Margaret Oliphant, The Perpetual Curate: Ch. 47

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Chapter XLVII


The dinner-party at the Rectory, to which Mr Wentworth did not go, was much less interesting and agreeable than it might have been had he been present. As for the Rector and his wife, they could not but feel themselves in a somewhat strange position, having between them a secret unsuspected by the company. It was difficult to refrain from showing a certain flagging of interest in the question of the church's restoration, about which, to be sure, Mr Finial was just as much concerned as he had been yesterday; though Mr Morgan, and even Mrs Morgan, had suffered a great and unexplainable diminution of enthusiasm. And then Mr Leeson, who was quite unaware of the turn that things had taken, and who was much too obtuse to understand how the Rector could be anything but exasperated against the Perpetual Curate by the failure of the investigation, did all that he could to make himself disagreeable, which was saying a good deal. When Mrs Morgan came into the drawing-room, and found this obnoxious individual occupying the most comfortable easy-chair, and turning over at his ease the great book of ferns, nature-printed, which was the pet decoration of the table, her feelings may be conceived by any lady who has gone through a similar trial; for Mr Leeson's hands were not of the irreproachable purity which becomes the fingers of a gentleman when he goes out to dinner. "I know some people who always wear gloves when they turn over a portfolio of prints," Mrs Morgan said, coming to the Curate's side to protect her book if possible, "and these require quite as much care;" and she had to endure a discussion upon the subject, which was still more trying to her feelings, for Mr Leeson pretended to know about ferns on the score of having a Wardian case in his lodgings (which belonged to his landlady), though in reality he could scarcely tell the commonest spleenwort from a lycopodium. While Mrs Morgan went through this trial, it is not to be wondered at if she hugged to her heart the new idea of leaving Carlingford, and thought to herself that whatever might be the character of the curate (if there was one) at Scarsfield, any change from Mr Leeson must be for the better. And then the unfortunate man, as if he was not disagreeable enough already, began to entertain his unwilling hostess with the latest news.

"There is quite a commotion in Grange Lane," said Mr Leeson. "Such constant disturbances must deteriorate the property, you know. Of course, whatever one's opinion may be, one must keep it to one's self, after the result of the investigation; though I can't say I have unbounded confidence in trial by jury," said the disagreeable young man.

"I am afraid I am very slow of comprehension," said the Rector's wife. "I don't know in the least what you mean about trial by jury. Perhaps it would be best to put the book back on the table; it is too heavy for you to hold."

"Oh, it doesn't matter," said Mr Leeson—"I mean about Wentworth, of course. When a man is popular in society, people prefer to shut their eyes. I suppose the matter is settled for the present, but you and I know better than to believe—"

"I beg you will speak for yourself, Mr Leeson," said Mrs Morgan, with dignity. "I have always had the highest respect for Mr Wentworth."

"Oh, I beg your pardon," said the disagreeable Curate. "I forgot; almost all the ladies are on Mr Wentworth's side. It appears that little girl of Elsworthy's has disappeared again; that was all I was going to say."

And, fortunately for the Curate, Colonel Chiley, who entered the room at the moment, diverted from him the attention of the lady of the house; and after that there was no opportunity of broaching the subject again until dinner was almost over. Then it was perhaps the All-Souls pudding that warmed Mr Leeson's soul; perhaps he had taken a little more wine than usual. He took sudden advantage of that curious little pause which occurs at a well-conducted dinner-table, when the meal is concluded, and the fruit (considered apparently, in orthodox circles, a paradisiacal kind of food which needs no blessing) alone remains to be discussed. As soon as the manner of thanks from the foot of the table was over, the Curate incautiously rushed in before anybody else could break the silence, and delivered his latest information at a high pitch of voice.