Jerome, A Poor Man - A Novel
by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
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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.

Chapter VIII

That 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 tea and eating cake, with the spread of Miss Camilla's lilac flounces brushing his knee, and her soft voice now and then in his ear, that he strove to remember how he happened to be there at all, and that shock of strangeness which obliterates the past wellnigh paralyzed his memory.

Yet it had been simple enough, as paths to strange conclusions always are. He had returned home from Squire Eben's that morning, changed his clothes, and resumed his work in the garden.

Elmira had questioned him, but he gave her no information. He had an instinct, which had been born in him, of secrecy towards womankind. Nobody had ever told him that women were not trustworthy with respect to confidences; he had never found it so from observation; he simply agreed within himself that he had better not confide any but fully matured plans, and no plans which should be kept secret, to a woman. He had, however, besides this caution, a generous resolution not to worry Elmira or his mother about it until he knew. "Wait till I find out; I don't know myself," he told Elmira.

"Don't you know where you've been? You can tell us that," she persisted, in her sweet, querulous treble. She pulled at his jacket sleeve with her little thin, coaxing hand, but Jerome was obdurate. He twitched his jacket sleeve away.

"I sha'n't tell you one thing, and there is no use in your teasin'," he said, peremptorily, and she yielded.

Elmira reported that their mother was sitting still in her rocking-chair, with her head leaning back and her eyes shut. "She seems all beat out," she said, pitifully; "she don't tell me to do a thing."

The two tiptoed across the entry and stood in the kitchen door, looking at poor Ann. She sat quite still, as Elmira had said, her head tipped back, her eyes closed, and her mouth slightly parted. Her little bony hands lay in her lap, with the fingers limp in utter nerveless relaxation, but she was not asleep. She opened her eyes when her children came to the door, but she did not speak nor turn her head. Presently her eyes closed again.

Jerome pulled Elmira back into the parlor. "You must go ahead and get the dinner, and make her some gruel, and not ask her a question, and not bother her about anything," he whispered, sternly. "She's resting; she'll die if she don't. It's awful for her. It's bad 'nough for us, but we don't know what 'tis for her."

Elmira assented, with wide, scared, piteous eyes on her brother.

"Go now and get the dinner," said Jerome.

"There's lots left over from yesterday," said Elmira, forlornly. "Shall we have anything after that's gone?"

"Have enough while I've got two hands," returned Jerome, gruffly. "Get some potatoes and boil 'em, and have some of that cold meat, and make mother the gruel."

Elmira obeyed, finding a certain comfort in that. Indeed, she belonged assuredly to that purely feminine order of things which gains perhaps its best strength through obedience. Give Elmira a power over her, and she would never quite fall.

Elmira went about getting dinner, tiptoeing around her mother, who still sat sunken in her strange apathy of melancholy or exhaustion, it was difficult to tell which, while Jerome spaded and dug in the garden, in the fury of zeal which he had inherited from her.

Elmira had dinner ready early, and called Jerome. When he went in he found her trying to induce her mother to swallow a bowl of gruel. "Won't you take it, mother?" she was pleading, with tears in her eyes; but her mother only lifted one hand feebly and motioned it away; she would not raise her head or open her eyes.

"Give me that bowl," said Jerome. He held it before his mother, and slipped one hand behind her neck, constraining her gently to raise her head. "Here, mother," said he, "here's your gruel."

She resisted faintly, and shook her weak, repelling hand again. "Sit up, mother, and drink your gruel," said Jerome, and his mother's eyes flew wide open at that, and stared up in his face with eager inquiry; for again she had that wild surmise that her lost husband spoke to her.

"Drink it, mother," said Jerome, again meeting her half-delirious gaze fully; and Ann seemed to see his father looking at her from his son's eyes, through his immortality after the flesh. She raised herself at once, held out her trembling hands for the bowl, and drank the gruel to the last drop. Then she gave the empty bowl to Jerome, leaned her head back, and closed her eyes again.

After dinner Jerome changed his clothes for his poor best for the second time, and set forth to Doctor Prescott's. Elmira's wistful eyes followed him as he went out, but he said not a word. He threw back his shoulders and stepped out with as much boldness of carriage as ever.

"How smart he is!" Elmira thought, watching him from the window.

However, it was true that his heart quaked within him, supported as he was by the advice and encouragement of Squire Merritt. Doctor Prescott had been the awe and the terror of all his childhood. Nobody knew how in his childish illnesses—luckily not many—he had dreaded and resented the advent of this great man, who represented to him absolute monarchy, if not despotism. He never demurred at his noxious doses, but swallowed them at a gulp, with no sweet after-morsel as an inducement, yet, strangely enough, never from actual submissiveness, but rather from that fierce scorn and pride of utter helplessness which can maintain a certain defiance to authority by depriving it of that victory which comes only from opposition.

Jerome swallowed castor-oil, rhubarb, and the rest with a glare of fierce eyes over spoon and a triumphant understanding with himself that he took it because he chose, and not because the doctor made him. It was odd, but Doctor Prescott seemed to have some intuition of the boy's mental attitude, for, in spite of his ready obedience, he had always a singular aversion to him. He was much more amenable to pretty little Elmira, who cried pitifully whenever he entered the house, and had always to be coaxed and threatened to make her take medicine at all. No one would have said, and Doctor Prescott himself would not have believed, that he, in his superior estate of age and life, would have stooped to dislike a child like that, thus putting him upon a certain equality of antagonism; but in truth he did. Doctor Prescott scarcely ever knew one boy from another when he met him upon the street, but Jerome Edwards he never mistook, though he never stirred his stately head in response to the boy's humble bob of courtesy. Once, after so meeting and passing the boy, he heard an audacious note of defiance at his back, with a preliminary sniff of scorn: "Hm! wonder if he thinks he was born grown up, with money in his pockets; wonder if he thinks he owns this whole town?" The doctor never turned to resent this sarcastic soliloquy whereby the boy's suppressed democracy asserted itself, but the next time he saw Jerome's father he told him he had better look to his son's manners, and Jerome had been called to account.

However, when he had repeated his speech which had given offence, he had only been charged to keep his thoughts to himself in future. "I'll think 'em, anyhow," said Jerome, with unabated defiance.

"You'll pay proper respect to your elders," said his father.

"You'll think what we tell you to," said his mother, but the eyes of the two met. Doctor Prescott might hold the mortgage and exact his pound of flesh, these poor backs might bend to the yoke, but there was no cringing in the hearts of Abel Edwards and his wife. It was easy to see where Jerome got his spirit.

However, spirit needs long experience and great strength to assert itself fully at all times before long-recognized power. Jerome, going up the road to Doctor Prescott's, felt rather a fierce submission and obligatory humility than defiance. He felt as if this great man held not only himself, but his mother and sister, their lives and fortunes, at his disposal. Awe of the reigning sovereign was upon him, but it was the surly awe of the peasant whose mouth is stopped by force from questions.

It was not long before Jerome, going along the country road, came to the beginning of Doctor Prescott's estate. He owned long stretches of fields along the main street of the village, comprising many fine house-lots, which, however, people were too poor to buy. Doctor Prescott fixed such high prices to his house-lots that no one could pay them. However, people thought he did not care to sell. He liked being a large land-owner, like an English lord, and feeling that he owned half the village, they said.

Moreover, his acres brought him a fair income. They were sowed to clover and timothy, and barley and corn, and gave such hay and such crops as no others in town.

As Jerome passed these fair fields, either golden-green with the young grass, or ploughed in even ridges for the new seeds, set with dandelions like stars, or pierced as to the brown mould with emerald spears of grain, he scowled at them, and his mouth puckered grimly and piteously. He thought of all this land which Doctor Prescott owned; he thought of the one poor little bit of soil which he was going to offer him, to keep a roof over his head. Why should this man have all this, and he and his so little? Was it because he was better? Jerome shook his head vehemently. Was it because the Lord loved him better? Jerome looked up in the blue spring sky. The problem of the rights of the soil of the old earth was upon the boy, but he could not solve it—only scowl and grieve over it.

Past the length of the shining fields, well back from the road, with a fine curve of avenue between lofty pine-trees leading up to it, stood Doctor Prescott's house. It was much the finest one in the village, massively built of gray stone in large irregular blocks, veined at the junctions with white stucco; a great white pillared piazza stretched across the front, and three flights of stone steps led over smooth terraces to it; for it was raised on an artificial elevation above the road-level. Jerome, having passed the last field, reached the avenue leading to the doctor's house, and stopped a moment. His hands and feet were cold; there was a nervous trembling all over his little body. He remembered how once, when he was much younger, his mother had sent him to the doctor's to have a tooth pulled, how he stood there trembling and hesitating as now, and how he finally took matters into his own hands. A thrill of triumph shot over him even then, as he recalled that mad race of his away up the road, on and on until he came to the woods, and the tying of the offending tooth to an oak-tree by a stout cord, and the agonized but undaunted pulling thereat until his object was gained.

"I'd 'nough sight rather go to an oak-tree to have my tooth out than to Doctor Prescott," he had said, stoutly, being questioned on his return; and his father and mother, being rather taken at a loss by such defiance and disobedience, scarcely knew whether to praise or blame.

But there was no oak-tree for this strait. Jerome, after a minute of that blind groping and feeling, as of the whole body and soul, with which one strives to find some other way to an end than a hard and repugnant one, gave it up. He went up the avenue, holding his head up, digging his toes into the pine-needles, with an air of stubborn boyish bravado, yet all the time the nervous trembling never ceased. However, half-way up the avenue he came into one of those warmer currents which sometimes linger so mysteriously among trees, seeming like a pool of air submerging one as visibly as water. This warm-air bath was, moreover, sweetened with the utmost breath of the pine woods. Jerome, plunging into it, felt all at once a certain sense of courage and relief, as if he had a bidding and a welcome from old friends.

There are times when a quick conviction, from something like a special favor or caress of the great motherhood of nature, which makes us all as child to child, comes over one. "His pine-trees ain't any different from other folks' pine-trees," flashed through Jerome's mind.

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.

Chapter X

Squire 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 to the wars for his country, and retired at fifty-eight with a limp in his right leg and a cane. Colonel Lamson, being a much-removed cousin of the lawyer's, kept bachelors' hall with him in a comfortable and untidy old mansion at the other end of the town, across the brook.

Many nights of a week these four met for an evening of whist or bezique, to the scandal of the steady-going folk of the town, who approved not of cards, and opined that the Squire's poor wife must feel bad enough to have such carousings at her house. But the Squire's wife, who had in herself a rare understanding among women of masculine good-fellowship, had sometimes, if the truth had been told, taken an ailing member's hand at cards when their orgies convened at the Squire's. John Jennings, being somewhat afflicted with rheumatic gout, was occasionally missing. Then did Abigail Merritt take his place, and play with the sober concentration of a man and the quick wit of a woman. Colonel Jack Lamson, whose partner she was, privately preferred her to John Jennings, whose overtaxed mental powers sometimes failed him in the memory of the cards; but being as intensely loyal to his friends as to his country, he never spoke to that effect. He only, when the little, trim, black-haired woman made a brilliant stroke of finesse, with a quick flash of her bright eyes and wise compression of lips, smiled privately, as if to himself, with face bent upon his hand.

Whether Abigail Merritt played cards or not, she always brewed a great bowl of punch, as no one but she knew how to do, and set it out for the delectation of her husband and his friends. The receipt for this punch—one which had been long stored in the culinary archives of the Merritt family, with the poundcake and other rich and toothsome compounds—had often, upon entreaty, been confided to other ambitious matrons, but to no purpose. Let them spice and flavor and add measures of fine strong liquors as they would, their punch had not that perfect harmony of results, which effaces detail, of Abigail Merritt's.

"By George!" Colonel Jack Lamson was wont to say, when his first jorum had trickled down his experienced throat—"By George! I thought I had drunk punch. There was a time when I thought I could mix a bowl of punch myself, but this is punch."

Then John Jennings, holding his empty glass, would speak: "All we could taste in that last punch that Belinda Armstrong made at my house was lemon; and the time before that, allspice; and the time before that, raw rum." John Jennings's voice, somewhat hoarse, was yet full of sweet melancholy cadences; there was sentiment and pathos in his "lemon" and "allspice," which waxed almost tearful in his "raw rum." His worn, high-bred face was as instinct with gentle melancholy as his voice, yet his sunken black eyes sparkled with the light of youth as the fine aromatic fire of the punch penetrated his veins.

As for the lawyer, who was the eldest of the four, long, brown, toughly and dryly pliant as an old blade of marsh-grass, he showed in speech, look, nor manner no sign of enthusiasm, but he drank the punch.

That evening, after Jerome Edwards had run home with his prospects of two shillings a week and Squire Eben Merritt's assistance, the friends met at the Squire's house. At eight o'clock they came marching down the road, the three of them—John Jennings in fine old broadcloth and a silk hat, with a weak stoop in his shoulders, and a languid shakiness in his long limbs; the lawyer striding nimbly as a grasshopper, with the utter unconsciousness of one who pursues only the ultimate ends of life; and the colonel, halting on his right knee, and recovering himself stiffly with his cane, holding his shoulders back, breathing a little heavily, his neck puffing over his high stock, his face a purplish-red about his white mustache and close-cropped beard.

The Squire's wife had the punch-bowl all ready in the south room, where the parties were held. Some pipes were laid out there too, and a great jar of fine tobacco, and the cards were on the mahogany card-table—four packs for bezique. Abigail herself opened the door, admitted the guests, and ushered them into the south room. Colonel Lamson said something about the aroma of the punch; and John Jennings, in his sweet, melancholy voice, something gallant about the fair hands that mixed it; but Eliphalet Means moved unobtrusively across the room and dipped out for himself a glass of the beverage, and wasted not his approval in empty words.

The Squire came in shortly and greeted his guests, but he had his hat in his hand.

"I have to go out on business," he announced. "I shall not be long. Mrs. Merritt will have to take my place."

Abigail looked at him in surprise. But she was a most discreet wife. She never asked a question, though she wondered why her husband had not spoken of this before. The truth was he had forgotten his card-party when he had made his promise to Jerome, and then he had forgotten his promise to Jerome in thinking of his card-party, and little Lucina on her way to bed had just brought it to mind by asking when he was going. She had heard the promise, and had not forgotten.

"By the Lord Harry!" said the Squire, for he heard his friends down-stairs. Then, when Lucina looked at him with innocent wonder, he said, hurriedly, "Now, Pretty—I am going now," and went down to excuse himself to his guests.

Eliphalet Means, whose partner Abigail had become by this deflection, nodded, and seated himself at once in his place at table, the pleasant titillation of the punch in his veins and approval in his heart. He considered Abigail a better player than her husband, and began to meditate proposing a small stake that evening.

The Squire, setting forth on his errand to Doctor Prescott, striding heavily through the sweet dampness of the spring night, experienced a curious combination of amusement, satisfaction, and indignation with himself. "I'm a fool!" he declared, with more vehemence than he would have declared four aces in bezique; and then he cursed his folly, and told himself that if he kept on he would leave Abigail and the child without a penny. But then, after all, he realized that singularly warm glow of self-approval for a good deed which at once comforts and irradiates the heart in spite of all worldly prudence and wisdom.

That night the air was very heavy with moisture, which seemed to hold all the spring odors of newly turned earth, young grass, and blossoms in solution. Squire Eben moved through it as through a scented flood in which respiration was possible. Over all the fields was a pale mist, waving and eddying in such impalpable air currents that it seemed to have a sentient life of its own. These soft rises and lapses of the mist on the fields might seemingly have been due to the efforts of prostrate shadows to gather themselves into form. Beyond the fields, against the hills and woods and clear horizon, pale fogs arose with motions as of arms and garments and streaming locks. The blossoming trees stood out suddenly beside one with a white surprise rather felt than seen. The young moon and the stars shone dimly with scattering rays, and the lights in the house windows were veiled. The earth and sky and all the familiar features of the village had that effect of mystery and unreality which some conditions of the atmosphere bring to pass.

A strangely keen sense of the unstability of all earthly things, of the shadows of the tomb, of the dreamy half-light of the world, came over Eben Merritt, and his generous impulse seemed suddenly the only lantern to light his wavering feet. "I'll do what I can for the poor little chap, come what will," he muttered, and strode on to Doctor Prescott's house.

Just before he reached it a horse and sulky turned into the yard, driven rapidly from the other direction. Squire Eben hastened his steps, and reached the south house door before the doctor entered. He was just ascending the steps, his medicine-case in hand, when he heard his name called, and turned around.

"I want a word with you before you go in, doctor," called the Squire, as he came up.

"Good-evening, Squire Merritt," returned the doctor, bowing formally on his vantage-ground of steps, but his voice bespoke a spiritual as well as material elevation.

"I would like a word with you," the Squire said again.

"Walk into the house."

"No, I won't come in, as long as I've met you. I have company at home. I haven't much to say—" The Squire stopped. Jake Noyes was coming from the barn, swinging a lantern; he waited until he had led the horse away, then continued. "It is just as well to have no witnesses," he said, laughing. "It is about that affair of the Edwards mortgage."

"Ah!" said the doctor, with a fencing wariness of intonation.

"I would like to inquire what you're going to do about it, if you have no objection. I have reasons."

The doctor gave a keen look at him. His face, as he stood on the steps, was on a level with the Squire's. "I am going to take the house, of course," he said, calmly.

"It will be a blow to Mrs. Edwards and the boy."

"It will be the best thing that could happen to him," said the doctor, with the same clear evenness. "That sick woman and boy are not fit to have the care of a place. I shall own it, and rent it to them."

Heat in controversy is sometimes needful to convince one's self as well as one's adversary. Doctor Prescott needed no increase of warmth to further his own arguments, so conclusive they were to his own mind.

"For how much, if I may ask? I am interested for certain reasons."

"Seventy dollars. That will amount to the interest money they pay now and ten dollars over. The extra ten will be much less than repairs and taxes. They will be gainers."

"What will you take for that mortgage?"

"Take for the mortgage?"

The Squire nodded.

The doctor gave another of his keen glances at him. "I don't know that I want to take anything for it," he said.

"Suppose it were made worth your while?"

"Nobody would be willing to make it enough worth my while to influence me," said the doctor. "My price for the transfer of a good investment is what it is worth to me."

"Well, doctor, what is it worth to you?" Squire Eben said, smiling.

"Fifteen hundred dollars," said the doctor.

The Squire whistled.

"I am quite aware that the mortgage is for a thousand only," the doctor said, and yet without the slightest meaning of apology, "but I consider when it comes to relinquishing it that it is worth the additional five hundred. I must be just to myself. Then, too, Mr. Edwards owed me a half-year's interest. The fifteen hundred would cover that, of course."

"You won't take any less?"

"Not a dollar."

Squire Eben hesitated a second. "You know, I own that strip of land on the Dale road, on the other side of the brook," he said.

The doctor nodded, still with his eyes keenly intent.

"There are three good house-lots; that house of the Edwardses is old and out of repair. You'll have to spend considerable on it to rent it. My three lots are equal to that one house, and suppose we exchange. You take that land, and I take the mortgage on the Edwards place."

"Do you know what you are talking about?" Doctor Prescott said, sharply; for this plain proposition that he overreach the other aroused him to a show of fairness.

Squire Merritt laughed. "Oh, I know you'll get the best of the bargain," he returned.

Then the doctor waxed suspicious. This readiness to take the worst of a bargain while perfectly cognizant of it puzzled him. He wondered if perchance this easy-going, card-playing, fishing Squire had, after all, some axe of policy to grind. "What do you expect to make out of it?" he asked, bluntly.

"Nothing. I am not even sure that I have any active hope of a higher rate of interest in the other world for it. I am not as sound in the doctrines as you, doctor." Squire Eben laughed, but the other turned on him sternly.

"If you are doing this for the sake of Abel Edwards's widow and her children, you are acting from a mistaken sense of charity, and showing poor judgment," said he.

Squire Eben laughed again. "You made no reply to my proposition, doctor," he said.

"You are in earnest?"

"I am."

"You understand what you are doing?"

"I certainly do. I am giving you between fifteen and sixteen hundred dollars' worth of land for a thousand."

"There is no merit nor charity in such foolish measures as this," said the doctor, half suspicious that there was more behind this, and not put to shame but aroused to a sense of superiority by such drivelling idiocy of benevolence.

"Dare say you're right, doctor," returned Squire Eben. "I won't even cheat you out of the approval of Heaven. Will you meet me at Means's office to-morrow, with the necessary documents for the transfer? We had better go around to Mrs. Edwards's afterwards and inform her, I suppose."

"I will meet you at Means's office at ten o'clock to-morrow morning," said the doctor, shortly. "Good-evening," and with that turned on his heel. However, when he had opened the door he turned again and called curtly and magisterially after Squire Eben: "I advise you to cultivate a little more business foresight for the sake of your wife and child," and Squire Eben answered back:

"Thank you—thank you, doctor; guess you're right," and then began to whistle like a boy as he went down the avenue of pines.

Through lack of remunerative industry, and easy-going habits, his share of the old Merritt property had dwindled considerably; he had none too much money to spend at the best, and now he had bartered away a goodly slice of his paternal acres for no adequate worldly return. He knew it all, he felt a half-whimsical dismay as he went home, and yet the meaning which underlies the letter of a good action was keeping his heart warm.

When he reached home his wife, who had just finished her game, slid out gently, and the usual festivities began. Colonel Lamson, warmed with punch and good-fellowship and tobacco, grew brilliant at cards, and humorously reminiscent of old jokes between the games; John Jennings lagged at cards, but flashed out now and then with fine wit, while his fervently working brain lit up his worn face with the light of youth. The lawyer, who drank more than the rest, played better and better, and waxed caustic in speech if crossed. As for the Squire, his frankness increased even to the risk of self-praise. Before the evening was over he had told the whole story of little Jerome, of Doctor Prescott and himself and the Edwards mortgage. The three friends stared at him with unsorted cards in their hands.

"You are a damned fool!" cried Eliphalet Means, taking his pipe from his mouth.

"No," cried Jennings, "not a damned fool, but a rare fool," and his great black eyes, in their mournful hollows, flashed affectionately at Squire Eben.

"And I say he's a damned fool. Men live in this world," maintained the lawyer, fiercely.

"Men's hearts ought to be out of the world if their heads are in it," affirmed John Jennings, with a beautiful smile. "I say he's a rare fool, and I would that all the wise men could go to school to such a fool and learn wisdom of his folly."

Colonel Jack Lamson, who sat at the Squire's left, removed his pipe, cleared his throat, and strove to speak in vain. Now he began with a queer stiffness of his lips, while his purplish-red flush spread to the roots of his thin bristle of gray hair.

"It reminds me of a story I heard. No, that is another. It reminds me—" And then the colonel broke down with a great sob, and a dash of his sleeve across his eyes, and recovered himself, and cried out, chokingly, "No, I'll be damned if it reminds me of anything I've ever seen or heard of, for I've never seen a man like you, Eben!"

And with that he slapped his cards to the table, and shook the Squire's hand, with such a fury of affectionate enthusiasm that some of his cards fluttered about him to the floor, like a shower of leaves.

As for Eliphalet Means, he declared again, with vicious emphasis, "He's a damned fool!" then rose up, laid his cards on top of the colonel's scattered hand, went to the punch-bowl and helped himself to another glass; then, pipe in mouth, went up to Squire Merritt and gave him a great slap on his back. "You are a damned fool, my boy!" he cried out, holding his pipe from his lips and breathing out a great cloud of smoke with the words; "but the wife and the young one and you shall never want a bite or a sup, nor a bed nor a board, on account of it, while old 'Liph Means has a penny in pocket."

And with that Eliphalet Means, who was old enough to be the Squire's father, and loved him as he would have loved a son, went back to his seat and dealt the cards over.

Chapter XI

Innocence and ignorance can be as easily hood-winked by kindness as by contumely.

This little Jerome, who had leaped, under the spur of necessity, to an independence of understanding beyond his years, allowed himself to be quite misled by the Squire as to his attitude in the matter of the mortgage. In spite of the momentary light reflected from the doctor's shrewder intelligence which had flashed upon his scheme, the Squire was able to delude him with a renewed belief in it, after he had informed him of the transfer of the mortgage-deed, which took place the next morning.

"I decided to buy that wood-lot of your father's, as your mother was willing," said the Squire; "and as I had not the money in hand to pay down, I gave my note to your mother for it, as you proposed the doctor should do, and allowed six per cent. interest."

Jerome looked at him in a bewildered way.

"Well, what is the matter? Aren't you as willing to take my note as the doctor's?" asked the Squire.

"Is it fair?" asked Jerome, hesitatingly.

"Fair to you?"

"No; to you."

"Of course it is fair enough to me. Why not?"

"The doctor didn't think it was," said the boy, getting more and more bewildered.

"Why didn't he?"

"I don't—know—" faltered Jerome; and he did not, for the glimmer of light which he had got from the doctor's worldly wisdom had quite failed him. He had seen quite clearly that it was not fair, but now he could not.

"Oh, well, I dare say it is fairer for me than for him," said the Squire, easily. "Probably he had the ready money; I haven't the ready money; that makes all the difference. Don't you see it does?"

"Yes—sir," replied Jerome, hesitatingly, and tried to think he saw; but he did not. A mind so young and immature as his is not unlike the gaseous age of planets, overlaid with great shifting masses of vapor, which part to disclose dazzling flame-points and incomparable gleams, then close again. Only time can accomplish a nearer balance of light in minds and planets.

Then, too, as the first strain of unwonted demands relaxed a little through use, Jerome's mental speed, which seemed to have taken him into manhood at a bound, slackened, and he even fell back somewhat in his tracks. He was still beyond what he had ever been before, for one cannot return from growth. He would never be as much of a child again, but he was more of a child than he had been yesterday.

His mother also had been instrumental towards replacing him in his old ways. Ann, after her day of crushed apathy, aroused herself somewhat. When the Squire, the lawyer, and Doctor Prescott came the next morning, she kept them waiting outside while she put on her best cap. She had a view of the road from her rocking-chair, and when she saw the three gentlemen advancing with a slow curve of progress towards her gate, which betokened an entrance, she called sharply to Elmira, who was washing dishes, "Go into the bedroom and get my best cap, quick," at the same time twitching off the one upon her head.

When poor little Elmira turned and stared, her pretty face quite pale, thinking her mother beside herself, she made a fierce, menacing gesture with her nervous elbow, and spoke again, in a whisper, lest the approaching guests hear: "Why don't you start? Take this old cap and get my best one, quick!" And the little girl scuttled into the bedroom just as the first knock came on the door. Ann kept the three dignitaries waiting until she adjusted her cap to her liking, and the knocks had been several times repeated before she sent the trembling Elmira to admit them and usher them into the best parlor, whither she followed, hitching herself through the entry in her chair, and disdainfully refusing all offers of assistance. She even thrust out an elbow repellingly at the Squire, who had sprung forward to her aid.

"No, thank you, sir," said she; "I don't need any help; I always go around the house so. I ain't helpless."

Ann, when she had brought her chair to a stand, sat facing the three callers, each of whose salutations she returned with a curtly polite bow. She had a desperate sense of being at bay, and that the hands of all these great men, whose supremacy she acknowledged with the futile uprearing of any angry woman, were against her. She eyed the lawyer, Eliphalet Means, with particular distrust. She had always held all legal proceedings as a species of quagmire to entrap the innocent and unwary. She watched while the lawyer took some documents from his bag and laid them on the table. "I won't sign a thing, nohow," she avowed to herself, and shut her mouth tight.

Squire Merritt discovered that besides dealing with his own scruples he had to overcome his beneficiary's.

It took a long time to convince Ann that she was not being overreached and cheated. She seemed absolutely incapable of understanding the transfer of the mortgage note from Doctor Prescott to Squire Merritt.

"I've signed one mortgage," said she, firmly; "I put my name under my husband's. I ain't goin' to sign another."

"But nobody wants you to sign anything, Mrs. Edwards. The mortgage note is simply transferred to Squire Merritt here. We only want you to understand it," said Lawyer Means. He had a curiously impersonal manner of dealing with women, being wont to say that only a man who expected good sense in womenkind was surprised when he did not find it.

"I ain't goin' to put two mortgages on this place," said Ann, fronting him with the utter stupidity of obstinacy.

"Let me explain it to you, Mrs. Edwards," said Eliphalet Means, with no impatience. He regarded a woman as so incontrovertibly a patience-tryer, from the laws of creation, that he would as soon have waxed impatient with the structural order of things. He endeavored to explain matters with imperturbable persistency, but Ann was still unconvinced.

"I ain't goin' to sign my name to any other mortgage," said she.

Jerome, who had stood listening in the door, slid up to his mother and touched her arm. "Oh, mother," he whispered, "I know all about it—it's all right!"

Ann gave him a thrust with a little sharp elbow. "What do you know about it?" she cried. "I'm here to look out for you and your sister, and take care of what little we've got, an' I'm goin' to. Go out an' tend to your work."

"Oh, mother, do let me stay!"

"Go right along, I tell you." And Jerome, who was the originator of all this, went out helplessly, slighted and indignant. He did think the Squire might have interceded for him to stay, knowing what he knew. Even youth has its disadvantages.

But Squire Eben stood somewhat aloof, looking at the small, frail, pugnacious woman in the rocking-chair with perplexity and growing impatience. He wanted to go fishing that morning, and the vision of the darting trout in their still, clear pool was before him, like a vision of his own earthly paradise. He gave a despairing glance at Doctor Prescott, who had hitherto said little. "Can't you convince her it is all right? She knows you better than the rest of us," he whispered.

Doctor Prescott nodded, arose—he had been sitting apart—went to Mrs. Edwards, and touched her shoulder. "Mrs. Edwards," said he—Ann gave a terrified yet wholly unyielding flash of her black eyes at him—"Mrs. Edwards, will you please attend to what we have come to tell you. I have transferred the mortgage note given me by your late husband to Squire Eben Merritt; there is nothing for you to sign. You will simply pay the interest money to him, instead of to me."

"You can tear me to pieces, if you want to," said Ann, "but I won't sign away what little my poor husband left to me and my children, for you or any other man."

"Look at me," said the doctor.

Ann never stirred her head.

"Look at me."

Ann looked.

"Now," said the doctor, "you listen and you understand. I can't waste any more time here. Squire Merritt has bought that mortgage which your husband gave me, and paid me for it in land. You have simply nothing to do with it, except to understand. Nobody wants you to sign anything."

Ann looked at him with some faint light of comprehension through her wild impetus of resistance. "I'd ruther it would stay the way it was before," said she. "My husband gave you the mortgage. He thought you were trustworthy. I'd jest as soon pay you interest money as Squire Merritt."

Then Eliphalet Means spoke dryly, still with that utter patience of preparation and expectation: "If Doctor Prescott retains this mortgage he intends to foreclose."

Ann looked at him, and then at Doctor Prescott. She gasped, "Foreclose!"

Doctor Prescott nodded.

"You mean to foreclose? You mean to take this place away from us?" Ann cried, shrilly. "You with all you've got, and we a widow and orphans! And you callin' yourself a good man an' a pillar of the sanctuary!"

Doctor Prescott's face hardened. "Your husband owed me for a half-year's interest," he began, calmly.

"My husband didn't owe you any interest money. He paid you in work and wood."

"That was for medical attendance," proceeded the doctor, imperturbably. "He owed me half a year's interest. I considered it best for your interests, as well as mine, to foreclose, and should have done so had not Squire Merritt taken the matter out of my hands. I should advise him to a like measure, but he is his own best judge."

"Squire Merritt will not foreclose," said Eliphalet Means; "and he will be easy about the payments."

"Well," said Ann, with a strange, stony look, "I guess I understand. I'm satisfied."

Doctor Prescott gathered up his medicine-chest, bade the others a gruff, ceremonious good-morning, and went out. His sulky had been drawn up before the gate for some time, and Jake Noyes had been lounging about the yard.

The lawyer and the Squire lingered, as they had yet the business regarding the sale of the woodland to arrange.

Curiously enough, Ann was docile as one could wish about that. Whether her previous struggle had exhausted her or whether she began to feel some confidence in her advisers, they could not tell. She made no difficulty, but after all was adjusted she looked at the lawyer with a shrewd, sharp gleam in her eyes.

"Doctor Prescott can't get his claws on it now, anyhow," she said; "and he always wanted it, 'cause it joined his."

The Squire and the lawyer looked at each other. The Squire with humorous amazement, the lawyer with a wink and glance of wise reminder, as much as to say: "You know what I have always said about women. Here is a woman."

Jerome was digging out in his garden-patch, and Elmira, in her blue sunbonnet, was standing, full of scared questioning, before him, when the Squire came lounging up the slope and reported as before said, to the convincing of the boy in innocent credulity.

When he had finished, he laid hold on Elmira's little cotton sleeve and pulled her up to her brother, and stood before them with a kindly hand on a shoulder of each, smiling down at them with infinite good-humor and protection.

"Don't you worry now, children," he said. "Be good and mind your mother, and you'll get along all right. We'll manage about the interest money, and there'll be meal in the barrel and a roof over your heads as long as you want it, according to the Scriptures, I'll guarantee."

With that Squire Eben gave each a shake, to conceal, maybe, the tenderness of pity in him, which he might, in his hearty and merry manhood, have accounted somewhat of a shame to reveal, as well as tears in his blue eyes, and was gone down the hill with a great laugh.

Elmira looked after him. "Ain't he good?" she whispered. But as for Jerome, he stood trembling and quivering and looking down at a print the Squire's great boot had made in the soft mould. When Elmira had gone, he went down on his knees and kissed it passionately.

Chapter XII

Now the warfare of life had fairly begun for little Jerome Edwards. Up to this time, although in sorry plight enough as far as material needs went—scantily clad, scantily fed, and worked hard—he had as yet only followed at an easy pace, or skirted with merry play the march of the toilers of the world. Now he was in the rank and file, enlisted thereto by a stern Providence, and must lose his life for the sake of living, like the rest. No more idle hours in the snug hollow of the rock, where he seemed to pause like a bee on the sweets of existence itself that he might taste them fully, were there for Jerome. Very few chances he had for outspeeding his comrades in any but the stern and sober race of life, for this little Mercury had to shear the wings from his heels of youthful sport and take to the gait of labor. Very seldom he could have one of his old treasure hunts in swamps and woods, unless, indeed, he could perchance make a labor and a gain of it. Jerome found that sassafras, and snakeroot, and various other aromatic roots and herbs of the wilds about his house had their money value. There was an apothecary in the neighboring village of Dale who would purchase them of him; at the cheapest of rates, it is true—a penny or so for a whole peck measure, or a sheaf, of the largess of summer—but every penny counted. Poor Jerome did not care so much about his woodland sorties after they were made a matter of pence and shillings, sorely as he needed, and much as he wished for, the pence and shillings. The sense was upon him, a shamed and helpless one, of selling his birthright. Jerome had in the natural beauty of the earth a budding delight, which was a mystery and a holiness in itself. It was the first love of his boyish heart; he had taken the green woods and fields for his sweetheart, and must now put her to only sordid uses, to her degradation and his.

Sometimes, in a curious rebellion against what he scarcely knew, he would return home without a salable thing in hand, nothing but a pretty and useless collection of wild flowers and sedges, little swamp-apples, and perhaps a cast bird-feather or two, and meet his mother's stern reproof with righteously undaunted front.

"I don't care," he said once, looking at her with a meaning she could not grasp; nor, indeed, could he fathom it himself. "I ain't goin' to sell everything; if I do I'll have to sell myself."

"I'd like to know what you mean," said his mother, sharply.

"I mean I'm goin' to keep some things myself," said Jerome, and pattered up to his chamber to stow away his treasures, with his mother's shrill tirade about useless truck following him. Ann was a good taskmistress; there were, indeed, great powers of administration in the keen, alert mind in that little frail body. Given a poor house encumbered by a mortgage, a few acres of stony land, and two children, the elder only fourteen, she worked miracles almost. Jerome had shown uncommon, almost improbable, ability in his difficulties when Abel had disappeared and her strength had failed her, but afterwards her little nervous feminine clutch on the petty details went far towards saving the ship.

Had it not been for his mother, Jerome could not have carried out his own plans. Work as manfully as he might, he could not have paid Squire Merritt his first instalment of interest money, which was promptly done.

It was due the 1st of November, and, a day or two before, Squire Merritt, tramping across lots, over the fields, through the old plough ridges and corn stubble, with some plump partridges in his bag and his gun over shoulder, made it in his way to stop at the Edwards house and tell Ann that she must not concern herself if the interest money were not ready at the minute it was due.

But Ann laid down her work—she was binding shoes—straightened herself as if her rocking-chair were a throne and she an empress, and looked at him with an inscrutable look of pride and suspicion. The truth was that she immediately conceived the idea that this great fair-haired Squire, with his loud, sweet voice, and his loud, frank laugh and pleasant blue eyes, concealed beneath a smooth exterior depths of guile. She exchanged, as it were, nods of bitter confidence with herself to the effect that Squire Merritt was trying to make her put off paying the interest money, and pretending to be very kind and obliging, in order that he might the sooner get his clutches on the whole property.

All the horizon of this poor little feminine Ishmael seemed to her bitter fancy to be darkened with hands against her, and she sat on a constant watch-tower of suspicion.

"Elmira," said she, "bring me that stockin'."

Elmira, who also was binding shoes, sitting on a stool before the scanty fire, rose quickly at her mother's command, went into the bedroom, and emerged with an old white yarn stocking hanging heavily from her hand.

"Empty it on the table and show Squire Merritt," ordered her mother, in a tone as if she commanded the resources of the royal treasury to be displayed.

Elmira obeyed. She inverted the stocking, and from it jingled a shower of coin into a pitiful little heap on the table.

"There!" said Ann, pointing at it with a little bony finger. The smallest coins of the realm went to make up the little pile, and the Lord only knew how she and her children had grubbed them together. Every penny there represented more than the sweat of the brow: the sweat of the heart.

Squire Eben Merritt, with some dim perception of the true magnitude and meaning of that little hoard, gained partly through Ann's manner, partly through his own quickness of sympathy, fairly started as he looked at it and her.

"There's twenty-one dollars, all but two shillin's, there," said Ann, with hard triumph. "The two shillin's Jerome is goin' to have to-night. He's been splittin' of kindlin'-wood, after school, for your sister, this week, and she's goin' to pay him the same as she did for weedin'. You can take this now, if you want to, or wait and have it all together."

"I'll wait, thank you," replied Eben Merritt. For the moment he felt actually dismayed and ashamed at the sight of his ready interest money. It was almost like having a good deed thrust back in his face and made of no account. He had scarcely expected any payment, certainly none so full and prompt as this.

"I thought I'd let you see you hadn't any cause to feel afraid you wouldn't get it," said Ann, with dignity. "Elmira, you can put the money back in the stockin' now, and put the stockin' back under the feather-bed."

Squire Merritt felt like a great school-boy before this small, majestic woman. "I did not feel afraid, Mrs. Edwards," he said, awkwardly.

"I didn't know but you might," said she, scornfully; "people didn't seem to think we could do anything."

"All I wonder at is," said the Squire, rallying a little, "how you managed to get so much money together."

"Do you want to know? Well, I'll tell you. We've bound shoes, Elmira an' me, for one thing. We've took all they would give us. That wa'n't many, for the regular customers had to come first, and I didn't do any in Abel's lifetime—that is, not after I was sick. I used to a while before that. Abel wouldn't let me when we were first married, but he had to come to it. Men can't do all they're willin' to. I shouldn't have done anything but dress in silk, set an' rock, an' work scallops an' eyelets in cambric pocket-handkerchiefs, if Abel had had his say. After I was sick I quit workin' on boots, because the doctor he said it might hurt the muscles of my back to pull the needle through the leather; but there's somethin' besides muscles in backs to be thought of when it comes to keepin' body an' soul together. Two days after the funeral I sent Jerome up to Cyrus Robinson, and told him to ask him if he'd got some extra shoes to bind and close, and he come home with some. Elmira and me bound, and Jerome closed, and we took our pay in groceries. The shoes have fed us, with what we got out of the garden. Then Elmira and me have braided mats and pieced quilts and sewed three rag carpets, and Elmira picked huckleberries and blackberries in season, and sold them to your wife and Miss Camilla and the doctor's wife; and Lawyer Means bought lots of her, and the woman that keeps house for John Jennings bought a lot. Elmira picked bayberries, too, and sold 'em to the shoemaker for tallow; she sold a lot in Dale. Elmira did a good deal of the weeding in your sister's garden, so's to leave Jerome's time clear. Then once when the doctor's wife had company she went over to help wash dishes, and she give her three an' sixpence for that. Elmira said she give it dreadful kind of private, and looked round to be sure the doctor wa'n't within gunshot. She give her a red merino dress of hers, too, but she kept her till after nightfall, and smuggled her out of the back door, with it all done up under her arm, lest the doctor should see. They say she's got dresses she won't never put on her back again—silks an' satins an' woollens—because she's outgrown 'em, an' they're all hangin' up in closets gettin' mothy, an' the doctor won't let her give 'em away. But this dress she give Elmira wa'n't give away, for I sent her back next day to do some extra work to pay for it. I ain't beholden to nobody. Elmira swept and dusted the settin'-room and the spare chamber, and washed the breakfast an' dinner dishes, and I guess she paid for that old dress ample. It had been laid up with camphor in a cedar chest, but it had some moth holes in it. It wa'n't worth such a great sight, after all.

"Jerome he's worked smart, if I have had to drive him to it sometimes. He's wed and dug potatoes everywhere he could git a chance; he's helped 'bout hayin', an' he's split wood. He's sold some herbs and roots, too, over to Dale. Jake Noyes he put him up to that. He come in here one night an' talked to him real sensible. 'There's money 'nough layin' round loose right under your face an' eyes,' says he; 'all the trouble is you're apt to walk right past, with your nose up in the air. The scent for work an' wages ain't up in the air,' says he; 'it's on the ground.' Jerome he listened real sharp, an' the next day he went off an' got a good passel of boneset an' thoroughwort an' hardback, an' carried it over to Dale, an' sold it for a shilling.

"Elmira has done some spinnin', too; I can't spin much, but she's done well enough. Your wife wants some linen pillow-shifts. Elmira can do the weavin', I guess, an' we can make 'em up together. I've got a job to make some fine shirts for you, too. Your wife come over to see about it this week. I dun'no' but she was gettin' kind of afraid you wouldn't git your interest money no other way; but she needn't have been exercised about it, if she was. We got this interest together without your shirts, an' I guess we can the next. It's been harder work than many folks in this town know anything about, but we've done it." Ann tossed her head with indescribable pride and bitterness. There was scorn of fate itself in the toss of that little head, with its black lace cap and false front, and her speech also was an harangue, reproachful and defiant, against fate, not against her earthly creditor; that she would have disdained.

Squire Eben, however, fully appreciating that, and taking the pictures of pitiful feminine and childish toil which she brought before his fancy as a shame to his great stalwart manhood, spending its strength in hunting and fishing and card-playing, looked at the woman binding shoes with painful jerks of little knotted hands—for she ceased not her work one minute for her words—and took the bitter reproach and triumphant scorn in her tone and gesture for himself alone.

He felt ashamed of himself, in his great hunting-boots splashed with swamp mud, his buckskins marred with woodland thorn and thicket, but not a mark of honest toil about him. Had he been in fine broadcloth he would not have felt so humiliated; for the useless labor of play cuts a sorrier figure in the face of genuine work for the great ends of life than idleness itself. He would not have been half so disgraced by nothing at all in hand as by that bag of game; and as for the money in that old stocking under the feather-bed, it seemed to him like the fruits of his own dishonesty.

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