Margaret Oliphant, The Perpetual Curate: Ch. 14

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Chapter XIV


The next afternoon there were signs of a considerable commotion in Mr Elsworthy's shop. Rosa had disappeared altogether, and Mrs Elsworthy, with an ominous redness on her cheeks, had taken the place generally held by that more agreeable little figure. All the symptoms of having been engaged in an affray from which she had retired not altogether victorious were in Mrs Elsworthy's face, and the errand-boys vanished from her neighbourhood with inconceivable rapidity, and found out little parcels to deliver which would have eluded their most anxious search in other circumstances. Mr Elsworthy himself occupied his usual place in the foreground, without the usual marks of universal content and satisfaction with all his surroundings which generally distinguished him. An indescribable appearance of having been recently snubbed hung about the excellent man, and his glances towards the back-shop, and the glances directed from the back-shop to him, told with sufficient significance the quarter from which his humiliation had proceeded. It had done him good, as such painful discipline generally does; for he was clearing out some drawers in which sundry quires of paper had broken loose and run into confusion, with the air of a man who ought to have done it weeks ago. As for the partner of his bosom, she was standing in the obscure distance behind the counter knitting a blue stocking, which was evidently intended for no foot but his. There was a chair close by, but Mrs Elsworthy disdained to sit down. She stood with her knitting in conscious power, now and then suffering a confession of her faith to escape her. "There's nothing as don't go contrary in this world," said the discontented wife, "when a man's a fool." It was hard upon Mr Elsworthy that his ears were sharp, and that he knew exactly what this agreeable murmur was. But he was wise in his generation, and made no reply.

Things were in this condition when, of all persons in Carlingford, it occurred to Miss Leonora Wentworth to enter Mr Elsworthy's shop. Not that she was alone, or bent upon any errand of inquiry; for Miss Leonora seldom moved about unattended by her sisters, whom she felt it her duty to take out for exercise; and wonderfully enough, she had not found out yet what was the source of Miss Dora's mysteries and depression, having been still occupied meantime by her own "great work" in her London district, and the affair of the gin-palace, which was still undecided. She had been talking a great deal about this gin-palace for the last twenty-four hours; and to hear Miss Leonora, you might have supposed that all the powers of heaven must fail and be discomfited before this potent instrument of evil, and that, after all, Bibles and missionaries were much less effective than the stoppage of the licence, upon which all her agents were bent. At all events, such an object of interest had swept out from her thoughts the vague figure of her nephew Frank, and aunt Dora's mysterious anxieties on his account. When the three ladies approached Elsworthy's, the first thing that attracted their attention was Rosa, the little Rosa who had been banished from the shop, and whom Mrs Elsworthy believed to be expiating her sins in a back room, in tears and darkness; instead of which the little girl was looking out of her favourite window, and amusing herself much with all that was going on in Grange Lane. Though she was fluttered by the scolding she had received, Rosa only looked prettier than usual with her flushed cheeks; and so many things had been put into her nonsensical little head during the last two days, especially by her aunt's denunciations, that her sense of self-importance was very much heightened in consequence. She looked at the Miss Wentworths with a throb of mingled pride and alarm, wondering whether perhaps she might know more of them some day, if Mr Wentworth was really fond of her, as people said—which thought gave Rosa a wonderful sensation of awe and delighted vanity. Meanwhile the three Miss Wentworths looked at her with very diverse feelings. "I must speak to these people about that little girl, if nobody else has sense enough to do it," said Miss Leonora; "she is evidently going wrong as fast as she can, the little fool;" and the iron-grey sister went into Mr Elsworthy's in this perfectly composed and ordinary frame of mind, with her head full of the application which was to be made to the licensing magistrates today, in the parish of St Michael, and totally unaware that anybody belonging to herself could ever be connected with the incautious little coquette at the window. Miss Dora's feelings were very different. It was much against her will that she was going at all into this obnoxious shop, and the eyes which she hastily uplifted to the window and withdrew again with lively disgust and dislike, were both angry and tearful; "Little forward shameless thing," Miss Dora said to herself, with a little toss of her head. As for Miss Wentworth, it was not her custom to say anything—but she, too, looked up, and saw the pretty face at the window, and secretly concluded that it might all be quite true, and that she had known a young man make a fool of himself before now for such another. So they all went in, unwitting that they came at the end of a domestic hurricane, and that the waters were still in a state of disturbance. Miss Wentworth took the only chair, as was natural, and sat down sweetly to wait for Leonora, and Miss Dora lingered behind while her sister made her purchases. Miss Leonora wanted some books—