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The Story of a Country Town By E. W. Howe Characters: 23285

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

ALTHOUGH Jo came to Twin Mounds the day after my mother's burial, and a few times during the winter, I did not visit him for several months, for I dreaded to go into his house and find him alone in it. I hoped that Mateel would come back, and that their separation would cause them to be happier than they had been, but as Jo ceased his visits to town because I did not return them, at last I could do nothing else.

Another sorrow had been lately added to his life; the messenger who had been sent into the lower country to inform Gran Erring of her daughter's death returned a few days later with the information that my grandmother and grandfather were both dead. We had been so taken up with our own affairs of late that we had scarcely thought of them, as often we did not hear for a year at a time how they fared; and Jo felt that he had neglected them, although he knew they were never in need, for regularly every quarter he sent them an amount of money amply sufficient for their small necessities, which was partly in payment for the mill site, and according to agreement, though he had long since paid more than the place was worth. My grandfather had a relative in the lower country,-whether it was a brother, a sister, or an uncle, I never knew, nor do I know yet, our family relations were always so miserable,-and this relative, having probably heard of our other distresses, never notified us of his death, or that of his wife, which occurred a few months later. It was very disgraceful, and I felt almost as much humiliation over it as Jo.

The house and mill looked so gray when I came in sight of them that they reminded me of ghosts, although it was more from neglect than age, for neither of them was old, and there was a general air of decay everywhere which said plainly enough that something was wrong. The traveller who passed that way would have remarked it; he could not have known what it was, but he would have felt certain that a disappointed man lived in the house and carried on business in the mill. I have thought that the trees shading the mill pond drooped their heads in mortification at the history of the place, and certainly the water was quiet and subdued, like the master, except when it dashed into the race and after a furious onslaught on its old enemy, the wheel, fell exhausted into the peaceful river below.

I came upon the place late in the afternoon, at least half a year after Mateel went away, and seeing customers about the mill I went down there to find the proprietor, but the assistant was working alone, and said that Jo was probably up at the house. Going in there and failing to find him in the lower rooms, I went up the stairs, where I found him asleep in his room, but the noise of my footsteps awakened him. As he shook hands with me I could not help thinking of the skeleton that kept him awake at night, making it necessary for him to sleep during the day, for he was pale and haggard, and I am not certain but that I looked around for the closet in which it was kept.

The house was a very large one, and while he bathed his face after his long sleep, I walked through the rooms, which seemed so empty that the noise of my feet made echoes as though a troop were following me. When I went into Mateel's room, where I had left Jo sobbing on the bed on the dreadful night when his wife went away, I found it ready for her reception, as though she were expected to arrive at any time. The woman who kept the house, and who lived so near that she went home every night, had thrown all her woman's ingenuity into making the room tasteful and pretty, as a compliment to her wretched employer, and it was aired and dusted as regularly as though it had been regularly occupied. All the articles of ornament and comfort prepared by Mateel while she had lived there were in their accustomed places, and her picture, which had been taken shortly after her marriage, had been made gay by the kindhearted housekeeper in a pretty frame for the pleasure of the master, should he ever come in to look at it. There were seven or eight rooms besides this one, and I thought that a man in the best of spirits would have been lonely to stay there without companions.

When Jo joined me in the hall we went down stairs to supper, and after seeing that everything was at hand, the housekeeper left for home to prepare her husband's supper, leaving us alone. On looking about I saw that Jo had been adding articles of furniture during his wife's absence, as if to surprise and please her when she should finally return; and I have no doubt he was always expecting she would come back to-morrow, that fateful day which never arrives, though all of us expect so much of it. I think he believed every time he went to sleep that when he awakened she would be standing by his side, and from the miller and the housekeeper I learned that he turned quickly at every noise, expecting that it was the step of his returning wife. He never told me, but I believe that had she come back and said that she could not live without him they would have been much happier than they were before, and perhaps finished their lives in peace together. His life alone in the great house must have been a greater sorrow than his letter and the skeleton, and I think he would have consented to forget a great deal to avoid it.

He only mentioned his horror of the empty house at night in general terms, but I have always been convinced that his greatest trial was his loneliness, and that he would have closed the place and left it but for the hope that Mateel would surely come to-morrow; not as a humble suppliant, but as his wife, with a request that she be allowed to occupy her old place in the house, if not in his heart. Had Mateel opened the right door to his heart she would have found such a wealth of love and consideration there that she would never have ceased trying to reclaim it, for his love for her was so great that he could not have resisted the smallest effort. I do not remember that I thought this until I went to his house a half year after the separation, but I firmly believed it then, and I believe it yet. Perhaps I shall be better understood if I explain that while Jo was frequently at fault before the separation, six months of loneliness had wrought a great change in him, and he was willing to admit that his estimate of women was too high; that they were weak like himself, and that he was to blame for having made a serious matter of love. In the early days of his acquaintance with Mateel he had worshipped her as an angel rather than admired her as a woman, but he was now ready to give up his idol, and forgive her faults as she forgave his. He had regarded his marriage as a piece of unusual good fortune, whereby he secured a perfect being who would bring him only happiness in her train, but the experience of a few years had taught him that it was only a ceremony pledging two persons to charity for the failings of each other.

Many times after that I got up from my bed at night, after thinking about it, determined to go to Mateel, and tell her of my conviction, but upon consideration would conclude that she must know it, and that she did not desire a reconciliation. Although there was always an unspoken hope that such was not the case, Jo probably took this view of it-that she preferred to live without him. Perhaps I had better say that he did not ask her to come back for fear of the humiliating reply that she did not care to come, for he was always in doubt with reference to her.

When there was occasion Jo ran the mill at night, preferring to be there at work than alone in the house, and he was seldom in the mill at any other time, trusting his business almost entirely to his assistant, who, fortunately, was capable of managing it with Jo's advice. He told me after we had finished an early supper that he was to take charge at seven o'clock, and when that hour arrived we went down there and were soon alone. There was little to do, except to see that everything was running smoothly, and by the time Jo had made a general inspection it was dark, and we were seated in the largest room without a light, with nothing to disturb us except the subdued hum of the machinery, and the gentle fall of the water.

"It is out of the friendliest curiosity that I ask, Jo," I said to him in the course of the evening, "but have you heard nothing from Mateel since she went away?"

"Not a word," he replied with a long sigh. "I have not even seen any one who has spoken to her, unless it is Bragg, who passes here regularly every day, going to the Shepherds', and returning noisily at night. During the six months she has been away, I have not even seen her father, who formerly came to the mill quite frequently. I have about concluded that she is glad of the opportunity to be rid of me. I have always thought that she married me as a penance, and that she was determined to be an excellent wife in every way except that she could not love me. I think that sometimes she pitied my friendless condition, and was kind to me for that reason, for she was always that."

"But why do you not go to her," I asked, "and settle these doubts?"

"She went away," he replied, after thinking awhile, "without cause, and if she cared to prevent a separation, she would come back. It was an insult to me to allow that fellow to come into my house, and I only expected that she would tell him so. I did not doubt her womanly integrity, as she said; I only felt she wronged me in permitting him to annoy me. It would have been an easy thing for her to have said to him that his presence there was presumptuous and annoying to me, but instead she invited him in, and I suppose treated him civilly. I know she did this entirely out of considerations of politeness, but I regret that she did not have more consideration for me. I did wrong to run into the house with the intention of murdering him; I know I should have greeted him pleasantly, and made him believe that I cared nothing for him, but he had pursued me so long, and with so little reason, that his impudence caused me to lose all control. When she went away with him I took an oath that I would never think of her again; that should she come back to me on her knees, I would curse her, but I am so lonely that I should almost welcome her if she came to taunt me. I have not closed my eyes in natural sleep since she went away, and with the darkness come troops of faces to peer at me through the night. However bright I make the house, there are always dark corners, and the phantoms hide in them to attack me when the light is out. If I wonder whether she be gay or sad, I always conclude-I can't tell why-that she is quite content, and in the roar of the water I can hear her gay laughter; not as I ever heard her, but as Bragg heard her laugh when she was his young and pretty lover. In the rumbling of the wheels down below, when I sit here alone at night, I can distinguish the voices of them all; even Bragg is good humored, and Mrs. Shepherd, her husband, and Mateel seem to be mocking me with their merriment. Of course it is all fancy, but it is so real to me that I listen to it breathlessly, and sometimes it annoys me so much that I stop the wheels."

He had formerly talked of the matter in a resentful tone, but it was sorrowful now, as if he were convinced that he gave himself a credit he did not deserve when he thought she worried because he was unhappy.

"Frequently when there is nothing to occupy my attention all night," Jo said later in the evening, "I walk through the woods,

and steal up to her father's house, and remain under her window until the approach of day warns me to depart. I cannot say that I expect it, but I always hope that she will divine my presence, and speak to me, but the house is always dark, though I have heard them walking on the inside."

His habit of being startled at every noise, and nervously looking about, was growing upon him, for when some one appeared at the door, he went hastily into another part of the mill, to avoid him. It was only the miller come after something he had forgotten during the day, but Jo would not come back until after he had gone, not caring to see even him. In contrasting his present condition with his former manliness, I thought his sufferings must have been great to work such a change.

"The people who come here," he said, in explanation of his going away, "look at me as though I were a curiosity, and I avoid them. Although no one has told me what they say, I know what it is, and I do not care to meet them. At first I thought not to mind it, but among them all I did not find a single pitying face; they were all against me, and I determined to run from them and get out of their way. I see no one now except you, and there is nothing I dread so much as a pair of curious eyes, and a head containing a brain which I know must be conjecturing and wondering with reference to me."

I tried to laugh away this notion, although I knew it was well founded, but he paid little attention, and resumed what he was saying when interrupted by the entrance of the miller.

"When I light my lamp at night there are insects which seem to have a fatal fascination for the flame, and hover around it until they are wounded or killed. I am a good deal like them; I cannot give up Mateel, who is the cause of all my unhappiness, although I have every reason to believe that she does not even care for me. I hover about her as the insects hover about my lamp, and sooner or later I shall fall into the flame. I cannot help thinking now that she never kissed me voluntarily in her life. She has kissed me, of course, but it was only because she had heard that good wives-one of which she desired to be-showed that mark of affection for their husbands, but it was mechanical, as was every other kindness she ever showed me. I was not a hard critic when we were first married, as I am now, and I noticed it then, and my honest affection was frequently wounded because it was necessary for me to do all the loving. I am not certain that you understand what I mean; she was a good wife in every way except that it was an effort for her to love me; there was nothing natural about it, and I was never satisfied."

I had noticed this peculiarity in his wife many times myself, and wondered at it; for he was a handsome man, and sensible and considerate, and I was surprised that Mateel was not very fond of him, as I was. If I ever explained the matter to my own mind at all it was on the theory of Mr. Biggs, that the two people in a community the least suited to each other always got together and married.

"When we were first married," he continued, "I was greatly in debt, and very uncomfortable in consequence. I could not sleep at night for worrying about it, and once I told Mateel. She seemed very much concerned for a few moments, but soon forgot it entirely, and for weeks afterwards wondered why I was moody and silent. I owed everybody, and invented hundreds of ways to avoid the bills when they were due. I remember once I wrote in a disguised hand to a man who wanted his pay, that Mr. Erring was at present away collecting money, but that he would no doubt soon return, and make satisfactory settlement. I also said I knew Mr. Erring very well, and that although at present a little pushed, he was an honest man, and would soon be all right. I signed "Jo Erring" to the letter, with an L below it, intimating that a party named Leepson, Lawson, or Liar was one of his numerous clerks. At that time I made every mistake it was possible for a man to make; I knew absolutely nothing, and paid the highest tuition in the school of experience. At night, although she knew I was distressed from some cause, Mateel would lie down beside me, and after inquiring what was the matter, go to sleep before I had framed my answer. It was very absurd in me, but I frequently flounced around to waken her, that she might know I was still unable to sleep."

This was so ridiculous, and so like Jo, that I was really amused, though apparently he could not see why I should be, for he looked up in surprise at my merriment.

"I have never doubted that Mateel was constantly trying to do that which was right, but her nature was such that, although I recognized that she was a good woman, I was never contented. Perhaps this was wicked in me, but I always did the best I could, though in my weakness I was very often wrong. I despair of being able to explain to any one exactly what I mean, and probably I shall always seem to have been a ridiculous and unreasonable man, though I can fully justify myself in protesting against a life without hope. I only regret that Mateel is not as much concerned as I am, for then there would be a possibility of bridging the difficulty. When I think how careful you are of my wishes, and how easily you please me, I cannot help remembering how innocently Mateel did that which was distasteful, though all the time I realized that she was upright and honest, and a better woman than I was a man. I can only say in excuse of my conduct that the more contemptible I became in all other eyes than yours and my own-I believe you would love me even though I should commit murder-the more I hoped Mateel would realize the necessity of hunting out a remedy, and applying it, for I thought I would rather die than live as wretchedly as I did, but matters have grown steadily worse, and instead of understanding that whatever I did was prompted by love for her, she seems to believe that I am depraved and wicked. She had great sympathy for everybody and everything except me, and I have frequently found her weeping over a newspaper scrap when I was so much in need of her sympathy that I almost asked it on my knees. She was always thinking of the unfortunate birds, the unfortunate people, or worrying over distress of some kind, but upon my honor she never in her life, of her own motion, had any sympathy for my affairs. I was always robust, but occasionally I regretted that she was not anxious about my health. I never worked too hard, but I regretted she did not think so, and remonstrate with me in such a way as to prove that she had an interest in me. Before we were married and when I was building the mill, I worked harder than any man had ever before worked in Fairview, and really became quite pale and wan, but she never mentioned it. Although I was glad to do what I did for her, it would have pleased me had she said I was a worthy man for it, and encouraged me a little. I suppose she thought everything came to me naturally and easily, but it did not. Or she may have thought that much that I did for her was the work of the Lord. What makes me most miserable of all, however, is the certainty that she possesses all the womanly tenderness I feel the lack of, but I was not the man to bring it out. It was the misfortune of both of us."

I thought of what he had said about becoming a hard critic, but he was criticising himself rather than his wife, for he always gave me the impression that the trouble was his own failure to inspire her love and enthusiasm. I regarded this as an admission from his bleeding heart that, had she married Clinton Bragg, there would have been no cause for complaint.

"I often set about to make Mateel happy, and I always accomplished it," my moody companion said at another time. "I could tell it in her face, and in her pleasant surprises, but although she has always said that she had no other ambition in life than to make me contented, she never succeeded in a single instance. I should have continued this devotion to her happiness all my life had she been able to give me anything in return, but I grew tired of always being considerate of others, while no one was considerate of me. I hope I may say this without causing a suspicion in your mind that I was contemptible, for I should have been perfectly content had she anticipated my wishes as you do, or as Agnes did for both of us when we were boys. If I was enthusiastic over my small successes, she did not share it with me, and made me feel silly that I was so easily moved; everything she did (although it was not intended, I am certain of that) was an accusation that she was the right woman, though I was the wrong man. I make these statements more in explanation of my own conduct, which seems inexplicable, than to accuse her, for every one must be saying that I am wrong.

"And while I have lacked the sympathy of my wife, I have also lacked the sympathy of the people. They say I am too prosperous, although I have simply had an ambition to be an honest and worthy man; others might have been equally prosperous had they denied themselves and worked as hard as I have done. Many of the Fairview men are suspicious of those who use punctuation marks in their letters and spell their words correctly. They go a long way around me to patronize my rival up the river, but somehow he does not get along, for he is extravagant, while I save and work hard that I may live in a house like a man, instead of in a shed, like the cattle. The vagrants who idle in the shadow of my buildings say that I am 'lucky,' but they are incapable of understanding the work I do."

When the work we had set out to do was completed, it was near midnight, but after shutting down, Jo showed no disposition to return to the house, for I think he hated it, and was seldom there at night. There were boats on the mill pond, and I proposed a row. With his strong arms at the oars, we were soon far up the stream, and although I tried to rally him, he had little to say, except to answer my questions.

Two miles above the mill there was a bend in the river, and for a considerable distance I knew the road leading to the Shepherds' skirted the stream, and before we reached it I was certain we should find Clinton Bragg travelling it. I became so impressed with the idea that I suggested that we turn back, but with the strange fascination which always pursued him, Jo said he needed exercise, and continued to pull at the oars.

As I feared, when we came to the point where the road ran close to the river, Clinton Bragg appeared on horseback, riding leisurely toward town. It was rather a dark night, but we were so close to him that I could see that while we had tried to avoid noticing his presence, he stared insolently at us, and even slackened the speed of his horse.

Jo pretended not to see him, continuing to work at the oars, but I could hear his hot, heavy breathing, and knew that he was in great excitement. He had not been disposed to talk before, but I could get nothing out of him after this, and, changing places with him, I pulled the boat back to the mill in silence.

The next day was Sunday, and it happened that we saw Bragg pass, going toward the Shepherds' in the morning, and return at night, and Jo told me that it was always so; a day never passed of late that he did not come upon him going or coming, and from his fierce manner when he spoke of it I thought that if Bragg knew the danger he was in, he would travel the other road, for there was another one, which was several miles shorter.

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