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The Story of a Country Town By E. W. Howe Characters: 23163

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

JO and I agreed that we would ride over to his father's in the forenoon of the next day, and return by way of the Shepherds' in the evening. We started in the morning before Barker was stirring, as he had worked until daylight, Jo riding the horse he had received from my father together with ten dollars in money, and I a clumsy but reliable animal from the farm, which I believe had assisted in hauling our wagons to the country, and which rode about as comfortable as a wheel-barrow.

When we arrived at the Ford, and as we stopped our horses to allow them to drink, I saw that several loads of stone for the dam had arrived since my last visit there, and Jo told me he intended to haul at least one load a week until he had enough, and that there would occasionally be dull days at Barker's-as in times of high water, or ice-when he could work on his own enterprise for days at a time.

The house of hewn logs occupied by my grandfather was built on the crest of the hill above the creek, the ground on the side by which we approached it being lower, and covered with timber, and riding up to the fence surrounding it, we secured our horses, and went in. Although it was summer, Dad Erring occupied his usual corner by the fire-place, and had evidently just finished smoking a pipe, as the room was yet full of the fumes. He was very much surprised to see us, and was at once cordial and hospitable by asking us to pull up to the fire-place, which we did, although the fire had been out for several months.

"She's not at home," he said, divining that we wondered where Gran was. "She's away. But I don't know where. I never do. Both of you know that already. She has been away-" he rested one hand on his knees, and counted the days on the bricks of the hearth with his walking-stick-"three days. She may be at home in an hour; she may not return in a week. Both of you are familiar with the manner in which she comes and goes."

I had frequently remarked of my grandfather that while others in Fairview said little because they were gloomy, he said little because he had little to say, and after finishing what I have quoted, he stopped as if wondering how he could find language to give his visitors to understand that they were welcome. He seemed to conclude at last that we were anxious to know next about his business (as if there was nothing in the wide world except his wife and the shingle business), and said:-

"You ask how I am getting along with my shingle-making." We had not mentioned the subject at all, by the way. "I answer, not very well. The trees cut very hard of late, and although I go to my work later, and come home earlier than formerly, I am more tired at night than usual. Shingle-making does not progress very well; I am afraid I am not as young as I was ten or twelve years ago, but we must all wear out. You two are commencing; I am finishing, but I doubt if you think of the future more pleasantly than I do. I am always tired now, and rest to me is as agreeable as hope to you. Look at my hands."

As he held them out, I saw that they were cracked and scarred, and the flesh on them dry and callous. He had been rubbing them with some kind of oil, and the fingers were so cold that it remained on them in lumps without melting.

"They hurt me a great deal." We both expressed a regret that his hands were not better. "But I am well every other way, except that I get tired so easy. If I could get the cracks out of my hands, the shingle business would get on better."

I had noticed before that he apologized for old age and weakness in this way, and tried to convince himself that he was very well, and very strong, except that his hands would crack open, and occasionally he raised them up, and looked at the sores, as though they would finally be the death of him.

"She has good success with other people, but poor luck with my hands." He always spoke of his wife as "she," as she always referred to him as "he." "They baffle her skill. I suppose they are in a bad way."

He got up at this, and began walking up and down the floor, rubbing his hands together. Remembering his great feats at walking, I thought if his hands were as sound as his legs, he would still be a stout man. Coming back to his chair presently, he sat down, and said to Jo:-

"Since we are talking of your new business, I may as well say that she has agreed that you are to have this place." I could not help wondering what boy had sat between them, and made a conversation on the subject possible. "I don't know whether it is fit for what you want it or not, but we have both decided that you may try."

I was surprised that he knew Jo had such an ambition, or that he knew Jo had gone to Barker's to live, for it was a chance that any one had taken the pains to tell him.

"If my hands get better by the time you are ready to commence," he said, "I will help you. I was once a good hand at framing timbers, and there is enough on the place to build the mill. I have picked out a great many sticks in my trips to the woods which will be suitable."

It pleased Jo to know that he had been planning to help him, for no one else had.

"I don't want you to help me, father," he said, "though I am glad you offer to, for now I know you have confidence in me. I intend to help you, after I become a miller, instead of permitting you to help me. I am sorry I never talked to you about it before; you know more about it than any of them."

"I have thought about your mill a great deal," was his reply, "and have great hope that you will turn out a better man than your father. I have never amounted to much; both of you know that, but you have a better start. It is poor enough; you can imagine what mine was, and you know more than I did at your age. I have lived all my life in places where men were not expected to amount to much, and were satisfied if they did not. It seems to be different now."

What a dull country he must have lived in, to have thought Fairview superior to it!

"I think you ought to build your house where this one stands," he said. "I have planted a number of trees around it for you, and I hope that when you are grown up, your happy children may play under their shade. It is a pretty place here, and it is but a few rods to the best point for a mill. I have more confidence in you than any one else. I would help you if I could."

Jo was greatly affected by this kindness, and as an excuse to get out of doors, fearing he would be weak enough to cry if he remained there, suggested that we get dinner. The idea was not a bad one, after we came to think more of it, and we soon had it under way.

My grandfather pretended not to know what we were about, but I saw him looking frequently into the kitchen, where we were, and when it was declared ready, he tried to be greatly surprised. There was a number of young chickens running around, and we had taken two of these, intending to leave word for Gran that the hawks had been about, and that the mice had been in the pickles and preserves. The dinner was Jo's best effort, and, being familiar with everything his father was fond of, he succeeded in making him very good natured.

"It is just such a dinner as I can enjoy," he said, when he sat down to it. "You seem to be able to do everything, Jo, but I hope you will get out of the way, for these Jacks are said to be able to make everything except money. I depend on you to distinguish your family; there is no one else to do it, and we come of a long line of very common folks. I enjoy your dinner, but I am sorry you can cook so well; really, I am sorry. I could cook when I was of your age, and I could cut hair, and I never amounted to anything. You should get out of the way."

His good nature continued until after the meal was concluded, and until we went away, for when we had returned to the front room again, he asked Jo and me to sing camp-meeting songs to him while he smoked, which we cheerfully did, imitating the singers in gestures, hand-shaking, shouting, and so on, which was an accomplishment we had to be very careful in exhibiting. Then we made prayers and speeches representing The. Meek, Mr. Winter, and the miller's sister, and sang the hymn through our noses, commencing, "Hark, from the tomb, a doleful sound," all of which so pleased my grandfather that he laughed and roared, and pounded the floor with his stick, and declared that we were equal to a "show." When we said in the course of the afternoon that we must go, he replied that he sincerely regretted it, as he had never enjoyed himself so well before, and made us promise that we would come back every Sunday in the future when Gran was away, and have an equally good time. We both shook hands with him at parting-for the first time in our lives, I think-and rode away waving adieus.

. . . . .

The Shepherds lived on the other side of Big Creek woods, on the high divide between Big Creek and Bull River, in a house originally dingy enough, but which had been wonderfully transformed by their living in it. The people said enough money had been spent in repairing it to build a house large enough for three, and it was furnished throughout in a style very unusual in that country, although it was no more than comfortable.

Mateel met us at the door, and as she ushered us into the neat parlor I thought I had never seen a handsomer woman, with the possible exception of Agnes, and I could not but inwardly congratulate Jo on his good fortune. I thought that I could see that she was very fond of him, now that it had been called to my mind, though I may only have imagined it, for she was as polite to me as to him.

"I am glad to see you," she said, taking my hat, which I was careful to remove, remembering Jo's experience. "My father did not feel well to-day, and we are all at home, as Mr. Westlock agreed to take his place at Fairview."

Mr. Shepherd came in at this moment, followed by his respectable wife (who bowed stiffly to both of us at once, as though we were not worth two separate efforts), and impressed me at once with his freedom for a Sunday evening. It was a funeral day at our house, but Mr. Shepherd laughed and talked as though we were at a party. As I looked at his pale and effeminate face, I thought that his daughter was very much like him, and that had a son been born to the family, he would have been like his mother-quiet, dignified, and capable.

"I worked in the field so late Saturday," he said, with the utmost candor and freedom, "that I felt too tired to preach to-day, so I sent word to your father that he would oblige me by preaching a sermon on future punishment. It is one of the rules of the church that this disagreeable topic be discussed from the pulpit at least once a year. I dislike it, and am glad to shirk. Your father is very fond of the subject, I am told. But no difference what he says about it, I will apologize next Sunday, and deny it. The religion of Fairview seems to make the people miserable; I shall change it if I can. I have been religious all my life, and it never caused me a sorrow. I don't believe in devils much, but I believe a great deal in angels."

As he looked at me as if he desired an expression on the subject, I said angels were certainly the most comforting to think about.

"I have been much distressed by the unhappy faces I have seen since coming here, and I hope I may be the humble instrument of brightening them. The right kind of religion will put flowers in the yard, let sunlight in at the window, and fi

ll the house with content and happiness. I became a Christian man because I longed for heaven, rather than because I feared the dreadful abode of the wicked, and it is my intention to introduce this gospel here."

Mr. Shepherd was directing his conversation to me, as Mateel and Jo had retired to another part of the room and were very much interested in each other. I therefore wished him success in the undertaking.

"I have always thought that the Bible is such a convincing book that it finally converts nearly all the children of men,-I hope all of them,-though the church to which I belong does not cheerfully accept my opinion. The Bible is only in dispute because a new set of men are coming on all the time, who have also to be convinced and saved. Its promises are so magnificent that no one can read them all his life and fail to put himself in the way of their fulfilment; therefore there is no excuse for referring to the disagreeable subject I have just mentioned. You may as well look on the bright side of religion as on the bright side of anything else, and you know we are always having maxims of this kind thrown at us. This is the religion the present pastor of Fairview believes in, and this is the religion he will teach, though I have not taught much of it to-day, for I have not mentioned the subject at all until now. But I only came in to say I was glad to see you, and will go out again," he said, rising. "I am becoming very worldly of late, for I have been thinking all day of how the potatoes and corn I ploughed last week are getting on rather than of sermons, and I am so sleepy now that you perhaps noticed me blinking. I am also forgetting a great deal of my theology in the hunger which constantly besets me, and if I raise nothing at all this year I will feel well repaid for my work by the good health I have enjoyed. When you return home express my thanks to your father for his sermon."

As he went out I thought if he was not a remarkable preacher he was certainly a good man. His respectable wife followed, and as she had not said a word I thought we should not miss her company.

"I was just saying to Miss Shepherd," Jo said, coming over to me, "that you and I have been fast friends since you were born. When I was a very little fellow and Ned only a baby he loved me, and was happier with me than with anyone else. It seems queer that anyone should live to be seventeen years old and have no other intimate friend than his sister's boy."

He addressed the remark to Mateel, but she did not seem sure whether it was queer or not; she was never certain of anything, like her father.

"I have an idea that we shall be old men together, and die greatly regretted by one another," Jo continued. "I should be content with a very few friends like Ned; a man cannot do justice to a great many as true and good as he is. If I were wealthy I should build a high wall around my house, and station a surly porter at the gate instructed to admit only a very few. It is one of the disadvantages of the trade I am learning that I shall be expected to be sociable with every kind of men. I shall never be free to tell those I dislike to forever keep off my premises, as I should like to do, but in order to live I shall be compelled to treat them well for their patronage. It has been my experience that only two men out of every ten have qualities worthy of cultivation, but it would be ruinous to introduce such a doctrine into the mill business."

I saw that Jo was in an odd humor, for he had forgotten that he should make himself agreeable, and, stopped occasionally to think. Pretending not to notice it, I exchanged the little gossip of the neighborhood with Mateel, until Jo said, with an effort to shake off his gloomy thoughts:-

"Miss Shepherd, I should like to hear you sing."

Mateel laughed a little at this sudden invitation, but good-naturedly opened the instrument, and, after selecting a piece, sang it. The words were of constancy, and of a lover who went mad on learning that his mistress had wedded his rival.

"It's a song about love," Jo said, after Mateel had finished it, picking up the music and looking curiously at the title-page. "Most song-writers take that for a subject. Do you believe the story it tells?"

"I sang it because I believed it," Mateel said, wincing under Jo's cold and steady gaze (he was in a very odd humor indeed). "I believe in but one love."

"There are so many people who believe in two or three, or half a dozen. I suppose you do; all good people are very honorable in matters of this kind. Sometimes very bad people believe in it-I do, for one."

I have thought of this very often since, for a great deal that was horrible might have been avoided had the conversation been candid on both sides.

"I would be afraid of getting in love's way," he said, as though we had been accusing him. "They say it never runs smooth, and I should be very unhappy were it to be interrupted. The writer speaks of the heart's silent secrets. That seems to be the general heart trouble; it is a repository of secrets, and always uncomfortable ones. The subject makes me miserable; I never thought of it in my life that I did not at once become disagreeable."

Mateel laughed merrily at this, and said people usually thought of it to be gay.

"But it is a most serious subject after all. If a man makes a mistake in any other matter it is easily remedied; a day's work, and he is as well as ever, but a mistake in love is not so easily mended. It may make life a failure, and cause a man to rest uneasily in his grave. If I should leave a wife at death, and she should marry again, my very clay would cry out in agony at the thought. Under such circumstances I should long to be an unhappy ghost, that I might be free to walk the earth and fill her nights with terror. I hope I am not naturally of an ugly disposition, but if this misfortune should happen to me, I would resign my place in heaven and join the devils, in order that I might be wicked and cruel in my revenge."

I had never seen Jo in such a serious mood before, and mentioned it. His old, cheerful smile returned for a moment as he made some good-natured response, but as he kept on thinking it was soon replaced with a frown. Mateel seemed to enjoy his mood, and encouraged it by saying that a man had a different opinion of love every year of his life.

"I never had an opinion on the subject at all until this year," was his reply, "but I will tell you what I think of it next year, and the next. If I am of the same opinion then as now, you can give me the credit that my first impressions represented me. My first impressions of the subject are that I would as soon marry a widow as a girl who had been in love before. If I were the king of a country I would punish second marriage with death, and make it unlawful for a man or woman to be engaged more than once, thus preventing the marital unhappiness which I am sure always results when either the wife or husband knows the other has been in love before."

Mateel laughed so heartily over this absurd idea that I joined her in spite of myself, though I knew Jo was very serious, and he looked at us both as though we were attending his funeral and in good spirits over the grave.

"I came here to pass a pleasant evening," I said to him, "but if you continue in this humor we shall all have the horrors presently."

"I shouldn't have begun," he said, walking over to the music rack (to look for a hornpipe, I thought), "but I have said no more than I really feel. We will settle it with that, and I will never make you uncomfortable again by referring to the subject."

Having selected a more cheerful song we tried to sing it together, but it was a failure, and the evening dragged heavily after that, so much so that Jo announced his intention to go quite early.

"I was never gloomy in my life before," he said to Mateel on parting. "I don't know what caused me to be to-night, for I am usually happier here than anywhere else. It must have been the gloomy poet whose song you sang. I hope you will forgive me. When I come again we will not speak of love. I know so little of it that I can't be entertaining talking about it."

Perhaps your ignorance of love, Jo, will prove more serious than you expect. Had you more knowledge of it you would know that your lonely fancies are wrong, and that there is not such a woman in the world as you have created, and no such love as you expect. Perhaps had you mingled more with the world you would have known this and saved yourself much unhappiness.

I went out ahead of him, and he remained inside talking for a few moments. Mateel seemed to be assuring him that she was not offended, and I heard him thank her, quietly say his adieus, and close the door.

We rode a considerable distance in silence, for I was waiting for Jo to speak, as he had to my mind emerged from boyhood to manhood since coming to the mill to live, and I was not as free in his company as I had been at home.

"I have made poor progress to-night," he said, at last, "but I was not comfortable while there, for some reason, and now I am not satisfied when I am away. The next time I go there I intend to tell Mateel that I am madly in love with her. I suppose she will call her father and order me out of the house, but I can't stand this suspense, I have a notion to send you on home and go back now."

He stopped in the road to consider it, but, recollecting that it would be a ridiculous performance, rode on again.

"My love for her has taken such complete possession of me that I shall be fit for nothing else until I know what I am to expect. If I were older, and not so poor, I would go back to-night, declare my love, and insist that she forever reject me or marry me in five minutes. But even if she accepts me-when I offer myself-it will be years before I can hope to possess her. I have always been waiting-first for release from your father, then for release from Barker, and now for Mateel. I would sell myself to the Devil to-night, to be delivered in four or five years, for a little age, a home of my own, and Mateel for my wife-NOW, not to wait a minute."

He had said NOW! so loudly that it sounded like a signal for the Devil to appear and complete the bargain of which he had spoken, and was so stern that I was afraid of him.

"I must curb this terrible passion or it will do me serious injury. There is nothing in store for me except waiting and working, and I fear that by the time I accomplish what I desire I shall be so tired and indifferent that I cannot enjoy it as I would now. But if I am as happy when I possess her as I think I shall be, I will whip the man who says this is not a happy world. If she is given to me, I shall make her a queen if it is possible. My only fear is that being of a poor family I shall not be able to accomplish all I desire. Barker says an industrious man can accomplish more than a talented one; if that is true I will make Mateel proud of me, and cause her to bless the day she came to Fairview to live. But I intend to talk less in the future, and do more."

He urged his horse into a gallop, and dashed through the dark woods like a man on fire, and I followed, expecting every moment to be thrown off and injured. I did not come entirely up with him until we had reached the mill, and after putting away the horses we went at once to bed, where Jo no doubt spent the night in waiting for daylight, that he might commence to distinguish himself.

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