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The Story of a Country Town By E. W. Howe Characters: 19861

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

WHEN I went down to breakfast the next morning, I found Agnes waiting for me, and the meal ready; and as was the case the night before, she presided at the table without sitting down. I ate alone, and in silence, as it was explained that Mr. Biggs was not yet up, though it was late, and Agnes did not seem to be in a mood for talking. The circumstance that other members of the family kept out of the room made me think that I was regarded in the house as a sort of a machine likely to explode and hurt somebody, and could be approached only by those who knew where the safety valve was which blew me off; for I supposed Mrs. Biggs and Mrs. Deming to be very aristocratic people, who could not tolerate a country-bred boy. Therefore I did not feel in very good humor myself, thinking that Agnes was ashamed to exhibit me to her friends. Going out to the stables in lazy preparation for returning home, I found Big Adam pitching hay, as I had left him the day before.

"Well, young Westlock, how are you now?" he inquired, leaning on his fork.

I returned his greeting, and said I would hitch up when he had time to help me.

"You needn't be in a hurry about it," he said, returning to his work. "If I were you I would manage to get home just at dark, for then you'll have nothing to do during the day. If you get back too early the preacher may find something for you to do."

There was a good deal of truth in this, and I thanked him for the suggestion.

"I know something about hired help and boys on a farm. I have had a ripe experience in the service of Biggs. I thought he would talk you to death last night; it's a terrible death to die. What did he say?"

I repeated portions of the conversation, and gave particular stress to what he had said concerning his and Big Adam's doing the work of half a dozen men.

"He is always saying that," Big Adam said indignantly, "but I assure you on my honor that he never held a plough or pitched hay a day in his life. Why, he is not here a third of his time. He came home last night after an absence of four weeks; I don't know where he has been, but to some of the towns a long way off, probably. At ten or eleven o'clock he will breakfast, and then I shall hitch up and drive him over the place, during which time he will point out and suggest enough work to keep a dozen men busy for months; and after assuring me it ought all to be done before night, he will return to the house to lounge about. In a day or two he will go away again, and come back when he gets ready. That's the kind of a farmer Biggs is, but I must say for him that he is quiet and peaceable. I wish I could say as much for his sister, the old pelican."

Up to this time Big Adam had been wearing his Λ-shaped hat so far back on his head that I was wondering it did not fall off; but as if there were some people so contemptible that he could not possibly mention them without showing his temper, he jerked the hat over on his low forehead when he said this, and, looking out from under it with his little eyes, viciously said, "Damn."

"And who is his sister?" I asked.

"Old Missus Deming, Agnes's mother; the little old woman they were careful you should not see."

It came to me all at once-how foolish of me not to have thought of it before-why Agnes never talked about her mother, and why she always seemed to be glad to be away from her; she was disagreeable, not only to Big Adam, but to every one around her. I understood now that Agnes was frightened when I first came for fear I should see her mother, and not for fear her mother would see me, as I had imagined; and I felt so much better that I had a mind to walk in the yard in plain view of the house, that Mrs. Deming might regret not having made my acquaintance. I told Adam that I had seen her, however, and narrated the circumstance of her appearance in the room after the children.

The hired man expressed his satisfaction at this very much as I have seen young colts express it, by kicking his legs out in various directions, and snorting. After he had enjoyed himself in this manner for a while he said:-

"It's just like her, though. They might have known better than to have left her alone. It's a wonder she didn't hit you; I wish she had, for then you would despise her, as I do."

He continued to chuckle to himself as though it was a satisfaction to him that I had seen his enemy; and putting his finger in his mouth, he drew it out in such a manner that it sounded like pulling a cork; then thumping his jaws he made a sound of liquor coming out of a bottle. This pantomime I interpreted to mean that if he were better off he would celebrate the event with something expensive to drink. I found out afterward that this was a habit with him when in a good humor, and he had acquired such skill by practice that if your back was turned to him the deception was perfect.

"She's the worst woman on earth," he continued, leading me behind the barn to be more confidential. "They say she never smiled in her life, and I believe it. She grumbles, and growls, and jaws from morning until night; but what can they do? Bless you, she owns the farm!"

I looked astonished, to induce him to go on.

"Yes, she owns the place, and you bet she looks after it. When she came here with Agnes, six or seven years ago, her brother had a great tract of land bought on credit, and she paid for it with the money she brought along, and built the house you slept in last night. Since then she has been so disagreeable that Biggs is seldom at home, and won't see her when he is. Did you see his wife?"

I replied that I had been denied that pleasure.

"You would have seen a sight if you had; a woman who hasn't combed her hair for six years, because she has that old hen to look after, besides the care of the children. I don't believe she ever sleeps; for if I wake up in the night she is either being railed at by that she devil or is up with the children. I believe she is the only person living whose lot is worse than mine. When I am in the field I am out of my misery, but she never has that opportunity of escaping hers. When Agnes is away I often cook my own meals, and I am the only one besides Agnes that pays her any attention. Except to keep a family of children around her, I think Biggs never notices her; and when he is at home he occupies a room away from the noise and confusion. But she is patient, and never complains, although there is no hope; for the old woman will outlive us all. She lives on growling and grumbling, for she is afraid to eat for fear of poison, and hesitates to sleep for visions of strangling. She talks about poisoning and strangling for hours at a stretch, and accuses the Biggses of wanting to murder her, because she knows it humiliates them. I hear that her late husband was a fine fellow, a sea captain. He was a very sensible man, I judge, for he drowned himself rather than live with her. I think a great deal of Captain Deming's memory; he is the only great man I know even by reputation. Here's to him."

He pulled another cork, which appeared to come with difficulty, and thumped on his jaws to represent the gurgling of liquor as it flows out of the bottle.

"Agnes is like him. It will be a great relief to her to go home with you. Does she ever talk of her mother?"

"No," I answered.

"I thought not; nor does she ever talk of the Devil. But I'll be bound she talks a great deal of her father. I think Agnes will never marry, preferring to remain an old maid rather than introduce a husband to her mother; and I don't blame her. She complains during the few weeks that the poor girl is at home because Agnes is not away earning money for her strong-box, into which goes every dollar of it. If Agnes has any money, Biggs gives it to her; for she has to account for every penny of her earnings to her mother, who says she needs that, and more, to buy something decent to wear. She talks a great deal about having nothing decent to wear, as if anything would look well on her angular old bones except a shroud."

"What does Biggs do for a living?" I asked, anxious to know as much about the family as possible.

"To be candid with you," Big Adam replied, in a confidential way, "I don't know; although he has some way of making money, for he always has it. He organizes the farmers for one thing, and is a member of the Legislature for another. Once he started a Farmers' Store here, at a place over in the hills there," pointing in the direction, "where the roads cross, and where the Smoky Hill post-office is kept. He told the people they must organize for protection, and he somehow made them agree to patronize his store if he would start one. They were honest men who made the agreement, and lived up to it a long while; but in time they found out that he was charging them a great deal more for his goods than the dangerous men he had warned them against in town. I was in the place when they came in to hang him; and one man walked up to the rope-reel, and wanted to know how much rope would be necessary. But Biggs made them a speech from a vinegar barrel, and so worked upon their feelings that they went away content with the harmless revenge of calling him a little whiffet. Biggs put me in charge, and galloped away to find a purchaser for his store. He found one by representing that an entire neighborhood of fools had signed an agreement to pay him in cash whatever price he asked for his goods. The purchaser wanted to shoot Biggs when he found out how matters really stood-for he had paid a big price-but for some reason he changed his mind. Biggs is that kind of man. Now you know as much about him as I do."

As though he had been idling away too much time already, Big Adam began to work with great energy, and refused to talk any more, so I put the horses to the wagon alone; but after I had driven through the gate and into

the road he came out as if there was one word more he desired to say, and lifting himself up by putting one foot on the wheel, he whispered in my ear:-

"My father was killed by the Indians."

He looked so distressed that I expressed some sort of regret, and said it was a pity.

"Good-bye," he added, giving me his hand; "my last name is Casebolt. My mother is married the second time."

I shook his great fat hand again, and he went back to his work. Driving round to the front of the house I found Agnes waiting for me, and, lifting her little trunk into the wagon, we drove away, no one appearing at the doors or windows to bid her good-bye. My mother had told me to invite Mrs. Deming to visit her, but out of regard for Agnes I resolved to say that I had forgotten it. As we went past the stables Big Adam motioned for me to stop, and raising himself up beside me by putting his foot on the wheel again, he whispered,-

"My brothers and sisters are all dead."

He stepped down from the wheel; and putting the whip to the horses I soon left the place behind me.

I saw that Agnes had been crying, for her eyes were red and swollen; but I pretended not to notice it, and hoped her spirits would revive as we neared Fairview.

"You will excuse me, Ned," she said, after we had driven a long time in silence, "if I have neglected you, but I have not been myself for several days. Big Adam talks a great deal, and I saw you down in the yard with him a long while. You should not believe all he says. I am unhappy on my own account."

I did not know what to say in reply, for I was anxious for her to believe that I thought her mother was not at home, or something of that sort; so I jerked one of the horses roughly, and said "Whoa," as if the animal were preparing to run away. I knew she was distressed that I knew how unhappy she was at home, and was trying to lay the blame on herself, as she did in everything; therefore I watched the dangerous horse very intently for several minutes, and finally got down to walk around the wagon, to see if anything was wrong. After I had pounded the tires awhile with a stone, although they were new, I climbed back into my seat, and we drove on again.

"The people of Fairview have been very kind to me," Agnes continued, not minding that I did not care to talk on the subject, "and I have been happier there than here; although it is very ungrateful in me, and a poor return for the patient way in which they bear with me at home. I am so wicked and selfish."

The tears came into her eyes as she spoke, and I wondered whether it was wrong to tell white lies, for I was sure Agnes was fibbing in defence of her family. She thought about the matter a long time after that, and looked at me narrowly,-although I pretended not to know it,-and seemed to conclude at last that I had made good use of my time with Big Adam, and that she must depend upon the charity of my silence. Any way, she said no more upon the subject, and we rode in silence for several miles.

"You have always taken a great interest in my father," she said, at last, wiping her eyes, and dismissing the unpleasant subject. "I have brought you his picture as a present."

She took it out of a little package she carried, and gave it to me. It was a handsome face, and looked very much as I had imagined, except that it was clean-shaven. I put it away carefully, and she said:-

"My life would have been very different had he lived, and I should not have been so unkind to every one. He was always so brave and good that I should have striven to be like him, for everybody loved him. But he is dead, and I cannot be content without him. It is this that makes me fretful, and unworthy of my many good friends. Oh dear, I am going to cry."

She did cry again, apologizing for it in a way that reminded me of her uncle; and I sat there feeling like a fool while she was giving vent to her grief, and until she had regained her self-possession once more.

"I am sorry I did not see him buried, and that he did not have a quiet place to rest," Agnes continued, wiping her eyes; "for I dream at night of his storm-tossed ship, and always think of the sea as forever rolling and tossing his poor body about, refusing it rest and peace. Often in the wicked waves I see his white face turned imploringly to me, and the noises of the night I torture into his cries to me for help. If I knew where he was buried, and could sometimes visit his grave, I should be more content, and less unhappy."

I had heard a song called "When the Sea gives up its Dead," and without thinking what I did I softly hummed it.

"When he came home at the time I saw him last, he carried me about in his great strong arms along the beach, and said that if some day he never came back, for me not to dislike the sea, for it had been his friend in many a storm, and had rocked him to sleep almost every night since he was born. 'It will never prove treacherous,' he said. 'My ship may, but never the sea. The "Agnes" is not like the stout girl in whose honor she was named; she is getting old, and should she founder with me in the storms, and go down, never feel unkindly toward the sea. It has been my friend so many years that should it swallow me up I desire you to think that I deserved it.' He went away soon after that, and we have never seen him since."

Although the tears came into her eyes again, she bravely wiped them away.

"I am sorry for you," I made bold to say, looking at her pretty face. "I wish I were a man, and old enough; I would marry you, and make you happy in spite of yourself. I cannot tell you how much I desire your good, or how much I love you. Your presence at our house has made us a different family. My mother is more content, and my father less gloomy; and surely Jo and I know more since you came. I love you because you are good and pretty, and I think you are prettier to-day than I have ever seen you before. If I were a little older I would fall in love with you, and worry you a great deal with my attentions."

"It wouldn't worry me, Ned," she answered, with a return of her old cheerfulness. "I should like it. But I thought you were in love with me."

"Oh, I am, of course-as a boy," I answered; "but I mean if I were a man. If you should concentrate the love you distribute in Fairview on one man, I should like to be the man. That's what I mean. You love everybody in Fairview just alike."

"I am not so certain of that," she replied. "I think I am very partial to you. Who is most gallant and thoughtful to me of all my pupils? Why, you are, of course; and I love you best of any of them. When I get to be an old woman, and you a young man, I shall show my love for you by selecting you a wife; and if I am unable to find you a very good one, you shall remain single, as I intend to do. I regard you as my best friend, and I want you to think so. When you came yesterday, I wanted to run down and kiss you, but I could not leave my mother."

"But you never have kissed me," I said, "although you say you love me."

"I will now, if you will let me," she replied, and putting her arms round me, she kissed me as innocently as if I had been a child. I was very much abashed but thanked her as for any other favor.

"You are the first girl that ever kissed me," I said.

"Well, let me be the last one, unless I should want to kiss you again. But we are in sight of Fairview, and while we are alone, I want to tell you about Big Adam. His father is an outlaw, living somewhere in the great West; and, although he occasionally comes to Smoky Hill, it is always at night. His mother is a rough woman who smokes and drinks, and his brothers and sisters are very bad people. I don't know where they all live, though I frequently hear of them, but never anything to their credit. It is said that his mother's house, which is situated in a deep hollow near the river, is a rendezvous for bad men, and frequently it is raided by the officers looking for her bold husband. Big Adam is the only honest one among them, and that is why he says they are all dead; but even he talks too much."

I knew she wanted me to believe that he had misrepresented her family, though she was certain he had not; therefore I only said that Fairview church looked very pretty from the high point over which the road led us. I had never thought so before, but the country surrounding it was much finer than the Smoky Hill district, and I began to think that if I could travel more I might grow more content with my own home.

Our house was built in a rather low place, and I noticed with surprise, what I had not had opportunity of noticing before, that a great many new fields were being opened in different directions. Fairview was quietly and rapidly settling up.

"Anything Big Adam may have said to you," Agnes said as we were nearing the house, "is to be private between you and me."

I readily promised, though I had been thinking but a moment before of adding largely to it, and astonishing Jo.

"Since we are good friends we must have our secrets, and this is our first one. You may tell Jo that I kissed you."

I blushed because she had divined that I intended to tell him about her mother, but comforted myself with the reflection that she could not know for a certainty.

My mother was waiting for us; and the place was so quiet and pleasant, and the late dinner she had prepared so good, that I began to feel like a very favored fellow. Jo and the man of the house were away somewhere, and we spent the afternoon like three happy children, suddenly free from some exacting restraint. Agnes and I made so much of my mother, that I remember her as being happier on that day than any other, and when I think of her now, so long after, I am glad that it is as she sat in her easy chair between us that afternoon, saying little, but looking content and happy.

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