Chronicles of Carlingford.
THE PERPETUAL CURATE
ALLA PADRONA MIA; ED A TE, SORELLA CARISSIMA! CONSOLATRICI GENTILLISSIME DELLA DESOLATA.
Carlingford is, as is well known, essentially a quiet place. There is no trade in the town, properly so called. To be sure, there are two or three small counting-houses at the other end of George Street, in that ambitious pile called Gresham Chambers; but the owners of these places of business live, as a general rule, in villas, either detached or semi-detached, in the North-end, the new quarter, which, as everybody knows, is a region totally unrepresented in society. In Carlingford proper there is no trade, no manufactures, no anything in particular, except very pleasant parties and a superior class of people—a very superior class of people, indeed, to anything one expects to meet with in a country town, which is not even a county town, nor the seat of any particular interest. It is the boast of the place that it has no particular interest—not even a public school: for no reason in the world but because they like it, have so many nice people collected together in those pretty houses in Grange Lane—which is, of course, a very much higher tribute to the town than if any special inducement had led them there. But in every community some centre of life is necessary. This point, round which everything circles, is, in Carlingford, found in the clergy. They are the administrators of the commonwealth, the only people who have defined and compulsory duties to give a sharp outline to life. Somehow this touch of necessity and business seems needful even in the most refined society: a man who is obliged to be somewhere at a certain hour, to do something at a certain time, and whose public duties are not volunteer proceedings, but indispensable work, has a certain position of command among a leisurely and unoccupied community, not to say that it is a public boon to have some one whom everybody knows and can talk of. The minister in Salem Chapel was everything in his little world. That respectable connection would not have hung together half so closely but for this perpetual subject of discussion, criticism, and patronage; and, to compare great things with small, society in Carlingford recognised in some degree the same human want. An enterprising or non-enterprising rector made all the difference in the world in Grange Lane; and in the absence of a rector that counted for anything (and poor Mr Proctor was of no earthly use, as everybody knows), it followed, as a natural consequence, that a great deal of the interest and influence of the position fell into the hands of the Curate of St Roque's.
But that position was one full of difficulties, as any one acquainted with the real state of affairs must see in a moment. Mr Wentworth's circumstances were, on the whole, as delicate and critical as can be imagined, both as respected his standing in Carlingford and the place he held in his own family—not to speak of certain other personal matters which were still more troublesome and vexatious. These last of course were of his own bringing on; for if a young man chooses to fall in love when he has next to nothing to live upon, trouble is sure to follow. He had quite enough on his hands otherwise without that crowning complication. When Mr Wentworth first came to Carlingford, it was in the days of Mr Bury, the Evangelical rector—his last days, when he had no longer his old vigour, and was very glad of "assistance," as he said, in his public and parish work. Mr Bury had a friendship of old standing with the Miss Wentworths of Skelmersdale, Mr Francis Wentworth's aunts; and it was a long time before the old Rector's eyes were opened to the astounding fact, that the nephew of these precious and chosen women held "views" of the most dangerous complexion, and indeed was as near Rome as a strong and lofty conviction of the really superior catholicity of the Anglican Church would permit him to be. Before he found this out, Mr Bury, who had unlimited confidence in preaching and improving talk, had done all he could to get the young man to "work," as the good Rector called it, and had voluntarily placed all that difficult district about the canal under the charge of the Curate of St Roque's. It is said that the horror with which, after having just written to Miss Leonora Wentworth to inform her what "a great work" his young friend was doing among the bargemen, Mr Bury was seized upon entering St Roque's itself for the first time after the consecration, when the young priest had arranged everything his own way, had a very bad effect on his health, and hastened his end. And it is indeed a fact that he died soon after, before he had time to issue the interdict he intended against Mr Wentworth's further exertions in the parish of Carlingford. Then came Mr Proctor, who came into the town as if he had dropped from the skies, and knew no more about managing a parish than a baby; and under his exceptional incumbency Mr Wentworth became more than ever necessary to the peace of the community. Now a new regime had been inaugurated. Mr Morgan, a man whom Miss Wodehouse described as "in the prime of life," newly married, with a wife also in the prime of life, who had waited for him ten years, and all that time had been under training for her future duties—two fresh, new, active, clergymanly intellects, entirely open to the affairs of the town, and intent upon general reformation and sound management—had just come into possession. The new Rector was making a great stir all about him, as was natural to a new man; and it seemed, on the whole, a highly doubtful business whether he and Mr Wentworth would find Carlingford big enough to hold them both.
"We could not have expected to begin quite without difficulties," said Mrs Morgan, as she and her husband discussed the question in the drawing-room of the Rectory. It was a pretty drawing-room, though Mr Proctor's taste was not quite in accordance with the principles of the new incumbent's wife: however, as the furniture was all new, and as the former rector had no further need for it, it was of course, much the best and most economical arrangement to take it as it stood—though the bouquets on the carpet were a grievance which nothing but her high Christian principles could have carried Mrs Morgan through. She looked round as she spoke, and gave an almost imperceptible shake of her head: she, too, had her share of disagreeables. "It would not look like Christ's work, dear," said the clergyman's wife, "if we had it all our own way."
"My dear, I hope I am actuated by higher motives than a desire to have it all my own way," said the Rector. "I always felt sure that Proctor would make a mess of any parish he took in hand, but I did not imagine he would have left it to anybody who pleased to work it. You may imagine what my feelings were to-day, when I came upon a kind of impromptu chapel in that wretched district near the canal. I thought it a Little Bethel, you know, of course; but instead of that, I find young Wentworth goes there Wednesdays and Fridays to do duty, and that there is service on Sunday evening, and I can't tell what besides. It may be done from a good motive—but such a disregard of all constituted authority," said the Rector, with involuntary vehemence, "can never, in my opinion, be attended by good results."
"Mr Wentworth, did you say?" said Mrs Morgan, upon whose female soul the Perpetual Curate's good looks and good manners had not been without a certain softening effect. "I am so sorry. I don't wonder you are vexed; but don't you think there must be some mistake, William? Mr Wentworth is so gentlemanly and nice—and of very good family, too. I don't think he would choose to set himself in opposition to the Rector. I think there must be some mistake." "It's a very aggravating mistake, at all events," said Mr Morgan, rising and going to the window. It was, as we have said, a very pretty drawing-room, and the windows opened upon as pretty a bit of lawn as you could see, with one handsome cedar sweeping its dark branches majestically over delicious greensward; but some people did think it was too near George Street and the railway. Just at that moment a puff of delicate white vapour appeared over the wall, and a sudden express-train, just released from the cover of the station, sprang with a snort and bound across the Rector's view, very imperfectly veiled by the lime-trees, which were thin in their foliage as yet. Mr Morgan groaned and retreated—out of his first exaltation he had descended all at once, as people will do after building all their hopes upon one grand event, into great depression and vexation, when he found that, after all, this event did not change the face of existence, but indeed brought new proofs of mortality in the shape of special annoyances belonging to itself in its train. "On the whole," said the Rector, who was subject to fits of disgust with things in general, "I am tempted to think it was a mistake coming to Carlingford; the drawbacks quite overbalance the advantages. I did hesitate, I remember—it must have been my better angel: that is, my dear," he continued, recollecting himself, "I would have hesitated had it not been for you."
Here there ensued a little pause. Mrs Morgan was not so young as she had been ten years ago, all which time she had waited patiently for the Fellow of All-Souls, and naturally these ten years and the patience had not improved her looks. There was a redness on her countenance nowadays which was not exactly bloom; and it stretched across her cheeks, and over the point of her nose, as she was painfully aware, poor lady. She was silent when she heard this, wondering with a passing pang whether he was sorry? But being a thoroughly sensible woman, and above indulging in those little appeals by which foolish ones confuse the calm of matrimonial friendship, she did not express the momentary feeling. "Yes, William," she said, sympathetically, casting her eyes again on the objectionable carpet, and feeling that there were drawbacks even to her happiness as the wife of the Rector of Carlingford; "but I suppose every place has its disadvantages; and then there is such good society; and a town like this is the very place for your talents; and when affairs are in your own hands—"
"It is very easy talking," said the vexed Rector. "Society and everybody would turn upon me if I interfered with Wentworth—there's the vexation. The fellow goes about it as if he had a right. Why, there's a Provident Society and all sorts of things going on, exactly as if it were his own parish. What led me to the place was seeing some ladies in grey cloaks—exactly such frights as you used to make yourself, my dear—flickering about. He has got up a sisterhood, I have no doubt; and to find all this in full operation in one's own parish, without so much as being informed of it! and you know I don't approve of sisterhoods—never did; they are founded on a mistake."
"Yes, dear. I know I gave up as soon as I knew your views on that subject," said Mrs Morgan. "I daresay so will the ladies here. Who were they? Did you speak to them? or perhaps they belonged to St Roque's."
"Nobody belongs to St Roque's," said the Rector, contemptuously—"it has not even a district. They were the two Miss Wodehouses."
Mrs Morgan was moved to utter a little cry. "And their father is churchwarden!" said the indignant woman. "Really, William, this is too much—without even consulting you! But it is easy to see how that comes about. Lucy Wodehouse and young Wentworth are—; well, I don't know if they are engaged—but they are always together, walking and talking, and consulting with each other, and so forth—a great deal more than I could approve of; but that poor elder sister, you know, has no authority—nor indeed any experience, poor thing," said the Rector's wife; "that's how it is, no doubt." "Engaged!" said the Rector. He gave a kindly glance at his wife, and melted a little. "Engaged, are they? Poor little thing! I hope she'll be as good as you have been, my dear; but a young man may be in love without interfering with another man's parish. I can't forgive that," said Mr Morgan, recovering himself; "he must be taught to know better; and it is very hard upon a clergyman," continued the spiritual ruler of Carlingford, "that he cannot move in a matter like this without incurring a storm of godless criticism. If I were sending Wentworth out of my parish, I shouldn't wonder if the 'Times' had an article upon it, denouncing me as an indolent priest and bigot, that would neither work myself nor let my betters work; that's how these fellows talk."
"But nobody could say such things of you," said Mrs Morgan, firing up.
"Of me! they'd say them of St Paul, if he had ever been in the circumstances," said the Rector; "and I should just like to know what he would have done in a parish like this, with the Dissenters on one side, and a Perpetual Curate without a district meddling on the other. Ah, my dear," continued Mr Morgan, "I daresay they had their troubles in those days; but facing a governor or so now and then, or even passing a night in the stocks, is a very different thing from a showing-up in the 'Times,' not to speak of the complications of duty. Let us go out and call at Folgate's, and see whether he thinks anything can be done to the church."
"Dear, you wouldn't mind the 'Times' if it were your duty?" said the Rector's wife, getting up promptly to prepare for the walk.
"No, I suppose not," said Mr Morgan, not without a thrill of importance; "nor the stake," he added, with a little laugh, for he was not without a sense of humour; and the two went out to the architect's to ascertain the result of his cogitations over the church. They passed that sacred edifice in their way, and went in to gaze at it with a disgust which only an unhappy priest of high culture and aesthetic tastes, doomed to officiate in a building of the eighteenth century, of the churchwarden period of architecture, could fully enter into. "Eugh!" said Mr Morgan, looking round upon the high pews and stifling galleries with an expressive contraction of his features—his wife looked on sympathetic; and it was at this unlucky moment that the subject of their late conference made his appearance cheerfully from behind the ugly pulpit, in close conference with Mr Folgate. The pulpit was a three-storeyed mass, with the reading-desk and the clerk's desk beneath—a terrible eyesore to the Rector and his wife.
"I can fancy the expediency of keeping the place in repair," said the Curate of St Roque's, happy in the consciousness of possessing a church which, though not old, had been built by Gilbert Scott, and cheerfully unconscious of the presence of his listeners; "but to beautify a wretched old barn like this is beyond the imagination of man. Money can't do everything," said the heedless young man as he came lounging down the middle aisle, tapping contemptuously with his cane upon the high pew-doors. "I wonder where the people expected to go to who built Carlingford Church? Curious," continued the young Anglican, stopping in mid career, "to think of bestowing consecration upon anything so hideous. What a pass the world must have come to, Folgate, when this erection was counted worthy to be the house of God! After all, perhaps it is wrong to feel so strongly about it. The walls are consecrated, though they are ugly; we can't revoke the blessing. But no wonder it was an unchristian age."
"We have our treasure in earthen vessels," said Mr Morgan, somewhat sternly, from where he stood, under shelter of the heavy gallery. Mr Wentworth was shortsighted, like most people nowadays. He put up his glass hastily, and then hurried forward, perhaps just a little abashed. When he had made his salutations, however, he returned undismayed to the charge.
"It's a great pity you have not something better to work upon," said the dauntless Curate; "but it is difficult to conceive what can be done with such an unhallowed type of construction. I was just saying to Folgate—"
"There is a great deal of cant abroad on this subject," said Mr Morgan, interrupting the young oracle. "I like good architecture, but I don't relish attributing moral qualities to bricks and mortar. The hallowing influence ought to be within. Mr Folgate, we were going to call at your office. Have you thought of the little suggestions I ventured to make? Oh, the drawings are here. Mr Wentworth does not approve of them, I suppose?" said the Rector, turning sternly round upon the unlucky Curate of St Roque's.
"I can only say I sympathise with you profoundly," said young Wentworth, with great seriousness. "Such a terrible church must be a great trial. I wish I had any advice worth offering; but it is my hour for a short service down at the canal, and I can't keep my poor bargees waiting. Good morning. I hope you'll come and give us your countenance, Mrs Morgan. There's no end of want and trouble at Wharfside."
"Is Mr Wentworth aware, I wonder, that Wharfside is in the parish of Carlingford?" said the Rector, with involuntary severity, as the young priest withdrew calmly to go to his "duty." Mr Folgate, who supposed himself to be addressed, smiled, and said, "Oh yes, of course," and unfolded his drawings, to which the clerical pair before him lent a disturbed attention. They were both in a high state of indignation by this time. It seemed indispensable that something should be done to bring to his senses an intruder so perfectly composed and at his ease.
Meanwhile Mr Wentworth, without much thought of his sins, went down George Street, meaning to turn off at the first narrow turning which led down behind the shops and traffic, behind the comfort and beauty of the little town, to that inevitable land of shadow which always dogs the sunshine. Carlingford proper knew little about it, except that it increased the poor-rates, and now and then produced a fever. The minister of Salem Chapel was in a state of complete ignorance on the subject. The late Rector had been equally uninformed. Mr Bury, who was Evangelical, had the credit of disinterring the buried creatures there about thirty years ago. It was an office to be expected of that much-preaching man; but what was a great deal more extraordinary, was to find that the only people now in Carlingford who knew anything about Wharfside, except overseers of the poor and guardians of the public peace, were the Perpetual Curate of St Roque's—who had nothing particular to do with it, and who was regarded by many sober-minded persons with suspicion as a dilettante Anglican, given over to floral ornaments and ecclesiastical upholstery—and some half-dozen people of the very elite of society, principally ladies residing in Grange Lane.
Mr Wentworth came to a hesitating pause at the head of the turning which would have led him to Wharfside. He looked at his watch and saw there was half an hour to spare. He gave a wistful lingering look down the long line of garden-walls, pausing upon one point where the blossomed boughs of an apple-tree overlooked that enclosure. There was quite time to call and ask if the Miss Wodehouses were going down to the service this afternoon; but was it duty? or, indeed, putting that question aside, was it quite right to compound matters with his own heart's desire and the work he was engaged in, in this undeniable fashion? The young priest crossed the street very slowly, swinging his cane and knitting his brows as he debated the question. If it had been one of the bargemen bringing his sweetheart, walking with her along the side of the canal to which Spring and sweet Easter coming on, and Love, perhaps, always helpful of illusions, might convey a certain greenness and sentiment of nature—and echoing her soft responses to the afternoon prayers—perhaps the Curate might have felt that such devotion was not entirely pure and simple. But somehow, before he was aware of it, his slow footstep had crossed the line, and he found himself in Grange Lane, bending his steps towards Mr Wodehouse's door. For one thing, to be sure, the Canticles in the evening service could always be sung when Lucy's sweet clear voice was there to lead the uncertain melody; and it was good to see her singing the 'Magnificat' with that serious sweet face, "full of grace," like Mary's own. Thinking of that, Mr Wentworth made his way without any further hesitation to the green door over which hung the apple-blossoms, totally untroubled in his mind as to what the reverend pair were thinking whom he had left behind him in the ugly church; and unconscious that his impromptu chapel at Wharfside, with its little carved reading-desk, and the table behind, contrived so as to look suspiciously like an altar, was a thorn in anybody's side. Had his mind been in a fit condition at that moment to cogitate trouble, his thoughts would have travelled in a totally different direction, but in the mean time Mr Wentworth was very well able to put aside his perplexities. The green door opened just as he reached it, and Lucy and her elder sister came out in those grey cloaks which the Rector had slandered. They were just going to Wharfside to the service, and of course they were surprised to see Mr Wentworth, who did not knock at that green door more than a dozen times in a week, on the average. The Curate walked between the sisters on their way towards their favourite "district." Such a position would scarcely have been otherwise than agreeable to any young man. Dear old Miss Wodehouse was the gentlest of chaperones. Old Miss Wodehouse people called her, not knowing why—perhaps because that adjective was sweeter than the harsh one of middle age which belonged to her; and then there was such a difference between her and Lucy. Lucy was twenty, and in her sweetest bloom. Many people thought with Mr Wentworth that there were not other two such eyes in Carlingford. Not that they were brilliant or penetrating, but as blue as heaven, and as serene and pure. So many persons thought, and the Perpetual Curate among them. The grey cloak fell in pretty folds around that light elastic figure; and there was not an old woman in the town so tender, so helpful, so handy as Lucy where trouble was, as all the poor people knew. So the three went down Prickett's Lane, which leads from George Street towards the canal—not a pleasant part of the town by any means; and if Mr Wentworth was conscious of a certain haze of sunshine all round and about him, gliding over the poor pavement, and here and there transfiguring some baby bystander gazing open-mouthed at the pretty lady, could any reasonable man be surprised?
"I hope your aunts were quite well, Mr Wentworth, when you heard from them last," said Miss Wodehouse, "and all your people at home. In such a small family as ours, we should go out of our wits if we did not hear every day; but I suppose it is different where there are so many. Lucy, when she goes from home," said the tender elder sister, glancing at her with a half-maternal admiration—"and she might always be visiting about if she liked—writes to me every day."
"I have nobody who cares for me enough to write every week," said the Curate, with a look which was for Lucy's benefit. "I am not so lucky as you. My aunts are quite well, Miss Wodehouse, and they think I had better go up to town in May for the meetings," added Mr Wentworth, with a passing laugh; "and the rest of my people are very indignant that I am not of their way of thinking. There is Tom Burrows on the other side of the street; he is trying to catch your eye," said the Curate, turning round upon Lucy; for the young man had come to such a pass that he could not address her in an ordinary and proper way like other people, but, because he dared not yet call her by her Christian name as if she belonged to him, had a strange rude way of indicating when he was speaking to her, by emphasis and action. It was singularly different from his usual good-breeding; but Lucy somehow rather liked it than otherwise. "He is not going to church for the sake of the service. He is going to please you. He has never forgotten what you did for that little boy of his; and, indeed, if you continue to go on so," said Mr Wentworth, lowering his voice, and more than ever bending his tall head to one side, "I shall have to put a stop to it somehow, for I am not prepared, whatever people say, to go in at once for public worship of the saints."
"I am going in here to call," said Lucy. She looked up very innocently in the Curate's face. "I promised the poor sick woman in the back room to see her every day, and I could not get out any sooner. I daresay I shall be at the schoolroom before you begin. Good-bye just now," said the young Sister of Mercy. She went off all at once on this provoking but unexceptionable errand, looking with calm eyes upon the dismay which overspread the expressive countenance of her spiritual guide. Mr Wentworth stood looking after her for a moment, stunned by the unexpected movement. When he went on, truth compels us to own that a thrill of disgust had taken the place of that vague general sense of beatitude which threw beauty even upon Prickett's Lane. The Curate gave but a sulky nod to the salutation of Tom Burrows, and walked on in a savage mood by the side of Miss Wodehouse, around whom no nimbus of ideal glory hovered.
"I am always afraid of its being too much for her, Mr Wentworth," said the anxious elder sister; "it upsets me directly; but then I never was like Lucy—I can't tell where all you young people have learned it; we never used to be taught so in my day; and though I am twice as old as she is, I know I am not half so much good in the world," said the kind soul, with a gentle sigh. "I should like to see you in a parish of your own, where you would have it all your own way. I hope Mr Morgan won't be meddling when he comes to have time for everything. I should almost think he would—though it seems unkind to say it—by his face."
"I am doing nothing more than my duty," said the Perpetual Curate, in morose tones. "This district was given into my hands by the late Rector. Mr Morgan's face does not matter to me."
"But I should like to see you in a parish of your own," said Miss Wodehouse, meaning to please him. "You know papa always says so. St Roque's is very nice, but—"
"If you wish me out of the way, Miss Wodehouse, I am sorry to say you are not likely to be gratified," said the Curate, "for I have no more expectation of any preferment than you have. Such chances don't come in everybody's way."
"But I thought your aunts, Mr Wentworth—" said poor Miss Wodehouse, who unluckily did not always know when to stop.
"My aunts don't approve of my principles," answered Mr Wentworth, who had his own reasons for speaking with a little asperity. "They are more likely to have me denounced at Exeter Hall. I will join you immediately. I must speak to these men across the street;" and the Curate accordingly walked into a knot of loungers opposite, with a decision of manner which Lucy's desertion had helped him to. Miss Wodehouse, thus left alone, went on with lingering and somewhat doubtful steps. She was not used to being in "the district" by herself. It disturbed her mild, middle-aged habits to be left straying about here alone among all these poor people, whom she looked at half wistfully, half alarmed, feeling for them in her kind heart, but not at all knowing how to get at them as the young people did. The unruly children and gossiping mothers at the poor doors discomposed her sadly, and she was not near so sure that her grey cloak defended her from all rudeness as she pretended to be when assenting to the enthusiasm of Mr Wentworth and Lucy. She made tremulous haste to get out of this scene, which she was not adapted for, to the shelter of the schoolroom, where, at least, she would be safe. "We never were taught so in my day," she said to herself, with an unexpressed wonder which was right; but when she had reached that haven of shelter, was seized with a little panic for Lucy, and went out again and watched for her at the corner of the street, feeling very uncomfortable. It was a great relief to see her young sister coming down alert and bright even before she was joined by Mr Wentworth, who had carried his point with the men he had been talking to. To see them coming down together, smiling to all those people at the doors who disturbed the gentle mind of Miss Wodehouse with mingled sentiments of sympathy and repulsion, bestowing nods of greeting here and there, pausing even to say a word to a few favoured clients, was a wonderful sight to the timid maiden lady at the corner of the street. Twenty years ago some such companion might have been by Miss Wodehouse's side, but never among the poor people in Prickett's Lane. Even with Lucy before her she did not understand it. As the two came towards her, other thoughts united with these in her kind soul. "I wonder whether anything will ever come of it?" she said to herself, and with that wandered into anxious reflections what this difference could be between Mr Wentworth and his aunts: which cogitations, indeed, occupied her till the service began, and perhaps disturbed her due appreciation of it; for if Lucy and Mr Wentworth got attached, as seemed likely, and Mr Wentworth did not get a living, what was to come of it? The thought made this tender-hearted spectator sigh: perhaps she had some experience of her own to enlighten her on such a point. At least it troubled, with sympathetic human cares, the gentle soul which had lost the confidence of youth.
As for the two most immediately concerned, they thought nothing at all about aunts or livings. Whether it is the divine influence of youth, or whether the vague unacknowledged love which makes two people happy in each other's presence carries with it a certain inspiration, this at least is certain, that there is an absolute warmth of devotion arrived at in such moments, which many a soul, no longer happy, would give all the world to reach. Such crowds and heaps of blessings fall to these young souls! They said their prayers with all their hearts, not aware of deriving anything of that profound sweet trust and happiness from each other, but expanding over all the rude but reverend worshippers around them, with an unlimited faith in their improvement, almost in their perfection. This was what the wondering looker-on, scarcely able to keep her anxieties out of her prayers, could not understand, having forgotten, though she did not think so, the exaltation of that time of youth, as people do. She thought it all their goodness that they were able to put away their own thoughts; she did not know it was in the very nature of those unexpressed emotions to add the confidence of happiness to their prayers.
And after a while they all separated and went away back into the world and the everyday hours. Young Wentworth and Lucy had not said a syllable to each other, except about the people in "the district," and the Provident Society; and how that sober and laudable conversation could be called love-making, it would be difficult for the most ardent imagination to conceive. He was to dine with them that evening; so it was for but a very brief time that they parted when the Perpetual Curate left the ladies at the green door, and went away to his room, to attend to some other duties, before he arrayed himself for the evening. As for the sisters, they went in quite comfortably, and had their cup of tea before they dressed for dinner. Lucy was manager indoors as well as out. She was good for a great deal more than Miss Wodehouse in every practical matter. It was she who was responsible for the dinner, and had all the cares of the house upon her head. Notwithstanding, the elder sister took up her prerogative as they sat together in two very cosy easy-chairs, in a little room which communicated with both their bed-chambers up-stairs—a very cosy little odd room, not a dressing-room nor a boudoir, but something between the two, where the sisters had their private talks upon occasion, and which was consecrated by many a libation of fragrant tea.
"Lucy, my dear," said Miss Wodehouse, whose gentle forehead was puckered with care, "I want to speak to you. I have not been able to get you out of my mind since ever we met Mr Wentworth at the green door."
"Was there any need for getting me out of your mind?" said smiling Lucy. "I was a safe enough inmate, surely. I wonder how often I am out of your mind, Mary dear, night or day."
"That is true enough," said Miss Wodehouse, "but you know that is not what I meant either. Lucy, are you quite sure you're going on just as you ought—"
Here she made a troubled pause, and looked in the laughing face opposite, intent upon her with its startled eyes. "What have I done?" cried the younger sister. Miss Wodehouse shook her head with a great deal of seriousness.
"It always begins with laughing," said the experienced woman; "but if it ends without tears it will be something new to me. It's about Mr Wentworth, Lucy. You're always together, day after day; and, my dear, such things can't go on without coming to something—what is to come of it? I have looked at it from every point of view, and I am sure I don't know."
Lucy flushed intensely red, of course, at the Curate's name; perhaps she had not expected it just at that moment; but she kept her composure like a sensible girl as she was.
"I thought it was the other side that were questioned about their intentions," she said. "Am I doing anything amiss? Mr Wentworth is the Curate of St Roque's, and I am one of the district-visitors, and we can't help seeing a great deal of each other so long as this work goes on at Wharfside. You wouldn't like to stop a great work because we are obliged to see a good deal of—of one particular person?" said Lucy, with youthful virtue, looking at her sister's face; at which tone and look Miss Wodehouse immediately faltered, as the culprit knew she must.
"No—oh no, no—to be sure not," said the disturbed monitor. "When you say that, I don't know how to answer you. It must be right, I suppose. I am quite sure it is wonderful to see such young creatures as you, and how you can tell the right way to set about it. But things did not use to be so in my young days. Girls dare not have done such things twenty years ago—not in Carlingford, Lucy," said Miss Wodehouse; "and, dear, I think you ought to be a little careful, for poor Mr Wentworth's sake."
"I don't think Mr Wentworth is in any particular danger," said Lucy, putting down her cup, with a slight curve at the corners of her pretty mouth—"and it is quite time for you to begin dressing. You know you don't like to be hurried, dear;" with which speech the young housekeeper got up from her easy-chair, gave her sister a kiss as she passed, and went away, singing softly, to her toilette. Perhaps there was a little flutter in Lucy's heart as she bound it round with her favourite blue ribbons. Perhaps it was this that gave a certain startled gleam to her blue eyes, and made even her father remark them when she went down-stairs—"It seems to me as if this child were growing rather pretty, Molly, eh? I don't know what other people think," said Mr Wodehouse—and perhaps Mr Wentworth, who was just being ushered into the drawing-room at the moment, heard the speech, for he, too, looked as if he had never found it out before. Luckily there was a party, and no opportunity for sentiment. The party was in honour of the Rector and his wife; and Mr Wentworth could not but be conscious before the evening was over that he had done something to lose the favour of his clerical brother. There was a good deal of Church talk, as was natural, at the churchwarden's table, where three clergymen were dining—for Mr Morgan's curate was there as well; and the Curate of St Roque's, who was slightly hot-tempered, could not help feeling himself disapproved of. It was not, on the whole, a satisfactory evening. Mr Morgan talked rather big, when the ladies went away, of his plans for the reformation of Carlingford. He went into statistics about the poor, and the number of people who attended no church, without taking any notice of that "great work" which Mr Wentworth knew to be going on at Wharfside. The Rector even talked of Wharfside, and of the necessity of exertion on behalf of that wretched district, with a studious unconsciousness of Mr Wentworth; and all but declined to receive better information when Mr Wodehouse proffered it. Matters were scarcely better in the drawing-room, where Lucy was entertaining everybody, and had no leisure for the Perpetual Curate. He took his hat with a gloomy sentiment of satisfaction when it was time to go away; but when the green door was closed behind him, Mr Wentworth, with his first step into the dewy darkness, plunged headlong into a sea of thought. He had to walk down the whole length of Grange Lane to his lodging, which was in the last house of the row, a small house in a small garden, where Mrs Hadwin, the widow of a whilom curate, was permitted by public opinion, on the score of her own unexceptionable propriety,[A] to receive a lodger without loss of position thereby. It was moonlight, or rather it ought to have been moonlight, and no lamps were lighted in Grange Lane, according to the economical regulations of Carlingford; and as Mr Wentworth pursued his way down the dark line of garden-walls, in the face of a sudden April shower which happened to be falling, he had full scope and opportunity for his thoughts.
These thoughts were not the most agreeable in the world. In the first place it must be remembered that for nearly a year past Mr Wentworth had had things his own way in Carlingford. He had been more than rector, he had been archdeacon, or rather bishop, in Mr Proctor's time; for that good man was humble, and thankful for the advice and assistance of his young brother, who knew so much better than he did. Now, to be looked upon as an unauthorised workman, a kind of meddling, Dissenterish, missionising individual, was rather hard upon the young man. And then he thought of his aunts. The connection, imperceptible to an ignorant observer, which existed between the Miss Wentworths and Mr Morgan, and Lucy, and many other matters interesting to their nephew, was a sufficiently real connection when you came to know it. That parish of his own which Miss Wodehouse had wished him—which would free the young clergyman from all trammels so far as his work was concerned; and would enable him to marry, and do everything for him—it was in the power of the Miss Wentworths to bestow; but they were Evangelical women, very public-spirited, and thinking nothing of their nephew in comparison with their duty; and he was at that time of life, and of that disposition, which, for fear of being supposed to wish to deceive them, would rather exaggerate and make a display of the difference of his own views. Not for freedom, not for Lucy, would the Perpetual Curate temporise and manage the matter; so the fact was that he stood at the present moment in a very perilous predicament. But for this family living, which was, with their mother's property, in the hands of her co-heiresses, the three Miss Wentworths, young Frank Wentworth had not a chance of preferment in the world; for the respectable Squire his father had indulged in three wives and three families, and such a regiment of sons that all his influence had been fully taxed to provide for them. Gerald, the clergyman of the first lot, held the family living—not a very large one—which belonged to the Wentworths; and Frank, who was of the second, had been educated expressly with an eye to Skelmersdale, which belonged to his aunts. How he came at the end to differ so completely from these excellent ladies in his religious views is not our business just at present; but in the mean time matters were in a very critical position. The old incumbent of Skelmersdale was eighty, and had been ill all winter; and if the Miss Wentworths were not satisfied somehow, it was all over with their nephew's hopes.
Such were the thoughts that occupied his mind as he walked down Grange Lane in the dark, past the tedious, unsympathetic line of garden-walls, with the rain in his face. The evening's entertainment had stirred up a great many dormant sentiments. His influence in Carlingford had been ignored by this new-comer, who evidently thought he could do what he liked without paying any attention to the Curate of St Roque's; and, what was a great deal worse, he had found Lucy unapproachable, and had realised, if not for the first time, still with more distinctness than ever before, that she did not belong to him, and that he had no more right than any other acquaintance to monopolise her society. This last discovery was bitter to the young man—it was this that made him set his face to the rain, and his teeth, as if that could do any good. He had been happy in her mere society to-day, without entering into any of the terrible preliminaries of a closer connection. But now that was over. She did not belong to him, and he could not bear the thought. And how was she ever to belong to him? Not, certainly, if he was to be a Perpetual Curate of St Roque's, or anywhere else. He felt, in the misery of the moment, as if he could never go to that green door again, or walk by her sweet side to that service in which they had joined so lately. He wondered whether she cared, with a despairing pang of anxiety, through which for an instant a celestial gleam of consciousness leaped, making the darkness all the greater afterwards. And to think that three old ladies, of whom it was not in the nature of things that the young man could be profoundly reverent, should hold in their hands the absolute power of his life, and could determine whether it was to be sweet with hope and love, or stern, constrained, and impoverished, without Lucy or any other immediate light! What a strange anomaly this was which met him full in the face as he pursued his thoughts! If it had been his bishop, or his college, or any fitting tribunal—but his aunts! Mr Wentworth's ring at his own door was so much more hasty than usual that Mrs Hadwin paused in the hall, when she had lighted her candle, to see if anything was the matter. The little neat old lady held up her candle to look at him as he came in, glistening all over with rain-drops.
"I hope you are not wet, Mr Wentworth," she said. "It is only an April shower, and we want it so much in the gardens. And I hope you have had a nice party and a pleasant evening."
"Thank you—pretty well," said the Perpetual Curate, with less suavity than usual, and a sigh that nearly blew Mrs Hadwin's candle out. She saw he was discomposed, and therefore, with a feminine instinct, found more to say than usual before she made her peaceful way to bed. She waited while Mr Wentworth lighted his candle too. "Mr Wodehouse's parties are always pleasant," she said. "I never go out, you know; but I like to hear of people enjoying themselves. I insist upon you going up-stairs before me, Mr Wentworth. I have so little breath to spare, and I take such a long time going up, that you would be tired to death waiting for me. Now, don't be polite. I insist upon you going up first. Thank you. Now I can take my time."
And she took her time accordingly, keeping Mr Wentworth waiting on the landing to say good-night to her, much to his silent exasperation. When he got into the shelter of his own sitting-room, he threw himself upon a sofa, and continued his thoughts with many a troubled addition. A young man, feeling in a great measure the world before him, conscious of considerable powers, standing on the very threshold of so much possible good and happiness,—it was hideous to look up, in his excited imagination, and see the figures of these three old ladies, worse than Fates, standing across the prospect and barring the way.
And Lucy, meantime, was undoing her blue ribbons with a thrill of sweet agitation in her untroubled bosom. Perhaps Mary was right, and it was about coming to the time when this half-feared, half-hoped revelation could not be postponed much longer. For it will be perceived that Lucy was not in much doubt of young Wentworth's sentiments. And then she paused in the dark, after she had said her prayers, to give one timid thought to the sweet life that seemed to lie before her so close at hand—in which, perhaps, he and she were to go out together, she did not know where, for the help of the world and the comfort of the sorrowful; and not trusting herself to look much at that ideal, said another prayer, and went to sleep like one of God's beloved, with a tear too exquisite to be shed brimming under her long eyelashes. At this crisis of existence, perhaps for once in her life, the woman has the best of it; for very different from Lucy's were the thoughts with which the Curate sought his restless pillow, hearing the rain drip all the night, and trickle into Mrs Hadwin's reservoirs. The old lady had a passion for rain-water, and it was a gusty night.
Next week was Passion Week, and full of occupation. Even if it had been consistent either with Mr Wentworth's principles or Lucy's to introduce secular affairs into so holy a season, they had not time or opportunity, as it happened, which was perhaps just as well; for otherwise the premonitory thrill of expectation which had disturbed Lucy's calm, and the bitter exasperation against himself and his fate with which Mr Wentworth had discovered that he dared not say anything, might have caused an estrangement between them. As it was, the air was thundery and ominous through all the solemn days of the Holy Week. A consciousness as of something about to happen overshadowed even the "district," and attracted the keen observation of the lively spectators at Wharfside. They were not greatly up in matters of doctrine, nor perhaps did they quite understand the eloquent little sermon which the Perpetual Curate gave them on Good Friday in the afternoon, between his own services, by way of impressing upon their minds the awful memories of the day; but they were as skilful in the variations of their young evangelist's looks, and as well qualified to decide upon the fact that there was "a something between" him and Miss Lucy Wodehouse, as any practised observer in the higher ranks of society. Whether the two had "'ad an unpleasantness," as, Wharfside was well aware, human creatures under such circumstances are liable to have, the interested community could not quite make out; but that something more than ordinary was going on, and that the prettiest of all the "Provident ladies" had a certain preoccupation in her blue eyes, was a fact perfectly apparent to that intelligent society. And, indeed, one of the kinder matrons in Prickett's Lane had even ventured so far as to wish Miss Lucy "a 'appy weddin' when the time comes." "And there's to be a sight o' weddings this Easter," had added another, who was somewhat scandalised by the flowers in the bonnet of one of the brides-elect, and proceeded to say so in some detail. "But Miss Lucy won't wear no bonnet; the quality goes in veils: and there never was as full a church as there will be to see it, wishing you your 'ealth and 'appiness, ma'am, as aint no more nor you deserve, and you so good to us poor folks." All which felicitations and inquiries had confused Lucy, though she made her way out of them with a self-possession which amazed her sister.
"You see what everybody thinks, dear," said that gentle woman, when they had made their escape.
"Oh, Mary, how can you talk of such things at such a time?" the young Sister of Mercy had answered once more, turning those severe eyes of youthful devotion upon her troubled elder sister, who, to tell the truth, not having been brought up to it, as she said, felt much the same on Easter Eve as at other times of her life; and thus once more the matter concluded. As for Mr Wentworth, he was much occupied on that last day of the Holy Week with a great many important matters on hand. He had not seen the Wodehouses since the Good Friday evening service, which was an interval of about twenty hours, and had just paused, before eating his bachelor's dinner, to ponder whether it would be correct on that most sacred of vigils to steal away for half an hour, just to ask Lucy if she thought it necessary that he should see the sick woman at No. 10 Prickett's Lane before the morning. It was while he was pondering this matter in his mind that Mr Wentworth's heart jumped to his throat upon receipt, quite suddenly, without preparation, of the following note:—
"MY DEAREST BOY,—Your aunts Cecilia, Leonora, and I have just arrived at this excellent inn, the Blue Boar. Old Mr Shirley at Skelmersdale is in a very bad way, poor man, and I thought the very best thing I could do in my dearest Frank's best interests, was to persuade them to make you quite an unexpected visit, and see everything for themselves. I am in a terrible fright now lest I should have done wrong; but my dear, dear boy knows it is always his interest that I have at heart; and Leonora is so intent on having a real gospel minister at Skelmersdale, that she never would have been content with anything less than hearing you with her own ears. I hope and trust in Providence that you don't intone like poor Gerald. And oh, Frank, my dear boy, come directly and dine with us, and don't fly in your aunt Leonora's face, and tell me I haven't been imprudent. I thought it would be best to take you unawares when you had everything prepared, and when we should see you just as you always are; for I am convinced Leonora and you only want to see more of each other to understand each other perfectly. Come, my dearest boy, and give a little comfort to your loving and anxious
Mr Wentworth sat gazing blankly upon this horrible missive for some minutes after he had read it, quite unaware of the humble presence of the maid who stood asking, Please was she to bring up dinner? When he came to himself, the awful "No!" with which he answered that alarmed handmaiden almost drove her into hysterics as she escaped down-stairs. However, Mr Wentworth immediately put his head out at the door and called after her, "I can't wait for dinner, Sarah; I am suddenly called out, and shall dine where I am going. Tell Cook," said the young parson, suddenly recollecting Lucy's client, "to send what she has prepared for me, if it is very nice, to No. 10 Prickett's Lane. My boy will take it; and send him off directly, please," with which last commission the young man went up despairingly to his bedroom to prepare himself for this interview with his aunts. What was he to do? Already before him, in dreadful prophetic vision, he saw all three seated in one of the handsome open benches in St Roque's, looking indescribable horrors at the crown of spring lilies which Lucy's own fingers were to weave for the cross above the altar, and listening to the cadence of his own manly tenor as it rang through the perfect little church of which he was so proud. Yes, there was an end of Skelmersdale, without any doubt or question now; whatever hope there might have been, aunt Dora had settled the matter by this last move of hers—an end to Skelmersdale, and an end of Lucy. Perhaps he had better try not to see her any more; and the poor young priest saw that his own face looked ghastly as he looked at it in the glass. It gave him a little comfort to meet the boy with a bundle pinned up in snowy napkins, from which a grateful odour ascended, bending his steps to Prickett's Lane, as he himself went out to meet his fate. It was a last offering to that beloved "district" with which the image of his love was blended; but he would have given his dinner to Lucy's sick woman any day. To-night it was a greater sacrifice that was to be required of him. He went mournfully and slowly up Grange Lane, steeling himself for the encounter, and trying to forgive aunt Dora in his heart. It was not very easy. Things might have turned out just the same without any interference—that was true; but to have it all brought on in this wanton manner by a kind foolish woman, who would wring her hands and gaze in your face, and want to know, Oh! did you think it was her fault? after she had precipitated the calamity, was very hard; and it was with a very gloomy countenance, accordingly, that the Curate of St Roque's presented himself at the Blue Boar.
The Miss Wentworths were in the very best sitting-room which the Blue Boar contained—the style in which they travelled, with a man and two maids, was enough to secure that; and the kitchen of that respectable establishment was doing its very best to send up a dinner worthy of "a party as had their own man to wait." The three ladies greeted their nephew with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The eldest, Miss Wentworth, from whom he took his second name Cecil, did not rise from her chair, but nevertheless kissed him in an affectionate dignified way when he was brought to her. As for aunt Dora, she ran into her dear Frank's arms, and in the very moment of that embrace whispered in his ear the expression of her anxiety, and the panic which always followed those rash steps which she was in the habit of taking. "Oh, my dear, I hope you don't think I'm to blame," she said, with her lips at his ear, and gained but cold comfort from the Curate's face. The alarming member of the party was Miss Leonora. She rose and made two steps forward to meet the unfortunate young man. She shook both his hands cordially, and said she was very glad to see him, and hoped he was well. She was the sensible sister of the three, and no doubt required all the sense she had to manage her companions. Miss Wentworth, who had been very pretty in her youth, was now a beautiful old lady, with snow-white hair and the most charming smile; and Miss Dora, who was only fifty, retained the natural colour of her own scanty light-brown locks, which wavered in weak-minded ringlets over her cheeks; but Miss Leonora was iron-grey, without any complexion in particular, and altogether a harder type of woman. It was she who held in her hands the fate of Skelmersdale and of Frank Wentworth. Her terrible glance it was which he had imagined gleaming fierce upon his lilies—Lucy's lilies, his Easter decorations. It was by her side the alarmed Curate was made to sit down. It was she who took the foot of the table, and was the gentleman of the house. Her voice was of that class of voice which may be politely called a powerful contralto. Every way she was as alarming a critic as ever was encountered by a Perpetual Curate, or any other young man in trouble. Mr Wentworth said feebly that this was a very unexpected pleasure, as he met his aunt Leonora's eye.
"I hope it is a pleasure," said that penetrating observer. "To tell the truth, I did not expect it would be; but your aunt Dora thought so, and you know, when she sets her heart on anything, nobody can get any peace. Not that your aunt Cecilia and I would have come on that account, if we had not wished, for many reasons, to have some conversation with you, and see how you are getting on."
"Quite so, Leonora," said Miss Wentworth, smiling upon her nephew, and leaning back in her chair.
Then there was a little pause; for, after such a terrible address, it was not to be expected that the poor man, who understood every word of it, could repeat his commonplace about the unlooked-for pleasure. Miss Dora of course seized the opportunity to rush in.
"We have been hearing such delightful things about you, my dear, from the people of the house. Leonora is so pleased to hear how you are labouring among the people, and doing your Master's work. We take all the happiness to ourselves, because, you know, you are our boy, Frank," said the anxious aunt, all her thin ringlets, poor lady, trembling with her eagerness to make everything comfortable for her favourite; "and we have come, you know, specially to hear you on Easter Sunday in your own church. I am looking forward to a great treat: to think I should never have heard you, though it is so long since you were ordained! None of us have ever heard you—not even Leonora; but it is such a pleasure to us all to know you are so much liked in Carlingford," cried the troubled woman, growing nervous at sight of the unresponsive quiet around her. Miss Leonora by no means replied to the covert appeals thus made to her. She left her nephew and her sister to keep up the conversation unassisted; and as for Miss Wentworth, conversation was not her forte.
"I'm afraid, aunt, you will not hear anything worth such a long journey," said Mr Wentworth, moved, like a rash young man as he was, to display his colours at once, and cry no surrender. "I don't think an Easter Sunday is a time for much preaching; and the Church has made such ample provision for the expression of our sentiments. I am more of a humble priest than an ambitious preacher," said the young man, with characteristic youthful pretence of the most transparent kind. He looked in Miss Leonora's face as he spoke. He knew the very name of priest was an offence in its way to that highly Evangelical woman; and if they were to come to single combat, better immediately than after intolerable suspense and delay.
"Perhaps, Dora, you will postpone your raptures about Frank's sermon—which may be a very indifferent sermon, as he says, for anything we can tell—till after dinner," said Miss Leonora. "We're all very glad to see him; and he need not think any little ill-tempered speeches he may make will disturb me. I daresay the poor boy would be glad to hear of some of the people belonging to him instead of all that nonsense. Come to dinner, Frank. Take the other side of the table, opposite Dora; and now that you've said grace, I give you full leave to forget that you're a clergyman for an hour at least. We were down at the old Hall a week ago, and saw your father and the rest. They are all well; and the last boy is rather like you, if you will think that any compliment. Mrs Wentworth is pleased, because you are one of the handsome ones, you know. Not much fear of the Wentworths dying out of the country yet awhile. Your father is getting at his wit's end, and does not know what to do with Cuthbert and Guy. Three sons are enough in the army, and two at sea; and I rather think it's as much as we can stand," continued Miss Leonora, not without a gleam of humour in her iron-grey eyes, "to have two in the Church ."
"That is as it may happen," said the Perpetual Curate, with a little spirit. "If the boys are of my way of thinking, they will consider the Church the highest of professions; but Guy and Cuthbert must go to Australia, I suppose, like most other people, and take their chance—no harm in that."
"Not a bit of harm," said the rich aunt; "they're good boys enough, and I daresay they'll get on. As for Gerald, if you have any influence with your brother, I think he's in a bad way. I think he has a bad attack of Romishness coming on. If you are not in that way yourself," said Miss Leonora, with a sharp glance, "I think you should go and see after Gerald. He is the sort of man who would do anything foolish, you know. He doesn't understand what prudence means. Remember, I believe he is a good Christian all the same. It's very incomprehensible; but the fact is, a man may be a very good Christian, and have the least quality of sense that is compatible with existence. I've seen it over and over again. Gerald's notions are idiocy to me," said the sensible but candid woman, shrugging her shoulders; "but I can't deny that he's a good man, for all that."
"He is the best man I ever knew," said young Wentworth, with enthusiasm.
"Quite so, Frank," echoed aunt Cecilia, with her sweet smile: it was almost the only conversational effort Miss Wentworth ever made.
"But it is so sad to see how he's led away," said Miss Dora; "it is all owing to the bad advisers young men meet with at the universities; and how can it be otherwise as long as tutors and professors are chosen just for their learning, without any regard to their principles? What is Greek and Latin in comparison with a pious guide for the young? We would not have to feel frightened, as we do so often, about young men's principles," continued aunt Dora, fixing her eyes with warning significance on her nephew, and trying hard to open telegraphic communications with him, "if more attention was paid at the universities to give them sound guidance in their studies. So long as you are sound in your principles, there is no fear of you," said the timid diplomatist, trying to aid the warning look of her eyes by emphasis and inflection. Poor Miss Dora! it was her unlucky fate, by dint of her very exertions in smoothing matters, always to make things worse.
"He would be a bold man who would call those principles unsound which have made my brother Gerald what he is," said, with an affectionate admiration that became him, the Curate of St Roque's.
"It's a slavish system, notwithstanding Gerald," said Miss Leonora, with some heat; "and a false system, and leads to Antichrist at the end and nothing less. Eat your dinner, Frank—we are not going to argue just now. We expected to hear that another of the girls was engaged before we came away, but it has not occurred yet. I don't approve of young men dancing about a house for ever and ever, unless they mean something. Do you?"
Mr Wentworth faltered at this question; it disturbed his composure more than anything that had preceded it. "I—really I don't know," he said, after a pause, with a sickly smile—of which all three of his aunts took private notes, forming their own conclusions. It was, as may well be supposed, a very severe ordeal which the poor young man had to go through. When he was permitted to say good-night, he went away with a sensation of fatigue more overpowering than if he had visited all the houses in Wharfside. When he passed the green door, over which the apple-tree rustled in the dark, it was a pang to his heart. How was he to continue to live—to come and go through that familiar road—to go through all the meetings and partings, when this last hopeless trial was over, and Lucy and he were swept apart as if by an earthquake? If his lips were sealed henceforward, and he never was at liberty to say what was in his heart, what would she think of him? He could not fly from his work because he lost Skelmersdale; and how was he to bear it? He went home with a dull bitterness in his mind, trying, when he thought of it, to quiet the aching pulses which throbbed all over him, with what ought to have been the hallowed associations of the last Lenten vigil. But it was difficult, throbbing as he was with wild life and trouble to the very finger-points, to get himself into the shadow of that rock-hewn grave, by which, according to his own theory, the Church should be watching on this Easter Eve. It was hard just then to be bound to that special remembrance. What he wanted at this moment was no memory of one hour, however memorable or glorious, not even though it contained the Redeemer's grave, but the sense of a living Friend standing by him in the great struggle, which is the essential and unfailing comfort of a Christian's life.
Next morning he went to church with a half-conscious, youthful sense of martyrdom, of which in his heart he was half ashamed. St Roque's was very fair to see that Easter morning. Above the communion-table, with all its sacred vessels, the carved oaken cross of the reredos was wreathed tenderly with white fragrant festoons of spring lilies, sweet Narcissus of the poets; and Mr Wentworth's choristers made another white line, two deep, down each side of the chancel. The young Anglican took in all the details of the scene on his way to the reading-desk as the white procession ranged itself in the oaken stalls. At that moment—the worst moment for such a thought—it suddenly flashed over him that, after all, a wreath of spring flowers or a chorister's surplice was scarcely worth suffering martyrdom for. This horrible suggestion, true essence of an unheroic age, which will not suffer a man to be absolutely sure of anything, disturbed his prayer as he knelt down in silence to ask God's blessing. Easter, to be sure, was lovely enough of itself without the garland, and Mr Wentworth knew well enough that his white-robed singers were no immaculate angel-band. It was Satan himself, surely, and no inferior imp, who shot that sudden arrow into the young man's heart as he tried to say his private prayer; for the Curate of St Roque's was not only a fervent Anglican, but also a young Englishman sans reproche, with all the sensitive, almost fantastic, delicacy of honour which belongs to that development of humanity; and not for a dozen worlds would he have sacrificed a lily or a surplice on this particular Easter, when all his worldly hopes hung in the balance. But to think at this crowning moment that a villanous doubt of the benefit of these surplices and lilies should seize his troubled heart! for just then the strains of the organ died away in lengthened whispers, and Miss Leonora Wentworth, severe and awful, swept up through the middle aisle. It was under these terrible circumstances that the Perpetual Curate, with his heart throbbing and his head aching, began to intone the morning service on that Easter Sunday, ever after a day so memorable in the records of St Roque's.
Mr Wentworth's sermon on Easter Sunday was one which he himself long remembered, though it is doubtful whether any of his congregation had memories as faithful. To tell the truth, the young man put a black cross upon it with his blackest ink, a memorial of meaning unknown to anybody but himself. It was a curious little sermon, such as may still be heard in some Anglican pulpits. Though he had heart and mind enough to conceive something of those natural depths of divine significance and human interest, which are the very essence of the Easter festival, it was not into these that Mr Wentworth entered in his sermon. He spoke, in very choice little sentences, of the beneficence of the Church in appointing such a feast, and of all the beautiful arrangements she had made for the keeping of it. But even in the speaking, in the excited state of mind he was in, it occurred to the young man to see, by a sudden flash of illumination, how much higher, how much more catholic, after all, his teaching would have been, could he but have once ignored the Church, and gone direct, as Nature bade, to that empty grave in which all the hopes of humanity had been entombed. He saw it by gleams of that perverse light which seemed more Satanic than heavenly in the moments it chose for shining, while he was preaching his little sermon about the Church and her beautiful institution of Easter, just as he had seen the non-importance of his lily-wreath and surplices as he was about to suffer martyrdom for them. All these circumstances were hard upon the young man. Looking down straight into the severe iron-grey eyes of his aunt Leonora, he could not of course so much as modify a single sentence of the discourse he was uttering, no more than he could permit himself to slur over a single monotone of the service; but that sudden bewildering perception that he could have done so much better—that the loftiest High-Churchism of all might have been consistent enough with Skelmersdale, had he but gone into the heart of the matter—gave a bitterness to the deeper, unseen current of the Curate's thoughts.
Besides, it was terrible to feel that he could not abstract himself from personal concerns even in the most sacred duties. He was conscious that the two elder sisters went away, and that only poor aunt Dora, her weak-minded ringlets limp with tears, came tremulous to the altar rails. When the service was over, and the young priest was disrobing himself, she came to him and gave a spasmodic, sympathetic, half-reproachful pressure to his hand. "Oh, Frank, my dear, I did it for the best," said Miss Dora, with a doleful countenance; and the Perpetual Curate knew that his doom was sealed. He put the best face he could upon the matter, having sufficient doubts of his own wisdom to subdue the high temper of the Wentworths for that moment at least.
"What was it you did for the best?" said the Curate of St Roque's. "I suppose, after all, it was no such great matter hearing me as you thought; but I told you I was not an ambitious preacher. This is a day for worship, not for talk."
"Ah! yes," said Miss Dora; "but oh, Frank, my dear, it is hard upon me, after all my expectations. It would have been so nice to have had you at Skelmersdale. I hoped you would marry Julia Trench, and we should all have been so happy; and perhaps if I had not begged Leonora to come just now, thinking it would be so nice to take you just in your usual way—but she must have known sooner or later," said poor aunt Dora, looking wistfully in his face. "Oh, Frank, I hope you don't think I'm to blame."
"I never should have married Julia Trench," said the Curate, gloomily. He did not enter into the question of Miss Dora's guilt or innocence—he gave a glance at the lilies on the altar, and a sigh. The chances were he would never marry anybody, but loyalty to Lucy demanded instant repudiation of any other possible bride. "Where are you going, aunt Dora; back to the Blue Boar? or will you come with me?" he said, as they stood together at the door of St Roque's. Mr Wentworth felt as if he had caught the beginning threads of a good many different lines of thought, which he would be glad to be alone to work out.
"You'll come back with me to the inn to lunch?" said Miss Dora. "Oh, Frank, my dear, remember your Christian feelings, and don't make a breach in the family. It will be bad enough to face your poor dear father, after he knows what Leonora means to do; and I do so want to talk to you," said the poor woman, eagerly clinging to his arm. "You always were fond of your poor aunt Dora, Frank; when you were quite a little trot you used always to like me best; and in the holiday times, when you came down from Harrow, I used always to hear all your troubles. If you would only have confidence in me now!"
"But what if I have no troubles to confide?" said Mr Wentworth; "a man and a boy are very different things. Come, aunt Dora, I'll see you safe to your inn. What should I have to grumble about? I have plenty to do, and it is Easter; and few men can have everything their own way."
"You won't acknowledge that you're vexed," said aunt Dora, almost crying under her veil, "but I can see it all the same. You always were such a true Wentworth; but if you only would give in and say that you are disappointed and angry with us all, I could bear it better, Frank. I would not feel then that you thought it my fault! And oh, Frank, dear, you don't consider how disappointed your poor dear aunt Leonora was! It's just as hard upon us," she continued, pressing his arm in her eagerness, "as it is upon you. We had all so set our hearts on having you at Skelmersdale. Don't you think, if you were giving your mind to it, you might see things in a different light?" with another pressure of his arm. "Oh, Frank, what does it matter, after all, if the heart is right, whether you read the service in your natural voice, or give that little quaver at the end? I am sure, for my part—"
"My dear aunt," said Mr Wentworth, naturally incensed by this manner of description, "I must be allowed to say that my convictions are fixed, and not likely to be altered. I am a priest, and you are—a woman." He stopped short, with perhaps a little bitterness. It was very true she was a woman, unqualified to teach, but yet she and her sisters were absolute in Skelmersdale. He made a little gulp of his momentary irritation, and walked on in silence, with Miss Dora's kind wistful hand clinging to his arm.
"But, dear Frank among us Protestants, you know, there is no sacerdotal caste," said Miss Dora, opportunely recollecting some scrap of an Exeter Hall speech. "We are all kings and priests to God. Oh, Frank, it is Gerald's example that has led you away. I am sure, before you went to Oxford you were never at all a ritualist—even Leonora thought you such a pious boy; and I am sure your good sense must teach you—" faltered aunt Dora, trying her sister's grand tone.
"Hush, hush; I can't have you begin to argue with me; you are not my aunt Leonora," said the Curate, half amused in spite of himself. This encouraged the anxious woman, and, clasping his arm closer than ever, she poured out all her heart.
"Oh, Frank, if you could only modify your views a little! It is not that there is any difference between your views and ours, except just in words, my dear. Flowers are very pretty decorations, and I know you look very nice in your surplice; and I am sure, for my part, I should not mind—but then that is not carrying the Word of God to the people, as Leonora says. If the heart is right, what does it matter about the altar?" said aunt Dora, unconsciously falling upon the very argument that had occurred to her nephew's perplexed mind in the pulpit. "Even though I was in such trouble, I can't tell you what a happiness it was to take the sacrament from your hands, my dear, dear boy; and but for these flowers and things that could do nobody any good, poor dear Leonora, who is very fond of you, though perhaps you don't think it, could have had that happiness too. Oh, Frank, don't you think you could give up these things that don't matter? If you were just to tell Leonora you have been thinking it over, and that you see you've made a mistake, and that in future—"
"You don't mean to insult me?" said the young man. "Hush—hush; you don't know what you are saying. Not to be made Archbishop of Canterbury, instead of Vicar of Skelmersdale. I don't understand how you could suggest such a thing to me."
Miss Dora's veil, which she had partly lifted, here fell over her face, as it had kept doing all the time she was speaking—but this time she did not put it back. She was no longer able to contain herself, but wept hot tears of distress and vexation, under the flimsy covering of lace. "No, of course, you will not do it—you will far rather be haughty, and say it is my fault," said poor Miss Dora. "We have all so much pride, we Wentworths—and you never think of our disappointment, and how we all calculated upon having you at Skelmersdale, and how happy we were to be, and that you were to marry Julia Trench—"
It was just at this moment that the two reached the corner of Prickett's Lane. Lucy Wodehouse had been down there seeing the sick woman. She had, indeed, been carrying her dinner to that poor creature, and was just turning into Grange Lane, with her blue ribbons hidden under the grey cloak, and a little basket in her hand. They met full in the face at this corner, and Miss Dora's words reached Lucy's ears, and went through and through her with a little nervous thrill. She had not time to think whether it was pain or only surprise that moved her, and was not even self-possessed enough to observe the tremulous pressure of the Curate's hand, as he shook hands with her, and introduced his aunt. "I have just been to see the poor woman at No. 10," said Lucy. "She is very ill to-day. If you had time, it would be kind of you to see her. I think she has something on her mind."
"I will go there before I go to Wharfside," said Mr Wentworth. "Are you coming down to the service this afternoon? I am afraid it will be a long service, for there are all these little Burrowses, you know—"
"Yes, I am godmother," said Lucy, and smiled and gave him her hand again as she passed him while aunt Dora looked on with curious eyes. The poor Curate heaved a mighty sigh as he looked after the grey cloak. Not his the privilege now, to walk with her to the green door, to take her basket from the soft hand of the merciful Sister. On the contrary, he had to turn his back upon Lucy, and walk on with aunt Dora to the inn—at this moment a symbolical action which seemed to embody his fate.
"Where is Wharfside? and who are the little Burrowses? and what does the young lady mean by being godmother?" said aunt Dora. "She looks very sweet and nice; but what is the meaning of that grey cloak? Oh, Frank, I hope you don't approve of nunneries, and that sort of thing. It is such foolishness. My dear, the Christian life is very hard, as your aunt Leonora always says. She says she can't bear to see people playing at Christianity—"
"People should not speak of things they don't understand," said the Perpetual Curate. "Your Exeter-Hall men, aunt Dora, are like the old ascetics—they try to make a merit of Christianity by calling it hard and terrible; but there are some sweet souls in the world, to whom it comes natural as sunshine in May." And the young Anglican, with a glance behind him from the corner of his eye, followed the fair figure, which he believed he was never, with a clear conscience, to accompany any more. "Now, here is your inn," he said, after a little pause. "Wharfside is a district, where I am going presently to conduct service, and the little Burrowses are a set of little heathens, to whom I am to administer holy baptism this Easter Sunday. Good-bye just now."
"Oh, Frank, my dear, just come in for a moment, and tell Leonora—it will show her how wrong she is," said poor aunt Dora, clinging to his arm.
"Right or wrong, I am not going into any controversy. My aunt Leonora knows perfectly well what she is doing," said the Curate, with the best smile he could muster; and so shook hands with her resolutely, and walked back again all the way down Grange Lane, past the green door, to his own house. Nobody was about the green door at that particular moment to ask him in to luncheon, as sometimes happened. He walked down all the way to Mrs Hadwin's, with something of the sensations of a man who has just gone through a dreadful operation, and feels, with a kind of dull surprise after, that everything around him is just the same as before. He had come through a fiery trial, though nobody knew of it; and just at this moment, when he wanted all his strength, how strange to feel that haunting sense of an unnecessary sacrifice—that troubled new vein of thought which would be worked out, and which concerned matters more important than Skelmersdale, weighty as that was. He took his sermon out of his pocket when he got home, and marked a cross upon it, as we have already said; but, being still a young man, he was thankful to snatch a morsel of lunch, and hasten out again to his duty, instead of staying to argue the question with himself. He went to No. 10 Prickett's Lane, and was a long time with the sick woman, listening to all the woeful tale of a troubled life, which the poor sick creature had been contemplating for days and days, in her solitude, through those strange exaggerated death-gleams which Miss Leonora would have called "the light of eternity." She remembered all sorts of sins, great and small, which filled her with nervous terrors; and it was not till close upon the hour for the Wharfside service, that the Curate could leave his tremulous penitent. The schoolroom was particularly full that day. Easter, perhaps, had touched the hearts—it certainly had refreshed the toilettes—of the bargemen's wives and daughters. Some of them felt an inward conviction that their new ribbons were undoubtedly owing to the clergyman's influence, and that Tom and Jim would have bestowed the money otherwise before the Church planted her pickets in this corner of the enemy's camp; and the conviction, though not of an elevated description, was a great deal better than no conviction at all. Mr Wentworth's little sermon to them was a great improvement upon his sermon at St Roque's. He told them about the empty grave of Christ, and how He called the weeping woman by her name, and showed her the earnest of the end of all sorrows. There were some people who cried, thinking of the dead who were still waiting for Easter, which was more than anybody did when Mr Wentworth discoursed upon the beautiful institutions of the Church's year; and a great many of the congregation stayed to see Tom Burrows's six children come up for baptism, preceded by the new baby, whose infant claims to Christianity the Curate had so strongly insisted upon, to the wakening of a fatherly conscience in the honest bargeman. Lucy Wodehouse, without her grey cloak, stood at the font, holding that last tiny applicant for saving grace, while all the other little heathens were signed with the sacred cross. And strangely enough, when the young priest and the young woman stood so near each other, solemnly pledging, one after another, each little sun-browned, round-eyed pagan to be Christ's faithful servant and soldier, the cloud passed away from the firmament of both. Neither of them, perhaps, was of a very enlightened character of soul. They believed they were doing a great work for Tom Burrows's six children, calling God to His promise on their behalf, and setting the little feet straight for the gates of the eternal city; and in their young love and faith their hearts rose. Perhaps it was foolish of Mr Wentworth to suffer himself to walk home again thereafter, as of old, with the Miss Wodehouses—but it was so usual, and, after all, they were going the same way. But it was a very silent walk, to the wonder of the elder sister, who could not understand what it meant. "The Wharfside service always does me good," said Mr Wentworth, with a sigh. "And me, too," said Lucy; and then they talked a little about the poor woman in No. 10. But that Easter Sunday was not like other Sundays, though Miss Wodehouse could not tell why.
Next day the Miss Wentworths made a solemn call at the Rectory, having known an aunt of Mrs Morgan at some period of their history, and being much disposed, besides, with natural curiosity, to ascertain all about their nephew's circumstances. Their entrance interrupted a consultation between the Rector and his wife. Mr Morgan was slightly heated, and had evidently been talking about something that excited him; while she, poor lady, looked just sufficiently sympathetic and indignant to withdraw her mind from that first idea which usually suggested itself on the entrance of visitors—which was, what could they possibly think of her if they supposed the carpet, &c., to be her own choice? Mrs Morgan cast her eye with a troubled look upon the big card which had been brought to her—Miss Wentworth, Miss Leonora Wentworth, Miss Dora Wentworth. "Sisters of his, I suppose, William," she said in an undertone; "now do be civil, dear." There was no time for anything more before the three ladies sailed in. Miss Leonora took the initiative, as was natural.
"You don't remember us, I daresay," she said, taking Mrs Morgan's hand; "we used to know your aunt Sidney, when she lived at the Hermitage. Don't you recollect the Miss Wentworths of Skelmersdale? Charley Sidney spent part of his furlough with us last summer, and Ada writes about you often. We could not be in Carlingford without coming to see the relation of such a dear friend."
"I am so glad to see anybody who knows my aunt Sidney," said Mrs Morgan, with modified enthusiasm. "Mr Morgan, Miss Wentworth. It was such a dear little house that Hermitage. I spent some very happy days there. Oh yes, I recollect Skelmersdale perfectly; but, to tell the truth, there is one of the clergy in Carlingford called Wentworth, and I thought it might be some relations of his coming to call."
"Just so," said Miss Wentworth, settling herself in the nearest easy-chair.
"And so it is," cried Miss Dora; "we are his aunts, dear boy—we are very fond of him. We came on purpose to see him. We are so glad to hear that he is liked in Carlingford."
"Oh—yes," said the Rector's wife, and nobody else took any notice of Miss Dora's little outburst. As for Mr Morgan, he addressed Miss Leonora as if she had done something particularly naughty, and he had a great mind to give her an imposition. "You have not been very long in Carlingford, I suppose," said the Rector, as if that were a sin.
"Only since Saturday," said Miss Leonora. "We came to see Mr Frank Wentworth, who is at St Roque's. I don't know what your bishop is about, to permit all those flowers and candlesticks. For my part, I never disguise my sentiments. I mean to tell my nephew plainly that his way of conducting the service is far from being to my mind."
"Leonora, dear, perhaps Mr Morgan would speak to Frank about it," interposed Miss Dora, anxiously; "he was always a dear boy, and advice was never lost upon him. From one that he respected so much as he must respect the Rector—"
"I beg your pardon. I quite decline interfering with Mr Wentworth; he is not at all under my jurisdiction. Indeed," said the Rector, with a smile of anger, "I might be more truly said to be under his, for he is good enough to help in my parish without consulting me; but that is not to the purpose. I would not for the world attempt to interfere with St Roque's."
"Dear, I am sure Mr Wentworth is very nice, and everything we have seen of him in private we have liked very much," said Mrs Morgan, with an anxious look at her husband. She was a good-natured woman, and the handsome Curate had impressed her favourably, notwithstanding his misdoings. "As for a little too much of the rubric, I think that is not a bad fault in a young man. It gets softened down with a little experience; and I do like proper solemnity in the services of the Church."
"I don't call intoning proper solemnity," said Miss Leonora. "The Church is a missionary institution, that is my idea. Unless you are really bringing in the perishing and saving souls, what is the good? and souls will never be saved by Easter decorations. I don't know what my nephew may have done to offend you, Mr Morgan; but it is very sad to us, who have very strong convictions on the subject, to see him wasting his time so. I daresay there is plenty of heathenism in Carlingford which might be attacked in the first place."
"I prefer not to discuss the subject," said the Rector. "So long as Mr Wentworth, or any other clergyman, keeps to his own sphere of duty, I should be the last in the world to interfere with him."
"You are offended with Frank," said Miss Leonora, fixing her iron-grey eyes upon Mr Morgan. "So am I; but I should be glad if you would tell me all about it. I have particular reasons for wishing to know. After all, he is only a young man," she continued, with that instinct of kindred which dislikes to hear censure from any lips but its own. "I don't think there can be anything more than inadvertence in it. I should be glad if you would tell me what you object to in him. I think it is probable that he may remain a long time in Carlingford," said Miss Leonora, with charming candour, "and it would be pleasant if we could help to set him right. Your advice and experience might be of so much use to him." She was not aware of the covert sarcasm of her speech. She did not know that the Rector's actual experience, though he was half as old again as her nephew, bore no comparison to that of the Perpetual Curate. She spoke in good faith and good nature, not moved in her own convictions of what must be done in respect to Skelmersdale, but very willing, if that were possible, to do a good turn to Frank.
"I am sure, dear, what we have seen of Mr Wentworth in private, we have liked very much," said the Rector's sensible wife, with a deprecating glance towards her husband. The Rector took no notice of the glance; he grew slightly red in his serious middle-aged face, and cleared his throat several times before he began to speak.
"The fact is, I have reason to be dissatisfied with Mr Wentworth, as regards my own parish," said Mr Morgan: "personally I have nothing to say against him—quite the reverse; probably, as you say, it arises from inadvertence, as he is still a very young man; but—"
"What has he done?" said Miss Leonora, pricking up her ears.
Once more Mr Morgan cleared his throat, but this time it was to keep down the rising anger of which he was unpleasantly sensible. "I don't generally enter into such matters with people whom they don't concern," he said, with a touch of his natural asperity; "but as you are Mr Wentworth's relation—. He has taken a step perfectly unjustifiable in every respect; he has at the present moment a mission going on in my parish, in entire independence, I will not say defiance, of me. My dear, it is unnecessary to look at me so deprecatingly. I am indignant at having such a liberty taken with me. I don't pretend not to be indignant. Mr Wentworth is a very young man, and may not know any better; but it is the most unwarrantable intrusion upon a clergyman's rights. I beg your pardon, Miss Wentworth: you have nothing to do with my grievances; but the fact is, my wife and I were discussing this very unpleasant matter when you came in."
"A mission in your parish?" said Miss Leonora, her iron-grey eyes lighting up with a sparkle which did not look like indignation; at this point it was necessary that Miss Dora should throw herself into the breach.
"Oh, Mr Morgan, I am sure my dear Frank does not mean it!" cried the unlucky peacemaker; "he would not for the world do anything to wound anybody's feelings—it must be a mistake."
"Mr Morgan would not have mentioned it if we had not just been talking as you came in," said the Rector's wife, by way of smoothing down his ruffled temper and giving him time to recover. "I feel sure it is a mistake, and that everything will come right as soon as they can talk it over by themselves. The last Rector was not at all a working clergyman—and perhaps Mr Wentworth felt it was his duty—and now I daresay he forgets that it is not his own parish. It will all come right after a time."
"But the mission is effective, I suppose, or you would not object to it?" said Miss Leonora, who, though a very religious woman, was not a peacemaker; and the Rector, whose temper was hasty, swallowed the bait. He entered into his grievances more fully than his wife thought consistent with his dignity. She sat with her eyes fixed upon the floor, tracing the objectionable pattern on the carpet with her foot, but too much vexed for the moment to think of those bouquets which were so severe a cross to her on ordinary occasions. Perhaps she was thinking secretly to herself how much better one knows a man after being married to him three months than after being engaged to him ten years; but the discovery that he was merely a man after all, with very ordinary defects, did not lessen her loyalty. She sat with her eyes bent upon the carpet, feeling a little hot and uncomfortable as her husband disclosed his weakness, and watching her opportunities to rush in and say a softening word now and then. The chances were, perhaps, on the whole, that the wife grew more loyal, if that were possible, as she perceived the necessity of standing by him and backing him out. The Rector went very fully into the subject, being drawn out by Miss Leonora's questions, and betrayed an extent of information strangely opposed to the utter ignorance which he had displayed at Mr Wodehouse's party. He knew the hours of Mr Wentworth's services, and the number of people who attended, and even about Tom Burrows's six children who had been baptised the day before. Somehow Mr Morgan took this last particular as a special offence; it was this which had roused him beyond his usual self-control. Six little heathens brought into the Christian fold in his own parish without the permission of the Rector! It was indeed enough to try any clergyman's temper. Through the entire narrative Miss Dora broke in now and then with a little wail expressive of her general dismay and grief, and certainty that her dear Frank did not mean it. Mrs Morgan repeated apart to Miss Wentworth with a troubled brow the fact that all they had seen of Mr Wentworth in private they had liked very much; to which aunt Cecilia answered, "Quite so," with her beautiful smile; while Miss Leonora sat and listened, putting artful questions, and fixing the heated Rector with that iron-grey eye, out of which the sparkle of incipient light had not faded. Mr Morgan naturally said a great deal more than he meant to say, and after it was said he was sorry; but he did not show the latter sentiment except by silence and an uneasy rustling about the room just before the Miss Wentworths rose to go—a sign apparent to his wife, though to nobody else. He gave Miss Wentworth his arm to the door with an embarrassed courtesy. "If you are going to stay any time at Carlingford, I trust we shall see more of you," said Mr Morgan: "I ought to beg your pardon for taking up so much time with my affairs;" and the Rector was much taken aback when Miss Wentworth answered, "Thank you, that is just what I was thinking." He went back to his troubled wife in great perplexity. What was it that was just what she was thinking?—that he would see more of them, or that he had spoken too much of his own affairs?