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   Chapter 11 WITH REFERENCE TO A MAN WHO WAS SENT WEST TO

The Story of a Country Town By E. W. Howe Characters: 18671

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


GROW UP WITH THE COUNTRY, OR GET KILLED.

A FEW months after the Shepherds came to Fairview, and after they had become fairly settled in their new home (they lived beyond Erring's Ford, and on the other edge of the timber which began there), a fellow arrived who was thoroughly disliked from the moment of his appearance, because he had an insolent manner, an insolent walk, and was insolent in everything he did, to say nothing of his flashy dress and a general air of impudence. His name was Clinton Bragg, and as he appeared there in company with the Shepherds, it was soon understood that in the country from which they came their families had been intimate and friends. I think he only consented to visit Fairview church on the Sunday of his first appearance, as a geologist consents to enter a dirty pit in the earth, for the satisfaction of seeing curious specimens and formations, and he regarded the people he saw, whom he looked at with a cool stare, as a herd of peculiar beasts or a drove of something.

Mr. Shepherd had applied himself with great industry to agriculture-although it was not expected of him, as his salary was sufficient for his support-but a member of the congregation had given him the free use of a piece of land, and he devoted certain hours of each day to cultivating it. His appetite and strength (both of which had deserted him years before) had returned from this exercise, and he progressed so well that it was known that after he had remained at Fairview as long as the rules of the church allowed, he would give up preaching altogether and follow agriculture instead.

The people thought a great deal of him, as he was kind and gentle, and preached a religion less rigorous than my father's had been, and they were useful to him in so many ways that he was greatly pleased with the people and the community, for I think he had never lived in a place before where he was of so much importance. Therefore it was plain that he was annoyed by Bragg's impertinence, and I thought Mateel and her mother shared the feeling. He sat with them during the services, but went out in a rude way immediately after the preaching was over, giving the people to understand as plainly as he could that he thought them inferior. Through the open door from where I sat I could see him standing out at the gate like an evil spirit, and I could not help thinking that Fairview was progressing, for all sorts of people were coming in. I had never seen a man like this one before, for we knew by his manner that he lived without work.

When the people came out he walked ahead of them, as though fearing he would be trampled upon, and seemed anxious to get away. To this end he unhitched the minister's horses, and, after turning their heads homeward, sat holding them impatiently, until the family concluded their greetings with those who crowded around them, amusing himself by chewing bits of hay and spitting them out spitefully.

When it was announced that the family would spend the time at our house until the evening service, he was evidently displeased, as he had probably thought to pass a pleasant afternoon at the home of the Shepherds' in abusing the Fairview people, but though I thought at first he would get out of the wagon, and walk back to town, he seemed to reconsider finally, as if it was worth his time to see how the animals lived.

All this I imagined while looking at him, for he said nothing, and when I rode in the seat in front of him (which I did at the invitation of Mateel) I was certain he was frowning all the way, and thinking of me as a fine specimen for a museum. His presence chilled me, as it did all the others, and I said nothing during the ride, fearing he would snap my head off. I felt, too, that, though the others disliked him, they were afraid of his tongue, should he find occasion to use it, and I drove as rapidly as I could to get rid of him.

When he was introduced to Agnes he stared at her with cold surprise, as he would look at a particular animal in a flock driven up for his inspection, should one of them prove finer than he had expected, and Agnes turned and left the room. Mateel soon followed her, and I thought that she went out to apologize for her rude acquaintance. They both remained away until dinner was ready, and I found that they were good-naturedly helping my mother, who was greatly pleased. Indeed, they all deserted Bragg, leaving him alone in the best room a greater part of the time, my father and Mr. Shepherd finding it convenient to examine a lot of young trees lately planted in the orchard.

My grandmother was there that day, and finding that they were all afraid of Bragg, she went in to keep him company, and give him to understand that she was too old a bird to be frightened by such a scarecrow. After regarding him carefully over her spectacles, first wiping the glasses, as though that would help her in taking his measure, she called me in, and kept up an incessant rattle of compliments for the splendid people of Fairview, frequently denouncing the ignorant upstarts who did not like them.

But Bragg paid not the slightest attention to her, and kept looking out of the window, first at the church, and then at the fields, as though he regretted he could not set them on fire by holding his eyes on them, like a sun-glass. At dinner my grandmother sat next to him, and imposed on him by crowding, and setting everything passed to her as far away as possible, which affronts he pretended not to notice. Although the others were very good-natured at the table, he remained indifferent to everything, eating whatever was offered as though he was surprised to get it in such an out-of-the-way place. I had not yet heard him speak, and began to wonder how it would sound should he finally consent to favor us with a word.

The good humor of the others was probably to show Bragg that his ill-nature was of no consequence, and that he was welcome to his mood, for I had never heard so much laughter in that house before. I was particularly proud of Agnes for the many kind things she managed to say of Fairview, though apparently without reference to Bragg. She was superior to any of them, and I could not help thinking it was to the credit of the country that she had lived there contentedly before they came. Although the dinner to which he sat down was better than he expected, and the people offering to entertain him more intelligent-he could not conceal his occasional surprise-he would not admit it, and maintained his insolent silence. When he went back into the best room, nobody followed, and he remained there undisturbed, except occasionally by my grandmother, who dashed in at intervals to turn up her nose.

I learned somehow that Bragg was the spoiled son of a well-to-do family, and that his father, after spending great amounts of money on his education, had sent him West to grow up with the country or get killed. It was evident that he was dissipated-he gave no particular evidence of it, but I supposed that must be the matter with him-and I remember thinking that the miller's sister would be glad to hear of his arrival, as it would give her opportunity to save him.

I heard Mr. Shepherd say to my father that he was a civil engineer, and would make that his business in Twin Mounds, if he concluded to do anything at all, which was not decided, as his father was rich, and would cheerfully supply him with all he needed.

"He is disagreeable to me, and to my family," he added, "but I was a boy with his father, and have known Clinton ever since he was born. He has been headstrong and wilful all his life; I sincerely hope his residence here will do him good. I don't know what his habits are, but I do know that he has always been a source of worry and trouble-at home, at school; everywhere. I think if there is anything in him, it will develop here, for I am unable to understand how any man can remain idle in a country where there is so much room for action. He intends to open an office in town, he says, and if he is competent and industrious there is really no reason why he should not live to make his father proud of him. I believe his mother regards him as the most wonderful young man in the world, as he is."

My father did not reply, but I am sure he was thinking that Bragg was a very good example of his doctrine that an idle boy invariably grew up into an idle and disagreeable man.

"He is an only son," Mr. Shepherd continued, "and will one day come into possession of a considerable property; I don't know how much, for I have a poor head for such calculations, but I should say it will be sufficient to make him independent for the remainder of his life. This has been his misfortune. Had he been poor I think he would have been a better boy, but as it is he acts as his sullen temper dictates."

Barker had told Jo and me so much of rich people that I greatly admired them, but I could not believe that Bragg was a fair representative of the class, and I learned afterwards that he was hated at school and at home for his meanness, which was the only quality he cultivated.

While I was looking at him, and thinking I would get Jo to knock him down some day, Mateel and Agnes came around the house with Damon Barker, who had evidently just arrived. H

e had never met either of them before, but, on encountering them, introduced himself with the easy grace for which he was noted. Both had heard of him, and seemed pleased to see him, for they sat down on each side of him on a rough seat under an apple-tree. I went out to them at once, and he spoke to me in such a considerate way that I was sure it would be noticed that he was my particular friend, which I regarded as a circumstance very much in my favor. He did not treat me as a boy, as the others did, but listened kindly when I was talking, instead of waving me to silence with his hand, and altogether acted as though I was worthy of his respect and friendship.

We all inquired about Jo, who had been away several weeks, and he replied so favorably that he took another step forward in my good opinion. Jo was already the best assistant he had ever had, he said, and was certain to become a remarkable man.

"I have a few books about the house," Barker said. "Jo devours them, and keeps me up far into every night answering questions. Next to his ambition to learn all there is about the mill he is ambitious to know all there is in the books. I think he will succeed in both particulars; I was not mistaken in my estimate of him."

We were all pleased to hear him say this, and, though not intending it, Mateel let it be known that she was greatly interested in Jo. I hoped Barker would notice it, and tell him, for it would be a pleasure for him to know it.

"A boy apprenticed on a farm has very little opportunity to learn anything-I wonder that he knows as much as he does; but he is progressive and manly, and I am very much mistaken if his advancement is not very rapid from now on. He wants to know about everything, and I really believe he could run the mill very well without me now. He was familiar with every part of it before he came there to live, and I suppose he is busy to-day taking the machinery apart to look at it, since I am not there to answer his questions regarding the contents of the books."

Barker seemed to understand that Jo had never been appreciated in Fairview, and was determined that the people should know he was very favorably impressed with him. I thought it was very kind of him to come so far to defend Jo.

"A young man ready to take advantage of every opportunity is rare enough to be remarkable," Barker continued, observing Mateel very closely. "They usually have to be driven to it, and encouraged to keep at it by all sorts of stratagems, but Jo only asks opportunity, and goes at his work with an energy I greatly admire. I have known hundreds of men who knew less at middle age than Jo knows at seventeen, and who were not his equals in whatever he attempts. This seems to have been against him here, but it will be to his advantage in his new place. But I believe I have not yet asked how you liked Fairview," he abruptly concluded, addressing Mateel.

She replied very much as a polite woman should-that while it was not possible that she could positively say on so short an acquaintance, she believed she would become entirely content with it in time.

"I have lived here contentedly enough a good many years," Barker replied, "with few acquaintances and fewer friends. The country is very fair. I know little enough of the people, but no one is crowded here. There is room enough for everybody, and there are splendid opportunities to be let alone. There is a good deal in that."

In her dependent, uncertain way, Mateel looked as though it were possible to be let alone too much, although she said nothing.

"I take it that people do not come west for society, but rather because there are more acres than people in this direction," Barker said. "I have been told that it is possible to get too much of society, and that after it quiet is appreciated. To this class Fairview will prove a satisfactory place. My nearest neighbor lives two miles away; I shouldn't care if he lived ten. He is an ignorant fellow, who chops wood for a living; and he is very considerate, for he never comes to see me. I think I never spoke to my neighbor except to ask him how much was my debt. We get along very well. Who is the young man at the window?" noticing Bragg, who had changed his position and was looking at the sky.

I replied that he was a friend of Mr. Shepherd's, and that he had only arrived a few days before.

"He looks as though he was in jail for murder, and meditating an escape in order to commit the same offence with greater atrocity. What is the matter with him?"

I was afraid that this might offend Mateel, but after seeing that Bragg had not heard it she laughed over it, as did the rest of us. She added, however, that he was in excellent health, and that he was more moody than sullen, and could be very agreeable when he wanted to be.

"I judge he has had too much of society, and enjoys the quiet of Fairview. He looks pleasant."

I will swear that Bragg's face was the most unpleasant and disagreeable at that moment I had ever seen.

"He should visit the mill for quiet. We have no noise there except the roar of the water and the rumble of the wheels, and we have grown so accustomed to these that it would not be quiet without them. I hope he will like the country."

At this moment my father and Mr. Shepherd came around from the orchard, and Barker bowed low on being presented. I thought Mr. Shepherd regretted he had not known Barker was so polite, as he could have shown something in that line himself; but they got on very well together, and were soon talking like old friends. We sat there for an hour or more, listening to their easy and cultured conversation, and it occurred to me, with renewed force, that Fairview was getting out of its old ways. Mr. Shepherd promised to visit him, the invitation having been extended, and my mother and the minister's wife coming out later the party was so agreeable that I wondered we could not have more of it instead of the discontent which usually oppressed us. Hearing our peals of laughter, I hoped Bragg regretted he had not been in better humor and joined the company; but he never looked that way, and pretended to be occupied with himself.

"You have never been inside of Fairview church, Damon," my father said to him, quite familiarly, late in the afternoon; "won't you come to-night?"

"I will walk on with Ned," Barker replied, good-naturedly, and rising, "and think of it after I reach the cross roads; I see it is almost time to start."

After taking his leave of all of them in a courteous way, I walked with him along the path leading across the field, my father excusing me from further attendance for that purpose.

We proceeded quite leisurely, as there was no hurry, and after we had walked a considerable distance my companion said:-

"A very pretty girl, and intelligent enough, but weak. She could be coaxed into anything. They say that is true of all light-haired women."

I did not know whether he meant Agnes or Mateel, so I inquired, "Who?"

"The one you call Mateel. She has a pretty face, but were I inclined to criticise such a delightful girl I should say she lacks decision. The other one hardly spoke to me. What is it they call her?"

"Agnes."

"The school-teacher, I believe. She is very much of a woman, though evidently young. I admire her more than the other one. Do her people live here?"

"No; in Smoky Hill."

"Very respectable, I have no doubt. I should like to know her father, and congratulate him."

"Her father is dead," I answered.

"Oh! Dead."

He walked on in silence for a considerable distance.

"An orphan. It's a pity."

I narrated what little I could tell of the family after the promise to Agnes, though I longed to tell him of her mother; but it seemed to bore him, and he dismissed the subject after I had concluded in a rhapsody for the gentle and patient Agnes.

By this time we had reached the cross-road, leading in one direction to the church and in the other toward his home. He stopped here, and said:-

"I will not go to the church to-night, if you will be good enough to present my excuse to your father. It is a long road home, and I must walk it. You know that you are always welcome at the mill, and that Jo is anxious to see you. Good-night."

He turned abruptly on his heel, and, walking away, his form was soon lost in the rapidly approaching darkness.

When I arrived at the church I found the others all there, and was surprised to find Bragg in better humor, as if the darkness suited his disposition better. He was walking about quite contentedly, looking curiously (and impudently) at the knots of people collected in the yard, and listening to what they were saying. At times I thought he would speak to them, and his eyes, dull and heavy all day, were now as bright and active as a ferret's, and I thought he could penetrate the darkness with them, for while the services were in progress he kept walking about, closely regarding everything, as though it were broad daylight. When the people came out, he met the Shepherds at the door, and went down the walk with Mateel on his arm, and when they drove away I thought I heard him talking quite good-naturedly. Had the fellow's spirits deserted him at the approach of day, and come back with the darkness?

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