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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 13
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A Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 13 Post by :spk921803 Category :Long Stories Author :Mary E Wilkins Freeman Date :May 2012 Read :3338

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A Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 13

Chapter XIII

There was a good district school in the village, and Jerome, before his father's disappearance, had attended it all the year round; now he went only in winter. Jerome rose at four o'clock in the dark winter mornings, and went to bed at ten, getting six hours' sleep. It was fortunate that he was a hardy boy, with a wirily pliant frame, adapting itself, with no lesions, to extremes of temperature and toil, even to extremes of mental states. In spite of all his hardships, in spite of scanty food, Jerome thrived; he grew; he began to fill out better his father's clothes, to which he had succeeded. The first time Jerome wore his poor father's best coat to school--Ann had set in the buttons so it folded about him in ludicrous fashion, bringing the sleeves forward and his arms apparently into the middle of his chest--one of the big boys and two big girls at his side laughed at him, the boy with open jeers, the girls with covert giggles behind their hands. They were standing in front of the school-house at the top of the long hill when Jerome was ascending it with Elmira. It was late and cold, and only these three scholars were outside. The girls, who were pretty and coquettish, had detained this great boy, who was a man grown.

Jerome went up the long hill under this fire of covert ridicule. Elmira, behind him, began to cry, holding up one little shawled arm like a wing before her face. Jerome never lowered his proud head; his unwinking black eyes stared straight ahead at the three; his face was deadly white; his hands twitched at his sides.

The great boy was 'Lisha Robinson; the girls were the pretty twin daughters of a farmer living three miles away, who had just brought them to school on his ox-sled. Their two sweet, rosy faces, full of pitiless childish merriment for him, and half-unconscious maiden wiles towards the young man at their side, towards whom they leaned involuntarily as they tittered, aroused Jerome to a worse frenzy than 'Lisha's face with its coarse leer.

All three started back a little as he drew near; there was something in his unwinking eyes which was intimidating. However, 'Lisha had his courage to manifest before these girls. "Say, Jerome," he shouted--"say, Jerome, got any room to spare in that coat? 'cause Abigail Mack is freezin'."

"Go 'long, 'Lisha," cried Abigail, sputtering with giggles, and giving the young man a caressing push with her elbow.

'Lisha, thus encouraged, essayed further wit. "Say, Jerome, s'pose you can fill out that coat of yours any quicker if I give ye half my dinner? Here's a half a pie I can spare. Reckon you don't have much to eat down to your house, 'cept chicken-fodder, and that ain't very fat'nin'."

Jerome came up. All at once through the glow of his black eyes flashed that spiritual lightning, evident when purpose is changed to action. The girls screamed and fled. 'Lisha swung about in a panic, but Jerome launched himself upon his averted shoulder. The girls, glancing back with terrified eyes from the school-house door, seemed to see the boy lift the grown man from the ground, and the two whirl a second in the air before they crashed down, and so declared afterwards. Jerome clung to his opponent like a wild-cat, a small but terrific body all made up of nerves and muscles and electric fire. He wound his arms with a violent jerk as of steel around 'Lisha's neck; he bunted him with a head like a cannon-ball; he twisted little wiry legs under the hollows of 'Lisha's knees. The two came down together with a great thud. The teacher and the scholars came rushing to the door. Elmira wailed and sobbed in the background. The slight boy was holding great 'Lisha on the ground with a strength that seemed uncanny.

'Lisha's nose was bleeding; he breathed hard; his eyes, upturned to Jerome, had a ghastly roll. "Let me--up, will ye?" he choked, faintly.

"Will you ever say anything like that again?"

"Let me up, will ye?" 'Lisha gave a convulsive gasp that was almost a sob.

"Jerome!" called the teacher. She was a young woman from another village, mildly and assentingly good, virtue having, like the moon, only its simply illuminated side turned towards her vision. Weakly blue-eyed and spectacled, hooked up primly in chaste drab woollen and capped with white muslin, though scarcely thirty, she stood among her flock and eyed the fierce combatants with an utter lack of command of the situation. She was a country minister's daughter, and had never taught until her father's death. This was her first school, and to its turbulent elements she brought only the precisely limited lore of a young woman's seminary of that day, and the experiences of early piety.

Looking at the struggling boys, she thought vaguely of that hymn of Isaac Watts's which treats of barking and biting dogs and the desirability of amity and concord between children, as if it could in some way be applied to heal the breach. She called again fruitlessly in her thin treble, which had been raised in public only in neighborhood prayer-meetings: "Jerome! Jerome Edwards!"

"Will you say it again?" demanded Jerome of his prostrate adversary, with a sharp prod of a knee.

After a moment of astonished staring there was a burst of mirth among the pupils, especially the older boys. 'Lisha was not a special favorite among them--he was too good-looking, had too much money to spend, and was too much favored by the girls. In spite of the teacher's half-pleading commands, they made a rush and formed a ring around the fighters.

"Go it, J'rome!" they shouted. "Give it to him! You're a fighter, you be. Look at J'rome Edwards lickin' a feller twice his size. Hi! Go it, J'rome!"

"Boys!" called the teacher. "Boys!"

Some of the smaller girls began to cry and clung to her skirts; the elder girls watched with dilated eyes, or laughed with rustic hardihood for such sights. Elmira still waited on the outskirts. Jerome paid no attention to the teacher or the shouting boys. "Will you say it again?" he kept demanding of 'Lisha, until finally he got a sulky response.

"No, I won't. Now lemme up, will ye?"

"Say you're sorry."

"I'm sorry. Lemme up!"

Jerome, without appearing to move, collected himself for a spring. Suddenly he was off 'Lisha and far to one side, with one complete bound of his whole body, like a cat.

'Lisha got up stiffly, muttering under his breath, and went round to the well to wash off the blood. He did not attempt to renew the combat, as the other boys had hoped he might. He preferred to undergo the ignominy of being worsted in fight by a little boy rather than take the risk of being pounced upon again with such preternatural fury. When he entered school, having washed his face, he was quite pale, and walked with shaking knees. Rather physical than moral courage had 'Lisha Robinson, and it was his moral courage, after all, which had been tested, as it is in all such unequal combats.

As for Jerome, he had to stand in the middle of the floor, a spectacle unto the school, folded in his father's coat, which had, alas! two buttons torn off, and a three-cornered rag hanging from one tail, which fluttered comically in the draught from the door; but nobody dared laugh. There was infinite respect, if not approbation, for Jerome in the school that day. Some of the big boys scowled, and one girl said out loud, "It's a shame!" when the teacher ordered him to stand in the floor. Had he rebelled, the teacher would have had no support, but Jerome took his place in the spot indicated, with a grave and scornful patience. The greatness of his triumph made him magnanimous. It was clearly evident to his mind that 'Lisha Robinson and not he should stand in the floor, and that he gained a glory of martyrdom in addition to the other.

Jerome had never felt so proud in his life as when he stood there, in his father's old coat, having established his right to wear it without remark by beating the biggest boy in school. He stood erect, equally poised on his two feet, looking straight ahead with a grave, unsmiling air. He looked especially at no one, except once at his sister Elmira. She had just raised her head from the curve of her arm, in which she had been weeping, and her tear-stained eyes met her brother's. He looked steadily at her, frowning significantly. Elmira knew what it meant. She began to study her geography, and did not cry again.

At recess the teacher went up to Jerome, and spoke to him almost timidly. "I am very sorry about this, Jerome," she said. "I am sorry you fought, and sorry I had to punish you in this way."

Jerome looked at her. "She's a good deal like mother," he thought. "You had to punish somebody," said he, "an'--_I'd licked _him_."

The teacher started; this reasoning confused her a little, the more so that she had an uneasy conviction that she had punished the lesser offender. She looked at the proud little figure in the torn coat, and her mild heart went out to him. She glanced round; there were not many scholars in the room. Elmira sat in her place, busy with her slate; a few of the older ones were in a knot near the window at the back of the room. The teacher slipped her hand into her pocket and drew out a lemon-drop, which she thrust softly into Jerome's hand. "Here," said she.

Jerome, who treated usually a giver like a thief, took the lemon-drop, thanked her, and stood sucking it the rest of the recess. It was his first gallantry towards womankind.

This teacher remained in the school only a half-term. Some said that she left because she was not strong enough to teach such a large school. Some said because she had not enough government. This had always been considered a man's school during the winter months, but a departure had been made in this case because the female teacher was needy and a minister's daughter.

The place was filled by a man who never tempered injustice with lemon-drops, and ruled generally with fair and equal measure. He was better for the school, and Jerome liked him; but he felt sad, though he kept it to himself, when the woman teacher went away. She gave him for a parting gift a little volume, a treasure of her own childhood, purporting to be the true tale of an ungodly youth who robbed an orchard on the Sabbath day, thereby combining two deadly sins, and was drowned in crossing a brook on his way home. The weight of his bag of stolen fruit prevented him from rising, but he would not let go, and thereby added to his other crimes that of greediness. There was a frontispiece representing this froward hero, in a tall hat and little frilled trousers, with a bag the size of a slack balloon dragging on the ground behind him, proceeding towards the neighbor's apple-tree, which bore fruit as large as the thief's head upon its unbending boughs.

"There's a pretty picture in it," the teacher said, when she presented the book; she had kept Jerome after school for that purpose. "I used to like to look at it when I was a little girl." Then she added that she had crossed out the inscription, "Martha Maria Whittaker, from her father, Rev. Enos Whittaker," on the fly-leaf, and written underneath, "Jerome Edwards, from his teacher, Martha Maria Whittaker," and displayed her little delicate scratch.

Then the teacher had hesitated a little, and colored faintly, and looked at the boy. He seemed to this woman--meekly resigned to old-age and maidenhood at thirty--a mere child, and like the son which another woman might have had, but the missing of whom was a shame to her to contemplate. Then she had said good-bye to him, and bade him be always a good boy, and had leaned over and kissed him. It was the kiss of a mother spiritualized by the innocent mystery and imagination of virginity.

Jerome kept the little book always, and he never forgot the kiss nor the teacher, who returned to her native village and taught the school there during the summer months, and starved on the proceeds during the winter, until she died, some ten years later, being of a delicate habit, and finding no place of comfort in the world.

Jerome walked ten miles and back to her funeral one freezing day.

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