Margaret Oliphant, The Perpetual Curate: Ch. 40

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Chapter XL


"Now, Mr Wodehouse," said Jack Wentworth, "it appears that you and I have a word to say to each other." They had all risen when the other gentlemen followed Mr Morgan out of the room, and those who remained stood in a group surrounding the unhappy culprit, and renewing his impression of personal danger. When he heard himself thus addressed, he backed against the wall, and instinctively took one of the chairs and placed it before him. His furtive eye sought the door and the window, investigating the chances of escape. When he saw that there was none, he withdrew still a step further back, and stood at bay.

"By Jove! I aint going to stand all this," said Wodehouse; "as if every fellow had a right to bully me—it's more than flesh and blood can put up with. I don't care for that old fogey that's gone up-stairs; but, by Jove! I won't stand any more from men that eat my dinners, and win my money, and—"

Jack Wentworth made half a step forward with a superb smile—"My good fellow, you should never reproach a man with his good actions," he said; "but at the same time, having eaten your dinners, as you describe, I have a certain claim on your gratitude. We have had some—a—business connection—for some years. I don't say you have reason to be actually grateful for that; but, at least, it brought you now and then into the society of gentlemen. A man who robs a set of women, and leaves the poor creature he has ruined destitute, is a sort of cur we have nothing to say to," said the heir of the Wentworths, contemptuously. "We do not pretend to be saints, but we are not blackguards; that is to say," said Jack, with a perfectly calm and harmonious smile, "not in theory, nor in our own opinion. The fact accordingly is, my friend, that you must choose between us and those respectable meannesses of yours. By Jove! the fellow ought to have been a shopkeeper, and as honest as—Diogenes," said Jack. He stood looking at his wretched associate with the overwhelming impertinence of a perfectly well-bred man, no way concealing the contemptuous inspection with which his cool eyes travelled over the disconcerted figure from top to toe, seeing and exaggerating all its tremors and clumsy guiltiness. The chances are, had Jack Wentworth been in Wodehouse's place, he would have been master of the position as much as now. He was not shocked nor indignant like his brothers. He was simply contemptuous, disdainful, not so much of the wickedness as of the clumsy and shabby fashion in which it had been accomplished. As for the offender, who had been defiant in his sulky fashion up to this moment, his courage oozed out at his finger-ends under Jack Wentworth's eye.

"I am my own master," he stammered, "nowadays. I aint to be dictated to—and I shan't be, by Jove! As for Jack Wentworth, he's well known to be neither more nor less—"

"Than what, Mr Wodehouse?" said the serene and splendid Jack. "Don't interest yourself on my account, Frank. This is my business at present. If you have any prayer-meetings in hand, we can spare you—and don't forget our respectable friend in your supplications. Favour us with your definition of Jack Wentworth, Mr Wodehouse. He is neither more nor less—?"

"By Jove! I aint going to stand it," cried Wodehouse; "if a fellow's to be driven mad, and insulted, and have his money won from him, and made game of—not to say tossed about as I've been among 'em, and made a drudge of, and set to do the dirty work," said the unfortunate subordinate, with a touch of pathos in his hoarse voice;—"I don't mean to say I've been what I ought; but, by Jove! to be put upon as I've been, and knocked about; and at the last they haven't the pluck to stand by a fellow, by Jove!" muttered Mr Wodehouse's unlucky heir. What further exasperation his smiling superior intended to heap upon him nobody could tell; for just as Jack Wentworth was about to speak, and just as Wodehouse had again faced towards him, half-cowed, half-resisting, Gerald, who had been looking on in silence, came forward out of the shadow. He had seen all and heard all, from that moral deathbed of his, where no personal cares could again disturb him; and though he had resigned his office, he could not belie his nature. He came in by instinct to cherish the dawn of compunction which appeared, as he thought, in the sinner's words.