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Aldrich, Thomas Bailey, 1836-1907 [1874], Prudence Palfrey: a novel. (James R. Osgood and Company, Boston) [word count] [eaf450T].
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IV. Dragons.

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When Prudence was turning seventeen,—
that is to say, nearly three years before
that afternoon in May when she is introduced
to the reader,—John Dent had come to Rivermouth.
He had recently graduated, with not
too many honors, and was taking a breathingspell
previous to setting out on his adventures
in the world; for he had his dragons to overcome
and his spurs to win, like any young
knight in a legend. Poverty and Inexperience,
among the rest, are very formidable dragons.
They slay more young men every year than
are ever heard of. The stripling knight, with
his valise neatly packed by the tearful baroness,
his mother, sallies forth in a spick-andspan
new armor from the paternal castle,—
and, snap! that is the last of him. Now and
then one comes back with gold-pieces and

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decorations, but, ah! for the numbers that go
down before the walls of great towns like New
York and Boston and Chicago!

John Dent's family had formerly lived in
Rivermouth, where he had lost his mother in
infancy. At this time his father was associated
in the proprietorship of the brewery, from
which he subsequently withdrew to engage in
some Western railroad enterprise. When Mr.
Benjamin Dent moved to Illinois, John was a
mere child; he had not been in Rivermouth
since; his vacations had been passed with his
father, and he had only the vaguest memory
of his childhood's home. It was a cherished
memory, nevertheless; for an unwavering affection
for the place of one's nativity seems to
be one of the conditions of birth in New England.
It was during John Dent's last term in
college that his father had died, leaving his
railroad affairs hopelessly complicated. Though
communication between the two brothers had
been infrequent of late years, the warmest feeling
had existed on both sides, and Mr. Ralph
Dent was eager with purse and advice to assist
his nephew in any business or profession he
might select.

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John Dent was quite undecided what to do
with himself. When some outlying personal
debts were paid off there would be enough
left to keep him afloat a year. Within that
year of course he must have his plans definitely
settled. He had come to Rivermouth to talk
over those plans with his uncle, and a room
had been provided for him at Willowbrook.

“Look here, Prue,” Mr. Dent had said,
laughingly, the day his nephew was expected,
“I won't have you making eyes at him.”

“But I will, though!” Prudence had cried,
glancing back over her shoulder, “if he is anything
like his uncle.”

But John Dent did not resemble his uncle,
and Prue did not make eyes at him. She
found him very agreeable, nevertheless, a tall,
frank-hearted young fellow with dark hair and
alert black eyes,—in every way different from
the abstracted young student her fancy had
taken the liberty to paint for her. He smoked
his uncle's cabañas as if he had been born to
them, and amused Prue vastly with descriptions
of his college life and with the funny
little profiles of his college chums which he

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drew on blotting-paper in the library. If he
could have been examined in caricature, or
allowed to graduate from the gymnasium, he
would not have come off so poorly for honors.

Prudence had rather dreaded the advent of
the gloomy scholastic, and had been rather
curious about him also. They had played together
at a period when Prue was learning to
walk and John Dent wore pinafores. They
had not met since then. It was odd for her
old playfellow to be an utter stranger to her
now. What sort of man was that little boy
whom she had lost so long ago in the misty
fairyland of babyhood? A solemn young man
in black, she had fancied. She had pictured
him prowling about the house and lawn, brooding
like the young Prince of Denmark, not on
psychological subtleties indeed, but on sordid
questions as to how on earth he was going to
get his living. How he was going to get his
living did not seem to trouble John Dent in
the least.

Reading one of Thackeray's novels in a hammock
on the piazza, or strolling in the garden
after supper, with his cigar glowing here and

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there among the shrubbery like a panther's eye,
he did not appear much appalled by prospective
struggles for existence. The Dents were
always that way, Mr. Ralph Dent remarked;
free and easy, with lots of latent energy. Put
a Dent in a desert, and he would directly build
some kind of a manufactory. A brewery likely

And indeed there was something under John
Dent's careless manner which seemed to give
the assurance that when the time arrived he
would overthrow the wicked giants and slay
the enchanted dragons with neatness and despatch,
like a brave modern knight in an English
walking-coat and a mauve silk neckerchief
drawn through an amethyst ring. Uncle Ralph
thought there was a good deal to the boy,—
and so did Prue.

He was superior to any young man she had
ever seen. She had seen few, to be sure, for
Rivermouth is a sterile spot in which to pick
up a sustenance, and her young male eagles
generally fly from the nest as soon as they are
fledged, some seaward and others to the neighboring
inland cities. They are mostly sickly

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eagles that are left. So Prudence had encountered
few young men in her time, and those
she had not liked; but she did like John Dent.

John Dent had come to Rivermouth bearing
about his person some concealed wounds inflicted
by the eldest daughter of his Greek professor;
he had, in fact, been “stabbed with a
white wench's black eye, shot through the ear
with a love-song,” as Mercutio phrases it; but
before ten days were gone at Willowbrook
these wounds had somehow healed over, leaving
scarcely a cicatrice on his memory.

Given a country-house, with a lawn and a
pine grove, and two young people with nothing
in the world to do,—let the season be
springtime or winter,—and it requires no wizard
to tell the result. Prue, with her genuine
fresh nature and trim figure and rich hair and
gray eyes, was easy to like, and very much
easier to love. I am not trying to find reasons
for these young people. If people who
pair were obliged to have good reasons for pairing,
there would be a falling off in the census.

It came to pass, then, at the end of four
weeks, that John Dent found himself thinking

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night and day of his uncle's ward. He knew
it was a hopeless thing from the start. He
was twenty-three, penniless, and without a profession.
Nothing was less tenable than the
idea that his uncle would permit Prudence to
engage herself to a man who might not be in
a position these five years to give her a home.
Then as to Prudence herself, he had no
grounds for assuming that she cared for him.
She had been very frank and pleasant, as was
permissible to the nephew of her guardian; her
conduct had been from the beginning without
a shadow of coquetry. She had made no eyes
at him.

Prudence would not have been a woman and
eighteen if she had not seen somewhat how
matters were going with the young gentleman.
She did not love him, as yet; but she liked
him more than any one she had ever known.
She knew as well as he that anything beyond
friendship between them would be unfortunate.
She determined to afford him no opportunity to
speak to her of love, if he were so unwise.
She would keep him at such a distance as
would render it difficult for him to indulge in

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the slightest sentiment with her. Prue had
passed to her eighteenth birthday without so
much as a flirtation; but she at once set to
work managing John Dent with the cool skill
of a seaside belle in her second season. It is
so a young duck takes to water.

There were no moonlight walks on the lawn
any more; but it fell out so naturally that
John Dent saw no diplomacy in it. Household
duties, which she could have no hand in conjuring,
rose up between them and the pine
grove. People from the town, very stupid
people, dropped into the drawing-room of an
evening, or his uncle failed to drop out. When
they were alone together, and frequently when
Mr. Dent was present, Prudence would rally
the young man about the professor's daughter
whom he had mentioned incidentally early in
his visit. She suspected a tenderness in that
direction, and in handling the subject developed
powers of sarcasm quite surprising to herself.
She was full of liveliness those days.

John Dent was not lively now; he was gradually
merging into that saturnine and melancholy-eyed
student whom Prue had so dreaded.

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Mr. Ralph Dent was struck by this phenomenon.
It seemed to him latterly that his ward
laughed too much and his nephew not enough.
It had been the other way. Mr. Dent was, as
I have said, a practical man, except in this,
that he expected other people to be practical.
He did not dream that his nephew would have
the audacity to fall in love with Pure. But
the change that had come over the two gave
Mr. Dent a twinge of uneasiness. Perhaps he
had not been wholly wise in having John Dent
at Willowbrook.

The more he reflected on Prue's high spirits
and his nephew's sudden low ones, the less he
admired it. If there had been any nonsense
between them, he would put a stop to it before
it went any further.

Running through the Willowbrook grounds
was a winding rivulet spanned by a rustic
bridge, at the farther end of which, under a
clump of willows, stood a summer-house,—an
octagon-shaped piece of lattice-work with four
gilt balls suspended from a little blue spire on
the roof: a Yankee's idea of a pagoda. Here
John Dent was thoughtfully smoking a cigar

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one morning when he saw his uncle cross the
birch-bark bridge and come towards him. Mr.
Dent stepped into the summer-house, seated
himself opposite the young man, took out his
cigar-case, and went directly to the business in

“Jack,” said Mr. Dent, “I hope you have n't
been talking any nonsense to Prue.”

“I don't think I understand you,” said
Jack, with a little start. “I have n't, to my
knowledge, been talking any nonsense to

“For the last week or so you have not
seemed like yourself, and I fancied that perhaps
something had happened between you and
Prue,—a little tiff maybe.”

“Nothing in the world, sir.”

Mr. Dent, like Hamlet, wanted something
“more relative than this.”

“You are sure you have not been making
love to her, Jack?”

“I have certainly not been making love to
Miss Palfrey, if that is what you mean.”

Mr. Dent drew a breath of relief. If his
nephew had one trait stronger than another, it

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was truthfulness. Mr. Dent was satisfied that
no mischief had been done so far, and he intended
to preclude the possibility of mischief.
“How stupid of me,” he reflected, “to put the
notion into the fellow's head!” He would
cover his maladroit move by getting his nephew
into a New York banking-house or an insurance
office at once. The sooner Jack made a
start in life the better. Mr. Dent bit off the
end of his cigar, and, taking a light from the
young man, said, “Of course, Jack, I did n't
seriously think you had.”

With this he rose and was about to leave
the summer-house.

“Are you going to town, uncle?” inquired
John Dent, looking up.


“I 'll walk a bit of the way with you, if
you like.”

“Certainly, Jack.”

As the garden gate closed on uncle and
nephew, Prudence looked out of the bay-window
over the hall door, and her busy, intelligent
needle came to a dead halt half-way through a
piece of cambric muslin. She was aware that

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her guardian was going to town; but it was
not one of John Dent's habits to take long
walks with his uncle. Prue pondered the circumstance
for a minute or so, and then the
needle went on again as busily as before.

“Uncle Ralph,” said John Dent, as they
reached a rise of ground overlooking the spires
and gables of Rivermouth and the picturesque
harbor, where a man-of-war lay at anchor with
its masts and spars black against the sparkling
atmosphere, “I had half resolved to say
something to you this morning, but after your
question in the summer-house I feel it my duty
to say it.”

“What is that, Jack?”

“I told you I had not been making love to
Miss Palfrey, but I am bound to tell you that
I love her all the same.”

“What! why, I never heard of such madness!”
And Mr. Dent stopped short in the
middle of the road.

“I did n't suppose it would meet with your
approval, sir.”

“My approval? I tell you I never heard of
such insanity!”

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“I know it is unfortunate,” said John Dent,
humbly; “but there are things which no man
can help.”

“But a man should help falling in love with
a girl when he is not able to provide birdseed
for a canary.”

“The birdseed will come in good time; it
always does.”

Mr. Dent's glance, by the merest accident,
rested on the red-brick Almshouse which loomed
up on the left. John Dent followed his glance,
and colored.

“Do you expect a young woman to waste
the bloom of her life waiting for you, and
finally go with you over there?”

“The girl who will not wait a year or two,
or ten years, for the man she loves, is not
worth working for,” said John Dent, nettled.

Then Mr. Dent cursed himself for his blindness
in bringing these two together.

“And Prue loves you?” he gasped.

“I did n't say that, sir.”

“What in the devil did you say, then?”

“I said I loved her. I think she does n't
care a straw for me.”

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“But you spoke of her waiting for you a
year or two.”

“That was merely a supposititious case.”

“Have you hinted anything of this to Prue?”

“No, sir.”

“Then I depend on your honor not to. I
won't have it! I won't have it!” And Mr.
Dent stood there quite white with anger.

“You will bear in mind, Uncle Ralph, that
I need not have told you this.”

“That would have been dishonorable.”

“It would have been dishonorable, sir; and
so I came to you directly, without breathing a
word to Miss Palfrey. I did not forget I was
under your roof.”

Certainly John Dent had not been dishonorable,
however mad. Mr. Dent knew that his
nephew was wrong in falling in love with his
ward, and that he himself was right in being
indignant; yet he was conscious that his young
kinsman had in a fashion disarmed him.

“This is exceedingly awkward,” he said,
after a silence. “I was very glad to have
you at Willowbrook, but with this extraordinary

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John Dent interrupted him: “Of course my
visit is at an end. I knew that. I shall leave

“What are your plans?”

“I have none, that is, nothing definite.”

“I mean, where are you going?”

“O, I shall take a room somewhere in the
town for the present.”

Mr. Dent did not like that. The nice sense
of honor which had sealed the young man's
lips while beneath the avuncular roof might
take wing under different circumstances. Rivermouth
was a strong strategical position from
which to lay siege to Willowbrook. Mr. Dent
did not like that at all.

“Why waste your time in Rivermouth? There
is no opening for you there. Why not go to
Boston, or, better still, to New York” (or
to Jericho, Mr. Dent interpolated mentally),
“where there are countless chances for a
young man like you?”

“I can live more economically in the town.
Besides, I do not intend to settle in any of
our Eastern cities. I shall go to some new
country where there are wider and less crowded

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fields for enterprise, where fortunes are
made rapidly. I wish to make my pile at

“Quite a unique case,” Mr. Dent could not
refrain from remarking.

“Then,” continued John Dent, shedding the
sarcasm placidly, “I shall come back and ask
Miss Palfrey to be my wife, if her heart and
hand are free.”

“You will do me the favor to delay the
question until you come back,” cried Mr. Dent,
whose wrath was fanned into flame again.
“If you insist on idling about Rivermouth, I
insist on your promise that you will not explain
your views to Miss Palfrey.”

“I will not make any promises,” returned
John Dent, “because I have an unfortunate
habit of keeping them.”

Was it possible that Prue was tangled, even
ever so slightly, in the meshes of the same net
that had caught this luckless devil-fish? After
his nephew's confession, Mr. Dent was prepared
for almost anything.

Mr. Dent said: “But unless you do give
me some such assurance, I shall be constrained

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to forbid your visits to the house, and that
would cause people to talk.”

“Even with that alternative I cannot make
you any promise. To be candid, I have n't at
this moment the faintest intention of telling
Miss Palfrey what my sentiments are. It is
not likely I shall see her again, since you have
walled up the doors of Willowbrook,” he added,
with a smile. “Uncle Ralph, let us talk

“Thanks for the compliment implied.”

“Don't mention it,” said Jack, politely.

“Look here,” said Mr. Dent, resting his
hand on his young kinsman's shoulder, “I do
not want to shut my doors on you. It annoys
me beyond measure to have my brother Ben's
boy flying in the face of reason in this way,
and setting himself up in antagonism to me,
his best friend. Come, now, Jack, don't be a
simpleton. Go to New York, look up some
business or profession to your taste, and you
shall have any capital you require, if you will
give over this foolishness about Prue.”

“I could not do it, Uncle Ralph. I love

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He had said that before quietly enough. The
words were spoken passionately this time, and
they went through Mr. Dent's heart with inexplicable

“I love her, and I should despise myself if
I could be bought. All the chances are against
me, I know; but if I cannot have her, I can
at least try to be worthy of her.”

“Stuff and nonsense! How many girls have
you fallen in love with before now?”

“Seven or eight, first and last, as nearly as
I can remember,” replied young Dent, candidly;
“but there was no Prudence Palfrey
among them. I think that when a man loves
a girl like her, he loves but once.”

“All this comes of your verse-writing and
moonshine. I don't know where you got them
from. Your father was a plain, practical man,
and kept his head cool. When I was a young

“You fell in love with Mercy Gardner,”
cried John Dent, “and never loved any but

Mr. Dent winced a little as he parried the

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“But I could not have her, and I made the
best of it, like a sensible man. You cannot
have her daughter, and you are making the
worst of it, like an obstinate fellow.”

“But I am not sure I cannot have the
daughter—some time.”

“I tell you so.”

John Dent decapitated a thistle with one
impatient stroke of his cane. Off came his
uncle's head—by proxy!

“When Miss Palfrey tells me with her own
lips to go about my business, then it will be
time enough for me to draw on those stores
of philosophy and hard common-sense which
are supposed to be handed down in the Dent

Mr. Dent's anger flashed out at that, and it
must be owned his nephew was exasperating.

“I command you never to speak to her of

“But I must, one of these days.”

“You refuse positively to quit Rivermouth?”

“At present I do.”

“And you will make no promise relative to
Miss Palfrey?”

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“I cannot do that, either, sir.”

“Then you cannot call at the house, you
know,” cries Mr. Dent. “I forbid you to
speak to her when you meet her, on the street
or elsewhere, and I'll have nothing to do with
you from this out!”

And Mr. Dent turned on his heel and walked
rapidly down the road in the direction of Willowbrook,
forgetful of those two ounces and a
half of scarlet Saxony wool which he had been
commissioned by Prue to purchase at Rivermouth.

“ `How poor are they that have not patience'!”
said the young man to himself;
then he added, a second after, “How poor are
they that have not prudence!” probably meaning
Prudence Palfrey.

John Dent looked at his cigar. It had gone
out. He threw the stump among some barberry-bushes
by the stone-wall, and set his
face towards the town.

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Aldrich, Thomas Bailey, 1836-1907 [1874], Prudence Palfrey: a novel. (James R. Osgood and Company, Boston) [word count] [eaf450T].
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