X. The New Minister.
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RIVERMOUTH is a town where almost literally -- 167 --
nothing happens. Sometimes somebody
is married, and sometimes somebody dies,—
with surprising abruptness, as the old parson
did, for example,—and sometimes a vessel
is blown on the rocks at the mouth of the harbor.
But of those salient tragedies and comedies
which make up the sum of life in cities,
Rivermouth knows next to nothing. Since the
hanging of a witch or two in the pre-revolutionary
days, the office of sheriff there has been
virtually a sinecure. The police-court—where
now and then a thoughtless, light-fingered person
is admonished of the error of his ways,
and the one habitual drunkard is periodically
despatched to the Town-Farm—seems almost
like a branch of the Sunday school. The community
may be said to have lived for thirty
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years on a single divorce case, growing out of
the elopement of Major Tom Deering with Mrs.
Honoria Maddox,—to this day a perilous story
“That matrons tell, with sharpened tongue,
To maids with downeast eyes.”
In default of great events, small matters rise
to the first magnitude in Rivermouth. There
are people there who can give you, if you chance
to be to the manner born, the most minute particulars
of the career of your great-grandfather,
and to whom what you have for dinner is far
from being an uninteresting item.
“I see Capen Chris Bell at Seth Wiggins's
this mornin',” says Mr. Uriah Stebbens to Mr.
Caleb Stokels; “he bought that great turkey
of Seth's, and six poun's of steak—right off
the tenderline. Guess he expects his brotherin-law's
family down from Bostin. Capen
Chris Bell always was a good provider.”
This piece of information lies like a live coal -- 168 --
upon the brain of Mr. Stokels until, with becoming
gravity, he turns it over to some other
inquiring neighbor. At a moderate estimate,
not less than two thirds of the entire population
of Rivermouth sit down in imagination at
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Captain Christopher Bell's dinner-table the next
Unless the reader is familiar with the interior
life of secluded New England towns like
Rivermouth, he will find it difficult to understand
the excitement that prevailed on the
Sunday when the Rev. Mr. James Dillingham
preached his first sermon in the Old Brick
Church. Yet even a stranger, passing through
the streets, crowded at the earliest stroke of the
bells,—I think there is no music this side of
heaven sweeter than the clangor of those same
Rivermouth bells,—could not have failed to
notice an unwonted, eager look on the faces of
the neatly dressed throng. There was something
in the very atmosphere different from
that of ordinary days. A sort of pious Fourth-of-July
halo diffused itself through the fleecy,
low-hanging clouds, which, with May-time capriciousness,
broke into fine rain before the service
was concluded. A circumstance in which
Uncle Jedd detected, with microscopic eye, the
marked disapproval of Providence.
If such was the significance of the unheralded -- 169 --
shower that drenched Rivermouth's
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spring-bonnets, and bedraggled alike the just and the unjust,
it was not so accepted by the congregation
of the Old Brick Church.
The Rev. Mr. Dillingham had achieved a signal
triumph, and had triumphed in the teeth
of very serious obstacles. A small number of
the parishioners had been against him from the
first, and the death of Parson Hawkins had
not only strengthened their opposition, but created
a reaction among those who had insisted
most strenuously on the removal of the old
minister. It so chanced, then, that Mr. Dillingham
came to face as critical and unsympathetic
a congregation as could well be. Perhaps
the only really impartial listeners among
his audience were those belonging to other parishes;
for it was a noticeable fact that all the
other churches in town were nearly empty on
this occasion. The Rev. Josiah Jones, who had
not spared himself in preparing his sermon for
that forenoon, saw with ill-concealed distaste
that the larger portion of his flock had strayed
into the neighboring pasture.
If Mr. Dillingham had had an intimation of -- 170 --
the actual state of things, he would perhaps not
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have been so little self-conscious and so entirely
composed as he appeared; but happily he had
no suspicion of the unfriendly spirit that animated
the majority of his hearers.
With a slight flush on his cheeks, which
faded out almost immediately, Mr. Dillingham
passed from the small room at the rear of the
church, and ascended the pulpit stairs,—a slim
young man, nearly six feet in height, with
gentle blue eyes, and long hair of a dull gold
color, which he wore brushed behind his ears.
It was not a remarkably strong face, Mr. Dillingham's,
but it was not without character.
The firmly cut mouth and chin saved it, perhaps,
from being effeminate. He was twenty-nine
or thirty, but did not look it; his closely
shaved face and light complexion gave him
quite a youthful air, to one looking at him
across the church.
“Why, he ain't nothin' but a boy,” said -- 171 --
Uncle Jedd to himself, regarding the new minister
critically for a moment from the vestibule.
“He won't do.” And the ancient sexton gave a
final tug at the bell-rope which he had retained
in his hand. While the reverberation of the
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silvery crash that followed was floating above
the house-tops and stealing away to die among
the outlying hills, Uncle Jedd softly closed the
green-baize doors which opened upon the three
A contagious ripple and flutter had passed
over the congregation when Mr. Dillingham ascended
the pulpit steps and seated himself in
the antique high-backed chair at the left of the
desk. This same flutter and ripple was duplicated
as he rose to open the service, which he
did by repeating the Lord's Prayer in a clear,
melodious voice, making it seem a new thing
to some who had only heard it droned before.
Quick, subtile glances, indicative of surprise
and approval, were shot from pew to pew. The
old familiar hymn, too, as he read it, gathered
fresh beauty from his lips. A chapter from
the Scriptures followed, in which Mr. Dillingham
touched the key-note of his sermon. There
was a strange light come into the gentle blue
eyes now, and the serene, pale face that had
seemed to promise so little was alive with intelligence.
By the time he had reached this portion of -- 172 --
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the service, the young minister had taken more
than half of his listeners captive. The sermon
itself completed the victory, — Mr. Seth Wiggins
and Uncle Jedd alone remaining unconquered,
the former having dropped into oblivious
slumber after the first hymn, and the latter
having retreated into the belfry, where he had
sat ruminative on a rafter, communing with
the glossy pigeons and ringdoves, until it was
time for him to open the doors below.
Mr. Wiggins awoke instinctively, with a jerk,
for the benediction, and assumed that half-deprecatory,
half-defiant expression which marks
the chronic delinquent; and Uncle Jedd threw
open the padded doors just at the critical instant,
as if he had been waiting there a century.
As the people filed out of church, both these
-- 173 --
gentlemen were made aware that the new minister
had created a deep impression on the congregation.
A drizzling warm rain had begun
to fall, as I have said, and groups of elderly
ladies and pretty girls, grasping their skirts
with despairing clutches, stood about the vestibule
waiting for umbrellas to be brought.
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“A young man of uncommon talent,” Mr.
Lathers, the master of the Boys' High-School,
was heard to remark to Mr. Gargoyle, the retired
“O, uncommon!” responded that gentleman.
“I think he is just perfectly splendid,” said
Miss Imogen Browne, bringing her creaseless
lavender gloves together ecstatically.
“So modest,” said Miss Hesba Godfrey.
“And such fine eyes,” chimed Miss Amelia,
the younger sister.
“How lovely it was in him,” remarked Miss
Blydenburgh, composedly fastening her bracelet,
which had come unlinked, and giving it a
little admonitory pat, “to choose for his text
the very verse which Parson Hawkins was
reading when he died, — `Thou good and faithful
servant,' etc., etc.”
“And how beautifully he spoke of Parson
Hawkins,” said young Mrs. Newbury, looking
distractingly cool and edible — something like
celery — in her widows'-weeds. “I was ready
“What a spiritual face he has!” observed -- 174 --
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the elder Miss Trippew, who painted in water-colors;
“it reminded me of our Saviour's in
the engraving of Leonardo da Vinci's `Last
“And what a delicious voice, — like Wendell
“Then such a sermon! It is certainly an
improvement on the poor old parson's interminable
ninthlies and finallies.”
“I wonder if he is married,” said Miss Candace
Woodman, a compact little person, with
almond-shaped brown eyes and glittering yellow
ringlets which might have been sent to
the mint and cut up instantly into five-dollar
Miss Candace's remark cast a strange gloom
-- 175 --
for a moment over the group in which she
stood. Presently the umbrellas appeared;
snowy skirts were daintily gathered up; the
vestibule was deserted; the voices melted away
into the distance. Here and there along the
streets, darting to and fro in the rain like
swallows, one might have caught scores of
such light-winged adjectives as enthusiastic
young women let loose when they give expression
to their admiration.
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“Well, well,” muttered Uncle Jedd, turning
the key in the ponderous lock of the church-door,
“I dunno what th' world is a-comin'
“And what do you think of Mr. Dillingham,
Prue?” asked Mr. Dent, as the hoofs of
the horses struck on the slippery planks of the
bridge leading from town.
Mr. Dent had not even blinked that day in
church. It had been noticed and commented
on by the local satirist, that that suspicious
smooth place on the wooden pillar intersecting
the northwest corner of Mr. Dent's pew was
not covered once during the sermon. Mr.
Dent himself had observed that “damnéd spot”
for the first time with remorse, and had secretly
determined to have the interior of the
church repainted at his own expense.
“I think,” said Prudence, in reply to her
guardian's question, — “I think he reads well
and speaks well.”
“Gad, I never heard anybody speak better,
except one, and that was Daniel Webster.”
“He is very handsome, and seems to be unconscious
-- 176 --
that he is conscious of it.”
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“I declare, Prue, you are too deep for me!”
“Is n't he, and with good reason, just a little
bit — you know — meekly conceited?”
“Not at all,” said Mr. Dent. “I don't know
a man with less conceit than Dillingham. He
is in earnest. He is going to be very much
interested in his work here, and will make his
mark. I am only afraid we shall not be able
to keep so brilliant a fellow.”
“When he becomes known, some wealthy
Boston or New York society will be sure to
make him tempting offers.”
“But if he is very much interested in his
work here, he will not be tempted.”
“Perhaps not. But the best of them like fat
salaries,” said Mr. Dent, absently.
Prudence pictured to herself Parson Wibird
deserting the North Parish, or any parish where
he thought his duty lay, to accept a call from
some richer congregation; but she was not able
to draw a distinct picture of it.
“Then I suppose the fatter the salary is the
-- 177 --
deeper the interest they take in their work?”
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“Yes,” said Mr. Dent, shortly.
He felt that he had cast a reflection upon his
friend Dillingham; he did not see exactly how,
and it annoyed him. The rest of the ride home
was in silence. Prudence, too, was not satisfied
with herself. In intimating that she
thought Mr. Dillingham conceited, she had departed
from her usual candor.
Throughout the services his manner had been -- 178 --
without a tinge of self-consciousness. She had
taken her seat in the pew rather sadly. To
see a new minister standing in the place hallowed
so many years by the presence of Parson
Wibird — it was only a fortnight ago that he
stood there, with his placid, venerable face —
could but be painful to her. The first few
words Mr. Dillingham uttered had grated on
her heart; then she had yielded insensibly to
the charm which had fallen upon most of the
congregation, and found herself listening to him
with hushed breath. The strains of the organ
seemed to take up the prayer where he had
paused; the tones of his voice and the rich
swell of the music blended and appeared to
have one meaning, like those frescos in which
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the same design repeats itself in different tints.
She listened and listened, and when Uncle
Jedd suddenly threw open the muffled green
doors, it was as if a spell had been broken.
O, glorious gift of speaking golden words with
a golden tongue!
A sense of having been disloyal to the memory
of the old parson was troubling Prudence
when Mr. Dent put his question, and she had
not answered him fairly. It was sins like that
which Prudence would have had to confess if
she had been a Roman Catholic.
She liked Mr. Dillingham more than she had
-- 179 --
believed it possible to like Parson Wibird's
successor; but the limitations of her character
would not allow her to acknowledge it upon
compulsion. On leaving the church she felt in
her heart that she disliked Mr. Dillingham for
having made her listen to him; and there
shaped itself in Prudence's mind an inexplicable
wish,—often enough she thought of it
afterwards, — that he had never come to Rivermouth.
Aldrich, Thomas Bailey, 1836-1907 , Prudence Palfrey: a novel. (James R. Osgood and Company, Boston) [word count] [eaf450T].