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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 3
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A Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 3 Post by :ebookbi8 Category :Long Stories Author :Mary E Wilkins Freeman Date :May 2012 Read :2885

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A Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 3

Chapter III

The pond undoubtedly partook somewhat of the nature of an Eastern myth in this little New England village. Although with the uncompromising practicality of their natures the people had given it a name so directly significant as to make it lose all poetical glamour, and render it the very commonplace of ghastliness, it still appealed to their imaginations.

The laws of natural fancy obtained here as everywhere else, although in small and homely measure. The village children found no nymphs in the trees of their New England woods. If there were fauns among them, and the children took their pointed ears for leaves as they lay sleeping in the undergrowth, they never knew it. They had none of these, but they had their pond, with its unfathomable depth. They could not give that up for any testimony of people with ropes and grappling-hooks. Had they not sounded it in vain with farther-reaching lines?

Not a boy in the village believed that the bottom of that famous Dead Hole had once been touched. Jerome Edwards certainly did not. Then, too, they had not brought his father's hat to light--or, if they had, had made no account of it.

Some of the elders, as well as the boys, believed in their hearts that the pond had not, after all, been satisfactorily examined, and that Abel Edwards might still lie there. "Ever since I can remember anything, I've heard that pond in that place 'ain't got any bottom," one old man would say, and another add, with triumphant conclusion, "If he ain't there, where is he?"

That indeed was the question. All solutions of mysteries have their possibilities in the absence of proof. No trace of Abel Edwards had been found in the woodland where he had been working, and no trace of him for miles around. The search had been thorough. Other ponds of less evil repute had also been dragged, and the little river which ran through the village, and two brooks of considerable importance in the spring. If Able Edwards had taken his own life, the conclusion was inevitable that his body must lie in the pond, which had always been reported unfathomable, and might be, after all.

"The way I look at it is this," said Simon Basset one night in the village store. He raised the index-finger of his right hand, pointed it at the company, shook it authoritatively as he spoke, as if to call ocular attention also to his words. "Ef Abel Edwards did make 'way with himself any other way than by jumping into the Dead Hole, _what did he do with his remains? He couldn't bury himself nohow." Simon Basset chuckled dryly and looked at the others with conclusive triumph. His face was full of converging lines of nose and chin and brows, which seemed to bring it to a general point of craft and astuteness. Even his grizzled hair slanted forward in a stiff cowlick over his forehead, and his face bristled sharply with his gray beard. Simon Basset was the largest land-owner in the village, and the dust and loam of his own acres seemed to have formed a gray grime over all his awkward homespun garb. Never a woman he met but looked apprehensively at his great, clomping, mud-clogged boots.

It was believed by many that Simon Basset never removed a suit of clothes, after he had once put it on, until it literally dropped from him in rags. He was also said to have argued, when taken to task for this most untidy custom, that birds and animals never shifted their coats until they were worn out, and it behooved men to follow their innocent and natural habits as closely as possible.

Simon Basset, sitting in an old leather-cushioned arm-chair in the midst of the lounging throng, waited for applause after his conclusive opinion upon Abel Edwards's disappearance; but there were only affirmative grunts from a few. Many had their own views.

"I ain't noways clear in my mind that Abel did kill himself," said a tall man, with a great length of thin, pale whiskers falling over his breast. He had a vaguely elongated effect, like a shadow, and had, moreover, a way of standing behind people like one. When he spoke everybody started and looked around at him.

"I'd like to know what you think did happen to him, Adoniram Judd," cried Simon Basset.

"I don't think Abel Edwards ever killed himself," repeated the tall man, solemnly. His words had weight, for he was a distant relative of the missing man.

"Do you know of anybody that had anything agin him?" demanded Simon Basset.

"No, I dun'no' 's I do," admitted the tall man.

"Then what in creation would anybody want to kill him for? Guess they wouldn't be apt to do it for anything they would get out of Abel Edwards." Simon Basset chuckled triumphantly; and in response there was a loud and exceedingly bitter laugh from a man sitting on an old stool next to him. Everybody started, for the man was Ozias Lamb, Abel Edwards's brother-in-law.

"What ye laughin' at?" inquired Simon Basset, defiantly; but he edged his chair away a little at the same time. Ozias Lamb had the reputation of a very high temper.

"Mebbe," said Ozias Lamb, "somebody killed poor Abel for his mortgage. I dun'no' of anything else he had." Ozias laughed again. He was a stout, squat man, leaning forward upon his knees as he sat, with a complete subsidence of all his muscles, which showed that it was his accustomed attitude. Just in that way had Ozias Lamb sat and cobbled shoes on his lapboard for nearly forty years. He was almost resolved into a statue illustrative of his own toil. He never stood if he could help it; indeed, his knees felt weak under him if he tried to do so. He sank into the first seat and settled heavily forward into his one pose of life.

All the other men looked rather apprehensively at him. His face was all broadened with sardonic laughter, but his blue eyes were fierce under his great bushy head of fair hair. "Abel Edwards has been lugging of that mortgage 'round for the last ten years," said he, "an' it's been about all he had to lug. It's been the meat in his stomach an' the hope in his heart. He 'ain't been a-lookin' forward to eatin', but to payin' up the interest money when it came due; he 'ain't been a-lookin' forward to heaven, but to clearin' off the mortgage. It's been all he's had; it's bore down on his body and his soul, an' it's braced him up to keep on workin'. He's been a-livin' in this Christian town for ten years a-carryin' of this fine mortgage right out in plain sight, an' I shouldn't be a mite surprised if somebody see it an' hankered arter it. Folks are so darned anxious in this 'ere Christian town to get holt of each other's burdens!"

Simon Basset edged his chair away still farther; then he spoke. "Don't s'pose you expected folks to up an' pay Abel Edwards's mortgage for him," he said.

"No, I didn't," returned Ozias Lamb, and the sardonic curves around his mouth deepened.

"An' I don't s'pose you'd expect Doctor Prescott to make him a present of it," said Jake Noyes, suddenly, from the outskirts of the group. He had come in for the doctor's mail, and was lounging with one great red-sealed missive and a religious newspaper in his hand.

"No," said Ozias Lamb, "I shouldn't never expect the doctor to make a present to anybody but himself or the Lord or the meetin'-house."

A general chuckle ran over the group at that. Doctor Prescott was regarded in the village as rather parsimonious except in those three directions.

Jake Noyes colored angrily and stepped forward. "I ain't goin' to hear no nonsense about Doctor Prescott," he exclaimed. "I won't stan' it from none of ye. I give ye fair warnin'. I don't eat no man's flapjacks an' hear him talked agin within swing of my fists if I can help it."

The storekeeper and postmaster, Cyrus Robinson, had been leaning over his counter between the scales and a pile of yellow soap bars, smiling and shrewdly observant. Now he spoke, and the savor of honey for all was in his words.

"It's fust-rate of you, Jake, to stand up for the doctor," said he. "We all of us feel all wrought up about poor Abel. I understand the doctor's goin' to be easy with the widder about the mortgage. I thought likely he would be. Sometimes folks do considerable more good than they get credit for. I shouldn't be surprised if Doctor Prescott's left hand an' his neighbors didn't know all he did."

Ozias Lamb turned slowly around and looked at the storekeeper. "Doctor Prescott's a pretty good customer of yours, ain't he?" he inquired.

There was a subdued titter. Cyrus Robinson colored, but kept his pleasant smile. "Everybody in town is a good customer," said he. "I haven't any bad customers."

"P'r'aps 'cause you won't trust 'em," said Ozias Lamb. This time the titter was audible. Cyrus Robinson's business caution was well known.

The storekeeper said no more, turned abruptly, took a key from his pocket, went to the little post-office in the corner, and locked the door. Then he began putting up the window-shutters.

There was a stir among the company, a scraping of chairs and stools, and a shuffling of heavy feet, and they went lingeringly out of the store. Cyrus Robinson usually put up his shutters too early for them. His store was more than a store--it was the nursery of the town, the place where her little commonweal was evolved and nurtured, and it was also her judgment-seat. There her simple citizens formed their simple opinions upon town government and town officials, upon which they afterwards acted in town meeting. There they sat in judgment upon all men who were not within reach of their voices, and upon all crying evils of the times which were too mighty for them to struggle against. This great country store of Cyrus Robinson's--with its rank odors of molasses and spices, whale oil, and West India rum; with its counters, its floor, its very ceiling heaped and hung with all the paraphernalia of a New England village; its clothes, its food, and its working-utensils--was also in a sense the nucleus of this village of Upham Corners. There was no tavern. Although this was the largest of the little cluster of Uphams, the tavern was in the West Corners, and the stages met there. However, all the industries had centred in Upham Corners on account of its superior water privileges: the grist-mill was there, and the saw-mill. People from the West and East Corners came to trade at Robinson's store, which was also a factory in a limited sense. Cyrus Robinson purchased leather in considerable quantities, and employed several workmen in a great room above the store to cut out the rude shoes worn in the country-side. These he let out in lots to the towns-folk to bind and close and finish, paying them for their work in store goods, seldom in cash, then selling the shoes himself at a finely calculated profit.

Robinson had, moreover, several spare rooms in his house adjoining the store, and there, if he were so disposed, he could entertain strangers who wished to remain in Upham overnight, and neither he nor his wife was averse to increasing their income in that way. Cyrus Robinson was believed by many to be as rich as Doctor Prescott and Simon Basset.

When the men left the store that night, Simon Basset's, Jake Noyes's, and Adoniram Judd's way lay in the same direction. They still discussed poor Abel Edwards's disappearance as they went along. Their voices were rising high, when suddenly Jake Noyes gave Simon Basset a sharp nudge. "Shut up," he whispered; "the Edwards boy's behind us."

And indeed, as he spoke, Jerome's little light figure came running past them. He was evidently anxious to get by without notice, but Simon Basset grasped his arm and brought him to a standstill.

"Hullo!" said he. "You're Abel Edwards's boy, ain't you?"

"I can't stop," said Jerome, pulling away. "I've got to go home. Mother's waiting for me."

"I don't s'pose you've heard anything yet from your father?"

"No, I 'ain't. I've got to go home."

"Where've you been, Jerome?" asked Adoniram Judd.

"Up to Uncle Ozias's to get Elmira's shoes." Jerome had the stout little shoes, one in each hand.

"I don't s'pose you've formed any idee of what's become of your father," said Simon Basset.

Jerome, who had been pulling away from his hold, suddenly stood still, and turned a stern little white face upon him.

"He's dead," said he.

"Yes, of course he's dead. That is, we're all afraid he is, though we all hope for the best; but that ain't the question," said Simon Basset. "The question is, how did he die?"

Jerome looked up in Simon Basset's face. "He died the same way you will, some time," said he. And with that Simon Basset let go his arm suddenly, and he was gone.

"Lord!" said Jake Noyes, under his breath. Simon Basset said not another word; his grandfather, his uncle, and a brother had all taken their own lives, and he knew that the others were thinking of it. They all wondered if the boy had been keen-witted enough to give this hard hit at Simon intentionally, but he had not. Poor little Jerome had never speculated on the laws of heredity; he had only meant to deny that his father had come to any more disgraceful end than the common one of all mankind. He did not dream, as he raced along home with his sister's shoes, of the different construction which they had put upon his words, but he felt angry and injured.

"That Sim' Basset pickin' on me that way," he thought. A wild sense of the helplessness of his youth came over him. "Wish I was a man," he muttered--"wish I was a man; I'd show 'em! All them men talkin'--sayin' anything--'cause I'm a boy."

Just before he reached home Jerome met two more men, and he heard his father's name distinctly. One of them stretched out a detaining hand as he passed, and called out, "Hullo! you're the Edwards boy?"

"Let me go, I tell you," shouted Jerome, in a fury, and was past them with a wild flourish of heels, like a rebellious colt.

"What in creation ails the boy?" said the man, with a start aside; and he and the other stood staring after Jerome.

When Jerome got home and opened the kitchen door he stood still with surprise. It was almost ten o'clock, and his mother and Elmira had begun to make pies. His mother had pushed herself up to the table and was mixing the pastry, while Elmira was beating eggs.

Mrs. Edwards looked around at Jerome. "What you standin' there lookin' for?" said she, with her sharp, nervous voice. "Put them shoes down, an' bring that quart pail of milk out of the pantry. Be careful you don't spill it."

Jerome obeyed. When he set the milk-pail on the table, Elmira gave him a quick, piteously confidential glance from under her tearful lids. Elmira, with her blue checked pinafore tied under her chin, sat in a high wooden chair, with her little bare feet curling over a round, and beat eggs with a wooden spoon in a great bowl.

"What you doin'?" asked Jerome.

Her mother answered for her. "She's mixin' up some custard for pies," said she. "I dun'no' as there's any need of you standin' lookin' as if you never saw any before."

"Never saw you makin' custard-pies at ten o'clock at night before," returned Jerome, with blunt defiance.

"Do you s'pose," said his mother, "that I'm goin' to let your father go off an' die all alone an' take no notice of it?"

"Dun'no' what you mean?"

"Don't you know it's three days since he went off to get that wood an' never come back?"

Jerome nodded.

"Do you s'pose I'm goin' to let it pass an' die away, an' folks forget him, an' not have any funeral or anything? I made up my mind I'd wait until nine o'clock to-night, an' then, if he wa'n't found, I wouldn't wait any longer. I'd get ready for the funeral. I've sent over for Paulina Maria and your aunt B'lindy to come in an' help. Henry come over here to see if I'd heard anything, and I told him to go right home an' tell his mother to come, an' stop on the way an' tell Paulina Maria. There's a good deal to do before two o'clock to-morrow afternoon, an' I can't do much myself; somebody's got to help. In the mornin' you'll have to take the horse an' go over to the West Corners, an' tell Amelia an' her mother an' Lyddy Stokes's folks. There won't be any time to send word to the Greens over in Westbrook. They're only second-cousins anyway, an' they 'ain't got any horse, an' I dun'no' as they'd think they could afford to hire one. Now you take that fork an' go an' lift the cover off that kettle, an' stick it into the dried apples, an' see if they've begun to get soft."

Ann Edwards's little triangular face had grown plainly thinner and older in three days, but the fire in her black eyes still sparkled. Her voice was strained and hoarse on the high notes, from much lamentation, but she still raised it imperiously. She held the wooden mixing-bowl in her lap, and stirred with as desperate resolution, compressing her lips painfully, as if she were stirring the dregs of her own cup of sorrow.

Pretty soon there were voices outside and steps on the path. The door opened, and two women came in. One was Paulina Maria, Adoniram Judd's wife; the other was Belinda, the wife of Ozias Lamb.

Belinda Lamb spoke first. She was a middle-aged woman, with a pretty faded face. She wore her light hair in curls, which fell over her delicate, thin cheeks, and her blue eyes had no more experience in them than a child's, although they were reddened now with gentle tears. She had the look of a young girl who had been out like a flower in too strong a light, and faded out her pretty tints, but was a young girl still. Belinda always smiled an innocent girlish simper, which sometimes so irritated the austere New England village women that they scowled involuntarily back at her. Paulina Maria Judd and Ann Edwards both scowled without knowing it now as she spoke, her words never seeming to disturb that mildly ingratiating upward curve of her lips.

"I've come right over," said she, in a soft voice; "but it ain't true what Henry said, is it?"

"What ain't true?" asked Ann, grimly.

"It ain't true you're goin' to have a funeral?" Tears welled up afresh in Belinda's blue eyes, and flowed slowly down her delicate cheeks, but not a muscle of her face changed, and she smiled still.

"Why can't I have a funeral?"

"Why, Ann, how can you have a funeral, when there ain't--when they 'ain't found him?"

"I'd like to know why I can't!"

Belinda's blue, weeping eyes surveyed her with the helpless bewilderment of a baby. "Why, Ann," she gasped, "there won't be any--remains!"

"What of that? I guess I know it."

"There won't be nothin' for anybody to go round an' look at; there won't be any coffin--Ann, you ain't goin' to have any coffin when he ain't found, be you?"

"Be you a fool, Belindy Lamb?" said Ann. A hard sniff came from Paulina Maria.

"Well, I didn't s'pose you was," said Belinda, with meek abashedness. "Of course I knew you wasn't--I only asked; but I don't see how you can have a funeral no way, Ann. There won't be any coffin, nor any hearse, nor any procession, nor--"

"There'll be mourners," broke in Ann.

"They're what makes a funeral," said Paulina Maria, putting on an apron she had brought. "Folks that's had funerals knows."

She cast an austere glance at Belinda Lamb, who colored to the roots of her fair curls, and was conscious of a guilty lack of funeral experience, while Paulina Maria had lost seven children, who all died in infancy. Poor Belinda seemed to see the other woman's sternly melancholy face in a halo of little coffins and funeral wreaths.

"I know you've had a good deal more to contend with than I have," she faltered. "I 'ain't never lost anybody till poor--Abel." She broke into gentle weeping, but Paulina Maria thrust a broom relentlessly into her hand.

"Here," said she, "take this broom an' sweep, an' it might as well be done to-night as any time. Of course you 'ain't got your spring cleanin' done, none of it, Ann?"

"No," replied Mrs. Edwards; "I was goin' to begin next week."

"Well," said Paulina Maria, "if this house has got to be all cleaned, an' cookin' done, in time for the funeral, somebody's got to work. I s'pose you expect some out-of-town folks, Ann?"

"I dare say some 'll come from the West Corners. I thought I wouldn't try to get word to Westbrook, it's so far; but mebbe I'd send to Granby--there's some there that might come."

"Well," said Paulina Maria, "I shouldn't be surprised if as many as a dozen came, an' supper 'll have to be got for 'em. What are you goin' to do about black, Ann?"

"I thought mebbe I could borrow a black bonnet an' a veil. I guess my black bombazine dress will do to wear."

"Mis' Whitby had a new one when her mother died, an' didn't use her mother's old one. I don't believe but what you can borrow that," said Paulina Maria. She was moving about the kitchen, doing this and that, waiting for no commands or requests. Jerome and Elmira kept well back out of her way, although she had not half the fierce impetus that their mother sometimes had when hitching about in her chair. Paulina Maria, in her limited field of action, had the quick and unswerving decision of a general, and people marshalled themselves at her nod, whether they would or no. She was an example of the insistence of a type. The prevailing traits of the village women were all intensified and fairly dominant in her. They kept their houses clean, but she kept hers like a temple for the footsteps of divinity. Marvellous tales were told of Paulina Maria's exceeding neatness. It was known for a fact that the boards of her floors were so arranged that they could be lifted from their places and cleaned on their under as well as upper sides. Could Paulina Maria have cleaned the inner as well as the outer surface of her own skin she would doubtless have been better satisfied. As it was, the colorless texture of her thin face and hands, through which the working of her delicate jaws and muscles could be plainly seen, gave an impression of extreme purity and cleanliness. "Paulina Maria looks as ef she'd been put to soak in rain-water overnight," Simon Basset said once, after she had gone out of the store. Everybody called her Paulina Maria--never Mrs. Judd, nor Mrs. Adoniram Judd.

The village women were, as a rule, full of piety. Paulina Maria was austere. She had the spirit to have scourged herself had she once convicted herself of wrong; but that she had never done. The power of self-blame was not in her. Paulina Maria had never labored under conviction of sin; she had had no orthodox conversion; but she set her slim unswerving feet in the paths of righteousness, and walked there with her head up. In her the uncompromising spirit of Puritanism was so strong that it defeated its own ends. The other women were at times inflexible; Paulina Maria was always rigid. The others could be severe; Paulina Maria might have conducted an inquisition. She had in her possibilities of almost mechanical relentlessness which had never been tested in her simple village life. Paulina Maria never shirked her duty, but it could not be said that she performed it in any gentle and Christ-like sense. She rather attacked it and slew it, as if it were a dragon in her path. That night she was very weary. She had toiled hard all day at her own vigorous cleaning. Her bones and muscles ached. The spring languor also was upon her. She was not a strong woman, but she never dreamed of refusing to go to Ann Edwards's and assist her in her sad preparations.

She and Belinda Lamb remained and worked until midnight; then they went home. Jerome had to escort them through the silent village street--he had remained up for that purpose. Elmira had been sent to bed. When the boy came home alone along the familiar road, between the houses with their windows gleaming with blank darkness in his eyes, with no sound in his ears save the hoarse bark of a dog when his footsteps echoed past, a great strangeness of himself in his own thoughts was upon him.

He had not the feminine ability to ease descent into the depths of sorrow by catching at all its minor details on the way. He plunged straight down; no questions of funeral preparations or mourning bonnets arrested him for a second. "My father is dead," Jerome told himself; "he jumped into the pond and drowned himself, and here's mother, and Elmira, and the mortgage, and me."

This poor little _me of the village boy seemed suddenly to have grown in stature, to have bent, as it grew, under a grievous burden, and to have lost all its childish carelessness and childish ambition. Jerome saw himself in the likeness of his father, bearing the mortgage upon his shoulders, and his boyish self never came fully back to him afterwards. The mantle of the departed, that, whether they will or not, covers those that stand nearest, was over him, and he had henceforth to walk under it.

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Chapter IVThe next morning Paulina Maria and Belinda Lamb returned to finish preparations, and Jerome was sent over to the West Corners to notify some relatives there of the funeral service. Just as he was starting, it was decided that he had better ride some six miles farther to Granby, and see some others who might think they had a claim to an invitation."Imogen Lawson an' Sarah were always dreadful touchy," said Mrs. Edwards. "They'll never get over it if they ain't asked. I guess you'd better go there, Jerome.""Yes, he had," said Paulina Maria."It's a real pleasant day, an' I
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Chapter IIJerome started, and once started he raced. Long-legged, light-flanked, long-winded, and underfed, he had the adaptability for speed of a little race-horse. Jerome Edwards was quite a famous boy in the village for his prowess in running. No other boy could equal him. Marvellous stories were told about it. "Jerome Edwards, he can run half a mile in five minutes any day, yes he can, sir," the village boys bragged if perchance a cousin from another town came a-visiting and endeavored to extol himself and his comrades beyond theirs. In some curious fashion Jerome, after he had out-speeded all the
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