Margaret Oliphant, The Perpetual Curate: Ch. 33

[+] | [-] | reset

Chapter XXXIII


Mr Wentworth had to go into Carlingford on some business when he left Miss Wodehouse; and as he went home again, having his head full of so many matters, he forgot for the moment what most immediately concerned himself, and was close upon Elsworthy's shop, looking into the window, before he thought of it. Elsworthy himself was standing behind the counter, with a paper in his hand, from which he was expounding something to various people in the shop. It was getting late, and the gas was lighted, which threw the interior into very bright relief to Mr Wentworth outside. The Curate was still only a young man, though he was a clergyman, and his movements were not always guided by reason or sound sense. He walked into the shop, almost before he was aware what he was doing. The people were inconsiderable people enough—cronies of Elsworthy—but they were people who had been accustomed to look up very reverentially to the Curate of St Roque's and Mr Wentworth was far from being superior to their disapproval. There was a very visible stir among them as he entered, and Elsworthy came to an abrupt stop in his elucidations, and thrust the paper he had been reading into a drawer. Dead and sudden silence followed the entrance of the Curate. Peter Hayles, the druggist, who was one of the auditors, stole to the door with intentions of escape, and the women, of whom there were two or three, looked alarmed, not knowing what might come of it. As for Mr Wentworth, there was only one thing possible for him to say. "Have you heard anything of Rosa, Elsworthy?" he asked, with great gravity, fixing his eyes upon the man's face. The question seemed to ring into all the corners. Whether it was innocence or utter abandonment nobody could tell, and the spectators held their breath for the answer. Elsworthy, for his part, was as much taken by surprise as his neighbours. He grew very pale and livid in his sudden excitement, and lost his voice, and stood staring at the Curate like a man struck dumb. Perhaps Mr Wentworth got bolder when he saw the effect he had produced. He repeated the question, looking towards poor Mrs Elsworthy, who had jumped from her husband's side when he came in. The whole party looked like startled conspirators to Mr Wentworth's eyes, though he had not the least idea what they had been doing. "Have you heard anything of Rosa?" he asked again; and everybody looked at Elsworthy, as if he were the guilty man, and had suborned the rest; which, indeed, in one sense, was not far from being the case.

When Elsworthy came to himself, he gave Mr Wentworth a sidelong dangerous look. "No, sir—nothing," said Rosa's uncle. "Them as has hidden her has hidden her well. I didn't expect to hear not yet," said Elsworthy. Though Mr Wentworth did not know what he meant, his little audience in the shop did, and showed, by the slightest murmur in the world, their conviction that the arrow had gone home, which naturally acted like a spur upon the Curate, who was not the wisest man in the world.

"I am very sorry to see you in so much distress," said the young man, looking at Mrs Elsworthy's red eyes, "but I trust things will turn out much better than you imagine. If I can do anything to help you, let me know," said Mr Wentworth. Perhaps it was foolish to say so much, knowing what he did, but unfortunately prudence was not the ruling principle at that moment in the Curate's soul.

"I was a-thinking of letting you know, sir," said the clerk of St Roque's, with deadly meaning; "leastways not me, but them as has taken me by the hand. There's every prospect as it'll all be known afore long," said Elsworthy, pushing his wife aside and following Mr Wentworth, with a ghastly caricature of his old obsequiousness, to the door. "There's inquiries a-being made as was never known to fail. For one thing, I've written to them as knows a deal about the movements of a party as is suspected—not to say as I've got good friends," said Rosa's guardian, standing upon the step of his own door, and watching the Curate out into the darkness. Mr Wentworth could not altogether restrain a slight thrill of unpleasant emotion, for Elsworthy, standing at his door with the light gleaming over him from behind, and his face invisible, had an unpleasant resemblance to a wild beast waiting for his prey.

"I am glad to think you are likely to be so successful. Send me word as soon as you know," said the Curate, and he pursued his way home afterwards, with feelings far from pleasant. He saw something was about to come of this more than he had thought likely, and the crisis was approaching. As he walked rapidly home, he concluded within himself to have a conversation with the Rector next day after Mr Wodehouse's funeral, and to ask for an investigation into the whole matter. When he had come to this conclusion, he dismissed the subject from his mind as far as was possible, and took to thinking of the other matters which disturbed his repose, in which, indeed, it was very easy to get perplexed and bewildered to his heart's content. Anyhow, one way and another, the day of poor Mr Wodehouse's funeral must necessarily be an exciting and momentous day.