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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 14
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A Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 14 Post by :joshua666 Category :Long Stories Author :Mary E Wilkins Freeman Date :May 2012 Read :2198

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A Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 14

Chapter XIV

Jerome's mother never knew about the rent in his father's best coat, nor the fight. To do the boy justice, he kept it from her, neither because of cowardice nor deceit, but because of magnanimity. "It will just work her all up if she knew 'Lisha Robinson made fun of father's best coat, and it's tore," Jerome told Elmira, who nodded in entire assent.

Elmira sat up in her cold chamber until long after midnight, and darned the rent painfully by the light of a tallow candle. Then it was a comparatively simple matter, when one had to deal with a woman confined to a rocking-chair, to never give her a full view of the mended coat-tail. Jerome cultivated a habit of backing out of the room, as from an audience with a queen. The sting from his wounded pride having been salved with victory, he was unduly important in his own estimation, until an unforeseen result came from the affair.

There are many surprising complications from war, even war between two school-boys. One night, after school, Jerome went to Cyrus Robinson's for a lot of shoes which had been promised him two days before, and was told there were none to spare. Cyrus Robinson leaned over the counter and glanced around cautiously. It was not a busy time of day. Two old farmers were standing by the stove, talking to each other in a drone of extreme dialect, almost as unintelligible, except to one who understood its subject-matter, as the notes of their own cattle. The clerk, Samson Loud, was at the other end of the store, cleaning a molasses-barrel from its accumulated sugar. "Look-a-here," said Cyrus Robinson, beckoning Jerome with a hard crook of a seamed forefinger. The boy stood close to the counter, and uplifted to him his small, undaunted, yet piteously wistful face.

"Look-a-here," said Cyrus Robinson, in a whisper of furtive malice, leaning nearer, the point of his shelving beard almost touching Jerome's forehead; "I've got something to say to you. I 'ain't got any shoes to spare to-night; an', what's more, I ain't going to have any to spare in future. Boys that fight 'ain't got time enough to close shoes."

Jerome looked at him a moment, as if scarcely comprehending; then a sudden quiver as of light came over him, and Cyrus Robinson shrank back before his eyes as if his counter were a bulwark.

"I s'pose if your big boy had licked me 'cause he made fun of my father's coat, instead of me lickin' him, you'd have given me some more shoes!" cried the boy, with the dauntlessness of utter scorn, and turned and walked out of the store.

"You'd better take care, young man!" called Cyrus Robinson, in open rage, for the boy's clear note of wrath had been heard over the whole store. The two old farmers looked up in dull astonishment as the door slammed after Jerome, stared questioningly at the storekeeper and each other, then the thick stream of their ideas returned to its course of their own affairs, and their husky gabble recommenced.

Samson Laud raised his head, covered with close curls of light red hair, and his rasped red face out of the molasses-barrel, gave one quick glance full of acutest sarcasm of humor at Cyrus Robinson, then disappeared again into sugary depths, and resumed his scraping.

Jerome, on his homeward road, did not feel his spirit of defiance abate. "Wonder how we're going to pay that interest money now? Wonder how mother 'll take it?" he said; yet he would have fought 'Lisha Robinson over again, knowing the same result. He had not yet grown servile to his daily needs.

However, speeding along through the clear night, treading the snow flashing back the full moonlight in his eyes like a silver mirror, he dreaded more and more the meeting his mother and telling her the news. He slackened his pace. Now and then he stood still and looked up at the sky, where the great white moon rode through the hosts of the stars. Without analyzing his thoughts, the boy felt the utter irresponsiveness of all glory and all heights. Mocking shafts of moonlight and starlight and frostlight seemed glancing off this one little soul in the freezing solitude of creation, wherein each is largely to himself alone. What was it to the moon and all those shining swarms of stars, and that far star-dust in the Milky Way, whether he, Jerome Edwards, had shoes to close or not? Whether he and his mother starved or not, they would shine just the same. The triviality--even ludicrousness--of the sorrow of man, as compared with eternal things, was over the boy. He was maddened at the sting and despite of his own littleness in the face of that greatness. Suddenly a wild impulse of rebellion that was almost blasphemy seized him. He clinched a puny fist at a great star. "Wish I could make you stop shinin'," he cried out, in a loud, fierce voice; "wish I could do somethin'!"

Suddenly Jerome was hemmed in by a cloud of witnesses. Eliphalet Means, John Jennings, and Colonel Lamson had overtaken him as he stood star-gazing. They were on their way to punch and cards at Squire Merritt's. Jerome felt a hand on his shoulder, and looked up into John Jennings's long, melancholy countenance, instead of the shining face of the star. He saw the eyes of the others surveying him, half in astonishment, half in amusement, over the folds of their camlet cloaks.

"Want to make the star stop shining?" queried John Jennings, in his sweet drawl.

Jerome made no reply. His shoulder twitched under Mr. Jennings's hand. He meditated pushing between these interlopers and running for home. The New England constraint, to which he had been born, was to him as a shell of defence and decency, and these men had had a glimpse of him outside it. He was horribly ashamed. "S'pose they think I'm crazy," he reflected.

"Want to stop the star shining?" repeated John Jennings. "Well, you can."

Jerome, in astonishment, forgot his shame, and looked up into the man's beautiful, cavernous eyes.

"I'll tell you how. Don't look at it. I've stopped nearly all the stars I've ever seen that way." John Jennings's voice seemed to melt into infinite sadness and sweetness, like a song. The other men chuckled but feebly, as if scarcely knowing whether it were a jest or not. John Jennings took his hand from Jerome's shoulder, tossed the wing of his cloak higher over his face, and went on with his friends. However, when fairly on his way, he turned and called back, with a soft laugh, "I would let the star shine, though, if I were you, boy."

"Who was the boy?" Colonel Lamson asked the lawyer, as the three men proceeded.

"The Edwards boy."

"Well," said John Jennings, "'tis an unlucky devil he is, call him what you will, for he's born to feel the hammer of Thor on his soul as well as his flesh, and it is double pain for all such."

Jerome stood staring after John Jennings and his friends a moment; he had not the least conception what it all meant; then he proceeded at a good pace, arguing that the sooner he got home and told his mother and had it over, the better.

But he had not gone far before he saw some one else coming, a strange, nondescript figure, with outlines paled and blurred in the moonlight, looking as if it bore its own gigantic and heavy head before it in outstretched arms. Soon he saw it was his uncle Ozias Lamb, laden with bundles of shoes about his shoulders, bending forward under their weight.

Ozias halted when he reached Jerome. "Hullo!" said he; "that you?"

"Yes, sir," Jerome replied, deferentially. He had respect for his uncle Ozias.

"Where you goin'?"

"Home."

"'Ain't you been to Robinson's for shoes?"

"Yes, sir."

"Where be they, then?"

Jerome told him.

"I ain't surprised. I knew what 'twould be when I heard you'd fit 'Lisha," said Ozias. "You hit my calf, you hit me. It's natur'." Ozias gave a cynical chuckle; he shifted his load of shoes to ease his right shoulder. "'Lisha's big as two of you," he said. "How'd ye work it to fling him? Twist your leg under his, eh?"

Jerome nodded.

"That's a good trick. I larnt that when I was a boy. Well, I ain't surprised Robinson has shet down on the shoes. What ye goin' to do?"

"Dun'no'," replied Jerome; then he gave a weak, childish gesture, and caught his breath in a sob. He was scarcely more than a child, after all, and his uncle Ozias was the only remaining natural tower to his helplessness.

"O Lord, don't ye go to whimperin', big man like you!" responded Ozias Lamb, quickly. "Look at here--" Ozias paused a moment, pondering. Jerome waited, trying to keep the sobs back.

"Tell you what 'tis," said Ozias. "It's one of the cases where the sarpents and the doves come in. We've got to do a little manoeuvrin'. Don't you fret, J'rome, an' don't you go to frettin' of your mother. I'll take an extra lot of shoes from Cy Robinson; he can think Belinda's goin' to bind--she never has--or he can think what he wants to; I ain't goin' to regulate his thinkin'; an' you come to me for shoes in future. Only you keep dark about it. Don't you let on to nobody, except your mother, an' she needn't know the whys an' wherefores. I've let out shoes before now. I'll pay a leetle more than Robinson. Tell her your uncle Ozias has taken all the shoes Robinson has got, and you're to come to him for 'em, an' to keep dark about it, an' let her think what she's a mind to. Women folks can't know everything."

"Yes, sir," said Jerome.

"You can come fer the shoes and bring 'em home after dark, so's nobody will see you," said Ozias Lamb, further.

So it befell that Jerome went for the work that brought him daily bread, like a thief, by night, oftentimes slipping his package of shoes under the wayside bushes at the sound of approaching footsteps. He was deceitfully reticent also with his mother, whom he let follow her own conclusion, that Cyrus Robinson had been dissatisfied with their work. "Guess he won't see as much difference with this work as he think he does," she would often say, with a bitter laugh. Jerome was silent, but the inborn straightforwardness of the boy made him secretly rebellious at such a course.

"It's lyin', anyhow," he said, sulkily, once, when he loaded the shoes on his shoulder, like a mason's hod, and was starting forth from his uncle's shop.

Ozias Lamb laughed the laugh of one who perverts humor, and makes a jest of the bitter instead of the merry things of life.

"It's got so that lies are the only salvation of the righteous," said Ozias Lamb, with that hard laugh of his. Then, with the pitilessness of any dissenting spirit of reform, who will pour out truths, whether of good or evil, to the benefit or injury of mankind, who will force strong meat as well as milk on babies and sucklings, he kept on, while the boy stood staring, shrinking a little, yet with young eyes kindling, from the bitter frenzy of the other.

"It's so," said Ozias Lamb. "You'll find it out for yourself, in the hard run you've got to hoe, without any help, but it's just as well for you to know it beforehand. You won't get bit so hard--forewarned's forearmed. Snakes have their poison-bags, an' bees have their stings; there ain't an animal that don't have horns or claws or teeth to use if they get in a hard place. Them that don't have weapons have wings, like birds. If they can't fight, they can fly away from the battle. But human beings that are good, and meek, and poor, and hard pushed, they hain't got any claws or any wings; though if they had 'twouldn't be right to use 'em to fight or get away, so the parsons say. They 'ain't got any natural weapons. Providence 'ain't looked out for them. All they can do, as far as I can see, is to steal some of the devil's own weapons to fight him with."

It was well that Jerome could not understand the half of his uncle's harangue, and got, indeed, only a general impression of the unjust helplessness of a meek and righteous man in the hands of adverse fate, compared with horned and clawed animals, and Ozias's system of defence did not commend itself to his understanding. He did not for a moment imagine that his uncle advised him to lie and steal to better his fortunes, and, indeed, nothing was further from the case. Ozias Lamb's own precepts never went into practice. He was scrupulously honest, and his word was as good as a bond. However, although Ozias had never told a lie in his life, he had perpetrated many subtleties of the truth. He was wily and secretive. "A man ain't a liar because he don't tell all he knows," he said.

When asking for more shoes from Cyrus Robinson, he had said nothing about his wife's working upon them, but he knew that was the inference, and he did not contradict it. He forbade Belinda to mention the matter in one way or another. "The sarpent has got to feed the widows an' the orphans," he said, "an' that's a good reason for bein' a sarpent."

As Ann and Elmira did most of their work on the shoes during the day, Jerome fell into the habit of doing his part, the closing, in his uncle's shop at night. Every evening he would load himself with the sheaf of bound shoes and hasten down the road. He liked to work in company with a man, rather than with his mother and Elmira; it gave him a sense of independence and maturity. He did not mind so much delving away on those hard leather seams while his mates were out coasting and skating, for he had the sensation of responsibility--of being the head of a family. Here he felt like a man supporting his mother and sister; at home he was only a boy, held to his task under the thumb of a woman.

Then, too, his uncle Ozias's conversation was a kind of pungent stimulant--not pleasant to the taste, not even recognizable in all its savors, yet with a growing power of fascination.

Ozias Lamb's shoemaker's shop was simply a little one-room building in the centre of the field south of his cottage house. He had in it a tiny box-stove, red-hot from fall to spring. When Jerome, coming on a cold night, opened the door, a hot breath scented with dried leather rushed in his face. Within sat his uncle on his shoemaker's bench, short and squat like an Eastern idol on his throne. His body was settled into itself with long habit of labor, his mind with contemplation. His high, bald forehead overshadowed his lower face like a promontory of thought; his eyes, even when he was alone, were full of a wise, condemning observation; his mouth was inclined always in a set smile at the bitter humor of things. The face of this elderly New England shoemaker looked not unlike some Asiatic conception of a deity.

Jerome always closed the door immediately when he entered, for Ozias dreaded a draught, having an inclination to rheumatism, and being also chilly, like most who sit at their labor. Then he would seat himself on a stool, and close shoes, and listen when his uncle talked, as he did constantly when once warmed to it. The little room was lighted by a whale-oil lamp on the wall. On some nights the full moonlight streamed in the three windows athwart the lamp-light. The room got hotter and closer. Ozias now and then, as he talked, motioned Jerome, who put another stick of wood in the stove. The whole atmosphere, spiritual and physical, seemed to grow combustible, and as if at any moment a word or a thought might cause a leap into flame. A spirit of anarchy and revolution was caged in that little close room, bound to a shoemaker's bench by the chain of labor for bread. The spirit was harmless enough, for its cage and its chain were not to be escaped or forced, strengthened as they were by the usage of a whole life. Ozias Lamb would deliver himself of riotous sentiments, but on that bench he would sit and peg shoes till his dying day. He would have pegged there through a revolution.

Jerome's eyes would gleam with responsive fire when his uncle, his splendid forehead flushing and swelling with turbid veins, said, in that dry voice of his, which seemed to gain in force without being raised into clamor: "What right has one man with the whole purse, while another has not a penny in his pocket? What right has one with the whole loaf, while another has a crumb? What right has one man with half the land in the village, while another can hardly make shift to earn his grave?"

Ozias would pause a second, then launch out with new ardor, as if Jerome had advanced an opposite argument. "Born with property, are they--inherited property? One man comes into the world with the gold all earned, or stolen--don't matter which--waiting for him. Shoes all made for him, no peggin' for other folks; carpets to walk on, sofas to lay on, china dishes to eat off of. Everything is all complete; don't make no odds if he's a fool, don't make no odds if he 'ain't no more sense of duty to his fellow-beings than a pig, it's all just as it should be. Everybody is cringin' an' bowin' an' offerin' a little more to the one that's got more than anybody else. It's 'Take a seat here, sir--do; this is more comfortable,' when he's set on feather cushions all day. There'll be a poor man standin' alongside that 'ain't had a chance to set down since he got out of bed before daylight, every bone in him achin'--stiff. There ain't no extra comfortable chairs pointed out to him. Lord, no! If there happens to be the soft side of a rock or a plank handy, he's welcome to take it; if there ain't, why let him keep his standin'; he's used to it. I tell ye, it's them that need to whom it should be given, and not them that's got it already. I tell ye, the need should always regulate the supply.

"I tell ye, J'rome, balance-wheels an' seesaws an' pendulums wa'n't give us for nothin' besides runnin' machinery and clocks. Everything on this earth means somethin' more'n itself, if we could only see it. They're symbols, that's what they be, an' we've got to work up from a symbol that we see to the higher thing that we don't see. Most folks think it's the other way, but it ain't.

"Now, J'rome, you look at that old clock there; it was one that b'longed to old Peter Thomas. I bought it when he broke up an' went to the poorhouse. Doctor Prescott he foreclosed on him 'bout ten years ago--you don't remember. He had his old house torn down, an' sowed the land down to grass. I s'pose I paid more'n the clock was worth, but I guess it kept the old man in snuff an' terbaccer a while. Now you look at that clock; watch that pendulum swingin'. Now s'pose we say the left is poverty--the left is the place for the goats an' the poor folks that poverty has made goats; an' the right is riches. See it swing, do ye? It don't no more'n touch poverty before it's rich; it don't get time to starve an' suffer. It don't no more'n touch riches before it's poor; it don't have time to forget, an' git proud an' hard. I tell ye, J'rome, it ain't even division we're aimin' at; we can't keep that if we get it till we're dead; it's--balance. We want to keep the time of eternity, jest the way that clock keeps the time of day."

Jerome looked at the clock and the pendulum swinging dimly behind a painted landscape on the glass door, and never after saw one without his uncle's imagery recurring to his mind. Always for him the pendulum swung into the midst of a cowering throng of beggars on the left, and into a band of purple-clad revellers on the right. Somehow, too, Doctor Seth Prescott's face always stood out for him plainly among them in purple.

Always, sooner or later, Ozias Lamb would seize Doctor Prescott and Simon Basset as living illustrations and pointed examples of the social wrongs. "Look at them two men," he would say, "to come down to this town; look at them. You've heard about cuttle-fishes, J'rome, 'ain't ye?"

Jerome shook his head, as he drew his waxed thread through.

"Well, I'll tell ye what they be. They're an awful kind of fish. I never see one, but Belinda's brother that was a sailor, I've heard him tell enough to make your blood run cold. They're all head an' eyes an' arms. Their eyes are big as saucers, an' they're made just to see things the cuttle-fishes want to kill; an' they've got a hundred arms, with suckin' claws on the ends, an' they jest search an' seek, search an' seek, with them dreadful eyes that ain't got no life but hate an' appetite, an' they stretch out an' feel, stretch out an' feel, with them hundred arms, till they git what they want, an' then they lay hold with all the suckers on them hundred arms, an' clutch an' wind, an' twist an' overlay, till, whether it's a drownin' sailor or a ship, you can't see nothin' but cuttle-fish, an'--"

Jerome stopped working, staring at him. He was quite pale. His imagination leaped to a glimpse of that frightful fish. "An'--what comes--then?" he gasped.

"The cuttle-fish--has got a beak," said Ozias. "By-an'-by there ain't nothin' but cuttle-fish."

Jerome saw quite plainly the monster writhing and coiling over a waste of water, and nothing else.

"Look at this town, an' look at Doctor Prescott, an' look at Simon Basset," Ozias went on, coming abruptly from illustration to object, with a vigor of personal spite. "Look at 'em. You can't see much of anything here but them two men. Much as ever you can see the meetin'-house steeple. There are a few left, so you can see who they be, like Squire Merritt an' Lawyer Means; but, Lord, they'd better not get too careless huntin' and fishin' and card-playin', or they'll git hauled in, partridges, cards, an' all. But I'll tell you what 'tis--about all that anybody can see in this town is the eyes an' the arms of them two men, a-suckin' and graspin'.

"Doctor Prescott, he's a church member, too, an' he gives tithes of his widders an' orphans to the Lord. That meetin'-house couldn't be run nohow without him. If they didn't have him to speak in the prayer-meetin's, an' give the Lord some information about the spiritooal state of this town on foreign missions, an' encourage Him by admittin' He'd done pretty well, as far as He's gone, why, we couldn't have no prayer-meetin's at all."

Most of us have our personal grievances, as a vantage-point for eloquence in behalf of the mass. Simon Basset had deprived Ozias Lamb, by shrewd management, of the old Lamb homestead; Doctor Prescott had been instrumental in hushing his voice in prayer and exhortation in prayer-meeting.

The village people were not slow to recognize a certain natural eloquence in Ozias Lamb's remarks; oftentimes they appealed to their own secret convictions; yet they always trembled when he arose and looked about with that strange smile of his. Ozias said once they were half scared on account of the Lord, and half on account of Doctor Prescott. Ozias was often clearly unorthodox in his premises--no one could conscientiously demur when Doctor Prescott, a church meeting having been called, presented for approval, the minister being acquiescent, a resolution that Brother Lamb be requested to remain quiet in the sanctuary, and not lift up his voice unto the Lord in public unless he could do so in accordance with the tenets of the faith, and to the spiritual edification of his fellow-Christians. The resolution was passed, and Ozias Lamb never entered the door of the meeting-house again, though his name was not withdrawn from the church books.

Therefore the cuttle-fish was a sort of Circean revenge upon Doctor Prescott and Simon Basset for his own private wrongs. It takes a god to champion wrongs which have not touched him in his farthest imaginings.

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