Across the Years by Eleanor H. Porter
Uncle Zeke's pipe had gone out--sure sign that Uncle Zeke's mind was not at rest. For five minutes the old man had occupied in frowning silence the other of my veranda rocking-chairs. As I expected, however, I had not long to wait.
"I met old Sam Hadley an' his wife in the cemetery just now," he observed.
"Yes?" I was careful to express just enough, and not too much, interest: one had to be circumspect with Uncle Zeke.
"Hm-m; I was thinkin'--" Uncle Zeke paused, shifted his position, and began again. This time I had the whole story.
"I was thinkin'--I don't say that Jimmy did right, an' I don't say that Jimmy did wrong. Maybe you can tell. 'Twas like this:
"In a way we all claimed Jimmy Hadley. As a little fellow, he was one of them big-eyed, curly-haired chaps that gets inside your heart no matter how tough't is. An' we was really fond of him, too,--so fond of him that we didn't do nothin' but jine in when his pa an' ma talked as if he was the only boy that ever was born, or ever would be--an' you know we must have been purty daft ter stood that, us bein' fathers ourselves!
"Well, as was natural, perhaps, the Hadleys jest lived fer Jimmy. They'd lost three, an' he was all there was left. They wasn't very well-to-do, but nothin' was too grand fer Jimmy, and when the boy begun ter draw them little pictures of his all over the shed an' the barn door, they was plumb crazy. There wan't no doubt of it--Jimmy was goin' ter be famous, they said. He was goin' ter be one o' them painter fellows, an' make big money.
"An' Jimmy did work, even then. He stood well in his studies, an' worked outside, earnin' money so's he could take drawin' lessons when he got bigger. An' by and by he did get bigger, an' he did take lessons down ter the Junction twice a week.
"There wan't no livin' with Mis' Hadley then, she was that proud; an' when he brought home his first picture, they say she never went ter bed at all that night, but jest set gloatin' over it till the sun came in an' made her kerosene lamp look as silly as she did when she saw 'twas mornin'. There was one thing that plagued her, though: 'twan't painted-- that picture. Jimmy called it a 'black an' white,' an' said 'twan't paintin' that he wanted ter do, but 'lustratin'--fer books and magazines, you know. She felt hurt, an' all put out at first: but Jimmy told her 'twas all right, an' that there was big money in it; so she got 'round contented again. She couldn't help it, anyhow, with Jimmy, he was that lovin' an' nice with her. He was the kind that's always bringin' footstools and shawls, an' makin' folks comfortable. Everybody loved Jimmy. Even the cats an' dogs rubbed up against him an' wagged their tails at sight of him, an' the kids--goodness, Jimmy couldn't cross the street without a dozen kids makin' a grand rush fer him.
"Well, time went on, an' Jimmy grew tall an' good lookin'. Then came the girl--an' she was a girl, too. 'Course, Jimmy, bein' as how he'd had all the frostin' there was goin' on everythin' so fur, carried out the same idea in girls, an' picked out the purtiest one he could find-- rich old Townsend's daughter, Bessie.
"To the Hadleys this seemed all right--Jimmy was merely gettin' the best, as usual; but the rest of us, includin' old man Townsend, begun ter sit up an' take notice. The old man was mad clean through. He had other plans fer Bessie, an' he said so purty plain."
"But it seems there didn't any of us--only Jimmy, maybe--take the girl herself into consideration. For a time she was a little skittish, an' led Jimmy a purty chase with her dancin' nearer an' nearer, an' then flyin' off out of reach. But at last she came out fair an' square fur Jimmy, an' they was as lively a pair of lovers as ye'd wish ter see. It looked, too, as if she'd even wheedle the old man 'round ter her side of thinkin'."
"The next thing we knew Jimmy had gone ter New York. He was ter study, an' at the same time pick up what work he could, ter turn an honest penny, the Hadleys said. We liked that in him. He was goin' ter make somethin' of himself, so's he'd be worthy of Bessie Townsend or any other girl."
"But't was hard on the Hadleys. Jimmy's lessons cost a lot, an' so did just livin' there in New York, an' 'course Jimmy couldn't pay fer it all, though I guess he worked nights an' Sundays ter piece out. Back home here the Hadleys scrimped an' scrimped till they didn't have half enough ter eat, an' hardly enough ter cover their nakedness. But they didn't mind--'t was fer Jimmy. He wrote often, an' told how he was workin', an' the girl got letters, too; at least, Mis' Hadley said she did. An' once in a while he'd tell of some picture he'd finished, or what the teacher said.
"But by an' by the letters didn't come so often. Sam told me about it at first, an' he said it plagued his wife a lot. He said she thought maybe Jimmy was gettin' discouraged, specially as he didn't seem ter say much of anything about his work now. Sam owned up that the letters wan't so free talkin'; an' that worried him. He was afraid the boy was keepin' back somethin'. He asked me, kind of sheepish-like, if I s'posed such a thing could be as that Jimmy had gone wrong, somehow. He knew cities was awful wicked an' temptin', he said.
"I laughed him out of that notion quick, an' I was honest in it, too. I'd have as soon suspected myself of goin' ter the bad as Jimmy, an' I told him so. Things didn't look right, though. The letters got skurser an' skurser, an' I began ter think myself maybe somethin' was up. Then come the newspaper.
"It was me that took it over to the Hadleys. It was a little notice in my weekly, an' I spied it 'way down in the corner just as I thought I had the paper all read. 'Twan't so much, but to us 'twas a powerful lot; jest a little notice that they was glad ter see that the first prize had gone ter the talented young illustrator, James Hadley, an' that he deserved it, an' they wished him luck.
"The Hadleys were purty pleased, you'd better believe. They hadn't seen it, 'course, as they wan't wastin' no money on weeklies them days. Sam set right down an' wrote, an' so did Mis' Hadley, right out of the fullness of their hearts. Mis' Hadley give me her letter ter read, she was that proud an' excited; an' 't was a good letter, all brimmin' over with love an' pride an' joy in his success. I could see just how Jimmy'd color up an' choke when he read it, specially where she owned up how she'd been gettin' purty near discouraged 'cause they didn't hear much from him, an' how she'd rather die than have her Jimmy fail.
"Well, they sent off the letters, an' by an' by come the answer. It was kind of shy and stiff-like, an' I think it sort of disappointed 'em; but they tried ter throw it off an' say that Jimmy was so modest he didn't like ter take praise.
"'Course the whole town was interested, an' proud, too, ter think he belonged ter us; an' we couldn't hear half enough about him. But as time went on we got worried. Things didn't look right. The Hadleys was still scrimpin', still sendin' money when they could, an' they owned up that Jimmy's letters wan't real satisfyin' an' that they didn't come often, though they always told how hard he was workin'.
"What was queerer still, every now an' then I'd see his name in my weekly. I looked fer it, I'll own. I run across it once in the 'Personals,' an' after that I hunted the paper all through every week. He went ter parties an' theaters, an' seemed ter be one of a gay crowd that was always havin' good times. I didn't say nothin' ter the Hadleys about all this, 'course, but it bothered me lots. What with all these fine doin's, an' his not sendin' any money home, it looked as if the old folks didn't count much now, an' that his head had got turned sure.
"As time passed, things got worse an' worse. Sam lost two cows, an' Mis' Hadley grew thinner an' whiter, an' finally got down sick in her bed. Then I wrote. I told Jimmy purty plain how things was an' what I thought of him. I told him that there wouldn't be any more money comin' from this direction (an' I meant ter see that there wan't, too!), an' I hinted that if that 'ere prize brought anythin' but honor, I should think 't would be a mighty good plan ter share it with the folks that helped him ter win it.
"It was a sharp letter, an' when it was gone I felt 'most sorry I'd sent it; an' when the answer come, I was sorry. Jimmy was all broke up, an' he showed it. He begged me ter tell him jest how his ma was; an' if they needed anythin', ter get it and call on him. He said he wished the prize had brought him lots of money, but it hadn't. He enclosed twenty-five dollars, however, and said he should write the folks not ter send him any more money, as he was goin' ter send it ter them now instead.
"Of course I took the letter an' the money right over ter Sam, an' after they'd got over frettin' 'cause I'd written at all, they took the money, an' I could see it made 'em look ten years younger. After that you couldn't come near either of 'em that you didn't hear how good Jimmy was an' how he was sendin' home money every week.
"Well, it wan't four months before I had ter write Jimmy again. Sam asked me too, this time. Mis' Hadley was sick again, an' Sam was worried. He thought Jimmy ought ter come home, but he didn't like ter say so himself. He wondered if I wouldn't drop him a hint. So I wrote, an' Jimmy wrote right away that he'd come.
"We was all of a twitter, 'course, then--the whole town. He'd got another prize--so the paper said--an' there was a paragraph praisin' up some pictures of his in the magazine. He was our Jimmy, an' we was proud of him, yet we couldn't help wonderin' how he'd act. We wan't used ter celebrities--not near to!
"Well, he came. He was taller an' thinner than when he went away, an' there was a tired look in his eyes that went straight ter my heart. 'Most the whole town was out ter meet him, an' that seemed ter bother him. He was cordial enough, in a way, but he seemed ter try ter avoid folks, an' he asked me right off ter get him 'out of it.' I could see he wan't hankerin' ter be made a lion of, so we got away soon's we could an' went ter his home.
"You should have seen Mis' Hadley's eyes when she saw him, tall an' straight in the doorway. And Sam--Sam cried like a baby, he was so proud of that boy. As fer Jimmy, his eyes jest shone, an' the tired look was all gone from them when he strode across the room an' dropped on his knees at his mother's bedside with a kind of choking cry. I come away then, and left them.
"We was kind of divided about Jimmy, after that. We liked him, 'most all of us, but we didn't like his ways. He was too stand-offish, an' queer, an' we was all mad at the way he treated the girl.
"'Twas given out that the engagement was broken, but we didn't believe 't was her done it, 'cause up ter the last minute she'd been runnin' down ter the house with posies and goodies. Then he came, an' she stopped. He didn't go there, neither, an', so far as we knew, they hadn't seen each other once. The whole town was put out. We didn't relish seein' her thrown off like an old glove, jest 'cause he was somebody out in the world now, an' could have his pick of girls with city airs and furbelows. But we couldn't do nothin', 'cause he he was good ter his folks, an' no mistake, an' we did like that.
"Mis' Hadley got better in a couple of weeks, an' he begun ter talk of goin' back. We wanted ter give him a banquet an' speeches and a serenade, but he wouldn't hear a word of it. He wouldn't let us tell him how pleased we was at his success, either. The one thing he wouldn't talk about was his work, an' some got most mad, he was so modest.
"He hardly ever left the house except fer long walks, and it was on one of them that the accident happened. It was in the road right in front of the field where I was ploughing, so I saw it all. Bessie Townsend, on her little gray mare, came tearin' down the Townsend Hill like mad.
"Jimmy had stopped ter speak ter me, at the fence, but the next minute he was off like a shot up the road. He ran an' made a flyin' leap, an' I saw the mare rear and plunge. Then beast and man came down together, and I saw Bessie slide to the ground, landin' on her feet.
"When I got there Bessie Townsend was sittin' on the ground, with Jimmy's head in her arms, which I thought uncommon good of her, seein' the mortification he'd caused her. But when I saw the look in her eyes, an' in his as he opened them an' gazed up at her, I reckoned there might be more ter that love-story than most folks knew. What he said ter her then I don't know, but ter me he said jest four words, 'Don't--tell-- the--folks,' an' I didn't rightly understand jest then what he meant, for surely an accident like that couldn't be kept unbeknownst. The next minute he fell back unconscious.
"It was a bad business all around, an' from the very first there wan't no hope. In a week 'twas over, an' we laid poor Jimmy away. Two days after the funeral Sam come ter me with a letter. It was addressed ter Jimmy, an' the old man couldn't bring himself ter open it. He wanted, too, that I should go on ter New York an' get Jimmy's things; an' after I had opened the letter I said right off that I'd go. I was mad over that letter. It was a bill fer a suit of clothes, an' it asked him purty sharplike ter pay it.
"I had some trouble in New York findin' Jimmy's boardin'-place. There had been a fire the night before, an' his landlady had had ter move; but at last I found her an' asked anxiously fer Jimmy's things, an' if his pictures had been hurt.
"Jimmy's landlady was fat an' greasy an' foreign-lookin', an' she didn't seem ter understand what I was talkin' about till I repeated a bit sharply:--
"'Yes, his pictures. I've come fer 'em.'
"Then she shook her head.
"'Meester Hadley did not have any pictures.'
"'But he must have had 'em,' says I, 'fer them papers an' magazines he worked for. He made 'em!'
"She shook her head again; then she gave a queer hitch to her shoulders, and a little flourish with her hands.
"'Oh--ze pictures! He did do them--once--a leetle: months ago.'
"'But the prize,' says I. 'The prize ter James Hadley!'
"Then she laughed as if she suddenly understood.
"Oh, but it is ze grand mistake you are makin',' she cried, in her silly, outlandish way of talkin'. 'There is a Meester James Hadley, an' he does make pictures--beautiful pictures--but it is not this one. This Meester Hadley did try, long ago, but he failed to succeed, so my son said; an' he had to--to cease. For long time he has worked for me, for the grocer, for any one who would pay--till a leetle while ago. Then he left. In ze new clothes he had bought, he went away. Ze old ones-- burned. He had nothing else.'
"She said more, but I didn't even listen. I was back with Jimmy by the roadside, and his 'Don't--tell--the--folks' was ringin' in my ears. I understood it then, the whole thing from the beginnin'; an' I felt dazed an' shocked, as if some one had struck me a blow in the face. I wan't brought up ter think lyin' an' deceivin' was right.
"I got up by an' by an' left the house. I paid poor Jimmy's bill fer clothes--the clothes that I knew he wore when he stood tall an' straight in the doorway ter meet his mother's adorin' eyes. Then I went home.
"I told Sam that Jimmy's things got burned up in the fire--which was the truth. I stopped there. Then I went to see the girl--an' right there I got the surprise of my life. She knew. He had told her the whole thing long before he come home, an' insisted on givin' her up. Jest what he meant ter do in the end, an' how he meant ter do it, she didn't know; an' she said with a great sob in her voice, that she didn't believe he knew either. All he did know, apparently, was that he didn't mean his ma should find out an' grieve over it--how he had failed. But whatever he was goin' ter do, it was taken quite out of his hands at the last.
"As fer Bessie, now,--it seems as if she can't do enough fer Sam an' Mis' Hadley, she's that good ter 'em; an' they set the world by her. She's got a sad, proud look to her eyes, but Jimmy's secret is safe.
"As I said, I saw old Sam an' his wife in the cemetery to-night. They stopped me as usual, an' told me all over again what a good boy Jimmy was, an' how smart he was, an' what a lot he'd made of himself in the little time he'd lived. The Hadleys are old an' feeble an' broken, an' it's their one comfort--Jimmy's success."
Uncle Zeke paused, and drew a long breath. Then he eyed me almost defiantly.
"I ain't sayin' that Jimmy did right, of course; but I ain't sayin'-- that Jimmy did wrong," he finished.