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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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XIV. King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid.

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MR. DENT had watched the increasing intimacy
between Prudence and the young
minister with much peculiar, secret satisfaction,
as the reader has been informed; and
that afternoon, while she and Mr. Dillingham
were gazing at the sunset through the embrasure
of the fort, Mr. Dent, in spite of the pain
in his ankle, of which he had complained earlier
in the day, was walking briskly up and down
the library, building castles for the young

When a man has reached the age of Mr.
Dent, and is too rheumatic himself to occupy
castles in the air, he indulges in this kind of
architecture for the benefit of others, that is,
if he has a generous nature, and Mr. Dent had
a very generous nature. To see Prue well settled
in life, and to have two or three of Prue's

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children playing around the arm-chair of his
old age, was his only dream now. So, in constructing
his castles, he added to each a wing
for a nursery on a scale more extensive, perhaps,
than would have been approved by either
of the prospective tenants, if the architect had
submitted his plans to them.

Mr. Dent had never asked himself—and possibly
the question would have posed him—why
he was so willing now for Prudence to marry,
when the thought of her marrying had appeared
so terrible to him in connection with his nephew.
It was John Dent's misfortune, perhaps, that
he was the first to stir Mr. Dent's parental
jealousy; maybe Mr. Dillingham would have
fared no better, if he had come first. At all
events, he had come second, and Mr. Dent was
far from raising objections.

He was in the sunniest of humors, this afternoon,
contemplating Prue's possible happiness
and his own patriarchal comfort in it, when
Fanny brought in the evening papers, and with
them the letter which Mr. Joseph Twombly
had considerately mailed to Mr. Dent a few
days before.

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He tore open the envelope carelessly, recognizing
Twombly's handwriting, but the sight of
John Dent's penmanship gave him a turn. He
ran over the pages hurriedly, and with various
conflicting emotions, among which a sympathy
for Jack's past and present sufferings was not,
it is to be feared, so pronounced as Twombly's
had been.

It was unquestionably a relief to know that
Jack was alive and in good health; but it was
a little unfortunate to have the letter come
just then, when everything was going on
so smoothly. The reflection that Jack might
take it into his head to return to Rivermouth
and insist on marrying Prue, was not agreeable
to Mr. Dent. He had assented to this at one
time; he had overlooked his nephew's poverty,
but since then John Dent had not behaved
handsomely to Prue.

Whatever Prudence's feelings were, this letter
could but disturb her. It would set her to
thinking of the past, and that was not desirable.
But why show her the letter, at present?—he
would have to show it to her if he spoke of it;
why not wait until he heard again from Jack,

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whose plans were still with loose ends? He
could not be put into possession of the Hawkins
property or even informed that he was to
inherit it, for the year specified in the will
lacked several months of expiration. Moreover,
the letter was one that for several reasons
could not well be shown to Prudence; it spoke
of her marriage as a foregone conclusion,—the
very way to unsettle everything; and then what
business had Jack to go and say there were
things in the world that cut one up more cruelly
than hunger and cold? What an intemperate
kind of phraseology that was!

These reflections were struggling through Mr.
Dent's mind when he heard the clatter of hoofs
at the gate. He crumpled the letter in his
hand, and thrusting it into his pocket, hastened
out to the front door. In the middle of
the hall he recollected what a bad state his
ankle was in, and limped the rest of the way.

“Won't you stop to tea, Dillingham?” he
cried, as he saw the young clergyman with one
foot in the stirrup, Mr. Dillingham having dismounted
to assist Prudence from the saddle.

“Thanks, my friend; but to-night, you know,

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is the night I am obliged to prepare my sermon.”

With which words Mr. Dillingham touched
his hat to Miss Palfrey, waved his hand smilingly
to Mr. Dent, and rode away.

As Prudence came up the gravelled path, with
the trail of her riding habit thrown over her
arm, showing two neat bronze boots, she was
too much engaged with her own thoughts to
notice Mr. Dent closely; at another time she
would have seen that something had disturbed
him. Mr. Dent was sharper sighted, and he
saw that Prudence was laboring under unusual
excitement. Had Dillingham spoken at last,
and if so, how had Prue taken it? He did not
dare to conjecture, for he felt it would be a
bitter disappointment to him if she had refused

“At any rate,” Mr. Dent said to himself,
“Jack's letter is not the thing for popular
reading just now.”

After tea Prudence told her guardian what
had passed between her and Mr. Dillingham.
He had asked her to be his wife, but so abruptly
and unexpectedly, that he had startled

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her more than she liked. He had, without any
warning, leaned forward and taken her hand
while they were looking at the sunset in the
bastion of the ruined fort; then he had stepped
down from his horse, much as King Cophetua
must have stepped down from the throne, and
stood at her stirrup-side.

Prudence felt it would be dreadfully sentimental
to repeat what Mr. Dillingham had said
to her, so she did not repeat his words, but
gave Mr. Dent the substance of them. The
young man perceived that the suddenness of
his action had displeased Prudence, and begged
to be forgiven for that, and for the abruptness
of his words, if they seemed abrupt to her;
they did not seem so to him, for he had carried
her presence in his thought from the hour
he first saw her. If during the past months
he had concealed his feelings in regard to her,
it was because he knew his own unworthiness,
and did not dare to hope for so great happiness
as her love would be to him. He had
betrayed his secret involuntarily; the hour, the
place, and her nearness must plead for him.

“He really turned it very neatly,” said Prue,

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trying to brush off the bloom of romance which
she was conscious overspread her story, though
she had endeavored to tell it in as prosaic a
manner as possible.

“He's a noble fellow,” exclaimed Mr. Dent
warmly, “and is worthy of any woman,—the
best of women, and that's you.”

“He is noble,” said Prudence, meditatively;
“and as he stood there, looking up at me, I
think I more than half loved him.”

“And you told him so!” cried Mr. Dent.

“No, I did not,” said Prudence, with a perplexed
expression clouding her countenance.
“The words were on my lips, but I could not
say them. I could not say anything at first;
he quite took away my breath. When I was
able to speak I was full of doubt. I do not
know if I love him. I esteem him and admire
him; he has genius and goodness, and I can
understand how a woman might be very proud
of his love; but when he asked me to marry
him, it startled me and pained me, instead of—
of making me very happy, you know.”

Mr. Dent did not know at all; Prudence's
insensibility and hesitation were simply

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incomprehensible to him; but he nodded his head
appreciatively, as if he took in the whole situation.

“What did you say to him?”

“Almost what I am saying to you.”

“But that was not a very definite answer to
a proposal of marriage, it strikes me.”

“I asked him not to refer to the subject
again at present.”

“That was dodging the question, Prue.”

“I wanted time, uncle, to know my own

In effect, Prudence had neither accepted nor
rejected the young minister.

“Rather flattering for a man of Dillingham's
character and position,” thought Mr. Dent, “to
be kept cooling his heels in an anteroom that

“You see, uncle, it was too important a step
to be taken without reflection. Thoughtless
people should not be allowed to marry, ever.”

“How long will it take you, Prue, to know
your mind?”

“I don't know,” she said, restlessly; “a
week—a month, perhaps.”

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“And in the mean time Dillingham will continue
his visits here just the same?”

“Just the same. I arranged all that.”

“O, you arranged all that?”


“But won't it be a little awkward for everybody?”

“I suppose so,” said Prudence, looking
wretched as she thought it over.

Mr. Dent was too wily to say anything more,
for he saw that if Prudence was urged in her
present wavering humor to give Dillingham a
conclusive answer, it might possibly be in the

However, the ice was broken, that was one
point gained; the rest would naturally follow;
for Prue could not long remain blind to the
merits of a man like Dillingham, after knowing
that he loved her. Mr. Dent laughed in
his sleeve, thinking how sly it was in the
young parson to corner Prue up there in the
old fort, and attempt to carry her by storm.
A vague exultation at Prue's not allowing herself
to be taken in this sudden assault, formed,
in spite of him, an ingredient in the good
gentleman's merriment.

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Mr. Dillingham passed the following evening
at Willowbrook as though nothing unusual had
occurred between him and Miss Palfrey. If
the beggar maid, instead of accepting King
Cophetua on the spot,—as I suppose the minx
did,—had reserved her decision for a month
or two to consider the matter, the king could
not have behaved meanwhile with more tact
and delicacy than Mr. Dillingham exercised on
this evening and in his subsequent visits.

Prudence carefully but not ostensibly avoided
being left alone with him, and there was none
of that awkwardness or constraint attending
the resumption of purely friendly intercourse
which Mr. Dent had anticipated.

Observing that the young people no longer
rode horseback, Mr. Dent hastened the cure
of his ankle, and the rides were resumed under
his supervision; but the bridle-path leading
to the old earthworks was tacitly ignored
by all parties. Prudence and Mr. Dillingham
had gone that road once too often if nothing
was to come of it.

Mr. Dillingham retraced his steps so skilfully,
and had come back with so good grace

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to the point from which he had diverged, that
Prudence began to doubt if she had not dreamed
that tender episode of the old fort, and to
question if the old fort itself were not a figment.
The whole scene and circumstance had
become so unreal to her that one morning,
riding alone, as she sometimes did now, she
let Jenny turn into the rocky path leading to
the crest of the hill, and secured ocular proof
that the ruined earthwork at least was a fact.
Standing there in the embrasure, she felt for
an instant as if the young clergyman's hand
rested on her own. That same evening Mr.
Dillingham made it all seem like a delusion
again by talking to her and smiling upon her
just as he had done the month previously.
But the recollection that he had asked her to
be his wife, and that she had a response to
make to the momentous question, now and
then came over Prudence like a chill.

Rather vexatiously for Mr. Dent, somewhat
restlessly for his ward, and perhaps not altogether
happily for Mr. Dillingham,—however
composed he seemed,—two weeks went by.

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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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