Margaret Oliphant, The Perpetual Curate: Ch. 25

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"I don't know, sir, I'm sure," said Hayles, with a blank countenance. "It appears to me, sir, as it's an awkward business for all parties. Here's the girl gone, and no one knows where. When a girl don't come back to her own 'ome all night, things look serious, sir; and it has been said as the last place she was seen was at your door."

"Who says so?" cried Mr Wentworth.

"Well—it was—a party, sir—a highly respectable party—as I have good reason to believe," said Hayles, "being a constant customer—one as there's every confidence to be put in. It's better not to name no names, being at this period of the affair."

And at that moment, unluckily for Mr Wentworth, there suddenly floated across his mind the clearest recollection of the Miss Hemmings, and the look they gave him in passing. He felt a hot flush rush over his face as he recalled it. They, then, were his accusers in the first place; and for the first time he began to realise how the tide of accusation would surge through Carlingford, and how circumstances would be patched together, and very plausible evidence concocted out of the few facts which were capable of an inference totally opposed to the truth. The blood rushed to his face in an overpowering glow, and then he felt the warm tide going back upon his heart, and realised the position in which he stood for the first time in its true light.

"And if you'll let me say it, sir," said the judicious Hayles, "though a man may be in a bit of a passion, and speak more strong that is called for, it aint unnatural in the circumstances; things may be better than they appear," said the druggist, mildly; "I don't say nothing against that; it may be as you've took her away, sir (if so be as you have took her away), for to give her a bit of education, or suchlike, before making her your wife; but folks in general aint expected to know that; and when a young girl is kep' out of her 'ome for a whole night, it aint wonderful if her friends take fright. It's a sad thing for Rosa whoever's taken her away, and wherever she is."

Now, Mr Wentworth, notwithstanding the indignant state of mind which he was in, was emphatically of the tolerant temper which is so curiously characteristic of his generation. He could not be unreasonable even in his own cause; he was not partisan enough, even in his own behalf, to forget that there was another side to the question, nor to see how hard and how sad was that other side. He was moved in spite of himself to grieve over Rosa Elsworthy's great misfortune.

"Poor little deluded child," he said, sadly; "I acknowledge it is very dreadful for her and for her friends. I can excuse a man who is mad with grief and wretchedness and anxiety, and doesn't know what he is saying. As for any man in his senses imagining," said the Curate again, with a flush of sudden colour, "that I could possibly be concerned in anything so base, that is simply absurd. When Elsworthy returns to reason, and acknowledges the folly of what he has said, I will do anything in the world to help him. It is unnecessary for you to wait," said Mr Wentworth, turning to Sarah, who had stolen up behind, and caught some of the conversation, and who was staring with round eyes of wonder, partly guessing, partly inquiring, what had happened—"these people want me; go indoors and never mind."

"La, sir! Missis is a-ringing all the bells down to know what 'as 'appened," said Sarah, holding her ground.

This was how it was to be—the name of the Curate of St Roque's was to be linked to that of Rosa Elsworthy, let the truth be what it might, in the mouths of every maid and every mistress in Carlingford. He was seized with a sudden apprehension of this aspect of the matter, and it was not wonderful if Mr Wentworth drew his breath hard and set his teeth, as he ordered the woman away, in a tone which could not be disobeyed.