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   Chapter 34 THE GRAVE BY THE PATH.

The Story of a Country Town By E. W. Howe Characters: 11769

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


I HAVE heard that dreams go by contraries; whether they do or not Jo was in my mind a great deal that night, and he was once more free to go where he pleased, without the restraint of cruel stone walls and iron doors. I thought of him as I had seen him during the first year of his apprenticeship at Damon Barker's, when he was full of hope for the future, and tender as a child because of his love for Mateel, and we were happy together again, without knowledge of the unhappiness in both our lives.

I slept until rather a late hour, and was awakened by the sheriff from the jail, who came up to my bed in great excitement, holding a letter in his hand. I did not know how he got into the room, but supposed Barker was up before me, and had admitted him.

The letter was addressed to me, and, hurriedly opening it while yet in bed, I read:-

My Dear Old Friend,-When this shall fall into your hands, the plan I spoke to you about will have been carried into effect, and I shall be dead.

After several months of careful consideration-for I thought about it long before Bragg was killed-I determined to do myself a kindness by taking my own life, and I write this an hour before I carry that resolution into effect.

To a friend who has been as true as you have been, it is only necessary for me to say that I have fully justified myself in this course. Next to the horror I have of escaping from this jail, I have a horror of a public execution, which would certainly befall me, for I am guilty, and take so much pleasure in my guilt that I cannot deny it.

Since the first thought of taking my own life came into my mind, it has never been a horrible one, and when I first knew that Bragg was to marry Mateel, I resolved to kill him, and then myself. The first part of the resolve I carried out as I intended; the second will have been accomplished when this falls into your hands.

As I wrote just now I laid down my pen to consider whether I had any regrets in leaving the world. I found there was one; your sorrow when you read this, but beyond that, nothing. There is no reason why I should care to live, and there are a great many why I wish to die, the principal one being oblivion of my disgrace and crime. Whether the religion we were taught is true or not, I shall probably peacefully sleep a long time before I am judged, and I am almost willing to submit to a future of torture for a period of forgetfulness, for my trouble comes to me in my sleep of late, and I have no rest. My head is such a trouble to me now that I have feared that it will not die with my body, but after that I am buried it will still ache and toss about.

If I have a hope of the future at all-I don't know that I have-it is that when the Creator is collecting the dead for the judgment, He will shed a tear on my grave, and, knowing my unhappy life, permit me to sleep on. If this cannot be, my fate cannot be much worse elsewhere than it is here, and for the chance of oblivion I am willing to take the risk. In any event, my judge will be a just one, and I am willing to appear before Him.

I once told you that I hoped none of my friends would be permitted to look upon my dead face, therefore I request that you do not look at me when you visit the jail to arrange for my burial. I prefer that you remember my face as you saw it last night, when you went away, for you said it looked natural again. I am sure that when last you looked into my face I was smiling, and I want your recollection to be that of me. If you should see me dead, the horror would so fasten on your mind that you would always think of my eyes as set and staring, and of my face as pale and ghastly. Therefore I ask that you do not look at me, or permit any one else who has ever been my friend to do so.

You will find me ready for burial, as I shall dress for that purpose before taking the draught which will end my life. When I feel death approaching, I intend to fix in a position I have seen dead bodies lie in, so that I shall have to be disturbed as little as possible. It may please you to know that I died without pain; that I went to sleep, and never wakened. Among the books I had access to at Barker's was one on chemistry, and on pretence of illness I procured a drug which first put me into a pleasant sleep, and then killed me.

I want you to bury me in Fairview churchyard, near the path that leads toward our old home. Theodore Meek has three children buried near it, and there was so much sorrow when they died, and there was always so much love and kindness in that family, that I should like to be in their company. You and I always chose that path on our way to and from the church, and I shall think of two pairs of little feet forever travelling up and down it, spirits of the past, keeping vigil over my grave.

I am sure that you and Agnes will frequently visit it, and talk tenderly of me, and I hope that grim and honest Damon Barker will stop there when he passes the church, and go away in deep reflection. I have never imagined that Mateel will visit it, but if she should-if it should ever appear that I was in any way mistaken in this unhappy business-I hope you will come upon her while she is there, and say that Jo Erring loved her so much that he laid down his life for her sake.

Only say to the people with reference to me that I took life in a wicked moment, and gave my own to avenge it, and that I died in the full possession of all my faculties. They may be unable to understand why my life has been such a tragedy, but they can understand that I have made all the reparation possible for a crime which I could not help committing.

I have only to say now that if you could realize how unhappy I am, you would freely forgive my action, and feel that it was for the best, as I made you say before you went away. For your numberless acts of kindness

to me I can only thank you, which is a small return, but I have nothing else.

It is now eleven o'clock; in half an hour I shall be dead, and I find that I am stronger in my purpose than ever before. There is but one sad duty yet before me; that is to write good-by.

Jo Erring.

Barker and the sheriff were sitting beside me when I had finished reading the letter aloud, and while I was hurriedly dressing, I heard the sheriff say to Barker that after I left the jail the evening before, Jo fell in a heap on the floor, where he remained a long while, but at length recovered his composure, and stood looking out of the window in the direction I had taken until long after the night had come on. Later in the evening he pitied his lonely condition so much that he went in to sit awhile with him, but he had little to say, and showed a disposition to retire early. In the morning he remembered his strange agitation of the night before, and, opening the cell door soon after, he saw him lying on his bed, covered with a white sheet. Going in he found him dead, and dressed for burial, lying on his back, with his hands, in which was clutched the letter addressed to me, folded across his breast. He had not even told his wife of the discovery, so that in the minds of the people Jo Erring was still alive.

We went to the jail together, and, admitting ourselves to the room where the body lay, decided what to do. It was agreed that a coroner's jury should be summoned from among Jo's friends, who would hold an inquest immediately, after which we would take the body to Fairview for burial. Fortunately we found a number of his friends in town, among them Theodore Meek and Lytle Biggs, and, summoning them to the jail, they first heard of the death there. After we were all inside, I read the letter to them, and as none of them wished to look at the face after listening to what Jo had written, it was agreed that the coroner, who was a physician, should examine the body alone, and that the verdict should be in accordance with his discoveries. The verdict was death from poison, administered by his own hands, and we all signed it.

By the middle of the afternoon the Sheriff and his assistant had the body arranged in a neat burial case which Barker and I had procured, and, a messenger having been sent ahead to dig the grave and notify Agnes, at three o'clock the little procession left the jail yard for Fairview. Barker and I led the way with a light wagon, in which was the coffin, and a half dozen other vehicles followed, carrying a few people from town, and those of the Fairview men who had been on the jury. There was a great crowd present when we drove away, and as we passed down the street, a great many women and children came out of the different doors with offerings of flowers, which they either tossed to me or laid on the casket.

Owing to the slow pace at which we travelled, we did not come in sight of Fairview church until near dark, and just as the steeple appeared, there was a single stroke of the great bell. This continued at intervals until twenty-six strokes had been tolled, when it ceased entirely, which was quite right, as the deceased would not have been twenty-seven years old for several months.

We had halted in front of the gate by this time, and I saw that a great many people were present; that some of them carried lanterns, and that they respectfully uncovered their heads as they gathered about the wagon in which the coffin lay. Six stout young men appearing, they carried the casket to the grave by the path, where all the people followed, and it was put down on two sticks laid across it. If ever I felt an unfriendliness for the people there, it vanished as I stood sobbing by the grave of my only relative and best friend. Many of the women were softly crying, as I remembered them when they told of their heavy crosses and burdens at the experience meetings, and when some one of the number began singing a hymn full of hope and forgiveness, I thought I never could thank them enough for the kindness. I had expected that only a few idlers would attend; but all the neighborhood was there, and they showed that they loved Jo, and respected him, in spite of his crime. I had not shed a tear until I saw the open grave-my grief was so great that I could not find even that poor relief-but I could not control myself then, and wept as I never had before. I shuddered when I remembered that I had often sung in mockery the hymn the people were singing-how I hoped Jo had not!-but I am sure it was not intended for mockery, and that we did not think what we were doing.

There was a slight pause just before the straps were put under the coffin to lower it into the grave, and greatly to the surprise of every one, Rev. Goode Shepherd came pushing his way through the crowd. I saw in one glance that he was poorly dressed, and pale, and distressed, and, taking a place at the head of the grave, he delivered an address which I have never heard surpassed in tenderness, and paid a tribute to the dead which started the tears of the tired, sorrowing women afresh. When he had finished he raised his trembling hands to heaven, and prayed fervently for the peace and rest of all weary men beyond the grave. He then stepped aside to make room for the young men who were to lower the coffin, and though we looked for him afterward, he could not be found.

When the grave was filled up, I remember sitting down upon the mound, and sobbing afresh, and that the women who had known my mother-some of them had heard my first cry when I came into the world-put their hands tenderly on my head, and tried to comfort me. I could not thank them, or speak, and one by one they went away, until I was alone with my dead. But there was a figure which came to me then whose touch I could not mistake; oh, Agnes, how welcome to-night.

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