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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 4
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A Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 4 Post by :robitn4 Category :Long Stories Author :Mary E Wilkins Freeman Date :May 2012 Read :2244

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A Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 4

Chapter IV

The 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 guess they'll enjoy comin'," said Belinda. Paulina Maria gave her a poke with a hard elbow, that hurt her soft side, and she looked at her wonderingly.

"Enjoy!" repeated Ann Edwards, bitterly.

"I dun'no' what you mean," half whimpered Belinda.

"No, I don't s'pose you do," returned Ann. "There's one thing about it--folks can always tell what _you mean. You don't mean nothin', an' never did. You couldn't be put in a dictionary. Noah Webster couldn't find any meanin' fer you if he was to set up all night." A nervous sob shook Mrs. Edwards's little frame. She was almost hysterical that morning. Her black eyes were brightly dilated, her mouth tremulous, and her throat swollen.

Paulina Maria grasped Belinda by the shoulder. "You'd better get the broom an' sweep out the wood-shed," said she, and Belinda went out with a limp flutter of her cotton skirts and her curls.

Jerome rode the old white horse, that could only travel at a heavy jog, and he did not get home until noon--not much in advance of the funeral guests he had bidden. They had directly left all else, got out what mourning-weeds they could muster, and made ready.

When Jerome reached home, he was immediately seized by Paulina Maria. "Go right out and wash your face and hands real clean," said she, "and then go up-stairs and change your clothes. I've laid them out on the bed. When you get to the neckerchief, you come down here, and I'll tie it for you; it's your father's. You've got to wear somethin' black, to be decent."

Jerome obeyed. All the incipient masculine authority in him was overwhelmed by this excess of feminine strength. He washed his face and hands faithfully, and donned his little clean, coarse shirt and his poor best garments. Then he came down with the black silk neckerchief, and Paulina Maria tied it around his boyish neck.

"His father thought so much of that neckerchief," said Mrs. Edwards, catching her breath. "It was 'most the only thing he bought for himself for ten year that he didn't actually need."

"Jerome is the one to have it," said Paulina Maria, and she made the black silk knot tight and firm.

An hour before the time set for the funeral Ann Edwards was all dressed and ready. They had drawn her chair into the front parlor, and there she sat in state. She wore the borrowed black bonnet and veil. The decent black shawl and gown were her own. The doctor's wife had sent over some black silk gloves, and she wore them. They were much too large. Ann crossed her tiny hands, wrinkled over with the black silk, with long, empty black silk fingers dangling in her lap, over a fine white linen handkerchief. She had laid her gloved hands over the handkerchief with a gesture full of resolution. "I sha'n't give way," she said to Paulina Maria. That meant that, although she took the handkerchief in obedience to custom, it would not be used to dry the tears of affliction.

Ann's face, through the black gloom of her crape veil, revealed only the hard lines of resolution about her mouth and the red stain of tears about her eyes. She held now her emotions in check like a vise.

Jerome and poor little Elmira, whom Paulina Maria had dressed in a little black Canton-crape shawl of her own, sat on either side. Elmira wept now and then, trying to stifle her sobs, but Jerome sat as immovable as his mother.

The funeral guests arrived, and seated themselves solemnly in the rows of chairs which had been borrowed from the neighbors. Adoniram Judd and Ozias Lamb had carried chairs for a good part of the forenoon. Nearly all the village people came; the strange circumstances of this funeral, wherein there was no dead man to carry solemnly in the midst of a long black procession to his grave, had attracted many. Then, too, Abel Edwards had been known to them all since his childhood, and well liked in the main, although the hard grind of his daily life had of late years isolated him from his old mates.

Men sat there with stiff bowed heads, and glances of solemn furtiveness at new-comers, who had played with Abel in his boyhood, and to whom those old memories were more real than those of the last ten years. Abel Edwards, in the absence both of his living soul and his dead body, was present in the minds of many as a sturdy, light-hearted boy.

The people of Upham Corners assembled there together, dressed in their best, displaying their most staid and decorous demeanor, showed their fortunes in life plainly enough. Generally speaking, they were a poor and hard-working folk--poorer and harder working than the average people in villages. Upham Corners, from its hilly site, freely intersected with rock ledges, was not well calculated for profitable farming. The farms therein were mortgaged, and scarcely fed their tillers. The water privileges were good and mills might have flourished, but the greater markets were too far away, and few workmen could be employed.

Most of the women at poor Abel Edwards's funeral were worn and old before their prime, their mouths sunken, wearing old women's caps over their locks at thirty. Their decent best gowns showed that piteous conservation of poverty more painful almost than squalor.

The men were bent and gray with the unseen, but no less tangible, burdens of life. Scarcely one there but bore, as poor Abel Edwards had borne, a mortgage among them. It was a strange thing that although all of the customary mournful accessories of a funeral were wanting, although no black coffin with its silent occupant stood in their midst, and no hearse waited at the door, yet that mortgage of Abel Edwards's--that burden, like poor Christian's, although not of sin, but misfortune, which had doubled him to the dust--seemed still to be present.

The people had the thought of it ever in their minds. They looked at Ann Edwards and her children, and seemed to see in truth the mortgage bearing down upon them, like a very shadow of death.

They looked across at Doctor Seth Prescott furtively, as if he might perchance read their thoughts, and wondered if he would foreclose.

Doctor Prescott, in his broadcloth surtout, with his black satin stock muffling richly his stately neck, sat in the room with the mourners, directly opposite the Edwards family. His wife was beside him. She was a handsome woman, taller and larger than her husband, with a face of gentlest serenity set in shining bands of auburn hair. Mrs. Doctor Prescott looked like an empress among the other women, with her purple velvet pelisse sweeping around her in massive folds, and her purple velvet bonnet with a long ostrich plume curling over the side--the purple being considered a sort of complimentary half-mourning. Squire Eben Merritt's wife, Abigail, could not approach her, although she was finely dressed in black satin, and a grand cashmere shawl from overseas. Mrs. Eben Merritt was a small and plain-visaged little woman; people had always wondered why Squire Eben Merritt had married her. Eben Merritt had not come to the funeral. It was afterwards reported that he had gone fishing instead, and people were scandalized, and indignantly triumphant, because it was what they had expected of him. Little Lucina had come with her mother, and sat in the high chair where they had placed her, with her little morocco-shod feet dangling, her little hands crossed in her lap, and her blue eyes looking out soberly and anxiously from her best silk hood. Once in a while she glanced timidly at Jerome, and reflected how he had given her sassafras, and how he hadn't any father.

When the singing began, the tears came into her eyes and her lip quivered; but she tried not to cry, although there were smothered sobs all around her. There was that about the sweet, melancholy drone of the funeral hymn which stirred something more than sympathy in the hearts of the listeners. Imagination of like bereavements for themselves awoke within them, and they wept for their own sorrows in advance.

The minister offered a prayer, in which he made mention of all the members of poor Abel's family, and even distant relatives. In fact, Paulina Maria had furnished him with a list, which he had studied furtively during the singing. "Don't forget any of 'em, or they won't like it," she had charged. So the minister, Solomon Wells, bespoke the comfort and support of the Lord in this affliction for all the second and third cousins upon his list, who bowed their heads with a sort of mournful importance as they listened.

Solomon Wells was an elderly man, tall, and bending limberly under his age like an old willow, his spare long body in nicely kept broadcloth sitting and rising with wide flaps of black coat-tails, his eyes peering forth mildly through spectacles. He was a widower of long standing. His daughter Eliza, who kept his house, sat beside him. She resembled her father closely, and herself looked like an old person anywhere but beside him. There the juvenility of comparison was hers.

Solomon Wells, during the singing, before he offered prayer, had cast sundry perplexed glances at a group of strangers on his right, and then at his list. He was quite sure that they were not mentioned thereon. Once he looked perplexedly at Paulina Maria, but she was singing hard, in a true strong voice, and did not heed him. The strangers sat behind her. There was a large man, lumbering and uncomfortable in his best clothes, a small woman, and three little girls, all dressed in blue delaine gowns and black silk mantillas and blue bonnets.

The minister had a strong conviction that these people should be mentioned in his prayer. He gave his daughter Eliza a little nudge, and looked inquiringly at them and at her, but she shook her head slightly--she did not know who they were. Her father had to content himself with vaguely alluding in his petition to all other relatives of this afflicted family.

During the eulogy upon the departed, which followed, he made also casual mention of the respect in which he was held by strangers as well as by his own towns-people. The minister gave poor Abel a very good character. He spoke at length of his honesty, industry, and sobriety. He touched lightly upon the unusual sadness of the circumstances of his death. He expressed no doubt; he gave no hints of any dark tragedy. "Don't speak as if you thought he killed himself; if you do, it'll make her about crazy," Paulina Maria had charged him. Ann, listening jealously to every word, could take no exception to one. Solomon Wells was very mindful of the feelings of others. He seemed at times to move with a sidewise motion of his very spirit to avoid hurting theirs.

After dwelling upon Abel Edwards's simple virtues, fairly dinning them like sweet notes into the memories of his neighbors, Solomon Wells, with a sweep of his black coat-skirts around him, sat down. Then there was a solemn and somewhat awkward pause. The people looked at each other; they did not know what to do next. All the customary routine of a funeral was disturbed. The next step in the regular order of funeral exercises was to pass decorously around a coffin, pause a minute, bend over it with a long last look at the white face therein; the next, to move out of the room and take places in the funeral procession. Now that was out of the question; they were puzzled as to further proceedings.

Doctor Seth Prescott made the first move. He arose, and his wife after him, with a soft rustle of her silken skirts. They both went up to Ann Edwards, shook hands, and went out of the room. After them Mrs. Squire Merritt, with Lucina in hand, did likewise; then everybody else, except the relatives and the minister and his daughter.

After the decorous exit of the others, the relatives sat stiffly around the room and waited. They knew there was to be a funeral supper, for the fragrance of sweet cake and tea was strong over all the house. There had been some little doubt concerning it among the out-of-town relatives: some had opined that there would be none, on account of the other irregularities of the exercises; some had opined that the usual supper would be provided. The latter now sniffed and nodded triumphantly at the others--particularly Amelia Stokes's childish old mother. She, half hidden in the frills of a great mourning-bonnet and the folds of a great black shawl, kept repeating, in a sharp little gabble, like a child's: "I smell the tea, 'Melia--I do, I smell it. Yes, I do--I told ye so. I tell ye, I smell the tea."

Poor Amelia Stokes, who was a pretty, gentle-faced spinster, could not hush her mother, whisper as pleadingly as she might into the sharp old ear in the bonnet-frills. The old woman was full of the desire for tea, and could scarcely be restrained from following up its fragrant scent at once.

The two Lawson sisters sat side by side, their sharp faces under their black bonnets full of veiled alertness. Nothing escaped them; they even suspected the truth about Ann's bonnet and gloves. Ann still sat with her gloved hands crossed in her lap and her black veil over her strained little face. She did not move a muscle; but in the midst of all her restrained grief the sight of the large man, the woman, and the three girls in the blue thibets, the black silk mantillas, and the blue bonnets filled her with a practical dismay. They were the relatives from Westbrook, who had not been bidden to the funeral. They must have gotten word in some irregular manner, and the woman held her blue-bonneted head with a cant of war, which Ann knew well of old.

For a little while there was silence, except for Paulina Maria's heavy tramp and the soft shuffle of Belinda Lamb's cloth shoes out in the kitchen. They were hurrying to get the supper in readiness. Another appetizing odor was now stealing over the house, the odor of baking cream-of-tartar biscuits.

Suddenly, with one accord, as if actuated by one mental impulse, the little woman, the large man, and the three girls arose and advanced upon Ann Edwards. She grasped the arm of her chair hard, as if bracing herself to meet a shock.

The little woman spoke. Her eyes seemed full of black sparks, her voice shook, red spots flamed out in her cheeks. "We'll bid you good-bye now, Cousin Ann," said she.

"Ain't you going to stay and have some supper?" asked Ann. Her manner was at once defiant and conciliatory.

Then the little woman made her speech. All the way from her distant village, in the rear gloom of the covered wagon, she had been composing it. She delivered it with an assumption of calm dignity, in spite of her angry red cheeks and her shaking voice. "Cousin Ann," said the little woman, "me and mine go nowhere where we are not invited. We came to the funeral--though you didn't see fit to even tell us when it was, and we only heard of it by accident from the butcher--out of respect to poor Abel. He was my own second-cousin, and our folks used to visit back and forth a good deal before he was married. I felt as if I must come to his funeral, whether I was wanted or not, because I know if he'd been alive he'd said to come; but staying to supper is another thing. I am sorry for you, Cousin Ann; we are all sorry for you in your affliction. We all hope it may be sanctified to you; but I don't feel, and 'Lisha and the girls don't feel, as if we could stay and eat victuals in a house where we've been shown very plainly we ain't wanted."

Then Ann spoke, and her voice was unexpectedly loud. "You haven't any call to think you wasn't all welcome," said she. "You live ten miles off, and I hadn't a soul to send but Jerome, with a horse that can't get out of a walk. I didn't know myself there'd be a funeral for certain till yesterday. There wasn't time to send for you. I thought of it, but I knew there wouldn't be time to get word to you in season for you to start. You might, as long as you're a professing Christian, Eloise Green, have a little mercy in a time like this." Ann's voice quavered a little, but she set her mouth harder.

The large man nudged his wife and whispered something. He drew the back of his rough hand across his eyes. The three little blue-clad girls stood toeing in, dangling their cotton-gloved hands.

"I thought you might have sent word by the butcher," said the little woman. Her manner was softer, but she wanted to cover her defeat well.

"I couldn't think of butchers and all the wherewithals," said Ann, with stern dignity. "I didn't think Abel's relations would lay it up against me if I didn't."

The large man's face worked; tears rolled down his great cheeks. He pulled out a red handkerchief and wiped his eyes.

"You'd ought to had a white handkerchief, father," whispered the little woman; then she turned to Ann. "I'm sure I don't want to lay up anything," said she.

"I don't think you have any call to," responded Ann. "I haven't anything more to say. If you feel like staying to supper I shall be glad to have you, but I don't feel as if I had strength to urge anybody."

The large man sobbed audibly in his red handkerchief. His wife cast an impatient glance at him. "Well, if that is the way it was, of course we shall all be happy to stay and have a cup of tea," said she. "We've got a long ride before us, and I don't feel quite as well as common this spring. Of course I didn't understand how it happened, and I felt kind of hurt; it was only natural. I see how it was, now. 'Lisha, hadn't you better slip out and see how the horse is standing?" The little woman thrust her own white handkerchief into her husband's hand as he started. "You put that red one under the wagon seat," she whispered loud in his ear. Then she and the little girls in blue returned to their chairs. The rest of the company had been listening with furtive attention. Jerome had been trembling with indignation at his mother's side. He looked at the large man, and wondered impatiently why he did not shake that small woman, since he was able. There was as yet no leniency on the score of sex in the boy. He would have well liked to fly at that little wrathful body who was attacking his mother, and also blaming him for not riding those ten miles to notify her of the funeral. He scowled hard at her and the three little girls after they had returned to their seats. One of the girls, a pretty child with red curls, caught his frown, and stared at him with scared but fascinated blue eyes.

Supper was announced shortly. Belinda Lamb, instigated by Paulina Maria, stood in the door and said, with melancholy formality, "Will you come out now and have a little refreshment before you go home?"

Ann did not stir. The others went out lingeringly, holding back for politeness' sake; she sat still with her black veil over her face and her black gloved hands crossed in her lap. Paulina Maria came to her and tried to induce her to remove her bonnet and have some tea with the rest, but she shook her head. "I want to just sit here and keep still till they're gone," said she.

She sat there. Some of the others came and added their persuasions to Paulina Maria's, but she was firm. Jerome remained beside his mother; Elmira had been bidden to go into the other room and help wait upon the company.

"There's room for Jerome at the table, if you ain't coming," said Paulina Maria to Ann; but Jerome answered for himself.

"I'll wait till that crowd are gone," said he, with a fierce gesture.

"You wouldn't speak that way if you were my boy," said Paulina Maria.

Jerome muttered under his breath that he wasn't her boy. Paulina Maria cast a stern glance at him as she went out.

"Don't you be saucy, Jerome Edwards," Ann said, in a sharp whisper through her black veil. "She's done a good deal for us."

"I'd like to kill the whole lot!" said the boy, clinching his little fist.

"Hold your tongue! You're a wicked, ungrateful boy!" said his mother; but all the time she had a curious sympathy with him. Poor Ann was seized with a strange unreasoning rancor against all that decorously feeding company in the other room. There are despairing moments, when the happy seem natural enemies of the miserable, and Ann was passing through them. As she sat there in her gloomy isolation of widowhood, her black veil and her dark thoughts coloring her whole outlook on life, she felt a sudden fury of blindness against all who could see. Had she been younger, she would have given vent to her emotion like Jerome. Her son seemed the very expression of her own soul, although she rebuked him.

The people were a long time at supper. The funeral cake was sweet to their tongues, and the tea mildly exhilarating. When they came at last to bid farewell to Ann there was in their faces a pleasant unctuousness which they could not wholly veil with sympathetic sorrow. The childish old lady was openly hilarious. "That was the best cup o' tea I ever drinked," she whispered loud in Ann's ear. Jerome gave a scowl of utter contempt at her. When they were all gone, and the last covered wagon had rolled out of the yard, Ann allowed Paulina Maria to divest her of her bonnet and gloves and bring her a cup of tea. Jerome and Elmira ate their supper at one end of the disordered table; then they both worked hard, under the orders of Paulina Maria, to set the house in order. It was quite late that night before Jerome was at liberty to creep off to his own bed up in the slanting back chamber. Paulina Maria and Belinda Lamb had gone home, and the bereaved family were all alone in the house. Jerome's boyish heart ached hard, but he was worn out physically, and he soon fell asleep.

About midnight he awoke with a startling sound in his ears. He sat up in bed and listened, straining ears and eyes in the darkness. Out of the night gloom and stillness below came his mother's voice, raised loud and hoarse in half-accusatory prayer, not caring who heard, save the Lord.

"What hast thou done, O Lord?" demanded this daring and pitiful voice. "Why hast thou taken away from me the husband of my youth? What have I done to deserve it? Haven't I borne patiently the yoke Thou laidst upon me before? Why didst Thou try so hard one already broken on the wheel of Thy wrath? Why didst Thou drive a good man to destruction? O Lord, give me back my husband, if Thou art the Lord! If Thou art indeed the Almighty, prove it unto me by working this miracle which I ask of Thee! Give me back Abel! give him back!"

Ann's voice arose with a shriek; then there was silence for a little space. Presently she spoke again, but no longer in prayer--only in bitter, helpless lament. She used no longer the formal style of address to a Divine Sovereign; she dropped into her own common vernacular of pain.

"It ain't any use! it ain't any use!" she wailed out. "If there is a God He won't hear me, He won't help me, He won't bring him back. He only does His own will forever. Oh, Abel, Abel, Abel! Oh, my husband! Where are you? where are you? Where is the head that I've held on my breast? Where are the lips I have kissed? I couldn't even see him laid safe in his grave--not even that comfort! Oh, Abel, Abel, my husband, my husband! my own flesh and my own soul, torn away from me, and I left to draw the breath of life! Abel, Abel, come back, come back, come back!"

Ann Edwards's voice broke into inarticulate sobs and moans; then she did not speak audibly again. Jerome lay back in his bed, cold and trembling. Elmira, in the next chamber, was sound asleep, but he slept no more that night. A revelation of the love and sorrow of this world had come to him through his mother's voice. He was shamed and awed and overwhelmed by this glimpse of the nakedness of nature and that mighty current which swept him on with all mankind. The taste of knowledge was all at once upon the boy's soul.

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