Margaret Oliphant, The Perpetual Curate: Ch. 27

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Chapter XXVII


Mr Wentworth retired to his own quarters with enough to think about for one morning. He could not make up his mind about Wodehouse—whether he was guilty or not guilty. It seemed incredible that, penniless as he was, he could have succeeded in carrying off a girl so well known in Carlingford as Rosa Elsworthy; and, if he had taken her away, how did it happen that he himself had come back again? The Curate saw clearly enough that his only chance for exculpating himself in the sight of the multitude was by bringing home the guilt to somebody else; and in proportion to the utter scorn with which he had treated Elsworthy's insinuations at first, was his serious apprehension now of the danger which surrounded him. He divined all that slander would make of it with the quickened intelligence of a man whose entire life, and reputation dearer than life, were at stake. If it could not be cleared up—if even any investigation which he might be able to demand was not perfectly successful—Mr Wentworth was quite well aware that the character of a clergyman was almost as susceptible as that of a woman, and that the vague stigma might haunt and overshadow him all his life. The thought was overwhelming at this moment, when his first hopes of finding a speedy solution of the mystery had come to nothing. If he had but lived a century earlier, the chances are that no doubt of Wodehouse's guilt would have entered his mind; but Mr Wentworth was a man of the present age—reasonable to a fault, and apt to consider other people as much as possible from their own point of view. He did not see, looking at the circumstances, how Wodehouse could be guilty; and the Curate would not permit the strong instinctive certainty that he was guilty, to move his own mind from what he imagined to be its better judgment. He was thinking it over very gloomily when his breakfast was brought to him and his letters, feeling that he could be sure of nobody in such an emergency, and dreading more the doubt of his friends than the clamour of the general world. He could bear (he imagined) to be hooted at in the streets, if it ever came to that; but to see the faces of those who loved him troubled with a torturing doubt of his truth was a terrible thought to the Perpetual Curate. And Lucy? But here the young man got up indignant and threw off his fears. He doubted her regard with a doubt which threw darkness over the whole universe; but that she should be able for a moment to doubt his entire devotion to her, seemed a blindness incredible. No; let who would believe ill of him in this respect, to Lucy such an accusation must look as monstrous as it was untrue. She, at least, knew otherwise; and, taking this false comfort to his heart, Mr Wentworth took up his letters, and presently was deep in the anxieties of his brother Gerald, who wrote to him as to a man at leisure, and without any overwhelming perplexities of his own. It requires a very high amount of unselfishness in the person thus addressed to prevent a degree of irritation which is much opposed to sympathy; and Mr Wentworth, though he was very impartial and reasonable, was not, being still young and meaning to be happy, unselfish to any inhuman degree. He put down Gerald's letter, after he had read through half of it, with an exclamation of impatience which he could not restrain, and then poured out his coffee, which had got cold in the mean time, and gulped it down with a sense of half-comforting disgust—for there are moments when the mortification of the flesh is a relief to the spirit; and then it occurred to him to remember Wodehouse's tray, which was a kind of love-offering to the shabby vagabond, and the perfect good order in which he had his breakfast; and Mr Wentworth laughed at himself with a whimsical perception of all that was absurd in his own position which did him good, and broke the spell of his solitary musings. When he took up Gerald's letter again, he read it through. A man more sympathetic, open-hearted, and unselfish than Gerald Wentworth did not exist in the world, as his brother well knew; but nevertheless, Gerald's mind was so entirely preoccupied that he passed over the Curate's cares with the lightest reference imaginable. "I hope you found all right when you got back, and nothing seriously amiss with Jack," the elder brother wrote, and then went on to his own affairs. All right! nothing seriously amiss! To a man who felt himself standing on the edge of possible ruin, such expressions seemed strange indeed.