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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 5
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A Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 5 Post by :hecsam Category :Long Stories Author :Mary E Wilkins Freeman Date :May 2012 Read :790

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A Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 5

Chapter V

The next morning Jerome arose at dawn, and crept down-stairs noiselessly on his bare feet, that he might not awake his mother. However, still as he was, he had hardly crossed the threshold of the kitchen before his mother called to him from her bedroom, the door of which stood open.

"Who's that?" called Ann Edwards, in a strained voice; and Jerome knew that she had a wild hope that it was his father's step she heard instead of his. The boy caught his breath, hesitating a second, and his mother called again: "Who's that? Who's that out in the kitchen?"

"It's only me," answered Jerome, with that most pitiful of apologies in his tone--the apology for presence and very existence in the stead of one more beloved.

His mother drew a great shuddering sigh. "Come in here," she called out, harshly, and Jerome went into the bedroom and stood beside her bed. The curtain was not drawn over the one window, and the little homely interior was full of the pale dusk of dawn. This had been Ann Edwards's bridal chamber, and her children had been born there. The face of that little poor room was as familiar to Jerome as the face of his mother. From his earliest memory the high bureau had stood against the west wall, near the window, and a little round table, with a white towel and a rosewood box on it, in the corner at the head of the great high-posted bedstead, which filled the rest of the room, with scant passageway at the foot and one side. Ann's little body scarcely raised the patchwork quilt on the bed; her face, sunken in the feather pillows, looked small and weazened as a sick child's in the dim light. She reached out one little bony hand, clutched Jerome's poor jacket, and pulled him close. "What's goin' to be done?" she demanded, querulously. "What's goin' to be done? Do you know what's goin' to be done, Jerome Edwards?"

The boy stared at her, and her sharply questioning eyes struck him dumb.

Ann Edwards had always been the dominant spirit in her own household. The fact that she was so, largely on masculine sufferance, had never been fully recognized by herself or others. Now, for the first time, the stratum of feminine dependence and helplessness, which had underlain all her energetic assertion, was made manifest, and poor little Jerome was spurred out of his boyhood into manhood to meet this new demand.

"What's goin' to be done?" his mother cried again. "Why don't you speak, Jerome Edwards?"

Then Jerome drew himself up, and a new look came into his face. "I've been thinkin' of it over," he said, soberly, "an'--I've got a plan."

"What's goin' to be done?" Ann raised herself in bed by her clutch at her son's arm. Then she let go, and rocked herself to and fro, hugging herself with her little lean arms, and wailing weakly. "What's goin' to be done? Oh, oh! what's goin' to be done? Abel's dead, he's dead, and Doctor Prescott, he holds the mortgage. We 'ain't got any money, or any home. What's goin' to be done? What's goin' to be done? Oh, oh, oh, oh!"

Jerome grasped his mother by the shoulder and tried to force her back upon her pillows. "Come, mother, lay down," said he.

"I won't! I won't! I never will. What's goin' to be done? What's goin' to be done?"

"Mother, you lay right down and stop your cryin'," said Jerome; and his mother started, and hushed, and stared at him, for his voice sounded like his father's. The boy's wiry little hands upon her shoulders, and his voice like his father's, constrained her strongly, and she sank back; and her face appeared again, like a thin wedge of piteous intelligence, in the great feather pillow.

"Now you lay still, mother," said Jerome, and to his mother's excited eyes he looked taller and taller, as if in very truth this sudden leap of his boyish spirit into the stature of a man had forced his body with it. He straightened the quilt over his mother's meagre shoulders. "I'm goin' to start the fire," said he, "and put on the hasty-pudding, and when it's all ready I'll call Elmira, and we'll help you up."

"What's goin' to be done?" his mother quavered again; but this time feebly, as if her fierce struggles were almost hushed by contact with authority.

"I've got a plan," said Jerome. "You just lay still, mother, and I'll see what's best."

Ann Edwards's eyes rolled after the boy as he went out of the room, but she lay still, obediently, and said not another word. An unreasoning confidence in this child seized upon her. She leaned strongly upon what, until now, she had held the veriest reed--to her own stupefaction and with doubtful content, but no resistance. Jerome seemed suddenly no longer her son; the memory of the time when she had cradled and swaddled him failed her. The spirit of his father awakened in him filled her at once with strangeness and awed recognition.

She heard the boy pattering about in the kitchen, and, in spite of herself, the conviction that his father was out there, doing the morning task which had been his for so many years, was strong upon her.

When at length Jerome and Elmira came and told her breakfast was ready, and assisted her to rise and dress, she was as unquestioningly docile as if the relationship between them were reversed. When she was seated in her chair she even forbore, as was her wont, to start immediately with sharp sidewise jerks of her rocker, but waited until her children pushed and drew her out into the next room, up to the breakfast-table. There were, moreover, no sharp commands and chidings as to the household tasks that morning. Jerome and Elmira did as they would, and their mother sat quietly and ate her breakfast.

Elmira kept staring at her mother, and then glancing uneasily at Jerome. Her pretty face was quite pale that morning, and her eyes looked big. She moved hesitatingly, or with sharp little runs of decision. She went often to the window and stared down the road--still looking for her father; for hope dies hard in youth, and she had words of triumph at the sight of him all ready upon her tongue. Her mother's strange demeanor frightened her, and made her almost angry. She was too young to grasp any but the more familiar phases of grief, and revelations of character were to her revolutions.

She beckoned her brother out of the room the first chance she got, and questioned him.

"What ails mother?" she whispered, out in the woodshed, holding to the edge of his jacket and looking at him with piteous, scared eyes.

Jerome stood with his shoulders back, and seemed to look down at her from his superior height of courageous spirit, though she was as tall as he.

"She's come to herself," said Jerome.

"She wasn't ever like this before."

"Yes, she was--inside. She ain't anything but a woman. She's come to herself."

Elmira began to sob nervously, still holding to her brother's jacket, not trying to hide her convulsed little face. "I don't care, she scares me," she gasped, under her breath, lest her mother hear. "She ain't any way I've ever seen her. I'm 'fraid she's goin' to be crazy. I'm dreadful 'fraid mother's goin' to be crazy, Jerome."

"No, she ain't," said Jerome. "She's just come to herself, I tell you."

"Father's dead and mother's crazy, and Doctor Prescott has got the mortgage," wailed Elmira, in an utter rebellion of grief.

Jerome caught her by the arm and pulled her after him at a run, out of the shed, into the cool spring morning air. So early in the day, with no stir of life except the birds in sight or sound, the new grass and flowering branches and blooming distances seemed like the unreal heaven of a dream; and, indeed, nothing save their own dire strait of life was wholly tangible and met them but with shocks of unfamiliar things.

Jerome, out in the yard, took his sister by both arms, piteously slender and cold through their thin gingham sleeves, and shook her hard, and shook her again.

"Jerome Edwards, what--you doin'--so--for?" she gasped.

"'Ain't you got anything to you? 'Ain't you got anything to you at all?" said Jerome, fiercely.

"I--don't know what you mean! Don't, Jerome--don't! Oh, Jerome, I'm 'fraid you're crazy, like mother?"

"'Ain't you got enough to you," said Jerome, still shaking her as if she had not spoken, "to control your feelin's and do up the housework nice, and not kill mother?"

"Yes, I will--I'll be just as good as I can. You know I will. Don't, Jerome! I 'ain't cried before mother this mornin'. You know I 'ain't."

"You cried loud enough, just now in the shed, so she could hear you."

"I won't again. Don't, Jerome!"

"You're 'most a grown-up woman," said Jerome, ceasing to shake his sister, but holding her firm, and looking at her with sternly admonishing eyes. "You're 'most as old as I be, and I've got to take care of you all. It's time you showed it if there's anything to you."

"Oh, Jerome, you look just like father," whispered Elmira, suddenly, with awed, fascinated eyes on his face.

"Now you go in and wash up the dishes, and sweep the kitchen, and make up the beds, and don't you cry before mother or say anything to pester her," said Jerome.

"What you goin' to do, Jerome?" Elmira asked, timidly.

"I'm goin' to take care of the horse and finish plantin' them beans first."

"What you goin' to do then?"

"Somethin'--you wait and see." Jerome spoke with his first betrayal of boyish weakness, for a certain importance crept into his tone.

Elmira instinctively recognized it, and took advantage of it. "Ain't you goin' to ask mother, Jerome Edwards?" she said.

"I'm goin' to do what's best," answered Jerome; and again that uncanny gravity of authority which so awed her was in his face.

When he again bade her go into the house and do as he said, she obeyed with a longing, incredulous look at him.

Jerome had not eaten much breakfast; indeed, he had not finished when Elmira had beckoned him out. But he said to himself that he did not want any more--he would go straight about his tasks.

Jerome, striking out through the dewy wind of foot-path towards the old barn, heard suddenly a voice calling him by name. It was a voice as low and heavy as a man's, but had a nervous feminine impulse in it. "Jerome!" it called. "Jerome Edwards!"

Jerome turned, and saw Paulina Maria coming up the road, walking with a firm, swaying motion of her whole body from her feet, her cotton draperies blowing around her like sheathing-leaves.

Jerome stood still a minute, watching her; then he went back to the house, to the door, and stationed himself before it. He stood there like a sentinel when Paulina Maria drew near. The meaning of war was in his shoulder, his expanded boyish chest, his knitted brows, set chin and mouth, and unflinching eyes; he needed only a sword or gun to complete the picture.

Paulina Maria stopped, and looked at him with haughty wonder. She was not yet intimidated, but she was surprised, and stirred with rising indignation.

"How's your mother this morning, Jerome?" said she.

"Well 's she can be," replied Jerome, gruffly, with a wary eye upon her skirts when they swung out over her advancing knee; for Paulina Maria was minded to enter the house with no further words of parley. He gathered himself up, in all his new armor of courage and defiance, and stood firm in her path.

"I'm going in to see your mother," said Paulina Maria, looking at him as if she suspected she did not understand aright.

"No, you ain't," returned Jerome.

"What do you mean?"

"You ain't goin' in to see my mother this mornin'."

"Why not, I'd like to know?"

"She's got to be kept still and not see anybody but us, or she'll be sick."

"I guess it won't hurt her any to see me." Paulina Maria turned herself sidewise, thrust out a sharp elbow, and prepared to force herself betwixt Jerome and the door-post like a wedge.

"You stand back!" said Jerome, and fixed his eyes upon her face.

Paulina Maria turned pale. "What do you mean, actin' so?" she said, again. "Did your mother tell you not to let me in?"

"Mother's got to be kept still and not see anybody but us, or she'll be sick. I ain't goin' to have anybody come talkin' to her to-day," said Jerome, with his eyes still fixed upon Paulina Maria's face.

Paulina Maria was like a soldier whose courage is invincible in all tried directions. Up to all the familiar and registered batteries of life she could walk without flinching, and yield to none; but here was something new, which savored perchance of the uncanny, and a power not of the legitimate order of things. There was something frightful and abnormal to her in Jerome's pale face, which did not seem his own, his young eyes full of authority of age, and the intimation of repelling force in his slight, childish form.

Paulina Maria might have driven a fierce watch-dog from her path with her intrepid will; she might have pushed aside a stouter arm in her way; but this defence, whose persistence in the face of apparent feebleness seemed to indicate some supernatural power, made her quail. From her spare diet and hard labor, from her cleanliness and rigid holding to one line of thought and life, the veil of flesh and grown thin and transparent, like any ascetic's of old, and she was liable to a ready conception of the abnormal and supernatural.

With one half-stern, half-fearful glance at the forbidding child in her path, she turned about and went away, pausing, however, in the vantage-point of the road and calling back in an indignant voice, which trembled slightly, "You needn't think you're goin' to send folks home this way many times, Jerome Edwards!" Then, with one last baffled glance at the pale, strange little figure in the Edwards door, she went home, debating grimly with herself over her weakness and her groundless fear.

Jerome waited until she was out of sight, gave one last look down the road to be sure no other invaders were approaching his fortress, and then went on to the barn. When he rolled back the door and entered, the old white horse stirred in his stall and turned to look at him. There was something in the glance over the shoulder of that long white face which caused the heart of the boy to melt within him. He pressed into the stall, flung up his little arms around the great neck, and sobbed and sobbed, his face hid against the heaving side.

The old horse had looked about, expecting to see Jerome's father coming to feed and harness him into the wood-wagon, and Jerome knew it, and there was something about the consciousness of loss and sorrow of this faithful dumb thing which smote him in a weaker place than all human intelligence of it.

Abel Edwards had loved this poor animal well, and had set great store by his faithful service; and the horse had loved him, after the dumb fashion of his kind, and, indeed, not sensing that he was dead, loved him still, with a love as for the living, which no human being could compass. Jerome, clinging to this dumb beast, to which alone the love of his father had not commenced, by those cruel and insensible gradations, to become the memory which is the fate, as inevitable as death itself, of all love when life is past, felt for the minute all his new strength desert him, and relapsed into childhood and clinging grief. "You loved him, didn't you?" he whispered between his sobs. "You loved poor father, didn't you, Peter?" And when the horse turned his white face and looked at him, with that grave contemplation seemingly indicative of a higher rather than a lower intelligence, with which an animal will often watch human emotion, he sobbed and sobbed again, and felt his heart fail him at the realization of his father's death, and of himself, a poor child, with the burden of a man upon his shoulders. But it was only for a few minutes that he yielded thus, for the stature of the mind of the boy had in reality advanced, and soon he drew himself up to it, stopped weeping, led the horse out to the well, drew bucket after bucket of water, and held them patiently to his plashing lips. Then a neighbor in the next house, a half-acre away, looking across the field, called her mother to see how much Jerome Edwards looked like his father. "It gave me quite a turn when I see him come out, he looked so much like his father, for all he's so small," said she. "He walked out just like him; I declare, I didn't know but he'd come back."

Jerome, leading the horse, walked back to the barn in his father's old tracks, with his father's old gait, reproducing the dead with the unconscious mimicry of the living, while the two women across the field watched him from their window. "It ain't a good sign--he's got a hard life before him," said the older of the two, who had wild blue eyes under a tousle of gray hair, and was held in somewhat dubious repute because of spiritualistic tendencies.

"Guess he'll have a hard life enough, without any signs--most of us do. He won't have to make shirts, anyhow," rejoined her daughter, who had worn out her youth with fine stitching of linen shirts for a Jew peddler. Then she settled back over her needle-work with a heavy sigh, indicative of a return from the troubles of others to her own.

Jerome fed the old horse, and rubbed him down carefully. "Sha'n't be sold whilst I'm alive," he assured him, with a stern nod, as he combed out his forelock, and the animal looked at him again, with that strange attention which is so much like the attention of understanding.

After his tasks in the barn were done Jerome went out to the sloping garden and finished planting the beans. He could see Elmira's smooth dark head passing to and fro before the house windows, and knew that she was fulfilling his instructions.

He kept a sharp watch upon the road for other female friends of his mother's, who, he was resolved, should not enter.

"Them women will only get her all stirred up again. She's got to get used to it, and they'll just hinder her," he said, quite aloud to himself, having in some strange fashion discovered the truth that the human mind must adjust itself to its true balance after the upheaval of sorrow.

After the beans were planted it was only nine o'clock. Jerome went soberly down the garden-slope, stepping carefully between the planted ridges, then into the house, with a noiseless lift of the latch and glide over the threshold; for Elmira signalled him from the window to be still.

His mother sat in her high-backed rocker, fast asleep, her sharp eyes closed, her thin mouth gaping, an expression of vacuous peace over her whole face, and all her wiry little body relaxed. Jerome motioned to Elmira, and the two tiptoed out across the little front entry to the parlor.

"How long has she been asleep?" whispered Jerome.

"'Most an hour. You don't s'pose mother's goin' to die too, do you, Jerome?"

"Course she ain't."

"I never saw her go to sleep in the daytime before. Mother don't act a mite like herself. She 'ain't spoke out to me once this mornin'," poor little Elmira whimpered; but her brother hushed her, angrily.

"Don't you know enough to keep still--a great big girl like you?" he said.

"Jerome, I have. I 'ain't cried a mite before her, and she couldn't hear that," whispered Elmira, chokingly.

"Mother's got awful sharp ears, you know she has," insisted Jerome. "Now I'm goin' away, and don't you let anybody come in here while I'm gone and bother mother."

"I'll have to let Cousin Paulina Maria and Aunt Belinda in, if they come," said Elmira, staring at him wonderingly. Neither she nor her mother knew that Paulina Maria had already been there and been turned away.

"You just lock the house up, and not go to the door," said Jerome, decisively.

Elmira kept staring at him, as if she doubted her eyes and ears. She felt a certain awe of her brother. "Where you goin'?" she inquired, half timidly.

"I'll tell you when I get back," replied Jerome. He went out with dignity, and Elmira heard him on the stairs. "He's goin' to dress up," she thought.

She sat down by the window, well behind the curtain, that any one approaching might not see her, and waited. She had wakened that morning as into a new birth of sense, and greeted the world with helpless childish weeping, but now she was beginning to settle comfortably into this strange order of things. Her face, as she sat thus, wore the ready curves of smiles instead of tears. Elmira was one whose strength would always be in dependence. Now her young brother showed himself, as if by a miracle, a leader and a strong prop, and she could assume again her natural attitude of life and growth. She was no longer strange to herself in these strange ways, and that was wherein all the bitterness of strangeness lay.

When Jerome came down-stairs, in his little poor best jacket and trousers and his clean Sunday shirt, she stood in the door and looked at him curiously, but with a perfect rest of confidence.

Jerome looked at her with dignity, and yet with a certain childish importance, without which he would have ceased to be himself at all. "Look out for mother," he whispered, admonishingly, and went out, holding his head up and his shoulders back, and feeling his sister's wondering and admiring eyes upon him, with a weakness of pride, and yet with no abatement of his strength of purpose, which was great enough to withstand self-recognition.

The boy that morning had a new gait when he had once started down the road. The habit of his whole life--and, more than that, an inherited habit--ceased to influence him. This new exaltation of spirit controlled even bones and muscles.

Jerome, now he had fairly struck out in life with a purpose of his own, walked no longer like his poor father, with that bent shuffling lope of worn-out middle age. His soul informed his whole body, and raised it above that of any simple animal that seeks a journey's end. His head was up and steady, as if he bore a treasure-jar on it, his back flat as a soldier's; he swung his little arms at his sides and advanced with proud and even pace.

Jerome's old gaping shoes were nicely greased, and he himself had made a last endeavor to close the worst apertures with a bit of shoemaker's thread. He had had quite a struggle with himself, before starting, regarding these forlorn old shoes and another pair, spick and span and black, and heavily clamping with thick new soles, which Uncle Ozias Lamb had sent over for him to wear to the funeral.

"He sent 'em over, an' says you may wear 'em to the funeral, if you're real careful," his aunt Belinda had said, and then added, with her gentle sniff of deprecation and apology: "He says you'll have to give 'em back again--they ain't to keep. He says he's got so behindhand lately he 'ain't got any tithes to give to the Lord. He says he 'ain't got nothing that will divide up into ten parts, 'cause he 'ain't got more'n half one whole part himself." Belinda Lamb repeated her husband's bitter saying out of his heart of poverty with a scared look, and yet with a certain relish and soft aping of his defiant manner.

"I don't want anybody to give when I can't give back again," Ann had returned. "Ozias has always done full as much for us as we've done for him." Then she had charged Jerome to be careful of the shoes, and not stub the toes, so his uncle would have difficulty in selling them.

"I'll wear my old shoes," Jerome had replied, sullenly, but then had been borne down by the chorus of feminine rebuke and misunderstanding of his position. They thought, one and all, that he was wroth because the shoes were not given to him, and the very pride which forbade him to wear them constrained him to do so.

However, this morning he had looked at them long, lifted them and weighed them, turning them this way and that, put them on his feet and stood contemplating them. He was ashamed to wear his old broken shoes to call on grand folks, but he was too proud and too honest, after all, to wear these borrowed ones.

So he stepped along now with an occasional uneasy glance at his feet, but with independence in his heart. Jerome walked straight down the road to Squire Eben Merritt's. The cut across the fields would have been much shorter, for the road made a great curve for nearly half a mile, but the boy felt that the dignified highway was the only route for him, bent on such errands, in his best clothes.

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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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