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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 7
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A Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 7 Post by :Hoick Category :Long Stories Author :Mary E Wilkins Freeman Date :May 2012 Read :1876

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A Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 7

Chapter VII

In every household which includes a beloved child there is apt to be one above another, who acts as an intercessor towards furthering its little plans and ends. Little Lucina's was her father. Her mother was no less indulgent in effect, but she was anxiously solicitous lest too much concession spoil the child, and had often to reconcile a permission to her own conscience before giving it, even in trivial matters.

Therefore little Lucina, having in mind some walk abroad or childish treasure, would often seek her father, and, lifting up her face like a flower against his rough-coated breast, beg him, in that small, wheedling voice which he so loved, to ask her mother that she might go or have; for well she knew, being astute, though so small and innocent and gentle, that such a measure was calculated to serve her ends, and allay her mother's scruples through a shift of responsibility.

However, to-day, since her father was away fishing, Lucina was driven to seek other aid in the carrying out of a small plan which she had formed for her delectation.

Right anxiously the child watched for her father to come home to the noonday dinner; but he did not come, and she and her mother ate alone. Then she stole away up-stairs to her little dimity-hung chamber, opening out of her parents' and facing towards the sun, and all twinkling and swaying with little white tassels on curtains and covers and counterpane, in the draught, as she opened the door. Then she went down on her knees beside her bed and prayed, in the simplicity of her heart, which would seek a Heavenly Father in lieu of an earthly one, for all her small desires, and think no irreverence: "Our Father, who art in heaven, please make mother let me go to Aunt Camilla's this afternoon. Amen."

Then she rose, with no delay for lack of faith, and went straight down to her mother, and proffered her request timidly, and yet with a confidence as of one who has a larger voice of authority at her back.

"Please, mother, may I go over to Aunt Camilla's this afternoon?" asked little Lucina.

And her mother, not knowing what principle of childish faith was involved, hesitated, knitting her small, dark face, which had no look like Lucina's, perplexedly.

"I don't know, child," said she.

"Please, mother!"

"I am afraid you'll trouble your aunt, Lucina."

"No, I won't, mother! I'll take my doll, and I'll play with her real quiet."

"I am afraid your aunt Camilla will have something else to do."

"She can do it, mother. I won't trouble her--I won't speak to her--honest! Please, mother."

"You ought to sit down at home this afternoon and do some work, Lucina."

"I'll take over my garter-knitting, mother, and I'll knit ten times across."

It happened at length, whether through effectual prayer, or such skilful fencing against weak maternal odds, that the little Lucina, all fresh frilled and curled, with her silk knitting-bag dangling at her side, and her doll nestled to her small mother-shoulder, stepping with dainty primness in her jostling starched pantalets, lifting each foot carefully lest she hit her nice morocco toes against the stones, went up the road to her aunt Camilla's.

Miss Camilla Merritt lived in the house which had belonged to her grandfather, called the "old Merritt house" to distinguish it from the one which her father had built, in which her brother Eben lived. Both, indeed, were old, but hers was venerable, and claimed that respect which extreme age, even in inanimate things, deserves. And in a way, indeed, this old house might have been considered raised above the mere properties of wood and brick and plaster by such an accumulation of old memories and associations, which were inseparable from its walls, to something nearly sentient and human, and to have established in itself a link 'twixt matter and mind.

Never had any paint touched its outer walls, overlapped with silver-gray shingles like scales of a fossil fish. The door and the great pillared portico over it were painted white, as they had been from the first, and that was all. A brick walk, sunken in mossy hollows, led up to the front door, which was only a few feet from the road, the front yard being merely a narrow strip with great poplars set therein. Lucina had always had a suspicion, which she confided to no one, being sensitive as to ridicule for her childish theories, that these poplars were not real trees. Even the changing of the leaves did not disarm her suspicion. Sometimes she dug surreptitiously around the roots with a pointed stick to see what she could discover for or against it, and always with a fearful excitement of daring, lest she topple the tree over, perchance, and destroy herself and Aunt Camilla and the house.

To-day Lucina went up the walk between the poplars, recognizing them as one recognizes friends oftentimes, not as their true selves, but as our conception of them, and knocked one little ladylike knock with the brass knocker. She never entered her aunt Camilla's house without due ceremony.

Aunt Camilla's old woman, who lived with her, and performed her household work as well as any young one, answered the knock and bade her enter. Lucina followed this portly old-woman figure, moving with a stiff wabble of black bombazined hips, like some old domestic fowl, into the east room, which was the sitting-room.

The old woman's name was lost to memory, inasmuch as she had been known simply as 'Liza ever since her early childhood, and had then hailed from the town farm, with her parentage a doubtful matter.

There was about this woman, who had no kith nor kin, nor equal friends, nor money, nor treasures, nor name, and scarce her own individuality in the minds of others, a strange atmosphere of silence, broken seldom by uncouth, stammering speech, which always intimidated the little Lucina. She had, however, a way of expanding, after long stares at her, into sudden broad smiles which relieved the little girl's apprehension; and, too, her rusty black bombazine smelled always of rich cake--a reassuring perfume to one who knew the taste of it.

Lucina's aunt Camilla was a nervous soul, and liked not the rattle of starched cotton about the house. Her old serving-woman must go always clad in woollen, which held the odors of cooking long.

Lucina sat down in a little rocking-chair, hollowed out like a nest in back and seat, which was her especial resting-place, and 'Liza went out, leaving the rich, fruity odor of cake behind her, saying no word, but evidently to tell her mistress of her guest. There were no blinds on this ancient house, but there were inside shutters in fine panel-work at all the windows. These were all closed except at the east windows. There between the upper panels were left small square apertures which framed little pictures of the blue spring sky, slanted across with blooming peach boughs; for there was a large peach orchard on the east side of the house. Lucina watched these little pictures, athwart which occasionally a bird flew and raised them to life. She held her doll primly, and her little work-bag still dangled from her arm. She would not begin her task of knitting until her aunt appeared and her visit was fairly in progress.

Over against the south wall stood a clock as tall as a giant man, and giving in the half-light a strong impression of the presence of one, to an eye which did not front it. Lucina often turned her head with a start and looked, to be sure it was only the clock which sent that long, dark streak athwart her vision. The clock ticked with slow and solemn majesty. She was sure that sixty of those ticks would make a minute, and sixty times the sixty an hour, if she could count up to that and not get lost in such a sea of numbers; but she could not tell the time of day by the clock hands.

Lucina was a quick-witted child, but seemed in some particulars to have a strange lack of curiosity, or else an instinct to preserve for herself an imagination instead of acquiring knowledge. She was either obstinately or involuntarily ignorant as yet of the method of telling time, and the hands of the clock were held before its face of mystery for concealment rather than revelation to her. But she loved to sit and watch the clock, and she never told her mother what she thought about it. Directly in front of Lucina, as she sat waiting, hanging over the mantel-shelf between the east windows, was a great steel engraving of the Declaration of Independence. Lucina looked at the cluster of grave men, and was innocently proud and sure that her father was much finer-looking than any one of them, and, moreover, doubted irreverently if any one of them could shoot rabbits or catch fish, or do anything but sign his name with that stiff pen. Lucina was capable of an agony of faithfulness to her own, but of loyalty in a broad sense she knew nothing, and never would, having in that respect the typical capacity only of women.

The east-room door had been left ajar. Presently a soft whisper of silk could be heard afar off; but before that even a delicate breath of lavender came floating into the room. Many sweet and subtly individual odors seemed to dwell in this old house, preceding the mortal inhabitants through the doors, and lingering behind them in rooms where they had stayed.

Lucina started when the lavender breath entered the room, and looked up as if at a ghostly herald. She toed out her two small morocco-shod feet more particularly upon the floor, she smoothed down her own and her doll's little petticoats, and she also made herself all ready to rise and courtesy.

After the lavender sweetness came the whisper of silk flounces, growing louder and louder; but there was no sound of footsteps, for Aunt Camilla moved only with the odor and rustle of a flower. No one had ever heard her little slippered feet; even her high heels never tapped the thresholds. She had a way of advancing her toes first and making the next step with a tilt, so soft that it was scarcely a break from a glide, and yet clearing the floor as to her slipper heels.

Lucina knew her aunt Camilla was coming down the stairs by the rustling of her silk flounces along the rails of the banisters, like harp-strings; then there was a cumulative whisper and an entrance.

Lucina rose, holding her doll like a dignified little mother, and dropped a courtesy.

"Good-afternoon," said Aunt Camilla.

"Good-afternoon," returned Lucina.

"How do you do?" asked Aunt Camilla.

"Pretty well, I thank you," replied Lucina.

"How is your mother?"

"Pretty well, I thank you."

"Is your father well?"

"Yes, ma'am; I thank you."

During this dialogue Aunt Camilla was moving gently forward upon her niece. When she reached her she stooped, or rather drooped--for stooping implies a bend of bone and muscle, and her graceful body seemed to be held together by integuments like long willow leaves--and kissed her with a light touch of cool, delicate lips. Aunt Camilla's slender arms in their pointed lilac sleeves and lace undersleeves waved forward as with a vague caressing intent. Soft locks of hair and frilling laces in her cap and bosom hung forward like leaves on a swaying bough, and tickled Lucina's face, half smothered in the old lavender fragrance.

Lucina colored innocently and sweetly when her aunt kissed her, and afterwards looked up at her with sincerest love and admiration and delight.

Camilla Merritt was far from young, being much older than her brother, Lucina's father; but she was old as a poem or an angel might be, with the lovely meaning of her still uppermost and most evident. Camilla in her youth had been of a rare and delicate beauty, which had given her fame throughout the country-side, and she held the best of it still, as one holds jewels in a worn casket, and as a poem written in obsolete language contains still its first grace of thought. Camilla's soft and slender body had none of those stiff, distorted lines which come from resistance to the forced attitudes of life. Her body and her soul had been amenable to all discipline. She had leaned sweetly against her crosses, instead of straining away from them with fierce cramps and agonies of resistance. In every motion she had the freedom of utter yielding, which surpasses the freedom of action. Camilla's graduated flounces of lilac silk, slightly faded, having over it a little spraying mist of gray, trimmed her full skirt to her slender waist, girdled with a narrow ribbon fastened with a little clasp set with amethysts. A great amethyst brooch pinned the lace at her throat. She wore a lace cap, and over that, flung loosely, draping her shoulders and shading her face with its soft mesh, a great shawl or veil of fine white lace wrought with sprigs. Camilla's delicately spare cheeks were softly pink, with that elderly bloom which lacks the warm dazzle of youth, yet has its own late beauty. Her eyes were blue and clear as a child's, and as full of innocent dreams--only of the past instead of the future. Her blond hair, which in turning gray had got a creamy instead of a silvery lustre, like her old lace, was looped softly and disposed in half-curls over her ears. When she smiled it was with the grace and fine dignity of ineffable ladyhood, and yet with the soft ignorance, though none of the abandon, of childhood. Camilla was like a child whose formal code and manners of life had been fully prescribed and learned, but whose vital copy had not been quite set.

Lucina loved her aunt Camilla with a strange sense of comradeship, and yet with awe. "If you can ever be as much of a lady as your aunt Camilla, I shall be glad," her mother often told her. Camilla was to Lucina the personification of the gentle and the genteel. She was her ideal, the model upon which she was to form herself.

Camilla was so unceasingly punctilious in all the finer details of living that all who infringed upon them felt her mere presence a reproach. Children were never rough or loud-voiced or naughty when Miss Camilla was near, though she never admonished otherwise than by example. As for little Lucina, she would have felt shamed for life had her aunt Camilla caught her toeing in, or stooping, or leaving the "ma'am" off from her yes and no.

Camilla, this afternoon, did what Lucina had fondly hoped she might do--proposed that they should sit out in the arbor in the garden. "I think it is warm enough," she said; and Lucina assented with tempered delight.

It was a very warm afternoon. Spring had taken, as she will sometimes do in May, being apparently weary of slow advances, a sudden flight into summer, with a wild bursting of buds and a great clamor of wings and songs.

Miss Camilla got a yellow Canton crepe shawl, that was redolent of sandalwood, out of a closet, but she did not put it over her shoulders, the outdoor air was so soft. She needed nothing but her lace mantle over her head, which made her look like a bride of some old spring. Lucina followed her through the hall, out of the back door, which had a trellis and a grape-vine over it, into the garden. The garden was large, and laid out primly in box-bordered beds. There were even trees of box on certain corners, and it looked as if the box would in time quite choke out the flowers. Lucina, who was given to sweet and secret fancies, would often sit with wide blue eyes of contemplation upon the garden, and discover in the box a sprawling, many-armed green monster, bent upon strangling out the lives of the flowers in their beds.

"Why don't you have the box trimmed, Aunt Camilla?" she would venture to inquire at such times; and her aunt Camilla, looking gently askance at the flush of excitement, which she did not understand, upon her niece's cheek, would reply:

"The box has always been there, my dear."

Long existence proved always the sacredness of a law to Miss Camilla. She was a conservative to the bone.

The arbor where the two sat that afternoon was of the kind one sees in old prints where lovers sit in chaste embrace under a green arch of eglantine. However, in Miss Camilla's arbor were no lovers, and instead of eglantine were a honeysuckle and a climbing rose. The rose was not yet in bloom, and the honeysuckle's red trumpets were not blown--their parts in the symphony of the spring were farther on; over the arbor there was only a delicate prickling of new leaves, which cast a lace-like shadow underneath. A bench ran around the three closed sides of the arbor, and upon the bench sat Lucina and her aunt Camilla, in her spread of lilac flounces. Camilla held in her lap a little portfolio of papier-mache, and wrote with a little gold pencil on sheets of gilt-edged paper. Camilla always wrote when she sat in the arbor, but nobody ever knew what. She always carried the finely written sheets into the house, and nobody knew where she put them afterwards. Camilla's long, thin fingers, smooth and white as ivory, sparkled dully with old rings. Some large amethysts in fine gold settings she wore, one great yellow pearl, a mourning-ring of hair in a circlet of pearls for tears, and some diamond bands in silver, which gave out cold white lights only as her hands moved across the gilt-edged paper.

As for Lucina, she had set up her doll primly in a corner of the arbor, and was knitting her stent. It might have seemed difficult to understand what the child found to enjoy in this quiet entertainment, but in childhood all situations which appeal to the imagination give enjoyment, and most situations which break the routine of daily life do so appeal. Then, too, Camilla's quiet persistence in her own employment gave a delightful sense of equality and dignity to the child. She would not have liked it half as well had her aunt stooped to entertain her and brought out toys and games for her amusement. However, there was entertainment to come, to which she looked forward with gratification, as that placed her firmly on the footing of an honored guest. The minister's daughter or the doctor's wife could not be treated better or with more courtesy.

Aunt Camilla wrote with pensive pauses of reflection, and Lucina knitted until her stent was finished. Then she folded up the garter neatly, quilted in the needles as she had been taught, and placed it in her little bag. Then she took up her doll protectingly and soothingly, and held her in her lap, with the great china head against her small bosom. Lucina's doll was very large, and finely attired in stiff book-muslin and pink ribbons. She wore also pink morocco shoes on her feet, which stood out strangely at sharp right angles. Lucina sometimes eyed her doll-baby's feet uncomfortably. "I guess she will outgrow it," she told herself, with innocent maternal hypocrisy early developed.

When Lucina laid aside her work and began nursing her doll her aunt looked up from her writing. "Are you enjoying yourself, dear?" she inquired.

"Yes, ma'am."

"Would you like to run about the garden?"

"No, thank you, ma'am; I will sit here and hold my doll. It is time for her nap. I will hold her till she goes to sleep."

"Then you can run about a little," suggested Miss Camilla, gravely, without a smile. She respected Lucina's doll, as she might have her baby, and the child's heart leaped up with gratitude. An older soul which needs not to make believe to re-enter childhood is a true comrade for a child.

"Yes, ma'am," replied Lucina. "I will lay her down on the bench here when she falls asleep."

"You can cover her up with my shawl," said Miss Camilla, gravely still, and naturally. Indeed, to her a child with a doll was as much a part and parcel of the natural order of things as a mother with an infant. Outside all of it herself, she comprehended and admitted it with the impartiality of an observer. "Then you can run in the garden," she added, "and pick a bouquet if you wish. There is not much in bloom now but the heart's-ease and the flowering almond and the daffodils, but you can make a bouquet of them to take home to your mother."

"Thank you, ma'am," said Lucina.

However, she was in no hurry to take advantage of her aunt's permission. She sat quietly in the warm and pleasant arbor, holding her doll-baby, with the afternoon sun sifting through the young leaves, and making over them a shifting dapple like golden water, and felt no inclination to stir. The spring languor was over even her young limbs; the sweet twitter of birds, the gathering bird-like flutter of leaves before a soft swell of air, the rustle of her aunt's gilt-edged paper, an occasional hiss of her silken flounces, grew dim and confused. Lucina, as well as her doll, fell asleep, leaning her pretty head against the arbor trellis-work. Camilla did not disturb her; she had never in her life disturbed the peace or the slumber of any soul. She only gazed at her now and then, with gentle, half-abstracted affection, then wrote again.

Presently, stepping with that subtlest silence of motion through the quiet garden, came a great yellow cat. She rubbed against Miss Camilla's knees with that luxurious purr of love and comfort which is itself a completest slumber song, then made a noiseless leap to a sunny corner of the bench, and settled herself there in a yellow coil of sleep. Presently there came another, and another, and another still--all great cats, and all yellow, marked in splendid tiger stripes, with eyes like topaz--until there were four of them, all asleep on the sunny side of the arbor. Miss Camilla's yellow cats were of a famous breed, well represented in the village; but she had these four, which were marvels of beauty.

Another hour wore on. Miss Camilla still wrote, and Lucina and the yellow cats slept. Then it was four o'clock, and time for the entertainment to which Lucina had looked forward.

There was a heavy footstep on the garden walk and a rustling among the box borders. Then old 'Liza loomed up in the arbor door, darkening out the light. Little Lucina stirred and woke, yet did not know she woke, not knowing she had slept. To her thinking she had sat all this time with her eyes wide open, and the sight of her aunt Camilla writing and the leaf shadows on the arbor floor had never left them. She saw the yellow cats with some surprise, but cats can steal in quietly when one's eyes are turned. Had Lucina dreamed she had fallen asleep when an honored guest of her lady aunt, she would have been ready to sink with shame. Blindness to one's innocent shortcomings seems sometimes a special mercy of Providence.

Lucina straightened herself with a flushed smile, gave just one glance at the great tray which old 'Liza bore before her; then looked away again, being fully alive to the sense that it is not polite nor ladylike to act as if you thought much of your eating and drinking.

Old 'Liza set the tray on a little table in the midst of the arbor, and immediately odors, at once dainty and delicate, spicy, fruity, and aromatically soothing, diffused themselves about. The four yellow cats stirred; they yawned, and stretched luxuriously; then, suddenly fully awake to the meaning of those savory scents which had disturbed their slumbers, sat upright with eager jewel eyes upon the tray.

"Take the cats away, 'Liza," said Miss Camilla.

Old 'Liza advanced grinning upon the cats, gathered them up, two under each arm, and bore them away, moving out of sight between the box borders like some queer monster, with her wide humping flanks of black bombazine enhanced by four angrily waving yellow cat tails, which gave an effect of grotesque wrath to the retreat.

Lucina looked, in spite of her manners, at the tray when it was on the table before her very face and eyes. It was covered with a napkin of finest damask, whose flower pattern glistened like frostwork, and upon it were ranged little cups and saucers of pink china as thin and transparent as shells, a pink sugar-bowl to match, a small silver teapot under a satin cozy, a silver cream-jug, a plate of delicate bread-and-butter, and one of fruit-cake.

"You will have a cup of tea, will you not, dear?" said Aunt Camilla.

"If you please; thank you, ma'am," replied Lucina, striving to look decorously pleased and not too delighted at the prospect of the fruit-cake. Tea and bread-and-butter presented small attractions to her, but she did love old 'Liza's fruit-cake, made after a famous receipt which had been in the Merritt family for generations.

Miss Camilla removed the cozy and began pouring the tea. Lucina took a napkin, being so bidden, spread it daintily over her lap, and tucked a corner in her neck. The feast was about to commence, when a loud, jovial voice was heard in the direction of the house:

"Camilla! Camilla! Lucina, where are you all?"

"That's father!" cried Lucina, brightening, and immediately Squire Eben Merritt came striding down between the box-ridges, and Jerome Edwards was at his heels.

"Well, how are you, sister?" Squire Eben cried, merrily; and in the same breath, "I have brought another guest to your tea-drinking, sister."

Jerome bobbed his head, half with defiant dignity, half in utter shyness and confusion at the sight of this fine, genteel lady and her wonderful tea equipage. But Miss Camilla, having welcomed her brother with gentle warmth, greeted this little poor Jerome with as sweet a courtesy as if he had been the Governor, and bade Lucina run to the house and ask 'Liza to fetch two more cups and saucers and two plates, and motioned both her guests to be seated on the arbor bench.

Squire Eben laughed, and glanced at his great mud-splashed boots, his buckskin, his fishing-tackle, and a fine string of spotted trout which he bore. "A pretty knight for a lady's bower I am!" said he.

"A lady never judges a knight by his outward guise," returned Camilla, with soft pleasantry. She adored her brother.

Eben laughed, deposited his fish and tackle on the bench near the door, and flung himself down opposite them, at a respectful distance from his sister's silken flounces, with a sigh of comfort. "I have had a hard tramp, and would like a cup of your tea," he admitted. "I've been lucky, though. 'Twas a fine day for trout, though I would not have thought it. I will leave you some for your breakfast, sister; have 'Liza fry them brown in Indian meal."

Then, following Miss Camilla's remonstrating glance, he saw little Jerome Edwards standing in the arbor door, through which his entrance was blocked by the Squire's great legs and his fishing-tackle, with the air of an insulted ambassador who is half minded to return to his own country.

The Squire made room for him to pass with a hearty laugh. "Bless you, my boy!" said he, "I'm barring out the guest I invited myself, am I? Walk in--walk in and sit down."

Jerome, half melted by the Squire's genial humor, half disposed still to be stiffly resentful, hesitated a second; but Miss Camilla also, for the second time, invited him to enter, with her gentle ceremony, which was the subtlest flattery he had ever known, inasmuch as it seemed to set him firmly in his own esteem above his poor estate of boyhood; and he entered, and seated himself in the place indicated, at his hostess's right hand, near the little tea-table.

Jerome, hungry boy as he was, having the spicy richness of that wonderful fruit-cake in his nostrils, noted even before that the lavender scent of Miss Camilla's garments, which seemed, like a subtle fragrance of individuality and life itself, to enter his thoughts rather than his senses. The boy, drawn within this atmosphere of virgin superiority and gentleness, felt all his defiance and antagonism towards his newly discovered pride of life shame him.

The great and just bitterness of wrath against all selfish holders of riches that was beginning to tincture his whole soul was sweetened for the time by the proximity of this sweet woman in her silks and laces and jewels. Not reasoning it out in the least, nor recognizing his own mental attitude, it was to him as if this graceful creature had been so endowed by God with her rich apparel and fair surroundings that she was as much beyond question and envy as a lily of the field. He did not even raise his eyes to her face, but sat at her side, at once elevated and subdued by her gentle politeness and condescension. When Lucina returned, and 'Liza followed with the extra cups and plates, and the tea began, he accepted what was proffered him, and ate and drank with manners as mild and grateful as Lucina's. She could scarcely taste the full savor of her fruit-cake, after all, so occupied she was in furtively watching this strange boy. Her blue eyes were big with surprise. Why should he take Aunt Camilla's cake, and even her bread-and-butter, when he would not touch the gingerbread she had offered him, nor the money to buy shoes? This young Lucina had yet to learn that the proud soul accepts from courtesy what it will not take from love or pity.

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