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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 10
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A Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 10 Post by :blazza Category :Long Stories Author :Mary E Wilkins Freeman Date :May 2012 Read :3256

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A Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 10

Chapter X

Squire Eben Merritt had three boon companions--the village lawyer, Eliphalet Means; a certain John Jennings, the last of one of the village old families, a bachelor of some fifty odd, who had wasted his health and patrimony in riotous living, and had now settled down to prudence and moderation, if not repentance, in the home of his ancestors; and one Colonel Jack Lamson, also considered somewhat of a rake, who had possibly tendered his resignation rather than his reformation, and that perforce. Colonel Lamson also hailed originally from a good old stock of this village and county. He had gone to the wars for his country, and retired at fifty-eight with a limp in his right leg and a cane. Colonel Lamson, being a much-removed cousin of the lawyer's, kept bachelors' hall with him in a comfortable and untidy old mansion at the other end of the town, across the brook.

Many nights of a week these four met for an evening of whist or bezique, to the scandal of the steady-going folk of the town, who approved not of cards, and opined that the Squire's poor wife must feel bad enough to have such carousings at her house. But the Squire's wife, who had in herself a rare understanding among women of masculine good-fellowship, had sometimes, if the truth had been told, taken an ailing member's hand at cards when their orgies convened at the Squire's. John Jennings, being somewhat afflicted with rheumatic gout, was occasionally missing. Then did Abigail Merritt take his place, and play with the sober concentration of a man and the quick wit of a woman. Colonel Jack Lamson, whose partner she was, privately preferred her to John Jennings, whose overtaxed mental powers sometimes failed him in the memory of the cards; but being as intensely loyal to his friends as to his country, he never spoke to that effect. He only, when the little, trim, black-haired woman made a brilliant stroke of _finesse_, with a quick flash of her bright eyes and wise compression of lips, smiled privately, as if to himself, with face bent upon his hand.

Whether Abigail Merritt played cards or not, she always brewed a great bowl of punch, as no one but she knew how to do, and set it out for the delectation of her husband and his friends. The receipt for this punch--one which had been long stored in the culinary archives of the Merritt family, with the poundcake and other rich and toothsome compounds--had often, upon entreaty, been confided to other ambitious matrons, but to no purpose. Let them spice and flavor and add measures of fine strong liquors as they would, their punch had not that perfect harmony of results, which effaces detail, of Abigail Merritt's.

"By George!" Colonel Jack Lamson was wont to say, when his first jorum had trickled down his experienced throat--"By George! I thought I had drunk punch. There was a time when I thought I could mix a bowl of punch myself, but this is _punch_."

Then John Jennings, holding his empty glass, would speak: "All we could taste in that last punch that Belinda Armstrong made at my house was lemon; and the time before that, allspice; and the time before that, raw rum." John Jennings's voice, somewhat hoarse, was yet full of sweet melancholy cadences; there was sentiment and pathos in his "lemon" and "allspice," which waxed almost tearful in his "raw rum." His worn, high-bred face was as instinct with gentle melancholy as his voice, yet his sunken black eyes sparkled with the light of youth as the fine aromatic fire of the punch penetrated his veins.

As for the lawyer, who was the eldest of the four, long, brown, toughly and dryly pliant as an old blade of marsh-grass, he showed in speech, look, nor manner no sign of enthusiasm, but he drank the punch.

That evening, after Jerome Edwards had run home with his prospects of two shillings a week and Squire Eben Merritt's assistance, the friends met at the Squire's house. At eight o'clock they came marching down the road, the three of them--John Jennings in fine old broadcloth and a silk hat, with a weak stoop in his shoulders, and a languid shakiness in his long limbs; the lawyer striding nimbly as a grasshopper, with the utter unconsciousness of one who pursues only the ultimate ends of life; and the colonel, halting on his right knee, and recovering himself stiffly with his cane, holding his shoulders back, breathing a little heavily, his neck puffing over his high stock, his face a purplish-red about his white mustache and close-cropped beard.

The Squire's wife had the punch-bowl all ready in the south room, where the parties were held. Some pipes were laid out there too, and a great jar of fine tobacco, and the cards were on the mahogany card-table--four packs for bezique. Abigail herself opened the door, admitted the guests, and ushered them into the south room. Colonel Lamson said something about the aroma of the punch; and John Jennings, in his sweet, melancholy voice, something gallant about the fair hands that mixed it; but Eliphalet Means moved unobtrusively across the room and dipped out for himself a glass of the beverage, and wasted not his approval in empty words.

The Squire came in shortly and greeted his guests, but he had his hat in his hand.

"I have to go out on business," he announced. "I shall not be long. Mrs. Merritt will have to take my place."

Abigail looked at him in surprise. But she was a most discreet wife. She never asked a question, though she wondered why her husband had not spoken of this before. The truth was he had forgotten his card-party when he had made his promise to Jerome, and then he had forgotten his promise to Jerome in thinking of his card-party, and little Lucina on her way to bed had just brought it to mind by asking when he was going. She had heard the promise, and had not forgotten.

"By the Lord Harry!" said the Squire, for he heard his friends down-stairs. Then, when Lucina looked at him with innocent wonder, he said, hurriedly, "Now, Pretty--I am going now," and went down to excuse himself to his guests.

Eliphalet Means, whose partner Abigail had become by this deflection, nodded, and seated himself at once in his place at table, the pleasant titillation of the punch in his veins and approval in his heart. He considered Abigail a better player than her husband, and began to meditate proposing a small stake that evening.

The Squire, setting forth on his errand to Doctor Prescott, striding heavily through the sweet dampness of the spring night, experienced a curious combination of amusement, satisfaction, and indignation with himself. "I'm a fool!" he declared, with more vehemence than he would have declared four aces in bezique; and then he cursed his folly, and told himself that if he kept on he would leave Abigail and the child without a penny. But then, after all, he realized that singularly warm glow of self-approval for a good deed which at once comforts and irradiates the heart in spite of all worldly prudence and wisdom.

That night the air was very heavy with moisture, which seemed to hold all the spring odors of newly turned earth, young grass, and blossoms in solution. Squire Eben moved through it as through a scented flood in which respiration was possible. Over all the fields was a pale mist, waving and eddying in such impalpable air currents that it seemed to have a sentient life of its own. These soft rises and lapses of the mist on the fields might seemingly have been due to the efforts of prostrate shadows to gather themselves into form. Beyond the fields, against the hills and woods and clear horizon, pale fogs arose with motions as of arms and garments and streaming locks. The blossoming trees stood out suddenly beside one with a white surprise rather felt than seen. The young moon and the stars shone dimly with scattering rays, and the lights in the house windows were veiled. The earth and sky and all the familiar features of the village had that effect of mystery and unreality which some conditions of the atmosphere bring to pass.

A strangely keen sense of the unstability of all earthly things, of the shadows of the tomb, of the dreamy half-light of the world, came over Eben Merritt, and his generous impulse seemed suddenly the only lantern to light his wavering feet. "I'll do what I can for the poor little chap, come what will," he muttered, and strode on to Doctor Prescott's house.

Just before he reached it a horse and sulky turned into the yard, driven rapidly from the other direction. Squire Eben hastened his steps, and reached the south house door before the doctor entered. He was just ascending the steps, his medicine-case in hand, when he heard his name called, and turned around.

"I want a word with you before you go in, doctor," called the Squire, as he came up.

"Good-evening, Squire Merritt," returned the doctor, bowing formally on his vantage-ground of steps, but his voice bespoke a spiritual as well as material elevation.

"I would like a word with you," the Squire said again.

"Walk into the house."

"No, I won't come in, as long as I've met you. I have company at home. I haven't much to say--" The Squire stopped. Jake Noyes was coming from the barn, swinging a lantern; he waited until he had led the horse away, then continued. "It is just as well to have no witnesses," he said, laughing. "It is about that affair of the Edwards mortgage."

"Ah!" said the doctor, with a fencing wariness of intonation.

"I would like to inquire what you're going to do about it, if you have no objection. I have reasons."

The doctor gave a keen look at him. His face, as he stood on the steps, was on a level with the Squire's. "I am going to take the house, of course," he said, calmly.

"It will be a blow to Mrs. Edwards and the boy."

"It will be the best thing that could happen to him," said the doctor, with the same clear evenness. "That sick woman and boy are not fit to have the care of a place. I shall own it, and rent it to them."

Heat in controversy is sometimes needful to convince one's self as well as one's adversary. Doctor Prescott needed no increase of warmth to further his own arguments, so conclusive they were to his own mind.

"For how much, if I may ask? I am interested for certain reasons."

"Seventy dollars. That will amount to the interest money they pay now and ten dollars over. The extra ten will be much less than repairs and taxes. They will be gainers."

"What will you take for that mortgage?"

"Take for the mortgage?"

The Squire nodded.

The doctor gave another of his keen glances at him. "I don't know that I want to take anything for it," he said.

"Suppose it were made worth your while?"

"Nobody would be willing to make it enough worth my while to influence me," said the doctor. "My price for the transfer of a good investment is what it is worth to me."

"Well, doctor, what is it worth to you?" Squire Eben said, smiling.

"Fifteen hundred dollars," said the doctor.

The Squire whistled.

"I am quite aware that the mortgage is for a thousand only," the doctor said, and yet without the slightest meaning of apology, "but I consider when it comes to relinquishing it that it is worth the additional five hundred. I must be just to myself. Then, too, Mr. Edwards owed me a half-year's interest. The fifteen hundred would cover that, of course."

"You won't take any less?"

"Not a dollar."

Squire Eben hesitated a second. "You know, I own that strip of land on the Dale road, on the other side of the brook," he said.

The doctor nodded, still with his eyes keenly intent.

"There are three good house-lots; that house of the Edwardses is old and out of repair. You'll have to spend considerable on it to rent it. My three lots are equal to that one house, and suppose we exchange. You take that land, and I take the mortgage on the Edwards place."

"Do you know what you are talking about?" Doctor Prescott said, sharply; for this plain proposition that he overreach the other aroused him to a show of fairness.

Squire Merritt laughed. "Oh, I know you'll get the best of the bargain," he returned.

Then the doctor waxed suspicious. This readiness to take the worst of a bargain while perfectly cognizant of it puzzled him. He wondered if perchance this easy-going, card-playing, fishing Squire had, after all, some axe of policy to grind. "What do you expect to make out of it?" he asked, bluntly.

"Nothing. I am not even sure that I have any active hope of a higher rate of interest in the other world for it. I am not as sound in the doctrines as you, doctor." Squire Eben laughed, but the other turned on him sternly.

"If you are doing this for the sake of Abel Edwards's widow and her children, you are acting from a mistaken sense of charity, and showing poor judgment," said he.

Squire Eben laughed again. "You made no reply to my proposition, doctor," he said.

"You are in earnest?"

"I am."

"You understand what you are doing?"

"I certainly do. I am giving you between fifteen and sixteen hundred dollars' worth of land for a thousand."

"There is no merit nor charity in such foolish measures as this," said the doctor, half suspicious that there was more behind this, and not put to shame but aroused to a sense of superiority by such drivelling idiocy of benevolence.

"Dare say you're right, doctor," returned Squire Eben. "I won't even cheat you out of the approval of Heaven. Will you meet me at Means's office to-morrow, with the necessary documents for the transfer? We had better go around to Mrs. Edwards's afterwards and inform her, I suppose."

"I will meet you at Means's office at ten o'clock to-morrow morning," said the doctor, shortly. "Good-evening," and with that turned on his heel. However, when he had opened the door he turned again and called curtly and magisterially after Squire Eben: "I advise you to cultivate a little more business foresight for the sake of your wife and child," and Squire Eben answered back:

"Thank you--thank you, doctor; guess you're right," and then began to whistle like a boy as he went down the avenue of pines.

Through lack of remunerative industry, and easy-going habits, his share of the old Merritt property had dwindled considerably; he had none too much money to spend at the best, and now he had bartered away a goodly slice of his paternal acres for no adequate worldly return. He knew it all, he felt a half-whimsical dismay as he went home, and yet the meaning which underlies the letter of a good action was keeping his heart warm.

When he reached home his wife, who had just finished her game, slid out gently, and the usual festivities began. Colonel Lamson, warmed with punch and good-fellowship and tobacco, grew brilliant at cards, and humorously reminiscent of old jokes between the games; John Jennings lagged at cards, but flashed out now and then with fine wit, while his fervently working brain lit up his worn face with the light of youth. The lawyer, who drank more than the rest, played better and better, and waxed caustic in speech if crossed. As for the Squire, his frankness increased even to the risk of self-praise. Before the evening was over he had told the whole story of little Jerome, of Doctor Prescott and himself and the Edwards mortgage. The three friends stared at him with unsorted cards in their hands.

"You are a damned fool!" cried Eliphalet Means, taking his pipe from his mouth.

"No," cried Jennings, "not a damned fool, but a rare fool," and his great black eyes, in their mournful hollows, flashed affectionately at Squire Eben.

"And I say he's a damned fool. Men live in this world," maintained the lawyer, fiercely.

"Men's hearts ought to be out of the world if their heads are in it," affirmed John Jennings, with a beautiful smile. "I say he's a rare fool, and I would that all the wise men could go to school to such a fool and learn wisdom of his folly."

Colonel Jack Lamson, who sat at the Squire's left, removed his pipe, cleared his throat, and strove to speak in vain. Now he began with a queer stiffness of his lips, while his purplish-red flush spread to the roots of his thin bristle of gray hair.

"It reminds me of a story I heard. No, that is another. It reminds me--" And then the colonel broke down with a great sob, and a dash of his sleeve across his eyes, and recovered himself, and cried out, chokingly, "No, I'll be damned if it reminds me of anything I've ever seen or heard of, for I've never seen a man like you, Eben!"

And with that he slapped his cards to the table, and shook the Squire's hand, with such a fury of affectionate enthusiasm that some of his cards fluttered about him to the floor, like a shower of leaves.

As for Eliphalet Means, he declared again, with vicious emphasis, "He's a damned fool!" then rose up, laid his cards on top of the colonel's scattered hand, went to the punch-bowl and helped himself to another glass; then, pipe in mouth, went up to Squire Merritt and gave him a great slap on his back. "You are a damned fool, my boy!" he cried out, holding his pipe from his lips and breathing out a great cloud of smoke with the words; "but the wife and the young one and you shall never want a bite or a sup, nor a bed nor a board, on account of it, while old 'Liph Means has a penny in pocket."

And with that Eliphalet Means, who was old enough to be the Squire's father, and loved him as he would have loved a son, went back to his seat and dealt the cards over.

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