A New Home: Who'll Follow
Life in the Clearings
First published in 1839
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The windows of heaven were opened that night. The rain descended in sheets instead of drops; and it was only by an occasional flash of paly lightning that our unfortunate was able to find the house which he well recollected for John Harrington's. There it was in all its fresh whiteness and greenness, and its deep masses of foliage, and its rich screens of honeysuckle and sweet-briar, meet residence for a happy bridegroom and his new-found treasure. The upper half of the parlor shutters were unclosed, and plainly by the clear lamp-light could Henry see the delicate papering of the walls, the pretty French clock under its glass shade on the mantel-piece. Oh! for one glance at the table, near which he felt sure Agnes was sitting. Wild thoughts of the old song—"we took but ae kiss, an' we tore ourselves away," were coursing through his brain, and he was deliberating upon the chance that the end window, which looked on a piazza, might be free from the envious shutter, when a man ran against him in the dark. The next flash showed a great-coated figure entering the pretty rural gate to the little shrubbery; and in another moment the hall-door opened. Henry saw the interior, light and cheerful; and again all was dark.
It would have been very wrong to set the house on fire and then go and murder Job Jephson; and as Henry could not at the moment decide upon any other course of conduct, which would be at all in unison with his feelings, he set out, a human loco-motive at the top-speed, in the very teeth of the storm, on his way towards the sea-port again. The worse one feels, the faster one travels, hoping to out run sorrow; so it did not take Henry Beckworth long to reach a neighboring town, where he could find a stagecoach; and he was far at sea again in the course of a very few days.
His outre-mer adventures are of no importance to my story—how, as he stood with two or three mess-mates, staring, like a true Yankee, at the Tower of London, a press-gang seized them all, and rowed them to a vessel which layoff the Traitors' Gate, the Americans protesting themselves as such, and the John Bulls laughing at them;—how, when they got on board the man o' war, they showed their protections, and the officer of his Majesty's recruiting service said he could do nothing in the case till the ship returned from her cruize—and how the ship did not return from her cruize, but after cruizing about for some three years or more, was taken by a French first-rate and carried into Brest. All this is but little to the purpose. But when Henry was thrown into a French prison, his American certificate procured his release through the consul's good offices, and he shipped at once for New-York, somewhat weary of a sea life.
At New-York he learned from a townsman whom he met there that Agnes Harrington had been two years a widow.
"Is she rich?" asked Henry. A strange question for a true lover.
"Rich!—Lord bless ye! John Harrington wasn't worth that;" snapping his fingers most expressively. "His property was under mortgage to such an extent, that all it would sell for wouldn't clear it. His widow and child will not have a cent after old Horner forecloses, as he is now about doing. And Mrs. Harrington's health is very poor, though to my thinking she's prettier than ever."
Henry's movements were but little impeded by baggage, and the journey to Langton was performed in a short time. Once more was he set down at Job Jephson's; and there was day-light enough this time to see, besides the oval sign before hinted at, which had for years held out hopes of "Entertainment for man and beast," a legend over the door in great white characters. "Post office,"—"good business for Job," thought Henry Beckworth,—a board in one window setting forth, "Drugs and Medicines," and a card in the other, "Tailoring done here."
Slight salutation contented Henry, when the man of letters made his appearance, and he requested a horse to carry him as far as his father's, saying he would send for his trunk in the morning. Mr. Jephson made some little difficulty and delay, but Henry seemed in fiery haste. In truth he hated the sight of Job beyond all reason; but that complacent personage seemed to have forgotten, very conveniently, all former passages in that memorable bar-room. "You don't ask after your old friends, Harry," said he. "A good many things has altered here since I see you last. You came that time a little too late."
Henry looked dirks at the fellow, but he went on as coldly as ever.
"Now this time, to my thinkin', you've come a leetle too soon."
Henry tried not to ask him what he meant; but for his life he could not help it.
"Why, I mean, if John Harrington's widow has not more sense than I think she has, you've come in time to spoil a good match."
"A match!" was all that Henry could say.
"Aye, a match; for Colonel Boon came from there yesterday, and sent for old Horner here to this blessed house, and took up the mortgage on Harrington's property; and everybody knows he has been after Aggy this twelvemonth, offering to marry her and clear the property, and do well by the child. And if there's a good man on airth, Boon is that man, and everybody knows it."
What did Henry Beckworth now? He un-ordered his horse, and went quietly to bed.
The Winning of Agnes
Henry Beckworth came from the hand of Nature abundantly furnished with that excellent qualification known and revered throughout New England, under the expressive name of "spunk." This quality at first prompted him, spite of the croakings of the ill-omened Job, to present himself before the one only object of his constant soul, to tell her all, and to ask her to share with him the weal or wo which might yet be in store for him. But he had now seen a good deal of this excellent world, and the very indifferent people who transact its affairs. He had tasted the tender mercies of a British man o' war, and the various agrémens of a French prison; and the practical conclusion which had gradually possessed itself of his mind, was, that money is, beyond all dispute, one of the necessaries of life.
No way of making money off-hand occurred to him as he tossed and groaned through the endless hours of that weary night. He had neither house nor land, nor yet a lottery ticket—nor a place under government—and the chest which stood at his bed-side, though it contained enough of this world's goods to keep his fair proportions from the weather; and a sea-journal—a love-log—which he hoped might one day, by some romantic chance, come into the fair hands of his beloved, and give her to guess how his sad life had passed—held as he well knew, nothing which she could in anywise eat, or that she would be probably willing under any contingency to put on.
I feel proud of my hero. He was "a man of deeds, not words." He loved Agnes so well, that before morning shone on his haggard cheek, he had determined to turn his back forever on the home of his youth, the scene of his first love-dream; and to seek his dark fortune far away from the place which held all that his heart prized on earth.
This resolution once taken, he arose and addressed himself to his sad journey, waiting only the earliest beam of light before he wakened Mr. Jephson. This worthy commended much his prudent course, and recommended a long journey; an attempt to discover the North-West Passage, or to ascertain the truth of Capt. Symmes' theory; to take the nonsense out of him and make a little money.
For five long years did Henry Beckworth box the compass; five years of whaling voyages and all their attendant hardships—and when at the end of that time he retouched his native shore, richer than he had ever been before in his life, he heard, as the reader will no doubt anticipate, that Agnes Boon was again unmated; her worthy Colonel having been killed by a fall from his horse in less than two years from his marriage.
Yet did our phoenix of lovers approach the village which he had vowed never to see again, with many more misgivings than he had experienced on former occasions. Years and a rough life he was well aware had changed him much. He thought of his Agnes, fair and graceful as a snow-drop, and feared lest his weather-beaten visage might find no favor in her eyes. Yet he determined that this time nothing, not even that screech-owl Job Jephson, should prevent him from seeing her, face to face, and learning his fate from her own lips.
He approached Langton by a road that passed not near the detested house of man and horse entertainment, and was just emerging from a thick grove which skirted the village on that side, when he came near riding over a man who seemed crouched on the ground as if in search of something, and muttering to himself the while. The face that turned hastily round was Job Jephson's.
"Why, it a'nt! Yes, I'll be switched if it isn't Henry Beckworth rose from the dead!' said this fated tormentor; and he fastened himself on the bridle-rein in such sort, that Henry could not rid himself of his company without switching him in good earnest.
"Here was I, looking up some little things for my steam doctorin' business," said Mr. Jephson, "and little thinkin' of anybody in the world; and you must come along jist like a sperrit. But I've a notion you've hit it about right this time. I s'pose you know Aggy's a rich widow by this time, don't ye?"
Henry vouchsafed no reply, though he found it very difficult to maintain a dignified reserve, when so many questions were clustering on his lips. But it was all one to Job—question or no question, answer or no answer, he would talk on, and on, and on.
"I'll tell ye what,' he continued, "I shouldn't wonder if Aggy looked higher now, for she's a good spec for any man. I see you've smarted up a good deal, but don't be cocksure—for there's others that would be glad to take her and her two children. I've been a thinkin' myself——"
And now Henry gave Job such a switch across the knuckles as effectually cleared the bridle, and changed the current of the steam-doctor's thoughts. In half an hour he rang at Mrs. Boon's door, and was ushered at once into her presence.
"Mr. Beckworth, ma'am," said the little waiting-maid as she threw open the parlor door.
Agnes, the beloved, rose from her seat—sat down again—tried to speak, and burst into tears; while Henry looked on her countenance—changed indeed, but still lovely in matronly dignity—more fondly than in the days of his lighter youthful love; and seating himself beside her, began at the wrong end of the story, as most people do in such cases, talking as if it were a thing of course that his twice-widowed love should become his wife.
"Marry again! oh, never!"—that was entirely out of the question; and she wiped her eyes and asked her cousin to stay to dinner. But Henry deferred his ultimatum on this important point, till he should have ravelled out the whole web of his past life before the dewy eyes of his still fair mistress, till he should tell her all his love—no, that he could never fully tell, but some of the proofs of it at least, and that first horrible forget of Job Jephson's. And when this was told in many words, Agnes, all sighs and tears, still said no, but so much more faintly that Mr. Beckworth thought he would stay to dinner. And then—but why should I tell the rest, when the reader of my true-love story has already seen Mrs. Beckworth like a fair but full-blown China-rose—Mr. Beckworth with bien content written on every line of his handsome middle-aged face—Mary Jane Harrington a comely marriageable lass, and George Boon a strapping youth of eighteen—all flourishing on an oak opening in the depths of Michigan?
Let none imagine that this tale of man's constancy must be the mere dream of my fancy. I acknowledge nothing but the prettinesses. To Henry Beckworth himself I refer the incredulous, and if they do not recognize my story in his, I cannot help it. Even a woman can do no more than her best.
Click here for an index to the chapters of A New Home.