Jerome, A Poor Man
By Mary E. Wilkins
Author of "Prembroke" "Jane Field" "Madelon" "A Humble Romance" etc.
Illustrated by A. I. Keller
New York and London Harper & Brothers Publishers 1897
To My Father
One morning in early May, when the wind was cold and the sun hot, and Jerome about twelve years old, he was in a favorite lurking-place of his, which nobody but himself knew.
Three fields' width to the northward from the Edwardses' house was a great rock ledge; on the southern side of it was a famous warm hiding-place for a boy on a windy spring day. There was a hollow in the rock for a space as tall as Jerome, and the ledge extended itself beyond it like a sheltering granite wing to the westward.
The cold northwester blowing from over the lingering Canadian snow-banks could not touch him, and he had the full benefit of the sun as it veered imperceptibly south from east. He lay there basking in it like some little animal which had crawled out from its winter nest. Before him stretched the fields, all flushed with young green. On the side of a gentle hill at the left a file of blooming peach-trees looked as if they were moving down the slope to some imperious march music of the spring.
In the distance a man was at work with plough and horse. His shouts came faintly across, like the ever-present notes of labor in all the harmonies of life. The only habitation in sight was Squire Eben Merritt's, and of that only the broad slants of shingled roof and gray end wall of the barn, with a pink spray of peach-trees against it.
Jerome stared out at it all, without a thought concerning it in his brain. He was actively conscious only of his own existence, which had just then a wondrously pleasant savor for him. A sweet exhilarating fire seemed leaping through every vein in his little body. He was drowsy, and yet more fully awake than he had been all winter. All his pulses tingled, and his thoughts were overborne by the ecstasy in them. Jerome had scarcely felt thoroughly warm before, since last summer. That same little, tight, and threadbare jacket had been his thickest garment all winter. The wood had been stinted on the hearth, the coverings on his bed; but now the full privilege of the spring sun was his, and the blood in this little meagre human plant, chilled and torpid with the winter's frosts, stirred and flowed like that in any other. Who could say that the bliss of renewed vitality which the boy felt, as he rested there in his snug rock, was not identical with that of the springing grass and the flowering peach-trees? Who could say that he was more to all intents and purposes, for that minute, than the rock-honeysuckle opening its red cups on the ledge over his head? He was conscious of no more memory or forethought.
Presently he shut his eyes, and the sunlight came in a soft rosy glow through his closed lids. Then it was that a little girl came across the fields, clambering cautiously over the stone walls, lest she should tear her gown, stepping softly over the green grass in her little morocco shoes, and finally stood still in front of the boy sitting with his eyes closed in the hollow of the rock. Twice she opened her mouth to speak, then shut it again. At last she gained courage.
"Be you sick, boy?" she inquired, in a sweet, timid voice.
Jerome opened his eyes with a start, and stared at the little quaint figure standing before him. Lucina wore a short blue woollen gown; below it her starched white pantalets hung to the tops of her morocco shoes. She wore also a white tier, and over that a little coat, and over that a little green cashmere shawl sprinkled with palm leaves, which her mother had crossed over her bosom and tied at her back for extra warmth. Lucina's hood was of quilted blue silk, and her smooth yellow curls flowed from under it quite down to her waist. Moreover, her mother had carefully arranged four, two on each side, to escape from the frill of her hood in front and fall softly over her pink cheeks. Lucina's face was very fair and sweet—the face of a good and gentle little girl, who always minded her mother and did her daily tasks.
Her dark blue eyes, set deeply under seriously frowning childish brows, surveyed Jerome with innocent wonder; her pretty mouth drooped anxiously at the corners. Jerome knew her well enough, although he had never before exchanged a word with her. She was little Lucina Merritt, whose father had money and bought her everything she wanted, and whose mother rigged her up like a puppet, as he had heard his mother say.
"No, ain't sick," he said, in a half-intelligible grunt. A cross little animal poked into wakefulness in the midst of its nap in the sun might have responded in much the same way. Gallantry had not yet developed in Jerome. He saw in this pretty little girl only another child, and, moreover, one finely shod and clothed, while he went shoeless and threadbare. He looked sulkily at her blue silk hood, pulled his old cap down with a twitch to his black brows, and shrugged himself closer to the warm rock.
The little girl eyed his bare toes. "Be you cold?" she ventured.
"No, ain't cold," grunted Jerome. Then he caught sight of something in her hand—a great square of sugar-gingerbread, out of which she had taken only three dainty bites as she came along, and in spite of himself there was a hungry flash of his black eyes.
Lucina held out the gingerbread. "I'd just as lives as not you had it," said she, timidly. "It's most all there. I've just had three teenty bites."
Jerome turned on her fiercely. "Don't want your old gingerbread," he cried. "Ain't hungry—have all I want to home."
The little Lucina jumped, and her blue eyes filled with tears. She turned away without a word, and ran falteringly, as if she could not see for tears, across the field; and there was a white lamb trotting after her. It had appeared from somewhere in the fields, and Jerome had not noticed it. He remembered hearing that Lucina Merritt had a cosset lamb that followed her everywhere. "Has everything," he muttered—"lambs an' everything. Don't want your old gingerbread."
Suddenly he sprang up and began feeling in his pocket; then he ran like a deer after the little girl. She rolled her frightened, tearful blue eyes over her shoulder at him, and began to run too, and the cosset lamb cantered faster at her heels; but Jerome soon gained on them.
"Stop, can't ye?" he sang out. "Ain't goin' to hurt ye. What ye 'fraid of?" He laid his hand on her green-shawled shoulders, and she stood panting, her little face looking up at him, half reassured, half terrified, from her blue silk hood-frills and her curls.
"Like sas'fras?" inquired Jerome, with a lordly air. An emperor about to bestow a largess upon a slave could have had no more of the very grandeur of beneficence in his mien.
Lucina nodded meekly.
Jerome drew out a great handful of strange articles from his pocket, and they might, from his manner of handling them, have been gold pieces and jewels. There were old buttons, a bit of chalk, and a stub of slate-pencil. There were a horse-chestnut and some grains of parched sweet-corn and a dried apple-core. There were other things which age and long bondage in the pocket had brought to such passes that one could scarcely determine their identities. From all this Jerome selected one undoubted treasure—a great jagged cut of sassafras root. It had been nicely scraped, too, and looked white and clean.
"Here," said Jerome.
"Don't you want it?" asked Lucina, shyly.
"No—had a great piece twice as big as that yesterday. Know where there's lots more in the cedar swamp. Here, take it."
"Thank you," said Lucina, and took it, and fumbled nervously after her little pocket.
"Why don't you eat it?" asked Jerome, and Lucina took an obedient little nibble.
"Ain't that good and strong?"
"It's real good," replied Lucina, smiling gratefully.
"Mebbe I'll dig you some more some time," said Jerome, as if the cedar swamp were a treasure-chest.
"Thank you," said the little girl. Then she timidly extended the gingerbread again. "I only took three little bites, an' it's real nice, honest," said she, appealingly.
But she jumped again at the flash in Jerome's black eyes.
"Don't want your old gingerbread!" he cried. "Ain't hungry; have more'n I want to eat to home. Guess my folks have gingerbread. Like to know what you're tryin' to give me victuals for! Don't want any of your old gingerbread!"
"It ain't old, honest," pleaded Lucina, tearfully. "It ain't old—Hannah, she just baked it this morning." But the boy was gone, pelting hard across the field, and all there was for the little girl to do was to go home, with her sassafras in her pocket and her gingerbread in her hand, with an aromatic savor on her tongue and the sting of slighted kindness in her heart, with her cosset lamb trotting at heel, and tell her mother.
Jerome did not return to his nook in the rock. As he neared it he heard the hollow note of a horn from the northwest.
"S'pose mother wants me," he muttered, and went on past the rock ledge to the west, and climbed the stone wall into the first of the three fields which separated him from his home. Across the young springing grass went Jerome—a slender little lad moving with an awkward rustic lope. It was the gait of the homely toiling men of the village which his young muscles had caught, as if they had in themselves powers of observation and assimilation. Jerome at twelve walked as if he had held plough-shares, bent over potato hills, and hewn wood in cedar swamps for half a century. Jerome's feet were bare, and his red rasped ankles showed below his hitching trousers. His poor winter shoes had quite failed him for many weeks, his blue stockings had shown at the gaps in their sides which had torn away from his mother's strong mending. Now the soles had gone, and his uncle Ozias Lamb, who was a cobbler, could not put in new ones because there was not strength enough in the uppers to hold them. "You can't have soles in shoes any more than you can in folks, without some body," said Ozias Lamb. It seemed as if Ozias might have made and presented some new shoes, soles and all, to his needy nephew, but he was very poor, and not young, and worked painfully to make every cent count. So Jerome went barefoot after the soles parted from his shoes; but he did not care, because it was spring and the snow was gone. Jerome had, moreover, a curious disregard of physical discomfort for a boy who could take such delight in sheer existence in a sunny hollow of a rock. He had had chilblains all winter from the snow-water which had soaked in through his broken shoes; his heels were still red with them, but not a whimper had he made. He had treated them doggedly himself with wood-ashes, after an old country prescription, and said nothing, except to reply, "Doctorin' chilblains," when his mother asked him what he was doing.
Jerome also often went hungry. He was hungry now as he loped across the field. A young wolf that had roamed barren snow-fields all winter might not have felt more eager for a good meal than Jerome, and he was worse off, because he had no natural prey. But he never made a complaint.
Had any one inquired if he were hungry, he would have flown at him as he had done at little Lucina Merritt when she offered him her gingerbread. He knew, and all his family knew, that the neighbors thought they had not enough to eat, and the knowledge so stung their pride that it made them defy the fact itself. They would not own to each other that they were hungry; they denied it fiercely to their own craving stomachs.
Jerome had had nothing that morning but a scanty spoonful of corn-meal porridge, but he would have maintained stoutly that he had eaten a good breakfast. He took another piece of sassafras from his pocket and chewed it as he went along. After all, now the larder of Nature was open and the lock of the frost on her cupboards was broken, a boy would not fare so badly; he could not starve. There was sassafras root in the swamps—plenty of it for the digging; there were young winter-green leaves, stinging pleasantly his palate with green aromatic juice; later there would be raspberries and blackberries and huckleberries. There were also the mysterious cedar apples, and the sour-sweet excrescences sometimes found on swamp bushes. These last were the little rarities of Nature's table which a boy would come upon by chance when berrying and snatch with delighted surprise. They appealed to his imagination as well as to his tongue, since they belonged not to the known fruits in his spelling-book and dictionary, and possessed a strange sweetness of fancy and mystery beyond their woodland savor. In a few months, too, the garden would be grown and there would be corn and beans and potatoes. Then Jerome's lank outlines would begin to take on curves and the hungry look would disappear from his face. He was a handsome boy, with a fearless outlook of black eyes from his lean, delicate face, and a thick curling crop of fair hair which the sun had bleached like straw. Always protected from the weather, Jerome's hair would have been brown; but his hats failed him like his shoes, and often in the summer season were crownless. However, his mother mended them as long as she was able. She was a thrifty woman, although she was a semi-invalid, and sat all day long in a high-backed rocking-chair. She was not young either; she had been old when she married and her children were born, but there was a strange element of toughness in her—a fibre either of body or spirit that kept her in being, like the fibre of an old tree.
Before Jerome entered the house his mother's voice saluted him. "Where have you been, Jerome Edwards?" she demanded. Her voice was querulous, but strongly shrill. It could penetrate every wall and door. Ann Edwards, as she sat in her rocking-chair, lifted up her voice, and it sounded all over her house like a trumpet, and all her household marched to it.
"Been over in the pasture," answered Jerome, with quick and yet rather defiant obedience, as he opened the door.
His mother's face, curiously triangular in outline, like a cat's, with great hollow black eyes between thin parted curtains of black false hair, confronted him when he entered the room. She always sat face to the door and window, and not a soul who passed or entered escaped her for a minute. "What have you been doing in the pasture?" said she.
"I've been sitting on the warm side of the big rock a little while," said Jerome. He looked subdued before his mother's gaze, and yet not abashed. She always felt sure that there was some hidden reserve of rebellion in Jerome, coerce him into obedience as she might. She never really governed him, as she did her daughter Elmira, who stood washing dishes at the sink. But she loved Jerome better, although she tried not to, and would not own it to herself.
"Do you know what time it is?" said she, severely.
Jerome glanced at the tall clock in the corner. It was nearly ten. He glanced and made no reply. He sometimes had a dignified masculine way, beyond his years, of eschewing all unnecessary words. His mother saw him look at the time; why should he speak? She did not wait for him. "'Most ten o'clock," said she, "and a great boy twelve years old lazing round on a rock in a pasture when all his folks are working. Here's your mother, feeble as she is, workin' her fingers to the bone, while you're doing nothing a whole forenoon. I should think you'd be ashamed of yourself. Now you take the spade and go right out and go to work in the garden. It's time them beans are in, if they're going to be. Your father has had to go down to the wood-lot and get a load of wood for Doctor Prescott, and here 'tis May and the garden not planted. Go right along." All the time Jerome's mother talked, her little lean strong fingers flew, twirling bright colored rags in and out. She was braiding a rug for this same Doctor Prescott's wife. The bright strips spread and twirled over her like snakes, and the balls wherein the rags were wound rolled about the floor. Most women kept their rag balls in a basket when they braided, but Ann Edwards worked always in a sort of untidy fury.
Jerome went out, little hungry boy with the winter chill again creeping through his veins, got the spade out of the barn, and set to work in the garden. The garden lay on the sunny slope of a hill which rose directly behind the house; when his spade struck a stone Jerome would send it rolling out of his way to the foot of the hill. He got considerable amusement from that, and presently the work warmed him.
The robins were singing all about. Every now and then one flew out of the sweet spring distance, lit, and silently erected his red breast among some plough ridges lower down. It was like a veritable transition from sound to sight.
Below where Jerome spaded, and upon the left, stretched long waving plough ridges where the corn was planted. Jerome's father had been at work there with the old white horse that was drawing wood for him to-day. Much of the garden had to be spaded instead of ploughed, because this same old white horse was needed for other work.
As Jerome spaded, the smell of the fresh earth came up in his face. Now and then a gust of cold wind, sweet with unseen blossoms, smote him powerfully, bending his slender body before it like a sapling. A bird flashed past him with a blue dazzle of wings, and Jerome stopped and looked after it. It lit on the fence in front of the house, and shone there in the sunlight like a blue precious stone. The boy gazed at it, leaning on his spade. Jerome always looked hard out of all his little open windows of life, and saw every precious thing outside his daily grind of hard, toilsome childhood which came within his sight.
The bird flew away, and Jerome spaded again. He knew that he must finish so much before dinner or his mother would scold. He was not afraid of his mother's sharp tongue, but he avoided provoking it with a curious politic and tolerant submission which he had learned from his father. "Mother ain't well, you know, an' she's high-sperited, and we've got to humor her all we can," Abel Edwards had said, confidentially, many a time to his boy, who had listened sagely and nodded.
Jerome obeyed his mother with the patient obedience of a superior who yields because his opponent is weaker than he, and a struggle beneath his dignity, not because he is actually coerced. Neither he nor his father ever answered back or contradicted; when her shrill voice waxed loudest and her vituperation seemed to fairly hiss in their ears, they sometimes looked at each other and exchanged a solemn wink of understanding and patience. Neither ever opened mouth in reply.
Jerome worked fast in his magnanimous concession to his mother's will, and had accomplished considerable when his sister opened the kitchen window, thrust out her dark head, and called in a voice shrill as her mother's, but as yet wholly sweet, with no harsh notes in it: "Jerome! Jerome! Dinner is ready."
Jerome whooped in reply, dropped his spade, and went leaping down the hill. When he entered the kitchen his mother was sitting at the table and Elmira was taking up the dinner. Elmira was a small, pretty girl, with little, nervous hands and feet, and eager black eyes, like her mother's. She stretched on tiptoe over the fire, and ladled out a steaming mixture from the kettle with an arduous swing of her sharp elbow. Elmira's sleeves were rolled up and her thin, sharply-jointed, girlish arms showed.
"Don't you know enough, without being told, to lift that kettle off the fire for Elmira?" demanded Mrs. Edwards of Jerome.
Jerome lifted the kettle off the fire without a word.
"It seems sometimes as if you might do something without being told," said his mother. "You could see, if you had eyes to your head, that your sister wa'n't strong enough to lift that kettle off, and was dippin' it up so's to make it lighter, an' the stew 'most burnin' on."
Jerome made no response. He sniffed hungrily at the savory steam arising from the kettle. "What is it?" he asked his sister, who stooped over the kettle sitting on the hearth, and plunged in again the long-handled tin dipper.
Mrs. Edwards never allowed any one to answer a question when she could do it herself. "It's a parsnip stew," said she, sharply. "Elmira dug some up in the old garden-patch, where we thought they were dead. I put in a piece of pork, when I'd ought to have saved it. It's good 'nough for anybody, I don't care who 'tis, if it's Doctor Prescott, or Squire Merritt, or the minister. You'd better be thankful for it, both of you."
"Where's father?" said Jerome.
"He 'ain't come home yet. I dun'no' where he is. He's been gone long enough to draw ten cords of wood. I s'pose he's potterin' round somewheres—stopped to talk to somebody, or something. I ain't going to wait any longer. He'll have to eat his dinner cold if he can't get home."
Elmira put the dish of stew on the table. Jerome drew his chair up. Mrs. Edwards grasped the long-handled dipper preparatory to distributing the savory mess, then suddenly stopped and turned to Elmira.
"Elmira," said she, "you go into the parlor an' git the china bowl with pink flowers on it, an' then you go to the chest in the spare bedroom an' get out one of them fine linen towels."
"What for?" said Elmira, wonderingly.
"No matter what for. You do what I tell you to."
Elmira went out, and after a little reappeared with the china bowl and the linen towel. Jerome sat waiting, with a kind of fierce resignation. He was almost starved, and the smell of the stew in his nostrils made him fairly ravenous.
"Give it here," said Mrs. Edwards, and Elmira set the bowl before her mother. It was large, almost large enough for a punch-bowl, and had probably been used for one. It was a stately old dish from overseas, a relic from Mrs. Edwards's mother, who had seen her palmy days before her marriage. Mrs. Edwards had also in her parlor cupboard a part of a set of blue Indian china which had belonged to her mother. The children watched while their mother dipped the parsnip stew into the china bowl. Elmira, while constantly more amenable to her mother, was at the moment more outspoken against her.
"There won't be enough left for us," she burst forth, excitedly.
"I guess you'll get all you need; you needn't worry."
"There won't be enough for father when he comes home, anyhow."
"I ain't a mite worried about your father; I guess he won't starve."
Mrs. Edwards went on dipping the stew into the bowl while the children watched. She filled it nearly two-thirds full, then stopped, and eyed the girl and boy critically. "I guess you'd better go, Elmira," said she. "Jerome can't unless he's all cleaned up. Get my little red cashmere shawl, and you can wear my green silk pumpkin hood. Yours don't look nice enough to go there with."
"Can't I eat dinner first, mother?" pleaded Elmira, pitifully.
"No, you can't. I guess you won't starve if you wait a little while. I ain't 'goin' to send stew to folks stone-cold. Hurry right along and get the shawl and hood. Don't stand there lookin' at me."
Elmira went out forlornly.
Mrs. Edwards began pinning the linen towel carefully over the bowl.
"Let Elmira stay an' eat her dinner. I'd just as lives go. Don't care if I don't ever have anythin' to eat," spoke up Jerome.
His mother flashed her black eyes round at him. "Don't you be saucy, Jerome Edwards," said she, "or you'll go back to your spadin' without a mouthful! I told your sister she was goin', an' I don't want any words about it from either of you."
When Elmira returned with her mother's red cashmere shawl pinned carefully over her childish shoulders, with her sharply pretty, hungry-eyed little face peering meekly out of the green gloom of the great pumpkin hood, Mrs. Edwards gave her orders. "There," said she, "you take this bowl, an' you be real careful and don't let it fall and break it, nor slop the stew over my best shawl, an' you carry it down the road to Doctor Prescott's; an' whoever comes to the door, whether it's the hired girl, or Lawrence, or the hired man, you ask to see Mis' Doctor Prescott. Don't you give this bowl to none of the others, you mind. An' when Mis' Doctor Prescott comes, you courtesy an' say, 'Good-mornin', Mis' Prescott. Mis' Abel Edwards sends you her compliments, and hopes you're enjoyin' good health, an' begs you'll accept this bowl of parsnip stew. She thought perhaps you hadn't had any this season.'"
Mrs. Edwards repeated the speech in a little, fine, mincing voice, presumably the one which Elmira was to use. "Can you remember that?" she asked, sharply, in her natural tone.
"Say it over."
Poor little Elmira Edwards said it over like a parrot, imitating her mother's fine, stilted tone perfectly. In truth, it was a formula of presentation which she had often used.
"Don't you forget the 'compliments,' an' 'I thought she hadn't had any parsnip stew this season.'"
"Take the bowl up, real careful, and carry it stiddy."
Elmira threw back the ends of the red cashmere shawl, lifted the big bowl in her two small hands, and went out carrying it before her. Jerome opened the door, and shut it after her.
"Now I guess Mis' Doctor Prescott won't think we're starvin' to death here, if her husband has got a mortgage on our house," said Mrs. Edwards. "I made up my mind that time she sent over that pitcher of lamb broth that I'd send her somethin' back, if I lived. I wouldn't have taken it anyhow, if it hadn't been for the rest of you. I guess I'll let folks know we ain't quite beggars yet."
Jerome nodded. A look of entire sympathy with his mother came into his face. "Guess so too," said he.
Mrs. Edwards threw back her head with stiff pride, as if it bore a crown. "So far," said she, "nobody on this earth has ever give me a thing that I 'ain't been able to pay 'em for in some way. I guess there's a good many rich folks can't say 's much as that."
"Guess so too," said Jerome.
"Pass over your plate; you must be hungry by this time," said his mother. She heaped his plate with the stew. "There," said she, "don't you wait any longer. I guess mebbe you'd better set the dish down on the hearth to keep warm for Elmira and your father first, though."
"Ain't you goin' to eat any yourself?" asked Jerome.
"I couldn't touch a mite of that stew if you was to pay me for it. I never set much by parsnip stew myself, anyway."
Jerome eyed his mother soberly. "There's enough," said he. "I've got all I can eat here."
"I tell you I don't want any. Ain't that enough? There's plenty of stew if I wanted it, but I don't. I never liked it any too well, an' to-day seems as if it fairly went against my stomach. Set it down on the hearth the way I told you to, an' eat your dinner before it gets any colder."
Jerome obeyed. He ate his plate of stew; then his mother obliged him to eat another. When Elmira returned she had her fill, and there was plenty left for Abel Edwards when he should come home.
Jerome, well fed, felt like another boy when he returned to his task in the garden. "Guess I can get this spadin' 'most done this afternoon," he said to himself. He made the brown earth fly around him. He whistled as he worked. As the afternoon wore on he began to wonder if he could not finish the garden before his father got home. He was sure he had not come as yet, for he had kept an eye on the road, and besides he would have heard the heavy rattle of the wood-wagon. "Father 'll be real tickled when he sees the garden all done," said Jerome, and he stopped whistling and bent all his young spirit and body to his work. He never thought of feeling anxious about his father.
At five o'clock the back door of the Edwards house opened. Elmira came out with a shawl over her head and hurried up the hill. "Oh, Jerome," she panted, when she got up to him. "You must stop working, mother says, and go right straight off to the ten-acre lot. Father 'ain't come home yet, an' we're dreadful worried about him. She says she's afraid something has happened to him."
Jerome stuck his spade upright in the ground and stared at her. "What does she s'pose has happened?" he said, slowly. Jerome had no imagination for disasters.
"She thinks maybe he's fell down, or some wood's fell on him, or Peter's run away."
"Peter wouldn't ever run away; it's much as ever he'll walk lately, an' father don't ever fall down."
Elmira fairly danced up and down in the fresh mould. She caught her brother's arm and twitched it and pushed him fiercely. "Go along, go along!" she cried. "Go right along, Jerome Edwards! I tell you something dreadful has happened to father. Mother says so. Go right along!"
Jerome pulled himself away from her nervous clutch, and collected himself for flight. "He was goin' to carry that wood to Doctor Prescott's," said he, reflectively. "Ain't any sense goin' to the ten-acre lot till I see if he's been there."
"It's on the way," cried Elmira, frantically. "Hurry up! Oh, do hurry up, Jerome! Poor father! Mother says he's—fell—down—" Elmira crooked her little arm around her face and broke into a long wail as she started down the hill. "Poor—father—oh—oh—poor—father!" floated back like a wake of pitiful sound.
Jerome started, and once started he raced. Long-legged, light-flanked, long-winded, and underfed, he had the adaptability for speed of a little race-horse. Jerome Edwards was quite a famous boy in the village for his prowess in running. No other boy could equal him. Marvellous stories were told about it. "Jerome Edwards, he can run half a mile in five minutes any day, yes he can, sir," the village boys bragged if perchance a cousin from another town came a-visiting and endeavored to extol himself and his comrades beyond theirs. In some curious fashion Jerome, after he had out-speeded all the other boys, furnished them with his own victories for a boast. They seemed, in exulting over the glory of this boy of their village, to forget that the glory came only through their defeat. It was national pride on a very small and childish scale.
Jerome, swift little runner that he was, ran that day as he had never run before. The boys whom he met stood aside hastily, gaped down the road behind him to see another runner laboring far in the rear, and then, when none appeared, gaped after his flying heels.
"Wonder what he's a-runnin' that way fur?" said one boy.
"Ain't nobody a-tryin' to ketch up with him, fur's I can see," said another.
"Mebbe his mother's took worse, an' he's a-runnin' fur the doctor," said a third, who was Henry Judd, a distant cousin of Jerome's.
The boys stood staring even when Jerome was quite out of sight. Jerome had about three-quarters of a mile to run to Doctor Prescott's house. He was almost there when he caught sight of a team coming. "There's father, now," he thought, and stood still, breathing hard. Although Jerome's scanty food made him a swift runner, it did not make him a strong one.
The team came rattling slowly on. The old white horse which drew it planted his great hoofs lumberingly in the tracks, nodding at every step.
As it came nearer, Jerome, watching, gave a quick gasp. The wagon contained wood nicely packed; the reins were wound carefully around one of the stakes; and there was no driver. Jerome tried to call out, tried to run forward, but he could not. He could only stand still, watching, his boyish face deadly white, his eyes dilating. The old white horse came on, dragging his load faithfully and steadily towards his home. He never swerved from his tracks except once, when he turned out carefully for a bad place in the road, where the ground seemed to be caving in, which Abel Edwards had always avoided with a loaded team. There was something awful about this old animal, with patient and laborious stupidity in every line of his plodding body, obeying still that higher intelligence which was no longer visible at his guiding-reins, and perhaps had gone out of sight forever. It had all the uncanny horror of a headless spectre advancing down the road.
Jerome collected himself when the white horse came alongside. "Whoa! Whoa, Peter!" he gasped out. The horse stopped and stood still, his great forefeet flung stiffly forward, his head and ears and neck hanging as inertly as a broken tree-bough with all its leaves drooping.
The boy stumbled weakly to the side of the wagon and stretched himself up on tiptoe. There was nothing there but the wood. He stood a minute, thinking. Then he began searching for the hitching-rope in the front of the wagon, but he could not find it. Finally he led the horse to the side of the road, unwound the reins from the stake, and fastened him as well as he could to a tree.
Then he went on down the road. His knees felt weak under him, but still he kept up a good pace. When he reached the Prescott place he paused and looked irresolutely a moment through the trees at the great square mansion-house, with its green, glancing window-panes.
Then he ran straight on. The ten-acre wood-lot which belonged to his father was about a half-mile farther. It was a birch and chestnut wood, and was full of the green shimmer of new leaves and the silvery glistening of white boughs as delicate as maidens' arms. There was a broad cart-path leading through it. Jerome entered this directly when he reached the wood. Then he began calling. "Father!" he called. "Father! father!" over and over again, stopping between to listen. There was no sound in response; there was no sound in the wood except the soft and elusive rustling of the new foliage, like the rustling of the silken garments of some one in hiding or some one passing out of sight. It brought also at this early season a strange sense of a presence in the wood. Jerome felt it, and called with greater importunity: "Father! father! father, where be you? Father!"
Jerome looked very small among the trees—no more than a little pale child. His voice rang out shrill and piteous. It seemed as much a natural sound of the wood as a bird's, and was indeed one of the primitive notes of nature: the call of that most helpless human young for its parent and its shield.
Jerome pushed on, calling, until he came to the open space where his father had toiled felling trees all winter. Cords of wood were there, all neatly piled and stacked. The stumps between them were sending out shoots of tender green. "Father! father!" Jerome called, but this time more cautiously, hushing his voice a little. He thought that his father might be lying there among the stumps, injured in some way. He remembered how a log had once fallen on Samuel Lapham's leg and broken it when he was out alone in the woods, and he had lain there a whole day before anybody found him. He thought something like that might have happened to his father. He searched everywhere, peering with his sharp young eyes among the stumps and between the piles of wood. "Mebbe father's fainted away," he muttered.
Finally he became sure that his father was nowhere in the clearing, and he raised his voice again and shouted, and hallooed, and listened, and hallooed again, and got no response.
Suddenly a chill seemed to strike Jerome's heart. He thought of the pond. Little given as he was to forebodings of evil, when once he was possessed of one it became a certainty.
"Father's fell in the pond and got drowned," he burst out with a great sob. "What will mother do?"
The boy went forward, stumbling half blindly over the stumps. Once he fell, bruising his knee severely, and picked himself up, sobbing piteously. All the child in Jerome had asserted itself.
Beyond the clearing was a stone wall that bounded Abel Edwards's property. Beyond that was a little grove of old thick-topped pine-trees; beyond that the little woodland pond. It was very shallow in places, but it never dried up, and was said to have deep holes in it. The boys told darkly braggart stories about this pond. They had stood on this rock and that rock with poles of fabulous length; they had probed the still water of the pond, and "never once hit the bottom, sir." They had flung stones with all their might, and, listening sharply forward like foxes, had not heard them "strike bottom, sir."
One end of this pond, reaching up well among the pine-trees, had the worst repute, and was called indeed a darkly significant name—the "Dead Hole." It was confidently believed by all the village children to have no bottom at all. There was a belief current among them that once, before they were born, a man had been drowned there, and his body never found.
They would stand on the shore and look with horror, which yet gave somehow a pleasant titillation to their youthful spirits, at this water which bore such an evil name. Their elders did not need to caution them; even the most venturesome had an awe of the Dead Hole, and would not meddle with it unduly.
Jerome climbed over the stone wall. The land on the other side belonged to Doctor Prescott. He went through the grove of pine-trees and reached the pond—the end called the Dead Hole. He stood there looking and listening. It was a small sheet of water; the other shore, swampy and skirted with white-flowering bushes and young trees, looked very near; a cloying, honey sweetness came across, and a silvery smoke of mist was beginning to curl up from it. The frogs were clamorous, and every now and then came the bass boom of a bull-frog. A red light from the westward sun came through the thin growth opposite, and lay over the pond and the shore. Little swarms of gnats danced in it.
A swarm of the little gauzy things, so slight and ephemeral that they seemed rather a symbolism of life than life itself, whirled before the boy's wild, tearful eyes, and he moved aside and looked down, and then cried out and snatched something from the ground at his feet. It was the hat Abel Edwards had worn when he left home that morning. Jerome stood holding his father's hat, gazing at it with a look in his face like an old man's. Indeed, it may have been that a sudden old age of the spirit came in that instant over the boy. He had not before conceived of anything but an accident happening to his father; now all at once he saw plainly that if his father, Abel Edwards, had come to his death in the pond it must have been through his own choice. "He couldn't have fell in," muttered Jerome, with stiff lips, looking at the gently curving shore and looking at the hat.
Suddenly he straightened himself, and an expression of desperate resolution came into his face. He set his teeth hard; somehow, whether through inherited instincts or through impressions he had got from his mother, he had a firm conviction that suicide was a horrible disgrace to the dead man himself and to his family.
"Nobody shall ever know it," the boy thought. He nodded fiercely, as if to confirm it, and began picking up stones from the shore of the pond. He filled the crown of the hat with them, got a string out of his pocket, tied it firmly around the crown, making a strong knot; then he swung his arm back at the shoulder, brought it forward with a wide sweep, and flung the hat past the middle of the Dead Hole.
"There," said Jerome; "guess nobody 'll ever know now. There ain't no bottom to the Dead Hole." The boy hurried out of the woods and down the road again. When he reached the Prescott house a man was just coming out of the yard, following the path from the south door. When he came up to Jerome he eyed him curiously; then he grasped him by the shoulder.
"Sick?" said he.
"No," said Jerome.
"What on airth makes you look so?"
"Lost—where's he lost? What d'ye mean?"
"Went to get a load of wood for Doctor Prescott this mornin', an' 'ain't got home."
"Now, I want to know! Didn't I see his team go up the road a few minutes ago?"
Jerome nodded. "Met it, an' he wa'n't on," said he.
"Lord!" cried the man, and stared at him. He was a middle-aged man, with a small wiry shape and a gait like a boy's. His name was Jake Noyes, and he was the doctor's hired man. He took care of his horse, and drove for him, and some said helped him compound his prescriptions. There was great respect in the village for Jake Noyes. He had a kind of reflected glory from the doctor, and some of his own.
Jerome pulled his shoulder away. "Got to be goin'," said he.
"Stop," said Jake Noyes. "This has got to be looked into. He must have got hurt. He must be in the woods where he was workin'."
"Ain't. I've been there," said Jerome, shortly, and broke away.
"Where did ye look?"
"Everywhere," the boy called back. But Jake followed him up.
"Stop a minute," said he; "I want to know. Did you go as fur 's the pond?"
"What should I want to go to the pond for, like to know?" Jerome looked around at him fiercely.
"I didn't know but he might have fell in the pond; it's pretty near."
"I'd like to know what you think my father would jump in the pond for?" Jerome demanded.
"Lord, I didn't say he jumped in. I said fell in."
"You know he couldn't have fell in. You know he would have had to gone in of his own accord. I'll let you know my father wa'n't the man to do anything like that, Jake Noyes!" The boy actually shook his puny fist in the man's face. "Say it again, if ye dare!" he cried.
"Lord!" said Jake Noyes, with half-comical consternation. He screwed up one blue eye after a fashion he had—people said he had acquired it from dropping drugs for the doctor—and looked with the other at the boy.
"Say it again an' I'll kill ye, I will!" cried Jerome, his voice breaking into a hoarse sob, and was off.
"Be ye crazy?" Jake Noyes called after him. He stood staring at him a minute, then went into the house on a run.
Jerome ran to the place where he had left his father's team, untied the horse, climbed up on the seat, and drove home. He could not go fast; the old horse could proceed no faster than a walk with a load. When he came in sight of home he saw a blue flutter at the gate. It was Elmira's shawl; she was out there watching. When she saw the team she came running down the road to meet it. "Where's father?" she cried out. "Jerome, where's father?"
"Dun'no'," said Jerome. He sat high above her, holding the reins. His pale, set face looked over her head.
Elmira burst out with a great wail. "Oh, Jerome, where's father? Jerome, where is he? Is he killed? Oh, father, father!"
"Keep still," said Jerome. "Mother 'll hear you."
"Oh, Jerome, where's father?"
"I tell you, hold your tongue. Do you want to kill mother, too?"
Poor little Elmira, running alongside the team, wept convulsively. "Elmira, I tell you to keep still," said Jerome, in such a voice that she immediately choked back her sobs.
Jerome drew up the wood-team at the gate with a great creak. "Stand here 'side of the horse a minute," he said to Elmira. He swung himself off the load and went up the path to the house. As he drew near the door he could hear his mother's chair. Ann Edwards, crippled as she was, managed, through some strange manipulation of muscles, to move herself in her rocking-chair all about the house. Now the jerking scrape of the rockers on the uncarpeted floor sounded loud. When Jerome opened the door he saw his mother hitching herself rapidly back and forth in a fashion she had when excited. He had seen her do so before, a few times.
When she saw Jerome she stopped short and screwed up her face before him as if to receive a blow. She did not ask a question.
"I met the team comin' home," said Jerome.
Still his mother said nothing, but kept that cringing face before a coming blow.
"Father wa'n't on it," said Jerome.
Still his mother waited.
"I hitched the horse," said Jerome, "and then I went up to the ten-acre lot, and I looked everywhere. He ain't there."
Suddenly Ann Edwards seemed to fall back upon herself before his eyes. Her head sank helplessly; she slipped low in her chair.
Jerome ran to the water-pail, dipped out some water, and sprinkled his mother's face. Then he rubbed her little lean hands with his hard, boyish palm. He had seen his mother faint before. In fact, he had been all prepared for it now.
Presently she began to gasp and struggle feebly, and he knew she was coming to. "Feel better?" he asked, in a loud voice, as if she were miles away; indeed, he had a feeling that she was. "Feel better, mother?"
Mrs. Edwards raised herself. "Your—father has fell down and died," she said. "There needn't anybody say anything else. Wipe this water off my face. Get a towel." Jerome obeyed.
"There needn't anybody say anything else," repeated his mother.
"I guess they needn't, either," assented Jerome, coming with the towel and wiping her face gently. "I'd like to hear anybody," he added, fiercely.
"He's fell down—and died," said his mother. She made sounds like sobs as she spoke, but there were no tears in her eyes.
"I s'pose I ought to go an' take the horse out," said Jerome.
"I'll send Elmira in; she's holdin' him."
Jerome lighted a candle first, for it was growing dark, and went out. "You go in and stay with mother," he said to Elmira, "an' don't you go to cryin' an' makin' her worse—she's been faintin' away. Any tea in the house?"
"No," said the little girl, trying to control her quivering face.
"Make her some hot porridge, then—she'd ought to have something. You can do that, can't you?"
Elmira nodded; she dared not speak for fear she should cry.
"Go right in, then," said Jerome; and she obeyed, keeping her face turned away. Her childish back looked like an old woman's as she entered the door.
Jerome unharnessed the horse, led him into the barn, fed him, and drew some water for him from the well. When he came out of the barn, after it was all done, he saw Doctor Prescott's chaise turning into the yard. The doctor and Jake Noyes were in it. When the chaise stopped, Jerome went up to it, bobbed his head and scraped his foot. A handsome, keenly scowling face looked out of the chaise at him. Doctor Seth Prescott was over fifty, with a smooth-shaven face as finely cut as a woman's, with bright blue eyes under bushy brows, and a red scratch-wig. Before years and snows and rough winds had darkened and seamed his face, he had been a delicately fair man. "Has he come yet?" he demanded, peremptorily.
Jerome bobbed and scraped again. "No, sir."
"You didn't see a sign of him in the woods?"
Jerome hesitated visibly.
The doctor's eyes shone more sharply. "You didn't, eh?"
"No, sir," said Jerome.
"Does your mother know it?"
"How is she?"
"She fainted away, but she's better."
The doctor got stiffly out of the chaise, took his medicine-chest, and went into the house. "Stay here till I come out," he ordered Jerome, without looking back.
"The doctor's goin' to send a posse out lookin' with lanterns," Jake Noyes told Jerome.
Jerome made a grunt, both surly and despairing, in response. He was leaning against the wheel of the chaise; he felt strangely weak.
"Mebbe we'll find him 'live an' well," said Jake, consolingly.
"No, ye won't."
"Mebbe 'twon't be nothin' wuss than a broken bone noway, an' the doctor, he can fix that."
Jerome shook his head.
"The doctor, he's goin' to do everything that can be done," said Jake. "He's sent Lawrence over to East Corners for some ropes an' grapplin'-hooks."
Then Jerome roused himself. "What for?" he demanded, in a furious voice.
Jake hesitated and colored. "Mebbe I hadn't ought to have said that," he stammered. "Course there ain't no need of havin' 'em. It's just because the doctor wants to do everything he can."
"Well—you know there's the pond—an'—"
"Didn't I tell you my father didn't go near the pond?"
"Well, I don't s'pose he did," said Jake, shrewdly; "but it won't do no harm to drag it, an' then everybody will know for sure he didn't."
"Can't drag it anyhow," said Jerome, and there was an odd accent of triumph in his voice. "The Dead Hole 'ain't got any bottom."
Jake laughed. "That's a darned lie," said he. "I helped drag it myself once, forty year ago; a girl by the name of 'Lizy Ann Gooch used to live 'bout a mile below here on the river road, was missin'. She wa'n't there; found her bones an' her straw bonnet in the swamp two years afterwards, but, Lord, we dragged the Dead hole—scraped bottom every time."
Jerome stared at him, his chin dropping.
"Of course it ain't nothin' but a form, an' we sha'n't find him there any more than we did 'Lizy Ann," said Jake Noyes, consolingly.
Doctor Prescott came out of the house, and as he opened the door a shrill cry of "There needn't anybody say anything else" came from within.
"Now you'd better go in and stay with your mother," ordered Doctor Prescott. "I have given her a composing powder. Keep her as quiet as possible, and don't talk to her about your father."
Doctor Prescott got into his chaise and drove away up the road, and Jerome went in to his mother. For a while she kept her rocking-chair in constant motion; she swung back and forth or hitched fiercely across the floor; she repeated her wild cry that her husband had fallen down and died, and nobody need say anything different; she prayed and repeated Scripture texts. Then she succumbed to the Dover's powder which the doctor had given her, and fell asleep in her chair.
Jerome and Elmira dared not awake her that she might go to bed. They sat, each at a window, staring out into the night, watching for their father, or some one to come with news that his body was found—they did not know which. Now and then they heard the report of a gun, but did not know what it meant. Sometimes Elmira wept a little, but softly, that she might not waken her mother.
The moon was full, and it was almost as light as day outside. When a little after midnight a team came in sight they could tell at once that it was the doctor's chaise, and Jake Noyes was driving. The boy and girl left the windows and stole noiselessly out of the house. Jake drew up at the gate. "You'd better go in an' go to bed, both on you," he said. "We'll find him safe an' sound somewheres to-morrow. There's nigh two hundred men an' boys out with lanterns an' torches, an' firin' guns for signals. We'll find him with nothing wuss than a broken bone to-morrow. We've dragged the whole pond, an' he ain't there, sure."
The pond undoubtedly partook somewhat of the nature of an Eastern myth in this little New England village. Although with the uncompromising practicality of their natures the people had given it a name so directly significant as to make it lose all poetical glamour, and render it the very commonplace of ghastliness, it still appealed to their imaginations.
The laws of natural fancy obtained here as everywhere else, although in small and homely measure. The village children found no nymphs in the trees of their New England woods. If there were fauns among them, and the children took their pointed ears for leaves as they lay sleeping in the undergrowth, they never knew it. They had none of these, but they had their pond, with its unfathomable depth. They could not give that up for any testimony of people with ropes and grappling-hooks. Had they not sounded it in vain with farther-reaching lines?
Not a boy in the village believed that the bottom of that famous Dead Hole had once been touched. Jerome Edwards certainly did not. Then, too, they had not brought his father's hat to light—or, if they had, had made no account of it.
Some of the elders, as well as the boys, believed in their hearts that the pond had not, after all, been satisfactorily examined, and that Abel Edwards might still lie there. "Ever since I can remember anything, I've heard that pond in that place 'ain't got any bottom," one old man would say, and another add, with triumphant conclusion, "If he ain't there, where is he?"
That indeed was the question. All solutions of mysteries have their possibilities in the absence of proof. No trace of Abel Edwards had been found in the woodland where he had been working, and no trace of him for miles around. The search had been thorough. Other ponds of less evil repute had also been dragged, and the little river which ran through the village, and two brooks of considerable importance in the spring. If Able Edwards had taken his own life, the conclusion was inevitable that his body must lie in the pond, which had always been reported unfathomable, and might be, after all.
"The way I look at it is this," said Simon Basset one night in the village store. He raised the index-finger of his right hand, pointed it at the company, shook it authoritatively as he spoke, as if to call ocular attention also to his words. "Ef Abel Edwards did make 'way with himself any other way than by jumping into the Dead Hole, what did he do with his remains? He couldn't bury himself nohow." Simon Basset chuckled dryly and looked at the others with conclusive triumph. His face was full of converging lines of nose and chin and brows, which seemed to bring it to a general point of craft and astuteness. Even his grizzled hair slanted forward in a stiff cowlick over his forehead, and his face bristled sharply with his gray beard. Simon Basset was the largest land-owner in the village, and the dust and loam of his own acres seemed to have formed a gray grime over all his awkward homespun garb. Never a woman he met but looked apprehensively at his great, clomping, mud-clogged boots.
It was believed by many that Simon Basset never removed a suit of clothes, after he had once put it on, until it literally dropped from him in rags. He was also said to have argued, when taken to task for this most untidy custom, that birds and animals never shifted their coats until they were worn out, and it behooved men to follow their innocent and natural habits as closely as possible.
Simon Basset, sitting in an old leather-cushioned arm-chair in the midst of the lounging throng, waited for applause after his conclusive opinion upon Abel Edwards's disappearance; but there were only affirmative grunts from a few. Many had their own views.
"I ain't noways clear in my mind that Abel did kill himself," said a tall man, with a great length of thin, pale whiskers falling over his breast. He had a vaguely elongated effect, like a shadow, and had, moreover, a way of standing behind people like one. When he spoke everybody started and looked around at him.
"I'd like to know what you think did happen to him, Adoniram Judd," cried Simon Basset.
"I don't think Abel Edwards ever killed himself," repeated the tall man, solemnly. His words had weight, for he was a distant relative of the missing man.
"Do you know of anybody that had anything agin him?" demanded Simon Basset.
"No, I dun'no' 's I do," admitted the tall man.
"Then what in creation would anybody want to kill him for? Guess they wouldn't be apt to do it for anything they would get out of Abel Edwards." Simon Basset chuckled triumphantly; and in response there was a loud and exceedingly bitter laugh from a man sitting on an old stool next to him. Everybody started, for the man was Ozias Lamb, Abel Edwards's brother-in-law.
"What ye laughin' at?" inquired Simon Basset, defiantly; but he edged his chair away a little at the same time. Ozias Lamb had the reputation of a very high temper.
"Mebbe," said Ozias Lamb, "somebody killed poor Abel for his mortgage. I dun'no' of anything else he had." Ozias laughed again. He was a stout, squat man, leaning forward upon his knees as he sat, with a complete subsidence of all his muscles, which showed that it was his accustomed attitude. Just in that way had Ozias Lamb sat and cobbled shoes on his lapboard for nearly forty years. He was almost resolved into a statue illustrative of his own toil. He never stood if he could help it; indeed, his knees felt weak under him if he tried to do so. He sank into the first seat and settled heavily forward into his one pose of life.
All the other men looked rather apprehensively at him. His face was all broadened with sardonic laughter, but his blue eyes were fierce under his great bushy head of fair hair. "Abel Edwards has been lugging of that mortgage 'round for the last ten years," said he, "an' it's been about all he had to lug. It's been the meat in his stomach an' the hope in his heart. He 'ain't been a-lookin' forward to eatin', but to payin' up the interest money when it came due; he 'ain't been a-lookin' forward to heaven, but to clearin' off the mortgage. It's been all he's had; it's bore down on his body and his soul, an' it's braced him up to keep on workin'. He's been a-livin' in this Christian town for ten years a-carryin' of this fine mortgage right out in plain sight, an' I shouldn't be a mite surprised if somebody see it an' hankered arter it. Folks are so darned anxious in this 'ere Christian town to get holt of each other's burdens!"
Simon Basset edged his chair away still farther; then he spoke. "Don't s'pose you expected folks to up an' pay Abel Edwards's mortgage for him," he said.
"No, I didn't," returned Ozias Lamb, and the sardonic curves around his mouth deepened.
"An' I don't s'pose you'd expect Doctor Prescott to make him a present of it," said Jake Noyes, suddenly, from the outskirts of the group. He had come in for the doctor's mail, and was lounging with one great red-sealed missive and a religious newspaper in his hand.
"No," said Ozias Lamb, "I shouldn't never expect the doctor to make a present to anybody but himself or the Lord or the meetin'-house."
A general chuckle ran over the group at that. Doctor Prescott was regarded in the village as rather parsimonious except in those three directions.
Jake Noyes colored angrily and stepped forward. "I ain't goin' to hear no nonsense about Doctor Prescott," he exclaimed. "I won't stan' it from none of ye. I give ye fair warnin'. I don't eat no man's flapjacks an' hear him talked agin within swing of my fists if I can help it."
The storekeeper and postmaster, Cyrus Robinson, had been leaning over his counter between the scales and a pile of yellow soap bars, smiling and shrewdly observant. Now he spoke, and the savor of honey for all was in his words.
"It's fust-rate of you, Jake, to stand up for the doctor," said he. "We all of us feel all wrought up about poor Abel. I understand the doctor's goin' to be easy with the widder about the mortgage. I thought likely he would be. Sometimes folks do considerable more good than they get credit for. I shouldn't be surprised if Doctor Prescott's left hand an' his neighbors didn't know all he did."
Ozias Lamb turned slowly around and looked at the storekeeper. "Doctor Prescott's a pretty good customer of yours, ain't he?" he inquired.
There was a subdued titter. Cyrus Robinson colored, but kept his pleasant smile. "Everybody in town is a good customer," said he. "I haven't any bad customers."
"P'r'aps 'cause you won't trust 'em," said Ozias Lamb. This time the titter was audible. Cyrus Robinson's business caution was well known.
The storekeeper said no more, turned abruptly, took a key from his pocket, went to the little post-office in the corner, and locked the door. Then he began putting up the window-shutters.
There was a stir among the company, a scraping of chairs and stools, and a shuffling of heavy feet, and they went lingeringly out of the store. Cyrus Robinson usually put up his shutters too early for them. His store was more than a store—it was the nursery of the town, the place where her little commonweal was evolved and nurtured, and it was also her judgment-seat. There her simple citizens formed their simple opinions upon town government and town officials, upon which they afterwards acted in town meeting. There they sat in judgment upon all men who were not within reach of their voices, and upon all crying evils of the times which were too mighty for them to struggle against. This great country store of Cyrus Robinson's—with its rank odors of molasses and spices, whale oil, and West India rum; with its counters, its floor, its very ceiling heaped and hung with all the paraphernalia of a New England village; its clothes, its food, and its working-utensils—was also in a sense the nucleus of this village of Upham Corners. There was no tavern. Although this was the largest of the little cluster of Uphams, the tavern was in the West Corners, and the stages met there. However, all the industries had centred in Upham Corners on account of its superior water privileges: the grist-mill was there, and the saw-mill. People from the West and East Corners came to trade at Robinson's store, which was also a factory in a limited sense. Cyrus Robinson purchased leather in considerable quantities, and employed several workmen in a great room above the store to cut out the rude shoes worn in the country-side. These he let out in lots to the towns-folk to bind and close and finish, paying them for their work in store goods, seldom in cash, then selling the shoes himself at a finely calculated profit.
Robinson had, moreover, several spare rooms in his house adjoining the store, and there, if he were so disposed, he could entertain strangers who wished to remain in Upham overnight, and neither he nor his wife was averse to increasing their income in that way. Cyrus Robinson was believed by many to be as rich as Doctor Prescott and Simon Basset.
When the men left the store that night, Simon Basset's, Jake Noyes's, and Adoniram Judd's way lay in the same direction. They still discussed poor Abel Edwards's disappearance as they went along. Their voices were rising high, when suddenly Jake Noyes gave Simon Basset a sharp nudge. "Shut up," he whispered; "the Edwards boy's behind us."
And indeed, as he spoke, Jerome's little light figure came running past them. He was evidently anxious to get by without notice, but Simon Basset grasped his arm and brought him to a standstill.
"Hullo!" said he. "You're Abel Edwards's boy, ain't you?"
"I can't stop," said Jerome, pulling away. "I've got to go home. Mother's waiting for me."
"I don't s'pose you've heard anything yet from your father?"
"No, I 'ain't. I've got to go home."
"Where've you been, Jerome?" asked Adoniram Judd.
"Up to Uncle Ozias's to get Elmira's shoes." Jerome had the stout little shoes, one in each hand.
"I don't s'pose you've formed any idee of what's become of your father," said Simon Basset.
Jerome, who had been pulling away from his hold, suddenly stood still, and turned a stern little white face upon him.
"He's dead," said he.
"Yes, of course he's dead. That is, we're all afraid he is, though we all hope for the best; but that ain't the question," said Simon Basset. "The question is, how did he die?"
Jerome looked up in Simon Basset's face. "He died the same way you will, some time," said he. And with that Simon Basset let go his arm suddenly, and he was gone.
"Lord!" said Jake Noyes, under his breath. Simon Basset said not another word; his grandfather, his uncle, and a brother had all taken their own lives, and he knew that the others were thinking of it. They all wondered if the boy had been keen-witted enough to give this hard hit at Simon intentionally, but he had not. Poor little Jerome had never speculated on the laws of heredity; he had only meant to deny that his father had come to any more disgraceful end than the common one of all mankind. He did not dream, as he raced along home with his sister's shoes, of the different construction which they had put upon his words, but he felt angry and injured.
"That Sim' Basset pickin' on me that way," he thought. A wild sense of the helplessness of his youth came over him. "Wish I was a man," he muttered—"wish I was a man; I'd show 'em! All them men talkin'—sayin' anything—'cause I'm a boy."
Just before he reached home Jerome met two more men, and he heard his father's name distinctly. One of them stretched out a detaining hand as he passed, and called out, "Hullo! you're the Edwards boy?"
"Let me go, I tell you," shouted Jerome, in a fury, and was past them with a wild flourish of heels, like a rebellious colt.
"What in creation ails the boy?" said the man, with a start aside; and he and the other stood staring after Jerome.
When Jerome got home and opened the kitchen door he stood still with surprise. It was almost ten o'clock, and his mother and Elmira had begun to make pies. His mother had pushed herself up to the table and was mixing the pastry, while Elmira was beating eggs.
Mrs. Edwards looked around at Jerome. "What you standin' there lookin' for?" said she, with her sharp, nervous voice. "Put them shoes down, an' bring that quart pail of milk out of the pantry. Be careful you don't spill it."
Jerome obeyed. When he set the milk-pail on the table, Elmira gave him a quick, piteously confidential glance from under her tearful lids. Elmira, with her blue checked pinafore tied under her chin, sat in a high wooden chair, with her little bare feet curling over a round, and beat eggs with a wooden spoon in a great bowl.
"What you doin'?" asked Jerome.
Her mother answered for her. "She's mixin' up some custard for pies," said she. "I dun'no' as there's any need of you standin' lookin' as if you never saw any before."
"Never saw you makin' custard-pies at ten o'clock at night before," returned Jerome, with blunt defiance.
"Do you s'pose," said his mother, "that I'm goin' to let your father go off an' die all alone an' take no notice of it?"
"Dun'no' what you mean?"
"Don't you know it's three days since he went off to get that wood an' never come back?"
"Do you s'pose I'm goin' to let it pass an' die away, an' folks forget him, an' not have any funeral or anything? I made up my mind I'd wait until nine o'clock to-night, an' then, if he wa'n't found, I wouldn't wait any longer. I'd get ready for the funeral. I've sent over for Paulina Maria and your aunt B'lindy to come in an' help. Henry come over here to see if I'd heard anything, and I told him to go right home an' tell his mother to come, an' stop on the way an' tell Paulina Maria. There's a good deal to do before two o'clock to-morrow afternoon, an' I can't do much myself; somebody's got to help. In the mornin' you'll have to take the horse an' go over to the West Corners, an' tell Amelia an' her mother an' Lyddy Stokes's folks. There won't be any time to send word to the Greens over in Westbrook. They're only second-cousins anyway, an' they 'ain't got any horse, an' I dun'no' as they'd think they could afford to hire one. Now you take that fork an' go an' lift the cover off that kettle, an' stick it into the dried apples, an' see if they've begun to get soft."
Ann Edwards's little triangular face had grown plainly thinner and older in three days, but the fire in her black eyes still sparkled. Her voice was strained and hoarse on the high notes, from much lamentation, but she still raised it imperiously. She held the wooden mixing-bowl in her lap, and stirred with as desperate resolution, compressing her lips painfully, as if she were stirring the dregs of her own cup of sorrow.
Pretty soon there were voices outside and steps on the path. The door opened, and two women came in. One was Paulina Maria, Adoniram Judd's wife; the other was Belinda, the wife of Ozias Lamb.
Belinda Lamb spoke first. She was a middle-aged woman, with a pretty faded face. She wore her light hair in curls, which fell over her delicate, thin cheeks, and her blue eyes had no more experience in them than a child's, although they were reddened now with gentle tears. She had the look of a young girl who had been out like a flower in too strong a light, and faded out her pretty tints, but was a young girl still. Belinda always smiled an innocent girlish simper, which sometimes so irritated the austere New England village women that they scowled involuntarily back at her. Paulina Maria Judd and Ann Edwards both scowled without knowing it now as she spoke, her words never seeming to disturb that mildly ingratiating upward curve of her lips.
"I've come right over," said she, in a soft voice; "but it ain't true what Henry said, is it?"
"What ain't true?" asked Ann, grimly.
"It ain't true you're goin' to have a funeral?" Tears welled up afresh in Belinda's blue eyes, and flowed slowly down her delicate cheeks, but not a muscle of her face changed, and she smiled still.
"Why can't I have a funeral?"
"Why, Ann, how can you have a funeral, when there ain't—when they 'ain't found him?"
"I'd like to know why I can't!"
Belinda's blue, weeping eyes surveyed her with the helpless bewilderment of a baby. "Why, Ann," she gasped, "there won't be any—remains!"
"What of that? I guess I know it."
"There won't be nothin' for anybody to go round an' look at; there won't be any coffin—Ann, you ain't goin' to have any coffin when he ain't found, be you?"
"Be you a fool, Belindy Lamb?" said Ann. A hard sniff came from Paulina Maria.
"Well, I didn't s'pose you was," said Belinda, with meek abashedness. "Of course I knew you wasn't—I only asked; but I don't see how you can have a funeral no way, Ann. There won't be any coffin, nor any hearse, nor any procession, nor—"
"There'll be mourners," broke in Ann.
"They're what makes a funeral," said Paulina Maria, putting on an apron she had brought. "Folks that's had funerals knows."
She cast an austere glance at Belinda Lamb, who colored to the roots of her fair curls, and was conscious of a guilty lack of funeral experience, while Paulina Maria had lost seven children, who all died in infancy. Poor Belinda seemed to see the other woman's sternly melancholy face in a halo of little coffins and funeral wreaths.
"I know you've had a good deal more to contend with than I have," she faltered. "I 'ain't never lost anybody till poor—Abel." She broke into gentle weeping, but Paulina Maria thrust a broom relentlessly into her hand.
"Here," said she, "take this broom an' sweep, an' it might as well be done to-night as any time. Of course you 'ain't got your spring cleanin' done, none of it, Ann?"
"No," replied Mrs. Edwards; "I was goin' to begin next week."
"Well," said Paulina Maria, "if this house has got to be all cleaned, an' cookin' done, in time for the funeral, somebody's got to work. I s'pose you expect some out-of-town folks, Ann?"
"I dare say some 'll come from the West Corners. I thought I wouldn't try to get word to Westbrook, it's so far; but mebbe I'd send to Granby—there's some there that might come."
"Well," said Paulina Maria, "I shouldn't be surprised if as many as a dozen came, an' supper 'll have to be got for 'em. What are you goin' to do about black, Ann?"
"I thought mebbe I could borrow a black bonnet an' a veil. I guess my black bombazine dress will do to wear."
"Mis' Whitby had a new one when her mother died, an' didn't use her mother's old one. I don't believe but what you can borrow that," said Paulina Maria. She was moving about the kitchen, doing this and that, waiting for no commands or requests. Jerome and Elmira kept well back out of her way, although she had not half the fierce impetus that their mother sometimes had when hitching about in her chair. Paulina Maria, in her limited field of action, had the quick and unswerving decision of a general, and people marshalled themselves at her nod, whether they would or no. She was an example of the insistence of a type. The prevailing traits of the village women were all intensified and fairly dominant in her. They kept their houses clean, but she kept hers like a temple for the footsteps of divinity. Marvellous tales were told of Paulina Maria's exceeding neatness. It was known for a fact that the boards of her floors were so arranged that they could be lifted from their places and cleaned on their under as well as upper sides. Could Paulina Maria have cleaned the inner as well as the outer surface of her own skin she would doubtless have been better satisfied. As it was, the colorless texture of her thin face and hands, through which the working of her delicate jaws and muscles could be plainly seen, gave an impression of extreme purity and cleanliness. "Paulina Maria looks as ef she'd been put to soak in rain-water overnight," Simon Basset said once, after she had gone out of the store. Everybody called her Paulina Maria—never Mrs. Judd, nor Mrs. Adoniram Judd.
The village women were, as a rule, full of piety. Paulina Maria was austere. She had the spirit to have scourged herself had she once convicted herself of wrong; but that she had never done. The power of self-blame was not in her. Paulina Maria had never labored under conviction of sin; she had had no orthodox conversion; but she set her slim unswerving feet in the paths of righteousness, and walked there with her head up. In her the uncompromising spirit of Puritanism was so strong that it defeated its own ends. The other women were at times inflexible; Paulina Maria was always rigid. The others could be severe; Paulina Maria might have conducted an inquisition. She had in her possibilities of almost mechanical relentlessness which had never been tested in her simple village life. Paulina Maria never shirked her duty, but it could not be said that she performed it in any gentle and Christ-like sense. She rather attacked it and slew it, as if it were a dragon in her path. That night she was very weary. She had toiled hard all day at her own vigorous cleaning. Her bones and muscles ached. The spring languor also was upon her. She was not a strong woman, but she never dreamed of refusing to go to Ann Edwards's and assist her in her sad preparations.
She and Belinda Lamb remained and worked until midnight; then they went home. Jerome had to escort them through the silent village street—he had remained up for that purpose. Elmira had been sent to bed. When the boy came home alone along the familiar road, between the houses with their windows gleaming with blank darkness in his eyes, with no sound in his ears save the hoarse bark of a dog when his footsteps echoed past, a great strangeness of himself in his own thoughts was upon him.
He had not the feminine ability to ease descent into the depths of sorrow by catching at all its minor details on the way. He plunged straight down; no questions of funeral preparations or mourning bonnets arrested him for a second. "My father is dead," Jerome told himself; "he jumped into the pond and drowned himself, and here's mother, and Elmira, and the mortgage, and me."
This poor little me of the village boy seemed suddenly to have grown in stature, to have bent, as it grew, under a grievous burden, and to have lost all its childish carelessness and childish ambition. Jerome saw himself in the likeness of his father, bearing the mortgage upon his shoulders, and his boyish self never came fully back to him afterwards. The mantle of the departed, that, whether they will or not, covers those that stand nearest, was over him, and he had henceforth to walk under it.
The next morning Paulina Maria and Belinda Lamb returned to finish preparations, and Jerome was sent over to the West Corners to notify some relatives there of the funeral service. Just as he was starting, it was decided that he had better ride some six miles farther to Granby, and see some others who might think they had a claim to an invitation.
"Imogen Lawson an' Sarah were always dreadful touchy," said Mrs. Edwards. "They'll never get over it if they ain't asked. I guess you'd better go there, Jerome."
"Yes, he had," said Paulina Maria.
"It's a real pleasant day, an' I guess they'll enjoy comin'," said Belinda. Paulina Maria gave her a poke with a hard elbow, that hurt her soft side, and she looked at her wonderingly.
"Enjoy!" repeated Ann Edwards, bitterly.
"I dun'no' what you mean," half whimpered Belinda.
"No, I don't s'pose you do," returned Ann. "There's one thing about it—folks can always tell what you mean. You don't mean nothin', an' never did. You couldn't be put in a dictionary. Noah Webster couldn't find any meanin' fer you if he was to set up all night." A nervous sob shook Mrs. Edwards's little frame. She was almost hysterical that morning. Her black eyes were brightly dilated, her mouth tremulous, and her throat swollen.
Paulina Maria grasped Belinda by the shoulder. "You'd better get the broom an' sweep out the wood-shed," said she, and Belinda went out with a limp flutter of her cotton skirts and her curls.
Jerome rode the old white horse, that could only travel at a heavy jog, and he did not get home until noon—not much in advance of the funeral guests he had bidden. They had directly left all else, got out what mourning-weeds they could muster, and made ready.
When Jerome reached home, he was immediately seized by Paulina Maria. "Go right out and wash your face and hands real clean," said she, "and then go up-stairs and change your clothes. I've laid them out on the bed. When you get to the neckerchief, you come down here, and I'll tie it for you; it's your father's. You've got to wear somethin' black, to be decent."
Jerome obeyed. All the incipient masculine authority in him was overwhelmed by this excess of feminine strength. He washed his face and hands faithfully, and donned his little clean, coarse shirt and his poor best garments. Then he came down with the black silk neckerchief, and Paulina Maria tied it around his boyish neck.
"His father thought so much of that neckerchief," said Mrs. Edwards, catching her breath. "It was 'most the only thing he bought for himself for ten year that he didn't actually need."
"Jerome is the one to have it," said Paulina Maria, and she made the black silk knot tight and firm.
An hour before the time set for the funeral Ann Edwards was all dressed and ready. They had drawn her chair into the front parlor, and there she sat in state. She wore the borrowed black bonnet and veil. The decent black shawl and gown were her own. The doctor's wife had sent over some black silk gloves, and she wore them. They were much too large. Ann crossed her tiny hands, wrinkled over with the black silk, with long, empty black silk fingers dangling in her lap, over a fine white linen handkerchief. She had laid her gloved hands over the handkerchief with a gesture full of resolution. "I sha'n't give way," she said to Paulina Maria. That meant that, although she took the handkerchief in obedience to custom, it would not be used to dry the tears of affliction.
Ann's face, through the black gloom of her crape veil, revealed only the hard lines of resolution about her mouth and the red stain of tears about her eyes. She held now her emotions in check like a vise.
Jerome and poor little Elmira, whom Paulina Maria had dressed in a little black Canton-crape shawl of her own, sat on either side. Elmira wept now and then, trying to stifle her sobs, but Jerome sat as immovable as his mother.
The funeral guests arrived, and seated themselves solemnly in the rows of chairs which had been borrowed from the neighbors. Adoniram Judd and Ozias Lamb had carried chairs for a good part of the forenoon. Nearly all the village people came; the strange circumstances of this funeral, wherein there was no dead man to carry solemnly in the midst of a long black procession to his grave, had attracted many. Then, too, Abel Edwards had been known to them all since his childhood, and well liked in the main, although the hard grind of his daily life had of late years isolated him from his old mates.
Men sat there with stiff bowed heads, and glances of solemn furtiveness at new-comers, who had played with Abel in his boyhood, and to whom those old memories were more real than those of the last ten years. Abel Edwards, in the absence both of his living soul and his dead body, was present in the minds of many as a sturdy, light-hearted boy.
The people of Upham Corners assembled there together, dressed in their best, displaying their most staid and decorous demeanor, showed their fortunes in life plainly enough. Generally speaking, they were a poor and hard-working folk—poorer and harder working than the average people in villages. Upham Corners, from its hilly site, freely intersected with rock ledges, was not well calculated for profitable farming. The farms therein were mortgaged, and scarcely fed their tillers. The water privileges were good and mills might have flourished, but the greater markets were too far away, and few workmen could be employed.
Most of the women at poor Abel Edwards's funeral were worn and old before their prime, their mouths sunken, wearing old women's caps over their locks at thirty. Their decent best gowns showed that piteous conservation of poverty more painful almost than squalor.
The men were bent and gray with the unseen, but no less tangible, burdens of life. Scarcely one there but bore, as poor Abel Edwards had borne, a mortgage among them. It was a strange thing that although all of the customary mournful accessories of a funeral were wanting, although no black coffin with its silent occupant stood in their midst, and no hearse waited at the door, yet that mortgage of Abel Edwards's—that burden, like poor Christian's, although not of sin, but misfortune, which had doubled him to the dust—seemed still to be present.
The people had the thought of it ever in their minds. They looked at Ann Edwards and her children, and seemed to see in truth the mortgage bearing down upon them, like a very shadow of death.
They looked across at Doctor Seth Prescott furtively, as if he might perchance read their thoughts, and wondered if he would foreclose.
Doctor Prescott, in his broadcloth surtout, with his black satin stock muffling richly his stately neck, sat in the room with the mourners, directly opposite the Edwards family. His wife was beside him. She was a handsome woman, taller and larger than her husband, with a face of gentlest serenity set in shining bands of auburn hair. Mrs. Doctor Prescott looked like an empress among the other women, with her purple velvet pelisse sweeping around her in massive folds, and her purple velvet bonnet with a long ostrich plume curling over the side—the purple being considered a sort of complimentary half-mourning. Squire Eben Merritt's wife, Abigail, could not approach her, although she was finely dressed in black satin, and a grand cashmere shawl from overseas. Mrs. Eben Merritt was a small and plain-visaged little woman; people had always wondered why Squire Eben Merritt had married her. Eben Merritt had not come to the funeral. It was afterwards reported that he had gone fishing instead, and people were scandalized, and indignantly triumphant, because it was what they had expected of him. Little Lucina had come with her mother, and sat in the high chair where they had placed her, with her little morocco-shod feet dangling, her little hands crossed in her lap, and her blue eyes looking out soberly and anxiously from her best silk hood. Once in a while she glanced timidly at Jerome, and reflected how he had given her sassafras, and how he hadn't any father.