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   Chapter 1 FAIRVIEW.

The Story of a Country Town By E. W. Howe Characters: 19365

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


OURS was the prairie district out West, where we had gone to grow up with the country.

I believe that nearly every farmer for miles around moved to the neighborhood at the same time, and that my father's wagons headed the procession. I have heard that most of them gathered about him on the way, and as he preached from his wagon wherever night overtook him, and held camp-meetings on Sundays, he attracted a following of men travelling the same road who did not know themselves where they were going, although a few of the number started with him, among them my mother's father and his family. When he came to a place that suited him, he picked out the land he wanted-which any man was free to do at that time-and the others settled about him.

In the dusty tramp of civilization westward-which seems to have always been justified by a tradition that men grow up by reason of it-our section was not a favorite, and remained new and unsettled after counties and States farther west had grown old. Every one who came there seemed favorably impressed with the steady fertility of the soil, and expressed surprise that the lands were not all occupied; but no one in the great outside world talked about it, and no one wrote about it, so that those who were looking for homes went to the west or the north, where others were going.

There were cheap lands farther on, where the people raised a crop one year, and were supported by charity the next; where towns sprang up on credit, and farms were opened with borrowed money; where the people were apparently content, for our locality did not seem to be far enough west, nor far enough north, to suit them; where no sooner was one stranger's money exhausted than another arrived to take his place; where men mortgaged their possessions at full value, and thought themselves rich, notwithstanding, so great was their faith in the country; where he who was deepest in debt was the leading citizen, and where bankruptcy caught them all at last. On these lands the dusty travellers settled, where there were churches, school-houses, and bridges-but little rain-and railroads to carry out the crops should any be raised; and when any one stopped in our neighborhood, he was too poor and tired to follow the others.

I became early impressed with the fact that our people seemed to be miserable and discontented, and frequently wondered that they did not load their effects on wagons again, and move away from a place which made all the men surly and rough, and the women pale and fretful. Although I had never been to the country they had left, except as a baby in arms, I was unfavorably impressed with it, thinking it must have been a very poor one that such a lot of people left it and considered their condition bettered by the change, for they never talked of going back, and were therefore probably better satisfied than they had ever been before. A road ran by our house, and when I first began to think about it at all, I thought that the covered wagons travelling it carried people moving from the country from which those in our neighborhood came, and the wagons were so numerous that I was led to believe that at least half the people of the world had tried to live there, and moved away after an unfortunate experience.

On the highest and bleakest point in the county, where the winds were plenty in winter because they were not needed, and scarce in summer for an opposite reason, the meeting-house was built, in a corner of my father's field. This was called Fairview, and so the neighborhood was known. There was a graveyard around it, and cornfields next to that, but not a tree or shrub attempted its ornament, and as the building stood on the main road where the movers' wagons passed, I thought that, next to their ambition to get away from the country which had been left by those in Fairview, the movers were anxious to get away from Fairview church, and avoid the possibility of being buried in its ugly shadow, for they always seemed to drive faster after passing it.

High up in a steeple which rocked with every wind was a great bell, the gift of a missionary society, and when there was a storm this tolled with fitful and uncertain strokes, as if the ghosts from the grave lot had crawled up there, and were counting the number to be buried the coming year, keeping the people awake for miles around. Sometimes, when the wind was particularly high, there were a great number of strokes on the bell in quick succession, which the pious said was an alarm to the wicked, sounded by the devil, a warning relating to the conflagration which could never be put out, else Fairview would never have been built.

When any one died it was the custom to toll the bell once for every year of the deceased's age, and as deaths usually occur at night, we were frequently wakened from sleep by its deep and solemn tones. When I was yet a very little boy I occasionally went with my father to toll the bell when news came that some one was dead, for we lived nearer the place than any of the others, and when the strokes ran up to forty and fifty it was very dreary work, and I sat alone in the church wondering who would ring for me, and how many strokes could be counted by those who were shivering at home in their beds.

The house was built the first year of the settlement, and the understanding was that my father contributed the little money necessary, and superintended the work, in which he was assisted by any one who volunteered his labor. It was his original intention to build it alone, and the little help he received only irritated him, as it was not worth the boast that he had raised a temple to the Lord single-handed. All the carpenter's work, and all the plasterer's work, he performed without assistance except from members of his own household, but I believe the people turned out to the raising, and helped put up the frames.

Regularly after its completion he occupied the rough pulpit (which he built with especial reference to his own size), and every Lord's Day morning and evening preached a religion to the people which I think added to their other discomforts, for it was hard and unforgiving. There were two or three kinds of Baptists among the people of Fairview when the house was completed, and a few Presbyterians, but they all became Methodists without revolt or question when my father announced in his first preaching that Fairview would be of that denomination.

He did not solicit them to join him, though he probably intimated in a way which admitted of no discussion that the few heretics yet remaining out in the world had better save themselves before it was too late. It did not seem to occur to him that men and women who had grown up in a certain faith renounced it with difficulty; it was enough that they were wrong, and that he was forgiving enough to throw open the doors of the accepted church. If they were humiliated, he was glad of it, for that was necessary to condone their transgression; if they had arguments to excuse it, he did not care to hear them, as he had taken God into partnership, and built Fairview, and people who worshipped there would be expected to throw aside all doctrinal nonsense.

. . . . .

As I shall have something to do with this narrative, there may be a curiosity on the part of the reader to know who I am. I state, then, that I am the only son of the Rev. John Westlock-and the only child, unless a little girl born a year before me, and whom I have heard my mother speak of tenderly as pretty and blue-eyed, is to be called up from her grave and counted; and I have the best of reason for believing (the evidence being my father's word, a man whose integrity was never doubted) that he moved to the place where my recollection begins, to do good and grow up with the country. Whether my father remarked it in my presence-he seldom said anything to me-I do not now remember, but I believe to this day, in the absence of anything to the contrary, that the circuit he rode in the country which he had left was poor, and paid him but rarely for his services, which induced him to quit preaching as a business, and resolve to evangelize in the West on his own account, at the same time putting himself in the way of growing up with the country, an idea probably new at that time, and very significant.

In the great Bible which was always lying open on a table in our house, between the Old and the New Testament, my name and the date of my birth were recorded in bold handwriting, immediately following the information that Helen Elizabeth Westlock arrived by the mercy of God on the 19th of July, and departed in like manner on the 3d of April; and I did not know, until I was old enough to read for myself, that I had been christened Abram Nedrow Westlock, as I had always been called Ned, and had often wondered if any of the prophets were of that name, for my father, and my mother, and my uncle Jo (my mother's only brother, who had lived at our house most of his life), and my grandmother, and my grandfather, were all named for some of the people I had heard referred to when the big Bible was read. But when I found Abram before the Nedrow, I knew that I had not been neglected. This discovery caused me to ask my mother so many questions that I learned in addition that the Nedrow part of the name referred to a preacher of my father's denomination, and not to a prophet, and that my father admired him and named me for him because he had once preached all day at a camp-meeting, and then spent most of the following night in prayer. I therefore concluded that it was intended that I should be pious, and early

began to search the Scriptures for the name of Abram, that I might know in what manner he had distinguished himself.

The first thing I can remember, and this only indistinctly, was connected with the removal of our effects from an old house to a new one, and that the book on which I usually sat at the table was mislaid during the day, which made it necessary for me to stand during the progress of the evening meal. I began to cry when this announcement was made, whereupon my father said in a stern way that I was now too old to cry, and that I must never do it again. I remarked it that day, if I never did before, that he was a large, fierce-looking man, whom it would likely be dangerous to trifle with, and that a full set of black whiskers, and a blacker frown, completely covered his face; from that time I began to remember events, and they will appear as this narrative progresses.

Of my youth before this time I have little knowledge except that my mother said once in my presence that I was a very pretty baby, but that I had now got bravely over it, and that as a child I was known in all the country round as a great baby to cry, being possessed of a stout pair of lungs, which I used on the slightest occasion. This, coupled with an observation from my uncle Jo that when he first saw me, an hour or two after birth, I looked like a fish-worm, was all I could find out about my earlier history, and the investigation was so unsatisfactory that I gave it up.

Once I heard my father say, when he was in a good humor, that when the nurse employed for my arrival announced that I was a boy, my mother cried hysterically for half an hour, as she desired a blue-eyed girl to replace the one she had buried, and when I heard my mother tell a few weeks afterwards, in a burst of confidence, to a number of women who happened to be there, that my father stormed for an hour because I was born at all, I concluded that I had never been very welcome, and regretted that I had ever come into the world. They both wanted a girl-when the event was inevitable-to help about the house, as Jo was thought to be all the help necessary in the field, and in the earlier days of my life I remember feeling that I was out of place because I did not wear dresses, and wash dishes, thus saving the pittance paid a farmer's daughter during the busy season.

The only remarkable thing I ever did in my life-I may as well mention it here, and be rid of it-was to learn to read letters when I was five years old, and as the ability to read even print was by no means a common accomplishment in Fairview, this circumstance gave me great notoriety. I no doubt learned to read from curiosity as to what the books and papers scattered about were for, as no one took the pains to teach me, for I remember that they were all greatly surprised when I began to spell words, and pronounce them, and I am certain I was never encouraged in it.

It was the custom when my father went to the nearest post-office to bring back with him the mail of the entire neighborhood, and it was my business to deliver the letters and papers at the different houses. If I carried letters, I was requested to read them, and the surprise which I created in this direction was so pronounced that it was generally said that in time I should certainly become a great man, and be invited to teach school. If I came to a word which I did not understand I invented one to take its place, or an entire sentence, for but few of the people could read the letters themselves, and never detected the deception. This occupation gave me my first impression of the country where the people had lived before they came to Fairview, and as there was much in the letters of hard work and pinching poverty, I believed that the writers lived in a heavily timbered country, where it was necessary to dig up trees to get room for planting. Another thing I noticed was that they all seemed to be dissatisfied and anxious to get away, and when in course of time I began to write answers to the letters I was surprised to learn that the people of Fairview were satisfied, and that they were well pleased with the change.

I had never thought this before, for they all seemed as miserable as was possible, and wondered about it a great deal. This gave me fresh reason for believing that the country which our people had left was a very unfavored one, and when I saw the wagons in the road I thought that at last the writers of the letters I had been reading had arrived and would settle on some of the great tracts of prairie which could be seen in every direction, but they turned the bend in the road and went on as if a look at Fairview had frightened them, and they were going back another way.

It seems to me now that between the time I began to remember and the time I went out with my father and Jo to work, or went alone through the field to attend the school in the church, about a year elapsed, and that I was very much alone during the interval, for ours was a busy family, and none of them had time to look after me. My father and Jo went to the fields, or away with the teams, at a very early hour in the morning, and usually did not return until night, and my mother was always busy about the house, so that if I kept out of mischief no more was expected of me. I think it was during this year (it may have been two years, but certainly not a longer period) that I learned to read, for I had nothing else to do and no companions, and from looking at the pictures in the books I began to wonder what the little characters surrounding them meant.

In this I was assisted by Jo, who seemed to know everything, and by slow degrees I put the letters together to make words, and understood them. Sometimes in the middle of the day I slipped out into the field to ask him the meaning of something mysterious I had encountered, and although he would good-naturedly inform me, I noticed that he and my father worked without speaking, and that I seemed to be an annoyance, so I scampered back to my loneliness again.

During this time, too, I first noticed that my father was not like other men who came to our house, for he was always grave and quiet, and had little to say at any time. It was a relief to me to hear him ask blessings at the table, and pray morning and evening, for I seldom heard his voice at any other time. I believe I regarded his quiet manner only as an evidence that he was more pious than others of his class, for I could make nothing else out of it, but often regretted that his religion did not permit him to notice me more, or to take me with him when he went away in the wagon. Once I asked my mother why he was always so stern and silent, and if it was because we had offended him, to which she replied all in a tremble that she did not know herself, and I thought that she studied a great deal about him, too. My mother was as timid in his presence as I was, and during the day, if I came upon her suddenly, she looked frightened, thinking it was he, but when she found it was not, her composure returned again. Neither of us had reason to be afraid of him, I am certain of that, but as we never seemed able to please him (though he never said so), we were in constant dread of displeasing him more than ever, or of causing him to become more silent and dissatisfied, and to give up the short prayers in which we were graciously mentioned for a blessing.

The house where we lived, and into which we moved on the day when my recollection begins, was the largest in the settlement; a square house of two stories, painted so white that after night it looked like a ghost. It was built on lower ground than Fairview church, though the location was sightly, and not far away ran a stream fringed with thickets of brush, where I found the panting cattle and sheep on hot days, and thought they gave me more of a welcome than my father and Jo did in the field; for they were not busy, but idle like me, and I hoped it was rather a relief to them to look at me in mild-eyed wonder.

Beyond the little stream and the pasture was the great dusty road, and in my loneliness I often sat on the high fence beside it to watch for the coming of the movers' wagons, and to look curiously at those stowed away under the cover bows, tumbled together with luggage and effects of every kind. If one of the drivers asked me how far it was to the country town I supposed he had heard of my wonderful learning, and took great pains to describe the road, as I had heard my father do a hundred times in response to similar inquiries from movers. Sometimes I climbed up to the driver's seat, and drove with him out to the prairie, and I always noticed that the women and children riding behind were poorly dressed, and tired looking, and I wondered if only the unfortunate travelled our way, for only that kind of people lived in Fairview, and I had never seen any other kind in the road.

When I think of the years I lived in Fairview, I imagine that the sun was never bright there (although I am certain that it was), and I cannot relieve my mind of the impression that the cold, changing shadow of the gray church has spread during my long absence and enveloped all the houses where the people lived. When I see Fairview in my fancy now, it is always from a high place, and looking down upon it the shadow is denser around the house where I lived than anywhere else, so that I feel to this day that should I visit it, and receive permission from the new owners to walk through the rooms, I should find the walls damp and mouldy because the bright sun and the free air of Heaven had deserted them as a curse.

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