“There isn’t—” began Jerome. Then he shut his mouth hard and walked on.
“It’s only my joke, Jerome,” laughed the Colonel, but there was no responsive smile on Jerome’s face. Colonel Lamson eyed him narrowly. “The Squire had a letter from his wife yesterday,” he said, with no preface. Then he started, for Jerome turned upon him a face as of one who is braced for death.
“How—is she?” he gasped out.
“Who? Mrs. Merritt? No, confound it all, my boy, she’s better! Hold on to yourself, my boy; I tell you she’s better.”
Jerome gave a deep sigh, and walked ahead so fast that the Colonel had to quicken his pace. “Wait a minute,” he panted; “I want a word with you.”
Jerome stopped, and the Colonel came up and faced him. “Look here, young man,” he said, with sudden wrath, “if I thought for a minute you had jilted that girl, I wouldn’t stop for words; I would take you by the neck like a puppy, and I’d break every bone in your body.”
Jerome squared his shoulders involuntarily; his face, confronting the Colonel’s, twitched. “I’ll kill you or any other man who dares to say I did,” he cried out, fiercely.
“If I hadn’t known you didn’t I would have seen you damned before I’d spoken to you,” returned the Colonel; “but what I want to ask now is, what in—are you doing?”
“I’d like to know what business ’tis of yours!”
“What in—are you doing, my boy?” repeated the Colonel.
There was something ludicrous in the contrast between his strong language and his voice, into which had come suddenly a tone of kindness which was almost caressing. Jerome, since his father’s day, had heard few such tones addressed to him, and his proudly independent heart was softened and weakened by his anxiety and relief over Lucina.
“I am—working my fingers to the bone—to win her, sir,” he blurted out, brokenly.
“Does she know it?”
“Do you think I would say anything to her to bind her when I might never be able to marry her?” said Jerome, with almost an accent of wonder.
The Colonel whistled and said no more, for just then Belinda Lamb and Paulina Maria came up, holding their petticoats high out of the slush.
The two men walked on to Upham village, the Colonel straight, as if at the head of a battalion, though his lungs pumped hard at every step, holding back his square shoulders, protruding his tight broadcloth, swinging his stick airily, Jerome at his side, burdened like a peasant, with his sheaf of cut leather, but holding up his head like a prince.
Lucina and her mother were away some three months; it was late spring when they returned. It had been told in Upham that Lucina was quite well, but when people saw her they differed as to her appearance. “She looks dreadful delicate now, accordin’ to my way of thinkin’,” some of the women, spying sharply upon her from their sitting-room windows and their meeting-house pews, reported.