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The Story of a Country Town By E. W. Howe Characters: 30321

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

DURING the fall following the summer when Agnes went to live with her new-found father at the mill, I was so occupied with my work, and with my mother, whose health was failing more rapidly than ever, that I met my old friends in Fairview only occasionally. Several times Jo came to Twin Mounds, but it was usually at night, as if he desired to meet as few of the people as possible, dreading the glances of wonder which his changed appearance attracted. Often I transacted business for him because of his dislike to come to town during the day, and went to great trouble on his account, but I was glad to do it, as I felt that I could never repay his acts of kindness to me.

He said to me often that nothing was so distasteful to him as wrangles over business affairs, as if nothing in the world was so important as the possession of money, and that he allowed himself to be robbed rather than dispute and quarrel, which knowledge I am afraid his customers often used to their own advantage. His business remained profitable, I also heard him say, because he had to keep busy to avoid self-destruction, and that motive seemed to succeed quite as well as the nobler one of ambition.

If he came to the house, and met my mother, her painful condition had a bad effect upon him, so that he finally avoided her, usually coming to the office in the evenings when he knew I should be there. I think she never knew he was in trouble, for I never told her, and she seldom talked to any one else, though she must have wondered at the remarkable change in his manner, for he had grown nervous to a painful degree, and looked anxiously about like a hunted man. Usually when he came to Twin Mounds he had no other errand than to be with me for a few hours; at these times he would go over his painful story in detail, and, in explaining his wretchedness, try to justify himself, talking of it in such a pitiful way that I became nervous myself in trying to devise some way out of the difficulty. He talked a great deal of how the people would blame him if they knew the story; how they would say his brain was softening, or that he ought to be sent to an asylum, and then he would put the case to me again, and ask me to judge if his trouble was not justified. I always believed that it was, more because I knew that my friend, a man of promise, was in distress, than because I had impartially judged it, and so I always told him, but this gave him little satisfaction, for he said that in my friendship for him perhaps I did not do Mateel the justice she deserved.

When the weather was fine, I drove him home at night, and I think we always met Bragg driving toward the town. Except that he was more of a dog than ever, there was little change in the fellow, and he moped about in his usual listless fashion, doing nothing but mischief, and occasionally becoming maudlin from drinking out of his bottle. He probably watched Jo's coming that he might meet him on the road as an annoyance, and I always trembled when I saw them meet, for Jo's hatred for him was intense, and he would have been delighted with the slightest excuse to beat him.

Once when he gave so little of the road that his wheels locked in ours, Jo sprang out, and, pulling him from his buggy with one hand, hit him such a blow with the other that he reeled and fell in the underbrush beside the road. I could not leave the team, or I should have sprung between them, but Jo realized his superior strength, and did not strike him the second time, but stood over him with every muscle quivering in restraint. The vicious horse was awed by his master's misfortune, and stood trembling in the road, as if afraid to move. When we drove on I saw Bragg pick himself up, and after wiping the blood from his face with leaves, climb into the buggy, and hurry away, and although night was coming on, I could see him on the next hill, an ugly speck on the horizon, still wiping away the blood, as though there had been a profuse flow. For several days after that when I met him I could see a livid mark on the left side of his face, and there was a cut on his lip which did not entirely heal for weeks.

I never knew, but I think it is probable that Mateel believed that I accused her more than I did, or that I rather encouraged Jo in his ugly moods, which was not the case, though I confess that I did little to effect a reconciliation, being impressed from the first that it was impossible. His humiliation was so intense that I could not bring myself to speak lightly of it, as though he were a weak man harboring a caprice, and I still believe that in this I was right. Anyway, she barely recognized my presence when I went there at night with her husband, and never spoke to me about the trouble between them. I was more impressed on each visit that she was helpless, and had not the strength to attempt to reclaim him from his depression, or else she had tried everything at the beginning and given up in despair. Had she attempted to win him back to her he would have told me, but as he only spoke of the ease with which she accepted his request to never show him the slightest attention, I am sure she never did.

Although I cannot now remember whether he told me directly, or whether I learned it from all that was said, I knew that he was always waiting for her to ask him to modify or withdraw his request, and that in the stillness of the night he prayed that she would at least come to him and regret his unhappiness, but if she was not indifferent to it all she was an admirable actress. I knew he would have gone to her but for this indifference, but she seemed to care so little about it that he was ashamed to go. Once in my presence-and often when I was not there-he apologized for his cruelty, but her manner indicated that the apology was unnecessary, and that there was no occasion to mention it. I felt that Jo was mortified at this, and that they were now further apart than ever.

Perhaps I worried so much about Jo at this time that I never tried to form an opinion as to whether she loved her husband as much as I knew he loved her, or whether her dejected manner was due to mortification or regret. I was witness to incidents which confirmed me in both these opinions, so that I think I must have concluded that one caused her as much trouble as the other. I often thought to speak to her and say she misjudged me; that I would gladly serve her if I could, and that in my friendship for Jo I had no unkind thought of her, but the favorable opportunity never came, and I neglected it.

Although at long intervals Agnes came to visit my mother, she usually went away again before I had seen her, and only once during this time did I find opportunity to visit her at the mill. It was in the winter, when my mother seemed much better, and I was greatly impressed by the change at the mill. The heavy wooden shutters formerly at the windows were taken down entirely, or left wide open; the thick growth of trees had been cleared out, and in every way the house seemed more cheerful than it had been. I could no longer, as I had done before, think of the house as the home of a desperate man who had retired with his ill-gotten gains and who was always expecting occasion to defend himself; and I thought I had never seen Agnes look so contented and happy as she did in her own home, although she had always been that. A great lump rose in my throat as I remembered that all of them seemed to be getting on better than myself, for as I looked around the pleasant place, the cheerless rooms at home, where my mother sat the day out and in again, appeared before me; I thought of the unhappiness at Jo's, where I intended to stop on my return, of my father wandering about, a homeless and disgraced man, and of my tiresome work, which seemed never to end, but I could not help feeling keen pleasure that patient Agnes had reason to be happy at last, as I knew she was, for every action showed it, and the house and everything in it seemed to be repeating it.

When I first went there as a boy to visit Barker the room which Agnes afterwards made into a parlor was used for storing sacks, and I never looked in at the door that I did not see venerable rats hurrying away to their holes, evidently as much alarmed at my presence as I was at theirs, and even the damp room where B. used to sit and collect moisture had dried out from having the sun often let into it. The great room above, where we had the suppers and the stories, was not much changed, except that it was cleaner and lighter, and the magic of a woman's touch was everywhere apparent. The box stove in which we had made the famous fires, the table at which Barker sat, and the revolving shelf where he kept his books, were just the same, and but for the presence of Agnes I should have imagined that the master had stepped into the next room to look through the mysterious boxes for relics to amuse the two barefoot boys who came over from Fairview occasionally to visit him. But I found that the boxes were no longer in the next room; they had been sent to the mill loft, for nothing was left to remind them that they had ever been separated, or that there had been a shadow across their path. The room where Jo and I had slept when visiting Barker was now occupied by Agnes herself, and I sat down by the window and told her how her father came in and stood beside the bed after we had retired, as if dreading to be left alone, where he remained until we were sound asleep; how I had wakened once in the middle of the night, and, creeping to his door, found him sitting at the table with his hat and coat on, as if ready to run away; how generous and considerate he had always been with us, and how we esteemed him as a noble man, and how glad I was that she had found in my old friend one greater than a friend. To this Agnes would only reply that there was nothing now to interfere with their peace and content except the knowledge that some of their old friends were in trouble.

Although I knew that Big Adam had followed Agnes to the mill, and become the assistant, I was made further aware of it by hearing him talking about his work while we were yet in the house, which sounded like distant thunder, for his voice seemed to have grown hoarser with age. When I went down to call on him he hugged me like a bear, and only released me when the miller himself appeared to greet me.

Big Adam seemed to be pleased with his new position, and he frequently came around to remark secretly to me that every family had its deaths by Indians, which I understood was a reference to the mysterious manner in which Agnes had found her father, and he was a sworn friend of Barker's because he seemed to hate his old enemy. When not engaged in this manner, Big Adam was rubbing against me, that I might get flour dust on my clothes, and understand that he was a miller, but after noticing it, he brushed me down with great ceremony and many apologies. As I walked about the mill with the proprietor, I heard the assistant draw a great many corks, and pour out liquor which seemed to be very old and rich, and which came out of the bottle in hoarse gurgles.

I could not help remarking of Barker that time had suddenly ceased to tell on him, and that he seemed to be growing younger; for all the distressed lines of care had disappeared from his face, and his eyes were brighter, and smiles were no longer strangers to him. His old habit of casting quick glances in every direction, as if always expecting the sudden arrival of a dreaded visitor, was no longer a characteristic; it had disappeared entirely, and instead he was quiet in his manner, and apparently quite at his ease. When I had known him in my boyhood, there were times when I feared him; when I expected him to break out in a violent temper, and, declaring that he was tired of a lawful existence, murder Jo and me with a volley from all his brass pistols at once, and set out to join his old companions, but now there was a serenity on his face which betokened peace and quiet content. He had no ambition beyond the happiness of his child and a quiet life at the mill, and as he had means in abundance, he had little to disturb and annoy him.

I did not have long to talk with him, as my visit was hurried, but he told me during the time that he was worried about Jo, and that if at any time I concluded that he needed his aid-I was with him more, and apt to know should that emergency arise-I had only to command him, no difference what the service was. I think he imagined the trouble was in some way connected with money, for he said repeatedly that he was now easy in that particular, and ready to assist his friends. When I told him it was not that, he was very much concerned, although he did not inquire further, and afterwards became grave and thoughtful in thinking about it.

In returning from this visit to Barker's-it was in mid-winter, a short time after the holidays-I was very much surprised to meet Jo Erring walking toward me in the road, apparently on his way to the mill. He stopped before I came up with him, as if considering whether he should go on, or back with me, and, settling it as I drove up, he stepped into the buggy and sat down beside me.

Although the day was cold, he said as we drove along that he had been walking through the woods to amuse himself, and was not going anywhere. I remember him particularly on this afternoon because he declared that he would not mention his trouble to me again, as even I must have concluded that he was in the wrong. I replied in such a way as to confirm him in this belief-through hesitancy in framing my answer, it must have been, for I did not mean to-and this hurt him so much that he looked away to hide his tears. I assured him that I never questioned his manliness in the matter, and only thought of it to pity him, but he would only say that he was about convinced himself that he was wrong, although he could not help it; he could not keep his thoughts off his humiliating marriage, and there was nothing left him but disgrace and ruin.

As I looked at him I became more than ever aware of his haggard, desperate appearance; of his nervous twitching, and the quick and excited way in which he did everything. He had formerly been very neat in his dress, but he was now careless in this regard, and instead of sitting upright beside me, he wobbled about, and seemed to be unjointed as well as uncomfortable. No position was easy for him, and at times he acted like a drunken man. He started several times to say something in justification of himself, but before he had fairly begun the sentence, he gave it up, and leaned back in his seat again, convinced that it was a waste of time to talk further about it, or remembering that he had resolved to say less in future. Perhaps he had thought so much over his trouble that his brain was tired, and it was painful to speak. Although he had previously been a robust man, he had grown pale and thin, and there were indications of fever in his face, though when I put the question to him, he said he was as well

as usual.

When we came in sight of his house-we were on the other side of the creek, opposite the mill-I was surprised to find Clinton Bragg's buggy hitched at the gate. At that time Jo was looking down at his feet, so that he did not see it, and I thought to turn around, and drive another way, but my unusual action attracted his notice, and he quickly raised his head. I shall never forget the look of indignation and horror which appeared on his face when he looked up, and, taking a second glance, he sprang out of the buggy, and ran toward the dam. I knew his intention was to cross it, and though it was a dangerous undertaking, he jumped the gaps in it like a desperate animal after prey.

The ford was a short distance below, but before I reached it, I saw him climbing the abrupt bluff on the other side, helping himself by grasping the underbrush, and slipping and falling on the frozen ground. I turned the corner of the mill at this moment, and drove into the ford, and when I came up to the house, Jo had disappeared on the inside. Hurriedly hitching the team, I almost ran into the house, fearing there would be murder done, but when I opened the door, and stepped in, I found them all in the front room-Clinton Bragg, pale and trembling, near the door; Jo, on the opposite side of the room, in a great state of excitement, and Mateel between them. I had never seen her assert herself before, and it awed her angry husband into submission. There was a look of dignity in her face, and her eyes flashed as I had never seen them. I could see she had been talking excitedly, and she continued after looking up as I came in:-

"You have insulted my womanhood by this action, and cast suspicion on my honor," she said, trembling violently. "The gentleman drove up but a moment ago on a trifling errand from my mother, and I could do nothing else than admit him. He sat down by the fire to warm, when you came bounding in like a jealous demon whose worst suspicions had been confirmed, and would have killed him had I not thrown myself in the way. You have given him reason to believe that you doubted my honor; every one who hears of this disgraceful proceeding will have the same opinion. You have wronged me in the most cruel manner, and I can no longer remain silent. In justice to myself as your wife I protest, and demand that you save me from disgrace by allowing him to depart in peace."

She was magnificent in her indignation, and Jo cowered before her, though there was so much hatred in his face that he looked like an animal.

"I shall ask him in your presence to take me back to my mother," Mateel went on to say, watching her husband narrowly, as if fearing that he would spring at Clinton Bragg at the suggestion, "to remain there until you come to me, and acknowledge that you were wrong." I felt sick and faint when she said it, for I believed that if she went away with Bragg she would never come back. "When you come to yourself you will respect me for it. I have allowed you so much liberty in the past that I feel that I must do this to vindicate your wife; to redeem her from the stain your disordered fancy has put upon her."

She swept past me and up the stairs to her room to prepare for the journey, and like a cowardly dog Bragg crept out behind her, and on out to the front gate, where he shivered and waited in the cold.

Her determination so impressed me as a mistaken one that I would have followed her up the stairs, and begged her to think again before taking the step, but Jo made a mute appeal to me to remain where I was, which I reluctantly did. Falling into a chair which stood near him, he raised his head occasionally to listen as his wife went about the room above where we sat, collecting a few articles into a package; when she stopped a moment he listened more eagerly than before, hoping, I have no doubt, that she was debating in her own mind whether her determination was not rash and hasty; he followed her footsteps as they came part way down the stairs; he followed them back into the room again, where she went as if something had been forgotten, and down the stairs until she paused timidly at the door, and as she pushed it open and came in he shuddered to see that she was dressed for the ride. I think he never doubted that she would come back, and say she had given it up, but when he saw that her determination continued he buried his face in his hands, and leaned his head on the back of the chair on which he sat.

I could see that Mateel had been weeping while out of the room, and that it was with great effort she maintained her composure. She stood near the door, buttoning her gloves, and spoke to me as much as to Jo:-

"I hope that what I am about to do is for the best; if it were not I am sure that God would not permit me to go away. Surely in His wisdom He would guide me differently if my action threatens to make us more unhappy than we have been."

She had finished putting on her gloves, and there was no further excuse for her to stay, but she remained, and trembled and hesitated.

"He has imagined so much," she was talking to me now, "that if I allow this to go unrebuked he will be confirmed in his unjust suspicions. I feel that if I do this it will be better for my husband, better for myself, and for all of us. I have heretofore said nothing submitting to a great many indignities which his changed disposition implied; but he has grown unhappier every day. It cannot be wrong if I ask that he respect my womanhood as I have always respected his manhood. I have felt that I have pursued a wrong course from the first; at this late day I attempt reparation, though it almost kills me to do it."

She had advanced a step or two toward her husband, and as he made no reply to what she said, she seemed anxious to justify her course still further, and continued, this time talking to both of us:-

"If I have failed to be an acceptable wife, it was because my husband's unhappiness distressed me so much that I was unable to accomplish all that my heart suggested. I have thought of this so much that my health has become impaired, and I have lost the power to act. I was a weak and puny girl; I fear I am a weaker woman, and if I seem to have been helpless in the sorrow which has come upon our house, it was because I was dumb at the enormity of it I tried in my weak way to explain it and effect a reconciliation, but he told me that everything I said made it worse. I could do nothing then but bear the burden bravely. He asked me as a favor to let him alone; as an obedient wife I did the best I could, hoping all the time that he would recall his cruel request. I have not dared to express my regret at his unhappiness, fearing he would not like it, and God is my witness that it is not my fault that we have lived as strangers so long."

As I paid respectful attention, and her husband none at all,-his face was turned from her,-she addressed herself to me again:-

"I hope it will be always understood that I am taking this step not in anger, but because I feel that I must do something. I cannot live as I have been living, and self-preservation suggests action of some kind. Perhaps what I am doing is not wise, but I can think of nothing else. I have always felt that I should have been more independent, and asserted myself more. I hope he will understand, and respect my determination."

Although I felt that I ought to interfere, I knew it was useless and idle, and perhaps would offend them both, so I held my peace.

"If he will ask me to remain," she was losing her dignity and composure very rapidly, and when I realized how pale and weak she was I wondered she had held up so long, "I will reconsider; or I will ask you to take me home, instead of Clinton Bragg, if he desires it. I will do anything he wishes."

Not a word, Jo? Will you refuse your trembling wife advice when she asks it, and then hold her responsible if she adopts the wrong course?

When Jo did not reply, Mateel seemed to think that there was nothing left for her to do but to go, and never come back; and walking over to him, she said in a voice which has since remained a sob in my memory:-

"Won't you bid me good-by?"

He remained still and motionless, as before.

Falling on her knees before him, and holding her hands out to him imploringly, she repeated the request, but he did not move or speak, and after waiting a moment, Mateel rose to her feet in a dazed sort of way, and, staggering toward the door, went out into the hall and down the steps, without once looking back. When he heard the door close upon her, Jo ran to the window, and as he looked out his breathing was short and quick. Standing beside him, I saw that a snow-storm was commencing, and that the day was far advanced. Bragg helped Mateel into the buggy with an insolent sort of politeness, and, seating himself beside her, drove away.

After they had passed down the hill which led to the ford, Jo sprang nimbly up to the sill of the window, and eagerly watched them. As soon as they passed out of sight from that position, he jumped down, and ran up the stairs, and when I followed, I found him standing in the window in Mateel's room, peering after his rapidly departing wife. As they drove out of the ford, and into the edge of the woods, they were for a moment in full view, but, turning directly away, were soon lost in the gathering twilight. Hoping that a turn in the road, or an opening in the timber, would reveal them again, he remained watching for several minutes, jumping down, and running hurriedly from window to window. When he was at last certain that they had finally gone, he got down slowly from his perch, and, throwing himself on the bed, wept and sobbed aloud.

Knowing that I could not leave him, and that I was expected at home, I went down to the mill, and asked the assistant to drive to town and inform my mother that Jo was ill, and that I should not return till morning. This he readily agreed to do and was soon on the way.

Returning to the house, I soon had the lamps lighted, and the fires burning, and went up stairs to where Jo still lay motionless on the bed. He had not changed his position, although he was no longer sobbing except at long intervals, like a child recovering from a protracted period of weeping. I now noticed for the first time that he was much like my mother in his sullen grief, for a hundred times I had sat beside her bed for hours when she was depressed, asking her to speak to me, but while she seemed to appreciate my thoughtfulness in remaining with her, she would never answer, but tossed about from side to side, always avoiding my eyes. I repeatedly asked him if there was anything I could do, but he would not reply, and at last covered his head, as if he would hide his sorrow from me. Out of consideration for him, I removed the light to another room, and, returning, sat down in the darkness by his side.

An hour passed, and then another, and still another, and nothing could be heard but the ticking of the clock, and the occasional sighs of the unhappy man on the bed, which became so painful to me that I began to watch for and dread them, and wonder whether the most pitiful thing in the world was not a strong man weeping. I have since heard my own children sob in their sleep as Jo Erring did that night, and felt again how wretched I was as I sat there waiting for him to speak.

When it was time for the man to return from town, I began to listen for the first noise of his approach, until at last, becoming nervous that he delayed so long, I went down to the front door, and out to the gate to look down the road, when I found that the snow was falling in earnest, threatening a great storm. Another hour passed, and at last I heard the sound of wheels. Hurrying down to the gate, I received from the hands of the assistant a note, and when I went back to the light, I was alarmed to find that it was from a neighbor of ours, and to the effect that my mother was dangerously ill, and that my coming should not be delayed. I went into Jo's room, and told him of it, hoping he would propose to go to town with me, but as he paid no attention, I left the note on the table beside him, and hurried away.

The horses were jaded from the long day's work, but I urged them along the rough roads at a rapid pace. Every bush had grown into a white-robed phantom, and I imagined that one of them was my father, pleading to be taken up, and hurried to the end of his long journey; that another was my mother come out to meet me, distressed at my long delay; in still another I could see a resemblance to Jo as I left him lying on the bed, except that the drapery of white covered everything. I saw Mateel kneeling at a tomb in which I thought must be buried her hope, and so many mounds took the shape of graves that I mercilessly lashed the horses, and it was but an hour after midnight when the lights of Twin Mounds began to appear. When I came into the town, the houses seemed to be great monuments of white, as though the people had said their prayers and died when the snow came, and down the street I could see the light which was always shining for one who never came.

When I hurried into the house I saw that my mother's room was full of pitying faces, and that the people made way for me as I approached the pale form on the bed. I was so frightened that I could do nothing but kneel down, and burst into tears, and while I knelt thus I knew that my mother's hand was placed lovingly on my head. When I recovered sufficient composure to look at her, I saw that she was lying precisely as I had left Jo; her arms thrown out carelessly on either side, and there were tears in her eyes, and a look of inexpressible grief on her face. Occasionally she took a long breath, and sobbed, as her brother had done, and she turned her head away from me, as he had done, but not until I saw that there was blood on her lips, when it was softly explained in answer to my look of alarm that she had had a h?morrhage. I tried to make myself believe that it was but an attack which would soon be over, but the people who were gathered about were so serious that my tears came afresh, and I could do nothing but hope.

She had turned her face away from me, and remained in that position so long that it was suggested that perhaps she was asleep. Some one went softly around to that side of the room to see her face, and looking at the others in quick alarm, they came crowding around the bed: the patient watcher was dead.

Let the bleak winds take up the cry of the unhappy son, and carry it across rivers and fields to the wanderer, that he need not return; that the light in the window has gone out, and that the watcher who waited so long to forgive him is dead. Let them look for him in all the places where hunted men hide, and deliver the message that a pitying angel came, and, taking the light which offered forgiveness and peace so long, planted it in the heavens, where it will remain forever, a pitying star, offering mercy to all men who are weary and in distress.

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