Jerome set one of the neighbor's boys to Upham Corners to tell his mother of his whereabouts; then he remained all night with young Henry Leeds, and by dint of his medley of herbs, or his tireless bathing and nursing, or because the patient had great elasticity of habit, or because the fever was not, after all, of a dangerous nature, his treatment was quite successful.
Jerome went home the next morning, and returned late in the afternoon, to stay overnight again. The day after, the fever did not appear, and Henry Leeds was on the fair way to recovery. A few weeks later came the affair of the contract in Robinson's store, and Jerome grasped a new purpose from the two.
The next day, when he carried some finished shoes to Dale, he bought a few old medical books, the remnant of a departed doctor's library, which had been stowed away for years in a dusty corner of the great country store. This same store included in its stock such heterogeneous objects, so utterly irrelevant to one another and at such tangents of connection, that it seemed sometimes like a very mad-house of trade.
It was of this store that the story was told for miles around how one day Lawyer Means, having driven over with Colonel Lamson from Upham Corners, made a bet with him that he could not ask for anything not included in its stock of trade; and the Colonel had immediately gone in and asked for a skeleton; for he thought that he was thereby sure of winning his bet, and of putting to confusion his friend and the storekeeper. The latter, however, who was not the Bill Dickey of this time, but an unkempt and shrewd old man of an earlier date, had conferred with his own recollection for a minute, and asked, reflectively, of his clerk, "Lemme see, we've got a skeleton somewheres about, 'ain't we, Eph?" And had finally unearthed—not adjacent to the old doctor's medical books, for that would have been to much method in madness, but in some far-removed nook—a ghastly box, containing a reasonably complete little skeleton. Then was the laugh all on Colonel Jack Lamson, who had his bet to pay, and was put to hard shifts to avoid making his grewsome purchase, the article being offered exceedingly cheap on account of its unsalable properties.
"It's been here a matter of twenty-five year, ever sence the old doctor died. Them books, an' that, was cleaned out of his office, an' brought over here," the old storekeeper had said. "Let ye have it cheap, Colonel; call it a shillin'."
"Guess I won't take it to-day."
"Call it a sixpence."
"What in thunder do you suppose I want a skeleton for?" asked the Colonel, striding out, while the storekeeper called after him, with such a relish of his own wit that it set all the loafers to laughing and made them remember it:
"Guess ye'd find out if ye didn't have one, Colonel; an' I guess, sence natur's gin ye all the one she's ever goin' to, ye'll never have a chance to git another as cheap as this."
That same little skeleton was yet for sale when Jerome purchased his medical books at the price of waste-paper, and might possibly have been thrown into the bargain had he wished to study anatomy.
Jerome sought only to gain an extension of any old wife's knowledge of healing roots and herbs and the treatment of simple and common maladies. Surgery he did not meddle with, until one night, about a year later, when Jake Noyes, Doctor Prescott's man, came over secretly with a little whimpering dog in his arms.
"We run over this little fellar," he said to Jerome, when he had been summoned to the door, "an' his leg's broke, an' the doctor told me I'd better finish him up; guess he's astray; but"—Jake's voice dropped to a whisper—"I've heard what you're up to, an' I've brought a splint, an', if you say so, I'll show you how to set a bone."
So up in his little chamber, with his mother and Elmira listening curiously below, and a little whining, trembling dog for a patient, Jerome learned to set a bone. His first surgical case was nearly a complete success, moreover, for the little dog abode with him for many a year after that, and went nimbly and merrily on his four legs, with scarcely a limp.
Later on, Jake Noyes, this time with Jerome himself as illustration, gave him a lesson in bleeding and cupping, which was considered indispensable in the ordinary practice of that day. "Dun'no' what the doctor would say," Jake Noyes told Jerome, "an' I dun'no' as I much care, but I'd jest as soon ye'd keep it dark. Rows ain't favorable to the action of the heart, actin' has too powerful stimulants in most cases, an' I had an uncle on my mother's side that dropped dead. But I feel as if the doctor had ground the face of the poor about long enough; it's about time somebody dulled his grindstone a little. He's just foreclosed that last mortgage on John Upham's place, an' they've got to move. Mind ye, J'rome, I ain't sayin' this to anybody but you, an' I wouldn't say it to you if I didn't think mebbe you could do something to right what he'd done wrong. If he won't do it himself, somebody ought to for him. Tell ye what 'tis, J'rome, one way an' another, I think considerable of the doctor. I've lived with him a good many years now. I've got some books I'll let ye take any time. I calculate you mean to do your doctorin' cheap."
"Cheap!" replied Jerome, scornfully. "Do you think I would take any pay for anything I could do? Do you think that's what I'm after?"
Jake Noyes nodded. "Didn't s'pose it was, J'rome. Well, there'll be lots of things you can't meddle with; but there's no reason why you can't doctor lots of little ails—if folks are willin'—an' save 'em money. I'll learn ye all I know, on the doctor's account. I want it to balance as even as he thinks it does."
The result of it all was that Jerome Edwards became a sort of free medical adviser to many who were too poor to pay a doctor's fees, and had enough confidence in him. Some held strenuously to the opinion that "he knew as much as if he'd studied medicine." He was in requisition many of the hours when he was free from his shoemaker's bench; and never in the Uphams was there a sick man needing a watcher who did not beg for Jerome Edwards.
In these latter years Ann Edwards regarded her son Jerome with pride and admiration, and yet with a measure of disapproval. In spite of her fierce independence, a lifetime of poverty and struggle against the material odds of life had given a sordid taint to her character. She would give to the utmost out of her penury, though more from pride than benevolence; but when it came to labor without hire, that she did not understand.
"I 'ain't got anything to say against your watchin' with sick folks, an' nursin' of 'em, if you've got the spare time an' strength," she said to Jerome; "but if you do doctorin' for nothin' nobody 'll think anything of it. Folks 'll jest ride a free horse to death, an' talk about him all the time they're doin' of it. You might just as well be paid for your work as folks that go ridin' round in sulkies chargin' a dollar a visit. You want to get the mortgage paid up."
"It is almost paid up now, you know, mother," Jerome replied.
"How?" cried his mother, sharply. "By nippin' an' tuckin' an' pinchin', an' Elmira goin' without things that girls of her age ought to have."
"I don't complain, mother," said Elmira, with a sweet, bright glance at her brother, as she gave a nervous jerk of her slender arm and drew the waxed thread through the shoe she was binding.
"You'd ought to complain, if you don't," returned her mother. Then she added, with an air of severe mystery, "It might make a difference in your whole life if you did have more; sometimes it does with girls."
Jerome did not say anything, but he looked in a troubled way from his sister to his mother and back again. Elmira blushed hotly, and he could not understand why.
It was very early in a spring morning, not an hour after dawn, but they had eaten breakfast and were hurrying to finish closing and binding a lot of shoes for Jerome to take to his uncle's for finishing. They all worked smartly, and nothing more was said, but Ann Edwards had an air of having conclusively established the subject rather than dropped it. Jerome kept stealing troubled glances at his sister's pretty face. Elmira was a mystery to him, which was not strange, since he had not yet learned the letters of the heart of any girl; but she was somewhat of a mystery to her mother as well.
Elmira was then twenty-two, but she was very small, and looked no more than sixteen. She had the dreams and questioning wonder of extreme youth in her face, and something beyond that even, which was more like the wide-eye brooding and introspection of babyhood.
As one looking at an infant will speculate as to what it is thinking about, so Ann often regarded her daughter Elmira, sitting sewing with fine nervous energy which was her very own, but with bright eyes fixed on thoughts beyond her ken. "What you thinkin' about, Elmira?" she would question sharply; but the girl would only start and color, and look at her as if she were half awake, and murmur that she did not know. Very likely she did not; often one cannot remember dreams when suddenly recalled from them; though Elmira had one dream which was the reality of her life, and in which she lived most truly, but which she would always have denied, even to her own mother, to guard its sacredness.
When the shoes were done Jerome loaded himself with them, and, watching his chance, beckoned his sister slyly to follow him as he went out. Standing in the sweet spring sunlight in the door-yard, he questioned her. "What did mother mean, Elmira?" he said.
"Nothing," she replied, blushing shyly.
"What is it you want, Elmira?"
"Nothing. I don't want anything, Jerome."
"Do you want—a new silk dress or anything?"
"A new silk dress? No." Elmira's manner, when fairly aroused and speaking, was full of vivacity, in curious contrast to her dreaming attitude at other times.
"I tell you what 'tis, Elmira," said Jerome, soberly. "I want you to have all you need. I don't know what mother meant, but I want you to have things like other girls. I wish you wouldn't put any more of your earnings in towards the mortgage. I can manage that alone, with what I'm earning now. I can pay it up inside of two years now. I told you in the first of it you needn't do anything towards that."
"I wasn't going to earn money and not do my part."
"Well, take your earnings now and buy things for yourself. There's no reason why you shouldn't. I can earn enough for all the rest. There's no need of mother's working so hard, either. I can't charge for mixing up doses of herbs, as she wants me to, for I don't do it for anybody that isn't too poor to pay the doctor, but I earn enough besides, so neither of you need to work your fingers to the bone or go without everything. I'll give you some money. Get yourself a blue silk with roses on it; seems to me I saw one in meeting last Sunday."
Elmira laughed out with a sweet ring. Her black hair was tossing in the spring wind, her whole face showed variations and under-meanings of youthful bloom and brightness in the spring light.
"'Twas Lucina Merritt wore the blue silk with roses on it; it rustled against your knee when she passed our pew," she cried. "She is just home from her young ladies' school, and she's as pretty as a picture. I guess you saw more than the silk dress, Jerome Edwards."
With that Elmira blushed, and dropped her eyes in a curious sensitive fashion, as if she had spoken to herself instead of her brother, who looked at her quite gravely and coolly.
"I saw nothing but the silk," he said, "and I thought it would become you, Elmira."
"I am too dark for blue," replied Elmira, fairly blushing for her own blushes. At that time Elmira was as a shy child to her own emotions, and Jerome's were all sleeping. He had truly seen nothing but the sweep of that lovely rose-strewn silk, and never even glanced at the fair wearer.
"Why not have a red silk, then?" he asked, soberly.
"I can't expect to have things like Squire Merritt's daughter," returned Elmira. "I don't want a new silk dress; I am going to have a real pretty one made out of mother's wedding silk; she's had it laid by all these years, and she says I may have it. It's as good as new. I'm going over to Granby this morning to get it cut. When Imogen and Sarah Lawson came over last week they told me about a mantua-maker there who will cut it beautifully for a shilling."
"Mother don't want to give up her wedding-dress."
"Women always have their wedding-dresses made over for their daughters," Elmira said, gravely.
"What color is it?"
"A real pretty green, with a little sheeny figure in it; and I am going to have a new ribbon on my bonnet."
"It's 'most ten miles to Granby; hadn't I better get a team and take you over?" said Jerome.
"No; it's a beautiful morning, and it will do me good to walk. I shall go to Imogen and Sarah's and rest, and have a bite of something before I come back too. I may not be home very early. You'd better run along, Jerome, and I've got to get ready."
Jerome gave his burden of shoes a hitch of final adjustment. "Well," said he, "I'd just as lief take you over, if you say so."
"I don't want to be taken over. I want to take myself over," laughed Elmira, and ran into the house before a flurry of wind.
That morning the wind was quite high, and though it was soft and warm, was hard to breast on a ten-mile stretch. Elmira's strength was mostly of nerve, and she had little staying power of muscle. Before she had walked three miles on the road to Granby she felt as if she were wading deeper and deeper against a mightier current of spring; the scent of the young blossoms suffocated her with sweet heaviness; the birds' songs rang wearily in her ears. She sat down on the stone wall to rest a few moments, panting softly. She laid her parcel of silk on the wall beside her and folded her hands in her lap. The day was so warm she had put on, for the first time that spring, her pink muslin gown, which had served her for a matter of eight seasons, and showed in stripes of brighter color around the skirt where the tucks had been let out to accommodate her growth. Her pink skirts fluttered around her as she sat there, smiling straight ahead out of the pink scoop of a sunbonnet like her dress, with a curious sweet directness, as if she saw some one whom she loved—as, indeed, she did. Elmira, full of the innocent selfishness of youth, saw such a fair vision of her own self clad in her mother's wedding silk, with loving and approving eyes upon her, that she could but smile.
Elmira rested a few minutes, then gathered up her parcel and started again on her way. She reached the place in the road where the brook willows border it on either side, and on the east side the brook, which is a river in earliest spring, flows with broken gurgles over a stony bed, and slackened her pace, thinking she would walk leisurely there, for the young willows screened the sun like green veils of gossamer, and the wind did not press her back so hard, and then she heard the trot, trot of a horse's feet behind her.
She did not look around, but walked more closely to the side of the road and the splendid east file of willows. The trot, trot of the horse's feet came nearer and nearer, and finally paused alongside of her; then a man's voice, half timid, half gayly daring, called, "Good-day, Miss Elmira Edwards!"
With that Elmira gave a great start, though not wholly of surprise; for the imagination of a maid can, at the stimulus of a horse's feet, encompass nearly all realities within her dreams. Then she looked up, and Doctor Prescott's son Lawrence was bending over from his saddle and smiling into her pink face in her pink sunbonnet.
"Good-day," she returned, softly, and courtesied with a dip of her pink skirts into a white foam of little way-side weedy flowers, and then held her pink sun-bonnet slanted downward, and would not look again into the young man's eager face.
"It is a full year since I have seen you, and not a glimpse of your face did I get this time, and yet I knew, the minute I came in sight of you, who it was," said he, gayly; still, there was a loving and wistful intonation in his voice.
"Small compliment to me," returned Elmira, with a pretty spirit, though she kept her pink bonnet slanted, "to know me by a gown and bonnet I have had eight years."
"But 'twas your gown and bonnet," said the young man, and Elmira trembled and took an uneven step, though she strove to walk in a dignified manner beside Lawrence Prescott on his bay mare. The mare was a spirited creature, and he had hard work to rein her into a walk. "Let me take your bundle," he said.
"It is not heavy," said she, but yielded it to him.
Lawrence Prescott was small and slight, but held himself in the saddle with a stately air. He was physically like his father, but his mother's smile parted his fine-cut lips, and her expression was in his blue eyes.
Upham people had not seen much of Lawrence since he was a child, for he had been away at a preparatory school before entering college, and many of his vacations had not been spent at home. Now he was come home to study medicine with his father and prepare to follow in his footsteps of life. The general opinion was that he would never be as smart. Many there were, even of those who had come in sore measure under Doctor Seth Prescott's autocratic thumb, who held in dismay the prospect of the transference of his sway to his son.
"Guess you'll see how this town will go down when the old doctor's gone and the young one's here in his place," they said. It is the people who make tyranny possible.
"How far are you going?" asked Lawrence, of Elmira flitting along beside his dancing mare.
"Oh, a little way," said she, evasively.
"How far?" There was something of his father's insistence in Lawrence's voice.
"To Granby," replied Elmira then, and tried to speak on unconcernedly. She was ashamed to let him know how far she had planned to walk because of her poverty.
"Granby!" cried Lawrence, with a whistle of astonishment; "why, that is seven miles farther! You are not going to walk to Granby and back to day?"
"I like to walk," said Elmira, timidly.
"Why, but it is a warm day, and you are breathing short now." Lawrence pulled the mare up with a sharp whoa. "Now I'll tell you what I'll do," he said. "You sit down here on that stone and rest, and I'll ride back home and put the mare into the chaise, and I'll drive you over there."
"No, thank you; I'd rather walk," said Elmira, all touched to bliss by his solicitude, but resolved in her pride of poor maidenhood that she would not profit by it.
"Let him go back and get the chaise, and have all the town talking because Lawrence Prescott caught me walking ten miles to get a dress cut? I guess I won't!" she told herself.
"You are just the same as ever; you would never let anybody do anything for you unless you paid them for it," said Lawrence, half angrily. Then he added, bending low towards her, "But you would pay me, measure pressed down and running over, by going with me—you know that, Elmira."
Elmira lost her step again, and her voice trembled a little, though she strove to speak sharply. "I like to walk," said she.
"And I tell you you're all tired out now," said Lawrence. "I can see you pant for breath. Don't you know, I am going to be a doctor, like father? Let me go back, and you wait here."
Elmira shook her pink bonnet decidedly.
"Well, then," said Lawrence, "I tell you what you must do." He slipped off the mare as he spoke. "Now," he said, and there was real authority in his voice, "you've got to ride. It's a man's saddle, and you won't sit so very secure, but I'll lead the mare, and you'll be safe enough."
Elmira shrank back. "Oh, I can't," said she.
"Yes, you can. Whoa, Betty. She's gentle enough, for all she's nervous, and she's used to a lady's riding her. The daughter of the man who sold her to father used to scour the country on her. Come, put your foot in my hand and jump up!"
"What would people say?"
"There isn't a house for a good mile, and I'll let you get down before you reach it if you want to; but I don't see what harm it would be if the whole town saw us. Come." Lawrence smiled with gentle importunity at her, and held his hand, and Elmira could not help putting her little foot in it and springing to the bay mare's back in obedience to his bidding.
Elmira, fluttering like a pink flower on the back of the bay mare, who really ambled along gently enough with Lawrence's hand on her bridle, journeyed for the next mile as one in a happy dream. She was actually incredulous of the reality of it all. She was half afraid that the jolt of the bay mare would wake her from slumber; she kept her eyes closed in the recesses of her sun-bonnet. Here was Lawrence Prescott, about whom she had dreamed ever since she was a child, come home, grown up and grand, grander than any young man in town, grand as a prince, and not forgetting her, knowing her at a glance, even when her face was hidden, and making her ride lest she get over-tired. She had scarcely seen him, to speak to him, since she was sixteen. Doctor Prescott had kept his son very close when he was home on his vacations, and not allowed him to mingle much with the village young people. That summer when Elmira was sixteen there had been company in the doctor's house, and she had been summoned to assist in the extra work. Somehow time had hung idly on young Lawrence's hands that summer; the guests in the house were staid elderly folk and no company for him. There was also much sickness in the village, and his father was not as watchful as usual. It happened that Lawrence, for lack of other amusement, would often saunter about the domestic byways of the house, and had a hand in various tasks which brought him into working partnership with pretty, young Elmira—such as stemming currants or shelling pease and beans. On several occasions, also, he and Elmira had roamed the pastures in search of blackberries for tea. Once when they were out together, and had been picking a long time from one fat bush, neither saying a word—for a strange silence which abashed them both, though they knew not why, had come between them—the girl, moved thereto by some quick impulse of maidenly concealment and shame which she did not herself understand, made some light and trivial remark about the size of the fruit, which would well have acquit her had not her little voice broken with utter self-betrayal of innocent love and passion. And then young Lawrence, with a quick motion, as of fire which leaps to flame after a long smoulder, flung an arm about her, with a sigh of "Oh, Elmira!" and kissed her on her mouth.
Then they had quickly stood apart, as if afraid of each other, and finished picking their berries and gone home soberly, with scarce a word. But all the time it was as if invisible cords, which no stretching could thin or break, bound them together, and when they entered the house Doctor Prescott's wife, Lydia, looked at them both with a gentle, yet keen and troubled air. That night, when Elmira went home, she said to her softly that since the baking was all done for the week, and the guests were to leave in three days, and the weather was so warm, and she looked tired, she need not come again. But she drew her to her gently, as she spoke, with one great mother-arm, pressed the little dark head of the girl against her breast, and kissed her. Lydia Prescott was a large woman, shaped like a queen, but she was softer in her ways than Elmira's own mother.
When the girl had gone she turned to her son, who had seen her caress, and blushed and thrilled as if he had given it himself. "You must remember you are very young, Lawrence," said she; "you must remember that a man has no right to follow his mind until he has proved it, and you must remember your father."
And Lawrence had blushed and paled a little, and said, "Yes, mother," soberly, and gone away up-stairs to his own chamber, where he had some wakeful hours, and when he fell asleep often started awake again, with his heart throbbing in his side with that same joyful pain as when he kissed pretty Elmira.
As for Elmira, she did not sleep at all, and came down in the morning with young eyes like stars of love, which no dawn could dim. For six years the memory of that kiss, which had never been repeated, for Elmira had never seen Lawrence alone since, had been to her her sweetest honey savor of life. Lucky it was for her that young Lawrence, if the taste had not been in his heart as in hers during his busy life in other scenes, had still the memory of its sweetness left.
When they had passed through the avenue of brook willows, and the brook itself had wound away through fields spotted as with emeralds and gold, and then had passed some pasture-lands where red cattle were grazing, and then came to a little stretch of pines, beyond which the white walls of a house glimmered, Lawrence held up his arms to Elmira. "It isn't necessary," said he, "but if you don't want to ride my horse, with me leading him, past the houses there, why, I'll take you down, as I said."
And with that Elmira slipped down, and Lawrence had kissed her again, and she had not chidden him, and was following after him, trembling and quite pale, except for the reflection of her pink sunbonnet, while he rode slowly ahead.
When the cluster of houses were well passed he stopped and lifted her again to the mare's saddle, and the old shyness of the blackberry-field was over both of them again as they went on their way. In truth, Lawrence was sorely bewildered betwixt his impulse of young love and innocent conviction that his honor ought to be pledged with the kiss, since they were boy and girl no longer, and his memory of his father and what he might decree for him. As for Elmira, she was much troubled in mind lest she ought to rebuke the young man for his boldness, but could not bring herself so to do, not being certain that she had not kissed him back and been as guilty as he.
The young couple went so all the way to Granby, striving now and then, with casual talk, each to blind the other as to perturbation of spirit. Lawrence lifted her from the saddle when Granby village came in sight, but he did not kiss her again. Indeed, Elmira kept her head well down that he might not; but he asked if he might call and see her, and she said yes, and the next Wednesday evening was mentioned, that day being Thursday. Then she fluttered up the Granby street to Imogen and Sarah Lawson's with her mother's wedding silk, and Lawrence Prescott rode back to Upham. Much he would have liked to linger and take Elmira back as she had come, or else drive over for her later with a chaise, but she had refused.
"Imogen and Sarah can have one of their neighbors' horses and wagons whenever they like," said she, "and they will carry me home if I want them to."
A strange maidenly shyness of her own bliss and happiness, which she longed to repeat, was upon her. She had not told Lawrence what her errand in Granby was. The truth was that she had planned her new gown because Lawrence had come home, and she was anxious to wear it to meeting in the hope that he might admire her in it. Should she betray this artless preening and trimming of her maiden plumage, which, though, like a bird's, an open secret of nature, must nevertheless be kept sacred by an impulse of modest concealment and deceit towards the one for whose sake it all was?
They who have sensitive palates for all small, sweet, but secondary savors of life that come in their way, and no imaginative desires for others, are contented in spirit. When also small worries and affairs, even those of their neighbors in lieu of their own, serve them as well as large ones to keep their minds to a healthy temper of excitement and zest of life, there is no need to pity them for any lack of full experience.
Imogen and Sarah Lawson, the two elderly single sisters whom Elmira Edwards sought in Granby that day, were in a way happier than she, all flushed with her hope of young love, for they held in certain tenure that which they had. They were sitting stitching on fine linen shirts in the little kitchen of the cottage house in which they had been born. There was a broad slant of sunlight athwart the floor, a great cat purred in a rocking-chair, the clock ticked, a pot of greens boiled over the fire. They seemed to look out of a little secure home radiance of peace at Elmira when she entered, all glowing and tremulous with sweet excitement which she strove hard to conceal.
No romances had there been in the lives of the Lawson sisters, and no repining over the lack of them. They had, in their youth, speculated as to what husbands the Lord might provide for them, and looked about for them with furtive alertness. When He provided none, they stopped speculating, and went on as sharply askant as hens at any smaller good pecks life might have for them.
The Lawson sisters had always been considered dressy. They owned their house and garden, also several acres which yielded fair crops of hay, and some good woodland. They earned considerable money making fine shirts for a little Jew peddler who let out work in several neighboring villages, and were enabled to devote the greater part of that to their wardrobes. They were said to always buy everything of the best—the finest muslins, the stiffest silks, the richest ribbons. Each of the sisters possessed several silk gowns, a fine cashmere shawl, and a satin pelisse; each had two beautiful bonnets, one for winter and one for summer, and each possessed the value of her fine apparel to the uttermost, and realized from it a petty, perhaps, but no less comforting, illumination of spirit. Many of the lights of happiness of this world are feeble and even ignoble, but one must see to live, and even a penny dip is exalted if it save one from the darkness of despair. It is not given to every one to light his way with a sun, or a full moon, or even a star.
The two Lawson sisters, Imogen and Sarah, greeted Elmira with a shrill feminine clamor of hospitality, as was their wont, examined her mother's wedding silk with critical eyes and fingers, and pronounced it well worth making over. "It's best to buy a good thing while you're about it, if it does cost a little more," said Imogen.
"Yes, that's true," assented her sister. "Now I shouldn't be a mite surprised if Ann paid as much as one an' sixpence for this silk when 'twas new; but look at it now—there ain't a break in it. It's as good as your blue-and-yellow changeable silk, Imogen."
"Dun'no' but 'tis," said Imogen, reflectively.
Sarah went with Elmira to the mantua-maker's, who lived in the next house, to get the dress cut, while Imogen prepared the dinner. In the afternoon the two sisters gave Elmira an hour's work on her new gown, one stitching up the body, the other sewing breadths; then they borrowed the neighbor's horse and wagon and drove her home to Upham.
Elmira was glad to ride; she thought that she should die of shame should she walk home and meet Lawrence Prescott again.
Imogen drove. She was the older, but the larger and stronger of the two. Elmira sat in the rear gloom of the covered wagon with Sarah, holding her silk gown spread carefully over her knees. She thought of nothing all the way but the possibility of meeting Lawrence. She made up her mind that if she did she would sit far back in the wagon and not thrust her head forward at all. "If he acts as if he thought I might be in here, and looks real hard, then it will be time for me to do my part," she thought.
Whenever she saw a man or a team in the distance, her heart beat violently, but it was never Lawrence. All her sweet panic of expectation would have been quieted had she known that he was at that very time seated in Miss Camilla Merritt's arbor, drinking tea and eating fruit cake with her and pretty Lucina.
"Didn't you think Elmira seemed dreadful kind of flighty to-day—still as a mouse one minute and carryin' on the next?" Sarah asked Imogen, as they were driving home in the evening. They had waited, staying to tea and letting the horse rest, until the full moon arose.
"Yes, I did," said Imogen, "but Ann was just like her at her age. That silk is well enough, but it ain't no such quality as my blue an' yellow changeable one."
"Well, I dun'no' as it is. I dun'no' as it's as good as my figured brown one."
It was a beautiful spring night; the moon was one for lovers to light their fondest thoughts and fancies into reality. The two old sisters driving home met and passed many young couples on the country road. "If they don't look out I shall run over some of them fellars an' girls," said Imogen. "I don't b'lieve Elmira has ever had anybody waitin' on her, do you, Sarah?"
"Never heard of anybody," replied Sarah. "Well, anyhow, she's goin' to have a real handsome dress out of that silk."
"Yes, she is," said Imogen, and just then from before the great plunging feet of her horse a pair of young lovers sprang with a laugh, having seen nothing of team nor the old sisters nor yet of the little side lamps of happiness they bore, in the great dazzling circle of their own.
Elmira finished her dress Saturday. She had sat up nearly two nights stitching on it, but nobody would have dreamed it when she came down out of her chamber Sunday morning all ready for meeting. Her mother was sitting in the parlor beside a window, with her Bible on her knees. The window was opened wide, and the room was full of the reverberations of the meeting bell. Always on a pleasant Sunday morning in summer-time Ann Edwards sat with her Bible at the open window and listened to the meeting bell.
As Elmira entered, the bell tolled again, and the long wavering and dying of its sweet multiple tones commenced afresh. Elmira stood before her mother, and turned slowly about that she might view her on all sides in her new attire.
Elmira whirled slowly, in a whispering, shimmering circle of pale green silk; a little wrought-lace cape, which also had been part of her mother's bridal array, covered her bare neck, for the dress was cut low. She had bought a new ribbon of green and white, like the striped grass of the gardens, for her bonnet, and tied it in a crisp and dainty bow under her chin. This same bonnet, of a fine Florence braid, had served her for best for nearly ten years. She had worn a bright ribbon on it in the winter season and a delicate-hued one in summer-time, but it was always the same bonnet.
Elmira had not had a new summer ribbon for three years, and now, in addition, she had purchased some rosebuds, and arranged them in little clusters in a frilling of lace inside the brim. Her pretty face looked out of this little millinery halo with an indescribably mild and innocent radiance. One caught one's self looking past her fixed shining eyes for the brightness which they saw and reflected.
"Well," said her mother, "I guess you look as well as some other folks, if you didn't lay out quite so much money. I guess folks will have to give in you do."
Ann Edwards's little nervous face wore rather an expression of antagonistic triumph than a smile of motherly approval; so hostile had been all her conditions of life that she never laid down her weapons, and went with spear in rest, as it were, even into her few by-paths of delight.
She pulled Elmira's skirts here and there to be sure they hung evenly; she bade her stand close, and picked out the ribbon bow under her chin. "Now you'd better run along," said she, "or the bell will stop tollin'."
She watched the girl, in her own old bridal array, step down the front path, with more happiness than she had known since her husband's disappearance. Elmira had told her mother that Lawrence Prescott was coming to see her, and she had immediately leaped to furthest conclusions. Ann Edwards had not a doubt that Lawrence and Elmira would be married. She had, when it was once awakened, that highest order of ambition which ignores even the existence of obstacles.
As Elmira's green skirts fluttered out of sight behind some lilac-bushes pluming to the wind with purple blossoms Jerome came in, and his mother turned to him. "I guess Elmira will do about as well as any of the girls," said she, with her tone of blissful yet half-vindictive triumph.
Jerome looked at her wonderingly. "Why shouldn't she?" said he.
Immediately Mrs. Edwards put forth her feminine craft like an involuntary tentacle of protection for her excess of imagination, against the masculine practicality of her son. Neither she nor Elmira had said anything about Lawrence Prescott to him; both knew how he would regard the matter. It seemed to Mrs. Edwards that she had fairly heard him say: "Marry Doctor Prescott's son! You know better, mother." Now she, with her Bible on her knees, shunted rapidly the whole truth behind a half-truth.
"I guess she'll cut full as good a figure in my old silk and her old bonnet with a new ribbon on it as any of the girls," said she. Then she added, with a skilful swerve from whole truths and half-truths alike: "You'd better hurry, Jerome, or you'll be late to meetin'. Elmira is out of sight, an' the bell's 'most stopped tollin'."
"I am not going this morning," said Jerome.
"Why not, I'd like to know?"
"John Upham sent his oldest boy over here this morning to tell me the baby's sick. I am going over there and see if I can do anything."
"I should think John Upham had better send for Doctor Prescott instead of taking you away from meeting."
"You know he won't, mother. I believe he'd let the baby die before he would. I've got to go there and do the best I can."
"Well, all I've got to say is, he ought to be ashamed of himself if he'd let his own baby die before he'd call in the doctor, I don't care how bad he's treated him. I shouldn't wonder if John Upham was some to blame about that; there's always two sides to a story."
Jerome made no reply. He would have been puzzled several times lately, had he considered it of sufficient moment, by his mother's change of attitude towards Doctor Prescott. He went to the china-closet beside the chimney. On the upper shelves was his mother's best china tea-set; on the lower a little array of cloudy bottles; some small bunches of herbs, all nicely labelled, were packed in the wide space at the bottom.
His mother's antagonistic eyes followed him. "I dun'no' as I can have them herbs in my china-closet much longer," said she; "they're scentin' up the dishes too much. If I want to have a little company to tea, I ain't goin' to have the tea all flavored with spearmint an' catnip."
"Well, I'll move them when I come home," said Jerome, with his usual concession, which always aggravated his mother more than open rebellion, although she admired him for it. "I only brought those little bundles down from the barn loft to have them handy. I'll rig up a cupboard for them in the woodshed."
Jerome tucked a bottle or two in his pocket, and rolled up a little bouquet of herbs in paper.
"I should think it would be time for you to go and see that young one after meeting," said his mother, varying her point of attack when she met with no resistance.
"I'll go to meeting this afternoon," replied Jerome, in the tone with which he might have pacified a fretful child. There was no self-justification in it.
"I s'pose Doctor Prescott will be mad if he hears of your goin' there, an' I dun'no' but I should be in his place," she said, as Jerome went out. Then, as he did not answer, she added, calling out shrilly:
"I don't see why John Upham can't call in Lawrence, if he wants a doctor; he's begun to study with his father; he can't have nothin' against him. I guess he knows as much as you do."
"Mother's queer," Jerome told himself as he went down the road, and then dismissed the matter from his mind, for the consideration of the Upham baby and the probable nature of its ailment, upon which, however, he did not allow himself to dwell too long. Early in his amateur practice Jake Noyes had inculcated one precept in his mind, upon which he always acted.
"There's one thing I want to tell ye, J'rome, and I want ye to remember it," Jake Noyes had said, "and that is, a doctor had ought to be like jurymen—he'd ought to be sworn in to be unprejudiced when he goes to see a patient, just as a juryman is when he goes to court. If you don't know what ails 'em, don't ye go to speculatin', as to what 'tis an' what ye'll do, on the way there. Ten chances to one, if you're workin' up measles in your mind an' what you'll do for them, you'll find it's mumps, an' then you've got to cure your own measles afore you cure their mumps; an' if you're hard-bitted an' can't stop yourself easy when you're once headed, you may give saffron tea to bring out the measles whether or no. Think of the prospect, or the gals, or your soul's salvation, or anythin' but the sick folks, before you get to 'em the first time and don't know what ails 'em."
In girls Jerome had, so far, no interest; in his soul's salvation he had little active concern. The revivals which were occasionally upstirred in the community by prayer, and the besom of threatened destruction, passed over him like a hot wind, for which he had no power of sensation, sometimes to his own wonder. Probably the cause lay in the fact that he was too thoroughly, without knowing it, rooted and grounded in his own creed to be emotionally moved by religious appeals. Jerome had, as most have, consciously or not, and vitally or not, his own creed. He believed simply in the unquestionable justice of the intent of God, the thwarting struggles against it by free man, and that his duty to apply his small strength towards furthering what he could, if no more than an atom, of the eternal will lay plain before him.
Jerome, who had not yet been disturbed by love of woman, who fretted not over the salvation of his own soul, had therefore, in order to follow his mentor's advice, to turn his attention to the prospect. His way led in an opposite direction from the church, and he was late, so met none of the worshippers bound to meeting. He was rather glad of that. After he left the village the road lay through the woods, and now and then between blueberry-fields or open spaces of meadow, with green water-lines and shadows purple with violets in the hollows. Red cows in the meadows stared at him as he passed, with their mysterious abstraction from all reflection, then grazed again, moving in one direction from the sun. The blueberry-patches spread a pale green glimmer of blossoms, like a sheen of satin in a high light; young ferns curled beside the road like a baby's fingers grasping at life; the trees, which were late in leafing, also reached out towards the sun little rosy clasping fingers whereby to hold fast to the motherhood of the spring. The air was full of that odor so delicate that it is scarcely an odor at all, much less a fragrance, which certain so-called scentless plants give out, and then only to wide recognition when they bloom in multitudes—it was only the simplest evidence of life itself. Through that came now and then great whiffs of perfume from some unseen flowering bush, calling, as it were, from its obscurity, with halloos of fragrance, to the careless passer-by, to search it out.
Jerome passed along, seeing and comprehending all the sweet pageant of the spring morning, yet as an observer merely. Nature had as yet not established her fullest relationship to himself, and he knew not that her secret glory of meaning was like his own.
John Upham's farm, or rather what had been John Upham's farm (Doctor Prescott owned it now), began at the end of a long stretch of woods, with some fine fields sloping greenly towards the west. Farther on, behind a row of feathery elm-trees, stood the old Upham homestead.
John Upham did not live there now; his mortgage had been foreclosed nearly a year before, about the time the last baby was born. People said that the mother had been cruelly hurried out of her own house into the little shanty, which her husband was forced to rent for a shelter. Poor John Upham had lost all his ancestral acres to Doctor Prescott now, and did not fairly know himself how it had happened. There had been heavy bills for medicines and attendance, and the doctor had loaned him money oftentimes, with his land as security, for other debts. A little innocent saying of one of his six children to another was much repeated to the village, "Father bought you of Doctor Prescott, and paid for you with all the clover-field he had left, and you must be very good, for you came very dear."
It was known positively that John Upham had gone to Doctor Prescott's the day after he had left his old home, and told him to his face what he thought of him. "You have planned and manoeuvred to get all my property into your hands from the very first of it," said John Upham. "You've drained me dry, an' now I hope you're satisfied."
"You had full value in return," replied the doctor, calmly.
"I haven't had time. In nine cases out of ten, if you had given me a little time, I could have got myself out, and you know it. You've screwed me down to the very second."
"I cannot afford to give my debtors longer time than that regulated by the laws of the commonwealth."
Then a sudden strange gleam had come into John Upham's blue eyes. "Thank the Lord," he cried out, in a trembling fervor of wrath—"thank the Lord, He gives all the time there is to His debtors, an' no commonwealth on the earth can make laws agin it." He had actually then raised a great fist and shaken it before the doctor's face. "Now, don't you ever darse to darken my doors again, Doctor Seth Prescott!" he had cried out. "If my wife or my children are sick, I'll let them lay and die before I'll have you in the house!" So saying, John Upham had stridden forth out of the doctor's yard, where he had held the conversation with him, with Jake Noyes and two other men covertly listening.
After that Jake Noyes had given surreptitious advice, with sly shoving of medicine-vials into John Upham's or his wife's hands when the children were ailing, and lately Jerome had taken his place.
"Guess you had better go there instead of me when the young ones are out of sorts," Jake Noyes had told Jerome. Then he had added, with a crafty twist and wink: "When ye can quarrel with your own bread an' butter with a cat's-paw might as well do it, especially when you're gettin' along in years. You 'ain't got anything to lose if you do set the doctor again ye, and I have."
The house in which the Uphams had taken shelter was in sight of the old homestead, some rods farther on, on the opposite side of the road. It stood in a sandy waste of weeds on the border of an old gravel-pit—an ancient cottage, with a wretched crouch of humility in its very roof. It had been covered with a feeble coat of red paint years ago, and cloudy lines of it still survived the wash of old rains and the beat of old sunbeams.
Behind it on the north and west rose the sand-hill, dripping with loose gravel as with water, hollowed out at its base until its crest, bristling with coarse herbage, magnified against the sky, projected far out over the cottage roof. The sun was reflected from the sand in a great hollow of arid light. Jerome, nearing it, felt as if he were approaching an oven. The cottage door was shut, as were all the windows. However, he heard plainly the shrill wail of the sick baby.
John Upham opened the door. "Oh, it's you, Jerome!" said he. "Good-day."
"Good-day," returned Jerome. "How is the baby?"
"Well, he seems kind of ailin'. Laury has been up with him all night. Thought maybe you might give him something. Come in, won't ye?"
There were only two rooms on the lower floor of the cottage—one was the kitchen, the other the bedroom where John Upham and his wife slept with the three youngest children.
Jerome followed Upham across the kitchen to the bedroom beyond. The kitchen was littered with all John Upham's poor household goods, prostrate and unwashed, degraded even from their one dignity of use. One of the kitchen windows opened towards the sand-hill; the room was full of its garish glare of reflected sunlight, and the revelations were pitiless. Laura Upham, once a model housekeeper, had lost all ambition and domestic pride, now she had such a poor house to keep and so many children to tend.
Upham muttered an apology as Jerome picked his way across the room.
"Laury has been up all night with the baby, an' she hasn't had any time to redd up the room," he said. "The children have been in here all the mornin', too, an' they've stirred things up some. I've just sent 'em out to pick flowers to keep 'em quiet."
As he spoke he gathered up awkwardly, with a curious over-motion of his broad shoulders, as if he would conceal the action, various articles in his path. When he opened the door into the bedroom he crammed them behind it with a quick, shifty motion.
The kitchen had been repulsive, but the bedroom fairly shocked with the very indelicacy of untidiness. Jerome felt an actual modesty about entering this room, in which so many disclosures of the closest secrets of the flesh were made. The very dust and discolorations of the poor furnishings, the confined air, made one turn one's face aside as from too coarse a betrayal of personal reserve. The naked indecency of domestic life seemed to display and vaunt itself, sparing none of its homely and ungraceful details, to the young man on the threshold of the room.
"Laury 'ain't had a chance to redd up this, either," poor John Upham whispered in his ear, and gathered up with a furtive swoop some linen from the floor.
"Oh, that's all right!" Jerome whispered back, and entered boldly, shutting as it were all the wretched disclosures of the room out of his consciousness, and all effort to do was needless when he saw Mrs. Upham's face.
Laura Upham's great hollow eyes, filled with an utter passiveness of despair, stared up at him out of a sallow gloom of face. She had been pretty once, and she was not an old woman now, but her beauty was all gone. Her slender shoulders rounded themselves over the little creature swathed in soiled flannel on her lap. Just then it was quiet; but it began wailing again, distorting all its miserable little face into a wide mouth of feeble clamor as Jerome drew near.
Mrs. Upham looked down at it hopelessly. She did not try to hush it. "It's cried this way all night," she said, in a monotonous tone. "It's goin' to die."
"Now, Laury, you know it ain't any sicker than it was before," John said, with a kind of timid conciliation; but she turned upon him with a fierce gleam lighting her dull eyes to life.
"You needn't talk to me," said she—"you needn't talk to me, John Upham, when you won't have the doctor when it's your own flesh an' blood that's dyin'. I don't care what he's done. I don't care if he has taken the roof from over our heads. My child is worth more than anything else. He'd come if you asked him, he couldn't refuse—you know he couldn't, John Upham!"
John Upham's face was white; his forehead and his chin got a curious hardness of outline. "He won't have a chance," he said, between his teeth.
"Let your own flesh and blood die, then!" cried his wife; but the fierceness was all gone from her voice; she had no power of sustained wrath, so spent was she. She gave a tearless wail that united with the child's in her lap in a pitiful chord of woe.
"Now, Laury, you know J'rome gave Minnie somethin' that helped her, and she seemed every mite as sick as the baby," her husband said, in a softer voice. But she turned her hopeless eyes again upon the little, squalid, quivering thing in her lap, and paid no more heed to him. She let Jerome examine the child, with a strange apathy. There was no hope, and consequently no power of effort, left in her.
When Jerome brought some medicine in a spoon, she assisted him to feed the child with it, but mechanically, and as if she had no interest. Her sharp right elbow shone like a knob of ivory through a great rent in her sleeve; her dress was unfastened, and there was a gleam of white flesh through the opening; she neither knew nor cared. There was no consciousness of self, no pride and no shame for self, in her; she had ceased to live in the fullest sense; she was nothing but the concentration of one emotion of despairing motherhood.
She heard Jerome and her husband moving about in the next room, she heard the crackling of fire in the stove, the clinking din of dishes, the scrape of a broom, not realizing in the least what the sounds meant. She heard with her mind no sound of earth but the wail of the sick baby in her lap.
Jerome Edwards could tidy a house as well as a woman, and John Upham followed his directions with clumsy zeal. When the kitchen was set to rights Mrs. Upham went in there, as she was bidden, with the baby, and sat down in a rocking-chair by the open window towards the road, through which came a soft green light from some opposite trees, and a breath of apple-blossoms.
"We've got the room all redd up, Laury," John Upham said, pitifully, stooping over her and looking into her face. She nodded vaguely, looking at the baby, who had stopped crying.
Jerome dropped some more medicine, and she took the spoon and fed it to the baby. "I think it will go to sleep now," said Jerome. Mrs. Upham looked up at him and almost smiled. Hope was waking within her. "I think it is nothing but a little cold and feverishness, Mrs. Upham," Jerome added. He had a great pitiful imagination for this unknown woe of maternity, which possibly gave him as great a power of sympathy as actual knowledge.
"You are a good fellow, Jerome, an' I hope I shall be able to do somethin' to pay you some day," John Upham said, huskily, when they were in the bedroom putting that also in order.
"I don't want any pay for what I give," Jerome returned.
When Jerome started for home, Mrs. Upham and the baby were both asleep in the clean bedroom. Retracing his steps along the pleasant road, he was keenly happy, with perhaps the true happiness of his life, to which he would always turn at last from all others, and which would survive the death and loss of all others.
He pictured John Upham's house as he found it and as he left it with purest self-gratulation. He had not gone far before he heard a clamor of childish voices; there were two, but they sounded like a troop. John Upham's twin girls broke through the wayside bushes like little wild things. Their hands were full of withering flowers. He called them, and bade them be very still when they went home, so as not to waken their mother and the baby, and they hung their heads with bashful assent. They were pretty children in spite of their soiled frocks, with their little, pink, moist faces and curling crops of yellow hair.
"If you keep still and don't wake them up, I will bring you both some peppermints when I come to-morrow," said Jerome. He had nearly reached the village when he met the two eldest Upham children. They were boys, the elder twelve, the younger eight, sturdy little fellows, advancing with a swinging trot, one behind the other, both chewing spruce-gum. They had been in the woods, on their way home, for a supply. Jerome stopped them, and repeated the charge he had given to the little girls, then kept on. The bell was ringing for afternoon meeting—in fact, it was almost done. Jerome walked faster, for he intended to go. He drew near the little white-steepled meeting-house standing in its small curve of greensward, with the row of white posts at the side, to which were tied the farmers' great plough-horses harnessed to covered wagons and dusty chaises, and then he caught a glimpse of something bright, like a moving flower-bush, in the road ahead. Squire Eben Merritt, his wife, his sister Miss Camilla, and his daughter Lucina, were all on their way to afternoon meeting.
The Squire was with them that day, leaving heroically his trout-pools and his fishing-fields; for was it not his pretty Lucina's second Sunday only at home, and was he not as eager to be with her as any lover? Squire Eben had gained perhaps twenty pounds of flesh to his great frame and a slight overcast of gray to his golden beard; otherwise he had not changed in Jerome's eyes since he was a boy. The Squire's wife Abigail, like many a small, dark woman who has never shown in her looks the true heyday of youth, had apparently not aged nor altered at all. Little and keenly pleasant, like some insignificant but brightly flavored fruit, set about with crisp silk flounced to her trim waist, holding her elbows elegantly aslant under her embroidered silk shawl, her small head gracefully alert in her bright-ribboned bonnet, she stepped beside her great husband, and then came Lucina with Miss Camilla.
Miss Camilla glided along drooping slenderly in black lace and lilac silk, with a great wrought-lace veil flowing like a bride's over her head, and shading with a black tracery of leaves and flowers her fair faded face; but Jerome saw her no more than he would have seen a shadow beside Lucina.
If Lucina's parents had changed little, she had changed much, with the wonderful change of a human spring, and this time Jerome saw her as well as her gown. She wore that same silken gown of a pale-blue color, spangled with roses, and the skirts were so wide and trained over a hoop and starched petticoats that they swung and tilted like a great double flower, and hit on this side and that with a quick musical slur. Over Lucina's shoulders, far below her waist, fell her wonderful fair hair, in curls, and every curl might well have proved a twining finger of love. Lucina wore a bonnet of fine straw, trimmed simply enough with a white ribbon, but over her face hung a white veil of rich lace, and through it her pink cheeks and lips and great blue eyes and lines of golden hair shone and bloomed and dazzled like a rose through a frosted window.
Lucina Merritt was a rare beauty, and she knew it, from her looking-glass as well as the eyes of others, and dealt with herself meekly wherewithal, and prayed innocently that she might consider more the embellishment of her heart and her mind than her person, and not to be too well pleased at the admiring looks of those whom she met. Indeed, it was to this end that she wore the white veil over her face, though not one of the maiden mates would believe that. She fancied that it somewhat dimmed her beauty, and that folk were less given to staring at her, not realizing that it added to her graces that subtlest one of suggestion, and that folk but stared the harder to make sure whether they saw or imagined such charms.
Jerome Edwards saw this beautiful Lucina coming, and it was suddenly as if he entered a new atmosphere. He did not know why, but he started as if he had gotten a shock, and his heart beat hard.
Squire Merritt made as if he would greet him in his usual hearty fashion, but remembering the day, and hearing, too, the first strains of the opening hymn from the meeting-house, for the bell had stopped tolling, he gave him only a friendly nod as he passed on with his wife. Miss Camilla inclined her head with soft graciousness; but Jerome looked at none of them except Lucina. She did not remember him; she glanced slightly at his face, and then her long fair lashes swept again the soft bloom of her cheeks, and her silken skirts fairly touched him as she passed. Jerome stood still after they had all entered the meeting-house; the long drone of the hymn sounded very loud in his ears.
He made a motion towards the meeting-house, hesitated, made another, then turned decidedly to the road. It seemed suddenly to him that his clothes must be soiled and dusty after his work in John Upham's house, that his hair could not be smooth, that he did not look well enough to go to meeting. So he went home, yielding for the first time, without knowing that he did so, to that decorative impulse which comes to men and birds alike when they would woo their mates.
The next morning Jerome went early to his uncle Ozias Lamb for some finished shoes, which he was to take to Dale. For the first time in his life, when he entered the shop, he had an impulse to avert his eyes and not meet his uncle's fully. Ozias had grown old rapidly of late. He sat, with his usual stiff crouch, on his bench and hammered away at a shoe-heel on his lapstone. His hair and beard were white and shaggy, his blue eyes peered sharply, as from a very ambush of old age, at Jerome loading himself with the finished shoes.
After the usual half-grunt of greeting, which was scarcely more than a dissyllabic note of salutation between two animals, Ozias was silent until Jerome was going out.
"Ain't ye well this mornin'?" he asked then.
"Yes," replied Jerome, "I'm well enough."
"When a man's smart," said Ozias Lamb, "and has got money in his pocket, and don't want folks to know it, he don't keep feelin' of it to see if it's safe. He acts as if he hadn't got any money, or any pocket, neither. I s'pose that's what you're tryin' to do."
"Don't know what you mean," returned Jerome, coloring.
"Oh, nothin'. Go along," said his uncle.
But he spoke again before Jerome was out of hearing. "There ain't any music better than a squeak, in the grind you an' me have got to make out of life," said he, "an' don't you go to thinkin' there is. If you ever think you hear it, it's only in your own ears, an' you might as well make up your mind to it."
"I made up my mind to it as long ago as I can remember," Jerome answered back, yet scarcely with bitterness, for the very music which his uncle denied was too loud in his ears for him to disbelieve it.
When Jerome was returning from Dale, an hour later, his back bent beneath great sheaves of newly cut shoes, like a harvester's with wheat, he heard a hollow echo of hoofs in the road ahead, then presently a cloud of dust arose like smoke, and out of it came two riders: Lawrence Prescott, on a fine black horse—which his father used seldom for driving, he was so unsuited for standing patiently at the doors of affliction, yet kept through a latent fondness for good horse-flesh—and Lucina Merritt, on his pretty bay mare. Lucina galloped past at Lawrence's side, with an eddying puff of blue riding-skirt and a toss of yellow curls and blue plumes. Jerome stood back a little to give them space, and the dust settled slowly over him after they were by. Then he went on his way, with his heart beating hard, yet with no feeling of jealousy against Lawrence Prescott. He even thought that it would be a good match. Still, he was curiously disturbed, not by the reflection that he was laden with sheaves of leather—he would have been more ashamed had he been seen idling on a work-day—but because he feared he looked so untidy with the dust of the road on his shoes. She might have noticed his clothes, although she had galloped by so fast.
The first thing Jerome did, when he reached home, was to brush and blacken his shoes, though there was no chance of Lucina's seeing them. He felt as if he ought not to think of her when he had on dusty shoes.
The greater part of the next day Jerome passed, as usual, soling shoes in Ozias Lamb's shop. When he came home to supper, he noticed something unusual about his mother and sister. They had the appearance of being strung tightly with repressed excitement, like some delicate musical instruments. To look at or to speak to them was to produce in them sensitive vibrations which seemed out of proportion to the cause.
Jerome asked no questions. These disturbances in the feminine current always produced a corresponding stiffness of calm in his masculine one, as if by an instinct to maintain the equilibrium of dangerous forces for the safety of the household.
Elmira and her mother kept looking at each other and at him, pulses starting up in their delicate cheeks, flushes coming and going, motioning each other with furtive gestures to speak, then countermanding the order with sharp negatory shakes of the head.
At last Mrs. Edwards called back Jerome as he was going to his chamber, books under arm and lighted candle in hand.
"Look here," said she; "I want to show you something."
Jerome turned. Elmira was extending towards him a nicely folded letter, with a little green seal on it.
"What is it?" asked Jerome.
"Read it," said his mother. Jerome took it, unfolded it, and read, Elmira and his mother watching him. Elmira was quite pale. Mrs. Edwards's mouth was set as if against anticipated opposition, her nervously gleaming eyes were fierce with ready argument. Jerome knit his brows over the letter, then he folded it nicely and gave it back to Elmira.
"You see what it is?" said his mother.
"Yes, I see," replied Jerome, hesitatingly. He looked confused before her, for one of the few times of his life.
"An invitation for you an' Elmira to Squire Merritt's—to a party; it's Lucina's birthday," said his mother, and she fairly smacked her lips, as if the words were sweet.
Elmira looked at her brother breathlessly. Nobody knew how eager she was to go; it was the first party worthy of a name to which she had been bidden in her whole life. She and her mother had been speculating, ever since the invitation had arrived, upon the possibility of Jerome's refusing to accept it.
"Nobody can tell what he'll do," Mrs. Edwards had said. "He's just as likely to take a notion not to go as to go."
"I can't go if he doesn't," said Elmira.
"Why can't you, I'd like to know?"
Elmira shrank timidly. "I never went into Squire Merritt's house in my life," said she.
"I guess there ain't anything there to bite you," said her mother. "I'm goin' to say all I can to have your brother go; but if he won't, you can put on your new dress an' go without him." However, Mrs. Edwards privately resolved to use as an argument to Jerome, in case he refused to attend the party, the fact that his sister would not go without him.
She used it now. Mrs. Edwards's military tactics were those of direct onslaught, and no saving of powder. "Elmira's afraid to go unless you do," said she. "You'll be keepin' her home, an' she ain't had a chance to go to many parties, poor child!"
Jerome met Elmira's beseeching eyes and frowned aside, blushing like a girl. "Well, I don't know," said he; "I'll see."
That was the provincial form of masculine concession to feminine importunity. Mrs. Edwards nodded to Elmira when Jerome had shut the door. "He'll go," said she.
Elmira smiled and quivered with half-fearful delight. Lawrence Prescott was coming to see her the next day, and the day after that she would be sure to meet him again at Squire Merritt's. She trembled before her own happiness, as before an angel whose wings cast shadows of the dread of delight.
"You'd better go to bed now," said her mother, with a meaning look; "you want to look bright to-morrow, and you've got a good deal before you."
The next day not a word was said to Jerome about Lawrence Prescott's expected call. He noticed vaguely that something unusual seemed to be going on in the parlor; then divined, with a careless dismissal of the subject, that it was house-cleaning. He had a secret of his own that day which might have rendered him less curious about the secrets of others. There were scarcely enough shoes finished to take to Dale, only a half-lot, but Jerome announced his intention of going, to Ozias Lamb, with assumed carelessness.
"Why don't ye wait till the lot is finished?" asked Ozias.
"Guess I'll take a half-lot this time," replied Jerome.
Ozias eyed him sharply, but said nothing.
Jerome had in his room a little iron-bound strong-box which had belonged to his father, though few treasures had poor Abel Edwards ever had occasion to store in it. After dinner that noon Jerome went up-stairs, unlocked the strong-box, took out some coins, handling them carefully lest they jingle, and put them in his leather wallet. Then he went down-stairs and out the front door as stealthily as if he had been thieving. Elmira and her mother were at work in the parlor, and saw him go down the walk and disappear up the road.
"I'll tell you what 'tis," said Mrs. Edwards, with one of her sharp, confirmatory nods, "J'rome's been takin' out some of that money, an' he's goin' to Dale to get him some new clothes."
"What makes you think so?"
"Oh, you see if he 'ain't. He 'ain't got a coat nor a vest fit to wear to that party, an' he knows it. If he's taken some of that money he's savin' up towards the mortgage I'm glad of it. Folks ought to have a little somethin' as they go along; if they don't, first thing they know they'll get past it."
Jerome did not start for Dale until it was quite late in the afternoon, working hard meanwhile in the shop. The day was another of those typical ones of early spring, which had come lately, drooping as to every leaf and bud with that hot languor which forces bloom. The door and windows of the little shop were set wide open. The honey and spice-breaths of flowers mingled with the rank effluvia of leather like a delicate melody with a harsh bass. Jerome pegged along in silence with knitted brow, yet with a restraint of smiles on his lips.
Ozias Lamb also was silent; his old face bending over his work was a concentration of moody gloom. Ozias was not as outspoken as formerly concerning his bitter taste of life, possibly because it had reached his soul. Jerome sometimes wondered if his uncle had troubles that he did not know of. He started for Dale so late that it was after sunset when he returned with a great parcel under his arm. He felt strangely tired, and just before he reached Upham village he sat down on a stone wall, laid his parcel carefully at his side, and looked about him.
The spring dusk was gathering slowly, though at first through an enhanced clearness of upper lights. All the gloom seemed to proceed from the earth in silvery breathings of meadows and gradual stealings forth of violet shadows from behind forest trees. The sky was so full of pure yellow light that even the feathery spring foliage was darkly outlined against it, and one could see far within it the fanning of the wings of the twilight birds. The air was cooler. The breaths of new-turned earth, and rank young plants in marshy places and woodland ponds were in it, overcoming somewhat those of sun-steeped blossoms, which had prevailed all day.
The road from Dale to Upham lay through low land, and however dry the night elsewhere, there was always a damp freshness. The circling clamor of birds overhead seemed wonderfully near. In the village the bell had begun to ring for an evening prayer-meeting, and one could have fancied that the bell hung in one of the neighboring trees. The clearness of sight seemed to enhance hearing, and possibly also that imagination which is beyond both senses. Jerome had a vague impression which he did not express to himself, that he had come to a door wide open into spaces beyond all needs and desires of the flesh and the earthly soul, and had a sense of breathing new air. Suddenly, now that he had gained this clear outlook of spirit, the world, and all the things thereof, seemed to be at his back, and grown dim, even to his retrospective thought. The image even of beautiful Lucina, which had dwelt with him since Sunday, faded, for she was not yet become of his spirit, and pertained scarcely to his flesh, except through the simplest and most rudimentary of human instincts. Jerome glanced at the parcel containing the fine new vest and coat which he had purchased, and frowned scornfully at this childish vanity, which would lead him to perk and plume and glitter to the sun, like any foolish bird which would awake the desire of the eyes in another.
"What a fool I am!" he muttered, and looked at the great open of sky again, and was half minded to take his purchases back to Dale.
However, when the clear gold of the sky began to pale and a great star shone out over the west, he rose, took up his parcel, and went home.
There was a light in the parlor. He thought indifferently that Paulina Maria Judd or his aunt Belinda might be in there calling on his mother; but when he went into the kitchen his mother sat there, and both the other women were with her.
The supper-table was still standing. "Where have you been, Jerome Edwards?" cried his mother. She cast a sharp look at his parcel, but said nothing about it. Jerome laid it on top of the old desk which had belonged to his father. "I have been over to Dale," he replied; "I didn't start very early."
His aunt Belinda looked at him amiably. She had not changed much. Her face, shaded by her long curls, had that same soft droop as of a faded flower. Once past her bloom of the flesh, there was, in a woman so little beset by storms of the spirit as Belinda Lamb, little further change possible until she dropped entirely from her tree of life. She looked at Jerome with the amiable light of a smile rather than a smile itself, and said, with her old, weak, but clinging pounce upon disturbing trifles, "Why, Jerome, you 'ain't been all this time gettin' to Dale an' back?"
"I didn't hurry," replied Jerome, coldly, drawing a chair up to the supper-table. He had always a sensation of nervous impatience with this mild, negatively sweet woman which he could not overcome, though he felt shamed by it. He preferred to see Paulina Maria, though between her and himself a covert antagonism survived the open one of his boyhood—at least, he could dislike her without disliking himself.
The candle-light fell full upon Paulina Maria's face, which was even more transparent than formerly; so transfused was her clear profile by the candle-light that the outlines seemed almost to waver and be lost. She was knitting a fine white cotton stocking in an intricate pattern, and did not look at Jerome, or speak to him, beyond her first nod of recognition when he entered.
Presently, however, Jerome turned to her. "How is Henry?" he inquired.
"About the same," she replied, in her clear voice, which was unexpectedly loud, and seemed to have a curious after-tone.
"His eyes are no worse, then?"
"No worse, and no better."
"Can't he do any more than he did last year?" asked Mrs. Edwards.
"No, he can't. He hasn't been able to do a stitch on shoes since last Thanksgiving. He can't do anything but sit at the window and knit plain knittin'. I don't know how he would get along, if I hadn't showed him how to do that. I believe he'd go crazy."
"Don't you think that last stuff Doctor Prescott put in his eyes did him any good?" asked Mrs. Edwards.
"No, I don't. He didn't think it would, himself. He said all there was to do was to go to Boston and see that great doctor there and have an operation, an' it's goin' to cost three hundred dollars. Three hundred dollars!—it's easy enough to talk—three hundred dollars! Adoniram has been laid up with jaundice half the winter. I've bound shoes, and I've knit these fine stockin's for Mis' Doctor Prescott. They go towards the doctor's bill, but they're a drop in the bucket. She'd allow considerable on them, but it ain't her say. Three hundred dollars!"
"It's a sight of money," said Belinda Lamb. "I s'pose you could mortgage the house, Paulina Maria, and then when Henry got his eyesight back he could work to pay it off."
A deep red transfused Paulina Maria's transparent pallor, but before she could speak Ann Edwards interposed. "Mortgage!" said she, with a sniff of her nostrils, as if she scented battle. "Mortgage! Load a poor horse down to the ground till his legs break under him, set a baby to layin' a stone wall till he drops, but don't talk to me of mortgages; I guess I know enough about them. My poor husband would have been alive and well to-day if it hadn't been for a mortgage. It sounds easy enough—jest a little interest money to pay every year, an' all this money down; but I tell you 'tis like a leech that sucks at body and soul. You get so the mortgage looks worse than your sins, an' you pray to be forgiven that instead of them. I know. Don't you have a mortgage put on your house, Paulina Maria Judd, or you'll rue the day. I'd—steal before I'd do it!"
Paulina Maria made no response; she was quite pale again.
"I should think you'd be afraid Henry would go entirely blind if you didn't have something done for him," said Belinda Lamb.
"I be," replied Paulina Maria, sternly. She rose to go, and Belinda also, with languid response of motion, as if Paulina Maria were an upstirring wind.
When Paulina Maria opened the outer door there was a rush of dank night air.
"Don't you want me to walk home with you and Aunt Belinda?" asked Jerome. "It's pretty dark."
"No, thank you," replied Paulina Maria, grimly, looking back, a pale, wavering shape against the parallelogram of night; "the things I'm afraid of walk in the light as much as the dark, an' you can't keep 'em off."
"You make me creep, talkin' so," Belinda Lamb said, as she and Paulina Maria, two women of one race, with their souls at the antipodes of things, went down the path together.
"I hope Paulina Maria won't put a mortgage on her house; Henry 'd better be blind," said Ann Edwards, when they had gone.
Jerome, finishing his supper, said nothing, but he knew, and Paulina Maria knew that he knew, there was already a mortgage on her house. When Jerome rose from the table his mother pointed at the parcel on the desk.
"What's that?" she asked.
"I had to buy a coat and vest if I was going to that party," replied Jerome, with a kind of dogged embarrassment. He had never felt so confused before his mother's sharp eyes since he was a child. If she had blamed him for his purchase, he would have been an easy victim, but she did not.
"What did you get?" she asked.
"I'll show you in the morning—you can see them better."
"Well, you needed them, if you are goin' to the party. You've got to look a little like folks. Where you goin'?" for Jerome had started towards the door.
"Into the parlor to get a book." He opened the door, but his mother beckoned him back mysteriously, and he closed it softly.
"What is it?" he asked, wonderingly. "Who is there? Has Elmira got company?"
"Belinda Lamb begun quizzin' as soon as she got in here; said she thought she heard a man talkin', an' asked if it was you; an' when I said it wa'n't, wanted to know who it was. I told her right to her face it was none of her business."
"Who is it in there, mother?" asked Jerome.
"It ain't anybody to make any fuss about."
"Who is it in there with Elmira?"
"It's Lawrence Prescott, that's who it is," replied his mother, who was more wary in defence than attack, yet defiant enough when the struggle came. She looked at Jerome with unflinching eyes.
"Yes, what of it?"
"Mother, he isn't going to pay attention to Elmira!"
"Why not, if he wants to? He's as likely a young fellow as there is in town. She won't be likely to do any better."
Jerome stared at his mother in utter bewilderment. "Mother, are you out of your senses?" he gasped.
"I don't know why I am," said she.
"Don't you know that Doctor Prescott would turn Lawrence out of house and home if he thought he was going to marry Elmira?"
"I guess she's good enough for him. You can run down your own sister all you want to, Jerome Edwards."
"I am not running her down. I don't deny she's good enough for any man on earth, but not with the kind of goodness that counts. Mother, don't you know that nothing but trouble can come to Elmira from this? Lawrence Prescott can't marry her."
"I'd like to know what you mean by trouble comin' to her," demanded his mother. A hot red of shame and wrath flashed all over her little face and neck as she spoke, and Jerome, perceiving his mother's thought, blushed at that, and not at his own.
"I meant that he would have to leave her, and make her miserable in the end, and that is all I did mean," he said, indignantly. "He can't marry her, and you know it as well as I. Then there is something else," he added, as a sudden recollection flashed over his mind: "he was out riding horseback with Lucina Merritt Monday."
"I don't believe a word of it," his mother said, hotly.
"I saw him."
"Well, what of it if he did? She's the only girl here that rides horseback, an' I s'pose he wanted company. Mebbe her father asked him to go with her in case her horse got scared at anything. I shouldn't be a mite surprised if he had to go and couldn't help himself. He wouldn't like to refuse if he was asked."
"Mother, you know that Lucina Merritt is the only girl in this town that Doctor Prescott would think was fit to marry his son, and you know his family have always had to do just as he said."
"I don't know any such thing," returned his mother; her voice of dissent had the shrill persistency of a cricket's. "Doctor Prescott always took a sight of notice of Elmira when she was a little girl and he used to come here. He never took to you, I know, but he always did to Elmira."
Jerome said no more. He lighted a candle, took his parcel of new clothes, and went up-stairs to his chamber.
It was twelve o'clock before Lawrence Prescott went home. Jerome had not gone to bed; he was waiting to speak to his sister. When he heard her step on the stairs he opened his door. Elmira, candle in hand, came slowly up the stair, holding her skirt up lest she trip over it. When she reached the landing her brother confronted her, and she gave a little startled cry; then stood, her eyes cast down before him, and the candle-light shining over the sweet redness and radiance of her face, which was at that moment nothing but a sign and symbol of maiden love.
All at once Jerome seemed to grasp the full meaning of it. His own face deepened and glowed, and looked strangely like his sister's. It was as if he began to learn involuntarily his own lesson from another's text-book. Suddenly, instead of his sister's face he seemed to see Lucina Merritt's. That look of love which levels mankind to one family was over his memory of her.
"What did you want?" Elmira asked, at length, timidly, but laughing before him at the same time like a foolish child who cannot conceal delight.
"Nothing," said her brother; "good-night," and went into his chamber and shut his door.
The most intimate friends in unwonted gala attire are always something of a revelation to one another. Butterflies, meeting for the first time after their release from chrysalis, might well have the same awe and confusion of old memories.
On the night of the party, when they were dressed and had come down-stairs, Jerome, who had seen his sister every day of his life, looked at her as if for the first time, and she looked in the same way at him. Elmira's Aunt Belinda Lamb had given her, some time before, a white muslin gown of her girlhood.
"I 'ain't got any daughter to make it over for," said she, "an' you might as well have it." Belinda Lamb had looked regretfully at its voluminous folds, as she passed it over to Elmira. Privately she could not see why she should not wear it still, but she knew that she would not dare face Paulina Maria when attired in it.
Elmira, after much discussion with her mother, had decided upon refurbishing this old white muslin, and wearing that instead of her new green silk to the party.
"It will look more airy for an evenin' company," said Mrs. Edwards, "an' the skirt is so full you can take out some of the breadths an' make ruffles."
Elmira and her mother had toiled hard to make those ruffles and finish their daily stent on shoes, but the dress was in readiness and Elmira arrayed in it before eight o'clock on Thursday night. Her dress had a fan waist cut low, with short puffs for sleeves. Her neck, displaying, as it did, soft hollows rather than curves, and her arms, delicately angular at wrists and elbows, were still beautiful. She was thin, but her bones were so small that little flesh was required to conceal harsh outlines.
She wore a black velvet ribbon tied around her throat, and from it hung a little gold locket—one of the few treasures of her mother's girlhood. Elmira had tended a little pot of rose-geranium in a south window all winter. This spring it was full of pale pink bloom. She had made a little chaplet of the fragrant leaves and flowers to adorn her smooth dark hair, and also a pretty knot for her breast. Her skirt was ruffled to her slender waist with tiniest frills of the diaphanous muslin. Elmira in her party gown looked like a double white flower herself.
As for Jerome, he felt awkwardly self-conscious in his new clothes, but bore himself so proudly as to conceal it. It requires genuine valor to overcome new clothes, when one seldom has them. They become, under such circumstances, more than clothes—they are at least skin-deep. However, Jerome had that valor. He had bought a suit of fine blue cloth, and a vest of flowered white satin like a bridegroom's. He wore his best shirt with delicate cambric ruffles on bosom and wristbands, and his throat was swathed in folds of sheerest lawn, which he kept his chin clear of, with a splendid and stately lift. Jerome's hair, which was darker than when he was a boy, was brushed carefully into a thick crest over his white forehead, which had, like a child's, a bold and innocent fulness of curve at the temples. He had not usually much color, but that night his cheeks were glowing, and his black eyes, commonly somewhat stern from excess of earnestness, were brilliant with the joy of youth.
Mrs. Edwards looked at one, then the other, with the delighted surprise of a mother bird who sees her offspring in their first gayety of full plumage. She picked a thread from Jerome's coat, she put back a stray lock of Elmira's hair, she bade them turn this way and that.
When they had started she hitched her chair close to the window, pressed her forehead against the glass, looked out, and watched the white flutter of Elmira's skirts until they disappeared in the dark folds of the night.
There was, that night, a soft commotion of air rather than any distinct current of wind, like a gentle heaving and subsidence of veiled breasts of nature. The tree branches spread and gloomed with deeper shadows; mysterious white things with indeterminate motions were seen aloof across meadows or in door-yards, and might have been white-clad women, or flowering bushes, or ghosts.
Jerome and Elmira, when one of these pale visions seemed floating from some shadowy gateway ahead, wondered to each other if this or that girl were just starting for the party, but when they drew near the whiteness stirred at the gate still, and was only a bush of bridal-wreath. Jerome and Elmira were really the last on the road to the party; Upham people went early to festivities.
"It is very late," Elmira said, nervously; she held up her white skirts, ruffling softly to the wind, with both hands, lest they trail the dewy grass, and flew along like a short-winged bird at her brother's side. "Please walk faster, Jerome," said she.
"We'll have time enough there," returned Jerome, stepping high and gingerly, lest he soil his nicely blacked shoes.
"It will be dreadful to go in late and have them all looking at us, Jerome."
"What if they do look at us," Jerome argued, manfully, but he was in reality himself full of nervous tremors. Sometimes, to a soul with a broad outlook and large grasp, the great stresses of life are not as intimidating as its small and deceitful amenities.
When they reached Squire Merritt's house and saw all the windows, parallelograms of golden light, shining through the thick growth of trees, his hands and feet were cold, his heart beat hard. "I'm acting like a girl," he thought, indignantly, straightened himself, and marched on to the front door, as if it were the postern of a fortress.
But Elmira caught her brother by the long, blue coat-tail, and brought him to a stand.
"Oh, Jerome," she whispered, "there are so many there, and we are so late, I'm afraid to go in."
"What are you afraid of?" demanded Jerome, with a rustic brusqueness which was foreign to him. "Come along." He pulled his coat away and strode on, and Elmira had to follow.
The front door of Squire Merritt's house stood open into the hall the night was so warm, some girls in white were coming down the wide spiral of stair within, pressing softly together like scared white doves, in silence save for the rustle of their starched skirts. From the great rooms on either side of the hall, however, came the murmur of conversation, with now and then a silvery break of laughter, like a sudden cascade in an even current.
Flower-decked heads and silken-gleaming shoulders passed between the windows and the light, outlining vividly every line and angle and curve—the keen cut of profiles, the scallops of perked-up lace, the sharp dove-tails of ribbons. Before one window was upreared the great back and head of a man, still as a statue, yet with the persistency of stillness, of life.
That dogged stiffness, which betrays the utter self-abasement of resticity in fine company, was evident in his pose, even to one coming up the path. This party at Squire Merritt's was democratic, including many whose only experiences in social gatherings of their neighbors had come through daily labor and worship. All the young people in Upham had been invited; the Squire's three boon companions, Doctor Prescott and his wife, and the minister and his daughter, were the only elders bidden, since the party was for Lucina.
"The door's open," Elmira whispered, nervously. "Is it right to knock when the door's open, or walk right in, O Jerome?"
Jerome, for answer, stepped resolutely in, reached the knocker, raised it, and let it fall with a great imperious clang of brass, defying, as it were, his own shyness, like a herald at arms.