MoboReader > Literature > The Story of a Country Town

   Chapter 15 THE COUNTRY TOWN.

The Story of a Country Town By E. W. Howe Characters: 20075

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


IT was barely daylight the following Monday morning, when I started with my father for Twin Mounds, where we were to take possession of the "Union of States" newspaper. As we were getting into the wagon, Agnes came out to hand me a letter, which she said she had written the night before because opportunity did not present itself to tell me what it contained. As my father was impatiently waiting to start, with the lines in his hands, I only had time to say that I would see her in a few weeks, and, kissing my hand to her, we drove away. She waved her handkerchief until we were out of sight, when I soon forgot her and the letter in the excitement of the visit to a strange place and the engaging in a work of which I had no knowledge.

My father's usual humor had returned, and he drove along without speaking, except occasionally to the horses. Once or twice he began to sing the songs for which he was famous, but he was evidently not in tune that day, for he soon gave it up.

I had never been to Twin Mounds, as there was a post-office and a small trading-place several miles nearer, and had no idea how it looked, and knew nothing of it, except that it had a brick court-house, a stone jail, several wooden stores, a school-house, and about six hundred very wicked people. This I had incidentally learned from listening to people talk who had been there, and I was so occupied in thinking it all over that I had no inclination to talk, and it occurred to me that after I grew up, perhaps I shall be a thinking man, like my father, for we did not exchange a word during the long drive. Several times as we drove along I caught him looking at me, and I thought he was wondering how I would get on in the new business, but as he looked away quickly when I caught him at it, I concluded he was at his old habit of mentally accusing me of being dull, which made me very wretched. I never knew what his objection to me was, but I always believed that when he looked at me, and then resumed his thinking, he was accusing me of something.

At last we came in sight of the place-we came upon it suddenly, after reaching a high place which overlooked it-and I occupied myself in wondering where the house in which we were to live, and the office in which I was to work, were located, until we stopped at a place where horses were cared for, adjoining, and evidently belonging to a hotel, in front of which a swinging sign was displayed under a bell, announcing that the Twin Mounds House was kept there. I noticed that all the business places were in a square, in the centre of which was the brick court-house, and in one corner of the yard the stone jail. In a valley north of the town ran a river, and on its banks were mills, and the site of Twin Mounds had evidently been timbered originally, for in the people's yards I saw great oak and hickory trees, and the woods adjoined the town on every side. Great numbers of impudent boys, dressed in a rakish fashion with which I was not at all familiar, abounded, and while I was thinking I should certainly have trouble with these, my father started down the street with long strides, telling me to follow.

Stopping in front of a low wooden building which had evidently been used at some time in its history as a dwelling, and on the front porch of which was a board sign reading "Printing Office," we went in, where we found three men-two with paper caps on, who were throwing their arms violently around over a high stand, and the other, a pale man seated at a desk, who was evidently the retiring proprietor. This man and one of those with a paper cap on his head spoke pleasantly to my father, and looked inquiringly at me.

"This is the son I have told you about," he explained, pointing at me as if I were a bag of corn. "He is ready to commence learning the printer's trade."

This was addressed to one of the men who wore the paper caps, and he began at once to initiate me in the mysteries of his craft. I soon learned that the high table at which he worked was covered with shallow boxes, and that each one contained a different letter; every character in the language was hid away in the nooks and corners, and my first work was to hunt them out, and remember them for future reference. This I began immediately, and became so interested in it that I did not notice for some time that a number of the rakish-looking boys I had seen when first driving into the town had collected outside the window to look at me. These were evidently the town boys of whom I had heard, and no doubt they were waiting for me to come out and fight, to see of what kind of stuff I was made. It was the understanding in the country that all town boys were knockers, and that every country boy who went there to live must fight his way to respectability. They were less ferocious than I had expected, and as I was much stronger than any of them, I should have gone out and thrown them all over the house, but for the fact that my father did not countenance fighting. They were generally delicate-looking-from high living and idleness, I thought-and while I was engaged with pleasant thoughts to myself that when Jo came over we would capture Twin Mounds, my attention was called to the circumstance, by my friend in the paper cap, that it was noon, and that my father evidently intended that I should go out with him to dinner, for he had gone himself without making any other arrangement.

I had heard them call him Martin, and he appeared to be very much of a gentleman, for before we went out he showed me through the establishment, and explained as much of it as he thought I could understand. The press was in a little room by itself-there was but one, although I remembered that in the advertisement it was said that the office was supplied with new and fast presses-and from the paper on the wall I judged that the former owner of the house had occupied that particular part of it with a bed. Back of that was a place for plunder, formerly a kitchen, and back of that still a yard and a deserted garden. There was also in the yard a large oak-tree, and to the branches of this was suspended a hammock, in which Martin said I might sometimes sleep, if I became a friend of his, as he had no doubt I should.

While we walked to the hotel he explained that he was the foreman, and that, as I was to learn the trade under him, we should be a great deal together.

"It is not much of a trade," he said, "and if you are a bright boy you will speedily acquire it. You can learn it in six months, or three years, just as you please, for I have known boys to become excellent printers in six months, while others, with thicker heads, were about it three or four years. But as your father said you were to stay with me to-night, I will tell you more about it then."

Going into the hotel, we found a large number of men seated at a long table in a long room, every one eating hurriedly, as though oppressed with the fear that the supply in the kitchen was likely to give out before they were filled. Near the head of the table sat my father and the pale proprietor, and between them and Martin the other man who wore the paper cap, whose name seemed to be Adams, from which circumstance I thought there was no other hotel in the place. Opposite him sat Clinton Bragg, I noticed with some astonishment, forgetting for a moment that Twin Mounds was his home, and he looked as sullen and mean as ever, but he was not so well dressed as when I had seen him at Fairview. He could not help being aware of my father's presence, but they had evidently mutually agreed not to renew their acquaintance, though I noticed that Bragg stopped working his jaws when my father was speaking to his companion, and listened to what was being said, as though he wondered how it came we were both there.

Some of the other men were flashily dressed, and some of them plainly, and they talked a great deal to each other about their business, and by listening to this I learned which of them occupied shops, and stores, and offices, and which one was the driver of the stage that made two trips a week to a railroad station a long way off.

The dinner was served in large plates, distributed at convenient distances apart, and two smart girls in stiff aprons and dresses were in attendance should any one think anything additional could be had by asking for it, and both of them seemed to be on very confidential terms with the boarders, for they talked to them familiarly, and called them tiresome, and impudent, and I don't know what all. A small man with a hump on his back, who occasionally came into the room, I took to be the proprietor, and Martin told me afterwards that I was right, and that while he was rather an agreeable man, his health was wretched. After most of the boarders had gone out, his wife came in with her family, and from her conversation I learned that she conducted a shop for making bonnets and dresses in the parlor of the house, and that business was dreadfully dull.

I spent the afternoon in studying the mystery of the boxes, and was encouraged to find all the letters of my name. My father was very busy at the desk with the pale proprietor, posting himself with reference to his future work, and was very careful and thorough in his inquiries into the details, from which I believed he would speedily become accustomed to his new position. The pale proprietor was evidently not accustomed to so much work in one afternoon, for he yawned frequently, and seemed bored, but my father kept him at it steadily.

Half the boys belonging in the town appeared at the window before night to look at me, and I noticed with alarm that they were not all pale and sickly, as the first lot had been, which evidently meant trouble ahead. Several of them wore their father's boots and coats, with leather belts around their bodies, which they buckled up from tune to time as the afternoon wore away, and most of them chewed plug tobacco, which was passed around by a boy I jud

ged belonged to a storekeeper. Occasionally they got up a game, and tried to play at it, but the interest soon flagged, and they returned to the window to look at me. Once when they became more noisy than usual, the printer named Adams dashed out, and drove them away as he would chase so many hens, but they soon came back again, and stared at me. I pretended not to notice them, as though they were of no consequence, but they made me very miserable, for they were evidently the town boys I had been warned against.

There was one who appeared late in the afternoon who looked particularly like a fighter, and the others immediately gathered around him to tell him of my arrival. He was so bow-legged that I thought it would be impossible to get him off his feet when the inevitable clash came, for I was certain he was the boy picked out to do me bodily injury, and as soon as he had been told of my appearance among them, he walked straight over to the window, and, flattening his nose against the glass, looked at me with great impudence. I thought I would turn upon him suddenly, and frighten him, but he seemed rather glad that I had turned my head, that he might see my eyes and face. Indeed, instead of being abashed, he made the ugliest face at me I have ever seen, and, drawing back from the window, spit at me through a vacancy in his lower row of teeth. He remained around there for an hour or more, walking on his hands, and turning somersaults, for my benefit, and once he lay down flat in the road, and invited four of the others to hold him there. The ease with which he got up made me more uncomfortable than ever. Although they called him "Shorty," he was really a very long boy of his age, and wore a coat which hung about him in shreds, and instead of a shirt he had on a brown duster, tucked into a pair of pants as much too small as the coat was too large. To add to my discomfort, I heard Adams say to Martin that the town authorities really ought to do something with Shorty Wilkinson for he was always fighting and hurting somebody.

When we went to supper at the hotel the same men were there, and, as I expected, Bragg was in better humor, promising by dark to be agreeable. His principal characteristic was sullen indifference, and I wondered if a bomb exploded under his chair would disturb him. They all disliked him, evidently, from which circumstance I imagined he regarded them as a herd, as he had regarded the people of Fairview. Nobody spoke to him or he to any one, and his only tribute to the approaching darkness was a noticeable softening in his indifference, for occasionally he stopped his jaws-he munched his food like an animal, and impatiently, as though he disliked the disagreeable necessity of having a habit in common with such people-to listen to what was being said; but at dinner he was oblivious to everything. He went out before me, and when I passed through the office I saw him looking at a copy of the "Union of States," and I was glad we had not yet taken charge, for I was sure he was making fun of it.

After Martin came out we walked down to the house where we were to live, which was a considerable distance down the street from where the hotel was kept, and which was in a lonely location on the brow of a hill overlooking the valley and the mills. Directly opposite, and across the river, were the mounds which gave the town its name, a pair of little mountains where it was said the Indians built signal fires when they occupied the country, and where they buried their dead, for human bones were often found there by curious persons who dug among the rocks. The house was built of stone, in the centre of a great many lots, surrounded by heavy hardwood trees, and as we went through the rooms Martin explained that it had been occupied long before he came there by an Indian agent, and that Twin Mounds was originally an agency, where the Indians came to draw their supplies. But the agency and the Indians had been removed further west years ago, and the house sold to an eccentric bachelor, who occupied it alone until a few months before, when he died, and the place being offered for sale, it came into possession of my father. It was two stories high, built in such a manner as to contain six large rooms of about the same size, and there were iron shutters at all the windows and doors, and the roof was of slate, which Martin said was a precaution the agent had taken against the treachery of his wards. It was in good repair, but I feared we should be very lonely in it, and felt better when we were out in the street again.

Returning to the office, I sat with him until dark on the little porch in front, on top of which was the long "Printing Office" sign, and I became convinced that I should learn rapidly under him, for he took great pains to prepare me for the work, and delivered a sort of lecture with reference to printing in general which was very instructive. He said after a while that he would go out and swing in the hammock, leaving me alone, and while wondering what I should do to amuse myself, I remembered the letter Agnes had given me. I opened it eagerly, and after finding a light with some difficulty, read:-

My Dear Ned: I tried to get an opportunity to say good-bye to you on Sunday night, but it did not present itself, therefore I write you this letter.

You said to me once that I loved every one in Fairview alike, which is very near the truth now that you are away, for I thought more of you than any of them, and express the sentiment since we are no longer to be together. I hope it will be a comfort to you to know that I esteem you as my best friend, and in your new home I desire you to think of me in the same way, for I shall never change. If I have been a blessing to you, as you have said, so you have been to me, and we have mutually enjoyed the friendship of the years we were together.

It is natural to suppose that you will rapidly improve in your new position. I sincerely hope you will, and I have so much confidence in you that I have no favor to ask except that you always remain my worthy friend. My greatest ambition for your future is that your boyhood will not fill your manhood with regrets. I have always told you that it is best to do right in everything, and while you may not succeed in this entirely, come as near it as you can. The next seven years will be the most precious of your life, and if I have a favor to ask it is that you will improve them.

I believe in you, and shall always be proud of your friendship. It has been manly, pure, and honest, and all the more acceptable because I have neither brothers nor sisters, like yourself. In one sense you have been my protégé; I undertook your education, and taught you more at home than at school, and if you succeed well in life (as I am confident you will), it will at least be evidence that I did the best I could. Probably I shall be your last teacher, for your father is a busy man, and will no doubt train you in his way; therefore I hope you will realize how necessary it is that you apply yourself, and learn whenever there is opportunity. There is nothing in the future for me but to teach other deserving boys, but everything for you. Do the best you can, and I shall be proud of you all my life.

Always your friend,

Agnes.

I had it in my mind to sit down and write a long reply at once, but much to my surprise Clinton Bragg came in at this moment and interrupted me. From what he said on entering I judged he was looking for the printer named Adams, who was a dissolute fellow, but seeing I was alone he sat down.

I had disliked Bragg from the first, but he seemed friendly enough, and, taking a bottle of liquor from his pocket, asked me to drink with him. This I refused to do; whereupon he held the bottle in his hand a long while, as if dreading to drink it. At length he went into another room and returned with a dipper of water, after which he took a drink of the liquor, but it gagged him so that he couldn't get the water to his lips to put out the fire, and he coughed and spit in such a manner as to alarm me. The tears were standing in his eyes when he finished.

"Do you like it?" I asked.

"I like GOOD liquor," he replied, wiping the tears out of his eyes. "This is horrible. I believe I will throw it away."

He made a motion as if to toss the bottle out into the street, but he didn't do it, probably reflecting that it would do very well to carry in his pocket.

I am certain that he came in to let me know that he was addicted to drink, as he was very proud of that reputation, and although liquor was revolting to him he was always trying to create the impression that he could not possibly let it alone. I inferred, also, that he was well acquainted around the establishment, by reason of his association with Adams, for he seemed quite at home.

"Martin don't drink," he said, after trying to revive the stub of his cigar, and several ineffectual attempts to light it with a match. "Martin does nothing that is not sensible. He is out there in the hammock asleep now, while I carouse around half the night. Where do you intend to sleep?"

I replied that I believed I was to sleep there, somewhere, although I had it in my mind to say it was none of his business. I showed my contempt for him so plainly that he was ill at ease, as though he felt that his attempt to convince me that he was a drinking man had failed.

"There is a cot in the plunder room; I suppose that is for you," he said. "I have a room above here. I believe I will wander up that way, and go to bed."

He skulked off like a guilty dog, going through the court-house yard, and stopped occasionally as if to wonder if something that would amuse him were not going on at some of the places lit up around the square. Being satisfied at last, apparently, that the same old loungers were probably there, with their rude jokes and uninteresting experiences, he turned the corner, and passed out of sight.

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