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The Story of a Country Town By E. W. Howe Characters: 20417

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

IN spite of the discontent which prevailed there, Fairview progressed with the years of its history. The hard work of the people paid, and they gradually became well-to-do, although they seemed surprised that they were not in the poor-house, an event they were always promising their families.

The old houses in which they had at first lived were replaced with new ones, the new ones were furnished better than the old ones had been, and there was a general prosperity which surprised them, for they had not expected it so soon, if at all. New people came to settle in spite of the fact that they were neither invited nor expected, and many of those who came first had money ahead, and were regarded by those who came later as of a very old and aristocratic stock. Strangest of all, it was announced that a new minister had been engaged, and that he would arrive with his family, consisting of a wife and one child, in a few days. My father made the announcement at the close of his preaching one spring morning. He had preached to them, he said, because they were too poor to pay a better man; the Lord had prospered them, and he cheerfully made way for a successor who had not only religious enthusiasm, but extensive learning as well. He would continue to exhort his brethren whenever occasion seemed to require, and aid in doing the work of the Master, but he believed the good of the church demanded the arrangement he had made.

There was unusual feeling in his words as he reviewed the hard struggle of the settlement, and when he had finished, The. Meek, though apparently in greater convulsions of laughter than ever, managed to say a few kind words for their pastor, guide, and friend, and two or three of the other men followed in a similar strain. The women began to cry softly, as though the occasion were a funeral, and one by one the people went forward to shake him by the hand, which I thought surprised him, not being certain but that they were glad to get rid of him, while Brother Winter wheeled vigorously about, calling upon everybody to praise the Lord. It was a very unusual occasion, and those who had lounged outside to read the inscriptions on the head-boards in the grave lot came back again to see what it was all about, and heard the news with surprise and astonishment. Finally, the miller's sister prayed for everybody, but in a voice so low that nobody knew it, after which the meeting broke up, and the congregation gathered in little knots in the church and in the yard to talk of the new minister.

Great curiosity was everywhere expressed, and the curious naturally came to my father for information. He knew nothing except that the new minister had been transferred from an Eastern State at his own request; that his name was the Rev. Goode Shepherd, and that he would be there for the next service a week from that day; that a house had been secured for him in the eastern part of the settlement, and that as he was a minister, he was, of course, a good man, and without question of use to the church, else the Lord would not permit him to preach. This was all he knew, or all he cared to tell, and the people went home to wonder and to talk about it.

. . . . .

Rev. Goode Shepherd came West, I am of the opinion, because the East was crowded with good men, and because he had heard there was a scarcity of such in our direction. Although he had some vague ideas on the subject of growing up with the country, he probably consented to come because somebody recommended it, and not because he was exactly clear himself how the move was to be of benefit.

Had some one in whose judgment he had equal confidence suggested after his arrival that he had better go back again, I have no doubt that he would have become convinced finally that the Lord had said it, instead of a friend, and quietly returned to the place from which he had come; for he was always uncertain whether his convictions were the result of inspiration, or whether they were the result of the gossip he had heard.

I had remarked of my father's religion that it was a yoke that did not fit him, and which was uncomfortable to wear; but the Rev. Goode Shepherd's religion was his vocation and pleasure, and he believed in it with all the strength of which he was capable. That he was poor was evidence to him that he was accepted of the Master who had sent him, rather than that his life had been a failure; and the work expected of him he performed cheerfully and with enthusiasm. He had no desire to do anything which was not religious; and the higher walks of his profession, and heaven finally as his reward, were all he desired or expected. There was abundant scope in theology for his ambition, and, far from craving an active business life, he rather chose his profession because it offered excuse for knowing so little about the affairs of men.

I have thought that because he took pleasure in his religion, and loved it, was one reason why it was not so hard and unforgiving as my father's, for on this question there was nothing in common between them except that both believed that there is a heaven, and that it is desirable to be saved. The Rev. Goode Shepherd believed that learning and luxury could go hand in hand with religion; my father, that luxury was an invention of the Devil to make men forget, and that learning could be trusted to only a very few, because, unless coupled with the most pronounced piety, it was very dangerous. The Rev. Goode Shepherd believed that a religious life was most easily lived, and that a merciful Providence had ordered it that way because the children of men are weak; my father, that the easy road to travel was the broad one which led to torment, and that the other was narrow and difficult, but ending very pleasantly as a recompense for travelling it, and that it was ordered that way so that only the brave and deserving should win the prize, ridding the righteous of the weak and the undeserving by burning them up. The Rev. Goode Shepherd believed that while walking the golden streets of the heavenly city he would meet many of the friends he had worried about, saved by love infinitely greater than he expected; my father, that he would miss many faces in Paradise he had half expected to see, but who had fallen exhausted by the wayside and given up the struggle.

The new dispensation did much for Fairview, and its advancement after the coming of Mr. Shepherd was certainly more rapid than it had ever been before.

I never knew, but it seems probable to me now, that Mr. Shepherd was educated for the ministry because he was quiet and religious as a boy, and had always led a blameless and exemplary life. I think his expenses at school were paid by relatives none too well off themselves, and that he went directly from college to the pulpit. I don't know what made me think it, but I always believed a widowed mother-aided, perhaps, by an older sister or two engaged in teaching-had provided for his education by the closest economy; that he had always intended to become famous to repay them for their kindness, but finding it a harder task than he had imagined, that he had, in later life, settled down to the conviction that to be good is better than to be great.

When his tall form and pale face appeared above the pulpit at Fairview for the first time, the impression was general among the people that he was older than they expected. The one child he had written he was possessed of turned out to be a pretty girl of nineteen or twenty, who attracted a great deal of attention as she came in with her mother and sat down near the pulpit. Both sat throughout the service without looking around, perhaps because they thought it was not likely they would see much if they should commit that impropriety. His first preaching impressed everyone favorably, though his side whiskers were against him, as was also the tall hat standing on the pulpit beside him. His presence, however, chilled the usual experience meeting following, for only the men talked, and it was short and dull. The. Meek's laugh was not heard at all, and Brother Winter sat quietly in his corner, as though undecided whether, under the circumstances, he would be warranted in pushing to the front. The miller's sister had nothing to say either, spending her time in watching the minister's wife and daughter, who did not recognize the impertinence, and altogether the occasion was not what was expected.

When the meeting was dismissed, my father stepped forward to welcome Mr. Shepherd to Fairview. After him came The. Meek, and so, one by one, the people advanced to be introduced, and, after awkwardly shaking him by the hand, retired again. Mr. Shepherd led my father back to where his respectable wife and pretty daughter were, and performed the ceremony of introduction, and I imagined as my father looked at them that he thought they were birds of too fine plumage for that clime, and would soon fly away again. The. Meek stood immediately behind him, and was next presented, and then came all the congregation in the order of their importance, except the younger ones, who stood near the door looking on, and who crowded out hurriedly when Mr. Shepherd came toward them, followed by his wife and daughter. Although they desired acquaintance with the new minister and his family above all other things, they were so awkward and uncertain in their politeness that they hoped the new minister would somehow gradually become acquainted with them without an introduction, and never discover that they did not know how to be comfortable in the presence of strangers. Jo Erring was among the number of the intimidated, and I thought he was anxious that the new people should not see him until he had gone home and smartened himself up, as if they were of more importance than he had expected, for he kept himself behind the others. Jo had a habit of appearing on Sunday in his every-day attire-because everybody else wore their best on that day, it was said-and this was one of the days he violated the custom of the country, probably for the reason that the occasion was an extraordinary one.

It was my father's custom to invite

the ministers who came to Fairview to spend the day at our house, that they might be convenient for the evening service; and although he hesitated a long while in this case, as if afraid the accommodations he could offer were not good enough, he hurriedly consulted with my mother at the last moment, and walked out to the gate, when they were preparing to start for home. I could not hear from where I stood what was said, but I believed the invitation had been given and accepted, and when he began to look around the yard, I was so certain that I was wanted to drive them home that I put myself in his way, as the wagon road led through lanes and gates, and could not be easily described. My mother had already hurried home by the path through the field, that she might be there to meet them. When I went up to the wagon in response to my father's beckon, he lifted me into the seat beside Mr. Shepherd, his wife and daughter occupying the back one, and said I would show the way and open the gates.

As we drove off I felt that the bright eyes of the girl were devouring my plain coat, for she sat directly behind me, and I regretted I had not thought to ask Jo to trim my hair that morning. The grease on my rough boots contrasted sharply with the polish of Mr. Shepherd's patent leathers, and my great red hands were larger than his, which were very white, and shaped like a woman's. I soon saw he was a poor driver, and asked him to give me the reins, which he willingly did, with a good-natured apology for his incapacity, pleading lack of experience in that direction.

I knew they wanted to talk of Fairview and its people, but were shy of me, so I pretended to be busy in looking after the horses, but they said nothing except that there was a great number present, which was true, as the house was full. I pointed out the houses as we went along, and tried to be entertaining.

"Old Lee lives there," I said, as we passed the house of the renter on our farm. "He wasn't at church to-day; he has probably gone over to the turkey roost in Bill's Creek bottom."

I had said it to shock them, but they laughed very gayly over it, and the girl-I had heard them call her Mateel-said she presumed that wild turkeys were plentiful. I had secretly been longing to look at her, so I turned partly around, and replied that the woods were full of them. She was a very pretty girl, dressed more expensively than I had ever seen Agnes dressed, but not with so much taste. She was rather pale, too, and I could not help thinking that her health was not very good.

"There're deer here, too," I said to them, finding that the subject promised to be amusing.

Mr. Shepherd and the girl looked very much interested, but the minister's wife was so stately and dignified that I felt sure I could never be comfortable in her presence.

"One came running through our field once when Jo and I were ploughing," I continued. "The folks were away at camp-meeting, and Jo took the gun and went after it. I heard him shoot after a long while, and then he came back, and said it was too heavy for him to carry home, but that if I would finish the land on which we were ploughing, while he rested, we would hitch to the wagon and go after it. I felt so pleased about it that I finished the work, and when I was through, he looked at the sun, and said we might as well eat supper before starting, and that I had better take the harness off the horses while they were feeding, as they would be more comfortable. At supper he asked me if under the circumstances I didn't feel it a duty to give him my pie, which I did, and after he had eaten it, he took me to one side, and said that though he was ashamed of it himself, he was compelled to confess that he had missed."

This amused them more than ever, and the girl asked who Jo was. This reminded me that I had neglected my friend, and I immediately gave a short and glowing history of him, not failing to mention that he knew of more turkey roosts than old Lee, and that we would visit one of them soon, and return by their house with a fat turkey. They thanked me, and Mr. Shepherd even said he would like to go with us, whereupon I explained the process of killing them on moonlight nights, which was by getting them between your gun and the moon, where they could be easily seen.

I should no doubt have told them other things equally ridiculous, but by this time we had reached the gates, and soon thereafter we stopped at the house, where my father came out and took them in. When Jo appeared to help me with the horses, I found that he was smartly dressed, and rightly concluded that he had hurried home to change after seeing the family at the church.

While we were at the stables he asked me a great many questions about the girl, and I pleased him by saying that I had talked so much about him on the way over that she had asked me who he was, and that I had replied he was my uncle, and the principal young man in Fairview.

"What did she say then?" he asked eagerly.

"That she desired to make your acquaintance, and that she was certain she had picked you out in church."

It was a dreadful lie, but I did not regret it, seeing how well he was pleased.

"Then what did you say?" he asked.

I was not certain what would please him most, so I replied that the conversation then became general, and that Mr. Shepherd had said he would go with us some night to the turkey roost in Bill's Creek bottom.

When we returned to the house, the three were sitting alone in the best room, looking idly at the books scattered about, and the few ornaments my mother had found time to prepare. As I sat down on the sill of the open door with a view of being handy in case I was wanted, I regretted that Agnes was not there to entertain them, for she had gone home a few weeks before, and I was certain they would have been surprised to find such a bright girl in that dull country.

"Ha!" Mr. Shepherd said, when he saw me. "The young man that drove us over. I suppose you know a great deal about horses?"

I thought he made the last remark as an apology that he had not attended to his team himself, so I replied that I knew something about them, but I was sorry he had chosen that subject, as it was not likely to interest his daughter, whom I was anxious to talk with.

"I am sorry to say I know very little about horses," he said, "but I intend to learn. I bought mine at the station where we left the railroad. What do you think of them?"

With a view of bringing Jo into the conversation again, I said I would go and ask his opinion, as he was a very good judge. I returned presently, and said Jo thought they would do very well. As if remembering Jo as a very amusing person I had been telling them about, he said:-

"Bring the young man in. I should like to talk with him."

I went out after Jo, but did not go far, as he had slipped up near the door, which stood open, to listen to what was being said. He was very red in the face, but followed me in.

"This is your uncle Jo, is it?" Mr. Shepherd inquired, after I had sat down again, leaving Jo standing awkwardly in the middle of the room.

"Yes, sir," I answered, having a vague notion I ought to introduce them, but not knowing how to go about it. "My uncle Jo Erring. He lives here."

Mr. Shepherd advanced toward him pleasantly, and I thought he reached him just in time to keep him from falling down with fright.

"I am very glad to know you, Mr. Erring," he said, in his easy way, taking him by the hand. "This is my wife, and this my daughter," pointing to one, and then to the other, while shaking his hand. "I have no doubt we shall become famous friends."

Jo raised his eyes to recognize the introduction, and he said to me afterwards that he was just getting ready to bolt out of the room, and run away, when somehow they made it pleasant for him to stay.

My uncle was a very intelligent fellow, and he soon became quite entertaining, giving them accounts of the country and the people which were no doubt very droll, for when I went out presently I heard them laughing merrily at what he said. At dinner Mr. Shepherd observed that since becoming acquainted with Mr. Erring he felt like an old citizen, whereupon my father looked up hurriedly and was about to ask who that was, when he suddenly remembered, and muttered, "Oh! you mean Jo."

It was sometimes the case that when there was company Jo and I were compelled to wait at dinner, but I was glad that on this day Jo was seated next Mateel, and did not suffer the humiliation. A sort of rude politeness was natural to him, and on this occasion he displayed it to such advantage that I glowed with pride. While the others were talking of graver matters he gave an account of the Fairview revivals, which amused Mateel so much that she asked to be excused for laughing. I had never seen two persons get along better together, and I felt certain that she would regard him as a very intelligent young man, which pleased me, for nobody else seemed to do him justice, and they all tried to humiliate and disgrace him whenever it was possible.

It was a very good dinner to which we sat down, and the Shepherds complimented it so gracefully that my mother was greatly pleased; indeed, they found it convenient to make themselves agreeable to all of us, so that the afternoon was passed very pleasantly, more so than any other Sunday afternoon ever passed in that house; for my father seemed to think that if Mr. Shepherd, with all his learning, could afford to throw aside his Sunday gloom, he would risk it. I had never seen him in so good a humor before, but I knew he would make up for it the next day; for whenever he was good-natured he was always particularly gloomy for a long time after it, as though he had committed an indiscretion of which he was ashamed.

Before night it had been arranged that Jo should drive the Shepherds home after the service, as it would be very dark, tying a horse behind the wagon on which to ride back; and it followed that he drove them to the church. When we arrived there the building was crowded to its utmost capacity; the new minister was a success.

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