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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Miller Of Old Church - Book 1 - Chapter 11. A Flight And An Encounter
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The Miller Of Old Church - Book 1 - Chapter 11. A Flight And An Encounter Post by :mondd Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :May 2012 Read :588

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The Miller Of Old Church - Book 1 - Chapter 11. A Flight And An Encounter

BOOK I CHAPTER XI. A FLIGHT AND AN ENCOUNTER

When Abel had flung himself over the fence, he snatched the collar from his neck and threw it away from him into the high grass of the meadow. The act was symbolical not only of his revolt from the power of love, but, in a larger measure, of his rebellion against the tyranny of convention. Henceforth his Sunday clothes might hang in the closet, for he would never again bend his neck to the starched yoke of custom. Everything had been for Molly forever. Her smiles or her frowns, her softness or her cruelty, would make no difference to him in the future--for had not Molly openly implied that she preferred Mr. Mullen? So this was the end of it all--the end of his ambition, of his struggle to raise himself, of his battle for a little learning that she might not be ashamed. Lifting his head he could see dimly the one great pine that towered on the hill over its fellows, and he resolved, in the bitterness of his defeat, that he would sell the whole wood to-morrow in Applegate. He tried to think clearly--to tell himself that he had never believed in her--that he had always known she would throw him over at the last--but the agony in his heart rose in his throat, and he felt that he was stifling in the open air of the pasture. His nature, large, impulsive, scornful of small complexities, was stripped bare of the veneer of culture by which its simplicity had been overlaid. At the instant he was closer to the soil beneath his feet than the civilization of his race.

As he neared the brook, which divided his pasture from the fields belonging to Jordan's Journey, the sound of angry voices came to his ears, and through the bared twigs of the willows, he saw Archie and Jonathan Gay standing a little apart, while the boy made threatening gestures with a small switch he carried.

"I've told him he was not to come on our land and he's laughed in my face!" cried Archie, turning to his brother.

"I'm not laughing, I merely said that the restriction was absurd," replied Jonathan in a friendly tone. "Why this pasture of yours juts in between my field and the road, and I'm obliged to cross it. I told you before I was awfully sorry about the quarrel when I first came, but as long as you leave my birds alone, you may walk over my land all day if you like and I shan't care a copper."

"Damn your birds! I don't take a blow from any man without paying him back," retorted Archie.

"Hold your tongue, Archie," said Abel sternly. "It's my farm, I reckon, and I manage it. I'm sorry, Mr. Jonathan," he added, "that you started the trouble, but we aren't people to sit down tamely and take a thrashing from you just because you happen to own Jordan's Journey. I'll stand by Archie because he's right, though if he were not right, I'd still stand by him because he's my brother. The best we can do is to keep clear of each other. We don't go on your place and you'd just as well take care to keep off ours."

A frown contracted Gay's brow, while he glanced anxiously over his shoulder at the crooked path which led in the direction of the mill.

"Do you mean to say that you object to my taking a stroll through your meadows?" he asked.

"Why on earth do you want to stroll over here when you've got two thousand acres on every other blessed side of you?"

When the other's reply came there was a curious hesitation about it.

"Well, a man has his fancies, you know. I've taken a liking to this path through the willows."

"All the same I warn you that if you keep it up, you'll very likely run into trouble. If Archie sets the dogs on you, I'll be obliged to stand by him."

Without waiting for a response, he put his hand on the boy's shoulder, and pushed him over the brook into the path on the opposite side. To his surprise Blossom, dressed as though for church, appeared there at the instant.

"Why, where in thunder are you going?" he demanded, releasing Archie, who staggered back at the sudden withdrawal of the powerful grasp. He had always known that his niece was a handsome girl, but the bloom, the softness of her beauty came to him while he stood there, as vividly as if for the first time.

"I--I--have you seen grandma's cat?" she returned after the breathless suspense of a minute.

"No, I don't think you'll find her down there. Archie and Mr. Jonathan have quarreled loud enough to frighten her away."

"Quarreled again!" she said. "Oh, why have they quarreled again?"

"He must keep off our place," replied Archie, angrily. "I warned him I'll set the dogs on him the next time I find him on this side the fence!"

"How--how can you be so uncivilized?" she returned, and there were tears in her eyes.

"Uncivilized or not, he'll find he can't split my lip open for nothing," growled Archie, like a sullen child.

"You'd as well come back with us," said Abel, "the cat isn't down there--I'd take a look in the mill."

She turned her face away, stooping to pluck the withered frond of a fern that grew in the path. When she looked up at him again all the bloom and radiance had flown.

"Yes, I'll come back with you," she answered, and falling into step between them, walked languidly up the hill to the kitchen garden at the top. In his own misery Abel was hardly aware of her, and he heard as from a distance, Archie's muttered threats against Gay, and Blossom's palpitating responses. When they reached the house, Sarah's yellow and white cat squeezed herself through the door and came purring toward them.

"Why, the cat's got back!" exclaimed Archie.

"It must have been in the store-room all the time," returned Blossom quickly. "I forgot to look there. Now, I must go and pour out the butter milk for dinner before grandma scolds me."

She turned away, glanced back an instant later to make sure that they had entered the house, and then gathering up her Sunday skirt of blue Henrietta cloth, started in a rapid run back along the path to the willows. When she reached a sheltered nook, formed by a lattice of boughs, she found Gay walking impatiently back and forth, with his hands in his pockets and the anxious frown still on his forehead. At sight of her, his face cleared and he held out his arms.

"My beauty!--I'd just given you up. Five minutes more by my watch, and I should have gone."

"I met Abel and Archie as I was coming and they made me go back with them," she answered, placing her hand on her bosom, which rose and fell with her fluttering breath. It was characteristic of their different temperaments that, although he had seen her every day for three weeks, he still met her with outstretched arms, which she still evaded. Since that first stolen kiss, she had held off from him, alluring yet unapproachable, and this gentle, but obstinate, resistance had inflamed him to a point which he admitted, in the cold grey morning before he had breakfasted, to have become positively dangerous. Ardently susceptible to beauty, the freedom of his life had bred in him an almost equal worship of the unattainable. If that first kiss had stirred his fancy, her subsequent repulse had established her influence. The stubborn virtue, which was a part of the inherited fibre of her race, had achieved a result not unworthy of the most finished coquette. Against his desire for possession there battled the instinctive chastity that was woven into the structure of Sarah Revercomb's granddaughter. Hardly less violent than the natural impulse against which it warred, it gave Blossom an advantage, which the obvious weakness of her heart had helped to increase. It was as though she yearned toward him while she resisted--as though she feared him most in the moment that she repulsed him.

"Good God! how beautiful you are and how cold!" he exclaimed.

"I am not cold. How can you say so when you know it isn't true?"

"I've been waiting here an hour, half dead with impatience, and you won't so much as let me touch you for a reward."

"I can't--you oughtn't to ask me, Mr. Jonathan."

"Could a single kiss hurt you? I kissed you once."

"It's--it's because you kissed me once that you mustn't kiss me again."

"You mean you didn't like it?"

"What makes you so unkind? You know it isn't that."

"Then why do you refuse?" He was in an irritable humour, and this irritation showed in his face, in his movements, in the short, abrupt sound of his words.

"I can't let you do it because--because I didn't know what it was like until that first time," she protested, while two large tears rolled from her eyes.

Softened by her confusion, his genial smile shone on her for an instant before the gloom returned to his features. The last few weeks had preyed on his nerves until he told himself that he could no longer control the working of his emotions. The solitude, the emptiness of his days, the restraint put upon him by his invalid mother--all these engendered a condition of mind in which any transient fancy might develop into a winged fury of impulse. There were times when his desire for Blossom's beauty appeared to fill the desolate space, and he hungered and thirsted for her actual presence at his side. In the excitement of a great city, he would probably have forgotten her in a month after their first meeting. Here, in this monotonous country, there was nothing for him but to brood over each trivial detail until her figure stood out in his imagination edged by the artificial light he had created around it. Her beauty, which would have been noticeable even in a crowd, became goddess-like against the low horizon in the midst of the November colours.

"If you only knew how I suffer from you, darling," he said, "I haven't slept for nights because you refused to kiss me."

"I--I haven't slept either," she faltered.

"Because of me, Blossom?"

"I begin to think and it makes me so unhappy."

"Oh, damn it! Do you love me, Blossom?"

"What difference does it make whether I do or not?"

"It makes all the difference under Heaven! Would you like to love me, Blossom?"

"I oughtn't to let myself think of it, and I don't when I can help it."

"But can you help it? Tell me, can you help it?"

Turning away from him, she cast a startled glance under the willows in the direction of the house.

"I must be going back. They will miss me."

"Don't you think I shall miss you, Beauty?"

"I don't know. I haven't thought."

"If you knew how miserable I'll be after you have left me, you'd kiss me once before you go."

"Don't ask me, I can't--I really can't, Mr. Jonathan."

"Hang Mr. Jonathan and all that appertains to him! What's to become of me, condemned to this solitude, if you refuse to become kind to me? By Jove, if it wasn't for my mother, I'd ask you to marry me!"

"I don't want to marry you," she responded haughtily, and completed her triumph. Something stronger than passion--that _something compounded partly of moral fibre, partly of a phlegmatic temperament, guided her at the critical moment. His words had been casual, but her reception of them charged them with seriousness almost before he was aware. A passing impulse was crystallized by the coldness of her manner into a permanent desire.

"If I were free to do it, I'd make you want to," he said.

She moved from him, walking rapidly into the deeper shelter of the willows. The autumn sunlight, shining through the leafless boughs, cast a delicate netting of shadows over the brilliant fairness of her body. He saw the rose of her cheek melting into the warm whiteness of her throat, which was encircled by two deliciously infantile creases of flesh. To look at her led almost inevitably to the desire to touch her.

"Are you going without a word to me, Blossom?"

"I don't know what to say--you never seem to believe me."

"You know well enough what I want you to say--but you're frozen all through, that's what's the matter."

"Good-bye, Mr. Jonathan."

"At what hour to-morrow, Blossom?"

She shook her head, softly obstinate.

"I mustn't meet you again. If grandma--or any of the others found out they would never forgive me--they are so stern and straight. I've gone too far already, and besides---"

"Besides what?"

"You make me feel wicked and underhand."

"Do you mean that you can walk off like this and never see me again?"

Tears came to her eyes. "You oughtn't to put it like that!"

"But that's just what it means. Now, darling, do you think you can do it?"

"I won't think--but I'll have to do it."

His nervous irritability became suddenly violent, and the muscles of his face contracted as if from a spasm of physical pain.

"Confound it all! Why shouldn't I marry you, Blossom?" he burst out. "You're the most beautiful woman I've ever seen and you look every inch a lady. If it wasn't for my mother I'd pick you up to-day and carry you off to Washington."

"Your mother would never give in. There's no use talking about it."

"It isn't her giving in, but her health. You see, she has heart disease, and any sudden shock brings on one of these terrible attacks that may kill her. She bears everything like an angel--I never heard a complaint from her in my life--not even when she was suffering tortures--but the doctors say now that another failure of her heart would be fatal."

"I know," she admitted softly, "they said that twenty years ago, didn't they?"

"Well, she's been on her back almost all the time during those twenty years. It's wonderful what she's borne--her angelic patience. And, of course her hopes all hang on me now. She's got nobody else."

"But I thought Miss Kesiah was so devoted to her."

"Oh, she is--she is, but Aunt Kesiah has never really understood her. Just to look at them, you can tell how different they are. That's how it is Blossom--I'm tied, you see--tied hand and foot."

"Yes, I see," she rejoined. "Your uncle was tied, too. I've heard that he used to say--tied with a silk string, he called it."

"You wouldn't have me murder my mother, would you?" he demanded irritably, kicking at the twisted root of a willow.

"Good-bye, Mr. Jonathan," she responded quietly, and started toward the house.

"Wait a minute,--oh, Blossom, come back!" he entreated--but without pausing she ran quickly up the crooked path under the netting of shadows.

"So that's the end," said Gay angrily. "By Jove, I'm well out of it," and went home to dinner. "I won't see her again," he thought as he entered the house, and the next instant, when he ascended the staircase, "I never saw such a mouth in my life. It looks as if it would melt if you kissed it---"

The dinner, which was pompously served by Abednego and a younger butler, seemed to him tasteless and stale, and he complained querulously of a bit of cork he found in his wine glass. His mother, supported by cushions in her chair at the head of the table, to which he had brought her in his arms, lamented his lack of appetite, and inquired tenderly if he were suffering? For the first time in his life he discovered that he was extinguishing, with difficulty, a smouldering resentment against her. Kesiah's ugliness became a positive affront to him, and he felt as bitterly toward her as though she had purposely designed her appearance in order to annoy him. The wine she drank showed immediately in her face, and he determined to tell his mother privately that she must forbid her sister to drink anything but water. By the dim gilt framed mirror above the mantel he discovered that his own features were flushed, also, but a red face was not, he felt, a cause of compunction to one of his sex.

"You haven't eaten your mutton, dear," said Mrs. Gay anxiously. "I ordered it especially because you like it. Are you feeling unwell?"

"I'm not hungry," he replied, rather crossly. "This place gets on my nerves, and will end by driving me mad."

"I suppose you'd better go away," she returned, plaintively wounded. "I wouldn't be so selfish as to want to keep you by me if you are unhappy."

"I don't want to leave you, mother--but, I ought to get back to the stock market. It's no good idling around--I don't think I was cut out for a farmer."

"Try this sherry. Your uncle brought if from Spain, and it was buried during the war."

He filled his glass, drained it quickly, and with an effort recovered his temper.

"Yes, I'd better go," he repeated, and knew while he spoke that he could not leave as long as the thought of Blossom tormented him. Swift half visions of her loveliness--of certain delectable details of her face or figure flitted always before him. He saw her eyes, like frosted periwinkles under their warm white lids, which appeared too heavy to open wide; the little brown mole that played up and down when she laughed; and the soft, babyish creases that encircled her throat. Each of these memories set his heart to a quicker beating and caused a warm sensation, like the caress of a burning sun, to pass over his body.

"The Revercombs over at the mill are kicking up a row, mother," he said suddenly, again filling his wine glass and again putting it down empty, "have they any sort of standing in the county, do you suppose?"

"I've heard they call themselves connections of the Revercombs higher in the State, dear--but I don't know and I've never come into contact with any of the country people about here. Kesiah may be able to tell you."

Until then neither of them had alluded to Kesiah, whom they accepted by ignoring much as if she had been one of the familiar pieces of furniture, at which they never glanced because they were so firmly convinced that it stood in its place. She had eaten her dinner with the relish of a person to whom food, taken at regular hours three times a day, has become the prime consolation in life; and when the question was put to her, she was obliged to ask them to repeat it because she had been thoughtfully regarding a dish of baked tomatoes and wondering if a single yielding to temptation would increase a tendency to the gout that had lately developed.

"What do you know of the Revercombs, Kesiah? Are they in any degree above the common people about here?"

"The miller is a rather extraordinary character, I believe," she answered, lifting the spoon out of the dish of tomatoes as it was handed to her, and then shaking her head with a sigh and letting it fall. "Mr. Chamberlayne says he is quite well educated, but the rest of them, of course, are very primitive and plain. They have always been strait-laced and honest and I hear that the mother--she came from Piping Tree and was one of the Hawtreys--is violently opposed to her son's marriage with Molly Merryweather. There is a daughter, also, who is said to be beautiful though rather dull."

"Yes, I've seen the girl," observed Mrs. Gay, "heavy and blond, isn't she? The mother, I should say, is decidedly the character of the family. She has rather terrible convictions, and once a great many years ago, she came over here--forced her way into my sick-room to rebuke me about the behaviour of the servants or something. Your Uncle Jonathan was obliged to lead her out and pacify her--she was quite upset, I remember. By the way, Kesiah," she pursued, "haven't I heard that Mr. Mullen is attentive to the daughter? It seems a pity, for he is quite a superior young man--his sermons are really remarkable, and he might easily have done better."

"Oh, that was when he first came here, Angela, before he met Molly Merryweather. It's singular the fascination that girl possesses for the men around here."

Gay laughed shortly. "Well, it's a primitive folk, isn't it?" he said, "and gets on my nerves after a while."

Through the afternoon he was restless and out of humour, tormented less by the memory of Blossom's face than by the little brown mole on her cheek. He resolved a dozen times a day that he would not see her, and in the very act of resolving, he would begin to devise means of waylaying her as she went down to the store or passed to and from the pasture. A certain sex hatred, which is closely allied to the mere physical fact of love, asserted itself at times, and he raged hotly against her coldness, her indifference, against the very remoteness that attracted him. Then he would soften to her, and with the softening there came always the longing not only to see, but to touch her--to breathe her breath, to lay his hand on her throat.

The next day he went to the willow copse, but she did not come. On the one following, he took down his gun and started out to shoot partridges, but when the hour of the meeting came, he found himself wandering over the fields near the Revercombs' pasture with his eye on the little path down which she had come that rimy October morning. The third afternoon, when he had watched for her in a fury of disappointment, he ordered his horse and went for a gallop down the sunken road to the mill. At the first turn, where the woods opened into a burned out clearing, he came suddenly upon her, and the hunger at his heart gave place to a delicious sense of fulfilment.

"Blossom, how can you torture me so?" he exclaimed when he had dismounted at her side and flung his arm about her.

She drew slowly away, submissive even in her avoidance.

"I did not mean to torture you--I'm sorry," she answered humbly.

"It's come to this!" he burst out, "that I can't stand it another week without losing my senses. I've thought till I'm distracted. Blossom, will you marry me?"

"O Mr. Jonathan!" she gasped while her breast fluttered like a bird's.

"Not openly, of course--there's my mother to think of--but I'll take you to Washington--we'll find a way somehow. Can't you arrange to go to Applegate for a day or two, or let your people think you have?"

"I can--yes--" she responded in the same troubled tone. "I've a school friend living there, and I sometimes spend several days with her."

"Then go on Saturday--no, let's see--this is Tuesday. Can you go on Friday, darling?"

"Perhaps. I can't tell--I think so--I must see."

As he drew her forward, she bent toward him, still softly, still humbly, and an instant later, his arms were about her and his lips pressed hers.

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