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   Chapter 12 LOVE’S YOUNG DREAM.

The Story of a Country Town By E. W. Howe Characters: 18050

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


TWO months had passed since Jo had gone to live at the mill, and on a Saturday afternoon it was arranged that I should visit him, and remain until Monday.

My father was at the country town a great deal of late, and the farm was being neglected in the hands of the renter and his two sons, who I often thought were shiftless men, or they would have owned a farm of their own, for land was cheap and plentiful. When he returned from these visits to Twin Mounds, he was more thoughtful than ever, and after making long rows of figures in his private book, and casting them up, he pondered over the result, as if he had added another problem to the number he was always studying over.

I did not get started until late, and as I rode away my father came out to say that, unless I hurried, night would overtake me in the woods, and as it was the first time in his life he had paid me so much attention, I thought, as I rode along, that Fairview was certainly progressing, and that the old order of things was passing away.

The road which I travelled led through the fields past Theodore Meek's, and thence through the woods, and, as I went along leisurely, when I was half way it began to grow dark. This did not alarm me, however, as I was well acquainted with the way, and there was no prospect of getting lost. As I came out upon the ridge dividing the waters of Bull River and Big Creek, where there was an opening, and the trees gave way to underbrush, I saw a man ahead of me riding on horseback, as I was. Thinking he was going my way, and would keep me company, I hurried on to come up with him, but he turned out of the road when I approached him, and rode off to the left. Although it was almost dark, I recognized the horseman as Clinton Bragg, and the direction he took indicated that he was on his way to visit the Shepherds. Coming up to the place where he had turned off, I saw that there was no road, and had a mind to halloo to him, thinking he was not familiar with the country, and might have lost his way, but before I could put that intention into execution, he urged his horse into a gallop, and passed rapidly along the deep shadow skirting the other side of the clearing. I remembered then that the fellow, like an owl, was more himself after dark than during the day, and, supposing that he had concluded to ride through the timber and darkness to save distance, I thought no more of him, except to wish that he would have trouble.

When I arrived at the mill it was long after dark, and, wishing to surprise Jo, I put the horse away alone, as I was familiar with the stables from frequent visits. Seeing no light in the house, I supposed he was at the mill, and went in there, although it was dark, and I should have thought it deserted but for the circumstance that all the machinery was in operation. Hearing some one in the basement, I sat down until he had finished and started up the stairs, when I saw it was Jo, carrying a lantern.

"And so you have come at last," he said, hanging the lantern on his arm, and taking both my hands in his. "I had almost come to believe that you had forgotten me."

"It has been impossible for me to come sooner," I replied. "We have been very busy at home since you came away, and as father spends a great deal of his time in town now, I have double work to do. I have been as anxious to come as you have been anxious to see me, for I have been very lonely since you went away."

"I am certain of that," he returned good-naturedly, using his lantern to look critically at a wheel which I am sure was all right, but he wanted me to know that he was in charge; "I am certain you came as soon as you could, my dear old friend. You, like myself, cannot always do what you please. But now that you have come, you may be quite sure that I am glad to see you, and you could not have arrived at a more favorable time. I am to stay here until midnight, at which time Barker will relieve me, and you shall stay with me and tell me the news."

"I think it is very much to your credit, Jo," I said, "that you are able to run alone already."

"O, it is nothing," he answered, though I could see he was proud of it. "All I have to do is to look around, and see that the belts are on and that the machinery is running smoothly. The mill runs itself, and if anything should go wrong, I have only to shut down the gate, and call Barker. But nothing is likely to go wrong. Barker is a fine miller, and he has everything so arranged that the water does the work with little assistance. But tell me how much you have missed me again, and everything that has occurred at home since I came away."

Under the first head I could have talked all night, but there was nothing new except the arrival of Bragg.

"He was here to-day," Jo said, thoughtfully, "and I don't like his looks. He came in while I was alone, and inquired if this was Barker's mill. I answered that it was, when he said he presumed my name was Jo Erring. On my confessing my name, he sat down on a pile of sacks, and watched me intently for half an hour, when he got up, and went out without saying a word. I suppose he went up to the house, and looked at Barker in the same way, for I saw him come out of the door, mount his horse, and ride away. He looks like one of the Devil's sons. Who is he?"

I told all I knew about him, and I thought Jo was much interested in the statement that he had been raised at Mateel's old home, and that they had grown up together.

"He's impudent, whoever he is; I can say that for him. I thought he wanted to buy me, he looked at me so closely. I suppose Mateel is as pretty as ever."

I answered that she wonderfully improved on acquaintance, and that, having gone down into the bottom of her trunk, she was better dressed than ever when last I saw her.

"You know that letter of apology to Mateel I read you?" Jo inquired, without paying much attention to my remark.

I said I remembered it very distinctly, but I wondered why he now regarded it so pleasantly, for he was smiling.

"Well, I received an answer to it a day or two after coming here, accompanied by an invitation to visit her, and I don't mind confessing to you that I went, as I had learned a great deal since I called there the first time with your mother, and was anxious she should know it. In fact, I have been there three times in three weeks. It's only a short distance to their house from here, and Barker gave me so many lessons in bowing and politeness that I couldn't resist the temptation to try them."

"And how did they work?"

"Oh, I forgot everything as soon as I got into the house, of course," he answered wearily, as though he were dreadfully slow in learning to be polite. "She came up to me, and stood so close that I hadn't room to bow. When her mother came in, she shook hands, and I couldn't have bowed to her without pushing over my chair. It was a total failure, though I am improving. I take off my hat now before going in at the gate. I am under contract to go there to-morrow night, and you shall accompany me. I have a new suit of clothes, too. They arrived a few days after I came here; I asked Barker who sent them, and he said he supposed it must have been God.

"Jo," I said, "you are very happy here, I can see it already."

"I confess that I am," he replied; "more contented than I ever expected to be anywhere. I am useful to Barker (so he is kind enough to say, at least), and he told me to-day that he intends to pay me wages from the time I came, instead of compelling me to work a long while for nothing. Yes, I am very happy here; you have guessed my secret."

I was heartily glad of it, and said so, and added that no one deserved it more.

"But after all there is nothing like a fairy story in it; nothing unreal, and nothing that is likely to melt away, and leave me a drudge at Fairview again. I am simply in a place where, if I work hard, I shall get something for it. Every one ought to have that opportunity, therefore it is not too much to hope that my good fortune may continue. I should have been as comfortably situated as I am now a good many years ago (no one is so unworthy that he does not deserve pay for what work he does well), but I have learned nothing, and earned nothing, until now, though I am almost a man grown."

Jo had been a full hand on the farm for several years, but he never received anything for it, except complaints, and I understood what he meant.

"But I want to talk to you about Mateel; I think a great deal about her. It's very odd, but it is very true. At home, and at your house, the poorest corner was too good for Jo; with her the best is too poor. I should be very ungrateful did she not occupy my thoughts a great deal. Though she is a lady and I only a rough country boy, she is so considerate of me that I cannot help loving her, though it is very presuming in me, I fear. I feel as though I were visiting a queen when I go there, but she makes me so welcome that I soon forg

et myself, and imagine I am a king. All of my ambition is connected with her now. If I hope to become a worthy man, and well-to-do, it is that she may be proud of me, and feel that I have worked to please her; if I study Barker's books diligently by the light of this lantern at night, it is that I may become more intelligent, and worthy of the good opinion she has of me. I dream of nothing pleasant in which she does not have a part. If I fancy I am happy, she is beside me, and the cause of it; if I have grown rich and great in a night, I am only glad of it because it will please Mateel. Always and everywhere, when my better part is uppermost, she is in my thoughts, but never when I am contemptible in any way. There seems to be no doubt, in short, that I am desperately in love."

I had suspected this for some time, though I pretended to be greatly surprised.

"I have never said anything to her about it," he continued. "Maybe I never shall, but, ignorant as I am, I can see she is glad to see me when I go there, and she would not invite me back so cordially if she could not tolerate me. It is very pleasant for an ignorant fellow like me to be friends with a refined lady like Mateel. I never thought there was anything in life equal to it. She does not seem to know but that I am of a good family, but I intend to tell her honestly and truly some time what an unfavored fellow I am."

I said she probably knew all about him already, and was satisfied.

"Do you suppose she does?" he inquired with the look of a pleasant hope in his face. "It would be comforting to know that, as it would be humiliating to tell her everything to my discredit I can think of. But if ever I become convinced that she loves me, I will tell her everything if it kills me."

He talked as though he had been a great criminal in his time, but there was really nothing more serious against him than that his father was an eccentric shingle-maker, and his mother a midwife, if I except the circumstance that everybody said he came of a shiftless family.

"There seems to be no doubt that I am madly in love," he repeated again, looking at the flame of his lantern, as though it were likely to give an opinion as to whether he was or not. "I don't know whether to regard it as a serious circumstance or a pleasant one. They say that one's first love does not amount to anything, and that one soon forgets it. It will not be that way with me, I am certain. I should be ashamed to offer my affections to another girl after having loved Mateel as madly as I do now, and I should feel that I was offering a poor return for the love I should expect of a wife. I am convinced that a man who has loved but once makes a better husband than one who is in doubt as to whether he ever loved at all. I would as soon marry a widow with children as a woman who has been engaged, and permitted the familiarities which are common under such circumstances. If there is anything in love at all, it is wrong to break an engagement. A man or woman who is so uncertain in matters of the heart as to contract a new fancy four or five times a year, is likely to be mistaken at last. I am not acquainted with many people who are happily married, but I am convinced that plenty of them may be found in looking the world over, and inquiry will no doubt reveal the fact that they were never in love but once. If I should marry, it would seriously affect my happiness to know that another man-I despise a man, anyhow-had caressed and fondled my wife as an accepted lover. I wouldn't live in the same country with him, and I should be forever unhappy for fear that she loved him the best. It would be a circumstance very much in favor of a happy married life for a man to know that his wife had never seen anyone else she would marry; to know that her lips had touched only his, and that she was innocent as well as virtuous."

I did not know much about such matters, but I thought Jo expected a great deal; perhaps too much. But he had grown so serious that I knew he was deeply concerned, and though I tried to change the subject, and talk about the mill, he answered me in such a way as to indicate that he would talk of nothing but Mateel that night. He was uneasy and worried in his manner, too, although I could not understand why, unless it was regret that he had been raised so poorly, and that he was only given opportunity to learn at seventeen; for I knew that in his affair with Mateel he had every reason to feel satisfied, except that he was so young and poor as to render thoughts of his marrying her almost ridiculous. It may have been that a knowledge of the possibilities of his future made him chafe and fret that he was compelled, from no fault of his own, to begin life so late, and that he feared failure under such circumstances, although success would have been certain under circumstances more favorable.

As if the thought were disagreeable, he picked up the lantern abruptly, and went down under the mill, leaving me in the dark, and he remained so long that at last I followed. I found him leaning against a heavy timber, looking at the flame in his lantern again, as though it could enlighten him if it would on certain matters of which he was anxious to know more.

"You are becoming as great a thinker as father, Jo," I said, touching him on the shoulder, for he had been so occupied with his thoughts that he had not noticed my approach. "You used to dislike him very much for that."

Recollecting himself, he pretended that he had come down to look at something, and after seeing that it was all right, we went up again.

"If I was thinking," he said good-naturedly, "it was that I had never thought of loving until Mateel came in my way. The possibility that some day I should marry was so remote that I never considered it, and when you came down there just now, I was hoping that if ever I should marry Mateel-I don't suppose I ever shall; it was only a fancy, and there is no harm in telling it-she would confess to me that thoughts of loving and marrying never came to her until she met me, as I intend to confess to her, and it will be God's holy truth. I have never even divided my poor affection among my relatives; you have had it all, but I don't think Mateel would object to that."

Although he had only been there a short time, I thought Jo had grown to be a man since I had seen him last. He looked larger, and older, and acted and talked more like one than he did two months before, when he was a boy.

"I can understand why you love me," he said, "because I have tried to win your regard, and we have been friends all our lives, but if Mateel cares for me, it is because there is more to me than Fairview has ever given me credit for. If that is not the case, then my ambition is hopeless, and if I have been thinking, it is about that. It is pleasant for me to know that, ignorant and rough as I am, intelligent people can admire me at all, for I am improving very rapidly, and in time I can hope to become worthy of the friendship of very good people. I am surprised to think how ignorant I was a month ago; I shall be in still greater wonder six months hence to realize how foolish I was when you first came to see me at the mill. I have no other hope for the future than that I can learn something every day, for if I live a long time I can hope to know something at last. It is not a great brain that can be exhausted at thirty, or even forty, and I expect to study very hard from now on, that I may catch up with others of equal capacity who began under more fortunate circumstances. I believe the day is coming when Fairview will be peopled with the kind of men and women I am acquainted with in my fancy; and when they arrive I am ambitious to be able to associate with them without the restraint of stupidity and ignorance."

I was about to reply, when we heard Barker coming in, as the hour had arrived when he was to take charge, although we had not suspected that midnight was so near at hand, so rapidly had the time passed. Barker greeted me pleasantly, and although I supposed he had just crept out of bed, he was as fresh and cheerful as it was possible to be. While we were walking up to the house I mentioned the circumstance to Jo.

"I have never yet found him asleep," he replied, "I think one of his eyes is always open, if not both of them, but I have given up all curiosity with reference to him. If he has a secret, and wants me to know it, I am always here, and he can easily tell me. But I am content to trust him just as he is. There can't be anything very bad about a man who is always fair, just, and honest. I have an idea that when I have earned his confidence, I shall know his secret, if he has one, and that he will tell me. In the meantime I intend to make myself as useful as possible, and not annoy him with my curiosity."

I had intended to ask Jo for a theory with reference to Barker during the visit, but after this I concluded that I would not.

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