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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 41
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A Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 41 Post by :ollan Category :Long Stories Author :Mary E Wilkins Freeman Date :May 2012 Read :3292

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A Jerome, Poor Man: A Novel - Chapter 41

Chapter XLI

During Jerome's absence at Simon Basset's, Squire Eben Merritt's wife came across lots to the Edwardses' house. A little red shawl over her shoulders stood out triangularly to the gusts of spring wind; a forked end of red ribbon on her bonnet fluttered sharply. Abigail Merritt moved with nervous impetus across the fields, like an erratic thread of separate purpose through an even web. All the red of the spring landscape was in the swift passing of her garments. All that was not in straight parallels of accord with the universal yielding of nature to the simplest law of growth was in her soul. She passed on her own errand, cutting, as it were, a swath of spirit through the soft influence of the spring. Abigail Merritt's mouth was tightly shut, her eyes were narrow gleams of resolution, there were red spots on her cheeks. She had left Lucina weeping on the bed in her little chamber; she had said nothing to her, nor her husband, but she had resolved upon her own course of action.

"It is time something was done," said Abigail Merritt, nodding to herself in the glass as she tied on her bonnet, "and I am going to do it."

When she reached the Edwardses' house, she stepped briskly up the path, bowing to Mrs. Edwards in the window, and Elmira opened the door before she knocked.

"Good-afternoon; I would like to see your brother a moment," Abigail announced, abruptly.

"He isn't at home," said Elmira; "something has happened at Simon Basset's--I don't know what. A boy came after Jerome, and he hurried off. Father's gone too." Elmira blushed all over her face and neck as she spoke. "Jerome will be sorry he wasn't at home," she added. She had a curious sense of innocent confusion over the situation.

Mrs. Edwards blushed too, like an echo, though she gave her little dark head an impatient toss.

"Then please ask your brother if he will be so kind as to come to the Squire's after supper to-night," she returned, in her smart, prettily dictatorial way, and took leave at once, though Elmira urged her politely to come in and rest and wait for her brother's return.

She gave the message to Jerome when he came home. "What do you suppose she wants of you?" she asked, wonderingly. Jerome shook his head.

"Why, you look as white as a sheet!" said Elmira, staring at him.

"I've seen enough this afternoon to make any man look white," Jerome replied, evasively.

"Well, I suppose you have; it is awful about Simon Basset," Elmira assented, shudderingly.

Jerome had to force himself to his work after he had received Mrs. Merritt's message. The tragedy of Simon Basset had given him a terrible shock, and now this last set his nerves in a tumult in spite of himself.

"What can she want?" he questioned, over and over. "Shall I see Lucina? What can her mother have to say to me?"

One minute, thinking of Simon Basset, he stood convicted, to his shame, of the utter despicableness of all his desires pertaining to the earth and the flesh, by that clear apprehension of eternity which often comes to one at the sight of sudden death. He settled with himself that wealth and success and learning, and love itself even, where as nothing beside that one surety of eternity, which holds the sequence of good and evil, and is of the spirit.

Then, in a wild rebellion of honesty, he would own to himself that, whether he would have it so or not, to his understanding, still hampered by the conditions of the flesh, perhaps made morbid by resistance to them, but that he could not tell, love was the one truth and reality and source of all things; that life was because of love, not love because of life.

Jerome set his mouth hard as he ploughed. The newly turned sods clung to his feet and made them heavy, as the fond longings of the earth clung to his soul. It seemed to Jerome that he had never loved Lucina as he loved her then, that he had never wanted her so much. Also that he had never been so firmly resolved to give her up. If Lucina had seemed beyond his reach before, she seemed doubly so then, and her new wealth loomed between them like an awful golden flood of separation. "I have given away all my money," he said. "Shall I marry a wife with money, to make good my loss?" He laughed at himself with bitter scorn for the fancy.

After supper, he dressed himself in his best clothes, and set out for Squire Merritt's, evading as much as he could his mother's questions and surmises. Ann's bitterness at his disposal of his money was softened to loquacity by her curiosity.

"I s'pose," said she, "that if that poor girl goes down on her knees to you, an' tells you her heart is breakin', that you'll jest hand her over to the town poor, the way you did your money."

"Don't, mother," whispered Elmira, as Jerome went out, making no response.

"I'm goin' to say what I think 's best. I'm his mother," returned Ann. But when Jerome was gone, she broke down and cried, and complained that the poor boy hadn't eat any supper, and she was afraid he'd be sick. Abel, sitting near her, snivelled softly for sympathy, not fairly comprehending her cause for tears. When she stopped weeping, and took up her knitting-work again, he drew a sigh of relief and fell to eating an apple.

As for Elmira, she tried to comfort her mother, and she had an anxious curiosity about Jerome and his call at the Merritts'; but Lawrence Prescott was coming that evening.

Presently Ann heard her singing up-stairs in her chamber, whither she had gone to curl her hair and change her gown.

"I'm glad somebody can sing," muttered Ann; but in the depths of her heart was a wish that her son, instead of her daughter, could have had the reason for song, if it were appointed to one only. "Women don't take things so hard as men," reasoned Ann Edwards.

When Jerome knocked at Squire Merritt's door that evening, Mrs. Merritt opened it. For a minute everything was dark before him; he had thought that he might see Lucina. His voice sounded strange in his own ears when he replied to Mrs. Merritt's greeting; he almost reeled when he followed her into the parlor. It was a cool, spring night, and there was a fire on the hearth. A silver branch of candles on the mantel-shelf lit the room.

Mrs. Merritt looked anxiously at Jerome as she placed a chair. "I hope you are well," she said, in her quick way, but her voice was kind. Jerome thought it sounded like Lucina's. He stammered that he was quite well.

"You look pale."

When he made no response to that, she added, with a motherly cadence, that he had been through a great deal lately; that she had felt very sorry about the loss of his mill.

Jerome thanked her. He sat opposite, in a great mahogany arm-chair, holding himself very erect; but his pulses sang in his ears, and his downcast eyes scanned the roses in the carpet. He did not understand it, but he was for the moment like a school-boy before the aroused might of feminity of this little woman.

"It is partly about your mill that I want to see you," said Abigail Merritt. "The Squire has something which he wishes to propose, but he has begged me to do so for him. He thinks my chances of success are better. I don't know about that," she finished, smiling.

Jerome looked up then, with quick attention, and she came at once to the point. Abigail Merritt, her mind once made up, was not a woman to beat long about a bush. "The Squire has, as you know," she said, "a legacy of five thousand dollars from poor Colonel Lamson. He wishes to invest part of it. He would like to rebuild your mill."

Jerome colored high. "Thank him, and thank you," he said; "but--"

"He does not propose to give it to you," she interposed, quickly. "He would not venture to propose that, however much he might like to do so. His plan is to rebuild the mill, and for you to work it on shares--you to have your share of the profits for your labor. You could have the chance to buy him out later, when you were able."

Jerome was about to speak, but Abigail interrupted again. "I beg you not to make your final decision now," she said. "There is no necessity for it. I would rather, too, that you gave your answer to the Squire instead of me. I have nothing to do with it. It is simply a proposition of the Squire's for you to consider at your leisure. You know how much my husband has always thought of you since you were a child. He would be glad to help you, and help himself at the same time, if you will allow him to do so; but that can pass over. I have something else of more importance to me to say. Jerome Edwards," said she, suddenly, and there was a new tone in her voice, "I want you to tell me just how matters stand between you and my daughter, Lucina. I am her mother, and I have a right to know."

Jerome looked at her. His handsome young face was very white. "I--have been working hard to earn enough money to marry," he said, speaking quick, as if his breath failed him. "I lost my mill. I will not ask her to wait."

"You had a fortune, but you gave it away," returned Mrs. Merritt. "Well, we will not discuss that; that is not between you and me, or any human being, if you did what you thought right. Lucina has twenty thousand dollars, you know that?"

Jerome nodded. "Yes," he replied, hoarsely.

"What difference will it make whether you have the money or your wife?"

"It makes a difference to me," Jerome cried then, with that old flash of black eyes which had intimidated the little girl Lucina in years past.

"And yet you say you love my daughter," said Mrs. Merritt, looking at him steadily.

"I love her so much that I would lay down my life for her!" Jerome cried, fiercely, and there was a flare of red over his pale face.

"But not so much that you would sacrifice one jot or one tittle of your pride for her," responded Abigail Merritt, with sharp scorn. Suddenly she sprang up from her chair and stood before the young man, every nerve in her slight body quivering with the fire of eloquence. "Now listen, Jerome Edwards," said she. "I know who and what you are, and I know who and what my daughter is. I give you your full due. You have traits which are above the common, and out of the common; some which are noble, and some which render you dangerous to the peace of any one who loves you. I give you your full due, and I give my daughter hers. I can say it without vanity--it is the simple truth--Lucina has had her pick and choice among many. She could have wedded, had she chosen, in high stations. She has a face and character which win love for her wherever she goes. I am not here to offer or force my daughter upon any unwilling lover. If I had not been sure, from what she has told me, and from what I have observed, that you were perfectly honest in your affection for her, I should not have sent for you to-night. I--"

She stopped, for Jerome burst out with a passion which startled her. "Honest! Oh, my God! I love her so that I am nothing without her. I love her more than the whole world, more than my own life!"

"Then give up your pride for her, if you love her," said Abigail, sharply.

"My pride!"

"Yes, your pride. You have given away everything else, but how dare you think yourself generous when you have kept the thing that is dearest of all? You generous--you! Talk of Simon Basset! You are a miser of a false trait in your own character. You are a worse miser than he, unless you give it up. What are you, that you should say, 'I will go through life, and I will give, and not take?' What are you, that you should think yourself better than all around you--that you should be towards your fellow-creatures as a god, conferring everything, receiving nothing? If you love my daughter, prove it. Take what she has to give you, and give her, what is worth more than money, if you had the riches of Croesus, the pride of your heart."

Jerome stood before her, looking at her. Then, without a word, he went across the room to a window, and stood there, his back towards her, his face towards the moonlight night outside.

"Is it pride or principle?" he said, hoarsely, without turning his head.

"Pride."

Jerome stood silently at the window. Abigail watched him, her brows contracted, her fingers twitching; there were red spots on her cheeks. This had cost her dearly. She, too, had given up her pride for love of Lucina.

Jerome, with a sudden motion of his shoulders, as if he flung off a burden, left the window and crossed the room. He was very pale, but his eyes were shining. He towered over Mrs. Merritt with his splendid height, and she was woman enough, even then, to note how handsome he was. "Will you give me Lucina for my wife?" said he.

Tears sprang to Abigail's eyes, her little face quivered. She took Jerome's hand, pressed it, murmured something, and went out. Jerome understood that she had gone to call Lucina.

It was not long before he heard Lucina's step on the stairs, and the rustle of her skirts. Then there was a suspensive silence, as if she hesitated at the door; then the latch was lifted and she came in.

Lucina, in a straight hanging gown of blue silk, stood still near the door, looking at Jerome with a wonderful expression of love and modest shrinking and trust and fear, and a gentle dignity and graciousness withal, which only a maiden's face can compass. Lucina did not blush nor tremble, though her steady poise seemed rather due to the repression of tremors than actual calm of spirit. Though no color came into Lucina's smooth, pale curves of cheek, and though her little hands were clasped before her, like hands of marble, her blue eyes were dilated, and pulses beat hard in her delicate throat and temples.

Jerome, on his part, was for a minute unable to speak or approach her. An awe of her, as of an angel, was over him, now that for the first time the certainty of possession was in his heart. It often happens that one receiving for the first time a great and long-desired blessing, can feel, for the moment, not joy and triumph so much as awe and fear at its sudden glory of fairness in contact with his unworthiness.

But, all at once, as Jerome hesitated a soft red came flaming over Lucina's face and neck, and tears of distress welled up in her eyes. Far it was from her to understand how her lover felt, for awe of herself was beyond her imagination, and a dreadful fear lest her mother had been mistaken and Jerome did not want her after all, was in her heart. She gave him a little look, at once proud and piteously shamed, and put her hand on the door-latch; but with that Jerome was at her side and his arms were around her.

"Oh, Lucina," he said, "I am poor--I am poorer than when I spoke to you before. You must give all and I nothing, except myself, which seems to me as nothing when I look at you. Will you take me so?"

Then Lucina looked straight up in his face, and her blushes were gone, and her blue eyes were dark, as if from unknown depths of love and faithfulness. "Don't you know," she said, with an authoritative seriousness, which seemed beyond her years and her girlish experience--"don't you know that when I give you all I give to myself, and that if I did not give you all I could never give to myself, but should be poor all my life?

"And, and--" continued Lucina, tremulously, for she was beginning to falter, being nerved to such length of assertive speech only by her wish to comfort and reassure Jerome, "don't you know--don't you know, Jerome, that--a woman's giving is all her taking, and--you wouldn't take the gingerbread, dear, and the money for the shoes, when we were both children--but, maybe your--taking from--somebody who loves you is your--best giving--"

With that Lucina was sobbing softly on Jerome's shoulder, and he was leaning his face close to hers, whispering brokenly and kissing her hair and her cheek.

"It doesn't matter, after all, because you lost your mill, dear," Lucina said, presently, "because we have money enough for everything, now."

"It is your money, for your own needs always," Jerome returned, quickly, and with a sudden recoil as from a touch upon a raw surface, for the sensitiveness of a whole life cannot be hardened in a moment.

"No, it is yours, too; he meant it so," said Lucina, with a little laugh. "You wait a minute and I will show you."

With that Lucina fumbled in the pocket of her silken gown and produced a letter.

"Read this, dear," said she, "and you will see what I mean."

"What is it?" asked Jerome, wonderingly, staring at the superscription, which was, "For Mistress Lucina Merritt, to be opened and read by herself, at her pleasure and discretion, and to be read by herself and Jerome Edwards jointly on the day of their betrothal."

"Come over to the light and we will read it together," said Lucina.

Jerome and Lucina sat down on the sofa under the branching candlestick and read the letter with their heads close together. The letter ran:

"Dear Mistress Lucina,--When this you read an old soldier will have fought his last battle, and his heart, which has held you as kindly as a father's, will have ceased to beat. But he prays that you will ever, in your own true and loving heart, save a place for his memory, and he begs you to accept as an earnest of his affection, with his fond wishes for your happiness, the sum of twenty thousand dollars, as specified in his last will and testament.

"And he furthermore begs that the said sum of twenty thousand dollars be regarded by you, when you wed Jerome Edwards, in the light of a dowry, to be employed by you both, for your mutual good and profit, during your married life. And this with my commendation for the wisdom of your choice, and my fervent blessing upon my foster son and daughter.

"I am, dear Mistress Lucina, your obedient servant to command, your devoted friend, and your affectionate foster father,

"John Lamson."


(THE END)
Mary E Wilkins Freeman's Book: Jerome, a Poor Man: A Novel

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