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The Story of a Country Town By E. W. Howe Characters: 29962

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

DURING the latter part of a certain week a little more than three years after we removed to the town, I was given a holiday, and determined at once to spend it in Fairview, for I had not seen Jo in a great many weeks, nor Agnes in as many months. I remember I earned it by working at night by the light of candles for a long while, and that a certain carpenter's son read the copy while I set the type, while another boy kept the night bugs away with a fan. It was a part of the contract with my father that for the extra work I was to have the use of his horses in addition to the vacation, both of which I fully earned, and Martin understood the situation so well that he said if I did not get back until Monday he would see that the work was not behind.

I started very early in the morning, and the road led over gentle hills and through light woods for a few miles, when the great prairie began which ended at Erring's Ford. It was a very pretty country, and though we frequently referred to it in the "Union of States" as the garden spot of the world, I knew it was not necessarily true, for every paper coming in exchange to the office said exactly the same thing of the different localities in which it was published. But it pleased the people who did not see the exchanges, and who no doubt regarded it as a very neat compliment.

It looked unusually attractive that morning, and in riding slowly along I admired it so much that I did not notice the approach of a horseman, who was riding very rapidly, and going in the same direction. When he came so close that the noise of the animal's hoofs attracted my attention, I turned and saw that it was Lytle Biggs, who had by this time become an old acquaintance, for he frequently wrote letters to the paper in a very bad hand, signed "Pro Bono Publico," "Tax-Payer," "Citizen," or "Farmer," and which I was usually compelled to put in type. He was a very sociable fellow, and I was pleased with the prospect of his company. I said as much, to which he replied:-

"If you have no objection, I will tie the horse behind, and ride with you, for I detest riding on a horse's back. It may do for exercise, as you swing dumb-bells on the advice of a physician, but I am surprised I did not have better sense than to attempt it with a serious intention of travelling."

I replied that I should be delighted, and when he got down I could not help wondering how he ever got on, he was such a little man, and the horse so uncommonly large. As he climbed into the buggy, and took a seat beside me, I noticed he was as faultlessly dressed as ever, and that he seemed to be growing shorter and thinner.

"You are going to Jo Erring's, of course," he said, after seeing that the horse led well. "It is a remarkable coincidence-so am I. I suppose you are not old enough to know it, but it only happens once in a lifetime that when you are walking a long road-or riding on a horse's back, which I think is worse-you overtake an easy-riding buggy going in the same direction, and containing but one person, although you meet a great many vehicles going the other way. It is on the same principle that if you go up stairs to strike a light, and take but one match, it is certain to go out, but if you take half a dozen, the first one answers every purpose."

His good spirits were rapidly returning by reason of release from the hard-trotting horse's back, and after finishing this speech he occupied himself for a while in brushing the dust from his clothing with a small wisp he took from his pocket.

"I am on my way to see Jo Erring with reference to the mill," he began at once. "I have charge of the fund being raised to help him, and I shall be able to report that the amount is subscribed. I am acting for Damon Barker, as you may, or may not, happen to know, and although our friend believes the Fairview farmers are very enthusiastic to help him, they are really very slow, and I have had some difficulty in convincing them that it was to their interest. I shall also recommend that he build the mill as soon as possible. There is no reason why it should drag through another year, and that is the promise I gave in securing these papers."

He significantly tapped a pocket-book, almost as large as himself, in an outside pocket, and which no doubt contained the obligations to pay certain sums of money at an agreed date. He always carried this book in a conspicuous way, and handled it as though it contained great sums of money, but as he looked through it for something I saw there was nothing in it except the obligations, a great many newspaper scraps, a few old letters, one or two postage stamps, and a piece of court plaster.

"I don't mind confessing to you," Mr. Biggs continued, with delightful candor, "that I flattered them into it. In case you do not become disgusted with the ignorance which renders such a thing possible, you can flatter men into anything. When I go into a new neighborhood to organize an Alliance, I get the prompt assistance of every man I meet by telling him that I can't hope to do any thing without HIS aid, as HE has the popular confidence, and the people will follow wherever HE leads. 'You are a man of intelligence,' I say. 'You can readily understand what I have to offer, and will see its benefit at once. But your neighbors are slower, and I will not attempt an organization here without your assistance.' That kind of argument never fails, and as I talk to all of them in the same way, there is a great deal of enthusiasm, each one imagining that the others went into it on his recommendation. I worked up the mill subscription in that way."

I doubt if this statement was true, for the people originated the idea themselves, but to illustrate a great truth Mr. Biggs did not hesitate to tell a great lie.

"I make a great deal of money in organizing Alliances, but sometimes I think of going out of the business because I meet so many silly men that it disgusts me, and I become ashamed of my sex. But I suppose every business has that draw back, for every man I have ever talked with was of the opinion that his business developed more silly men, more contemptible men, and more mean men than any other calling, and I am forced to conclude that these qualities are so common that they are met with everywhere."

When he spoke of retiring from the business of organizing Alliances, I was about to say that publishing a newspaper collected about all the objectionable men within reach, but from what he said afterwards I judged the observation would not be well received. As if he understood that I was about to say something, which he did not allow, he continued:-

"I was about to say, however, when you interrupted me (I had not spoken at all), that the way to get rich is to go in debt, and work out, therefore I shall recommend that Jo Erring complete his mill at once. No matter if he goes in debt; he has health and can pay it. The people of the country through which we are passing believe it the best to pay as you go. That party over in the field, for instance, is ploughing his corn with a single shovel plough, whereas there are dealers in town who would readily take his note for a cultivator with four shovels and a riding seat. His library no doubt consists of a book warning him against counting his chickens before they are hatched-as pointless a suggestion as I ever heard in my life, by the way (for why do we set eggs if not to bring forth chickens)-but it is regarded as fine logic here. The man will die some of these days with his single shovel plough, his slab house, his cow, his two horses, and his handful of land paid for, worth altogether from three to seven hundred dollars, but if he has a neighbor who sets a good many hens with care, AND counts the number of chickens they can reasonably be expected to hatch, he will attend the funeral in a carriage, and look at his remains through gold-rimmed spectacles."

I had regarded this pay-as-you-go principle as a very good one, but he convinced me that I was mistaken, as usual, for I could never dispute his philosophy until I had thought over it a day or two, when its sophistry seemed quite clear. I had remarked of Mr. Biggs before that he seemed to understand what was in my mind, and attack it. I was thinking that the man he was talking about-his name was McJohn, and a local curiosity because his voice was uncertain, and jumped from a high falsetto to a guttural bass-had the reputation of being the hardest working man in Fairview, when my companion said:-

"I never knew a man, I believe, who didn't boast occasionally that he worked harder than his neighbor; I wonder it never occurs to them that it is to their discredit, unless they are more prosperous than any of those around them, for if their neighbors work less, and succeed as well or better, it is an indication that they have more sense. I have no doubt that McJohn, as he spends his time in ploughing a field which could be done in one-fourth the time with common sense and a cultivator, thinks that no other man's lot is as hard as his, and that he is a martyr to hard work. Before I became a philosopher-when I was a fool, in short-I boasted that no man worked as hard as I did, but now I boast that no man works so little. But simply because a man says he is the hardest-working man in the country, it does not follow that it is true. Every traveller who crosses the ocean says that the captain (who had been at sea continuously for thirty years) came into the cabin during the storm, and said it was the worst he had ever experienced. I have no doubt the captains say so (there is no reason why sea captains should not lie as well as other men), but only to impress the passengers with their remarkable skill in managing the vessel under such critical circumstances. You may have noticed that every winter is the coldest ever known, and every summer the hottest; the people seem to expect picnics in December and skating in July, but the facts are that it is always cold in December and always warm in July."

I would have made oath, if necessary, that I had heard Mr. Biggs many a time complaining of the excessively hot and cold days, and declaring that there was never before anything like it.

"The people here learn nothing by experience," he proceeded. "Since I have lived in the West, every spring has been made gloomy by the lamentations of the farmers that crops were ruined, but just before the crops were burned up-as the tooth came just before the doctor killed the boy-the rains come, and the crops do very well. You will find that the men who carry the fate of the country around on their shoulders do not get on so well as the country. I have always found it safe to trust the country to take care of itself, for the country usually does very well."

We were riding on the high prairie now, with Fairview church in sight, and the little man regarded the big building with a show of the contempt I had seen him exhibit on looking at big men.

"Although the fact is as old as the world itself"-Mr. Biggs waved his hand around majestically to give me to understand that although the world was very large, and very old, he was perfectly familiar with every part of it-"it does not seem to be generally known that the weather is governed by cycles. To illustrate: It was very rainy and wet two years ago; it was rainy and wet last year, but not so rainy and wet as the year before; there has been plenty of rain this summer, but not so much as during the two previous years. Next year will be so dry as to excite comment, but still very fair for crops; the year after that, and the year following, there will probably be a partial drouth, but the seventh year, which completes the cycle, will be a general and complete drouth. The winter following will be very mild or very severe, but in any event the next summer will be extremely wet again, to be followed by the seven years of decreasing rain I have mentioned, and the drouth the seventh year. I don't know how it is in the East; it is as I have stated in the West. It would seem that everybody ought to be familiar with this fact, but they are not. Hard times and good times run in cycles the same way, and the panic and the drouth are about the same distance apart, though fortunately they never come together, for, strange as it may seem, the panics come in seasons of great crop prosperity, and times are sometimes very good when crops are very bad. It is the easiest thing in the world to get rich after you are familiar with these cycle theories. You have only to invest your money when times are hard; when everybody believes the country is down, and can never get up again. In a year or two, however, the country will get up and shake itself, and you find your investments doubled. It is the simplest thing in the world, and I am surprised there are so many poor men. We might as well all be rich if we would take advantage of the opportunities around us."

I wondered to myself why Biggs himself was so poor, since he had discovered the secret of riches, and thought some of putting the question to him, but he didn't give me opportunity, for immediately he went on to explain:-

"When I came to the country I was foolish enough to buy land because everybody else was buying, and paid too much. I warn you against this mistake-never buy anything when there is a brisk demand for it, for the price will inevitably be too high, but buy when no one else is buying, and SELL when there is a disposition on the part of everybody else to buy. I bought when I should have sold, in other words, for I was not then a philosopher. Result: The tract is worth no more to-day than what I paid for it. Since then I have never had money enough at one time to take advantage of my knowledge, and am still poor. Agnes says the principal objection to you is that you are young, but I tell her that you will outgrow it, therefore I hope you will make use of this important suggestion. Avoid the mistakes of others; let your neighbors try the doubtful experiments, and benefit by the result. A great many men are only of use to teach others by their failures, but never repeat their mistakes."

By this time we had arrived at the Ford, and, as I had hoped, Jo was at work at his mill, aided by a half dozen stout young men of the neighborhood. Since I had visited the place last Jo had completed the dam and the foundation, and the timbers were being raised. Several were already up, and held by long ropes until the others could be put in position and fastened. I noticed that Jo was helping in everything, and directing with the judgment and good sense of a man of twice his years. His father was also assisting, and it seemed important that all the frames be put up before night, for they were very busy. Jo gayly waved his hand to me from the high place to which he had climbed to pin a timber, and after he had come down again

he shook hands with me in his old hearty way, and said he hoped I would understand it was not neglect if he kept at his work, for he had determined to push the mill to completion as speedily as possible, as it was necessary to prevent the building of another one further up the stream.

During the forenoon I learned from Gran Erring, from Biggs, and from Jo himself, that my father had given Jo the money promised, two or three hundred dollars; that Barker had loaned him a small amount, and that with the sum he had saved this was deemed sufficient to complete the building ready for the machinery, which was to be purchased with the money raised in the neighborhood, and a mortgage on the completed mill; that Jo had quit at Barker's, though he was there occasionally, and helped when he could; that he was to be married to Mateel the day before Christmas, and that the mill must be in operation for the fall business; that he had written for the machinery, detailing the terms on which he wanted it, and that it would be shipped at once; that a deed to the little farm had been delivered to him in consideration of certain payments in money, and promises to pay certain amounts annually during the lifetime of his father and mother, and that after the mill was completed they would move to a country below Fairview, a step they had long contemplated, as they had relatives there, leaving the house of hewn logs to be fixed over for the occupancy of Jo and Mateel; that Jo now slept at home, in the middle bed, and that he expected to be so busy the next few months that he had written Mateel a note saying that if she wished to see him during that time to stop at the little shed below the mill on her way to church on Sunday, where she would find him at work, and always glad to see her. All of this pleased me exceedingly, and caused me to watch opportunity to shake the brave fellow's hand occasionally as he hurried past me, which seemed very agreeable to him, although I doubt if he understood what it meant.

As I watched the men at their work I saw that Jo had a troubled, weary look, and I thought for the first time that his strength might not prove equal to his ambition, for I knew that there were yet several years of hard work ahead of him, but as I saw how eagerly he went at everything, as though the delay was more disagreeable than the work, I was reassured, and felt that he would accomplish all he had set out to do.

I do not remember who told me, but I learned from some source that Mateel often complained of being lonely and of having nothing to do, and I thought that this industrious man must soon overtake and pass her in learning and ability, and that she would regret in her future that she had not improved the opportunities of womanhood as he had improved the opportunities of manhood. While Mateel was a pretty and amiable woman, there was not the depth to her that Jo was acquiring, and I wondered if it ever occurred to her that Jo would finally be a man worthy to be the husband of any woman; a man self-reliant and self-taught, and expecting a return for everything he gave. I wondered if she ever thought Jo had been raised at a hard school, and would tire of simple amiability. If he was anything at all, he was an example of what well-directed effort would do, and I thought the day would come when he could not understand why Mateel was not his equal, although she was older, and had every opportunity, while he had none. I thought that as Jo had been friendless all his life he would hope for a great deal of considerate affection from his wife, and that he would be disappointed if he were compelled to continue his old habit of being thoughtful of every one, but having to regret that no one was thoughtful of him. I wondered if Mateel knew that Jo was no longer the rough, awkward boy she had met during her first week in Fairview, and that he was now a growing, vigorous man, ahead of all his companions in ability and intelligence, and that every year he would throw away old ideas for better ones. Jo had told her in his manly love that she was a perfect woman, and that it would require his efforts for a lifetime to become her equal, and I think she was pleased with this, and believed it. I am certain she never said to Jo that he was a remarkable fellow, and that he deserved more credit than she could give him for his manly love for her-which was no more than the truth-but rather thought herself worthy of the toil he had undergone; not that she was selfish, perhaps, but because Jo had told her so, or maybe she had never thought about it at all except that Jo was very fond of her, and was anxious to please her. I would have given a great deal to know that she frequently gave Jo a word of encouragement, but if she ever did he never told me of it, and for this reason I was convinced that she never did.

In the afternoon I rode over to Fairview church, where Agnes was teaching the school, and although I half expected to find the building surrounded by young men on their knees with proposals of marriage, begging her to accept one of the number, and permit the others to drown their grief in the nearest deep water, only the smaller boys and girls were in attendance, the older ones being at home busy with the summer's work. Agnes was prettier than ever, I thought, and although I knew the style had only reached Twin Mounds the week before, she wore a dress cut in what was then known as the "Princess" pattern. She greeted me with so much genuine pleasure that I was ashamed to acknowledge that I had been in the neighborhood since morning, and felt guilty that I had not driven directly to Fairview; and leading me through the rows of benches, she seated me in a chair in front of her rude desk, which the children had adorned with wild flowers.

I sat there nearly an hour before school was dismissed, very uncomfortable from being looked at so steadily by the scholars. Two or three of The. Meek's family, who had come on since I left Fairview, were there, and I readily picked them out by their white heads and good humor. I could tell who nearly all of them were by characteristics of one kind and another, though I did not know any of them, but there was one boy-evidently the son of a renter lately arrived, for I could not imagine who he was-who made me particularly uncomfortable by mimicking me when I was not looking. He created a great deal of merriment, I remember, by pasting his hair down on his forehead as mine was (I had visited the barber's just before starting, and the barbers oiled and combed their customers' hair then as they do now, for barbers never improve), and I caught him puffing at a pen-holder, intimating that in the community where I lived the cigar habit was evidently common. I wore a very flashy necktie, and he made one out of the back of a blue copy-book to represent it, which he pasted on his chin, then on his neck, and then on his breast. I thought of going out into the yard to get rid of him, but I knew the impudent boy would mimic my walk, and make me ridiculous again, so I stood it in silence until the children were called up in a row for the final spelling class, in which I was invited to participate, and where I triumphed over my enemy by correctly spelling all the words he missed. Then they all read a chapter in chorus from the Bible, and were dismissed. I was afraid the renter's boy would stay around until I handed Agnes into the buggy, but he walked to the door in a manner which intimated that I was bow-legged, and disappeared with a whoop.

After they had gone Agnes sat down at a desk near the door, where she had bid the last one good-bye, and looked at me curiously.

"Are you glad to see me?" I asked, not knowing what else to say.

"Yes," she replied, with her pretty laugh, "but you don't seem to be the same boy who came to school here a few years ago. You have grown so much that you seem like a stranger instead of an old friend."

She laughed merrily at my look of astonishment, and pretended to be frightened when I went over and sat beside her.

"Why didn't you say when you came in," she asked, "'This school is dismissed; I am a friend of the teacher's.' I expected you to say that, but instead you waited patiently until I should dismiss it myself. When I knew Ned Westlock he was a boy of spirit. But I am as glad to see you as I can be. This is my week at Theodore Meek's, and you may drive me there as slowly as your horses can walk."

I am sure I felt like dismissing the school when I came in, but I never thought of it. I never felt more at a loss in my life for something to say, and sat looking at her in a sort of blind astonishment, blushing like a child. I wanted to tell her how much pleasure the contemplation of this visit had afforded me, but I could not; and finally, tiring of being stared at, she got up and went to collecting the books and other articles she intended to take home. I could think of nothing else to do, so I went out and brought the buggy around to the door, and after helping her in as awkwardly as I had stared at her, we drove away.

In my desperation I could only confess that I had been thinking for weeks how polished and agreeable I would be in my manner on meeting her, but that her pretty face and easy way had scared it all out of me; that I came to Fairview expressly to see her, and that I hoped there would never be a misunderstanding between us with reference to our friendship.

"There never will be," she said, in her innocent and earnest way, putting her arm through mine, and seeming reassured and pleased. "There could be no misunderstanding between you and me, and there never has been. Why should there be?"

She spoke as though I were still a boy, though I was now larger than she was, and nearly sixteen. I felt sure she would always treat me as a boy, no difference how old I became.

As we drove along slowly, I thought that if a stranger should see us he would think we were lovers, but Agnes evidently did not think of it, for she confessed her friendship for me in a hundred different ways, which I am sure she would not have done had she thought of me as her lover. She was in unusual spirits, and though I felt very proud to think that I was the cause of it, I thought that the arrival of a pretty baby of which she had once been fond would have made her as happy. I hinted gravely, once or twice, that we were "growing older," and that we "could not always be children," but she would only say that we were friends, and enjoyed the friendship. I think she was content with that, and did not look beyond it.

"I had almost forgotten it," she said, when we neared The. Meek's premises; "but your old friend Damon Barker comes to see me every week now, at the school. Sometimes he comes at noon, at other times in the evening, but he never fails to appear at least once a week. The first time he came the children were dismissed for the day; I was alone, and although he is a black-whiskered, fierce-looking man I was not afraid of him, and he walked part way home with me. Since then he comes frequently, and although he pretends that he only stops in while passing, I believe he comes all the way from the mill to see me."

While Barker was a little old, I was not surprised that he had fallen in love with Agnes; I only wondered that every one did not. But after I thought more of it I became convinced that wise, good, sensible Barker only admired her sweet, pretty face, and was not in love.

"What does he say to you?" I asked.

"Nothing, except to question me about the school and make sensible suggestions with reference to its management. He never tires in listening to me, but says little himself."

I then told her what I knew about Barker, his curious home, and how much I admired him. I was glad that he had taken an interest in her, for he would see that she was never subjected to wrong nor injustice from any source, and Agnes was greatly pleased when I said that, when opportunity offered, we would visit him at the mill together.

The enthusiasm in The. Meek's family over my arrival reminded me of the feeling in a mass-meeting when a popular speaker gets up, for they were all at home, and made quite an army. The white-headed boys, who had not grown much, except in good-humor, reminded me of the jack-oaks on the Twin Mounds hills, which perceptibly grew older, but not larger, and The. Meek and his wife welcomed me as though I were an old friend who had gone out into the world and greatly distinguished himself. Before I was fairly in the house it was arranged that I should remain until after supper, and return by moonlight to my grandfather's, which suited me very well, as I had not yet seen enough of Agnes. I had noticed before that there was always so much to do around The. Meek's house that members of his family no sooner finished their day's work than they went to bed, and in the preparation for my entertainment they were busier than ever, so that Agnes and I were alone for an hour, which we both enjoyed, though we were not so easy as we pretended to be, for I caught her looking stealthily at me, and I am quite sure I was often admiring her.

When I started to return to the mill-which I did after a long religious service and a light supper-Agnes proposed to ride a short distance with me, and then I brought her back, and she went part way with me again, so that it was quite late when I finally got away. The country being familiar to me, I drove through the field paths to shorten the distance, and hurried along as rapidly as I could, for I knew they would be waiting for me. As I came out into the main road, and was closing a gate, a horseman dashed by me, riding toward the mill, and I saw with some surprise that it was Clinton Bragg, on the wicked, vicious horse. I followed leisurely, preferring to avoid him, but probably knowing who it was he stopped beside the road, allowing me to pass so closely that I could have touched him with my hand had I wished. Then he would run by, as if to frighten my horses, and this performance he repeated so many times that I would have pulled him off his horse and beaten him had I the strength. When I arrived at the Ford he was there before me, allowing his vicious horse to drink below the dam, and while I stood on the hill looking at him he rode out and galloped off through the dark woods, as though he could see better by night than by day. I could not help thinking that the place where he disappeared would be a favorable one for a murder, and that if Bragg had a desperate enemy it would not be safe for him to ride through such a dark wood at night.

I believe he wanted me to know he had taken the road to the Shepherds, with the hope that I would tell Jo, and annoy him; but for once he went to his trouble for nothing, for when I went into the house Jo was sound asleep in the middle bed, and resting easily and quietly.

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