Now the warfare of life had fairly begun for little Jerome Edwards. Up to this time, although in sorry plight enough as far as material needs went—scantily clad, scantily fed, and worked hard—he had as yet only followed at an easy pace, or skirted with merry play the march of the toilers of the world. Now he was in the rank and file, enlisted thereto by a stern Providence, and must lose his life for the sake of living, like the rest. No more idle hours in the snug hollow of the rock, where he seemed to pause like a bee on the sweets of existence itself that he might taste them fully, were there for Jerome. Very few chances he had for outspeeding his comrades in any but the stern and sober race of life, for this little Mercury had to shear the wings from his heels of youthful sport and take to the gait of labor. Very seldom he could have one of his old treasure hunts in swamps and woods, unless, indeed, he could perchance make a labor and a gain of it. Jerome found that sassafras, and snakeroot, and various other aromatic roots and herbs of the wilds about his house had their money value. There was an apothecary in the neighboring village of Dale who would purchase them of him; at the cheapest of rates, it is true—a penny or so for a whole peck measure, or a sheaf, of the largess of summer—but every penny counted. Poor Jerome did not care so much about his woodland sorties after they were made a matter of pence and shillings, sorely as he needed, and much as he wished for, the pence and shillings. The sense was upon him, a shamed and helpless one, of selling his birthright. Jerome had in the natural beauty of the earth a budding delight, which was a mystery and a holiness in itself. It was the first love of his boyish heart; he had taken the green woods and fields for his sweetheart, and must now put her to only sordid uses, to her degradation and his.
Sometimes, in a curious rebellion against what he scarcely knew, he would return home without a salable thing in hand, nothing but a pretty and useless collection of wild flowers and sedges, little swamp-apples, and perhaps a cast bird-feather or two, and meet his mother’s stern reproof with righteously undaunted front.
“I don’t care,” he said once, looking at her with a meaning she could not grasp; nor, indeed, could he fathom it himself. “I ain’t goin’ to sell everything; if I do I’ll have to sell myself.”
“I’d like to know what you mean,” said his mother, sharply.
“I mean I’m goin’ to keep some things myself,” said Jerome, and pattered up to his chamber to stow away his treasures, with his mother’s shrill tirade about useless truck following him. Ann was a good taskmistress; there were, indeed, great powers of administration in the keen, alert mind in that little frail body. Given a poor house encumbered by a mortgage, a few acres of stony land, and two children, the elder only fourteen, she worked miracles almost. Jerome had shown uncommon, almost improbable, ability in his difficulties when Abel had disappeared and her strength had failed her, but afterwards her little nervous feminine clutch on the petty details went far towards saving the ship.