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The Story of a Country Town By E. W. Howe Characters: 26569

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

ALTHOUGH I began my career as an editor with a good deal of enthusiasm, in the course of two or three years I became so tired of the work that I longed to give away the establishment, that I might have a month's rest. I have since wondered that I did not follow the example of the founder of the "Union of States," and run off, as I came to regard myself as filling the station that my father stormed, and my mother cried, because I could not fill in my youth, not being a girl; for as a kitchen maid only cleans dishes that they may be soiled again, so it seemed that we only set up the types and inked them that we might wash and tear them down, and begin all over again.

It was peculiar to my business that the people could see at the end of every week all that had been accomplished, and it was usually so little (though I did the best I could) that I felt ashamed of it, and dreaded to see a stranger pick up the "Union of States" in my presence, for fear he would not know my connection with it and make unfavorable comment. I frequently left a public place on this account, and I never came suddenly upon a knot of men that I did not hurriedly announce my presence, so that if they were pointing out the most glaring defects of the paper, they could spare me the humiliation of listening to them.

Other trades and professions are more secret, and their contemptible transactions generously hid from the public, but all my work had to be submitted to the criticism of every idle vagrant who cared to pick up the sheet. A lawyer or a merchant might lock himself up in his office, and pretend to be engaged in grave affairs while really idling time away, but if I had attempted it, the deception would have been apparent at once. Public attention is always called to a newspaper, for otherwise it cannot prosper, and so the people are usually disgusted when they realize how little a man can do, papers of the class I published were not popular. Other men's affairs were equally contemptible, but they were charitably hid from the public gaze, whereas mine were regarded as common property, and fault found accordingly. I did not know then, though I have since found it out, that what one complains of will please another, so that when a paper makes an enemy, it makes a friend with the same paragraph, though the enemy takes more pains to talk about it than the gentleman who is quietly delighted.

It is my opinion that to become too well known is dangerous, for under such circumstances your faults are common property, and your insignificance proverbial, and a man who writes long for a newspaper will inevitably show every weakness of which he is possessed. Each week I laid before the people every thought, every idea, and every suggestion I was possessed of, and became so tired of being criticised that I would have given ten years of my life for half a year's vacation. When Martin grew tired (he was at first a valuable assistant, but his enthusiasm, like mine, did not last long), he coolly said he was worn out; but I had no one to whom I could make that excuse, and was compelled to get along the best I could. I was subject to the beck and nod of every ridiculous man in the community, for every citizen thought it his duty to give me good advice if he did not give me patronage, and though I longed to retaliate by pointing out the offences of some of them, I found it politic to hold my peace. Occasionally I wrote a very good thing (at least, occasionally I attracted attention), but nobody gave me credit for it, and it was attributed to some one in the town who could not write an ordinary business letter without lolling out his tongue.

A man should not write for a newspaper long in one town, for he becomes so familiar with the small affairs of the people that it is a great effort to treat them with respect. In the course of a few years he will have had occasion to criticise every man of any importance in a town of the size of Twin Mounds, if he is honest and truthful, and will be generally despised in consequence. Even if a complimentary twaddler, sowing good words to the exclusion of everything else, he will become unpopular for that, for the people will soon discover that he is a man of no discrimination or honesty, if he speaks well of everybody.

I wonder that anyone took the "Union of States," and as for its advertising I was certain the people were throwing their money away. It was the dullest paper, I have no doubt, ever published; but somehow enough people took it to make its publication profitable, though I was always expecting them to stop it, and believed that it would in the end become necessary to suspend its publication entirely. I remember that I would look over it carefully on press days, and, thinking that there was not a paragraph of news or comment which was not either old or silly, almost conclude not to print it at all, but if it was an hour late in issuing, a great many called to complain, which led me to believe that they had nothing else to do, and were anxious to get a copy and make fun of it. I am convinced now that much of this worry, if not all of it, was unnecessary, and that I need not have worked so hard, for when I went away I could not help noticing that everything got along about as usual, and that nobody missed me.

I was thinking this over one morning, and wishing I could get sick-I was always singularly strong and robust-or that the office would burn down, so that I could get a rest from my distasteful work, when the light at the open door was completely shut out, and Big Adam came in. I did not know he was in the vicinity, and was surprised to see him. He seemed in very good spirits, and, sitting down, began looking through his pockets for a note he said he carried for me. After he had found it, and given it to me, and while I was looking curiously at the envelope-it was from Agnes-wondering what was the occasion for sending it in this unusual fashion, Big Adam put his finger in his mouth, drew it out suddenly in such a manner as to make a sound like the drawing of a cork, and then, thumping his jaws slowly while he extended his lips, apparently poured out a liberal drink of liquor.

The contents of the letter were surprising enough:-

Dear Ned,-Mother died early this morning, after a short illness. I shall esteem it as a great favor if you will attend the funeral to-morrow morning at ten o'clock.

Your sorrowing friend,


Big Adam seemed to be very much offended when I looked up from reading the note with a serious face, as he evidently expected that I would be greatly pleased, as he was, but as if to say that if I would not drink with him over his good fortune, he would drink alone, he pulled another cork, and poured out the liquor in very slow and distinct gurgles.

"I didn't suspect my good luck," Big Adam said, seeing my inquiring look, "until Agnes woke me up this morning, and said the old missus was dead, and wouldn't I please carry the note to you. I immediately dressed up in my best and started. I think I never enjoyed a ride more. It was equal to an excursion. I hope there is no mistake about it."

Big Adam was about to draw another cork, when I inquired if Mrs. Deming had been ill long.

"About a week I should say, and she kept them about her night and day to jaw at, occasionally sending for me. Several times she came down stairs, but no more dried up than usual, so none of us thought anything unusual the matter. She was always complaining about something or other, and although she was undoubtedly bad off this time, we didn't believe it. We thought she was only pretending, to make us trouble, for she fooled us so much that I have an idea they were all very much surprised when they found her dead at last. It was by the merest accident that Agnes and Biggs were at home. It will be a great day for me to-morrow. I am to drive the remains to the graveyard."

I could not impress Big Adam with the gravity of the occasion, and after telling him that I would go over to Smoky Hill in the afternoon, he went out into town, but returned every little while with packages of pickles, cloves, confectionery, crackers, etc., which he spread out on my table and devoured with the greatest relish, precisely as if he were at a pic-nic. Usually he was followed by great troupes of boys, whom he hired to swear with his pickles and confectionery.

While he was out on the porch, I heard him say to one of them that he hadn't an enemy in the world, but if he had, he would like to hear the boy curse him, for up to that time he had won all the prizes with his dreadful oaths and was the raggedest and dirtiest of the lot. He was arranging for a fight between two of them, when I mildly objected to it, whereupon Big Adam laughed with hoarse good humor, and said that while he didn't know of an enemy, he might have one, and gave the wicked boy a pickle and a caramel to curse him, or her, as the case might be. The young scoundrel promptly responded with the vilest language I had ever heard, and Big Adam laughed so loudly that I thought the house would fall down, declaring that the boy was a "captain." I knew what he was about, but he seemed to be enjoying himself so much that I did not interfere again. At last he said he was certain the boy's curses had killed his enemy, and he called upon all of them to give three cheers, which they did, Big Adam joining in like a steamboat whistle.

In the afternoon I drove over to the Smoky Hill country, leaving Big Adam to follow at his leisure, as he showed a disposition to dissipate until night, and after arriving at Mr. Biggs', I put the horses away in the stable I had become familiar with on my first visit to the place, the stalls of which were still oozy and wet, and went up to the house.

Although I disliked to disturb the quiet of the place, I was compelled to ring the bell, for there was no other way of attracting attention, and after a little while Agnes came to open the door. Instead of speaking to me, she burst out crying, and, in involuntary pity for her distress, I took her in my arms, to which she made no resistance, but sobbed softly as I tried to comfort her with pitying words. I did not even think of my arms being about her, or that her head rested on my shoulder, and for the first time in several years I felt natural in her presence.

From where we stood in the hall I could see through an open door a plain coffin, supported at each end with a chair, in the room where I had sat with Biggs on my first visit to the house. I was impressed that it held a friendless body, for the coffin was not ornamented in any way, and had evidently been hurriedly made by a country carpenter. The top was shut down, as though there were no friends anxious to look frequently at the face, and for the first time I felt sympathy for the dead. It was no doubt very absurd in me, but I had almost expected to find the family in good spirits on my arrival, for I had never had a kindly thought for Mrs. Deming in my life. Her brother never mentioned her at all; her only child did not, except when it was necessary, and Big Adam had told me so much of her disagreeable qualities that I was very much prejudiced against her, but when I found that no one but members of her own family were there during her sickness and death, I felt kindly toward her memory, and thought that Big Adam had certainly misrepresented her. The distress of Agnes, which continued after we were seated in the room where the coffin was, also convinced me there must have been some good in the dead woman, and as the room began to grow dark from the going down of the sun, I thought that her life had been a night, which I hoped would be followed by a glorious morning.

I heard while at the house-it may have been from her old enemy, who returned from town in the course of the night, whistling all the wild airs I had ever heard-that the family had not a single acquaintance in the neighborhood, and that no one came to the house, except a farmer occasionally to see Mr. Biggs on business; that the people all believed Mrs. Deming to be a witch, and that they kept horse-shoes and charms in their houses from dread of her. Although many of them knew and admired pretty Agnes, they believed she had been stolen by Mrs. Deming when very young, and were always expecting some one to arrive and claim her.

From an occasional noise overhead, I understood that Mr. Biggs and the family were up stairs, but none of them appearing, I volunteered to remain up during the night to watch. Agnes gratefully accepted the offer, and as I sat there trying to read after her disappearance, I could tell when each one of the eight children was put to bed. At last I heard the cradle, which had been going constantly up to that time, stop, and I knew the baby, the last one, had been disposed of. Therefore I was not surprised that soon after Mr. Biggs came softly into the room, quite elegantly dressed, in slippers and gown, though he seemed very much depressed. He bowed to me patronizingly, as much as to say that few men could look as interesting in grief as he did, and after standing before me a moment to consider the matter, took hold of my hand and shook it sid

eways, though I was accustomed to shake up and down. As he walked around the room with his hands clasped behind him, I wondered whether I should be compelled to take the accustomed dose of philosophy, and I soon saw that I should, for, as he walked, he meditated; this was his usual way before attacking me. Coming over to me presently in a manner indicating that he had long been waiting for opportunity to discourse on the shortness of life, and the presence of the coffin afforded it, he seated himself, and abruptly inquired:-

"What is life?"

I knew I was not expected to reply, therefore I did not give him my views on the somewhat complex question and he soon went on:-

"Taking a man, for example, when it is first known that he is to have an existence, his mother cries, and his father says he wouldn't have had it happen for the world, or for fifty thousand dollars, although he may not have a dollar he can truthfully call his own. After a season of piling his clothes all in one place at night on the part of the coming man's father, and grief and suffering on the part of his mother, he is finally born, and the women of the neighborhood come in to see which one of his parents he resembles, although it should be known beforehand that he will be like the uglier one in face and disposition. This may ALWAYS be depended upon; it NEVER fails. When he is a month old, or on the first regular bill-day after his birth, his father quarrels with the doctor for bringing him into the world at all, and pays the price in great anger, and under protest, vowing that he will never again give the old quack opportunity to rob him. When he is three or four months old, his father and mother quarrel as to whether he shall be named for her people or his folks. This settled, he is attacked with colic, followed in rapid succession by the numerous distressing complaints which nobody ever escaped. After this comes his boyhood, which he always remembers as being particularly disagreeable, as he never gets enough to eat, and is constantly being found fault with and whipped. At last he is started to school, where a man who is a tyrant because he is not a lawyer (or a woman who is cross because she is not married) endures him during the hours of the day when the outside is most attractive. From this he runs away, and serves an apprenticeship with the world, making so many mistakes, and doing so many foolish things, that he is crestfallen the remainder of his life. Then he marries the wrong woman, and has the experience of his father over again, meanwhile working like a slave to get something ahead. But he does not succeed, as he has a faculty of doing that which he ought not to do, although he strives very earnestly to become a great man, and make his father ashamed of himself, and after a life of misery, a boy comes out of his front door on a morning after a stormy and windy night, and hangs crape on the knob. If there is a newspaper in the town where he lives, he is given a magnificent column, to induce the relatives to buy large numbers of extra copies to send away. The next day a hearse and six gentlemen in black clothes and white cotton gloves appear at his front gate. The neighbors come straggling in to see what the mourners will do, and an hour after that a surly sexton, who is wondering who will pay him, begins to rattle clods on his coffin, whereupon the carriages on the outer edge begin to drive hurriedly away, as if too much time had been spent with him already, and in a few minutes he is an inhabitant of the silent city whose residents quietly wait to be gathered as brands for the burning. If he happened to be possessed of an extra farm, or a store, or ready money, his afflicted relatives prove that he had been crazy several years before his death, that they may divide his effects to suit themselves, and which they afterwards spend in ribald and riotous living. The principal merit of this brief sketch, as the newspaper writers say, is its entire truthfulness. Deceased"-he inclined his head towards the coffin-"had an experience like that I have mentioned, except that she was a woman. Peace to her dust."

He spoke of his sister as "Deceased" as though that had been her name, instead of Maggie, or Jennie, or whatever it really was.

"Now that she is Up There," Mr. Biggs continued, after a short silence, waving his right hand toward the ceiling, "I do not care if I mention that Deceased had an unhappy disposition. She had that tendency when a very little girl (being an angel now, she will recognize what I am saying as the truth, and commend me for it), and was usually disagreeable to those around her. Whether her complaint was poor health or disappointed hopes I do not know, but as a man who believes that it is best to tell the truth at all hazards, I confess to you she died friendless. If there is not secret joy in this house that she is dead, then my philosophy avails me nothing, and I am as a ship on an unknown sea without rudder or compass."

The expression of "a ship without rudder or compass" seemed to please him, for he repeated it quite eloquently.

"Speaking of ships reminds me of my late brother-in-law, whom I have never seen. When he promised to marry the clay which reposes in yon coffin, I was away from home-the exact facts are that I was chased away by my father, a quiet and honest worker in wood who objected to my noise and lying-but for a reason which seems to actuate all fools, I wrote home that I should never be entirely content until I had murdered the man who had bewitched my sister. I can't tell at this time what caused me to do it, unless it was knowledge of a custom that whenever a girl marries, her brothers and father make fools of themselves (and at that time I was not above custom), for Captain Deming was a very worthy young man. I think he was greatly disgusted at the absurd manner in which we carried on, and if his spirit has been released from the deep, and is hovering around this place, I desire that he hear my declaration that I am ashamed of myself."

The little man was dramatic again, and waved his hands downward to represent the deep, and upward to represent the heavens.

"None of us liked the girl," he surprised me by confessing, "and I think that there was some dissatisfaction that she did not marry, and rid my father of her keeping, but the moment there was a prospect she WOULD marry, we all began to object, though I cannot imagine why. At that time I was working in a stable in a town in the West, and I wrote to Captain Deming that only pressing business engagements prevented my coming on and snatching the girl from his relentless clutches, advising my father at the same time by letter not to scruple to burn, shoot, or stab to save the family from impending disgrace. I believe he did sharpen up his hatchet and saw with a vague idea of sawing the Deming body in two, and then cutting it to pieces. I am also informed that he said in the hearing of the Captain one evening that he would rather see the girl in her grave, and when the ceremony was finally performed, he made himself still further ridiculous by remarking to my mother in the presence of the guests that it was all her fault."

He was apparently greatly amused by the recollection of this ridiculous circumstance, and stopped to laugh to himself, although I thought it was only an expression of satisfaction that he was finally rid of Mrs. Deming. Perhaps he had been wanting to laugh all day, and was now telling me jokes as an excuse.

"I made a great spectacle of myself in the town where I lived, by going about in a dejected and wretched condition, and saying that the Princess, my sister, had married a low fellow who followed the sea, and a few months after that, when I was anxious to boast of Captain Deming, my brother-in-law, I was compelled to move to another place, as the two stories would not fit in the same town. For this reason I went further west, and finally turned up in the Smoky Hills. I believe I never told you before how I happened to come west."

Had the little old woman burst off the lid, and sat up in the coffin to protest, I could not have been more surprised than I was.

"Captain Deming turned out to be a very superior man," Mr. Biggs continued, reflectively, "and Deceased to be a very inferior woman, judging from the evidence now at hand, but for several years there was a tradition in my family that she had thrown herself away."

My companion seemed to enjoy telling the truth about himself as much as I had already noticed he delighted in telling it of others, and while wondering what family confidence he would next let me into, he said:-

"Although in my youth I had a great deal to say about the surprising respectability of my family, they were really a very unpromising crowd. While none of them ever walked between the minister and the sheriff to a hanging, or was ever locked up for theft, none of them amounted to anything, and I am glad that they are all in ignorance as to where I am, for I never want to see any of them again. I am bad enough, but they are worse. My favorite uncle, the Duke, was a barber in the town where I was raised; his sister, the Duchess, was a disagreeable old maid who existed entirely on her respectability, for she spent her time in visiting those of her relatives who had houses, and in boasting of it (she was the laziest woman I ever knew in my life, by the way); my grandfather, the Count, was a market gardener, and there was an Earl on my mother's side who was a fireman; and the heir to all his possessions rode horses at races because he was old and little. The others I have forgotten, and I am sincerely grateful to my memory for the favor."

It was very late, and as I did not relish the thought of remaining alone in the room with the coffin, I was sincerely obliged to my companion for his company, and was pleased when I saw that he had more to say:-

"Naturally I am a great liar." I tried to look astonished, as he intended I should, but I am afraid I did not. "I did not know until a few years ago that honesty was the best policy, and as a boy and young man I never told the truth, even when it would do as well as a falsehood, but of late years I deal in nothing but facts, truths, and principles. I go even farther than that: I rake up the past to find truths that might be kept secret, for I now enjoy honesty as I formerly enjoyed dishonesty. The world is full of men like me in the particular that they tell the truth for no other reason than that experience has taught them it is best to do it. I know hundreds of men naturally thieves who are scrupulously honest for the same reason, and there is a great deal in the saying that honesty is the best policy. It cost me several years of disagreeable experience to make the discovery, but you may depend upon it that honesty is the best policy."

I had never heard any one accuse Mr. Biggs of having reformed except Mr. Biggs himself, for it was generally understood that he was thoroughly unscrupulous in everything, and the people would no more trust him for money than they would take his word.

"If I lived on a lonely island, without a neighbor, I would do right in everything, for the reason that even under such circumstances honesty would be the best policy. It pays better to be honest to yourself, in fact, than to your neighbor. It's a pity these facts are not more generally known and accepted, for we should then have a very different world; I am ashamed of it as it is."

He walked out of the room soon after, and left me alone, where I remained in great terror until an hour or two after midnight, when fortunately I went to sleep in my chair, and did not awaken until Agnes came down in the morning.

The funeral was without incident, except that, very much to the surprise of everybody, Damon Barker appeared soon after the procession started, and walked reverently behind the wagon in which Mr. Biggs, Agnes, and myself rode, Big Adam driving ahead with the coffin. Mrs. Biggs and the children remained at the house for some reason, and I did not see any of them during my visit. A few neighbors appeared at the grave, and threw in the dirt after the body had been lowered, as I believe they had thrown it out, but none of them came to the house. There was no funeral service, but as soon as we arrived at the place selected for the burial, the coffin was put down and covered up, after which we returned to the house, and threw open the shutters. Although Barker was invited to return with us, he politely refused, and went directly home from the church, which was located within a few rods of the place where Biggs had opened the store, and where the post-office was still kept.

In the course of the afternoon it was arranged that Agnes should return home with me, and live there in future, as my mother had long been anxious to have her do, and during the drive to Twin Mounds, little was said, for neither was in the mood for talking. I can only remember of that afternoon that when we arrived at home my mother was waiting, and that for the first time some one seemed considerate of Agnes; for my mother caressed her tenderly, and led her, weeping, into the house.

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