"It is very extraordinary. I can't fancy what can be the reason—it must be somebody sick," said Gerald, rising too, but not looking by any means sure that Frank's absence had such a laudable excuse.
"Very likely," said the late Rector, more stiffly than ever. "You are living here, I suppose?"
"No; I am at Miss Wentworth's—my aunt's," said Gerald. "I will walk with you;" and they went out together with minds considerably excited. Both looked up and down the road when they got outside the garden-gate: both had a vague idea that the Curate might be visible somewhere in conversation with somebody disreputable; and one being his friend and the other his brother, they were almost equally disturbed about the unfortunate young man. Mr Proctor's thoughts, however, were mingled with a little offence. He had meant to be confidential and brotherly, and the occasion had been lost; and how was it possible to explain the rudeness with which Mr Wentworth had treated him? Gerald was still more seriously troubled. When Mr Proctor left him, he walked up and down Grange Lane in the quiet of the summer night, watching for his brother. Jack came home smoking his cigar, dropping Wodehouse, whom the heir of the Wentworths declined to call his friend, before he reached his aunts' door, and as much surprised as it was possible for him to be, to find Gerald lingering, meditating, along the silent road; but still Frank did not come. By-and-by a hurried light gleamed in the window of the summer-house, and sounds of commotion were audible in the orderly dwelling of the Miss Wentworths; and the next thing that happened was the appearance of Miss Leonora, also with a shawl over her head, at the garden-door. Just then, when they were all going to bed, Collins, Miss Dora's maid, had come to the drawing-room in search of her mistress. She was not to be found anywhere, though her bonnets and all her outdoor gear were safe in their place. For the first time in her life the entire family were startled into anxiety on Miss Dora's account. As for Mrs Gerald Wentworth, she jumped at once to the conclusion that the poor lady was murdered, and that Frank must have something to do with it, and filled the house with lamentations. Nobody went to bed, not even aunt Cecilia, who had not been out of her room at eleven o'clock for centuries. Collins had gone into the summer-house and was turning over everything there as if she expected to find her mistress's body in the cupboard or under the sofa; Lewis, the butler, was hunting through the garden with a lantern, looking under all the bushes. No incident so utterly unaccountable had occurred before in Miss Dora Wentworth's life.
The first investigation into the character of the Rev. F. C. Wentworth, Curate of St Roque's was fixed to take place in the vestry of the parish church, at eleven o'clock on the morning of the day which followed this anxious night. Most people in Carlingford were aware that the Perpetual Curate was to be put upon his trial on that sunny July morning; and there was naturally a good deal of curiosity among the intelligent townsfolk to see how he looked, and what was the aspect of the witnesses who were to bear testimony for or against him. It is always interesting to the crowd to see how a man looks at a great crisis of his life—or a woman either, for that matter; and if a human creature, at the height of joy, or in the depths of sorrow, is a spectacle to draw everybody's eyes, there is a still greater dramatic interest in the sight when hope and fear are both in action, and the alternative hangs between life or death. It was life or death to Mr Wentworth, though the tribunal was one which could inflict no penalties. If he should be found guilty, death would be a light doom to the downfall and moral extinction which would make an end of the unfaithful priest; and, consequently, Carlingford had reason for its curiosity. There was a crowd about the back entrance which led to the shabby little sacristy where Mr Morgan and Mr Leeson were accustomed to robe themselves; and scores of people strayed into the church itself, and hung about, pretending to look at the improvements which the Rector called restorations. Mrs Morgan herself, looking very pale, was in and out half-a-dozen times in the hour, talking with terrible science and technicalism to Mr Finial's clerk of works, who could not make her see that she was talking Gothic—a language which had nothing to do with Carlingford Church, that building being of the Revolution or churchwarden epoch. She was a great deal too much agitated at that moment to be aware of the distinction. As for Mr Wentworth, it was universally agreed that, though he looked a little flushed and excited, there was no particular discouragement visible in his face. He went in to the vestry with some eagerness, not much like a culprit on his trial. The Rector, indeed, who was heated and embarrassed and doubtful of himself, looked more like a criminal than the real hero. There were six of the amateur judges, of whom one had felt his heart fail him at the last moment. The five who were steadfast were Mr Morgan, Dr Marjoribanks, old Mr Western (who was a distant cousin of the Wodehouses, and brother-in-law, though old enough to be her grandfather, of the beautiful Lady Western, who once lived in Grange Lane), and with them Mr Centum, the banker, and old Colonel Chiley. Mr Proctor, who was very uneasy in his mind, and much afraid lest he should be called upon to give an account of the Curate's behaviour on the previous night, had added himself as a kind of auxiliary to this judicial bench. Mr Waters had volunteered his services as counsellor, perhaps with the intention of looking after the interests of a very different client; and to this imposing assembly John Brown had walked in, with his hands in his pockets, rather disturbing the composure of the company in general, who were aware what kind of criticism his was. While the bed of justice was being arranged, a very odd little group collected in the outer room, where Elsworthy, in a feverish state of excitement, was revolving about the place from the door to the window, and where the Miss Hemmings sat up against the wall, with their drapery drawn up about them, to show that they were of different clay from Mrs Elsworthy, who, respectful but sullen, sat on the same bench. The anxious public peered in at the door whenever it had a chance, and took peeps through the window when the other privilege was impossible. Besides the Miss Hemmings and the Elsworthys there was Peter Hayles, who also had seen something, and the wife of another shopkeeper at the end of George Street; and there was the Miss Hemmings' maid, who had escorted them on that eventful night of Rosa's disappearance. Not one of the witnesses had the smallest doubt as to the statement he or she was about to make; they were entirely convinced of the righteousness of their own cause, and the justice of the accusation, which naturally gave a wonderful moral force to their testimony. Besides—but that was quite a different matter—they all had their little grudges against Mr Wentworth, each in his secret heart.
When Elsworthy was called in to the inner room it caused a little commotion amid this company outside. The Miss Hemmings looked at each other, not with an agreeable expression of face. "They might have had the politeness to call us first," Miss Sophia said to her sister; and Miss Hemmings shook her head and sighed, and said, "Dear Mr Bury!" an observation which meant a great deal, though it did not seem perfectly relevant. "Laws! I'll forget everything when I'm took in there," said the shopkeeper's wife to Miss Hemmings' maid; and the ladies drew still closer up, superior to curiosity, while the others stretched their necks to get a peep into the terrible inner room.
It was indeed a formidable tribunal. The room was small, so that the unfortunate witness was within the closest range of six pairs of judicial eyes, not to speak of the vigilant orbs of the two lawyers, and those of the accused and his supporters. Mr Morgan, by right of his position, sat at the end of the table, and looked very severely at the first witness as he came in—which Elsworthy did, carrying his hat before him like a kind of shield, and polishing it carefully round and round. The Rector was far from having any intention of discouraging the witness, who was indeed his mainstay; but the anxiety of his peculiar position, as being at once counsel for the prosecution, and chief magistrate of the bed of justice, gave an unusual sternness to his face.
"Your name is George Elsworthy," said the Rector, filling his pen with ink, and looking penetratingly in the witness's face.
"George Appleby Elsworthy," said Rosa's uncle, a little alarmed; "not as I often signs in full; for you see, sir, it's a long name, and life's short, and it aint necessary in the way of business—"
"Stationer and newsmonger in Carlingford," interrupted the Rector; "I should say in Upper Grange Lane, Carlingford; aged—?"
"But it doesn't appear to me that newsmonger is a correct expression," said old Mr Western, who was very conversational; "newsmonger means a gossip, not a tradesman; not that there is any reason why a tradesman should not be a gossip, but—"
"Aged?" said Mr Morgan, holding his pen suspended in the air. "I will say newsvendor if that will be better—one cannot be too particular—Aged—?"
"He is come to years of discretion," said Dr Marjoribanks, "that's all we need; don't keep us all day waiting, man, but tell your story about this elopement of your niece. When did it take place, and what are the facts? Never mind your hat, but say out what you have got to say."
"You are much too summary, Doctor," said Mr Morgan, with a little offence; but the sense of the assembly was clearly with Dr Marjoribanks—so that the Rector dashed in 45 as the probable age of the witness, and waited his further statement.
After this there was silence, and Elsworthy began his story. He narrated all the facts of Rosa's disappearance, with an intention and bias which made his true tale a wonderful tacit accusation. Rage, revenge, a sense of wrong, worked what in an indifferent narrator only the highest skill could have wrought. He did not mention the Curate's name, but arranged all his facts in lines like so many trains of artillery. How Rosa was in the habit of going to Mrs Hadwin's (it was contrary to Elsworthy's instinct to bring in at this moment any reference to Mr Wentworth) every night with the newspaper—"not as I sent her of errands for common—keeping two boys for the purpose," said the injured man; "but, right or wrong, there's where she'd go as certain as the night come. I've seen her with my own eyes go into Mrs Hadwin's garden-door, which she hadn't no need to go in but for being encouraged; and it would be half an hour at the least afore she came out."
"But, bless me! that was very imprudent of you," cried Mr Proctor, who up to this time had not uttered a word.
"There was nobody there but the old lady and her maids—except the clergyman," said Elsworthy. "It wasn't my part to think as she could get any harm from the clergyman. She wouldn't hear no remonstrances from me; she would go as regular as the evening come."
"Yes, yes," said Mr Waters, who saw John Brown's humorous eye gleaming round upon the little assembly; "but let us come to the immediate matter in hand. Your niece disappeared from Carlingford on the—?"
"Yes, yes," said Mr Western, "we must not sink into conversation; that's the danger of all unofficial investigations. It seems natural to let him tell his story as he likes: but here we have got somebody to keep us in order. It's natural, but it aint law—is it, Brown?"
"I don't see that law has anything to do with it," said John Brown, with a smile.
"Order! order!" said the Rector, who was much goaded and aggravated by this remark. "I request that there may be no conversation. The witness will proceed with what he has to say. Your niece disappeared on the 15th. What were the circumstances of her going away?"
"She went down as usual with the newspaper," said Elsworthy; "it had got to be a custom as regular as regular. She stopped out later nor common, and my wife and me was put out. I don't mind saying, gentlemen," said the witness, with candour, "as my missis and I wasn't altogether of the same mind about Rosa. She was late, but I can't say as I was anxious. It wasn't above a week afore that Mr Wentworth himself brought her home safe, and it was well known as he didn't like her to be out at night; so I was easy in my mind, like. But when eleven o'clock came, and there was no denying of its being past hours, I began to get a little fidgety. I stepped out to the door, and I looked up and down, and saw nobody; so I took up my hat and took a turn down the road—"
At this moment there was a little disturbance outside. A voice at which the Curate started was audible, asking entrance. "I must see Mr Wentworth immediately," this voice said, as the door was partially opened; and then, while his sons both rose to their feet, the Squire himself suddenly entered the room. He looked round upon the assembled company with a glance of shame and grief that went to the Curate's heart. Then he bowed to the judges, who were looking at him with an uncomfortable sense of his identity, and walked across the room to the bench on which Gerald and Frank were seated together. "I beg your pardon, gentlemen," said the Squire, "if I interrupt your proceedings; but I have only this moment arrived in Carlingford, and heard what was going on, and I trust I may be allowed to remain, as my son's honour is concerned." Mr Wentworth scarcely waited for the assent which everybody united in murmuring, but seated himself heavily on the bench, as if glad to sit down anywhere. He suffered Frank to grasp his hand, but scarcely gave it; nor, indeed, did he look, except once, with a bitter momentary glance at the brothers. They were sons a father might well have been proud of, so far as external appearances went; but the Squire's soul was bitter within him. One was about to abandon all that made life valuable in the eyes of the sober-minded country gentleman. The other—"And I could have sworn by Frank," the mortified father was saying in his heart. He sat down with a dull dogged composure. He meant to hear it all, and have it proved to him that his favourite son was a villain. No wonder that he was disinclined to respond to any courtesies. He set himself down almost with impatience that the sound of his entrance should have interrupted the narrative, and looked straight in front of him, fixing his eyes on Elsworthy, and taking no notice of the anxious glances of the possible culprit at his side.
"I hadn't gone above a step or two when I see Mr Hayles at his door. I said to him, 'It's a fine evening,'—as so it was, and the stars shining. 'My Rosa aint been about your place, has she?' I says; and he says, 'No.' But, gentlemen, I see by the look of his eye as he had more to say. 'Aint she come home yet?' says Mr Hayles—"
"Stop a moment," said John Brown. "Peter Hayles is outside, I think. If the Rector wishes to preserve any sort of legal form in this inquiry, may I suggest that a conversation repeated is not evidence? Let Elsworthy tell what he knows, and the other can speak for himself."
"It is essential we should hear the conversation," said the Rector, "since I believe it was of importance. I believe it is an important link in the evidence—I believe—"
"Mr Morgan apparently has heard the evidence before," said the inexorable John Brown.
Here a little commotion arose in the bed of justice. "Hush, hush," said Dr Marjoribanks; "the question is, What has the witness got to say of his own knowledge? Go on, Elsworthy; we can't possibly spend the whole day here. Never mind what Hayles said, unless he communicated something about the girl."
"He told me as the Miss Hemmings had seen Rosa," said Elsworthy, slowly; "had seen her at nine, or half after nine—I won't be sure which—at Mrs Hadwin's gate."
"The Miss Hemmings are outside. Let the Miss Hemmings be called," said Mr Proctor, who had a great respect for Mr Brown's opinion.
But here Mr Waters interposed. "The Miss Hemmings will be called presently," he said; "in the mean time let this witness be heard out; afterwards his evidence will be corroborated. Go on, Elsworthy."
"The Miss Hemmings had seen my Rosa at Mrs Hadwin's gate," repeated Elsworthy, "a-standing outside, and Mr Wentworth a-standing inside; there aint more respectable parties in all Carlingford. It was them as saw it, not me. Gentlemen, I went back home. I went out again. I went over all the town a-looking for her. Six o'clock in the morning come, and I had never closed an eye, nor took off my clothes, nor even sat down upon a chair. When it was an hour as I could go to a gentleman's house and no offence, I went to the place as she was last seen. Me and Mr Hayles, we went together. The shutters was all shut but on one window, which was Mr Wentworth's study. We knocked at the garden-door, and I aint pretending that we didn't make a noise; and, gentlemen, it wasn't none of the servants—it was Mr Wentworth hisself as opened the door."
There was here a visible sensation among the judges. It was a point that told. As for the Squire, he set his stick firmly before him, and leaned his clasped hands upon it to steady himself. His healthful, ruddy countenance was paling gradually. If it had been an apostle who spoke, he could not have taken in more entirely the bitter tale.
"It was Mr Wentworth hisself, gentlemen," said the triumphant witness; "not like a man roused out of his sleep, but dressed and shaved, and his hair brushed, as if it had been ten instead o' six. It's well known in Carlingford as he aint an early man; and gentlemen here knows it as well as me. I don't pretend as I could keep my temper. I give him my mind, gentlemen, being an injured man; but I said as—if he do his duty by her—"
"Softly a moment," said Mr Brown. "What had Mr Wentworth's aspect at six o'clock in the morning to do with Rosa Elsworthy's disappearance at nine on the previous night?"
"I don't see that the question is called for at the present moment," said Mr Waters. "Let us hear what reasons you have for attributing to Mr Wentworth an unusual degree of interest in your niece."
"Sir," said Elsworthy, "he come into my shop as regular as the day; he never come but he asked after Rosa, or spoke to her if she was there. One night he walked all the way up Grange Lane and knocked at my door and brought her in all of a glow, and said I wasn't to send her out late no more. My missis, being a woman as is very particular, was struck, and thought as harm might come of it; and, not to be talked of, we sent Rosa away. And what does Mr Wentworth do, but the moment he hears of it comes right off to my shop! He had been at his own home, sir, a-visiting his respected family," said Elsworthy, turning slightly towards the side of the room where the father and sons sat together. "He came to my shop with his carpet-bag as he come off the railway, and he gave me my orders as I was to bring Rosa back. What he said was, 'Directly,' that very day. I never had no thought but what his meaning was honourable—being a clergyman," said the witness, with a heavy sigh; and then there ensued a little pause.
"The Miss Hemmings had better be called now," said Mr Waters. "Elsworthy, you can retire; but we may require you again, so you had better not go away. Request Miss Hemmings to do us the favour of coming here."
The Squire lifted his heavy eyes when the next witness entered. She made a very solemn curtsy to the gentlemen, and sat down on the chair which somebody placed for her. Being unsupported, a lady—not to say an unmarried lady profoundly conscious of the fact—among a number of men, Miss Hemmings was naturally much agitated. She was the eldest and the softest-hearted; and it occurred to her for the first time, as she gave a frightened look towards the Curate, that he was like her favourite younger brother, who had died ever so many years ago—a thought which, for the first time, made her doubtful of her testimony, and disposed to break down in her evidence.
"You were in Grange Lane on the evening of the 15th ultimo," said Mr Morgan, after he had carefully written down her name, "about nine o'clock?"
"Oh yes, Mr Morgan," said the poor lady; "we were at St Roque's Cottage drinking tea with Mrs Bland, who was lodging with Mrs Smith in the same rooms Mrs Rider used to have. I put the note of invitation in my pocket in case there should be any doubt; but, indeed, poor Mrs Bland was taken very ill on the 16th, and Dr Marjoribanks was called, and he knows it could not be any other evening—and besides—"
"About nine o'clock," said Mr Waters; "did I understand you, it was about nine o'clock?"
"She was such an invalid, poor dear," said Miss Hemmings, apologetically; "and it is such a privilege to have real Christian conversation. We dined early on purpose, and we were asked for half-past six. I think it must have been a little after nine; but Mary is here, and she knows what hour she came for us. Shall I call Mary, please?"
"Presently," said the counsel for the prosecution. "Don't be agitated; one or two questions will do. You passed Mrs Hadwin's door coming up. Will you kindly tell the gentlemen what you saw there?"
"Oh!" cried Miss Hemmings. She looked round at the Curate again, and he was more than ever like Willie who died. "I—I don't take much notice of what I see in the streets," she said, faltering; "and there are always so many poor people going to see Mr Wentworth." Here the poor lady stopped short. She had never considered before what harm her evidence might do. Now her heart smote her for the young man who was like Willie. "He is so very kind to all the poor people," continued the unwilling witness, looking doubtfully round into all the faces near her; "and he's such a young man," she added, in her tremulous way. It was Miss Sophia who was strong-minded; all the poor women in Back Grove Street were perfectly aware that their chances were doubled when they found Miss Jane.
"But you must tell us what you saw all the same," said Dr Marjoribanks. "I daresay Mr Wentworth wishes it as much as we do."
The Curate got up and came forward with one of his impulses. "I wish it a great deal more," he said. "My dear Miss Hemmings, thank you for your reluctance to say anything to harm me; but the truth can't possibly harm me: tell them exactly what you saw."
Miss Hemmings looked from one to another, and trembled more and more. "I am sure I never meant to injure Mr Wentworth," she said; "I only said I thought it was imprudent of him—that was all I meant. Oh, I am sure, if I had thought of this, I would rather have done anything than say it. And whatever Sophia might have imagined, I assure you, gentlemen, I never, never for a moment thought Mr Wentworth meant any harm."
"Never mind Mr Wentworth," said Mr Brown, who now took the matter in hand. "When you were passing Mrs Hadwin's house about nine o'clock on the evening of the 15th, you saw some one standing at the door. Mr Wentworth particularly wishes you to say who it was."
"Oh, Mr Brown—oh, Mr Morgan," cried the poor lady; "it was little Rosa Elsworthy. She was a designing little artful thing. When she was in my Sunday class, she was always thinking of her vanities. Mr Wentworth was talking to her at the garden-door. I daresay he was giving her good advice; and oh, gentlemen, if you were to question me for ever and ever, that is all I have got to say."
"Did you not hear what they were talking about?" said Mr Proctor. "If it was good advice—" The late Rector stopped short, and grew red, and felt that his supposition was that of a simpleton. "You heard what they were talking about? What did they say?" he concluded, peremptorily, in a tone which frightened the reluctant witness more and more.
"I did not hear a single word," she cried—"not a word. That is all I know about it. Oh, please, let me go away. I feel very faint. I should like a little cold water, please. I did not hear a word—not a word. I have told you everything I have got to say."
Everybody looked more serious when Miss Hemmings stumbled from her chair. She was so frightened at her own testimony, and so unwilling to give it, that its importance was doubled in the eyes of the inexperienced judges. The Squire gave a low groan under his breath, and turned his eyes, which had been fixed upon her, on the ground instead; but raised them immediately, with a gleam of anxiety as his son again rose from his side. All that the Curate meant to do was to give the trembling lady his arm, and lead her out; but the entire assembly, with the exception of John Brown, started and stared as if he had been about to take instant revenge upon the frightened woman. Miss Hemmings burst into tears when Mr Wentworth set a chair for her by the door, and brought her a glass of water, in the outer room; and just then somebody knocked and gave him a note, with which he returned to the presence of the awful tribunal. Miss Sophia Hemmings was corroborating her sister's statement when the Perpetual Curate re-entered. He stood behind her quite quietly, until she had finished, with a slight smile upon his lips, and the note in his hand. Dr Marjoribanks was not partial to Miss Sophia Hemmings. She was never ill herself, and rarely permitted even her sister to enjoy the gentle satisfaction of a day's sickness. The old Doctor looked instead at the Perpetual Curate. When Miss Hemmings withdrew, Dr Marjoribanks interposed. "It appears to me that Mr Wentworth has something to say," said the Doctor. "It is quite necessary that he should have a hearing as well as the rest of us. Let Peter Hayles wait a moment, till we hear what Mr Wentworth has to say."
"It is not yet time for us to receive Mr Wentworth's statement," said the Rector. "He shall certainly be heard in his own defence at the proper time. Mr Waters, call Peter Hayles."
"One moment," said the Curate. "I have no statement to make, and I can wait till you have heard what everybody has to say, if the Rector wishes it; but it might save time and trouble to hear me. I have another witness whom, up to this moment, I have been reluctant to bring forward—a witness all-important for me, whom I cannot produce in so public a place, or at an hour when everybody is abroad. If you will do me the favour to adjourn this inquiry till the evening, and to meet then in a private house—in my own, or Miss Wentworth's, or wherever you may appoint—I think I can undertake to make this whole business perfectly clear."
"Bless me!" said Mr Proctor, suddenly. This unexpected and irrelevant benediction was the first sound distinctly audible in the little stir of surprise, expectation, and excitement which followed the Curate's speech. The Squire let his stick fall out of his hands, and groped after it to pick it up again. Hope had suddenly all at once come into possession of the old man's breast. As for the Rector, he was too much annoyed at the moment to speak.
"You should have thought of this before," said Dr Marjoribanks. "It would have been just as easy to fix this meeting for the evening, and in a private house, and would have saved time. You are very welcome to my dining-room, if you please; but I don't understand why it could not have been settled so at once, and saved our time," said the Doctor; to which sentiment there were several murmurs of assent.
"Gentlemen," said the Curate, whose eyes were sparkling with excitement, "you must all know in your hearts that this trial ought never to have taken place. I have lived among you for five years, and you ought to have known me by this time. I have never been asked for an explanation, neither could any explanation which it was possible for me to make have convinced a mind prejudiced against me," he said, after a moment's pause, with a meaning which everybody understood. "It is only now that I feel myself able to clear up the whole matter, and it is for this reason alone that I ask you to put off your inquiry till to-night."
"I don't feel inclined to consent to any adjournment," said Mr Morgan; "it looks like an attempt to defeat the ends of justice." The Rector was very much annoyed—more than he dared confess to himself. He believed in his heart that young Wentworth was guilty, and he felt equally convinced that here was some unexpected loophole through which he would escape. But public opinion was strong in Grange Lane—stronger than a new Rector. The Banker and the Doctor and the Indian Colonel, not to speak of old Mr Western, were disposed to grant the request of the Curate; and when even Mr Proctor forsook his side, the Rector himself yielded. "Though it is against my judgment," he said, "and I see no advantage to be gained by it, the meeting had better be held in the Rectory, this evening at seven o'clock."
"Most of us dine at seven o'clock," said Dr Marjoribanks.
"This evening at eight o'clock," said the Rector, severely. "I will request all the witnesses to be in attendance, and we must hope to find Mr Wentworth's witness of sufficient importance to justify the change. At eight o'clock this evening, in my house, gentlemen," said the Rector. He collected his notes and went outside, and began talking to his witnesses, while the others collected together round the table to consult over this new phase of the affair. The three Mr Wentworths went out together, the father between his two tall sons. The Squire's strength was much shaken, both in mind and body. When they were out of the shadow of the church, he looked up in Frank's face.
"I hope you consider me entitled to an immediate explanation," said Mr Wentworth. "When I read that anonymous letter, it went a long way towards breaking my heart, sir; I can tell you it did. Jack here too, and your brother making up his mind as he has done, Frank. I am not a man to complain. If it were all over with me to-morrow, I shouldn't be sorry, so far as I am concerned, if it weren't for the girls and the little children. But I always thought I could have sworn by Frank," said the old man, mournfully. He was ever so much older since he had said these words before in the long lime avenue at Wentworth Hall.
The little assembly which met in the vestry of Carlingford Church to inquire into the conduct of the Perpetual Curate, had so many different interests in hands when it dispersed, and so much to do, that it is difficult for the narrator of this history to decide which thread should be taken up first. Of all the interlocutors, however, perhaps Mr Proctor was the one who had least succeeded in his efforts to explain himself, and accordingly demands in the first place the attention of an impartial historian. The excellent man was still labouring under much perplexity when the bed of justice was broken up. He began to recollect that Mr Wentworth's explanation on the previous night had convinced him of his innocence, and to see that it was indeed altogether inconceivable that the Curate should be guilty; but then, other matters still more disagreeable to contemplate than Mr Wentworth's guilt came in to darken the picture. This vagabond Wodehouse, whom the Curate had taken in at his sister's request—what was the meaning of that mystery? Mr Proctor had never been anyhow connected with mysteries; he was himself an only son, and had lived a straightforward peaceable life. Neither he nor his estimable parents, so far as the late Rector was aware, had ever done anything to be ashamed of; and he winced a little at the thought of connecting himself with concealment and secrecy. And then the Curate's sudden disappearance on the previous evening perplexed and troubled him. He imagined all kinds of reasons for it as he walked down Grange Lane. Perhaps Miss Wodehouse, who would not receive himself, had sent for Mr Wentworth; perhaps the vagabond brother was in some other scrape, out of which he had to be extricated by the Curate's assistance. Mr Proctor was perfectly honest, and indeed determined, in his "intentions;" but everybody will allow that for a middle-aged lover of fifty or thereabouts, contemplating a sensible match with a lady of suitable years and means, to find suddenly that the object of his affections was not only a penniless woman, but the natural guardian of an equally penniless sister, was startling, to say the least of it. He was a true man, and it did not occur to him to decline the responsibility altogether; on the contrary, he was perhaps more eager than he would have been otherwise, seeing that his elderly love had far more need of his devotion than he had ever expected her to have; but, notwithstanding, he was disturbed by such an unlooked-for change of circumstances, as was natural, and did not quite know what was to be done with Lucy. He was full of thoughts on this subject as he proceeded towards the house, to the interview which, to use sentimental language, was to decide his fate. But, to tell the truth, Mr Proctor was not in a state of very deep anxiety about his fate. The idea of being refused was too unreasonable an idea to gain much ground in his mind. He was going to offer his personal support, affection, and sympathy to Miss Wodehouse at the least fortunate moment in her life; and if there was anything consolatory in marriage at all, the late Rector sensibly concluded that it must be doubly comforting under such circumstances, and that the offer of an honest man's hand and house and income was not a likely thing to be rejected by a woman of Miss Wodehouse's experience and good sense—not to speak of his heart, which was very honest and true and affectionate, though it had outlived the fervours of youth. Such was Mr Proctor's view of the matter; and the chances were strong that Miss Wodehouse entirely agreed with him—so, but for a certain shyness which made him rather nervous, it would not be correct to say that the late Rector was in a state of special anxiety about the answer he was likely to receive. He was, however, anxious about Lucy. His bachelor mind was familiar with all the ordinary traditions about the inexpediency of being surrounded by a wife's family; and he had a little of the primitive male sentiment, shared one way or other by most husbands, that the old system of buying a woman right out, and carrying her off for his own sole and private satisfaction, was, after all, the correct way of managing such matters. To be sure, a pretty, young, unmarried sister, was perhaps the least objectionable encumbrance a woman could have; but, notwithstanding, Mr Proctor would have been glad could he have seen any feasible way of disposing of Lucy. It was utterly out of the question to think of her going out as a governess; and it was quite evident that Mr Wentworth, even were he perfectly cleared of every imputation, having himself nothing to live upon, could scarcely offer to share his poverty with poor Mr Wodehouse's cherished pet and darling. "I daresay she has been used to live expensively," Mr Proctor said to himself, wincing a little in his own mind at the thought. It was about one o'clock when he reached the green door—an hour at which, during the few months of his incumbency at Carlingford, he had often presented himself at that hospitable house. Poor Mr Wodehouse! Mr Proctor could not help wondering at that moment how he was getting on in a world where, according to ordinary ideas, there are no lunch nor dinner parties, no old port nor savoury side-dishes. Somehow it was impossible to realise Mr Wodehouse with other surroundings than those of good-living and creature-comfort. Mr Proctor sighed, half for the departed, half at thought of the strangeness of that unknown life for which he himself did not feel much more fitted than Mr Wodehouse. In the garden he saw the new heir sulkily marching about among the flower-beds smoking, and looking almost as much out of place in the sweet tranquillity of the English garden, as a churchwarden of Carlingford or a Fellow of All-Souls could look, to carry out Mr Proctor's previous imagination, in the vague beatitude of a disembodied heaven. Wodehouse was so sick of his own company that he came hastily forward at the sight of a visitor, but shrank a little when he saw who it was.
"I suppose you have brought some news," he said, in his sullen way. "I suppose he has been making his statements, has he? Much I care! He may tell what lies he pleases; he can't do me any harm. I never did anything but sign my own name, by Jove! Jack Wentworth himself says so. I don't care that for the parson and his threats," said Wodehouse, snapping his fingers in Mr Proctor's face. The late Rector drew back a little, with a shudder of disgust and resentment. He could not help thinking that this fellow would most likely be his brother-in-law presently, and the horror he felt made itself visible in his face.
"I am quite unaware what you can mean," said Mr Proctor. "I am a parson, but I never made any threats that I know of. I wish to see Miss Wodehouse. I—I think she expects me at this hour," he said, with a little embarrassment, turning to John, who, for his part, had been standing by in a way which became his position as a respectable and faithful servant, waiting any opportunity that might come handy to show his disgust for the new regime.
"Yes, sir," said John, promptly, and with emphasis. "My mistress expects you, sir. She's come down to the drawing-room for the first time. Miss Lucy keeps her room, sir, still; she's dreadfully cut up, poor dear young lady. My mistress will be glad to see you, sir," said John. This repetition of a title which Miss Wodehouse had not been in the habit of receiving was intended for the special advantage of the new master, whom John had no intention of recognising in that capacity. "If you should know of any one, sir, as is in want of a steady servant," the man continued, as he led the way into the house, with a shrewd glance at Mr Proctor, whose "intentions" were legible enough to John's experienced eyes—"not as I'm afeared of getting suited, being well known in Carlingford; but it would come natural to be with a friend of the family. There aint a servant in the house, sir, as will stay when the ladies go, and I think as Miss Wodehouse would speak for me," said John, with natural astuteness. This address made Mr Proctor a little uneasy. It recalled to him the unpleasant side of the important transaction in which he was about to engage. He was not rich, and did not see his way now to any near prospect of requiring the services of "a steady servant," and the thought made him sigh.
"We'll see," he said, with a troubled look. To persevere honourably in his "intentions" was one thing, but to be insensible to the loss of much he had looked forward to was quite another. It was accordingly with a grave and somewhat disturbed expression that he went to the interview which was "to decide his fate." Miss Wodehouse was seated in the drawing-room, looking slightly flushed and excited. Though she knew it was very wrong to be thus roused into a new interest the day after her father's funeral, the events altogether had been of so startling a description that the usual decorum of an afflicted household had already been ruthlessly broken. And on the whole, notwithstanding her watching and grief, Mr Proctor thought he had never seen the object of his affections looking so well as she did now in the long black dress, which suited her better than the faint dove colours in which she arrayed herself by preference. She was not, it is true, quite sure what Mr Proctor wanted in this interview he had solicited, but a certain feminine instinct instructed her in its probable eventualities. So she sat in a subdued flutter, with a little colour fluctuating on her cheek, a tear in her eyes, and some wonder and expectation in her heart. Perhaps in her youth Miss Wodehouse might have come to such a feminine crisis before; but if so, it was long ago, and the gentle woman had never been given to matrimonial speculations, and was as fresh and inexperienced as any girl. The black frame in which she was set made her soft colour look fresher and less faded. Her plaintive voice, the general softness of her demeanour, looked harmonious and suitable to her circumstances. Mr Proctor, who had by no means fallen in love with her on account of any remnants of beauty she might possess, had never admired her so much as he did now; he felt confused, good man, as he stood before her, and, seeing her so much younger and fairer than his former idea, began to grow alarmed, and wonder at his serenity. What if she thought him an old fogey? what if she refused him? This supposition brought a crimson colour to Mr Proctor's middle-aged countenance, and was far from restoring his courage. It was a wonderful relief to him when she, with the instinct of a timid woman, rushed into hasty talk.
"It was very kind of you to come yesterday," she said; "Lucy and I were very grateful. We have not many relatives, and my dear father—"
"Yes," said the late Rector, again embarrassed by the tears which choked her voice, "he was very much respected: that must be a consolation to you. And he had a long life—and—and I suppose, on the whole, a happy one," said Mr Proctor, "with you and your sister—"
"Oh, Mr Proctor, he had a great deal to put up with," said Miss Wentworth, through her tears. She had, like most simple people, an instinctive disinclination to admit that anybody was or had been happy. It looked like an admission of inferiority. "Mamma's death, and poor Tom," said the elder sister. As she wiped her eyes, she almost forgot her own little feminine flutter of expectancy in respect to Mr Proctor himself. Perhaps it was not going to happen this time, and as she was pretty well assured that it would happen one day or another, she was not anxious about it. "If I only knew what to do about Tom," she continued, with a vague appeal in her voice.
Mr Proctor got up from his chair and walked to the window. When he had looked out he came back, rather surprising Miss Wodehouse by his unlooked-for movements. "I wanted very much to have a little conversation with you," he said, growing again very red. "I daresay you will be surprised—but I have accepted another living, Miss Wodehouse;" and here the good man stopped short in a terrible state of embarrassment, not knowing what next to say.
"Yes?" said Miss Wodehouse, interrogatively. Her heart began to beat quicker, but perhaps he was only going to tell her about the new work he had undertaken; and then she was a woman, and had some knowledge, which came by nature, how to conduct herself on an occasion such as this.
"I don't know whether you recollect," said Mr Proctor—"I shall never forget it—one time when we all met in a house where a woman was dying,—I mean your sister and young Wentworth, and you and I;—and neither you nor I knew anything about it," said the late Rector, in a strange voice. It was not a complimentary way of opening his subject, and the occurrence had not made so strong an impression upon Miss Wodehouse as upon her companion. She looked a little puzzled, and, as he made a pause, gave only a murmur of something like assent, and waited to hear what more he might have to say.
"We neither of us knew anything about it," said Mr Proctor—"neither you how to manage her, nor I what to say to her, though the young people did. I have always thought of you from that time. I have thought I should like to try whether I was good for anything now—if you would help me," said the middle-aged lover. When he had said this he walked to the window, and once more looked out, and came back redder than ever. "You see we are neither of us young," said Mr Proctor; and he stood by the table turning over the books nervously, without looking at her, which was certainly an odd commencement for a wooing.
"That is quite true," said Miss Wodehouse, rather primly. She had never disputed that fact by word or deed, but still it was not pleasant to have the statement thus thrust upon her without any apparent provocation. It was not the sort of thing which a woman expects to have said to her under such circumstances. "I am sure I hope you will do better—I mean be more comfortable—this time," she continued, after a pause, sitting very erect on her seat.
"If you will help me," said Mr Proctor, taking up one of the books and reading the name on it, which was lucky for him, for it was Miss Wodehouse's name, which he either had forgotten or never had known.
And here they came to a dead stop. What was she to say? She was a little affronted, to tell the truth, that he should remember more distinctly than anything else her age, and her unlucky failure on that one occasion. "You have just said that I could not manage," said the mild woman, not without a little vigour of her own; "and how then could I help you, Mr Proctor? Lucy knows a great deal more about parish work than I do," she went on in a lower tone; and for one half of a second there arose in the mind of the elder sister a kind of wistful half envy of Lucy, who was young, and knew how to manage—a feeling which died in unspeakable remorse and compunction as soon as it had birth.
"But Lucy would not have me," said the late Rector; "and indeed I should not know what to do with her if she would have me;—but you—It is a small parish, but it's not a bad living. I should do all I could to make you comfortable. At least we might try," said Mr Proctor, in his most insinuating tone. "Don't you think we might try? at least it would do—" He was going to say "no harm," but on second thoughts rejected that expression. "At least I should be very glad if you would," said the excellent man, with renewed confusion. "It's a nice little rectory, with a pretty garden, and all that sort of thing; and—and perhaps—it might help you to settle about going away—and—and I daresay there would be room for Lucy. Don't you think you would try?" cried Mr Proctor, volunteering, in spite of himself, the very hospitality which he had thought it hard might be required of him; but somehow his suit seemed to want backing at the actual moment when it was being made.
As for Miss Wodehouse, she sat and listened to him till he began to falter, and then her composure gave way all at once. "But as for trying," she gasped, in broken mouthfuls of speech, "that would never—never do, Mr Proctor. It has to be done—done for good and all—if—if it is done at all," sobbed the poor lady, whose voice came somewhat muffled through her handkerchief and her tears.
"Then it shall be for good and all!" cried Mr Proctor, with a sudden impulse of energy. This was how it came about that Miss Wodehouse and the late Rector were engaged. He had an idea that he might be expected to kiss her, and certainly ought to call her Mary after this; and hovered for another minute near her seat, not at all disinclined for the former operation. But his courage failed him, and he only drew a chair a little closer and sat down, hoping she would soon stop crying. And indeed, by the time that he produced out of his pocket-book the little photograph of the new rectory, which he had had made for her by a rural artist, Miss Wodehouse had emerged out of her handkerchief, and was perhaps in her heart as happy in a quiet way as she had ever been in her life. She who had never been good for much, was now, in the time of their need, endowed with a home which she could offer Lucy. It was she, the helpless one of the family, who was to be her young sister's deliverer. Let it be forgiven to her if, in the tumult of the moment, this was the thought that came first.
When Miss Wodehouse went up-stairs after this agitating but satisfactory interview, she found Lucy engaged in putting together some books and personal trifles of her own which were scattered about the little sitting-room. She had been reading 'In Memoriam' until it vexed her to feel how inevitably good sense came in and interfered with the enthusiasm of her grief, making her sensible that to apply to her fond old father all the lofty lauds which were appropriate to the poet's hero would be folly indeed. He had been a good tender father to her, but he was not "the sweetest soul that ever looked with human eyes;" and Lucy could not but stop in her reading with a kind of pang and self-reproach as this consciousness came upon her. Miss Wodehouse looked rather aghast when she found her sister thus occupied. "Did you think of accepting Miss Wentworth's invitation, after all?" said Miss Wodehouse; "but, dear, I am afraid it would be awkward; and oh, Lucy, my darling, I have so many things to tell you," said the anxious sister, who was shy of communicating her own particular news. Before many minutes had passed, Lucy had thrown aside all the books, and was sitting by her sister's side in half-pleased, disconcerted amazement to hear her story. Only half-pleased—for Lucy, like most other girls of her age, thought love and marriage were things which belonged only to her own level of existence, and was a little vexed and disappointed to find that her elder sister could condescend to such youthful matters. On the whole, she rather blushed for Mary, and felt sadly as if she had come down from an imaginary pedestal. And then Mr Proctor, so old and so ordinary, whom it was impossible to think of as a bridegroom, and still less as a brother. "I shall get used to it presently," said Lucy, with a burning flush on her cheek, and a half feeling that she had reason to be ashamed; "but it is so strange to think of you in that way, Mary. I always thought you were too—too sensible for that sort of thing," which was a reproach that went to Miss Wodehouse's heart.
"Oh, Lucy, dear," said that mild woman, who in this view of the matter became as much ashamed of herself as Lucy could desire, "what could I do? I know what you mean, at my time of life; but I could not let you be dependent on Tom, my darling," said Miss Wodehouse, with a deprecating appealing look.
"No indeed," said Lucy; "that would be impossible under any circumstances: nor on you either, Mary dear. I can do something to make a living, and I should like it. I have always been fond of work. I will not permit you to sacrifice yourself for me," said the younger sister, with some dignity. "I see how it has been. I felt sure it was not of your own accord."
Miss Wodehouse wrung her hands with dismay and perplexity. What was she to do if Lucy stood out and refused her consent? She could not humble herself so far as to confess that she rather liked Mr Proctor, and was, on the whole, not displeased to be married; for the feeling that Lucy expected her to be too sensible for that sort of thing overawed the poor lady. "But, Lucy, I have given him my promise," said poor Miss Wodehouse. "It—it would make him very unhappy. I can't use him badly, Lucy dear."
"I will speak to him, and explain if it is necessary. Whatever happens, I can't let you sacrifice yourself for me," said Lucy. All the answer Miss Wodehouse could make was expressed in the tears of vexation and mortification which rushed to her eyes. She repelled her young sister's ministrations for the first time in her life with hasty impatience. Her troubles had not been few for the last twenty-four hours. She had been questioned about Tom till she had altogether lost her head, and scarcely knew what she was saying; and Lucy had not applauded that notable expedient of throwing the shame of the family upon Mr Wentworth, to be concealed and taken care of, which had brought so many vexations to the Perpetual Curate. Miss Wodehouse at last was driven to bay. She had done all for the best, but nobody gave her any credit for it; and now this last step, by which she had meant to provide a home for Lucy, was about to be contradicted and put a stop to altogether. She put away Lucy's arm, and rejected her consolations. "What is the use of pretending to be fond of me if I am always to be wrong, and never to have my—my own way in anything?" cried the poor lady, who, beginning with steadiness, broke down before she reached the end of her little speech. The words made Lucy open her blue eyes with wonder; and after that there followed a fuller explanation, which greatly changed the ideas of the younger sister. After her "consent" had been at last extracted from her, and when Miss Wodehouse regained her composure, she reported to Lucy the greater part of the conversation which had taken place in the drawing-room, of which Mr Proctor's proposal constituted only a part, and which touched upon matters still more interesting to her hearer. The two sisters, preoccupied by their father's illness and death, had up to this time but a vague knowledge of the difficulties which surrounded the Perpetual Curate. His trial, which Mr Proctor had reported to his newly-betrothed, had been unsuspected by either of them; and they were not even aware of the event which had given rise to it—the disappearance of Rosa Elsworthy. Miss Wodehouse told the story with faltering lips, not being able to divest herself of the idea that, having been publicly accused, Mr Wentworth must be more or less guilty; while, at the same time, a sense that her brother must have had something to do with it, and a great reluctance to name his name, complicated the narrative. She had already got into trouble with Lucy about this unlucky brother, and unconsciously, in her story, she took an air of defence. "I should have thought better of Mr Wentworth if he had not tried to throw the guilt on another," said the perplexed woman. "Oh, Lucy dear, between two people it is so hard to know what to do."
"I know what I shall do," said Lucy, promptly; but she would not further explain herself. She was, however, quite roused up out of 'In Memoriam.' She went to her desk and drew out some of the paper deeply edged with black, which announced before words its tale of grief to all her correspondents. It was with some alarm that Miss Wodehouse awaited this letter, which was placed before her as soon as finished. This was what, as soon as she knew the story, Lucy's prompt and generous spirit said:—
"DEAR MR WENTWORTH,—We have just heard of the vexations you have been suffering, to our great indignation and distress. Some people may think it is a matter with which I have no business to interfere; but I cannot have you think for a moment, that we, to whom you have been so kind, could put the slightest faith in any such accusations against you. We are not of much consequence, but we are two women, to whom any such evil would be a horror. If it is any one connected with us who has brought you into this painful position, it gives us the more reason to be indignant and angry. I know now what you meant about the will. If it was to do over again, I should do just the same; but for all that, I understand now what you meant. I understand, also, how much we owe to you, of which, up to yesterday, I was totally unaware. You ought never to have been asked to take our burden upon your shoulders. I suppose you ought not to have done it; but all the same, thank you with all my heart. I don't suppose we ever can do anything for you to show our gratitude; and indeed I do not believe in paying back. But in the mean time, thank you—and don't, from any consideration for us, suffer a stain which belongs to another to rest upon yourself. You are a clergyman, and your reputation must be clear. Pardon me for saying so, as if I were qualified to advise you; but it would be terrible to think that you were suffering such an injury out of consideration for us.—Gratefully and truly yours,
The conclusion of this letter gave Lucy a good deal of trouble. Her honest heart was so moved with gratitude and admiration that she had nearly called herself "affectionately" Mr Wentworth's. Why should not she? "He has acted like a brother to us," Lucy said to herself; and then she paused to inquire whether his conduct had indeed arisen from brotherly motives solely. Then, when she had begun to write "faithfully" instead, a further difficulty occurred to her. Not thus lightly and unsolicited could she call herself "faithful," for did not the word mean everything that words could convey in any human relationship? When she had concluded it at last, and satisfied her scruples by the formula above, she laid the letter before her sister. This event terminated the active operations of the day in the dwelling of the Wodehouses. Their brother had not asked to see them, had not interrupted them as yet in their retreat up-stairs, where they were sedulously waited upon by the entire household. When Miss Wodehouse's agitation was over, she too began to collect together her books and personalities, and they ended by a long consultation where they were to go and what they were to do, during the course of which the elder sister exhibited with a certain shy pride that little photograph of the new rectory, in which there was one window embowered in foliage, which the bride had already concluded was to be Lucy's room. Lucy yielded during this sisterly conference to sympathetic thoughts even of Mr Proctor. The two women were alone in the world. They were still so near the grave and the deathbed that chance words spoken without thought from time to time awakened in both the ready tears. Now and then they each paused to consider with a sob what he would have liked best. They knew very little of what was going on outside at the moment when they were occupied with those simple calculations. What was to become of them, as people say—what money they were to have, or means of living—neither was much occupied in thinking of. They had each other; they had, besides, one a novel and timid middle-aged confidence, the other an illimitable youthful faith in one man in the world. Even Lucy, whose mind and thoughts were more individual than her sister's, wanted little else at that moment to make her happy with a tender tremulous consolation in the midst of her grief.
While matters were thus arranging themselves in the ideas at least of the two sisters whose prospects had been so suddenly changed, explanations of a very varied kind were going on in the house of the Miss Wentworths. It was a very full house by this time, having been invaded and taken possession of by the "family" in a way which entirely obliterated the calmer interests and occupations of the habitual inhabitants. The three ladies had reached the stage of life which knows no personal events except those of illness and death; and the presence of Jack Wentworth, of Frank and Gerald, and even of Louisa, reduced them altogether to the rank of spectators, the audience, or at the utmost the chorus, of the drama; though this was scarcely the case with Miss Dora, who kept her own room, where she lay on the sofa, and received visits, and told the story of her extraordinary adventure, the only adventure of her life. The interest of the household centred chiefly, however, in the dining-room, which, as being the least habitable apartment in the house, was considered to be most adapted for anything in the shape of business. On the way from the church to Miss Wentworth's house the Curate had given his father a brief account of all the events which had led to his present position; but though much eased in his mind, and partly satisfied, the Squire was not yet clear how it all came about. His countenance was far from having regained that composure, which indeed the recent course of events in the family had pretty nearly driven out of his life. His fresh light-coloured morning dress, with all its little niceties, and the fresh colour which even anxiety could not drive away from his cheeks, were somehow contradicted in their sentiment of cheerfulness by the puckers in his forehead and the harassed look of his face. He sat down in the big leathern chair by the fireplace, and looked round him with a sigh, and the air of a man who wonders what will be the next vexation. "I'd like to hear it over again, Frank," said the Squire. "My mind is not what it used to be; I don't say I ever was clever, like you young fellows, but I used to understand what was said to me. Now I seem to require to hear everything twice over; perhaps it is because I have had myself to say the same things over again a great many times lately," he added, with a sigh of weariness. Most likely his eye fell on Gerald as he said so; at all events, the Rector of Wentworth moved sadly from where he was standing and went to the window, where he was out of his father's range of vision. Gerald's looks, his movements, every action of his, seemed somehow to bear a symbolic meaning at this crisis in his life. He was no longer in any doubt; he had made up his mind. He looked like a martyr walking to his execution, as he crossed the room; and the Squire looked after him, and once more breathed out of his impatient breast a heavy short sigh. Louisa, who had placed herself in the other great chair at the other side of the forlorn fireplace, from which, this summer afternoon, there came no cheerful light, put up her handkerchief to her eyes and began to cry with half-audible sobs—which circumstances surrounding him were far from being encouraging to Frank as he entered anew into his own story—a story which he told with many interruptions. The Squire, who had once "sworn by Frank," had now a terrible shadow of distrust in his mind. Jack was here on the spot, of whom the unfortunate father knew more harm than he had ever told, and the secret dread that he had somehow corrupted his younger brother came like a cold shadow over Mr Wentworth's mind. He could not slur over any part of the narrative, but cross-examined his son to the extent of his ability, with an anxious inquisition into all the particulars. He was too deeply concerned to take anything for granted. He sat up in his chair with those puckers in his forehead, with that harassed look in his eyes, making an anxious, vigilant, suspicious investigation, which was pathetic to behold. If the defendant, who was thus being examined on his honour, had been guilty, the heart of the judge would have broken; but that was all the more reason for searching into it with jealous particularity, and with a suspicion which kept always gleaming out of his troubled eyes in sudden anxious glances, saying, "You are guilty? Are you guilty?" with mingled accusations and appeals. The accused, being innocent, felt this suspicion more hard to bear than if he had been a hundred times guilty.
"I understand a little about this fellow Wodehouse," said the Squire; "but what I want to know is, why you took him in? What did you take him in for, sir, at first? Perhaps I could understand the rest if you would satisfy me of that."
"I took him in," said the Curate, rather slowly, "because his sister asked me. She threw him upon my charity—she told me the danger he was in—"
"What danger was he in?" asked the Squire.
The Curate made a pause, and as he paused Mr Wentworth leaned forward in his chair, with another pucker in his forehead and a still sharper gleam of suspicion in his eyes. "His father had been offended time after time in the most serious way. This time he had threatened to give him up to justice. I can't tell you what he had done, because it would be breaking my trust—but he had made himself obnoxious to the law," said Frank Wentworth. "To save him from the chance of being arrested, his sister brought him to me."
The Squire's hand shook a good deal as he took out his handkerchief and wiped his forehead. "Perhaps it would be the best way if one had not too much regard for the honour of the family," he said, tremulously, like a man under a sudden temptation; "but the sister, sir, why did she bring him to you?" he added, immediately after, with renewed energy. Mr Wentworth was not aware that, while he was speaking, his eldest son had come into the room. He had his back to the door, and he did not see Jack, who stood rather doubtfully on the threshold, with a certain shade of embarrassment upon his ordinary composure. "It is not everybody that a woman would confide her brother's life to," said the Squire. "Who is the sister? Is she—is there any—any entanglement that I don't know of? It will be better for all of us if you tell me plainly," said the old man, with a querulous sound in his voice. He forgot the relationship of his own girls to Jack, and groaned within himself at what appeared almost certain evidence that the sister of a criminal like Wodehouse had got possession of Frank.
"Miss Wodehouse is about the same age as my aunt Dora," said the Curate. It was an exaggeration which would have gone to the poor lady's heart, but Frank Wentworth, in the unconscious insolence of his youth, was quite unaware and careless of the difference. Then he paused for a moment with an involuntary smile. "But I am a clergyman, sir," he continued, seriously. "If a man in my position is good for anything, it is his business to help the helpless. I could do no good in any other way—I took him into my house."
"Frank," said the Squire, "I beg your pardon. I believe in my heart you're true and honest. If I were not driven out of my senses by one thing and another," said Mr Wentworth, with bitterness. "They make me unjust to you, sir—unjust to you! But never mind; go on. Why didn't you tell these fellows what you've told me? That would have settled the business at once, without any more ado."
"Mr Morgan is a great deal too much prejudiced against me to believe anything I said. I thought it better to let him prove to himself his own injustice; and another still more powerful reason—" said the Curate.
"Stop, sir, stop; I can't follow you to more than one thing at a time. Why is Mr Morgan prejudiced against you?" said the Squire, once more sitting upright and recommencing his examination.
Frank Wentworth laughed in spite of himself, though he was far from being amused. "I know no reason, except that I have worked in his parish without his permission," he answered, briefly enough, "for which he threatened to have me up before somebody or other—Dr Lushington, I suppose, who is the new Council of Trent, and settles all our matters for us nowadays," said the Curate, not without a little natural scorn, at which, however, his father groaned.
"There is nothing to laugh at in Dr Lushington," said the Squire. "He gives you justice, at all events, which you parsons never give each other, you know. You ought not to have worked in the Rector's parish, sir, without his permission. It's like shooting in another man's grounds. However, that's not my business;—and the other reason, sir?" said Mr Wentworth, with his anxious look.
"My dear father," said the Curate, touched by the anxiety in the Squire's face, and sitting down by him with a sudden impulse, "I have done nothing which either you or I need be ashamed of. I am grieved that you should think it necessary to examine me so closely. Wodehouse is a rascal, but I had taken charge of him; and as long as it was possible to shield him, I felt bound to do so. I made an appeal to his honour, if he had any, and to his fears, which are more to be depended on, and gave him until noon to-day to consider it. Here is his note, which was given me in the vestry; and now you know the whole business, and how it is that I postponed the conclusion till to-night."
The Squire put on his spectacles with a tremulous hand to read the note which his son gave him. The room was very still while he read it, no sound interrupting him except an occasional sniff from Louisa, who was in a permanent state of whimpering, and, besides, had ceased to be interested in Frank's affairs. Jack Wentworth, standing in the background behind the Squire's chair, had the whole party before him, and studied them keenly with thoughts which nobody guessed at. Gerald was still standing by the window, leaning on it with his face only half turned to the others. Was he thinking of the others? was he still one of them? or was he saying his office from some invisible breviary abstracted into another life? That supposition looked the most like truth. Near him was his wife, who had thrown herself, a heap of bright fluttering muslin, into the great chair, and kept her handkerchief to her red eyes. She had enough troubles of her own to occupy her, poor soul! Just at that moment it occurred to her to think of the laburnum berries in the shrubbery at the Rectory, which, it was suddenly borne in upon her, would prove fatal to one or other of the children in her absence;—the dear Rectory which she had to leave so soon! "And Frank will have it, of course," Louisa said to herself, "and marry somebody;" and then she thought of the laburnum berries in connection with his problematical children, not without a movement of satisfaction. Opposite to her was the Squire, holding Wodehouse's epistle in a hand which shook a little, and reading aloud slowly as he could make it out. The note was short and insolent enough. While it was being read, Jack Wentworth, who was not easily discomposed, grew red and restless. He had not dictated it certainly, nor even suggested the wording of the epistle; but it was he who, half in scorn and half in pity of the vagabond's terrors, had reassured Wodehouse, and convinced him that it was only the punishments of public opinion which the Curate could bring upon him. Hardened as Jack was, he could not but be conscious that thus to stand in his brother's way was a shabby business enough, and to feel that he himself and his protege cut a very poor figure in presence of the manful old Squire with all his burdens, and of Frank, who had, after all, nothing to explain which was not to his honour. Notwithstanding that he was at the present moment his brother's adversary, actually working against him and prolonging his difficulties, an odd kind of contempt and indignation against the fools who could doubt Frank's honour possessed the prodigal at the moment. "A parcel of asses," he said to himself; and so stood and listened to Wodehouse's little note of defiance, which, but for his prompting, the sullen vagabond would never have dared to send to his former protector. The letter itself was as follows:—
"I have consulted my friends about what you said to-day, and they tell me it is d——d nonsense. You can't do me any harm; and I don't mean to get myself into any scrape for you. You can do what you like—I shan't take any notice. Your love affairs are no business of mine.—Yours truly,
Mr Wentworth threw the miserable scrawl on the table. "The fellow is a scoundrel," said the Squire; "he does not seem to have a spark of gratitude. You've done a deal too much for him already; and if the sister is as old as Dora—" he continued, after a long pause, with a half-humorous relaxation of his features. He was too much worn out to smile.
"Yes," said the Curate. The young man was sensible of a sudden flush and heat, but did not feel any inclination to smile. Matters were very serious just then with Frank Wentworth. He was about to shake himself free of one vexation, no doubt; but at this moment, when Lucy Wodehouse was homeless and helpless, he had nothing to offer her, nor any prospects even which he dared ask her to share with him. This was no time to speak of the other sister, who was not as old as Miss Dora. He was more than ever the Perpetual Curate now. Perhaps, being a clergyman, he ought not to have been swayed by such merely human emotions; but honour and pride alike demanded that he should remain in Carlingford, and he had no shelter to offer Lucy in the time of her need.
After this there followed a pause, which was far from being cheerful. Frank could not but be disconsolate enough over his prospects when the excitement died away; and there was another big, terrible event looming darkly in the midst of the family, which they had not courage to name to each other. The long, uneasy pause was at length broken by Louisa, whose voice sounded in the unnatural silence like the burst of impatient rain which precedes a thunderstorm.
"Now that you have done with Frank's affairs, if you have done with them," said Louisa, "perhaps somebody will speak to Gerald. I don't mean in the way of arguing. If some one would only speak sense to him. You all know as well as I do how many children we've got, and—and—an—other coming," sobbed the poor lady, "if something doesn't happen to me, which I am sure is more than likely, and might be expected. I don't blame dear grandpapa, for he has said everything, and so have I; but I do think his brothers ought to take a little more interest. Oh, Frank, you know it doesn't matter for you. You are a young man, you can go anywhere; but when there are five children and—and—an—other—And how are we to live? You know what a little bit of money I had when Gerald married me. Everybody knows Gerald never cared for money. If I had had a good fortune it would have been quite different," cried poor Louisa, with a little flow of tears and a querulous sob, as though that too was Gerald's fault. "He has not sent off his letter yet, Frank," said the injured wife; "if you would but speak to him. He does not mind me or grandpapa, but he might mind you. Tell him we shall have nothing to live on; tell him—"
"Hush," said Gerald. He came forward to the table, very pale and patient, as became a man at the point of legal death. "I have sent away my letter. By this time I am no longer Rector of Wentworth. Do not break my heart. Do you think there is any particular in the whole matter which I have not considered—the children, yourself, everything? Hush; there is nothing now to be said."
The Squire rose, almost as pale as his son, from his chair. "I think I'll go out into the air a little," said Mr Wentworth. "There's always something new happening. Here is a son of my own," said the old man, rising into a flush of energy, "who has not only deserted his post, but deserted it secretly, Frank. God bless my soul! don't speak to me, sir; I tell you he's gone over to the enemy as much as Charley would have done if he had deserted at the Alma—and done it when nobody knew or was thinking. I used to be thought a man of honour in my day," said Mr Wentworth, bitterly; "and it's a mean thing to say it came by their mother's side. There's Jack—"
The eldest son roused himself up at the mention of his own name. Notwithstanding all his faults, he was not a man to stand behind backs and listen to what was said of him. He came forward with his usual ease, though a close observer might have detected a flush on his face. "I am here, sir," said the heir. "I cannot flatter myself you will have much pleasure in seeing me; but I suppose I have still a right to be considered one of the family." The Squire, who had risen to his feet, and was standing leaning against the table when Jack advanced, returned to his chair and sat down as his eldest son confronted him. They had not met for years, and the shock was great. Mr Wentworth put his hand to his cravat and pulled at it with an instinctive movement. The old man was still feeble from his late illness, and apprehensive of a return of the disease of the Wentworths. He restrained himself, however, with force so passionate that Jack did not guess at the meaning of the gasp which, before the Squire was able to speak to him, convulsed his throat, and made Frank start forward to offer assistance which his father impatiently rejected. The Squire made, indeed, a great effort to speak with dignity. He looked from one to another of his tall sons as he propped himself up by the arms of his chair.
"You are the most important member of the family," said Mr Wentworth; "it is long since you have been among us, but that is not our fault. If things had been different, I should have been glad of your advice as a man of the world. Anyhow, I can't wish you to be estranged from your brothers," said the Squire. It was all any one could say. The heir of Wentworth was not to be denounced or insulted among his kindred, but he could not be taken to their bosom. Perhaps the reception thus given him was more galling than any other could have been to Jack Wentworth's pride. He stood at the table by himself before his father, feeling that there existed no living relations between himself and any one present. He had keen intellectual perceptions, and could recognise the beauty of honour and worth as well as most people; and the contrast between himself and the others who surrounded him presented itself in a very forcible light to Jack. Instead of Gerald and Frank, Wodehouse was his allotted companion. For that once he was bitter, notwithstanding his habitual good-humour.
"Yes," he said; "it would be a pity to estrange me from my brothers. We are, on the whole, a lucky trio. I, whom my relations are civil to; and Frank, who is not acquitted yet, though he seems so confident; and Gerald, who has made the greatest mistake of all—"
"Jack," said the Curate, "nobody wants to quarrel with you. You've dealt shabbily by me, but I do not mind. Only talk of things you understand—don't talk of Gerald."
For a moment Jack Wentworth was roused almost to passion. "What is Gerald that I should not understand him?" said Jack; "he and I are the original brood. You are all a set of interlopers, the rest of you. What is Gerald that I should not talk of him? In the world, my dear Frank," continued the heir, superciliously, "as the Squire himself will testify, a man is not generally exempted from criticism because he is a parson. Gerald is—"
"I am a simple Catholic layman, nothing more," said Gerald; "not worth criticism, having done nothing. I am aware I am as good as dead. There is no reason why Jack should not talk if it pleases him. It will make no difference to me."
"And yet," said Frank, "it is only the other day that you told us you were nothing if not a priest."
Gerald turned upon him with a look of melancholy reproach that went to the Curate's heart. "It is true I said so," he replied, and then he made a pause, and the light died out of his pale face. "Don't bring up the ghosts of my dead battles, Frank. I said so only the other day. But it is the glory of the true Church," said the convert, with a sudden glow which restored colour for a moment to his face, "to restrain and subdue the last enemy, the will of man. I am content to be nothing, as the saints were. The fight has been hard enough, but I am not ashamed of the victory. When the law of the Church and the obedience of the saints ordain me to be nothing, I consent to it. There is nothing more to say."
"And this is how it is to be!" cried Louisa. "He knows what is coming, and he does not care—and none of you will interfere or speak to him! It is not as if he did not know what would happen. He tells you himself that he will be nothing; and even if he can put up with it after being a man of such consideration in the county, how am I to put up with it? We have always been used to the very best society," said poor Louisa, with tears. "The Duke himself was not more thought of; and now he tells you he is to be nothing!" Mrs Wentworth stopped to dry her eyes with tremulous haste. "He may not mind," said Louisa, "for at least he is having his own way. It is all very well for a man, who can do as he pleases; but it is his poor wife who will have to suffer. I don't know who will visit me after it's all over, and people will give over asking us if we don't ask them again; and how can we ever have anybody, with five children—or more—and only a few hundreds a-year? Oh, Frank, it kills me to think of it. Don't you think you might speak to him again?" she whispered, stretching up to his ear, when Gerald, with a sigh, had gone back to his window. The Squire, too, cast an appealing glance at his younger son.
"It is all true enough that she says," said Mr Wentworth. "She mayn't understand him, Frank, but she's right enough in what she's saying. If things were different between your brother and me, I'd ask his advice," said the Squire, with a sigh. He gave a longing look at his eldest son, who stood with his usual ease before the fireplace. Matters had gone a great deal too far between the father and son to admit of the usual displeasure of an aggrieved parent—all that was over long ago; and Mr Wentworth could not restrain a certain melting of the heart towards his first-born. "He's not what I could wish, but he's a man of the world, and might give us some practical advice," said the Squire, with his anxious looks. Of what possible advantage advice, practical or otherwise, could have been in the circumstances, it was difficult to see; but the Squire was a man of simple mind, and still believed in the suggestions of wisdom. He still sat in the easy-chair, looking wistfully at Jack, and with a certain faith that matters might even yet be mended, if the counsel of his eldest son, as a man of the world, could be had and could be trusted; when Frank, who had an afternoon service at Wharfside, had to leave the family committee. Gerald, who roused up when his younger brother mentioned the business he was going upon, looked at Frank almost as wistfully as his father looked at Jack. "It may be the last time," he said to himself; "if you'll let me, I'll go with you, Frank;" and so the little conclave was broken up. The people in Prickett's Lane were greatly impressed by the aspect of Gerald Wentworth, as he went, silent and pale, by his brother's side, down the crowded pavement. They thought it must be a bishop at least who accompanied the Curate of St Roque's; and the women gathered at a little distance and made their comments, as he stood waiting for his brother after the service. "He don't look weakly nor sickly no more nor the clergyman," said one; "but he smiles at the little uns for all the world like my man smiled the night he was took away." "Smilin' or not smilin'," said another, "I don't see as it makes no matter; but I'd give a deal to know what Elsworthy and them as stands by Elsworthy can say after that." "Maybe, then, he'd give the poor fatherless children a blessing afore he'd go," suggested a poor Irish widow, who, having been much under Mr Wentworth's hands "in her trouble," was not quite sure now what faith she professed, or at least which Church she belonged to. Such was the universal sentiment of Prickett's Lane. Meanwhile Gerald stood silent, and looked with pathetic, speechless eyes at the little crowd. He was no priest now—he was shorn of the profession which had been his life. His hope of being able to resign all things for Christ's sake had failed him. Too wary and politic to maintain in a critical age and country the old licence of the ages of Faith, even his wife's consent, could he have obtained it, would not have opened to the convert the way into the priesthood. A greater trial had been required of him; he was nothing, a man whose career was over. He stood idly, in a kind of languor, looking on while the Curate performed the duties of his office—feeling like a man whom sickness had reduced to the last stage of life, and for whom no earthly business remained; while, at the same time, his aspect struck awe, as that of a bishop at the least, to the imagination of Prickett's Lane.
Mr Morgan did not go home direct from the investigation of the morning; on the contrary, he paid various visits, and got through a considerable amount of parish business, before he turned his face towards the Rectory. On the whole, his feelings were far from being comfortable. He did not know, certainly, who Mr Wentworth's witness was, but he had an unpleasant conviction that it was somebody who would clear the Curate. "Of course I shall be very glad," the Rector said to himself; but it is a fact, that in reality he was far from being glad, and that a secret conviction of this sentiment, stealing into his mind, made matters still more uncomfortable. This private sense of wishing evil to another man, of being unwilling and vexed to think well of his neighbour, was in itself enough to disturb the Rector's tranquillity; and when to this was added the aggravation that his wife had always been on the other side, and had warned him against proceeding, and might, if she pleased, say, "I told you so," it will be apparent that Mr Morgan's uneasiness was not without foundation. Instead of going home direct to acquaint his wife with the circumstances, about which he knew she must be curious, it was late in the afternoon before the Rector opened his own gate. Even then he went through the garden with a reluctant step, feeling it still more difficult to meet her now than it would have been at first, although his delay had arisen from the thought that it would be easier to encounter her keen looks after an interval. There was, however, no keen look to be dreaded at this moment. Mrs Morgan was busy with her ferns, and she did not look up as her husband approached. She went on with her occupation, examining carefully what withered fronds there might be about her favourite maidenhair, even when he stopped by her side. Though her husband's shadow fell across the plants she was tending, Mrs Morgan, for the first time in her married life, did not look up to welcome the Rector. She made no demonstration, said no word of displeasure, but only showed herself utterly absorbed in, and devoted to, her ferns. There was, to be sure, no such lover of ferns in the neighbourhood of Carlingford as the Rector's wife.
As for Mr Morgan, he stood by her side in a state of great discomfort and discomfiture. The good man's perceptions were not very clear, but he saw that she had heard from some one the issue of the morning's inquiry, and that she was deeply offended by his delay, and that, in short, they had arrived at a serious difference, the first quarrel since their marriage. Feeling himself in the wrong, Mr Morgan naturally grew angry too.
"I should like to have dinner earlier to-day," he said, with the usual indiscretion of an aggrieved husband. "Perhaps you will tell the cook, my dear. I think I should like to have it at five, if possible. It can't make much difference for one day."
Mrs Morgan raised herself up from her ferns, and no doubt it was a relief to her to find herself provided with so just a cause of displeasure. "Much difference!" cried the Rector's wife; "it is half-past four now. I wonder how you could think of such a thing, William. There is some lamb, which of course is not put down to roast yet, and the ducks. If you wish the cook to give warning immediately, you may send such a message. It is just like a man to think it would make no difference! But I must say, to do them justice," said the Rector's wife, "it is not like a man of your college!" When she had fired this double arrow, she took off her gardening gloves and lifted her basket. "I suppose you told Mr Proctor that you wished to dine early?" said Mrs Morgan, with severity, pausing on the threshold. "Of course it is quite impossible to have dinner at five unless he knows."
"Indeed I—I forgot all about Proctor," said the Rector, who now saw the inexpediency of his proposal. "On second thoughts, I see it does not matter much. But after dinner I expect some people about Mr Wentworth's business. It was not settled this morning, as I expected."
"So I heard," said Mrs Morgan. "I will tell Thomas to show them into the library," and she went indoors, carrying her basket. As for the Rector, he stood silent, looking after her, and feeling wonderfully discomfited. Had she found fault with him for his delay—had she even said "I told you so!" it would have been less overwhelming than this indifference. They had never had a quarrel before, and the effect was proportionately increased. After standing bewildered at the door for a few minutes, he retired into his study, where the change in his wife's demeanour haunted him, and obscured Mr Wentworth. Mrs Morgan sat at the head of the table at dinner with an equal want of curiosity. Even when the subject was discussed between the Rector and Mr Proctor, she asked no questions—a course of procedure very puzzling and trying to Mr Morgan, who could not make it out.
It was after eight o'clock before the tribunal of the morning was reconstituted at the Rectory. Most of the gentlemen came late, and the little assembly brought with it a flavour of port, which modified the serious atmosphere. When the bed of justice was again formed, Mr Wentworth entered with the bodyguard of Wentworths, which numbered half as many as his judges. Half from curiosity, half from a reluctant inclination to please his father, Jack had joined the others, and they came in together, all of them noticeable men, profoundly different, yet identified as belonging to each other by the touching bond of family resemblance. After the four gentlemen had taken possession of their corner, Mr Waters made a somewhat hurried entry, bringing after him the sullen reluctant figure of Wodehouse, who made an awkward bow to the assembled potentates, and looked ashamed and vigilant, and very ill at ease. Mr Waters made a hasty explanation to the Rector before he sat down by the side of his unlucky client. "I thought it possible there might be some attempt made to shift the blame upon him, therefore I thought it best to bring him," said the lawyer. Mr Morgan gave him a dry little nod without answering. To tell the truth, the Rector felt anything but comfortable; when he glanced up at the stranger, who was looking askance at the people in the room as if they had been so many policemen in disguise, a disagreeable sudden conviction that this sullen rascal looked a great deal more like the guilty man than Mr Wentworth did, came into Mr Morgan's mind, and made him sick with annoyance and embarrassment. If it should turn out so! if it should become apparent that he, for private prejudices of his own, had been persecuting his brother! This thought produced an actual physical effect for the moment upon the Rector, but its immediate visible consequence was simply to make him look more severe, almost spiteful, in a kind of unconscious self-vindication. Last of all, Elsworthy, who began to be frightened too, but whose fears were mingled with no compunction nor blame of himself, stole in and found an uncomfortable seat on a stool near the door, where scarcely any one saw him, by favour of Thomas, and screened by the high back of the Rector's easy-chair. When all were assembled Mr Morgan spoke.
"We are met this evening, gentlemen, to complete, if there is sufficient time, the investigation we began this morning," said the Rector. "I have no doubt I express the sentiments of every one present when I say I shall be glad—unfeignedly glad," said Mr Morgan, with a defiant emphasis, which was meant to convince himself, "to find that Mr Wentworth's witness is of sufficient importance to justify the delay. As we were interrupted this morning solely on his account, I presume it will be most satisfactory that this witness should be called at once."
"I should like to say something in the first place," said the Curate. Mr Morgan made an abrupt nod indicative of his consent, and, instead of looking at the defendant, shaded his eyes with his hand, and made figures with his pen upon the blotting-paper. A conviction, against which it was impossible to strive, had taken possession of the Rector's soul. He listened to Frank Wentworth's address with a kind of impatient annoyance and resistance. "What is the good of saying any more about it?" Mr Morgan was saying in his soul. "For heaven's sake let us bury it and be done with it, and forget that we ever made such asses of ourselves." But at the same time the Rector knew this was quite impossible; and as he sat leaning over his blotting-book, writing down millions after millions with his unconscious pen, he looked a very model of an unwilling listener—a prejudiced judge—a man whom no arguments could convince; which was the aspect under which he appeared to the Curate of St Roque's.
"I should like to say something first," said the Perpetual Curate. "I could not believe it possible that I, being tolerably well known in Carlingford as I have always supposed, could be suspected by any rational being of such an insane piece of wickedness as has been laid to my charge; and consequently it did not occur to me to vindicate myself, as I perhaps ought to have done, at the beginning. I have been careless all along of vindicating myself. I had an idea," said the young man, with involuntary disdain, "that I might trust, if not to the regard, at least to the common-sense of my friends—"
Here John Brown, who was near his unwary client, plucked at the Curate's coat, and brought him to a momentary half-angry pause. "Softly, softly," said Dr Marjoribanks; "common-sense has nothing to do with facts; we're inquiring into facts at this moment; and, besides, it's a very foolish and unjustifiable confidence to trust to any man's common-sense," said the old Doctor, with a humorous glance from under his shaggy eyebrows at his fellow-judges; upon which there ensued a laugh, not very agreeable in its tone, which brought the Rector to a white heat of impatience and secret rage.
"It appears to me that the witness ought to be called at once," said Mr Morgan, "if this is not a mere expedient to gain time, and if it is intended to make any progress to-night."
"My explanations shall be very brief," said Frank Wentworth, facing instantly to his natural enemy. "I have suspected from the beginning of this business who was the culprit, and have made every possible attempt to induce him to confess, and, so far as he could, amend the wrong that he had done. I have failed; and now the confession, the amende, must be made in public. I will now call my witness," said the Curate. But this time a commotion rose in another part of the room. It was Wodehouse, who struggled to rise, and to get free from the detaining grasp of his companion.
"By Jove! I aint going to sit here and listen to a parcel of lies!" cried the vagabond. "If I am to be tried, at least I'll have the real thing, by Jove!" He had risen up, and was endeavouring to pass Mr Waters and get out, casting a suspicious defiant look round the room. The noise he made turned all eyes upon him, and the scrutiny he had brought upon himself redoubled his anxiety to get away. "I'll not stand it, by Jove! Waters, let me go," said the craven, whose confused imagination had mixed up all his evil doings together, and who already felt himself being carried off to prison. It was at this moment that Jack Wentworth rose from his place in his easy careless way, and went forward to the table to adjust the lamp, which was flaring a little. Wodehouse dropped back into a chair as soon as he caught the eye of this master of his fate. His big beard moved with a subterranean gasp like the panting of a hunted creature, and all the colour that had remained died away out of his haggard, frightened face. As for Jack Wentworth, he took no apparent notice of the shabby rascal whom he held in awe. "Rather warm this room for a court of justice. I hope Frank's witness is not fat," said Jack, putting himself up against the wall, and lifting languidly his glass to his eye—which byplay was somewhat startling, but totally incomprehensible, to the amateur judges, who looked upon him with angry eyes.