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The Story of a Country Town By E. W. Howe Characters: 19149

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

ONE Sunday morning, in the fall of the year, after I had got out of bed and dressed myself,-I was still occupying a room in connection with Martin in the building where the business of printing was carried on,-I found a letter on my desk addressed in my father's writing, and after Martin had gone out I sat down to read it. The first line startled me, for it read as follows:-

My Dear Son,-When this falls into your hands I shall be travelling the broad road I have so often warned others against; an outcast, and disgraced in the sight of God and man; for I am going away, and shall never come back.

I shall not attempt to tell you why I am going away, for I do not know myself, except that I am discontented as I am, which has been my condition since I can remember. I don't know that I believe the step I am taking will make me more contented, but I know I cannot remain as I am, for the Devil has complete possession of me, and leads me to do that which is most disgraceful and wicked.

Whether you know it or not is not important to the purposes of this letter, but for seven years I have been infatuated with the woman who is my companion in this wicked business, and she has been the temptation against which I have fought and prayed, but in spite of my efforts and prayers it has grown on me, until I am no longer a man. If you still have confidence in my truthfulness I need only say that I fought this infatuation with all my strength, but I am weaker than you know, and, after a life devoted to principle, I am adrift on an unknown sea, for as God is my witness this is my first offence.

In a package in my desk, with your name on the wrapper, will be found the deeds to all I possess, together with notes and accounts, and full instructions as to their management. The money I take with me is so small in amount that it will never be missed. If you manage well, and work well, in a few years you can almost rejoice that I went away as I did, for all the property I leave you is advancing in value, and will in time make you independent, if you attend to it.

Although it may seem odd that I give you advice which I cannot accept myself, I desire that you be industrious and honest. You can be successful in no other way, and you are now the sole support and comfort of your mother, who, I can attest, was very good to you when you were helpless. That she has not been more affectionate with you since you have grown up has been partly my fault, for I do not believe in affection. Whether I was right or wrong does not matter now: as I seem to have been wrong in everything else, perhaps I was in that.

I do not know whether you partake of my discontent or not; your mother was always contented with her home, and with whatever fortune brought her, and I hope you are like her in this; but if you are not it is only a question of time when you will travel the same road I am on, for no one constituted as I am can become a good husband, a good citizen, or a good man. I wonder that I held out as long as I did, and it is the only thing I can think of to my credit that I did not take this step years ago. No one can ever know what a struggle I have had against temptation, or how humiliated I was when I found that I must give up after all, and become the subject of scandal among the small people I despise, and although I know that no man ever deserved pity more than I do now, I am certain that there is not one who will extend to me that small favor.

To tell the truth seems to have been as much a part of my nature as discontent, therefore I assure you with my last words that since I was old enough to remember I have been as unhappy as it was possible for a man to be. There has never been a favorable circumstance connected with my history. I think I never did a thing in my life that it was not distasteful, and that which I am about to do is most distasteful of all, though I cannot help it.

I am not going away with the hope of being more contented than I have been, for I do not expect it. Discontent is my disease, and this is merely a natural stage of it. I have complaint to make against no one but myself; no one has driven me away, and no one has tempted me, but I go because I cannot remain as I am. I cannot explain to you what I mean by such a strange assertion, but it is true-I am running away from myself. My health is good, my business prosperous, my family everything that a reasonable man could desire, but in spite of this I am so nervous, wretched, and unreasonable that the sight of my home, the sight of you, the greetings of people I meet, fill me with desperation and wickedness. I believe that were I compelled to remain here another week, I should murder somebody-I don't know who; anybody-and for no other reason than that I cannot control myself. I have carefully investigated my own mind, fearing I had lost my reason, but my brain is healthy and active; it is discontent, inexplicable and monstrous, and horrible beyond expression.

When I remember how discontented I have been in the past, though favorably situated, I tremble to think what it must be in the future, when I shall have my disgrace and crime to remember in addition to it, but perhaps it will serve to hasten the end, and relieve me of a life which I never desired, and which I would have rid the world of years ago, but for the reason that I was afraid.

Your father,

John Westlock.

I have a recollection of feeling faint and sick after reading the letter, and when I started up to go home, I remember that I staggered like a drunken man, and reeled along the street in such a manner that those whom I passed surely thought I was returning from a night's debauch. My first thought was that the best thing I could do was to give the office to Martin, and take my mother, and leave the country, too, before any one knew of the disgrace, but when I remembered the advice in the letter with reference to the business, I knew it was his deliberate judgment that I should stay and live it down; and he must have thought of it a great deal. A thousand disturbing thoughts passed through my mind as I went along, and once when I went into an old and vacant house to avoid meeting a party of people who were coming toward me, the first feeling of faintness returned so strong that I was compelled to lie down on a heap of straw and rubbish.

My greatest dread in it all was to break the news to my unhappy mother, and trying to brace myself with the thought that I was now entrusted with grave responsibilities, and no longer a boy dependent on the advice of another, I passed down the street and into the house.

After considerable search I found my mother seated in a low chair in the kitchen, as I had seen her a hundred times before, but for some reason-I could not explain it then, nor can I now-I felt that she had sat there all night, and that she knew that he had gone. There was a certain timid, frightened look in her eyes when I came in, an inexpressible grief in her manner, and so much sorrow in the tears which came afresh at sight of me, which convinced me that I had nothing to tell her, and I learned afterwards that he had told her what he had written me before leaving, and that he had shaken hands with her on parting, and begged her not to be distressed.

My first action was to pull down all the blinds at the windows and lock all the doors, for I was determined that no one should enter the house that day, and I hurriedly carried in a supply of wood and water, as though we were to live that way a good many days, or that we should live in the house forever, without seeing any one.

As the day wore away, I found my determination increasing to make the best of it, and though I tried to rally my mother, she would say nothing. Finally I gently forced her to leave the low chair, and lie down, where she covered her head, and sobbed the livelong day.

Though I read the letter over a great many times (having gone to one of the upper rooms for the purpose, where I could see the people passing, and looking wonderingly at the house to see it shut up so tight), I could make nothing out of it further than that the Rev. John Westlock had run away, taking Mrs. B. Tremaine with him, and that he had been infatuated with her for seven years, a circumstance of which I had not the remotest suspicion until that day. I knew now that on his visits to the country he met this woman at some convenient place, but beyond that, and the fear once expressed by Barker that his religion would prove an unfortunate thing for him, I was puzzled to understand it, further than the letter had explained.

I knew now that the trouble which caused him to quit preaching, and to seclude himself from callers at the office, related to the woman, but I had never suspected it before, for I had never tried to explain his thoughtfulness, believing it was simply his way, and that his father had been a thinking man before him. He was a man of such excellent sense that suspicion would not attach to him, particularly suspicion of weakness in religion or morality, and I only thought of it to become more puzzled.

Before night I came to the conclusion, though it gave me a sad heart, that the sooner the community was made aware of the matter, the sooner would its gossiping and conjecturing cease, and when night was setting in, I hailed a boy who was passing, and sent a note to Martin requesting him to come to the house. He came soon after, when I explained everything to him, and read the letter, which he heard wi

th great surprise. I then requested him to go wherever there was a crowd that evening, and tell it, to the end that the people might discuss it through the night, as I preferred that course to a suspense of several weeks, for we could have kept it from them that long on one pretext and another.

Martin approved of this idea, though he was too much surprised to say much else, and when he went out, I saw him stop people on the street, and talk with them, and who at once looked up at the house, and seemed greatly surprised.

No lights were lit in the house that night, and I spent the hours in wandering through the vacant rooms; in wondering what the people were saying about it; how they would feel with reference to my continuing the business, and how they explained it all. Frequently I went into the room where my mother was lying down, and she was still for such a long time that I hoped she was oblivious to her trouble in sleep, but in waiting to assure myself of it before retiring, I heard her sob in such a pitiful manner that I resumed my walk through the lonely rooms, and listened again to the echoes of my own footsteps.

. . . . .

I spent my evenings at home after my father's disappearance, at first from necessity, because my mother needed me there, and because I had work to do, but I gradually grew to like it, and regretted when I had to be away. My mother was much changed and broken by her desertion, and if I read far into the night-which I often did, for my education was indifferent, and I found a certain amount of knowledge indispensable in my daily work-she sat beside me, employed in knitting or mending.

If I wrote something I thought was very good-I am certain now I never did-I read it to her; if I found a paragraph in a book or newspaper which I thought surprising or strange, I read that; but while she always listened attentively, she had no comments to offer. Indeed, I think there were weeks together when she did not speak to me at all, except to call me in the morning at the hour I told her I should like to get up, or to inquire after my small wants.

At first the neighbors thought it a kindness to keep the house full of callers, believing her to be lonely, but they at last discovered that it would be a greater kindness to leave her alone, which they afterwards did, so it came about that we lived a lonely life. Occasionally Martin came in the evening to sit an hour, and a few times Agnes was a visitor to the gloomy house, but these visits were so far apart that we seemed to see no one at all. Sometimes I took her out for a drive, and on these occasions she would perceptibly revive, and say that this or that place had changed since last she saw it, but of her trouble she never spoke at all. One pleasant Sunday I drove on the road to Fairview, thinking to call on Jo at the mill, but she gently touched the lines, and said "Not to Fairview," so I turned around, and drove another way.

Before my father went away he dealt a great deal in wild land, taking stock of every kind in payment, and I still kept a pair of strong and fleet horses which had belonged to him, and of which he was very proud, at first because I could not sell them for the price they were worth, and lately because I had grown to like them. They were very rapid in harness, and when we rode out my mother enjoyed more than anything else the excitement of passing other teams, speaking many kind words for "Dan" and "Dave." She took great interest, also, in seeing that they were well cared for, and though I was afterwards offered a good price for them, I kept them at considerable expense and trouble because she seemed to take an interest in nothing else.

Her condition was so lonely that I became more of a son than I had ever been before, and tried always to be careful of her wants. She reciprocated this with kindness and attention, but I cannot say with affection. When I went to my bed at night, I always left her sitting in her chair, and after I had retired it was her custom to come softly up the stairs to see if I was comfortable. If it was cold, she tucked the covering about me as if I were yet a child, and I remember now-I do not believe I thought of it then-that she talked to me more at these times than at any other, as if the darkness removed a restraint. Perhaps she felt a disgrace in the presence of her son that his parents had treated him so indifferently, and only felt easy when he could not see her face. Some men remember their mothers from their good-night kisses, but I remember mine by the gentle manner in which she smoothed the covering of my bed at night, and I grew so accustomed to it that I could not have gone to sleep without it. After this was done, she lingered about the room as long as she could find excuse, frequently referring to subjects of which I had spoken in the evening, and then went slowly down the stairs.

How she passed the night I never knew, but I never found her in bed. Frequently I thought to go into her room at midnight, to see if she were awake, but in waiting for the hour, I fell asleep. If I came home late at night, whether she expected me or not, I found her up, and often when a slight complaint made me wakeful and restless, I found her by my side, offering me water, or some simple remedy. From the woman who came to the house to work through the day, but who slept at home, I learned that my mother frequently lay down in her room during the day, and probably slept; so I think that generally she did not close her eyes at night nor go to bed.

If I advised with her in reference to my father's affairs-there was really no need of it, for he left them in excellent shape, with full instructions to me, and she knew nothing about them-she listened attentively, but the details seemed to tire her. Occasionally a man would intimate that my father had not credited a payment on an account or a note, and appealing to her, she would say: "Your father was honorable in business; the man is mistaken," and so it turned out. If I told her of my own affairs, she was equally attentive, but seemed to be satisfied with my course, and had no suggestions to offer. I hoped to hear her say I was doing well, or that the business did not miss its founder, but if she thought it, she kept it to herself.

I believe that she always thought it possible that her husband would tire of his fancy, and, coming back to her poor and old, they would finish their lives together. Perhaps she never went to bed at night because she was always expecting his knock at the door, and remained up to assure him that he was welcome. She believed that a man of his sturdy, honest principles could not be content wandering aimlessly about, ashamed to own his name and his country, so the vigils through the long nights were kept up. He would not come during the day, when he would meet familiar and accusing faces at every turn, but at night, when the town was quiet, and the people were asleep, therefore there was always a light in his old room, and his deserted but forgiving wife was always waiting to hear his step in the street, and his knock on the door. The people of the town frequently came down the little street which led past the house to look at the light which was always burning, and which cast its rays out into the darkness like a kindly star; they told the story of the light to strangers in pitying whispers, and many of them believed that the patience of the lonely watcher would be rewarded at last by the return of the unhappy wanderer.

The business under my management continued to be profitable, partly because Martin and I gave it a great deal of attention, and partly because it was without opposition. Martin was really a very superior man, and together we did very well, making improvements as the money was earned, and extending the business whenever it was possible.

I was at first inclined to feel that I could never recover from the disgrace of my father's action, but after Mr. Biggs assured me that it was ignorant conceit to suppose that the people had nothing else to do than to think of my small affairs; that every family had a private history, and that ours was no worse than hundreds of others; that I now had opportunity to make a reputation for myself, having a gift of a considerable property to start with, and that so far as I was personally concerned, my father's action was really a benefit, I took a better view of it, and felt that if I conducted the business creditably, and took good care of my mother, the people would be more apt to speak of me favorably than if I moped around.

During the first few weeks a great many of my father's staunch friends came into the office, and announced that they would not believe the report; that there had been foul play, but to these I read the letter, whereupon they went away very much puzzled, and without saying a word. These men, and there was a great number of them, encouraged me in carrying on the paper in every way they could, and as they were of the class which makes public opinion, they were of great benefit to me.

It was never known where the two met, how they left the country, or what direction they took. I heard through Jo that, before the disappearance of my father, Mrs. Tremaine had been away from home several days, but as this was a common circumstance, no attention was paid to it. We learned by degrees that their names had long been connected with suspicious gossip, but they seemed to have been very discreet, for the matter was always a mystery.

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