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   Chapter 21 THE PECULIARITIES OF A COUNTRY TOWN.

The Story of a Country Town By E. W. Howe Characters: 28493

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


THERE was one thing I noticed of Twin Mounds which is probably true of every other country town-it was constantly threatened either with great prosperity or great danger, but whether the event threatening the prosperity or the danger came to pass, the town progressed about the same. There was no perceptible effect from any of the events the people were certain would prove either very disastrous or of great benefit, from which I am led to believe that no one is familiar with the art of town-building, although I have never known a man who did not profess to know all there is worth knowing about the science. Towns seem to be the natural accretion of years, and although the people in Twin Mounds often related how desperate were their struggles with adversity, the facts probably are that the place would have been fully as large as it was three years after Jo's marriage without the great number of public meetings for public purposes, and the endless worry of individuals with reference to it.

There was a very general impression that manufactories were needed, and this was talked about so much, and so many inducements were offered, that the people became discouraged, believing that the average manufacturer had a wicked heart and a hollow head to thus wrong Twin Mounds in the face of his own interest, therefore we were very much surprised to learn once, after all hope had been abandoned, that a quiet man was building a woollen mill down the river, which he completed and afterwards operated without the help of the committees which had been appointed to aid in such matters of public weal. The trouble was that the man lived in Twin Mounds, whereas we had been expecting a man and money to come from a distant point for that purpose, and had never thought of looking about home, but spent a great deal of money in sending committees away to make arrangements for a woollen mill. This circumstance, although humiliating, proved a good thing, for it taught the people that, if the town were to be built up at all, it must be by its own citizens, which knowledge was afterwards used to good advantage.

The people were always miserable by reason of predictions that, unless impossible amounts of money were given to certain enterprises, the town would be ruined, and although they always gave, no sooner was one fund exhausted than it became necessary to raise another. It was said during the collection of each amount that it would never be necessary again to give to this sort of charity (as the enterprise then in hand would insure the future of Twin Mounds), but there was never an end to the ridiculous business, and we were always in a state of dreariness on this account, as the men demanding the charity for insignificant enterprises loudly threatened to go to the rival towns, and permit the grass to grow in our streets. In thinking of the matter since, I have thought that Twin Mounds would have been a much better town but for the fact that it was always expecting improbable disaster, but which never came, for the people were thus prevented from exercising their energy, if they had any.

I never formed a good opinion of a man there that I was not finally told something to his discredit by another citizen, causing me to regard him with great suspicion, and if I said a good word for any of them, it was proved beyond question immediately that he was a very unscrupulous, a very ridiculous, a very weak, and a very worthless man. There were no friendships among them, and they all hated each other in secret, there being much quiet satisfaction when one of them failed. There seemed to be no regular aristocracy, either, for I heard so frequently how ignorant and awkward the prominent citizens were when they first came, that I finally found them all out. If Dr. Medicine told me what an unpromising lout the present magnificent Honorable Legal was when he first arrived, and how much difficulty he had in getting him introduced into respectable society, I was certain to meet Honorable Legal soon after, and hear him recite a similar experience with reference to Dr. Medicine. One of the stories, and I found afterwards that it was true, was that a man of ordinary worth, who seemed to be prosperous, had collected his money of a railroad company in the country he had moved from, because of an injury to his first wife, and that his second was enabled to go elegantly dressed because of the misfortune of the first. Thus it went on until I was familiar with the poor origin of all of them, and perhaps this was one reason why we did not respect one another more.

It was a popular expression that every one favorably mentioned was the "worst overrated man in America," and the only real ability any of them ever displayed was in looking up the previous history of each other, which they carried on with great vigor, and frequently with alarming results. I began to believe in course of time that it was fortunate that the discreditable part of my history was well known, for it was the sooner forgotten, because it was not necessary to look up old records to find it out, and thus was not made worse than it really was.

Very few of the Twin Mounds men had positive opinions of their own, as they seemed to have got them second-handed from some source, and none of them was original or natural in his methods of conducting business, or in his habits. Two or three times a year most of them visited a city a good many miles away, where they spent a great deal of money they could not afford, to create an impression that they were accustomed to what they supposed was good society, and where they met men who filled their ideas of greatness. These they mimicked, each one choosing a different example; so it happened that the men of Twin Mounds were very ridiculous. There was a lawyer, I remember, who had met somewhere a distinguished member of his profession, who shook hands (Ho! ho!) with everybody, and (Ha! ha!) patronizingly wanted to know how they were getting along. It was not his natural way, and as he only adopted it because he believed it would make him popular, it became him very poorly. Perhaps it was very effective with the man the habit had been copied from, but it was very absurd with our citizen, whose pretence was that every man he shook hands with (and he shook hands cordially with everybody) was not getting along as well as he in his great compassion desired.

Another one, who carried on a business which one busy day would have exhausted, had heard of a man who achieved commercial greatness by finding fault (I am sure the man was mistaken, for no one ever made money in such a ridiculous way), and I never heard of anything that suited him. This he regarded as business shrewdness, and he finally became very sour in disposition because he was generally regarded as a fool instead of a prophet. Still another, naturally full of fool's gab, carried on a bank in awful silence because he had heard that still water runs deep, though I have seen ponds of perfectly still water which were very shallow.

As I grew older, and began to notice more, I thought that every man in Twin Mounds had reason to feel humiliated that he had not accomplished more, but most of them were as conceited as though there was nothing left in the world worthy of their attention. Their small business affairs, their quarrels over the Bible, and an occasional term in the town council, or a mention for the legislature or a county office, satisfied them, and they were as content as men who really amounted to something.

Although I believe there never was a more virtuous community, the men pretended to believe that their associates were great libertines, and many of the women were scandalized in an unjust and cruel manner. The men rather took a pride in reputations of this sort, for they never had any other, and, although pretending to deny it, they really hoped the people would continue to accuse them. I have known citizens of this description to stay out late at night, and take aimless rides into the country, to create the impression that they were having clandestine meetings with the first ladies of the town. The people watched each other so closely that there was no opportunity to be other than honest and circumspect in this particular, even if they had been differently inclined, and since the men were always looking for amours, but never found them, and believed that others were notoriously successful, they must have had a very contemptible opinion of themselves when they thought about the matter candidly.

I often heard from Jo, and frequently met him, and he always seemed to be happy and prosperous. The debt on the mill was being gradually reduced through his sturdy efforts, and in the middle of the second year of his marriage, he had built an addition to his house which made it very complete. His business was prosperous, because he gave it a great deal of intelligent attention, and he became widely known as one of the promising young men of that part of the country, for nobody worked so hard as he did, nor to so much purpose, and the business principles he had adopted were excellent. The product of his mill was called the "Erring's Ford" brand, we having agreed on the name together because it was odd, and because it celebrated a hope which had been ridiculed by the Fairview folks, and we printed large bills announcing its superiority, which were distributed so well that wherever I went I was reminded of my skill as a printer, and Jo's superiority as a miller.

At long intervals he came to our house with his pretty wife, and I always thought they were very happy, as I have no doubt they were. I do not remember that I thought much of them during the three years I am now passing rapidly over, except that Jo had made himself the equal of his wife, which was a pleasant reflection to me because he had begun so far behind her, and with the utmost friendship for Mateel, I was always pleased when Jo appeared to better advantage than she did, or when I thought that if a stranger should judge between them, the impression would be that Jo was the superior one of the two.

I had the impression that Jo was an excellent husband, for he was always thinking of what would please Mateel, and when they were together he was as gentle and gallant as he had been when they were lovers, which I have heard is very unusual. Mateel was a good wife, but I do not know that I ever heard her say a kind word for her husband, although others talked about him a great deal. She thought, no doubt, that his excellences were understood, and did not need to be mentioned. I thought of this circumstance then, because I believed it would have been no more than natural for her to say that Jo had succeeded well, or that he had bravely won her, but she never did, although she seemed pleased when I complimented her husband, as though it was an expression of a hope that if he were not so rich then as she desired, he might be in the future.

Usually when Jo and Mateel came to Twin Mounds, Agnes came with them, as it was their custom to drive over on Saturday, and back in the evening of the next day, and with so many of her old friends around her, my mother perceptibly revived, but when they had gone away, she resumed her old melancholy, and pined away in the room where she watched at night. If they offered to take her home with them, she refused, and never went out, except occasionally to ride with me, and then I thought it was more to admire the speed of "Dan" and "Dave" than because she cared to leave the house.

Although the Rev. John Westlock was never heard of, the light was always burning in his old room at night, and his deserted wife was always waiting to forgive him. I think she never for a moment gave up the hope that he would come back; for, winter and summer alike, she waited for him every night, and was weaker the next day because he did not come. The fear began to oppress me that some morning we should find her dead at her post, and I proposed to get some one to stay with her at night, but she would not hear of it, thinking, no doubt, that when he came he would much prefer to find her alone. Thus the months went by, and at the close of every one I found that her head was whiter and her step more feeble.

I saw Lytle Biggs nearly every week, and Big Adam often came there with products of the farm to sell, and he always came in to see me, usually having the information to impart that another relative had been killed by the Indians, or that his old mistress "jawed" him more than ever. If he found it necessary to stay in the town over night, which was sometimes the case, I took him home with me, and treated him with so much consideration in other ways that he soon became my greatest friend.

From him I learned that Agnes only came home during the two vacations of the year, and that her mother was about the same with respect to visions of poisoning and smothering, which humiliated them all very much except Big Adam, who said he considered it an honor for the people to believe that he would poison his mistress if he had opportunity, for they all knew she deserved it. Mrs. Biggs and the children had changed but little, except that the children had grown larger and more unruly, and their mother more shrivelled than formerly. Big Adam was quite a novelty in Twin Mounds, by reason of his great size and hoarse voice, and a crowd always gathered at the office when he was there in the evening, to hear him tell about the great farm he was expected to cultivate alone.

Although I was always hoping he would kill himself with dissipation, Clinton Bragg continued to be only about as worthless as when I had first known him, and there was no change in his manner except that he made up with every old wreck who came to town, and induced him by treats to listen to his brags about himself. Bragg came from a place somewhere in the East which was given over to the manufacture of knives and forks, and the three or four proprietors of the works comprised the aristocracy. These, lacking better company, associated occasionally with the small tradesmen and professional men of the town, which led them

to talk a great deal of the excellent society in which they moved, and judging them by their representative in Twin Mounds, they became very unpopular wherever they went, by reason of this unpleasant egotism. His father, a hard-working but ignorant man, by close attention to the business of keeping a keg house, had risen to the dignity of a merchant, and was reputed to be well-to-do, although, as is usually the case, I doubt if he had half the money with which he was credited.

Bragg considered this fork-making community as the greatest the world had ever produced, and made himself very disagreeable in talking about it. Being a great liar naturally, and as no one in Twin Mounds knew differently, he used a citizen of the town where he had lived to traduce citizens of Twin Mounds, and if a lawyer lost a case, or won it, he told cheerful anecdotes of his brilliant friend Bighead, the leader of his profession in Forkston. No difference what happened in Twin Mounds, it reminded him of a friend of his in the town where knives were made, who always did whatever was in hand in a much more creditable manner.

When he was drinking, he went about inquiring who Alexander Bighead was, who Cornelius Deadhead was, who Elwyn Flathead was, who Godfrey Hardhead was, or who Isaac Jughead was. Nobody being able to inform him (none of them having ever been heard of outside of the community where they lived), Bragg would answer that Alexander Bighead was a great lawyer and a great drunkard, and that Cornelius Deadhead was as noted for his knowledge of medicine as he was noted for his intemperance; that Elwyn Flathead was a heavy trader, and a heavy drinker; that Godfrey Hardhead was frequently on the public platform, and frequently in the gutter; and that Isaac Jughead was as often on a spree as he was on the bench; which argument was intended to convey the impression that all talented men (Clinton Bragg included) drank more than was good for them.

Lytle Biggs, being a professional politician, was often in town, and as has been the case when he first met me, he was of the opinion that while I was a little delicate in asking him for the favor, I was burning with impatience to hear more of his philosophy. I had enjoyed it very much at first, and laughed a great deal at his oddities, and though it finally grew tiresome, I could not very well flatly tell him so. Hence he came in frequently when I was very busy, and when I knew he was not in a philosophical humor, but reasoning that I had grown to expect it, and had little other amusement, he consented to favor me with a few of his thoughts. Thus it came about that he walked in one evening when I was anxious to go home, and, seating himself, prepared to spend several hours with me, though I could see he regarded himself as a martyr to be compelled to instruct me in ordinary affairs which should be understood at a glance.

"Speaking of the newspaper business," he said, of which we were not speaking at all, "I make considerable money advising the farmers to patronize the 'Rural Home,' than which, in my opinion, a greater literary thug never existed, but unfortunately for an oppressed people, the publisher of the 'Home' (his name is Litch; it should be Leech) pays liberal commissions, and I must live. I have a copy in my pocket; you may examine it when there is positively nothing else to do."

He handed it to me, and although it was folded, I saw on the first page a picture of an animal so admirably proportioned that but little was wasted in legs, being solid meat with the exception of a small head and four pins to hold it up. By examining the note at the bottom, I found it was a pig, although I should not have suspected it in the absence of the statement, and that pairs of the breed could be had by addressing the publisher, and enclosing money order or draft for fifty dollars.

"If you should do yourself the injustice at some time in the future to look it over," Mr. Biggs continued, indicating that I was not to look at it then, but to listen, "you would find it filled with all sorts of ingenious appeals for the farmer's money, and that the editor claims to be poor, but honest, and oppressed by monopolies, like the rest of them. But what are the hard, uncomfortable facts?"

I looked at him as if to say that I did not know what the facts were, but had no doubt they were bad enough.

"The facts are that while the agricultural population is cooped up in hot school-houses drinking spring water, and attending Alliance meetings, the publisher of the 'Rural' is holding ice in his mouth at an elegant club, only changing this delightful occupation to gulp down expensive champagne. He lives in a villa, does this agricultural fraud of the name of Litch, and makes a fortune every year; and, although he earnestly advises the farmers' wives and daughters to spend their spare time in churning the butter and gathering the eggs, to buy good books to improve themselves (P. S.-For which he is agent), he sends his own wife and daughters to spend their spare time in summer at cool places, where they may swim in the sea. That's the kind of an oppressed citizen of a groaning government Litch is, and I happen to know that he is the friend of the monopolists he denounces, and that he is in their pay; that he is the tool of the thieves who manufacture worthless machinery for farmers; of the confidence men who advertise eggs, pigs and calves at a high price, and that he is the worst enemy of the farmers generally."

I pretended to be very much surprised at this, though I was not.

"If you should be caught in a lonely place on a rainy day, with no other paper in your pocket than that, you would find a column of inquiries with reference to agricultural matters addressed to the editor (who is supposed to be informed, but who really gets all his information from the agricultural departments of the metropolitan papers), each one of which closes with a good word for 'your noble,' or 'your brave,' or 'your widely circulated' paper. The scoundrel writes them himself! And there is another column from 'Aunt Sue.' He is also 'Aunt Sue.' In short, he is everything except an honest man."

Although I said nothing, I remembered that every farmer who moved to Twin Mounds found out the agricultural papers, and denounced them; in short, that everybody except the farmers knew what dreadful frauds they were.

"If I should talk as candidly and honestly to my friends of the plough as I talk to my friends of the pen," Mr. Biggs continued, "I should advise them to take the papers which other people take; the papers which censure the farmer when he deserves it, instead of pandering to his ignorance, and forever rubbing him on the back as an honest but oppressed fellow, through no fault of his own. You cannot possibly do a man more harm than to assure him that whatever he does is right, and that whatever his enemy does is wrong, but this is what Litch does, and he is well paid for doing it. The farmer follows the furrow because he can make more at that than at anything else; he is no more oppressed than other men, except as his ignorance makes it possible, for there never was an age when it was not profitable to be sensible (the world being full of unscrupulous men), therefore the pretence that a man cannot be honest except he plough or sow for a living is not warranted by the facts. Getting up very early in the morning, and going about agricultural work all day in rough clothes, does not particularly tend to clear the conscience, but because politicians who occasionally have use for them have said these things, the farmers go on accepting them, stubbornly refusing to be undeceived, because it is unpleasant to acknowledge ignorance after you have once thought yourself very cunning. In my time, I have harangued a meeting of well-to-do farmers over the wrongs they were suffering at the hands of miserable tradesmen,-they call them middle-men,-who did not know one day whether they would be able to open their doors the next, and received earnest applause, after which I got ten dollars for a charter for an Alliance (which cost me at the rate of two dollars a thousand) without difficulty. It would not be a greater confidence game were I to borrow ten dollars of them to pay express charges on the body of a dead brother, giving as security a bogus bond, for the time a farmer spends attending Alliance meetings should be spent at home in reading an honest work entitled, 'Thieves Exposed,' or 'The Numerous Devices Men Invent to Live without Work,' but they rather enjoy my lectures on the beauties of combination for protection, and the cheapness of Alliance charters, for I never fail to relate how honest, how industrious, how intelligent, and how oppressed they are. If they want to pay big prices for such comforts, it is their misfortune; I must live, and if you say that I am a fraud, I reply that all men are frauds. The lawyers never go to law; the doctors never take medicine; the preachers seldom believe in religion, and I never farm. The different trades and professions are only respectable because little is known of them except by those interested in their profits, and I am no worse than the rest of them. Whoever will pay for being humbugged will find humbugs enough, and the only difference between me and other professional men is that I acknowledge that I am dishonest. My position on the reform question is briefly this (and I may add that it is the position of every man): I am against monopolies until I become a monopolist myself. I am at present engaged in the reform business that I may become a monopolist. If I should suddenly become rich, what would I do? This: Refer to Alliances as dangerous, and such demagogues as myself as suspicious loafers."

Mr. Biggs seemed to greatly enjoy this denunciation of himself, and ripped out an oath or two expressive of contempt for his victims.

"Our friend Bilderby, for example, who writes letters for your paper on finance, and who professes to know all about money, in reality knows so little about his subject that he cannot earn a living, although he seems to be constantly worried with the fear that, from a mistaken financial policy, the government will come to ruin. In fact, Bilderby only gets time to write his letters on finance, and make excuses to his creditors. The fellow owes the doctor for nearly all his children; I am certain he has not paid for the younger ones. That is Bilderby's way of being a humbug; I have a different way; you have another, and there are so many varieties, that every man is accommodated."

Mr. Biggs was warming up, and unbuttoned his collar to talk with more freedom.

"I see occasional notices in your publication to the effect that Chugg, the groceryman, or whatever the name or the business may be, has just returned from the East, which is extremely dull, and that he is extremely glad to get back to the enterprising, the pushing, the promising, the noble, and the beautiful West. That is YOUR way of being a humbug, for in reality Chugg is glad to get back to the West because he is of some importance here, and none there. The East is full of hungry and ragged men who are superior in every way to the prominent citizen of the name of Chugg, and Chugg knows it, therefore he is glad to get back where he is looked upon as a superior creature. I have no hesitancy in saying privately that the people in this direction are not warranted in the belief that all the capable and energetic men have left the East, though it would be disastrous to say as much publicly. When I am in the East it occurs to me with great force that the miles of splendid business buildings I see on every hand must be occupied by talented and energetic men, and as we have no such buildings in the West, it follows that we have no such men. When I see towering manufactories-swarming with operatives who would be ornaments to the best society out here-I think that at least a few men of energy and capacity have been left to operate them, for ordinary men could not do it. I ride down the long avenues of private palaces, each one of them worth a township in the Smoky Hill country, and I am convinced that we are mistaken in the opinion that a man must live on the frontier in order to be energetic."

I had a habit of scribbling with a pencil when idle, and as I picked up a piece of paper to amuse myself in this manner, Mr. Biggs caught my hand, and said, "No notes!" fearing I intended to publish his opinions. He then explained, as he had often done before, that he talked candidly to me for my own good, and that he would be ruined if I quoted him either in print or privately. Being assured that I had no such intention, he went on:-

"Haven't you noticed that when a Western man gets a considerable sum of money together, he goes East to live? Well, what does it mean except that the good sense which enabled him to make money teaches him that the society there is preferable to ours? When we go away for recreation and pleasure, in what direction do we go? East, of course, because it rains oftener there than here; because the caves, the lakes, the falls, the sea, and the comforts are in that direction. If I should get rich, I would leave this country, because I know of another where I could live more comfortably. I stay here because it is to my interest; all of us do, and deserve no credit. It is rather humiliating to me than otherwise that I am compelled to live where living is cheap, because I cannot afford the luxuries. Men who are prosperous, or men who live in elegant houses, do not come West, but it is the unfortunate, the poor, the indigent, the sick-the lower classes, in short-who came here to grow up with the country, having failed to grow up with the country where they came from."

My visitor got up at this, and without ceremony took his hat, and walked out, giving me to understand that I should feel greatly favored. I followed him soon afterward, and passing along the street, I heard him gayly talking to a crowd of men in front of one of the stores, but in a different strain-in fact, he seemed to feel guilty for what he had said, and was denying it.

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