Prudence Palfrey



IT is an epic that ought to be sung at length, if one had the skill and the time; but I have neither the time nor the skill, and must make a ballad of it. The material of this chapter is drawn chiefly from Joseph Twombly’s verbal narrative, and the fragments of a journal which John Dent kept at intervals in those days.

It was an afternoon in the latter part of September that the party with which Dent and Twombly and Nevins had associated themselves drew rein, on a narrow bridle-path far up the side of a mountain in eastern Montana. Rising in their stirrups, and holding on by the pommels of their saddles, they leaned over the sheer edge of the precipice and saw the Promised Land lying at their feet. On one side of an impetuous stream, that ran golden in the reflected glow of the remoter peaks, lay a city of tents, pine-huts, and rude brush wakiups, from which spiral columns of smoke slowly ascended here and there, and melted as they touched the upper currents of the wind. Along the cañnon, following the course of the stream, were hundreds of blue and red and gray figures moving about restlessly like ants. These were miners at work. Now and then the waning sunlight caught the point of an uplifted pick, and it sparkled like a flake of mica.-

It was a lonely spot. All this busy human life did not frighten away the spirit of isolation that had brooded over it since the world was made. Shut in by savage hills, stretching themselves cloudward like impregnable battlements, it seemed as if nothing but a miracle had led the foot of man to its interior solitude. What a lovely, happy valley it looked, flooded with the ruddy stream of sunset! No wonder the tired riders halted on the mountain-side, gazing down half-doubtingly upon its beauty.

“ Dent,” whispered George Nevins, impressively, “there is gold here.” Then he sat motionless for a few minutes, taking in every aspect of the cañon. “But we will get no nuggets, mind you,” he presently added, in a low voice. “ That wide gash you see in the mountain, running down through the valley like a swath cut by some gigantic mowing-machine, is the ancient bed of a river. The little smooth pebbles that lie thick in the gulches, though we cannot see them from this height, were mighty bowlders once. The rush of the water, which maybe has not been here for thousands of years, ground them small. It treated the gold with no more distinction; what there is in this place is pulverized, lying in dainty drifts or pockets, two, ten, or twenty feet down on the pipe-clay. But no nuggets, John Dent.”

Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1874, by H. O. HOUGHTON & Co., in the Office of the Librarian of Congress, at Washington.

“But there is gold? ”

“Tons—for the man that can find it.”

“Let us go!” cried John Dent, plunging the spurs into his horse. The rest of the party, refreshed by the halt, followed suit, and the train swept down the mountain-path, the rowels and bells of their Spanish spurs jingling like mad.

So they entered the Montana diggings.

More than once on their journey to Red Rock, which had not been without its perils, Dent and Twombly had found Nevins’s experience and readiness of great advantage to them, and that afternoon, on arriving at the cañon, they had fresh cause to congratulate themselves on having him for a comrade. Two diggers, who were working a pit below them on the ravine, had encroached on their claim, and seemed indisposed to relinquish a certain strip of soil next the stream very convenient for washing purposes. Nevins measured the ground carefully, coolly pulled up the stakes which had been removed, and set them back in their original holes. He smiled while he was doing this, but it was a wicked sort of smile, as dangerous as a sunstroke.

The men eyed him sullenly for a dozen or twenty seconds; then one of them walked up to his mate and whispered in his ear, and then the pair strolled off, glancing warily from time to time over their shoulders.

Dent and Twombly looked on curiously. Dent would have argued the case, and proved to them, by algebra, that they were wrong; Twombly would have compromised by a division of the disputed tract; but Nevins was an old hand, and knew how to hold his own.

“ The man who hesitates in this community is lost,” said Nevins, turning to his companions. “ If I had not meant fight, they would have shot me. As it was — I should have shot them.”

“ Why, Nevins! ” cried Twombly, “ what a bloodthirsty fellow you are, to be sure ! ”

“You wait,” Nevins said. “You don’t know what kind of crowd you have got into. Here and there, maybe, there’s an honest fellow, but as for the rest — jail-birds from the States, gamblers from San Francisco, roughs from Colorado and Nevada, and blackguards from everywhere. Our fellow-citizens in the flourishing town of Red Rock are the choice scum and sediment of society, and I shall be out of my reckoning if the crack of the revolver does n’t become as familiar to our ears as the croak of the bull-frogs over there in the alders.”

Nevins had not drawn a flattering picture of the inhabitants of Red Rock; but it was as literal as a photograph.

The rumors of a discovery of rich placer diggings in Montana had flown like wild-fire through the Territories and the border States, and caused a stampede among the classes first affected by that kind of intelligence. Two months before, the valley was a solitude. Only the songs of birds, the plunge of a reddeer among the thickets, or the cry of some savage animal, broke its stillness. One day a trapper wandered by chance into the cañon, and got benighted there. In the morning, eating his breakfast, he had stuck his sheath-knife for convenience into the earth beside him; on withdrawing it he saw a yellow speck shining in the bit of clay adhering to the blade. The trapper quietly got up and marked out his claim. He knew it could not be kept secret. A man may commit murder and escape suspicion, though “ murder speaks with most miraculous organ;” but he may never hope to discover gold and not be found out.

Two months afterwards there was a humming town in Red Rock Cañon, with a population of two thousand and upwards.

There was probably never a mining town of the same size that contained more desperadoes than Red Rock in the first year of its existence. Hither flocked all the ruffians that had made other localities too hot to hold them — gentlemen with too much reputation, and ladies with too little; and here was formed the nucleus of that gang of marauders, known as Henry Plummer’s Road Agent Band, which haunted the mountain-passes, pillaging and murdering, until the Vigilantes took them in hand and hanged them with as short shrift and as scant mercy as they had given their fellow-men. That is a black page in the history of American goldseeking which closes with the execution of Joe Pizanthia, Buck Stinson, Haze Lyons, Boone Helme, Erastus Yager, Dutch John, Club-foot George, and Bill Graves,—their very names are a kind of murder.1 And these were prominent citizens of Red Rock when our little party of adventurers set up their tent and went to work on their claim in the golden valley.

“ Nevins has not mistaken the geological any more than he has the moral character of the cañon,” writes John Dent in his journal under date of September 30. " Gold-dust has been found

scattered all along the bed of the preAdamite river, and in some instances lucky prospectors have struck rich pockets; but of those massive nuggets which used to drive men wild in the annus mirabilis ’49, there are none here, and no likelihood of any, confound it! Mem. Digging for gold, however it may dilate the imagination in theory, is practically devilish hard work.”

This is a discovery which it appears was made by our friends long before they discovered the gold itself. For a week they toiled like Trojans; they gave themselves hardly time to eat; at night they dropped asleep like beasts of burden; and at the end of seven days they had found no gold. At the end of a fortnight, they had made nearly a dollar a day each — half the wages of a day-laborer at the East. John Dent, with a heavy sigh, suggested that they had better look up a claim for a cemetery.

“I never like to win at first,” said Nevins, genially; “ it brings bad luck.”

“The fellows from Sacramento, down the stream, are taking out seven hundred a week,” remarked Twombly.

“ Our turn will come,” Nevins replied, cheerly still, like Abou Ben Adhem to the Angel.

This was on Sunday. The trio had knocked off work, and so had the camp generally. Sunday was a gala day. The bar-rooms and the gambling saloons were thronged; at sundown the dancehouse would open, — the Hurdy-Gurdy House, as it was called. Lounging about camp, but as a usual thing in close propinquity to some bar, were knots of unsuccessful diggers, anathematizing their luck and on the alert for an invitation to drink. All day Sunday an odor of mixed drinks floated up from Red Rock and hung over it in impalpable clouds.

The three friends strolled through the town on a tour of observation, and brought up at the door of a saloon where a crowd was gathered. A man had been shot at one of the tables, and his comrades were fetching him out, dead, with his derringer, still smoking, clutched in his hand. Following the corpse was a lame individual, apparently the chief mourner, carrying the dead man’s hat on a stick. The crowd opened right and left to let the procession pass, and our friends came full upon it.

Dent and Twombly turned away, sickened by the spectacle. Nevins looked on with an expression of halfstimulated curiosity, and stroked his long, yellow beard.

“ And this is Sunday,” thought John Dent. “ In Rivermouth, Uncle Jedd is tolling the bell for the afternoon service; Uncle Dent and my little girl are sitting in the high-backed wall-pew, — I can see them now! Uncle Ralph preparing to go to sleep, Prue looking like a rose, and Parson Wibird, God bless his old white head! going up the pulpit stairs in his best coat shiny at the seams. Outside are the great silver poplars, and the quiet street, and the sunshine like a blessing falling over all! ”

The close atmosphere of the camp stifled him as he conjured up this picture. He longed to be alone, and, dropping silently behind his companions, wandered off beyond the last row of wakiups and out into the deserted ravine.

There he sat down among the rocks, and with his elbows resting on his knees, dreamed of the pleasant town by the sea, of Prudence and his uncle, and the old minister in Horseshoe Lane. Presently he took from his pocket-book a knot of withered flowers and leaves ; these he spread in the palm of his hand with great care, and held for half an hour or more, looking at them from time to time in a way that seemed idiotic to a solitary gentleman in a slouched hat and blanket-overcoat who was digging in a pit across the gully. What slight things will sometimes entertain a man when he is alone! This handful of faded fuchsia blossoms made John Dent forget the thousands of weary miles that stretched between him and New England; holding it so, in his palm, it bore him through the air back to the little Yankee seaport as if it had been Fortunatus’s magic cap.

It was sunset when Dent sauntered pensively into camp, meeting Twombly and Nevins on the outskirts, looking for him.

“ Jack! ” cried Twombly, “ you have given me such a turn! It really is n’t safe in this place for a fellow to go off mooning by himself. What on earth have you been doing? ”

“ Something quite unusual, Joseph, — I ’ve been thinking. ”

“ Homesick, eh? ” said Nevins.

“ Just a little. ”

Then they walked on in silence. Nevins stopped abruptly.

“ What is that? ”

“ A bit of rock I picked up out yonder; say what it is yourself,” and Dent tossed the fragment to Nevins, who caught it deftly.

“ Pyrites,” said Nevins, flinging it away contemptuously. “ Come and have some supper.”

The instant they were inside the tent Nevins laid his hand on Dent’s shoulder.

“Do you happen to remember the spot where you picked up that — bit of rock? ”

“ Yes, why? ”

“Nothing, — only it was as fine a specimen of silver as we shall be likely to see.”

“ Silver! ” shouted John Dent, “ and you threw it away! ”

“I’ll go get it directly, if you ’ll be quiet. Did you see those two fellows watching us ? It behooves a man here to keep his eye open on the Sabbath-day.”

He was a character, this Nevins, in his way, though it would be difficult perhaps to state what his special way was. In the gulches, with pick and spade, he was simply a miner who knew his business thoroughly; on horseback he became a part of the horse like a Comanche; when a question in science or literature came up, as sometimes happened between him and Dent, he talked like a man who had read and thought. “ Nevins has apparently received a collegiate education,” John Dent writes in the diary, “ and is certainly a gentleman, though what it is that constitutes a gentleman is an open question. It is not culture, for I have known ignorant men who were gentlemen, and learned scholars who were not ; it is not money, nor grace, nor goodness, nor station. It is something indefinable, like poetry, and Nevins has: it.”

From the hour they met him at Salt Lake City, he had been a puzzle to the two New Englanders; his talents and bearing were so out of keeping with his circumstances. But, as for that matter, so were John Dent’s. Nevins was candor itself, and if he said little of his past life, he did not hesitate to speak of it, and seemed to have nothing to conceal. One fact was clear to both our Rivermouth friends, — Nevins was worth his weight in gold to them.

The next morning it was noised through Red Rock that a party from New England had struck a silver lode of surprising richness farther up the valley. That night John Dent wrote a long letter to Prudence. Three nights afterwards the Road Agents overhauled the Walla Walla Express, and the gutted mail-bag was thrown into a swamp.

Perhaps there was more truth than jest in Mr. Dent’s picture of the Bannock chieftains puzzling over the rhetoric of Jack’s epistle.

John Dent’s visions of wealth would have been realized in a month or two, but unfortunately the silver lode, as if repenting its burst of generosity, abruptly turned coy, and refused to lavish any more favors. It did worse than that, it ran into the next claim.

“ It is a shame we cannot follow it,” said Nevins; “but we — or rather you — have made a fair haul.”

“My luck is your luck and Twombly’s,” Dent replied.

They had, as Nevins observed, made a fair haul. Their pile was so large now, and its reputation so much exaggerated, that they took turns in guarding the tent, only two going to work at a time. The presence of thieves in the camp had been successfully demonstrated within the month, and the fear of being robbed settled upon them like a nightmare. Dent had another apprehension, the coming of the cold season. Nevins reassured him on that point. Though the winter was severe in Montana, they were in a sheltered valley; at the worst there would be only a few weeks when they could not work.

The silver exhausted, they fell to prospecting. After varying fortunes for a fortnight, they had another find, Twombly being the involuntary Columbus.

It was gold on this occasion, and though it did not yield so bounteously as the silver lode, it panned out handsomely.

So the weeks wore away, and the young men saw their store steadily increasing day by day. It was heartbreaking work sometimes, and backbreaking work always; but it was the kind of work that makes a man willing to have his back, if not his heart, broken.

The winter which Dent had looked forward to so apprehensively was over, and had been propitious to the goldhunters. Spring-time again filled the valley to the very brim with color and perfume, as a goblet is filled with wine. Then the long summer set in.

All this while John Dent had refrained from writing home; it was his design to take Prudence and his uncle by surprise, by walking unheralded into Willowbrook some happy day, with his treasures.

Those treasures had now become a heavy care to the young men. “ We keep the dust and ore ” —I am quoting from the journal— “ in a stout candlebox set into the earth at the foot of the tent-pole, and one of us lies across it at night. There have been two attempts to rob us. The other night Joe turned over in his sleep, and found himself clutching a man by the leg. An empty boot was left in his hand, and a black figure darted out of the tent. There was a search the next morning for that other boot. There were plenty of men with two boots, and not a few with none at all; but the man with one boot was wanting, and well for him! If he had been caught it would have been death on the spot; the blackest scoundrels in camp would have assisted at his execution, for there’s nothing so disgusts knaves as a crime of this sort, — when they do not commit it themselves.”

The morning after this attempt at burglary,—it was the second, — the following conversation took place : —

“ It will never do for us to keep all this here,” said Nevins; “ there is at least thirty thousand dollars. I could pick you out fifty men in Red Rock who would murder us for a tenth of it.”

“ What can we do with it? ” asked John Dent.

“ There ’s an agent here of Tileston & Co.’s who will give us drafts on Salt Lake City, or turn it into bank-notes at a Jewish discount.”

Dent and Twombly preferred the bank-notes. “ But suppose they should be stolen? ” suggested Nevins.

” Suppose Tileston & Co. should fail? ”

“ That is true, again,” observed Nevins.

The bank-notes were decided on, and thirty-two slips of crisp paper, each with an adorable M on it, were shut up in a leather pocket-book, which they buried in the middle of the tent, piling their saddles over the hiding-place.

They had now been nearly twelve months at the diggings, and John Dent’s share in the property reached five figures. It was not the wealth of his dreams; every day in Wall Street men make three times as much by a scratch of the pen; but it was enough to set him on his feet. With ten thousand dollars in his pocket he could ask Prudence Palfrey to marry him. Red Rock was overrun, and the supply of metal giving out. If he remained without lighting on fresh finds, what he had would melt away like snow in the March sunshine. Was it worth while to tempt fortune further ? was it likely that two such golden windfalls would happen to the same mortal? He put these questions to Nevins and Twombly, who were aware of the stress that drew him to New England. They knew his loveaffair by heart, and had even seen a certain small photograph which John Dent had brought with him from Rivermouth.

Nevins declared his own intention to hold on by Red Rock. Twombly was for instantly returning home. With ten thousand dollars in the Nautilus Bank at Rivermouth, he would snap his fingers at Count Monte Cristo himself, who, by the way, was as real a personage to Twombly as John Jacob Astor. The two New England men decided to join the next large party that started for the East.

The incalculable sums which our friends were imagined to have accumulated, rendered their position critical. They took turns regularly on the nightwatch now, and waited with increasing apprehension and impatience for the making up of a train to cross the mountains.

Red Rock had not improved with time. It seethed and bubbled, like a witch’s caldron, with all evil passions. Men who might have been decently honest if they had been decently fortunate, turned knaves. Crowds of successful diggers had already shaken the gold-dust from their feet and departed ; only the dissolute and the vicious remained, with here and there a luckless devil who could not get away. The newcomers, and there were throngs of them, were of the worst description. Every man carried his life in his hand, and did not seem to value it highly. It was suicide to stray beyond the limits of the town after dusk. Tents were plundered every night. Though murder did not shock the nerves of this community, thieving did. An attempt was made by indignant citizens of Red Rock to put a stop to that. They went so far as to suspend from the bough of a butternut-tree one of their most influential townsmen, a gentleman known as the Great American Pie-Eater (on account of certain gastronomic feats performed at Salt Lake City), but the proceeding met with so little popular favor, that the culprit was taken down and resuscitated and invited by his executioners to stand drinks all round at Gallagher’s bar,—which he did.

When the Vigilantes sprung into existence, they managed these things differently in Montana : they did n’t take their man down so soon, for one thing.

“ If we had been there by ourselves,” said Joseph Twombly, describing Red Rock at this period, “ we’d have been murdered in less than a week.” But there was, it seemed, something about Nevins that had a depressing effect upon the spirits of sundry volatile gentlemen in camp.

One morning just before daybreak, John Dent awoke suddenly and sat up in his blankets, trembling from head to foot. At what he did not know. He had not been dreaming, and it was not a noise that had broken his sleep. He looked about him; every object stood out clearly in the twilight; Twombly lay snoring in his shake-down, but Nevins, whose watch it was, was not in the tent. Dent was somehow struck cold by that. He rolled out of the blankets, and crawling over to the spot where the money was hidden, felt for it under the saddles. The earth around the place had been newly turned up, and THE POCKETBOOK WAS GONE !

The pocket-book was gone, and one of the three saddles — Nevins’s — was missing. The story told itself. The outcries of the two men brought a crowd of diggers to the tent.

“ We have been robbed by our partner,” cried Twombly, picking up a saddle by the stirrup-strap and hurrying out to the corral for his horse.

John Dent lay on the ground with his finger-nails buried in the loose earth near the empty hole. A couple of worthies, half roughly and half compassionately, set him upon his feet.

“ Do you care to know who that mate of yours was ? ”

The speaker was a gaunt, sunburnt man, with deer-skin leggins, fringed at the seams, and gathered at the waist by a U. S. belt, from which hung the inevitable bowie-knife and revolver. Dent looked at him stupidly, and dimly recognized one of the two miners who had disputed the claim with Nevins that first afternoon in camp.

“ I knew he ’d levant with the pile, some day. But I did n’t like to let on, for fear of mistakes. I thought, maybe, you other two was the same kind. I knew that man in Tuolumne County. He’s a devil. He’s the only man breathing I’m afraid of. No, I don’t mind allowing I’m afraid of him. There’s something about him, when I think of it,— a sort of cold cheek, — so that I ’d rather meet a Bannock warparty in a narrer gully than have any unpleasantness with that man. Frederick King was what they called him in Tuolumne County in ’56.”

Several ears in the crowd pricked up at the words Frederick King. It was a name rather well known on the Pacific slope. John Dent had recovered his senses by this.

“Are there any true lads here,” he cried, “ that will go with me to bring back that thief ? ”

A dozen volunteered at once, and half an hour later twenty armed men galloped out of Red Rock Cañon.

They returned with jaded horses, at sunset, without having struck the trail of either Twombly or Nevins. The next day, at noon, Twombly himself rode into camp and dropped heavily out of the saddle at the door of the tent. He had a charge of buck-shot in his leg. Some one had fired on him from the chaparral near Big Hole Ranche. It was not Nevins, for he had no gun, so far as known; probably some confederate of his.

And this was the end of it. This was the result of their twelve months’ hardship and industry aud pluck and endurance.

Then John Dent wrote that letter to Prudence, which she laid away in the drawer, telling her the story, not as I have told it, tamely and at second hand, but with fire and tears. Then, in a few weeks, came Joseph Twombly, limping back into Rivermouth, alone. There were no more El Dorados for him, poor knight ; he was lamed for life, or he would never have deserted his comrade. John Dent himself had gone off, Twombly did not know where; but to California, he fancied, in search of George Nevins.

And this was the end of it for Prudence, too. She shut up the letter and her dream in the writing-desk with the brass clamps. It was a year before she could read the letter without a recurrence of the old poignant pain. At the end of another twelvemonth, when she unfolded the pages, the words wore a strange, faded look, as if they had been written by one long since dead, and dealt only with dimly remembered events and persons,—so far off seemed that summer morning when she first read them. She shed no tears now, but held the letter in her hand thoughtfully.

It was nearly three years since John Dent went away from Rivermouth, and nothing more had been heard of him. A silence like and unlike that of the grave had gathered about his name. Life at Willowbrook flowed back into its accustomed channels. Mr. Dent had disposed of the skeleton effectively and forever, and Prudence had passed into the early summer of her womanhood. It was at this point my chronicle began.

This was the situation —to borrow a technical term from dramatic art — when the congregation of the Old Brick Church, after much ruffling of parochial plumage, resolved to relieve Parson Wibird Hawkins of his pastorate.



THIS brings my story again to that afternoon in May, when Prudence Palfrey made her appearance at the cottage in Horseshoe Lane, and was solicited by Salome to speak to the parson, who had locked himself in the little room after the departure of the two deacons.

It was with an inexplicable sense of uneasiness that Prudence crossed the library, and knocked softly on the panel of the inner door. The parson did not seem to hear the summons; at all events, he paid no attention to it, and Prudence knocked again.

“He’s gittin’ the least bit hard of hearin’, pore soul,” said Salome. “ Mebbe he heard that, though,” she added, more cautiously, “ for he always hears when you don’t s’pose he will. Do jest speak to him, honey; he’ll know your vice in a minit.”

Prudence put her lips down to the key-hole and called, “Parson Wibird! — it’s Prue,—won’t you speak to me ? ”

He made no response to this, and in the silence that ensued, broken only by the quick respiration of the two women, there was no sound as if he were pre paring to undo the fastenings. Prudence rose up with a half frightened expression on her countenance and looked at Salome.

“What can have happened?” she said, hurriedly.

“ Lord o’ mercy knows,” replied Salome, catching Prue’s alarm. “ Don’t stare at me in sech a way, dear; I’m as nervous as nuthin’.”

“ Are you sure he is there ? ”

“ Sartin. I all but see him goin’ in, an’ I have n’t ben out of the room sence. He must be there.”

“ Is he subject to vertigo, ever? ”

“ Dunno,” said Salome, doubtfully, “I mean, does he ever faint? ”

“ He did have a cur’ous sort of spell two or three weeks ago, an’ Dr. Theophilus give him some med’cine for it.”

“He has fainted, then! Get a candle — quick. Stop, Salome, I ’ll go with you.”

Prudence was afraid to remain in the library alone. She was impressed by some impalpable presence in the half darkness. The shadows huddled together in the corners. The long rows of books in their time-stained leather bindings looked down sombrely from the Shelves. On the table was an open volume, with an ivory paper-cutter upon it, which he had been reading. His frayed dressing-gown lay across a chair in front of the table. It seemed like some weird, collapsed figure, lying there. All the familiar objects in the room had turned strange and woe-begone in the twilight. Prudence would not have been left alone for the world.

The two went out together for the candle, which Salome with a trembling hand lighted at the kitchen stove. Then they flitted back to the library silently, with white sharp faces, like ghosts.

“ What shall we do? ”

“We must break in the door,” said Prudence under her breath. “You hold the caudle.”

She placed her knee against the lower panel and pressed with all her strength. The lock was old and rusty, and the screws worked loosely in the worm-eaten wood-work. The door yielded at the second pressure and flew open, with a shower of fine dust sifting down from the lintel.

The girl retreated a step or two, and, shading her eyes with the palm of her hand, peered into the darkened space.

Nothing was distinct at first, but as Salome raised the light above Prue’s head, the figure of the parson suddenly took shape against the gloom.

He was sitting in an old-fashioned arm-chair, with Ins serene face bent over a great Bible covered with green baize, which he held on his knees. His left arm hung idly at his side, and the forefinger of his right hand rested lightly on the middle of the page, as if slumber had overtaken him so, reading.

“ Laws o’ mercy, if the parson has n’t gone to sleep! ” exclaimed Salome, stepping into the small compartment.

“ Asleep! ” repeated Prudence, the reassured color returning to her cheek.

Salome laid her hand on the parson’s arm, and then passed it quickly over his forehead.

“He’s dead!” cried Salome, dropping the candlestick.

The hour-hand of the cuckoo-clock in the hall at Willowbrook pointed at seven; the toy bird popped out on the narrow ledge in front of the carved Swiss cottage, shook seven flute-like notes into the air, popped in again hastily, and the little door went to with a spiteful snap.

Mr. Dent glanced at the time-piece over the fire-place in the sitting-room, and wondered what was detaining Prue. She had gone to town on a shopping expedition shortly after dinner, and here it was an hour and a half past teatime. Fanny had brought in the teaurn and carried it off again. It was as if the sun-dial had forgotten to mark the movements of the sun; the household set its clocks by Prudence.

For the last hour or two Mr. Dent had been lounging restlessly in the sitting-room, now snatching up a book and trying to read, now looking out on the lawn, and now vigorously poking the coals in the grate, for it was one of those brisk days which make a fire comfortable in our delusive New England May.

Mr. Dent was revolving in his mind how he should break to Prudence the intelligence of Parson Hawkins’s dismissal, and more especially in what terms he should confess his own part in the transaction. “ What, will Prue say ? " was a question he put to himself a dozen times without eliciting a satisfactory reply. He was a little afraid of Prue, — he had that tender awe of her with which a pure woman inspires most men. He could imagine what she would have said three years ago; but she had altered in many respects since then; she had grown quieter and less impulsive. That one flurry of passion in which she had confessed her love for John Dent did not seem credible to her guardian as he looked back to it. As a matter of course, she would be indignant at the action of the deacons, and would probably not approve of the steps he had taken to bring Mr. Dillingham to Rivermouth; but she would not storm at him. He almost wished she would storm at him, for her anger was not so unmanageable as the look of mute reproach which she knew how to bring into her gray eyes.

The cuckoo in the Swiss châlet had hopped out again on the ledge, and was just sounding the half hour in his brisk, business-like way, when Prudence opened the drawing-room door.

“ I thought you had run off for good,” said Mr. Dent, rising from his chair; then he stopped and looked at her attentively. “ Why, Prue, what is the matter? ”

“ The parson " — Prudence could not finish the sentence. The nervous strength that had sustained her through the recent ordeal gave way; she sank upon the sofa and buried her face in the cushions.

“ She has heard of it already,” thought Mr. Dent. He crossed to the sofa and rested his hand softly on her shoulder. “ Prue, my dear girl, you must be reasonable. It had to come sooner or later; he could not go on preaching forever, you know. He is a very old man now, and ought to take his ease. He will be all the happier with the cares of the parish off his hands.”

“All the happier, yes! ”

“ And we’ll have him up to Willowbrook often; he shall have a room here " —

Prudence lifted her face beseechingly.

“Oh, you don’t know! you don’t know!” she cried. “He is dead! he died this afternoon, sitting in his chair. Ah! — it was so dreadfully sudden!” and Prudence covered her eyes with her hands, as if to shut out the scene in the library.

Mr. Dent was greatly shocked. He leaned against the mantel-piece, and stared vacantly at Prudence, while she related what had happened at Horseshoe Lane. She had completed her purchases in town, and was on the way home when she met Miss Blydenburgh, who told her of the deacons’ visit to Parson Hawkins to request his resignation. Knowing that the poor old man was unprepared for any such proposition, she had turned back and hastened down to the parsonage, to say and do what she could to comfort him in his probable distress. Then she and Salome, alone there in the dark, had found him dead in the chair. Ah!

Mr. Dent left his tea untasted. He had the horse saddled, and rode over to town. He was greatly shocked. And Deacon Zeb Twombly, that night, as he stood for a moment beside the cradle in which the little ewe-lamb lay nestled in its blankets, was a miserable man. He crept off to the spare room in the attic — where he was undergoing a temporary but not unprecedented exile — with the conviction that he was little better than a murderer.

“I hope Parson Wibird will forgive me my share in the business,” murmured the deacon, blowing out the candle; then he lingered by the window dejectedly. It was a dreamy May night; the air, though chilly, was full of the odors of spring, and the mysterious blue spaces above were sown thick with stars. “ P’rhaps he knows all up there,” he said, lifting his eyes reverently, “an' how it went agin me to give him any pain. I wonder how brother Wendell feels about it.”

Deacon Wendell, fortunately or unfortunately, as the case may be, was of that tougher fibre out of which the strong sons of the world are made. He had performed the duty that devolved upon him, as he had performed other unpleasant duties, having been sheriff once, and there was nothing to be said. He was sorry the parson died just as he did. “Looks as though he done it on purpose to spite us,” reflected Deacon Wendell. Perhaps his chief emotion when he first heard the news — it was all over Rivermouth now — was an illdefined feeling of resentment against Parson Wibird for having cut up rough.

The effect produced on Mr. Dent was more complex. Though neither so callous as Deacon Wendell nor so softhearted as Deacon Twombly, he shared to some extent the feelings of both. He keenly regretted the death of the old parson, and particularly the manner of it. It was an unlucky coincidence, — he could not look upon it as anything more than a coincidence, — and would give rise to much disagreeable gossip. If it had happened a month or two before, or a month or two later, he would have been sorry, as anybody is sorry when anybody dies; but he would not have been shocked. He wished he had not been quite so warm in advocating the desirableness of Mr. Dillingham. If he could have foreseen the present catastrophe, he would have thrust his hand into the flames rather than move in the matter.

But what was done was done; and as he urged, the mare across the long wooden bridge which ended among the crumbling wharves and shabby warehouses of Market Street,he trusted something would transpire showing that the parson’s death was the result of natural causes and in no degree to be attributed to — to what had probably caused it.

There was an unusual glimmer and moving of lights in the windows of the parsonage,and a mysterious coming and going of shadows on the brown Holland shades, as Mr. Dent turned into Horseshoe Lane. He was within a dozen rods of the cottage, when the gate creaked on its hinges and Dr. Theophilus Tredick passed out, walking off rapidly in an opposite direction.

Mr. Dent pushed on after the doctor, and overtook him at the doorstep of a neighboring house.

“ A moment, doctor,” said Mr. Dent, leaning over the horse’s neck. “ Has there been an inquest? ”

“ Yes; we have just finished the examination.”


“ Paralysis.”

“ Attributable to any sudden mental excitement or anything of that nature ? You know he had a conversation on church affairs with the deacons this afternoon; could that have affected him in any way? ” Mr. Dent put the query anxiously.

“ It would be difficult to say,” replied the doctor. “It is open to conjecture of course; but at the worst it could only have hastened what was inevitable. I am not prepared to affirm that it hastened it; in fact, I do not think it did.”

“I do not entirely catch your meaning, doctor,” Mr. Dent said.

“ I mean that Parson Hawkins had had two slight strokes of paralysis previously ; one last winter and the second three weeks ago. I was apprehensive that the third would terminate fatally.”

“ I never heard of that.”

“ No one knew of it, I think; not even Mrs. Pinder, the housekeeper. It was at his own urgent request I kept the matter secret. At the time of the occurrence of the second attack, I had a long talk with our friend, and advised him strongly to give up work altogether; finding him obstinate on that point, I urged him to have an assistant. I warned him plainly that he might be taken ill at any moment in the pulpit. He declared that that was the place of all others where he could wish to die; but he promised to consider my suggestion of an associate minister.”

“ Which he never did.”

“ For the last three Sundays,” continued the doctor, “ I have gone to church expecting to see him drop down in the pulpit in the midst of the service. He was aware of his condition, and not at all alarmed by it. Though he overrated his strength, and had some odd notions of duty, — he did have some odd notions, our estimable old friend, — he was a man of great clear sense, and I do not believe the recent action of the parish affected him in the manner or to the extent idle people will suppose. What has happened would probably have happened in any case.”

Dr. Tredick’s statement lifted a weight from Mr. Dent’s bosom, and from Deacon Twombly’s when he heard of it; though there were numerous persons in the town who did not hesitate to assert that the parson’s dismissal killed him. To look on the darkest side of a picture is in strict keeping with the local spirit; for Rivermouth, in its short-comings and in its uncompromising virtues, is nothing if not Puritan.

“ Might as well have took a muskit and shot the ole man,” observed Mr. Wiggins.

“ Capital punishment ought to be abolished in New Hampshire,” said expostmaster Snelling, “if they don’t hang Deacon Wendell and the rest of ’em.”

Mr. Snelling was not naturally a sanguinary person, but he had been superseded in the post-office the year before by Deacon Wendell, and flesh is flesh.

The event was the only topic discussed for the next ten days. Parson Wibird had so long been one of the features of the place, that he seemed a permanence, like the brick church itself, or the postoffice with its granite facade. If either of these had been spirited off overnight, the surprise and the shock could not have been more wide-spread. That tall, stooping figure, clad always in a rusty suit of black, was as familiar an object on the main street as the swinging sign of the Old Bell Tavern. There were grandfathers and grandmothers who, as boys and girls, remembered Parson Wibird when he looked neither older nor younger than he did that day lying in the coffin, — nay, not so young, for the deep wrinkles and scars of time had faded out of the kindly old face, and the radiance of heavenly youth rested upon it.

There was one circumstance connected with the old minister’s death that naturally made a deeper impression than any other. When Salome summoned the neighbors, that night, they found the parson with the Bible lying open before him, and one finger resting upon the page as if directing attention to a particular passage. There was something startlingly life-like and imperative in the unconscious pointing of that withered forefinger, and those who peered hastily over the slanted shoulder and read the verse indicated never forgot it.

“ Thet was th’ parson’s las’ tex’,” said Uncle Jedd, leaning on his spade worn bright with oh! so many graves: “ Well done, thou good an’ faithful servent, enter thou inter th’ joy of thy Lord! ”

T. B. Aldrich.

  1. An account of the careers of these men is to be found in a curious little work by Prof. Thomas J. Dimsdale, of Virginia City, who narrowly escaped writing a very notable book when he wrote The Vigilantes of Montana.