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The Story of a Country Town By E. W. Howe Characters: 16676

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

AFRAID to trust my own judgment with reference to Jo, whom I always thought of now as standing in the shadow of a scaffold, about four weeks after he went to jail, I resolved to visit the mill on Bull River and solicit Damon Barker's advice, which I knew would be friendly and sensible. He was a man of excellent judgment, and though he had been to Twin Mounds but once since the trouble, I knew he was ready at any time to aid Jo, as he had said, no difference what necessity might require, and that he was only waiting a summons, trusting to me to bring it. I felt sure that Jo's intention was to admit his guilt when called upon, and suffer the penalty, and I was not satisfied that I had done enough to dissuade him from the intention. Barker had great influence with him, and for this reason I sought his counsel and advice.

I intended to start in the middle of the afternoon, hoping to reach the mill by nightfall, and return early the next day, and an hour before my departure I went into the jail to announce to Jo that I would be away during the night. It was the first night I had been out of his company since his confinement in the prison, and I was therefore surprised that he seemed rather pleased with the prospect, though he apologized for it by saying that I had been there so long that I would enjoy a night out. He seemed to know that I was going to Barker's to talk about him, for he asked me to thank him and Agnes for any good they might find it in their hearts to say of him; and he said over and over again how kind we all were, and how much trouble we had been to on his account.

"You must not go away feeling down at heart, or ill at ease, but cheerful," he said, when I confessed that I was going to Barker's in his behalf. "I will tell you something that will please you. I have studied over this matter a great deal during the past few weeks, and have come to a conclusion that will relieve us all. I will only say now that it will end all confusion and worry, and that it is the very best thing that can be done. I know that you have confidence in my judgment, and will be content to wait until you return, when you shall know all. It is not a plan that will cause you more trouble, but one that will be a relief to you, therefore be as happy as you can while away, and carry my kindest wishes to Agnes and her father. Tell them that I am well, and that in a little while we shall be through worrying over this matter, for I have hit upon a plan to relieve us of it. It is sure to work, tell them, and that they need not fear as to that. I may say it is the only thing that can be done, which you will be glad to hear, for it is sometimes hard to hit upon the right plan, but after a great deal of thought I have it. You feel better now, do you not?"

I answered him that I did, which was the case, for I believed that while I was away during the day he was thinking, and hoped that he had hit upon something that would meet with the approval of all his friends. Probably it was an escape, and a life in some distant country, where I would join him in course of time, or perhaps a plea of self-defence, backed by circumstances of which I knew nothing, but at any rate I was sure the plan was a good one, for Jo did not often make mistakes in such matters, and I felt a relief of which I was greatly in need. I determined at once to bring Barker back with me to hear the plan, and aid in its execution.

"You look happier to-day," he said, taking both my hands in his own, "than I have seen you in a long while. I am very glad of that, and I hope I, too, look pleasant, for I am sure the plan is a good one. Do I not look much as I did when we were happy boys together; when I was your good friend, and loved you more than any one else in the world? Look at me and answer."

I did as he requested, and saw that there was the old cheerfulness in his smile, as there had been the old tenderness in his voice.

"A little older, and a little paler," I replied, "but certainly you look more natural to me this moment than you have for four years. And you look more like my old friend, too; for when we were boys, and you told me of your friendship, you were so earnest and feeling that tears came into your eyes. There are tears in your eyes now."

He did not brush them away, as I expected he would, but let them roll down his cheeks and fall to the floor.

"I did not know there were tears in my eyes until you spoke," he said. "But they are only tears of gratitude that I am permitted to have one friend like you."

He still held both my hands, and looked at me in such a way that I thought he was thinking he had a bold piece of work to demand of me to effect his release,-a part of his plan,-and that I would undertake it without hesitating, no matter what the risk, as I would have done.

"It is as much as a man ought to expect during his life to realize a friendship as pure and unselfish as yours has always been for me, and I want to say while I am looking in your eyes-please do not say it is nothing, for it is a great deal-that you have been the one solace of a very unhappy man. I may not have deserved it, but it has been given to me, and I love you as a bad man ought to love a good wife who has been faithful to him through all his misdeeds. I am very wicked, and have a wicked heart, but you can have it to say that you had all the love there was in one man's life. All the tenderness in my rough nature has been given to you, and no one else has ever found welcome in my heart. No one, not even my father or mother, divided my affection for you. It is not much, but it is all I have."

I assured him it was a great deal, and that it had been a comfort to me from the day I began to remember.

"You are the only one who was ever thoughtful or kind to me, though I have always coveted such attention," he added. "I suppose I deserved all the neglect I have received-I hope not, but I cannot think anything else-and you brought the only ray of genuine sunshine that ever found its way into my desolate heart; without you I should have been friendless all my life. I hope I could have made myself worthy of friends had they come in my way, but they never came, and I have had no other object in life than to deserve your good opinion. I am afraid I can never repay you, but I am very thankful."

He was very earnest, but not sad, and I believed he was telling me this because when I came back there would be active work to do, and a long separation, and when I turned again to call the keeper to release me, Jo said for me to remember that it was all for the best.

"All for the best, I am certain," I replied.

"And do I look cheerful again, as though I felt that what I say is true?"

"I have not seen a pleasant smile on your face before in a long while," I said, "and I feel greatly encouraged. I hope my recollection of you will always be as you appear now." There was a mingled look of bravery and tenderness in his face which made me very fond of him. "I am sure the plan is a good one, for it has made us both happier already."

"I am glad to hear you say that," he said, putting his hand through the little wicket to bid me good-by, when I was finally in the corridor, "and so it will turn out. But even if it did not meet your approval at first, you would not upbraid me, or think less of me than you do now?"

"No, Jo," I answered, for I thought that if ever a man was justified in breaking jail and hiding away in a place where he could make amends for his mistakes, he was. "I could not think less of you than I do, for even if my judgment should not accord with yours, I should believe it to be my own fault, and that I should finally discover that you were right. I have so much confidence in you that I am sure that the plan is a good one."

"I am glad to hear you say that," he repeated, "and so it will turn out. Good-by."

How his hand trembled in mine! I thought it was joy over the prospect of once more being free, and I had so much confidence in the friendship of the sheriff, who stood beside me, that I had a mind to tell him that Jo had at last consented to take advantage of the opportunities he delighted to give him, and escape; I was so pleased with it all that I thought I must talk to some one, but, thinking better of it, I

waved my hand gayly to the prisoner, and, passing out at the front door, was soon on my way to Fairview.

As I drove rapidly along the familiar road, I had a hundred pleasant conjectures of the morrow, when Jo would reveal to me the plan by which he was to be free. The one I fixed upon and took most pleasure in was an escape to some distant country, where I would follow him in a few months, and where we should live happily together the remainder of our lives. There was a rough rugged country beyond ours where hunted men went, and where no questions were asked, and I thought of our living together in a cabin on a mountain side, companions in toil and peace. I thought this plan might make it necessary for me to give up Agnes for a while, but her patience I knew was great, and she would think of me all the more kindly for the sacrifice I had made for love of Jo.

He had said there was nothing else to do; that surely meant a rapid flight to the mountains, for that was the speedy and the certain way out of the difficulty, and I almost rejoiced in it, for I determined to go with him at once, and leave my affairs to be settled up by Barker, who alone should know of my whereabouts. I even regarded it as a prospect of a happy relief from my weary work, and thought that while Jo would say it was best I should remain, and settle our joint affairs in person, I stoutly decided to go with him, and even planned how to get ready money for the purpose.

These thoughts so occupied my mind that I was surprised when I came in the vicinity of the mill, and also by the circumstance that it was growing dark, for I had taken no note of time. As was usually the case at that season of the year, the mill was in operation when I arrived a half hour after dark, and, hoping to find Agnes alone in the house, I dismounted at the side gate and went in. The evening being pleasant, the front door was wide open, and, stepping on the inside, I was debating whether they were not all down at the mill, when Agnes came out suddenly from the room, and stood beside me. It may have been surprise at her sudden appearance, but without thinking what I did, I put my arms about her, and kissed her.

"I have been in so much trouble of late," I said, still holding her in my arms, "and felt your absence so keenly, that I could not resist the temptation. I hope you will forgive me; I came on an important errand, but my distress has made me brave, and I cannot help showing how much I love you."

She was perfectly still, looking into my eyes, and I thought that, though it was the same sweet face, it was different from what it had ever been before; no longer the face of my patient friend, but the face of my sweetheart-a picture of a woman's perfect love.

"It has been so often necessary for you to forgive me-I always made so many mistakes, while you were so womanly-that you will forgive me once more for declaring, though I came on an errand in poor Jo's behalf, that I have loved you as man and boy for eight years; that you have been so necessary to me that I could not have lived but for the hope your friendship gave me. I have never been able to show you how dear you have been to me, I was always so awkward, but I show you my heart now, and declare what I may not have acted, that I have never had any other wish to live than that I might win you."

She attempted to speak, but I would not permit it, for I had not yet finished.

"When I was a boy, it was my hope of the future to become a worthy man, and prepare a home for homeless Agnes, who was always my friend, no matter how undeserving I was. In all my hard life, which has seemed like a night, you have been the kindly star which was always shining and bidding me hope. When your father came back to you, I feared that your happiness was so great that I could never again add to it, but even if this is so, I can no longer keep my secret. It has been crying out at its confinement for years, and I must tell you that I love you."

She remained silent and motionless so long that I began to fear that what I had said without believing was really true; that she was so happy with her father that she would never leave him, and that she was framing an answer that would not offend me.

"I have always known," she said at last, "that you loved me, and have always believed that some time you would come to me and declare it, just as you have to-night. It was my only wish ungratified, for nothing was lacking besides that to complete my happiness."

I pressed her closer to me, and for the first time in a great many months the tears came into my eyes until I could not see her. During all the trouble at Jo's my concern found no relief, but her love for me made me realize how wretched I had been, and in spite of all I could do the tears came into my eyes. I tried to apologize for the weakness, but she wiped the tears away so tenderly that I thought certainly there was never such a loving touch as hers, and blessed her for the hundredth time. I led her into the adjoining room, and when we sat down by the window, and opened the shutters, I saw by the moonlight which came streaming in that she was dressed in white, and that she so much resembled a pretty bride that I could not help holding her off from me, and admiring her.

"You remember I used to tell you," Agnes said, "that some day my ship would come in after a stormy voyage, and bring me many rich gifts. I think you always thought I referred to my father."

I acknowledged that I did.

"But really I referred to your coming to me, and telling me (as I believed you would) that you loved me. I never had a hope that my father was alive, and as I told you about my ship sailing toward me when you were but a boy-I was but a girl when I first came to Fairview-I must have referred to you, as I certainly did."

She was sitting near an open piano, and lightly touching the keys, I recognized the air of an old love song she had taught me the first year of our acquaintance, "In flattering dreams I dreamed thee mine."

"We were both so wretched during the first years of our acquaintance," Agnes said, "that I sometimes feared we must always remain apart, but I never for a moment thought you did not love me. I always knew it, and was constantly trying to deserve it. If I heard of you in a creditable connection, I was pleased, and strived harder than ever, and there never was a doubt but that you would come to me-some time; I did not know when-and tell me what you have told me to-night. I have nothing to wish for now except that I may be long spared to show you how much I love you for it."

We must have been very happy during the hour or more we sat by the window, for during that time I did not once think of Jo, nor should I have thought of him for a much longer time had not Barker's step on the walk aroused me.

We both went out to meet him-he had finished his work, and was coming to the house for the night-and, frightened at my neglect, I hurriedly ran over what I came to say. He looked at me in grave surprise, and, leading me back to the room, asked me to repeat what I had said.

I then told them both substantially what Jo had said to me on my leaving, and that I had come for him to go back with me, for I was sure that in this important emergency his cool judgment would be valuable. Agnes was very much pleased, but Barker was as grave as usual, and only said that he would return with me at once if I thought it necessary.

It was agreed that before we started we should refresh ourselves with food, and while Agnes was preparing it (how gay she was; I think even her father must have noticed it) he again inquired very particularly as to what Jo had said, and when I had finished, he went out and sat on the porch alone until Agnes called him. I believed he was thinking that, no matter what the plan was, he would not falter in his part in it, and I was so much encouraged that I went out to tell Agnes that within a week our dear friend Jo would be free.

During the drive back to town Barker was very grave, saying but little, and in consequence I drove rapidly. As we passed the jail I saw that all the lights were out, and supposing that Jo was asleep, we went on to the house to spend the night, and in a very little while I was fast asleep.

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