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   Chapter 28 TOO LATE.

The Story of a Country Town By E. W. Howe Characters: 18314

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


THE fall of snow continued through the night, and during the following day, and there was grave doubt whether those who had been sent for could arrive in time for the funeral, for great drifts had collected in the roads, and it was very cold. The people who came in talked more of the weather than of the dead, and it was whispered among them that such a storm had never been known before in the history of the country. A man who had been out to dig the grave came in and whispered to his wife that the ground was frozen to a wonderful depth, and that those who were helping him could only work a few minutes at a time, and that the grave filled up with drifting snow almost as fast as they could throw it out.

This was on the afternoon of the next day, and as the evening wore on, lights were brought into the room where I sat. One by one the people who were at the house went away, leaving only those who were to watch through the night, and as each one went out, they remarked the severity of the weather, and shuddered and shivered before stepping out into the drifting snow. I believe I felt a relief when they were gone, for I desired to be alone. I hoped I was not ungrateful for their kindness, but the attentions the people showed me were almost annoying, and frequently during the day I left them, and repaired to one of the lonely upper rooms, where I tried to sleep, but I could only think of my mother lying cold and dead; of Jo in his lonely home, and of the mountain of snow which seemed to be covering up all hope of happiness for any of us.

My mother lay in the front room, which was almost as cold and cheerless as the outside, for when the watchers went in to see that all was right, which they did by turns, they wore heavy coverings, and shuddered, and came out again as soon as they could. A wide hall ran between that room and the one in which I sat, and straight down the hall was that part of the house where the watchers dozed by turns, and talked in low voices, which only came to me when the doors were opened.

As the night wore away the storm increased with every hour, and feeling that my mother was in a cheerless and lonely place, I got up and opened the door leading into the hall, and that which led into the room where the plain black coffin stood. As I went back I noticed that heavy blankets had been thrown at the foot of the front door, to keep out the drifting snow and keen winds, but in spite of them the snow had crept in, and was lying about in little drifts, which impressed me more than ever with the severity of the storm on the outside. Going into the room where the watchers were, I found them all asleep, though they wakened with an apology as I opened the door.

Knowing that they were all tired and worn out, I told them to sleep if they could, and that I would watch until midnight, when I would call them if I tired of the undertaking. Going back to my own room-the one in which my mother had sat, and where the light was always kept burning-I stirred the fire and sat down again. I glanced up at the clock to see what the hour was, but the pendulum was still, and then I remembered that it had been stopped when my mother died, for the first time within my recollection.

I must have fallen into a light sleep, and slept for some time, for, when I started up, the fire was low although I had left it burning brightly. Something, I could not tell what, had disturbed me, and I hastened into the other room to see that all was well. Everything remained as I had left it, and coming back I sat down to listen for the noise again. After listening for a time, without really expecting to hear anything, I was startled by a timid rapping at the front door. It frightened me so that I thought of calling the watchers, but finally determined to open the door myself, thinking it might be some of those who had been sent for. Going out and opening the door a little way, I saw that a strange man, wrapped up in mufflers and furs, was standing at the gate, as if he had despaired of an answer to his knock and was going away. After a moment of hesitation, he walked towards me, and I was almost tempted to shut and lock the door in his face, for I did not know him. He seemed to recognize me, however, for he walked into the house, and, passing me, sat down at the fire I had left, where he shivered and trembled so much that I thought he must be a belated traveller attracted by the friendly light, which was, perhaps the only one in the town.

As I stepped behind him to stir the fire, and looked at him curiously, I became aware that it was my father. His beard was gray, and his face wrapped for walking in the storm, but I knew him. The wanderer had returned at last, but too late! He continued to shiver and tremble, the result of agitation and the extreme cold through which he had come, and sat for a long time trying to warm himself, while I walked up and down the room in nervous agitation.

After stirring the fire, I closed the door leading into the hall, and stood by his side, and when he removed the wrappings from his neck and face, and looked curiously about, I saw that he was poorly clad, and that he was old and broken. He was timid in his manner, and looked at me as though he expected I would denounce him, and drive him out of the house, and when he moved, it was with difficulty, from which I thought he had walked a long distance. His shoes were wrapped in coarse bagging, which was tied to his feet with cords, and when he held out his hands to warm them, I saw that they were bruised and cracked, and I was sure he had been working as a laborer during his long absence.

"It is after midnight," he said at length, in a hesitating voice, as though he were afraid to speak. "Why are you here alone?"

Then he did not know! He had come back, as my mother always thought he would, at night, repentant and old, to ask forgiveness, but the one who could forgive him was dead. I did not know what to say or do, and walked up and down the room thinking how to answer. He followed my movements curiously for a time, and then suddenly cowered down into his chair again, as if to meditate over one of the old problems. While I was wondering how to break the news to him, he turned toward me, and said:-

"I saw the lights in the front room as I came up, but hoped it was a sign of welcome rather than of death; but I know now why you are alone. You need not explain."

The tears came into his eyes, but he tried to brush them away with his rough sleeve, as though he were a child and had been warned not to cry. I think he realized in a moment, while wondering why I was so much agitated, that she was dead, though he had cheerfully imagined, when approaching the house, that the lower rooms were lit up on purpose to receive him.

"She died this morning just after midnight," I said to him, coming over to his side, and placing my hand on his shoulder, "but I know she always believed you would come back. She sat in this room every night waiting, and her last words were a blessing on your name."

He did not look up, but I thought this assurance cheered him, though he remained motionless so long that I think he must have reviewed his entire life, from his boyhood in the backwoods to his manhood on the prairie, where the forbidden processions were always passing, and from his career in Twin Mounds through all his hard wanderings as an outcast; a long record of discontent, sorrow, and disgrace, with nothing to excuse it save the natural unrest with which his life had been beset like a hell. Inexplicable and monstrous as it was, I knew it was real, and that a devil had possession of him for whose acts he was unjustly held accountable. A hundred times since then I have thought of John Westlock as a worthy man driven by a fiend with whip and lash, always sullenly protesting, but never able to resist the evil which was bred against his nature, and against which he had struggled all his life.

I tried to decide in my own mind, as he was thinking, whether I knew him any better, and whether I was less afraid of him now than the day he went away, but I could not help concluding that he was the same mysterious man he had always been.

"If you will let me, I should like to look at her," he said, when he looked up again, in the voice of a suppliant asking a favor of a hard master, and so unlike him that I shuddered to think of the sorrow necessary to make such a change in a man of his disposition.

I was very anxious that the watchers should not see him; I don't know why, because his arrival and presence would certainly be known in all the town in the early morning, but I knew they would only look upon him with inward reproaches. From this I was anxious to shield him, and, carefully going to their door, I found they slept. I then went into the room where the coffin was, to remove the lid, which had been shut down, from the face. I was thankful that the face wore a pleasanter smile than I had ever seen it wear in life, and, placing the light where it fell directly upon it, I returned to where he sat, and motioned him to follow. He g

ot up from his chair with difficulty, and, staggering after me, hesitated before entering the room, but at last he followed me in timidly, and after looking at the face for a moment, fell on his knees before the coffin, and sobbed aloud. His grief was so great that I feared the watchers would hear him, and waken, but, determined that he should be left alone with the dead, I stood at the door to keep them back should they attempt to come out. But they slept on, and when I went into the room again, he was still on his knees, his hands covering his face as it rested on the coffin, and I thought he was praying. I had often bitterly denounced him in my own mind for the unhappiness he had brought upon our house, and for the misfortunes he had founded, but I forgave him from my heart as I saw his gray head bowed in repentance over the dead body of the principal sufferer; nor did I regard it as a kindness to him, but as an act of justice to an unfortunate man. I accepted his misery as his excuse, and forgave him, as I hope that I shall be forgiven.

When he was aroused by my touch on his shoulder, I led him gently away, and we returned to the room we had left. Here he hugged the fire again, as if he were still cold, and sat without speaking so long that I thought he was trying to solve the hardest problem of his life.

"It was I who made the mistake," he said finally, without changing his position, and as though we had been saying that some one had made a mistake. "She was always patient, but I was dissatisfied and restless. I thought that if I were married to a flashy, ambitious woman, nothing would be impossible; but I know now that her quiet patience and content were rare jewels which I spurned and neglected. I confess to you now that I was wrong, and that she was right."

He seemed never to have confessed this to himself before, and repeated it, so there could be no mistake.

"I thought I was more a man than I really was, and that there was nothing I could not do, but I have found"-he looked at his rough clothes as if I could judge by them that he had had a hard struggle in finding it out-"I have found that I could not rid my mind of unrest for committing a wrong. During all the years I have been away I have carried a heavy cross, and worn a crown of thorns on my forehead, in repentance, but since she is dead, and I cannot ask her to forgive me, I must continue to travel the long road, and carry my burden. She could have lightened it, but she is dead, and I must carry it on and on until I fall exhausted into my dishonored grave."

I could not help thinking he would not be long compelled to carry his heavy cross, for now that the hope of finding his wife alive had left him, he was weak and trembling.

"Had I found her alive and well to-night," he continued "to remain here, and hide away where no one except my injured wife and son could see me, but as it is now, I will go out into the world again, before it is known that I returned at all, so that the charitable may think of me as dead."

I realized in a moment, without having had a thought of it before, that he would go away again, and hide from his accusers in Twin Mounds, but before I could protest he went on speaking, as if in a hurry to finish:-

"Of my history since I went away it is only necessary for you to know that I lived alone after the first three months, and worked hard that I might forget, but I could not, and within the last few years I have been travelling this way a little distance every month, and I only completed my long journey to-night. Of my companion-she is no longer my companion, nor has she been for years-I will only say she is as unhappy as I am. We separated within three months, and the first oath that ever passed my lips was a curse for her. We hated each other within a week, each blaming the other for the mistake, and I know no more of her now than she knows of me."

A suggestion of his old spirit returned while he was talking of B., and there was the old scowl upon his face, but it disappeared when he mentioned my mother again.

"Before I go I want to say that I was wrong; that I am repentant, and that my last breath will be spent in supplicating mercy for my crime against your mother. I was always a man of few words, and my heart was always stubborn, and I cannot make more of a confession than this. She was a good woman, and I was a bad man, and while she was brave and noble, and always true, I was everything I should not have been."

I could make no reply, though he looked at me as if expecting one.

"It may be of profit to you, who are young, to know that I have been punished for my offence. If I have had a moment's peace since I went away; if I have had an hour's sound and refreshing sleep; if I have not been in hell all the while, may God strike me dead: Day and night, night and day, always, everywhere, my crime has taken the shape of a demon, and taunted me; I have not looked into a book that I did not find accusing words staring at me; I have not heard a sound which did not mock me, and wherever I have gone I have heard the people telling what should be done with a man who ran away from his wife. If I avoided them they hunted me up, and told of a patient wife who was mourning for her runaway husband; God, the world seems to be full of such cases! However secretly I moved from place to place I met people who seemed to say: 'There he goes; there he goes; a man who has run away from his wife. Hate him; beat him; he is a coward; he is dangerous.' If I went into a church, the minister seemed to point at me and say: 'Put that man out; he has disgraced us. Put him out, I say, and hurry him from this honorable neighborhood. He is the man who has brought reproach on the church; put him out; put him out.' If I slept out in the fields to avoid them, the wind always blew from the direction of Twin Mounds, and there were moans in it which came from this house. The very cattle ran away from me, as if to say: 'He has been unjust to a woman; he will probably kill us; get up there, all of you, and run for your lives.' This is the life I have led, and which I have deserved. It is the price of discontent; if you have a trace of it in your nature, root it out! Be contented, though it kills you!"

He said this in great excitement, and, getting up, began slowly to wrap the comforter about his neck, and knowing his determined nature I felt that it would be impossible for me to persuade him to stay. Never in my life had I offered him a suggestion, and even in his present broken condition I was afraid of him.

"You probably remember," he said, pausing in the process of wrapping himself up, "that every year since I have been away a stranger has sent you money for your paper; first from one place and then from another. That stranger was your father, so that I know what a good son you have been, and how hard you have worked to support your mother, who was so cruelly neglected by me. I am satisfied that you have conducted my affairs with good judgment, and that I have been missed but little."

He got up at this and began to button his great-coat about him, and to wrap his scarf around his neck and head.

"Whether it is your judgment that I should or should not, I am going away again, and will never come back. I am not wanted here, though I see you would insist on my staying, but it is useless. I have made up my mind."

I had stepped before him, but he pushed me aside, and walked toward the door.

"Listen to me a moment," I said, taking hold of him. "You are poor and old; I am young, and have ready money. If you will not remain here, as Heaven knows I desire you should, take it with you. I have no one to care for now, and you need it. I will ask it on my knees if it will move you. It is all yours, and I shall feel guilty all my life if you refuse this request, fearing you are poor and in need of it."

"Rather than that," he answered, "I would live again in this town, where every man is my enemy and accuser. No, I will take none of the money; my needs are few and easily satisfied. But if you will grant me your forgiveness"-there was more tenderness in his voice as he said it than I had ever heard before-"I will take that."

I answered that he had suffered enough, and that I had already forgiven him; that we all had, and that we had long been sure that he had repented of his one fault.

"There are but few of us who have to answer for but one fault," I said. "I know nothing to your discredit except this one mistake."

He stood by this time near the door, with his hand on the latch, and, simply saying good-by, he opened it, and went out into the storm.

Determined to make one more effort to induce him to remain at home, I ran bareheaded into the street after him, floundering in the snow almost waist deep as I went, but he was already a considerable distance ahead of me, walking with long strides, and looking straight ahead. The louder I called to him the faster he walked, and after following him almost to where the stores and the square began, he turned the corner, and disappeared forever.

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