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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 6
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A Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 6 Post by :mad_hatter_29 Category :Long Stories Author :Mary E Wilkins Freeman Date :May 2012 Read :1455

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A Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 6

Chapter VI

Squire Eben Merritt's house stood behind a file of dark pointed evergreen trees, which had grown and thickened until the sunlight never reached the house-front, which showed, in consequence, green patches of moss and mildew. One entering had, moreover, to turn out, as it were, for the trees, and take a circuitous route around them to the right to the front-door path, which was quite slippery with a film of green moss.

There had been, years ago, a gap betwixt the trees--a gate's width--but now none could enter unless the branches were lopped, and Eben Merritt would not allow that. His respect for that silent file of sylvan giants, keeping guard before his house against winds and rains and fierce snows, was greater than his hospitality and concern for the ease of guests. "Let 'em go round--it won't hurt 'em," he would say, with his great merry laugh, when his wife sometimes suggested that the old gateway should be repaired. However, it was only a few times during the year that the matter disturbed her, for she was not one to falter long at the small stumbling-blocks of life; a cheerful skip had she over them, or a placid glide aside. When she had the minister's daughter and other notable ladies to tea, who held it due to themselves to enter the front door, she was somewhat uneasy lest they draggle their fine petticoats skirting the trees, especially if the grass was dewy or there was snow; otherwise, she cared not. The Squire's friends, who often came in muddy boots, preferred the east-side door, which was in reality good enough for all but ladies coming to tea, having three stone steps, a goodly protecting hood painted green, with sides of lattice-work, and opening into a fine square hall, with landscape-paper on the walls, whence led the sitting-room and the great middle room, where the meals were served.

Jerome went straight round to this side door and raised the knocker. He had to wait a little while before any one came, and looked about him. He had been in Squire Eben Merritt's east yard before, but now he had a sense of invasion which gave it new meanings for him. A great straggling rose-vine grew over the hood of the door, and its young leaves were pricking through the lattice-work; it was old and needed trimming; there were many long barren shoots of last year. However, Squire Merritt guarded jealously the freedom of the rose, and would not have it meddled with, arguing that it had thriven thus since the time of his grandfather, who had planted it; that this was its natural condition of growth, and it would die if pruned.

Jerome looked out of this door-arbor, garlanded with the old rose-vine, into a great yard, skirted beyond the driveway with four great flowering cherry-trees, so old that many of the boughs would never bud again, and thrust themselves like skeleton arms of death through the soft masses of bloom out into the blue. One tree there was which had scarcely any boughs left, for the winds had taken them, and was the very torso of a tree; but Squire Eben Merritt would not have even that cut, for he loved a tree past its usefulness as faithfully as he loved an animal. "Well do I remember the cherries I used to eat off that tree, when I was so high," Eben Merritt would say. "Many a man has done less to earn a good turn from me than this old tree, which has fed me with its best fruit. Do you think I'll turn and kill it now?"

He had the roots of the old trees carefully dug about and tended, though not a dead limb lopped. Nurture, and not surgery, was the doctrine of Squire Merritt. "Let the earth take what it gave," he said; "I'll not interfere."

Jerome had heard these sayings of Squire Merritt's about the trees. They had been repeated, because people thought such ideas queer and showing lack of common-sense. He had heard them unthinkingly, but now, standing on Squire Merritt's door-step, looking at his old tree pensioners, whom he would not desert in their infirmity, he remembered, and the great man's love for his trees gave him reason, with a sudden leap of faith, to believe in his kindness towards him. "I'm better than an old tree," reasoned Jerome, and raised the knocker again boldly and let it fall with a great brazen clang. Then he jumped and almost fell backward when the door was flung open suddenly, and there stood Squire Merritt himself.

"What the devil--" began Squire Merritt; then he stopped and chuckled behind his great beard when he saw Jerome's alarmed eyes. "Hullo," said he, "who have we got here?" Eben Merritt had a soft place in his heart for all small young creatures of his kind, and always returned their timid obeisances, when he met them, with a friendly smile twinkling like light through his bushy beard. Still, like many a man of such general kindly bearings, he could not easily compass details, and oftener than not could not have told which child he greeted.

Eben Merritt, outside his own family, was utterly impartial in magnanimity, and dealt with broad principles rather than individuals. Now he looked hard at Jerome, and could not for the life of him tell what particular boy he was, yet recognized him fully in the broader sense of young helplessness and timid need. "Speak up," said he; "don't be scared. I know all the children, and I don't know one of 'em. Speak up like a man."

Then Jerome, stung to the resolution to show this great Squire, Eben Merritt, that he was not to be classed among the children, but was a man indeed, and equivalent to those duties of one which had suddenly been thrust upon him, looked his questioner boldly in the face and answered. "I'm Jerome Edwards," said he; "and Abel Edwards was my father."

Eben Merritt's face changed in a minute. He looked gravely at the boy, and nodded with understanding. "Yes, I know now," said he; "I remember. You look like your father." Then he added, kindly, but with a scowl of perplexity as to what the boy was standing there for, and what he wanted: "Well, my boy, what is it? Did your mother send you on some errand to Mrs. Merritt?"

Jerome scraped his foot, his manners at his command by this time, and his old hat was in his hand. "No, sir," said he; "I came to see you, sir, if you please, sir, and mother didn't send me. I came myself."

"You came to see me?"

"Yes, sir," Jerome scraped again, but his black eyes on the Squire's face were quite fearless and steady.

Squire Eben Merritt stared at him wonderingly; then he cast an uneasy glance at his fishing-pole, for he had come to the door with his tackle in his hands, and he gave a wistful thought to the brooks running through the young shadows of the spring woods, and the greening fields, and the still trout-pools he had meant to invade with no delay, and from which this childish visitor, bound probably upon some foolish errand, would keep him. Then he found his own manners, which were those of his good old family, courteous alike to young and old, and rich and poor.

"Well, if you've come to see me, walk in, sir," cried Squire Merritt, with a great access of heartiness, and he laid his fishing-tackle carefully on the long mahogany table in the entry, and motioned Jerome to follow him into the room on the left.

Jerome had never been inside the house before, but this room had a strangeness of its own which made him feel, when he entered, as if he had crossed the border of a foreign land. It was typically unlike any other room in the village. Jerome, whose tastes were as yet only imitative and departed not from the lines to which they had been born and trained, surveyed it with astonishment and some contempt. "No carpet," he thought, "and no haircloth sofa, and no rocking-chair!"

He stared at the skins of bear and deer which covered the floor, at the black settle with a high carven back, at a carved chest of black oak, at the smaller pelts of wolf and fox which decorated walls and chairs, at a great pair of antlers, and even a noble eagle sitting in state upon the top of a secretary. Squire Merritt had filled this room and others with his trophies of the chase, for he had been a mighty hunter from his youth.

"Sit down, sir," he told Jerome, a little impatiently, for he longed to be away for his fishing, and the stupid abstraction from purpose which unwonted spectacles always cause in childhood are perplexing and annoying to their elders, who cannot leave their concentration for any sight of the eyes, if they wish.

He indicated a chair, at which Jerome, suddenly brought to himself, looked dubiously, for it had a fine fox-skin over the back, and he wondered if he might sit on it or should remove it.

The Squire laughed. "Sit down," he ordered; "you won't hurt the pelt." And then he asked, to put him at his ease, "Did you ever shoot a fox, sir?"

"No, sir."

"Ever fire a gun?"

"No, sir."

"Want to?"

"Yes, sir."

Jerome did not respond with the ready eagerness which the Squire had expected. He had suddenly resolved, in his kindness and pity towards his fatherless state, knowing well the longings of a boy, to take him out in the field and let him fire his gun, and change, if he could, that sad old look he wore, even if he fished none that day; but Jerome disappointed him in his purpose. "He hasn't much spirit," he thought, and stood upon the hearth, before the open fireplace, and said no more, but waited to hear what Jerome had come for.

The Squire was far from an old man, though he seemed so to the boy. He was scarcely middle-aged, and indeed many still called him the "young Squire," as they had done when his father died, some fifteen years before. He was a massively built man, standing a good six feet tall in his boots; and in his boots, thick-soled, and rusty with old mud splashes, reaching high above his knees over his buckskin breeches, Squire Eben Merritt almost always stood. He was scarcely ever seen without them, except in the meeting-house on a Sunday--when he went, which was not often. There was a tradition that he in his boots, just home from a quail sortie in the swamp, had once invaded the best parlor, where his wife had her lady friends to tea, and which boasted a real Turkey carpet--the only one in town.

Eben Merritt in these great hunting-boots, clad as to the rest of him in stout old buckskin and rough coat and leather waistcoat, with his fair and ruddy face well covered by his golden furze of beard, which hung over his breast, lounged heavily on the hearth, and waited with a noble patience, eschewing all desire of fishing, until this pale, grave little lad should declare his errand.

But Jerome, with the great Squire standing waiting before him, felt suddenly tongue-tied. He was not scared, though his heart beat fast; it was only that the words would not come.

The Squire watched him kindly with his bright, twinkling blue eyes under his brush of yellow hair. "Take your time," said he, and threw one arm up over the mantel-shelf, and stood as if it were easier for him than to sit, and indeed it might have been so, for from his stalking of woods and long motionless watches at the lair of game, he had had good opportunities to accustom himself to rest at ease upon his feet.

Jerome might have spoken sooner had the Squire moved away from before him and taken his eyes from his face, for sometimes too ardent attention becomes a citadel for storming to a young and modest soul. However, at last he turned his own head aside, and his black eyes from the Squire's keen blue eyes, and would then have spoken had not the door opened suddenly and little Lucina come in on a run and stopped short a minute with timid finger to her mouth, and eyes as innocently surprised as a little rabbit's.

Lucina, being unhooded to-day, showed all her shower of shining yellow curls, which covered her little shoulders and fell to her childish waist. Her fat white neck and dimpled arms were bare and gleaming through the curls, and she wore a lace-trimmed pinafore, and a frock of soft blue wool scalloped with silk around the hem, revealing below the finest starched pantalets, and little morocco shoes.

Squire Eben laughed fondly, to see her start and hesitate, as a man will laugh at the pretty tricks of one he loves. "Come here, Pretty," he cried. "There's nothing for you to be afraid of. This is only poor little Jerome Edwards. Come and shake hands with him," and bade her thus, thinking another child might encourage the boy.

With that Lucina hesitated no longer, but advanced, smiling softly, with the little lady-ways her mother had taught her, and held out her white morsel of a hand to the boy. "How do you do?" she said, prettily, though still a little shyly, for she was mindful how her gingerbread had been refused, and might not this strange poor boy also thrust the hand away with scorn? She said that, and looking down, lest that black angry flash of his eyes startle her again, she saw his poor broken shoes, and gave a soft little cry, then made a pitiful lip, and stared hard at them with wide eyes full of astonished compassion, for the shoes seemed to her much more forlorn than bare feet.

Jerome's eyes followed hers, and he sprang up suddenly, his face blazing, and made out that he did not see the proffered little hand. "Pretty well," he returned, gruffly. Then he said to the Squire, with no lack of daring now, "Can I see you alone, sir?"

The Squire stared at him a second, then his great chest heaved with silent laughter and his yellow beard stirred as with a breeze of mirth.

"You don't object to my daughter's presence?" he queried, his eyes twinkling still, but with the formality with which he might have addressed the minister.

Jerome scowled with important indignation. Nothing escaped him; he saw that Squire Merritt was laughing at him. Again the pitiful rebellion at his state of boyhood seized him. He would have torn out of the room had it not been for his dire need. He looked straight at the Squire, and nodded stubbornly.

Squire Merritt turned to his little daughter and laid a tenderly heavy hand on her smooth curled head. "You'd better run away now and see mother, Pretty," he said. "Father has some business to talk over with this gentleman."

Little Lucina gave a bewildered look up in her father's face, then another at Jerome, as if she fancied she had not heard aright, then she went out obediently, like the good and gentle little girl that she was.

When the door closed behind her, Jerome began at once. Somehow, that other child's compassion in the midst of her comfort and security had brought his courage up to the point of attack on fate.

"I want to ask you about the mortgage," said Jerome.

The Squire looked at him with quick interest. "The mortgage on your father's place?"

"Yes, sir."

"Doctor Prescott holds it?"

"Yes, sir."

"How much is it?"

"A thousand dollars." Jerome said that with a gasp of horror and admiration at the vastness of it. Sometimes to him that thousand dollars almost represented infinity, and seemed more than the stars of heaven. His childish brain, which had scarcely contemplated in verity more than a shilling at a time of the coin of the realm, reeled at a thousand dollars.

"Well?" observed Squire Merritt, kindly but perplexedly. He wondered vaguely if the boy had come to ask him to pay the mortgage, and reflected how little ready money he had in pocket, for Eben Merritt was not thrifty with his income, which was indeed none too large, and was always in debt himself, though always sure to pay in time. Chances were, if Squire Merritt had had the thousand dollars to hand that morning, he might have thrust it upon the boy, with no further parley, taken his rod and line, and gone forth to his fishing. As it was, he waited for Jerome to proceed, merely adding that he was sorry that his mother did not own the place clear.

The plan that the boy unfolded, clumsily but sturdily to the end, he had thought out for himself in the darkness of the night before. The Squire listened. "Who planned this out?" he asked, when Jerome had finished.

"I did."

"Who helped you?"

"Nobody did."

"Nobody?"

"No, sir."

Suddenly Squire Eben Merritt seated himself in the chair which Jerome had vacated, seized the boy, and set him upon his knee. Jerome struggled half in wrath, half in fear, but he could not free himself from that strong grasp. "Sit still," ordered Squire Eben. "How old are you, my boy?"

"Goin' on twelve, sir," gasped Jerome.

"Only four years older than Lucina. Good Lord!"

The Squire's grasp tightened tenderly. The boy did not struggle longer, but looked up with a wonder of comprehensiveness in the bearded face bent kindly over his. "He looks at me the way father use to," thought Jerome.

"What made you come to me, my boy?" asked the Squire, presently. "Did you think I could pay the mortgage for you?"

Then Jerome colored furiously and threw up his head. "No, _sir_," said he, proudly.

"Why, then?"

"I came because you are a justice of the peace, and know what law is, and--"

"And what?"

"I've always heard you were pleasanter-spoken than he was."

The Squire laughed. "Pleasant words are cheap coin," said he. "I wish I had something better for your sake, child. Now let me see what it is you propose. That wood-lot of your father's, you say, Doctor Prescott has offered three hundred dollars for."

"Yes, sir."

The Squire whistled. "Didn't your father think it was worth more than that?"

"Yes, sir, but he didn't think he could get any more. He said--"

"What did he say?"

"He said that a poor seller was the slave of a rich buyer; but I think--" Jerome hesitated. He was not used yet to expressing his independent thought.

"Go on," said the Squire.

"I think it works both ways, and the poor man is the slave either way, whether he buys or sells," said the boy, half defiantly, half timidly.

"I guess you're about right," said the Squire, looking at him curiously. "Ever hear your uncle Ozias Lamb say anything like that?"

"No, sir."

"Thought it yourself, eh?"

"Yes, sir."

"Well, let's get to business now," said the Squire. "What you want is this, if I understand it. You want Doctor Prescott to buy that wood-lot of your father's for three hundred dollars, or whatever over that sum he will agree to, and you don't want him to pay you money down, but give you his note for it, with interest at six per cent., for as long a term as he will. You did not say give you a note, because you did not know about it, but that is what you want."

Jerome nodded soberly. "I know father paid interest at six per cent., and it was sixty dollars a year, and I know it would be eighteen dollars if it was three hundred dollars instead of a thousand. I figured it out on my slate," he said.

"You are right," said the Squire, gravely. "Now you think that will bring your interest down to forty-two dollars a year, and maybe you can manage that; and if you cannot, you think that Doctor Prescott will pay you cash down for the wood-lot?"

The boy seemed to be engaged in an arithmetical calculation. He bent his brows, and his lips moved. "That would be over seven years' interest money, at forty-two dollars a year, anyway," he said at length, looking at the Squire with shrewdly innocent eyes.

Suddenly Eben Merritt burst into a great roar of laughter, and struck the boy a kindly slap upon his small back.

"By the Lord Harry!" cried he, "you've struck a scheme worthy of the Jews. But you need good Christians to deal with!"

Jerome started and stared at him, half anxiously, half resentfully. "Ain't it right, sir?" he stammered.

"Oh, your scheme is right enough; no trouble about that. The question is whether Doctor Prescott is right."

Eben Merritt burst into another roar of laughter as he arose and set the boy on his feet. "I am not laughing at you, my boy," he said, though Jerome's wondering, indignant eyes upon his face were, to his thinking, past humorous.

Then he laid a hand upon each of the boy's little homespun shoulders. "Go and see Doctor Prescott, and tell him your plan, and--if he does not approve of it, come here and let me know," he said, and seriously enough to suit even Jerome's jealous self-respect.

"Yes, sir," said Jerome.

"And," added the Squire, "you had better go a little after noon--you will be more likely to find him at home."

"Yes, sir."

"Are you afraid to go out alone after dark?" asked the Squire.

"No, sir," replied Jerome, proudly.

"Well, then," said the Squire, "come and see me this evening, and tell me what Doctor Prescott says."

"Yes, sir," replied Jerome, and bobbed his head, and turned to go. The Squire moved before him with his lounging gait, and opened the door for him with ceremony, as for an honored guest.

Out in the south entry, with her back against the opposite wall, well removed from the south-room door, that she might not hear one word not intended for her ears, stood Lucina waiting, with one little white hand clinched tight, as over a treasure. When her father came out, following Jerome, she ran forward to him, pulled his head down by a gentle tug at his long beard, and whispered. Squire Eben laughed and smoothed her hair, but looked at her doubtfully. "I don't know about it, Pretty," he whispered back.

"Please, father," she whispered again, and rubbed her soft cheek against his great arm, and he laughed again, and looked at her as a man looks at the apple of his eye.

"Well," said he, "do as you like, Pretty." With that the little Lucina sprang eagerly forward before Jerome, who, hardly certain whether he were dismissed or not, yet eager to be gone, was edging towards the outer door, and held out to him her little hand curved into a sweet hollow like a cup of pearl, all full of silver coins.

Jerome looked at her, gave a quick, shamed glance at the little outstretched hand, colored red, and began backing away.

But Lucina pressed forward, thrusting in his very face her little precious cup of treasure. "Please take this, boy," said she, and her voice rang soft and sweet as a silver flute. "It is money I've been saving up to buy a parrot. But a parrot is a noisy bird, mother says, and maybe I could not love it as well as I love my lamb, and so its feelings would be hurt. I don't want a parrot, after all, and I want you to take this and buy some shoes." So said little Lucina Merritt, making her sweet assumption of selfishness to cover her unselfishness, for the noisy parrot was the desire of her heart, and to her father's eyes she bore the aspect of an angel, and he swallowed a great sob of mingled admiration and awe and intensest love. And indeed the child's face as she stood there had about it something celestial, for every line and every curve therein were as the written words of purest compassion; and in her innocent blue eyes stood self-forgetful tears.

Even the boy Jerome, with the pride of poverty to which he had been born and bred, like a bitter savor in his heart, stared at her a moment, his eyes dilated, his mouth quivering, and half advanced his hand to take the gift so sweetly offered. Then all at once the full tide of self rushed over him with all its hard memories and resolutions. His eyes gave out that black flash of wrath, which the poor little Lucina had feared, yet braved and forgot through her fond pity, he dashed out the back of his hand so roughly against that small tender one that all the silver pieces were jostled out to the floor, and rushed out of the door.

Squire Eben Merritt made an indignant exclamation and one threatening stride after him, then stopped, and caught up the weeping little Lucina, and sought to soothe her as best he might.

"Never mind, Pretty; never mind, Pretty," he said, rubbing his rough face against her soft one, in a way which was used to make her laugh. "Father 'll buy you a parrot that will talk the roof off."

"I don't--want a parrot, father," sobbed the little girl. "I want the boy to have shoes."

"Summer is coming, Pretty," said Squire Eben, laughingly and caressingly, "and a boy is better off without shoes than with them."

"He won't--have any--for next winter."

"Oh yes, he shall. I'll fix it so he shall earn some for himself before then--that's the way, Pretty. Father was to blame. He ought to have known better than to let you offer money to him. He's a proud child." The Squire laughed. "Now, don't cry any more, Pretty. Run away and play. Father's going fishing, and he'll bring you home some pretty pink fishes for your supper. Don't cry any more, because poor father can't go while you cry, and he has been delayed a long time, and the fishes will have eaten their dinner and won't bite if he doesn't hurry."

Lucina, who was docile even in grief, tried to laugh, and when her father set her down with a great kiss, which seemed to include her whole rosy face pressed betwixt his two hands, picked up her rejected silver from the floor, put it away in the little box in which she kept it, and sat down in a window of the south room to nurse her doll. She nodded and laughed dutifully when her father, going forth at last to the still pools and the brook courses, with his tackle in hand, looked back and nodded whimsically at her.

However, her childish heart was sore beyond immediate healing, for the wounds received from kindness spurned and turned back as a weapon against one's self are deep.

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