Margaret Oliphant, The Perpetual Curate: Ch. 37

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Chapter XXXVII


The little assembly which met in the vestry of Carlingford Church to inquire into the conduct of the Perpetual Curate, had so many different interests in hands when it dispersed, and so much to do, that it is difficult for the narrator of this history to decide which thread should be taken up first. Of all the interlocutors, however, perhaps Mr Proctor was the one who had least succeeded in his efforts to explain himself, and accordingly demands in the first place the attention of an impartial historian. The excellent man was still labouring under much perplexity when the bed of justice was broken up. He began to recollect that Mr Wentworth's explanation on the previous night had convinced him of his innocence, and to see that it was indeed altogether inconceivable that the Curate should be guilty; but then, other matters still more disagreeable to contemplate than Mr Wentworth's guilt came in to darken the picture. This vagabond Wodehouse, whom the Curate had taken in at his sister's request—what was the meaning of that mystery? Mr Proctor had never been anyhow connected with mysteries; he was himself an only son, and had lived a straightforward peaceable life. Neither he nor his estimable parents, so far as the late Rector was aware, had ever done anything to be ashamed of; and he winced a little at the thought of connecting himself with concealment and secrecy. And then the Curate's sudden disappearance on the previous evening perplexed and troubled him. He imagined all kinds of reasons for it as he walked down Grange Lane. Perhaps Miss Wodehouse, who would not receive himself, had sent for Mr Wentworth; perhaps the vagabond brother was in some other scrape, out of which he had to be extricated by the Curate's assistance. Mr Proctor was perfectly honest, and indeed determined, in his "intentions;" but everybody will allow that for a middle-aged lover of fifty or thereabouts, contemplating a sensible match with a lady of suitable years and means, to find suddenly that the object of his affections was not only a penniless woman, but the natural guardian of an equally penniless sister, was startling, to say the least of it. He was a true man, and it did not occur to him to decline the responsibility altogether; on the contrary, he was perhaps more eager than he would have been otherwise, seeing that his elderly love had far more need of his devotion than he had ever expected her to have; but, notwithstanding, he was disturbed by such an unlooked-for change of circumstances, as was natural, and did not quite know what was to be done with Lucy. He was full of thoughts on this subject as he proceeded towards the house, to the interview which, to use sentimental language, was to decide his fate. But, to tell the truth, Mr Proctor was not in a state of very deep anxiety about his fate. The idea of being refused was too unreasonable an idea to gain much ground in his mind. He was going to offer his personal support, affection, and sympathy to Miss Wodehouse at the least fortunate moment in her life; and if there was anything consolatory in marriage at all, the late Rector sensibly concluded that it must be doubly comforting under such circumstances, and that the offer of an honest man's hand and house and income was not a likely thing to be rejected by a woman of Miss Wodehouse's experience and good sense—not to speak of his heart, which was very honest and true and affectionate, though it had outlived the fervours of youth. Such was Mr Proctor's view of the matter; and the chances were strong that Miss Wodehouse entirely agreed with him—so, but for a certain shyness which made him rather nervous, it would not be correct to say that the late Rector was in a state of special anxiety about the answer he was likely to receive. He was, however, anxious about Lucy. His bachelor mind was familiar with all the ordinary traditions about the inexpediency of being surrounded by a wife's family; and he had a little of the primitive male sentiment, shared one way or other by most husbands, that the old system of buying a woman right out, and carrying her off for his own sole and private satisfaction, was, after all, the correct way of managing such matters. To be sure, a pretty, young, unmarried sister, was perhaps the least objectionable encumbrance a woman could have; but, notwithstanding, Mr Proctor would have been glad could he have seen any feasible way of disposing of Lucy. It was utterly out of the question to think of her going out as a governess; and it was quite evident that Mr Wentworth, even were he perfectly cleared of every imputation, having himself nothing to live upon, could scarcely offer to share his poverty with poor Mr Wodehouse's cherished pet and darling. "I daresay she has been used to live expensively," Mr Proctor said to himself, wincing a little in his own mind at the thought. It was about one o'clock when he reached the green door—an hour at which, during the few months of his incumbency at Carlingford, he had often presented himself at that hospitable house. Poor Mr Wodehouse! Mr Proctor could not help wondering at that moment how he was getting on in a world where, according to ordinary ideas, there are no lunch nor dinner parties, no old port nor savoury side-dishes. Somehow it was impossible to realise Mr Wodehouse with other surroundings than those of good-living and creature-comfort. Mr Proctor sighed, half for the departed, half at thought of the strangeness of that unknown life for which he himself did not feel much more fitted than Mr Wodehouse. In the garden he saw the new heir sulkily marching about among the flower-beds smoking, and looking almost as much out of place in the sweet tranquillity of the English garden, as a churchwarden of Carlingford or a Fellow of All-Souls could look, to carry out Mr Proctor's previous imagination, in the vague beatitude of a disembodied heaven. Wodehouse was so sick of his own company that he came hastily forward at the sight of a visitor, but shrank a little when he saw who it was.