Margaret Oliphant, The Perpetual Curate: Ch. 48

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Chapter XLVIII


It was the same afternoon that Mr Wentworth failed to attend, as he had never been known to fail before, at the afternoon's school which he had set up in Prickett's Lane for the young bargemen, who between the intervals of their voyages had a little leisure at that hour of the day. It is true there was a master provided, and the presence of the Perpetual Curate was not indispensable; but the lads, among whom, indeed, there were some men, were so much used to his presence as to get restless at their work on this unprecedented emergency. The master knew no other resource than to send for Miss Lucy Wodehouse, who was known to be on the other side of Prickett's Lane at the moment, superintending a similar educational undertaking for the benefit of the girls. It was, as may be supposed, embarrassing to Lucy to be called upon to render an account of Mr Wentworth's absence, and invited to take his place in this public and open manner; but then the conventional reticences were unknown in Wharfside, and nobody thought it necessary to conceal his certainty that the Curate's movements were better known to Lucy than to anybody else. She had to make answer with as much composure as possible in the full gaze of so many pairs of curious eyes, that she did not know why Mr Wentworth was absent—"Somebody is sick, perhaps," said Lucy, repeating an excuse which had been made before for the Perpetual Curate; "but I hope it does not make any difference," she went on, turning round upon all the upturned heads which were neglecting their work to stare at her. "Mr Wentworth would be grieved to think that his absence did his scholars any injury." Lucy looked one of the ringleaders in the eyes as she spoke, and brought him to his senses—all the more effectually, to be sure, because she knew all about him, and was a familiar figure to the boy, suggesting various little comforts, for which, in Prickett's Lane, people were not ungrateful. But when she went back again to her girls, the young lady found herself in a state of excitement which was half annoyance and half a kind of shy pleasure. To be sure, it was quite true that they did belong to each other; but at the same time, so long as she was Lucy Wodehouse, she had no right to be called upon to represent "the clergyman," even in "the district" which was so important to both. And then it occurred to her to remember that if she remained Lucy Wodehouse that was not the Curate's fault—from which thought she went on to reflect that going away with Mr and Mrs Proctor when they were married was not a charming prospect, not to say that it involved a renunciation of the district for the present at least, and possibly for ever; for if Mr Wentworth could not marry as long as he was a perpetual curate, it followed of necessity that he could not marry until he had left Carlingford—an idea which Lucy turned over in her mind very seriously as she walked home, for this once unattended. A new light seemed to be thrown upon the whole matter by this thought. To consent to be married simply for her own happiness, to the disadvantage in any respect of her husband, was an idea odious to this young woman, who, like most young women, preferred to represent even to herself that it was for his happiness that she permitted herself to be persuaded to marry; but if duty were involved, that was quite another affair. It was quite evident to Lucy, as she walked towards Grange Lane, that the Curate would not be able to find any one to take her place in the district; perhaps also—for she was honest even in her self-delusions—Lucy was aware that she might herself have objections to the finding of a substitute; and what then? Was the great work to be interrupted because she could not bear the idea of possibly diminishing some of his external comforts by allowing him to have his way, and to be what he considered happy? Such was the wonderful length to which her thoughts had come when she reached the garden-door, from which Mr Wentworth himself, flushed and eager, came hastily out as she approached. So far from explaining his unaccountable absence, or even greeting her with ordinary politeness, the young man seized her by the arm and brought her into the garden with a rapidity which made her giddy. "What is it—what do you mean?" Lucy cried with amazement as she found herself whirled through the sunshine and half carried up the stairs. Mr Wentworth made no answer until he had deposited her breathless in her own chair, in her own corner, and then got down on his knee beside her, as men in his crazy circumstances are not unapt to do.

"Lucy, look here. I was a perpetual curate the other day when you said you would have me," said the energetic lover, who was certainly out of his wits, and did not know what he was saying—"and you said you did not mind?"

"I said it did not matter," said Lucy, who was slightly piqued that he did not recollect exactly the form of so important a decision. "I knew well enough you were a perpetual curate. Has anything happened, or are you going out of your mind?"