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The Story of a Country Town By E. W. Howe Characters: 27908

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

THE Rev. John Westlock went away in the latter part of September, and from that time to the day before Christmas, a period of three months, I did not visit Fairview, as I dreaded the questions of the people, for one thing, and was very busy for another, but Jo was to be married on the 24th of December, and nothing would have kept me away. With the exception that he wrote me a letter saying that he believed Barker was pleased at the disappearance of his sister, I had not even heard directly from him, much less seen his good, honest face, though I knew the mill was steadily progressing, of which fact we made appropriate mention in the columns of the "Union of States."

We had a sort of understanding that, as we should both be very busy during the summer, we would put off a meeting until his wedding, and besides this I had a great desire to come upon the completed mill in operation. Therefore, when the day came round, I was early on the road, having arranged for an absence of several days, and to call at Theodore Meek's for Agnes, who was not going home for the holidays until after Jo's marriage.

As I passed Bragg's apartments I noticed that the place was close shut up, and presumed he had already left town on the same errand as that on which I was bound; therefore I was not surprised when I came up with him a few miles out, driving his vicious horse to a light buggy. Seeing my approach, he allowed his horse to walk in the road ahead of me, undoubtedly intended as an insult, but after submitting to it a few minutes, I turned out and went by him, though he lashed his horse, and tried to prevent me. His horse was no match for mine, as he very well knew for the team I drove trotted so briskly as to scandalize the church to which my father had belonged, but Bragg never admitted anything without a struggle, as a dog has to be kicked out of your road every day. For several miles I could see him vigorously following, whipping his mean horse, but at last I went down into a low valley where ran a creek and lost sight of him.

During all the time I had known him, we had never spoken, except on the night of my arrival in Twin Mounds, and as I grew stronger I determined to whip him for the many insolences he had practised upon me; I had half a mind to stop where I was until he came up, and try it there, but the uncertainty of the result, and the fact that my appearance would be too much ruffled at best by the encounter to make myself presentable at a wedding, induced me to give it up, and wait for a more favorable opportunity.

When I drove up to The. Meek's, Agnes was already waiting for me, and coming out directly, we were soon on the way. Although she was always neatly dressed, and had a very decided talent in that direction, her apparel was so gorgeous that day as to cause me new surprise, but when I looked at it attentively, I was certain it was inexpensive, and that it was all the work of her own hands. I remember she was particularly gay, and had I not known differently, I might of thought of her as some favorite child of good fortune, whose paths were always pleasant. There was nothing to mar her happiness, it seemed, except the misfortune of others, which she frequently mentioned, and her sympathy for my mother was so earnest and gentle that I worshipped her more than ever, though I had never admitted to myself before that I did not already love her to the greatest extent possible.

When we arrived at the Shepherds', Jo met us at the gate, and, after showing Agnes into the house, went with me out to the stables. For some reason I became convinced at once that it would be a dreary day, for Jo was not so glad to see me as I had expected, after the long separation, and he seemed dissatisfied about something, although I do not believe he really was. It was a pleasant day, though in December, and after the horses were put away we walked about, attempting to renew our old confidences and friendship, but we did not get on as we used to do. He was the same Jo in most respects, but he had grown thoughtful and careworn in the last few years, and I mentioned it, to which he replied with some impatience:-

"You say that whenever we meet. You forget that we are both older, and that it has been almost four years since we were constantly together. It was always our ambition, when we were boys, to become men: we are becoming men very rapidly, and while I am satisfied, you seem to complain of it. But we never become so old that we do not have care and responsibility, and I look like a thoughtful man to you only because in the course of years I have grown to be a thoughtful man. Further than my work there is nothing to make me thoughtful but the age I have accumulated naturally, and I look older because I AM older. Let me assure you once for all, my good old friend, that I am stout as a lion; I am prosperous; I am to be married in a few hours to the woman of my choice, and that there is no reason why I should not live to a ripe old age in the greatest peace. There! Are you satisfied?"

"I enjoyed your friendship so much when you were a boy," I answered, "that perhaps it is only a fear that it will be less candid when we are men. I have had no other confidant than you, and I dread to see you grow old, for fear that a man's cares will cause you to forget our boyish friendship."

"No fear of that," he said, after he had studied awhile, as if turning it all over in his mind. "No fear of that. I shall never grow too old to confide my sorrows (if I have them) and successes to you. However poorly a man is raised, he always has a pleasant recollection of his youth. It may be only the hut in which he was born, but there is always something, and you are the one pleasant recollection of my boyhood. If I had a great trouble, I should come to you with it; not for help, perhaps, but for your honest sympathy, and for the satisfaction of talking it over freely. So long as I confess nothing to you, you may rest assured that I am very happy. I don't feel right just now, some way, and I can see that you don't; but I hope we shall get on better later in the day. I am very sorry, but for some reason the occasion does not promise to be what I expected. Probably one reason is that I have done a very mean thing to-day, and when you discover it, as you are sure to do, remember that I have confessed my humiliation, and say nothing about it."

I had no idea what it was, but as he said I should discover it, I did not press him further.

"It is very curious," Jo said, in a confidential and perplexed way, "but the nearer my marriage approaches, the less important it seems; I wonder that I am so cool over it. You remember what I said to you once about it-that I would sell myself to the Devil to be married to Mateel; THEN, not to wait a minute. I felt what I said, but the years of waiting have made a great change in me. Not that I am less fond of her, but I do not feel now about it as I did the night we rode to Barker's the first year of my apprenticeship. It was never intended, perhaps, for anyone to be as happy as I should have been had my marriage to Mateel that night been possible. Somehow we always have to wait until the pleasure of an event is blunted by familiarity. Imperceptibly, as she became a possibility, I made the discovery that she is not an angel-she would be an angel, I have no doubt, were such a thing possible-for angels do not live in the woods, and they do not marry millers."

He tried very hard to be cheerful, but he could not, and when he spoke I thought it was an apology for his troubled face:-

"I am very tired of late, for I have worked almost night and day for four years, and I hope you will excuse me if I do not seem glad to see you, for I am; though just at present, for some unaccountable reason, I am unable to show it. I am sure I shall perceptibly revive by reason of your being here, but the mill undertaking was a big one, though I shall speedily recover, now that I have more ease. I can't just explain myself how it is, but I hope you will believe I am still Jo Erring, and still regard you as my best friend."

I made some sort of an answer, and we went into the house soon after, both of us more than ever convinced that something was wrong, though we could not tell what it was. Jo immediately disappeared into another room, leaving me alone until Mr. Shepherd came in, who, although he seemed glad to see me, was in such great excitement that he had not time to express it.

"You will excuse me if I am not myself," he said, as he walked about, putting his hands to his head as though it pained him, a habit I had noticed before. "While I approve of this marriage, our only child leaves us to-day, and we cannot feel very gay about it. She has hardly been out of our sight since she was born, and so far from feeling gay, we are uncomfortable, although we have no objection to her husband. It distresses her poor mother more than it does me; I fear it will be like a funeral. I hope Jo will not mind if she breaks down entirely. I had been hoping we should be very happy to-day, but I have lost all hope of it."

As Mr. Shepherd walked rapidly round the room with his head down, he almost ran into a door as it opened to admit his respectable wife, followed by Agnes. Mrs. Shepherd bowed to me stiffly, and, walking across the room, seated herself. I had a vague sort of notion that Mrs. Shepherd, hearing of my arrival, had come in to pay her respects, and such a long and awkward silence followed that I began to upbraid myself that, as a young man of the world, I should say something suitable. While debating between a joke and an observation on the weather, however, the door opened again, and Jo and Mateel stood before me. Jo wore the suit in which he had met me at the gate, with the addition of gloves, and Mateel was arrayed as became a bride. Both looked brave and handsome, and while admiring them, and wondering what I had better do (I was impressed with my importance there, someway, but was not certain how), Mr. Shepherd got up from his chair, and, standing before them, pronounced the simple marriage ceremony common in that day, in a low and faltering voice. Then we all knelt, and the good man earnestly and tenderly invoked the blessing of God on the union. By the time Mr. Shepherd had risen to his feet again, his wife was beside him, and, throwing her arms about Mateel, kissed her over and over again, and asked her not to cry, as she had shown evidences of doing. Somehow I thought they had agreed, as though it were brave, not to humiliate my worthy friend by creating a scene, and I wondered that they consented to the marriage at all if they did not approve of it. I had never been entirely cured of a dislike for Mrs. Shepherd, and it came upon me with renewed force that day, for I thought she had every reason to feel gratified at the marriage, instead of sorrowful, for Jo was much the better one of the two; any unprejudiced person would have said so. She paid not the slightest attention to Jo, and I was glad when Mr. Shepherd came up and shook him by the hand, with appropriate words of congratulation, after which Agnes touched me on the arm, and we went up with our greetings. When I took Mateel by the hand Jo said for me to kiss her (which I did very awkwardly, I am afraid); then Agnes kissed Jo, and we were all very happy together. Some one brought up chairs, and Jo and Mateel sat down, and when I looked around Mr. Shepherd and his wife were gone.

After Jo and his bride had taken a long breath, and were themselves again, we four spent a very uncomfortable half hour together, for each one seemed to feel that the others were not at ease. I had thought Jo's wedding would be a merry event, but it was not, though I never knew exactly why.

I noticed while we sat there that Mateel did not regain her accustomed color, but remained very pale, from which I imagined her health was failing, for she had always been delicate. The costly finery which she wore, though in good taste, made her look ghastly, and I was compelled to admit that she had never appeared to a worse advantage. Her cheeks were sunken, and her form wasted, and she seemed entirely too old for the fresh young man by her side. I imagined that Jo thought of this, too, and regretted she was not more girlish.

When dinner was ready, I noticed that plates were laid for several guests besides Agnes and myself, as if they expected that more of Jo's friends would be present, whereupon it occurred to me to apologize that my mother was ill, and had sent her regrets.

"The regrets are accepted," Jo said, as though others had been sent. "We could not have a more cheerful company than this. So far as I am concerned, the company is satisfactory."

Mateel expressed some such sentiment, and so did we all.

"But I wonder Clinton Bragg is not here," I said. "I met him on the road, and I am certain he was dressed for a wedding."

I immediately regretted saying it, for I thought that both Mateel and Jo colored at the mention of his name, but after some hesitation, Mateel said:

"He was not expected."

At this moment Mr. Shepherd excused himself to answer a knock at the door, and when he came back he said that it was Clinton Bragg, who had stopped in on a trifling errand, and who had gone away again. I was not surprised that the fellow appeared at the house on that day, for he was always where he was not wanted, but I wondered he had not accepted the invitation to dinner, which Mr. Shepherd said he had given. It would have been a splendid opportunity to make himself disagreeable.

All of them seemed to be in a worse humor after this, and they had not been merry before. Mateel got up from the table soon after, and insisted on helping her mother, which example was followed by Agnes, and finally by Mr. Shepherd, who went to do some sort of carving,

leaving Jo and me alone. The dinner was an elaborate one, and the table set for at least twenty, so that we felt lost in the desert of dishes. Some of them tried to be gay at the circumstance of our being alone at the table, and they helped us very liberally, but it was a failure, and the time passed very dismally. I believe that Jo felt guilty that more of his friends were not present,-or rather that he had but two to invite,-and I knew that I felt very awkward in being the groom's only satellite, since he had lived in the neighborhood all his life; and, though I attempted pleasantries in great number, either they were not heard or not appreciated, so that the dinner was very much of a failure, as Jo whispered to me as we sat at one end of the long table together.

When I went into the other room, dinner being over at last, I found a letter lying on the table addressed in a neat hand to Mr. and Mrs. Goode Shepherd, and, knowing it was public, I opened and read a well-worded note of regret from my grandmother. As she could not write I knew what Jo meant when he said I would that day detect him in a mean action; he had written it himself.

. . . . .

In order to avoid the leave-taking, and because I was uncomfortable at the Shepherds' house, I drove over to the mill with Agnes in the middle of the afternoon, where we spent several hours in putting the house in order for the coming of Jo and Mateel. I had not been in the house since it was remodelled, and was pleasantly surprised at its arrangement. The old house had but two rooms, but Jo had added two others, and furnished them neatly and comfortably and in good taste. The room in front was transformed into a pretty parlor, and opening off this was a sleeping apartment. The old kitchen remained, but I would not have known it, so great was the change, and adjoining it, and connecting with the parlor, was a dining-room, which completed the number Agnes admired the house as much as I did, and complimented Jo so much that I regretted I had not expended my energies on one like it. I think I resolved to look about when I returned to town for an old house, and fit it up by degrees, but I have no doubt I forgot it entirely within an hour.

The mill had been completed a month before, and had been in successful operation since. I can only remember now that it was a very good one for that day, and that it was an improvement on the one belonging to Damon Barker, for its machinery was of late and improved make. Jo had never told me, but I believed he was greatly in debt, for in addition to the amount due on the machinery he had rebuilt and furnished the house where he was to live, therefore I was not surprised to find the mill in full operation in charge of his assistant, as that was a busy season. Agnes and I went through it after we had finished at the house, from the great wheels in the cellar to the small ones in the roof, and complimented Jo so much that his ears certainly tingled.

Jo and Mateel did not arrive until after dark, and we had the lights and fires burning when they came in. After laying off her wraps Mateel looked around the pleasant room, but did not say anything, seeming sick and distressed, and when she went with us through the rooms, Agnes carrying the light, she only said "Yes" when some one remarked that this or that was pretty, or "No" when it was said that something else could not be nicer. I thought that Jo was very much hurt at this, for she seemed to take everything as a matter of course, and the only words she spoke were as to what should have been done rather than as referring to what had been done already, which was a great deal, for the house was better furnished and more complete in every way than the one in which she had lived. I thought at first that she was thinking the arrangements for her comfort were no more than she deserved, if as much, but I concluded later in the evening that she was not herself, and that the parting with her mother had been a great trial, although I could not understand why, for they were separated only by a few miles, and could see each other every day.

We had been sitting about the fire for an hour or more, where we seemed to get along better than at any other time during the day, when a rap came at the door, and, on its being opened by Jo, Damon Barker walked in. We were all very much delighted and surprised to see him, and after saluting Jo and his wife with a polite word of congratulation, he took the chair Agnes brought up, and sat down in the circle.

"I could not come over very well to-day," he said, speaking to Mateel, "so I came to-night. I thought I knew who would be here beside yourselves," looking at Agnes, and then at me, "and I find the company I had expected. I wish you all a merry Christmas."

We had not thought of it before, having been occupied with the events of the day, but Barker suggested it by taking a number of packages from his pockets, which he leaned against the legs of his chair. After we had returned his compliment, he said:-

"I am not fond of ceremonies of any kind, but I am fond of a fire like this on Christmas Eve, and a company like this, so I came unannounced. I hope you are glad to see me."

We all announced in a chorus that we were.

"It is very polite in you to say so," Barker replied. "I lead a lonely life over there," pointing in the direction of his mill with the hand in which he held another package from his pocket, looking very much like a long bottle wrapped in brown paper, "though probably no lonelier than I desire. Jo and I became very good friends when we were in solitude together, and I think I could not have rested to-night had I not walked over to congratulate him and his pretty bride."

He settled down in his chair and looked around the room as if admiring it.

"It has been a long time since I felt so much at home as I do at this moment." Having put down the package which looked like a bottle, he picked up another one and commenced unwrapping it, but soon stopped, and continued talking, leaving us to wonder what it contained. "I hope my presence will not interfere with your enjoyment. Let me sit here in the corner and look at you, without being in the way." He began unwrapping the package again, but forgot it as he became more interested. "I enjoy looking at fresh young faces, and it is not often I have the opportunity. I beg that you go on with the conversation-I warrant it was a merry one-in progress when I disturbed you by rapping. Don't mind me at all, but if you should address me occasionally, and intimate that I had added something to the occasion, I should enjoy myself very much indeed."

By this tune the package was unwrapped, and it turned out to be a handsome jewel case, with a set of expensive jewelry on the inside. This he handed to Mateel with a bow, and, picking up another package, went on with his talking and unwrapping:-

"For twelve years I have been almost a hermit here in the woods, and during all that time I have not met so pleasant a company as this. I never felt more welcome in my life, whether I am or not, and I have an idea that I feel very much as the rest of you do-comfortable and happy."

By this time the other package came out, and it was so much like the first one that we could not tell them apart. This he gave to Agnes, who was greatly surprised, and she hesitated in taking it, but he did not notice her, and, diving down beside his chair, handed the bottle-looking package to me, and its mate to Jo, retaining another one of the same pattern for himself.

"These three contain liquor so old that I feel quite young in their company," he said, without noticing the surprise which his presents to Mateel and Agnes had created, for they were very valuable, "and combined and stirred with a little hot water, a little sugar, a few slices of lemon, and nutmeg, they make a punch very fit and appropriate for a party of five. If you have a bowl handy, I will stir them together."

As he said this, he got up from his chair, and began preparations for the punch by taking from the pockets of the coat he had laid off a bag of lemons and a corkscrew. Jo and I went out and lighted the fire for the hot water, and while we were waiting for it we heard Barker asking as a favor that nothing more be said about the presents.

Conscious that the wedding was ending better than it had commenced, Jo and I shook hands over the circumstance, and we soon had the kitchen fire roaring, and the water hot, and taking it into the front room, Barker had the bottles opened, and the lemons sliced, and, the sugar and nutmeg being brought, the punch was soon ready, which I think was composed of champagne, and a mixed liquor made for that purpose. It was certainly very good, and Jo and I drank of it very liberally.

I had never seen Barker in good spirits before, and it was not long before all of us caught the infection. We not only drank of the punch, but we went into the kitchen and brought out something to eat, and after this the good humor of every one increased so much that it was agreed that if Barker would give a selection from a play with which he was familiar (and which he did remarkably well), Jo and I would sing camp-meeting songs, to be followed by a duet by Mateel and Agnes.

While these arrangements were in progress, I went to the door to see how the weather was, as I had a long drive before me, and as I stood there I saw a horseman pass in the road, who I was certain was Clinton Bragg. Those on the inside were merrily laughing, and I purposely opened the door that he might hear it, and know that Mateel and Jo were happy, and surrounded by friends. I thought that he might come in with some kind of a message for Mateel, but I resolved that if he attempted it I would knock him down and beat him at the gate, for I felt the punch, and was in a humor for that kind of business. But he rode slowly past, and I am certain that he heard the gay laughter, and that no one knew of his presence except myself.

Although Barker drank as freely as Jo and I, he was evidently more accustomed to it, and did not mind it, though it had no other effect on us than to increase our good spirits. Agnes and Mateel partook but sparingly, but they were both in better humor than I had ever seen them, and applauded whatever we did. Barker gave his selection from the play (it was a tragedy, and he limped in from the kitchen saying something about that being the winter of our discontent), after which Jo and I started a camp-meeting, imitating the singing, preaching, and shouting of the Fairview people, which performance was received with rounds of applause. Mateel and Agnes then sang their duet, in appreciation of which we clapped our hands until they sang another one; and thus the time passed until after midnight.

During the evening Jo found opportunity to express his pleasure that everything had turned out so well, and whenever we were alone I think both of us had a good deal to say about an "Old Boy," and the "Best friend in the world," for we lost all of the restraint which made us so uncomfortable in the morning, and fully renewed our old friendship.

When we broke up, and had said our adieus over and over, I found my team at the door, through the kindness of the assistant at the mill, and after we had closed the door for positively the last time, we opened it again for another kind word, and were very merry and gay.

There was a light fall of snow on the ground, and the night and the roads being fine, I insisted on taking Barker in the buggy and driving him home, knowing the horses would enjoy the dash along the level roads in the woods. He at first objected, but Agnes adding her entreaty, he finally consented, and after calling to Jo until he opened the door again, we waved our hands once more, crossed the creek below the mill, and dashed away.

I was proud of the speed of the team, and Barker was at first very nervous at the pace at which I drove, but finding I was a careful driver, he leaned contentedly back, and repeatedly said the drive was a pleasant ending to the agreeable evening at Jo's house. When we arrived at the mill, he invited us in, and as Agnes had never been at his house, and had often expressed a curiosity to see it, we accepted the invitation, though it was two or three o'clock in the morning. As I expected, there was still fire in the great box stove in his room, for it seemed never to go out, and with a little stirring and fuel it was soon roaring. We walked through all the rooms, Barker carrying the light, and appearing to be pleased and contented. I told Agnes of the delightful stories Barker had related to Jo and me in the big room with the heavy shutters, and even insisted that he tell another one, to give Agnes an idea of his talent in that direction, but he laughingly replied that it was late, and that they would prove very dull, now that we were older.

"I have another story to tell you, though," he said, after some reflection, "but it is not quite ready, and as it is a story for men, it is fortunate that you are almost a man. In good time I will tell it to you, and, if you choose, you may repeat it to Agnes."

While we were warming ourselves at the fire for completing the ride, I questioned him about it, but it seemed to be of no importance, for he laughed gayly, and would only say that when he was ready he would remind me of it.

After spending an hour there we started for Theodore Meek's and although I repeatedly informed Agnes that she was the best and prettiest girl in the world, and that I was very much in love with her, she was not at all serious, seeming to regard it as a part of the gayety of the night, and after reaching the house, and having a laugh all around with the family (who got up to hear about the wedding), we went to bed just as day began to appear in the east.

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