Margaret Oliphant, The Perpetual Curate: Ch. 32

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Chapter XXXII


It was the afternoon of the same day on which Mr Proctor arrived in Carlingford that Mr Wentworth received the little note from Miss Wodehouse which was so great a consolation to the Perpetual Curate. By that time he had begun to experience humiliations more hard to bear than anything he had yet known. He had received constrained greetings from several of his most cordial friends; his people in the district, all but Tom Burrows, looked askance upon him; and Dr Marjoribanks, who had never taken kindly to the young Anglican, had met him with satirical remarks in his dry Scotch fashion, which were intolerable to the Curate. In these circumstances, it was balm to his soul to have his sympathy once more appealed to, and by those who were nearest to his heart. The next day was that appointed for Mr Wodehouse's funeral, to which Mr Wentworth had been looking forward with a little excitement—wondering, with indignant misery, whether the covert insults he was getting used to would be repeated even over his old friend's grave. It was while this was in his mind that he received Miss Wodehouse's little note. It was very hurriedly written, on the terrible black-edged paper which, to such a simple soul as Miss Wodehouse, it was a kind of comfort to use in the moment of calamity. "Dear Mr Wentworth," it said, "I am in great difficulty, and don't know what to do: come, I beg of you, and tell me what is best. My dear Lucy insists upon going to-morrow, and I can't cross her when her heart is breaking, and I don't know what to do. Please to come, if it were only for a moment. Dear, dear papa, and all of us, have always had such confidence in you!" Mr Wentworth was seated, very disconsolate, in his study when this appeal came to him: he was rather sick of the world and most things in it; a sense of wrong eclipsed the sunshine for the moment, and obscured the skies; but it was comforting to be appealed to—to have his assistance and his protection sought once more. He took his hat immediately and went up the sunny road, on which there was scarcely a passenger visible, to the closed-up house, which stood so gloomy and irresponsive in the sunshine. Mr Wodehouse had not been a man likely to attract any profound love in his lifetime, or sense of loss when he was gone; but yet it was possible to think, with the kindly, half-conscious delusion of nature, that had he been living, he would have known better; and the Curate went into the darkened drawing-room, where all the shutters were closed, except those of the little window in the corner, where Lucy's work-table stood, and where a little muffled sunshine stole in through the blind. Everything was in terribly good order in the room. The two sisters had been living in their own apartments, taking their forlorn meals in the little parlour which communicated with their sleeping chambers, during this week of darkness; and nobody had come into the drawing-room except the stealthy housemaid, who contemplated herself and her new mourning for an hour at a stretch in the great mirror without any interruption, while she made "tidy" the furniture which nobody now disturbed. Into this sombre apartment Miss Wodehouse came gliding, like a gentle ghost, in her black gown. She too, like John and the housemaid and everybody about, walked and talked under her breath. There was now no man in the house entitled to disturb those proprieties with which a female household naturally hedges round all the great incidents of life; and the affairs of the family were all carried on in a whisper, in accordance with the solemnity of the occasion—a circumstance which had naturally called the ghost of a smile to the Curate's countenance as he followed John up-stairs. Miss Wodehouse herself, though she was pale, and spent half her time, poor soul! in weeping, and had, besides, living encumbrances to trouble her helpless path, did not look amiss in her black gown. She came in gliding without any noise, but with a little expectation in her gentle countenance. She was one of the people whom experience never makes any wiser; and she could not help hoping to be delivered from her troubles this time, as so often before, as soon as she should have transferred them to somebody else's shoulders, and taken "advice."

"Lucy has made up her mind that we are to go to-morrow," said Miss Wodehouse, drying her tears. "It was not the custom in my young days, Mr Wentworth, and I am sure I don't know what to say; but I can't bear to cross her, now that she has nobody but me. She was always the best child in the world," said the poor lady—"far more comfort to poor dear papa than I ever could be; but to hear her talk you would think that she had never done anything. And oh, Mr Wentworth, if that was all I should not mind; but we have always kept things a secret from her; and now I have had a letter, and I don't know what it is possible to do."