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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 23
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A Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 23 Post by :RadarCat Category :Long Stories Author :Mary E Wilkins Freeman Date :May 2012 Read :2760

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A Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 23

Chapter XXIII

The most intimate friends in unwonted gala attire are always something of a revelation to one another. Butterflies, meeting for the first time after their release from chrysalis, might well have the same awe and confusion of old memories.

On the night of the party, when they were dressed and had come down-stairs, Jerome, who had seen his sister every day of his life, looked at her as if for the first time, and she looked in the same way at him. Elmira's Aunt Belinda Lamb had given her, some time before, a white muslin gown of her girlhood.

"I 'ain't got any daughter to make it over for," said she, "an' you might as well have it." Belinda Lamb had looked regretfully at its voluminous folds, as she passed it over to Elmira. Privately she could not see why she should not wear it still, but she knew that she would not dare face Paulina Maria when attired in it.

Elmira, after much discussion with her mother, had decided upon refurbishing this old white muslin, and wearing that instead of her new green silk to the party.

"It will look more airy for an evenin' company," said Mrs. Edwards, "an' the skirt is so full you can take out some of the breadths an' make ruffles."

Elmira and her mother had toiled hard to make those ruffles and finish their daily stent on shoes, but the dress was in readiness and Elmira arrayed in it before eight o'clock on Thursday night. Her dress had a fan waist cut low, with short puffs for sleeves. Her neck, displaying, as it did, soft hollows rather than curves, and her arms, delicately angular at wrists and elbows, were still beautiful. She was thin, but her bones were so small that little flesh was required to conceal harsh outlines.

She wore a black velvet ribbon tied around her throat, and from it hung a little gold locket--one of the few treasures of her mother's girlhood. Elmira had tended a little pot of rose-geranium in a south window all winter. This spring it was full of pale pink bloom. She had made a little chaplet of the fragrant leaves and flowers to adorn her smooth dark hair, and also a pretty knot for her breast. Her skirt was ruffled to her slender waist with tiniest frills of the diaphanous muslin. Elmira in her party gown looked like a double white flower herself.

As for Jerome, he felt awkwardly self-conscious in his new clothes, but bore himself so proudly as to conceal it. It requires genuine valor to overcome new clothes, when one seldom has them. They become, under such circumstances, more than clothes--they are at least skin-deep. However, Jerome had that valor. He had bought a suit of fine blue cloth, and a vest of flowered white satin like a bridegroom's. He wore his best shirt with delicate cambric ruffles on bosom and wristbands, and his throat was swathed in folds of sheerest lawn, which he kept his chin clear of, with a splendid and stately lift. Jerome's hair, which was darker than when he was a boy, was brushed carefully into a thick crest over his white forehead, which had, like a child's, a bold and innocent fulness of curve at the temples. He had not usually much color, but that night his cheeks were glowing, and his black eyes, commonly somewhat stern from excess of earnestness, were brilliant with the joy of youth.

Mrs. Edwards looked at one, then the other, with the delighted surprise of a mother bird who sees her offspring in their first gayety of full plumage. She picked a thread from Jerome's coat, she put back a stray lock of Elmira's hair, she bade them turn this way and that.

When they had started she hitched her chair close to the window, pressed her forehead against the glass, looked out, and watched the white flutter of Elmira's skirts until they disappeared in the dark folds of the night.

There was, that night, a soft commotion of air rather than any distinct current of wind, like a gentle heaving and subsidence of veiled breasts of nature. The tree branches spread and gloomed with deeper shadows; mysterious white things with indeterminate motions were seen aloof across meadows or in door-yards, and might have been white-clad women, or flowering bushes, or ghosts.

Jerome and Elmira, when one of these pale visions seemed floating from some shadowy gateway ahead, wondered to each other if this or that girl were just starting for the party, but when they drew near the whiteness stirred at the gate still, and was only a bush of bridal-wreath. Jerome and Elmira were really the last on the road to the party; Upham people went early to festivities.

"It is very late," Elmira said, nervously; she held up her white skirts, ruffling softly to the wind, with both hands, lest they trail the dewy grass, and flew along like a short-winged bird at her brother's side. "Please walk faster, Jerome," said she.

"We'll have time enough there," returned Jerome, stepping high and gingerly, lest he soil his nicely blacked shoes.

"It will be dreadful to go in late and have them all looking at us, Jerome."

"What if they do look at us," Jerome argued, manfully, but he was in reality himself full of nervous tremors. Sometimes, to a soul with a broad outlook and large grasp, the great stresses of life are not as intimidating as its small and deceitful amenities.

When they reached Squire Merritt's house and saw all the windows, parallelograms of golden light, shining through the thick growth of trees, his hands and feet were cold, his heart beat hard. "I'm acting like a girl," he thought, indignantly, straightened himself, and marched on to the front door, as if it were the postern of a fortress.

But Elmira caught her brother by the long, blue coat-tail, and brought him to a stand.

"Oh, Jerome," she whispered, "there are so many there, and we are so late, I'm afraid to go in."

"What are you afraid of?" demanded Jerome, with a rustic brusqueness which was foreign to him. "Come along." He pulled his coat away and strode on, and Elmira had to follow.

The front door of Squire Merritt's house stood open into the hall the night was so warm, some girls in white were coming down the wide spiral of stair within, pressing softly together like scared white doves, in silence save for the rustle of their starched skirts. From the great rooms on either side of the hall, however, came the murmur of conversation, with now and then a silvery break of laughter, like a sudden cascade in an even current.

Flower-decked heads and silken-gleaming shoulders passed between the windows and the light, outlining vividly every line and angle and curve--the keen cut of profiles, the scallops of perked-up lace, the sharp dove-tails of ribbons. Before one window was upreared the great back and head of a man, still as a statue, yet with the persistency of stillness, of life.

That dogged stiffness, which betrays the utter self-abasement of resticity in fine company, was evident in his pose, even to one coming up the path. This party at Squire Merritt's was democratic, including many whose only experiences in social gatherings of their neighbors had come through daily labor and worship. All the young people in Upham had been invited; the Squire's three boon companions, Doctor Prescott and his wife, and the minister and his daughter, were the only elders bidden, since the party was for Lucina.

"The door's open," Elmira whispered, nervously. "Is it right to knock when the door's open, or walk right in, O Jerome?"

Jerome, for answer, stepped resolutely in, reached the knocker, raised it, and let it fall with a great imperious clang of brass, defying, as it were, his own shyness, like a herald at arms.

The white-clad girls on the stairs turned as with one accord their innocently abashed faces towards the door, then pushed one another on, and into the parlor, with soft titters and whispers.

Squire Eben Merritt's old servant, Hannah, gravely ponderous in purple delaine, with a wide white apron enhancing her great front, came forward from the room in the rear and motioned Jerome and Elmira to the stairs. She stared wonderingly after Jerome; she did not recognize him in his fine attire, though she had known him since he was a child.

When Jerome and Elmira came down-stairs he led the way at once into the north parlor, where the most of the guests were assembled. There were the village young women in their best attire, decked as to heads and bosoms with sweet drooping flowers, displaying all their humble stores of lace and ribbons and trinkets, jostling one another with slurring hisses of silk and crisp rattle of muslins, speaking affectedly with pursed lips, ending often a sibilant with a fine whistle, or silent, with mouths set in conscious smiles and cheeks hot with blushes. There were the village young men, in their Sunday clothes, standing aloof from the girls, now and then exchanging remarks with one another in a bravado of low bass. In the rear of the north parlor were Lucina and her parents, Mrs. Doctor Prescott and Lawrence, Miss Camilla Merritt, and the Squire's friends, Colonel Lamson, John Jennings, and Lawyer Means.

Jerome, with Elmira following, made his way slowly through the outskirts towards this fine nucleus of the party. Lawrence Prescott was talking gayly with Lucina, but when he saw Jerome and his sister approaching he stood back, with a slight flush and start, beside his mother, who with Miss Camilla was seated on the great sofa between the north windows. Mrs. Prescott fanned herself slowly with a large feather fan, and beamed abroad with a sweet graciousness. Her handsome face seemed to fairly shed a mild light of approval upon the company. She stirred with opulent foldings of velvet, shaking out vague musky odors; a brooch in the fine lace plaits over her high maternal bosom gave out a dull white gleam of old brilliants. Mrs. Prescott was more sumptuously attired than the Squire's wife, in her crimson and gold shot silk, which became her well, but was many seasons old, or than Miss Camilla, in her grand purple satin, that also was old, but so well matched to her own grace of age that it seemed like the garment of her youth, which had faded like it, in sweet communion with peaceful thoughts and lavender and rose-leaves.

Squire Eben Merritt stood between his wife and daughter. Lucina had fastened a pretty posy in his button-hole, and he wore his fine new broadcloths, to please her, which he had bought for this occasion.

The Squire, though scarcely at home in his north parlor, nor in his grand apparel, which had never figured in haunts of fish or game, was yet radiant with jovial and hearty hospitality, and not even impatient for the cards and punch which awaited him and his friends in the other room, when his social duties should be fulfilled.

Lucina herself had set out the cards and the tobacco, and made a garland of myrtle-leaves and violets for the punch-bowl in honor of the occasion. "I want you to have the best time of anybody at my party, father," she had said, "and as soon as all the guests have arrived, you must go and play cards with Colonel Lamson and the others."

No other in the whole world, not even her mother, did Lucina love as well as she loved her father, and the comfort and pleasure of no other had she so deeply at heart.

At the Squire's elbow, standing faithfully by him until he should get his release, were his three friends: John Jennings and Lawyer Eliphalet Means in their ancient swallow-tails--John Jennings's being of renowned London make, though nobody in Upham appreciated that--and Colonel Jack Lamson in his old dress uniform. Colonel Lamson, having grown stouter of late years, wore with a mighty discomfort of the flesh but with an unyielding spirit his old clothes of state.

"I'll be damned if I thought I could get into 'em at first, Eben," he had told the Squire when he arrived. "Haven't had them on since I was pall-bearer at poor Jim Pell's funeral. I was bound to do your girl honor, but I'll be damned if I'll dance in 'em--I tell you it wouldn't be safe, Eben."

The Colonel looked with intense seriousness at his friend, then laughed hoarsely. His laugh was always wheezy of late, and he breathed hard when he took exercise.

Sometime in his dim and shady past Colonel Lamson was reported to have had a wife. She had never been seen in Upham, and was commonly believed to have died at some Western post during the first years of their marriage. Probably the beautiful necklace of carved corals, which the Colonel had brought that night for a present to Lucina, had belonged to that long-dead young wife; but not even the Squire knew.

As for John Jennings, he had never had a wife, and the trinkets he had bestowed upon sweethearts remained still in their keeping; but he brought a pair of little pearly ear-rings for Lucina, and never wore his diamond shirt-button again. Lawyer Eliphalet Means brought for his offering a sandal-wood fan, a veritable lacework of wood, spreading it himself in his lean brown hand, which matched in hue, and eying it with a sort of dryly humorous satisfaction before he gave it into Lucina's keeping.

Squire Eben, despite his gratification for his daughter's sake, burst into a great laugh. "By the Lord Harry!" cried he; "you didn't go into a shop yourself and ask for that folderol?"

"Got it through a sea-captain, from India, years ago," replied the lawyer, laconically.

"Wouldn't she take it?" inquired Colonel Lamson, with sly meaning, his round, protruding eyes staring hard at his friend and the fan.

"Never gave her the chance," said Means, with a shrewd twinkle. Then he turned to Lucina, with a stiff but courtly bow, and presented the sandal-wood fan, and not one of them knew then, nor ever after, its true history.

Lucina had joyfully heard the clang of the knocker when Jerome arrived, thinking that they were the last guests, and her father could have his pleasure. Doctor Prescott had been called to Granby and would not come until late, if at all; the minister, it was reported, was ill with influenza--she and her mother had agreed that the Squire need not wait for them.

When Lucina saw the throng parting for the new-comers, she assumed involuntarily her pose of sweet and gracious welcome; but when Jerome and his sister stood before her, she started and lost composure.

Lucina remembered Elmira well enough, and had thought she remembered Jerome since last Sunday, when her father, calling to mind their frequent meetings in years back, had chidden her lightly for not speaking to him.

"He has grown and changed so, father," Lucina had said; "I did not mean to be discourteous, and I will remember him another time."

Lucina had really considered afterwards, saying nothing to her father or her mother, that the young man was very handsome. She had sat quite still that Sunday afternoon in the meeting-house, and, instead of listening to the sermon, had searched her memory for old pictures of Jerome. She had recalled distinctly the tea-drinking in her aunt Camilla's arbor, his refusal of cake, and gift of sassafras-root in the meadow; also his repulse of her childish generosity when she would have given him her little savings for the purchase of shoes. Old stings of the spirit can often be revived with thought, even when the cause is long passed. Lucina, sitting there in meeting, felt again the pang of her slighted benevolence. She was sure that she would remember Jerome at once the next time they met, but for a minute she did not. She bowed and shook hands prettily with Elmira, then turned to Jerome and stared at him, all unmindful of her manners, thinking vaguely that here was some grand young gentleman who had somehow gotten into her party unbidden. Such a fool do externals make of the memory, which needs long training to know the same bird in different feathers.

Lucina stared at Jerome, at first with grave and innocent wonder, then suddenly her eyes drooped and a soft blush crept over her face and neck, and even her arms. Lucina, in her short-sleeved India muslin gown, flowing softly from its gathering around her white shoulders to her slender waist, where a blue ribbon bound it, and thence in lines of transparent lights and blue shadows to her little pointed satin toe, stood before him with a sort of dumb-maiden appealing that he should not look at her so, but he was helpless, as with a grasp of vision which he could not loosen.

Jerome looked at her as the first man might have looked at the first woman; the world was empty but for him and her. The voices of the company were ages distant, their eyes dim across eternal spaces. The fragrance of sweet lavender and dried rose-leaves from Lucina's garments, and, moreover, a strange Oriental one, that seemed to accent the whole, from her sandal-wood fan, was to him, as by a transposing into a different key of sense, like some old melody of life which he had always known, and yet so forgotten that it had become new.

Jerome never knew how long he stood there, but suddenly he felt the Squire's kindly hand on his shoulder, and heard his loud, jovial voice in his ear. "Why, Jerome, my boy, what is the matter? Don't you remember my daughter? Lucina, where are your manners?"

And then Lucina curtesied low, with her fair curls drooping forward over her blushing face and neck, as pink as her corals, and Jerome bowed and strove to say something, but he knew not what, and never knew what he said, nor anybody else.

"'Twas the new clothes, boy," said the Squire in his ear. "By the Lord Harry, 'twas much as ever I knew you myself at first! I took you for an earl over from the old country. Lucina meant no harm. Go you now and have a talk with her."

Jerome wondered anxiously afterwards if he had spoken properly to the Squire's wife, to Mrs. Doctor Prescott, to Miss Camilla, and the others--if he had looked, even, at anybody but Lucina. He remembered the party as he might have remembered a kaleidoscope, of which only one combination of form and color abided with him. He realized all beside, as a broad effect with no detail. The card-playing and punch-drinking in the other room, the preliminary tuning of fiddles in the hall, the triumphant strains of a country dance, the weaving of the figures, the gay voices of the village youths, who lost all their abashedness as the evening went on, the supper, the table gleaming with the white lights of silver and the rainbow lustre of glass, the golden points of candles in the old candelabra, the fruity and spicy odors of cake and wine, were all as a dimness and vagueness of brilliance itself.

He did not know, even, that Lawrence Prescott was at Elmira's side all the evening, and after his father arrived, and that Elmira danced every time with him, and set people talking and Doctor Prescott frowning. He knew only that he had followed Lucina about, and that she seemed to encourage him with soft, leading smiles. That they sat on a sofa in a corner, behind a door, and talked, that once they stepped out on the stoop, and even strolled a little down the path, under the trees, when she complained of the room being hot and close. Then, without knowing whether he should do so or not, he bent towards her, with his arm crooked, and she slipped her hand in it, and they both trembled and were silent for a moment. He knew every word that Lucina had spoken, and gave a thousand different meanings to each. For the first time in his life, he tasted the sweets of praise from girlish lips. Lucina had heard of his good deeds from her father, how kind he was to the poor and sick, how hard he had worked, how faithful he had been to his mother and sister. Jerome listened with bliss, and shame that he should find it bliss. Then Lucina and he remembered together, with that perfect time of memory which is as harmonious as any duet, all the episodes of their childhood.

"I remember how you gave me sassafras," said Lucina, "and how you would not take the nice gingerbread that Hannah made, and how sad I felt about it."

"I will get some more sassafras for you to-morrow," said Jerome.

"And I will give you some more gingerbread if you will take it," said she, with a sweet coquettishness.

"I will, if you want me to," said Jerome.

They were out in the front yard then, a gust of wind pressed under the trees, and seemed to blow them together. Lucina's white muslin fluttered around Jerome's knees, her curls floated across his breast.

"Oh," murmured Lucina, confusedly, "this wind has come all of a sudden," and she stood apart from him.

"You will take cold; we had better go in," said Jerome. They went into the house, Jerome being a little hurt that Lucina had shrunk away from him so quickly, and Lucina disappointed that Jerome was so solicitous lest she take cold. Then they sat down again in the corner, and remembered that Jerome ate two pieces of cake at Miss Camilla's tea-party and she two and a half.

Somehow, before the party broke up that night, it was understood that Jerome was to come and see her the next Sunday night. And yet Lucina had not invited him, nor he asked permission to come.

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Chapter XXIIThe next morning Jerome went early to his uncle Ozias Lamb for some finished shoes, which he was to take to Dale. For the first time in his life, when he entered the shop, he had an impulse to avert his eyes and not meet his uncle's fully. Ozias had grown old rapidly of late. He sat, with his usual stiff crouch, on his bench and hammered away at a shoe-heel on his lapstone. His hair and beard were white and shaggy, his blue eyes peered sharply, as from a very ambush of old age, at Jerome loading himself with