Margaret Oliphant, The Perpetual Curate: Ch. 21

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Chapter XXI

 

When the green door was opened, Mr Wentworth saw at a glance that there was agitation and trouble in the house. Lights were twinkling irregularly in the windows here and there, but the family apartment, the cheerful drawing-room, which generally threw its steady, cheerful blaze over the dark garden, shone but faintly with half-extinguished lights and undrawn curtains. It was evident at a glance that the room was deserted, and its usual occupants engaged elsewhere. "Master's very bad, sir," said the servant who opened the door; "the young ladies is both with him, and a hired nurse come in besides. The doctor don't seem to have no great hopes, but it will be a comfort to know as you have come back. Miss Wodehouse wanted you very bad an hour or two ago, for they thought as master was reviving, and could understand. I'll go and let them know you are here."

"Don't disturb them, unless I can be of use," said Mr Wentworth. The look of the house, and the atmosphere of distress and anxiety about it, chilled him suddenly. His visions and hopes seemed guilty and selfish as he went slowly up those familiar steps and into the house, over which the shadow of death seemed already lying. He went by himself into the forsaken drawing-room, where two neglected candles were burning feebly in a corner, and the wistful sky looking in as if to ask why the domestic temple was thus left open and uncared for. After the first moment he went hastily to the windows, and drew down the blinds in a kind of tender impatience. He could not bear that anything in the world, even her father's danger, should discompose the sweet, good order of the place where Lucy's image dwelt. There was a chair and her basket of work, and on the little table a book marked with pencil-marks, such as youthful readers love to make; and by degrees that breath of Lucy lingering in the silent room overcame its dreariness, and the painful sense of desertion which had struck him at first. He hovered about that corner where her usual place was, feeling in his heart that Lucy in trouble was dearer, if possible, than Lucy in happiness, and hung over her chair, with a mixture of reverence and tenderness and yearning, which could never be expressed in words. It was the divinest phase of love which was in his mind at the moment; for he was not thinking of himself, but of her, and of how he could succour and comfort her, and interpose his own true heart and life between her and all trouble. It was at this moment that Lucy herself entered the room; she came in softly, and surprised him in the overflowing of his heart. She held out her hand to him as usual, and smiled, perhaps less brightly, but that of course arose from the circumstances of the house; and her voice was very measured and steady when she spoke, less variable than of old. What was it she said? Mr Wentworth unconsciously left the neighbourhood of that chair over which he had been bending, which, to tell the truth, he had leaned his head upon, lover-like, and perhaps even kissed for her sake, five minutes before, and grew red and grew pale with a strange revulsion and tumult of feeling. He could not tell what the difference was, or what it meant. He only felt in an instant, with a sense of the change that chilled him to the heart, as if somehow a wall of ice had risen between them. He could see her through the transparent veil, and hear her speak, and perceive the smile which cast no warmth of reflection on him; but in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, everything in heaven and earth was changed. Lucy herself, to her own consciousness, trembled and faltered, and felt as if her voice and her looks must betray an amount of emotion which she would have died rather than show; but then Lucy had rehearsed this scene before, and knew all she intended by it; whereas upon the Curate, in his little flush and overflow of tenderness, it fell like a sudden earthquake, rending his fair edifice of happiness asunder, and casting him out into unexpected darkness. Sudden confusion, mortification, even a sense of injury and bitterness, came swelling over his heart as he set a chair for her as far away as possible from the corner in which he had been indulging such vain and unwarrantable dreams.

"It happened yesterday," said Lucy; "we have not been quite able to make out what was the cause; at least I have not been able to find it out. The clerks at the office say it was something about—but that does not matter," she went on, with her sweet politeness: "you don't care for the details. I sometimes fancy Mary knows more than she tells me, and I think you are in her confidence, Mr Wentworth. But I am not going to ask you any questions. The doctors say he is not suffering so much as he seems to be. It is terrible to see him lie there not knowing any of us," said Lucy, with a tremble in her voice.

"But you thought him better some time ago?" said the Curate, whose words choked him, and who could not endure to speak.