Margaret Oliphant, The Perpetual Curate: Ch. 34

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Chapter XXXIV


When the door closed upon Lucy and her sister, Mr Wentworth stood by himself, facing the other people assembled. The majority of them were more surprised, more shocked, than he was; but they were huddled together in their wonder at the opposite end of the table, and had somehow a confused, half-conscious air of being on the other side.

"It's a very extraordinary revelation that has just been made to us," said Dr Marjoribanks. "I am throwing no doubt upon it, for my part; but my conviction was, that Tom Wodehouse died in the West Indies. He was just the kind of man to die in the West Indies. If it's you," said the Doctor, with a growl of natural indignation, "you have the constitution of an elephant. You should have been dead ten years ago, at the very least; and it appears to me there would be some difficulty in proving identity, if anybody would take up that view of the question." As he spoke, Dr Marjoribanks walked round the new-comer, looking at him with medical criticism. The Doctor's eyes shot out fiery hazel gleams as he contemplated the heavy figure. "More appearance than reality," he muttered to himself, with a kind of grim satisfaction, poising a forefinger in air, as if to prove the unwholesome flesh; and then he went round to the other elbow of the unexpected heir. "The thing is now, what you mean to do for them, to repair your father's neglect," he said, tapping peremptorily on Wodehouse's arm.

"There is something else to be said in the mean time," said Mr Wentworth. "I must know precisely how it is that a state of affairs so different from anything Mr Wodehouse could have intended has come about. The mere absence of a will does not seem to me to explain it. I should like to have Mr Brown's advice—for my own satisfaction, if nothing else."

"The parson has got nothing to do with it, that I can see," said Wodehouse, "unless he was looking for a legacy, or that sort of thing. As for the girls, I don't see what right I have to be troubled; they took deuced little trouble with me. Perhaps they'd have taken me in as a sort of footman without pay—you heard what they said, Waters? By Jove! I'll serve Miss Mary out for that," said the vagabond. Then he paused a little, and, looking round him, moderated his tone. "I've been badly used all my life," said the prodigal son. "They would never give me a hearing. They say I did heaps of things I never dreamt of. Mary aint above thinking of her own interest—"

Here Mr Proctor came forward from the middle of the room where he had been standing in a perplexed manner since the ladies went away. "Hold—hold your tongue, sir!" said the late Rector; "haven't you done enough injury already—" When he had said so much, he stopped as abruptly as he had begun, and seemed to recollect all at once that he had no title to interfere.

"By Jove!" said Wodehouse, "you don't seem to think I know what belongs to me, or who belongs to me. Hold your tongue, Waters; I can speak for myself. I've been long enough snubbed by everybody that had a mind. I don't mean to put up with this sort of thing any longer. Any man who pleases can consult John Brown. I recollect John Brown as well as anybody in Carlingford. It don't matter to me what he says, or what anybody says. The girls are a parcel of girls, and I am my father's son, as it happens. I should have thought the parson had enough on his hands for one while," said the new heir, in the insolence of triumph. "He tried patronising me, but that wouldn't answer. Why, there's his brother, Jack Wentworth, his elder brother, come down here purposely to manage matters for me. He's the eldest son, by Jove! and one of the greatest swells going. He has come down here on purpose to do the friendly thing by me. We're great friends, by Jove! Jack Wentworth and I; and yet here's a beggarly younger brother, that hasn't a penny—"

"Wodehouse," said Mr Wentworth, with some contempt, "sit down and be quiet. You and I have some things to talk of which had better not be discussed in public. Leave Jack Wentworth's name alone, if you are wise, and don't imagine that I am going to bear your punishment. Be silent, sir!" cried the Curate, sternly; "do you suppose I ask any explanations from you? Mr Waters, I want to hear how this has come about? When I saw you in this man's interest some time ago, you were not so friendly to him. Tell me how it happens that he is now your client, and that you set him forth as the heir!"