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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 1
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A Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 1 Post by :cfountain Category :Long Stories Author :Mary E Wilkins Freeman Date :May 2012 Read :1072

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A Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 1

Chapter I

One morning in early May, when the wind was cold and the sun hot, and Jerome about twelve years old, he was in a favorite lurking-place of his, which nobody but himself knew.

Three fields' width to the northward from the Edwardses' house was a great rock ledge; on the southern side of it was a famous warm hiding-place for a boy on a windy spring day. There was a hollow in the rock for a space as tall as Jerome, and the ledge extended itself beyond it like a sheltering granite wing to the westward.

The cold northwester blowing from over the lingering Canadian snow-banks could not touch him, and he had the full benefit of the sun as it veered imperceptibly south from east. He lay there basking in it like some little animal which had crawled out from its winter nest. Before him stretched the fields, all flushed with young green. On the side of a gentle hill at the left a file of blooming peach-trees looked as if they were moving down the slope to some imperious march music of the spring.

In the distance a man was at work with plough and horse. His shouts came faintly across, like the ever-present notes of labor in all the harmonies of life. The only habitation in sight was Squire Eben Merritt's, and of that only the broad slants of shingled roof and gray end wall of the barn, with a pink spray of peach-trees against it.

Jerome stared out at it all, without a thought concerning it in his brain. He was actively conscious only of his own existence, which had just then a wondrously pleasant savor for him. A sweet exhilarating fire seemed leaping through every vein in his little body. He was drowsy, and yet more fully awake than he had been all winter. All his pulses tingled, and his thoughts were overborne by the ecstasy in them. Jerome had scarcely felt thoroughly warm before, since last summer. That same little, tight, and threadbare jacket had been his thickest garment all winter. The wood had been stinted on the hearth, the coverings on his bed; but now the full privilege of the spring sun was his, and the blood in this little meagre human plant, chilled and torpid with the winter's frosts, stirred and flowed like that in any other. Who could say that the bliss of renewed vitality which the boy felt, as he rested there in his snug rock, was not identical with that of the springing grass and the flowering peach-trees? Who could say that he was more to all intents and purposes, for that minute, than the rock-honeysuckle opening its red cups on the ledge over his head? He was conscious of no more memory or forethought.

Presently he shut his eyes, and the sunlight came in a soft rosy glow through his closed lids. Then it was that a little girl came across the fields, clambering cautiously over the stone walls, lest she should tear her gown, stepping softly over the green grass in her little morocco shoes, and finally stood still in front of the boy sitting with his eyes closed in the hollow of the rock. Twice she opened her mouth to speak, then shut it again. At last she gained courage.

"Be you sick, boy?" she inquired, in a sweet, timid voice.

Jerome opened his eyes with a start, and stared at the little quaint figure standing before him. Lucina wore a short blue woollen gown; below it her starched white pantalets hung to the tops of her morocco shoes. She wore also a white tier, and over that a little coat, and over that a little green cashmere shawl sprinkled with palm leaves, which her mother had crossed over her bosom and tied at her back for extra warmth. Lucina's hood was of quilted blue silk, and her smooth yellow curls flowed from under it quite down to her waist. Moreover, her mother had carefully arranged four, two on each side, to escape from the frill of her hood in front and fall softly over her pink cheeks. Lucina's face was very fair and sweet--the face of a good and gentle little girl, who always minded her mother and did her daily tasks.

Her dark blue eyes, set deeply under seriously frowning childish brows, surveyed Jerome with innocent wonder; her pretty mouth drooped anxiously at the corners. Jerome knew her well enough, although he had never before exchanged a word with her. She was little Lucina Merritt, whose father had money and bought her everything she wanted, and whose mother rigged her up like a puppet, as he had heard his mother say.

"No, ain't sick," he said, in a half-intelligible grunt. A cross little animal poked into wakefulness in the midst of its nap in the sun might have responded in much the same way. Gallantry had not yet developed in Jerome. He saw in this pretty little girl only another child, and, moreover, one finely shod and clothed, while he went shoeless and threadbare. He looked sulkily at her blue silk hood, pulled his old cap down with a twitch to his black brows, and shrugged himself closer to the warm rock.

The little girl eyed his bare toes. "Be you cold?" she ventured.

"No, ain't cold," grunted Jerome. Then he caught sight of something in her hand--a great square of sugar-gingerbread, out of which she had taken only three dainty bites as she came along, and in spite of himself there was a hungry flash of his black eyes.

Lucina held out the gingerbread. "I'd just as lives as not you had it," said she, timidly. "It's most all there. I've just had three teenty bites."

Jerome turned on her fiercely. "Don't want your old gingerbread," he cried. "Ain't hungry--have all I want to home."

The little Lucina jumped, and her blue eyes filled with tears. She turned away without a word, and ran falteringly, as if she could not see for tears, across the field; and there was a white lamb trotting after her. It had appeared from somewhere in the fields, and Jerome had not noticed it. He remembered hearing that Lucina Merritt had a cosset lamb that followed her everywhere. "Has everything," he muttered--"lambs an' everything. Don't want your old gingerbread."

Suddenly he sprang up and began feeling in his pocket; then he ran like a deer after the little girl. She rolled her frightened, tearful blue eyes over her shoulder at him, and began to run too, and the cosset lamb cantered faster at her heels; but Jerome soon gained on them.

"Stop, can't ye?" he sang out. "Ain't goin' to hurt ye. What ye 'fraid of?" He laid his hand on her green-shawled shoulders, and she stood panting, her little face looking up at him, half reassured, half terrified, from her blue silk hood-frills and her curls.

"Like sas'fras?" inquired Jerome, with a lordly air. An emperor about to bestow a largess upon a slave could have had no more of the very grandeur of beneficence in his mien.

Lucina nodded meekly.

Jerome drew out a great handful of strange articles from his pocket, and they might, from his manner of handling them, have been gold pieces and jewels. There were old buttons, a bit of chalk, and a stub of slate-pencil. There were a horse-chestnut and some grains of parched sweet-corn and a dried apple-core. There were other things which age and long bondage in the pocket had brought to such passes that one could scarcely determine their identities. From all this Jerome selected one undoubted treasure--a great jagged cut of sassafras root. It had been nicely scraped, too, and looked white and clean.

"Here," said Jerome.

"Don't you want it?" asked Lucina, shyly.

"No--had a great piece twice as big as that yesterday. Know where there's lots more in the cedar swamp. Here, take it."

"Thank you," said Lucina, and took it, and fumbled nervously after her little pocket.

"Why don't you eat it?" asked Jerome, and Lucina took an obedient little nibble.

"Ain't that good and strong?"

"It's real good," replied Lucina, smiling gratefully.

"Mebbe I'll dig you some more some time," said Jerome, as if the cedar swamp were a treasure-chest.

"Thank you," said the little girl. Then she timidly extended the gingerbread again. "I only took three little bites, an' it's real nice, honest," said she, appealingly.

But she jumped again at the flash in Jerome's black eyes.

"Don't want your old gingerbread!" he cried. "Ain't hungry; have more'n I want to eat to home. Guess my folks have gingerbread. Like to know what you're tryin' to give me victuals for! Don't want any of your old gingerbread!"

"It ain't old, honest," pleaded Lucina, tearfully. "It ain't old--Hannah, she just baked it this morning." But the boy was gone, pelting hard across the field, and all there was for the little girl to do was to go home, with her sassafras in her pocket and her gingerbread in her hand, with an aromatic savor on her tongue and the sting of slighted kindness in her heart, with her cosset lamb trotting at heel, and tell her mother.

Jerome did not return to his nook in the rock. As he neared it he heard the hollow note of a horn from the northwest.

"S'pose mother wants me," he muttered, and went on past the rock ledge to the west, and climbed the stone wall into the first of the three fields which separated him from his home. Across the young springing grass went Jerome--a slender little lad moving with an awkward rustic lope. It was the gait of the homely toiling men of the village which his young muscles had caught, as if they had in themselves powers of observation and assimilation. Jerome at twelve walked as if he had held plough-shares, bent over potato hills, and hewn wood in cedar swamps for half a century. Jerome's feet were bare, and his red rasped ankles showed below his hitching trousers. His poor winter shoes had quite failed him for many weeks, his blue stockings had shown at the gaps in their sides which had torn away from his mother's strong mending. Now the soles had gone, and his uncle Ozias Lamb, who was a cobbler, could not put in new ones because there was not strength enough in the uppers to hold them. "You can't have soles in shoes any more than you can in folks, without some body," said Ozias Lamb. It seemed as if Ozias might have made and presented some new shoes, soles and all, to his needy nephew, but he was very poor, and not young, and worked painfully to make every cent count. So Jerome went barefoot after the soles parted from his shoes; but he did not care, because it was spring and the snow was gone. Jerome had, moreover, a curious disregard of physical discomfort for a boy who could take such delight in sheer existence in a sunny hollow of a rock. He had had chilblains all winter from the snow-water which had soaked in through his broken shoes; his heels were still red with them, but not a whimper had he made. He had treated them doggedly himself with wood-ashes, after an old country prescription, and said nothing, except to reply, "Doctorin' chilblains," when his mother asked him what he was doing.

Jerome also often went hungry. He was hungry now as he loped across the field. A young wolf that had roamed barren snow-fields all winter might not have felt more eager for a good meal than Jerome, and he was worse off, because he had no natural prey. But he never made a complaint.

Had any one inquired if he were hungry, he would have flown at him as he had done at little Lucina Merritt when she offered him her gingerbread. He knew, and all his family knew, that the neighbors thought they had not enough to eat, and the knowledge so stung their pride that it made them defy the fact itself. They would not own to each other that they were hungry; they denied it fiercely to their own craving stomachs.

Jerome had had nothing that morning but a scanty spoonful of corn-meal porridge, but he would have maintained stoutly that he had eaten a good breakfast. He took another piece of sassafras from his pocket and chewed it as he went along. After all, now the larder of Nature was open and the lock of the frost on her cupboards was broken, a boy would not fare so badly; he could not starve. There was sassafras root in the swamps--plenty of it for the digging; there were young winter-green leaves, stinging pleasantly his palate with green aromatic juice; later there would be raspberries and blackberries and huckleberries. There were also the mysterious cedar apples, and the sour-sweet excrescences sometimes found on swamp bushes. These last were the little rarities of Nature's table which a boy would come upon by chance when berrying and snatch with delighted surprise. They appealed to his imagination as well as to his tongue, since they belonged not to the known fruits in his spelling-book and dictionary, and possessed a strange sweetness of fancy and mystery beyond their woodland savor. In a few months, too, the garden would be grown and there would be corn and beans and potatoes. Then Jerome's lank outlines would begin to take on curves and the hungry look would disappear from his face. He was a handsome boy, with a fearless outlook of black eyes from his lean, delicate face, and a thick curling crop of fair hair which the sun had bleached like straw. Always protected from the weather, Jerome's hair would have been brown; but his hats failed him like his shoes, and often in the summer season were crownless. However, his mother mended them as long as she was able. She was a thrifty woman, although she was a semi-invalid, and sat all day long in a high-backed rocking-chair. She was not young either; she had been old when she married and her children were born, but there was a strange element of toughness in her--a fibre either of body or spirit that kept her in being, like the fibre of an old tree.

Before Jerome entered the house his mother's voice saluted him. "Where have you been, Jerome Edwards?" she demanded. Her voice was querulous, but strongly shrill. It could penetrate every wall and door. Ann Edwards, as she sat in her rocking-chair, lifted up her voice, and it sounded all over her house like a trumpet, and all her household marched to it.

"Been over in the pasture," answered Jerome, with quick and yet rather defiant obedience, as he opened the door.

His mother's face, curiously triangular in outline, like a cat's, with great hollow black eyes between thin parted curtains of black false hair, confronted him when he entered the room. She always sat face to the door and window, and not a soul who passed or entered escaped her for a minute. "What have you been doing in the pasture?" said she.

"Sittin'."

"Sittin'?"

"I've been sitting on the warm side of the big rock a little while," said Jerome. He looked subdued before his mother's gaze, and yet not abashed. She always felt sure that there was some hidden reserve of rebellion in Jerome, coerce him into obedience as she might. She never really governed him, as she did her daughter Elmira, who stood washing dishes at the sink. But she loved Jerome better, although she tried not to, and would not own it to herself.

"Do you know what time it is?" said she, severely.

Jerome glanced at the tall clock in the corner. It was nearly ten. He glanced and made no reply. He sometimes had a dignified masculine way, beyond his years, of eschewing all unnecessary words. His mother saw him look at the time; why should he speak? She did not wait for him. "'Most ten o'clock," said she, "and a great boy twelve years old lazing round on a rock in a pasture when all his folks are working. Here's your mother, feeble as she is, workin' her fingers to the bone, while you're doing nothing a whole forenoon. I should think you'd be ashamed of yourself. Now you take the spade and go right out and go to work in the garden. It's time them beans are in, if they're going to be. Your father has had to go down to the wood-lot and get a load of wood for Doctor Prescott, and here 'tis May and the garden not planted. Go right along." All the time Jerome's mother talked, her little lean strong fingers flew, twirling bright colored rags in and out. She was braiding a rug for this same Doctor Prescott's wife. The bright strips spread and twirled over her like snakes, and the balls wherein the rags were wound rolled about the floor. Most women kept their rag balls in a basket when they braided, but Ann Edwards worked always in a sort of untidy fury.

Jerome went out, little hungry boy with the winter chill again creeping through his veins, got the spade out of the barn, and set to work in the garden. The garden lay on the sunny slope of a hill which rose directly behind the house; when his spade struck a stone Jerome would send it rolling out of his way to the foot of the hill. He got considerable amusement from that, and presently the work warmed him.

The robins were singing all about. Every now and then one flew out of the sweet spring distance, lit, and silently erected his red breast among some plough ridges lower down. It was like a veritable transition from sound to sight.

Below where Jerome spaded, and upon the left, stretched long waving plough ridges where the corn was planted. Jerome's father had been at work there with the old white horse that was drawing wood for him to-day. Much of the garden had to be spaded instead of ploughed, because this same old white horse was needed for other work.

As Jerome spaded, the smell of the fresh earth came up in his face. Now and then a gust of cold wind, sweet with unseen blossoms, smote him powerfully, bending his slender body before it like a sapling. A bird flashed past him with a blue dazzle of wings, and Jerome stopped and looked after it. It lit on the fence in front of the house, and shone there in the sunlight like a blue precious stone. The boy gazed at it, leaning on his spade. Jerome always looked hard out of all his little open windows of life, and saw every precious thing outside his daily grind of hard, toilsome childhood which came within his sight.

The bird flew away, and Jerome spaded again. He knew that he must finish so much before dinner or his mother would scold. He was not afraid of his mother's sharp tongue, but he avoided provoking it with a curious politic and tolerant submission which he had learned from his father. "Mother ain't well, you know, an' she's high-sperited, and we've got to humor her all we can," Abel Edwards had said, confidentially, many a time to his boy, who had listened sagely and nodded.

Jerome obeyed his mother with the patient obedience of a superior who yields because his opponent is weaker than he, and a struggle beneath his dignity, not because he is actually coerced. Neither he nor his father ever answered back or contradicted; when her shrill voice waxed loudest and her vituperation seemed to fairly hiss in their ears, they sometimes looked at each other and exchanged a solemn wink of understanding and patience. Neither ever opened mouth in reply.

Jerome worked fast in his magnanimous concession to his mother's will, and had accomplished considerable when his sister opened the kitchen window, thrust out her dark head, and called in a voice shrill as her mother's, but as yet wholly sweet, with no harsh notes in it: "Jerome! Jerome! Dinner is ready."

Jerome whooped in reply, dropped his spade, and went leaping down the hill. When he entered the kitchen his mother was sitting at the table and Elmira was taking up the dinner. Elmira was a small, pretty girl, with little, nervous hands and feet, and eager black eyes, like her mother's. She stretched on tiptoe over the fire, and ladled out a steaming mixture from the kettle with an arduous swing of her sharp elbow. Elmira's sleeves were rolled up and her thin, sharply-jointed, girlish arms showed.

"Don't you know enough, without being told, to lift that kettle off the fire for Elmira?" demanded Mrs. Edwards of Jerome.

Jerome lifted the kettle off the fire without a word.

"It seems sometimes as if you might do something without being told," said his mother. "You could see, if you had eyes to your head, that your sister wa'n't strong enough to lift that kettle off, and was dippin' it up so's to make it lighter, an' the stew 'most burnin' on."

Jerome made no response. He sniffed hungrily at the savory steam arising from the kettle. "What is it?" he asked his sister, who stooped over the kettle sitting on the hearth, and plunged in again the long-handled tin dipper.

Mrs. Edwards never allowed any one to answer a question when she could do it herself. "It's a parsnip stew," said she, sharply. "Elmira dug some up in the old garden-patch, where we thought they were dead. I put in a piece of pork, when I'd ought to have saved it. It's good 'nough for anybody, I don't care who 'tis, if it's Doctor Prescott, or Squire Merritt, or the minister. You'd better be thankful for it, both of you."

"Where's father?" said Jerome.

"He 'ain't come home yet. I dun'no' where he is. He's been gone long enough to draw ten cords of wood. I s'pose he's potterin' round somewheres--stopped to talk to somebody, or something. I ain't going to wait any longer. He'll have to eat his dinner cold if he can't get home."

Elmira put the dish of stew on the table. Jerome drew his chair up. Mrs. Edwards grasped the long-handled dipper preparatory to distributing the savory mess, then suddenly stopped and turned to Elmira.

"Elmira," said she, "you go into the parlor an' git the china bowl with pink flowers on it, an' then you go to the chest in the spare bedroom an' get out one of them fine linen towels."

"What for?" said Elmira, wonderingly.

"No matter what for. You do what I tell you to."

Elmira went out, and after a little reappeared with the china bowl and the linen towel. Jerome sat waiting, with a kind of fierce resignation. He was almost starved, and the smell of the stew in his nostrils made him fairly ravenous.

"Give it here," said Mrs. Edwards, and Elmira set the bowl before her mother. It was large, almost large enough for a punch-bowl, and had probably been used for one. It was a stately old dish from overseas, a relic from Mrs. Edwards's mother, who had seen her palmy days before her marriage. Mrs. Edwards had also in her parlor cupboard a part of a set of blue Indian china which had belonged to her mother. The children watched while their mother dipped the parsnip stew into the china bowl. Elmira, while constantly more amenable to her mother, was at the moment more outspoken against her.

"There won't be enough left for us," she burst forth, excitedly.

"I guess you'll get all you need; you needn't worry."

"There won't be enough for father when he comes home, anyhow."

"I ain't a mite worried about your father; I guess he won't starve."

Mrs. Edwards went on dipping the stew into the bowl while the children watched. She filled it nearly two-thirds full, then stopped, and eyed the girl and boy critically. "I guess you'd better go, Elmira," said she. "Jerome can't unless he's all cleaned up. Get my little red cashmere shawl, and you can wear my green silk pumpkin hood. Yours don't look nice enough to go there with."

"Can't I eat dinner first, mother?" pleaded Elmira, pitifully.

"No, you can't. I guess you won't starve if you wait a little while. I ain't 'goin' to send stew to folks stone-cold. Hurry right along and get the shawl and hood. Don't stand there lookin' at me."

Elmira went out forlornly.

Mrs. Edwards began pinning the linen towel carefully over the bowl.

"Let Elmira stay an' eat her dinner. I'd just as lives go. Don't care if I don't ever have anythin' to eat," spoke up Jerome.

His mother flashed her black eyes round at him. "Don't you be saucy, Jerome Edwards," said she, "or you'll go back to your spadin' without a mouthful! I told your sister she was goin', an' I don't want any words about it from either of you."

When Elmira returned with her mother's red cashmere shawl pinned carefully over her childish shoulders, with her sharply pretty, hungry-eyed little face peering meekly out of the green gloom of the great pumpkin hood, Mrs. Edwards gave her orders. "There," said she, "you take this bowl, an' you be real careful and don't let it fall and break it, nor slop the stew over my best shawl, an' you carry it down the road to Doctor Prescott's; an' whoever comes to the door, whether it's the hired girl, or Lawrence, or the hired man, you ask to see Mis' Doctor Prescott. Don't you give this bowl to none of the others, you mind. An' when Mis' Doctor Prescott comes, you courtesy an' say, 'Good-mornin', Mis' Prescott. Mis' Abel Edwards sends you her compliments, and hopes you're enjoyin' good health, an' begs you'll accept this bowl of parsnip stew. She thought perhaps you hadn't had any this season.'"

Mrs. Edwards repeated the speech in a little, fine, mincing voice, presumably the one which Elmira was to use. "Can you remember that?" she asked, sharply, in her natural tone.

"Yes, ma'am."

"Say it over."

Poor little Elmira Edwards said it over like a parrot, imitating her mother's fine, stilted tone perfectly. In truth, it was a formula of presentation which she had often used.

"Don't you forget the 'compliments,' an' 'I thought she hadn't had any parsnip stew this season.'"

"No, ma'am."

"Take the bowl up, real careful, and carry it stiddy."

Elmira threw back the ends of the red cashmere shawl, lifted the big bowl in her two small hands, and went out carrying it before her. Jerome opened the door, and shut it after her.

"Now I guess Mis' Doctor Prescott won't think we're starvin' to death here, if her husband has got a mortgage on our house," said Mrs. Edwards. "I made up my mind that time she sent over that pitcher of lamb broth that I'd send her somethin' back, if I lived. I wouldn't have taken it anyhow, if it hadn't been for the rest of you. I guess I'll let folks know we ain't quite beggars yet."

Jerome nodded. A look of entire sympathy with his mother came into his face. "Guess so too," said he.

Mrs. Edwards threw back her head with stiff pride, as if it bore a crown. "So far," said she, "nobody on this earth has ever give me a thing that I 'ain't been able to pay 'em for in some way. I guess there's a good many rich folks can't say 's much as that."

"Guess so too," said Jerome.

"Pass over your plate; you must be hungry by this time," said his mother. She heaped his plate with the stew. "There," said she, "don't you wait any longer. I guess mebbe you'd better set the dish down on the hearth to keep warm for Elmira and your father first, though."

"Ain't you goin' to eat any yourself?" asked Jerome.

"I couldn't touch a mite of that stew if you was to pay me for it. I never set much by parsnip stew myself, anyway."

Jerome eyed his mother soberly. "There's enough," said he. "I've got all I can eat here."

"I tell you I don't want any. Ain't that enough? There's plenty of stew if I wanted it, but I don't. I never liked it any too well, an' to-day seems as if it fairly went against my stomach. Set it down on the hearth the way I told you to, an' eat your dinner before it gets any colder."

Jerome obeyed. He ate his plate of stew; then his mother obliged him to eat another. When Elmira returned she had her fill, and there was plenty left for Abel Edwards when he should come home.

Jerome, well fed, felt like another boy when he returned to his task in the garden. "Guess I can get this spadin' 'most done this afternoon," he said to himself. He made the brown earth fly around him. He whistled as he worked. As the afternoon wore on he began to wonder if he could not finish the garden before his father got home. He was sure he had not come as yet, for he had kept an eye on the road, and besides he would have heard the heavy rattle of the wood-wagon. "Father 'll be real tickled when he sees the garden all done," said Jerome, and he stopped whistling and bent all his young spirit and body to his work. He never thought of feeling anxious about his father.

At five o'clock the back door of the Edwards house opened. Elmira came out with a shawl over her head and hurried up the hill. "Oh, Jerome," she panted, when she got up to him. "You must stop working, mother says, and go right straight off to the ten-acre lot. Father 'ain't come home yet, an' we're dreadful worried about him. She says she's afraid something has happened to him."

Jerome stuck his spade upright in the ground and stared at her. "What does she s'pose has happened?" he said, slowly. Jerome had no imagination for disasters.

"She thinks maybe he's fell down, or some wood's fell on him, or Peter's run away."

"Peter wouldn't ever run away; it's much as ever he'll walk lately, an' father don't ever fall down."

Elmira fairly danced up and down in the fresh mould. She caught her brother's arm and twitched it and pushed him fiercely. "Go along, go along!" she cried. "Go right along, Jerome Edwards! I tell you something dreadful has happened to father. Mother says so. Go right along!"

Jerome pulled himself away from her nervous clutch, and collected himself for flight. "He was goin' to carry that wood to Doctor Prescott's," said he, reflectively. "Ain't any sense goin' to the ten-acre lot till I see if he's been there."

"It's on the way," cried Elmira, frantically. "Hurry up! Oh, do hurry up, Jerome! Poor father! Mother says he's--fell--down--" Elmira crooked her little arm around her face and broke into a long wail as she started down the hill. "Poor--father--oh--oh--poor--father!" floated back like a wake of pitiful sound.

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