Dominie Dean. A Novel - Ellis Parker Butler - ebook

Dominie Dean. A Novel ebook

Ellis Parker Butler



Humorous novel set in Riverbank, a fictionalized Muscatine, in a Mississippi River town. Pastor David Dean and his wife take up residence in this town, Iowa in the 1850s and learn how unaccepting a small town can be of new residents, even after a stay of decades. An interesting social history of mid nineteenth century life, emphasizing the dominance of crass commercial interests in the vicissitudes of small town life, written by an American author Ellis Parker Butler. He was the author of more than 30 books and more than 2,000 stories and essays and is most famous for his short story „Pigs Is Pigs”, in which a bureaucratic stationmaster insists on levying the livestock rate for a shipment of two pet guinea pigs, which soon start proliferating geometrically.

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DAVID DEAN caught his first glimpse of ‘Thusia Fragg from the deck of the “Mary K” steamboat at the moment when–a fledgling minister–he ended his long voyage down the Ohio and up the Mississippi and was ready to step on Riverbank soil for the first time.

From mid-river, as the steamer approached, the town had seemed but a fringe of buildings at the foot of densely foliaged hills with here and there a house showing through the green and with one or two church spires rising above the trees. Then the warehouse shut off the view while the “Mary K” made an unsensational landing, bumping against the projecting piles, bells jingling in her interior, paddle wheels noisily reversing and revolving again and the mate swearing at the top of his voice. As the bow of the steamer pushed beyond the warehouse, the sordidly ugly riverfront of the town came into view again–mud, sand, weather-beaten frame buildings–while on the sandy levee at the side of the warehouse lounged the twenty or thirty male citizens in shirt sleeves who had come down to see the arrival of the steamer. From the saloon deck they watched the steamer push her nose beyond the blank red wall of the warehouse. Against the rail stood all the boat’s passengers and at David’s side the friend he had made on the voyage up the river, a rough, tobacco-chewing itinerant preacher, uncouth enough but wise in his day and generation.

“Well, this is your Riverbank,” he said. “Here ye are. Now, hold on! Don’t be in a hurry. There’s your reception committee, I’ll warrant ye,–them three with their coats on. Don’t get excited. Let ‘em wait and worry a minute for fear you’ve not come. Keep an even mind under all circumstances, as your motter says–that’s the idee. Let ‘em wait. They’ll think all the better of ye, brother. Keep an even mind, hey? You’ll need one with that mastiff-jowled old elder yonder. He’s going to be your trouble-man.”

David put down the carpetbag he had taken up. Of the three men warranted to be his reception committee he recognized but one, Lawyer Hoskins, the man who while East had heard David preach and had extended to him the church’s call. Now Hoskins recognized David and raised his hand in greeting. It was at this moment that ‘Thusia Fragg issued from the side door of the warehouse, two girl companions with her, and faced toward the steamboat. In the general gray of the day she was like a splash of sunshine and her companions were hardly less vivid. ‘Thusia Fragg was arrayed in a dress that echoed the boldest style set forth by “Godey’s Ladies’ Book” for that year of grace, 1860–-a summer silk of gray and gold stripes, flounced and frilled and raffled and fringed–and on her head perched a hat that was sauciness incarnate. She was overdressed by any rule you chose. She was overdressed for Riverbank and overdressed for her father’s income and for her own position, but she was a beautiful picture as she stood leaning on her parasol, letting her eyes range over the passengers grouped at the steamer’s saloon deck rail.

As she stood there David raised his hand in answer to Lawyer Hoskins’ greeting and ‘Thusia Fragg, smiling, raised a black-mitted hand and waved at him in frank flirtation. Undoubtedly she had thought David had meant his salutation for her. David turned from the rail, grasped his companion’s hand in hearty farewell, and, with his carpetbag in hand, descended to the lower deck, and ‘Thusia, preening like a peacock, hurried with her girl companions to the foot of the gangplank to meet her new conquest.

This was not the first time ‘Thusia had flirted with the male passengers of the packets. Few boats arrived without one or more young dandies aboard, glad to vary the monotony of a long trip and ready to take part in a brief flirtation with any ‘Thusia and to stretch their legs ashore while the sweating negroes loaded and unloaded the cargo. When the stop was long enough there was usually time for a brisk walk to the main street and for hurried ice cream treats. The warning whistle of the steamer gave ample time for these temporary beaux to reach the boat. The ‘Thusias who could be found all up and down the river knew just the safe distance to carry their cavaliers in order to bring them back to the departing steamer in the nick of time, sometimes running the last hundred yards at a dog trot, the girls stopping short with little cries of laughter and shrill farewells, but reaching the boat landing in time to wave parasols or handkerchiefs.

Most of these gayly garbed girls were innocent enough, although these steamer flirtations were evidence that they were not sufficiently controlled by home influences. Such actually bad girls as the town had, did however, indulge in these touch-and-go-flirtations often enough to cause the sober-minded to look askance at all the young persons who flirted thus. While the more innocent, like ‘Thusia, made use of these opportunities only for their momentary flare of adventure, and while the young men were seldom seen again, even on the return trip, the town quite naturally classed all these girls as “gay”–whatever that meant.

As David stepped on the gangplank to leave the steamer he saw the three girls, ‘Thusia a little in advance, standing at the foot of the plank. ‘Thusia herself, saucy in her defiance of the eyes she knew were upon her, smiled up at him, her eyes beaming a greeting, her feet ready to fall into step with his, and her lips ready to begin a rapid chattering to carry the incident over the first awkward moment in case her “catch” proved mutely bashful. She put out her hand, either in greeting or to take David’s arm, but David, his head held high, let his clear gray eyes rest on her for an instant only and then glanced beyond her and passed by. The girl colored with rage or shame and drew back her hand as if she had unwittingly touched something hot with unprepared fingers. Her companions giggled.

The incident was over in less time than is needed to tell of it. Henry Fragg, ‘Thusia’s widowed father and agent for the steamers, seeing the committee awaiting David, came from his office and walked toward them. David strode up the plank dock to where Mr. Hoskins was holding out a welcoming hand and was greeted and introduced to Sam Wiggett, Ned Long and Mr. Fragg.

The greeting of Mr. Hoskins had a flourishing orational flavor; Sam Wiggett–a heavy-set man–went so far as to exceed his usual gruff grunt of recognition; and Ned Long, as usual, copied as closely as possible Sam Wiggett’s words and manner. Mr. Fragg’s welcome was hearty and, of the four, the only natural man-to-man greeting.

“New dominie, hey? Well, you’ll like this town when you get to know it,” he assured David. “Plenty of real folks here; good town and good people. All right, Mack!” he broke off to shout to the mate of the “Mary K”; “yes, all those casks go aboard. Well, I’m glad to have met you, Mr. Dean–”

‘Thusia was still standing where David had passed her, her back toward the town. Usually saucy enough, she was ashamed to turn and face those clean gray eyes again. Her father saw her. “‘Thusia!” he called.

She turned and came.

“‘Thusia, this is our new dominie,” Fragg said, placing his hand on her arm. “This is my daughter, Mr. Dean. Aren’t the women having some sort of welcome hurrah up at the manse? Why don’t you go up there and take a hand in it, ‘Thusia? Well, Mr. Dean, I’ll see you many times, I hope.”

‘Thusia, all her sauciness gone, stood abashed, and David tried vainly to find a word to ease the embarrassing situation. Mr. Wiggett relieved it by ignoring ‘Thusia utterly.

“Fragg will send your baggage up,” he growled. “We’ll walk. The women will be impatient; they’ve heard the boat whistle. You come with me, Dean, I want to talk to you.”

He turned his back on ‘Thusia and led David away.

“The less you have to do with that girl the better,” were his first words. “That’s for your own good. Hey, Long?”

“My opinion, my opinion exactly!” echoed Mr. Long. “The less the better. Yes, yes!”

“She’s got in with a crowd of fast young fools,” agreed Mr. Hoskins. “Crazy after the men. Fragg ought to take her into the woodshed and use a good stiff shingle on her about once every so often. He lets her run too wild. No sense in it!”

What ‘Thusia needed was a mother to see that her vivacity found a more conventional outlet. There was nothing really wrong with ‘Thusia. She was young and fun-loving and possessed of more spirit than most of the young women of the town. She was amazingly efficient. Had she been a slower girl the housework of her father’s home would have kept her close, but she had the knack of speed. She sped through her housework like a well-oiled machine and, once through with it, she fled from the gloomy, motherless place to find what lively companionship she could. It would have been better for her reputation had she been a sloven, dawdling over her work and then moping away the short leisure at home.

Every small town has girls like ‘Thusia Fragg. You may see them arm in arm at the railway station as the trains pause for a few minutes, ready to chaffer with any “nice-looking” young fellow in a car window. You see them strolling past the local hotel, two or three in a group, ready to fall into step with any young drummer who is willing to leave his chair for a stroll. Some are bad girls, some are on the verge of the precipice of evil, and some, like ‘Thusia, are merely lovers of excitement and not yet aware of the real dangers with which they play.

‘Thusia, running the streets, was in danger of becoming too daring. She knew the town talked about her and she laughed at its gossip. In such a contest the rebel usually loses; in conspiring against smugness she ends by falling into the ranks of immorality. In Riverbank before the Civil War the danger to reputation was even greater than it is now; morality was marked by stricter conventions.

‘Thusia, despite her new dress and hat, did not linger downtown after her meeting with David. She took the teasing of her two girl friends, who made a great joke of her attempt to flirt with the new dominie, good-naturedly, but she left them as soon as she could and walked home. Her face burned with shame as she thought of the surprised glance David had given her at the foot of the gangplank and, as she entered her motherless home, she jerked her hat from her head and angrily threw it the length of the hall. She stood a moment, opening and closing her fists, like an angry animal, and then, characteristically, she giggled. She retrieved her hat, put it on her head and studied herself in the hall mirror. She tried several smiles and satisfied herself that they were charming and then, unhooking her dress as she went, she mounted the stairs. When she was in her room she threw herself on her bed and wept. Her emotions were in a chaos; and out of this came gradually the feeling that all she cared for now was to have those cool gray eyes of David’s look upon her approvingly. Everything she had done in her life seemed to have been deliberately planned to make them disapprove of her. Weighing her handicap calmly but urged by wounded pride, or desire, or love–she did not know which–she set about her pitiful attempt to fascinate David Dean.

The first Sunday that David preached in Riverbank ‘Thusia bedecked herself glowingly and sat in a pew where he could not fail to see her. Since the death of his wife Mr. Fragg had taken to churchgoing, sitting in a pew near the door so that he might slip out in case he heard the whistle of an arriving steamboat, but ‘Thusia chose a pew close under the pulpit. After the service there was the usual informal hand-shaking reception for the new dominie and ‘Thusia waited until the aisles were well cleared. Mr. Wiggett, Mr. Hoskins and one or two other elders and trustees acted as a self-appointed committee to introduce David and, as if intentionally, they built a barrier of their bodies to keep ‘Thusia from him. She waited, leaning against the end of a pew, but the half circle of black coats did not open. As the congregation thinned and David moved toward the door his protectors moved with him. The sexton began closing the windows. The black coats herded David into the vestibule and out upon the broad top step and still ‘Thusia leaned against the pew, but her eyes followed David.

“Come, come! We’ll have to be moving along, dominie,” growled Mr. Wiggett impatiently, as David stopped to receive the congratulations of one of the tireless-tongued old ladies. “Dinner at one, you know.”

“Yes, coming!” said David cheerfully, and he gave the old lady a last shake of the hand. “Now!” he said, and turned.

‘Thusia, pushing between Mr. Wiggett and Mr. Hoskins, came with her hand extended and her face glowing.

“I waited until they were all gone,” she said eagerly. “I wanted to tell you how splendid your sermon was. It was wonderful, Mr. Dean. I’m coming every Sunday–”

David took her hand. He was glowing with the kindly greetings and praises that had been showered upon him, and his happiness showed in his eyes. He would have beamed on anyone at that moment, and he beamed on ‘Thusia. He said something pleasantly conventional and ‘Thusia chattered on, still holding his hand, although in his general elation he was hardly aware of this and not at all aware that the girl was clinging to his hand so firmly that he could not have drawn it away had he tried. She knew they made a striking picture as they stood on the top step and she stood as dose to him as she could, so that she had to look up and David had to look down. The departing congregation, looking back for a last satisfactory glimpse of their fine new dominie, carried away a picture of David holding ‘Thusia’s hand and looking down into her face.

“Come, come! Dinner’s waiting!” Mr. Wiggett growled impatiently.

“Well, good-by, Mr. Dean,” ‘Thusia exclaimed. “My dinner is waiting, too, and you must not keep me forever, you know. I suppose we’ll see a great deal of each other, anyway. Now–will you please let me have my hand?”

She laughed and David dropped her hand. He blushed. ‘Thusia ran down the steps and David turned to see Mary Wiggett standing in the vestibule door in an attitude best described as insultedly aloof.

Mr. Wiggett’s face was red.

“Her dinner waiting!” he cried. “She’s got to go home and get it before it waits. She’s a forward, street-gadding hussy!”

“Father!” exclaimed his daughter.

“Well, she shan’t come it over the dominie,” he growled. “I’ll speak to Fragg about it.”

David walked ahead with Mary Wiggett. He was no fool. He knew well enough the troubles a young, unmarried minister has in store if he happens to be presentable, and he knew he was not ill-favored. It is not always–except in books–that the leading pillar of the church has a daughter whose last chance of matrimony is the dominie. Mary Wiggett had by no means reached her last chance. She was hardly eighteen–only a year older than ‘Thusia Fragg–and forty young men of Riverbank would have been glad to have married her. She was a little heavier than ‘Thusia, both in mind and body, and a little taller, almost matronly in her development, but she was a splendid girl for all that, and more than good-looking in a satisfying blond way. David was so far from being her last chance, that she had not yet thought of David as a possible mate at all, but it was a fact that David was to take dinner with the Wiggetts and another fact that ‘Thusia was not considered a proper person, and Mary had resented having to stand back against the church door while David held ‘Thusia’s hand. If Mary had one fault it was a certain feeling that a daughter of Samuel Wiggett, who was the richest man in the church, was the equal of any girl on earth. To be made to stand back for ‘Thusia Fragg was altogether unbearable.

Neither had Mr. Wiggett, at that time, any thought of David as a husband for Mary. He hoped Mary would not marry for ten years more and that when she did she would marry someone “with money.” The only interest the stubborn, rough-grained old money-lover had in David was the interest of an upright pillar of the church who, sharing the duty of choosing a new dominie, had delegated his share to Mr. Hoskins and was still fearful lest Mr. Hoskins had made a mistake. He was bound it should not be a mistake if he could help it. Having in his youth had a dozen love affairs and having married a stolid, cow-like woman for safety’s sake, he believed the natural fate of a young man was to behave foolishly and he considered a young minister more than normally unable to take care of himself. If David incurred censure Mr. Wiggett would be blamed for letting Mr. Hoskins bring David to Riverbank.


NEITHER Mr. Wiggett nor Mary understood David then. I doubt if Riverbank ever quite understood him. When he was ten–a thin-faced, large-eyed child, sitting on the edge of an uncushioned pew in a small, bleak church, his hands clasped on his knees and his body tense as he hung on the words of the old dominie in the pulpit above him–he had received the Call. From that moment his destiny had been fixed. There had been no splendid Sign–no blaze of glory-light illuminating the dusky interior of the church, no sun ray turning his golden curls into a halo. His clasped hands had tightened a little; he had leaned a little further forward; a long breath, ending in a deep sigh, had raised his thin chest and David Dean had given himself to his Lord and Master to do His work while his life should last. Never was a life more absolutely consecrated.

That the lad Davy should hear the Call was not strange. Religion had been an all-important part of his parents’ lives. The rupture that wrenched American Presbyterianism into antagonistic parts in the year of David’s birth had been of more vital importance than bread and meat to David’s father.

He never forgave the seceders. To David’s mother the rupture had been a sorrow, as if she had lost a child. In this atmosphere–his father was an elder–David grew and his faith was fed to him from his birth; it was part of him, but until the Call came he had not thought of being worthy to preach. After the Call came he thought of nothing but making himself worthy.

The eleven following years had been years of preparation. During the first of these years he spent much time with the old dominie and when he left school he came under the care of the presbytery of which the dominie was a member. It was David’s father’s pride that he was able to pay David’s way through the college and seminary courses. It was his share in giving Davy to the Lord.

At twenty-one David was a tall youth, slender, thoughtful and delicate. His hair was almost golden, fine and soft, with a curly forelock. He had never had a religious doubt. He preached his trial sermon, received his license and almost immediately his call to Riverbank. This was David, clean and sure, honest and unafraid, broad-browed and dear-eyed, his favorite motto: “Keep an even mind under all circumstances.” It was to protect this young David, clear as crystal and strong as steel, that the members of the First Presbyterian Church of Riverbank, during those first weeks, tacitly conspired, and it was against ‘Thusia Fragg, the fluttering, eager and love-incited little butterfly, with a few of the golden scales already brushed from her wings, that they sought to protect him.

To her own enormous surprise Mary Wiggett almost immediately fell in love with David. She was not an emotional girl, and she had long since decided that when the time came she would marry someone from Derlingport or St. Louis. She had not thought of falling in love as a necessary preliminary to marriage. In a vague way she had decided that a husband from Derlingport or St. Louis would be more desirable because he would take her to a place where there was more “society” and where certain of the richer trimmings of life were accepted as reasonable and not frowned on as extravagances. She had a rather definite idea that her husband would be someone in the pork or lumber industries, as they were then the best income producers. She meant to refuse all comers for about five years, and then begin to consider any who might apply, taking proper stock of them and proceeding in a sensible, orderly manner. A month after David came to Riverbank she would have given every man in the pork and lumber industries for one of David’s gentle smiles. She thrilled with pleasure when he happened to touch her hand. She was thoroughly in love.

‘Thusia, for her part, pursued David unremittingly. She stopped running the streets, and tried to force her way into the activities of the church until she was so cruelly snubbed and cold-shouldered that she wept for anger and gave up the attempt. Then she lay in wait for David. She sailed down upon him whenever he went upon the streets, seemingly coming upon him unexpectedly, and falling into step with him. She ambuscaded him on the main street when he went to the post office for his mail. She was quite open in her forced attentions, and, of course, she was talked about. ‘Thusia did not care. She had no way of courting him but by being bold. She fluttered her wings before his eyes whenever she could. She was a butterfly teasing to be caught.

And David? In spite of Wiggett’s warnings and his own he grew fond of her. You will have to imagine Riverbank as it was then to fully understand David and ‘Thusia: the mean little business street with its ugly buildings and dust, or mud, ankle deep; the commercial life out of all proportion to the social life, so that few men thought of aught beside business; the fair, shady streets of homes with maples already overarching the streets and the houses of white or brick-red, all with ample lawns around them. You can see David leave the little white manse beside the brick church and walk the shady streets, making a pastoral call or going to the post office. Those pastoral calls! Serious matters for a young dominie in those days! The dominie was expected to come like a plumber, with his kit of tools, ready to set to work on a leaky conscience or a frost-bit soul and his visits were for little else but soul mending. We saved up our little leaks for him just as we saved up our little ills for the doctor, and we gave him his fill. We felt we were remiss if we did not have on hand some real or imaginary reason to make the dominie kneel beside a chair and pray with us. We expected our dominie to be a little sad when he visited us, a little gloomy about things in general; probably to give our otherwise cheerful homes a churchly gloom.

It was when David came from the main street, where the men could talk nothing but business, or from a pastoral call, and found himself young and not at all gloomy at heart under the arching trees, that ‘Thusia would waylay him. She laughed and chattered inconsequently and flirted with all her little might and joked about herself and everyone else and even about David–and who else dared joke about the dominie!–until he smiled in spite of himself. His flock seemed to fall naturally into two classes–those who felt they had a sort of proprietary interest in him and those who were a little afraid of him. ‘Thusia was not like either. She was a gleam of unadulterated youth. David began to look forward to their chance meetings with uneasy but pleasant anticipation. She was like a bit of merry music brightening but not interrupting his work. He hardly knew how eagerly he looked forward to his meetings with ‘Thusia until after half his congregation was talking about them.

The autumn saw a great outbreak of moneymaking affairs in the church. There was a mortgage, of course, and church fairs and festivals and dinners followed one after another under David’s eager guidance and it was impossible to keep ‘Thusia from these. She fluttered about David. One or two of the young women of the church finally ventured to make use of ‘Thusia, setting her to work as a waitress at one of the dinners where they were short-handed, but Mary Wiggett soon let them know they had made a mistake. With a woman’s intuition she felt in ‘Thusia a dangerous rival. Even before ‘Thusia or David suspected the truth she saw how great an attraction ‘Thusia had for the young dominie. Her own efforts to attract David were necessarily slower and more conventional. There was no question that Mary would make an excellent wife for a minister and Mary did not doubt her ability to win David if given time, but she feared some sudden flare-up of love that might blind David to the dignity of his position and throw him into ‘Thusia’s arms, even if it threw him out of Riverbank. David, she imagined, would be fearless in any loyalty.

Had there been no ‘Thusia Fragg Mary Wiggett would have been well satisfied with David’s progress toward love. He liked Mary immensely and let her see it. He made her his lieutenant in all the money-raising affairs and she rightly believed his affection for her was growing, but she needed time. ‘Thusia, on the other hand, would win in a flash or not at all. Mary spoke to her father; her mother she felt could give her no aid. Her mother was a dull woman.

The stern-faced Wiggett listened to her grimly.

He was not surprised to hear she loved David; he was surprised that Mary should come to him for aid. The actual word “love” was not mentioned; we avoid it in Riverbank except when speaking of others.

“Father, I like David well enough to marry him, if he asked me,” was what she said.

Further than this she told him nothing but the truth–that the respectable members of the church were shocked by the attention David was paying ‘Thusia and that they were talking about it. It was a shame, she said, that he should lose everyone’s respect in that way when the only trouble was that he did not understand.

“You men can’t see it, of course, father,” she said. “You don’t understand what it means, as we do. And we can’t speak to Mr. Dean. I can’t speak to him.”

“I’ll tell that young man a thing or two!” growled Mr. Wiggett angrily.

“No, not you, father,” Mary begged, and when he looked at her with surprise she blushed. “Huh!” he said, “why not?”

“I–listen, father! I couldn’t bear it if he thought I had sent you. I should die of shame. If you went to him, he might guess.”

“Well, you want to marry him, don’t you!”

“If he wants me. But–yes, I do like him, father.”

“Well, you won’t be a starved parson’s wife, anyway. You’ll have money.” It was equivalent to another man’s hearty good wishes. “Benedict will talk to him,” he said, and went out to find Benedict.

David had found in old Doctor Benedict a companion and friend. An old-style family physician, the town’s medical man-of-all-work, with a heart as big as the world and a brain stored with book-lore and native philosophy, the doctor and David made a strange pair of friends and loved each other the better for their differences. Once every so often the doctor had his “periodical,” when he drank until he was stupid. Once already David, knowing of this weakness and seeing the “period” approaching, had kept old Benedict talking philosophy until midnight and, when he grew restless for brandy, had walked the streets with him until the older man tottered for weariness and had to be fairly lifted into his bed. When, the next day, Benedict began the postponed spree David had dragged him to the manse, and had kept him there that night, locked in the dominie’s own bedroom. Benedict took all this good-naturedly.

He looked on his “periodicals” as something quite apart from himself. He did not like them, and he did not dislike them. They came, and when they came he was helpless. They took charge of him and he could not prevent them, and he refused to mourn over them or let them spoil his good nature. The greater part of the year he was himself, but when the “periodical” came he was like a helpless baby tossed by a pair of all-powerful arms. He could not defend himself; he did not wish to be carried away, but it was useless to contend. If David wanted to wrestle with the thing he was welcome. In the meantime David and Benedict recognized each in the other an intellectual equal and they became fast friends. Old Sam Wiggett, holding the mortgages on Benedict’s house and on his horse, and on all that was his, did not hesitate to order him to talk to David.

“Davy,” said the doctor quizzically as he sat in an easy-chair in David’s study, “they tell me you are paying too much attention to ‘Thusy Fragg.”

David turned.

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