Beautiful Joe/Chapter 26
HIS story," said Mr. Harry, "is about one of the hired men we had last winter, whose name was Jacobs. He was a cunning fellow, with a hang-dog look, and a great cleverness at stealing farm produce from father on the sly, and selling it. Father knew perfectly well what he was doing, and was wondering what would be the best way to deal with him, when one day something happened that brought matters to a climax.
"Father had to go to Sudbury for farming tools, and took Pacer and the cutter. There are two ways of going there—one the Sudbury Road, and the other the old Post Road, which is longer and seldom used. On this occasion father took the Post Road. The snow wasn't deep, and he wanted to inquire after an old man who had been robbed and half frightened to death, a few days before. He was a miserable old creature, known as Miser Jerrold, and he lived alone with his daughter. He had saved a little money that he kept in a box under his bed. When father got near the place, he was astonished to see by Pacer's actions that he had been on this road before, and recently too. Father is so sharp about horses, that they never do a thing that he doesn't attach a meaning to. So he let the reins hang a little loose, and kept his eye on Pacer. The horse went along the road, and seeing father didn't direct him, turned into the lane leading to the house. There was an old red gate at the end of it, and he stopped in front of it, and waited for father to get out. Then he passed through, and instead of going up to the house, turned around, and stood with his head toward the road.
"Father never said a word, but he was doing a lot of thinking. He went into the house, and found the old man sitting over the fire, rubbing his hands, and half-crying about 'the few poor dollars,' that he said he had had stolen from him. Father had never seen him before, but he knew he had the name of being half-silly, and question him as much as he liked, he could make nothing of him. The daughter said that they had gone to bed at dark the night her father was robbed. She slept upstairs, and he down below. About ten o'clock she heard him scream, and running downstairs, she found him sitting up in bed, and the window wide open. He said a man had sprung in upon him, stuffed the bedclothes into his mouth, and dragging his box from under the bed, had made off with it. She ran to the door and looked out, but there was no one to be seen. It was dark, and snowing a little, so no traces of footsteps were to be perceived in the morning.
"Father found that the neighbors were dropping in to bear the old man company, so he drove on to Sudbury, and then returned home. When he got back, he said Jacobs was hanging about the stable in a nervous kind of a way, and said he wanted to speak to him. Father said, very good, but to put the horse in first. Jacobs unhitched, and father sat on one of the stable benches and watched him till he came lounging along with a straw in his mouth, and said he'd made up his mind to go West, and he'd like to set off at once.
"Father said again, very good, but first he had a little account to settle with him, and he took out of his pocket a paper, where he had jotted down as far as he could, every quart of oats, and every bag of grain, and every quarter of a dollar of market money that Jacobs had defrauded him of. Father said the fellow turned all the colors of the rainbow, for he thought he had covered up his tracks so cleverly that he would never be found out. Then father said, 'Sit down, Jacobs, for I have got to have a long talk with you.' He had him there about an hour, and when he finished, the fellow was completely broken down. Father told him that there were just two courses in life for a young man to take, and he had gotten on the wrong one. He was a young, smart fellow, and if he turned right around now, there was a chance for him. If he didn't, there was nothing but the State's prison ahead of him, for he needn't think he was going to gull and cheat all the world, and never be found out. Father said he'd give him all the help in his power, if he had his word that he'd try to be an honest man. Then he tore up the paper, and said there was an end of his indebtedness to him.
"Jacobs is only a young fellow, twenty-three or there-about, and father says he sobbed like a baby. Then, without looking at him, father gave an account of his afternoon's drive, just as if he was talking to himself. He said, that Pacer never to his knowledge had been on that road before, and yet he seemed perfectly familiar with it, and that he stopped and turned all ready to leave again quickly, instead of going up to the door, and how he looked over his shoulder and started on a run down the lane, the minute father's foot was in the cutter again. In the course of his remarks, father mentioned the fact that on Monday, the evening that the robbery was committed, Jacobs had borrowed Pacer to go to the Junction, but had come in with the horse steaming, and looking as if he had been driven a much longer distance than that. Father said that when he got done, Jacobs had sunk down all in a heap on the stable floor, with his hands over his face. Father left him to have it out with himself, and went to the house.
"The next morning, Jacobs looked just the same as usual, and went about with the other men doing his work, but saying nothing about going West. Late in the afternoon, a farmer going by hailed father, and asked if he'd heard the news. Old Miser Jerrold's box had been left on his door-step some time through the night, and he'd found it in the morning. The money was all there, but the old fellow was so cute that he wouldn't tell any one how much it was. The neighbors had persuaded him to bank it, and he was coming to town the next morning with it, and that night some of them were going to help him mount guard over it. Father told the men at milking time, and he said Jacobs looked as unconscious as possible. However, from that day there was a change in him. He never told father in so many words that he'd resolved to be an honest man, but his actions spoke for him. He had been a kind of sullen, unwilling fellow, but now he turned handy and obliging, and it was a real trial to father to part with him."
Miss Laura was intensely interested in this story. "Where is he now, Cousin Harry?" she asked, eagerly. "What became of him?"
Mr. Harry laughed in such amusement that I stared up at him, and even Fleetwood turned his head around to see what the joke was. We were going very slowly up a long, steep hill, and in the clear, still air, we could hear every word spoken in the buggy.
"The last part of the story is the best, to my mind," said Mr. Harry, "and as romantic as even a girl could desire. The affair of the stolen box was much talked about along Sudbury way, and Miss Jerrold got to be considered quite a desirable young person among some of the youth near there, though she is a frowsy-headed creature, and not as neat in her personal attire as a young girl should be. Among her suitors was Jacobs. He cut out a black-smith, and a painter, and several young farmers, and father said he never in his life had such a time to keep a straight face, as when Jacobs came to him this spring, and said he was going to marry old Miser Jerrold's daughter. He wanted to quit father's employ, and he thanked him in a real manly way for the manner in which he had always treated him. Well, Jacobs left, and mother says that father would sit and speculate about him, as to whether he had fallen in love with Eliza Jerrold, or whether he was determined to regain possession of the box, and was going to do it honestly, or whether he was sorry for having frightened the old man into a greater degree of imbecility, and was marrying the girl so that he could take care of him, or whether it was something else, and so on, and so on. He had a dozen theories, and then mother says he would burst out laughing, and say it was one of the cutest tricks that he had ever heard of.
"In the end, Jacobs got married, and father and mother went to to the wedding. Father gave the bride-groom a yoke of oxen, and mother gave the bride a lot of household linen, and I believe they're as happy as the day is long. Jacobs makes his wife comb her hair, and he waits on the old man as if he was his son, and he is improving the farm that was going to rack and ruin, and I hear he is going to build a new house."
"Harry," exclaimed Miss Laura, "can't you take me to see them."
"Yes, indeed; mother often drives over to take them little things, and we'll go too, sometime. I'd like to see Jacobs myself, now that he is a decent fellow. Strange to say, though he hadn't the best of character, no one has ever suspected him of the robbery, and he's been cunning enough never to say. a word about it. Father says Jacobs is like all the rest of us. There's a mixture of good and evil in him, aud sometimes one predominates and sometimes the other. But we must get on and not talk here all day. Get up, Fleetfoot."
"Where did you say we were going?" asked Miss Laura, as we crossed the bridge over the river.
"A little way back here in the woods," he replied. "There's an Englishman on a small clearing that he calls Penhollow. Father loaned him some money three years ago, and he won't pay either interest or principal."
"I think I've heard of him," said Miss Laura, "Isn't he the man whom the boys call Lord Chesterfield?"
"The same one. He's a queer specimen of a man. Father has always stood up for him. He has a great liking for the English. He says we ought to be as ready to help an Englishman as an American, for we spring from common stock."
"Oh, not Englishmen only," said Miss Laura, warmly; "Chinamen, and Negroes, and everybody. There ought to be a brotherhood of nations, Harry."
"Yes, Miss Enthusiasm, I suppose there ought to be," and looking up, I could see that Mr. Harry was gazing admiringly into his cousin's face.
"Please tell me some more about the Englishman," said Miss Laura.
"There isn't much to tell. He lives alone, only coming occasionally to the village for supplies, and though he is poorer than poverty, he despises every soul within a ten-mile radius of him, and looks upon us as no better than an order of thrifty, well-trained lower animals."
"Why is that?" asked Miss Laura, in surprise.
"He is a gentleman, Laura, and we are only common people. My father can't hand a lady in and out of a carriage as Lord Chesterfield can, nor can he make so grand a bow, nor does he put on evening dress for a late dinner, and we never go to the opera nor to the theatre, and know nothing of polite society, nor can we tell exactly whom our great-great-grandfather sprang from. I tell you, there is a gulf between us and that Englishman, wider than the one young Curtius leaped into."
Miss Laura was laughing merrily. "How funny that sounds, Harry. So he despises you," and she glanced at her good-looking cousin, and his handsome buggy and well-kept horse, and then burst into another merry peal of laughter.
Mr. Harry laughed too. "It does seem absurd. Sometimes when I pass him jogging along to town in his rickety old cart, and look at his pale, cruel face, and know that he is a broken-down gambler and man of the world, and yet considers himself infinitely superior to me—a young man in the prime of life, with a good constitution and happy prospects, it makes me turn away to hide a smile."
By this time we had left the river and the meadows far behind us, and were passing through a thick wood. The road was narrow and very broken, and Fleetfoot was obliged to pick his way carefully. "Why does the Englishman live in this out-of-the-way place, if he is so fond of city life?" said Miss Laura.
"I don't know," said Mr. Harry. "Father is afraid that he has committed some misdeed, and is in hiding; but we say nothing about it. We have not seen him for some weeks, and to tell the truth, this trip is as much to see what has become of him, as to make a demand upon him for the money. As he lives alone, he might lie there ill, and no one would know anything about it. The last time that we knew of his coming to the village was to draw quite a sum of money from the bank. It annoyed father, for he said he might take some of it to pay his debts. I think his relatives in England supply him with funds. Here we are at the entrance to the mansion of Penhollow. I must get out and open the gate that will admit us to the winding avenue."
We had arrived in front of some bars which were laid across an opening in the snake fence that ran along one side of the road. I sat down and looked about. It was a strange, lonely place. The trees almost met overhead, and it was very dim and quiet. The sun could only send little straggling beams through the branches. There was a muddy pool of water before the bars that Mr. Harry was letting down, and he got his feet wet in it. "Confound that Englishman," he said, backing out of the water, and wiping his boots on the grass. "He hasn't even gumption enough to throw down a load of stone there. Drive in Laura and I'll put up the bars." Fleetfoot took us through the opening, and then Mr. Harry jumped into the buggy and took up the reins again.
We had to go very slowly up a narrow, rough road. The bushes scratched and scraped against the buggy, and Mr. Harry looked very much annoyed.
"No man liveth to himself," said Miss Laura, softly. "This man's carelessness is giving you trouble. Why doesn't he cut these branches that overhang the road?"
"He can't do it because his abominable laziness won't let him," said Mr. Harry. "I'd like to be behind him for a week, and I'd make him step a little faster. We have arrived at last, thank goodness."
There was a small grass clearing in the midst of the woods. Chips and bits of wood were littered about, and across the clearing was a roughly built house of unpainted boards. The front door was propped open by a stick. Some of the panes of glass in the windows were broken, and the whole house had a melancholy dilapidated look. I thought that I had never seen such a sad-looking place.
"It seems as if there was no one about," said Mr. Harry, with a puzzled face. "Barron must be away. Will you hold Fleetfoot, Laura, while I go and see?"
He drew the buggy up near a small log building that had evidently been used for a stable, and I lay down beside it and watched Miss Laura.