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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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XVI. How Prue sang “Auld Robin Gray. ”

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WHEN, months before, Mr. Dillingham's
intimacy at Willowbrook had given rise
to those cruel stories which made Prudence
half wish the young minister would fall in
love with her, that she might refuse him and
prove how far she was from dying of blighted
affections,—at that time it had seemed a simple
thing to Prudence to tell Mr. Dillingham
that she valued his esteem very highly, that
she wanted him always for her friend, but that
she could never love him. One cannot be positive
that she had not, in some idle moment,
framed loosely in her thought a pretty little
speech embodying these not entirely novel sentiments;
but if this were the case, there was
a difficulty now which she had not anticipated
in the pronouncing of that little sentence.

Did she want to pronounce it? If such was

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to be the tenor of her reply to Mr. Dillingham,
why had she not spoken the words that evening
in the fort? There had been her time and
chance to sweep all the Rivermouth gossips
from the board with one wave of her hand,
and so end the game. To be sure, Mr. Dillingham
had confused her by the abruptness
of his declaration; but she had recovered herself
almost instantly, and ought to have been
frank with him then and there. But she had
been unable to give him an answer then, and
now two weeks and more had slipped away,
leaving her in the same abject state of indecision.
Thus far Mr. Dillingham had shown to
Prudence no sign of impatience; but her guardian
was plainly harassed by her temporizing,
and to Prudence herself the situation had grown

She knew what her guardian's wishes were,
though he had not expressed them, and his delicacy
in not attempting to sway her influenced
Prue greatly. She knew that her hesitation was
adding to the disappointment and mortification
Mr. Dillingham would have to face if she finally
said No. He could but draw a happy augury

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from her delay; for if, in grammar, two negatives
make an affirmative, in love, too much
hesitation is equivalent to at least half a Yes.
She was not certain that her vacillation had
not made it imperative on her to accept his
addresses. She stood aghast when she reflected
that, without speaking a word, she had
partly promised to be his wife.

The time when she could think lightly of
putting aside his proffered love was gone; she
shrunk now from the idea of giving him pain.
Since Mr. Dillingham settled in Rivermouth
her life had been very different, and if he
passed out of it, as he must if she could not
love him, the days would be blank again.
Her esteem and friendship for him had deepened
month by month, and during the past
two weeks his bearing towards her, his deference,
his patience, and his tenderness, had
filled her with gratitude to him. There were
moments when she felt impelled to go to him
and place her hand in his, but some occult influence
withheld her. There were other moments,
for which she blamed herself, when the
thought of him made her cold, a sense of

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aversion came over her,—an inexplicable thing.
Mr. Dillingham was so wise and noble and
conscientious, there was no one with whom to
compare him. He had the stable character,
the brilliant trained intellect, all the sterling
qualities, in short, that—that John Dent had
not had. He was not arrogant, or impetuous,
or light-minded, as John Dent had been: he
had a singularly gentle and affectionate nature,
and yet — and the absurdity of the fancy
caused Prudence to laugh in the midst of her
distractions — she could not imagine herself
daring to call Mr. Dillingham “James.” It
was twice as easy to say “Jack!” even now.
In her girlish love for him there had been
none of these doubts and repulsions and conflicts.
She had given him her whole heart,
and had not known any better than to be
happy about it. Why could she not do that

It was the oddest thing how, whenever she
set herself to thinking of Mr. Dillingham, she
thought of John Dent.

There was no one to whom Prudence could
appeal for guidance out of the labyrinth into

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which she had strayed. Mr. Dent could not
offer her unprejudiced counsel; she had an intuitive
perception of the unfitness of her friend
Veronica to help her, and the old parson was
in his grave.

It was positively necessary that she should
come to some determination soon; but she was
as far away from it as ever that afternoon
when these thoughts passed through her mind
for the hundredth time.

“Let me think! let me think!” cried Prudence,
walking up and down her room with a
tortoise-shell dressing-comb rather unheroically
in one hand. Unheroically? I suppose Ophelia
twined those wild-flowers in her tresses with
some care before she drowned herself. Medea
and Clytemnestra would not make so graceful
an end of it if they did not look a little to
the folds of their drapery. One must eat, and
drink, and dress, while life goes on. And if I
show my poor little New England heroine in
the act of putting up her back hair,—it being
nearly six o'clock, and Mr. Dillingham coming
to tea,—I feel that I am as true to nature
as if I set her on a pedestal.

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It was her chief beauty, that brown hair, and
there were floods of it, with warm sparkles in
it here and there, like those bits of gold-leaf
that glimmer in a flask of Eau-de-vie de Dantzic
when you shake it. She was arranging
the hair, after the style of that period, in one
massive braid over the brows, making a coronet
which a duchess might have been proud to
wear. The wonder of this braid was, it cost
her nothing.

As Prudence set the last pin in its place,
she regarded herself attentively for a moment
in the cheval-glass, and smiled a queer little
smile, noticing

“With half-conscious eye,
She wore the colors he approved,”—
a cherry ribbon at the throat and waist.

“I'm growing to be a fright,” said Prudence,
looking so unusually lovely that she
could well afford to say it, as women always
can — when they say it.

There was a richer tint to her cheeks than
ordinarily, and a deeper glow in her eyes this
evening, and it did not escape the young minister,
who, without seeming to see, saw everything.

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When she came into the library where the
two gentlemen sat, both were conscious of the
brightness that surrounded her like an atmosphere.
“Dillingham's fate is to be signed,
sealed, and delivered to-night,” was Mr. Dent's
internal comment; “there is business in her
eye.” But poor Prue's brave looks sadly belied
her irresolute, coward heart. She had no
purpose but to look pretty, and that she accomplished
without trying.

It was Mr. Dillingham's custom to leave
Willowbrook at ten o'clock, unless there was
other company; then he kept later hours.
There were no visitors on this occasion, and
the evening appeared endless to Prudence, who
paused absently in the midst of her sentences
when the timepiece over the fireplace doled
out the reluctant half-hours. It seemed to her
as if ten o'clock had made up its mind not to
come. Once or twice in the course of the
evening the conversation flickered and went out
curiously, as it was not in the habit of doing
among these friends.

When the talk turns cold in this sort, it requires
great tact to bury the corpse decently.

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Even with a gifted young divine to conduct
the services, the ceremony is not always a

At half past nine Mr. Dent violated the
tacit covenant that had existed between him
and Prudence, by leaving her alone with Mr.
Dillingham,—for the first time since it had
become embarrassing to be left alone with him.
They had been discussing a stanza in Lowell's
“Vision of Sir Launfal,” and Mr. Dent had
coolly walked off to the library on a pretext
to look up the correct reading.

Prudence regarded her guardian's action as
a dreadful piece of treachery, and the transparency
of it was perhaps plain to Mr. Dillingham,
who came to her rescue, for an awkward
silence had immediately fallen upon
Prue, by requesting her to sing a certain air
from Les Huguenots which she had been practising.

Prudence was in no humor for music, but
she snatched at the proposition with a kind of
gratitude, and sang the passage charmingly,
with a malicious enjoyment, meanwhile, in the
reflection that her recreant guardian, hearing

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the piano, would know that his purpose was
frustrated. And in fact, at the first note that
reached the library, there came over Mr. Dent's
face an expression of mingled amusement and
disgust, in strange contrast with the exquisite
music that provoked it. He stood with one
hand lifted to a book-shelf, and listened in a
waiting attitude; but when the aria was finished,
he made no motion to return to the

Prudence sat with her fingers playing in
dumb-show on the ivory keys, wondering what
the next move would be. Mr. Dillingham, who
had been turning over a portfolio of tattered
sheet-music, took up a piece which he had selected
from the collection, and came with it to
the piano.

“I wish you would sing this, Miss Prudence.
It is an old favorite of mine, and it is many
years since I heard it. These homely Scotch
ballads are not perhaps high art, but they have
a pathos and an honesty in them which I confess
to admiring.”

As the young minister spoke he spread out
on the piano-rack some yellowed pages

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containing the words and music of “Auld Robin

Prudence gave a little start, and a peculiar
look flitted across her face; then she dropped her
eyes, and let her hands lie listlessly in her lap.

“But perhaps you don't sing it?” said Mr.
Dillingham, catching her half-dreamy, half-pained

“O yes, I do,” said Prudence, rousing herself
with an effort, “if I have not forgotten
the accompaniment.”

She touched the keys softly, and the old air
came back to her like a phantom out of the
past. She played the accompaniment through
twice, then her voice took up the sweet burden,
half inaudibly at first, but gathering strength
and precision as she went on. It was not a
voice of great compass, but of pure quality and
without a cold intonation in it. One has heard
famous cantatrici, all art down to their fingernails,
who could not sing a simple ballad as
Prudence sang this, because they lacked the
one nameless touch of nature that makes the
whole world kin. “ `Young Jamie loo'd me
weel,' ” sang Prue,—

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“Young Jamie loo'd me weel, and socht me for his bride;
But saving a croun, he had naething else beside:
To mak that croun a pund, young Jamie gaed to sea;
And the croun and the pund were baith for me.
“He hadna been awa a week but only twa,
When my mother she fell sick, and the cow was stown awa;
My father brak his arm, and young Jamie at the sea,
And auld Robin Gray cam' a-courtin' me.”

Mr. Dillingham, who understood music thoroughly,
as he seemed to understand everything,
listened to Prudence with a sort of wonder,
though he had heard her sing many a time before.
The strange tenderness and passion there
was in her voice brought a flush to his pale
cheek, as he leaned over the end of the piano,
with his eyes upon her.

“My father couldna work, and my mother couldna spin;
I toiled day and nicht, but their bread I couldna win;
Auld Rob maintained them baith, and wi' tears in his ee,
Said, Jenny, for their sakes, O, marry me!
“My heart it said nay, for I looked for Jamie back;
But the wind it blew high, and the ship it was a wrack:
The ship it was a wrack—why didna Jamie dee?
Or why do I live to say, Wae's me?
“My father argued sair; my mother didna speak;
But she lookit in my face till my heart was like to break:
So they gied him my hand, though my heart was in the sea;
And auld Robin Gray was gudeman to me.”

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It was with unconscious art that Prudence
was rendering perfectly both the sentiment and
the melody of the song, for her thought was
far away from the singing. It was a day in
midsummer; the wind scarcely stirred the honeysuckles
that clambered over the porch of the
little cottage in Horsehoe Lane; John Dent
was telling her of his plans and his hopes and
his love; it was sunshine and shadow, and
something sad; again he was holding her hand;
she felt the touch of his lips on her cheek;
then she heard the gate close, and the robins
chattering in the garden, and the tears welled
up to Prue's eyes, as she sang, just as they
had done that day when all this had really happened.
And still the song went on:—

“I hadna been a wife a week but only four,
When, sitting sae mournfully at the door,
I saw my Jamie's wraith, for I couldna think it he,
Till he said, I'm come back for to marry thee.
“O, sair did we greet, and muckle did we say;
We took but ae kiss, and we tore ourselves away:
I wish I were dead—”

Suddenly something grew thick in Prudence's
throat; the dual existence she was leading came

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to an end, and the music died on her lip. She
looked up, and met the young clergyman's
eyes glowing upon her.

“I—I can't sing it, after all,” she said, with
a wan look. “I will sing it another time.”

Then she pushed back the piano-stool abruptly,
hesitated a moment, and glided swiftly
out of the room.

Mr. Dillingham followed her with his eyes,
much mystified, as he well might have been, at
Prudence's inexplicable agitation and brusqueness.
He leaned against the side of the piano,
waiting for her to return; but she did not come
back again to the drawing-room.

In a few minutes Mr. Dent appeared, and
could scarcely control his astonishment at finding
the young minister alone.

It was as plain to Mr. Dent as one and one
make two (though they sometimes refuse to
be added together) that events had culminated
during his absence. He had intended they
should; but there was a depressing heaviness
in the atmosphere for which he was not prepared.
He did not dare to ask what had happened.

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Mr. Dillingham was ill at ease, and after
one or two commonplace remarks, he said good
night mechanically and withdrew.

“She has thrown him over, the foolish girl!”
muttered Mr. Dent, as he went gloomily up
stairs with his bedroom candle in his hand,
“and I am devilishly sorry.”

For my part, I think the young minister's
fortunate star was not in the ascendant that
night, when he asked Prue to sing “Auld
Robin Gray.”

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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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