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   Chapter 26 BARKER’S STORY.

The Story of a Country Town By E. W. Howe Characters: 22154

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


MY first recollection is of being on board a sailing ship at sea, and by degrees I learned that my mother was dead; that the rough commander who was dreaded and feared by everyone else as well as myself was my father, and that I was kept with him on the ship because I was less troublesome there than anywhere else, and because he desired to look after my education in person, which began when I was five years old.

I heard somewhere that my father, the rough commander, had been very fond of my mother, who died the day I was born, and that his disposition had been different since he gave her an ocean burial, on which occasion he read the service himself in a choking voice, and, locking himself in his cabin directly after it was over, did not come out again for three days and four nights. There was but one other woman on the ship, the stewardess, and I was put in her care, but before I was old enough to remember, she went away, so that I have not the slightest recollection of her.

The mate, who had been in my father's employ a long while, told me that when my mother was alive she accompanied the ship on all its voyages, and that the commander was not then so hard with the men, but frequently gave them holidays, when it was possible, and was amused with their sports. Indeed, he spent much of his time in her company, trusting the management of the vessel to the first officer while at sea, and was altogether very gallant and attentive, which he had not been to anyone since. The mate's recollection of my mother was that she was pretty, and fair-haired, and very young and girlish, and evidently well-bred, for her hands were small and white, and she was graceful and accomplished. He believed she had run away to marry my father, for she never left the ship after coming to it as a bride until she was buried in mid-ocean, and neither of them seemed to have friends on shore they were anxious to see, but were entirely content with each other. When the ship was at anchor in the little American port where it was owned, all hands went away for a time except my father and his young bride, and the mate said they seemed to be sorry when the noisy, rough men came back again, as if they had greatly enjoyed being alone.

My father kept her picture in an expensive case in his room, and although I frequently saw him looking at it himself-indeed, when he was not busy with the maps and charts, he had the picture on the table in front of him-I was only permitted to see the face on rare occasions, as on holidays, or after I had learned my lessons particularly well, when he held it before me for a few moments, but never allowing me to take it in my own hands. When I was still a very little boy, I excused much of his neglect of me because of the grief he felt over my mother's death, and I think my first thoughts were that he in some way laid it all to me, for when I caught him looking at me his face was covered with a frown, and I almost expected him to grasp my throat and inquire why I had been so wicked and so inconsiderate of his feelings. For a great many years I believed her death was due to some blunder of mine, and I suppose this was one reason why I avoided my father as much as possible, that he might not accuse me of it.

I lived on the sea, never being away from it a day until I was fourteen years old, and, occupying a little room connected with my father's cabin, was compelled to study a certain number of hours each day, and recite to him at night. If I did not learn as much during the day as he thought I ought to learn, he sent for a sailor, and ordered me whipped, but the sailors were my friends, and, begging me to apply myself more in the future, beat the masts instead of my legs. But usually I learned my lessons to amuse myself, for he would not allow me to talk with the sailors, and did not talk to me himself, so that I was very lonely, and studied my books from necessity. Although I never attended school, in this way I became something of a scholar, for I did little else than study under my father's hard tutelage for eight years-from the day I was five years old until I was thirteen, when he began to grow tired of teaching me. Being an educated man himself, he taught me everything it was necessary for one in my position to know, and selected my studies with so much good judgment, and instructed me with so much vigor and clearness, that I could not have learned more during a like number of years at school.

After I was nine years old he gave me permission to mingle with the sailors to learn their languages, for nearly every country under sunlight was represented in the forecastle mess, and after that I spent all my idle time among them, telling them the story of the stars in return for their strange words, or explaining the mysteries of the winds and currents. I have said that before this he did not allow me to talk to the men, but perhaps I had better write that it was generally understood that I should not mingle with them freely, so that we were all conspirators in getting together. The most pleasant recollection of my youth is of taking an occasional dinner with the sailors, or of spending an hour with them when they were off watch, when there was always a lookout to give notice should the captain approach. Although we were always changing crews, they were all my friends, and the companions of my boyhood were gray and grizzled men, who adapted themselves to my condition, and did whatever pleased me most.

Ours was a merchant ship, though we carried a few passengers, and, as the voyages were long, I became well acquainted with them, for I sat beside my father at the cabin table, and was a great deal in their company, when not engaged with the books. What I know of manners and of polite society I learned from them, and although I thought I liked every new set the best, I believe I cried equally hard when any of them went away. There were many brides among them, going with their husbands to homes in distant countries, and after hearing of my strange childhood, they were all very kind to me. Frequently they asked my father to allow me to visit them at their homes, until his ship touched again at the port where they left us, but always to my inexpressible sorrow he refused, saying he was liable to put the vessel into another trade at any time. I do not remember that we ever had children for passengers, except very small ones, so that I grew up entirely in the company of my elders, and do not now feel that I ever had any childhood at all.

When fifteen years old I was permitted to go on an excursion into the interior with a party of the men, while the ship was lying at a Spanish town, and by an accident I was separated from the rest, and did not find my way back for two days. When the men returned, my father supposed I had run away, and sailed without me, leaving my effects at a shipping office in case I should call for them, together with a sum of money, which was to be forwarded to him unless claimed in a given number of weeks. I really felt relief when I found that I was free, I had lived so wretchedly with my father, and by representing my dilemma to other captains whose ships were in, I had no difficulty in securing a situation, which I desired more than a passage to my own country, and engaged with a captain who was going in an entirely opposite direction. Having studied navigation with my father, I was able to make myself useful to the captain who employed me, and I remained in his service a number of years, at first as his secretary, and finally as confidential adviser and third officer, during which time I learned accidentally that my father was dead, and that his estate did not pay his debts. This induced me to hoard my earnings, which were considerable, and when I was twenty I was part owner and third officer of a ship sailing between a small American port and the Indies. After I had been at this a year or two, my vessel was put in the docks for repairs, and having nothing else to do I fell in love, which is the part of my history upon which I shall dwell.

The girl with whom I became acquainted,-I cannot say infatuated, for I never was; I suppose it was a kind of curiosity,-and who afterwards became my wife, was the only one I had ever known since reaching manhood, and I persisted in calling at her house mainly because she had told me that her father and mother objected to it, though I cannot see why they should, as my station in life was better than theirs, and I had excellent prospects. I do not offer it as an excuse for my later conduct, but it is really the case that I never asked her to become my wife. She took it for granted that I desired to marry her, and said one evening that since it was well understood that we were to be married some time-nothing of the kind was well understood-we might as well agree on a date, and in my weakness I said the sooner the better, or something to that effect, which she understood as a proposal, and accepted in due form. There was never any love between us, but she always gave me to understand that I was distressing her by being there against her father's will, and never having known a woman before, I supposed the kind of regard she had for me was all that women generally gave, and to vindicate her, and to show her father that he was mistaken in his judgment of me, I allowed the matter to go on until we were married, although I assure you that there was never a moment that I was not trying to devise some means to get out of it, being convinced that it would never do. I am too old a man-and I hope too honorable-to misrepresent any particular in the story I am telling, therefore I have been careful to write only the exact truth, the benefit of a doubt always being given to the dead.

I soon saw that I had made a mistake, but hoped for the best, and, after making extensive arrangements for her comfort, sailed on a voyage which occupied me a year and a half. On returning I found that a daughter had been born to me; but in spite of this I formed such a dislike for my wife that it was with the greatest difficulty I treated her civilly. During the few months I was at home the child became very dear to me, but as my love for it grew, my repugnance for the mother increased so much that I sailed earlier than at first intended (I was captain of the ship by this time) to be out of her company. I had not been at sea a week until I began to dread to return, and often I seriously contemplated drowning, to be rid of it all. But when I thought of the pretty child, I tried to banish the thought for her sake, though I could not do it, and as we neared home on the return trip I dreaded my native town as I dreaded sunken reefs and rocks. The crew counted the days until they could expect to see their wives and sweethearts waving welcome from the shore, but the thought of a meeting with my wife was horrible beyond my ability to relate. I thought of it in a hundred different ways, trying to devise some way to rob the meeting of its terro

r, but I could never arrange it satisfactorily, and suffered as the damned are said to suffer. On coming home I dreaded most to kiss her, as I was expected to do, and next to that, the first meeting. I cannot explain to you this aversion fully, but it was so strong that I was constantly in the most horrible misery, and the more I thought of it, the more I loathed her.

I am crowding the results of several years into a few lines, during which time I came and went, the aversion all the time growing upon me. Sometimes I was at home only a week; at other times a month or more, and the length of the voyages varied in the same manner. I will not worry you with the details; it is enough to say that she was petulant, an invalid, uninviting in person, without charms of any kind, and utterly lacking in what is now known as common sense. It will be said (you will remark it, no doubt) that I should have made these discoveries before I married her, which is true; I should have, but I did not, as others have failed to make vitally important discoveries until it was too late to take advantage of them; hence this candid avowal of my disgraceful history. I wish to say again that I make these statements with all respect to the charity which should be shown the memory of the dead, yet in justification of myself it is necessary to tell the truth, which may be spoken with propriety at any time.

Other men's wives were intellectual if not beautiful, or beautiful if not intellectual, but mine was neither. It is my candid judgment, and I write it with sorrow and pity, that she had not a single good quality. (I have thought it all over, before proceeding, and assert it again: Not one.) I think she never went to bed in her life that she did not drink some sort of tea for some sort of complaint, and it was her only boast that in all the world a woman could not be found who "bore up" as well as she did. She took pride in nothing else; she had no other ambition than to demonstrate that such was the case, and had no other delight than to cite evidences of it. I beg you will remember that these are cold, calculated assertions of fact, and not illustrative in any degree. I have spent several weeks in writing this letter, in a manner that cannot be misconstrued; every word has been weighed, and put down after its effect and the impression it would convey had been carefully considered.

She took not the slightest interest in me nor my affairs; indeed, she took interest in nothing except her family, which worried her so much that frequently she awakened in the night, and cried for hours like a silly child for fear her mother, or her father, or her brothers, or her sisters, were not well, although there would not be the slightest reason to suppose they were not enjoying their usual health. This circumstance is particularly worthy of note when it is known that she did not get along with her family, for they were always quarrelling when together, and although they were the most ordinary people, she talked of them, and wondered what would they say to this or that, so much that I gently remonstrated with her. This she construed into an attack, and while I lived with her she regularly vindicated "her family" whenever I came into her presence, in a manner indicating that they were of royal blood. They moved away from there after we had been married a few years, and this gave her occasion to bewail her separation from them, which she never lost opportunity to do. Her father was a perfect type of a common man; the mother was a little better, perhaps, but the brothers and sisters did not average with the young people in the poor town where they were brought up, so that this great admiration was unwarranted, and ridiculous. But if it were disagreeable when "her family" were in the same town with us, it was unbearable when they were away. For every month of their separation she added a hall, park or castle to her father's possessions-which consisted in reality of battered household goods that a really vigorous man could have carried away on his back. Finally I began to think seriously of running away.

Inasmuch as this is a hurried sketch of my life, I will mention as a single example of how we lived, and which might be multiplied by any figure below a thousand, that if I complained that we seldom had fish on the table, we had fish regularly thereafter until I complained that we had nothing else, whereupon she said I was a grumbler, and hard to please, and from that time fish was banished from the house. No matter how much I longed for fish after that, I was afraid to ask for it, for we would then get nothing else.

I think I never sat down at the table with her that she did not bring out a depraved private dish for herself which I abhorred and despised. Tripe boiled in vinegar was one of these; roasted cheese was another, and the fumes from either made me so sick that I was compelled to get up and go out. She persisted in bringing these dishes to the table to "show her spirit," although many times she did not want them, I am thoroughly convinced.

In addition to the disagreeable qualities I have hastily mentioned, she was always complaining; if not of me, of her health; if not of her health, of the trouble the child was, or of the house in which we lived, which I am certain was the best she had ever seen; but she never complained of my long voyages, and I think she enjoyed my absence as much as I did hers. In short, although by this time I realized the fitness of a suitable marriage, I knew mine was the most unsuitable in the world; that we had nothing in common; that we should grow gradually worse instead of better, and that I should surely become, by reason of it, a dissatisfied, incapable and worthless man. Therefore, I began to weigh the consequences of running away.

This brought to mind the love I bore the child, which had grown steadily during the eight years since she was born, and I came to the conclusion that if I remained as I was I should become a man so gross and selfish as to shrink under her increasing intelligence and refinement, for she was as pure and good as an angel, and I concluded it would be better for her to think of me as a good man dead than as a bad man alive, therefore after I had lived in the manner I have described for nearly nine years, making my voyages as long as possible, I went away, and determined never to return.

The more I thought of it, once I was away, the stronger my determination became never to enter the presence of my wife again, and after thinking of it night and day for several weeks, I accepted the disgrace. Public opinion is always against a man in matters of this kind, no difference what his wrongs may be, and men who are contemplating running away from family difficulties themselves regard the offence the greatest of which some one else can be guilty, but I accepted the consequences, and felt relief when I knew I was finally rid of her.

I had accumulated a good deal of property during my career as a shipmaster, and I left it all, except the ship, and in such condition that she could use it. The ship I determined to keep as my share, as it was no more than half. My first idea was to locate somewhere-I had no idea where, but a long way off-and after Agnes had reached a reasoning age, to secretly write her the story I have written to you, and ask her to decide between us, in the hope that she would come to me. This hope supported me, and without it I could never have put into execution my plan of escape.

On reaching the first port after sailing from home, I pretended to find evidences of mutiny among the crew, which caused me a great deal of pain, for many of the men had been with me for years, and were as true and honest as men become, but it was necessary to carry out my plan, and I discharged them all. After they had left the place by taking positions on other ships, I engaged another crew, and went into another trade, which carried me thousands of miles further away from my own country. Again I discharged the crew, and after allowing the ship to be idle in the docks for several weeks, I rebuilt and repainted it in such a manner that its old acquaintances would not have known it had they encountered it on the high seas. I also changed the name. After another voyage, I sold the ship at a sacrifice, and took passage for my native land as Damon Barker, where I arrived after an absence of two years, and by mingling with seafaring men, I heard that the "Agnes" had been lost, which impression was generally accepted.

I then determined to locate in the West, and for this purpose bought the machinery which you have often seen in operation on Bull River, as I believed milling would be a profitable business. I worked for a time as a laborer in a mill, to become familiar with its workings, and I bribed the head man to teach me at night. How I came to locate within twenty miles of my wife and child, God only knows, for they arrived here before I did, although I did not know it until four years afterward, as I have already related. What has occurred since, you know.

One more paragraph, and I dismiss this part of my life forever. I have given an inference that I am an only child, which is true so far as my mother is concerned, but Mrs. Tremaine, whose disappearance with your father will give you an interest in the subject, was the child of my father's first marriage. I believe, although I do not know exactly why, that his first marriage was something like mine, and a few months after securing a divorce he was married secretly to my mother, who was but seventeen, and a member of an excellent family. While I knew where Mrs. Tremaine lived, and knew of her relation to me, I had never seen her but once or twice, which was long before I was married at all, and in my desperation when I first came to this country, I sent her a sum of money, accompanied by a letter of explanation, and entreated her to visit Bradford, and learn how the child prospered. It happened that she was widowed about that time, and instead of doing as I directed, she came out to live with me. I confess to you that I always disliked her, and was glad when she went away. Her husband was a quiet, good man, and I think he must have died of neglect, for she neglected everybody except sinners and drunkards. He was neither, and I think he died from indigestion, induced by living on food prepared by himself. That she was a failure as a woman, you and I know very well, and I have no doubt your unfortunate father admits it by this time.

I have told you, in brevity and in truth, my life, and I only ask that you destroy this immediately after you have finished the reading. If you treat me in the future as you have in the past, I shall believe that you think I was justified in my course; if your manner toward me changes, I will understand that I am censured, but do not refer to this matter in any manner in your future intercourse with me. I dismiss it forever.

Your friend,

Damon Barker.

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