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The Story of a Country Town By E. W. Howe Characters: 23997

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

THERE had never been a murder in Fairview before, or the sight of a man who had died a violent death, and when I looked out of the grated windows a few hours after midday-for we both slept long and soundly once we were in the hard and cheerless prison beds-I saw that the news had spread rapidly, for the town was already full of people, curious to look at the body and talk of the tragedy. A misty rain was falling, a continuation of the storm of the night before, and a fog spread over the town, and a crowd of people was collected in front of the jail, looking curiously up at the windows, as though they were likely to catch a glimpse of the culprit. When one of the number went up to the court-house, his place in the mud and mire in front of the jail was immediately taken by some one who came from the court-house, and I supposed that the dead man was on exhibition there. I scanned the upturned faces eagerly for looks of sympathy for Jo, for from my perch I could look into them without being seen but I could only make out that the people were no more than curious. Occasionally a knot of men gathered about one of their number while he expressed an opinion, and though I could not hear all that was said, I distinguished enough to convince me that there was no regret that Clinton Bragg was dead.

Late in the afternoon I left the jail by the entrance used by the sheriff's family, without attracting attention, and went into the court-house, where the body was on exhibition. The crowd then present did not know my relation to Jo, with which circumstance I was pleased, and I looked at the sight as any other idler would. He was lying in the middle of the assembly room, on a wide plank, and I judged the coroner's jury had not yet assembled, for it was still in the condition in which it was found.

The clothing was wet from lying out in the rain, and I was certain the face retained the expression it wore when I had passed it in the woods, for it was horrible to look at. A livid mark ran round the neck, showing the prints of fingers; the tongue protruded from the mouth, and the eyes started from their sockets, precisely as would have been the case had Clinton Bragg been hanged, and altogether the sight was so horrible that I wondered the people did not leave it in terror, as I did, and hurry away, for the sight made me sick and faint. But the people continued to arrive by every road, and hurry to the court-house, and then to the jail, to look up curiously at the windows, and I was so anxious to avoid them and their questions that, after a few minutes with Martin, I hurried back to the jail, and was again admitted, where I found Jo still lying about in his night-clothes, apparently very comfortable and unconcerned. He had been asleep most of the day, lounging about in an easy way precisely as I have since known men to do who spent a rainy Sunday in their rooms. The fierce manner which had distinguished him the night before was gone, and in its place was a sort of contentment that was very surprising under the circumstances. He had but little to say, making no inquiries, when I returned, as to where I had been, and, a short time after the lamps were brought in for the night, he excused himself, and lying down on his cot went to sleep, after pleasantly wishing me good-night.

The main road leading toward the Fairview country ran past the outer wall of the jail, a part of it being built on the street line, and for hours I heard the wagons rattling past, filled with crowds of men returning home, who were sitting close together and talking in low tones. I turned down the light, and, climbing up to the single window which looked that way, watched them, and tried to conjecture what the verdict would be, but their curiosity was satisfied, and they were now only intent on getting home and repeating the story to others, who would in turn repeat it, and spread the news through the woods, over the prairies, and into the valleys, where it would be talked of and wondered at, and be voted the greatest wonder, and the greatest horror, that ever had happened.

The coroner and a jury examined the body the next day, and when it was learned that the only witness of the affray was very ill, it was agreed to adjourn the inquest until a time when she was better, and Clinton Bragg was buried in a grave which was at first thought to be temporary, but it proved his final resting place, as the remains were never disturbed.

At Jo's earnest request-it was the rule anyway, I believe-the jailer allowed none of the curious to see him, and after he was locked up I slept there every night. Fortunately there were only a few petty offenders in the jail, which gave us an entire room to ourselves, and bringing in furniture and beds from the house, I made the place as comfortable as possible. I covered the walls with pictures, and scarcely a day passed that something was not left with me for the prisoner. The sheriff being a kindly man, and an old friend of ours, he trusted me fully, so that had I been disposed I could have easily released Jo, or furnished him means of escape.

I have thought that the sheriff often looked at me in surprise that I did not take advantage of the liberty given me, and get him away, and he often went into the cell himself to talk cheerfully and hopefully. In many of the packages sent me were fire-arms, drills, files, and chisels, as well as little articles of comfort, and in almost every one notes written in heavy hands saying that no harm should come to Jo, but we handed these over to the officer in return for his kindness, who good-naturedly guessed with us who sent them.

Jo seemed to be more contented than since the night he came to me with the fatal letter, and spent his days in reading, and lounging about. I thought of him as a man taking a long-contemplated rest from weary work, and as one who thoroughly enjoyed his ease. Although there was always something of sadness in his manner, he was more like himself than since we were boys, and we spent our evenings so pleasantly together that I often regretted that we could not have been as contented as we were without the commission of so great a crime.

Before he went to prison he was unable to sleep at night, but now he retired to his bed early, and slept soundly. Indeed, frequently he did not waken until the middle of the day, as if he were making up for lost time, and often spoke thankfully of the circumstance that he could enjoy his rest again, as he did when a boy. His manner was so gentle that I thought of him as one who had been purified by great suffering, and if I had loved him before, in his misfortune and danger I loved him a thousand times more. After he had gone to sleep at night, it was my custom to toss about for a long while, thinking how we could avoid the consequences of his crime, and, after a troubled night, get up early in the morning to talk over and over again with those I had employed to advise me, for Jo would not see them. They had the greatest hope, and took unusual interest in the case, and I understood their policy would be to delay a trial as long as possible, when opportunities for his release would be plentiful enough. When they were finally forced to trial, they could at least secure a jury that would fail to agree, and as no one had seen the murder, they hoped to be able to establish that Bragg had fallen out of his buggy in fright when Jo appeared before him, thus permitting the wheels to run across his neck.

Damon Barker came to town on the second afternoon following the murder, accompanied by Big Adam, who carried an immense club of green hickory with a knot on the end, as though he expected a few friends would attack the jail and release the prisoner, and during the grave interview between his master and myself, he kept critically examining the club, squinting along it to see if it were properly proportioned, or hefting it from the little end. With a piece of chalk he marked out a rude figure of a man on the wall, and after writing "Officer" over it in great capital letters, he stood off, and measured the distance he would have to stand from it in order to do effective service with his club. After this point was settled, he calculated by experiment where a man of the size of the figure could be injured most by striking, and having decided that the head was the place, he made an X with the chalk at the point selected, and practised until he could hit that spot every time. He did this with so much seriousness, and we were all so serious that day, that we paid little attention to him. When Barker inquired what time he could see Jo, and I answered "To-night," Big Adam said, in a voice hoarser than usual, "The earlier the better, and let those who stand in the way look out for their heads!" at the same time ominously shaking his stick of hickory. When informed that there was to be no rescue, he was very much disappointed and was silent the remainder of the day.

Barker was never a man of words, and he expressed no opinion about the matter, although he frequently said that at any time I needed him, I had only to say the word, no matter what the service might be. If he was at a loss to understand the difference between Jo's case and his own, he did not mention it, and held his peace. When he went to the prison to see Jo in the evening, I thought his word of greeting was almost a sob, as I remember him on the night he came to claim Agnes, but he soon recovered himself, and we spent the evening quite pleasantly. Big Adam, who accompanied us, spent his time in critically examining the bars at the windows, and in testing their strength, and he apparently became convinced that there was little hope in that direction, and that the only thing to do was to storm it from the outside. During the evening he wrote a note and asked me to deliver it to the sheriff, and after he went away I looked at it. It began, "My opinion of the officer," followed by the largest number of blasphemous words I have ever seen collected, though they had no reference to each other, every one being complete in itself, as an expression of hate. There were also a great many vile words mixed in with the blasphemous ones, and at the bottom he signed his name in full, whereby I came into possession of the fact that his full name was John Adam Casebolt.

At this time I cannot remember how long it was before Bragg's father came, but within an hour after his arrival he walked quietly into the office, and, after waiting my pleasure, asked me to tell the story of his son's death. He was a distressed sort of a man, as though he had had a great deal of trouble in his life, and I honestly tried to tell the circumstances of the death without prejudice. Of Bragg's systematic persecution of Jo; of his aimless excursions past his house; of his insolence and over-bearance, I spoke at considerable length, and detailed numerous instances when I knew he had passed the mill at midnight, though he had not been at the Shepherds'. I told him of his son's renewed attentions after the separation, though he had been the cause of it, and I expressed the opinion that he had brought about the marriage, not for love of Mateel, but for revenge on a man who had never harmed him, for she was such a hopeless invalid that marriage with any one was the merest farce.

He made no replies to anything I said, but occasionally asked a question to make a point clearer, and when I had finished, he thanked me for my trouble, and went out, walking past the jail on his way back to the hotel, and I thought he peered curiously up at the windows, as if he were anxious to see Jo.

I saw him a great deal after that, and knew that he was in consultation with an attorney, but he talked to no one else. After remaining two or three weeks, he quietly disappeared, and it was learned that he had returned home, leaving his case in the hands of the public prosecutor.

When I told

Jo of my strange visitor, he was much interested, and referred to him as a "poor fellow," saying it was too bad that he had travelled so far on such a sad journey. He inquired carefully after his personal appearance, his manners, etc., and I almost expected that he would ask that he be invited to see him.

It was my custom to leave the prison at an early hour in the morning and not return again until night, except to call cheerfully to Jo as I passed that way, but I always spent my evenings with him, and greatly enjoyed them because we were never disturbed.

When I came round to be admitted, Jo was always waiting for me, and one evening, when he had been unusually thoughtful, he said to me:-

"You remember I told you once of the haunted cave where the people went, and heard the sweetest strains of music, but which was soon broken into by a hideous tumult. I often visit the place now in my dreams, or in my fancy, and it has a new attraction: Some one is lost there, and there is no hope of a rescue. This is such a lonely place that sometimes when I lie here through the day waiting for you, I visit the place when I am awake. I am very familiar with the rugged path which leads through the dark ravine to its mouth, and when the day is bad I never fail to go. Although it is horrible, there is a certain fascination about it I am unable to resist.

"When last I visited it, I did not hear the music at all, but instead some one crying, which was drowned by the usual tumult. When this had subsided, I heard the same voice distinctly crying, 'Help! help! I am lost,' which so excited me that I awoke. Since then, every time I fall asleep I visit the cave, and after sitting a long while in silence, suddenly I hear the same agonizing cry, 'Help! help! I am lost.' Then come such pitiful sobs that I awake again. I have come to regard the man lost in the cave as myself, and while waiting to hear him call I have tried to invent a plan for his rescue, and wondered if you and Barker would not help me. Perhaps this is a premonition of my future; it may be that after I am dead, it will be my punishment to wander in a dark and gloomy place, unable to die, but forever calling, 'Help! help! I am lost.'

"I have thought, too, that it is possible, when I am sick and tired from wandering about and calling for help, always expecting that rescue is near at hand, that suddenly a light so great as to dazzle my poor eyes will appear; that I shall be permitted to see a beautiful place, with running streams and shady paths under the trees, and that I shall realize that it is the eternal city.

"As I look, Mateel and Bragg, attired in raiment befitting their new condition, will appear, happy in their perfected love. My imprisonment in that awful place will have unmanned me so much that I shall cry to them, 'Help! help! I am lost!' but they will not be permitted to hear, and when I stagger toward the blessed light, the figures will disappear, and I shall fall on my face in the darkness."

He always talked of the cave and the vision in such a mournful, hopeless way, that it greatly affected me, but he would soon rally, and become cheerful again, as though I had a right to expect that of him in return for my attention. He talked in this strain a great deal, and seemed to take more interest in it than in anything else, or it may have been a fascination which he could not avoid. Every evening when I came in he had a new experience with the cave or the vision to relate, and I shudder yet when I remember his descriptions of the man who was always wandering in the dark and awful place his fancy had created, and who was always calling for help which never came.

Although he was as much a mystery to me as ever, I never looked at him that I could not see his love for me. I did no more for him than anyone would have done under the same circumstances, but he talked about it a great deal, and expressed his gratitude that he had one friend in the world, in spite of his disgrace and crime.

Very often I assured him of the pleasure it gave me to be of service to him, and the keen regrets I felt that I could not do more, and at these times he turned his head away, and I believed that tears were in his eyes. I can never explain the sympathy and affection I felt for him while he was in prison, for, knowing him as I did, I could not help feeling that he was justified, and when I saw that he took no interest in the plans I proposed for his escaping the consequences, hope died within me, and I felt that when the time came, he would acknowledge his guilt, and ask me as his last request to attend him on the scaffold. Further than his remark that he would give his own life for the one he had taken, he but barely mentioned the tragedy in any way, and seemed only to be waiting to keep his oath.

Inasmuch as the coroner's jury had not yet assembled to listen to evidence in the case, the only witness being too ill to attend, I could not conjecture what course he would adopt when called upon to express himself, and I was afraid to ask him. He would not see the attorneys I had selected to advise me, saying in excuse that he was not ready, or that whatever I did represented him, so that I seemed to be the culprit rather than Jo, for I worried more about it, and was oftener in despair.

Only once during his confinement did he refer to the causes leading to the tragedy in the woods. I had been reading to him until far into the night, with the light between us as we lay on the rough prison cots, when he interrupted me by inquiring:-

"Are you quite sure that you fully forgive me for my desperate crime?"

"Yes, Jo."

"I might have been a credit to you instead of a disgrace had I acted differently," he said, turning on his side to look at me. "When you were reading just now I thought of the afternoon in Fairview when we went out to the hayloft to talk of our future, after it was announced that I was to go to Damon Barker's to live, and I thought that while we have turned out very much as we hoped we should, you were brave and patient in your sorrow, while I was utterly cast down by mine and ruined. Do you forgive me for that?"

"Yes, Jo; everything. I love you so much that I cannot think of your faults."

He turned on his back again, and remained quiet so long that I, too, thought of the Sunday afternoon in Fairview, and of what he had said. Jo was evidently thinking of the same thing, for at last he continued:-

"I remember of your mother saying to me once that she believed you and I would grow up into brave and honorable men; men who would love their wives and children instead of treating them as they were treated in Fairview, and I feel very guilty now that I realize that she was mistaken in her opinion of me. It would have been genuine bravery had I conquered my horror of the letter, my hate for Clinton Bragg, and made Mateel love me in spite of everything; but I did not know what the word meant then, though I do now, and your mother probably meant something like that. My boyhood was so wretched that I expected relief from wretchedness when I was married, but perhaps I should have known that unhappiness attends every condition in life, and that bravery and nobility consists in forgiving and forgetting, together with gentleness and capacity. My life has been one long mistake; I should think you would find it hard to forgive that, after expecting so much of me."

"No, Jo; not at all hard. If you are entitled to charity from me, I gave it without knowing it, for I only think of you to regret that a man so worthy has been so unfortunate. I never reproached you in my life."

"Although I believe you forgive me fully," he continued, "I cannot forgive myself, though I confess my weakness, and say that I always did the best I could. I conquered everything except shame over the contents of the letter and hate at the sight of Bragg. These dragged me down as discontent dragged John Westlock down; perhaps any man could be ruined if attacked at the right place."

Wiser men than you, Jo, are of that opinion, and I regarded it as the most eloquent defence he had ever made. Those who believe in their own strength have great charity for themselves and none at all for others, but those of us who are more candid, and learned in the world's affairs, acknowledge our own weakness in admitting the weakness of others.

"I am satisfied now that I made a mistake in thinking of love as it should be, not as it really is, and I unwisely built on that foundation, but I blame no one for it; a man who is ignorant should submit to the penalties without complaint. But I shall always think that I should have been very contented had it turned out as I expected; I shall always justify myself with the belief that had Mateel brought as much enthusiasm into our marriage contract as I did, we should have been of great use to each other. I hope you will not think hard of me if I say that she had the experience which I should have had, while I had the innocence and faith in marriage which a wife should possess."

He had little to say after that, and tossed about uneasily in his bed after I put out the light, which was unusual, for I had frequently remarked with surprise that he slept well in the jail, and seemed greatly refreshed by it. Perhaps he had never permitted himself to think of his wife until that evening since he had struggled with Bragg in the woods, and the indiscretion had brought on his old trouble, for if I dozed off, and wakened again, I found him pacing up and down the floor, as he had done so many nights in the house at the mill when he lived alone in it. As I watched him I tried to compute the number of weary miles he had travelled in this manner since the separation; up and down, from the right to the left, carrying his aching and troubled head, which refused him peace night and day; thinking, thinking, thinking; up and down from the right to the left; so the long road was travelled, growing more painful and difficult every day. I followed the road he had been travelling to where it ended and encountered a jail, in which Jo Erring's hope and ambition, the pride and comfort of my boyhood, were locked up, with my old friend, changed but little, pacing wearily up and down to see that there was no escape. Oh, Jo, my dearest friend, is there nothing I can do to lighten your sorrow? Must I watch you travelling a road which grows more suggestive of the damp of graves with every day's journey without putting out a hand to help you? Will you continue to put me off with no other reply than tears when I offer to help you until we enter the churchyard together, and I come out alone?

Getting up from my bed, I joined him in the walk, putting my arm through his, and as we paced up and down, encountering a cruel stone wall at every turn, I bitterly accused myself that I had not been with him more during his trouble, but when I mentioned it I knew that he believed I had done all I could, though he did not speak a word, and I could not see his face; I knew it, though I did not know why. Up and down, from the right to the left; I thought half the night had passed before he returned to his bed, and even then I was convinced that he ceased walking more out of consideration for me than because he was tired. When the first rays of morning light came straggling into the dismal place I wakened again, but Jo was not in bed; he had climbed up to the grated window, and was looking out in the direction of Fairview, motionless as a statue. What was in his mind will never be known, but I have always believed that it was a longing to see his wife and the house at the mill. I fell into a light sleep again, and when it was broad daylight, he was still looking longingly toward Fairview, the little world in which his simple life had been passed; where he had created and destroyed, and where he hoped to find rest at last in the shadow of the old church.

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