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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Deliverance: A Romance Of The Virginia Tobacco Fields - Book II - The Temptation - Chapter VIII. Between the Devil and the Deep Sea
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The Deliverance: A Romance Of The Virginia Tobacco Fields - Book II - The Temptation - Chapter VIII. Between the Devil and the Deep Sea Post by :vishal Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :April 2011 Read :1400

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The Deliverance: A Romance Of The Virginia Tobacco Fields - Book II - The Temptation - Chapter VIII. Between the Devil and the Deep Sea

There was a cheerful blaze in the old lady's parlour, and she was
sitting placidly in her Elizabethan chair, the yellow cat dozing
at her footstool. Lila paced slowly up and down the room, her
head bent a little sideways, as she listened to Tucker's cheerful
voice reading the evening chapter from the family Bible. His
crutch, still strapped to his right shoulder, trailed behind him
on the floor, and the smoky oil lamp threw his eccentric shadow
on the whitewashed wall, where it hung grimacing like a grotesque
from early Gothic art.

"Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown
it," he read in his even tones; "if a man would give all the
substance of his house for love, it would utterly be condemned."

The old lady tapped the arm of her chair and turned her sightless
eyes upon the Bible, as if Solomon in person stood there awaiting
judgment.

"I always liked that verse, brother," she remarked, "though I am
not sure that I consider it entirely proper reading for the
young. Aren't you tired walking, Lila?"

"Oh, no, mother."

"Well, we mustn't take the Scriptures literally, you know, my
child; if we did, I fear a great deal of trouble would come of
it--and surely it is a pity to magnify the passion of love when
so very many estimable persons get along quite comfortably
without it. You remember my remarking how happy Miss Belinda
Morrison always appeared to be, and so far as I know she never
had a suitor in her life, though she lived to be upward of
eighty."

"Oh, mother! and yet you were so madly in love with father--you
remember the fancy ball."

"The fancy ball occupied only one night, my dear, and I've had
almost seventy years. I married for love, as you certainly
know--at my age, I suppose I might as well admit it--but the
marriage happened to be also entirely suitable, and I hope that I
should never have been guilty of anything so indelicate as to
fall in love with a gentleman who wasn't a desirable match."

Lila flushed and bit her lip.

"I don't care about stations in life, nor blood, nor anything
like that," she protested.

The old lady sighed. "We won't have any more of Solomon, Tucker,
"she observed. "I fear he will put notions into the child's head.
Not care about blood, indeed! What are we coming to, I wonder?
Well, well, I suppose it is what I deserve for allowing myself to
fall so madly in love with your father. When I look back now it
seems to me that I could have achieved quite as much with a great
deal less expenditure of emotion."

"Now, now, Lucy, " said Tucker, closing the gilt clasps of the
Bible, "you're not yet seventy, and by the time you reach eighty
you will see things clearer. I'm a good deal younger than you,
but I'm two-thirds in the grave already, which makes a
difference. My life's been long and pleasant as it is, but when I
glance back upon it now I tell you the things I regret least in
it are my youthful follies. A man must be very far in his dotage,
indeed, when he begins to wear a long face over the sharp breaths
that he drew in youth. I came very near ruining myself for a
woman once, and the fact that I was ready to do it--even though I
didn't--is what in the past I like best to recall to-day. It
makes it all easier and better, somehow, and it seems to put a
zest into the hours I spend now on my old bench. To have had one
emotion that was bigger than you or your universe is to have had
life, my dear."

The old lady wiped her eyes. "It may be so, brother, it may be
so," she admitted; "but not before Lila. Is that you,
Christopher?"

The young man came in and crossed slowly to the fire, bending for
an instant over her chair. He was conscious suddenly that his
clothes smelled of the fields and that the cold water of the well
had not cleansed his face and hands. All at once it came to him
with something of a shock that this bare, refined poverty was
beyond his level--that about himself there was a coarseness, a
brutality even, that made him shrink from contact with these
others--with his mother, with Lila, with poor, maimed Tucker in
his cotton suit. Was it only a distinction in manner, he wondered
resentfully, or did the difference lie still deeper in some
unlikeness of soul? For the first time in his life he felt ill at
ease in the presence of those he loved, and as his eyes dwelt
moodily on Lila's graceful figure--upon the swell of her low
bosom, her swaying hips, and the free movement of her limbs--he
asked himself bitterly if he had aught in common with so delicate
and rare a thing? And she? Was her blithe acquiescence, after
all, but an assumed virtue, to whose outward rags she clung? Was
it possible that there was here no inward rebellion, none of that
warfare against Destiny which at once inspirited and embittered
his heart?

His face grew dark, and Uncle Boaz, coming in to stir the fire,
glanced up at him and sighed.

"You sho' do look down in de mouf, Marse Chris," he observed.

Christopher started and then laughed blankly. "Well, I'm not
proof against troubles, I reckon," he returned. "They're things
none of us can keep clear of, you know."

Uncle Boaz chuckled under his breath. "Go 'way f'om yer, Marse
Chris; w'at you know 'bout trouble--you ain' even mah'ed yet."

"Now, now, Boaz, don't be putting any ideas against marriage in
his head," broke in the old lady. "He has remained single too
long as it is, for, as dear old Bishop Deane used to say, it is
surely the duty of every gentleman to take upon himself the
provision of at least one helpless female. Not that I wish you to
enter into marriage hastily, my son, or for any merely
sentimental reasons; but I am sure, as things are, I believe one
may have a great many trials even if one remains single, and
though I know, of course, that I've had my share of trouble,
still I never blamed your poor father one instant--not even for
the loss of my six children, which certainly would not have
happened if I had not married him. But, as I've often told you,
my dear, I think marriage should be rightly regarded more as a
duty than as a pleasure. Your Aunt Susannah always said it was
like choosing a partner at a ball; for my part, I think it
resembles more the selecting of a brand of flour."

"And to think that she once cried herself sick because
Christopher went hunting during the honeymoon!" exclaimed Tucker,
with his pleasant laugh.

"Ah, life is long, and one's honeymoon is only a month, brother,"
retorted the old lady; "and I'm not saying anything against love,
you know, when it comes to that. Properly conducted, it is a very
pleasant form of entertainment. I've enjoyed it mightily myself;
but I'm nearing seventy, and the years of love seem very small
when I look back. There are many interesting things in a long
life, and love for a man is only one among them; which brings me,
after all, to the conclusion that the substance of anybody's
house is a large price to pay for a single feeling."

Christopher leaned over her and held out his arms.

"It is your bedtime, mother--shall I carry you across?" he asked;
and as the old lady nodded, he lifted her as if she were a child
and held her closely against his breast, feeling his tenderness
revive at the clasp of her fragile hands. When he placed her upon
her bed, he kissed her good-night and went up the narrow
staircase, stooping carefully to avoid the whitewashed ceiling
above.

Once in his room, he threw off his coat and sat down upon the
side of his narrow bed, glancing contemptuously at his bare brown
arms, which showed through the openings in his blue shirt
sleeves. He was still smarting from the memory of the sudden
selfconsciousness he had felt downstairs, and a pricking
sensitiveness took possession of him, piercing like needles
through the boorish indifference he had worn. All at once he
realised that he was ashamed of himself--ashamed of his
ignorance, his awkwardness, his brutality--and with the shame
there awoke the slow anger of a sullen beast. Fate had driven him
like a whipped hound to the kennel, but he could still snarl back
his defiance from the shadow of his obscurity. The strong
masculine beauty of his face--the beauty, as Cynthia had said, of
the young David--confronted him in the little greenish mirror
above the bureau, and in the dull misery of the eyes he read
those higher possibilities, which even to-day he could not regard
without a positive pang. What he might have been seemed forever
struggling in his look with what he was, like the Scriptural
wrestle between the angel of the Lord and the brute. The soul,
distorted, bruised, defeated, still lived within him, and it was
this that brought upon him those hours of mortal anguish which he
had so vainly tried to drown in his glass. From the mirror his
gaze passed to his red and knotted hand, with its blunted nails,
and the straight furrow grew deeper between his eyebrows. He
remembered suddenly that his earliest ambition--the ambition of
his childhood--had been that of a gentlemanly scholar of the old
order. He had meant to sit in a library and read Horace, or to
complete the laborious translation of the "Iliad" which his
father had left unfinished. Then his studies had ended abruptly
with the Greek alphabet, and from the library he had passed out
to the plough. In the years of severe physical labour which
followed he had felt the spirit of the student go out of him
forever, and after a few winter nights, when he fell asleep over
his books, he had sunk slowly to the level of the small tobacco
growers among whom he lived. With him also was the curse of
apathy--that hereditary instinct to let the single throw decide
the issue, so characteristic of the reckless Blakes. For more
than two hundred years his people had been gay and careless
livers on this very soil; among them all he knew of not one who
had gone without the smallest of his desires, nor of one who had
permitted his left hand to learn what his right one cast away.
Big, blithe, mettlesome, they passed before him in a long, comely
line, flushed with the pleasant follies which had helped to sap
the courage in their descendants' veins.

At first he had made a pitiable attempt to remain "within his
class," but gradually, as time went on, this, too, had left him,
and in the end he had grown to feel a certain pride in the
ignorance he had formerly despised--a clownish scorn of anything
above the rustic details of his daily life. There were days even
when he took a positive pleasure in the degree of his abasement,
when but for his blind mother he would have gone dirty, spoken in
dialect, and eaten with the hounds. What he dreaded most now were
the rare moments of illumination in which he beheld his
degradation by a blaze of light--moments such as this when he
seemed to stand alone upon the edge of the world, with the devil
awaiting him when he should turn at last. Years ago he had
escaped these periods by strong physical exertion, working
sometimes in the fields until he dropped upon the earth and lay
like a log for hours. Later, he had yielded to drink when the
darkness closed over him, and upon several occasions he had sat
all night with a bottle of whisky in Tom Spade's store. Both
methods he felt now to be ineffectual; fatigue could not deaden
nor could whisky drown the bitterness of his soul. One thing
remained, and that was to glut his hatred until it should lie
quiet like a gorged beast.

Steps sounded all at once upon the staircase, and after a moment
the door opened and Cynthia entered.

"Did you see Fletcher's boy, Christopher?" she asked. "His
grandfather was over here looking for him."

"Fletcher over here? Well, of all the impudence!"

"He was very uneasy, but he stopped long enough to ask me to
persuade you to part with the farm. He'd give three thousand
dollars down for it, he said."

She dusted the bureau abstractedly with her checked apron and
then stood looking wistfully into the mirror.

"Is that so? If he'd give me three million I wouldn't take it,"
answered Christopher.

"It seems a mistake, dear," said Cynthia softly; "of course, I'd
hate to oblige Fletcher, too, but we are so poor, and the money
would mean so much to us. I used to feel as you do, but somehow I
seem all worn out now--soul as well as body. I haven't the
strength left to hate."

"Well, I have," returned Christopher shortly, "and I'll have it
when I'm gasping over my last breath. You needn't bother about
that business, Cynthia; I can keep up the family record on my own
account. What's the proverb about us--'a Blake can hate twice as
long as most men can love'--that's my way, you know."

"You didn't finish it," said Cynthia, turning from the bureau;
"it's all downstairs in the 'Life of Bolivar Blake'; you remember
Colonel Byrd got it off in a toast at a wedding breakfast, and
Great-grandfather Bolivar was so proud of it he had it carved
above his library door."

"High and mighty old chap, wasn't he? But what's the rest?"

"What he really said was: 'A Blake can hate twice as long as most
men can love, and love twice as long as most men can live.'"

Christopher looked down suddenly at his great bronzed hands. "Oh,
he needn't have stuck the tail of it on," he remarked carelessly;
"but the first part has a bully sound."

When Cynthia had gone, he undressed and threw himself on the bed,
but there was a queer stinging sensation in his veins, and he
could not sleep. Rising presently, he opened the window, and in
the frosty October air stood looking through the darkness to the
light that twinkled in the direction of Blake Hall. Faint stars
were shining overhead, and against the indistinct horizon
something obscure and black was dimly outlined--perhaps the great
clump of oaks that surrounded the old brick walls. Somewhere by
that glimmer of light he knew that Fletcher sat hugging his
ambition like a miser, gloating over the grandson who would grow
up to redeem his name. For the weak, foolish-mouthed boy
Christopher at this moment knew neither tolerance nor compassion;
and if he stooped to touch him, he felt that it was merely as he
would grasp a stick which Fletcher had taken for his own defense.
The boy himself might live or die, prosper or fail, it made
little difference. The main thing was that in the end Bill
Fletcher should be hated by his grandson as he was hated by the
man whom he had wronged.

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