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The Story of a Country Town By E. W. Howe Characters: 21058

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

WHETHER Jo left a message with me for Mateel I do not now remember, it seems so long ago, but it must have been an unimportant one if he did, for, from the time of their separation to his death, he talked of her only as one who had deliberately meditated and agreed to his disgrace. Although he always loved her, he believed that his memory must have passed entirely out of her mind during the time they lived apart, and was ashamed to confess it, even to me, in the face of her contemplated marriage to Clinton Bragg, which she must have known was the greatest humiliation to which she could subject him, and if he left any word at all, it was only a regret that their lives had been mutually so unhappy. I had not seen her, or talked with any one who had, since the dreadful night when I carried her moaning into her father's house, and I knew nothing of her except occasional rumors which came to me from people who passed that way that she was very ill, and that but few went to the Shepherds', and that none of those who did ever saw Mateel.

But the appearance of her father at Jo's grave, and his tender tribute to the memory of my dead friend, affected me so much that I felt it my duty to call at their house before I slept. I cannot explain this determination further than that I was anxious to appear among them; it may have been that I wanted to tell them how good and brave Jo had always been, and how much he loved his wife to the last, or it might have been that I was convinced there was some terrible mistake on our part, for the appearance of Mr. Shepherd as we stood around the grave implied that he had one friend among them, although we had always imagined that they were all against him. However it was, I could not resist the impulse to call at their house that night, and when we arrived at the mill after the burial, I informed Barker and Agnes of my determination. They offered no objection, if they said anything at all, and I still remember that both bade me good-night tenderly when I drove away into the darkness, leaving them standing at their door.

There was a road from Barker's to the home of the Shepherds' which followed the river a distance, and then led up on to the divide where their house was built, and I was very familiar with it, having travelled it many times. It was the road which Jo had used on his visits to Mateel when he was an apprentice at Barker's, and part of it the road which Clinton Bragg had travelled on his fatal journey the night he was married to Mateel, and if I saw one spectre in the darkness around me, I saw a thousand. The story I have written was produced in white lines etched on the darkness of the night-Jo returning from the minister's house, young and hopeful; Jo going to his own home, with Mateel by his side, a little older, and looking careworn, but still hopeful; Jo coming toward Barker's after the separation from Mateel, with a frown upon his face so fierce and distressed that I could not tell whether his enemy should pity or fear him; Jo skulking behind the trees, and watching up the road; Jo carrying Mateel in his arms, and clambering up the hill which led from the mill to his house; Jo in jail, with the white shroud about him, under which none of us was to look, and wherever I turned my eyes, upward or downward, to the right or to the left, ahead or behind, was his grave, which I had just left at Fairview. Clinton Bragg was lying under every tree, first as I had seen him dead in the woods, and then as he lay surrounded by the crowd in the town, and walking wearily in front of me was my father, bending low under a heavy burden which he carried. If I whipped up the horses, and hurried on, the spectre disappeared for a moment, but after I had slowed up again, and had almost forgotten it in feeling my way through the trees, it appeared ahead of me as before, only that the load he carried was heavier, and that he pursued his journey with more difficulty. This fancy took such hold upon my imagination that I thought of the distant light which finally appeared as the lamp which always burned in my mother's room, toward which the bending figure was always travelling, and when it turned out to be a light in Mr. Shepherd's window, I looked about for the man with the load on his back, but he had disappeared, with Jo, and Bragg, and the rest of them.

My timid knock at the door was answered by Mr. Shepherd himself, who carried a light in his hand, as he did on the night when I had seen him last, and he seemed as much surprised as when I had stood on the same steps a few months before, bearing his moaning child in my arms, for he started back, and, throwing his unoccupied hand to his head, looked first at me and then around the room, as though he ought to recollect, but somehow could not. When he recovered himself, which he did apparently on discovering that I carried no insensible form in my arms, he set down the light he carried to the door, and asked me to be seated, which I did, feeling uncertain whether, after all, I had not better have remained away, not knowing what to say my errand was should he ask the question.

He put his hand to his head again, as if he always felt a pain there now, and could only forget it in moments of excitement, and then, resting his arm on the table at which he had seated himself, looked at the floor in the piteous, helpless way which was common to him. I thought if he had spoken it would have been that he was very sorry, but really he could not help it. He brushed the tears out of his eyes with his sleeve, as my father did when I had seen him last, and as though he had been warned not to cry, and for the first time in my life I thought the two were much alike; perhaps all men are alike when they are old, and poor, and broken. I knew now for the first time that he was distressed as much on Jo's account as on Mateel's; that there was equal pity in his heart for them both, for his manner indicated it as much as if he had made the declaration.

"My poor children," he said, as if they both stood before him, "how you both have suffered! And neither to blame. Both of them were always doing what they thought to be for the best, but always wrong. My poor children!"

I had never thought of this before; neither to blame, and always wrong, but I felt now that it was true. In my own mind I had accused Mateel, but her good old father called them both his unhappy children, and said neither was to blame, and in my heart I could not think less.

"When Mateel came home after the unfortunate separation," Mr. Shepherd continued, timidly looking about the room, as if to assure himself that no ghosts were present to accuse him, "although I thought it was but a temporary affair, I regretted it no more on account of the one than the other, and through it all-during the long months which have brought nothing to this house but bruised and broken hearts-I have had this sentiment, and no one has spoken ill of him here any more than they have spoken ill of Mateel. This is as true as that I have spoken it, for with the graves filling up around me so rapidly, I could not give reason for a wrong inference, even if I were anxious to excuse a mistaken action. Jo has always had justice done him here the same as Mateel."

I was surprised to hear this, for I had felt that Mrs. Shepherd and Bragg had upbraided Jo to Mateel, to induce her to take the step she did, and that her father held his peace, if he did not approve of it. We never talked about it, but this was the understanding Jo and I had, and I think we accepted it so thoroughly that we blamed Mateel that she permitted it. We thought she had little regard for her husband that she allowed her mother and Clinton Bragg to counsel her against him, and I began to realize that in this we had been cruel and unjust.

"I allowed them to do what they pleased," he went on again slowly and painfully, "hoping and praying it would all turn out for the best, but I always thought of Jo as one of my children, and have been tempted to call on him in his lonely home and tell him how sorry I was it had happened. I knew how unhappy a man of his fine ability must have been under such unfortunate circumstances, but my pride kept me from it. I see now that there has been too much pride all around in this affair; I have known it all the time, but-" I knew what he was going to say-"but I could not help it; really, I could not; I have done the best I could, but it has gone wrong in spite of me."

He was always saying that; everything went wrong in spite of him, which has been the experience of so many thousands before him, but I felt with a keen pang of conscience that he had done more than I, for while I was secretly blaming Mateel, he did not blame Jo; that while I had never thought of aiding a reconciliation, unless Mateel should ask it, that had been his one prayer and hope.

"I see now, after it is too late,-somehow I never see anything in time to be of use to others or to myself,-that this is all a dreadful mistake. You have not said it, but your coming here tells me that what I think is true; that he was always waiting for Mateel to come to him, and I know so well that she was always praying that he would come to her; not to ask forgiveness, but to say he missed her, and loved her, and that his home and heart were lonely. She was waiting for him to write her just a line-what a little thing to have prevented all this-that she must see him or die, as she will die now without it. He was expecting a simple request from his wife to come to her, and had it been sent, my brave Jo would have come though a thousand Braggs blocked the way."

He got up from his chair, and walked up and down the room, wringing his hands helplessly, and repeating: "My poor children; my poor children! How they have suffered!"

"We thought in our pride-how unjust it was I now see, though you have not said a word-that he was determined to live without her, and that he had steeled his heart against a reconciliation, and you believed that we were determined she should not go back to him except upon promises and conditions, but I swear to you my belief that she would have crawled on her knees to her old home had she believed he would have admitted her. From what has happened since, I know he loved her all the time, and that he was expecting a summons to come to her every moment of the day and night. What a little thing would have prevented all this; a word from you or me and it wou

ld have been done, but we have kept apart from the beginning until the end. We shall have to answer for it, I fear, and I shall not know what to say at the judgment."

I thought I knew what he would say: "I could not help it," but what would my own answer be? Perhaps only what millions of other trembling men will say: "I did the best I could; I did not think."

In looking toward him to make reply, and assure him that he was right in his generous surmise, I became aware that some one was standing just inside the door which led into the other room, and taking a quick glance I saw it was Mateel, dressed in a long white night-robe; that she waited rather than listened, and that she was much agitated. From the half-open door came the odor of a sick room, and in that one glance I saw that she was very pale, and very weak, and very ill.

Instinctively I moved in my chair, to get my face away from the door, instead of turning it, and betraying that I had seen her, and as I did this I heard her light step enter the room. I saw her father look up in wonder, and knew that her mother followed in a frightened way, and gently laid hands on her, entreating her to return, but she put them off, and came on toward me. I had only a side glance, but I could see that her eyes were riveted on me, and that she leaned forward in a supplicating way.

"Jo, my husband," she said timidly, and pausing to put her hands to her head, as her father had done, "why have you delayed coming so long?"

She fell on her knees when I did not reply, and looked at me with a pitiful face indicating that she would shortly burst out crying. I turned in my chair that she might see that I was not her husband, but her mind was troubled and she did not realize it. Indeed, when I looked steadily into her eyes, she seemed to take it as an accusation from Jo of neglect and dishonor, and she staggered to her feet again, as if determined to tell her story. There was a look of mingled timidity, sorrow, and sickness in her face which comes to me yet when I am alone, and which I can never forget.

"I was afraid you might not understand that I always wanted you to come," she said, coming near to me, and gently stroking my hand, as if hoping to thus induce a fierce man to listen until she had concluded, "but I thought you would, and night and day since I have been away from home-such a long time it has been; oh, such a very long time-I have expected you every moment. Every noise I have thought your step, and when I found it was not, I listened and hoped again. You have never been out of my thoughts for a moment, but my prayers have been answered, for I was always praying for you to come. I wanted to tell you how truly I have always loved you, and how unhappy and ill I have been without you."

It was turning out as I had expected after the appearance of Mr. Shepherd at the grave, but how distressed I was to realize that the explanation came after Jo was dead, and Mateel hopelessly ill, I am not competent to write; I could say nothing then, as I can write nothing now, of the horror I felt when I knew that all this misery had been unnecessary. As Mateel stood before me she staggered in her weakness, and her mother hurried to her side, but again she put her off, and stood erect with an effort.

"I must tell you, to relieve my own mind, if for nothing else, that I have always been true to you, and that I only consented to receive Clinton Bragg in this house in the hope that you would rescue me. I was afraid it might be wrong, but I did not know what else to do. I hoped that when you heard that he was coming here, you would walk in like the brave man that you are, and demand to know what it meant; then you would give me opportunity to explain, and I hoped you would praise me for making us happy again."

I thought that her father and mother were surprised at this, for they looked curiously at each other, and Mr. Shepherd's hand went to his head again-I thought to upbraid it for not discovering the secret sooner.

"I am sorry it has offended you, Jo, but I could think of nothing else, and I desired to see you so much. I was always weak and helpless, and perhaps I did wrong, but I felt that I must do something. When still you did not come, I let it be said that I intended to marry him, but it was all for love of my husband; God is my witness and I appeal to Him! I had no more thought of marrying him than I had of forgetting you, but because you still delayed, I let the time be set, believing that you would not allow it to go on, and give me opportunity to explain. When the day arrived, I determined to let it go on, and if you did not rescue me from him before I passed our home on the way to town, I would take one fond look at the place where I was once so happy, and kill myself, so that I might be carried dead where I was refused admission alive. I was very firm in this purpose, and would have carried it out. See, I have the knife yet."

She took from her bosom a dirk knife of peculiar pattern, which Barker had given Jo and me when we were boys, and we had sharpened it so often that the blade was very thin and delicate. She tested its sharpness by passing her finger across its edge, and, holding it toward me, asked me to see how keen it was.

"When you sprang out from among the trees on that dreadful night (I had been expecting you to spring out just as you did every moment during the ride), my joy was so great that I fainted, and when I awoke it was with such a strange feeling in my head; but I will recover soon and then we shall be happy once more. I can't remember when it happened; yesterday, maybe, but not long ago, and when I asked for you, mother said you had gone out, but would return presently if I waited patiently. After I had waited a long while I wanted to go to you, for I knew you loved me, and wanted me to come, but they said I must wait. I did whatever they told me, for they said I must or you would not come at all. But won't you speak to me now, since I have explained it all?"

She was again on her knees before me, and looking earnestly into my face; at first entreatingly, but suddenly I saw a change, and there was alarm in her pale face. She recognized me I thought, and I steadily looked at her that she might realize her mistake.

Hurriedly rising to her feet, she walked to the other side of the room, and stood beside her mother, with an arm on her shoulder, still looking at me in alarm and fright.

"Oh, mother," she said hesitatingly, "maybe it is not Jo. What if he should be dead and never know! Wouldn't that be terrible!"

She was so much exhausted now that she started wearily to return to her bed, still looking at me as she went, apparently better convinced than ever that I was not Jo, and her father and mother tenderly supported her as she walked. They slowly passed through the door and into her room, and I saw them gently lay her down, where she asked again in a weak but excited voice if it wouldn't be terrible if Jo were dead and would never know. I looked again, and saw Mr. Shepherd and his wife kneeling at the foot of the bed, convulsively sobbing, each one trying to comfort the other, and both of them trying to comfort Mateel. I noticed then that the minister and his wife were poorly dressed; that the furniture of the rooms was threadbare and old, and it came to my mind that they were very poor, and had been cruelly neglected by those around them. All these circumstances affected me so much that I stepped out at the front door to recover myself, and was surprised to find Agnes and Barker at the gate.

They explained that they had been oppressed with the same fear that oppressed me, and could not resist the temptation to drive over. I hurriedly told them that it was as I feared, and gave them as many particulars as I could before we went into the house. They were visibly affected, and as I pointed around at the general evidences of decay, in whispering the fear that during Mateel's illness, and while both were busy in caring for her, they had suffered from poverty, I became aware that Barker had been a friend to them during the time, sending them money and such comforts as the country afforded, although they never knew who befriended them. I cannot remember what it was he did to convince me of this, but I was certain of it, and the opinion was afterwards confirmed, for Agnes knew of it and told me.

It must have been an hour after midnight when we went into the house, and though the minister and his wife were surprised to see Barker and Agnes, they were pleased as well, and somehow seemed to think that matters would get on better now, for they were more cheerful than before, as though the neglect of their friends had been very humiliating.

Mateel had fallen into a light sleep soon after lying down, but she wakened in the course of an hour, and still talked of how long, how patiently, she had waited for Jo and how terrible it would be if he were dead and could never know. At times she seemed to realize that he would never come, when she remained silent a long while, as if to think it all over, but she would soon forget this, and say that while she was patient, and would wait as long as she could, she hoped he would hurry, as she was growing weak so fast, and was so anxious to see him and explain it all.

We were all very quiet, occasionally walking carefully from one room to another as a relief after sitting a long time in one position, and it so happened that we were all standing around Mateel's bed when she asked:-

"Father, do you believe Jo is in heaven?"

The good man was startled by the question, not knowing how to reply, but, after thinking a moment, he answered, speaking with an effort:-

"It is my hope of the future that when I enter the beautiful gates I shall find Jo Erring waiting for me, where I can explain away all that has seemed mysterious here. As I believe in the mercy of God, I expect to meet him and enjoy his intelligence and friendship, both of which I have always esteemed. As I believe in my wife and child, as I believe in my religion, I believe in Jo Erring."

The invalid seemed much pleased with this assurance, and simply said:-

"I am glad he will know that I was not fickle or false; for I will explain it to him."

She closed her eyes then, and we all stepped softly out of the room to allow her to sleep, but when her mother went back a few moments later she found that the unhappy woman was dead.

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