We continue the story, from the original Gossips of Rivertown, of Mr. Townsend and his suffering caused by malicious rumor. In this excerpt, the minister of the Congregational Church hears from his accusers.
By Mr. Townsend's own request, every member of the church, male and female, had been invited to be present. The vestry, or conference room as it was oftener called, was nearly full, therefore, when he entered. He passed through their midst with a firm step, and took his usual seat confronting them all; yet when the light fell upon his face, Deacon Whiting, who sat at his right hand, instinctively filled a glass of water and offered it to him. The sad, sweet smile we have before spoken of, came to his face as he gently refused the proffered kindness, and more than one regarded it as an omen of returning peace to the church and happiness to him.
It was usual to commence all their meetings for business or otherwise, by reading a chapter from the Bible, and by an extempore prayer. Mr. Townsend rose, as his watch marked the appointed hour, and commenced reading the beautiful description of Charity found in St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. He did not mean it as a rebuke to any, but he had been doubly impressed with its excellency of late, and it was for his own consolation that he had fixed upon it for the evening. More than one heart filled with compunction as his clear voice read—"Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up; doth not behave itself unseemly; seeketh not her own; is not easily provoked; thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things; believeth all things; hopeth all things; endureth all things."
He paused for an instant, and then turning over the leaves rapidly, added a short passage from St. John's earnest exhortation to the early Christians to "let brotherly love continue." Deacon Whiting stole a glance towards his coadjutor, as these words were slowly enunciated—"We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren; he that loveth not his brother abideth in death.''
But if anything like consciousness of offence was written upon that self-complacent face, it was not seen by those around him.
The prayer that followed came from the depths of a suffering heart. All felt this as the earnest petition ascended to Heaven, and a fervent "amen" was breathed by Deacon Whiting at its concluding phrase—"let brotherly love continue."
Mr. Townsend then made a short statement of the object of the meeting. "I have come before you to-night," he said, "to vindicate myself as a man and a Christian, from charges which I believe untrue. But before I make my defence, I must first hear my accusation. I leave to Deacon Whiting the charge of this council, and shall consider myself as having no part in it until my time to speak arrives."
Deacon Whiting glanced toward Mr. Morrison. "He cannot have the effrontery," thought he, "to accuse our minister, after that chapter and that prayer;" and when the other rose and prepared to speak, he more than half expected an humble apology. But his expectation was disappointed. In a speech of some half an hour's duration, remarkable neither for clearness nor elegance of language, Deacon Morrison, as the spokesman of his party, set forth the many complaints, that had grown from suspicions to positive assertions, of Mr. Townsend's habitual inebriety. Deacon Whiting interrupted the thread of his narrative now and then with some question or palliation of the statements made. The two pillars of the church were tacitly arrayed against each other, and more than once Deacon Whiting's indignant glances would have abashed one less dogged and self-complacent than the speaker.
One or two "lesser lights" arose to confirm his statements, as they were successively called upon. These were men of the same stamp, ignorant and prejudiced, who were only too happy to find occasion for differing from Deacon Whiting. Miss Martin nodded her head as her statement was given, and Mrs. Smith stood up to signify her assent where she had been made authority.
The principal points in the evidence, apart from what we have already mentioned, were Miss Martin's having seen Mr. Townsend walk to the dining-room closet, after having been very much agitated, and pour out a glassful of some liquid which he drank hastily; she had been sewing in the house at the time. Mrs. Smith had more than once seen Martha, Mrs. Townsend's servant, bring home a flask of brandy; Deacon Morrison had often conversed with Mr. Townsend "when he did not know what he was about, and either did not answer at all, or else in a very queer kind of way."