"You see he thinks I will reproach him," said Miss Wodehouse, anxiously; perhaps it had just glanced across her own mind that something more important still might have dictated language so decided. "He has a great deal more feeling than you would suppose, poor fellow! It is very touching in him to say, 'the place he has a right to'—don't you think so, Mr Wentworth? Poor Tom! if we could but trust him, and he would change his ways as he promised! Oh, Mr Wentworth, don't you think I might speak of it to him to-morrow? If we could—bury—everything—in dear papa's grave," cried the poor lady, once more breaking down. Mr Wentworth took no notice of Miss Wodehouse's tears. They moved him with sentiments entirely different from those with which he regarded Lucy's. He read the note over again without any attempt to console her, till she had struggled back into composure; but even then there was nothing sympathetic in the Curate's voice.
"And I think you told me you did not know anything about the will?" he said, with some abruptness, making no account whatever of the suggestion she had made.
"No," said Miss Wodehouse; "but my dear father was a business man, Mr Wentworth, and I feel quite sure—quite—"
"Yes," said the Perpetual Curate; "nor of the nature of his property, perhaps?" added the worldly-minded young man whom poor Miss Wodehouse had chosen for her adviser. It was more than the gentle woman could bear.
"Oh, Mr Wentworth, you know I am not one to understand," cried the poor lady. "You ask me questions, but you never tell me what you think I should do. If it were only for myself, I would not mind, but I have to act for Lucy," said the elder sister, suddenly sitting upright and drying her tears. "Papa, I am sure, did what was best for us," she said, with a little gentle dignity, which brought the Curate back to his senses; "but oh, Mr Wentworth, look at the letter, and tell me, for my sister's sake, what am I to do?"
The Curate went to the window, from which the sunshine was stealing away, to consider the subject; but he did not seem to derive much additional wisdom from that sacred spot, where Lucy's work-table stood idle. "We must wait and see," he said to himself. When he came back to Miss Wodehouse, and saw the question still in her eyes, it only brought back his impatience. "My dear Miss Wodehouse, instead of speculating about what is to happen, it would be much better to prepare your sister for the discovery she must make to-morrow," said Mr Wentworth; "I cannot give any other advice, for my part. I think it is a great pity that you have kept it concealed so long. I beg your pardon for speaking so abruptly, but I am afraid you don't know all the trouble that is before you. We are all in a great deal of trouble," said the Perpetual Curate, with a little unconscious solemnity. "I can't say I see my way through it; but you ought to prepare her—to see—her brother." He said the words with a degree of repugnance which he could not conceal, and which wounded his companion's tender heart.
"He was so different when he was young," said Miss Wodehouse, with a suppressed sob—"he was a favourite everywhere. You would not have looked so if you had known him then. Oh, Mr Wentworth, promise me that you will not turn your back upon him if he comes home, after all your kindness. I will tell Lucy how much you have done for him," said Miss Wodehouse. She was only half-conscious of her own gentle artifice. She took the Curate's hand in both her own before he left her, and said it was such a comfort to have his advice to rely upon; and she believed what she said, though Mr Wentworth himself knew better. The poor lady sat down in Lucy's chair, and had a cry at her ease after he went away. She was to tell Lucy—but how? and she sat pondering this hard question till all the light had faded out of the room, and the little window which was not shuttered dispersed only a grey twilight through the empty place. The lamp, meantime, had been lighted in the little parlour where Lucy sat, very sad, in her black dress, with 'In Memoriam' on the table by her, carrying on a similar strain in her heart. She was thinking of the past, so many broken scenes of which kept flashing up before her, all bright with indulgent love and tenderness—and she was thinking of the next day, when she was to see all that remained of her good father laid in his grave. He was not very wise nor remarkable among men, but he had been the tenderest father to the child of his old age; and in her heart she was praying for him still, pausing now and then to think whether it was right. The tears were heavy in her young eyes, but they were natural tears, and Lucy had no more thought that there was in the world anything sadder than sorrow, or that any complications lay in her individual lot, than the merest child in Prickett's Lane. She thought of going back to the district, all robed and invested in the sanctity of her grief—she thought it was to last for ever, as one has the privilege of thinking when one is young; and it was to this young saint, tender towards all the world, ready to pity everybody, and to save a whole race, if that had been possible, that Miss Wodehouse went in, heavy and burdened, with her tale of miserable vice, unkindness, estrangement. How was it possible to begin? Instead of beginning, poor Miss Wodehouse, overpowered by her anxieties and responsibilities, was taken ill and fainted, and had to be carried to bed. Lucy would not let her talk when she came to herself; and so the only moment of possible preparation passed away, and the event itself, which one of them knew nothing of, and the other did not understand, came in its own person, without any avant-couriers, to open Lucy's eyes once for all.
Mr Wentworth had to go into Carlingford on some business when he left Miss Wodehouse; and as he went home again, having his head full of so many matters, he forgot for the moment what most immediately concerned himself, and was close upon Elsworthy's shop, looking into the window, before he thought of it. Elsworthy himself was standing behind the counter, with a paper in his hand, from which he was expounding something to various people in the shop. It was getting late, and the gas was lighted, which threw the interior into very bright relief to Mr Wentworth outside. The Curate was still only a young man, though he was a clergyman, and his movements were not always guided by reason or sound sense. He walked into the shop, almost before he was aware what he was doing. The people were inconsiderable people enough—cronies of Elsworthy—but they were people who had been accustomed to look up very reverentially to the Curate of St Roque's and Mr Wentworth was far from being superior to their disapproval. There was a very visible stir among them as he entered, and Elsworthy came to an abrupt stop in his elucidations, and thrust the paper he had been reading into a drawer. Dead and sudden silence followed the entrance of the Curate. Peter Hayles, the druggist, who was one of the auditors, stole to the door with intentions of escape, and the women, of whom there were two or three, looked alarmed, not knowing what might come of it. As for Mr Wentworth, there was only one thing possible for him to say. "Have you heard anything of Rosa, Elsworthy?" he asked, with great gravity, fixing his eyes upon the man's face. The question seemed to ring into all the corners. Whether it was innocence or utter abandonment nobody could tell, and the spectators held their breath for the answer. Elsworthy, for his part, was as much taken by surprise as his neighbours. He grew very pale and livid in his sudden excitement, and lost his voice, and stood staring at the Curate like a man struck dumb. Perhaps Mr Wentworth got bolder when he saw the effect he had produced. He repeated the question, looking towards poor Mrs Elsworthy, who had jumped from her husband's side when he came in. The whole party looked like startled conspirators to Mr Wentworth's eyes, though he had not the least idea what they had been doing. "Have you heard anything of Rosa?" he asked again; and everybody looked at Elsworthy, as if he were the guilty man, and had suborned the rest; which, indeed, in one sense, was not far from being the case.
When Elsworthy came to himself, he gave Mr Wentworth a sidelong dangerous look. "No, sir—nothing," said Rosa's uncle. "Them as has hidden her has hidden her well. I didn't expect to hear not yet," said Elsworthy. Though Mr Wentworth did not know what he meant, his little audience in the shop did, and showed, by the slightest murmur in the world, their conviction that the arrow had gone home, which naturally acted like a spur upon the Curate, who was not the wisest man in the world.
"I am very sorry to see you in so much distress," said the young man, looking at Mrs Elsworthy's red eyes, "but I trust things will turn out much better than you imagine. If I can do anything to help you, let me know," said Mr Wentworth. Perhaps it was foolish to say so much, knowing what he did, but unfortunately prudence was not the ruling principle at that moment in the Curate's soul.
"I was a-thinking of letting you know, sir," said the clerk of St Roque's, with deadly meaning; "leastways not me, but them as has taken me by the hand. There's every prospect as it'll all be known afore long," said Elsworthy, pushing his wife aside and following Mr Wentworth, with a ghastly caricature of his old obsequiousness, to the door. "There's inquiries a-being made as was never known to fail. For one thing, I've written to them as knows a deal about the movements of a party as is suspected—not to say as I've got good friends," said Rosa's guardian, standing upon the step of his own door, and watching the Curate out into the darkness. Mr Wentworth could not altogether restrain a slight thrill of unpleasant emotion, for Elsworthy, standing at his door with the light gleaming over him from behind, and his face invisible, had an unpleasant resemblance to a wild beast waiting for his prey.
"I am glad to think you are likely to be so successful. Send me word as soon as you know," said the Curate, and he pursued his way home afterwards, with feelings far from pleasant. He saw something was about to come of this more than he had thought likely, and the crisis was approaching. As he walked rapidly home, he concluded within himself to have a conversation with the Rector next day after Mr Wodehouse's funeral, and to ask for an investigation into the whole matter. When he had come to this conclusion, he dismissed the subject from his mind as far as was possible, and took to thinking of the other matters which disturbed his repose, in which, indeed, it was very easy to get perplexed and bewildered to his heart's content. Anyhow, one way and another, the day of poor Mr Wodehouse's funeral must necessarily be an exciting and momentous day.
Mr Wentworth had, however, no idea that its interest was to begin so early. When he was seated at breakfast reading his letters, a note was brought to him, which, coming in the midst of a lively chronicle of home news from his sister Letty, almost stopped for the moment the beating of the Curate's heart. It took him so utterly by surprise, that more violent sentiments were lost for the moment in mere wonder. He read it over twice before he could make it out. It was from the Rector, and notwithstanding his wife's remonstrances, and his own qualms of doubt and uncertainty, this was what Mr Morgan said:—
"DEAR SIR,—It is my painful duty to let you know that certain rumours have reached my ears very prejudicial to your character as a clergyman, and which I understand to be very generally current in Carlingford. Such a scandal, if not properly dealt with, is certain to have an unfavourable effect upon the popular mind, and injure the clergy in the general estimation—while it is, as I need not point out to you, quite destructive of your own usefulness. Under the circumstances, I have thought it my duty, as Rector of the parish, to take steps for investigating these reports. Of course I do not pretend to any authority over you, nor can I enforce in any way your participation in the inquiry or consent to it; but I beg to urge upon you strongly, as a friend, the advantage of assenting freely, that your innocence (if possible) may be made apparent, and your character cleared. I enclose the names of the gentlemen whose assistance I intend to request for this painful duty, in case you should object to any of them; and would again urge you, for your own sake, the expediency of concurrence. I regret to say that, though I would not willingly prejudge any man, much less a brother clergyman, I do not feel that it would be seemly on my part, under the circumstances, to avail myself of your assistance today in the burial-service for the late Mr Wodehouse.—Believe me, very sincerely yours,
When Mr Wentworth looked up from this letter, he caught sight of his face in the mirror opposite, and gazed into his own eyes like a man stupefied. He had not been without vexations in eight-and-twenty years of a not uneventful life, but he had never known anything like the misery of that moment. It was nearly four hours later when he walked slowly up Grange Lane to the house, which before night might own so different a master, but he had found as yet no time to spare for the Wodehouses—even for Lucy—in the thoughts which were all occupied by the unlooked-for blow. Nobody could tell, not even himself, the mental discipline he had gone through before he emerged, rather stern, but perfectly calm, in the sunshine in front of the closed-up house. If it was not his to meet the solemn passenger at the gates with words of hope, at least he could do a man's part to the helpless who had still to live; but the blow was cruel, and all the force of his nature was necessary to sustain it. All Carlingford knew, by the evidence of its senses, that Mr Wentworth had been a daily visitor of the dead, and one of his most intimate friends, and nobody had doubted for a moment that to him would be assigned as great a portion of the service as his feelings permitted him to undertake. When the bystanders saw him join the procession, a thrill of surprise ran through the crowd; but nobody—not even the man who walked beside him—ventured to trifle with the Curate's face so far as to ask why. The Grand Inquisitor himself, if such a mythical personage exists any longer, could not have invented a more delicate torture than that which the respectable and kind-hearted Rector of Carlingford inflicted calmly, without knowing it, upon the Curate of St Roque's. How was Mr Morgan to know that the sting would go to his heart? A Perpetual Curate without a district has nothing to do with a heart so sensitive. The Rector put on his own robes with a peaceful mind, feeling that he had done his duty, and, with Mr Leeson behind him, came to the church door with great solemnity to meet the procession. He read the words which are so sweet and so terrible with his usual reading-desk voice as he read the invitations every Sunday. He was a good man, but he was middle-aged, and not accessible to impression from the mere aspect of death; and he did not know Mr Wodehouse, nor care much for anything in the matter, except his own virtue in excluding the Perpetual Curate from any share in the service. Such was the Rector's feeling in respect to this funeral, which made so much commotion in Carlingford. He felt that he was vindicating the purity of his profession as he threaded his way through the pathetic hillocks, where the nameless people were lying, to poor Mr Wodehouse's grave.
This, however, was not the only thing which aroused the wonder and interest of the townspeople when the two shrinking, hooded female figures, all black and unrecognisable, rose up trembling to follow their dead from the church to the grave. Everybody saw with wonder that their place was contested, and that somebody else, a man whom no one knew, thrust himself before them, and walked alone in the chief mourner's place. As for Lucy, who, through her veil and her tears, saw nothing distinctly, this figure, which she did not know, struck her only with a vague astonishment. If she thought of it at all, she thought it a mistake, simple enough, though a little startling, and went on, doing all she could to support her sister, saying broken prayers in her heart, and far too much absorbed in the duty she was performing to think who was looking on, or to be conscious of any of the attending circumstances, except Mr Morgan's voice, which was not the voice she had expected to hear. Miss Wodehouse was a great deal more agitated than Lucy. She knew very well who it was that placed himself before her, asserting his own right without offering any help to his sisters; and vague apprehensions, which she herself could not understand, came over her just at the moment when she required her strength most. As there were no other relations present, the place of honour next to the two ladies had been tacitly conceded to Mr Proctor and Mr Wentworth; and it was thus that the Curate rendered the last service to his old friend. It was a strange procession, and concentrated in itself all that was most exciting in Carlingford at the moment. Everybody observed and commented upon the strange man, who, all remarkable and unknown, with his great beard and sullen countenance, walked by himself as chief mourner. Who was he? and whispers arose and ran through the outskirts of the crowd of the most incredible description. Some said he was an illegitimate son whom Mr Wodehouse had left all his property to, but whom the ladies knew nothing of; some that it was a strange cousin, whom Lucy was to be compelled to marry or lose her share; and after a while people compared notes, and went back upon their recollections, and began to ask each other if it was true that Tom Wodehouse died twenty years ago in the West Indies? Then behind the two ladies—poor ladies, whose fate was hanging in the balance, though they did not know it—came Mr Wentworth in his cap and gown, pale and stern as nobody ever had seen him before in Carlingford, excluded from all share in the service, which Mr Leeson, in a flutter of surplice and solemnity, was giving his valuable assistance in. The churchyard at Carlingford had not lost its semi-rural air though the town had increased so much, for the district was very healthy, as everybody knows, and people did not die before their time, as in places less favoured. The townspeople, who knew Mr Wodehouse so well, lingered all about among the graves, looking with neighbourly, calm regret, but the liveliest curiosity. Most of the shopkeepers at that end of George Street had closed their shops on the mournful occasion, and felt themselves repaid. As for Elsworthy, he stood with a group of supporters round him, as near as possible to the funeral procession; and farther off in the distance, under the trees, was a much more elegant spectator—an unlikely man enough to assist at such a spectacle, being no less a person than Jack Wentworth, in the perfection of an English gentleman's morning apparel, perfectly at his ease and indifferent, yet listening with close attention to all the scraps of talk that came in his way. The centre of all this wondering, curious crowd, where so many passions and emotions and schemes and purposes were in full tide, and life was beating so strong and vehement, was the harmless dead, under the heavy pall which did not veil him so entirely from the living as did the hopes and fears and curious speculations which had already sprung up over him, filling up his place. Among the whole assembly there was not one heart really occupied by thoughts of him, except that of poor Lucy, who knew nothing of all the absorbing anxieties and terrors that occupied the others. She had still a moment's leisure for her natural grief. It was all she could do to keep upright and support her sister, who had burdens to bear which Lucy knew nothing of; but still, concealed under her hood and veil, seeing nothing but the grave before her, hearing nothing but the sacred words and the terrible sound of "dust to dust," the young creature stood steadfast, and gave the dead man who had loved her his due—last offering of nature and love, sweeter to anticipate than any honours. Nobody but his child offered to poor Mr Wodehouse that last right of humanity, or made his grave sacred with natural tears.
When they went back sadly out of all that blinding sunshine into the darkened house, it was not all over, as poor Lucy had supposed. She had begun to come to herself and understand once more the looks of the people about her, when the old maid, who had been the attendant of the sisters during all Lucy's life, undid her wrappings, and in her agitation of the moment kissed her white cheek, and held her in her arms. "Oh, Miss Lucy, darling, don't take on no more than you can help. I'm sore, sore afeared that there's a deal of trouble afore you yet," said the weeping woman. Though Lucy had not the smallest possible clue to her meaning, and was almost too much worn out to be curious, she could not help a vague thrill of alarm. "What is it, Alland?" she said, rising up from the sofa on which she had thrown herself. But Alland could do nothing but cry over her nursling and console her. "Oh, my poor dear! oh, my darling! as he never would have let the wind of heaven to blow rough upon her!" cried the old servant. And it was just then that Miss Wodehouse, who was trembling all over hysterically, came into the room.
"We have to go down-stairs," said the elder sister. "Oh Lucy, my darling, it was not my fault at first. I should have told you last night to prepare you, and I had not the heart. Mr Wentworth has told me so often—"
"Mr Wentworth?" said Lucy. She rose up, not quite knowing where she was; aware of nothing, except that some sudden calamity, under which she was expected to faint altogether, was coming to her by means of Mr Wentworth. Her mind jumped at the only dim possibility that seemed to glimmer through the darkness. He must be married, she supposed, or about to be married; and it was this they insulted her by thinking that she could not bear. There was not a particle of colour in her face before, but the blood rushed into it with a bitterness of shame and rage which she had never known till now. "I will go down with you if it is necessary," said Lucy; "but surely this is a strange time to talk of Mr Wentworth's affairs." There was no time to explain anything farther, for just then old Mrs Western, who was a distant cousin, knocked at the door. "God help you, my poor dear children!" said the old lady; "they are all waiting for you down-stairs," and it was with this delusion in her mind, embittering every thought, that Lucy went into the drawing-room where they were all assembled. The madness of the idea did not strike her somehow, even when she saw the grave assembly, which it was strange to think could have been brought together to listen to any explanation from the Perpetual Curate. He was standing there prominent enough among them, with a certain air of suppressed passion in his face, which Lucy divined almost without seeing it. For her own part, she went in with perfect firmness, supporting her sister, whose trembling was painful to see. There was no other lady in the room except old Mrs Western, who would not sit down, but hovered behind the chairs which had been placed for the sisters near the table at which Mr Waters was standing. By the side of Mr Waters was the man who had been at the funeral, and whom nobody knew, and a few gentlemen who were friends of the family were in the room—the Rector, by virtue of his office, and Mr Proctor and Dr Marjoribanks; and any one whose attention was sufficiently disengaged to note the details of the scene might have perceived John, who had been fifteen years with Mr Wodehouse, and the old cook in her black gown, who was of older standing in the family than Alland herself, peeping in, whenever it was opened, through the door.
"Now that the Miss Wodehouses are here, we may proceed to business," said Mr Waters. "Some of the party are already aware that I have an important communication to make. I am very sorry if it comes abruptly upon anybody specially interested. My late partner, much respected though he has always been, was a man of peculiar views in many respects. Dr Marjoribanks will bear me out in what I say. I had been his partner for ten years before I found this out, highly important as it will be seen to be; and I believe Mr Wentworth, though an intimate friend of the family, obtained the information by a kind of accident—"
The stranger muttered something in his beard which nobody could hear, and the Perpetual Curate interposed audibly. "Would it not be best to make the explanations afterwards?" said Mr Wentworth—and he changed his own position and went over beside old Mrs Western, who was leaning upon Lucy's chair. He put his own hand on the back of the chair with an involuntary impulse. As for Lucy, her first thrill of nervous strength had failed her: she began to get confused and bewildered; but whatever it was, no insult, no wound to her pride or affections, was coming to her from that hand which she knew was on her chair. She leaned back a little, with a long sigh. Her imagination could not conceive anything important enough for such a solemn intimation, and her attention began to flag in spite of herself. No doubt it was something about that money which people thought so interesting. Meanwhile Mr Waters went on steadily with what he had to say, not sparing them a word of the preamble; and it was not till ten minutes later that Lucy started up with a sudden cry of incredulity and wonder, and repeated his last words. "His son!—whose son?" cried Lucy. She looked all round her, not knowing whom to appeal to in her sudden consternation. "We never had a brother," said the child of Mr Wodehouse's old age; "it must be some mistake." There was a dead pause after these words. When she looked round again, a sickening conviction came to Lucy's heart that it was no mistake. She rose up without knowing it, and looked round upon all the people, who were watching her with various looks of pity and curiosity and spectator-interest. Mr Waters had stopped speaking, and the terrible stranger made a step forward with an air that identified him. It was at him that Mr Proctor was staring, who cleared his voice a great many times, and came forward to the middle of the room and looked as if he meant to speak; and upon him every eye was fixed except Mr Wentworth's, who was watching Lucy, and Miss Wodehouse's, which were hidden in her hands. "We never had a brother," she repeated, faltering; and then, in the extremity of her wonder and excitement, Lucy turned round, without knowing it, to the man whom her heart instinctively appealed to. "Is it true?" she said. She held out her hands to him with a kind of entreaty not to say so. Mr Wentworth made no reply to her question. He said only, "Let me take you away—it is too much for you," bending down over her, without thinking what he did, and drawing her hand through his arm. "She is not able for any more," said the Curate, hurriedly; "afterwards we can explain to her." If he could have remembered anything about himself at the moment, it is probable that he would have denied himself the comfort of supporting Lucy—he, a man under ban; but he was thinking only of her, as he stood facing them all with her arm drawn through his; upon which conjunction the Rector and the late Rector looked with a grim aspect, disposed to interfere, but not knowing how.
"All this may be very interesting to you," said the stranger out of his beard; "if Lucy don't know her brother, it is no fault of mine. Mr Waters has only said half he has got to say; and as for the rest, to sum it up in half-a-dozen words, I'm very glad to see you in my house, gentlemen, and I hope you will make yourselves at home. Where nobody understands, a man has to speak plain. I've been turned out all my life and, by Jove! I don't mean to stand it any longer. The girls can have what their father's left them," said the vagabond, in his moment of triumph. "They aint my business no more than I was theirs. The property is freehold, and Waters is aware that I'm the heir."
Saying this, Wodehouse drew a chair to the table, and sat down with emphasis. He was the only man seated in the room, and he kept his place in his sullen way amid the excited group which gathered round him. As for Miss Wodehouse, some sense of what had happened penetrated even her mind. She too rose up and wiped her tears from her face, and looked round, pale and scared, to the Curate. "I was thinking—of speaking to Lucy. I meant to ask her—to take you back, Tom," said the elder sister. "Oh, Mr Wentworth, tell me, for heaven's sake, what does it mean?"
"If I had only been permitted to explain," said Mr Waters; "my worthy partner died intestate—his son is his natural heir. Perhaps we need not detain the ladies longer, now that they understand it. All the rest can be better arranged with their representative. I am very sorry to add to their sufferings today," said the polite lawyer, opening the door; "everything else can be made the subject of an arrangement." He held the door open with a kind of civil coercion compelling their departure. The familiar room they were in no longer belonged to the Miss Wodehouses. Lucy drew her arm out of Mr Wentworth's, and took her sister's hand.
"You will be our representative," she said to him, out of the fulness of her heart. When the door closed, the Perpetual Curate took up his position, facing them all with looks more lofty than belonged even to his Wentworth blood. They had kept him from exercising his office at his friend's grave, but nobody could take from him the still nobler duty of defending the oppressed.
When the door closed upon Lucy and her sister, Mr Wentworth stood by himself, facing the other people assembled. The majority of them were more surprised, more shocked, than he was; but they were huddled together in their wonder at the opposite end of the table, and had somehow a confused, half-conscious air of being on the other side.
"It's a very extraordinary revelation that has just been made to us," said Dr Marjoribanks. "I am throwing no doubt upon it, for my part; but my conviction was, that Tom Wodehouse died in the West Indies. He was just the kind of man to die in the West Indies. If it's you," said the Doctor, with a growl of natural indignation, "you have the constitution of an elephant. You should have been dead ten years ago, at the very least; and it appears to me there would be some difficulty in proving identity, if anybody would take up that view of the question." As he spoke, Dr Marjoribanks walked round the new-comer, looking at him with medical criticism. The Doctor's eyes shot out fiery hazel gleams as he contemplated the heavy figure. "More appearance than reality," he muttered to himself, with a kind of grim satisfaction, poising a forefinger in air, as if to prove the unwholesome flesh; and then he went round to the other elbow of the unexpected heir. "The thing is now, what you mean to do for them, to repair your father's neglect," he said, tapping peremptorily on Wodehouse's arm.
"There is something else to be said in the mean time," said Mr Wentworth. "I must know precisely how it is that a state of affairs so different from anything Mr Wodehouse could have intended has come about. The mere absence of a will does not seem to me to explain it. I should like to have Mr Brown's advice—for my own satisfaction, if nothing else."
"The parson has got nothing to do with it, that I can see," said Wodehouse, "unless he was looking for a legacy, or that sort of thing. As for the girls, I don't see what right I have to be troubled; they took deuced little trouble with me. Perhaps they'd have taken me in as a sort of footman without pay—you heard what they said, Waters? By Jove! I'll serve Miss Mary out for that," said the vagabond. Then he paused a little, and, looking round him, moderated his tone. "I've been badly used all my life," said the prodigal son. "They would never give me a hearing. They say I did heaps of things I never dreamt of. Mary aint above thinking of her own interest—"
Here Mr Proctor came forward from the middle of the room where he had been standing in a perplexed manner since the ladies went away. "Hold—hold your tongue, sir!" said the late Rector; "haven't you done enough injury already—" When he had said so much, he stopped as abruptly as he had begun, and seemed to recollect all at once that he had no title to interfere.
"By Jove!" said Wodehouse, "you don't seem to think I know what belongs to me, or who belongs to me. Hold your tongue, Waters; I can speak for myself. I've been long enough snubbed by everybody that had a mind. I don't mean to put up with this sort of thing any longer. Any man who pleases can consult John Brown. I recollect John Brown as well as anybody in Carlingford. It don't matter to me what he says, or what anybody says. The girls are a parcel of girls, and I am my father's son, as it happens. I should have thought the parson had enough on his hands for one while," said the new heir, in the insolence of triumph. "He tried patronising me, but that wouldn't answer. Why, there's his brother, Jack Wentworth, his elder brother, come down here purposely to manage matters for me. He's the eldest son, by Jove! and one of the greatest swells going. He has come down here on purpose to do the friendly thing by me. We're great friends, by Jove! Jack Wentworth and I; and yet here's a beggarly younger brother, that hasn't a penny—"
"Wodehouse," said Mr Wentworth, with some contempt, "sit down and be quiet. You and I have some things to talk of which had better not be discussed in public. Leave Jack Wentworth's name alone, if you are wise, and don't imagine that I am going to bear your punishment. Be silent, sir!" cried the Curate, sternly; "do you suppose I ask any explanations from you? Mr Waters, I want to hear how this has come about? When I saw you in this man's interest some time ago, you were not so friendly to him. Tell me how it happens that he is now your client, and that you set him forth as the heir!"
"By Jove, the parson has nothing to do with it! Let him find it out," muttered Wodehouse in his beard; but the words were only half audible, and the vagabond's shabby soul was cowed in spite of himself. He gave the lawyer a furtive thrust in the arm as he spoke, and looked at him a little anxiously; for the position of a man standing lawfully on his natural rights was new to Wodehouse; and all his certainty of the facts did not save him from a sensation of habit which suggested that close examination was alarming, and that something might still be found out. As for Mr Waters, he looked with placid contempt at the man, who was not respectable, and still had the instincts of a vagabond in his heart.
"I am perfectly ready to explain," said the irreproachable solicitor, who was quite secure in his position. "The tone of the request, however, might be modified a little; and as I don't, any more than Mr Wodehouse, see exactly what right Mr Wentworth has to demand—"
"I ask an explanation, not on my own behalf, but for the Miss Wodehouses, who have made me their deputy," said the Curate, "for their satisfaction, and that I may consult Mr Brown. You seem to forget that all he gains they lose; which surely justifies their representative in asking how did it come about?"
It was at this point that all the other gentlemen present pressed closer, and evinced an intention to take part. Dr Marjoribanks was the first to speak. He took a pinch of snuff, and while he consumed it looked from under his grizzled sandy eyebrows with a perplexing mixture of doubt and respect at the Perpetual Curate. He was a man of some discrimination in his way, and the young man's lofty looks impressed him a little in spite of himself.
"Not to interrupt the explanation," said Dr Marjoribanks, "which we'll all be glad to hear—but Mr Wentworth's a young man, not possessed, so far as I am aware, of any particular right;—except that he has been very generous and prompt in offering his services," said the Doctor, moved to the admission by a fiery glance from the Curate's eye, which somehow did not look like the eye of a guilty man. "I was thinking, an old man, and an old friend, like myself, might maybe be a better guardian for the ladies' interests—"
Mr Proctor, who had been listening very anxiously, was seized with a cough at this moment, which drowned out the Doctor's words. It was a preparatory cough, and out of it the late Rector rushed into speech. "I have come from—from Oxford to be of use," said the new champion. "My time is entirely at my own—at Miss Wodehouse's—at the Miss Wodehouses' disposal. I am most desirous to be of use," said Mr Proctor, anxiously. And he advanced close to the table to prefer his claim.
"Such a discussion seems quite unnecessary," said Mr Wentworth, with some haughtiness. "I shall certainly do in the mean time what has been intrusted to me. At present we are simply losing time."
"But—" said the Rector. The word was not of importance nor uttered with much resolution, but it arrested Mr Wentworth more surely than the shout of a multitude. He turned sharp round upon his adversary, and said "Well?" with an air of exasperation; while Wodehouse, who had been lounging about the room in a discomfited condition, drew near to listen.
"I am comparatively a stranger to the Miss Wodehouses," said Mr Morgan; "still I am their clergyman; and I think with Dr Marjoribanks, that a young man like Mr Wentworth, especially a man so seriously compromised—"
"Oh, stop! I do think you are all a great deal too hard upon Mr Wentworth," said the lawyer, with a laugh of toleration, which Wodehouse echoed behind him with a sense of temerity that made his laughter all the louder. He was frightened, but he was glad to make himself offensive, according to his nature. Mr Wentworth stood alone, for his part, and had to put up with the laugh as he best could.
"If any one here wishes to injure me with the Miss Wodehouses, an opportunity may easily be found," said the Curate, with as much composure as he could muster; "and I am ready to relinquish my charge when they call on me to do so. In the mean time, this is not the place to investigate my conduct. Sit down, sir, and let us be free of your interference for this moment at least," he said, fiercely, turning to the new heir. "I warn you again, you have nothing but justice to expect at my hands. Mr Waters, we wait your explanations." He was the tallest man in the room, which perhaps had something to do with it; the youngest, best born, and best endowed. That he would have carried the day triumphantly in the opinion of any popular audience, there could be no kind of doubt. Even in this middle-aged unimpressionable assembly, his indignant self-control had a certain influence. When he drew a chair towards the table and seated himself, the others sat down unawares, and the lawyer began his story without any further interruption. The explanation of all was, that Mr Wodehouse, like so many men, had an ambition to end his days as a country gentleman. He had set his heart for years on an estate in the neighbourhood of Carlingford, and had just completed his long-contemplated purchase at the moment of his last seizure. Nobody knew, except the Curate and the lawyer, what the cause of that seizure was. They exchanged looks without being aware of it, and Wodehouse, still more deeply conscious, uttered, poor wretch! a kind of gasp, which sounded like a laugh to the other horrified spectators. After all, it was his crime which had brought him his good fortune, for there had been an early will relating to property which existed no longer—property which had been altogether absorbed in the newly-acquired estate. "I have no doubt my late excellent partner would have made a settlement had the time been permitted him," said Mr Waters. "I have not the slightest doubt as to his intentions; but the end was very unexpected at the last. I suppose death always is unexpected when it comes," said the lawyer, with a little solemnity, recollecting that three of his auditors were clergymen. "The result is painful in many respects; but law is law, and such accidents cannot be entirely avoided. With the exception of a few trifling personal matters, and the furniture, and a little money at the bank, there is nothing but freehold property, and of course the son takes that. I can have no possible objection to your consulting Mr Brown; but Mr Brown can give you no further information." If there had been any little hope of possible redress lingering in the mind of the perplexed assembly, this brought it to a conclusion. The heir, who had been keeping behind with an impulse of natural shame, came back to the table when his rights were so clearly established. He did not know how to behave himself with a good grace, but he was disposed to be conciliatory, as far as he could, especially as it began to be disagreeably apparent that the possession of his father's property might not make any particular difference in the world's opinion of himself.
"It aint my fault, gentlemen," said Wodehouse. "Of course, I expected the governor to take care of the girls. I've been kept out of it for twenty years, and that's a long time. By Jove! I've never known what it was to be a rich man's son since I was a lad. I don't say I won't do something for the girls if they behave to me as they ought; and as for you, gentlemen, who were friends of the family, I'll always be glad to see you in my house," he said, with an attempt at a friendly smile. But nobody took any notice of the overtures of the new heir.
"Then they have nothing to depend upon," said Mr Proctor, whose agitated looks were the most inexplicable feature of the whole—"no shelter even; no near relations I ever heard of—and nobody to take care of Lucy if—" Here he stopped short and went to the window, and stood looking out in a state of great bewilderment. The late Rector was so buried in his own thoughts, whatever they might be, that he did not pay any attention to the further conversation which went on behind him—of which, however, there was very little—and only came to himself when he saw Mr Wentworth go rapidly through the garden. Mr Proctor rushed after the Perpetual Curate. He might be seriously compromised, as Mr Morgan said; but he was more sympathetic than anybody else in Carlingford under present circumstances; and Mr Proctor, in his middle-aged uncertainty, could not help having a certain confidence in the young man's promptitude and vigour. He made up to him out of breath when he was just entering George Street. Carlingford had paid what respect it could to Mr Wodehouse's memory; and now the shutters were being taken off the shop-windows, and people in general were very willing to reward themselves for their self-denial by taking what amusement they could out of the reports which already began to be circulated about the way in which the Miss Wodehouses were "left." When the late Rector came up with the Perpetual Curate opposite Masters's shop there was quite a group of people there who noted the conjunction. What could it mean? Was there going to be a compromise? Was Carlingford to be shamefully cheated out of the "investigation," and all the details about Rosa Elsworthy, for which it hungered? Mr Proctor put his arm through that of the Curate of St Roque's, and permitted himself to be swept along by the greater impetus of the young man's rapid steps, for at this moment, being occupied with more important matters, the late Rector had altogether forgotten Mr Wentworth's peculiar position, and the cloud that hung over him.
"What a very extraordinary thing!" said Mr Proctor. "What could have betrayed old Wodehouse into such a blunder! He must have known well enough. This son—this fellow—has been living all the time, of course. It is quite inexplicable to me," said the aggrieved man. "Do you know if there are any aunts or uncles—any people whom poor little Lucy might live with, for instance, if—" And here Mr Proctor once more came to a dead stop. Mr Wentworth, for his part, was so far from thinking of her as "poor little Lucy," that he was much offended by the unnecessary commiseration.
"The sisters will naturally remain together," he said; "and, of course, there are many people who would be but too glad to receive them. Miss Wodehouse is old enough to protect her sister—though, of course, the balance of character is on the other side," said the inconsiderate young man; at which Mr Proctor winced, but made no definite reply.
"So you think there are people she could go to?" said the late Rector, after a pause. "The thing altogether is so unexpected, you know. My idea was—"
"I beg your pardon," said the Curate; "I must see Mr Brown, and this is about the best time to find him at home. Circumstances make it rather awkward for me to call at the Rectory just now," he continued, with a smile smile—"circumstances over which I have no control, as people say; but perhaps you will stay long enough to see me put on my trial. Good-bye now."
"Stop a moment," said Mr Proctor; "about this trial. Don't be affronted—I have nothing to do with it, you know; and Morgan means very well, though he's stupid enough. I should like to stand your friend, Wentworth; you know I would. I wish you'd yield to tell me all about it. If I were to call on you to-night after dinner—for perhaps it would put Mrs Hadwin out to give me a chop?"
The Curate laughed in spite of himself. "Fellows of All-Souls don't dine on chops," he said, unable to repress a gleam of amusement; "but come at six, and you shall have something to eat, as good as I can give you. As for telling you all about it," said Mr Wentworth, "all the world is welcome to know as much as I know."
Mr Proctor laid his hand on the young man's arm, by way of soothing him. "We'll talk it all over," he said, confidentially; "both this affair, and—and the other. We have a good deal in common, if I am not much mistaken, and I trust we shall always be good friends," said the inexplicable man. His complexion heightened considerably after he had made this speech, which conveyed nothing but amazement to the mind of the Curate; and then he shook hands hastily, and hurried back again towards Grange Lane. If there had been either room or leisure in Frank Wentworth's mind for other thoughts, he might have laughed or puzzled over the palpable mystery; but as it was, he had dismissed the late Rector entirely from his mind before he reached the door of Mr Brown's room, where the lawyer was seated alone. John Brown, who was altogether a different type of man from Mr Waters, held out his hand to his visitor, and did not look at all surprised to see him. "I have expected a call from you," he said, "now that your old friend is gone, from whom you would naturally have sought advice in the circumstances. Tell me what I can do for you;" and it became apparent to Mr Wentworth that it was his own affairs which were supposed to be the cause of his application. It may be supposed after this that the Curate stated his real object very curtly and clearly without any unnecessary words, to the unbounded amazement of the lawyer, who, being a busy man, and not a friend of the Wodehouses, had as yet heard nothing of the matter. Mr Brown, however, could only confirm what had been already said. "If it is really freehold property, and no settlement made, there cannot be any question about it," he said; "but I will see Waters to-morrow and make all sure, if you wish it; though he dares not mislead you on such a point. I am very sorry for the ladies, but I don't see what can be done for them," said Mr Brown; "and about yourself, Mr Wentworth?" Perhaps it was because of a certain look of genuine confidence and solicitude in John Brown's honest face that the Curate's heart was moved. For the first time he condescended to discuss the matter—to tell the lawyer, with whom indeed he had but a very slight acquaintance (for John Brown lived at the other end of Carlingford, and could not be said to be in society), all he knew about Rosa Elsworthy, and something of his suspicions. Mr Brown, for his part, knew little of the Perpetual Curate in his social capacity, but he knew about Wharfside, which was more to the purpose; and having himself been truly in love once in his life, commonplace as he looked, this honest man did not believe it possible that Lucy Wodehouse's representative could be Rosa Elsworthy's seducer—the two things looked incompatible to the straightforward vision of John Brown.
"I'll attend at their investigation," he said, with a smile, "which, if you were not particularly interested, you'd find not bad fun, Mr Wentworth. These private attempts at law are generally very amusing. I'll attend and look after your interests; but you had better see that this Tom Wodehouse,—I remember the scamp—he used to be bad enough for anything,—don't give you the slip and get out of the way. Find out if you can where he has been living these two days. I'll attend to the other matter, too," the lawyer said, cheerfully, shaking hands with his new client; and the Curate went away with a vague feeling that matters were about to come right somehow, at which he smiled when he came to think of it, and saw how little foundation he had for such a hope. But his hands were full of business, and he had no time to consider his own affairs at this particular moment. It seemed to him a kind of profanity to permit Lucy to remain under the same roof with Wodehouse, even though he was her brother; and Mr Proctor's inquiries had stimulated his own feeling. There was a certain pleasure, besides, in postponing himself and his own business, however important, to her and her concerns; and it was with this idea that he proceeded to the house of his aunts, and was conducted to a little private sitting-room appropriated to the sole use of Miss Leonora, for whom he had asked. As he passed the door of the drawing-room, which was ajar, he glanced in, and saw his aunt Dora bending over somebody who wept, and heard a familiar voice pouring out complaints, the general sound of which was equally familiar, though he could not make out a word of the special subject. Frank was startled, notwithstanding his preoccupations, for it was the same voice which had summoned him to Wentworth Rectory which now poured out its lamentations in the Miss Wentworths' drawing-room in Carlingford. Evidently some new complication had arisen in the affairs of the family. Miss Leonora was in her room, busy with the books of a Ladies' Association, of which she was treasurer. She had a letter before her from the missionary employed by the society, which was a very interesting letter, and likely to make a considerable sensation when read before the next meeting. Miss Leonora was taking the cream off this piece of correspondence, enjoying at once itself and the impression it would make. She was slightly annoyed when her nephew came in to disturb her. "The others are in the drawing-room, as usual," she said. "I can't imagine what Lewis could be thinking of, to bring you here. Louisa's coming can make no difference to you."
"So Louisa has come? I thought I heard her voice. What has happened to bring Louisa here?" said the Curate, who was not sorry to begin with an indifferent subject. Miss Leonora shook her head and took up her letter.
"She is in the drawing-room," said the strong-minded aunt. "If you have no particular business with me, Frank, you had better ask herself: of course, if you want me, I am at your service—but otherwise I am busy, you see."
"And so am I," said Mr Wentworth, "as busy as a man can be whose character is at stake. Do you know I am to be tried to-morrow? But that is not what I came to ask you about."
"I wish you would tell me about it," said Miss Leonora. She got up from her writing-table and from the missionary's letter, and abandoned herself to the impulses of nature. "I have heard disagreeable rumours. I don't object to your reserve, Frank, but things seem to be getting serious. What does it mean?"
The Curate had been much braced in his inner man by his short interview with John Brown; that, and the representative position he held, had made a wonderful change in his feelings: besides, a matter which was about to become so public could not be ignored. "It means only that a good many people in Carlingford think me a villain," said Mr Wentworth: "it is not a flattering idea; and it seems to me, I must say, an illogical induction from the facts of my life. Still it is true that some people think so—and I am to be tried to-morrow. But in the mean time, something else has happened. I know you are a good woman, aunt Leonora. We don't agree in many things, but that does not matter. There are two ladies in Carlingford who up to this day have been rich, well off, well cared for, and who have suddenly lost all their means, their protector, even their home. They have no relations that I know of. One of them is good for any exertion that may be necessary," said the Curate, his voice softening with a far-off masculine suggestion as of tears; "but she is young—too young to contend with the world—and she is now suffering her first grief. The other is old enough, but not good for much—"
"You mean the two Miss Wodehouses?" said Miss Leonora. "Their father has turned out to be—bankrupt?—or something?—"
"Worse than bankrupt," said the Curate: "there is a brother who takes everything. Will you stand by them—offer them shelter?—I mean for a time. I don't know anybody I should care to apply to but you."
Miss Leonora paused and looked at her nephew. "First tell me what you have to do with them," she asked. "If there is a brother, he is their natural protector—certainly not you—unless there is something I don't know of. Frank, you know you can't marry," said Miss Leonora, with a little vehemence, once more looking in her nephew's face.
"No," said Frank, with momentary bitterness; "I am not likely to make any mistake about that—at present, at least. The brother is a reprobate of whom they know nothing. I have no right to consider myself their protector—but I am their friend at least," said the Curate, breaking off with again that softening in his voice. "They may have a great many friends, for anything I know; but I have confidence in you, aunt Leonora: you are not perhaps particularly sympathetic," he went on, with a laugh; "you don't condole with Louisa, for instance; but I could trust you with—"
"Lucy Wodehouse!" said Miss Leonora; "I don't dislike her at all, if she would not wear that ridiculous grey cloak; but young men don't take such an interest in young women without some reason for it. What are we to do for you, Frank?" said the strong-minded woman, looking at him with a little softness. Miss Leonora, perhaps, was not used to be taken into anybody's confidence. It moved her more than might have been expected from so self-possessed a woman. Perhaps no other act on the part of her nephew could have had so much effect, had he been able to pursue his advantage, upon the still undecided fate of Skelmersdale.
"Nothing," said the Curate. He met her eye very steadily, but she was too clear-sighted to believe that he felt as calmly as he looked. "Nothing," he repeated again—"I told you as much before. I have been slandered here, and here I must remain. There are no parsonages or paradises for me."
With which speech Mr Wentworth shook hands with his aunt and went away. He left Miss Leonora as he had left her on various occasions—considerably confused in her ideas. She could not enjoy any longer the cream of the missionary's letter. When she tried to resume her reading, her attention flagged over it. After a while she put on her bonnet and went out, after a little consultation with her maid, who assisted her in the housekeeping department. The house was tolerably full at the present moment, but it was elastic. She was met at the green door of Mr Wodehouse's garden by the new proprietor, who stared excessively, and did not know what to make of such an apparition. "Jack Wentworth's aunt, by Jove!" he said to himself, and took off his hat, meaning to show her "a little civility." Miss Leonora thought him one of the attendants at the recent ceremonial, and passed him without any ceremony. She was quite intent upon her charitable mission. Mr Wentworth's confidence was justified.
Mr Wentworth's day had been closely occupied up to this point. He had gone through a great many emotions, and transacted a good deal of business, and he went home with the comparative ease of a man whose anxieties are relieved, not by any real deliverance, but by the soothing influence of fatigue and the sense of something accomplished. He was not in reality in a better position than when he left his house in the morning, bitterly mortified, injured, and wounded at the tenderest point. Things were very much the same as they had been, but a change had come over the feelings of the Perpetual Curate. He remembered with a smile, as he went down Grange Lane, that Mr Proctor was to dine with him, and that he had rashly undertaken to have something better than a chop. It was a very foolish engagement under the circumstances. Mr Wentworth was cogitating within himself whether he could make an appeal to the sympathies of his aunt's cook for something worthy of the sensitive palate of a Fellow of All-Souls, when all such thoughts were suddenly driven out of his mind by the apparition of his brother Gerald—perhaps the last man in the world whom he could have expected to see in Carlingford. Gerald was coming up Grange Lane in his meditative way from Mrs Hadwin's door. To look at him was enough to reveal to any clear-sighted spectator the presence of some perpetual argument in his mind. Though he had come out to look for Frank, his eyes were continually forsaking his intention, catching spots of lichen on the wall and clumps of herbage on the roadside. The long discussion had become so familiar to him, that even now, when his mind was made up, he could not relinquish the habit which possessed him. When he perceived Frank, he quickened his steps. They met with only such a modified expression of surprise on the part of the younger brother as was natural to a meeting of English kinsfolk. "I heard Louisa's voice in my aunt's drawing-room," said Frank; "but, oddly enough, it never occurred to me that you might have come with her;" and then Gerald turned with the Curate. When the ordinary family questions were asked and answered, a silence ensued between the two. As for Frank, in the multiplicity of his own cares, he had all but forgotten his brother; and Gerald's mind, though full of anxiety, had something of the calm which might be supposed to subdue the senses of a dying man. He was on the eve of a change, which appeared to him almost as great as death; and the knowledge of that gave him a curious stillness of composure—almost a reluctance to speak. Strangely enough, each brother at this critical moment felt it necessary to occupy himself with the affairs of the other, and to postpone the consideration of his own.
"I hope you have changed your mind a little since we last met," said Frank; "your last letter—"
"We'll talk of that presently," said the elder brother; "in the mean time I want to know about you. What is all this? My father is in a great state of anxiety. He does not seem to have got rid of his fancy that you were somehow involved with Jack—and Jack is here," said Gerald, with a look which betokened some anxiety on his own part. "I wish you would give me your confidence. Right or wrong, I have come to stand by you, Frank," said the Rector of Wentworth, rather mournfully. He had been waiting at Mrs Hadwin's for the last two hours. He had seen that worthy woman's discomposed looks, and felt that she did not shake her head for nothing. Jack had been the bugbear of the family for a long time past. Gerald was conscious of adding heavily at the present moment to the Squire's troubles. Charley was at Malta, in indifferent health; all the others were boys. There was only Frank to give the father a little consolation; and now Frank, it appeared, was most deeply compromised of all; no wonder Gerald was sad. And then he drew forth the anonymous letter which had startled all the Wentworths on the previous night. "This is written by somebody who hates you," said the elder brother; "but I suppose there must be some meaning in it. I wish you would be frank with me, and tell me what it is."
This appeal had brought them to Mrs Hadwin's door, which the Curate opened with his key before he answered his brother. The old lady herself was walking in the garden in a state of great agitation, with a shawl thrown over the best cap, which she had put on in honour of the stranger. Mrs Hadwin's feelings were too much for her at that moment. Her head was nodding with the excitement of age, and injured virtue trembled in every line of her face. "Mr Wentworth, I cannot put up with it any longer; it is a thing I never was used to," she cried, as soon as the Curate came within hearing. "I have shut my eyes to a great deal, but I cannot bear it any longer. If I had been a common lodging-house keeper, I could not have been treated with less respect; but to be outraged—to be insulted—"
"What is the matter, Mrs Hadwin?" said Mr Wentworth, in dismay.
"Sir," said the old lady, who was trembling with passion, "you may think it no matter to turn a house upside down as mine has been since Easter; to bring all sorts of disreputable people about—persons whom a gentlewoman in my position ought never to have heard of. I received your brother into my house," cried Mrs Hadwin, turning to Gerald, "because he was a clergyman and I knew his family, and hoped to find him one whose principles I could approve of. I have put up with a great deal, Mr Wentworth, more than I could tell to anybody. I took in his friend when he asked me, and gave him the spare room, though it was against my judgment. I suffered a man with a beard to be seen stealing in and out of my house in the evening, as if he was afraid to be seen. You gentlemen may not think much of that, but it was a terrible thing for a lady in my position, unprotected, and not so well off as I once was. It made my house like a lodging-house, and so my friends told me; but I was so infatuated I put up with it all for Mr Frank's sake. But there is a limit," said the aggrieved woman. "I would not have believed it—I could not have believed it of you—not whatever people might say: to think of that abandoned disgraceful girl coming openly to my door—"
"Good heavens!" cried the Curate: he seized Mrs Hadwin's hand, evidently forgetting everything else she had said. "What girl?—whom do you mean? For heaven's sake compose yourself and answer me. Who was it? Rosa Elsworthy? This is a matter of life and death for me," cried the young man. "Speak quickly: when was it?—where is she? For heaven's sake, Mrs Hadwin, speak—"
"Let me go, sir!" cried the indignant old lady; "let me go this instant—this is insult upon insult. I appeal to you, Mr Gerald—to think I should ever be supposed capable of encouraging such a horrid shameless—! How dare you—how dare you name such a creature to me?" exclaimed Mrs Hadwin, with hysterical sobs. "If it were not for your family, you should never enter my house again. Oh, thank you, Mr Gerald Wentworth—indeed I am not able to walk. I am sure I don't want to grieve you about your brother—I tried not to believe it—I tried as long as I could not to believe it—but you hear how he speaks. Do you think, sir, I would for a moment permit such a creature to enter my door?" she cried again, turning to Frank Wentworth as she leaned upon his brother's arm.
"I don't know what kind of a creature the poor girl is," said the Curate; "but I know that if you had taken her in, it would have saved me much pain and trouble. Tell me, at least, when she came, and who saw her—or if she left any message? Perhaps Sarah will tell me," he said, with a sigh of despair, as he saw that handmaiden hovering behind. Sarah had been a little shy of Mr Wentworth since the night Wodehouse disappeared. She had betrayed herself to the Curate, and did not like to remember the fact. Now she came up with a little toss of her head and a sense of equality, primed and ready with her reply.
"I hope I think more of myself than to take notice of any sich," said Sarah; but her instincts were more vivid than those of her mistress, and she could not refrain from particulars. "Them as saw her now, wouldn't see much in her; I never see such a changed creature," said Sarah; "not as I ever thought anything of her looks! a bit of a shawl dragged around her, and her eyes as if they would jump out of her head. Laws! she didn't get no satisfaction here," said the housemaid, with a little triumph.
"Silence, Sarah!" said Mrs Hadwin; "that is not a way to speak to your clergyman. I'll go in, Mr Wentworth, please—I am not equal to so much agitation. If Mr Frank will come indoors, I should be glad to have an explanation—for this sort of thing cannot go on," said the old lady. As for the Curate he did not pay the least attention either to the disapproval or the impertinence.
"At what time did she come?—which way did she go?—did she leave any message?" he repeated; "a moment's common-sense will be of more use than all this indignation. It is of the greatest importance to me to see Rosa Elsworthy. Here's how it is, Gerald," said the Curate, driven to his wit's end; "a word from the girl is all I want to make an end of all this—this disgusting folly—and you see how I am thwarted. Perhaps they will answer you. When did she come?—did she say anything?" he cried, turning sharply upon Sarah, who, frightened by Mr Wentworth's look, and dismayed to see her mistress moving away, and to feel herself alone opposed to him, burst at last into an alarmed statement.
"Please, sir, it aint no fault of mine," said Sarah; "it was Missis as saw her. She aint been gone not half an hour. It's all happened since your brother left. She come to the side-door; Missis wouldn't hear nothing she had got to say, nor let her speak. Oh, Mr Wentworth, don't you go after her!" cried the girl, following him to the side-door, to which he rushed immediately. Not half an hour gone! Mr Wentworth burst into the lane which led up to Grove Street, and where there was not a soul to be seen. He went back to Grange Lane, and inspected every corner where she could have hid herself. Then, after a pause, he walked impetuously up the quiet road, and into Elsworthy's shop. Mrs Elsworthy was there alone, occupying her husband's place, who had gone as usual to the railway for the evening papers. She jumped up from the high stool she was seated on when the Curate entered. "Good gracious, Mr Wentworth!" cried the frightened woman, and instinctively called the errand-boy, who was the only other individual within hearing. She was unprotected, and quite unable to defend herself if he meant anything; and it was impossible to doubt that there was meaning of the most serious and energetic kind in Mr Wentworth's face.
"Has Rosa come back?" he asked. "Is she here? Don't stare at me, but speak. Has she come back? I have just heard that she was at my house half an hour ago: have you got her safe?"
It was at this moment that Wodehouse came lounging in, with his cigar appearing in the midst of his beard, and a curious look of self-exhibition and demonstration in his general aspect. When the Curate, hearing the steps, turned round upon him, he fell back for a moment, not expecting such an encounter. Then the vagabond recovered himself, and came forward with the swagger which was his only alternative.
"I thought you weren't on good terms here," said Wodehouse; "who are you asking after? It's a fine evening, and they don't seem up to much in my house. I have asked Jack Wentworth to the Blue Boar at seven—will you come? I don't want to bear any grudge. I don't know if they can cook anything fit to be eaten in my house. It wasn't me you were asking after?" The fellow came and stood close, shoulder to shoulder, by the Perpetual Curate. "By Jove, sir! I've as good a right here as you—or anywhere," he muttered, as Mr Wentworth withdrew from him. He had to say it aloud to convince himself of the fact; for it was hard, after being clandestine for half a lifetime, to move about freely in the daylight. As for Mr Wentworth, he fixed his eyes full on the new-comer's face.
"I want to know if Rosa has come home," he repeated, in the clearest tones of his clear voice. "I am told she called at Mrs Hadwin's half an hour ago. Has she come back?"
He scarcely noticed Mrs Elsworthy's answer, for, in the mean time, the cigar dropped out of Wodehouse's beard, out of his fingers. He made an involuntary step back out of the Curate's way. "By Jove!" he exclaimed to himself—the news was more important to him than to either of the others. After a minute he turned his back upon them, and kicked the cigar which he had dropped out into the street with much blundering and unnecessary violence—but turned round and stopped short in this occupation as soon as he heard Mrs Elsworthy's voice.
"She hasn't come here," said that virtuous woman, sharply. "I've give in to Elsworthy a deal, but I never said I'd give in to take her back. She's been and disgraced us all; and she's not a drop's blood to me," said Mrs Elsworthy. "Them as has brought her to this pass had best look after her; I've washed my hands of Rosa, and all belonging to her. She knows better than to come here."
"Who's speaking of Rosa?" said Elsworthy, who just then came in with his bundle of newspapers from the railway. "I might have know'd as it was Mr Wentworth. Matters is going to be cleared, sir, between me and you. If you was going to make a proposal, I aint revengeful; and I'm open to any arrangement as is honourable, to save things coming afore the public. I've been expecting of it. You may speak free, sir. You needn't be afraid of me."
"Fool!" said the Curate, hotly, "your niece has been seen in Carlingford; she came to my door, I am told, about an hour ago. Give up this folly, and let us make an effort to find her. I tell you she came to my house—"
"In course, sir," said Elsworthy; "it was the most naturalest place for her to go. Don't you stand upon it no longer, as if you could deceive folks. It will be your ruin, Mr Wentworth—you know that as well as I do. I aint no fool but I'm open to a honourable proposal, I am. It'll ruin you—ay, and I'll ruin you," cried Rosa's uncle, hoarsely—"if you don't change your mind afore to-morrow. It's your last chance, if you care for your character, is to-night."
Mr Wentworth did not condescend to make any answer. He followed Wodehouse, who had shuffled out after his cigar, and stopped him on the step. "I wonder if it is any use appealing to your honour," he said. "I suppose you were a gentleman once, and had the feelings of—"
"By Jove! I'm as good a gentleman as you are," cried the new heir. "I could buy you up—you and all that belongs to you, by Jove! I'm giving Jack Wentworth a dinner at the Blue Boar to-night. I'm not a man to be cross-questioned. It appears to me you have got enough to do if you mind your own business," said Wodehouse, with a sneer. "You're in a nice mess, though you are the parson. I told Jack Wentworth so last night."
The Curate stood on the step of Elsworthy's shop with his enemy behind, and the ungrateful vagabond whom he had rescued and guarded, standing in front of him, with that sneer on his lips. It was hard to refrain from the natural impulse which prompted him to pitch the vagabond out of his way. "Look here," he said, sharply, "you have not much character to lose; but a scamp is a different thing from a criminal. I will make the principal people in Carlingford aware what were the precise circumstances under which you came here at Easter if you do not immediately restore this unhappy girl to her friends. Do you understand me? If it is not done at once I will make use of my information—and you know what that means. You can defy me if you please; but in that case you had better make up your mind to the consequences; you will have to take your place as a—"
"Stop!" cried Wodehouse, with a shiver. "We're not by ourselves—we're in the public street. What do you mean by talking like that here? Come to my house, Wentworth—there's a good fellow—I've ordered a dinner—"
"Be silent, sir!" said the Curate. "I give you till noon to-morrow; after that I will spare you no longer. You understand what I mean. I have been too merciful already. To-morrow, if everything is not arranged to my satisfaction here—"
"It was my own name," said Wodehouse, sullenly; "nobody can say it wasn't my own name. You couldn't do me any harm—you know you wouldn't, either, for the sake of the girls; I'll—I'll give them a thousand pounds or so, if I find I can afford it. Come, you don't mean that sort of thing, you know," said the conscious criminal; "you wouldn't do me any harm."
"If I have to fight for my own reputation I shall not spare you," cried the Curate. "Mind what I say! You are safe till twelve o'clock to-morrow; but after that I will have no mercy—not for your sisters' sake, not for any inducement in the world. If you want to be known as a—"
"Oh Lord, don't speak so loud!—what do you mean? Wentworth, I say, hist! Mr Wentworth! By Jove, he won't listen to me!" cried Wodehouse, in an agony. When he found that the Curate was already out of hearing, the vagabond looked round him on every side with his natural instinct of suspicion. If he had known that Mr Wentworth was thinking only of disgrace and the stern sentence of public opinion, Wodehouse could have put up with it; but he himself, in his guilty imagination, jumped at the bar and the prison which had haunted him for long. Somehow it felt natural that such a Nemesis should come to him after the morning's triumph. He stood looking after the Curate, guilty and horror-stricken, till it occurred to him that he might be remarked; and then he made a circuit past Elsworthy's shop-window as far as the end of Prickett's Lane, where he ventured to cross over so as to get to his own house. His own house!—the wretched thrill of terror that went through him was a very sufficient offset against his momentary triumph; and this was succeeded by a flush of rage as he thought of the Curate's other information. What was to be done? Every moment was precious; but he felt an instinctive horror of venturing out again in the daylight. When it approached the hour at which he had ordered that dinner at the Blue Boar, the humbled hero wrapped himself in an old overcoat which he found in the hall, and slunk into the inn like the clandestine wretch he was. He had no confidence in himself, but he had confidence in Jack Wentworth. He might still be able to help his unlucky associate out.
When Mr Wentworth reached his rooms, he found that his guest had arrived before him, and consequently the threatened explanation with Mrs Hadwin was forestalled for that night. Mr Proctor and Gerald were sitting together, not at all knowing what to talk about; for the late Rector was aware that Frank Wentworth's brother was on the verge of Rome, and was confused, and could not help feeling that his position between a man on the point of perversion in an ecclesiastical point of view, and another whose morals were suspected and whose character was compromised, was, to say the least, a very odd position for a clergyman of unblemished orthodoxy and respectability; besides, it was embarrassing, when he had come for a very private consultation, to find a stranger there before him. The Curate went in very full of what had just occurred. The events of the last two or three hours had worked a total change in his feelings. He was no longer the injured, insulted, silent object of a petty but virulent persecution. The contemptuous silence with which he had treated the scandal at first, and the still more obstinate sense of wrong which latterly had shut his lips and his heart, had given way to-day to warmer and more generous emotions. What would have seemed to him in the morning only the indignant reserve of a man unjustly suspected, appeared now a foolish and unfriendly reticence. The only thing which restrained him was a still lingering inclination to screen Wodehouse, if possible, from a public exposure, which would throw shame upon his sisters as well as himself. If any generosity, if any gentlemanly feeling, were still left in the vagabond's soul, it was possible he might answer the Curate's appeal; and Mr Wentworth felt himself bound to offer no public explanation of the facts of the case until this last chance of escape had been left for the criminal. But, so far as regarded himself, his heart was opened, his wounded pride mollified, and he was ready enough to talk of what had just happened, and to explain the whole business to his anxious companions. When he joined them, indeed, he was so full of it as almost to forget that he himself was still believed the hero of the tale. "This unfortunate little girl has been here, and I have missed her," he said, without in the least concealing his vexation, and the excitement which his rapid walk had not subdued; to the great horror of Mr Proctor, who tried all he could, by telegraphic glances, to recall the young man to a sense of that fact that Sarah was in the room.
"I must say I think it is imprudent—highly imprudent," said the late Rector: "they will call these women to prove that she has been here again; and what conclusion but one can possibly be drawn from such a fact? I am very sorry to see you so unguarded." He said this, seizing the moment after Sarah had removed the salmon, which was very good, and was served with a sauce which pleased Mr Proctor all the more that he had not expected much from an impromptu dinner furnished by a Perpetual Curate; but the fact was, that Gerald's arrival had awakened Mrs Hadwin to a proper regard for her own credit, which was at stake.
When Sarah withdrew finally, and they were left alone, Frank Wentworth gave the fullest explanation he was able to his surprised auditors. He told them that it was Wodehouse, and not himself, whom Rosa had met in the garden, and whom she had no doubt come to seek at this crisis of their fortunes. There was not the least doubt in his own mind that Wodehouse had carried her away, and hidden her somewhere close at hand; and when he had given them all his reasons for thinking so, his hearers were of the same opinion; but Mr Proctor continued very doubtful and perplexed, clear though the story was. He sat silent, brooding over the new mystery, while the brothers discussed the original questions.
"I cannot think why you did not go to the Rector at once and tell him all this," said Gerald. "It is always best to put a stop to gossip. At least you will see him to-morrow, or let me see him—"
"The Rector is deeply prejudiced against me," said the Perpetual Curate, "for a very unworthy reason, if he has any reason at all. He has never asked me to explain. I shall not interfere with his investigation," said the young man, haughtily; "let it go on. I have been working here for five years, and the Carlingford people ought to know better. As for the Rector, I will make no explanations to him."
"It is not for the Rector, it is for yourself," said Gerald; "and this fellow Wodehouse surely has no claim—"
But at the sound of this name, Mr Proctor roused himself from his pause of bewilderment, and took the words out of Mr Wentworth's mouth.
"He has been here since Easter; but why?" said the late Rector. "I cannot fancy why Mr Wodehouse's son should come to you when his father's house was so near. In hiding? why was he in hiding? He is evidently a scamp," said Mr Proctor, growing red; "but that is not so unusual. I don't understand—I am bound to say I don't understand it. He may be the culprit, as you say; but what was he doing here?"
"I took him in at Miss Wodehouse's request. I cannot explain why—she will tell you," said the Curate. "As for Wodehouse, I have given him another chance till twelve o'clock to-morrow: if he does not make his appearance then—"
Mr Proctor had listened only to the first words; he kept moving uneasily in his seat while the Curate spoke. Then he broke in, "It appears I cannot see Miss Wodehouse," he said, with an injured tone; "she does not see any one. I cannot ask for any explanation; but it seems to me most extraordinary. It is three months since Easter. If he had been living with you all the time, there must have been some occasion for it. I don't know what to think, for my part; and yet I always imagined that I was considered a friend of the family," said the late Rector, with an aggrieved look. He took his glass of claret very slowly, looking at it as if expecting to see in the purple reflection some explanation of the mystery. As for Gerald Wentworth, he relapsed into silence when he found that his arguments did not alter Frank's decision; he too was disappointed not to find his brother alone. He sat with his eyes cast down, and a singular look of abstraction on his face. He had got into a new atmosphere—a different world. When his anxieties about Frank were satisfied, Gerald withdrew himself altogether from the little party. He sat there, it is true, not unaware of what was going on, and even from time to time joining in the conversation; but already a subtle change had come over Gerald. He might have been repeating an "office," or carrying on a course of private devotions, from his looks. Rome had established her dualism in his mind. He had no longer the unity of an Englishman trained to do one thing at a time, and to do it with his might. He sat in a kind of languor, carrying on within himself a thread of thought, to which his external occupation gave no clue; yet at the same time suffering no indication to escape him of the real condition of his mind. The three were consequently far from being good company. Mr Proctor, who was more puzzled than ever as to the true state of the case, could not unburden himself of his own intentions as he had hoped to do; and after a while the Curate, too, was silent, finding his statements received, as he thought, but coldly. It was a great relief to him when he was called out by Sarah to speak to some one, though his absence made conversation still more difficult for the two who were left behind. Mr Proctor, from the other side of the table, regarded Gerald with a mixture of wonder and pity. He did not feel quite sure that it was not his duty to speak to him—to expound the superior catholicity of the Church of England, and call his attention to the schismatic peculiarities of the Church of Rome. "It might do him good to read Burgon's book," Mr Proctor said to himself; and by way of introducing that subject, he began to talk of Italy, which was not a bad device, and did credit to his invention. Meanwhile the Curate had gone to his study, wondering a little who could want him, and, to his utter bewilderment, found his aunt Dora, veiled, and wrapped up in a great shawl.
"Oh, Frank, my dear, don't be angry! I couldn't help coming," cried Miss Dora. "Come and sit down by me here. I slipped out and did not even put on my bonnet, that nobody might know. Oh, Frank, I don't know what to say. I am so afraid you have been wicked. I have just seen that—that girl. I saw her out of my window. Frank! don't jump up like that. I can't go on telling you if you don't stay quiet here."
"Aunt, let me understand you," cried the Curate. "You saw whom? Rosa Elsworthy? Don't drive me desperate, as all the others do with their stupidity. You saw her? when?—where?"
"Oh Frank, Frank! to think it should put you in such a way—such a girl as that! Oh, my dear boy, if I had thought you cared so much, I never would have come to tell you. It wasn't to encourage you—it wasn't. Oh, Frank, Frank! that it should come to this!" cried Miss Dora, shrinking back from him with fright and horror in her face.
"Come, we have no time to lose," said the Curate, who was desperate. He picked up her shawl, which had fallen on the floor, and bundled her up in it in the most summary way. "Come, aunt Dora," said the impetuous young man; "you know you were always my kindest friend. Nobody else can help me at this moment. I feel that you are going to be my deliverer. Come, aunt Dora—we must go and find her, you and I. There is not a moment to lose."
He had his arm round her, holding on her shawl. He raised her up from her chair, and supported her, looking at her as he had not done before since he was a boy at school, Miss Dora thought. She was too frightened, too excited, to cry, as she would have liked to do; but the proposal was so terrible and unprecedented that she leaned back trembling on her nephew's arm, and could not move either to obey or to resist him. "Oh, Frank, I never went after any improper person in my life," gasped aunt Dora. "Oh, my dear, don't make me do anything that is wrong; they will say it is my fault!" cried the poor lady, gradually feeling herself obliged to stand on her feet and collect her forces. The shawl fell back from her shoulders as the Curate withdrew his arm. "You have lost my large pin," cried aunt Dora, in despair; "and I have no bonnet. And oh! what will Leonora say? I never, never would have come to tell you if I had thought of this. I only came to warn you, Frank. I only intended—"
"Yes," said the Curate. The emergency was momentous, and he dared not lose patience. He found her large pin even, while she stood trembling, and stuck it into her shawl as if it had been a skewer. "You never would have come if you had not been my guardian angel," said the deceitful young man, whose heart was beating high with anxiety and hope. "Nobody else would do for me what you are going to do—but I have always had confidence in my aunt Dora. Come, come! We have not a moment to lose."
This was how he overcame Miss Dora's scruples. Before she knew what had happened she was being hurried through the clear summer night past the long garden-walls of Grange Lane. The stars were shining overhead, the leaves rustling on all sides in the soft wind—not a soul to be seen in the long line of darkling road. Miss Dora had no breath to speak, however much disposed she might have been. She could not remonstrate, having full occasion for all her forces to keep her feet and her breath. When Mr Wentworth paused for an instant to ask "which way did she go?" it was all Miss Dora could do to indicate with her finger the dark depths of Prickett's Lane. Thither she was immediately carried as by a whirlwind. With a shawl over her head, fastened together wildly by the big pin—with nothing but little satin slippers, quite unfit for the exertion required of them—with an agonised protest in her heart that she had never, never in her life gone after any improper person before—and, crowning misfortune of all, with a horrible consciousness that she had left the garden-door open, hoping to return in a few minutes, Miss Dora Wentworth, single woman as she was, and ignorant of evil, was whirled off in pursuit of the unfortunate Rosa into the dark abysses of Prickett's Lane.
While this terrible Hegira was taking place, Mr Proctor sat opposite Gerald Wentworth, sipping his claret and talking of Italy. "Perhaps you have not read Burgon's book," said the late Rector. "There is a good deal of valuable information in it about the Catacombs, and he enters at some length into the question between the Roman Church and our own. If you are interested in that, you should read it," said Mr Proctor; "it is a very important question."
"Yes," said Gerald; and then there followed a pause. Mr Proctor did not know what to make of the faint passing smile, the abstracted look, which he had vaguely observed all the evening; and he looked so inquiringly across the table that Gerald's new-born dualism came immediately into play, to the great amazement of his companion. Mr Wentworth talked, and talked well; but his eyes were still abstracted, his mind was still otherwise occupied; and Mr Proctor, whose own intelligence was in a state of unusual excitement, perceived the fact without being at all able to explain it. An hour passed, and both the gentlemen looked at their watches. The Curate had left them abruptly enough, with little apology; and as neither of them had much interest in the other, nor in the conversation, it was natural that the host's return should be looked for with some anxiety. When the two gentlemen had said all they could say about Italy—when Mr Proctor had given a little sketch of his own experiences in Rome, to which his companion did not make the usual response of narrating his—the two came to a dead pause. They had now been sitting for more than two hours over that bottle of Lafitte, many thoughts having in the mean time crossed Mr Proctor's mind concerning the coffee and the Curate. Where could he have gone? and why was there not somebody in the house with sense enough to clear away the remains of dessert, and refresh the wearied interlocutors with the black and fragrant cup which cheers all students? Both of the gentlemen had become seriously uneasy by this time; the late Rector got up from the table when he could bear it no longer. "Your brother must have been called away by something important," said Mr Proctor, stiffly. "Perhaps you will kindly make my excuses. Mr Morgan keeps very regular hours, and I should not like to be late—"