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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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VII. How John Dent made his Pile and lost it.

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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

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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 cañon, 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 nook it seemed,
flooded with the ruddy stream of sunset! No
wonder the tired riders halted on the mountain-side,
gazing down half doubtingly upon its

“Dent,” whispered George Nevins, impressively,
“there is gold here.” Then he sat

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motionless for a few minutes, taking in every
aspect of the cañon. “What gold there is
over yonder,” he presently added, in the same
low voice, “is pulverized, lying in secret crevices,
or packed away in the sands of the
river-bed; troublesome hard work to get it,
too. How neatly Nature stows it away, confound

“But there is gold?”

“Tons—for the man that can find the rich

“And nuggets?”

And nuggets.”

“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,

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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

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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 bullfrogs over there in the

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 wildfire
through the Territories and the border States,

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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 red-deer
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 dirt 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 later 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

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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 gold-seeking 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.* 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

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cañon,” writes John Dent in his journal under
date of October 12. “Gold-dust has been found
scattered all along the bed of the 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
'49 we have seen none yet, though
there is a story afloat about a half-breed finding
one as big as a cocoanut! I am modest
myself, and am willing to put up with a dozen
or twenty nuggets of half that size. It does n't
become a Christian to be grasping. 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 fortnight 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 fourteen days
they had found no gold. At the end of the
third week 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,

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suggested that they had better look up a claim
for a cemetery.

“I never like to win the first hand,” 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 dance-house 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

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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 half-stimulated curiosity, and
stroked his long, yellow beard.

“And this is Sunday,” thought John Dent.
“In Rivermouth, the old sexton 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 Dent
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

The close atmosphere of the camp stifled

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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 under a ledge, 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

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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.”

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“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.”

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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

The piece of rock that John Dent had
picked up on the mountain-side was, in fact,
a fragment of silver-bearing quartz,—the zigzag
thread of blue which ran like a vein across
the broken edge betrayed its quality to Nevins
at a glance.

A week after this 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.

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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 few months, but unfortunately
the silver lode, as if repenting its burst
of generosity, abruptly turned coy, and refused
to lavish any more favors. Just when their
shaft was piercing deeper and deeper into the
earth, and their rock growing richer and richer,—
just as they had fallen into a haughty habit
of looking upon each other as millionnaires,—
the lode began to narrow. It was six feet
wide when it began to narrow; from that
point it narrowed relentlessly day by day for
a fortnight, and then was a thin seam like a
knife-blade,—then “pinched out” and utterly
disappeared. After four weeks of drifting, and
shafting, and all manner of prospecting, they
failed to find it again, and gave up. Some
said it was only a rich “chamber”; some said
it was one of those treacherous “pockets”; and
some said it was a good “chimney,” and was
down there yet, somewhere: but whatever its
name or its nature might be, Dent, Nevins, and

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Twombly recognized the fact that it had got
away from them, and that was the main grievance.

“Anyhow, we have made a fair haul,” remarked
Nevins, “thanks to you, Jack, for it
was you who lighted on the thing.”

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

They had, as Nevins stated, made a fair
haul. They had managed to get out close
upon a thousand tons of forty-dollar rock before
the calamity came, and after all expenses
of mining and crushing were paid, they found
themselves nearly thirty thousand dollars in

Their pile was so large now,—they had reduced
it to greenbacks which they concealed
on the premises,—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.

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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 heart-breaking work sometimes, and
back-breaking 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 gold-hunters. 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

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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 become a heavy care to
the young men. “We keep the dust”—I am
quoting from the journal—“in a stout candlebox
set into the earth at the foot of the tentpole,
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
have n't a finger in it themselves.”

The morning after this attempt at burglary,

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—it was the second,—the following conversation
took place:—

“It will never do for us to keep all this
dust here,” said Nevins; “we can't hide it as
cunningly as we do the greenbacks.”

“What can we do with it?” asked John

“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.

“Drafts would be safer,” suggested Nevins.

“Suppose Tileston & Co. should fail?”

“That is true, again,” observed Nevins.

The bank-notes were decided on, and fortyfive
slips of crisp paper in all, 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

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of the pen; but it was enough to set him on
his feet. With fifteen 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 love-affair 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 fifteen 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.

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The incalculable sums which our friends were
imagined to have accumulated rendered their
position critical. They took turns regularly on
the night-watch 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 new-comers, 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. Now, though
murder did not shock the nerves of this community,
the 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

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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

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,

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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 POCKET-BOOK

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 fingernails
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?”

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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
war-party in a narrer gully than have
any unpleasantness with that man. His true
name was n't Dick King, I reckon, because he
said it was. Cool Dick was what they called
him in Tuolumne County in '56.”

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

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

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 Ranch. 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
and 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

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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

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

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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.


* 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.”

-- 134 --

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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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