Margaret Oliphant, The Perpetual Curate: Ch. 38

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Chapter XXXVIII

 

While matters were thus arranging themselves in the ideas at least of the two sisters whose prospects had been so suddenly changed, explanations of a very varied kind were going on in the house of the Miss Wentworths. It was a very full house by this time, having been invaded and taken possession of by the "family" in a way which entirely obliterated the calmer interests and occupations of the habitual inhabitants. The three ladies had reached the stage of life which knows no personal events except those of illness and death; and the presence of Jack Wentworth, of Frank and Gerald, and even of Louisa, reduced them altogether to the rank of spectators, the audience, or at the utmost the chorus, of the drama; though this was scarcely the case with Miss Dora, who kept her own room, where she lay on the sofa, and received visits, and told the story of her extraordinary adventure, the only adventure of her life. The interest of the household centred chiefly, however, in the dining-room, which, as being the least habitable apartment in the house, was considered to be most adapted for anything in the shape of business. On the way from the church to Miss Wentworth's house the Curate had given his father a brief account of all the events which had led to his present position; but though much eased in his mind, and partly satisfied, the Squire was not yet clear how it all came about. His countenance was far from having regained that composure, which indeed the recent course of events in the family had pretty nearly driven out of his life. His fresh light-coloured morning dress, with all its little niceties, and the fresh colour which even anxiety could not drive away from his cheeks, were somehow contradicted in their sentiment of cheerfulness by the puckers in his forehead and the harassed look of his face. He sat down in the big leathern chair by the fireplace, and looked round him with a sigh, and the air of a man who wonders what will be the next vexation. "I'd like to hear it over again, Frank," said the Squire. "My mind is not what it used to be; I don't say I ever was clever, like you young fellows, but I used to understand what was said to me. Now I seem to require to hear everything twice over; perhaps it is because I have had myself to say the same things over again a great many times lately," he added, with a sigh of weariness. Most likely his eye fell on Gerald as he said so; at all events, the Rector of Wentworth moved sadly from where he was standing and went to the window, where he was out of his father's range of vision. Gerald's looks, his movements, every action of his, seemed somehow to bear a symbolic meaning at this crisis in his life. He was no longer in any doubt; he had made up his mind. He looked like a martyr walking to his execution, as he crossed the room; and the Squire looked after him, and once more breathed out of his impatient breast a heavy short sigh. Louisa, who had placed herself in the other great chair at the other side of the forlorn fireplace, from which, this summer afternoon, there came no cheerful light, put up her handkerchief to her eyes and began to cry with half-audible sobs—which circumstances surrounding him were far from being encouraging to Frank as he entered anew into his own story—a story which he told with many interruptions. The Squire, who had once "sworn by Frank," had now a terrible shadow of distrust in his mind. Jack was here on the spot, of whom the unfortunate father knew more harm than he had ever told, and the secret dread that he had somehow corrupted his younger brother came like a cold shadow over Mr Wentworth's mind. He could not slur over any part of the narrative, but cross-examined his son to the extent of his ability, with an anxious inquisition into all the particulars. He was too deeply concerned to take anything for granted. He sat up in his chair with those puckers in his forehead, with that harassed look in his eyes, making an anxious, vigilant, suspicious investigation, which was pathetic to behold. If the defendant, who was thus being examined on his honour, had been guilty, the heart of the judge would have broken; but that was all the more reason for searching into it with jealous particularity, and with a suspicion which kept always gleaming out of his troubled eyes in sudden anxious glances, saying, "You are guilty? Are you guilty?" with mingled accusations and appeals. The accused, being innocent, felt this suspicion more hard to bear than if he had been a hundred times guilty.