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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Shoulders Of Atlas: A Novel - Chapter 1
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The Shoulders Of Atlas: A Novel - Chapter 1 Post by :peaches9500 Category :Long Stories Author :Mary E Wilkins Freeman Date :May 2012 Read :2032

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The Shoulders Of Atlas: A Novel - Chapter 1

Chapter I

Henry Whitman was walking home from the shop in the April afternoon. The spring was very early that year. The meadows were quite green, and in the damp hollows the green assumed a violet tinge--sometimes from violets themselves, sometimes from the shadows. The trees already showed shadows as of a multitude of bird wings; the peach-trees stood aloof in rosy nimbuses, and the cherry-trees were faintly a-flutter with white through an intense gloss of gold-green.

Henry realized all the glory of it, but it filled him with a renewal of the sad and bitter resentment, which was his usual mood, instead of joy. He was past middle-age. He worked in a shoe-shop. He had worked in a shoe-shop since he was a young man. There was nothing else in store for him until he was turned out because of old age. Then the future looked like a lurid sunset of misery. He earned reasonably good wages for a man of his years, but prices were so high that he was not able to save a cent. There had been unusual expenses during the past ten years, too. His wife Sylvia had not been well, and once he himself had been laid up six weeks with rheumatism. The doctor charged two dollars for every visit, and the bill was not quite settled yet.

Then the little house which had come to him from his father, encumbered with a mortgage as is usual, had all at once seemed to need repairs at every point. The roof had leaked like a sieve, two windows had been blown in, the paint had turned a gray-black, the gutters had been out of order. He had not quite settled the bill for these repairs. He realized it always as an actual physical incubus upon his slender, bowed shoulders. He came of a race who were impatient of debt, and who regarded with proud disdain all gratuitous benefits from their fellow-men. Henry always walked a long route from the shop in order to avoid passing the houses of the doctor and the carpenter whom he owed.

Once he had saved a little money; that was twenty-odd years before; but he had invested it foolishly, and lost every cent. That transaction he regarded with hatred, both of himself and of the people who had advised him to risk and lose his hard-earned dollars. The small sum which he had lost had come to assume colossal proportions in his mind. He used, in his bitterest moments, to reckon up on a scrap of paper what it might have amounted to, if it had been put out at interest, by this time. He always came out a rich man, by his calculations, if it had not been for that unwise investment. He often told his wife Sylvia that they might have been rich people if it had not been for that; that he would not have been tied to a shoe-shop, nor she have been obliged to work so hard.

Sylvia took a boarder--the high-school principal, Horace Allen--and she also made jellies and cakes, and baked bread for those in East Westland who could afford to pay for such instead of doing the work themselves. She was a delicate woman, and Henry knew that she worked beyond her strength, and the knowledge filled him with impotent fury. Since the union had come into play he did not have to work so many hours in the shop, and he got the same pay, but he worked as hard, because he himself cultivated his bit of land. He raised vegetables for the table. He also made the place gay with flowers to please Sylvia and himself. He had a stunted thirst for beauty.

In the winter he found plenty to do in the extra hours. He sawed wood in his shed by the light of a lantern hung on a peg. He also did what odd jobs he could for neighbors. He picked up a little extra money in that way, but he worked very hard. Sometimes he told Sylvia that he didn't know but he worked harder than he had done when the shop time was longer. However, he had been one of the first to go, heart and soul, with the union, and he had paid his dues ungrudgingly, even with a fierce satisfaction, as if in some way the transaction made him even with his millionaire employers. There were two of them, and they owned houses which appeared like palaces in the eyes of Henry and his kind. They owned automobiles, and Henry was aware of a cursing sentiment when one whirred past him, trudging along, and covered him with dust.

Sometimes it seemed to Henry as if an automobile was the last straw for the poor man's back: those enormous cars, representing fortunes, tyrannizing over the whole highway, frightening the poor old country horses, and endangering the lives of all before them. Henry read with delight every account of an automobile accident. "Served them right; served them just right," he would say, with fairly a smack of his lips.

Sylvia, who had caught a little of his rebellion, but was gentler, would regard him with horror. "Why, Henry Whitman, that is a dreadful wicked spirit!" she would say, and he would retort stubbornly that he didn't care; that he had to pay a road tax for these people who would just as soon run him down as not, if it wouldn't tip their old machines over; for these maniacs who had gone speed-mad, and were appropriating even the highways of the common people.

Henry had missed the high-school principal, who was away on his spring vacation. He liked to talk with him, because he always had a feeling that he had the best of the argument. Horace would take the other side for a while, then leave the field, and light another cigar, and let Henry have the last word, which, although it had a bitter taste in his mouth, filled him with the satisfaction of triumph. He loved Horace like a son, although he realized that the young man properly belonged to the class which he hated, and that, too, although he was manifestly poor and obliged to work for his living. Henry was, in his heart of hearts, convinced that Horace Allen, had he been rich, would have owned automobiles and spent hours in the profitless work-play of the golf links. As it was, he played a little after school-hours. How Henry hated golf! "I wish they had to work," he would say, savagely, to Horace.

Horace would laugh, and say that he did work. "I know you do," Henry would say, grudgingly, "and I suppose maybe a little exercise is good for you; but those fellers from Alford who come over here don't have to work, and as for Guy Lawson, the boss's son, he's a fool! He couldn't earn his bread and butter to save his life, except on the road digging like a common laborer. Playing golf! Playing! H'm!" Then was the time for Horace's fresh cigar.

When Henry came in sight of the cottage where he lived he thought with regret that Horace was not there. Being in a more pessimistic mood than usual, he wished ardently for somebody to whom he could pour out his heart. Sylvia was no satisfaction at such a time. If she echoed him for a while, when she was more than usually worn with her own work, she finally became alarmed, and took refuge in Scripture quotations, and Henry was convinced that she offered up prayer for him afterward, and that enraged him.

He struck into the narrow foot-path leading to the side door, the foot-path which his unwilling and weary feet had helped to trace more definitely for nearly forty years. The house was a small cottage of the humblest New England type. It had a little cobbler's-shop, or what had formerly been a cobbler's-shop, for an ell. Besides that, there were three rooms on the ground-floor--the kitchen, the sitting-room, and a little bedroom which Henry and Sylvia occupied. Sylvia had cooking-stoves in both the old shop and the kitchen. The kitchen stove was kept well polished, and seldom used for cooking, except in cold weather. In warm weather the old shop served as kitchen, and Sylvia, in deference to the high-school teacher, used to set the table in the house.

When Henry neared the house he smelled cooking in the shop. He also had a glimpse of a snowy table-cloth in the kitchen. He wondered, with a throb of joy, if possibly Horace might have returned before his vacation was over and Sylvia were setting the table in the other room in his honor. He opened the door which led directly into the shop. Sylvia, a pathetic, slim, elderly figure in rusty black, was bending over the stove, frying flapjacks. "Has he come home?" whispered Henry.

"No, it's Mr. Meeks. I asked him to stay to supper. I told him I would make some flapjacks, and he acted tickled to death. He doesn't get a decent thing to eat once in a dog's age. Hurry and get washed. The flapjacks are about done, and I don't want them to get cold."

Henry's face, which had fallen a little when he learned that Horace had not returned, still looked brighter than before. While Sidney Meeks never let him have the last word, yet he was much better than Sylvia as a safety-valve for pessimism. Meeks was as pessimistic in his way as Henry, although he handled his pessimism, as he did everything else, with diplomacy, and the other man had a secret conviction that when he seemed to be on the opposite side yet he was in reality pulling with the lawyer.

Sidney Meeks was older than Henry, and as unsuccessful as a country lawyer can well be. He lived by himself; he had never married; and the world, although he smiled at it facetiously, was not a pleasant place in his eyes.

Henry, after he had washed himself at the sink in the shop, entered the kitchen, where the table was set, and passed through to the sitting-room, where the lawyer was. Sidney Meeks did not rise. He extended one large, white hand affably. "How are you Henry?" said he, giving the other man's lean, brown fingers a hard shake. "I dropped in here on my way home from the post-office, and your wife tempted me with flapjacks in a lordly dish, and I am about to eat."

"Glad to see you," returned Henry.

"You get home early, or it seems early, now the days are getting so long," said Meeks, as Henry sat down opposite.

"Yes, it's early enough, but I don't get any more pay."

Meeks laughed. "Henry, you are the direct outcome of your day and generation," said he. "Less time, and more pay for less time, is our slogan."

"Well, why not?" returned Henry, surlily, still with a dawn of delighted opposition in his thin, intelligent face. "Why not? Look at the money that's spent all around us on other things that correspond. What's an automobile but less time and more money, eh?"

Meeks laughed. "Give it up until after supper, Henry," he said, as Sylvia's thin, sweet voice was heard from the next room.

"If you men don't stop talking and come right out, these flapjacks will be spoiled!" she cried. The men arose and obeyed her call. "There are compensations for everything," said Meeks, laughing, as he settled down heavily into his chair. He was a large man. "Flapjacks are compensations. Let us eat our compensations and be thankful. That's my way of saying grace. You ought always to say grace, Henry, when you have such a good cook as your wife is to get meals for you. If you had to shift for yourself, the way I do, you'd feel that it was a simple act of decency."

"I don't see much to say grace for," said Henry, with a disagreeable sneer.

"Oh, Henry!" said Sylvia.

"For compensations in the form of flapjacks, with plenty of butter and sugar and nutmeg," said Meeks. "These are fine, Mrs. Whitman."

"A good thick beefsteak at twenty-eight cents a pound, regulated by the beef trust, would be more to my liking after a hard day's work," said Henry.

Sylvia exclaimed again, but she was not in reality disturbed. She was quite well aware that her husband was enjoying himself after his own peculiar fashion, and that, if he spoke the truth, the flapjacks were more to his New England taste for supper than thick beefsteak.

"Well, wait until after supper, and maybe you will change your mind about having something to say grace for," Meeks said, mysteriously.

The husband and wife stared at him. "What do you mean, Mr. Meeks?" asked Sylvia, a little nervously. Something in the lawyer's manner agitated her. She was not accustomed to mysteries. Life had not held many for her, especially of late years.

Henry took another mouthful of flapjacks. "Well, if you can give me any good reason for saying grace you will do more than the parson ever has," he said.

"Oh, Henry!" said Sylvia.

"It's the truth," said Henry. "I've gone to meeting and heard how thankful I ought to be for things I haven't got, and things I have got that other folks haven't, and for forgiveness for breaking commandments, when, so far as I can tell, commandments are about the only things I've been able to keep without taxes--till I'm tired of it."

"Wait till after supper," repeated the lawyer again, with smiling mystery. He had a large, smooth face, with gray hair on the sides of his head and none on top. He had good, placid features, and an easy expression. He ate two platefuls of the flapjacks, then two pieces of cake, and a large slice of custard pie! He was very fond of sweets.

After supper was over Henry and Meeks returned to the sitting-room, and sat down beside the two front windows. It was a small, square room furnished with Sylvia's chief household treasures. There was a hair-cloth sofa, which she and Henry had always regarded as an extravagance and had always viewed with awe. There were two rockers, besides one easy-chair, covered with old-gold plush--also an extravagance. There was a really beautiful old mahogany table with carved base, of which neither Henry nor Sylvia thought much. Sylvia meditated selling enough Calkin's soap to buy a new one, and stow that away in Mr. Allen's room. Mr. Allen professed great admiration for it, to her wonderment. There was also a fine, old, gold-framed mirror, and some china vases on the mantel-shelf. Sylvia was rather ashamed of them. Mrs. Jim Jones had a mirror which she had earned by selling Calkin's soap, which Sylvia considered much handsomer. She would have had ambitions in that direction also, but Henry was firm in his resolve not to have the mirror displaced, nor the vases, although Sylvia descanted upon the superior merits of some vases with gilded pedestals which Mrs. Sam Elliot had in her parlor.

Meeks regarded the superb old table with appreciation as he sat in the sitting-room after supper. "Fine old piece," he said.

Henry looked at it doubtfully. It had been in a woodshed of his grandfather's house, when he was a boy, and he was not as confident about that as he was about the mirror and vases, which had always maintained their parlor estate.

"Sylvia don't think much of it," he said. "She's crazy to have one of carved oak like one Mrs. Jim Jones has."

"Carved oak fiddlestick!" said Sidney Meeks. "It's a queer thing that so much virtue and real fineness of character can exist in a woman without the slightest trace of taste for art."

Henry looked resentful. "Sylvia has taste, as much taste as most women," he said. "She simply doesn't like to see the same old things around all the time, and I don't know as I blame her. The world has grown since that table was made, there's no doubt about that. It stands to reason furniture has improved, too."

"Glad there's something you see in a bright light, Henry."

"I must say that I like this new mission furniture, myself, pretty well," said Henry, somewhat importantly.

"That's as old as the everlasting hills; but the old that's new is the newest thing in all creation," said Meeks. "Sylvia is a foolish woman if she parts with this magnificent old piece for any reproduction made in job lots."

"Oh, she isn't going to part with it. Mr. Allen will like it in his room. He thinks as much of it as you do."

"He's right, too," said Meeks. "There's carving for you; there's a fine grain of wood."

"It's very hard to keep clean," said Sylvia, as she came in rubbing her moist hands. "Now, that new Flemish oak is nothing at all to take care of, Mrs. Jones says."

"This is worth taking care of," said Meeks. "Now, Sylvia, sit down. I have something to tell you and Henry."

Sylvia sat down. Something in the lawyer's manner aroused hers and her husband's keenest attention. They looked at him and waited. Both were slightly pale. Sylvia was a delicate little woman, and Henry was large-framed and tall, but a similar experience had worn similar lines in both faces. They looked singularly alike.

Sidney Meeks had the dramatic instinct. He waited for the silence to gather to its utmost intensity before he spoke. "I had something to tell you when I came in," he said, "but I thought I had better wait till after supper."

He paused. There was another silence. Henry's and Sylvia's eyes seemed to wax luminous.

Sidney Meeks spoke again. He was enjoying himself immensely. "What relation is Abrahama White to you?" he said.

"She is second cousin to Sylvia. Her mother was Sylvia's mother's cousin," said Henry. "What of it?"

"Nothing, except--" Meeks waited again. He wished to make a coup. He had an instinct for climaxes. "Abrahama had a shock this morning," he said, suddenly.

"A shock?" said Henry.

Sylvia echoed him. "A shock!" she gasped.

"Yes, I thought you hadn't heard of it."

"I've been in the house all day," said Sylvia. "I hadn't seen a soul before you came in." She rose. "Who's taking care of her?" she asked. "She ain't all alone?"

"Sit down," said Sidney. "She's well cared for. Miss Babcock is there. She happened to be out of a place, and Dr. Wallace got her right away."

"Is she going to get over it?" asked Sylvia, anxiously. "I must go over there, anyway, this evening. I always thought a good deal of Abrahama."

"You might as well go over there," said the lawyer. "It isn't quite the thing for me to tell you, but I'm going to. If Henry here can eat flapjacks like those you make, Sylvia, and not say grace, his state of mind is dangerous. I am going to tell you. Dr. Wallace says Abrahama can't live more than a day or two, and--she has made a will and left you all her property."

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