VI. Concerning a Skeleton in a Closet.
[figure description] Page 084.[end figure description]
PRUE, on returning home, said nothing to
her guardian touching the interview with
John Dent at the parsonage.
She did not intend to hide the matter, but -- 085 --
it was all too new and distracting for her to
speak about just then. She was flurried, and
wanted time to think it over. She lay awake
half the night thinking of it, and began reproaching
herself for her coldness and coquetry.
How generous John Dent had been
with her, and how calculating and worldly wise
she had been on her part. He was going away
to face hardship and danger, perhaps death itself,
for her sake,—she understood clearly it
was for her sake,—and she had let him go
without speaking the word that would have
made this comparatively easy for him. It was
true, he had begged her not to speak the
[figure description] Page 085.[end figure description]
word; but she might have spoken it like an
honest girl. She had given him a marble
cheek to salute, when she ought to have thrown
her arms around his neck. What was there
to prevent her loving him and telling him so?
The generosity had been wholly on the side
of her lover, and no woman is content with
that; so Prue's heart warmed to him all the
more because she had not been allowed to
sacrifice herself in the least, and she fell asleep
with the vow upon her lips that if she did not
marry John Dent she would never marry.
At the breakfast-room door the next morning,
Prudence met her guardian returning from
a walk. He had been marketing at Rivermouth
bright and early, and had had the unlooked-for
satisfaction of beholding at a distance
his nephew and Joseph Twombly standing
in the midst of their luggage on the platform
of the railway station. But it chanced
that on the way home Mr. Dent had picked up
a piece of intelligence which turned the edge
of his satisfaction.
“Laws'a mercy, if that ain't Mr. Ralph -- 086 --
Dent!” cried a shrill, querulous voice at his
[figure description] Page 086.[end figure description]
elbow, as that gentleman turned into Penhallow
Place. It was the Widow Mugridge sweeping
the flag-stones in front of her domicile.
“Who 'd 'a' thought you 'd ketch me tidyin'
up a bit this airly in the mornin'! It's the
airly bird that gits the worm, Mr. Dent. Ben
to see your nevy off to Califerny, I s'pose! I
see him an' Miss Prudence a-chirpin' thicker'n
blackbirds over there on the parson's piazzer
yisterday forenoon, an' thought likely's not he
was goin' away at last. An' Joe, too—dear
me! They do say Deacon Twombly's folks is
dreffully cut up—”
Buz, buz, buz! Mr. Dent did not wait to
hear more, but lifting his hat to the old lady,
hurried down the street.
“I'd wager a cookey, now,” said the good -- 087 --
soul, leaning on the broom-handle meditatively,
and following Mr. Dent's vanishing figure with
a lack-lustre blue eye,—“I'd wager a cookey,
now, young Dent has ben settin' up to that
Palfrey gal, an' there's ben trouble. Thought
so all 'long. Clem Hoyt fetched away young
Dent's trunk more'n two weeks ago, and he
has n't set in the family pew sence. Guess
[figure description] Page 087.[end figure description]
things muster ben purty lively up to Willowbrook
house. Well, now, it's cur'ous, how
folks will fall to sixes an' sevins, 'specially relations,
right in the face of their Creater!”
Mr. Dent gave Prudence a frigid good morning.
He had no heart to arraign her for her
seeming duplicity; he had no heart for anything.
Prue loved his nephew, and the two
had met,—met in secret. One had defied him
and the other had deceived him.
I scarcely know how to describe the emotions
and perplexities that beset Mr. Dent at this
period, without shearing him of some of those
practical attributes which I have claimed for
When his nephew, that day on the road to -- 088 --
Rivermouth, declared his intentions regarding
Prue, Mr. Dent was startled and alarmed.
That Prudence would marry some time or
other, had occurred to him faintly as a possibility,—
a possibility so far in the future as
not to be considered; but John Dent had
taught him that the time was come when his
hold on Prue would be slight, were the right
man to demand her. John Dent was clearly
[figure description] Page 088.[end figure description]
not the right man, and Mr. Dent had opposed
the arrangement, chiefly, as he imagined, because
his nephew was not in a position to
marry; but under it all was a strangely born
and indefinable jealousy. Prue's declaration
on the piazza that afternoon fell upon Mr.
Dent like lightning from a cloudless sky; by
the flash of her love he saw the depth of his
own affection. It sometimes happens, outside
the covers of romances, that a man rears an
adopted girl from the cradle, and falls in love
with her when she gets into long dresses,—
that the love creeps into existence unsuspected,
and asserts itself suddenly, full-grown. It was
something very like this that had happened to
There is said to be a skeleton in every house. -- 089 --
Until then there had never been a skeleton at
Willowbrook, at least since Mr. Dent owned
the property; but there was one now, and Mr.
Dent's task henceforth was to see that the
ghastly thing did not peep out of its closet.
Prudence should never dream of its existence;
he would stand a grim sentinel over the secret
until the earth covered him and it. He thought
[figure description] Page 089.[end figure description]
it hard, after the disappointment of his youth,
that such a burden should be laid upon his
later years; but he would bear it as he had
borne the other.
He saw his duty plainly enough, but there
were almost insuperable difficulties in the performance
of it. It was next to impossible for
him to meet Prudence on the same familiar
footing as formerly; the unrestrained intimacy
that had held between them was full of peril
for his secret. He must be always on his
guard lest she should catch a glimpse into the
Bluebeard chamber where he had hidden his
stifled love. An unconsidered word or look
might be a key to it. Now it so fell out, in
his perplexity as to which was the least dangerous
method to pursue, that this amiable and
honest gentleman began treating the girl with
a coldness and constraint which gradually
merged into a degree of harshness he was far
Acknowledging to herself that she had given -- 090 --
her guardian some grounds for displeasure,
Prudence was ready to make any advances
towards a reconciliation; but Mr. Dent gave
[figure description] Page 090.[end figure description]
her no encouragement; he was ice to her. At
this stage business called him to Boston, where
he remained a fortnight.
“He will forgive me before he comes home,”
Prudence said to herself; but he came home
as he went away, gelid.
As she leaned over his chair at bedtime that
night to offer him her forehead to kiss, a
pretty fashion which had outlived her childhood,
he all but repulsed her. Prue shrank
back, and never attempted to repeat the caress.
“He is still angry,” she thought, “because
he fancies there is some engagement between
me and John Dent.”
But she was too proud now, as she had been
too timid before, to tell him what had passed
at Parson Hawkins's. He evidently knew they
had met there; she had forfeited his confidence
and respect, and that was hard to bear, harder
than John Dent's absence, a great deal. She
would have borne that cheerfully if her guardian
had let her; but he made even that
The old parson was Prue's only resource at -- 091 --
[figure description] Page 091.[end figure description]
this time. Whenever household duties gave her
leave, she went straight to the parsonage, and
sat for hours on the little green bench under
the vines, nearly leafless now, where John
Dent had waited for her. She called it her
stool of penitence. Here she actually read
through Adam Smith on “The Wealth of Nations,”
a feat which I venture to assert has
been accomplished by few young women in New
England or elsewhere. It was like a novel to
Sometimes the parson would bring his arm-chair -- 092 --
out on the piazza into the sunshine, and
the two would hold long discourses on California
and John Dent; for the parson had a foundness
for the young fellow; he had taught Jack
Latin when he was a kid; besides, the boy's
father had been dear to him. How far the
young man had taken Parson Hawkins into
his confidence, I do not know; but it is presumable
that Prudence told her old friend all
there was to tell. Often the parson was absent
from home, visiting parishioners, and Prudence
sat there alone, thinking of John Dent. She
had fallen into so pitiable a state that this
[figure description] Page 092.[end figure description]
became her sole pleasure,—to walk a mile and a
quarter to a place where she could be thoroughly
These frequent pilgrimages to Horseshoe
Lane filled Mr. Dent with lively jealousy. He
grew to hate the simple old gentleman, whose
society was openly preferred to his own, though
he did not make his own too agreeable.
He blamed the parson for coming between
him and Prudence; most of all he blamed him
for allowing John Dent to meet her clandestinely
under his roof. He made no doubt but
the intriguing old woman—for what was he
but an old woman?—had connived at the
meeting, very likely brought it about. Perhaps
he saw a pitiful marraige-fee at the end of his
plots and his traps, the wretched old miser!
If Prudence was rendered unhappy by her -- 093 --
guardian's harsh humor, he was touched to the
heart by her apparent indifference. They saw
each other rarely now, only at meals and sometimes
in the sitting-room after dinner. Mr.
Dent spent his time mostly in the library, and
Prudence kept out of the way. She no longer
played chess with him or read to him of an
[figure description] Page 093.[end figure description]
evening. The autumn evenings were dull and
interminable at Willowbrook. If it had been
Mr. Dent's purpose to make Prudence miss his
nephew every hour of the day, Machiavelli himself
could not have improved on the course he
One afternoon, after nearly three months of
this, Mr. Dent received an envelope from his
nephew enclosing a letter for Prudence. Mr.
Dent's first impulse was to throw the missive
into the grate; but he followed his second impulse,
and carried it to her, though it burnt
his fingers like a hot coal.
Prudence started and colored when her eyes
fell upon the superscription, but she made no
motion to take the letter; she let it lie on the
table where he had placed it.
“She wishes to read it alone,” said Mr. Dent
to himself, bitterly. He was marching off to
the door as stiff as a grenadier when Prudence
“Are we never going to be friends again?” -- 094 --
she said, laying her hand lightly on his arm.
“Are you never going to like me any more?
I begin to feel that I am a stranger in the
[figure description] Page 094.[end figure description]
house; it is no longer my home as it was.
Do you know what I shall do when I am convinced
you have entirely ceased to care for me?
I shall go away from you.”
He gave a quick glance at Prudence's face,
and saw that she meant it.
“Go away from me?” he exclaimed. “What
in God's world could I do without you!”
“I cannot go on living here if you don't love
me. I have done nothing to deserve your unkindness.
I saw John Dent only by chance, I
did not go to meet him, there is no engagement
between us; but I love him, and shall
love him always. I regret every day of my life
that I did not tell him so, like an honest girl.
That is really my only fault. For all this I
ask your forgiveness so far as you consider
yourself disobeyed. You have been unjustly
severe with me. In a little while your severity
will lose the power of wounding, and I shall
think only of your injustice.”
Then Prudence walked away and sat down
by the work-table.
Every word of this was a dagger to Mr. -- 095 --
Dent. Had he been cruel to her? It was
[figure description] Page 095.[end figure description]
plain he had. He was struck now by the
change that had taken place in Prudence within
three months. He had not noticed until
then how pale she was; there were dark circles
under her eyes that seemed to darken her
whole face, and the eyes themselves were grown
large and lustrous, like a consumptive's. As
her hands lay in her lap, he observed how
white and thin they were; and his conscience
smote him. It was not enough he should keep
the skeleton securely locked in its closet; his
duty went further; the girl's health and happiness
were to be looked after a little, and he
had neglected that.
“Prue,” he said, with sudden remorse, “I -- 096 --
have been very blind and unreasonable. Only
be a happy girl again, and I will ask you to
do nothing else except to forgive me for not
finding it easy to yield you up to the first
young fellow that came along and asked for
you. You have been my own girl for so many
years, that the thought of losing you distracted
me. But we won't speak about that. Write
to Jack, and tell him to come home; he shall
be welcome to Willowbrook. I'll bury a bushel
[figure description] Page 096.[end figure description]
of gold eagles in the lawn for him to dig up,
if he is still mad on the subject. All I have
is yours and his. What do I care for beyond
your happiness?” And Mr. Dent put his arm
around Prudence and kissed her much the
same as he might have done before John Dent
ever came to Rivermouth.
The wisest way to treat a skeleton is to
ignore it. There is nothing a skeleton likes
more than coddling: nothing it likes less than
neglect. Neglect causes it to pine away—if a
skeleton, even in a metaphor, can be said to
pine away—and crumble into dust.
“And now,” cried Mr. Dent, “let us see
what the young man has to say for himself.”
He never did things by halves, this honest
gentleman. When he made beer he made the
best beer Rivermouth ever tasted; though he
was no longer proud of it.
He picked up the letter and handed it to
Prudence, who could not speak for surprise
and joy over this sudden transformation. She
sat motionless for a minute, with her eyes
bright with tears, and then broke the seal.
“I'll read it aloud,” said Prue primly, as
-- 097 --
one with authority.
[figure description] Page 097.[end figure description]
The letter was not from California, as they
had expected, but was dated at an obscure little
post-village with a savage name somewhere
on the frontiers of Montana.
Bewildering rumors of gold discoveries in -- 098 --
the Indian Territory had caused a change in
the plans of the adventurers at the last moment.
* Instead of proceeding to San Francisco,
they had struck for the other side of
the Rocky Mountains. They were now on
their way to the new gold regions. At Salt
Lake City, where they had halted to purchase
mining implements, tents, provisions, etc., John
Dent had been too busy to write; he did not
know when he would be able to write again;
probably not for several months. They were
going into the wilds where postal arrangements
were of the most primitive order. The
country was said to be infested by bushwhack-ers,
on the lookout for unprotected baggage-trains
bound for the diggings, and for lucky
miners returning with their spoils. Besides,
scouting parties of the Bannock tribe had an
[figure description] Page 098.[end figure description]
ugly fashion of waylaying the mail and decorating
their persons with cancelled postagestamps.
Under these circumstances communication
with the States would be difficult and
might be impossible. Dent and Twombly were
travelling with a body of forty or fifty men,
among whom certain claims already secured
were to be divided on their arrival at the point
of destination in Red Rock Cañon. Their
special mess consisted of Twombly, Dent, and
a young man named Nevins, whom they had
picked up at Salt Lake City. This Nevins, it
appeared, had made a fortune in California in'
56, and lost it in some crazy silver-mining
speculation two years before. He had come
over with a crowd from Nevada, and found himself
in Salt Lake City with one suit of clothes
and a large surplus of unemployed pluck. He
was thoroughly up in gold-digging, a very superior
fellow in every way, and would be of
immense service to the tyros. The three were
to work on shares, Nevins putting his knowledge
and experience against their capital and
ignorance. John Dent was in high spirits.
If there was any gold in Montana, he and -- 099 --
[figure description] Page 099.[end figure description]
Twombly and Nevins had sworn to have it.
There was no doubt of the gold; and three
bold hearts and three pairs of strong hands
were going to seek it all they knew. “I
thank my stars,” he wrote, “that Uncle Dent
opposed me as he did in a certain matter; if
he had not, I should probably at this moment
be lying around New York on a beggarly salary,
instead of marching along with a score or
so of brave fellows to pick up a princely fortune
in Red Rock Cañon.”
“Well, I hope he will pick up the princely
fortune, with all my heart,” remarked Mr.
Dent, when they came to the end of the disjointed
and incoherent four pages.
There was not a word of love in them, and
no allusion to the past, except the passage
quoted, and the reading had been without awkwardness.
Prue was relieved, for she had broken the
-- 100 --
seal with some doubt as to the effect of a
love-letter on her guardian even in his present
blissful mood; and Mr. Dent himself was well
satisfied with the absence of sentiment, though
the spirit underlying the letter was evident
[figure description] Page 100.[end figure description]
“If I were a man,” Prudence said, “I would
not be a clerk in a shop, or sit all day like a
manikin on a stool with a pen stuck behind
my ear, while new worlds full of riches and
adventures lay wide open for gallant souls.
Cousin John was right to go, and I would not
have him return, until he has done his best
like a man. It will be a great thing for him,
uncle, it will teach him self-assurance and—”
“But, Prue, dear, I don't think that was a
quality he lacked,” put in Mr. Dent, with a
twinkle in his eye.
“Well, it will do him good, anyhow,” said
Prue, didactically; then, sinking her voice to
a minor key and sweeping her guardian from
head to foot with her silken lashes, she added,
“and I do not mind so much his being
away, now you are kind to me. What trouble
could be unbearable while I can turn to you
who have been father, mother, lover, and all
the world to me!”
She was rewarding him for his concessions. -- 101 --
The words dropped like honey from the girl's
lips. An hour before they would have been
full of bitterness to him; but he was a new
[figure description] Page 101.[end figure description]
man within these sixty minutes; he had trampled
his folly under foot, and was ready to
accept as very precious the only kind of affection
she had to give him. The color must be
lured back into those cheeks and the troubled
face taught to wear its happy look again.
What a cruel egotist he had been, nursing his
own preposterous fancies and breaking down
the health of the girl!
“A perfect dog in the manger,” he said to
himself, as he marched up and down the garden
walks, in the afternoon sunshine, with a
lighter heart than he had carried for many a
week. “And what a sentimental old dog!
I shall be writing verses next, and printing
them in the poet's corner in the Rivermouth
Barnacle. I declare I am alarmed about myself.
A man ought n't to be in his dotage at
fifty-six. If Jack knew of this he would be
justified in placing me in the State Lunatic
So Mr. Dent derided himself pleasantly that -- 102 --
afternoon, and said severer things of his conduct
than I am disposed to set down here,
though it is certainly a great piece of folly for
[figure description] Page 102.[end figure description]
a young lad of fifty-six to fall in love with an
old lady of eighteen,—particularly when she
is his ward, and especially when she loves his
The four or five months that succeeded the
receipt of John Dent's letter sped swiftly and
happily over the Willowbrook people. Mr.
Dent was, if anything, kinder to Prudence
than he had ever been. His self-conquest was
so complete that on several occasions he led
himself in chains, so to speak, to the parsonage,
and took a morbid pleasure in playing
backgammon with the old clergyman.
No further tidings had come to them from
John Dent; but Prudence had been prepared
for a long silence, and did not permit this to
disturb her. She was her own self again, filling
the house with sunshine.
Mr. Dent said to her one day: “Prue, I
really believe that you love Jack.”
Prudence beamed upon him.
“What made you?” asked her guardian,
“I suppose so; but I don't see how he did
-- 103 --
[figure description] Page 103.[end figure description]
“Well, then, you did.”
“Yes,—by opposing us!”
“O, if I had shut my eyes and allowed Jack
to make love to you, then you would n't have
“I wish I had let him!”
“I wish you had,” said Prue, demurely.
“It was obstinacy, then?”
“Just sheer obstinacy,” said Prue, turning
a hem and smoothing it on her knee with the
rosy nail of her forefinger. Then she leaned
one elbow on the work, and, resting her chin
on her palm, looked up into her guardian's
face after the manner of that little left-hand
cherub in the foreground of Raphael's Madonna
di San Sisto.
Mr. Dent went on with his newspaper, leaving
Prue in a brown study.
The period preceding John Dent's visit seemed -- 104 --
to Prudence like some far-off historical epoch
with which she could not imagine herself contemporary.
Her existence had been so colorless
before, made up of unimportant happy
[figure description] Page 104.[end figure description]
nothings. It was so full now of complicated
possibilities. A new future had opened upon
her, all unlike that eventless one she had been
in the habit of contemplating, in which she
was to glide from merry girlhood with its
round hats, into full-blown spinstership with
its sedate bonnets, and thence into serene old
age with its prim caps and silver-bowed spectacles,—
mistress of Willowbrook in these various
stages, placidly pouring out tea for her
guardian and executing chefs-d'œuvre in worsted
to be sold for the benefit of the heathen.
This tranquil picture—with that vague background
of cemetery which will come into pictures
of the future—had not been without its
charm for Prudence. To grow old leisurely in
that pleasant old mansion among the willows,
and to fall asleep in the summer or winter twilight
after an untroubled, secluded-violet sort of
life, had not appeared so hard a fate to her.
But now it seemed to Prudence that that would
be a very hard fate indeed.
In the mean while the days wore on, not unhappily, -- 105 --
as I have said. Nearly a year went
by, and then Prudence began to share the
[figure description] Page 105.[end figure description]
anxiety of the Twombly family, who had heard
nothing from Joseph since the enclosure sent
in John Dent's letter.
“You remember what he wrote about the
uncertainty of the mails,” said Mr. Dent, cheeringly.
“More than likely the Bannock braves
are at this moment seated around the councilfire,
with all their war-paint on, perusing Jack's
last epistle, and wondering what the deuce he
is driving at.”
Prue laughed, but her anxiety was not dispelled -- 106 --
by the suggestion. She had a presentiment
which she could not throw off that all
was not well with the adventurers. What
might not happen to them, among the desperate
white men and lawless savages, out there
in the Territory? Mr. Dent called her his little
pocket Cassandra, and tried to laugh down her
fancies; but in the midst of his pleasantries
and her forebodings a letter came,—a letter
which Prudence read with blanched lip and
cheek, and then laid away, to grow yellow with
time, in a disused drawer of the old brassmounted
writing-desk that stood in her bedroom.
It was a letter with treachery and
[figure description] Page 106.[end figure description]
shipwreck and despair in it. A great calamity
had befallen John Dent. He had made his
pile—and lost it. But how he made it and
how he lost it must be told by itself.
* In point of fact, the discovery of gold in Montana took
-- 107 --
place at a period somewhat later than that indicated here.
Aldrich, Thomas Bailey, 1836-1907 , Prudence Palfrey: a novel. (James R. Osgood and Company, Boston) [word count] [eaf450T].