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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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VIII. The Parson's Last Text.

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THIS brings my story again to that afternoon
in May, when Prudence Palfrey made
her appearance at the cottage in Horseshoe
Lane, and was solicited by Salome to speak to
the parson, who had locked himself in the little
room after the departure of the two deacons.

It was with an inexplicable sense of uneasiness
that Prudence crossed the library, and
knocked softly on the panel of the inner door.
The parson did not seem to hear the summons;
at all events, he paid no attention to it, and
Prudence knocked again.

“He's gittin' the least bit hard of hearin',
pore soul,” said Salome. “Mebbe he heard
that, though,” she added, more cautiously, “for
he always hears when you don't s'pose he will.
Do jest speak to him, honey; he'll know your
vice in a minit.”

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Prudence put her lips down to the key-hole
and called, “Parson Wibird!—it's Prue,—
won't you speak to me?”

He made no response to this, and in the
silence that ensued, broken only by the quick
respiration of the two women, there was no
sound as if he were preparing to undo the
fastenings. Prudence rose up with a half-frightened
expression on her countenance and
looked at Salome.

“What can have happened?” she said hurriedly.

“Lord o' mercy knows,” replied Salome,
catching Prue's alarm. “Don't stare at me
in sech a way, dear; I'm as nervous as

“Are you sure he is there?”

“Sartin. I all but see him goin' in, an' I
have n't ben out of the room sence. He must
be there.”

“Is he subject to vertigo, ever?”

“Dunno,” said Salome, doubtfully.

“I mean, does he ever faint?”

“He did have a cur'ous sort of spell two or
three weeks ago, an' Dr. Theophilus give him
some med'cine for it.”

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“He has fainted, then! Get a candle—
quick. Stop, Salome, I'll go with you.”

Prudence was afraid to remain in the library
alone. She was impressed by some impalpable
presence in the half darkness. The shadows
huddled together in the corners. The long
rows of books in their time-stained leather
bindings looked down sombrely from the
shelves. On the table was an open volume,
with an ivory paper-cutter upon it, which he
had been reading. His frayed dressing-gown
lay across a chair in front of the table. It
seemed like some weired, collapsed figure, lying
there. All the familiar objects in the room
had turned strange and woe-begone in the twilight.
Prudence would not have been left
alone for the world.

The two went out together for the candle,
which Salome with a trembling hand lighted
at the kitchen stove. Then they flitted back
to the library silently, with white sharp faces,
like ghosts.

“What shall we do?”

“We must break in the door,” said Prudence
under her breath. “You hold the

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She placed her knee against the lower panel
and pressed with all her strenght. The lock
was old and rusty, and the screws worked
loosely in the worm-eaten wood-work. The
door yielded at the second pressure and flew
open, with a shower of fine dust sifting down
from the lintel.

The girl retreated a step or two, and shading
her eyes with the palm of her hand,
peered into the darkened space.

Nothing was distinct at first, but as Salome
raised the light above Prue's head, the figure
of the parson suddenly took shape against the

He was sitting in an old-fashioned arm-chair,
with his serene face bent over a great
Bible covered with green baize, which he held
on his knees. His left arm hung idly at his
side, and the forefinger of his right hand
rested lightly on the middle of the page, as if
slumber had overtaken him so, reading.

“Laws o' mercy, if the parson has n't gone
to sleep!” exclaimed Salome, stepping into the
small compartment.

“Asleep!” repeated Prudence, the reassured
color returning to her cheek.

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Salome laid her hand on the parson's arm,
and then passed it quickly over his forehead.

“He's dead!” cried Salome, dropping the

The hour-hand of the cuckoo-clock in the
hall at Willowbrook pointed at seven; the toy
bird popped out on the narrow ledge in front
of the carved Swiss cottage, shook seven flutelike
notes into the air, popped in again hastily,
and the little door went to with a spiteful

Mr. Dent glanced at the timepiece over the
fireplace in the sitting-room, and wondered
what was detaining Prue. She had gone to
town on a shopping expedition shortly after
dinner, and here it was an hour and a half
past tea-time. Fanny had brought in the teaurn
and carried it off again. It was as if the
sun-dial had forgotten to mark the movements
of the sun; the household set its clocks by

For the last hour or two Mr. Dent had been
lounging restlessly in the sitting-room, now
snatching up a book and trying to read, now

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looking out on the lawn, and now vigorously
poking the coals in the grate, for it was one
of those brisk days which make a fire comfortable
in our delusive New England May.

Mr. Dent was revolving in his mind how he
should break to Prudence the intelligence of
Parson Hawkins's dismissal, and more especially
in what terms he should confess his
own part in the transaction. “What will Prue
say?” was a question he put to himself a
dozen times without eliciting a satisfactory reply.
He was a little afraid of Prudence,—he
had that tender awe of her with which a pure
woman inspires most men. He could imagine
what she would have said three years ago; but
she had altered in many respects since then;
she had grown quieter and less impulsive. That
one flurry of passion in which she had confessed
her love for John Dent did not seem
credible to her guardian as he looked back to
it. As a matter of course, she would be indignant
at the action of the deacons, and would
probably not approve of the steps he had taken
to bring Mr. Dillingham to Rivermouth; but
she would not storm at him. He almost wished

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she would storm at him, for her anger was
not so unmanageable as the look of mute reproach
which she knew how to bring into her
gray eyes.

The cuckoo in the Swiss châlet had hopped
out again on the ledge, and was just sounding
the half-hour in his clear, business-like way,
when Prudence opened the drawing-room door.

“I thought you had run off for good,” said
Mr. Dent, rising from his chair; then he stopped
and looked at her attentively. “Why, Prue,
what is the matter?”

“The parson—” Prudence could not finish
the sentence.
The nervous strength that had
sustained her through the recent ordeal gave
way; she sank upon the sofa and buried her
face in the cushions.

“She has heard of it already,” thought Mr.
Dent. He crossed to the sofa and rested his
hand softly on her shoulder. “My dear girl,
you must be reasonable. It had to come sooner
or later; he could not go on preaching forever,
you know. He is a very old man now, and
ought to take his ease. He will be all the
happier with the cares of the parish off his

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“All the happier, yes!”

“And we'll have him up to Willowbrook
often; he shall have a room here—”

Prudence lifted her face beseechingly.

“O, you don't know! you don't know!”
she cried. “He is dead! he died this afternoon,
sitting in his chair. Ah!—it was so
dreadfully sudden!” And Prudence covered
her eyes with her hands as if to shut out the
scene in the library.

Mr. Dent was greatly shocked. He leaned
against the mantel-piece, and stared vacantly
at Prudence, while she related what had happened
at Horseshoe Lane. She had completed
her purchases in town, and was on the way
home when she met Miss Blydenburgh, who
told her of the deacons' visit to Parson Hawkins
to request his resignation. Knowing that
the poor old man was unprepared for any such
proposition, she had turned back and hastened
down to the parsonage, to say and do what
she could to comfort him in his probable distress.
Then she and Salome, alone there in
the dark, had found him dead in the chair.

Mr. Dent left his tea untasted. He had the

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horse saddled, and rode over to town. He was
greatly shocked. And Deacon Zeb Twombly,
that night, as he stood for a moment beside
the cradle in which the little ewe-lamb lay
nestled in its blankets, was a miserable man.
He crept off to the spare room in the attic—
where he was undergoing a temporary but not
unprecedented exile—with the conviction that
he was little better than a murderer.

“I hope Parson Wibird will forgive me my
share in the business,” murmured the deacon,
blowing out the candle; then he lingered by
the window dejectedly. It was a dreamy May
night; the air, though chilly, was full of the
odors of spring, and the mysterious blue spaces
above were sown thick with stars. “P'rhaps
he knows all up there,” he said, lifting his eyes
reverently, “an' how it went agin me to give
him any pain. I wonder how brother Wendell
feels about it.”

Deacon Wendell, fortunately or unfortunately,
as the case may be, was of that tougher fibre
out of which the strong sons of the world are
made. He had performed the duty that devolved
upon him, as he had performed other

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unpleasant duties, having been sheriff once, and
there was nothing to be said. He was sorry
the parson died just as he did. “Looks as
though he done it on purpose to spite us,”
reflected Deacon Wendell. Perhaps his chief
emotion when he first heard the news—it was
all over Rivermouth now—was an ill-defined
feeling of resentment against Parson Wibird
for having cut up rough.

The effect produced on Mr. Dent was more
complex. Though neither so callous as Deacon
Wendell nor so soft-hearted as Deacon
Twombly, he shared to some extent the feelings
of both. He keenly regretted the death
of the old parson, and particularly the manner
of it. It was an unlucky coincidence,—he
could not look upon it as anything more than
a coincidence,—and would give rise to much
disagreeable gossip. If it had happened a
month or two before, or a month or two later,
he would have been sorry, as anybody is sorry
when anybody dies; but he would not have
been shocked. He wished he had not been
quite so warm in advocating the desirableness
of Mr. Dillingham. If he could have foreseen

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the present catastrophe, he would have thrust
his hand into the flames rather than move in
the matter.

But what was done was done; and as he
urged the mare across the long wooden bridge
which ended among the crumbling wharves and
shabby warehouses of Market Street, he trusted
something would transpire showing that the
parson's death was the result of natural causes
and in no degree to be attributed to—to what
had probably caused it.

There was an unusual glimmer and moving
of lights in the windows of the parsonage, and
a mysterious coming and going of shadows on
the brown Holland shades, as Mr. Dent turned
into Horseshoe Lane. He was within a dozen
rods of the cottage, when the gate creaked on its
hinges and Dr. Theophilus Tredick passed out,
walking off rapidly in an opposite direction.

Mr. Dent pushed on after the doctor, and
overtook him at the doorstep of a neighboring

“A moment, doctor,” said Mr. Dent, leaning
over the horse's neck. “Has there been an

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“Yes; we have just finished the examination.”



“Attributable to any sudden mental excitement
or anything of that nature? You know
he had a conversation on church affairs with
the deacons this afternoon; could that have
affected him in any way?” Mr. Dent put the
query anxiously.

“It would be difficult to say,” replied the
doctor. “It is open to conjecture of course;
but at the worst it could only have hastened
what was inevitable. I am not prepared to
affirm that it hastened it; in fact, I do not
think it did.”

“I do not entirely catch your meaning,
doctor,” Mr. Dent said.

“I mean that Parson Hawkins had had two
slight strokes of paralysis previously; one last
winter and the second three weeks ago. I was
apprehensive that the third would terminate

“I never heard of that.”

“No one knew of it, I think; not even Mrs.

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Pinder, the housekeeper. It was at his own
urgent request I kept the matter secret. At the
time of the occurrence of the second attack I
had a long talk with our friend, and advised
him strongly to give up work altogether; finding
him obstinate on that point, I urged him
to have an assistant. I warned him plainly
that he might be taken ill at any moment in
the pulpit. He declared that that was the
place of all others where he could wish to die;
but he promised to consider my suggestion of
an associate minister.”

“Which he never did.”

“For the last three Sundays,” continued the
doctor, “I have gone to church expecting to
see him drop down in the pulpit in the midst
of the service. He was aware of his condition,
and not at all alarmed by it. Though he
overrated his strength, and had some odd notions
of duty,—he did have some odd notions,
our estimable old friend,—he was a man of
great clear sense, and I do not believe the recent
action of the parish affected him in the
manner or to the extent idle people will suppose.
What has happened would probably have
happened in any case.”

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Dr. Tredick's statement lifted a weight from
Mr. Dent's bosom, and from Deacon Twombly's
when he heard of it; though there were numerous
persons in the town who did not hesitate
to assert that the parson's dismissal killed him.
To look on the darkest side of a picture is in
strict keeping with the local spirit; for Rivermouth,
in its shortcomings and in its uncompromising
virtues, is nothing if not Puritan.

“Might as well have took a muskit and shot
the ole man,” observed Mr. Wiggins.

“Capital punishment ought to be abolished
in New Hampshire,” said ex-postmaster Snelling,
“if they don't hang Deacon Wendell and
the rest of 'em.”

Mr. Snelling was not naturally a sanguinary
person, but he had been superseded in the post-office
the year before by Deacon Wendell, and
flesh is flesh.

The event was the only topic discussed for
the next ten days. Parson Wibird had so long
been one of the features of the place, that he
seemed a permanence, like the brick church
itself, or the post-office with its granite façade.
If either of these had been spirited off

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overnight, the surprise and the shock could not
have been more wide-spread. That tall, stooping
figure, clad always in a rusty suit of black,
was as familiar an object on the main street as
the swinging sign of the Old Bell Tavern.
There were grandfathers and grandmothers
who, as boys and girls, remembered Parson
Wibird when he looked neither older nor
younger than he did that day lying in the
coffin,—nay, not so young, for the deep wrinkles
and scars of time had faded out of the
kindly old face, and the radiance of heavenly
youth rested upon it.

There was one circumstance connected with
the old minister's death that naturally made a
deeper impression than any other. When Salome
summoned the neighbors, that night, they
found the parson with the Bible lying open before
him, and one finger resting upon the page
as if directing attention to a particular passage.
There was something startlingly life-like and
imperative in the unconscious pointing of that
withered forefinger, and those who peered
hastily over the slanted shoulder and read the
verse indicated never forgot it.

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“Thet was th' parson's las' tex',” said Uncle
Jedd, leaning on his spade worn bright with oh!
so many graves: “Well done, thou good an'
faithful servant, enter thou inter th' joy of thy

-- 150 --

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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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