Margaret Oliphant, The Perpetual Curate: Ch. 22

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Chapter XXII

 

When Mr Wentworth entered Mrs Hadwin's garden in the dark, his first glance up at the house showed him that a certain change had passed on it also. The decorous little house had been turned inside out. The windows of his own sitting-room were open, the blind drawn up to the top, and in addition to his usual lamp some candles were flaring wildly in the draught. He could see into the room as he paused at the garden-door, and was able to distinguish that the table was still covered as for dinner, and to catch the purple gleam of the light in the claret-jug which occupied the place of honour; but nobody was visible in the room. That wildly-illuminated and open apartment stood in strange contrast with the rest of the house, where everything was dark, save in Mrs Hadwin's own chamber. The Curate proceeded on his way, after that moment's pause, with hasty and impatient steps. On the way up he encountered Sarah the housemaid, who stopped in the middle of the stairs to make a frightened little curtsy, and utter an alarmed "La!" of recognition and surprise. But Sarah turned round as soon as she had recovered herself, to say that her missis wanted very bad to see Mr Wentworth as soon as he came home; but she was gone up to bed now, and didn't he think it would be a pity to wake her up? The Curate gave her only a little nod of general acquiescence, as he hurried on; but felt, notwithstanding, that this prompt request, ready prepared for his arrival, was a tacit protest against his guests, and expression of disapproval. Mrs Hadwin was only his landlady, an old woman, and not a particularly wise one, but her disapproval vexed the Perpetual Curate. It was a kind of sign of the times—those times in which it appeared that everybody was ready to turn upon him and embarrass his path. He had forgotten all about his companion as he hurried into the familiar room which was so little like itself, but yet was somehow conscious with annoyance that the stranger followed him through its half-shut door. The scene within was one which was never effaced from Mr Wentworth's memory. There were several bottles upon the table, which the poor Curate knew by sight, and which had been collected in his little cellar more for the benefit of Wharfside than of himself. Removed out of the current of air which was playing freely through the apartment, was some one lying on a sofa, with candles burning on a table beside him. He was in a dressing-gown, with his shirt open at the throat, and his languid frame extended in perfect repose to catch the refreshment of the breeze. Clouds of languid smoke, which were too far out of the way to feel the draught between the windows, curled over him: he had a cigar in one hand, which he had just taken from his lips, and with which he was faintly waving off a big night-moth which had been attracted by the lights; and a French novel, unmistakable in its paper cover, had closed upon the other. Altogether a more languid figure never lay at rest in undisturbed possession of the most legitimate retirement. He had the Wentworth hair, the golden-brown, which, like all their other family features, even down to their illnesses, the race was proud of, and a handsome silky beard. He had lived a hard life of pleasure and punishment; but though he had reached middle age, there was not a hair on the handsome reprobate's head which had changed out of its original colour. He looked languidly up when the door opened, but did not stop the delicate fence which he was carrying on against the moth, nor the polyglot oaths which he was swearing at it softly half under his breath.

"Frank, I suppose," he said, calmly, as the Curate came hastily forward. "How d'ye do? I am very glad you've come back. The country was very charming the first day, but that's a charm that doesn't last. I suppose you've dined: or will you ring and order something?" he said, turning slowly round on his sofa. "Accidente! the thing will kill itself after all. Would you mind catching it in your handkerchief before you sit down? But don't take away the candles. It's too late to make any exertion," said the elegant prodigal, leaning back languidly on his sofa; "but I assure you that light is half my life."

The Curate was tired, heated, and indignant. He lifted the candles away from the table, and then put them back again, too much excited to think of the moth. "Your arrival must have been very sudden," he said, throwing himself into the nearest chair. "I was very much surprised by your message. It looks inhospitable, but I see you make yourself quite at home—"