments which were ebbing away so rapidly. What if all the comfort of the world hung upon it? Could she let her kind father be troubled in his end for anything so miserable? Lucy turned her indignant eyes upon the others with silent resolution. It was she who was his protector now.
"But it must be done," said Mr Wentworth. "You will understand me hereafter. Miss Wodehouse, you must send for Mr Waters, and in the mean time I will do what I can to rouse him. It is no such cruelty as you think," said the Curate, with humility; "it is not for money or interest only—it concerns all the comfort of your life."
This he said to Lucy, who sat defending her father. She, for her part, looked up at him with eyes that broke his heart. At that moment of all others, the unfortunate Curate perceived, by a sudden flash of insight, that nothing less than love could look at him with such force of disappointment and reproach and wounded feeling. He replied to the look by a gesture of mingled entreaty and despair.
"What can I do?" he cried—"you have no one else to care for you. I cannot even explain to you all that is at stake. I must act as I ought, even though you hate me for it. Let us send for Mr Waters;—if there is a will—"
Mr Wentworth had raised his voice a little in the excitement of the moment, and the word caught the dull ear of the dying man. The Curate saw instantly that there was comprehension in the flicker of the eyelash and the tremulous movement of the hand upon the bed. It was a new and unaccustomed part which he had now to play; he went hurriedly to the other side and leaned over the pillow to make out the stammering words which began to be audible. Lucy had risen up also and stood looking at her father still with her look of defence. As the feeble lips babbled forth unintelligible words, Lucy's face grew sterner and sterner. As for Miss Wodehouse, she stood behind, crying and trembling. "Oh, Mr Wentworth, do you think it is returning life—do you think he is better?" she cried, looking wistfully at the Curate; and between the two young people, who were leaning with looks and feelings so different over his bed, the patient lay struggling with those terrible bonds of weakness, labouring to find expression for something which wrought him into a fever of excitement. While Mr Wentworth bent his ear closer and closer, trying to make some sense of the inarticulate torrent of sound, Lucy, inspired by grief and horror and indignation, leaned over her father on the other side, doing everything possible to calm him. "Oh, papa, don't say any more—don't say any more; we understand you," she cried, and put her soft hands upon his flushed forehead, and her cheek to his. "No more, no more!" cried the girl in the dulled ear which could not hear. "We will do everything you wish—we understand all," said Lucy. Mr Wentworth withdrew vanquished in that strange struggle—he stood looking on while she caressed and calmed and subdued into silence the dying passion which he would have given anything in the world to stimulate into clearer utterance. She had baffled his efforts, made him helpless to serve her, perhaps injured herself cruelly; but all the more the Curate loved her for it, as she expanded over her dying father, with the white sleeves hanging loose about her arms like the white wings of an angel, as he thought. Gradually the agony of utterance got subdued, and then Lucy resumed her position by the bed. "He shall not be disturbed," she said again, through lips that were parched with emotion; and so sat watchful over him, a guardian immovable, ready to defy all the world in defence of his peace.
Mr Wentworth turned away with his heart full. He would have liked to go and kiss her hand or her sleeve or anything belonging to her; and yet he was impatient beyond expression, and felt that she had baffled and vanquished him. Miss Wodehouse stood behind, still looking on with a half perception of what had happened; but the mind of the elder sister was occupied with vain hopes and fears, such as inexperienced people are subject to in the presence of death.
"He heard what you said," said Miss Wodehouse; "don't you think that was a good sign? Oh, Mr Wentworth, sometimes I think he looks a little better," said the poor lady, looking wistfully into the Curate's face. Mr Wentworth could only shake his head as he hurried away.
"I must go and consult Mr Waters," he said, as he passed her. "I shall come back presently;" and then Miss Wodehouse followed him to the door, to beg him not to speak to Mr Waters of anything particular—"For papa has no confidence in him," she said, anxiously. The Curate was nearly driven to his wits' end as he hastened out. He forgot the clouds that surrounded him in his anxiety about this sad household; for it seemed but too evident that Mr Wodehouse had made no special provision for his daughters; and to think of Lucy under the power of her unknown brother, made Mr Wentworth's blood boil.
The shutters were all put up that afternoon in the prettiest house in Grange Lane. The event took Carlingford altogether by surprise; but other events just then were moving the town into the wildest excitement; for nothing could be heard, far or near, of poor little Rosa Elsworthy, and everybody was aware that the last time she was seen in Carlingford she was standing by herself in the dark, at Mr Wentworth's garden-door.
Mrs Morgan was in the garden watering her favourite ferns when her husband returned home to dinner on the day of Mr Wodehouse's death. The Rector was late, and she had already changed her dress, and was removing the withered leaves from her prettiest plant of maidenhair, and thinking, with some concern, of the fish, when she heard his step on the gravel; for the cook at the Rectory was rather hasty in her temper, and was apt to be provoking to her mistress next morning when the Rector chose to be late. It was a very hot day, and Mr Morgan was flushed and uncomfortable. To see his wife looking so cool and tranquil in her muslin dress rather aggravated him than otherwise, for she did not betray her anxiety about the trout, but welcomed him with a smile, as she felt it her duty to do, even when he was late for dinner. The Rector looked as if all the anxieties of the world were on his shoulders, as he came hurriedly along the gravel; and Mrs Morgan's curiosity was sufficiently excited by his looks to have overcome any consideration but that of the trout, which, however, was too serious to be trifled with; so, instead of asking questions, she thought it wiser simply to remind her husband that it was past six o'clock. "Dinner is waiting," she said, in her composed way; and the Rector went up-stairs to wash his hands, half disposed to be angry with his wife. He found her already seated at the head of the table when he came down after his rapid ablutions; and though he was not particularly quick of perception, Mr Morgan perceived, by the looks of the servant as well as the mistress, that he was generally disapproved of throughout the household for being half an hour too late. As for Thomas, he was at no pains to conceal his sentiments, but conducted himself with distant politeness towards his master, expressing the feelings of the household with all the greater freedom that he had been in possession of the Rectory since Mr Bury's time, and felt himself more secure in his tenure than any incumbent, as was natural to a man who had already outlived two of these temporary tenants. Mr Morgan was disposed to be conciliatory when he saw the strength of the opposite side.
"I am a little late today," said the politic Rector. "Mr Leeson was with me, and I did not want to bring him home to dinner. It was only on Wednesday he dined with us, and I know you don't care for chance guests."
"I think it shows a great want of sense in Mr Leeson to think of such a thing," said Mrs Morgan, responding by a little flush of anger to the unlucky Curate's name. "He might understand that people like to be by themselves now and then. I am surprised that you give in to him so much as you do, William. Good-nature must stop somewhere, and I think it is always best to draw a line."
"I wish it were possible for everybody to draw a line," said the Rector, mysteriously, with a sigh. "I have heard something that has grieved me very much to-day. I will tell you about it afterwards." When he had said this, Mr Morgan addressed himself sadly to his dinner, sighing over it, as if that had something to do with his distress.
"Perhaps, ma'am," suggested Thomas, who was scarcely on speaking terms with his master, "the Rector mayn't have heard as Mr Wodehouse has been took very bad again, and aint expected to see out the night."
"I am very sorry," said the Rector. "Poor ladies! it will come very hard upon them. My dear, I think you should call and ask if you can do anything. Troubles never come singly, it is said. I am very sorry for that poor young creature; though, perhaps, things have not gone so far as one imagined." The Rector sighed again, and looked as though his secret, whatever it might be, was almost too much for him. The consequence, of course, was, that Thomas prolonged his services to the last possibility, by way of hearing what had happened; as for Mrs Morgan, she sat on thorns, though her sense of propriety was too great to permit her to hurry over the dinner. The pudding, though it was the Rector's favourite pudding, prepared from a receipt only known at All-Souls, in which the late respected Head of that learned community had concentrated all his genius, was eaten in uneasy silence, broken only by the most transparent attempts on both sides to make a little conversation. Thomas hovered sternly over his master and mistress all the time, exacting with inexorable severity every usage of the table. He would not let them off the very smallest detail, but insisted on handing round the peaches, notwithstanding Mrs Morgan's protest. "They are the first out of the new orchard-house," said the Rector's wife. "I want your opinion of them. That will do, Thomas; we have got everything now, I think." Mrs Morgan was a little anxious about the peaches, having made a great many changes on her own responsibility in the gardening department; but the Rector took the downy fruit as if it had been a turnip, and notwithstanding her interest in the long-delayed news, his wife could not but find it very provoking that he took so little notice of her exertions.
"Roberts stood out against the new flue as long as he could," said Mrs Morgan. "Mr Proctor took no interest in the garden, and everything had gone to ruin; though I must say it was very odd that anybody from your college, William, should be careless about such a vital matter," said the Rector's wife, with a little asperity. "I suppose there must be something in the air of Carlingford which makes people indifferent." Naturally, it was very provoking, after all the trouble she had taken, to see her husband slicing that juicy pulp as if it had been any ordinary market fruit.
"I beg your pardon, my dear," said Mr Morgan; "I was thinking of this story about Mr Wentworth. One is always making new discoveries of the corruption of human nature. He had behaved very badly to me; but it is very sad to see a young man sacrifice all his prospects for the indulgence of his passions; though that is a very secular way of looking at the subject," said the Rector, shaking his head mournfully. "If it is bad in a worldly point of view, what is it in a spiritual? and in this age, too, when it is so important to keep up the character of the clergy!" Mr Morgan sighed again more heavily than ever as he poured out the single glass of port, in which his wife joined him after dinner. "Such an occurrence throws a stigma upon the whole Church, as Mr Leeson very justly remarked."
"I thought Mr Leeson must have something to do with it," said the Rector's wife. "What has Mr Wentworth been doing? When you keep a Low-Church Curate, you never can tell what he may say. If he had known of the All-Souls pudding he would have come to dinner, and we should have had it at first-hand," said Mrs Morgan, severely. She put away her peach in her resentment, and went to a side-table for her work, which she always kept handy for emergencies. Like her husband, Mrs Morgan had acquired some little "ways" in the long ten years of their engagement, one of which was a confirmed habit of needlework at all kinds of unnecessary moments, which much disturbed the Rector when he had anything particular to say.
"My dear, I am very sorry to see you so much the victim of prejudice," said Mr Morgan. "I had hoped that all our long experiences—" and here the Rector stopped short, troubled to see the rising colour in his wife's face. "I don't mean to blame you, my dear," said the perplexed man; "I know you were always very patient;" and he paused, not knowing what more to say, comforting himself with the thought that women were incomprehensible creatures, as so many men have done before.
"I am not patient," said the Rector's wife; "it never was my nature. I can't help thinking sometimes that our long experiences have done us more harm than good; but I hope nothing will ever make me put up with a Curate who tells tales about other people, and flatters one's self, and comes to dinner without being asked. Perhaps Mr Wentworth is very sinful, but at least he is a gentleman," said Mrs Morgan; and she bent her head over her work, and drove her needle so fast through the muslin she was at work upon, that it glimmered and sparkled like summer lightning before the spectator's dazzled eyes.
"I am sorry you are so prejudiced," said the Rector. "It is a very unbecoming spirit, my dear, though I am grieved to say so much to you. Mr Leeson is a very good young man, and he has nothing to do with this terrible story about Mr Wentworth. I don't wish to shock your feelings—but there are a great many things in the world that one can't explain to ladies. He has got himself into a most distressing position, and a public inquiry will be necessary. One can't help seeing the hand of Providence in it," said the Rector, playing reflectively with the peach on his plate.
It was at this moment that Thomas appeared at the door to announce Mr Leeson, who had come to talk over the topic of the day with the Rector—being comfortably obtuse in his perceptions, and quite disposed to ignore Mrs Morgan's general demeanour towards himself. "I am sure she has a bad temper," he would say to his confidants in the parish; "you can see it by the redness in her face: but I never take any notice when she says rude things to me." The redness was alarming in Mrs Morgan's face as the unlucky man became visible at the door. She said audibly, "I knew we should be interrupted!" and got up from her chair. "As Mr Leeson is here, you will not want me, William," she added, in her precisest tones. "If anything has happened since you came in, he will be able to tell you about it; and perhaps I had better send you your coffee here, for I have a great many things to do." Mr Morgan gave a little groan in his spirit as his wife went away. To do him justice, he had a great deal of confidence in her, and was unconsciously guided by her judgment in many matters. Talking it over with Mr Leeson was a totally different thing; for whatever might be said in his defence, there could not be any doubt that the Curate professed Low-Church principles, and had been known to drink tea with Mr Beecher, the new minister of Salem Chapel. "Not that I object to Mr Beecher because he is a Dissenter," Mr Morgan said, "but because, my dear, you know, it is a totally different class of society." When the Rector was left alone to discuss parish matters with this doubtful subordinate, instead of going into the subject with his wife, the good man felt a pang of disappointment; for though he professed to be reluctant to shock her, he had been longing all the time to enter into the story, which was certainly the most exciting which had occurred in Carlingford since the beginning of his incumbency. Mrs Morgan, for her part, went up-stairs to the drawing-room with so much indignation about this personal grievance that she almost forgot her curiosity. Mr Leeson hung like a cloud over all the advantages of Carlingford; he put out that new flue in the greenhouse, upon which she was rather disposed to pique herself, and withered her ferns, which everybody allowed to be the finest collection within a ten miles' circuit. This sense of disgust increased upon her as she went into the drawing-room, where her eye naturally caught that carpet which had been the first cross of her married life. When she had laid down her work, she began to plan how the offensive bouquets might be covered with a pinafore of linen, which looked very cool and nice in summer-time. And then the Rector's wife reflected that in winter a floor covered with white looked chilly, and that a woollen drugget of an appropriate small pattern would be better on the whole; but no such thing was to be had without going to London for it, which brought her mind back again to Mr Leeson and all the disadvantages of Carlingford. These subjects occupied Mrs Morgan to the exclusion of external matters, as was natural; and when she heard the gentlemen stir down-stairs as if with ideas of joining her in the drawing-room, the Rector's wife suddenly recollected that she had promised some tea to a poor woman in Grove Street, and that she could not do better this beautiful evening than take it in her own person. She was very active in her district at all times, and had proved herself an admirable clergywoman; but perhaps it would not have occurred to her to go out upon a charitable errand that particular evening had it not been for the presence of Mr Leeson down-stairs.
It was such a very lovely night, that Mrs Morgan was tempted to go further than she intended. She called on two or three of her favourites in Grove Street, and was almost as friendly with them as Lucy Wodehouse was with the people in Prickett's Lane; but being neither pretty and young, like Lucy, nor yet a mother with a nursery, qualified to talk about the measles, her reception was not quite as enthusiastic as it might have been. Somehow it would appear as though our poor neighbours loved most the ministrations of youth, which is superior to all ranks in the matter of possibility and expectation, and inferior to all ranks in the matter of experience; and so holds a kind of balance and poise of nature between the small and the great. Mrs Morgan was vaguely sensible of her disadvantages in this respect as well as in others. She never could help imagining what she might have been had she married ten years before at the natural period. "And even then not a girl," she said to herself in her sensible way, as she carried this habitual thread of thought with her along the street, past the little front gardens, where there were so many mothers with their children. On the other side of the way the genteel houses frowned darkly with their staircase windows upon the humility of Grove Street; and Mrs Morgan began to think within herself of the Miss Hemmings and other spinsters, and how they got along upon this path of life, which, after all, is never lightsome to behold, except in the future or the past. It was dead present with the Rector's wife just then, and many speculations were in her mind, as was natural. "Not that I could not have lived unmarried," she continued within herself, with a woman's pride; "but things looked so different at five-and-twenty!" and in her heart she grudged the cares she had lost, and sighed over this wasting of her years.
It was just then that the youngest Miss Hemmings saw Mrs Morgan, and crossed over to speak to her. Miss Hemmings had left five-and-thirty behind a long time ago, and thought the Rector's wife a happy woman in the bloom of youth. When she had discovered conclusively that Mrs Morgan would not go in to have a cup of tea, Miss Hemmings volunteered to walk with her to the corner; and it is not necessary to say that she immediately plunged into the topic which at that moment engaged all minds in Carlingford. "If I had not seen it with my own eyes, I should not have believed it," said Miss Hemmings. "I should have thought it a got-up story; not that I ever could have thought it impossible, as you say—for, alas! I know well that without grace every wickedness is more than possible—but I saw them with my own eyes, my dear Mrs Morgan; she standing outside, the bold little thing, and he at the door—as if it was right for a clergyman to open the door like a man-servant—and from that moment to this she has not been seen by any living creature in Carlingford: who can tell what may have been done with her?" cried the horrified eyewitness. "She has never been seen from that hour!"
"But that was only twenty-four hours ago," said Mrs Morgan; "she may have gone off to visit some of her friends."
"Ah, my dear Mrs Morgan, twenty-four hours is a long time for a girl to disappear out of her own home," said Miss Hemmings; "and all her friends have been sent to, and no word can be heard of her. I am afraid it will go very hard with Mr Wentworth; and I am sure it looks like a judgment upon him for all his candlesticks and flowers and things," she continued, out of breath with the impetuosity of her tale.
"Do you think, then, that God makes people sin in order to punish them?" said Mrs Morgan, with some fire, which shocked Miss Hemmings, who did not quite know how to reply.
"I do so wish you would come in for a few minutes and taste our tea; my sister Sophia was just making it when I came out. We get it from our brother in Assam, and we think a great deal of it," said Miss Hemmings; "it can't possibly be adulterated, you know, for it comes direct from his plantation. If you can't come in just now, I will send you some to the Rectory, and you shall tell us how you like it. We are quite proud of our tea. My brother has a large plantation, and he hopes—"
"Thank you," said Mrs Morgan, "but the Rector will be waiting for me, and I must go. It must be very nice to have your tea direct from the plantation; and I hope you will change your mind about Mr Wentworth," she continued, without much regard for punctuation, as she shook hands at the corner. Mrs Morgan went down a narrow street which led to Grange Lane, after this interview, with some commotion in her mind. She took Mr Wentworth's part instinctively, without asking any proofs of his innocence. The sun was just setting, and St Roque's stood out dark and picturesque against all the glory of the western sky as the Rector's wife went past. She could not help thinking of him, in his youth and the opening of his career, with a kind of wistful interest. If he had married Lucy Wodehouse, and confined himself to his own district (but then he had no district), Mrs Morgan would have contemplated the two, not, indeed, without a certain half-resentful self-reference and contrast, but with natural sympathy. And now, to think of this dark and ugly blot on his fair beginning disturbed her much. When Mrs Morgan recollected that she had left her husband and his Curate consulting over this matter, she grew very hot and angry, and felt humiliated by the thought. Was it her William, her hero, whom she had magnified for all these ten years, though not without occasional twinges of enlightenment, into something great, who was thus sitting upon his young brother with so little human feeling and so much middle-aged jealousy? It hurt her to think of it, though not for Mr Wentworth's sake. Poor Mrs Morgan, though not at all a sentimental person, had hoarded up her ideal so much after the ordinary date, that it came all the harder upon her when everything thus merged into the light of common day. She walked very fast up Grange Lane, which was another habit of her maidenhood not quite in accord with the habit of sauntering acquired during the same period by the Fellow of All-Souls. When Mrs Morgan was opposite Mr Wodehouse's, she looked across with some interest, thinking of Lucy; and it shocked her greatly to see the closed shutters, which told of the presence of death. Then, a little farther up, she could see Elsworthy in front of his shop, which was already closed, talking vehemently to a little group round the door. The Rector's wife crossed the street, to avoid coming into contact with this excited party; and, as she went swiftly along under the garden-walls, came direct, without perceiving it, upon Mr Wentworth, who was going the opposite way. They were both absorbed in their own thoughts, the Perpetual Curate only perceiving Mrs Morgan in time to take off his hat to her as he passed; and, to tell the truth, having no desire for any further intercourse. Mrs Morgan, however, was of a different mind. She stopped instantly, as soon as she perceived him. "Mr Wentworth, it is getting late—will you walk with me as far as the Rectory?" she said, to the Curate's great astonishment. He could not help looking at her with curiosity as he turned to accompany her. Mrs Morgan was still wearing her wedding things, which were not now in their first freshness—not to say that the redness, of which she was so painfully sensible, was rather out of accordance with the orange blossoms. Then she was rather flurried and disturbed in her mind; and, on the whole, Mr Wentworth ungratefully concluded the Rector's wife to be looking her plainest, as he turned with very languid interest to see her safely home.
"A great many things seem to be happening just now," said Mrs Morgan, with a good deal of embarrassment; "I suppose the people in Carlingford are grateful to anybody who gives them something to talk about."
"I don't know about the gratitude," said the Perpetual Curate; "it is a sentiment I don't believe in."
"You ought to believe in everything as long as you are young," said Mrs Morgan. "I want very much to speak to you, Mr Wentworth; but then I don't know how you will receive what I am going to say."
"I can't tell until I know what it is," said the Curate, shutting himself up. He had an expressive face generally, and Mrs Morgan saw the shutters put up, and the jealous blinds drawn over the young man's countenance as clearly as if they had been tangible articles. He did not look at her, but kept swinging his cane in his hand, and regarding the pavement with downcast eyes; and if the Rector's wife had formed any expectations of finding in the Perpetual Curate an ingenuous young heart, open to sympathy and criticism, she now discovered her mistake.
"If I run the risk, perhaps you will forgive me," said Mrs Morgan. "I have just been hearing a dreadful story about you; and I don't believe it in the least, Mr Wentworth," she continued, with a little effusion; for though she was very sensible, she was only a woman, and did not realise the possibility of having her sympathy rejected, and her favourable judgment received with indifference.
"I am much flattered by your good opinion. What was the dreadful story?" asked Mr Wentworth, looking at her with careless eyes. They were just opposite Elsworthy's shop, and could almost hear what he was saying, as he stood in the midst of his little group of listeners, talking loud and vehemently. The Perpetual Curate looked calmly at him across the road, and turned again to Mrs Morgan, repeating his question, "What was the dreadful story?—one gets used to romances," he said, with a composure too elaborate to be real; but Mrs Morgan did not think of that.
"If you don't care about it, I need not say anything," said the Rector's wife, who could not help feeling affronted. "But I am so sorry that Mr Morgan and you don't get on," she continued, after a little pause. "I have no right to speak; but I take an interest in everything that belongs to the parish. If you would put a little confidence in my husband, things might go on better; but, in the mean time, I thought I might say to you, on my own account, that I had heard this scandal, and that I don't believe in it. If you do not understand my motive I can't help it," said the Rector's wife, who was now equally ready for friendship or for battle.
"Thanks; I understand what you mean," said Mr Wentworth, who had come to himself. "But will you tell me what it is you don't believe in?" he asked, with a smile which Mrs Morgan did not quite comprehend.
"I will tell you," she said, with a little quiet exasperation. "I don't think you would risk your prospects, and get yourself into trouble, and damage your entire life, for the sake of any girl, however pretty she might be. Men don't do such things for women nowadays, even when it is a worthy object," said the disappointed optimist. "And I believe you are a great deal more sensible, Mr Wentworth." There was just that tone of mingled approval and contempt in this speech which a woman knows how to deliver herself of without any appearance of feeling; and which no young man, however blase, can hear with composure.
"Perhaps not," he said, with a little heat and a rising colour. "I am glad you think me so sensible." And then there ensued a pause, upon the issue of which depended the question of peace or war between these two. Mr Wentworth's good angel, perhaps, dropped softly through the dusky air at that moment, and jogged his perverse charge with the tip of a celestial wing. "And yet there might be women in the world for whom—" said the Curate; and stopped again. "I daresay you are not anxious to know my sentiments on the subject," he continued, with a little laugh. "I am sorry you think so badly—I mean so well of me."
"I don't think badly of you," said Mrs Morgan, hastily. "Thank you for walking with me; and whatever happens, remember that I for one don't believe a word of it," she said, holding out her hand. After this little declaration of friendship, the Rector's wife returned to the Rectory, where her husband was waiting for her, more than ever prepared to stand up for Mr Wentworth. She went back to the drawing-room, forgetting all about the carpet, and poured out the tea with satisfaction, and made herself very agreeable to Mr Finial, the architect, who had come to talk over the restorations. In that moment of stimulation she forgot all her experience of her husband's puzzled looks, of the half-comprehension with which he looked at her, and the depths of stubborn determination which were far beyond the reach of her hastier and more generous spirit, and so went on with more satisfaction and gaiety than she had felt possible for a long time, beating her drums and blowing her trumpets, to the encounter in which her female forces were so confident of victory.
Mr Wentworth went upon his way, after he had parted from Mrs Morgan, with a moment's gratitude; but he had not gone half-a-dozen steps before that amiable sentiment yielded to a sense of soreness and vexation. He had almost acknowledged that he was conscious of the slander against which he had made up his mind to present a blank front of unconsciousness and passive resistance, and he was angry with himself for his susceptibility to this unexpected voice of kindness. He was going home, but he did not care for going home. Poor Mrs Hadwin's anxious looks of suspicion had added to the distaste with which he thought of encountering again the sullen shabby rascal to whom he had given shelter. It was Saturday night, and he had still his sermon to prepare for the next day; but the young man was in a state of disgust with all the circumstances of his lot, and could not make up his mind to go in and address himself to his work as he ought to have done. Such a sense of injustice and cruelty as possessed him was not likely to promote composition, especially as the pulpit addresses of the Curate of St Roque's were not of a declamatory kind. To think that so many years' work could be neutralised in a day by a sudden breath of scandal, made him not humble or patient, but fierce and resentful. He had been in Wharfside that afternoon, and felt convinced that even the dying woman at No. 10 Prickett's Lane had heard of Rosa Elsworthy; and he saw, or imagined he saw, many a distrustful inquiring glance thrown at him by people to whom he had been a kind of secondary Providence. Naturally the mere thought of the failing allegiance of the "district" went to Mr Wentworth's heart. When he turned round suddenly from listening to a long account of one poor family's distresses, and saw Tom Burrows, the gigantic bargeman, whose six children the Curate had baptised in a lump, and whose baby had been held at the font by Lucy Wodehouse herself, looking at him wistfully with rude affection, and something that looked very much like pity, it is impossible to describe the bitterness that welled up in the mind of the Perpetual Curate. Instead of leaving Wharfside comforted as he usually did, he came away wounded and angry, feeling to its full extent the fickleness of popular sympathy. And when he came into Grange Lane and saw the shutters closed, and Mr Wodehouse's green door shut fast, as if never more to open, all sources of consolation seemed to be shut against him. Even the habit he had of going into Elsworthy's to get his newspaper, and to hear what talk might be current in Carlingford, contributed to the sense of utter discomfort and wretchedness which overwhelmed him. Men in other positions have generally to consult the opinion of their equals only; but all sorts of small people can plant thorns in the path of a priest who has given himself with fervour to the duties of his office. True enough, such clouds blow by, and sometimes leave behind a sky clearer than before; but that result is doubtful, and Mr Wentworth was not of the temper to comfort himself with philosophy. He felt ingratitude keenly, as men do at eight-and-twenty, even when they have made up their minds that gratitude is a delusion; and still more keenly, with deep resentment and indignation, he felt the horrible doubt which had diffused itself around him, and seemed to be looking at him out of everybody's eyes. In such a state of mind one bethinks one's self of one's relations—those friends not always congenial, but whom one looks to instinctively, when one is young, in the crisis of life. He knocked at his aunts' door almost without knowing it, as he went down Grange Lane, after leaving Mrs Morgan, with vague sentences of his sermon floating in his mind through all the imbroglio of other thoughts. Even aunt Dora's foolish affection might have been a little comfort at the moment, and he could not but be a little curious to know whether they had heard Elsworthy's story, and what the patronesses of Skelmersdale thought of the matter. Somehow, just then, in the midst of his distresses, a vision of Skelmersdale burst upon the Perpetual Curate like a glimpse of a better world. If he could but escape there out of all this sickening misconception and ingratitude—if he could but take Lucy into his protecting arms, and carry her away far from the clouds that were gathering over her path as well as his own. The thought found vent in an impatient long-drawn sigh, and was then expelled contemptuously from the young man's bosom. If a hundred Skelmersdales were in his power, here, where his honour had been attacked, it was necessary to remain, in the face of all obstacles, till it was cleared.