The minister had come in giddy, as if with strong drink, being unable, even with the steady gravity of his mind, to control the chilly trembling of his thin old shanks in their worn black broadcloth. His cloak was thin; his daughter had tied a little black silk shawl of her own around his neck for further protection; his mildly ascetic old face peered over it, fairly mouthing and chattering with the cold. He could scarcely salute the company in his customary reverend and dignified manner.
Squire Eben sprang up and place his own chair in a warmer corner for him, and the minister was not averse to settling therein and postponing for a season the purchase of a quarter pound of tea, and his shivering homeward pilgrimage.
Doctor Seth Prescott, who lived nearly across the way, had come over after supper to prescribe for the storekeeper’s wife, who had lumbago, and joined the circle around the stove, seeing within it such worthy companions as the lawyer and the Squire, and having room made promptly and deferentially for him.
The discussion had been running high upon the subject of town appropriations for the poor, until Doctor Prescott entered and the grating arm-chairs made place for him, when there was a hush for a moment. Ozias Lamb, hunched upon a keg on the outskirts, smiled sardonically around at Adoniram Judd standing behind him.
“Cat’s come,” he said; “now the mice stop squeakin’.” The men near him chuckled.
Simon Basset, who, having arrived first, had the choice of seats, and was stationed in the least rickety arm-chair the farthest from draughts, ceased for a moment the rotatory motion of lantern jaws and freed his mind upon the subject of the undue appropriations for the poor.
“Ain’t a town of this size in the State begins to lay out the money we do to keep them good-for-nothin’ paupers,” said he, and chewed again conclusively.
Doctor Prescott, not as yet condescending to speak, had made a slight motion and frown of dissent, which the minister at his elbow saw. Doctor Prescott was his pillar of the sanctuary, upholding himself and his pulpit from financial and doctrinal downfall—his pillar even of ideas and individual movements. Poor old Solomon Wells fairly walked his road of life attached with invisible leading-strings to Doctor Seth Prescott. He spoke when Simon Basset paused, and more from his mentor’s volition than his own. “The poor ye have always with ye,” said the minister, with pious and weighty dissent. Doctor Prescott nodded.
Ozias Lamb squinted slowly around with ineffable sarcasm of expression. He took in deliberately every detail of the two men—Doctor Seth Prescott, the smallest in physical stature of anybody there, yet as marked among them all as some local Napoleon, and the one whom a stranger would first have noted, and the old clergyman leaning towards him with a subtle inclination of mind as well as body; then he spoke as Jerome entered.