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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 12
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A Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 12 Post by :JMan1234 Category :Long Stories Author :Mary E Wilkins Freeman Date :May 2012 Read :3108

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A Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 12

Chapter XII

Now the warfare of life had fairly begun for little Jerome Edwards. Up to this time, although in sorry plight enough as far as material needs went--scantily clad, scantily fed, and worked hard--he had as yet only followed at an easy pace, or skirted with merry play the march of the toilers of the world. Now he was in the rank and file, enlisted thereto by a stern Providence, and must lose his life for the sake of living, like the rest. No more idle hours in the snug hollow of the rock, where he seemed to pause like a bee on the sweets of existence itself that he might taste them fully, were there for Jerome. Very few chances he had for outspeeding his comrades in any but the stern and sober race of life, for this little Mercury had to shear the wings from his heels of youthful sport and take to the gait of labor. Very seldom he could have one of his old treasure hunts in swamps and woods, unless, indeed, he could perchance make a labor and a gain of it. Jerome found that sassafras, and snakeroot, and various other aromatic roots and herbs of the wilds about his house had their money value. There was an apothecary in the neighboring village of Dale who would purchase them of him; at the cheapest of rates, it is true--a penny or so for a whole peck measure, or a sheaf, of the largess of summer--but every penny counted. Poor Jerome did not care so much about his woodland sorties after they were made a matter of pence and shillings, sorely as he needed, and much as he wished for, the pence and shillings. The sense was upon him, a shamed and helpless one, of selling his birthright. Jerome had in the natural beauty of the earth a budding delight, which was a mystery and a holiness in itself. It was the first love of his boyish heart; he had taken the green woods and fields for his sweetheart, and must now put her to only sordid uses, to her degradation and his.

Sometimes, in a curious rebellion against what he scarcely knew, he would return home without a salable thing in hand, nothing but a pretty and useless collection of wild flowers and sedges, little swamp-apples, and perhaps a cast bird-feather or two, and meet his mother's stern reproof with righteously undaunted front.

"I don't care," he said once, looking at her with a meaning she could not grasp; nor, indeed, could he fathom it himself. "I ain't goin' to sell everything; if I do I'll have to sell myself."

"I'd like to know what you mean," said his mother, sharply.

"I mean I'm goin' to keep some things myself," said Jerome, and pattered up to his chamber to stow away his treasures, with his mother's shrill tirade about useless truck following him. Ann was a good taskmistress; there were, indeed, great powers of administration in the keen, alert mind in that little frail body. Given a poor house encumbered by a mortgage, a few acres of stony land, and two children, the elder only fourteen, she worked miracles almost. Jerome had shown uncommon, almost improbable, ability in his difficulties when Abel had disappeared and her strength had failed her, but afterwards her little nervous feminine clutch on the petty details went far towards saving the ship.

Had it not been for his mother, Jerome could not have carried out his own plans. Work as manfully as he might, he could not have paid Squire Merritt his first instalment of interest money, which was promptly done.

It was due the 1st of November, and, a day or two before, Squire Merritt, tramping across lots, over the fields, through the old plough ridges and corn stubble, with some plump partridges in his bag and his gun over shoulder, made it in his way to stop at the Edwards house and tell Ann that she must not concern herself if the interest money were not ready at the minute it was due.

But Ann laid down her work--she was binding shoes--straightened herself as if her rocking-chair were a throne and she an empress, and looked at him with an inscrutable look of pride and suspicion. The truth was that she immediately conceived the idea that this great fair-haired Squire, with his loud, sweet voice, and his loud, frank laugh and pleasant blue eyes, concealed beneath a smooth exterior depths of guile. She exchanged, as it were, nods of bitter confidence with herself to the effect that Squire Merritt was trying to make her put off paying the interest money, and pretending to be very kind and obliging, in order that he might the sooner get his clutches on the whole property.

All the horizon of this poor little feminine Ishmael seemed to her bitter fancy to be darkened with hands against her, and she sat on a constant watch-tower of suspicion.

"Elmira," said she, "bring me that stockin'."

Elmira, who also was binding shoes, sitting on a stool before the scanty fire, rose quickly at her mother's command, went into the bedroom, and emerged with an old white yarn stocking hanging heavily from her hand.

"Empty it on the table and show Squire Merritt," ordered her mother, in a tone as if she commanded the resources of the royal treasury to be displayed.

Elmira obeyed. She inverted the stocking, and from it jingled a shower of coin into a pitiful little heap on the table.

"There!" said Ann, pointing at it with a little bony finger. The smallest coins of the realm went to make up the little pile, and the Lord only knew how she and her children had grubbed them together. Every penny there represented more than the sweat of the brow: the sweat of the heart.

Squire Eben Merritt, with some dim perception of the true magnitude and meaning of that little hoard, gained partly through Ann's manner, partly through his own quickness of sympathy, fairly started as he looked at it and her.

"There's twenty-one dollars, all but two shillin's, there," said Ann, with hard triumph. "The two shillin's Jerome is goin' to have to-night. He's been splittin' of kindlin'-wood, after school, for your sister, this week, and she's goin' to pay him the same as she did for weedin'. You can take this now, if you want to, or wait and have it all together."

"I'll wait, thank you," replied Eben Merritt. For the moment he felt actually dismayed and ashamed at the sight of his ready interest money. It was almost like having a good deed thrust back in his face and made of no account. He had scarcely expected any payment, certainly none so full and prompt as this.

"I thought I'd let you see you hadn't any cause to feel afraid you wouldn't get it," said Ann, with dignity. "Elmira, you can put the money back in the stockin' now, and put the stockin' back under the feather-bed."

Squire Merritt felt like a great school-boy before this small, majestic woman. "I did not feel afraid, Mrs. Edwards," he said, awkwardly.

"I didn't know but you might," said she, scornfully; "people didn't seem to think we could do anything."

"All I wonder at is," said the Squire, rallying a little, "how you managed to get so much money together."

"Do you want to know? Well, I'll tell you. We've bound shoes, Elmira an' me, for one thing. We've took all they would give us. That wa'n't many, for the regular customers had to come first, and I didn't do any in Abel's lifetime--that is, not after I was sick. I used to a while before that. Abel wouldn't let me when we were first married, but he had to come to it. Men can't do all they're willin' to. I shouldn't have done anything but dress in silk, set an' rock, an' work scallops an' eyelets in cambric pocket-handkerchiefs, if Abel had had his say. After I was sick I quit workin' on boots, because the doctor he said it might hurt the muscles of my back to pull the needle through the leather; but there's somethin' besides muscles in backs to be thought of when it comes to keepin' body an' soul together. Two days after the funeral I sent Jerome up to Cyrus Robinson, and told him to ask him if he'd got some extra shoes to bind and close, and he come home with some. Elmira and me bound, and Jerome closed, and we took our pay in groceries. The shoes have fed us, with what we got out of the garden. Then Elmira and me have braided mats and pieced quilts and sewed three rag carpets, and Elmira picked huckleberries and blackberries in season, and sold them to your wife and Miss Camilla and the doctor's wife; and Lawyer Means bought lots of her, and the woman that keeps house for John Jennings bought a lot. Elmira picked bayberries, too, and sold 'em to the shoemaker for tallow; she sold a lot in Dale. Elmira did a good deal of the weeding in your sister's garden, so's to leave Jerome's time clear. Then once when the doctor's wife had company she went over to help wash dishes, and she give her three an' sixpence for that. Elmira said she give it dreadful kind of private, and looked round to be sure the doctor wa'n't within gunshot. She give her a red merino dress of hers, too, but she kept her till after nightfall, and smuggled her out of the back door, with it all done up under her arm, lest the doctor should see. They say she's got dresses she won't never put on her back again--silks an' satins an' woollens--because she's outgrown 'em, an' they're all hangin' up in closets gettin' mothy, an' the doctor won't let her give 'em away. But this dress she give Elmira wa'n't give away, for I sent her back next day to do some extra work to pay for it. I ain't beholden to nobody. Elmira swept and dusted the settin'-room and the spare chamber, and washed the breakfast an' dinner dishes, and I guess she paid for that old dress ample. It had been laid up with camphor in a cedar chest, but it had some moth holes in it. It wa'n't worth such a great sight, after all.

"Jerome he's worked smart, if I have had to drive him to it sometimes. He's wed and dug potatoes everywhere he could git a chance; he's helped 'bout hayin', an' he's split wood. He's sold some herbs and roots, too, over to Dale. Jake Noyes he put him up to that. He come in here one night an' talked to him real sensible. 'There's money 'nough layin' round loose right under your face an' eyes,' says he; 'all the trouble is you're apt to walk right past, with your nose up in the air. The scent for work an' wages ain't up in the air,' says he; 'it's on the ground.' Jerome he listened real sharp, an' the next day he went off an' got a good passel of boneset an' thoroughwort an' hardback, an' carried it over to Dale, an' sold it for a shilling.

"Elmira has done some spinnin', too; I can't spin much, but she's done well enough. Your wife wants some linen pillow-shifts. Elmira can do the weavin', I guess, an' we can make 'em up together. I've got a job to make some fine shirts for you, too. Your wife come over to see about it this week. I dun'no' but she was gettin' kind of afraid you wouldn't git your interest money no other way; but she needn't have been exercised about it, if she was. We got this interest together without your shirts, an' I guess we can the next. It's been harder work than many folks in this town know anything about, but we've done it." Ann tossed her head with indescribable pride and bitterness. There was scorn of fate itself in the toss of that little head, with its black lace cap and false front, and her speech also was an harangue, reproachful and defiant, against fate, not against her earthly creditor; that she would have disdained.

Squire Eben, however, fully appreciating that, and taking the pictures of pitiful feminine and childish toil which she brought before his fancy as a shame to his great stalwart manhood, spending its strength in hunting and fishing and card-playing, looked at the woman binding shoes with painful jerks of little knotted hands--for she ceased not her work one minute for her words--and took the bitter reproach and triumphant scorn in her tone and gesture for himself alone.

He felt ashamed of himself, in his great hunting-boots splashed with swamp mud, his buckskins marred with woodland thorn and thicket, but not a mark of honest toil about him. Had he been in fine broadcloth he would not have felt so humiliated; for the useless labor of play cuts a sorrier figure in the face of genuine work for the great ends of life than idleness itself. He would not have been half so disgraced by nothing at all in hand as by that bag of game; and as for the money in that old stocking under the feather-bed, it seemed to him like the fruits of his own dishonesty.

The impulse was strong upon him, then and there, to declare that he would take none of that hoard.

"Now look here, Mrs. Edwards," said he, fairly coloring like a girl as he spoke, and smiling uneasily, "I don't want that money."

Ann looked at him with the look of one who is stung, and yet incredulous. Elmira gave a little gasp of delight. "Oh, mother!" she cried.

"Keep still!" ordered her mother. "I dun'no' what you mean," she said to Squire Merritt.

The Squire's smile deepened, but he looked frightened; his eyes fell before hers. "Why, what I say--I don't want this money, this time. I have all I need. Keep it over till the next half."

Squire Eben Merritt had a feeling as if something actually tangible, winged and clawed and beaked, and flaming with eyes, pounced upon him. He fairly shrank back, so fierce was Ann's burst of indignation; it produced a sense of actual contact.

"Keep it till next half?" repeated Ann. "Keep it till next half? What should we keep it till next half for, I'd like to know? It's your money, ain't it? We don't want it; we ain't beggars; we don't need it. I see through you, Squire Eben Merritt; you think I don't, but I do."

"I fear I don't know what you mean," the Squire said, helplessly.

"I see through you," repeated Ann. She had reverted to her first suspicion that his design was to gain possession of the whole property by letting the unpaid interest accumulate, but that poor Squire Eben did not know. He gave up all attempts to understand this woman's mysterious innuendoes, and took the true masculine method of departure from an uncomfortable subject at right angles, with no further ado.

He opened his game-bag and held up a brace of fat partridges. "Well," he said, laughing, "I want you to see what luck I've had shooting, Mrs. Edwards. I've bagged eight of these fellows to-day."

But Ann could not make a mental revolution so easily. She gave a half-indifferent, half-scornful squint at the partridges. "I dun'no' much about shootin'," said she, shortly. Ann had always been, in her own family, a passionate woman, but among outsiders she had borne herself with dignified politeness and formal gentility, clothing, as it were, her intensity of spirit with a company garb. Now, since her terrible trouble had come upon her, this garb had often slipped aside, and revealed, with the indecency of affliction, the struggling naked spirit of the woman to those from whom she had so carefully hidden it.

Once Ann would not have believed that she would have so borne herself towards Squire Merritt. The Squire laid the partridges on the table. "I am going to leave these for your supper, Mrs. Edwards," he said, easily; but he quaked a little, for this woman seemed to repel gifts like blows.

"Thank ye," said Ann, dryly, "but I guess you'd better take 'em home to your wife. I've got a good deal cooked up."

Elmira made a little expressive sound; she could not help it. She gave one horrified, wondering look at her mother. Not a morsel of cooked food was there on the bare pantry shelves. By-and-by a little Indian meal and water would be boiled for supper. There were some vegetables in the cellar, otherwise no food in the house. Ann lied.

Squire Eben Merritt then displayed what would have been tact in a keenly calculating and analytic nature. "Oh, throw them out for the dogs, if you don't want them, Mrs. Edwards," he returned, gayly. "I've got more than my wife can use here. We are getting rather tired of partridges, we have had so many. I stopped at Lawyer Means's on my way here and left a pair for him."

A sudden change came over Ann's face. She beamed with a return of her fine company manners. She even smiled. "Thank ye," said she; "then I will take them, if you are sure you ain't robbing yourself."

"Not at all," said the Squire--"not at all, Mrs. Edwards. You'd better baste them well when you cook them." Then he took his leave, with many exchanges of courtesies, and went his way, wondering what had worked this change; for a simple, benevolent soul can seldom gauge its own wisdom of diplomacy.

Squire Eben did not dream that his gift to one who was not needy had enabled him to give to one who was, by establishing a sort of equality among the recipients, which had overcome her proud scruples. On the way home he met Jerome, scudding along in the early dusk, having finished his task early. "Hurry home, boy," he called out, in that great kind voice which Jerome so loved--"hurry home; you've got something good for supper!" and he gave the boy, ducking low before him with the love and gratitude which had overcome largely the fierce and callous pride in his young heart, a hearty slap on the shoulder as he went past.

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