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   Chapter 2 AT MRS. ATTERSON’S

Hiram the Young Farmer By Burbank L. Todd Characters: 7247

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


When you came into "Mother" Atterson's front hall (the young men boarders gave her that appellation in irony) the ghosts of many ancient boiled dinners met you with-if you were sensitive and unused to the odors of cheap boarding houses-a certain shock.

He was starting up the stairs, on which the ragged carpet threatened to send less agile persons than Mrs. Atterson's boarders headlong to the bottom at every downward trip, when the clang of the gong in the dining-room announced the usual cold spread which the landlady thought due to her household on the first day of the week.

Hiram hesitated, decided that he would skip the meal, and started up again. But just then Fred Crackit lounged out of the parlor, with Mr. Peebles following him. Dyspeptic as he was, Mr. Peebles never missed a meal himself, and Crackit said:

"Come on, Hi-Low-Jack! Aren't you coming down to the usual feast of reason and flow of soul?"

Crackit thought he was a natural humorist, and he had to keep up his reputation at all times and seasons. He was rather a dissipated-looking man of thirty years or so, given to gay waistcoats and wonderfully knit ties. A brilliant as large as a hazel-nut-and which, in some lights, really sparkled like a diamond-adorned the tie he wore this evening.

"I don't believe I want any supper," responded Hiram, pleasantly.

"What's the matter? Got some inside information as to what Mother Atterson has laid out for us? You're pretty thick with the old girl, Hi."

"That's not a nice way to speak of her, Mr. Crackit," said Hi, in a low voice.

The other boarders-those who were in the house-straggled into the basement dining-room one after the other, and took their places at the long table, each in his customary manner.

That dining-room at Mother Atterson's never could have been a cheerful place. It was long, and low-ceiled, and the paper on the walls was a dingy red, so old that the figure on it had retired into the background-been absorbed by it, so to speak.

The two long, dusty, windows looked upon an area, and were grilled half way up by wrought-iron screens which, too, helped to shut out the light of day.

The long table was covered by a red figured table cloth. The "castors" at both ends and in the middle were the ugliest-Hiram was sure-to be found in all the city of Crawberry. The crockery was of the coarsest kind. The knives and forks were antediluvian. The napkins were as coarse as huck towels.

But Mrs. Atterson's food-considering the cost of provisions and the charge she made for her table-was very good. Only it had become a habit for certain of the boarders, led by the jester, Crackit, to criticise the viands.

Sometimes they succeeded in making Mrs. Atterson angry; and sometimes, Hiram knew, she wept, alone in the dining-room, after the harumscarum, thoughtless crowd had gone.

Old Lem Camp-nobody save Hiram thought to put "Mr." before the old gentleman's name-sidled in and sat down beside the country boy, as usual. He was a queer, colorless sort of person-a man who never looked into the face of another if he could help it. He would look all around Hiram when he spoke to him-at his shoulder, his shirtfront, his hands, even at his feet if they were visible, but never at his face.

And at the table he kept up a continual monologue. It was difficult sometimes for Hiram to know when he was being addressed, and when poor Mr. Camp was merely talking to himself.

"Let's see-where has Sister put my napkin-Oh! here it is-You've been for a walk, have you, young man?-No, that's not my napkin; I didn't spill any gravy at dinner-Nice

day out, but raw-Goodness me! can't I have a knife and fork?-Where's my knife and fork?-Sister certainly has forgotten my knife and fork.-Oh! Here they are-Yes, a very nice day indeed for this time of year."

And so on. It was quite immaterial to Mr. Camp whether he got an answer to his remarks to Hiram, or not. He went on muttering to himself, all through the meal, sometimes commenting upon what the others said at the table-and that quite shrewdly, Hiram noticed; but the other boarders considered him a little cracked.

Sister smiled sheepishly at Hiram as she passed the tea. She drowned his tea with milk and put in no less than four spoonfuls of sugar. But although the fluid was utterly spoiled for Hiram's taste he drank it with fortitude, knowing that the girl's generosity was the child of her gratitude; for both sugar and milk were articles very scantily supplied at Mother Atterson's table.

The mistress herself did not appear. Now that he was down here in the dining-room, Hiram lingered. He hated the thought of going up to his lonely and narrow quarters at the top of the house.

The other boarders trailed out of the room and up stairs, one after another, Old Lem Camp being the last to go. Sister brought in a dish of hot toast between two plates and set it at the upper end of the table. Then Mrs. Atterson appeared.

Hiram knew at once that something had gone wrong with the boarding house mistress. She had been crying, and when a woman of the age of Mrs. Atterson indulges in tears, her personal appearance is never improved.

"Oh, that you, Hi?" she drawled, with a snuffle. "Did you get enough to eat?"

"Yes, Mrs. Atterson," returned the youth, starting to get up. "I have had plenty."

"I'm glad you did," said the lady. "And you're easy 'side of most of 'em, Hiram. You're a real good boy."

"I reckon I get all I pay for, Mrs. Atterson," said her youngest boarder.

"Well, there ain't many of 'em would say that. And they was awful provokin' this noon. That roast of veal was just as good meat as I could find in market; and I don't know what any sensible party would want better than that prune pie.

"Well! I hope I won't have to keep a boarding house all my life. It's a thankless task. An' it ties a body down so.

"Here's my uncle-my poor mother's only brother and about the only relative I've got in the world-here's Uncle Jeptha down with the grip, or suthin', and goodness knows if he'll ever get over it. And I can't leave to go and see him die peaceable."

"Does he live far from here?" asked Hiram, politely, although he had no particular reason for being interested in Uncle Jeptha.

"He lives on a farm out Scoville way. He's lived there most all his life. He used to make a right good living off'n that farm, too; but it's run down some now.

"The last time I was out there, two years ago, he was just keepin' along and that's all. And now I expect he's dying, without a chick or child of his own by him," and she burst out crying again, the tears sprinkling the square of toast into which she continued to bite.

Of course, it was ridiculous. A middle-aged woman weeping and eating toast and drinking strong boiled tea is not a romantic picture. But as Hiram climbed to his room he wished with all his heart that he could help Mrs. Atterson.

He wasn't the only person in the world who seemed to have got into a wrong environment-lots of people didn't fit right into their circumstances in life.

"We're square pegs in round holes-that's what we are," mused Hiram. "That's what I am. I wish I was out of it. I wish I was back on the farm."

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