Margaret Oliphant, The Perpetual Curate: Ch. 20

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Chapter XX


Mr Wentworth got back to Carlingford by a happy concurrence of trains before the town had gone to sleep. It was summer, when the days are at the longest, and the twilight was just falling into night as he took his way through George Street. He went along the familiar street with a certain terror of looking into people's faces whom he met, and of asking questions, such as was natural to a man who did not know whether something of public note might not have happened in his absence to call attention to his name. He imagined, indeed, that he did see a strange expression in the looks of the townsfolk he encountered on his way. He thought they looked at him askance as they made their salutations, and said something to each other after they passed, which, indeed, in several cases was true enough, though the cause was totally different from anything suspected by Mr Wentworth. Anxious to know, and yet unwilling to ask, it was with a certain relief that the Curate saw the light gleaming out from the open door of Elsworthy's shop as he approached. He went in and tossed down his travelling-bag on the counter, and threw himself on the solitary chair which stood outside for the accommodation of customers, with a suppressed excitement, which made his question sound abrupt and significant to the ears of Elsworthy. "Has anything happened since I went away?" said Mr Wentworth, throwing a glance round the shop which alarmed his faithful retainer. Somehow, though nothing was farther from his mind than little Rosa, or any thought of her, the Curate missed the pretty little figure at the first glance.

"Well—no, sir; not much as I've heard of," said Elsworthy, with a little confusion. He was tying up his newspapers as usual, but it did not require the touch of suspicion and anxiety which gave sharpness to the Curate's eyes to make it apparent that the cord was trembling in Mr Elsworthy's hand. "I hope you've had a pleasant journey, sir, and a comfortable visit—it's been but short—but we always miss you in Carlingford, Mr Wentworth, if it was only for a day."

"I'll take my paper," said the young man, who was not satisfied—"so there's no news, isn't there?—all well, and everything going on as usual?" And the look which the suspicious Curate bent upon Mr Elsworthy made that virtuous individual, as he himself described it, "shake in his shoes."

"Much as usual, sir," said the frightened clerk,—"nothing new as I hear of but gossip, and that aint a thing to interest a clergyman. There's always one report or another flying about, but them follies aint for your hearing. Nothing more," continued Mr Elsworthy, conscious of guilt, and presenting a very tremulous countenance to the inspection of his suspicious auditor, "not if it was my last word—nothing but gossip, as you wouldn't care to hear."

"I might possibly care to hear if it concerned myself," said the Curate,—"or anybody I am interested in," he added, after a little pause, with rather a forced smile—which convinced Mr Elsworthy that his clergyman had heard all about Rosa, and that the days of his incumbency as clerk of St Roque's were numbered.

"Well, sir, if you did hear, it aint no blame of mine," said the injured bookseller; "such a notion would never have come into my mind—no man, I make bold to say, is more particular about keeping to his own rank of life nor me. What you did, sir, you did out of the kindness of your heart, and I'd sooner sell up and go off to the end of the world than impose upon a gentleman. Her aunt's took her away," continued Mr Elsworthy, lowering his voice, and cautiously pointing to the back of the shop—"She'll not bother you no more."

"She!—who?" cried the Perpetual Curate, in sudden consternation. He was utterly bewildered by the introduction of a female actor into the little drama, and immediately ran over in his mind all the women he could think of who could, by any possibility, be involved in mysterious relations with his brother Jack.