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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 15
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A Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 15 Post by :eXpert_Opinion Category :Long Stories Author :Mary E Wilkins Freeman Date :May 2012 Read :2844

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A Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 15

Chapter XV

Jerome Edwards, young as he was, had within him the noblest instinct of a reformer--that of deducting from all evils a first lesson for himself. He said to himself: "It is true, what Uncle Ozias says. It is wrong, the way things are. The rich have everything--all the land, all the good food, all the money; the poor have nothing. It is wrong." Then he said, "If ever I am rich I will give to the poor." This pride of good intentions, in comparison with others' deeds, gave the boy a certain sense of superiority. Sometimes he felt as if he could see the top of Doctor Prescott's head when he met him on the street.

Poor Jerome had few of the natural joys and amusements of boyhood; he was obliged to resort to his fertile and ardent imagination, or the fibre of his spirit would have been relaxed with the melancholy of age. While the other boys played in the present, whooping and frisking, as free of thought as young animals, Jerome worked and played in the future. Some air-castles he built so often that he seemed to fairly dwell in them; some dreams he dreamed so often that he went about always with them in his eyes. One fancy which specially commended itself to him was the one that he was rich, that he owned half the town, that in some manner Doctor Prescott's and Simon Basset's acres had passed into his possession, and he could give them away. He established all the town paupers in the doctor's clover. He recalled old Peter Thomas from the poorhouse, and set him at Doctor Prescott's front window in a broadcloth coat. An imbecile pauper by the name of Mindy Toggs he established in undisturbed possession of Simon Basset's house and lands.

Doctor Seth Prescott little dreamed when he met this small, shabby lad, and passed him as he might have passed some way-side weed, what was in his mind. If people, when they meet, could know half the workings of one another's minds, the recoils from the shocks might overbalance creation. But Doctor Prescott never saw the phantom paupers slouching through his clover-fields, and Simon Basset never jostled Mindy Toggs on his threshold. However, Mindy Toggs had once lived in Simon Basset's house.

As Jerome advanced through boyhood it seemed as if everything combined to strengthen, by outside example, the fancies and beliefs derived from Ozias Lamb's precepts and his own constantly hard and toilsome life. Jerome, on his very way to the district school, learned tasks of bitter realism more impressive to his peculiar order of mind than the tables and columns in the text-books.

There was a short cut across the fields between the school-house and the Edwards house. Jerome and Elmira usually took it, unless the snow was deep, as by doing so they lessened the distance considerably.

The Edwards house was situated upon a road crossing the main highway of the village where the school-house stood. In the triangle of fields between the path which the Edwards children followed on their way to school and the two roads was the poorhouse. It was a low, stone-basemented structure, with tiny windows, a few of them barred with iron, retreating ignominiously within thick walls; the very grovelling of mendicancy seemed symbolized in its architecture by some unpremeditatedness of art. It stood in a hollow, amid slopes of stony plough ridges, over which the old male paupers swarmed painfully with spades and shovels when spring advanced. When spring came, too, old pauper women and wretched, half-witted girls and children squatted like toads in the green fields outside the ploughed ones, digging greens in company with grazing cows, and looked up with unexpected flashes of human life when footsteps drew near. There was a thrifty Overseer in the poorhouse, and the village paupers, unless they were actually crippled and past labor, found small repose in the bosom of the town. They grubbed as hard for their lodging and daily bread of charity, with its bitterest of sauces, as if they worked for hire.

Old Peter Thomas, for one, had never toiled harder to keep the roof of independence over his head than he toiled tilling the town fields. Old Peter, even in his age and indigence, had an active mind. Only one panacea was there for its workings, and that was tobacco. When the old man had--which was seldom--a comfortable quid with which to busy his jaws, his mind was at rest; otherwise it gnawed constantly one bitter cud of questioning, which never reached digestion. "Why," asked old Peter Thomas, toiling tobaccoless in the town fields--"why couldn't the town have give me work, an' paid me what I airned, an' let me keep my house, instead of sendin' of me here?"

Sometimes he propounded the question, his sharp old eyes twinkling out of a pitiful gloom of bewilderment, to the Overseer: "Say, Mr. Simms, what ye s'pose the object of it is? Here I be, workin' jest as hard for what's give as for what I used to airn." But he never got any satisfaction, and his mind never relaxed to ease, until in some way he got a bit of tobacco. Old Peter Thomas, none of whose forebears had ever been on the town, who had had in his youth one of the prettiest and sweetest girls in the village to wife, toiling hard with his stiff old muscles for no gain of independence, his mind burdened with his unanswered question, would almost at times have sold his soul for tobacco. Nearly all he had was given him by Ozias Lamb, who sometimes crammed a wedge of tobacco into his hand, with a hard and furtive thrust and surly glance aloof, when he jostled him on the road or at the village store. Old Peter used to loaf about the store, whenever he could steal away from the poorhouse, on the chance of Ozias and tobacco. Ozias was dearly fond of tobacco himself, but little enough he got, with this hungry old pensioner lying in wait. He always yielded up his little newly bought morsel of luxury to Peter, and went home to his shoes without it; however, nobody knew. "Don't ye speak on't," he charged Peter, and he eschewed fiercely to himself all kindly motives in his giving, considering rather that he was himself robbed by the great wrong of the existing order of things.

Jerome, who had seen his uncle cram tobacco into old Peter's hand, used sometimes to leave the path on his way to school, when he saw the delving old figure in the ploughed field, and discovered, even at a distance, that his jaws were still and his brow knotted, run up to him, and proffer as a substitute for the beloved weed a generous piece of spruce-gum. The old man always took it, and spat it out when the boy's back was turned.

Jerome used to be fond of storing up checker-berries and sassafras root, and doling them out to a strange small creature with wild, askant eyes and vaguely smiling mouth, with white locks blowing as straightly and coarsely as dry swamp grass, who was wont to sit, huddling sharp little elbows and knees together, even in severe weather, on a stone by the path. She had come into the world and the poorhouse by the shunned byway of creation. She had no name. The younger school-children said, gravely, and believed it, that she had never had a father; as for her mother, she was only a barely admitted and shameful necessity, who had come from unknown depths, and died of a decline, at the town's expense, before the child could walk. She had nothing save this disgraceful shadow of maternity, her feeble little body, and her little soul, and a certain half-scared delight in watching for Jerome and his doles of berries and sassafras. One of Jerome's dearest dreams was the buying this child a doll like Lucina Merritt's, with a muslin frock and gay sash and morocco shoes. So much he thought about it that it fairly seemed to him sometimes, as he drew near the little thing, that she nursed the doll in her arms. He wanted to tell her what a beautiful doll she was to have when he was rich, but he was too awkward and embarrassed before his own kind impulses. He only bade her, in a rough voice, to hold her hands, and then dropped into the little pink cup so formed his small votive offering to childhood and poverty, and was off.

Occasionally Elmira had cookies given her by kind women for whom she did extra work, and then she saved one for the little creature, emulating her brother's example. There was one point on the way to school where Elmira liked to have her brother with her, and used often to wait for him at the risk of being late. Even when she was one of the oldest girls in school, almost a young woman, she scurried fast by this point when alone, and even when Jerome was with her did not linger. As for Jerome, he had no fear; but during his winters at the district school the peculiar bent of his mind was strengthened by the influence of this place.

The poorhouse in the hollow had its barn and out-buildings attached at right angles, with a cart-path leading thereto from the street; but at the top of the slope, on the other side of the schoolward path, stood a large, half-ruinous old barn, used only for storing surplus hay. The door of this great, gray, swaying structure usually stood open, and in it, on an old wreck of a wheelbarrow, sat Mindy Toggs, in fair or foul weather.

Mindy Toggs's head, with its thick thatch of light hair reaching to his shoulders, had the pent effect of some monstrous mushroom cap over his meagre body, with its loosely hung limbs, which moved constantly with uncouth sprawls and flings, as if by some terrible machinery of diseased nerves. Poor Mindy Toggs's great thatched head also nodded and lopped unceasingly, and his slobbering chin dipped into his calico shirt-bosom, and he said over and over, in his strange voice like a parrot's, the only two words he was ever known to speak, "Simon Basset, Simon Basset."

Mindy Toggs was sixty years old, it was said. His past was as dim as his intellect. Nobody seemed to know exactly when Mindy Toggs was born, or just when he had come to the poorhouse. Nobody knew who either of his parents had been. Nobody knew how he got his name, but there was a belief that it had a folk-lore-like origin; that generations of Overseers ago an enterprising wife of one had striven to set his feeble wits to account in minding the pauper babies, and gradually, through transmission by weak and childish minds, his task had become his name. Toggs was held to be merely a reminiscence of some particularly ludicrous stage of his poorhouse costume.

Mindy Toggs had dwelt in the poorhouse ever since people could remember, with the exception of one year, when he was boarded out by the town with Simon Basset, and learned to speak his two words. Simon Basset had always had an opinion that work could be gotten out of Mindy Toggs. Nobody ever knew by what means he set himself to prove it; there had been dark stories; but one day Simon brought Mindy back to the poorhouse, declaring with a strange emphasis that he never wanted to set eyes on the blasted fool again, and Mindy had learned his two words.

It was said that the sight of Simon Basset roused the idiot to terrific paroxysms of rage and fear, and that Basset never encountered him if he could help it. However, poor Mindy was harmless enough to ordinary folk, sitting day after day in the barn door, looking out through the dusty shafts of sunlight, through spraying mists of rain, and often through the white weave of snow, repeating his two words, which had been dinned into his feeble brain, the Lord only knew by what cruelty and terror--"Simon Basset, Simon Basset."

Mindy Toggs was a terrifying object to nervous little Elmira Edwards, but Jerome used often to bid her run along, and stop himself and look at him soberly, with nothing of curiosity, but with indignant and sorrowful reflection. At these times poor Mindy, if he had only known it, drove his old master, who had illumined his darkness of mind with one cruel flash of fear, out of house and home, and sat in his stead by his fireside in warmth and comfort.

Jerome left school finally when he was seventeen; up to that time he attended all the winter sessions. During the winter, when Jerome was seventeen, a man came to the neighboring town of Dale, bought out the old shoe-factory and store there, and set up business on a more extensive scale, sending out work in large quantities. Many of the older boys left school on that account, Jerome among them; he had special inducements to do so, through his uncle Ozias Lamb.

"That man that bought out Bill Dickey, over in Dale, has been talkin' to me," Lamb told Jerome one evening. "Seems he's goin' to increase the business; he's laid in an extra lot of stock, and hired two more cutters, and he says he don't want to fool with so many small accounts, and he'd rather let some of it out in big lots. Says, if I'm willin', I can take as much as I can manage, and let it out myself for bindin' and closin', and he'll pay me considerable more on a lot than Robinson has, cash down. Now you see, J'rome, I'm gettin' older, and I can't do much more finishin' than I've been doin' right along. What I'm comin' at is this: s'pose I set another bench in here, and take the extra work, and you quit school and go into business. I can learn you all I know fast enough. You can nigh about make a shoe now--dun'no' but you can quite."

"I'd have to leave school," Jerome said, soberly.

"How much more book-learnin' do you think you need?" returned Ozias, with his hard laugh. "Don't you forget that all you came into this world for was to try not to get out of it through lack of nourishment, and to labor for life with the sweat of your brow. You don't need much eddication for that. It ain't with you as it was with Lawrence Prescott, who was too good to go to the district school, and had to be sent to Boston to have a minister fit him for college. You don't come of a liberal eddicated race. You've got to work for the breath of your nostrils, and not for the breath of your mind or your soul. You'll find you can't fight your lot in life, J'rome Edwards; you ain't got standin' room enough outside it."

"I don't want to fight my lot in life," Jerome replied, defiantly, "but I thought I'd go to school this winter."

"You won't grub a bit better for one more winter of schoolin'," said his uncle, "and there's another reason--your mother, she's gettin' older, an' Elmira, she's a good-lookin' girl, but she's gettin' wore to skin an' bones. They're both on 'em workin' too hard. You'd ought to try to have 'em let up a little more."

"I wouldn't have either of 'em lift a finger, if I could help it, the Lord knows!" Jerome cried, bitterly.

Ozias nodded, grimly. "Women wa'n't calculated to work as hard as men, nohow," he said. "Seems as if a man that's got hands, an' is willin', might be let to keep the worst of it off 'em, but he ain't. Seems as if I might have been able to do somethin' for Ann when Abel quit, but I wa'n't.

"There's one thing I've got to be thankful for, an' that is--a hard Providence ain't been able to hurt Belindy any more than it would a feather piller. She dints a little, and cries out when she's hurt, an' then she settles back again, smooth and comfortable as ever.

"I don't s'pose you'll understand it, J'rome, because you ain't come to thinking of such things yet, an' showed your sense that you ain't, but I took that very thing into account when I picked out my wife. There was another girl that I used to see home some, but, Lord, she was a high stepper! Handsome as a picture she was; there ain't a girl in this town to-day that can compare with her; but her head was up, an' her nose quiverin', an' her eyes shinin'. I knew she liked me pretty well, but, Lord, it was no use! Might as well have set a blooded mare to ploughin'. She was one of the sort that wouldn't have bent under hardship; she'd have broke. I knew well enough what a dog-life a wife of mine would have to lead--jest enough to keep body and soul together, an' no extras--an' I wa'n't goin' to drag her into it, an' I didn't. I knew just how she'd strain, an' work her pretty fingers to the bone to try to keep up. I made up my mind that if I married at all I'd marry somebody that wouldn't work more'n she could possibly help--not if we were poor as Job's off ox.

"So I looked 'round an' got Belindy. I spelled her out right the first time I see her. She 'ain't had nothin', but I dun'no' but she's been jest as happy as if she had. I 'ain't let her work hard; she 'ain't never bound shoes nor done anythin' to earn a dollar since I married her. Couldn't have kept the other one from doin' it."

"What became of her?" asked Jerome.

"Dead," replied Ozias.

Jerome asked nothing further. It ended in his leaving school and going to work. This course met with some opposition from his mother, who had madly ambitious plans for him. She had influenced Elmira to leave school the year before, that she might earn more, and thereby enable her brother to study longer, but he knew nothing of that.

However, a plan which Jerome formed for some evening lessons with the school-master appeased her. It savored of a private tutor like Lawrence Prescott's. Nobody knew how Ann Edwards had resented Doctor Prescott's sending his son to Boston to be fitted for college, while hers could have nothing better than a few terms at the district school. Her jealous bitterness was enhanced twofold because her poor husband was gone, and the memory of his ambition for his son stung her to sharper effort. Often the imagined disappointments of the dead, when they are still loved and unforgotten, weigh more heavily upon the living than their own. "I dun'no' what your father would have said if he'd thought Jerome had got to leave school so young," she told Elmira; and her lost husband's grievance in the matter was nearer her heart than her own.

Jerome's plan for evening lessons did not work long. The school-master to whom he applied professed his entire readiness, even enthusiasm, to further such a laudable pursuit of knowledge under difficulties; but he was young himself, scarcely out of college, and the pretty girls in his school swayed his impressionable nature into many side issues, even when his mind was set upon the main track. Soon Jerome found himself of an evening in the midst of a class of tittering girls, who also had been fired with zeal for improvement and classical learning, who conjugated _amo with foolish blushes and glances of sugared sweetness at himself and the teacher. Then he left.

Jerome at that time felt absolutely no need of the feminine element in creation, holding himself aloof from it with a patient, because measureless, superiority. Sometimes in growth the mental strides into life ahead of the physical; sometimes it is the other way. At seventeen Jerome's mind took the lead of his body, and the imaginations thereof, though he was well grown and well favored, and young girls placed themselves innocently in his way and looked back for him to follow.

Jerome's cold, bright glances met theirs, full of the artless appeal of love and passion, shameless because as yet unrecognized, and then he turned away with disdain.

"I came here to learn Latin and higher algebra, not to fool with a pack of girls," he told the school-master, bluntly. The young man laughed and colored. He was honest and good; passion played over him like wildfire, not with any heat for injury, but with a dazzle to blind and charm.

He did not intend to marry until he had well established himself in life, and would not; but in the meantime he gave his resolution as loose a rein as possible, and conjugated _amo with shades of meaning with every girl in the class.

"I don't see what I can do, Edwards," he said. "I cannot turn the girls out, and I could not refuse them an equal privilege with you, when they asked it."

Jerome gave the school-master a look of such entire comprehension and consequent scorn that he fairly cast down his eyes before him; then he went out with his books under his arm.

He paid for his few lessons with the first money he could save, in spite of the school-master's remonstrances.

After that Jerome went on doggedly with his studies by himself, and asked assistance from nobody. In the silent night, after his mother and sister were in bed, he wrestled all alone with the angel of knowledge, and half the time knew not whether he was smitten hip and thigh or was himself the victor. Many a problem in his higher algebra Jerome was never sure of having solved rightly; renderings of many lines in his battered old Virgil, bought for a sixpence of a past collegian in Dale, might, and might not, have been correct.

However, if he got nothing else from his studies, he got the discipline of mental toil, and did not spend his whole strength in the labor of his hands.

Jerome pegged and closed shoes with an open book on the bench beside him; he measured his steps with conjugations of Latin verbs when he walked to Dale with his finished work over shoulder; he studied every spare moment, when his daily task was done, and kept this up, from a youthful and unreasoning thirst for knowledge and defiance of obstacles, until he was twenty-one. Then one day he packed away all his old school-books, and never studied them again regularly; for something happened which gave his energy the force of reason, and set him firmly in a new track with a definite end in view.

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