"I wish they would put railroads through for us every year," he said to the man whom he had secured to help him. He was an elderly man from Granby, who had owned a mill there, which had been sold three years before. He had a tidy sum in bank, and people wondered at his going to work again.
"I 'ain't got so very many years to work," he told Jerome when he sought to hire him, "an' I thought I'd give up for good three years ago; thought I'd take it easy, an' have a comfortable old age. I got fifty dollars more'n I expected when I sold out the mill, an' I laid it out for extras for mother an' me; bought her a sofy an' stuffed rockin'-chair, a new set of dishes, an' some teaspoons, an' some strainers for the windows agin fly-time. 'Now, mother,' says I, 'we'll jest lay down in the daytime, an' rock, an' eat with our new spoons out of our new dishes, an' keep the flies out, the rest of our lives.'
"But mother she looked real sober. 'What's the matter?' says I.
"'Nothin',' says she, 'only I was thinkin' about your father.'
"'What about him?' says I.
"'Nothin',' says she, 'only I remember mother's sayin', when he quit work, he wouldn't live long. She always said it was a bad sign.'
"That settled me. I remembered father didn't live six months after he quit work, an' grandfather before him, an' I'd every reason to think it run in the family. So says I to mother, 'Well, I'm havin' too good a time livin' to throw it away settin' in rockin'-chairs an' layin' down in the daytime. If work is goin' to keep up the picnic a while longer, why, I'm goin' to work.'
"So the very next day I hired out to the man that bought my mill, an' there I've worked ever since, till now, when he's got his son he wants to give the job to. I'll go with ye, an' welcome, for a spell. Mother ain't afeard to stay alone, an' I'll go home over Sundays. Ye need somebody who knows somethin' about a mill, if ye're green at it yourself."
This man, whose name was Martin Cheeseman, was hoary with age, but far from being past his prime of work. He had a large and shambling strength of body and limb, like an old bear, and his sinews were, of their kind, as tough as those of the ancient woods which he severed.
One afternoon, when the mill had been in operation about two months, Squire Eben Merritt, John Jennings, and Colonel Lamson came through from the thick woods into the clearing. The Squire bore his fishing-rod and dangled a string of fine trout. John Jennings had a book under his arm.
When they emerged into the clearing, the Colonel sat down upon a stump and wiped his red face. The veins in his forehead and neck were swollen purple, and he breathed hard. "It's hotter than seven devils," he gasped.
"Devils are supposed to be acclimated," John Jennings remarked, softly. He stood looking about him. The Squire had gone into the mill, where Jerome was at work.
Martin Cheeseman was outside, shearing from lengths of logs some last straggling twigs before they were taken into the mill for sawing. The old man's hat had lost its brim, and sat back on his head like a crown; some leaves were tangled in his thick, gray fleece of hair and beard. His shaggy arms were bare; he wielded his hatchet with energy, grimacing at every stroke.
"He might be the god Pan putting his fallen trees out of their last agonies," said Jennings, dreamily, and yet half laughing, as if at himself, for the fancy.
The Colonel only groaned in response. He fanned himself with his hat. Jennings stood, backed up against a tree, surveying things, his fine, worn face full of a languid humor and melancholy.
The place looked like a sylvan slaughter-field. The ground was thick-set with the mangled and hacked stumps of great chestnut-trees, and strewn with their lifeless limbs and trunks, as with members of corpses; every stump, as Jennings surveyed it with fanciful gaze, looked with its spread of supporting roots upon the surface, curiously like a great foot of a woody giant, which no murderer could tear loose from its hold in its native soil.
All the clearing was surrounded with thickets of light-green foliage, amidst which clouds of white alder unfolded always in the soft wind with new surfaces of sweetness.
However, all the fragrant evidence of the new leaves and blossoms was lost and overpowered here. One perceived only that pungent aroma of death which the chestnut-trees gave out from their fresh wounds and their spilled sap of life. One also could scarcely hear the spring birds for the broad whir of the saw-mill, which seemed to cut the air as well as the logs. Even the gurgling rush of the brook was lost in it, but not the roar of water over the dam.
The Squire came out of the mill, whither he had been to say a good word to Jerome, and stood by Martin Cheeseman. "Lord," he said, "think of the work those trees had to grow, and the fight they made for their lives, and then along comes a man with an axe, and breaks in a minute what he can never make nor mend! What d'ye mean by it, eh?"
Martin Cheeseman looked at him with shrewd, twinkling eyes. He was waist-deep in the leafy twigs and boughs as in a nest. "Well," he said, "we're goin' to turn 'em into somethin' of more account than trees, an' that's railroad-sleepers; an' that's somethin' the way Natur' herself manages, I reckon. Look at the caterpillar an' the butterfly. Mebbe a railroad-sleeper is a butterfly of a tree, lookin' at it one way."
"That's all very well, but how do you suppose the tree feels?" said the Squire, hotly.
"Not bein' a tree, an' never havin' been a tree, so's to remember it, I ain't able to say," returned the old man, in a dry voice; "but, mebbe, lookin' at it on general principles, it ain't no more painful for a tree to be cut down into a railroad-sleeper than it is for a man to be cut down into an angel."
John Jennings laughed.
"You'd make a good lawyer on the defence," said the Squire, good-naturedly, "but, by the Lord Harry, if all the trees of the earth were mine, men might live in tents and travel in caravans till doomsday for all I'd cut one down!"
The Colonel and Jennings did not go into the mill, but they nodded and sang out good-naturedly to Jerome as they passed. He could not leave—he had an extra man to feed the saw that day, and had been rushing matters since daybreak—but he looked out at them with a radiant face from his noisy interior, full of the crude light of fresh lumber and sawdust.
The Squire's friendly notice had pleased his very soul.
"That's a smart boy," panted the Colonel, when they had passed.
"Yes, sir; he's the smartest boy in this town," assented the Squire, with a nod of enthusiasm.
Not long after they emerged from the woods into the road they reached Jennings's house, and he left his friends.
The Colonel lived some quarter of a mile farther on. He had reached his gate, when he said, abruptly, to the Squire, "Look here, Eben, you remember a talk we had once about Jerome Edwards and your girl?"
The Squire stared at him. "Yes; why?"
"Nothing, only seeing him just now set me to wondering if you were still of the same mind about it."
"If being willing that Lucina should have the man she sets her heart on is the same mind, of course I am; but, good Lord, Jack, that's all over! He hasn't been to the house for a year, and Lucina never thinks of him!"
Colonel Lamson laughed wheezily. "Well, that's all I wanted to know, Eben."
"What made you ask me that?" asked the Squire, suspiciously.
"Nothing; seeing Jerome and his mill brought it to mind. Well, I'll be along to-night."
"That's all over," the Squire called out again to the Colonel, going slowly up the hill to the house door. However, when he got home, he questioned Abigail.
"I haven't heard Lucina mention Jerome Edwards's name for months," said she, "and he never comes here; but she seems perfectly contented and happy. I think that's all over."
"I thought so," said Eben.
Abigail was preparing the punch, for the Squire expected his friends that evening. Jennings came first; some time after Means and Lamson arrived. They had a strange air of grave excitement and elation.
When the game of cards was fairly under way, the Colonel played in a manner which confused them all.
"By the Lord Harry, Jack, this is the third time you've thrown away an honor!" the Squire roared out, finally. "Is it the punch that's gone to your head?"
"No, Eben," replied the Colonel, in a hoarse voice, with solemn and oratorical cadences, as if he rose to address a meeting. "It is not the punch. I am used to punch. It is money. I've just had word that—that old mining stock I bought when I was in the service, and haven't thought worth more than a New England sheep farm, has been sold for sixty-five thousand dollars."
The next week Colonel Lamson went to Boston, and took his friend John Jennings with him. Whether the trip was purely a business one, or was to be regarded in the light of a celebration of the Colonel's good fortune, never transpired.
Upham people exchanged wishes to the effect that John Jennings and Colonel Lamson might not take, in their old age, to sowing again the wild oats of their youth. "John Jennings drank himself most into his grave; an' as for Colonel Lamson, it's easy enough to see that he's always had his dram, when he felt like it. If they get home sober an' alive with all that money, they're lucky," people said. It was the general impression in Upham that the Colonel had gone to Boston with his sixty-five thousand dollars in his pocket. Lawyer Means's ancient relative, who served as house-keeper, was reported to have confessed that she was on tenter-hooks about it.
However, in a week the Colonel and his friend returned, and the most anxious could find nothing in their appearance to justify their gloomy fears. They had never looked so spick and span and prosperous within the memory of Upham, for both of them were clad in glossiest new broadcloth, of city cut, and both wore silk bell-hats, which gave them the air of London dandies. Jennings, moreover, displayed in his fine shirt-front a new diamond pin, and the Colonel stepped out with stately flourishes of a magnificent gold-headed cane.
Soon it was told on good authority that the lawyer's house-keeper, and John Jennings's also, had a present from the Colonel of a rich black satin gown, that the lawyer had a gold-headed cane—which he was, indeed, seen to carry, holding it stiff and straight, like a roll of parchment, with never a flourish—and the Squire a gun mounted in silver, and such a fishing-rod as had never been seen in the village. When Lucina Merritt came to meeting the Sunday after the Colonel's return, there glistened in her little ears, between her curls, some diamond ear-drops, and Abigail wore a shawl which had never been seen in Upham before.
Lawyer Means's female relative, and Jennings's house-keeper, said, emphatically, that they didn't believe that either of them drank a drop of anything stronger than water all the time they were gone.
The Colonel was radiant with satisfaction; he went about with his face beaming as unreservedly as a child's who has gotten a treasure. He often confided to Means his perfect delight in his new wealth. "Hang it all, Means," he would say, "I wouldn't find a word of fault, not a word, I'd strut like a peacock, if that poor little girl I married was only alive, and I could buy her a damned thing out of it; then there's something else, Means—" the Colonel's face would take on an expression of mingled seriousness and humor—"Means," he would conclude, in a hoarse, facetious whisper, "I bought those stocks when I was first married; thought I'd got to pitch in and provide for my family, and in order to save enough money to get them I ran in debt for a new uniform and some cavalry boots and a pony, and damned if I know if I ever paid for them."
Jerome, going to the mill one day shortly afterwards, reached the Means house as the Colonel was coming down the hill. "Stop a moment," the Colonel called, and Jerome waited until he reached him. "Fine day," said the Colonel.
"Yes, sir, 'tis," replied Jerome; then he added, "I was glad to hear of your good fortune, sir."
"Suppose," said the Colonel, abruptly, "that twenty-five thousand of it had come to you, what would you have done with it?"
Jerome looked at him in a bewildered fashion. "It wasn't mine, and there's no use talking about it," he said.
"What would you do with it? Out with it! Would you stick to that bargain you made in Robinson's that evening?"
"You needn't be afraid to speak," urged the Colonel. "If you'd stick to it, say so. I sha'n't call it any reflection upon me; I haven't the slightest intention of giving twenty-five thousand dollars to the poor, and if you've changed your mind, say so."
"I haven't changed my mind, and I would stick to it," Jerome replied then.
"And," said the Colonel, "you are sticking to that other resolution of yours, to work until you win a certain fair lady, are you?"
Jerome colored high. He was inclined to be indignant, but there was a strange earnestness in the Colonel's manner.
"I'm not the sort of fellow not to stick to a resolution of that kind when I've once made it," he replied, shortly.
The Colonel chuckled. "Well, I didn't think you were," he returned—"didn't think you were, Jerome. That's all. Good-day." With that, to Jerome's utter astonishment, Colonel Lamson trudged laboriously up the hill to the Means house again.
"He must have come down just to ask me those questions," thought Jerome, and thought with more bewilderment still that the Colonel must even have been watching for him. He had no conception of his meaning, but he laughed to himself at the bare fancy of twenty-five thousand dollars coming to him, and also at the suggestion that he would not be true to his resolution to win Lucina. Jerome was beginning to feel as if she were already won. The next spring, if he continued to prosper, he had decided to speak to her, and, as the months went on, nothing happened to discourage him.
The next winter the snows were uncommonly heavy. They began before Thanksgiving and came in thick storms. There were great drifts in all the door-yards, the stone walls and fences were hidden, the trees stood in deep, swirling hollows of snow. Now and then a shed-roof broke under the frozen weight; one walked through the village street as through clear-cut furrows of snow, all the shadows were blue, there was a dazzle of glacier light over the whole village when the sun arose. However, it was a fine winter for Jerome, as far as his work was concerned. Wood is drawn easily on sleds, and the snow air nerves one for sharp labors. Jerome calculated that by May he should be not only doing a prosperous business, but should have a snug little sum clear. Then he would delay no longer.
On the nineteenth day of March came the last snow-storm, and the worst of the season. Martin Cheeseman went home early. Jerome did not stay in the mill long after he left. The darkness was settling down fast, and he could do little by himself.
Moreover, an intense eagerness to be at home seized him. He began to imagine that something had happened to his mother or Elmira, and imagination of evil was so foreign to him that it had almost the force of conviction.
He fell also to thinking of his father, inconsequently, as it seemed, yet it was not so, for imagined disasters lead back by retrograde of sequence to memories of real ones.
He lived over again his frenzied search for his father, his discovery of the hat on the shore of the deep pond. "Poor father!" he muttered.
All the way home this living anxiety for his mother and sister, and this dead sorrow haunted him. He thought as he struggled through the snow, his face bent before the drive of the sleet as before a flail of ice, how often in all weathers his father had traversed this same road, how his own feet could scarcely step out of his old tracks. He thought how many a night, through such a storm as this, his father had toiled wearily home, and with no such fire of youth and hope in his heart to cheer him on. "Father must have given up a long time before he died," he said to himself.
The imagination of his father plodding homeward in his old harness of hopeless toil grew so strong that his own identity paled. He seemed to lose all ambition and zeal, a kind of heredity of discouragement overspread him. "I don't know but I'll have to give up, finally, the way he did," he muttered, panting under the buffeting of the snow wind.
He met no one on his way home. Once a loaded wood-sled came up behind him with a faint creak and jingle of harness, then the straining flanks of the horse, the cubic pile of wood shaded out of shape by the snow, the humped back of the driver on the top, passed out of sight, as behind a slanting white curtain. The village houses receded through shifting distances of pale gloom; one could scarcely distinguish the white slants of their roofs, and the lamp-lights which shone out newly in some of the windows made rosy nimbuses.
When Jerome drew near his own home he looked eagerly, and saw, with relief, that the white thickness of the storm was suffused with light opposite the kitchen windows.
"Everything all right?" he asked, when he entered, stamping and shaking himself.
Elmira was toasting bread, and she turned her flushed face wonderingly. "Yes; why shouldn't it be?" she said.
"No reason why. It's an awful storm."
Ann was knitting fast, sitting over against a window thick with clinging shreds of snow. Her face was in the shadow, but she looked as if she had been crying. She did not speak when Jerome entered.
"What ails mother?" he whispered to Elmira, following her into the pantry when he had a chance.
"She's been telling a dream she had last night about father, and it made her feel bad. Hush!"
When they were all seated at the supper-table, Ann, of her own accord, began to talk again of her dream.
"I've been tellin' your sister about a dream I had last night," said she, with a curious, tearful defiance, "an' I'm goin' to tell you. It won't hurt you any to have your poor father brought to mind once in a while."
"Of course you can tell it, mother, though I don't need that to bring father to mind. I was thinking about him all the way home," Jerome answered.
"Well, I guess you don't often think about him all the way home. I guess you and your sister both don't think about your poor father, that worked and slaved for you, enough to hurt you. I had a dream last night that I 'ain't been able to get out of my mind all day. I dreamt that I was in this room, an' it was stormin', jest as it is now. I could hear the wind whistlin' an' howlin', an' the windows were all thick with snow. I dreamt I had a little baby in my arms that was sick; it was cryin' an' moanin', an' I was walkin' up an' down, up an' down, tryin' to quiet it. I didn't have my rheumatism, could walk as well as anybody. All of a sudden, as I was walkin', I smelt flowers, an' there on the hearth-stone was a rose-bush, all in bloom. I went up an' picked a rose, an' shook it in the baby's face to please it, an' then I heard a strange noise, that drowned out the wind in the chimney an' the baby's cryin'. It sounded like cattle bellowing, dreadful loud and mournful. I laid the baby down in the rockin'-chair, an' first thing I knew it wasn't there. Instead of it there was a most beautiful bird, like a dove, as white as snow. It flew 'round my head once, and then it was gone. I thought it went up chimney.
"The cattle bellowing sounded nearer, an' I could hear them trampin'. I run to the front door, an' there they were, comin' down the road, hundreds of 'em, horns a-tossin' an' tails a-lashin', flingin' up the snow like water. I clapped to the front door, an' bolted it, an' run into the parlor, an' looked out of the window, an' there on the other side, as plain as I ever see it in my life, was your father's face—there was my husband's face.
"He didn't look a day older than when he left, an' his eyes an' his mouth were smilin' as I hadn't seen 'em since he was a young man.
"'Oh, Able!' says I. 'Oh, Abel!' An' then the face wa'n't there, an' I heard a noise behind me, an' looked around.
"I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw that parlor. All the chairs an' the sofa were covered with my weddin'-dress, that was made over for Elmira; the window-curtains were made of it, an' the table-spread. Thinks I, 'How was there enough of that silk, when we had hard work to get Elmira's dress out?'
"Then I saw, in the middle of the room, a great long thing, all covered over with silk, an' I thought it was a coffin. I went up to it, an' there was Abel's hat on it, the one he wore when he went away. I took the hat off, an' the weddin'-silk, an' there was a coffin.
"I thought it was Abel's. I raised the lid and looked. The coffin was full of beautiful clear water, an' I could see through it the bottom, all covered with bright gold dollars. I leant over it, and there was my own face in the water, jest as plain as in a lookin'-glass, an' there was Abel's beside it. Then I turned around quick, an' there was Abel—there was my husband, standin' there alive an' well. Then I woke up."
Ann ended with a hysterical sob. Jerome and Elmira exchanged terrified glances.
"That was a beautiful dream, mother," Jerome said, soothingly. "Now try to eat your supper."
"It's been so real all day. I feel as if—your father had come an' gone again," Ann sobbed.
"Try and eat some of this milk-toast, mother; it's real nice," urged Elmira.
But Ann could eat no supper. She seemed completely unstrung, for some mysterious reason. They persuaded her to go to bed early; but she was not asleep when they went up-stairs, about ten o'clock, for she called out sharply to know if it was still snowing.
"No, mother," Jerome answered, "I have just looked out, and there are some stars overhead. I guess the storm is over."
"Oh, Jerome, you don't suppose mother is going to be sick, do you?" Elmira whispered, when they were on the stairs.
"No, I guess she's only nervous about her dream. The storm may have something to do with it, too."
"Oh, Jerome, I feel exactly as if something was going to happen!"
"Nonsense," said Jerome, laughing. "You are nervous yourself. I'll give you and mother some valerian, both of you."
"Jerome, I am sure something is going to happen."
"It would be strange if something didn't. Something is happening all over the earth with every breath we draw."
"Jerome, I mean to us!"
Jerome gave his sister a little push into her room. "Go to bed, and to sleep," said he, "and leave your door open if you're scared, and I'll leave mine."
Jerome himself could not get to sleep soon; once or twice Elmira spoke to him, and he called back reassuringly, but his own nerves were at a severe tension. "What has got into us all?" he thought, impatiently. It was midnight before he lost himself, and he had slept hardly an hour when he wakened with a great start.
A wild clamor, which made his blood run cold, came from below. He leaped out of bed and pulled on his trousers, hearing all the while, as in a dream, his mother's voice shrilling higher and higher. "Oh, Abel, Abel, Abel! Oh, Abel!"
Elmira, with a shawl over her night-gown, bearing a flaring candle, rushed across the landing from her room. "Oh," she gasped, "what is it? what is it?"
"I guess mother has been dreaming again," Jerome replied, hoarsely, but the thought was in his mind that his mother had gone mad.
"There's—cold air—coming—in," Elmira said, in her straining voice. "The front door is—wide open."
At that Jerome pushed her aside and rushed down the stairs and into the kitchen.
There stood his mother over an old man, seated in her rocking-chair. There she stood, pressing his white head against her breast, calling over and over again in a tone through whose present jubilation sounded the wail of past woe, "Oh, Abel, Abel, Abel!"
Jerome looked at them. He wondered, dazedly, if he were really there and awake, or asleep and dreaming up-stairs in his bed. Elmira came close beside him and clutched his arm—even that did not clear his bewildered perceptions into certainty. It is always easier for the normal mind, when confronted by astonishing spectacles, to doubt its own accuracy rather than believe in them. "Do you see him?" he whispered, sharply, to Elmira.
"Yes; who is it? Who is it?"
Then Jerome, in his utter bewilderment, spoke out the secret which he had kept since childhood.
"It can't be father," said he—"it can't be. I found his hat on the shore of the Dead Hole. Father drowned himself there."
At the sound of his voice Ann turned around. "It's your father!" she cried out, sharply—"it's your father come home. Abel, here's the children."
Jerome eyed a small japanned box, or trunk, on the floor, a stout stick, and a handkerchief parcel. He noted then clots of melting snow where the old man had trod. Somehow the sight of the snow did more to restore his faculties than anything else. "For Heaven's sake, let us go to work!" he cried to Elmira, "or he'll die. He's exhausted with tramping through the snow. Get some of that brandy in the cupboard, quick, while I start up the fire."
"Is it father? Oh, Jerome, is it father?"
"Mother says so. Get the brandy, quick."
Jerome stirred the fire into a blaze, and put on the kettle, then he went to his mother and laid his hand on her shoulder. "Now, mother," he said, "he must be put into a warm bed."
"Yes, put him into his own bed—his own bed!" shrieked his mother. "Oh, Abel, dear soul, come and sleep in your own bed again, after all these years! Poor man, poor man, you've got home to your own bed!"
Jerome gave his mother's thin, vibrating shoulder a firm shake. "Mother," he said, "tell me—you must tell me—is this man father?"
"Don't you know him? Don't you know your own father? Look at him." Ann threw back her head and pointed at the old worn face on her breast.
Jerome stared at it. "Where—did he come—from?" he panted.
"I don't know. He's come. Oh, Abel, Abel, you've come home!"
"Give me some of that brandy, quick," Jerome called to Elmira, who stood trembling, holding the bottle and glass. He poured out some brandy, and, with a teaspoon, fed the old man, a few drops at a time. Presently he raised his head feebly, but it sank back. He tried to speak. "Don't try to talk," said Jerome; "wait till you're rested. Mother, let him alone now; sit down there. Elmira, you must try and help me a little."
"If you've got to be helped, I'll help," cried Ann, fiercely.
With that his mother, who had not walked since he could remember, ran into the bedroom, and began spreading the sheets smooth and shaking the pillows.
The old man was a light-weight. Jerome almost carried him into the bedroom, and laid him on the bed. He fed him with more brandy, and put hot-water bottles around him. Presently he breathed evenly in a sweet sleep. Ann sat by his side, holding his hand, and would not stir, though Jerome besought her to go up-stairs to Elmira's room.
"I guess I don't leave him to stray away again," said she.
Out in the kitchen, Elmira pressed close to Jerome. "Is it," she whispered in his ear—"is it father?"
"How do you know?"
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, he's grown old, but I remember."
"Where—did he—come from?"
"I don't know. We must wait till he wakes up."
The brother and sister huddled close together over the fire, and waited. Elmira held Jerome's hand fast in her little cold one.
"What's in that little tin trunk?"
"Hush; I don't know."
"Jerome, mother walked!"
"Hush; I saw her."
It was an hour before they heard a sound from the bedroom. Then Ann's voice rang out clearly, and another, husky and feeble, sounded in response. Jerome and Elmira went into the room, and stood beside the bed.
"Here's the children, Abel," said Ann.
The face on the pillow looked stranger than before to Jerome. When half unconscious it had worn a certain stern restraint, which coincided with his old memories; now it was full of an innocent pleasantness, like a child's, which puzzled him. The old man began talking eagerly too, and Jerome remembered his father as very slow-spoken, though it might have been the slowness of self-control, not temperament.
"How they've grown!" he said, looking at his children and then at Ann. "That's Jerome, and that's Elmira. How I've lotted on this day." He held out a feeble hand; Elmira took it, timidly, then leaned over and kissed him. Jerome took it then, and it seemed to him like a hand from the grave. His doubt passed; he knew that this man was his father.
"I hadn't got asleep," Ann said; "I was thinkin' about him. I heard somebody at the front door; I got up and went; I knew it was him."
The old man smiled at them all. "I'll tell you where I've been," he said. "It won't take long. I was behindhand in that interest money. I couldn't earn enough to get ahead nohow. I was nothin' but a drag on you all, nothin' but a drag. All of a sudden, that day when I went away, I reasoned of it out. Says I, that mortgage will be foreclosed; my stayin' where I be won't make no difference about that. I ain't doin' anythin' for my family, anyway. I'm wore out tryin', and it's no use. If I go away, I can do more for 'em than if I stay. I can save every cent I earn, till I get enough to pay that mortgage up. I'll get a chance that way to do somethin' for 'em. So I went."
The utter inconsequence of his father's reasoning struck Jerome like a chill. "His mind isn't just right," he thought.
"Where did you go, Abel?" asked his mother.
"To West Linfield."
"What!" cried Jerome. "That's only twenty miles away."
Abel Edwards laughed with child-like cunning. "I know it," he said. "I went to work on Jabez Summers's farm there. It's way up the hill-road; nobody ever came there that knew me. I took another name, too—called myself Ephraim Green. I've saved up fifteen hundred dollars. It's there in that little tin chist. I bought that of Summers for a shillin', to keep my money in. There's five hundred in gold, an' the rest in bank-bills. You needn't worry now, mother. We'll pay that mortgage up to-morrow."
"The mortgage is all paid. We've paid it, Abel," cried Ann.
"Paid! The mortgage ain't paid!"
"Yes, we've paid it. We all earnt money an' paid it."
"Then we can keep the money," said the old man, happily. "We can keep it, mother; I thought it would go kinder hard partin' with it. I've worked so hard to save it. I 'ain't had many clothes, an' I 'ain't ever been to meetin' lately, my coat got so ragged."
Elmira was crying.
"How did you get here to-night, father?" Jerome asked, huskily.
"I walked from West Linfield; started yesterday afternoon. I come as far as Westbrook, an' it began to snow. I put up at Hayes's Tavern."
"At Hayes's Tavern, with all that money!" exclaimed Elmira.
"Why, ain't they honest there?" asked the old man, quickly.
"Yes, father, they're all right, I guess. Go on."
"They seemed real honest," said his father. "I told 'em all about it, and they acted real interested. Mis' Hayes she fried me some slapjacks for supper. I had a good room, with a man who was goin' to Boston this mornin'. He started afore light; he was gone when I woke up. I stayed there till afternoon, then I started out. I got a lift as far as the Corners, then I walked a spell and went into a house, where they give me some supper, and give me another lift as far as the Stone Hill Meetin'-house. I've been trampin' since. It was ruther hard, on account of the roads bein' some drifted, but it's stopped snowin'."
"Why didn't you come on the coach, Abel, when you had all that money?" asked Ann, pitifully. "I wonder it hadn't killed you."
"Do you suppose I was goin' to spend that money for coach hire? You dun'no' how awful hard it come, mother," replied the old man. He closed his eyes as he spoke; he was weary almost to death.
"He'll go to sleep again if you don't talk, mother," Jerome whispered.
"Well, I'll lay down side of him, an' mebbe we'll both go to sleep," his mother said, with a strange docility. Jerome assisted her into the bed, then he and Elmira went back to the kitchen.
Jerome motioned to Elmira to be quiet, and cautiously lifted the little japanned trunk and passed it from one hand to the other, as if testing its weight. Elmira watched him with her bewildered, tearful eyes. Finally he tiptoed softly out with it, motioning her to follow with the candle. They went into the icy parlor and closed the door.
"What's the matter, Jerome?" Elmira whispered.
"I'm afraid there may be something wrong with the money. I'm going to find it out before he does, if there is."
There was a little padlock on the trunk, but it was tied together with a bit of leather shoestring, not locked. Jerome took out his jack-knife, cut the string, and opened the trunk. Elmira held the candle while he examined the contents. There was a large old wallet stuffed with bank-notes, also several parcels of them tied up carefully.
"It's just as I thought," Jerome muttered.
"Some of the money is gone. The gold isn't here. It might have been the man who roomed with him at Hayes's Tavern. There have been queer things done there before now. All I wonder is, he didn't take it all."
"Oh, Jerome, it isn't gone?"
"Yes, the gold is gone. Here is the bag it was in. The thief left that. Suppose he thought he might be traced by it."
"Oh, poor father, poor father, what will he do!" moaned Elmira.
"He'll do nothing. He'll never know it," said Jerome.
"What do you mean?"
"Wait here a minute." Jerome went noiselessly out of the room and up-stairs. He returned soon with a leathern bag, which he carried with great caution. "I'm trying to keep this from jingling," he whispered.
"Oh, Jerome, what is it?"
Jerome laughed and untied the mouth of the bag. "You must help me put it into the other bag; every dollar will have to be counted out separately."
"Oh, Jerome, is it money you've saved?"
"Yes; and don't you ever tell of it to either of them, or anybody else, as long as you live. I guess poor father sha'n't know he's lost any of his money he's worked so hard to get, if I can help it."
A stranger passing Abel Edwards's house the day after his return might have gotten the impression that one of the functions of village life—a wedding or a funeral—was going on there. From morning until late at night the people came down the road, wading through the snow, the men with trousers tucked into boots, the women with yarn-stockings over their shoes, their arms akimbo, pinning their kilted petticoats to their hips. Many drove there in sleighs, tilting to the drifts. The Edwards's door-yard was crowded with teams.
All the relatives who had come fourteen years before to Abel Edwards's funeral came now to his resurrection. They had gotten the news of it in such strange, untraceable ways, that it seemed almost like mental telegraphy. The Greens of Westbrook were there—the three little girls in blue, now women grown. One of them came with her husband and baby; another with a blushing lout of a lad, to whom she was betrothed; and the third, with a meek blue eye, on the watch for a possible lover in the company. The Lawson sisters, from Granby, arrived early in the day, being conveyed thither by an obliging neighbor. Amelia Stokes rode to Upham on the butcher's wagon, in lieu of another conveyance, and her journey was a long one, necessitating hot ginger-tea and the toasting of her slim feet at the fire upon her arrival. Amelia was clad in mourning for her old mother, who had died the year before. At intervals she wept furtively, incited to grief by recollections of her mother, which the place and occasion awakened.
"Every once in a while it comes over me how poor mother relished them hot biscuits and that tea at your funeral," she whispered softly to Abel, who smiled with child-like serenity in response.
All day Abel sat in state, which was, however, intensified in the afternoon by a new suit of clothes, which Jerome had purchased in Dale. As soon as Jerome returned with it, he was hustled into the bedroom with his father.
"Get your father into 'em quick, before anybody else comes," said Ann Edwards. She was dressed in her best, and Elmira had further adorned her with a little worked lace kerchief of her own, fastened at the bosom with a sprig of rose-geranium leaves and blossoms. Ann had confined herself to her chair since arising that morning. She made no allusion to her walking the night before, and seemed to expect assistance as usual.
"Do you suppose mother can't walk this morning?" Elmira whispered to Jerome.
"Hush," he replied, "don't bother her with it unless she speaks of it herself. I have a book which gives instances of people recovering under strong excitement, and then going back to where they were before. I don't believe mother can walk, or she would."
Ann Edwards and Abel sat side by side on the sofa in the parlor, and the visitors came and greeted them, with a curious manner, which had in it not so much of the joy of greeting, as awe and a solemn perplexity. Always, after shaking hands with the united couple, they whispered furtively to one another that Abel Edwards was much changed, they should scarcely have known him. Yet, with their simple understandings, they could not have defined the change, which they recognized plainly enough, for it lay not so much in form and feature as in character. Abel Edwards's hair was white, he was somewhat fuller in his face, but otherwise he was little altered, so far as mere physical characteristics went. The change in him was subtler. Jerome had noticed it the night before, and it was evidently a permanent condition. Abel Edwards, from being a reserved man, with the self-containment of one who is buffeted by unfair odds of fate, yet will not stoop to vain appeals, but holds always to the front his face of dumb dissent and purpose, was become a garrulous and happy child. People hinted that Abel Edwards's mind was affected, but it was a question whether that was the case, or whether it was the simple result of his abandonment, fourteen years before, of the reins which had held an original nature in check. He might possibly have merely, when renouncing his toil over the up-grade of life, slipped back to his first estate, and thus have experienced in one sense no change at all.
Many of Abel's old friends and neighbors were not fully convinced of the desirability of his reappearance. When a man has been out of his foothold in the crowd for fourteen years, he cannot regain it without undue jostling of people's shoulders, and prejudices even. The resurrection of the dead might have, if the truth were told, uncomfortable and perplexing features for their nearest and dearest, and Abel Edwards had been practically dead and buried.
"They were gettin' along real well before he come; of course, they're glad to see him, but I dun'no' whether they'll get along as well with him or not," proclaimed Mrs. Green of Westbrook, with the very aggressiveness of frankness, and many looked assent.
Abel's wife had no question in her inmost heart of its utter blessedness at his return, but her grief at his loss had never healed. For that resolute feminine soul, which had fought on in spite of it, her husband had died anew every morning of those fourteen years when she awoke to consciousness of life; but it was different with his children. For both of them the old wounds had closed; it was now like tearing them asunder, for it is often necessary to revive an old pain to fully appreciate a present joy. Had Jerome and Elmira been older at the time of their father's disappearance, it would have been otherwise, but as it was, their old love for him had been obliterated, not merely by time and absence, but growth. It was practically impossible, though they would not have owned it to themselves, for them to love their father, when he first returned, as they had used. They were painfully anxious to be utterly faithful, and had an odd sort of tender but imaginative pity towards him, but they could grasp no more. Both of them hesitated when they said father; every time they returned home and found him there it was with a sensation of surprise.
Three days after Abel Edwards's return came one of the severest rain-storms ever known in Upham. The storm began before light; when people first looked out in the morning their windows were glazed with streaming wet, but it did not reach its full fury until eleven o'clock. Then the rain fell in green and hissing sheets.
"Gorry," Martin Cheeseman said, looking out of the mill door, which seemed to open into a solid wall of water, "looks as if the great deep was turned upsidedown overhead. If it keeps on this way long there'll be mischief."
"Think there'll be danger to the mill?" Jerome asked, quickly.
"No, I guess not, it's built strong; but I wouldn't resk the solid airth long under Niagry. Where you goin'?"
"Down to Robinson's store. I want to get something."
"Well, I should think you were half-witted to go out in this soak if you could keep a roof over your head," cried Cheeseman, but Jerome was gone.
He bought strong rope at Robinson's store, and before night the mill was anchored to some stout trees and one great granite bowlder. Cheeseman helped grumblingly. "I shall get laid up with rheumatiz out of it," he said; "an' this rain can't keep on, it ain't in natur', out of the Old Testament."
But the rain continued all that day and night, and the next day, with almost unremitting fury. At times it seemed more than rain—there were liquid shafts reaching from earth to sky. By noon of the second day, half the cellars in the village were flooded; coops floated in slatted wrecks over fields; the roads were knee-deep in certain places; the horses drew back—it was like fording a stream. People began to be alarmed.
"If this keeps on an hour longer, there'll be the devil to pay," Squire Eben Merritt said, when he came home to dinner. He had been down to Lawyer Means's and crossed the Graystone brook, which was now a swollen river.
"What will happen?" asked Abigail.
"Happen? The Main Street bridge will go, and the saw-mill, and the Lord knows what else."
Lucina turned pale.
"It will be hard on Jerome if he loses his mill," said her mother.
"Well, the boy will lose it if it keeps on," returned the Squire. "He's working hard, with four men to help him; they're loading it with stones and anchoring it with ropes, but it can't stand much more. I miss my guess, if the foundations are not undermined now."
Lucina said not a word, but as soon as she could she slipped up-stairs to her chamber and prayed that her Heavenly Father would save poor Jerome's mill, and stop the rain; but it kept on raining. When Lucina heard the fierce dash of it on her window-pane, like an angry dissent to her petition, she prayed more fervently, sobbing softly in the whiteness of her maiden bed; still it rained.
The mighty body of snow, pierced in a thousand places by the rain as by liquid fingers, settled with inconceivable rapidity. Great drifts which had slanted to the tops of north windows twelve hours before were almost gone. The wide snow-levels of the fields were all honey-combed and glistening here and there with pools. The trees dripped with clots of melting snow, there were avalanches from the village roofs, and even in the houses was heard the roar of the brook. It was, however, no longer a brook, not even a river, but a torrent. It over spread its banks on either side. Forest trees stood knee-deep in it, their branches swept it. At three o'clock Jerome's mill was surrounded, though on one side by only a rippling shallow of water. He had plenty of helpers all day; for if his dam and mill went, there was danger to the Main Street bridge. Now they had all taken advantage of the last firm footing, and left the mill. They had joined a watching group on a rise of ground beyond the flood. The rain was slacking somewhat, and half the male portion of the village seemed assembled, watching for the possible destruction of the mill. Now and then came a hoarse shout across the swelling water to Jerome. He alone remained in his mill, standing by the great door that overlooked the dam and the falls. He was high above it, but the spray wet his face.
The great yellow flood came leaping tumultuously over the dam, and rebounding in wild fountains of spray. Trees came with it, and joists—a bridge somewhere above had gone. Strange, uncanny wreckage, which could not be defined, bobbed on the torrent, and took the plunge of annihilation over the dam. Every now and then came a cry and a groan of doubt from the watchers, who thought this or that might be a drowned man.
Besides the thundering rush of the water there were other sounds, which Jerome seemed to hear with all his nervous system. The mill hummed with awful musical vibrations, it strained and creaked like a ship at sea.
The hoarse shouts from the shore for him to leave the mill were redoubled, but he paid no heed. He was on the other side, and knew nothing of a sudden commotion among the people when Jake Noyes came dashing through the trees and calling for Doctor Prescott, who had joined them some half hour before.
"Come quick, for God's sake!" he shouted; "you're wanted on the other side of the brook, and the bridge will be gone, and you'll have to go ten miles round. Colonel Lamson is down with apoplexy!"
Jerome did not know when the doctor followed Noyes hurriedly out to the road where his team was waiting, and Squire Eben Merritt went at a run after them, shouting back, "Don't let that boy stay in that mill too long; see to it, some of you."
There came a great barn-roof down-stream, followed by a tossing wake of hay and straw. The crowd on shore groaned. It broke when it passed the falls, and so the danger to the bridge below was averted, but a heavy beam slewed sidewise as it passed the mill, and struck it. The mill quivered in every beam, and the floor canted like the deck of a vessel. Martin Cheeseman rushed in and caught Jerome roughly by the arm. "For God's sake, what ye up to?" he shouted above the roar of the water, "Come along with ye. She's goin'!"
The old man had a rope tied to his middle; Jerome followed him, unresistingly, and they crossed, almost waist-deep and in danger of being swept from their foothold by the current. Cheeseman kept tight hold of Jerome's arm. "Bear up," he said, in a hoarse whisper, as they struggled out of the water; "life's more'n a mill."
"It's more than a mill that's going down," replied Jerome, in a dull monotone which Cheeseman did not hear. There were plenty of out-stretched hands to help them to the shore; the men pressed around with rude sympathy.
"It's darned hard luck," one and another said, with the defiant emphasis of an oath.
Then they turned from Jerome and riveted their attention upon the mill, which swayed visibly. Jerome stood apart, his back turned, looking away into the depths of the dripping woods. Cheeseman came up and clapped his shoulder hard. "Don't ye want to see it go?" he cried. "It's a sight. Might as well get all ye can out of it."
Jerome shook his head.
"Ye'd better. I tell ye, it's a sight. I've seen three go in my lifetime, an' one of 'em was my own. Lord, I looked on with the rest! Might as well get all the fun you can out of your own funeral. Hullo! There—there goes the dam, an'—there goes the mill!"
There was a wild chorus of shouts and groans. Jerome's mill went reeling down-stream, but he did not see it. He had heard the new spouting roar of water and the crash, and knew what it meant, but look he would not.
"Ye missed it," said Cheeseman.
Some of the men came up and wrung his hand hurriedly, then were off with the crowd to see the Main Street bridge go. Jerome sat down weakly on a pile of sodden logs, which the flood had not reached.
Cheeseman stared at him. "What on airth are you settin' down there for?" he asked.
"I'm going, pretty soon," Jerome replied.
"You'll catch your death, settin' there in those wet clothes. Come, git up and go home."
Jerome did not stir; his white face was set straight ahead; he muttered something which the other could not hear. Cheeseman looked at him perplexedly. He laid hold of his shoulder and shook him again, and ordered him angrily, with no avail; then set off himself. He was old, and the chill of his wet clothes was stealing through him.
Not long afterwards Jerome went down the road towards home. Half way there he met a hurrying man, belated for the tragic drama on the village stage.
"Hullo!" he called, excitedly. "Your mill gone?"
"Gosh! Bridge gone?"
"Gosh! if I ain't quick, I'll miss the whole show," cried the man, with a spurt ahead; but, after all, he stopped a moment and looked back curiously at Jerome plodding down the flooded road, his weary figure bent stiffly, with the slant of his own dejectedness, athwart the pelting slant of the storm.
Jerome, when his mill went down, felt that his dearest hope in life went with it. His fighting spirit did not fail him; he had not the least inclination to settle back for the buffets of fate; but the combat henceforth would be for honor only, not victory. He felt that his defeats had established themselves in an endless ratio to his efforts.
"I shall go to work again, and save up money for a new mill. I shall build it after a long while; but something will always happen to put me back, and I shall never marry her," he told himself.
Had he the money with which he had made good his father's loss, he could have rebuilt in a short time, but he did not consider the possibility of taking that and, perhaps, supplementing it by a loan from his father. "It would break the old man's heart to touch his money," he said, "and the mill might go again, and it would all be lost."
On the morning after the destruction of his mill, Squire Eben Merritt came to Jerome's door, and gave him a daintily folded little note. "Lucina sent this to you," he said, and eyed him with a sort of sad keenness as he took it and thanked him in a bewildered fashion, his haggard face reddening.
The Squire himself looked as if he had passed a sleepless night, his fresh color had faded, his face was elongated. "I'm sorry enough about your loss, my boy," he said, "but I can't say as much as I might, or feel as much as I might, if my old friend hadn't gone down in—a deeper flood." The Squire's voice broke. Jerome looked away from his working face. He had scarcely, in his own selfishness of loss, grasped the news of Colonel Lamson's death, which had taken place before the bridge went down and before the doctor arrived. He muttered something vaguely sympathetic in response. Lucina's little letter seemed to burn his fingers.
The Squire dashed his hand across his eyes, coughed hard, then glanced at the letter. "Lucina has been talking to her mother," he said, abruptly. "It seems the—Colonel Lamson had told her something that you said to him. We didn't know how matters stood. By-and-by you and I will have a talk. Don't be too down-hearted over the mill—there's more than one way out of that difficulty. In the meantime, there's her letter—I've read it. She's cried all night because your damned mill has gone, and looks sick enough to call the doctor this morning, and, by the Lord Harry! sir, you can think yourself a lucky fellow!" With that the Squire shook his head fiercely and strode down the path with bowed shoulders. Jerome went up-stairs with his letter.
"What did the Squire want?" his mother called, but he did not heed her.
It was his first letter from Lucina. He opened it and read; there were only a few delicately formed lines, but for him they were as finely cut, with all possible lights of meaning, as a diamond:
"Dear Friend" [wrote Lucina],—"I beg you to accept my sympathy in the disaster which has befallen your property, and I implore you not to be disheartened, and not to consider me unmaidenly for signing myself your ever faithful and constant friend, through all the joys or vicissitudes of life.
This letter, modelled after the fashion which Lucina had learned at school, whereby she bound and laced over with set words and phrases, as with a species of emotional stays, her love and pity, not considering it decorous to give them full breath, filled Jerome with happiness and despair. He understood that Colonel Lamson had betrayed him, that Lucina, all unasked, had bound herself in love and faithfulness to him through all his failing efforts.
"I won't have it—I won't have it!" he muttered, fiercely, but he kissed the little letter with exulting rapture. "I've got this much, anyhow," he thought.
He wondered if he should answer it. How could he refuse her dear constancy and affection, yet how could he accept it? He had no hope of marrying her, he reasoned that it would be better for her should he even repulse her rudely. It would be like screwing the rack for his own body to do that, but he declared to himself that he ought. "She'll never marry at all, if she waits for you; it'll hinder her looking at somebody else; she'll be an old maid, she'll be all alone in the world, with no husband or children, and you know it," he told himself, with a kind of mental squaring of his own fists in his face. All the time, with that curious, dogmatic selfishness which has sometimes its roots in unselfishness itself, he never considered the effect upon poor Lucina of the repulse of her love and constancy. Such was his ardor for unselfishness that, in its pursuit, he would have made all others selfish nor cared.
That day the sun shone in a bright, windy sky. The snow was nearly gone, the brook still leaped in a furious torrent, but there was no more danger from it. The waters were, in fact, receding slowly. Jerome worked all day near the ruinous site of his mill, and Martin Cheeseman with him. He had a quantity of logs and lumber, which had escaped the flood, to care for. Cheeseman inquired if he was going to rebuild the mill.
"When I get money enough," Jerome replied, with a sturdy fling of a log.
"'Ain't ye got most enough?"
"Ye ought to have. What ye done with it?"
"Put it to a good use," Jerome said, with no resentment of the other's curiosity.
"Why don't ye hire money, if ye 'ain't got enough?"
"I don't hire money," answered Jerome, and heaved another log with a splendid swing from his shoulders.
Cheeseman looked at him doubtfully. "Well," he said, "I 'ain't got none to hire. I've got my money out of mills on the banks of roarin' streams, an' I'm goin' to keep it out. I believe in Providence, but I don't believe in temptin' of it. I 'ain't got no money to hire."
"And I don't want to hire, so we sha'n't quarrel about that," Jerome replied, shortly.
"I don't say that I wouldn't let ye have a little money, if you needed it, an' it was for somethin' safe for both of us," said Cheeseman, uneasily, "but, as I said before, I don't believe in temptin' of Providence, especially when it seems set agin you."
"I am not going to shirk any blame off on to Providence," Jerome responded, scornfully. "It was Stimson's weak dam up above."
"Mebbe the dam was weak, but Providence took advantage of it," insisted Cheeseman, who, in spite of his cheerful temperament, had a gloomy theology. "I'd like to know why ye think your mill went down; do ye think ye done anything to deserve it?" he said, further, in an argumentative tone.
"If I thought I had, I'd do it again," Jerome returned, and went off to a distant pile of lumber out of sound of Cheeseman's voice.
He felt a proud sensitiveness, almost a shame, over his calamity, which he would have been at a loss to explain. All day long, when men came to view the scene of disaster, he tried to avoid them. He shrank in spirit even from their sympathy.
"No worse for me than for anybody else," he would reply, when told repeatedly, with gruff condolence, that it was hard luck. His sensitiveness might have arisen from some hereditary taint from his orthodox ancestors of their belief that misfortune is the whip-lash for sin, or from his native resentment of pity. At home he could not talk of it either with his mother or Elmira; as for his father, he sat in the sun and dozed. It was doubtful if he fully realized what had happened.
Jerome worked in the woods that day until after dark; when he went home he found that the Squire had been there with a request for him to be one of the bearers at the Colonel's funeral. That was considered a post of melancholy honor, and his mother looked sadly important over it.
"I s'pose as long as the poor Colonel is gone himself, an' there's only three left that he used to be so intimate with, that they thought you would be a good one," said she.
"It is strange they did not ask some one nearer his age," Jerome said, wonderingly.
The funeral was appointed for the next afternoon. Jerome sat in the parlor of the Means house with the mourners, who were few, as the dead man had no kin in Upham. Indeed, there was nobody except his three old friends, his house-keeper, and Abigail Merritt and Lucina.
Jerome did not look at Lucina, nor she at him; as the service went on, he heard her weeping softly. The minister, Solomon Wells, standing near the black length of the coffin, lifted his voice in eulogy of the dead. The parlor door-way and that of the room beyond, were set with faces straining with attention.
The minister's voice was weak; every now and then people looked inquiringly at one another, and there were fine hisses of interrogation. This parlor of the Means house had never been used since the time of the lawyer's mother. Women had been hard at work there all day, but still there was over everything a dim, filmy effect, as of petrified dust and damp. A great pier-glass loomed out of the gloom of a wall like a sheet of fog, with scarcely a gleam of gold left in its tarnished frame. The steel engravings over the mantel-shelf and between the windows showed blue hazes of mildew. The mahogany and rosewood of the furniture was white in places; there had been a good fire all day, but all the covers and the carpet steamed in one's face with cold damp. However, scarcely a woman in Upham but would have been willing to be a legitimate mourner for the sake of investigating the mysterious best-room, which had had a certain glory in the time of the lawyer's mother.
A great wreath of white flowers lay on the coffin. Its breathless sweetness clung to the nostrils and seemed to fill the whole house. Now and then a curl of pungent smoke floated from the door-cracks of the air-tight stove. All the high lights in the room were the silver of the coffin trimmings and the white wreath.
Solomon Wells had a difficult task. The popular opinion of Colonel Jack Lamson in Upham was that he had led a hard life, and had hastened his end by strong drink. He could neither tell the commonly accepted truth out of respect to the deceased, nor lies out of regard to morality. However, one favorable point in the character of the deceased, upon which people were agreed, was his geniality and bluff heartiness of good-humor. That the minister so enlarged and displayed to the light of admiration that he almost made of it the aureole of a saint. He was obliged then to take refuge in the broad field of generalities, and discourse upon his text of "All flesh is as grass," until his hearers might well lose sight of the importance of any individual flicker of a grass blade to this wind or that, before the ultimate end of universal hay.
Solomon Wells was not a brilliant man, but he had a fine instinct for other people's corns and prejudices. Everybody agreed that his remarks were able; there were no dissenting voices. He concluded with an apt and solemnly impressive reference to the wheat and the chaff, the garnering and the casting into furnace, leaving the application concerning the deceased wholly to his audience. That completed his success. When he sat down there was a heaving sigh of applause.
All through the discourse, the hymns, and the concluding prayer, Lucina sobbed softly at intervals, her face hidden in her cambric handkerchief. Somehow it went to her tender soul that the poor Colonel should be lying there with no wife or child to mourn him; then she had loved him, as she had loved everybody and everything that had come kindly into her life. Every time she thought of the corals and the beautiful ear-rings which the Colonel had given her she wept afresh. Moreover, the motive for tears is always complex; hers may have been intensified somewhat by her anxiety about her lover and his misfortune. Now and then her mother touched her arm remonstratingly. "Hush; you'll make yourself sick, child," she whispered, softly; but poor Lucina was helpless before her grief.
The Squire, John Jennings, and Lawyer Means all sat by the dead body of their friend, with pale and sternly downcast faces. Jerome looked scarcely less sad. He remembered as he sat there every kind word which the Colonel had ever spoken to him, and every one seemed magnified a thousand-fold. This call to lend his living strength towards the bearing of the dead man to his last home seemed like a call to a labor of love and gratitude, though he was still much perplexed that he should have been selected.
"There's Doctor Prescott and Cyrus Robinson and Uncle Ozias—any one of them nearer his own age," he thought. It was not until the next day but one that the mystery was solved. That night Lawyer Eliphalet Means came to see Jerome, and informed him that the Colonel had left a will, whereby he was entitled to a legacy of twenty-five thousand dollars.
Colonel Lamson's will divided sixty-five thousand dollars among five legatees—ten thousand was given to John Jennings, five thousand to Eliphalet Means, five thousand to Eben Merritt, twenty thousand to Lucina Merritt, and twenty-five thousand to Jerome Edwards.
Upham was not astonished by the first four bequests; the last almost struck it dumb. "What in creation did he leave twenty-five thousand dollars to that feller for? He wa'n't nothin' to him," Simon Basset stammered, when he first heard the news on Tuesday night in Robinson's store. His face was pale and gaping, and folk stared at him.
Suddenly a man cried out, "By gosh, J'rome promised to give the hull on't away! Don't ye remember?"
"That's so," cried another; "an' Doctor Prescott an' Basset have got to hand out ten thousand apiece if he does. Fork over, Simon."
"Guess ye'll wait till doomsday afore J'rome sticks to his part on't," said Basset, with a sneer; but his lips were white.
"No, I won't; no, I won't," responded the man, hilariously. "J'rome's goin' to do it; Jake here says he heard so; it come real straight." He winked at the others, who closed around, grinning maliciously.
Basset broke through them with an oath and made for the door. "It's a damned lie, I tell ye!" he shouted, hoarsely; "an' if J'rome's sech a G— d— fool, I'll see ye all to h—, and him too, afore I pay a dollar on't."
When the door had slammed behind him, the men looked at one another curiously. "You don't s'pose J'rome will do it," one said, meditatively.
"He'll do it when the river runs uphill an' crows are white," answered another, with a hard laugh.
"I dun'no'," said another, doubtfully. "J'rome Edwards 's always been next-door neighbor to a fool, an' there's no countin' on what a fool 'll do!"
"S'pose you'd calculate on comin' in for some of the fool's money, if he should give it up," remarked a dry and unexpected voice at his elbow.
The man looked around and saw Ozias Lamb. "Ye don't think he'll do it, do ye?" he cried, eagerly.
"'Ain't got nothin' to say," replied Ozias. "I s'pose when a fool does part with his money, there's always wise men 'nough to take it."
John Upham, who, with some meagre little purchases in hand, had been listening to the discussion, started for the door. When he had opened it, he turned and faced them. "I'll tell ye one thing, all of ye," he said, "an' that is, he'll do it."
There was a clamor of astonishment. "How d'ye know it? Did he tell ye so?" they shouted.
"Wait an' see," returned John Upham, and went out.
Plodding along his homeward road, a man passed him at a rapid stride. John Upham started. "Hullo, J'rome," he called, but getting no response, thought he had been mistaken.
However, the man was Jerome, but the tumult of his soul almost deafened him to voices of the flesh. He was, for the time, out of the plane of purely physical sounds on one of the spirit, full of unutterable groanings and strivings.
When Jerome had received the news of his legacy, he had felt, for the first time in his whole life, the joy of sudden acquisition and possession. His head reeled with it; he was, in a sense, intoxicated. "Am I rich? I—I?" he asked himself. Pleasures hitherto out of his imagination of possession seemed to float within his reach on this golden tide of wealth.
He would have been more than man had not this first grasp of the divining-rod of the pleasures of earth filled him with the lust of them. Even his love for Lucina, and his parents and sister, seemed for a while subverted by that love for himself, to which the chance of its gratification gave rise. Vanities which he had never known within his nature, and petty emulations, rose thick, like a crop of weeds on a rich soil. He saw himself in broadcloth and fine linen, with a great festoon of gold chain on his breast and a gold watch in pocket, walking with haughty flourishes of a cane, or riding in his own carriage. He saw himself in a new house, grander than Doctor Prescott's; he saw his parlor more richly furnished, his wife, his mother and sister more finely attired than any women in the village, his father throned like a king in the late sunshine of life. Jerome had usually sound financial judgment and conservative estimate of the value of money, but now he thought of twenty-five thousand dollars as almost unlimited wealth.
That night, after he had the news from Lawyer Means, he could not sleep until nearly morning. He lay awake, spending, mentally, principal and interest of his little fortune over and over, and spending, besides that, much of the singleness and unselfishness of his own heart.
However, after an hour or two of sleep, which seemed to turn, as sleep sometimes will, the erratic currents of his mind back into the old channels, from which it had been forced by this earthquake stress of life, he experienced a complete revulsion.
He remembered—what he had either forgotten or ignored—the scene in the store, his vow, the drawing up of the document which registered it. He awoke into this memory as into a chilling atmosphere, and went down-stairs with a grave face. He met his mother's and sister's almost hysterical delight, which had not abated overnight, his father's child-like wonder and admiration, soberly; as soon as he could, he got away to his work, which was still in the wood where his mill had stood. Cheeseman had gone home, still Jerome was not alone much of the day. People came to congratulate him, also out of curiosity. The little village was wild over the legacy, and the document concerning its division among the poor.
There were two distinct factions, one upholding the belief that Jerome would remain true to his promise, the other full of scoffing and scorn at the insanity of it. Both factions invaded Jerome, and while neither broached the matter directly, strove by indirect and sly methods to ascertain his mind.
"S'pose ye'll quit work now, J'rome; s'prised to see ye here this mornin'," said one.
"When ye goin' to run for Congress, J'rome?" asked another.
Still another inquired, meaningly, with a sly wink at his comrades, how much money he was going to allow for home missions? and another, when he was going to Boston to buy his gold watch and chain? Until he went home at night he was haunted by the doubtful attention of the idle portion, just now large, of the village population.
It was too early for planting, and quite recently the supply of work from the Dale shoe-dealer had been scanty. People were at a loss to account for it, as the business had increased during the last two years, and many Upham men had been employed. Lately there had been a rumor as to the cause, but few had given it credence.
This afternoon, however, it was confirmed. Just before dark, a man, breathless, as if he had been running, joined the knot of loafers. "Well," he said, panting, "I've found out why the shoes have been so scarce."
The others stared at him, inquiringly.
"That—durned varmint, over to Dale, he's bought the old meetin'-house, an'—sent down to Boston fer—some machines, an'—he's goin' to have a factory. There's no more handwork to be done; that's the reason he's been holdin' it back."
"How'd ye find it out? Who told ye?" asked one and another, scowling.
"Saw 'em, with my own eyes, unloadin' of the new machines at the railroad, an' saw the gang of men he's got to work 'em hangin' round his store. It's the railroad that's done it. It's made freight to Boston cheap enough so's he can make it pay. Robinson's goin' to give up shoes here. I had it straight. He don't want to compete with machine-work, and he don't want to put in machines himself. It was an unlucky day for Upham when that railroad went through Dale."
"Curse the railroad, an' curse all the new ideas that take the bread out of poor men's mouths to give it to the rich," said a bitter voice, and there was a hoarse amen from the crowd.
"I'd give ten years of my life if I could raise enough money, or, if a few of us together could raise enough money, to start a factory in Upham," cried a man, fiercely, "then we'd see whether it was brains as good as other men's that were lacking!"
The man, who had not been there long, was quite young, not much older than Jerome, and had a keen, thin face, with nervous red spots coming and going in his cheeks, and fiery, deep-set eyes. He had the reputation of being very smart and energetic, and having considerable self-taught book-knowledge. He had a wife and two babies, and was, if the truth were told, staying away from home that day that his wife, who was a delicate, anxious young thing, might think he was at work. He had eaten nothing since morning.
"We shouldn't be no better off, if you put machines in your factory," said a squat, elderly man, with a surly overhanging brow and a dull weight of jaw.
"I guess we who are not too old to learn could run machines as well as anybody, if we tried," returned the young man, scornfully; "and as for the rest, handwork is always going to have a market value, and there'll always be some sort of a demand for it. It would go hard if we couldn't give those that couldn't run machines something to do, if we had the factory; but we haven't, and, what's more, we sha'n't have." As he spoke, he went over to Jerome, who was prying up a heavy log, and lifted with him.
"Do you think you could form a company, if you had enough money between you?" Jerome asked him.
"Yes, of course; we'd be fools if we didn't," he said.
"I say, curse the railroads and the machines! I wish every railroad track in the country was tore up! I wish every train of cars was kindlin'-wood, an' all the engine wheels an' the machine wheels would lock, till the crack of doom!" shouted the bitter voice again.
"There's no use in damning progress because we happen to be in the way of it. I'd rather be run over than lock the wheels myself," Jerome said, suddenly.
"It remains to be seen whether ye would or not," the voice returned, with sarcastic meaning. There was a smothered chuckle from the crowd, which began to disperse; the shadows were getting thick in the wood.
After supper that night, Jerome went up to his room, and sat down at his window. His curtain was pulled high. He looked out into the darkness and tried to think, but directly a door slammed, and a shrill babble of feminine tongues began in the room below. Belinda Lamb had arrived.
Jerome got his hat, stole softly down-stairs, and out of the front door. "I've got to be alone somewhere, where I can think," he said to himself, and forthwith made for the site of his mill; he could be sure of solitude there at that hour.
When he arrived, he sat down on a pile of logs and gazed unseeingly at the broad current of the brook, silvering out of the shadows to the light of a young moon. The roar of it was loud in his ears, but he did not seem to hear it. There are times when the spirit of the living so intensifies that it comes into a silence and darkness of nature like death.
Jerome, in the solitude of the woods, without another human soul near, could concentrate his own into full action. As he sat there, he began to defend his own case like a lawyer against a mighty opponent, whom he recognized from the dogmas of orthodoxy, and also from an insight inherited from generations of Calvinistic ancestors, as his own conscience.
Jerome presented his case tersely, the arguments were all clearly determined beforehand. "This twenty-five thousand dollars," he said, "will lift me and mine out of grinding poverty. If I give it up, my father and mother and sister will have none of it. Father has come home unfit for any further struggles; mother has aged during the last few days. She was nerved up to bear trouble, the shock of joy has taken her last strength. She can do little now. This money will make them happy and comfortable through their last days. If I give up this money, they may come to want. I have lost my work in Dale, like the rest; I may not be able to get a living, even; we may all suffer. This money will give my sister a marriage-portion, and possibly influence Doctor Prescott to favor his son's choice. If that does not, my failure to carry out my part of the agreement, and the doctor's consequent release from his, may influence him to make no further opposition. If I give the money, and so force the doctor to give his, or put him to shame for refusing, Elmira can never marry Lawrence. I can give more to Uncle Ozias than he would receive as his share of a common division. I can send Henry Judd to Boston to have his eyes cured. And—I can marry Lucina Merritt. She loves me, she is waiting for me. I have not answered her letter. She is wondering now why I do not come. If I give up the money, I can never marry her—I can never come."
Then the great still voice, which was, to his conception, within him, yet without, through all nature, had its turn, and Jerome listened.
Then he answered, fiercely, as to spoken arguments. "I know the whole is greater than the parts; I know that to make a whole village prosperous and happy is more than the welfare of three or four, but the three and the four come first, and that which I would have for myself is divine, and of God, and I cannot be what I would be without it, for no man who hungers gets his full strength. If I give this, it is all. I can make no more of my life."
He looked as if he listened again for a moment, and then stood up. "Well," he said, "it is true, if a man gives his all he can do no more, and no more can be asked of him. What I have said I will do, I will do, and I will save neither myself nor mine by a lie which I must lie to—my own soul!"
Jerome went down the path to the road, but stopped suddenly, as if he had got a blow. "Oh, my God!" he cried, "Lucina!" All at once a consideration had struck him which had never fully done so before. All at once he grasped the possibility that Lucina might suffer from his sacrifice as much as he. "I can bear it—myself," he groaned, "but Lucina, Lucina; suppose—it should kill her—suppose it should—break her heart. I am stronger to suffer than she. If I could bear hers and mine, if I could bear it all. Oh, Lucina, I cannot hurt you—I cannot, I cannot! It is too much to ask. God, I cannot!"
Jerome stood still, in an involuntary attitude of defiance. His arm was raised, his fist clinched, as if for a blow; his face uplifted with stern reprisal; then his arm dropped, his tense muscles relaxed. "I could not marry her if I did not give it up," he said. "I should not be worthy of her; there is no other way."
Jerome went to Lawyer Means's that night. Means, himself, answered his knock, and Jerome opened abruptly upon the subject in his mind. "I want to give away that money, as I said I would," he declared.
The lawyer peered above a flaring candle into the darkness. "Oh, it is you, is it! Come in."
"No, I can't come in. It isn't necessary. I have nothing to say but that. I want to give away the money, according to that paper you drew up, and I want you to arrange it."
"You've made up your mind to keep that fool's promise, have you?"
"Look here, young man, have you thought this over?"
"You know what you're going to lose. You remember that your own family—your father and mother and sister—can't profit by the gift?"
"Yes, sir; I have thought it all over."
"Do you realize that if you stick to your part of the bargain, it does not follow that the doctor and Basset will stick to theirs?"
Jerome stared at him. "Didn't they sign that document before witnesses?"
The lawyer laughed. "That document isn't worth the paper it's written on. It was all horse-play. Didn't you know that, Jerome?"
"Did the doctor and Basset know it?"
"The doctor did. He wouldn't have signed, otherwise. As for Basset—well, I don't know, but if he comes and asks me, as he will before he unties his purse strings, I shall tell him the truth about it, as I'm bound to, and not a dollar will he part with after he finds out that he hasn't got to. You can judge for yourself whether Doctor Seth Prescott is likely to fling away a fourth of his property in any such fool fashion as this."
"Well, I don't know that it makes any difference to me whether they give or not," said Jerome, proudly.
"Do you mean that you will abide by your part of the agreement if the others do not abide by theirs?"
"I mean, that I keep my promise when I can; and if every other man under God's footstool breaks his, it is no reason why I should break mine."
"That sounds very fine," said the lawyer, dryly; "but do you realize, my young friend, how far your large fortune alone would go when divided among the poor of this village?"
"Yes, sir; I have reckoned it up. There are about one hundred who would come under the terms of the agreement. My money alone, divided among them, would give about two hundred and fifty dollars apiece."
"That is a large sum."
"It is large to a man who has never seen fifty dollars at once in his hand, and it is large when several unite and form a company for a new factory, with machines."
"Do you think they will do that?"
"Yes, sir. Henry Eames will set it going; give him a chance."
"Why don't you, instead of parting with your money, set up the factory yourself, and employ the whole village?"
"That is not what I said I would do, and it is better for the village to employ itself. I might fail, or my factory might go, as my mill has."
"How long do you suppose it will be that every man will have his two hundred and fifty dollars after you have given it to him? Tell me that, if you can."
"That isn't my lookout."
"Why isn't it your lookout? A careless giver is as bad as a thief, sir."
"I am not a careless giver," replied Jerome, stoutly. "I can't tell, and no man can tell, how long they will keep what I give them, or how long it will be before the stingiest and wisest get their shares away from the weak; but that is no more reason why I should not give this money than it is a reason why the Lord Almighty should not furnish us all with fingers and toes, and our five senses, and our stomachs."
"You might add, our immortal souls, which the parsons say we'll get snatched away from us if we don't watch out," said Means, with a short laugh. "Well, Jerome, it is too late for me to attend to this business to-night. I am worn out, too, by what I have been through lately. Come to-morrow, and, if you are of the same mind, we'll fix it up."
Somewhat to Jerome's surprise, the lawyer extended a lean, brown hand for his, which he shook warmly, with a hearty "Good-night, sir."
"I don't believe he was trying to hinder me from giving it, after all," Jerome thought, as he went down the hill.
Eliphalet Means, shuffling in loose slippers, returned to his sitting-room, where were John Jennings and Eben Merritt. There were no cards, and no punch, and no conviviality for the three bereaved friends that night. The three sat before the fire, and each smoked a melancholy pipe, and each, when he looked at or spoke to the others, looked and spoke, whatever his words might be, to the memory of their dead comrade.
The chair in which the Colonel had been used to sit stood a little aloof, at a corner of the fireplace. Often one of the trio would eye it with furtive mournfulness, looking away again directly without a glance at the others.
When Means entered, he was smiling, for the first time that evening. "Well," he said, "I have seen something to-night that I have never seen before, that I shall never see again, and that no man in this town has ever seen before, or will see again, unless he lives till the millennium."
The others stared at him. "What d'ye mean?" asked the Squire.
"I have seen something rarer than a white black-bird, and harder to discover than the north pole. I have seen a poor man, clothed and in his right mind, give away every dollar of a fortune within three days after he got it."
The two men looked at him, speechless. "He hasn't!" gasped the Squire, finally.
"By the Lord Harry!"
"Well," said John Jennings, slowly, "if I had started out on a search for such a man I should have wanted more than Diogenes's lantern."
"And I should have called for blue-lights and rockets, the aurora borealis, chain lightning, the solar system, and the eternal light of nature, but I discovered him with a penny dip," said Eliphalet Means, chuckling. He stood on the hearth before his two friends, his back to the fire; it was a cool night, and he had got chilled at the open door.
"He is going to give away the whole of it?" John Jennings said, with wondering rumination.
Means looked at them, all the shrewd humor faded out of his face. "I've got something to tell both of you," he said, gravely; "and, Eben, while I think of it, I have a letter that he wanted given to your daughter. Remind me to hand it over to you to take to her when you go home to-night. I've got something to tell you; the time has come; he said it would. I didn't half believe it, God forgive me. I tell you, I've got a keen scent for the bad in human nature, but he had a keen one for the good. He'd have made a sharp counsel on the right side. After he got his money, he used to talk day and night about the poverty of this town. He had a great heart. He—wanted and intended that twenty-five thousand dollars to go just the way it is going." The lawyer, with every word, shook his skinny right hand before the others' faces; he paused a second and looked at them with solemn impressiveness; then he continued: "He wanted to give that twenty-five thousand dollars, in equal parts, to the poor of this town, as indicated in that instrument which I drew up at Robinson's for Prescott and Basset, but instead of giving it himself he left it to Jerome Edwards to give. He said that it would amount to the same thing, and I tried to argue him out of it. I did not believe any man could stand the temptation of a fortune between his fingers, but he said Jerome Edwards could and would, and the money was as sure to go as he intended it to as if he doled it out himself in dollars and cents, and he was right. God bless him! And—that twenty-five thousand dollars is going just the way he meant it to go."
The next day Jerome went again to Lawyer Means's. It was near noon when he returned; he met many people on the road, and they all looked at him strangely. Men stood in knots, and the hum of their conversation died low when he drew near. They nodded to him with curious respect and formality; after he had passed, the rumble of voices began anew. One woman, whom he met just before he turned the corner of his own road, stopped and held out a slender, trembling hand.
"I want to shake hands with you, J'rome," she said, in a sweet, hysterical voice. Then she raised to his a worn face, with the piteous downward lines of old tears at mouth and eyes, and a rasped red, as of tears and frost, on thin cheeks. "That money is goin' to save my little home for me; I didn't know but I'd got to go on the town. God bless you, J'rome," she whispered, quaveringly.
"The Colonel's the one to be thanked," Jerome said.
"I come under that agreement, don't I?" she asked, anxiously. "They told me that lone women without anybody to support 'em came under it."
"Yes, you do, Miss Patch."
"Oh, God bless you, God bless you, J'rome Edwards!" she cried, with a fervor strange upon a New England tongue.
"Colonel Lamson is the one to have the thanks and the credit," Jerome repeated, pushing gently past her. His face was hot. He wondered, as he approached his house, if his own family had heard the news. As soon as he opened the door he saw that they had. Elmira did not lift a white, dumbly accusing face from her work; his father looked at him with curious, open-mouthed wonder; his mother spoke.
"I want to know if it's true," she said.
"Yes, mother, it is."
"You've given it all away?"
"Your own folks won't get none of it?"
Jerome shook his head. He had a feeling as if he were denying his own flesh and blood; for the moment even his own conscience turned upon him, and accused him of injustice and lack of filial love and gratitude.
Ann Edwards looked at her son, with a face of pale recrimination and awe. She opened her mouth to speak, then closed it without a word. "I never had a black silk dress in my life," said she, finally, in a shaking voice, and that was all the reproach which she ever offered.
"You shall have a black silk dress anyhow, mother," Jerome replied, piteously. He went out of the room, and his father got up and followed him, closing the door mysteriously.
"That was a good deal to give away, J'rome," he whispered.
"I know it, father, and I'll work my fingers to the bone to make it good to you and mother. That's all I've got to live for now."
"J'rome," whispered the father, thrusting his old face into his son's, with an angelic expression.
"What is it, father?"
"You shall have my fifteen hundred, an' build a new mill."
"Father, I'd die before I'd touch a dollar of your money!" cried Jerome, passionately, and, tears in his eyes, flung away out to the barn, whither he was bound, to feed the horse.
He watched all day for a chance to speak alone to Elmira, but she gave him none, until after supper that night. Then, when he beckoned her into the parlor, she followed him.
"Elmira," he said, "don't feel any worse about this than you can help. I had to do it."
"If you care more about strangers than you do about your own, that is all there is to it," she said, in a quiet voice, looking coldly in his face.
"Elmira, it isn't that. You don't understand."
"I have said all I have to say."
"Let me tell you—"
"I have heard all I want to."
"Elmira, don't give up so. Maybe things will be brighter somehow. I had to do my duty."
"It is a noble thing to do your duty," she said, with a bitter smile on her little face. Elmira, that night, seemed like a stranger to Jerome, and maybe to herself. Despair had upstirred from the depths of her nature strange, tigerish instincts, which otherwise might have slept there unmanifest forever. She also had not failed to appreciate Jerome's action in all its bearings upon herself and Lawrence Prescott, and, when she heard of it, had given up all her longing hope of happiness.
"You have to do it, whether it is noble or not," returned Jerome.
"Of course," said she, "and if your sister is in the way of it, trample her down; don't stop for that." She went out, but turned back, and added, harshly, "I saw Jake Noyes this afternoon on my way home. He was coming here to ask you to go up to Doctor Prescott's this evening; he wants to see you. If he says anything about me, you can tell him that as long as he and you do your duty, I am satisfied. I ask nothing more, not even his precious son." Elmira rushed across the entry, with a dry sob. Jerome stood still a moment; it seemed to him that he had undertaken more than he could bear. A dreadful thought came to him; suppose Lucina were to look upon him as his sister did. Suppose she were to take it all in the same way. It did not seem as if she could, but she was a woman, like his sister, and how could he tell?
Jerome got his hat and went to Doctor Prescott's. He wondered why he had been summoned there, and braced himself for almost anything in the way of contumely, but with no dread of it. The prospect of legitimate combat, where he could hit back, acted like a stimulant after his experience with his sister.
Lawrence Prescott answered his knock, and Jerome wondered, vaguely, at his radiant welcome. He shook his hand with warm emphasis. "Father is in the study," he said; "walk right in—walk right in, Jerome." Then he added, speaking close to Jerome's ear, "God bless you, old fellow!"
Jerome gave an astonished glance at him as he went into the study, whose door stood open. Doctor Prescott was seated at his desk, his back towards the entrance.
"Good-evening. Sit down," he said, curtly, without turning his head.
"Good-evening, sir," replied Jerome, but remained standing. He stood still, and stared, with that curious retrospection into which the mind can often be diverted from even its intensest channels, at the cases of leather-bound books and the grimy medicine-bottles, green and brown with the sediments of old doses, which had so impressed him in his childhood. He saw, with an acute throb of memory, the old valerian bottle, catching the light like liquid ruby. He had stepped back so completely into his past, of a little, pitiful suppliant, yet never wholly intimidated, boy, in this gloomy, pungent interior, that he started, as across a chasm of time, when the doctor arose, came forward, and spoke again. "Be seated," he said, with an imperious wave towards a chair, and took one for himself.
Jerome sat down; in spite of himself, as he looked at the doctor opposite, the same old indignant, yet none the less vital, sense of subjection in the presence of superiority was over him as in his childhood. He saw again Doctor Seth Prescott as the incarnation of force and power. There was, in truth, something majestic about the man—he was an autocrat in a narrow sphere; but his autocracy was genuine. The czar of a little New England village may be as real in quality as the Czar of all the Russias.
The doctor began to speak, moving his finely cut lips with clear precision.
"I understand," said he, "that you have fulfilled the promise which you made in my presence several years ago, to give away twenty-five thousand dollars, should such a sum be given to you. Am I right in so understanding?"
"Do you know that the instrument, drawn up by Lawyer Means at that time is illegal, that no obligation stated therein could be enforced?"
"Who told you—Mr. Means?"
"Before you gave the money or after?"
"You know that I am not under the slightest legal restriction to give the sum for which I stand pledged in that instrument, even though you have fulfilled your part of the agreement."
"It depends upon what you consider a legal restriction."
"What do you mean by that?"
"I mean that I make no promise which is not a legal restriction upon myself," replied Jerome, with a proud look at the other man.
"Neither do I," returned the doctor, with a look as proud; "but your remark is simply a quibble, which we will pass over. I say again, that I am under no legal restriction, in the common acceptance of that term, to give a fourth part of my property to the poor of this town. That you admit?"