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"I didn't know as you wanted me to care for you particularly," said the father, almost deprecatingly. "I always thought you had friends of your own age."
"Friends? Devils!" exclaimed Jacob. "Oh, what have I done--what is there so dreadful about me that I should always be laughed at, and despised, and trampled upon? You are a great deal older than I am, father: what do you see in me? Tell me what it is, and how to get over it!"
The eyes of the two men met. Jacob saw his father's face grow pale in the moonlight, while he pressed his hand involuntarily upon his heart, as if struggling with some physical pain. At last he spoke, but his words were strange and incoherent.
"I couldn't sleep," he said; "I got up again and came out o' doors.
The white ox had broken down the fence at the corner, and would soon have been in the cornfield. I thought it was that, maybe, but still your--your mother would come into my head. I was coming down the edge of the wood when I saw you, and I don't know why it was that you seemed so different, all at once--"
Here he paused, and was silent for a minute. Then he said, in a grave, commanding tone: "Just let me know the whole story. I have that much right yet."
Jacob related the history of the evening, somewhat awkwardly and confusedly, it is true; but his father's brief, pointed questions kept him to the narrative, and forced him to explain the full significance of the expressions he repeated. At the mention of "Whitney's place," a singular expression of malice touched the old man's face.
"Do you love Becky Morton?" he asked bluntly, when all had been told.
"I don't know," Jacob stammered; "I think not; because when I seem to like her most, I feel afraid of her."
"It's lucky that you're not sure of it!" exclaimed the old man with energy; "because you should never have her."
"No," said Jacob, with a mournful acquiescence, "I can never have her, or any other one."
"But you shall--and will I when I help you. It's true I've not seemed to care much about you, and I suppose you're free to think as you like; but this I say: I'll not stand by and see you spit upon! `Covered with as much as it'll bear!' THAT'S a piece o' luck anyhow. If we're poor, your wife must take your poverty with you, or she don't come into MY doors. But first of all you must make your journey!"
"My journey!" repeated Jacob.
"Weren't you thinking of it this night, before you took your seat on that stump? A little more, and you'd have gone clean off, I reckon."
Jacob was silent, and hung his head.
"Never mind! I've no right to think hard of it. In a week we'll have finished our haying, and then it's a fortnight to wheat; but, for that matter, Harry and I can manage the wheat by ourselves. You may take a month, two months, if any thing comes of it. Under a month I don't mean that you shall come back. I'll give you twenty dollars for a start; if you want more you must earn it on the road, any way you please. And, mark you, Jacob! since you ARE poor, don't let anybody suppose you are rich. For my part, I shall not expect you to buy Whitney's place; all I ask is that you'll tell me, fair and square, just what things and what people you've got acquainted with. Get to bed now--the matter's settled; I will have it so."
They rose and walked across the meadow to the house. Jacob had quite forgotten the events of the evening in the new prospect suddenly opened to him, which filled him with a wonderful confusion of fear and desire. His father said nothing more. They entered the lonely house together at midnight, and went to their beds; but Jacob slept very little.
Six days afterwards he left home, on a sparkling June morning, with a small bundle tied in a yellow silk handkerchief under his arm. His father had furnished him with the promised money, but had positively refused to tell him what road he should take, or what plan of action he should adopt. The only stipulation was that his absence from home should not be less than a month.
After he had passed the wood and reached the highway which followed the course of the brook, he paused to consider which course to take. Southward the road led past Pardon's, and he longed to see his only friends once more before encountering untried hazards; but the village was beyond, and he had no courage to walk through its one long street with a bundle, denoting a journey, under his arm. Northward he would have to pass the mill and blacksmith's shop at the cross-roads. Then he remembered that he might easily wade the stream at a point where it was shallow, and keep in the shelter of the woods on the opposite hill until he struck the road farther on, and in that direction two or three miles would take him into a neighborhood where he was not known.
Once in the woods, an exquisite sense of freedom came upon him. There was nothing mocking in the soft, graceful stir of the expanded foliage, in the twittering of the unfrightened birds, or the scampering of the squirrels, over the rustling carpet of dead leaves. He lay down upon the moss under a spreading beech- tree and tried to think; but the thoughts would not come. He could not even clearly recall the keen troubles and mortifications he had endured: all things were so peaceful and beautiful that a portion of their peace and beauty fell upon men and invested them with a more kindly character.
Towards noon Jacob found himself beyond the limited geography of his life. The first man he encountered was a stranger, who greeted him with a hearty and respectful "How do you do, sir?"
"Perhaps," thought Jacob, "I am not so very different from other people, if I only thought so myself."
At noon, he stopped at a farm-house by the roadside to get a drink of water. A pleasant woman, who came from the door at that moment with a pitcher, allowed him to lower the bucket and haul it up dripping with precious coolness. She looked upon him with good- will, for he had allowed her to see his eyes, and something in their honest, appealing expression went to her heart.
"We're going to have dinner in five minutes," said she; "won't you stay and have something?"
Jacob stayed and brake bread with the plain, hospitable family. Their kindly attention to him during the meal gave him the lacking nerve; for a moment he resolved to offer his services to the farmer, but he presently saw that they were not really needed, and, besides, the place was still too near home.
Towards night he reached an old country tavern, lording it over an incipient village of six houses. The landlord and hostler were inspecting a drooping-looking horse in front of the stables. Now, if there was any thing which Jacob understood, to the extent of his limited experience, it was horse nature. He drew near, listened to the views of the two men, examined the animal with his eyes, and was ready to answer, "Yes, I guess so," when the landlord said, "Perhaps, sir, you can tell what is the matter with him."
His prompt detection of the ailment, and prescription of a remedy which in an hour showed its good effects, installed him in the landlord's best graces. The latter said, "Well, it shall cost you nothing to-night," as he led the way to the supper-room. When Jacob went to bed he was surprised on reflecting that he had not only been talking for a full hour in the bar-room, but had been looking people in the face.
Resisting an offer of good wages if he would stay and help look after the stables, he set forward the next morning with a new and most delightful confidence in himself. The knowledge that now nobody knew him as "Jake Flint" quite removed his tortured self- consciousness. When he met a person who was glum and ungracious of speech, he saw, nevertheless, that he was not its special object. He was sometimes asked questions, to be sure, which a little embarrassed him, but he soon hit upon answers which were sufficiently true without betraying his purpose.
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Beauty and the Beast, and Tales From Home -by- Bayard Taylor