Appropriate reading for a Sunday morning--another selection from the original Gossips of Rivertown. In this excerpt, Deacon Morrison's conjecture about Mr. Townsend gains the status of a full-blown Rivertown rumor, aided and abetted by Mrs. Smith and Miss Martin.
"What's the good word with you, this morning?" was the greeting of an acquaintance to Lawyer McCloud, as he strolled into that gentleman's office.
"Nothing particular," was the reply, as Mr. McCloud kicked a dusty Windsor chair towards his visitor without removing his thumbs from the arm-holes of his vest, in which they were carefully inserted.
"What's in 'The Republican?'" "Haven't seen it, sir."
"Well, I suppose 'The Rivertown Gazette' has the most of the news. Speaking of news, have you heard what a row the Congregationalists have got into?"
"No. What about—property? Likely to end in a lawsuit?" "Always an eye to the main chance, lawyer. 'Twon't end in nothing, as I can see. They've got dissatisfied with their minister, as usual, and are doing their best to be rid of him—at least, Deacon Morrison is."
"I did think they'd got somebody at last that they'd manage to keep. What's the ground of complaint now? Let's see—Mr. Ritchings they dismissed while he was away, without any particular cause at all. The sum and substance was, (I've always thought,) that his family was getting large, and they don't pay up very punctually. Next Mr. Lord, a single man—ought to live on a small salary, and all that; but it seems he paid too much attention to one deacon's daughter and too little to another's sister. Mr. Gibson didn't visit enough, and his wife had tea companies too often. You see, I remember all these things—though everybody in town knows their church matters, as to that."
"Poor Mr. Townsend! he's got the worst of it, neighbour McCloud. They actually declare the man drinks!"
"Pretty serious charge. Wish it was actionable—damages might be laid high. Ruins his reputation of course; and servant girls and ministers must depend on their characters for getting along."
"Lawyers do without any, don't they?" and the speaker chuckled—that long, low laugh, betokening all absence of care and a love for the good things of this life in general.
The lawyer smiled complacently at the worn-out joke, and the two subsided into a lengthened political discussion. . . .
By early autumn, the affair of Mr. Townsend's failing was the popular topic of discussion everywhere. Bar-room loungers spoke of it as an excellent example, as they tossed off innumerable "brandies and water." Frequenters of groceries (and stores are the popular gathering-places in Rivertown after the day's work is over) discussed the weakness of human nature as displayed in this particular instance, while they leaned languidly upon counters or beat an energetic tattoo against the flour-barrels serving as pedestals to their greatness. Many a one paused, in his eager demolition of pea-nuts, to add his mite of evidence; and the consumption of "honey-dew tobacco" was perceptibly diminished.
One thought it was a scandal to the cause of religion, and the church ought to go to work at once and make him an example. Another—who regarded all clergymen as a higher order of his own class, "loafer"—said he always knew the whole set were hypocrites, and only "took up preaching for a living because they were too lazy to do anything else;" and some few truly regretted that so vile a tale should gain any credence whatever.
Still no public cognizance of the subject had been taken. The rumour did not seem to have reached Mr. Townsend himself; as is often the case, the parties most concerned knew least about it; and still his amiable wife came as a spirit of good among his people, and their pastor was unusually eloquent when he addressed them from the pulpit.
The church had become divided into factions that were nearly equal in number. Some refused to believe one word of the charge, and others, headed by Deacon Morrison and stimulated by the active exertions of Mrs. Smith and Miss Martin, lost no opportunity of making converts to their side of the question. Even outward quiet could not long be maintained.
"What can I do?" said Deacon Whiting one evening to his matronly wife. "There's the whole church in a state of ferment, and none of them are willing to come out openly. I've thought over it, and I 've prayed over it, and I don't know what is my duty. How can I go and tell that poor man how we have repaid his love and care?"
"Don't say we," interrupted Mrs. Whiting, indignantly.
"Well, some of us have, my dear; and some one must have corrupted the truth if there is no such fault on his part. He does act strangely sometimes, there's no doubt. There's some mystery somewhere, but on the whole, I incline to think it's best to call a special church meeting. What was it Miss Martin told you this afternoon?"
"Why, that sometimes he got so bad that he actually beat her. You know how thin the walls of those houses are, and their next-door neighbours have heard her cry in the middle of the night as if her heart would break. Then he walks out sometimes at twelve o'clock—and that's odd, to say the least. They have heard her beg and beseech of him (Miss Martin says) not to go on so, but it seems to do little good."
"This is getting to be a serious business, mother," and the good man joined his hands behind him, thereby elevating his coat-skirts, and slowly promenaded the sitting-room. "Too bad—too bad!" he ejaculated, at last, stopping suddenly and pushing his spectacles to the top of his forehead, as he always did when anything perplexed him. Mrs. Whiting sighed, and applied herself still more industriously to darning an enormous basket-full of children's stockings.
Sketch the Fifth. Male Gossips. Chapter III.