Margaret Oliphant, The Perpetual Curate: Ch. 24

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Chapter XXIV


When Mr Wentworth arrived in the little vestry at St Roque's to robe himself for the approaching service, it was after a long and tough contest with Mr Wodehouse's partner, which had to a great extent exhausted his energies. Mr Wodehouse was the leading attorney in Carlingford, the chief family solicitor in the county, a man looked upon with favourable eyes even by the great people as being himself a cadet of a county family. His partner, Mr Waters, was altogether a different description of man. He was much more clever, and a good deal more like a gentleman, but he had not a connection in the world, and had fought his way up to prosperity through many a narrow, and perhaps, if people spoke true, many a dirty avenue to fortune. He was very glad of the chance which brought his partner's reputation and credit thus under his power, and he was by no means disposed to deal gently with the prodigal son. That is to say, he was quite disinclined to let the family out of his clutches easily, or to consent to be silent and "frustrate the ends of justice" for anything else than an important equivalent. Mr Wentworth had much ado to restrain his temper while the wily attorney talked about his conscience; for the Curate was clear-sighted enough to perceive at the first glance that Mr Waters had no real intention of proceeding to extremities. The lawyer would not pledge himself to anything, notwithstanding all Mr Wentworth's arguments. "Wodehouse himself was of the opinion that the law should take its course," he said; but out of respect for his partner he might wait a few days to see what turn his illness would take. "I confess that I am not adapted for my profession, Mr Wentworth. My feelings overcome me a great deal too often," said the sharp man of business, looking full into the Curate's eyes, "and while the father is dying I have not the heart to proceed against the son; but I pledge myself to nothing—recollect, to nothing." And with this and a very indignant mind Mr Wentworth had been forced to come away. His thoughts were occupied with the contrarieties of the world as he hastened along to St Roque's—how one man had to bear another's burdens in every station and capacity of life, and how another man triumphed and came to success by means of the misfortunes of his friends. It was hard to tell what made the difference, or how humankind got divided into these two great classes, for possibly enough the sharp attorney was as just in his way as the Curate; but Mr Wentworth got no more satisfaction in thinking of it than the speculatists generally have when they investigate this strange, wayward, fantastical humanity which is never to be calculated upon. He came into the little vestry of St Roque's, which was a stony little room with a groined roof and windows too severely English in their character to admit any great amount of light, with a sensation of fatigue and discouragement very natural to a man who had been interfering in other people's affairs. There was some comfort in the litany which he was just going to say, but not much comfort in any of the human individuals who would come into Mr Wentworth's mind as he paused in the midst of the suffrage for "sick persons" and for those who "had erred and were deceived," that the worshippers might whisper into God's ear the names for which their hearts were most concerned. The young priest sighed heavily as he put on his surplice, pondering all the obstinate selfishness and strange contradictions of men; and it was only when he heard a rather loud echo to his breath of weariness that he looked up and saw Elsworthy, who was contemplating him with a very curious expression of face. The clerk started a little on being discovered, and began to look over all the choristers' books and set them in readiness, though, indeed, there were no choristers on Fridays, but only the ladies, who chanted the responses a great deal more sweetly, and wore no surplices. Thinking of that, it occurred to Mr Wentworth how much he would miss the round full notes which always betrayed Lucy's presence to him even when he did not see her; and he forgot Elsworthy, and sighed again without thinking of any comment which might be made upon the sound.

"I'm sorry to see, sir, as you aint in your usual good spirits?" said that observant spectator, coming closer up to "his clergyman." Elsworthy's eyes were full of meanings which Mr Wentworth could not, and had no wish to, decipher.

"I am perfectly well, thank you," said the Perpetual Curate, with his coldest tone. He had become suspicious of the man, he could scarcely tell why.

"There's a deal of people in church this morning," said the clerk; and then he came closer still, and spoke in a kind of whisper. "About that little matter as we was speaking of, Mr Wentworth—that's all straight, sir, and there aint no occasion to be vexed. She came back this morning," said Elsworthy, under his breath.