Thomas Wingfold, Curate - vol.2

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When Helen lay down, she tried to sleep, but she could not even lie still. For all her preference of George and his counsel, and her hope in the view he took of Leopold's case, the mere knowledge that in the next room her cousin sat by her brother, made her anxious and restless.

At first it was the bare feeling that they were together--the thing she had for so long taken such pains to prevent. Next came the fear lest Leopold should succeed in persuading George that he was really guilty--in which case, what would George, the righteous man, counsel? And last and chief of all, what hope of peace to Leopold could he in any of his counsel--except indeed he led him up to the door of death, and urged him into the nothingness behind it? Then what if George should be wrong, and there WAS something behind it? Whatever sort of a something it might be, could the teaching of George be in the smallest measure a preparation for it? Were it not better, so far as the POSSIBILITY which remained untouched by any of George's arguments was concerned, that Leopold should die believing after Mr. Wingfold's fashion, and not disbelieving after George's? If then there were nothing behind, he would be nothing the worse; if there were, the curate might have in some sort prepared him for it.

And now first she began to feel that she was a little afraid of her cousin--that she had yielded to his influence, or rather allowed him to assume upon the possession of influence, until she was aware of something that somewhere galled. He was a very good fellow, but was he one fit to rule her life? Would her nature consent to look up to his always, if she were to marry him? But the thought only flitted like a cloud across the surface of her mind, for all her care was Leopold, and alas! with him she was now almost angry, and it grieved her sorely.

All these feelings together had combined to form her mood, when her maid came to the door with the message that Mr. Wingfold was in the library. She resolved at once to see him.

The curate's heart trembled a little as he waited for her. He was not quite sure that it was his business to tell her her duty--yet something seemed to drive him to it: he could not bear the idea of her going on in the path of crookedness. It is no easy matter for one man to tell another his duty in the simplest relations of life; and here was a man, naturally shy and self-distrustful, daring to rebuke and instruct a woman, whose presence was mighty upon him, and whose influence was tenfold heightened by the suffering that softened her beauty!

She entered, troubled yet stately, doubtful, yet with a kind of half-trust in her demeanour, white, and blue-eyed, with pained mouth, and a droop of weariness and suffering in eyelids and neck--a creature to be worshipped if only for compassion of dignified distress.

Thomas Wingfold's nature was one more than usually bent towards helpfulness, but his early history, his lack of friends, of confidence, of convictions, of stand or aim in life, had hitherto prevented the outcome of that tendency. But now, like issuing water, which, having found way, gathers force momently, the pent-up ministration of his soul was asserting itself. Now that he understood more of the human heart, and recognised in this and that human countenance the bars of a cage through which peeped an imprisoned life, his own heart burned in him with the love of the helpless; and if there was mingled therein anything of the ambition of benefaction, anything of the love of power, anything of self-recommendation, pride of influence, or desire to be a centre of good, and rule in a small kingdom of the aided and aiding, these marshy growths had the fairest chance of dying an obscure death; for the one sun, potent on the wheat for life, and on the tares for death, is the face of Christ Jesus, and in that presence Wingfold lived more and more from day to day.

And now came Helen, who, more than anyone whose history he had yet learned--more perhaps than even her brother, needed such help as he confidently hoped he knew now where she might find! But when he saw her stand before him wounded and tearful and proud, regarding his behaviour in respect of her brother as cruel and heartless; when he felt in his very soul that she was jealous of his influence, that she disliked and even despised him; it was only with a strong effort he avoided assuming a manner correspondent to the idea of himself he saw reflected in her mind, and submitting himself, as it were, to be what she judged him.

When, however, by a pure effort of will, he rose above this weakness and looked her full and clear in the face, a new jealousy of himself arose: she stood there so lovely, so attractive, so tenfold womanly in her misery, that he found he must keep a stern watch upon himself, lest interest in her as a woman should trespass on the sphere of simple humanity, wherein with favouring distinction is recognized neither Jew nor Greek, prince nor peasant--not even man or woman, only the one human heart that can love and suffer. It aided him in this respect however, that his inherent modesty caused him to look up to Helen as to a suffering goddess, noble, grand, lovely, only ignorant of the one secret, of which he, haunting the steps of the Unbound Prometheus, had learned a few syllables, broken yet potent, which he would fain, could he find how, communicate in their potency to her. And besides, to help her now looking upon him from the distant height of conscious superiority, he must persuade her to what she regarded as an unendurable degradation! The circumstances assuredly protected him from any danger of offering her such expression of sympathy as might not have been welcome to her.

It is true that the best help a woman can get is from a right man--equally true with its converse; but let the man who ventures take heed. Unless he is able to counsel a woman to the hardest thing that bears the name of duty, let him not dare give advice even to her asking.

Helen however had not come to ask advice of Wingfold. She was in no such mood. She was indeed weary of a losing strife, and only for a glimmer of possible help from her cousin, saw ruin inevitable before her. But this revival of hope in George had roused afresh her indignation at the intrusion of Wingfold with what she chose to lay to his charge as unsought counsel. At the same time, through all the indignation, terror, and dismay, something within her murmured audibly enough that the curate and not her cousin was the guide who could lead her brother where grew the herb of what peace might yet be had. It was therefore with a sense of bewilderment, discord, and uncertainty, that she now entered the library.

Wingfold rose, made his obeisance, and advanced a step or two. He would not offer a hand that might be unwelcome, and Helen did not offer hers. She bent her neck graciously, and motioned him to be seated.

"I hope Mr. Lingard is not worse," he said.

Helen started. Had anything happened while she had been away from him?

"No. Why should he be worse?" she answered. "Have they told you anything?"

"I have heard nothing; only as I was not allowed to see him,--"

"I left him with Mr. Bascombe half an hour ago," she said, willing to escape the imputation of having refused him admittance.

Wingfold gave an involuntary sigh.

"You do not think that gentleman's company desirable for my brother, I presume," she said with a smile so lustreless that it seemed bitter.

"He won't do him any harm--at least I do not think you need fear it."

"Why not? No one in your profession can think his opinions harmless, and certainly he will not suppress them."

"A man with such a weight on his soul as your brother carries, will not be ready to fancy it lightened by having lumps of lead thrown upon it. An easy mind may take a shroud on its shoulders for wings, but when trouble comes and it wants to fly, then it knows the difference. Leopold will not be misled by Mr. Bascombe."

Helen grew paler. She would have him misled--so far as not to betray himself.

"I am far more afraid of your influence than of his," added the curate.

"What bad influence do you suppose me likely to exercise?" asked Helen, with a cold smile.

"The bad influence of wishing him to act upon your conscience instead of his own."

"Is my conscience then a worse one than Leopold's?" she asked, but as if she felt no interest in the answer.

"It is not his, and that is enough. His own and no other can tell him what he ought to do."

"Why not leave him to it, then?" she said bitterly.

"That is what I want of you, Miss Lingard. I would have you fear to touch the life of the poor youth."

"Touch his life! I would give him mine to save it. YOU counsel him to throw it away."

"Alas, what different meanings we put on the word! You call the few years he may have to live in this world his life; while I--"

"While you count it the millions of which yon know nothing,--somewhere whence no one has ever returned to bring any news!--a wretched life at best if it be such as you represent it."

"Pardon me, that is merely what you suppose I mean by the word. I do not mean that; I mean something altogether different. When I spoke of his life, I thought nothing about here or there, now or then. You will see what I mean if you think how the light came back to his eye and the colour to his cheek the moment he had made up his mind to do what had long seemed his duty. When I saw him again that light was still in his eyes, and a feeble hope looked out of every feature. Existence, from a demon-haunted vapor, had begun to change to a morning of spring; life, the life of conscious well-being, of law and order and peace, had begun to dawn in obedience and self-renunciation; his resurrection was at hand. But you then, and now you and Mr. Bascombe, would stop this resurrection; you would seat yourselves upon his gravestone to keep him down!--And why?--Lest he, lest you, lest your family should be disgraced by letting him out of his grave to tell the truth."

"Sir!" cried Helen, indignantly drawing herself to her full height and something more.

Wingfold took one step nearer to her.

"My calling is to speak the truth," he said: "and I am bound to warn you that you will never be at peace in your own soul until you love your brother aright."

"Love my brother!" Helen almost screamed. "I would die for him."

"Then at least let your pride die for him," said Wingfold, not without indignation.

Helen left the room, and Wingfold the house.

She had hardly shut the door, and fallen again upon the bed, when she began to know in her heart that the curate was right. But the more she knew it, the less would she confess it even to herself: it was unendurable.

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