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   Chapter 6 DAMON BARKER.

The Story of a Country Town By E. W. Howe Characters: 15029

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


BARKER'S MILL, visits to which had convinced Jo that he should like to be a miller, was built on Bull River, in the centre of the only woods in all that country.

It was said of its proprietor that he came to the country a great many years before with a train of wagons drawn by oxen, on which was loaded the machinery of what afterwards became the mill, together with his general effects. Nobody seemed to know where he came from, but nobody seemed to care, strangely enough, for he was trusty as a miller, and honorable as a citizen. Occasionally he came to our neighborhood dressed in an odd-fashioned cut-away coat with brass buttons, and vest and pantaloons of an equally aristocratic pattern, but I never heard of his going to the country town. If he had money to pay there, or other important business, he entrusted it to some one to transact for him, preferring to have it half done rather than to go himself. From this circumstance I came to believe that Damon Barker had been an outlaw in his time, and was anxious to avoid people, although he was very well-bred, and the only polished man I had ever known.

He came to our house originally, I believe, on some sort of business, and, becoming acquainted, happened in at long intervals afterwards, but I never knew that he went anywhere else. We all admired him, for he was a man to make himself welcome anywhere, and he sat quietly among us when he came (which was always at night, as though for private reasons he did not walk out during the day), and listened to what was being said. My father had the greatest respect for him, and was often uneasy under his steady gaze, as if he felt that Damon Barker was not a Fairview man, and had knowledge and opinions of his own. They frequently discussed all sorts of questions (or rather my father discussed them in Barker's presence, who only made short answers indicating that he was familiar with the subject in hand), and I was forced to the belief that, had he seen fit, he could have readily torn to pieces many of the arguments advanced. His knowledge of religious topics was extensive, but he patronized the subject as he would patronize a child, dismissing it with a polite word as though it was of no consequence; and we wondered that a man who understood the subject so well could be indifferent, for it was well known that he was not religious. My father often threatened to "speak" to him about it, but he never did, either fearing that Barker might be able to defend his position, or respecting his disposition to avoid the subject.

Although he was courteous and well-bred, lifting his hat and bowing to my mother in the most courtly manner when he came and went, it was never remarked to his discredit, although a man of his manners had never been seen by us before. Had he been the least awkward in his politeness, I am sure we should have laughed at him, and regarded him as a fop, for we watched him narrowly; but his adieus and greetings were so appropriate, natural, and easy, that we received them as a matter of course, and accepted them as evidences not merely of different but of better breeding than we were accustomed to. During one of his visits to the house he invited Jo and me to the mill, asking it as a favor, and thus it came about that occasionally we went to see him on Saturday afternoons, returning the next day. Indeed, we were rather encouraged to go to Barker's, my father believing that familiarity with such a courtly gentleman would do us no harm, if no good, and he was not greatly displeased if we did not return until late Sunday evening, although he always inquired what we found so entertaining at his house, and on our replying, he found no objection to it.

The house in which Barker lived was built close to the mill, in a dense growth of trees, but as if the shadow of these was not sufficient to hide him, he had planted other trees among them, until the place was so dark that the sunlight seldom found its way in at his windows. The house was very large and strong, with doors of heavy hard wood, and I thought that if Barker should be attacked, he would make a long defence, for he always had provisions and fuel stored away in great quantities, and there was a well in the cellar which I always disliked to drink out of, fearing there might be dead men in it. There were thick wooden blinds at all the windows, which were usually closed, and heavy iron bars across the doors, and altogether the place was so mysterious and unusual that it occurred to me when I first went there that if either Jo or I should discover some of its secrets by accident, we should be cut into halves, and thrown down the well for fear we should disclose what we had seen.

In his own room, a large apartment occupying the greater part of the second story, were strange and curious things we had never seen before; and these we were free to examine and question him about. Besides brass pistols hid away in every box and drawer, there were swords and knives of odd pattern, and handsome dresses for women and men, many of them ornamented with gold lace, and all of a style we had never seen worn.

In a place for plunder which adjoined his room were kept half a dozen large chests, and in looking through them, when he gave me permission, I half expected to find bones of dead men; but I found nothing except strange instruments, scientific apparatus, maps, drawings I had no knowledge of, curiosities gathered during a long life, and the odd clothing I have mentioned. If I found something more curious than the rest, I took it to him as he sat grave and silent in his own room, and he told me its history, what use it could be put to, and where it came from. There were a great many books, the titles of which I could not pronounce with all my learning, and these gave evidence of being often used, for they were collected on a turning shelf within easy reach of the table at which he usually sat.

If we found a curious stone or leaf, he could tell its nature and kind, and if we asked of something we read in his books, he told us about it in a quiet, simple way, making it quite easy of comprehension. Knowing our ignorance, he took pains to answer the questions with which we plied him, and we often sat on either side of him until far into the night, listening to his explanations of matters we were curious about, sometimes going to sleep in our chairs.

Before he knew Jo and me he had no friends-he told me this himself early in our acquaintance-but we amused him, and he became our companion in everything we did while at the house or mill, instructing and benefiting us in a hundred ways. When I say he became our companion in everything we did, I mean no more than that he was always with us, looking on good-naturedly when we played the games at cards he taught us, accompanying us when we walked through the woods or rowed on the river, and giving suggestions and help in everything. He said but little at any time, except in answer to our questions, and I think his principal enjoyment in our companionship was to listen quietly to what we had stored up to tell him on our different visits.

He was regarded as hard and exacting by those with whom he had business dealings-he dealt in nothing else-but was always kind and liberal with Jo and me, giving us money frequently, and presents when he could get them. If we were in the mill with him, the entrance of a customer would harden his features until we were afraid of him, and we went a

way until the customer had gone when he soon became himself again, so that we grew to be afraid of him except when we were alone.

In Barker's room was a great box-stove in which we made wonderful fires in winter, and the fire in it seemed never to go out; so that I have thought in summer that, if the ashes were stirred, live coals could be found at the bottom. Around this we always sat with him during the winter nights (and we had opportunity to visit him oftener in winter than at any other time, for during that season we had the least to do), and did whatever Barker thought would best amuse us. Sometimes he gave us suppers, prepared by his own hands from cans and bottles stored away in other chests we had not yet examined; at other times he told us the story of one of the brass pistols, or of the strange wearing-apparel we had seen, holding the article in his hand to illustrate; or if we found something belonging to a ship, he told us of the sea, of storms, of strange countries, and of wrecks.

In all the stories of robbers and pirates that he told us-and there were many of that kind because we preferred them-I always thought of him as one of the participants, and was pleased when the one I had picked out for Barker freed the captive maiden, flinging back his companions who would murder her, with the declaration that he would have their lives if they persisted, thereupon conducting her within sight of her home, and, having first bidden her a gallant adieu, galloped away. These recitals had much of dashing romance in them, and his robberies were committed generally from motives of daring rather than gain. It was always the mean and stingy misers who were robbed, and if a beautiful maiden was captured at sea she was always taken to her friends, unless she freely consented to marry the pirate captain, which was sometimes the case.

This kind of amusement he kept up at night until we became sleepy, and, lighting us to the room in which we were to sleep, he sat down on the bed if we desired it, and continued the story until we were asleep, when he returned to his own apartment. It seemed to me he dreaded the hour when we would go to sleep and leave him alone; and once when I awoke in the middle of the night, and crept to his door, I found him sitting over the table with his hat and coat on, as if ready to run away.

Barker's widowed sister, the Mrs. Tremaine already mentioned, whose husband had been a drunkard and a doctor, was his housekeeper (when she was at home, which was seldom the case). I believe she was originally called Betts, or Bett, but this was shortened to B., and by this name she was generally known. It was understood that Dr. Tremaine had been unkind to her before his death, and that their married life had been very miserable, though I never heard either Barker or herself say so. But such was generally thought to be the case nevertheless, for certainly the excellent woman had had trouble. It was also understood that he died in drink, probably from catching fire on the inside, and that with his last breath he referred to his wife as a snake, and to his neighbors as devils. This impression, like the other one with reference to his disposition, had no foundation I ever heard of except that his relict worried a great deal about people who were going to ruin from drink. We supposed, of course, that she was prompted to this by the memory of her late husband, as she was prompted to insist on everybody's being religious by the wickedness of her brother, the miller. Having no other place to go after her husband's death, she determined to move West and live with her brother, and had arrived at Fairview a few years before we did. Although there was not a drunkard in the county, she immediately began a war on rum, and when I first encountered the words "Delirium Tremens," in connection with drunkenness, I remember thinking I was acquainted with his widow.

Next to her desire to save everybody from drunkenness, she wanted to save everybody from sin, and spent most of her time in discussing these two questions; but she had little opposition, for everybody in that country was religious as well as temperate. When she became acquainted with the Rev. John Westlock she at once hailed him as a man raised up to do a great work, and was always with him in the meetings he held in different places, nothing being thought of it if he took her with him and brought her back again.

Together they established a lodge of Good Templars at Fairview, although the people were all sober and temperate, and once a week they met to call upon the fallen brother to shun the cup, and to redeem the country from debauchery and vice. Barker said they spent one-half the evening in "opening" and the other half in "closing." He also said once that his sister was very much offended that my father preached without pay, for she would have enjoyed making fancy work, to the neglect of her brother's house, to sell at fairs to pay the minister's salary, and that she was a brilliant woman at festivals. Barker often criticised her, half in jest and half in earnest, and once when Jo and I were at his house for dinner, and something had been lost, he remarked that if B. were as familiar with her home as she was familiar with the number of gallons of liquor consumed annually, or with the Acts of the Apostles, things would be more comfortable. I think he disliked her because she paid so much attention to other people's faults and so little to her own; but he treated her courteously, although he appeared to avoid her, and they were not much together. B. frequently left home for days at a time, compelling her patient brother to prepare his own meals or do without, but he never complained unless she chose to construe half-jesting, half-earnest raillery into complaint. At such times she had a way of replying to his light words with a seriousness that I thought disgusted him, and made him resolve never to mention the matter again.

That she was a miserable housekeeper I had frequent occasion to know, and Barker's house always seemed like a bachelor's home, as there was nothing about it to indicate that a woman lived there. Jo used to say of Mrs. Tremaine that she talked as the women write who furnish recipes to the newspapers; and when she came to our house the room in which she sat seemed damp for several days thereafter. Once after she had slept there, and I was put into the bed she had occupied a night or two afterward, I amused my mother by asking her to change the sheets, as they seemed like ice and would not thaw out, and the good humor with which she did this convinced me that she did not like B. very well herself. Her face was large and round and of a waxen color, and though it was said by some that she was handsome I never thought so; nor did I admire her dress, which was very rich and expensive, though exceedingly plain. Her teeth were very white, and quite prominent, because she always wore what was intended to be an enchanting smile, and when she kissed me (which she usually did in the earlier days of our acquaintance, as a compliment to a child) I thought she must have just finished washing her face, her lips were so cold and damp. Her hair being very dark, and her face very pale, I thought she resembled a well-dressed and affable corpse risen from the dead, whose business it was to go among the people and warn them that unless they repented of their sins they would very much regret it after death.

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