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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Miller Of Old Church - Book 1 - Chapter 1. At Bottom's Ordinary
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The Miller Of Old Church - Book 1 - Chapter 1. At Bottom's Ordinary Post by :mondd Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :May 2012 Read :3118

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The Miller Of Old Church - Book 1 - Chapter 1. At Bottom's Ordinary


It was past four o'clock on a sunny October day, when a stranger, who had ridden over the "corduroy" road between Applegate and Old Church, dismounted near the cross-roads before the small public house known to its frequenters as Bottom's Ordinary. Standing where the three roads meet at the old turnpike-gate of the county, the square brick building, which had declined through several generations from a chapel into a tavern, had grown at last to resemble the smeared face of a clown under a steeple hat which was worn slightly awry. Originally covered with stucco, the walls had peeled year by year until the dull red of the bricks showed like blotches of paint under a thick coating of powder. Over the wide door two little oblong windows, holding four damaged panes, blinked rakishly from a mat of ivy, which spread from the rotting eaves to the shingled roof, where the slim wooden spire bent under the weight of creeper and innumerable nesting sparrows in spring. After pointing heavenward for half a century, the steeple appeared to have swerved suddenly from its purpose, and to invite now the attention of the wayfarer to the bar beneath. This cheerful room which sprouted, like some grotesque wing, from the right side of the chapel, marked not only a utilitarian triumph in architecture, but served, on market days to attract a larger congregation of the righteous than had ever stood up to sing the doxology in the adjoining place of worship. Good and bad prospects were weighed here, weddings discussed, births and deaths recorded in ever-green memories, and here, also, were reputations demolished and the owners of them hustled with scant ceremony away to perdition.

From the open door of the bar on this particular October day, there streamed the ruddy blaze of a fire newly kindled from knots of resinous pine. Against this pleasant background might be discerned now and then the shapeless silhouette of Betsey Bottom, the innkeeper, a soft and capable soul, who, in attaching William Ming some ten years before, had successfully extinguished his identity without materially impairing her own. Bottom's Ordinary had always been ruled by a woman, and it would continue to be so, please God, however loudly a mere Ming might protest to the contrary. In the eyes of her neighbours, a female, right or wrong, was always a female, and this obvious fact, beyond and above any natural two-sided jars of wedlock, sufficed in itself to establish Mrs. Ming as a conjugal martyr. Being an amiable body--peaceably disposed to every living creature, with the exception of William--she had hastened to the door to reprimand him for some trivial neglect of the grey mule, when her glance lighted upon the stranger, who had come a few minutes earlier by the Applegate road. As he was a fine looking man of full habit and some thirty years, her eyes lingered an instant on his face before she turned with the news to her slatternly negro maid who was sousing the floor with a bucket of soapsuds.

"Thar's nobody on earth out thar but young Mr. Jonathan Gay come back to Jordan's Journey," she said. "I declar I'd know a Gay by his eyes if I war to meet him in so unlikely a place as Kingdom Come. He's talkin' to old Adam Doolittle now," she added, for the information of the maid, who, being of a curious habit of mind, had raised herself on her knees and was craning her neck toward the door, "I can see his lips movin', but he speaks so low I can't make out what he says."

"Lemme git dar a minute, Miss Betsey, I'se got moughty sharp years, I is."

"They're no sharper than mine, I reckon, and I couldn't hear if I stood an' listened forever. It's about the road most likely, for I see old Adam a-pintin'."

For a minute after dismounting the stranger looked dubiously at the mottled face of the tavern. On his head the sunlight shone through the boughs of a giant mulberry tree near the well, and beyond this the Virginian forest, brilliant with its autumnal colours of red and copper, stretched to the village of Applegate, some ten or twelve miles to the north.

Starting southward from the cross-roads, the character of the country underwent so sudden a transformation that it looked as if man, having contended here unsuccessfully with nature, had signed an ignominious truce beneath the crumbling gateposts of the turnpike. Passing beyond them a few steps out of the forest, one found a low hill, on which the reaped corn stood in stacks like weapons of a vanished army, while across the sunken road, the abandoned fields, overgrown with broomsedge and life-everlasting, spread for several miles between "worm fences" which were half buried in brushwood. To the eyes of the stranger, fresh from the trim landscapes of England, there was an aspect of desolation in the neglected roads, in the deserted fields, and in the dim grey marshes that showed beyond the low banks of the river.

In the effort to shake off the depression this loneliness had brought on his spirits, he turned to an ancient countryman, wearing overalls of blue jeans, who dozed comfortably on the circular bench beneath the mulberry tree.

"Is there a nearer way to Jordan's Journey, or must I follow the turnpike?" he asked.

"Hey? Young Adam, are you thar, suh?"

Young Adam, a dejected looking youth of fifty years, with a pair of short-sighted eyes that glanced over his shoulder as if in fear of pursuit, shuffled round the trough of the well, and sat down on the bench at his parent's side.

"He wants to know, pa, if thar's a short cut from the ornary over to Jordan's Journey," he repeated.

Old Adam, who had sucked patiently at the stem of his pipe during the explanation, withdrew it at the end, and thrust out his lower lip as a child does that has stopped crying before it intended to.

"You can take a turn to the right at the blazed pine a half a mile on," he replied, "but thar's the bars to be pulled down an' put up agin."

"I jest come along thar, an' the bars was down," said young Adam.

"Well, they hadn't ought to have been," retorted old Adam, indignantly. "Bars is bars whether they be public or private, an' the man that pulls 'em down without puttin' 'em up agin, is a man that you'll find to be loose moraled in other matters."

"It's the truth as sure as you speak it, Mr. Doolittle," said a wiry, knocked-kneed farmer, with a hatchet-shaped face, who had sidled up to the group. "It warn't no longer than yesterday that I was sayin' the same words to the new minister, or rector as he tries to get us to call him, about false doctrine an' evil practice. 'The difference between sprinklin' and immersion ain't jest the difference between a few drips on the head an' goin' all under, Mr. Mullen,' I said, 'but 'tis the whole difference between the natur that's bent moral an' the natur that ain't.' It follows as clear an' logical as night follows day--now, I ax you, don't it, Mr. Doolittle--that a man that's gone wrong on immersion can't be trusted to keep his hands off the women?"

"I ain't sayin' all that, Solomon Hatch," responded old Adam, in a charitable tone, "seein' that I've never made up my own mind quite clear on those two p'ints--but I do say, be he immersed or sprinkled, that the man who took down them bars without puttin' 'em up ain't a man to be trusted."

"'Twarn't a man, 'twas a gal," put in young Adam, "I seed Molly Merryweather goin' toward the low grounds as I come up."

"Then it's most likely to have been she," commented Solomon, "for she is a light-minded one, as is proper an' becomin' in a child of sin."

The stranger looked up with a laugh from the moss-grown cattle trough beside which he was standing, and his eyes--of a peculiar dark blue--glanced merrily into the bleared ones of old Adam.

"I ain't so blind yet as not to know a Gay when I see one," said the labourer, with a sly chuckle. "If I hadn't closed the eyes of old Mr. Jonathan when he was found dead over yonder by the Poplar Spring, I'd as soon as not take my Bible oath that he'd come young agin an' was ridin' along back to Jordan's Journey."

"Do you believe down here that my uncle killed himself?" asked the young man, with a furtive displeasure in his voice, as if he alluded to a disagreeable subject in response to some pressure of duty.

"'Tis as it may be, suh, I can't answer for that. To this day if you get Solomon Hatch or Betsey Bottom, (axin' her pardon for puttin' her last), started on the subject they'll contend till they're blue in the face that 'twas naught done but pure murder. However, I'm too old at my time of life to take up with any opinion that ain't pleasant to think on, an', when all's said an' done, pure murder ain't a peaceable, comfortable kind of thing to believe in when thar's only one Justice of the Peace an' he bed-ridden since Christmas. When you ax me to pin my faith on any p'int, be it for this world or the next, my first question consarnin' it is whether that particular p'int happens to be pleasant. 'Tis that little small argyment of mine that has confounded Mr. Mullen more than once, when he meets me on equal ground outside the pulpit. 'Mebbe 'tis an' mebbe 'tisn't,' as I remarked sociably to him about the matter of eternal damnation, 'but you can't deny, can you, suh, bein' outside the pulpit an' bound to speak the truth like the rest of us, that you sleep a long sight easier in yo' bed when you say to yo'self that mebbe 'tisn't?'"

"You see pa's old, an' he won't harbour any belief at his time of life that don't let him rest comfortable," remarked young Adam, in an apologetic aside. "It's that weakness of his that keeps him from bein' a thorough goin' good Christian."

"That strange young clergyman has stirred us all up about the doctrines," said Solomon Hatch. "He's opened Old Church agin, an' he works terrible hard to make us feel that we'd rather be sprinkled on the head than go under all over. A nice-mannered man he is, with a pretty face, an' some folks hold it to be a pity that we can't change our ideas about baptism and become Episcopals in our hearts, jest to oblige him. The women have, mostly, bein' an accommodatin' sex in the main, with the exception of Mrs. Mallory, the blacksmith's mother, who declars she'd rather give up eternal damnation any day than immersion."

"I ain't goin' so fur as that," rejoined old Adam, "an' mo'over, when it comes to the p'int, I've never found any uncommon comfort in either conviction in time of trouble. I go to Mr. Mullen's church regular every Sunday, seein' the Baptist one is ten miles off an' the road heavy, but in my opinion he's a bit too zealous to turn over the notions of the prophets an' set up his own. He's at the age when a man knows everything on earth an' generally knows it wrong."

"You see pa had been settin' on the anxious bench for forty years," explained young Adam, "an' when Mr. Mullen came, he took it away from under him, so to speak, while he was still settin' on it."

"'Twas my proper place," said old Adam resentfully, "when it comes to crops or the weather I am firm fixed enough in my belief, but in matters of religion I hold with the onsartain."

"Only his powerful belief in the Devil an' all his works keeps him from bein' a heathen," observed young Adam in awe-stricken pride. "Even Mr. Mullen can't move him, he's so terrible set."

"Well, he ain't my Redeemer, though doubtless he'd be cast down if he was to hear as I'd said so," chuckled the elder. "The over earnest, like the women folk, are better not handled at all or handled techily. I'm near blind as it is, but ain't that the man yonder leadin' his horse out of the Applegate road?"

"'Taint the rector, but the miller," responded his son. "He's bringin' over Mrs. Bottom's sack of meal on the back of his grey mare."

"Ah, he's one of the folks that's gone over neck an' crop to the Episcopals," said Solomon Hatch. "His folks have been Presbyterians over at Piping Tree sence the time of Noah, but he recites the Creed now as loud as he used to sing the doxology. I declar his voice boomed out so in my ears last Sunday that I was obleeged to put up my hands to keep 'em from splittin'. Have you ever marked, Mr. Doolittle, havin' had the experience of ninety years, that when a man once takes up with a heresy, he shouts a heap louder than them that was born an' baptised in it? It seems as if they can't desert the ancient ways without defying 'em as well."

"'Tis so, 'tis so," admitted old Adam, wagging his head, "but Abel Revercomb was al'ays the sort that could measure nothin' less than a bushel. The pity with big-natured folk is that they plough up a mountain and trip at last over a pea-vine!"

From the gloom and brightness of the Applegate road there emerged the large figure of a young man, who led a handsome grey mare by the halter. As he moved against the coloured screen of the leaves something of the beauty of the desolate landscape showed in his face--the look of almost autumnal sadness that one finds, occasionally, in the eyes of the imaginative rustic. He wore a pair of sheepskin leggins into which the ends of his corduroy trousers were stuffed slightly below the knees. His head was bare, and from the open neck of his blue flannel shirt, faded from many washings, the muscles in his throat stood out like cords in the red-brown flesh. From his uncovered dark hair to his heavy boots, he was powdered with the white dust of his mill, the smell of which floated to the group under the mulberry tree as he passed up the walk to the tavern.

"I lay he seed Molly Merryweather comin' up from the low grounds," remarked Solomon, when the young man had moved out of earshot.

"Thar's truth spoken for once, if only by accident," retorted old Adam. "Yonder comes Reuben Merryweather's wagon now, laden with fodder. Is thar anybody settin' on it, young Adam? My eyes is too po' to make out."

"Molly Merryweather, who else?" responded the younger.

The wagon approached slowly, piled high with fodder and drawn by a pair of old oxen. In the centre of the load a girl was sitting, with a pink sunbonnet on her shoulders, and the light wind, which drove in gusts from the river, blowing the bunch of clustering brown curls on her neck. She was a small vivid creature, with a sunburned colour and changeable blue eyes that shone almost green in the sunlight.

"Terr'ble light minded as you can tell to look at her," said Solomon Hatch, "she's soft enough, so my wife says, where sick folks an' children an' animals are consarned, but she acts as if men war born without common feelin's of natur an' didn't come inside the Commandments. It's beyond me how a kind-hearted woman can be so unmerciful to an entire sex."

"Had it been otherwise 'twould have been downright disproof of God's providence and the bond of matrimony," responded old Adam.

"True, true, Mr. Doolittle," admitted Solomon, somewhat abashed. "Thar ain't any in these parts as can equal you on the Scriptures, as I've said over an' over agin. It's good luck for the Almighty that He has got you on His side, so to speak, to help Him confound His enemies."

"Thar're two sides to that, I reckon, seein' I confound not only His enemies, but His sarvents. Sech is the shot an' shell of my logic that the righteous fall before it as fast as the wicked--faster even I might say if I war speakin' particular. Have you marked how skeery Mr. Mullen has growed about meetin' my eyes over the rail of the pulpit? Why, 'twas only yesterday that I brought my guns to bear on the resurrection of the body, an' blowed it to atoms in his presence. 'Now thar's Reuben Merryweather who buried one leg at Manassas, Mr. Mullen,' I said as pleasant an' natchel as if I warn't about to confound him, 'an' what I'd like to have made clear an' easy to me, suh, is what use the Almighty is goin' to make of that odd leg on the Day of Jedgment? Will he add a new one onto Reuben,' I axed, 'when, as plain as logic will have it, it won't be a resurrection, but a creation, or will he start that leg a-trampin' by itself all the way from Manassas to jine the other at Old Church?' The parson had been holdin' pretty free all the mornin' with nobody daring to contradict him, and a man more taken aback by the power of logic my sight never lit on. 'Spare me, Mr. Doolittle,' was all he said, never a word mo'. 'Spare me, Mr. Doolittle.'"

"Ah, a tough customer you are," commented Solomon, "an' what answer did you make to that, suh?"

Old Adam's pipe returned to his mouth, and he puffed slowly a minute. "'Twas a cry for mercy, Solomon, so I spared him," he responded.

The wagon had reached the well, and without stopping, the large white-and-red oxen moved on into the turnpike. Bending from her high seat, Molly Merryweather smiled at the miller, who made a single stride toward her. Then her glance passed to the stranger, and for an instant she held his gaze with a pair of eyes that appeared to reflect his in shape, setting and colour. In the man's face there showed perplexity, admiration, ironic amusement; in the girl's there was a glimmer of the smile with which she had challenged the adoring look of the miller.

The flush left the features of young Revercomb, and he turned back, with a scowl on his forehead, while old Adam cackled softly over the stem of his pipe.

"Wiles come as natchel to women as wickedness to men, young Adam," he said. "The time to beware of 'em is in yo' youth befo' they've bewitched yo'. Why, 'tis only since I've turned ninety that I've trusted myself to think upon the sex with freedom."

"I'm bewarin'," replied his son, "but when Molly Merryweather widens her eyes and bites her underlip, it ain't in the natur of man or beast to stand out agin her. Why, if it had been anybody else but the rector I could have sworn I saw him squeezin' her hand when he let down the bars for her last Sunday."

"It's well knowed that when he goes to upbraid her for makin' eyes at him durin' the 'Have mercy on me,' he takes a mortal long time about the business," responded Solomon, "but, good Lord, 'tain't fur me to wish it different, seein' it only bears out all I've argured about false doctrines an' evil practice. From the sprinklin' of the head thar's but a single step downward to the holdin' of hands."

"Well, I'm a weak man like the rest of you," rejoined young Adam, "an' though I'm sound on the doctrines--in practice I sometimes backslide. I'm thankful, however, it's the lesser sin an' don't set so heavy on the stomach."

"Ah, it's the light women like Molly Merryweather that draws the eyes of the young," lamented old Adam.

"A pretty bit of vanity, is she?" inquired the stranger lightly, and fell back the next instant before the vigorous form of the miller, who swung round upon him with the smothered retort, "That's a lie!" The boyish face of the young countryman had paled under his sunburn and he spoke with the suppressed passion of a man who is not easily angered and who responds to the pressure of some absorbing emotion.

"Lord, Lord, Abel, Mr. Jonathan warn't meanin' no particular disrespect, not mo' was I," quavered old Adam.

"You're too pipin' hot, miller," interposed Solomon. "They warn't meanin' any harm to you nor to the gal either. With half the county courtin' her it ain't to be expected that she'd go as sober as a grey mare, is it?"

"Well, they're wastin' their time," retorted the miller, "for she marries me, thank God, this coming April."

Turning away the next instant, he vaulted astride the bare back of the mare, and started at a gallop in the direction of the turnpike.

"I'll be blessed if that little gal of Reuben Merryweather's ain't his religion," commented young Adam.

"An' he's of the opinion that he's going to marry her this comin' spring," cackled Solomon. "Well, I could be namin' two or three others of the same mind, if I'd take the trouble. It's all sensible enough to lambaste the women when they don't pick up every virtue that we throw away, but what's to be expected of 'em, I ax, when all the men sence Adam have been praisin' the sober kind of gal while they was runnin' arter the silly? Thar're some among 'em, I reckon, as have reasoned out to themselves that a man's pursuit speaks louder in the years, arter all, than his praise. Now, thar's a fine, promisin' farmer, like the miller gone runnin' loose, mo's the pity."

"A kind heart at bottom," said old Adam, "but he's got a deal of larnin' to do befo' he'll rest content to bide along quietly in the same world with human natur."

"Oh, he's like the Revercombs from the beginnin'," protested Solomon, "slow an' peaceable an' silent until you rouse 'em, but when they're once roused, they're roused beyond God or devil."

"Is this young Cain or Abel the head of the family?" inquired the stranger.

"Bless you, no, Mr. Jonathan, he ain't the head--for thar's his brother Abner still livin'--but, head or tail, he's the only part that counts, when it comes to that. Until the boy grew up an' took hold of things, the Revercombs warn't nothin' mo' than slack fisted, out-at-heel po' white trash, as the niggers say, though the old man, Abel's grandfather, al'ays lays claim to bein' connected with the real Revercombs, higher up in the State--However that may be, befo' the war thar warn't no place for sech as them, an' 'tis only since times have changed an' the bottom begun to press up to the top that anybody has heerd of 'em. Abel went to school somehow by hook or crook an' got a good bit of book larnin', they say, an' then he came back here an' went to turnin' up every stone an' stick on the place. He ploughed an' he sowed an' he reaped till he'd saved up enough to buy that piece of low ground betwixt his house and the grist-mill. Then Ebenezer Timberlake died of the dropsy an' the first thing folks knew, Abel had moved over and turned miller. All the grain that's raised about here now goes to his mill, an' they say he'll be throwin' out the old and puttin' in new-fangled machinery befo' the year is up. He's the foremost man in these parts, suh, unless you war to come to Jordan's Journey to live like yo' uncle."

"To live like my uncle," repeated the young man, with an ironic intonation that escaped the ears of old Adam. "But what of the miller's little sweetheart with the short hair and the divine smile? Whose daughter is she?"

Old Adam's thin lips flattened until a single loosened tooth midway of his lower gum wagged impishly back and forth. His face, sunburned and frosted like the hardened rind of some winter fruit, revealed the prominent bones of the skull under the sunken flesh. One of his gnarled old hands, trembling and red, clutched the clay bowl of his pipe; the other, with the callous skin of the palm showing under the bent fingers, rested half open on the leather patch that covered the knee of his overalls. A picture of toilworn age, of the inevitable end of all mortal labour, he had sat for hours in the faint sunshine, smiling with his sunken, babyish mouth at the brood of white turkeys that crowded about the well.

"Well, she's Reuben Merryweather's granddaughter, suh," replied Solomon in the place of the elder. "He was overseer at Jordan's Journey, you know, durin' the old gentleman's lifetime, after the last Jordan died and the place was bought by yo' uncle. Ah, 'twas different, suh, when the Jordans war livin'!"

Some furtive malice in his tone caused the stranger to turn sharply upon him.

"The girl's mother--who was she?" he asked.

"Janet Merryweather, the prettiest gal that ever set foot on these roads. Ah, 'twas a sad story, was hers, an' the less said about it, the soonest forgotten. Thar was some folks, the miller among 'em, that dropped dead out with the old minister--that was befo' Mr. Mullen's time--for not wantin' her to be laid in the churchyard. A hard case, doubtless, but a pious man such as I likes to feel sartain that however much he may have fooled along with sinful women in this world, only the most respectable of thar sex will rise around him at the Jedgment."

"And the father?" inquired the stranger, with a sound as if he drew in his breath sharply.

"Accordin' to the Law an' the Prophets she hadn't any. That may be goin' agin natur, suh, but 'tis stickin' close to Holy Writ an' the wisdom of God."

To this the young man's only response was a sudden angry aversion that showed in his face. Then lifting his horse's head from the trodden grass by the well, he sprang into the saddle, and started, as the miller had done, over the three roads into the turnpike. Remembering as he passed the gate posts that he had spoken no parting word to the group under the mulberry tree, he raised himself in his stirrups, and called back "Good day to you. Many thanks," in his pleasant voice.

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