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The Story of a Country Town By E. W. Howe Characters: 18590

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

MY mother was never strong, and her health seemed to be rapidly failing, but she was perceptibly revived by the presence of Agnes. When I told her that Agnes would now live there all the time, and never go away again, she expressed great pleasure, and for days was not content to be out of her company, but followed her slowly around the house as she went about her work. We were like three children again, suddenly released from restraint, but when we spoke in the evening of the happy years we should spend together, my mother became thoughtful at once, and would say no more that night.

Her step was slower than it had ever been; and she walked more feebly, but she still kept up the lonely vigils in her own room at night, and the light was always burning, casting its rays across the deserted street like a pitying star. If I became restless in my bed from thinking of her pale face, and went softly down the stairs to her door, I found her quietly seated in the low chair, as if waiting for a step in the street and a hand on the door. She no longer came to my room at night, as she had done when we were alone, but she apologized for it once because of growing weakness, and believing that she dreaded to be alone, I sometimes lay down on her bed and slept there, but if I awoke in the night, I found her in the old corner, with her head bowed low, and wrapped in deep meditation.

The coming of Agnes brightened the lonely house, which had always been cold and cheerless, as if it were very old, and were inhabited only by very old people, and I was more content than I had been, until I remembered that my mother was slowly dying of a broken heart. This thought came to me whenever we were spending the evening pleasantly together, and often I went away to hide my tears. When I talked to Agnes about it, which I often did before and after she came there to live, I saw by her troubled face that she shared my fears, and that she, too, had marked the faltering steps and whitening hairs. Though we resolved over and over again to do more for her comfort and happiness, and be more watchful of her, she was always just the same-silent and sorrowful, with a look in her white face of worry and sorrow. Whenever she opened a door, or looked into a box or drawer, she seemed to find something to remind her of her husband,-an article of wearing apparel, a scrap of paper on which he had written,-and this she kept in her hand, and carried about, holding it until she took her place in the low chair for the night, where it remained the subject of her thoughts. We both called her mother, and though we were anxious that she should commend us, she seemed shy, as if she were in the way, and Agnes told me that once when she put her hand lovingly on her head, and said we were good children, she did it timidly, fearful of giving offence. She still slept a little during the day-or, at least, she would darken her room when no one was around, and lie down-but we never found her asleep at night, and believed that she never left her chair.

It may have been two months after Agnes came there to live, when we were sitting together one evening, and Agnes was telling us again of her father, of which she never tired, and I recollect that I made more inquiries about him than I had ever done, because my mother was much interested in my statement that men sometimes came back after an absence of a great many years, and told strange stories of adventure. I had no idea this was true of Captain Deming, of whose death there had never been any question, but my mother was listening closely, and I recalled several instances of the return of those given up for dead.

"What evidence have you," I asked, "that your father is dead, other than that he never came back?"

Evidently Agnes had no thought of a possibility that he was alive, for though she immediately became grave and thoughtful, there was no expression of hope in her earnest face. After thinking about it a long while, she confessed that there was no evidence of his death except that he had never been heard from, which was the brief story of hundreds who had been drowned at sea.

There was one part of the story which I had never before heard, though probably it was not important. The crew which her father had shipped at Bradford was discharged on reaching the first port, the captain claiming there were evidences of mutiny among them, though when they returned they declared that never were men more faithful and honest. Since that time neither the ship nor its captain had ever been heard of, and the returning sailors believed it had gone down because of the shipping of an incompetent crew. Agnes did not know, nor could the sailors who came back to Bradford tell her, what port the vessel loaded for when they were discharged, and this seemed so strange to me that I determined to insert an advertisement in a paper published in a sea town, and solicit information from the captains of that day. This would require a long time, so I resolved to say nothing of my intention, though I had little hope anything would come of it. I found that Agnes knew little about the matter, as she was very young when her father sailed away never to return, but her mother, she said, had made investigations which left no doubt of the shipwreck and death.

My mother and Agnes were sitting together at the other end of the room, while I was facing the door which led into the hall, and into the street. I remember these details distinctly because the ghostly turn the talk had taken led me to think that if the sea should give up its dead, and the captain of the "Agnes" walk in dripping with wet, I should be nearest the door by which he would enter. Agnes was sitting with my mother, who was quietly stroking her hair, and as I looked at them, I wondered if there were two wanderers out in the world wearily travelling toward them, or whether those for whom they mourned were dead, and would never be heard from. It was the merest fancy, for I have since tried to remember whether I believed that night that Captain Deming was alive, or that my father would ever return, and I have decided that I had no real belief in such a possibility.

They were both deeply interested in what I was saying, though incredulous, and I must have been amusing myself in seeing how much I could move them, though I had no intention of being cruel. Perhaps I thought hope was pleasant, even if it had no foundation, for I kept on in such a way that both became very much excited. The wind was rising outside, and when it rattled at the doors and windows I thought it sounded as if some one was demanding admittance.

"It wouldn't surprise me," I said gravely, after a long silence, as if I had been debating the question for several years, though I had never thought of it before, "if your father should come to this house some night-I think it would be a dark and stormy night, for they say those long absent only return at such times-and, sitting among us, tell strange stories of his wanderings, and of his search for you. The two travellers we seem to be always expecting here may meet on the road as they near the town, and come on together. Perhaps it is not likely, but it is possible."

They were both looking strangely at each other, and then at me, and then timidly at the door leading into the hall, and out into the street.

"If they should return to-night, they could easily step into the hall, and listen to what we are saying, for the front door is wide open. Maybe they are there; go and look into the hall."

This was addressed to Agnes, and there was so much distress in her face when she looked up at me that I regretted having said so much, for I might as well have asked her to look into the hall, and expect to find her mother, who I knew was securely in her grave.

While thinking how to get out of the dilemma into which I had unconsciously talked myself, I thought I heard a noise of feet in the hall, and from where I sat I could look squarely at the door leading into it, though neither Agnes nor my mother could. I supposed it was Martin, who occasionally came to the house in the evening, though I wondered why he should be so quiet, and while deliberating whether to go out and invite him in, or await his knock, the door opened a little, and I was surprised to see Damon Barker standing on the outside. Supposing he had heard all that had been said, I again bantered Agnes to look into the hall.

"I think I heard some one in there," I said. "Whoever it is he is welcome."

The visitor did not seem to appreciate my humor, but was very grave, and did not look at me, keeping his eyes on Agnes. He trembled as he came softly into the room, as I have seen men in great excitement since, and was breathing quickly and heavily. At this moment Agnes turned around in such a manner that she saw the face, and with a startled cry she sprang to her feet, and throwing her hands to her head, looked curiously at Barker, and then at me, as if she thought we were in a plot to frighten her.

The silence that followed was of such duration that I would have broken it-as I felt that I was the cause of the awkward situation-but for the fact that as Barker walked in he acted in a manner so odd that I co

uld not speak. Once I thought he would burst out crying, and again he turned as if he would run away. As he advanced toward the middle of the room Agnes shrank further into the shadow, though her eyes were riveted on his face. Two or three times he attempted to speak, and at last he said:-

"Agnes, don't you know me now?"

His voice trembled so much that the last word was a sob, and the next moment Agnes was in his arms. I was in the greatest wonder, and had not the remotest idea what it all meant, but my mother was shrewder than I, and when she began crying softly I knew she understood it and was satisfied. They remained locked in each other's arms, both sobbing convulsively, for such a length of time that I began counting the seconds as they were told off by the clock, and when I had got up to sixty Barker held Agnes off at arm's length to look at her, but he could not see through his tears, and sobbed again like a man who had been holding up for a long time. Even then I did not realize what it all meant, and my jealous heart brought the suggestion to my mind that Barker's frequent visits to the school meant something after all, and that they had quarrelled, and were making it up.

Just when the thought came to me that Damon Barker was the missing commander of the "Agnes" I cannot now remember, but it almost took my breath away, and a great lump rose in my throat.

Agnes kissed her father over and over, and, wiping away his tears, placed his arms about her again, and hid her face on his breast. He was such a large man, and Agnes such a little girl, that his great arms almost hid her from sight.

"It is so strange as to need an explanation," Barker said, with an effort, looking at my mother, who was still softly crying, and then at me, who could do nothing but look on in wonder; "but I will never explain to Agnes further than that she has been the object of my thoughts and prayers ever since I so strangely deserted her. However much I may have sinned in other ways I have always loved the child; there is nothing between us. I have been an honest man except in the particular which must be in all your minds, and which it is best never to mention. My secret shall be buried in the grave which we filled up out yonder;" he pointed his hand in the direction of the Smoky Hills, and I thought his old look of hate came into his eyes; "though I have the story written, and Ned shall read it and judge me. I ask him now to read what I have written from my heart during these two months, and then tell you two whether I was justified in the course I took; whether I have been worse than other men who have erred, and suffered. But if I have sinned I have wiped it all out by waiting in the solitude of the woods for the day when I could claim Agnes; in the dreadful fear for her safety, and the prickings of conscience; but if this is not enough I will do penance the remainder of my life that I may be father to my child again. Will you accept me, Agnes, with no other explanation?"

The strange house at the mill, and its strange occupant, were now clear to me, for I knew that when I had seen him in the middle of the night ready to run away; when I had seen him always quickly looking about like a hunted man, he was fearful the little old woman who had frightened me at the house of Lytle Biggs would burst in upon him like a phantom, with her snarling voice, and ugly face, and scold him as she scolded Big Adam.

"Yes, father, yes," Agnes said, as she looked into his face, "if there is anything to forgive, I forgive it without asking to know what it is. We will be father and child again, and the old house at the mill shall be our home. I ask nothing further than that you love me, and that you have come back to me, never to go away again. You were always so good, and I love you so much, that I believe whatever you did was for the best; I don't want to know what it is. Ned and his mother can bear testimony to how tenderly I have always cherished your memory, and how much I missed you, though I believed you were dead. The hope that you were alive was never in my mind for a moment, or I should have known you when you were so kind to me in Fairview, after Ned and his mother had moved away, and when I was lonely and friendless. I wondered then why I was not afraid of you, for you were stern and fierce, but I know now; I could not be afraid of my father, though I did not know him. I am content that we commence our lives anew, never to refer to events beyond this night. I am more than content; I am happy, much happier than I have ever been before, or ever expected to be."

They were walking up and down the room now, locked in each other's arms, and I thought with Agnes that I would freely accept his explanation without hearing it; I was so certain he was a good and honest man. As my mother looked at them timidly, I thought she was wondering if her wanderer would ever return, and if she would ever be as happy as Agnes. As if convinced that it would never come to pass, she went softly from the room, still hiding her eyes, and we heard her sobbing in the next room. Barker was very much affected, and when Agnes went out to speak to her, he kept saying, "It's too bad," until she returned. As for me, I could only stare at him, and look out of the window into the darkness.

"We will agree then," Barker said, when Agnes was again seated beside him, "that the book of the past, with all its unhappy secrets, shall be closed forever, and we will only open the new leaves, which I hope we can contemplate with pleasure. But before dismissing the past forever, never to recall it again, I want to say that I have watched over you constantly for the past eight years, when I first learned you were living in Fairview. Let me say this to excuse my other neglect, and that you may know how honest my affection for you has always been. You may recollect that you once gave Ned my picture in appreciation of his friendship, and he sent it to me by Jo. He showed it to me one night when I had almost resolved to look for you at Bradford, no difference what the consequence might be, and though I recognized it at once, I tossed it to one side with a glance, though I was so much agitated that soon after I left the room to hide it. When I returned, and inquired as carelessly as I could whom the picture represented, Jo replied that it was the father of the little school-teacher, Agnes Deming and that he had been drowned at sea. By degrees I learned when you came, how you looked, and where you lived; and how often I have made them tell the story without suspecting; how often I have set them to talking of pretty Agnes, and when they told how much she mourned her father, I went away and walked in the woods until I was calm again. Since then I have been near you a hundred times when you did not know it, and a hundred times when you did. Very often I have stolen up to your window in the night, and seeing you were safe and well, crept back through the woods to my desolate home, waiting for this night to come. Once when I looked into your window-it was at Ned's father's house, in the country-I saw you kneel, and I heard you ask blessings on my head, though you supposed I was in heaven. It has been a long time to wait, and I have suffered a great deal, but I am satisfied; I believe I shall be happier that it came about as it did."

I noticed that they at once put into execution their resolve to bury the past in the lonely grave out in Smoky Hill, around which we had all stood two months before, for during the remainder of the night nothing was talked of but the happy future; the to-morrow of their lives, instead of the yesterday.

When I had sufficiently recovered myself to congratulate them, we laughed merrily over my attempt to frighten Agnes, and Barker started to explain how he happened to come when he did, but recollecting his resolve to speak no more of that, he waived it off, and told instead how the house at the mill should be remodelled and refurnished, and the heavy shutters taken down; how the people who passed that way would wonder at the change, and how they should be told that the owner had been blessed through the mercy of God.

"I shall remain plain Damon Barker," he said. "It is a good name, and has never been disgraced, and I shall keep it. It is as good as any other, and it would be confusing to change."

I remained with them until long after midnight, and when I went softly up the stairs to my room, I could hear them talking in low tones. During the night, as I restlessly tossed about, I heard the hum of their voices, and when I came down early in the morning after a disturbed rest, I found Agnes quietly sleeping, with her head on her father's knee, but Damon Barker's eyes were wide open, and there was a smile on his face, and I thought he had grown younger during the night.

I can never forget the loneliness which came over me when they drove away in the morning, waving their adieus, nor the coldness which came into the house, and would not be driven out. I am certain we lighted fires that night, though they had not been necessary before, and when Martin came down to sit with us, he shivered as he entered the room, and rubbed his hands to warm them.

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