Jerome: part five
As Mr. Nash moved to lead his visitors back up the ward, Scheinholt’s colleague dropped behind. To Jerome, he said, in a carrying voice, not concealing his purpose, “Mr. Jerome, is it? Are you comfortable here? Do you find yourself wanting for anything?”
“I would like to leave this place.”
Mr. Nash, for only a moment, broke off his conversation with the house physician.
Jerome could see the import of Nash’s words. He would one day himself be called a resident of the almshouse. He might, humbled to it, take up his despised copy-work. He had no other skill. He would pay a token for his lodging and board; the public charge’s mantle of shame lifted, as the phrase he’d heard many times had it, by the dignity of labor.
“Who do I put on the envelope?”
His helper was named Bess. She, with her comb-furrowed strands pulled tight against her scalp, held away from her face by a white lace cap, made him think of Clotilde. Bess too had a washed-out sameness in the late summer hues of her coloring, her freckles and her grey eyes. But Bess was plump, and her shoulders curved softly, as though there were no bones inside to hold them up.
“Monsieur Tweedloe,” he told her.
He consoled himself with this thought, that he was no worse off for having lost his money; that he had never expected to have more of it than he could earn. But now, at his life’s nadir, it seemed to Jerome Tweedloe was an easier man to appeal to than Serrigny. Tweedloe had never spoken to him in harsh terms of reproof; or if he had, there’d been no winnowing out of the harsh from the merely abstruse. Where Serrigny might, for the memory of an old passion, find cause to obstruct, Jerome felt that Tweedloe would be indifferent―he did not much care about anyone’s moral character, least of all Honoré Gremot’s. Jerome would ask for no more than it might cost to take a furnished room, any sort of room. Tweedloe knew the debt would be paid.
“How do you spell ‘mah-sue’?” she asked.
“You will write ‘mister’ Tweedloe.”
“How,” asked Bess, “do you spell ‘Tweedloe’?”
Jerome knew, of course, that the letters were essentially the same, but that one did not say them in the same way. In particular, he doubted he had got the right idea about the “w”; and while he did not suspect Bess of wanting to laugh at him, his neighbor to the left (he could not risk a look aside to see if this were true) seemed by the sound of his respirations to be auditing their exchange, holding his breath in a conspicuous way when Jerome spoke, letting it out with a gust when Jerome fell silent.
(2017, Stephanie Foster)