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The Story of a Country Town By E. W. Howe Characters: 21400

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

INASMUCH as that young man continued to haul stone to Erring's Ford for a dam, and would talk of nothing else, it became certain, in course of time, that Jo would never make a farmer; so it was agreed, at a convention attended by my father and my grandmother, that he should be apprenticed for two years to Damon Barker, of the establishment on Bull River. Barker had suggested it, I believe, as he needed some one to assist him, and was much pleased with Jo besides, who had already learned to help him in many ways during visits to the place. These visits were allowed to become frequent and protracted when it was decided that he should be sent there to learn milling as a business. When it was announced to Jo that the arrangement had been made-it was one Sunday afternoon-he took me out to the hayloft of the stable to talk about it.

"I am to be given a chance," he said, "and that is all I ask. I intend to work hard, and at the end of two years I shall be in position to commence my mill in earnest. I am seventeen years old now; I shall be nineteen then, and by the time I am twenty-one, 'Erring's Mill' will be in operation. It seems a very long time to wait, and a big undertaking, but it is the best I can do."

He was lying on his back, looking through the holes in the roof at the sky, and I thought more than ever that he was brave and capable, and that he had always been treated unjustly in Fairview. I was thinking-it had not occurred to me before-that I should be very lonesome without him; and he seemed to be thinking of it, too, for he said:-

"But it is only for three or four years, Ned," as if we had been talking instead of thinking of the separation, "and at the end of that time I may be able to make you my assistant, or, better still, my partner. We have had a very wretched time of it in the past, but there may be a great deal of pleasure in store for us in the future. If we work as hard as we expect, I believe everything will come out right yet. They say you are old of your age. I am not old of my age; on the other hand I am very dull: but I shall be a man then, and in any event one need not be old to be useful. People here think differently, but it is because the community is slow and ignorant. Here the man who owns a piece of land and a team is supposed to have accomplished all that it is possible for a man to accomplish; but Barker told me once that there are men who make a Fairview fortune in a day. I don't want to be like the people here, for none of them are contented or happy; but I intend to be like the people who I am certain live in other countries. I cannot believe but that there is a better way to live than that accepted at Fairview, and that somewhere-I don't know where, for I have never travelled-happy homes may be found, and contented people, where parents love their children, and where people love their homes. Therefore I shall begin differently, and work harder, and to more purpose, than the people here have done, to the end that I may be a different man."

Heaven help you, Jo, in that. There never was a happy man in Fairview, and I hoped with all my heart that Jo might become one, as he deserved.

"I have always been lonely and friendless," he went on. "They never wanted me at home; your father never seemed satisfied with me here, and, excepting you, I have never had a friend in my life. I care nothing for my family; I fear it is sad depravity, but I cannot help it. They have never treated me well, and care nothing for me, and I cannot feel kindly toward them, for no one can love without a reason. You do not fall in love with the woman that wounds you, but you do fall in love with the woman that is kind to you. I think a great deal of you, but you gave me reason for it by thinking a great deal of me. I never knew until I thought of going away how much I did think of you."

He talked so pitifully of the neglect to which he had always been subject, and I knew so well it was true, that I could only reply through my tears that he was my best friend, and that I thought more of him than any one else in the world.

"While they all occasionally have kind words for others, they never have a word of encouragement for me, but I am glad that I did not deserve it. I should hate to feel that I deserve all the unkindness I have received here, and that I was as idle and unworthy as they seem to think me; but I never did, and I hope you honestly think so. You are the only one among them who was fair and just, and after I have gone away I shall only have you to remember pleasantly. I am glad that I am going to a place at last where I shall be welcome and useful."

I thought that afternoon that all of them were unjust to Jo and steadily refused to give him the credit he deserved; I think so now, a great many years after, with a maturer mind and greater experience.

"We have been very ignorant here, you and I." It was very disgraceful, but very true. "Your father is wise enough, but as he takes no pains to impart it to others, we have had little benefit of his wisdom. For the next two years I shall live with a man who is educated, and who will willingly teach me, and I intend to tax his patience with my studies. Barker is not only learned, but he is courteous, and I can learn something of polite manners. He bows like a king; only a very few men are able to make a really good bow. I asked him once where he learned it, but he only laughed, and said everyone ought to be polite without learning it anywhere. It made me ashamed, for politeness never came natural with me. Perhaps I am so awkward because I do not come of a good family."

Certainly his father and mother were not polite to each other, or to their son.

"I have made many terrible mistakes from not knowing any better, and they will humiliate me all my life. Once I went with your mother to call at the new minister's-this is in the strictest confidence, and never to be repeated-and I did a thing so dreadful that I am blushing now in thinking of it. I wore a little cap (I have since burned it), and although I know now it was hideously ugly, I thought then that it made me very handsome. I bought it of a boy who had lived in town, and I had seen town boys wear them. So I shuffled into their parlor wearing your father's boots, with a pair of his pantaloons tucked into their tops, and the cap on my head. The Shepherds are very well-bred people, and after I had stumbled across the room, and fallen into a chair all in a heap, Mateel-how pretty she was that night, and how pretty she always is!-came over to me, and asked to lay away my cap. I thought it very amiable in me not to trouble her, so I refused to give it up. In fact, I said:-

"'No, I thank you; I am very comfortable as I am!'

"And I sat the entire evening through with that cap on my head. Nobody had ever told me to remove my cap in the presence of ladies, and being of a poor family, I did not know it without being told. I know better now, for Barker laughed at me, and explained why it was wrong."

Under other circumstances I should have laughed, but Jo was so serious that I did not think of it.

"They asked me to sing; simply to be polite, I am now certain. Your mother did not say for me not to, so I stumbled over to the melodeon, and sang nine verses of the 'Glorious Eighth of April' in a voice so loud that the windows rattled. They were all blushing for me, but I never once suspected it. I had heard your father sing the same song a hundred times, and I supposed it was all right. 'Is that all?' they asked when I had finished. I regretted that it was, thinking they were entertained, and I came very near singing it all over again. I told Barker about it, and he gave me lessons in propriety an entire afternoon. I felt coming home that I had in some way committed an indiscretion, but I could not tell exactly what it was until Barker pointed it out. He suggested that I write an apology, and as I have it here, I will read it, if you care to listen."

He took from his pocket a neatly written note, and after I had signified an anxiety to know its contents, he read:-

"Miss Shepherd,-I feel that my remarkable conduct at your house a few weeks ago needs an explanation, and I write this to confess candidly that it was caused by my ignorance, and should not be regarded as a lack of respect to you or your father and mother.

"It is because I have lived in the backwoods all my life, and because no one ever took sufficient interest in me to say that I should have removed my cap from my head, but if I am forgiven, and allowed to visit you again, I will be careful that there is no repetition of the offence. With reference to the tiresome song I sang, I have only the same plea; I did not know any better. I know now that I cannot sing; I can only bellow. When I tell you that the noise I made is regarded as music in Fairview, you will realize more vividly than I can tell you that the community where I have grown up is not cultured. I am distressed that I acted as I did, and hope you will accept this humble apology. Please express my regrets to your father and mother, and regard this note as in confidence.

"Very truly yours,

Jo Erring."

After folding the note carefully, and putting it back in the envelope from which he had taken it, he inquired:-

"What do you think of it?"

Knowing Barker had suggested it, and probably dictated the words, I said it was neat and appropriate, and the best thing that could be done under the circumstances, for I had no opinion of my own on the delicate question.

"They are the only well-bred people I have ever known, if I except Barker and Agnes," Jo said, after a long silence, "and though I should like to visit them often, I am afraid I can never get the courage to go there again. They have undoubtedly a poor opinion of me, for they can never understand how a young man of my age could be so uncouth, but other families of good manners will perhaps come to Fairview, and I intend to take lessons from Barker, and cultivate their acquaintance. I have great respect for polished people, but I never admired a quality in others that I did not lack it myself, therefore I fear I shall make but poor progress. But this is a small matter compared with learning the mill business. Perhaps I had better renounce society until I am the best miller on the river."

"It won't be long, Jo," I answered, and feeling that what I said was true.

"Barker says he can teach me all he knows in half a year. After that, I will experiment for myself, and perhaps I may be able to discover something which will repay him for his kindness to me. If I am apt at

anything-which I sometimes doubt-it is with machinery, and there is so little of it at Barker's that I hope I will be able to master it all in a few months. I am familiar with all of it now, and I shall work very hard until I can take it all apart, and put it together again better than it was before."

We were both quiet a long while, busy with our own thoughts, until Jo said:-

"I am going away to-morrow. When are you coming to see me?"

I had it in my mind to say, "On Tuesday," but as that would be the next day after his departure, and impossible, I said instead that I would come as soon as I could; certainly not later than that day a week.

"I shall be very busy, and lonely, too, and I hope you will come often. You haven't been out of my sight more than a day at a time since you were born, and you are the only brother I ever had. I don't intend to come here much, and as you enjoy visiting at Barker's we will arrange it in that way. They will perhaps tolerate me here once in a long while, to see if I have cut off any of my fingers in the cog-wheels, but for no other reason. I have been an intruder ever since I can remember, and lonely and homeless."

I felt that this was true, unjust and cruel as it was, and could say nothing, although Jo spoke of it in a husky voice, as though it would be a relief to cry if it were not unmanly.

"Your mother has been kinder to me than any of them, if I except Agnes, who is the friend of every one, but her health has always been poor, and she has a great deal to do. She often comes into my room at night, if she suspects that I am not well, and asks if she can do anything for me; but I know she is always tired, and I feel more like helping her than allowing her to help me. I shall always remember her gratefully for it, and believe that were she less unhappy herself we would have been a different family."

The mention of Agnes reminded me that she had presented me with her father's picture, and taking it from my pocket I gave it to Jo, but he did not care to look at it then, and said he would take it, and give it back at some future time.

"Your father is never unkind to her," he continued, determined to talk on that subject, "but they are more like strangers than man and wife. They have not occupied the same room for years, therefore she is always striving to reconcile him, knowing that he is discontented and dissatisfied, though I cannot see that she is to blame for it, and as a true woman-and she is one, if ever one lived-this makes her very unhappy. I know less of your father every day, and I fear that something unfortunate will come of his discontent. I hope it will not turn out that religion is a bad thing for him, as Barker predicts. I never mentioned it to you before, but the night you were away your mother came softly into our room, and asked why I had gone to bed so early. I said I was unusually tired, and that I had to get up very early in the morning; nothing more than that. She remained there for two hours, as if anxious to be with me, and there was enough light in the room for me to see that tears were in her eyes, and that she was in great distress.

"'Since six o'clock,' she said to me, 'my husband has not changed his position, or spoken. It is his habit every night. He is always thinking, and always silent and discontented. If I knew what his trouble is, perhaps I could help him, as I am anxious to do, but he will not tell me (though I do not ask him, for I am afraid). He thinks all day at his work, you have told me, and I believe he thinks all night, for I have known him to get up at midnight, and walk the floor until day. He is always considerate of me, and never speaks unkindly, but he has never been my husband except in name, and the fear that I have done something to offend him makes me very wretched, for I have always tried to be all that he desired. There is something dreadfully portentous in this; I do not know what it is, but I am certain that it will finally make us very miserable.

"'I have never spoken of this before; I never intend to speak of it again, and I only mention it now because I feel that I can live but a few years longer, and I must speak of it to make clear a request I have to make. Ned is out of the house to-night, and farther away from me then ever before since he was born. After you two have gone to sleep here in this room, I always come in to kiss him good-night. And, Jo, I frequently kiss you, too. Since he was a baby in my arms, I have never kissed him except when he was asleep, because his father seemed to dislike such exhibitions of affection. But I come to his bed every night, and kiss him after he has gone to sleep.'

"She cried softly to herself awhile, and remained so quiet that I could hear her tears fall in little plashes to the floor.

"'The request that I have to make is that after I am dead you will tell him of this. I have made a mistake in raising him, and I know I should have cultivated his affection for me after he put on boots and mittens, and went out with his father to work, but I was afraid, for none of that is allowed in this house, as you know. I do not feel free to be kind to you, Jo, or show you any attention, for fear my husband will regard it as an interference with his discipline, which excuse he has used to separate me from my boy.

"'I know he regards me as cold-hearted, like his father, but I am not. I love him as every mother loves her only child, but he does not understand it, and lately he avoids me whenever he can.

"'You won't be here long; Damon Barker wants you to live at the mill, and you won't come back very often, for you have no reason to, therefore I ask you, now that I have opportunity, to tell Ned that I have always loved him as a mother should, and that I was indifferent to him because his father told me to be, and said it was for the best. He is getting to be quite a boy now, and when he comes home tired and ill-humored, I know he thinks we are unjust to make him work so hard, but tell him, Jo, that it is his father who did it, and that I always protested against it. I want you to take good care of him after I am dead, and I believe you will, for I can see you are very fond of him, as he is of you. I believe you will both become good and intelligent men some day; men who will love your wives and children, instead of treating them as they are treated in Fairview, and I want you to believe when you are grown up that I raised you as best I could. You have lived here nearly as long as I have, and this is your home, as well as Ned's, and if you have not been contented and happy, it was not because I did not love you both. I trusted too much to another's judgment, and was afraid to do what I felt I should have done. When you become men you will think a great deal of this period in your lives, for it is indelibly stamped on your memory by its discomforts, but I hope you will remember that I was sick a great deal, and could not pay you the attention I wanted to. Good night.'"

After wiping away our tears, for the story affected us both to that extent, we resolved over and over again to be more considerate of her in the future, as we now better understood her strange disposition toward us. I do not know that we had ever been more inconsiderate than other boys, but we all seemed to be waiting at our house for an opportunity to get away, and find more pleasant companions, which made us unthoughtful of each other, and I think it was to this she referred in her talk with Jo.

When we went into the house again, my father was sitting in his accustomed place, thinking. He had not changed his position since we went out of the room, an hour or two before, and I think he regretted he could not go out into the fields and lose his thoughts in working. He looked up when we came in, and addressing himself to Jo, said:-

"Are you glad to go?"

"Yes, sir," Jo promptly responded.

This did not seem to surprise him, and he kept on thinking, as though he might have known it without asking.

"I have no doubt you think I have been a hard master," my father said. "I have been, but because I believed it was best to teach boys to work. Before you reach my age, you will know I was right, and that the course I have pursued with you was the best one. But to show you that I am anxious for your success, I offer to help you start the mill at The Ford, if you apply yourself at Barker's and give me reason to believe that you are worthy and capable. Whatever else you may think of me, you know I keep my word in everything. Bear this in mind during the next two years."

When he began thinking again, I thought it was that although he always did that which was for the best, he was blamed for it, and hated.

"I have no advice to give you, because you would take nothing kindly from me, and because I seldom give it to anyone. Every man must advise himself, after he is convinced what course he had better pursue. The world is full of people giving good advice to others, but I have thought we should all be better off if we would advise ourselves more, and others less. If I could take the good advice I am capable of giving, I should have no occasion to accept it from others. The same is true in your case; advise yourself, and see that your advice is good. I believe you will succeed over there, and I earnestly hope you will. No more need be said on the subject."

When he began his thinking again, I thought it was to wonder why Jo should not feel grateful to him now instead of in the future (he was sure he would then), after he was dead, and in need of no evidence that the course he had pursued was right.

. . . . .

That night I resolved to remain awake to see if my mother came to me in my room. She did not disappoint me, and, coming in quietly, sat down on the foot of the bed, where she remained in deep study a long while. I could not see her face, but I was certain it was thoughtful and sad, and that she felt ill at ease, and wretched. The moon was shining outside, and she pulled aside the curtain to look at us. At last she got up, and bending over the bed kissed me tenderly. I threw my arms about her neck, and said: "Mother!"

She fell on her knees beside the bed, and sobbed in such distress that my father heard her, and came in hurriedly from the other room to inquire what was the matter. But only her sobbing answered him, and speaking to her tenderly, as if divining what had affected her, he led her away, with his arm around her.

"Your father has been thinking again," Jo said, as the door closed upon them. "I was awake, too. Ned, never keep anything from me again."

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