Margaret Oliphant, The Perpetual Curate: Ch. 29

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Chapter XXIX

 

Mr Wentworth went upon his way, after he had parted from Mrs Morgan, with a moment's gratitude; but he had not gone half-a-dozen steps before that amiable sentiment yielded to a sense of soreness and vexation. He had almost acknowledged that he was conscious of the slander against which he had made up his mind to present a blank front of unconsciousness and passive resistance, and he was angry with himself for his susceptibility to this unexpected voice of kindness. He was going home, but he did not care for going home. Poor Mrs Hadwin's anxious looks of suspicion had added to the distaste with which he thought of encountering again the sullen shabby rascal to whom he had given shelter. It was Saturday night, and he had still his sermon to prepare for the next day; but the young man was in a state of disgust with all the circumstances of his lot, and could not make up his mind to go in and address himself to his work as he ought to have done. Such a sense of injustice and cruelty as possessed him was not likely to promote composition, especially as the pulpit addresses of the Curate of St Roque's were not of a declamatory kind. To think that so many years' work could be neutralised in a day by a sudden breath of scandal, made him not humble or patient, but fierce and resentful. He had been in Wharfside that afternoon, and felt convinced that even the dying woman at No. 10 Prickett's Lane had heard of Rosa Elsworthy; and he saw, or imagined he saw, many a distrustful inquiring glance thrown at him by people to whom he had been a kind of secondary Providence. Naturally the mere thought of the failing allegiance of the "district" went to Mr Wentworth's heart. When he turned round suddenly from listening to a long account of one poor family's distresses, and saw Tom Burrows, the gigantic bargeman, whose six children the Curate had baptised in a lump, and whose baby had been held at the font by Lucy Wodehouse herself, looking at him wistfully with rude affection, and something that looked very much like pity, it is impossible to describe the bitterness that welled up in the mind of the Perpetual Curate. Instead of leaving Wharfside comforted as he usually did, he came away wounded and angry, feeling to its full extent the fickleness of popular sympathy. And when he came into Grange Lane and saw the shutters closed, and Mr Wodehouse's green door shut fast, as if never more to open, all sources of consolation seemed to be shut against him. Even the habit he had of going into Elsworthy's to get his newspaper, and to hear what talk might be current in Carlingford, contributed to the sense of utter discomfort and wretchedness which overwhelmed him. Men in other positions have generally to consult the opinion of their equals only; but all sorts of small people can plant thorns in the path of a priest who has given himself with fervour to the duties of his office. True enough, such clouds blow by, and sometimes leave behind a sky clearer than before; but that result is doubtful, and Mr Wentworth was not of the temper to comfort himself with philosophy. He felt ingratitude keenly, as men do at eight-and-twenty, even when they have made up their minds that gratitude is a delusion; and still more keenly, with deep resentment and indignation, he felt the horrible doubt which had diffused itself around him, and seemed to be looking at him out of everybody's eyes. In such a state of mind one bethinks one's self of one's relations—those friends not always congenial, but whom one looks to instinctively, when one is young, in the crisis of life. He knocked at his aunts' door almost without knowing it, as he went down Grange Lane, after leaving Mrs Morgan, with vague sentences of his sermon floating in his mind through all the imbroglio of other thoughts. Even aunt Dora's foolish affection might have been a little comfort at the moment, and he could not but be a little curious to know whether they had heard Elsworthy's story, and what the patronesses of Skelmersdale thought of the matter. Somehow, just then, in the midst of his distresses, a vision of Skelmersdale burst upon the Perpetual Curate like a glimpse of a better world. If he could but escape there out of all this sickening misconception and ingratitude—if he could but take Lucy into his protecting arms, and carry her away far from the clouds that were gathering over her path as well as his own. The thought found vent in an impatient long-drawn sigh, and was then expelled contemptuously from the young man's bosom. If a hundred Skelmersdales were in his power, here, where his honour had been attacked, it was necessary to remain, in the face of all obstacles, till it was cleared.