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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 9
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A Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 9 Post by :imported_n/a Category :Long Stories Author :Mary E Wilkins Freeman Date :May 2012 Read :1386

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A Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 9

Chapter IX

He went on straight round the house to the south-side door, whither everybody went to consult the doctor. He knocked, and in a moment the door opened, and a young girl with weak blue eyes, with a helpless droop of the chin, and mouth half opened in a silly smile, looked out at him. She was a girl whom Doctor Prescott had taken from the almshouse to assist in the lighter household duties. She was considered rather weak in her intellect, though she did her work well enough when she had once learned how.

Jerome bent his head with a sudden stiff duck to this girl. "Is Doctor Prescott at home?" he inquired.

"Yes, sir," replied the girl, with the same respectful courtesy and ceremony with which she might have greeted the Squire or any town magnate, instead of this poor little boy. Her mind was utterly incapable of the faculties of selection and discrimination. She applied one formula, unmodified, to all mankind.

"Can I see him a minute?" asked Jerome, gruffly.

"Yes, sir. Will you walk in?"

The girl, moving with a weak, shuffling toddle, like a child, led Jerome through the length of the entry to a great room on the north side of the house, which was the doctor's study and office. Two large cupboards, whose doors were set with glass in diamond panes in the upper panels, held his drugs and nostrums. Books, mostly ponderous volumes in rusty leather, lined the rest of the wall space. When Jerome entered the room the combined odor of those leather-bound folios and the doctor's drugs smote his nostrils, as from a curious brewing of theoretical and applied wisdom in one pot.

"Take a seat," said the girl, "and I will speak to the doctor." Then she went out, with the vain, pleased simper of a child who has said her lesson well.

Jerome sat down and looked about him. He had been in the room several times before, but his awe of it preserved its first strangeness for him. He eyed the books on the walls, then the great bottles visible through the glass doors on the cupboard shelves. Those bottles were mostly of a cloudy green or brown, but one among them caught the light and shone as if filled with liquid rubies. That was valerian, but Jerome did not know it; he only thought it must be a very strong medicine to have such a bright color. He also thought that the doctor must have mixed all those medicines from rules in those great books, and a sudden feverish desire to look into them seized him. However, neither his pride nor his timidity would have allowed him to touch one of those books, even if he had not expected the doctor to enter every moment.

He waited quite a little time, however. He could hear the far-off tinkle of silver and clink of china, and knew the family were at dinner. "Won't leave his dinner for me," thought Jerome, with an unrighteous bitterness of humility, recognizing the fact that he could not expect him to. "Might have planted an hour longer."

Then came a clang of the knocker, and this time the girl ushered into the study a clamping, red-faced man in a shabby coat. Jerome recognized him as a young farmer who lived three miles or so out of the village. He blushed and stumbled, with a kind of grim awkwardness, even before the simple girl delivering herself of her formula of welcome. He would not sit down; he stood by the corner of a medicine-cupboard, settling heavily into his boots, waiting.

When the girl had gone he looked at Jerome, and gave a vague and furtive "Hullo!" in simple recognition of his presence, as it were. He did not know who the boy was, never being easily certain as to identities of any but old acquaintances--not from high indifference and dislike, like the doctor, but from dulness of observation.

Jerome nodded in response to the man's salutation. "I can't ask the doctor before him," he thought, anxiously.

The man rested heavily, first on one leg, then on the other. "Been waitin' long?" he grunted, finally.

"Quite a while."

"Hope my horse 'll stan'," said the man; "headed towards home, an' load off."

"The doctor can tend to you first," Jerome said, eagerly.

The man gave a nod of assent. Thanks, as elegancies of social intercourse, were alarming, and savored of affectation, to him. He had thanked the Lord, from his heart, for all his known and unknown gifts, but his gratitude towards his fellow-men had never overcome his bashful self-consciousness and found voice.

Often in prayer-meeting Jerome had heard this man's fervent outpouring of the religious faith which seemed the only intelligence of his soul, and, like all single and concentrated powers, had a certain force of persuasion. Jerome eyed him now with a kind of pious admiration and respect, and yet with recollections.

"If I were a man, I'd stop colorin' up and actin' scared," thought the boy; and then they both heard a door open and shut, and knew the doctor was coming.

Jerome's heart beat hard, yet he looked quite boldly at the door. Somehow the young farmer's clumsy embarrassment had roused his own pride and courage. When the doctor entered, he stood up with alacrity and made his manners, and the young farmer settled to another foot, with a hoarse note of greeting.

The doctor said good-day, with formal courtesy, with his fine, keen face turned seemingly upon both of them impartially; then he addressed the young man.

"How is your wife to-day?" he inquired.

The young man turned purple, where he had been red, at this direct address. "She's pretty--comfortable," he stammered.

"Is she out of medicine?"

"Yes, sir. That's what I come for." With that the young man pulled, with distressed fumblings and jerks, a bottle from his pocket, which he handed to the doctor, who had in the meantime opened the door of one of the cupboards.

The doctor took a large bottle from the cupboard, and filled from that the one which the young man had brought. Jerome stood trembling, watching the careful gurgling of a speckled green liquid from one bottle to another. A strange new odor filled the room, overpowering all the others.

When the doctor gave the bottle to the young man, he shoved it carefully away in his pocket again, and then stood coloring more deeply and hesitating.

"Can ye take your pay in wood for this and the last two lots?" he murmured at length, so low that Jerome scarcely heard him.

But the doctor never lowered nor raised his incisive, high-bred voice for any man. His reply left no doubt of the question. "No, Mr. Upham," said Doctor Prescott. "You must pay me in money for medicine. I have enough wood of my own."

"I know ye have--consider'ble," responded the young man, in an agony, "but--"

"I would like the money as soon as convenient," said the doctor.

"I'm--havin'--dreadful--hard work to get--any money myself--lately," persisted the young man. "Folks--they promise, but--they don't pay, an'--"

"Never give or take promises long enough to calculate interest," interposed Doctor Prescott, with stern pleasantry; "that's my rule, young man, and it's the one I expect others to follow in their business dealings with me. Don't give and don't take; then you'll make your way in life."

Ozias Lamb had said once, in Jerome's hearing, that all the medicine that Doctor Prescott ever gave to folks for nothing was good advice, and he didn't know but then he sent the bill in to the Almighty. Jerome, who had taken this in, with a sharp wink of appreciation, in spite of his mother's promptly sending him out of the room, thinking that such talk savored of irreverence, and was not fit for youthful ears, remembered it now, as he heard Doctor Prescott admonishing poor John Upham.

"Know ye've got consider'ble," mumbled John Upham, who had rough lands enough for a village, but scarce two shillings in pocket, and a delicate young wife and three babies; "but--thought ye hadn't--no old apple-tree wood--old apple-tree wood--well seasoned--jest the thing for the parlor hearth--didn't know but--"

"I should like the money next week," said the doctor, as if he had not heard a word of poor John's entreaty.

The young man shook his head miserably. "Dun'no' as I can--nohow."

"Well," said the doctor, looking at him calmly, "I'm willing to take a little land for the medicine and that last winter's bill, when Johnny had the measles."

Then this poor John Upham, uncouth, and scarcely quicker-witted than one of his own oxen, but as faithful, and living up wholly to his humble lights, turned pale through his blushes, and stared at the doctor as if he could not have heard aright. "Take--my land?" he faltered.

Doctor Prescott never smiled with his eyes, but only with a symmetrical curving and lengthening of his finely cut, thin lips. He smiled so then. "Yes, I am willing to take some land for the debt, since you have not the money," said he.

"But--that was--father's land."

"Yes, and your father was a good, thrifty man. He did not waste his substance."

"It was grandfather's, too."

"Yes, it was, I believe."

"It has always been in our--family. It's the Upham--land. I can't part with it nohow."

"I will take the money, then," said Doctor Prescott.

"I'll raise it just as soon as I can, doctor," cried John Upham, eagerly. "I've got a man's note for twenty dollars comin' due in three months; he's sure to pay. An'--there's some cedar ordered, an'--"

"I must have it next week," said the doctor, "or--" He paused. "I shall dislike to proceed to extreme measures," he added.

Then John Upham, aroused to boldness by desperation, as the very oxen will sometimes run in madness if the goad be sharp enough, told Doctor Prescott to his face, with scarce a stumble in his speech, that he owned half the town now; that his land was much more valuable than his, which was mostly swampy woodland and pasture-lands, bringing in scarcely enough income to feed and clothe his family.

"Sha'n't have 'nough to live on if I let any on't go," said John Upham, "an' you've got more land as 'tis than any other man in town."

Doctor Prescott did not raise or quicken his clear voice; his eyes did not flash, but they gave out a hard light. John Upham was like a giant before this little, neat, wiry figure, which had such a majesty of port that it seemed to throw its own shadow over him.

"We are not discussing the extent of my possessions," said Doctor Prescott, "but the extent of your debts." He moved aside, as if to clear the passage to the door, turning slightly at the same time towards his other caller, who was cold with indignation upon John Upham's account and terror upon his own.

Half minded he was, when John Upham went out, with his clamping, clumsy tread, with his honest head cast down, and no more words in his mouth for the doctor's last smoothly scathing remark, to follow him at a bound and ask nothing for himself; but he stood still and watched him go.

When John Upham had opened the door and was passing through, the doctor pursued him with yet one more bit of late advice. "It is poor judgment," said Doctor Prescott, "for a young man to marry and bring children into the world until he has property enough to support them without running into debt. You would have done better had you waited, Mr. Upham. It is what I always tell young men."

Then John Upham turned with the last turn of the trodden worm. "My wife and my children are my own!" he cried out, with a great roar. "It's between me and my Maker, my having 'em, and I'll answer to no man for it!" With that he was gone, and the door shut hard after him.

Then Doctor Prescott, no whit disturbed, turned to Jerome and looked at him. Jerome made his manners again. "You are the Edwards boy, aren't you?" said the doctor.

Jerome humbly acknowledged his identity.

"What do you want? Has your mother sent you on an errand?"

"No, sir."

"Well, what is it, then?"

"Please, sir, may I speak to you a minute?"

"Speak to me?"

"Yes, sir."

Doctor Prescott wore a massive gold watch-chain festooned across his fine black satin vest. He pulled out before the boy's wondering and perplexed eyes the great gold timepiece attached to it and looked at it. "You must be quick," said he. "I have to go in five minutes. I will give you five minutes by my watch. Begin."

But poor little Jerome, thus driven with such a hard check-rein of time, paled and reddened and trembled, and could find no words.

"One minute is gone," said the doctor, looking over the open face of his watch at Jerome. Something in his glance spurred on the frightened boy by arousing a flash of resentment.

Jerome, standing straight before the doctor, with a little twitching hand hanging at each side, with his color coming and going, and pulses which could be seen beating hard in his temples and throat, spoke and delivered himself of that innocently overreaching scheme which he had propounded to Squire Eben Merritt.

It seems probable that mental states have their own reflective powers, which sometimes enable one to suddenly see himself in the conception of another, to the complete modification of all his own ideas and opinions. So little Jerome Edwards, even while speaking, began to see his plan as it looked to Doctor Prescott, and not as it had hitherto looked to himself. He began to understand and to realize the flaws in it--that he had asked more of Doctor Prescott than he would grant. Still, he went on, and the doctor heard him through without a word.

"Who put you up to this?" the doctor asked, when he had finished.

"Nobody, sir."

"Your mother?"

"No, sir."

"Did you ever hear your father propose anything like this?"

"No, sir."

"Who did? Speak the truth."

"I did."

"You thought out this plan yourself?"

"Yes, sir."

"Look at me."

Jerome, flushing with angry shame at his own simplicity as revealed to him by this other, older, superior intellect, yet defiant still at this attack upon his truth, looked the doctor straight in his keen eyes.

"Are you speaking the truth?"

"Yes, sir."

Still the doctor looked at him, and Jerome would not cast his eyes down, nor, indeed, could. He felt as if his very soul were being stretched up on tiptoe to the doctor's inspection.

"Children had better follow the wisdom of their elders," said the doctor. He would not even deign to explain to this boy the absurdity of his scheme.

He replaced the great gold watch in his pocket. "I will be in soon, and talk over matters with your mother," he said, turning away.

Jerome gave a gasp. He stumbled forward, as if to fall on his knees at the doctor's feet.

"Oh, sir, don't, don't!" he cried out.

"Don't what?"

"Don't foreclose the mortgage. It will kill mother."

"You don't know what you are talking about," said the doctor, calmly. "Children should not meddle in matters beyond them. I will settle it with your mother."

"Mother's sick!" gasped Jerome. The doctor was moving with his stately strut to the door. Suddenly the boy, in a great outburst of boldness, flung himself before this great man of his childhood and arrested his progress. "Oh, sir, tell me," he begged--"tell me what you're going to do!"

The doctor never knew why he stopped to explain and parley. He was conscious of no softening towards this boy, who had so repelled him with his covert rebellion, and had now been guilty of a much greater offence. An appeal to a goodness which is not in him is to a sensitive and vain soul a stinging insult. Doctor Prescott could have administered corporal punishment to this boy, who seemed to him to be actually poking fun at his dignity, and yet he stopped and answered:

"I am going to take your house into my hands," said Doctor Prescott, "and your mother can live in it and pay me rent."

"We can't pay rent any better than interest money."

"If you can't pay the rent, I shall be willing to take that wood-lot of your father's," said Doctor Prescott. "I will talk that over with your mother."

Jerome looked at him. There was a dreadful expression on his little boyish face. His very lips were white. "You are goin' to take our woodland for rents?"

"If you can't pay them, of course. Your mother ought to be glad she has it to pay with."

"Then we sha'n't have anything."

Doctor Prescott endeavored to move on, but Jerome fairly crowded himself between him and the door, and stood there, his pale face almost touching his breast, and his black eyes glaring up at him with a startling nearness as of fire.

"You are a wicked man," said the boy, "and some day God will punish you for it."

Then there came a grasp of nervous hands upon his shoulders, like the clamp of steel, the door was opened before him, and he was pushed out, and along the entry at arm's-length, and finally made to descend the south door-steps at a dizzy run. "Go home to your mother," ordered Doctor Prescott. Still, he did not raise his voice, his color had not changed, and he breathed no quicker. Births and deaths, all natural stresses of life, its occasional tragedies, and even his own bitter wrath could this small, equally poised man meet with calm superiority over them and command over himself. Doctor Seth Prescott never lost his personal dignity--he could not, since it was so inseparable from his personality. If he chastised his son, it was with the judicial majesty of a king, and never with a self-demeaning show of anger. He ate and drank in his own house like a guest of state at a feast; he drove his fine sorrel in his sulky like a war-horse in a chariot. Once, when walking to meeting on an icy day, his feet went from under him, and he sat down suddenly; but even his fall seemed to have something majestic and solemn and Scriptural about it. Nobody laughed.

Doctor Prescott expelling this little boy from his south door had the impressiveness of a priest of Bible times expelling an interloper from the door of the Temple. Jerome almost fell when he reached the ground, but collected himself after a staggering step or two as the door shut behind him.

The doctor's sulky was drawn up before the door, and Jake Noyes stood by the horse's head. The horse sprang aside--he was a nervous sorrel--when Jerome flew down the steps, and Jake Noyes reined him up quickly with a sharp "Whoa!"

As soon as he recovered his firm footing, Jerome started to run out of the yard; but Jake, holding the sorrel's bridle with one hand, reached out the other to his collar and brought him to a stand.

"Hullo!" said he, hushing his voice somewhat and glancing at the door. "What's to pay?"

"I told him he was a wicked man, and he didn't like it because it's true," replied Jerome, in a loud voice, trying to pull away.

"Hush up," whispered Jake, with a half-whimsical, half-uneasy nod of his head towards the door; "look out how you talk. He'll be out and crammin' blue-pills and assafoetidy into your mouth first thing you know. Don't you go to sassin' of your betters."

"He is a wicked man! I don't care, he is a wicked man!" cried Jerome, loudly. He glanced defiantly at the house, then into Jake's face, with a white flash of fury.

"Hush up, I tell ye," said Jake. "He'll be a-pourin' of castor-ile down your throat out of a quart measure, arter the blue-pills and the assafoetidy."

"I'd like to see him! He is a wicked man. Let me go!"

"Don't you go to callin' names that nobody but the Almighty has any right to fasten on to folks."

"Let me go!" Jerome wriggled under the man's detaining grasp, as wirily instinct with nerves as a cat; he kicked out viciously at his shins.

"Lord! I'd as lief try to hold a catamount," cried Jake Noyes, laughing, and released him, and Jerome raced out of the yard.

It was then about two o'clock. He should have gone home to his planting, but his childish patience was all gone. Poor little Jack had been worsted by the giant, and his bean-garden might as well be neglected. Human strength may endure heavy disappointments and calamities with heroism, but it requires superhuman power to hold one's hand to the grindstone of petty duties and details of life in the midst of them. Jerome had faced his rebuff without a whimper, and with a great stand of spirit, but now he could not go home and work in the garden, and tie his fiery revolt to the earth with spade and hoe. He ran on up the road, until he passed the village and came to his woodland. He followed the cart path through it, until he was near the boundary wall; then he threw himself down in the midst of some young brakes and little wild green things, and presently fell to weeping, with loud sobs, like a baby.

All day he had been strained up to an artificial height of manhood; now he had come down again to his helpless estate of boyhood. In the solitude of the woods there is no mocking, and no despite for helplessness and grief. The trees raising their heads in a great host athwart the sky, the tender plants beneath gathering into their old places with tumultuous silence, put to shame no outcry of any suffering heart of bird or beast or man. To these unpruned and mother-fastnesses of the earth belonged at first the wailing infancy of all life, and even now a vague memory of it is left, like the organ of a lost sense, in the heart oppressed by the grief of the grown world.

The boy unknowingly had fled to his first mother, who had soothed his old sorrow in his heart before he had come into the consciousness of it. Had Doctor Prescott at any minute surprised him, he would have faced him again, with no sign of weakening; but he lay there, curled up among the brakes as in a green nest, with his face against the earth, and her breath of aromatic moisture in his nostrils, and sobbed and wept until he fell asleep.

He had slept an hour and a half, when he wakened suddenly, with a clear "Hello!" in his ears. He opened his eyes and looked up, dazed, into Squire Eben Merritt's great blond face.

"Hullo!" said Squire Eben again. "I thought it was a woodchuck, and instead of that it's a boy. What are you doing here, sir?"

Jerome raised himself falteringly. He felt weak, and the confused misery of readjusting the load of grief under which one has fallen asleep was upon him. "Guess I fell asleep," he stammered.

"Guess you'd better not fall asleep in such a damp hole as this," said the Squire, "or the rheumatism will catch your young bones. Why aren't you home planting, sir? I thought you were a smart boy."

"He'll get it all; there ain't any use!" said Jerome, with pitiful doggedness, standing ankle-deep in brakes before the Squire. He rubbed his eyes, heavy with sleep and tears, and raised them, dull still, into the Squire's face.

"Who do you mean by he? Dr. Prescott?"

"Yes, sir."

"Then he didn't approve of your plan?"

"He's going to take our house, and let us live in it and pay rent, and if we can't pay he's going to take our wood-lot here--" Suddenly Jerome gave a great sob; he flung himself down wildly. "He sha'n't have it; he sha'n't--he never shall!" he sobbed, and clutched at the brakes and held them to his bosom, as if he were indeed holding some dear thing against an enemy who would wrest it from him.

Squire Eben Merritt, towering over him, with a long string of trout at his side, looked at him with a puzzled frown; then he reached down and pulled him to his feet with a mighty and gentle jerk. "How old are you, sir?" he demanded. "Thought you were a man; thought you were going to learn to fire my gun. Guess you haven't been out of petticoats long enough, after all!"

Jerome drew his sleeve fiercely across his eyes, and then looked up at the Squire proudly. "Didn't cry before him," said he.

Squire Eben laughed, and gave his back a hard pat. "I guess you'll do, after all," said he. "So you didn't have much luck with the doctor?"

"No, sir."

"Well, don't you fret. I'll see what can be done. I'll see him to-night myself."

Jerome looked up in his face, like one who scarcely dares to believe in offered comfort.

The Squire nodded kindly at him. "You leave it all to me," said he; "don't you worry."

Jerome belonged to a family in which there had been little demonstration of devotion and affection. His parents never caressed their children; he and his sister had scarcely kissed each other since their infancy. No matter how fervid their hearts might be, they had also a rigidity, as of paralyzed muscles, which forbade much expression as a shame and an affectation. Jerome had this tendency of the New England character from inheritance and training; but now, in spite of it, he fell down before Squire Eben Merritt, embraced his knees, and kissed his very feet in their great boots, and then his hand.

Squire Eben laughed, pulled the boy to his feet again, and bade him again to cheer up and not to fret. The same impulse of kindly protection which led him to spare the lives and limbs of old trees was over him now towards this weak human plant.

"Come along with me," said Squire Eben, and forthwith Jerome had followed him out of the woods into the road, and down it until they reached his sister's, Miss Camilla Merritt's, house, not far from Doctor Prescott's. There Squire Eben was about to part with Jerome, with more words of reassurance, when suddenly he remembered that his sister needed such a boy to weed her flower-beds, and had spoken to him about procuring one for her. So he had bidden Jerome follow him; and the boy, who would at that moment have gone over a precipice after him, went to Miss Camilla's tea-drinking in her arbor.

When he went home, in an hour's time, he was engaged to weed Miss Camilla's flower-garden all summer, at two shillings per week, and it was understood that his sister could weed as well as he when his home-work prevented his coming.

In early youth exaltation of spirit requires but slight causes; only a soft puff of a favoring wind will send up one like a kite into the ether. Jerome, with the prospect of two shillings per week, and that great, kindly strength of the Squire's underlying his weakness, went home as if he had wings on his feet.

"See that boy of poor Abel Edwards's dancin' along, when his father ain't been dead a week!" one woman at her window said to another.

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Chapter XSquire Eben Merritt had three boon companions--the village lawyer, Eliphalet Means; a certain John Jennings, the last of one of the village old families, a bachelor of some fifty odd, who had wasted his health and patrimony in riotous living, and had now settled down to prudence and moderation, if not repentance, in the home of his ancestors; and one Colonel Jack Lamson, also considered somewhat of a rake, who had possibly tendered his resignation rather than his reformation, and that perforce. Colonel Lamson also hailed originally from a good old stock of this village and county. He had gone
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Chapter VIIIThat day had been one of those surprises of life which ever dwell with one. Jerome in it had discovered not only a new self, but new ways. He had struck paths at right angles to all he had followed before. They might finally verge into the old again, but for that day he saw strange prospects. Not the least strange of them was this tea-drinking with the Squire and the Squire's sister and the Squire's daughter in the arbor. He found it harder to reconcile that with his past and himself than anything else. So bewildered was he, drinking
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