The impulse was strong upon him, then and there, to declare that he would take none of that hoard.
"Now look here, Mrs. Edwards," said he, fairly coloring like a girl as he spoke, and smiling uneasily, "I don't want that money."
Ann looked at him with the look of one who is stung, and yet incredulous. Elmira gave a little gasp of delight. "Oh, mother!" she cried.
"Keep still!" ordered her mother. "I dun'no' what you mean," she said to Squire Merritt.
The Squire's smile deepened, but he looked frightened; his eyes fell before hers. "Why, what I say—I don't want this money, this time. I have all I need. Keep it over till the next half."
Squire Eben Merritt had a feeling as if something actually tangible, winged and clawed and beaked, and flaming with eyes, pounced upon him. He fairly shrank back, so fierce was Ann's burst of indignation; it produced a sense of actual contact.
"Keep it till next half?" repeated Ann. "Keep it till next half? What should we keep it till next half for, I'd like to know? It's your money, ain't it? We don't want it; we ain't beggars; we don't need it. I see through you, Squire Eben Merritt; you think I don't, but I do."
"I fear I don't know what you mean," the Squire said, helplessly.
"I see through you," repeated Ann. She had reverted to her first suspicion that his design was to gain possession of the whole property by letting the unpaid interest accumulate, but that poor Squire Eben did not know. He gave up all attempts to understand this woman's mysterious innuendoes, and took the true masculine method of departure from an uncomfortable subject at right angles, with no further ado.
He opened his game-bag and held up a brace of fat partridges. "Well," he said, laughing, "I want you to see what luck I've had shooting, Mrs. Edwards. I've bagged eight of these fellows to-day."
But Ann could not make a mental revolution so easily. She gave a half-indifferent, half-scornful squint at the partridges. "I dun'no' much about shootin'," said she, shortly. Ann had always been, in her own family, a passionate woman, but among outsiders she had borne herself with dignified politeness and formal gentility, clothing, as it were, her intensity of spirit with a company garb. Now, since her terrible trouble had come upon her, this garb had often slipped aside, and revealed, with the indecency of affliction, the struggling naked spirit of the woman to those from whom she had so carefully hidden it.
Once Ann would not have believed that she would have so borne herself towards Squire Merritt. The Squire laid the partridges on the table. "I am going to leave these for your supper, Mrs. Edwards," he said, easily; but he quaked a little, for this woman seemed to repel gifts like blows.
"Thank ye," said Ann, dryly, "but I guess you'd better take 'em home to your wife. I've got a good deal cooked up."
Elmira made a little expressive sound; she could not help it. She gave one horrified, wondering look at her mother. Not a morsel of cooked food was there on the bare pantry shelves. By-and-by a little Indian meal and water would be boiled for supper. There were some vegetables in the cellar, otherwise no food in the house. Ann lied.
Squire Eben Merritt then displayed what would have been tact in a keenly calculating and analytic nature. "Oh, throw them out for the dogs, if you don't want them, Mrs. Edwards," he returned, gayly. "I've got more than my wife can use here. We are getting rather tired of partridges, we have had so many. I stopped at Lawyer Means's on my way here and left a pair for him."
A sudden change came over Ann's face. She beamed with a return of her fine company manners. She even smiled. "Thank ye," said she; "then I will take them, if you are sure you ain't robbing yourself."
"Not at all," said the Squire—"not at all, Mrs. Edwards. You'd better baste them well when you cook them." Then he took his leave, with many exchanges of courtesies, and went his way, wondering what had worked this change; for a simple, benevolent soul can seldom gauge its own wisdom of diplomacy.
Squire Eben did not dream that his gift to one who was not needy had enabled him to give to one who was, by establishing a sort of equality among the recipients, which had overcome her proud scruples. On the way home he met Jerome, scudding along in the early dusk, having finished his task early. "Hurry home, boy," he called out, in that great kind voice which Jerome so loved—"hurry home; you've got something good for supper!" and he gave the boy, ducking low before him with the love and gratitude which had overcome largely the fierce and callous pride in his young heart, a hearty slap on the shoulder as he went past.
There was a good district school in the village, and Jerome, before his father's disappearance, had attended it all the year round; now he went only in winter. Jerome rose at four o'clock in the dark winter mornings, and went to bed at ten, getting six hours' sleep. It was fortunate that he was a hardy boy, with a wirily pliant frame, adapting itself, with no lesions, to extremes of temperature and toil, even to extremes of mental states. In spite of all his hardships, in spite of scanty food, Jerome thrived; he grew; he began to fill out better his father's clothes, to which he had succeeded. The first time Jerome wore his poor father's best coat to school—Ann had set in the buttons so it folded about him in ludicrous fashion, bringing the sleeves forward and his arms apparently into the middle of his chest—one of the big boys and two big girls at his side laughed at him, the boy with open jeers, the girls with covert giggles behind their hands. They were standing in front of the school-house at the top of the long hill when Jerome was ascending it with Elmira. It was late and cold, and only these three scholars were outside. The girls, who were pretty and coquettish, had detained this great boy, who was a man grown.
Jerome went up the long hill under this fire of covert ridicule. Elmira, behind him, began to cry, holding up one little shawled arm like a wing before her face. Jerome never lowered his proud head; his unwinking black eyes stared straight ahead at the three; his face was deadly white; his hands twitched at his sides.
The great boy was 'Lisha Robinson; the girls were the pretty twin daughters of a farmer living three miles away, who had just brought them to school on his ox-sled. Their two sweet, rosy faces, full of pitiless childish merriment for him, and half-unconscious maiden wiles towards the young man at their side, towards whom they leaned involuntarily as they tittered, aroused Jerome to a worse frenzy than 'Lisha's face with its coarse leer.
All three started back a little as he drew near; there was something in his unwinking eyes which was intimidating. However, 'Lisha had his courage to manifest before these girls. "Say, Jerome," he shouted—"say, Jerome, got any room to spare in that coat? 'cause Abigail Mack is freezin'."
"Go 'long, 'Lisha," cried Abigail, sputtering with giggles, and giving the young man a caressing push with her elbow.
'Lisha, thus encouraged, essayed further wit. "Say, Jerome, s'pose you can fill out that coat of yours any quicker if I give ye half my dinner? Here's a half a pie I can spare. Reckon you don't have much to eat down to your house, 'cept chicken-fodder, and that ain't very fat'nin'."
Jerome came up. All at once through the glow of his black eyes flashed that spiritual lightning, evident when purpose is changed to action. The girls screamed and fled. 'Lisha swung about in a panic, but Jerome launched himself upon his averted shoulder. The girls, glancing back with terrified eyes from the school-house door, seemed to see the boy lift the grown man from the ground, and the two whirl a second in the air before they crashed down, and so declared afterwards. Jerome clung to his opponent like a wild-cat, a small but terrific body all made up of nerves and muscles and electric fire. He wound his arms with a violent jerk as of steel around 'Lisha's neck; he bunted him with a head like a cannon-ball; he twisted little wiry legs under the hollows of 'Lisha's knees. The two came down together with a great thud. The teacher and the scholars came rushing to the door. Elmira wailed and sobbed in the background. The slight boy was holding great 'Lisha on the ground with a strength that seemed uncanny.
'Lisha's nose was bleeding; he breathed hard; his eyes, upturned to Jerome, had a ghastly roll. "Let me—up, will ye?" he choked, faintly.
"Will you ever say anything like that again?"
"Let me up, will ye?" 'Lisha gave a convulsive gasp that was almost a sob.
"Jerome!" called the teacher. She was a young woman from another village, mildly and assentingly good, virtue having, like the moon, only its simply illuminated side turned towards her vision. Weakly blue-eyed and spectacled, hooked up primly in chaste drab woollen and capped with white muslin, though scarcely thirty, she stood among her flock and eyed the fierce combatants with an utter lack of command of the situation. She was a country minister's daughter, and had never taught until her father's death. This was her first school, and to its turbulent elements she brought only the precisely limited lore of a young woman's seminary of that day, and the experiences of early piety.
Looking at the struggling boys, she thought vaguely of that hymn of Isaac Watts's which treats of barking and biting dogs and the desirability of amity and concord between children, as if it could in some way be applied to heal the breach. She called again fruitlessly in her thin treble, which had been raised in public only in neighborhood prayer-meetings: "Jerome! Jerome Edwards!"
"Will you say it again?" demanded Jerome of his prostrate adversary, with a sharp prod of a knee.
After a moment of astonished staring there was a burst of mirth among the pupils, especially the older boys. 'Lisha was not a special favorite among them—he was too good-looking, had too much money to spend, and was too much favored by the girls. In spite of the teacher's half-pleading commands, they made a rush and formed a ring around the fighters.
"Go it, J'rome!" they shouted. "Give it to him! You're a fighter, you be. Look at J'rome Edwards lickin' a feller twice his size. Hi! Go it, J'rome!"
"Boys!" called the teacher. "Boys!"
Some of the smaller girls began to cry and clung to her skirts; the elder girls watched with dilated eyes, or laughed with rustic hardihood for such sights. Elmira still waited on the outskirts. Jerome paid no attention to the teacher or the shouting boys. "Will you say it again?" he kept demanding of 'Lisha, until finally he got a sulky response.
"No, I won't. Now lemme up, will ye?"
"Say you're sorry."
"I'm sorry. Lemme up!"
Jerome, without appearing to move, collected himself for a spring. Suddenly he was off 'Lisha and far to one side, with one complete bound of his whole body, like a cat.
'Lisha got up stiffly, muttering under his breath, and went round to the well to wash off the blood. He did not attempt to renew the combat, as the other boys had hoped he might. He preferred to undergo the ignominy of being worsted in fight by a little boy rather than take the risk of being pounced upon again with such preternatural fury. When he entered school, having washed his face, he was quite pale, and walked with shaking knees. Rather physical than moral courage had 'Lisha Robinson, and it was his moral courage, after all, which had been tested, as it is in all such unequal combats.
As for Jerome, he had to stand in the middle of the floor, a spectacle unto the school, folded in his father's coat, which had, alas! two buttons torn off, and a three-cornered rag hanging from one tail, which fluttered comically in the draught from the door; but nobody dared laugh. There was infinite respect, if not approbation, for Jerome in the school that day. Some of the big boys scowled, and one girl said out loud, "It's a shame!" when the teacher ordered him to stand in the floor. Had he rebelled, the teacher would have had no support, but Jerome took his place in the spot indicated, with a grave and scornful patience. The greatness of his triumph made him magnanimous. It was clearly evident to his mind that 'Lisha Robinson and not he should stand in the floor, and that he gained a glory of martyrdom in addition to the other.
Jerome had never felt so proud in his life as when he stood there, in his father's old coat, having established his right to wear it without remark by beating the biggest boy in school. He stood erect, equally poised on his two feet, looking straight ahead with a grave, unsmiling air. He looked especially at no one, except once at his sister Elmira. She had just raised her head from the curve of her arm, in which she had been weeping, and her tear-stained eyes met her brother's. He looked steadily at her, frowning significantly. Elmira knew what it meant. She began to study her geography, and did not cry again.
At recess the teacher went up to Jerome, and spoke to him almost timidly. "I am very sorry about this, Jerome," she said. "I am sorry you fought, and sorry I had to punish you in this way."
Jerome looked at her. "She's a good deal like mother," he thought. "You had to punish somebody," said he, "an'—I'd licked him."
The teacher started; this reasoning confused her a little, the more so that she had an uneasy conviction that she had punished the lesser offender. She looked at the proud little figure in the torn coat, and her mild heart went out to him. She glanced round; there were not many scholars in the room. Elmira sat in her place, busy with her slate; a few of the older ones were in a knot near the window at the back of the room. The teacher slipped her hand into her pocket and drew out a lemon-drop, which she thrust softly into Jerome's hand. "Here," said she.
Jerome, who treated usually a giver like a thief, took the lemon-drop, thanked her, and stood sucking it the rest of the recess. It was his first gallantry towards womankind.
This teacher remained in the school only a half-term. Some said that she left because she was not strong enough to teach such a large school. Some said because she had not enough government. This had always been considered a man's school during the winter months, but a departure had been made in this case because the female teacher was needy and a minister's daughter.
The place was filled by a man who never tempered injustice with lemon-drops, and ruled generally with fair and equal measure. He was better for the school, and Jerome liked him; but he felt sad, though he kept it to himself, when the woman teacher went away. She gave him for a parting gift a little volume, a treasure of her own childhood, purporting to be the true tale of an ungodly youth who robbed an orchard on the Sabbath day, thereby combining two deadly sins, and was drowned in crossing a brook on his way home. The weight of his bag of stolen fruit prevented him from rising, but he would not let go, and thereby added to his other crimes that of greediness. There was a frontispiece representing this froward hero, in a tall hat and little frilled trousers, with a bag the size of a slack balloon dragging on the ground behind him, proceeding towards the neighbor's apple-tree, which bore fruit as large as the thief's head upon its unbending boughs.
"There's a pretty picture in it," the teacher said, when she presented the book; she had kept Jerome after school for that purpose. "I used to like to look at it when I was a little girl." Then she added that she had crossed out the inscription, "Martha Maria Whittaker, from her father, Rev. Enos Whittaker," on the fly-leaf, and written underneath, "Jerome Edwards, from his teacher, Martha Maria Whittaker," and displayed her little delicate scratch.
Then the teacher had hesitated a little, and colored faintly, and looked at the boy. He seemed to this woman—meekly resigned to old-age and maidenhood at thirty—a mere child, and like the son which another woman might have had, but the missing of whom was a shame to her to contemplate. Then she had said good-bye to him, and bade him be always a good boy, and had leaned over and kissed him. It was the kiss of a mother spiritualized by the innocent mystery and imagination of virginity.
Jerome kept the little book always, and he never forgot the kiss nor the teacher, who returned to her native village and taught the school there during the summer months, and starved on the proceeds during the winter, until she died, some ten years later, being of a delicate habit, and finding no place of comfort in the world.
Jerome walked ten miles and back to her funeral one freezing day.
Jerome's mother never knew about the rent in his father's best coat, nor the fight. To do the boy justice, he kept it from her, neither because of cowardice nor deceit, but because of magnanimity. "It will just work her all up if she knew 'Lisha Robinson made fun of father's best coat, and it's tore," Jerome told Elmira, who nodded in entire assent.
Elmira sat up in her cold chamber until long after midnight, and darned the rent painfully by the light of a tallow candle. Then it was a comparatively simple matter, when one had to deal with a woman confined to a rocking-chair, to never give her a full view of the mended coat-tail. Jerome cultivated a habit of backing out of the room, as from an audience with a queen. The sting from his wounded pride having been salved with victory, he was unduly important in his own estimation, until an unforeseen result came from the affair.
There are many surprising complications from war, even war between two school-boys. One night, after school, Jerome went to Cyrus Robinson's for a lot of shoes which had been promised him two days before, and was told there were none to spare. Cyrus Robinson leaned over the counter and glanced around cautiously. It was not a busy time of day. Two old farmers were standing by the stove, talking to each other in a drone of extreme dialect, almost as unintelligible, except to one who understood its subject-matter, as the notes of their own cattle. The clerk, Samson Loud, was at the other end of the store, cleaning a molasses-barrel from its accumulated sugar. "Look-a-here," said Cyrus Robinson, beckoning Jerome with a hard crook of a seamed forefinger. The boy stood close to the counter, and uplifted to him his small, undaunted, yet piteously wistful face.
"Look-a-here," said Cyrus Robinson, in a whisper of furtive malice, leaning nearer, the point of his shelving beard almost touching Jerome's forehead; "I've got something to say to you. I 'ain't got any shoes to spare to-night; an', what's more, I ain't going to have any to spare in future. Boys that fight 'ain't got time enough to close shoes."
Jerome looked at him a moment, as if scarcely comprehending; then a sudden quiver as of light came over him, and Cyrus Robinson shrank back before his eyes as if his counter were a bulwark.
"I s'pose if your big boy had licked me 'cause he made fun of my father's coat, instead of me lickin' him, you'd have given me some more shoes!" cried the boy, with the dauntlessness of utter scorn, and turned and walked out of the store.
"You'd better take care, young man!" called Cyrus Robinson, in open rage, for the boy's clear note of wrath had been heard over the whole store. The two old farmers looked up in dull astonishment as the door slammed after Jerome, stared questioningly at the storekeeper and each other, then the thick stream of their ideas returned to its course of their own affairs, and their husky gabble recommenced.
Samson Laud raised his head, covered with close curls of light red hair, and his rasped red face out of the molasses-barrel, gave one quick glance full of acutest sarcasm of humor at Cyrus Robinson, then disappeared again into sugary depths, and resumed his scraping.
Jerome, on his homeward road, did not feel his spirit of defiance abate. "Wonder how we're going to pay that interest money now? Wonder how mother 'll take it?" he said; yet he would have fought 'Lisha Robinson over again, knowing the same result. He had not yet grown servile to his daily needs.
However, speeding along through the clear night, treading the snow flashing back the full moonlight in his eyes like a silver mirror, he dreaded more and more the meeting his mother and telling her the news. He slackened his pace. Now and then he stood still and looked up at the sky, where the great white moon rode through the hosts of the stars. Without analyzing his thoughts, the boy felt the utter irresponsiveness of all glory and all heights. Mocking shafts of moonlight and starlight and frostlight seemed glancing off this one little soul in the freezing solitude of creation, wherein each is largely to himself alone. What was it to the moon and all those shining swarms of stars, and that far star-dust in the Milky Way, whether he, Jerome Edwards, had shoes to close or not? Whether he and his mother starved or not, they would shine just the same. The triviality—even ludicrousness—of the sorrow of man, as compared with eternal things, was over the boy. He was maddened at the sting and despite of his own littleness in the face of that greatness. Suddenly a wild impulse of rebellion that was almost blasphemy seized him. He clinched a puny fist at a great star. "Wish I could make you stop shinin'," he cried out, in a loud, fierce voice; "wish I could do somethin'!"
Suddenly Jerome was hemmed in by a cloud of witnesses. Eliphalet Means, John Jennings, and Colonel Lamson had overtaken him as he stood star-gazing. They were on their way to punch and cards at Squire Merritt's. Jerome felt a hand on his shoulder, and looked up into John Jennings's long, melancholy countenance, instead of the shining face of the star. He saw the eyes of the others surveying him, half in astonishment, half in amusement, over the folds of their camlet cloaks.
"Want to make the star stop shining?" queried John Jennings, in his sweet drawl.
Jerome made no reply. His shoulder twitched under Mr. Jennings's hand. He meditated pushing between these interlopers and running for home. The New England constraint, to which he had been born, was to him as a shell of defence and decency, and these men had had a glimpse of him outside it. He was horribly ashamed. "S'pose they think I'm crazy," he reflected.
"Want to stop the star shining?" repeated John Jennings. "Well, you can."
Jerome, in astonishment, forgot his shame, and looked up into the man's beautiful, cavernous eyes.
"I'll tell you how. Don't look at it. I've stopped nearly all the stars I've ever seen that way." John Jennings's voice seemed to melt into infinite sadness and sweetness, like a song. The other men chuckled but feebly, as if scarcely knowing whether it were a jest or not. John Jennings took his hand from Jerome's shoulder, tossed the wing of his cloak higher over his face, and went on with his friends. However, when fairly on his way, he turned and called back, with a soft laugh, "I would let the star shine, though, if I were you, boy."
"Who was the boy?" Colonel Lamson asked the lawyer, as the three men proceeded.
"The Edwards boy."
"Well," said John Jennings, "'tis an unlucky devil he is, call him what you will, for he's born to feel the hammer of Thor on his soul as well as his flesh, and it is double pain for all such."
Jerome stood staring after John Jennings and his friends a moment; he had not the least conception what it all meant; then he proceeded at a good pace, arguing that the sooner he got home and told his mother and had it over, the better.
But he had not gone far before he saw some one else coming, a strange, nondescript figure, with outlines paled and blurred in the moonlight, looking as if it bore its own gigantic and heavy head before it in outstretched arms. Soon he saw it was his uncle Ozias Lamb, laden with bundles of shoes about his shoulders, bending forward under their weight.
Ozias halted when he reached Jerome. "Hullo!" said he; "that you?"
"Yes, sir," Jerome replied, deferentially. He had respect for his uncle Ozias.
"Where you goin'?"
"'Ain't you been to Robinson's for shoes?"
"Where be they, then?"
Jerome told him.
"I ain't surprised. I knew what 'twould be when I heard you'd fit 'Lisha," said Ozias. "You hit my calf, you hit me. It's natur'." Ozias gave a cynical chuckle; he shifted his load of shoes to ease his right shoulder. "'Lisha's big as two of you," he said. "How'd ye work it to fling him? Twist your leg under his, eh?"
"That's a good trick. I larnt that when I was a boy. Well, I ain't surprised Robinson has shet down on the shoes. What ye goin' to do?"
"Dun'no'," replied Jerome; then he gave a weak, childish gesture, and caught his breath in a sob. He was scarcely more than a child, after all, and his uncle Ozias was the only remaining natural tower to his helplessness.
"O Lord, don't ye go to whimperin', big man like you!" responded Ozias Lamb, quickly. "Look at here—" Ozias paused a moment, pondering. Jerome waited, trying to keep the sobs back.
"Tell you what 'tis," said Ozias. "It's one of the cases where the sarpents and the doves come in. We've got to do a little manoeuvrin'. Don't you fret, J'rome, an' don't you go to frettin' of your mother. I'll take an extra lot of shoes from Cy Robinson; he can think Belinda's goin' to bind—she never has—or he can think what he wants to; I ain't goin' to regulate his thinkin'; an' you come to me for shoes in future. Only you keep dark about it. Don't you let on to nobody, except your mother, an' she needn't know the whys an' wherefores. I've let out shoes before now. I'll pay a leetle more than Robinson. Tell her your uncle Ozias has taken all the shoes Robinson has got, and you're to come to him for 'em, an' to keep dark about it, an' let her think what she's a mind to. Women folks can't know everything."
"Yes, sir," said Jerome.
"You can come fer the shoes and bring 'em home after dark, so's nobody will see you," said Ozias Lamb, further.
So it befell that Jerome went for the work that brought him daily bread, like a thief, by night, oftentimes slipping his package of shoes under the wayside bushes at the sound of approaching footsteps. He was deceitfully reticent also with his mother, whom he let follow her own conclusion, that Cyrus Robinson had been dissatisfied with their work. "Guess he won't see as much difference with this work as he think he does," she would often say, with a bitter laugh. Jerome was silent, but the inborn straightforwardness of the boy made him secretly rebellious at such a course.
"It's lyin', anyhow," he said, sulkily, once, when he loaded the shoes on his shoulder, like a mason's hod, and was starting forth from his uncle's shop.
Ozias Lamb laughed the laugh of one who perverts humor, and makes a jest of the bitter instead of the merry things of life.
"It's got so that lies are the only salvation of the righteous," said Ozias Lamb, with that hard laugh of his. Then, with the pitilessness of any dissenting spirit of reform, who will pour out truths, whether of good or evil, to the benefit or injury of mankind, who will force strong meat as well as milk on babies and sucklings, he kept on, while the boy stood staring, shrinking a little, yet with young eyes kindling, from the bitter frenzy of the other.
"It's so," said Ozias Lamb. "You'll find it out for yourself, in the hard run you've got to hoe, without any help, but it's just as well for you to know it beforehand. You won't get bit so hard—forewarned's forearmed. Snakes have their poison-bags, an' bees have their stings; there ain't an animal that don't have horns or claws or teeth to use if they get in a hard place. Them that don't have weapons have wings, like birds. If they can't fight, they can fly away from the battle. But human beings that are good, and meek, and poor, and hard pushed, they hain't got any claws or any wings; though if they had 'twouldn't be right to use 'em to fight or get away, so the parsons say. They 'ain't got any natural weapons. Providence 'ain't looked out for them. All they can do, as far as I can see, is to steal some of the devil's own weapons to fight him with."
It was well that Jerome could not understand the half of his uncle's harangue, and got, indeed, only a general impression of the unjust helplessness of a meek and righteous man in the hands of adverse fate, compared with horned and clawed animals, and Ozias's system of defence did not commend itself to his understanding. He did not for a moment imagine that his uncle advised him to lie and steal to better his fortunes, and, indeed, nothing was further from the case. Ozias Lamb's own precepts never went into practice. He was scrupulously honest, and his word was as good as a bond. However, although Ozias had never told a lie in his life, he had perpetrated many subtleties of the truth. He was wily and secretive. "A man ain't a liar because he don't tell all he knows," he said.
When asking for more shoes from Cyrus Robinson, he had said nothing about his wife's working upon them, but he knew that was the inference, and he did not contradict it. He forbade Belinda to mention the matter in one way or another. "The sarpent has got to feed the widows an' the orphans," he said, "an' that's a good reason for bein' a sarpent."
As Ann and Elmira did most of their work on the shoes during the day, Jerome fell into the habit of doing his part, the closing, in his uncle's shop at night. Every evening he would load himself with the sheaf of bound shoes and hasten down the road. He liked to work in company with a man, rather than with his mother and Elmira; it gave him a sense of independence and maturity. He did not mind so much delving away on those hard leather seams while his mates were out coasting and skating, for he had the sensation of responsibility—of being the head of a family. Here he felt like a man supporting his mother and sister; at home he was only a boy, held to his task under the thumb of a woman.
Then, too, his uncle Ozias's conversation was a kind of pungent stimulant—not pleasant to the taste, not even recognizable in all its savors, yet with a growing power of fascination.
Ozias Lamb's shoemaker's shop was simply a little one-room building in the centre of the field south of his cottage house. He had in it a tiny box-stove, red-hot from fall to spring. When Jerome, coming on a cold night, opened the door, a hot breath scented with dried leather rushed in his face. Within sat his uncle on his shoemaker's bench, short and squat like an Eastern idol on his throne. His body was settled into itself with long habit of labor, his mind with contemplation. His high, bald forehead overshadowed his lower face like a promontory of thought; his eyes, even when he was alone, were full of a wise, condemning observation; his mouth was inclined always in a set smile at the bitter humor of things. The face of this elderly New England shoemaker looked not unlike some Asiatic conception of a deity.
Jerome always closed the door immediately when he entered, for Ozias dreaded a draught, having an inclination to rheumatism, and being also chilly, like most who sit at their labor. Then he would seat himself on a stool, and close shoes, and listen when his uncle talked, as he did constantly when once warmed to it. The little room was lighted by a whale-oil lamp on the wall. On some nights the full moonlight streamed in the three windows athwart the lamp-light. The room got hotter and closer. Ozias now and then, as he talked, motioned Jerome, who put another stick of wood in the stove. The whole atmosphere, spiritual and physical, seemed to grow combustible, and as if at any moment a word or a thought might cause a leap into flame. A spirit of anarchy and revolution was caged in that little close room, bound to a shoemaker's bench by the chain of labor for bread. The spirit was harmless enough, for its cage and its chain were not to be escaped or forced, strengthened as they were by the usage of a whole life. Ozias Lamb would deliver himself of riotous sentiments, but on that bench he would sit and peg shoes till his dying day. He would have pegged there through a revolution.
Jerome's eyes would gleam with responsive fire when his uncle, his splendid forehead flushing and swelling with turbid veins, said, in that dry voice of his, which seemed to gain in force without being raised into clamor: "What right has one man with the whole purse, while another has not a penny in his pocket? What right has one with the whole loaf, while another has a crumb? What right has one man with half the land in the village, while another can hardly make shift to earn his grave?"
Ozias would pause a second, then launch out with new ardor, as if Jerome had advanced an opposite argument. "Born with property, are they—inherited property? One man comes into the world with the gold all earned, or stolen—don't matter which—waiting for him. Shoes all made for him, no peggin' for other folks; carpets to walk on, sofas to lay on, china dishes to eat off of. Everything is all complete; don't make no odds if he's a fool, don't make no odds if he 'ain't no more sense of duty to his fellow-beings than a pig, it's all just as it should be. Everybody is cringin' an' bowin' an' offerin' a little more to the one that's got more than anybody else. It's 'Take a seat here, sir—do; this is more comfortable,' when he's set on feather cushions all day. There'll be a poor man standin' alongside that 'ain't had a chance to set down since he got out of bed before daylight, every bone in him achin'—stiff. There ain't no extra comfortable chairs pointed out to him. Lord, no! If there happens to be the soft side of a rock or a plank handy, he's welcome to take it; if there ain't, why let him keep his standin'; he's used to it. I tell ye, it's them that need to whom it should be given, and not them that's got it already. I tell ye, the need should always regulate the supply.
"I tell ye, J'rome, balance-wheels an' seesaws an' pendulums wa'n't give us for nothin' besides runnin' machinery and clocks. Everything on this earth means somethin' more'n itself, if we could only see it. They're symbols, that's what they be, an' we've got to work up from a symbol that we see to the higher thing that we don't see. Most folks think it's the other way, but it ain't.
"Now, J'rome, you look at that old clock there; it was one that b'longed to old Peter Thomas. I bought it when he broke up an' went to the poorhouse. Doctor Prescott he foreclosed on him 'bout ten years ago—you don't remember. He had his old house torn down, an' sowed the land down to grass. I s'pose I paid more'n the clock was worth, but I guess it kept the old man in snuff an' terbaccer a while. Now you look at that clock; watch that pendulum swingin'. Now s'pose we say the left is poverty—the left is the place for the goats an' the poor folks that poverty has made goats; an' the right is riches. See it swing, do ye? It don't no more'n touch poverty before it's rich; it don't get time to starve an' suffer. It don't no more'n touch riches before it's poor; it don't have time to forget, an' git proud an' hard. I tell ye, J'rome, it ain't even division we're aimin' at; we can't keep that if we get it till we're dead; it's—balance. We want to keep the time of eternity, jest the way that clock keeps the time of day."
Jerome looked at the clock and the pendulum swinging dimly behind a painted landscape on the glass door, and never after saw one without his uncle's imagery recurring to his mind. Always for him the pendulum swung into the midst of a cowering throng of beggars on the left, and into a band of purple-clad revellers on the right. Somehow, too, Doctor Seth Prescott's face always stood out for him plainly among them in purple.
Always, sooner or later, Ozias Lamb would seize Doctor Prescott and Simon Basset as living illustrations and pointed examples of the social wrongs. "Look at them two men," he would say, "to come down to this town; look at them. You've heard about cuttle-fishes, J'rome, 'ain't ye?"
Jerome shook his head, as he drew his waxed thread through.
"Well, I'll tell ye what they be. They're an awful kind of fish. I never see one, but Belinda's brother that was a sailor, I've heard him tell enough to make your blood run cold. They're all head an' eyes an' arms. Their eyes are big as saucers, an' they're made just to see things the cuttle-fishes want to kill; an' they've got a hundred arms, with suckin' claws on the ends, an' they jest search an' seek, search an' seek, with them dreadful eyes that ain't got no life but hate an' appetite, an' they stretch out an' feel, stretch out an' feel, with them hundred arms, till they git what they want, an' then they lay hold with all the suckers on them hundred arms, an' clutch an' wind, an' twist an' overlay, till, whether it's a drownin' sailor or a ship, you can't see nothin' but cuttle-fish, an'—"
Jerome stopped working, staring at him. He was quite pale. His imagination leaped to a glimpse of that frightful fish. "An'—what comes—then?" he gasped.
"The cuttle-fish—has got a beak," said Ozias. "By-an'-by there ain't nothin' but cuttle-fish."
Jerome saw quite plainly the monster writhing and coiling over a waste of water, and nothing else.
"Look at this town, an' look at Doctor Prescott, an' look at Simon Basset," Ozias went on, coming abruptly from illustration to object, with a vigor of personal spite. "Look at 'em. You can't see much of anything here but them two men. Much as ever you can see the meetin'-house steeple. There are a few left, so you can see who they be, like Squire Merritt an' Lawyer Means; but, Lord, they'd better not get too careless huntin' and fishin' and card-playin', or they'll git hauled in, partridges, cards, an' all. But I'll tell you what 'tis—about all that anybody can see in this town is the eyes an' the arms of them two men, a-suckin' and graspin'.
"Doctor Prescott, he's a church member, too, an' he gives tithes of his widders an' orphans to the Lord. That meetin'-house couldn't be run nohow without him. If they didn't have him to speak in the prayer-meetin's, an' give the Lord some information about the spiritooal state of this town on foreign missions, an' encourage Him by admittin' He'd done pretty well, as far as He's gone, why, we couldn't have no prayer-meetin's at all."
Most of us have our personal grievances, as a vantage-point for eloquence in behalf of the mass. Simon Basset had deprived Ozias Lamb, by shrewd management, of the old Lamb homestead; Doctor Prescott had been instrumental in hushing his voice in prayer and exhortation in prayer-meeting.
The village people were not slow to recognize a certain natural eloquence in Ozias Lamb's remarks; oftentimes they appealed to their own secret convictions; yet they always trembled when he arose and looked about with that strange smile of his. Ozias said once they were half scared on account of the Lord, and half on account of Doctor Prescott. Ozias was often clearly unorthodox in his premises—no one could conscientiously demur when Doctor Prescott, a church meeting having been called, presented for approval, the minister being acquiescent, a resolution that Brother Lamb be requested to remain quiet in the sanctuary, and not lift up his voice unto the Lord in public unless he could do so in accordance with the tenets of the faith, and to the spiritual edification of his fellow-Christians. The resolution was passed, and Ozias Lamb never entered the door of the meeting-house again, though his name was not withdrawn from the church books.
Therefore the cuttle-fish was a sort of Circean revenge upon Doctor Prescott and Simon Basset for his own private wrongs. It takes a god to champion wrongs which have not touched him in his farthest imaginings.
Jerome Edwards, young as he was, had within him the noblest instinct of a reformer—that of deducting from all evils a first lesson for himself. He said to himself: "It is true, what Uncle Ozias says. It is wrong, the way things are. The rich have everything—all the land, all the good food, all the money; the poor have nothing. It is wrong." Then he said, "If ever I am rich I will give to the poor." This pride of good intentions, in comparison with others' deeds, gave the boy a certain sense of superiority. Sometimes he felt as if he could see the top of Doctor Prescott's head when he met him on the street.
Poor Jerome had few of the natural joys and amusements of boyhood; he was obliged to resort to his fertile and ardent imagination, or the fibre of his spirit would have been relaxed with the melancholy of age. While the other boys played in the present, whooping and frisking, as free of thought as young animals, Jerome worked and played in the future. Some air-castles he built so often that he seemed to fairly dwell in them; some dreams he dreamed so often that he went about always with them in his eyes. One fancy which specially commended itself to him was the one that he was rich, that he owned half the town, that in some manner Doctor Prescott's and Simon Basset's acres had passed into his possession, and he could give them away. He established all the town paupers in the doctor's clover. He recalled old Peter Thomas from the poorhouse, and set him at Doctor Prescott's front window in a broadcloth coat. An imbecile pauper by the name of Mindy Toggs he established in undisturbed possession of Simon Basset's house and lands.
Doctor Seth Prescott little dreamed when he met this small, shabby lad, and passed him as he might have passed some way-side weed, what was in his mind. If people, when they meet, could know half the workings of one another's minds, the recoils from the shocks might overbalance creation. But Doctor Prescott never saw the phantom paupers slouching through his clover-fields, and Simon Basset never jostled Mindy Toggs on his threshold. However, Mindy Toggs had once lived in Simon Basset's house.
As Jerome advanced through boyhood it seemed as if everything combined to strengthen, by outside example, the fancies and beliefs derived from Ozias Lamb's precepts and his own constantly hard and toilsome life. Jerome, on his very way to the district school, learned tasks of bitter realism more impressive to his peculiar order of mind than the tables and columns in the text-books.
There was a short cut across the fields between the school-house and the Edwards house. Jerome and Elmira usually took it, unless the snow was deep, as by doing so they lessened the distance considerably.
The Edwards house was situated upon a road crossing the main highway of the village where the school-house stood. In the triangle of fields between the path which the Edwards children followed on their way to school and the two roads was the poorhouse. It was a low, stone-basemented structure, with tiny windows, a few of them barred with iron, retreating ignominiously within thick walls; the very grovelling of mendicancy seemed symbolized in its architecture by some unpremeditatedness of art. It stood in a hollow, amid slopes of stony plough ridges, over which the old male paupers swarmed painfully with spades and shovels when spring advanced. When spring came, too, old pauper women and wretched, half-witted girls and children squatted like toads in the green fields outside the ploughed ones, digging greens in company with grazing cows, and looked up with unexpected flashes of human life when footsteps drew near. There was a thrifty Overseer in the poorhouse, and the village paupers, unless they were actually crippled and past labor, found small repose in the bosom of the town. They grubbed as hard for their lodging and daily bread of charity, with its bitterest of sauces, as if they worked for hire.
Old Peter Thomas, for one, had never toiled harder to keep the roof of independence over his head than he toiled tilling the town fields. Old Peter, even in his age and indigence, had an active mind. Only one panacea was there for its workings, and that was tobacco. When the old man had—which was seldom—a comfortable quid with which to busy his jaws, his mind was at rest; otherwise it gnawed constantly one bitter cud of questioning, which never reached digestion. "Why," asked old Peter Thomas, toiling tobaccoless in the town fields—"why couldn't the town have give me work, an' paid me what I airned, an' let me keep my house, instead of sendin' of me here?"
Sometimes he propounded the question, his sharp old eyes twinkling out of a pitiful gloom of bewilderment, to the Overseer: "Say, Mr. Simms, what ye s'pose the object of it is? Here I be, workin' jest as hard for what's give as for what I used to airn." But he never got any satisfaction, and his mind never relaxed to ease, until in some way he got a bit of tobacco. Old Peter Thomas, none of whose forebears had ever been on the town, who had had in his youth one of the prettiest and sweetest girls in the village to wife, toiling hard with his stiff old muscles for no gain of independence, his mind burdened with his unanswered question, would almost at times have sold his soul for tobacco. Nearly all he had was given him by Ozias Lamb, who sometimes crammed a wedge of tobacco into his hand, with a hard and furtive thrust and surly glance aloof, when he jostled him on the road or at the village store. Old Peter used to loaf about the store, whenever he could steal away from the poorhouse, on the chance of Ozias and tobacco. Ozias was dearly fond of tobacco himself, but little enough he got, with this hungry old pensioner lying in wait. He always yielded up his little newly bought morsel of luxury to Peter, and went home to his shoes without it; however, nobody knew. "Don't ye speak on't," he charged Peter, and he eschewed fiercely to himself all kindly motives in his giving, considering rather that he was himself robbed by the great wrong of the existing order of things.
Jerome, who had seen his uncle cram tobacco into old Peter's hand, used sometimes to leave the path on his way to school, when he saw the delving old figure in the ploughed field, and discovered, even at a distance, that his jaws were still and his brow knotted, run up to him, and proffer as a substitute for the beloved weed a generous piece of spruce-gum. The old man always took it, and spat it out when the boy's back was turned.
Jerome used to be fond of storing up checker-berries and sassafras root, and doling them out to a strange small creature with wild, askant eyes and vaguely smiling mouth, with white locks blowing as straightly and coarsely as dry swamp grass, who was wont to sit, huddling sharp little elbows and knees together, even in severe weather, on a stone by the path. She had come into the world and the poorhouse by the shunned byway of creation. She had no name. The younger school-children said, gravely, and believed it, that she had never had a father; as for her mother, she was only a barely admitted and shameful necessity, who had come from unknown depths, and died of a decline, at the town's expense, before the child could walk. She had nothing save this disgraceful shadow of maternity, her feeble little body, and her little soul, and a certain half-scared delight in watching for Jerome and his doles of berries and sassafras. One of Jerome's dearest dreams was the buying this child a doll like Lucina Merritt's, with a muslin frock and gay sash and morocco shoes. So much he thought about it that it fairly seemed to him sometimes, as he drew near the little thing, that she nursed the doll in her arms. He wanted to tell her what a beautiful doll she was to have when he was rich, but he was too awkward and embarrassed before his own kind impulses. He only bade her, in a rough voice, to hold her hands, and then dropped into the little pink cup so formed his small votive offering to childhood and poverty, and was off.
Occasionally Elmira had cookies given her by kind women for whom she did extra work, and then she saved one for the little creature, emulating her brother's example. There was one point on the way to school where Elmira liked to have her brother with her, and used often to wait for him at the risk of being late. Even when she was one of the oldest girls in school, almost a young woman, she scurried fast by this point when alone, and even when Jerome was with her did not linger. As for Jerome, he had no fear; but during his winters at the district school the peculiar bent of his mind was strengthened by the influence of this place.
The poorhouse in the hollow had its barn and out-buildings attached at right angles, with a cart-path leading thereto from the street; but at the top of the slope, on the other side of the schoolward path, stood a large, half-ruinous old barn, used only for storing surplus hay. The door of this great, gray, swaying structure usually stood open, and in it, on an old wreck of a wheelbarrow, sat Mindy Toggs, in fair or foul weather.
Mindy Toggs's head, with its thick thatch of light hair reaching to his shoulders, had the pent effect of some monstrous mushroom cap over his meagre body, with its loosely hung limbs, which moved constantly with uncouth sprawls and flings, as if by some terrible machinery of diseased nerves. Poor Mindy Toggs's great thatched head also nodded and lopped unceasingly, and his slobbering chin dipped into his calico shirt-bosom, and he said over and over, in his strange voice like a parrot's, the only two words he was ever known to speak, "Simon Basset, Simon Basset."
Mindy Toggs was sixty years old, it was said. His past was as dim as his intellect. Nobody seemed to know exactly when Mindy Toggs was born, or just when he had come to the poorhouse. Nobody knew who either of his parents had been. Nobody knew how he got his name, but there was a belief that it had a folk-lore-like origin; that generations of Overseers ago an enterprising wife of one had striven to set his feeble wits to account in minding the pauper babies, and gradually, through transmission by weak and childish minds, his task had become his name. Toggs was held to be merely a reminiscence of some particularly ludicrous stage of his poorhouse costume.
Mindy Toggs had dwelt in the poorhouse ever since people could remember, with the exception of one year, when he was boarded out by the town with Simon Basset, and learned to speak his two words. Simon Basset had always had an opinion that work could be gotten out of Mindy Toggs. Nobody ever knew by what means he set himself to prove it; there had been dark stories; but one day Simon brought Mindy back to the poorhouse, declaring with a strange emphasis that he never wanted to set eyes on the blasted fool again, and Mindy had learned his two words.
It was said that the sight of Simon Basset roused the idiot to terrific paroxysms of rage and fear, and that Basset never encountered him if he could help it. However, poor Mindy was harmless enough to ordinary folk, sitting day after day in the barn door, looking out through the dusty shafts of sunlight, through spraying mists of rain, and often through the white weave of snow, repeating his two words, which had been dinned into his feeble brain, the Lord only knew by what cruelty and terror—"Simon Basset, Simon Basset."
Mindy Toggs was a terrifying object to nervous little Elmira Edwards, but Jerome used often to bid her run along, and stop himself and look at him soberly, with nothing of curiosity, but with indignant and sorrowful reflection. At these times poor Mindy, if he had only known it, drove his old master, who had illumined his darkness of mind with one cruel flash of fear, out of house and home, and sat in his stead by his fireside in warmth and comfort.
Jerome left school finally when he was seventeen; up to that time he attended all the winter sessions. During the winter, when Jerome was seventeen, a man came to the neighboring town of Dale, bought out the old shoe-factory and store there, and set up business on a more extensive scale, sending out work in large quantities. Many of the older boys left school on that account, Jerome among them; he had special inducements to do so, through his uncle Ozias Lamb.
"That man that bought out Bill Dickey, over in Dale, has been talkin' to me," Lamb told Jerome one evening. "Seems he's goin' to increase the business; he's laid in an extra lot of stock, and hired two more cutters, and he says he don't want to fool with so many small accounts, and he'd rather let some of it out in big lots. Says, if I'm willin', I can take as much as I can manage, and let it out myself for bindin' and closin', and he'll pay me considerable more on a lot than Robinson has, cash down. Now you see, J'rome, I'm gettin' older, and I can't do much more finishin' than I've been doin' right along. What I'm comin' at is this: s'pose I set another bench in here, and take the extra work, and you quit school and go into business. I can learn you all I know fast enough. You can nigh about make a shoe now—dun'no' but you can quite."
"I'd have to leave school," Jerome said, soberly.
"How much more book-learnin' do you think you need?" returned Ozias, with his hard laugh. "Don't you forget that all you came into this world for was to try not to get out of it through lack of nourishment, and to labor for life with the sweat of your brow. You don't need much eddication for that. It ain't with you as it was with Lawrence Prescott, who was too good to go to the district school, and had to be sent to Boston to have a minister fit him for college. You don't come of a liberal eddicated race. You've got to work for the breath of your nostrils, and not for the breath of your mind or your soul. You'll find you can't fight your lot in life, J'rome Edwards; you ain't got standin' room enough outside it."
"I don't want to fight my lot in life," Jerome replied, defiantly, "but I thought I'd go to school this winter."
"You won't grub a bit better for one more winter of schoolin'," said his uncle, "and there's another reason—your mother, she's gettin' older, an' Elmira, she's a good-lookin' girl, but she's gettin' wore to skin an' bones. They're both on 'em workin' too hard. You'd ought to try to have 'em let up a little more."
"I wouldn't have either of 'em lift a finger, if I could help it, the Lord knows!" Jerome cried, bitterly.
Ozias nodded, grimly. "Women wa'n't calculated to work as hard as men, nohow," he said. "Seems as if a man that's got hands, an' is willin', might be let to keep the worst of it off 'em, but he ain't. Seems as if I might have been able to do somethin' for Ann when Abel quit, but I wa'n't.
"There's one thing I've got to be thankful for, an' that is—a hard Providence ain't been able to hurt Belindy any more than it would a feather piller. She dints a little, and cries out when she's hurt, an' then she settles back again, smooth and comfortable as ever.
"I don't s'pose you'll understand it, J'rome, because you ain't come to thinking of such things yet, an' showed your sense that you ain't, but I took that very thing into account when I picked out my wife. There was another girl that I used to see home some, but, Lord, she was a high stepper! Handsome as a picture she was; there ain't a girl in this town to-day that can compare with her; but her head was up, an' her nose quiverin', an' her eyes shinin'. I knew she liked me pretty well, but, Lord, it was no use! Might as well have set a blooded mare to ploughin'. She was one of the sort that wouldn't have bent under hardship; she'd have broke. I knew well enough what a dog-life a wife of mine would have to lead—jest enough to keep body and soul together, an' no extras—an' I wa'n't goin' to drag her into it, an' I didn't. I knew just how she'd strain, an' work her pretty fingers to the bone to try to keep up. I made up my mind that if I married at all I'd marry somebody that wouldn't work more'n she could possibly help—not if we were poor as Job's off ox.
"So I looked 'round an' got Belindy. I spelled her out right the first time I see her. She 'ain't had nothin', but I dun'no' but she's been jest as happy as if she had. I 'ain't let her work hard; she 'ain't never bound shoes nor done anythin' to earn a dollar since I married her. Couldn't have kept the other one from doin' it."
"What became of her?" asked Jerome.
"Dead," replied Ozias.
Jerome asked nothing further. It ended in his leaving school and going to work. This course met with some opposition from his mother, who had madly ambitious plans for him. She had influenced Elmira to leave school the year before, that she might earn more, and thereby enable her brother to study longer, but he knew nothing of that.
However, a plan which Jerome formed for some evening lessons with the school-master appeased her. It savored of a private tutor like Lawrence Prescott's. Nobody knew how Ann Edwards had resented Doctor Prescott's sending his son to Boston to be fitted for college, while hers could have nothing better than a few terms at the district school. Her jealous bitterness was enhanced twofold because her poor husband was gone, and the memory of his ambition for his son stung her to sharper effort. Often the imagined disappointments of the dead, when they are still loved and unforgotten, weigh more heavily upon the living than their own. "I dun'no' what your father would have said if he'd thought Jerome had got to leave school so young," she told Elmira; and her lost husband's grievance in the matter was nearer her heart than her own.
Jerome's plan for evening lessons did not work long. The school-master to whom he applied professed his entire readiness, even enthusiasm, to further such a laudable pursuit of knowledge under difficulties; but he was young himself, scarcely out of college, and the pretty girls in his school swayed his impressionable nature into many side issues, even when his mind was set upon the main track. Soon Jerome found himself of an evening in the midst of a class of tittering girls, who also had been fired with zeal for improvement and classical learning, who conjugated amo with foolish blushes and glances of sugared sweetness at himself and the teacher. Then he left.
Jerome at that time felt absolutely no need of the feminine element in creation, holding himself aloof from it with a patient, because measureless, superiority. Sometimes in growth the mental strides into life ahead of the physical; sometimes it is the other way. At seventeen Jerome's mind took the lead of his body, and the imaginations thereof, though he was well grown and well favored, and young girls placed themselves innocently in his way and looked back for him to follow.
Jerome's cold, bright glances met theirs, full of the artless appeal of love and passion, shameless because as yet unrecognized, and then he turned away with disdain.
"I came here to learn Latin and higher algebra, not to fool with a pack of girls," he told the school-master, bluntly. The young man laughed and colored. He was honest and good; passion played over him like wildfire, not with any heat for injury, but with a dazzle to blind and charm.
He did not intend to marry until he had well established himself in life, and would not; but in the meantime he gave his resolution as loose a rein as possible, and conjugated amo with shades of meaning with every girl in the class.
"I don't see what I can do, Edwards," he said. "I cannot turn the girls out, and I could not refuse them an equal privilege with you, when they asked it."
Jerome gave the school-master a look of such entire comprehension and consequent scorn that he fairly cast down his eyes before him; then he went out with his books under his arm.
He paid for his few lessons with the first money he could save, in spite of the school-master's remonstrances.
After that Jerome went on doggedly with his studies by himself, and asked assistance from nobody. In the silent night, after his mother and sister were in bed, he wrestled all alone with the angel of knowledge, and half the time knew not whether he was smitten hip and thigh or was himself the victor. Many a problem in his higher algebra Jerome was never sure of having solved rightly; renderings of many lines in his battered old Virgil, bought for a sixpence of a past collegian in Dale, might, and might not, have been correct.
However, if he got nothing else from his studies, he got the discipline of mental toil, and did not spend his whole strength in the labor of his hands.
Jerome pegged and closed shoes with an open book on the bench beside him; he measured his steps with conjugations of Latin verbs when he walked to Dale with his finished work over shoulder; he studied every spare moment, when his daily task was done, and kept this up, from a youthful and unreasoning thirst for knowledge and defiance of obstacles, until he was twenty-one. Then one day he packed away all his old school-books, and never studied them again regularly; for something happened which gave his energy the force of reason, and set him firmly in a new track with a definite end in view.
One evening, not long after his twenty-first birthday, Jerome Edwards went to Cyrus Robinson's store on an errand.
When he entered he found a large company assembled, swinging booted legs over the counters, perched upon barrels and kegs, or tilting back in the old scooping arm-chairs around the red-hot stove. These last were the seats devoted to honor and age, when present, and they were worthily filled that night. Men who seldom joined the lounging, gossiping circle in the village store were there: Lawyer Means, John Jennings, Colonel Lamson, Squire Merritt, even Doctor Seth Prescott, and the minister, Solomon Wells.
The recent town-meeting, the elections and appropriations, accounted in some measure for this unusual company, though the bitter weather might have had something to do with it. Hard it was for any man that night to pass windows glowing with firelight, and the inward swing of hospitable doors; harder it was, when once within the radius of warmth and human cheer, to leave it and plunge again into that darkness of winter and death, which seemed like the very outer desolation of souls.
The Squire's three cronies had been on their way to cards and punch with him, but the winking radiance of the store windows had lured them inside to warm themselves a bit before another half-mile down the frozen road; and once there, sunken into the battered hollows of the arm-chairs, within the swimming warmth from the stove, they had remained. Their prospective host, Squire Eben Merritt, also had shortly arrived, in quest of lemons for the brewing of his famous punch, and had been nothing loath to await the pleasure of his guests.
The minister had come in giddy, as if with strong drink, being unable, even with the steady gravity of his mind, to control the chilly trembling of his thin old shanks in their worn black broadcloth. His cloak was thin; his daughter had tied a little black silk shawl of her own around his neck for further protection; his mildly ascetic old face peered over it, fairly mouthing and chattering with the cold. He could scarcely salute the company in his customary reverend and dignified manner.
Squire Eben sprang up and place his own chair in a warmer corner for him, and the minister was not averse to settling therein and postponing for a season the purchase of a quarter pound of tea, and his shivering homeward pilgrimage.
Doctor Seth Prescott, who lived nearly across the way, had come over after supper to prescribe for the storekeeper's wife, who had lumbago, and joined the circle around the stove, seeing within it such worthy companions as the lawyer and the Squire, and having room made promptly and deferentially for him.
The discussion had been running high upon the subject of town appropriations for the poor, until Doctor Prescott entered and the grating arm-chairs made place for him, when there was a hush for a moment. Ozias Lamb, hunched upon a keg on the outskirts, smiled sardonically around at Adoniram Judd standing behind him.
"Cat's come," he said; "now the mice stop squeakin'." The men near him chuckled.
Simon Basset, who, having arrived first, had the choice of seats, and was stationed in the least rickety arm-chair the farthest from draughts, ceased for a moment the rotatory motion of lantern jaws and freed his mind upon the subject of the undue appropriations for the poor.
"Ain't a town of this size in the State begins to lay out the money we do to keep them good-for-nothin' paupers," said he, and chewed again conclusively.
Doctor Prescott, not as yet condescending to speak, had made a slight motion and frown of dissent, which the minister at his elbow saw. Doctor Prescott was his pillar of the sanctuary, upholding himself and his pulpit from financial and doctrinal downfall—his pillar even of ideas and individual movements. Poor old Solomon Wells fairly walked his road of life attached with invisible leading-strings to Doctor Seth Prescott. He spoke when Simon Basset paused, and more from his mentor's volition than his own. "The poor ye have always with ye," said the minister, with pious and weighty dissent. Doctor Prescott nodded.
Ozias Lamb squinted slowly around with ineffable sarcasm of expression. He took in deliberately every detail of the two men—Doctor Seth Prescott, the smallest in physical stature of anybody there, yet as marked among them all as some local Napoleon, and the one whom a stranger would first have noted, and the old clergyman leaning towards him with a subtle inclination of mind as well as body; then he spoke as Jerome entered.
Jerome laid the empty sack, which he had brought for meal, on the counter, and stood about to listen with the rest. Squire Eben Merritt, having given his chair to the minister and squared up his great shoulders against a pile of boxes on the counter, was near him, and saluted him with a friendly nod, which Jerome returned with a more ardent flash of his black eyes than ever a girl had called forth yet. Jerome adored this kindly Squire, against whom he was always fiercely on his guard lest he tender him gratuitous favors, and his indebtedness to whom was his great burden of life.
His Uncle Ozias did not notice him or pause in his harangue. "The poor ye have always with ye, the poor ye have always with ye," he was repeating, with a very snarl of sarcasm. "I reckon ye do; an' why? Why is it that folks had the Man that give that sayin' to the world with 'em, and made Him suffer and die? It was the same reason for both. D'ye want to know what 'twas? Well, I'll tell ye—it don't take a very sharp mind to ferret that out. It don't even take college larnin'. It is because from the very foundation of this green airth the rich and the wicked and the proud have had the mastery over it, an' their horns have been exalted. The Lord knows they've got horns to their own elevation an' the hurt of others, as much as any horned animals, though none of us can see 'em sproutin', no matter how hard we squint."
With that Ozias Lamb gave a quick glance, pointed with driest humor, from under his bent brows at Simon Basset's great jumble of gray hair and Doctor Prescott's spidery sprawl of red wig. A subdued and half-alarmed chuckle ran through the company. Simon Basset chewed imperturbably, but Doctor Seth Prescott's handsome face was pale with controlled wrath.
Ozias continued: "I tell ye that is the reason for all the sufferin', an' the wrongs, an' the crucifixion, on this earth. The rich are the reason for it all; the rich are the reason for the poor. If the money wa'n't in one pocket it would be in many; if the bread wa'n't all in one cupboard there wouldn't be so many empty; if all the garments wa'n't packed away in one chest there wouldn't so many go bare. There's money enough, an' food enough, an' clothes enough in this very town for the whole lot, an' it's the few that holds 'em that makes the paupers."
Doctor Seth Prescott's mouth was a white line of suppression. Some of the men exchanged glances of consternation. Cyrus Robinson's clerk, Samson Loud, leaning over the counter beside his employer, said, "I swan!" under his breath. As for Cyrus Robinson, he was doubtful whether or not to order this turbulent spirit out of his domain, especially since he was no longer a good customer of his, but worked for and traded with the storekeeper in Dale.
He looked around at his son Elisha, who was married now these three years to Abigail Mack, had two children, and a share in the business; but he got no suggestion from him. Elisha, who had grown very stout, sat comfortably on a half-barrel of sugar inside the counter, sucking a stick of peppermint candy, unmoved by anything, even the entrance of his old enemy, Jerome. As Cyrus Robinson was making up his mind to say something, Doctor Seth Prescott spoke, coldly and magisterially, without moving a muscle in his face, which was like a fine pale mask.
"May I ask Mr. Lamb," he said, "how long, in his judgment, when the money shall have been divided and poured from one purse into many others, when the loaves shall have been distributed among all the empty cupboards, and when all the surplus garments have been portioned out to the naked, this happy state of equal possessions will last?"
"Well," replied Ozias Lamb, slowly, "I should say, takin' all things into consideration—the graspin' qualities of them that had been rich, and the spillin' qualities of them that had been poor, about fourteen hours an' three-quarters. I might make it twenty-four—I s'pose some might hang on to it overnight—but I guess on the whole it's safer to call it fourteen an' three-quarters."
"Well," returned Doctor Prescott, "what then, Mr. Lamb?"
"Give it back again," said Ozias, shortly.
Squire Eben Merritt gave a great shout of mirth. "By the Lord Harry," he cried, "that's an idea!"
"It is an entirely erroneous system of charity which you propose, Mr. Lamb," said Doctor Prescott; "such a constant disturbance and shifting of the property balance would shake the financial basis of the whole country. Our present system of one public charity, to include all the poor of the town, is the only available one, in the judgment of the ablest philanthropists in the country."
Ozias Lamb got off his keg, straightened his bowed shoulders as well as he was able, and raised his right hand. "You call the poorhouse righteous charity, do ye, Doctor Seth Prescott?" he demanded. "You call it givin' in the name of the Lord?"
Doctor Prescott made no response; indeed, Ozias did not wait for one. He plunged on in a very fury of crude oratory.
"It ain't charity!" he cried. "I tell ye what it is—it's a pushin' an' hustlin' of the poor off the steps of the temple, an' your own door-steps an' door-paths, to get 'em out of your sight an' sound, where your purple an' fine linen won't sweep against their rags, an' your delicate ears won't hear their groans, an' your delicate eyes an' nose won't see nor scent their sores; where you yourselves, with your own hands, won't have to nurse an' tend 'em. I tell ye, that rich man in Scriptur' was a damned fool not to start a poorhouse, an' not have Lazaruses layin' round his gate. He'd have been more comfortable, an' mebbe he'd have cheated hell so.
"You call it givin'—givin'! You call livin' in that house over there in the holler, workin' with rheumatic old joints, an' wearin' stiff old fingers to the bone, not for honest hire, but for the bread of charity, a gift, do ye? I tell ye, every pauper in that there house that's got his senses after what he's been through, knows that he pays for every cent he costs the town, either by the sweat of his brow an' the labor of his feeble hands, or by the independence of his soul."
Then Simon Basset spat, and shifted his quid and spoke. "Tell ye what 'tis, all of ye," said he—"it's mighty easy talkin' an' givin' away gab instead of dollars. I'll bet ye anything ye'll put up that there ain't one of ye out of the whole damned lot that 'ain't got any money that would give it away if he had it."
"I would," declared a clear young voice from the outskirts of the crowd. Everybody turned and looked, and saw Jerome beside Squire Merritt, his handsome face all eager and challenging. Jerome was nearly as tall as the Squire, though more slender, and there was not a handsomer young fellow in the village. He had, in spite of his shoemaking, a carriage like a prince, having overcome by some erectness of his spirit his hereditary stoop.
Simon Basset looked at him. "If ye had a big fortune left ye, s'pose ye'd give it all away, would ye?"
"Yes, sir, I would." Jerome blushed a little with a brave modesty before the concentrated fire of eyes, but he never unbent his proud young neck as he faced Simon Basset.
"S'pose ye'd give away every dollar?"
"Yes, sir, I would—every dollar."
"Lord!" ejaculated Simon Basset, and his bristling, grimy jaws worked again.
Squire Eben Merritt looked at Jerome almost as he might have done at his pretty Lucina. "By the Lord Harry, I believe you would, boy!" he said, under his breath.
"Such idle talk is not to the purpose," Doctor Seth Prescott said, with a stately aside to the minister, who nodded with the utter accordance of motion of any satellite.
But Simon Basset spoke again, and as he spoke he hit the doctor, who sat next him, a hard nudge in his broadcloth side with a sharp elbow. "Stan' ye any amount ye want to put up that that young bob-squirt won't give away a damned dollar, if he ever gits it to give," he said, with a wink of curious confidential scorn.
"I do not bet," replied the doctor, shortly.
"Lord! ye needn't be pertickler, doctor; it's safe 'nough," returned Simon Basset, with a sly roll of facetious eyes towards the company.
The doctor deigned no further reply.
"I'll stan' any man in this company anything he'll put up," cried Simon Basset, who was getting aroused to a singular energy.
Nobody responded. Squire Eben Merritt, indeed, opened his mouth to speak, then turned it off with a laugh. "I'd make the bet, boy," he whispered to Jerome, "if it were anybody else that proposed it, but that old—"
Simon Basset stood up; the men looked at him with wonder. His eyes glowed with strange fire. The lawyer eyed him keenly. "I should think from his face that the man was defending himself in the dock," he whispered to Colonel Lamson.
"I'll tell ye what I'll do, then," shouted Simon Basset, "if ye won't none of ye take me up. I'll be damned if I believe that any rich man on the face of this earth is capable of givin' away every dollar he's got, for the fear of the Lord or the love of his fellow-men. I'll be damned if I believe, if the Lord Almighty spoke to him from on high, and told him to, he'd do it, an' I'm goin' to prove that I don't believe it. I'll tell ye all what I'll do. Lawyer Means is here, an' he can take it down in black an' white, if he wants to, an' I'll sign it reg'lar an' have it witnessed. If that young man there," he pointed at Jerome, "ever comes into any property, an' gives away every dollar of it, I'll give away one quarter of all I've got in the world to the poor of this town, an' I'll take my oath on it.
"But there's more than that," continued Simon Basset. "I'll get a condition before I do it. I call on my fellow-townsman here—I won't say my fellow-Christian, 'cause he wouldn't think that much of a compliment—to do the same thing. If he'll do it, I will; if he won't, I won't." Simon Basset looked down at Doctor Prescott with malicious triumph. Everybody stared at the two men.
"Why don't ye speak up, doctor—hey?" asked Simon Basset, finally.
"Because I do not consider such an outrageous proposition worthy of consideration, Mr. Basset," returned the doctor, with a calm aside elevation of his clear profile, and not the slightest quickening of his even voice.
"Then ye don't believe there's a man livin' capable of givin' away his all for the Lord an' His poor any more'n I do, an' I calculate you jedge so from the workin's of your own heart an' knowin' what you'd do in like case, jest like me," said Simon Basset.
Doctor Prescott made a quick motion, and the color flashed over his thin face. "I made no such assertion," he said, hotly, for his temper at last was up over his icy bonds of will.
"Looks so," said Simon Basset.
"You have no right to make such a statement, sir," returned the doctor, and his lips seemed to cut the air like scissors.
"What is it, then?" returned the other. "Are you afraid the young fellow will come into property, an' then you'll have to give up too much to the Lord?"
The veins on Doctor Prescott's forehead swelled visibly as he looked at Simon Basset's hateful, bantering face.
"There's another thing I'm willin' to promise," continued Simon Basset. "If that young feller comes into money, an' gives it away, I'll do more than give away a quarter of my property—I'll believe anything after that. I'll get religion. But—I won't agree to do that unless you back me up, doctor. That ought to induce you—the prospect of savin' a brand from the burnin'; an' if I ain't a brand, I dun'no' who is."
"I tell you, sir, I'll have nothing to do with it!" shouted Doctor Prescott. The minister at his side looked pale and scared as a woman.
"Then," said Simon Basset, "it's settled. You an' me won't agree to no sech damn foolishness, because we both on us know that there's no sech Christian charity an' love as that in the world; an' if there should turn out to be, we're afraid we'd have to do likewise. I thought I was safe enough proposin' sech a plan, doctor."
There was a great shout of laughter, in spite of the respect for Doctor Prescott. In the midst of it the doctor sprang to his feet, looking as none of them had ever seen him look before. "Get a paper and pen and ink," he cried, turning to Lawyer Means; "draw up the document that this man proposes, and I will sign it!"
The paper which Lawyer Eliphalet Means, standing at the battered and hacked old desk whereon Cyrus Robinson made out his accounts, drew up with a sputtering quill pen—at which he swore under his breath—was as fully elaborated and as formal in every detail as his legal knowledge could make it. Apostrophizing it openly, before he began, as damned nonsense, he was yet not without a certain delight in the task. It was quite easy to see that Simon Basset, whatever motive he might have had in his proposition, was beyond measure terrified at its acceptance. With his bristling chin dropping nervously, and his forehead contracted with anxious wrinkles, he questioned Jerome.
"Look at here," he said, with a tight clutch on Jerome's sleeve, "I want to know, young man. There ain't no property anywheres in your family, is there? There ain't no second nor third nor fourth cousins out West anywheres that's got property?"
"No, there are not," said Jerome, impatiently shaking off his hand.
"Your father didn't have no uncle that had money?"
"I tell you there isn't a dollar in the family that I know of," cried Jerome. "I have nothing to do with all this, and I want you to understand it. All I said was, and I say it now, if in any way any money should ever fall to me, I would give it away; and I will, whether anybody else does or not."
"You don't mean money you earn; you mean money that falls to you—"
"I mean if ever I get enough money in a lump to make me rich," replied Jerome, doggedly.
"I want to know how much money you are goin' to call rich," demanded Simon Basset.
"Ten thousand dollars," replied Jerome, whose estimate of wealth was not large.
Simon Basset cried out with sharp protest at that, and Doctor Prescott evidently agreed with him.
"Any man might scrape together ten thousand dollars," said Basset. "Lord! he might steal that much."
The amount of wealth which the document should specify was finally fixed at twenty-five thousand dollars, which was, moreover, to come into Jerome's possession in full bulk and during the next ten years, or the obligation would be null and void.
Basset also insisted upon the stipulation that Jerome, in his giving, should not include his immediate family. "I've seen men shift their purses into women folks' pockets, an' take 'em out again, when they got ready, before now," he said. "I ain't goin' to have no such gum-game as that played."
That proposition met with some little demur, though not from Jerome.
"Might just as well say I wouldn't agree not to give mother and Elmira the moon, if it fell to me," he said to Squire Merritt.
The Squire nodded. "Let 'em put it any way they want to," he said; "it can't hurt you any. Means knows what he's about. I tell you that old fox of a Basset feels as if the dogs were after him." The Squire was highly amused, but Jerome did not regard it as quite a laughing matter. He wondered angrily if they were making fun of him, and would have flown out at the whole of them, with all his young impetuosity, had not Squire Eben restrained him.
"Easy, boy, easy," he whispered. "It won't do you any harm."
The instrument, as drawn up by Lawyer Means, also stipulated, at Simon Basset's insistence, that the said twenty-five thousand dollars should come into Jerome's possession within ten years from date, and be given away by him within one month's time after his acquisition of the same. Lawyer Means, without objection, filed carefully all Basset's precautionary conditions; then he proceeded to make it clearly evident, with no danger of quibble, that "in case the said Jerome Edwards should comply with all the said conditions, the said Doctor Seth Prescott and Simon Basset, Esquire, of Upham Corners, do covenant and engage by these presents to remise, release, give, and forever quitclaim, each of the aforesaid, one-quarter of the property of which he may at the time of the acquisition by the said Jerome Edwards of the said twenty-five thousand dollars, stand possessed, to all those persons of adult age residing within the boundaries of the town of Upham Corners who shall not own at the time of said acquisition homesteads free of encumbrance and the sum of twelve thousand dollars in bank, to be divided among the aforesaid in equal measure.
"In witness whereof we, the said Doctor Seth Prescott and Simon Basset, have hereunto set our hands and seals," etc.
This document, being duly signed, sealed, and delivered in the presence of the witnesses John Jennings, Eben Merritt, Esquire, and Cyrus Robinson, was stored away in the pocket of Lawyer Eliphalet Means's surtout, to be later locked safely in his iron box of valuables.
Simon Basset's writing lore was limited, being, many claimed, confined to the ability to sign his name, and even that seemed likely in this case to fail him. Simon Basset faltered as if he had forgotten either his name or his spelling, and it was truly a strange signature when done, full of sharp slants of rebellion and curves of indecision. As for Doctor Seth Prescott, who had sat aloof, with a fine withdrawn majesty, all through the discussion, when it was signified to him that everything was in readiness for his signature he arose, went to the desk amid a hush of attention, and signed his name in characters like the finest copper-plate. Then he went out of the store without a word, and the minister, forgetting his quarter of tea, slid after him as noiselessly as his shadow.
Lawyer Means, when once out in the frosty night with his three mates, bound at last for cards and punch, shook his long sides with husky merriment. "I tell you," he said, "if I were worth enough, I'd give every dollar of the twenty-five thousand to that boy before morning, just for the sake of seeing Prescott and Basset."
"Of course, when it comes to a question of legality, that document isn't worth the paper it's written on," the Colonel said, chuckling.
"Of course," replied the lawyer, dryly. "Basset didn't know it, though, nor Jerome, nor scarcely a soul in the store beside."
"Doctor Prescott did."
"I suppose so, or he wouldn't have signed."
"Do you think the boy would live up to his part of the bargain?" asked the Colonel, who, being somewhat gouty of late years, limped slightly on the frozen ground.
"I'd stake every cent I've got in the world on it," cried Squire Eben Merritt, striding ahead—"every cent, sir!"
"Well, there's no chance of his being put to the test," said Lamson.
"Chance!" exclaimed the lawyer. "Good heavens! You might as well talk of his chance of inheriting the throne of the Caesars. I know the Edwards family, and I know Jerome's mother's family, root and branch, and there isn't five thousand dollars among them down to the sixth cousins; and as for the boy's accumulating it himself—where are the twenty-five thousand dollars in these parts for him to accumulate in ten years? You might as well talk of his discovering a gold-mine in that famous wood-lot. But I'll be damned if Basset wasn't as much scared as if the poor fellow had been jingling the gold in his pocket. If Jerome Edwards does, through the Lord or the devil, get twenty-five thousand dollars, I hope I shall be alive to see the fun."
"Hush," whispered John Jennings; "he is behind us, and I would not have such a generous young heart as that think itself spoken of lightly."
"Would he do it?" Colonel Lamson asked, short-winded and reflective.
"I'll be damned if he wouldn't!" cried the lawyer.
"By the Lord Harry, he would!" cried Squire Eben, each using his favorite oath for confirmation of his opinion.
Jerome, following in their tracks with his uncle Ozias, heard perfectly their last remarks, and lagged behind to hear no more, though his heart leaped up to second with fierce affirmation the lawyer and the Squire.
"Keep behind them," he whispered to Ozias; "I don't want to listen."
"Think you'd give it away if you had it, do ye?" his uncle asked, with his dry chuckle.
"I don't think—I know."
"How d'ye know?"
"You think I wouldn't, do you?" asked Jerome, angrily.
"I'd be more inclined to believe ye if I see ye more generous with what ye've got to give now."
Jerome started, and stared at his uncle's face, which, in the freezing moonlight, looked harder, and more possessed of an inscrutable bitterness of wisdom. "What d'ye mean?" he asked, sharply. "What on earth have I got to give, I'd like to know?"
Ozias Lamb tapped his head. "How about that?" he asked. "How about the strength you're puttin' into algebry an' Latin? You don't expect ever to learn enough to teach, do ye?"
Jerome shook his head.
"Well, then it's jest to improve your own mind. Improve your mind—what's that? What good is that goin' to do your fellow-bin's? I tell ye, Jerome, ye ain't givin' away what you've got to give, an' we ain't none of us."
"Maybe you're right," Jerome said, after a little.
After having left his uncle, he walked more slowly still. Soon the Squire and his friends were quite out of sight. The moonlight was very full and brilliant, the trees were crooked in hard lines, and the snow-drifts crested with white lights of ice; there was no softening of spring in anything, but the young man felt within him one of those flooding stirs of the spirit which every spring faintly symbolizes. A great passion of love and sympathy for the needy and oppressed of his kind, and an ardent defence of them, came upon Jerome Edwards, poor young shoemaker, going home with his sack of meal over his shoulder. Like a bird, which in the spring views every little straw and twig as towards his nest and purpose of love, Jerome would henceforth regard all powers and instrumentalities that came in his way only in their bearing upon his great end of life.
On reaching home that night he packed away his algebra and his Latin books on the shelf in his room, and began a new study the next evening.
Seth Prescott was the only practising physician for some half-dozen villages. His mud-bespattered sulky and his smart mare, advancing always with desperate flings of forward hoofs—which caused the children to scatter—were familiar objects, not only in the cluster of Uphams, but also in Dale and Granby, and the little outlying hamlet of Ford's Hill, which was nothing but a scattering group of farm-houses, with a spire in their midst, and which came under the jurisdiction of Upham. In all these villages people were wont to run from the windows to the doors when they saw the doctor's sulky whirl past, peer after it, up or down the road, to see where it might stop, and speculate if this old soul were about to leave the world, or that new soul to come into it.
One afternoon, not long before he was twenty-one, Jerome Edwards walked some three miles and a half to Ford's Hill to carry some shoes to a woman binder who was too lame to come for them herself. Jerome walked altogether of late years, for the white horse was dead of old age: but it was well for him, since he was saved thereby from the permanent crouch of the shoe-bench.
When, having left his shoes, he was returning down the steep street of the little settlement, he saw Doctor Prescott's sulky ahead of him. Then, just before it reached a small weather-beaten house on the right, he saw a woman rush out as if to stop it, and a man follow after her and pull her back through the door.
The sulky was driven past at a rapid pace; for the weather was sharp, and the doctor's mare stepped out well after standing. When Jerome reached the house the doctor was scarcely within hailing distance; but the woman was out again, calling after him frantically: "Doctor! Doctor! Doctor Prescott! Stop! Stop here! Doctor!"
Jerome sprang forward to offer his assistance in summoning him, but at that instant the man reappeared again and clutched the woman by the arm. "Come back, come back in the house, Laura," he gasped, faintly, and yet with wild energy.
Jerome saw then that the man was ghastly, staggering, and yellow-white, except for blazing red spots on the cheeks, and that his great eyes were bright with fever. Jerome knew him; he was a young farmer, Henry Leeds by name, and not long married. Jerome had gone to school with the wife, and called her familiarly by name. "What's the matter, Laura?" he asked.
"Oh, J'rome," she half sobbed, "do help me—do call the doctor. Henry's awful sick; I know he is. He'd ought to have the doctor, but he won't because it costs so much. Do call him; I can't make him hear."
Jerome opened his mouth to shout, but the sick man flew at him with an awful, piteous cry. "Don't ye, don't ye," he wailed out; "I tell ye not to, J'rome Edwards. I 'ain't got any money to pay him with."
"But you're sick, Henry," said Jerome, putting his hand on the man's shaking shoulder to steady him. "You'd better let me run after him—I can make him hear now. It won't cost much."
"Don't ye do it," almost sobbed the young farmer. "It costs us a dollar every time he comes so far, an' he'll say right off, the way he did about mother that last time she was sick—when she broke her hip—that he'd take up a little piece of land beforehand; it would jest pay his bill. He'll do that, an' I tell ye I 'ain't got 'nough land now to support me. I 'ain't got 'nough land now, J'rome."
The poor young wife was weeping almost like a child. "Do let him call the doctor, do let him, Henry," she pleaded.
"There's another thing, J'rome," half whispered the young man, turning his back on his wife and fastening mysterious bright eyes on Jerome's—"there's another thing. Laura, she'll have to have the doctor before long, you can see that, an'—there'll be another mouth to fill, an' I've been savin' up a little, an' it ain't goin' for me—I tell ye it ain't goin' for me, J'rome."
All the while poor Henry Leeds, in spite of hot red spots on his cheeks, was shivering violently, but stiffly, like a tree in a freezing wind. The doctor had whirled quite out of sight over the hill. "He's gone," wailed the wife—"he's gone, and Henry 'll die—oh, I know he'll die!"
Then Jerome, who had been standing bewildered, not knowing whether he should or should not run and call after the doctor, and listening first to one, then to the other, collected himself. "No, he isn't going to die, either," he said to the poor girl, who was very young; and he said it quite sharply, because he so pitied her in her innocent helplessness, and would give her courage even in a bitter dose. He asked her, furthermore, as brusquely as Doctor Prescott himself could have done, what medicine she had in the house. Then he bade her hasten, if she wished to help and not hurt her husband, to the nearest neighbor and beg some sweat-producing herbs—thoroughwort or sage or catnip—all of which he had heard were good for fever.
She went away, wrapped in the thick shawl which Jerome had found in a closet, and himself pinned over the wild fair head, under the quivering chin, while he quieted her with grave admonitions, as if he were her father. Then he led poor Henry Leeds—still crying out that he would not have the doctor—into his house and his bedroom, and got him to bed, though it was a hard task.
"I tell you, Henry," pleaded Jerome, struggling with him to loosen his neck-band, "you shall not have the doctor; I'll doctor you myself."
"You don't know how—you don't know how, J'rome! She'll say you don't know how; she'll send for him, an' then, when he's got all my land, how am I goin' to get them a livin'?"
"I tell you, Doctor Prescott sha'n't darken your doors, Henry Leeds, if you'll behave yourself," said Jerome, stoutly; "and I can break up a fever as well as he can, if you'll only let me. Mother broke up one for me, and I never forgot it. You let me get your clothes off and get you into bed, Henry."
Jerome had had some little experience through nursing his mother, but, more than that, had the natural instinct of helpfulness, balanced with good sense and judgment, which makes a physician. Moreover, he worked with as fiery zeal as if he were a surgeon in a battle-field. Soon he had Henry Leeds in his feather bed, with all the wedding quilts and blankets of poor young Laura piled over him. The fire was almost out, for the girl was a poor house-keeper, and not shod by nature for any of the rough emergencies of life. Jerome had the fire blazing in short space, and some hot water and hot bricks in readiness.
Poor young Laura Leeds had to go almost half a mile for her healing herbs, as the first neighbor was away from home and no one came in answer to her knocks. By the time she returned, with a stout neighboring mother at her side—both of them laden with dried aromatic bouquets, and the visitor, moreover, clasping a bottle or two of household panaceas, such as camphor and castor-oil—Jerome had the sick man steaming in a circle of hot bricks, and was rubbing him under the clothes with saleratus and water.
Jerome's proceedings might not have commended themselves to a school of physicians; but he reasoned from the principle that if remedies were individually valuable, a combination of them would increase in value in the proportion of the several to one. Sage and thoroughwort, sarsaparilla, pennyroyal, and burdock—nearly every herb, in fact, in the neighbor's collection—were infused into one black and eminently flavored tea, into which he dropped a little camphor, and even a modicum of castor-oil. Jerome afterwards wondered at his own daring; but then, with a certainty as absolute as the rush of a stung animal to a mud bath—as if by some instinct of healing born with him—he concocted that dark and bitter beverage, and fed it in generous doses to the sick man. Nobody interfered with him. The neighbor, though older than Laura and the mother of several children, had never known enough to bring out their measles and loosen their colds. The herbs had been gathered and stored by her husband's mother, and for many a year hung all unvalued in her garret. Luckily Jerome, through his old gathering for the apothecary, knew them all.