Riley Brooke had a tongue for gossip, an ear for evil report, an eye for rascals. Every day new suspicions took root in him, while others grew and came to great size and were as hard to conceal as pumpkins. He had meanness enough to equip all he knew, and gave it with a lavish tongue. In his opinion Hillsborough came within one of having as many rascals in it as there were people. He had tried to bring them severally to justice by vain appeals to the law, having sued for every cause in the books, but chiefly for trespass and damages, real and exemplary. He was a money-lender, shaving notes or taking them for larger sums than he lent, with chattel mortgages for security. Foreclosure and sale were a perennial source of profit to him. He was tall and well past middle age, with a short, gray beard, a look of severity, a stoop in his shoulders, and a third wife whom nobody, within the knowledge of the townfolk, had ever seen. If he had no other to gossip with, he provided imaginary company and talked to his own ears. He thought himself a most powerful and agile man, boasting often that he still kept the vigour of his youth. On his errands in the village he often broke into an awkward gallop, like a child at play. When he slackened pace it was to shake his head solemnly, as if something had reminded him of the wickedness of the world.
“If I dared tell all I knew,” he would whisper suggestively, and then proceed to tell much more than he could possibly have known. Any one of many may have started his tongue, but the shortcomings of one Ezekiel Swackhammer were for him an ever present help and provocation. If there were nothing new to talk about, there was always Swackhammer. Poor Swackhammer had done everything he ought not to have done. The good God himself was the only being that had the approval of old Riley Brooke. It was curious—that turning of his tongue from the slander of men to the praise of God. And of the goodness of the Almighty he was quite as sure as of the badness of men. Assurance of his own salvation had come to him one day when he was shearing sheep, and when, as he related often, finding himself on his knees to shear, he remained to pray. Sundays and every Wednesday evening he wore a stove-pipe hat and a long frock coat of antique and rusty aspect. On his way to church—with hospitality even for the like of him, thank God!—he walked slowly with head bent until, remembering his great agility and strength, he began to run, giving a varied exhibition of skips and jumps terminating in a sort of gallop. Once in the sacred house he looked to right and left accusingly, and aloft with encouraging applause. His God was one of wrath, vengeance, and destruction; his hell the destination of his enemies. They who resented the screw of his avarice, and pulled their thumbs away; they who treated him with contempt, and whose faults, compared to his own, were as a mound to a mountain—they were all to burn with everlasting fire, while he, on account of that happy thought the day of the sheep-shearing, was to sit forever with the angels in heaven.