Margaret Oliphant, The Perpetual Curate: Ch. 6

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Chapter VI

 

Miss Dora Wentworth relapsed into suppressed sobbing when the three ladies were once more on their way. Between each little access a few broken words fell from the poor lady's lips. "I am sure dear Frank did not mean it," she said; it was all the plea his champion could find for him.

"He did not mean what? to do his duty and save souls?" said Miss Leonora—"is that what he didn't mean? It looks very much as if he did, though—as well as he knew how."

"Quite so, Leonora," said Miss Wentworth.

"But he could not mean to vex the Rector," said Miss Dora—"my poor dear Frank: of course he meant it for the very best. I wonder you don't think so, Leonora—you who are so fond of missions. I told you what I heard him saying to the young lady—all about the sick people he was going to visit, and the children. He is a faithful shepherd, though you won't think so; and I am sure he means nothing but—"

"His duty, I think," said the iron-grey sister, resolutely indifferent to Miss Dora's little sniffs, and turning her gaze out of the window, unluckily just at the moment when the carriage was passing Masters's shop, where some engravings were hanging of a suspiciously devotional character. The name over the door, and the aspect of the shop-window, were terribly suggestive, and the fine profile of the Perpetual Curate was just visible within to the keen eyes of his aunt. Miss Dora, for her part, dried hers, and, beginning to see some daylight, addressed herself anxiously to the task of obscuring it, and damaging once more her favourite's chance.

"Ah, Leonora, if he had but a sphere of his own," cried Miss Dora, "where he would have other things to think of than the rubric, and decorations, and sisterhoods! I don't wish any harm to poor dear old Mr Shirley, I am sure; but when Frank is in the Rectory—"

"I thought you understood that Frank would not do for the Rectory," said Miss Leonora. "Sisterhoods!—look here, there's a young lady in a grey cloak, and I think she's going into that shop: if Frank carries on that sort of thing, I shall think him a greater fool than ever. Who is that girl?"

"I'm sure I don't know, dear," said Miss Dora, with unexpected wisdom. And she comforted her conscience that she did not know, for she had forgotten Lucy's name. So there was no tangible evidence to confirm Miss Leonora's doubts, and the carriage from the Blue Boar rattled down Prickett's Lane to the much amazement of that locality. When they got to the grimy canal-banks, Miss Leonora stopped the vehicle and got out. She declined the attendance of her trembling sister, and marched along the black pavement, dispersing with the great waves of her drapery the wondering children about, who swarmed as children will swarm in such localities. Arrived at the schoolroom, Miss Leonora found sundry written notices hung up in a little wooden frame inside the open door. All sorts of charitable businesses were carried on about the basement of the house; and a curt little notice about the Provident Society diversified the list of services which was hung up for the advantage of the ignorant. Clearly the Curate of St Roque's meant it. "As well as he knows how," his aunt allowed to herself, with a softening sentiment; but, pushing her inquiries further, was shown up to the schoolroom, and stood pondering by the side of the reading-desk, looking at the table which was contrived to be so like an altar. The Curate, who could not have dreamed of such a visit, and whose mind had been much occupied and indifferent to externals on the day before, had left various things lying about, which were carefully collected for him upon a bench. Among them was a little pocket copy of Thomas à Kempis, from which, when the jealous aunt opened it, certain little German prints, such as were to be had by the score at Masters's, dropped out, some of them unobjectionable enough. But if the Good Shepherd could not be found fault with, the feelings of Miss Leonora may be imagined when the meek face of a monkish saint, inscribed with some villanous Latin inscription, a legend which began with the terrible words Ora pro nobis, became suddenly visible to her troubled eyes. She put away the book as if it had stung her, and made a precipitate retreat. She shook her head as she descended the stair—she re-entered the carriage in gloomy silence. When it returned up Prickett's Lane, the three ladies again saw their nephew, this time entering the door of No. 10. He had his prayer-book under his arm, and Miss Leonora seized upon this professional symbol to wreak her wrath upon it. "I wonder if he can't pray by a sick woman without his prayer-book?" she cried. "I never was so provoked in my life. How is it he doesn't know better? His father is not pious, but he isn't a Puseyite, and old uncle Wentworth was very sound—he was brought up under the pure Gospel. How is that the boys are so foolish, Dora?" said Miss Leonora, sharply; "it must be your doing. You have told them tales and things, and put true piety out of their head."