Margaret Oliphant, The Perpetual Curate: Ch. 2

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Chapter II

 

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 élite 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?