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The Story of a Country Town By E. W. Howe Characters: 17331

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

WHEN there was nothing else for them to do, the children of Fairview were sent to a school kept in the church, where they studied around a big box stove, and played at noon and recess among the mounds in the grave lot, there being no playground, as it was not intended that the children of Fairview should play.

The older boys told it in low whispers that a sunken grave meant that the person buried there had been carried away by the Devil, and it was one of our amusements to look among the graves from day to day to see if the dreadful visitor had been around during the preceding night.

These sunken graves were always carefully filled up by relatives of the persons buried, and I regarded this as evidence that they were anxious to hide the disgrace which had come upon their families from neglect of my father's religion. After a funeral-which we were all compelled to attend so that we might become practically impressed with the shortness of life, and where a hymn commencing "Hark, from the tomb, a doleful sound," was sung to such a dismal measure that the very dogs howled to hear it-I used to lie awake in speechless terror for a great many nights, fearing the Devil would call on me in my room on his way out to the grave lot to see whether the person just buried belonged to him.

The boys and girls who attended from the houses dotted about on the prairie did not differ from other children except that they were a long time in the first pages of their books, and seemed glad to come. I have heard that in some places measures are found necessary to compel attendance on the schools, but in Fairview the children regarded the teacher as their kindest and most patient friend, and the school as a pleasant place of retreat, where grumbling and complaints were never heard.

The. Meek sent so many children that the teacher never pretended to know the exact number. Sometimes there were eleven, and at other times only seven or eight, for the older ones seemed to take turns about, working one day and studying the next. I think The. Meek was about the only man in our country who was as good at home as he was at church, and his family of white-headed boys were laughers like him, and always contented and happy. They never learned anything, and my recollection is that they all studied out of one book while I went to school there, reciting in a class by themselves from the same page. If the teacher came upon them suddenly in their seats, and asked them to name the first letter of the alphabet, the chances were that one of them would know and answer, whereupon they all cried "A!" in a chorus. But if one of the number was called out separately a few moments later, and asked the same question, the round, chubby face would look up into the teacher's, and after meditating awhile (moving his lips during the time as if recalling the rules governing such a difficult problem) would honestly answer that he didn't know! He was then sent back to study, with the warning that he would be called out again presently, and asked to name not only the first letter, but the second, and third, and perhaps the fourth. Going back to his seat, the white-headed brothers gathered about him, and engaged in deep contemplation of their book for awhile, but one by one their eyes wandered away from it again, and they became the prey of anyone who had it in his heart to get them into difficulty by setting them to laughing. If they all mastered the first three letters that day they were content, and were so pleased with their progress that they forgot them the next.

It was always safe to go to their house and expect a warm welcome, for there seemed enough love hid away somewhere in the big house in which they lived, not only for all the white-headed boys (with a reserve stock for those yet to come), but also for the friends who came to see them. Their mother, a large, fresh-looking woman, who was noted for a capacity to lead in prayers and blessings when her husband was away, was good-natured, too. It was the happiest family I had ever known, for though they were all beset with difficulties, every one of them having either weak eyes or the scald-head, they seemed not to mind it, but patiently applied sulphur for one and mullein tea for the other, remedies which were kept in saucers and bottles all over the house.

I never heard The. Meek or his wife speak impatiently to any of their children, but they were obedient for all that-much more so than those of us who were beaten on the slightest provocation-and were very fond of one another. While other boys were anxious to get away from home, The. Meek's children were content, and believed there was not another so pleasant place in the world as the big house, built after the architecture of a packing-box, in which they lived. I often thought of this circumstance to their credit, and thought it was also to the credit of the father and the mother. There were but three rooms in the house, two down stairs, and one above as large as both of those below in which all the boys slept; and here also were the company beds, so that had I ever heard of an asylum at the time of which I write, I should certainly have thought the big room with the nine or ten beds scattered about in it was like one.

I frequently went from school to spend the night with the young Meeks, and, after we had gone to bed in the big room upstairs, I either froze their blood with ghost stories, or convulsed them by telling any foolish event I happened to think of, at which they laughed until I feared for their lives. If the uproar became particularly loud their father and mother came up to see what it was all about, and, on being informed of the cause, laughed themselves, and went down again.

The two sons of the crippled but devout shoemaker, Mr. Winter, were the most remarkable scholars that attended the school, for the reason that they seemed to have mastered all sorts of depravity by sheer force of native genius; for though they possessed all the accomplishments of street Arabs, and we thought they must surely be town boys, the truth was that they were seldom allowed even to go to town, and therefore could not have contracted the vices of civilization from the contagion of evil society. When one of them did go he returned with a knife for nearly every boy in the school, and cloves and cinnamon bark to last for weeks, which were stolen from the stores. If one of us longed for anything in their presence, they said it would be forthcoming immediately if we got them opportunity to go to town. This was only possible by inducing some one to allow them to drive a team, as their father was poor, and did not keep horses.

The older (and I may add the worse) one was probably named Hardy, but he was always known as Hard. Winter, because of his hard character; and his brother's evil reputation was so woven into his name that we never knew what the latter really was, for he was known as Beef Hide Winter, a rebuke, I believe, for his failure to get away with a hide he had once stolen, but the boys accepted these titles with great cheerfulness, and did not mind them. They were the mildest mannered villains, I have no doubt, that ever lived, for no difference how convincing the proof was against them, they still denied it with tears in their eyes, and were always trying to convince those around them by kindness and civility that they were not so bad as represented (though they were worse), and I fear they were rather popular in spite of their weakness for things not belonging to them. In course of time their petty peculations came to be regarded in about the same light as was their father's shouting-one of the peculiarities of the neighborhood-and we paid them no other attention than to watch them. At the Fourth of July celebrations in the woods, where all sorts of persons came to set up business, the Winter boys stole a little of everything they saw on exhibition, and generously divided with their friends. If they were sent together to a house near the school after water, one went through the cellar while the other went to the well, and if he secured anything he made a division at the first opportunity.

They always had their pockets full of things to give away, and I am satisfied that they came by none of them honestly, for they were very poor, and at home but seldom had enough even to eat. A habit of theirs was to throw stones with great accuracy, a collection of which they carried around in their pockets, ready for use, making long journeys to the creek bottoms to select them. They always went home with Guinea-hens or geese in their posses

sion, which they said had been "given to them," but which they had really knocked over in the road near farmers' houses. They could kill more squirrels and quails by throwing than others of a similar age could by shooting, and it will be imagined that their failings were but seldom mentioned, for they were dangerous adversaries, though usually peaceable enough.

The teacher of this school at the time of which I now write-to be more explicit, when I was eleven years old, for what I have already written is a hurried retrospect covering a period of six years-was a very young and pretty girl named Agnes Deming, certainly not over sixteen and I doubt if that, who came from a neighborhood north of Fairview, where her widowed mother lived with an eccentric brother, and although it was as poor as ours, she spoke of it in such a way-not boastingly, but tenderly and reverently-that we thought of the community of Smoky Hill as a very superior one. Her father, of whom she talked a great deal, had been captain of a sailing vessel, as I learned a little at a time, and before his death they lived in a town by the sea, where his ship loaded. Of the town, however, which was called Bradford, she had but slight recollection, for when a very little girl she was sent away to school, and came home only at long intervals to welcome her father, who was often away a year at a time.

When ten years old, and after the ship had been absent a long time, she was sent for hurriedly one day, and told on her arrival that her father's ship had gone down at sea; that all on board were lost, and that they were going West to live with her uncle, an eccentric man whom she had never seen. After a few months of preparation, during which time their effects were converted into money, they commenced their journey to the country in which they had since lived. When she was fourteen years old her uncle found her a place to teach a summer school, and, giving satisfaction in spite of her tender years, she had followed the calling since, her second engagement being in our neighborhood. I remember how generally it was said on her arrival that she would not do, as she was very young, but before the summer was over she somehow convinced her patrons that she would do, very well, as she was thoughtful and intelligent, and competent in every way.

This was her brief history, and before she had lived at Fairview a year, nobody was like Agnes Deming, for she was everybody's friend and adviser, and was kinder to the people than anyone had ever been before. She was a revelation to Fairview-a woman of a kind they had never before seen; one who uttered no complaints, but who listened patiently to the complaints of others, and did what she could to help them. Whoever was in distress received her sympathy and aid, and I think the advent of this friendless little woman, with her unselfish and pretty ways, did more good for Fairview than its religion, for the people tried to become like her, and were better in every way.

From the description she gave I imagined her father to have been a bluff and manly fellow, for I had heard that such followed the sea, and when I found her crying softly to herself, I thought of course she was thinking of him, and often regretted that he was not in Fairview to be proud of his pretty daughter, instead of at the bottom of the restless and angry sea. That they had been very fond of each other I felt sure; and when the winds blew furiously around our house, as they often did, she seemed greatly distressed, as though it was just such a storm as that in which her father's ship went down. She sang to us at night sometimes, in a sad, sweet voice, but always of storms, and of shipwrecks, as if the frightful manner of her father's death was much on her mind, and as if she sorrowed always because she could not hope that some day his ship would come in, and the dreadful story of his death prove a mistake.

She said almost nothing of her mother, and in reasoning about it I thought that perhaps Mrs. Deming was so much distressed over the death of her husband as to be poor company, and anxious to be let alone; for Agnes seemed glad when vacation was over, and she was again occupying her old room in our house. Although she was originally expected to divide her time equally with every family sending children to the school, or to "board round," she was oftener at our house than anywhere else; and once when she apologized in a burst of tears for being there so much, my mother kissed her tenderly, and it was arranged immediately, to the great satisfaction of all, that in future she should be a recognized member of our family. My mother was very fond of her, and so was my father, though he seemed ashamed to be fond of anyone; and being the most influential of the school directors, he saw that her pay was good and prompt, and on bad days took her to school in a wagon.

When Jo and I were busy on the farm, Agnes taught us at night, and was so patient and encouraged us so much that we learned more than we should have done at school. While we were never at school in summer, by this means we were the head scholars in winter, though I am not certain this was much to our credit, for we had little opposition from the children of Fairview.

I have never seen a bird-of-paradise, and have no knowledge of them, except that they are very beautiful; but if their manners are as graceful as their plumage is beautiful, and it is conceded that we of Fairview were as ungainly and ugly as crows, I hope the impression made by the coming of Agnes Deming to the settlement will be understood. I am glad to be able to write it to the credit of the people that they were not envious of her, unless it be envious in one person to strive to be like another he admires, and they all loved her from the day she came until the day she went away.

Although slight in figure she was the picture of health, of which she was as careful as of her dress and manners, which were never anything but mild and gentle. As man and boy I have honestly admired a great many women who afterwards shocked my admiration by a careless habit or manner when they did not know I was about; but Agnes Deming was always the same perfect woman. My admiration for her never had a check, and every day I found in her a new quality to respect, as did everyone who came in contact with her.

Although I was a favorite with her, I believed that when she came into the fortune and position she deserved-I was always expecting some such remarkable thing as this to happen, although I was not certain just what it would be-I was sure she would not speak to me, or any of those she had known at Fairview with whom she had associated temporarily, and made herself agreeable, because that was her disposition; but that she would hurry away as soon as possible, to get rid of thoughts of how uncomfortable and unhappy she had been among us. I do not think I should have blamed her, for I regarded her superiority as such that I should have been content to see her go away to enjoy proud station and rich friends, thankful that she had lived with us at all, and made us happier than we had been.

I am certain that her dress was inexpensive, and that she spent little of her money in this way, for most of it was sent to her family; but her taste and skill were such that she was always neatly and becomingly attired (much more so than many I knew who spent a great deal for that time to attain that end); and she was able to work over an old garment on Saturday, and appear on Sunday the best-dressed woman in the country. I have thought that she was familiar with all the fashions in woman's dress without ever having seen them, for she was always in advance of the plates in the Lady's Book taken by my mother.

With more fortunate surroundings she would have been a remarkable woman. But while there were many others less good and pretty who were better off, and while she may have had at one time bright hopes for the future, her good sense taught her that there was really no reason why she should expect anything better now; so she diligently performed her work, and gave up castle-building. And so it came to pass that she was simply mistress of the Fairview school, and mistress of all our hearts, and did what good was possible without vain regret for that which might have come to pass, but did not.

In my recollections of that time, there is nothing pleasant, except the sweet and patient face of Agnes and the memory of Jo, who were always my friends, and who protected me when I did not deserve it, and loved me in spite of all my faults.

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