When he reached home his wife, who had just finished her game, slid out gently, and the usual festivities began. Colonel Lamson, warmed with punch and good-fellowship and tobacco, grew brilliant at cards, and humorously reminiscent of old jokes between the games; John Jennings lagged at cards, but flashed out now and then with fine wit, while his fervently working brain lit up his worn face with the light of youth. The lawyer, who drank more than the rest, played better and better, and waxed caustic in speech if crossed. As for the Squire, his frankness increased even to the risk of self-praise. Before the evening was over he had told the whole story of little Jerome, of Doctor Prescott and himself and the Edwards mortgage. The three friends stared at him with unsorted cards in their hands.
“You are a damned fool!” cried Eliphalet Means, taking his pipe from his mouth.
“No,” cried Jennings, “not a damned fool, but a rare fool,” and his great black eyes, in their mournful hollows, flashed affectionately at Squire Eben.
“And I say he’s a damned fool. Men live in this world,” maintained the lawyer, fiercely.
“Men’s hearts ought to be out of the world if their heads are in it,” affirmed John Jennings, with a beautiful smile. “I say he’s a rare fool, and I would that all the wise men could go to school to such a fool and learn wisdom of his folly.”
Colonel Jack Lamson, who sat at the Squire’s left, removed his pipe, cleared his throat, and strove to speak in vain. Now he began with a queer stiffness of his lips, while his purplish-red flush spread to the roots of his thin bristle of gray hair.
“It reminds me of a story I heard. No, that is another. It reminds me—” And then the colonel broke down with a great sob, and a dash of his sleeve across his eyes, and recovered himself, and cried out, chokingly, “No, I’ll be damned if it reminds me of anything I’ve ever seen or heard of, for I’ve never seen a man like you, Eben!”
And with that he slapped his cards to the table, and shook the Squire’s hand, with such a fury of affectionate enthusiasm that some of his cards fluttered about him to the floor, like a shower of leaves.
As for Eliphalet Means, he declared again, with vicious emphasis, “He’s a damned fool!” then rose up, laid his cards on top of the colonel’s scattered hand, went to the punch-bowl and helped himself to another glass; then, pipe in mouth, went up to Squire Merritt and gave him a great slap on his back. “You are a damned fool, my boy!” he cried out, holding his pipe from his lips and breathing out a great cloud of smoke with the words; “but the wife and the young one and you shall never want a bite or a sup, nor a bed nor a board, on account of it, while old ’Liph Means has a penny in pocket.”
And with that Eliphalet Means, who was old enough to be the Squire’s father, and loved him as he would have loved a son, went back to his seat and dealt the cards over.