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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Miller Of Old Church - Book 1 - Chapter 12. The Dream And The Real
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The Miller Of Old Church - Book 1 - Chapter 12. The Dream And The Real Post by :mondd Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :May 2012 Read :3108

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The Miller Of Old Church - Book 1 - Chapter 12. The Dream And The Real

BOOK I CHAPTER XII. THE DREAM AND THE REAL

The following Friday Abel drove Blossom in his gig to the house of her school friend in Applegate, where she was to remain for a week. On his way home he stopped at the store for a bottle of harness oil, and catching the red glow of the fire beyond the threshold of the public room, he went in for a moment to ask old Adam Doolittle about a supply of hominy meal he had ready for him at the mill. As the ancient man crouched over the fire, with his bent hands outstretched and his few silvery hairs rising in the warmth, his profile showed with the exaggeration of a twelfth century grotesque, the features so distorted by the quivering shadows that his beaked nose appeared to rest in the crescent-shaped silhouette of his chin. His mouth was open, and from time to time he shook his head and muttered to himself in an undertone--a habit he had fallen into during the monotonous stretches of Mr. Mullen's sermons. Across from him sat Jim Halloween, and in the middle of the hearth, Solomon Hatch stood wiping the frost from his face with a red cotton handkerchief.

"It's time you were thinkin' about goin' home, I reckon, old Adam," remarked Mrs. Bottom. "You've had yo' two glasses of cider an' it ain't proper for a man of yo' years to be knockin' around arter dark. This or'nary is goin' to be kept decent as long as I keep it."

"To be sure, to be sure," replied old Adam, nodding cheerfully at the fire, "I ain't all I once was except in the matter or corn-shuckin'--an' a cold-snap like this goes clean to the bones when they ain't covered."

"Did you carry any of yo' winesaps into Applegate, Abel?" inquired Jim Halloween. "I'm savin' mine till Christmas, when the prices will take a jump."

"No, I only drove Blossom over. She's to spend a few days in town."

"Mr. Jonathan's gone off, too, I see," observed Solomon. "He went by at the top of his speed while I was haulin' timber this mornin'. Thar's bad blood still betwixt you an' him, aint' thar, Abel?"

"Oh, I'm not seekin' a quarrel. The trouble is in Archie's hands an' he'll have to keep it there."

"Well, he's a fine shape of a man," declared Betsey Bottom. "Some women try to make out that they ain't got an eye for the shape as long as the sense is all square and solid--but I ain't never been one of 'em. Sense is all right in its place, no doubt, but thar're times when a fine figger is mo' convincin' than any argyment that ever was uttered."

"It's a thing that beats me," pondered Solomon Hatch, "why a sensible woman should care how a man is made on the outside so long as the proper stuffin' is inside of him. With a man now, of course, it is different, seein' as natur made 'em with a sharp eye for the beauty in the opposite sex, an' they're all for natur an' al'ays have been. But I'll be blest if I can understand it in women."

"Well, I've noticed that they have a particular likin' for the worthless over the hardworkin' sort," remarked old Adam, "an' when it comes to that, I've known a woman to git clear set against a man on o'count of nothin' bigger than a chaw of tobaccy."

"It's the way of the sex," said Solomon Hatch. "When I was courtin' my wife I was obleeged to promise her I'd give up the habit befo' she'd keep company with me."

"An' you began agin, I low, after the ceremony was spoken."

"To be sure--'twas a courtin' promise, not a real one."

"It happened the same in my case, some sixty years or mo' ago," said old Adam. "Thar was two of us arter Minnie--for the matter of that, it never entered my head to court her till I saw that Jacob Halloween--yo' grandpa, Jim--had begun to git soft on her. It's safer to trust another man's jedgment than yo' own I said to myself, an' I started into the race. Well, Jacob was the pious, churchgoin' sort that she liked--but he would chaw in season an' out of it--thar was some as said he chawed even when he was sleepin'--an' a woman so out an' out with tobaccy you never set eyes on. Sez she to me, 'Adam, you will give up the weed for me, won't you?' An' sez I, 'Why, to be sartin sure, I will,' meanin' of course, while I was courtin'. Then she answered, 'Well, he's a Christian an' a churchgoer an' you ain't, but if he was the Angel Gabriel himself, Adam, an' was a chawer, I wouldn't marry him. The men may make their habits, Adam,' she said, 'but it takes the women to break 'em.' Lord! Lord! durin' that courtin' season my mouth would water so for a wad of tobaccy that I'd think my tongue was goin' to ketch fire."

"I shouldn't like to have stood in yo' shoes when you began agin," remarked Betsey Bottom.

"Oh, she larned, she larned," chuckled the elder, knocking the ashes out of his pipe on the hearth and then treading them under his boot. "'Tis amazin' what a deal of larnin' women have to do arter they're married."

"If they'd done it befo' thar's precious few of 'em that would ever set foot into the estate!" retorted Betsey. "Thar ain't many men that are worth the havin' when you git close up to 'em. Every inch of distance betwixt 'em is an inch added to thar attractions."

"Now, I've noticed that in my own case," observed Jim Halloween sadly, "no woman yet has ever let me come with kissin' distance--the nearer I git, the further an' further they edges away. It's the curse of my luck, I reckon, for it seems as if I never open my mouth to propose that I don't put my foot in it."

"You may comfort yo'self with the thought that it runs in yo' family," rejoined old Adam. "'Tis a contrariness of natur for which you're not to be held accountable. I remember yo' grandpa, that same Jacob, tellin' me once that he never sot out to make love that his tongue didn't take a twist unbeknownst to him, an' to his surprise, thar'd roll off 'turnips' an' 'carrots' instid of terms of endearment. Now, with me 'twas quite opposite, for my tongue was al'ays quicker than my heart in the matter of courtin'. It used to go click! click! click! quite without my willin' it whenever my eyes lit on a pretty woman."

"Ah, you were a gay young bird, but it's over now," commented Solomon.

"I ain't regrettin' it since I've lived long enough to repent of it," responded the ancient sinner.

"What worries me," said young Adam, pursuing his habitual train of despondency, "is that my life is just one long repentance with naught in it worth repentin' of. 'Tain't for lack of ch'ice I've never tasted, but for lack of opportunity."

"Well, thar's some that even sinners can't suffer," commented his father. "You are short of words, miller."

"I was thinkin'," replied Abel roughly, draining his glass, and rising to his feet while he drew on his sheepskin gloves, "that when the thought of a woman once gets into the brain it's worse than a maggot."

"The best way is to get her," retorted Solomon, "but that ain't so easy a matter as it looks, unless you are a parson. Was thar ever a parson, Mr. Doolittle, that couldn't get married as often as he'd take the notion?"

"Thar may be sech, but I've never seed him an' never heard on him," responded old Adam. "'Tis kind of professional work with 'em an' they've got the advantage of the rest of us bein' so used to pulpit speakin'."

"I suppose our Mr. Mullen might have whomsoever he'd set his eyes on," pursued Solomon.

"Without a doubt he might. If all else failed him he'd but to ax her in his pulpit gown an' his prayin' voice, an' thar'd be no gainsayin' him for a female. Let him boom out 'Dearly Beloved,' as he does in church an' ten chances to one she'd answer 'Amen' just out of the habit. I'm a bold man, suh, an' I've al'ays been, but I ain't one to stand up ag'inst a preacher when thar's a woman in the race."

Wrapping his blue knitted comforter about his throat, Abel nodded, good-humoredly to the group, and went out to his gig, which he had left under a shed in the yard. As he removed the blanket from his mare, his mind dwelt stubbornly on the remarks old Adam had let fall concerning clergymen and women. He had already convinced himself that the Reverend Mr. Mullen was the object of Molly's preference, and his nature was big enough to rejoice that she should have chosen so good a man. At least, if this were true, Jonathan Gay would not be his rival.

It was the season of the year when the sunny days gave place to frosty nights, and all the changes of the autumn--the reddening of the fruit, the ripening of the nuts, the falling of the leaves--appeared to occur in the hours between sunset and sunrise. A thin and watery moon shed a spectral light over the meadows, which seemed to float midway between the ashen band of the road and the jagged tops of the pines on the horizon. There was no wind, and the few remaining leaves on the trees looked as if they were cut out of velvet. The promise of a hoar-frost was in the air--and a silver veil lay already over the distance.

When he had turned into the branch road that led from the turnpike to the mill, a gig passed him, driven rapidly, and Reuben Merryweather called "good-night," in his friendly voice. An instant later a spot of white in the road caught Abel's glance, and alighting, he picked up a knitted scarf, which he recognized even in the moonlight as one that Molly had worn. Looking back he saw that the other gig had stopped at the turnpike, and as he hastened toward it with the scarf in his hand, he was rewarded by a flash of bright eyes from the muffled figure at Reuben's side.

"I found this in the road," he said, "you must have dropped it."

"Yes, it fell out--thank you," she answered, and it seemed to him that her hand lingered an instant in his before it was withdrawn and buried beneath the rugs.

The pressure remained with him, and a little later as he drove over the frosted roads, he could still feel, as in a dream, the soft clinging touch of her fingers. Essentially an idealist, his character was the result of a veneering of insufficient culture on a groundwork of raw impulse. People and objects appeared to him less through forms of thought than through colours of the emotions; and he saw them out of relation because he saw them under different conditions from those that hold sway over this planet. The world he moved in was peopled by a race of beings that acted under ideal laws and measured up to an impossible standard; and this mixture of rustic ignorance and religious fervor had endowed him with a power of sacrifice in large matters, while it rendered him intolerant of smaller weaknesses. It was characteristic of the man that he should have arranged for Molly in his thoughts, and at the cost of great suffering to himself, a happiness that was suited to the ideal figure rather than to the living woman.

When he entered the kitchen, after putting the mare into her stall, the familiar room, with its comfortable warmth, dragged him back into a reality in which the dominating spirit was Sarah Revercomb. Even his aching heart seemed to recognize her authority, and to obtrude itself with a sense of embarrassment into surroundings where all mental maladies were outlawed. She was on her knees busily sorting a pile of sweet potatoes, which she suspected of having been frost-bitten; and by sheer force of character, she managed to convince the despairing lover that a frost-bitten potato was a more substantial fact than a broken heart.

"I declar' if the last one of 'em ain't specked! I knew 'twould be so when they was left out thar in the smoke-house that cold spell. Abel, all those sweet potatoes you left out in the smoke-house have been nipped."

"Well, I don't care a hang!" retorted Abel, as he unwrapped his muffler. "If it isn't one thing, it's another. You're enough to drive a sober man to drink."

"If you don't care, I'd like to know who ought to," responded Sarah, whose principal weapon in an argument was the fact that she was always the injured person. "It seems that 'twas all yo' fault since you put 'em thar."

"You'd better give him some supper--he looks almost played out," observed Abner from a corner of the hearth, where he sat smoking with his head hanging on his chest.

Though she might harrow her son's soul, Sarah was incapable of denying him food, so rising from her knees, she unpinned her skirt, and brought him coffee and broiled herring from the stove where they had been keeping hot.

"Where's Archie?" asked Abel, while she plied him with corn muffins.

"Courtin', I reckon, though he'd best be down yonder in the swamp settin' old hare traps. I never saw sech courtin' as you all's anyhow," she concluded. "It don't seem to lead nowhar, nor to end in nothin' except itself. That's what this here ever-lastin' education has done for you, Abel--if you hadn't had those books to give you something to think about, you'd have been married an' settled a long time befo' now. Yo' grandpa over thar was steddyin' about raisin' a family before he was twenty."

On either side of the stove, grandfather and grandmother nodded like an ancient Punch and Judy who were at peace only when they slept. Grandfather's pipe had gone out in his hand, and from grandmother's lap a ball of crimson yarn had rolled on the rag carpet before the fire. Twenty years ago she had begun knitting an enormous coverlet in bright coloured squares, and it was still unfinished, though the strips, packed away in camphor, filled a chest in Sarah's store closet.

"You wouldn't like any girl I'd marry," he retorted with a feeble attempt at mirth. "If I tried to put your advice into practice there'd be trouble as sure as shot."

"No, thar wouldn't--not if I picked her out," she returned.

"Great Scott! Won't you let me choose my own wife even?" he exclaimed, with a laugh in which there was an ironic humour. The soft pressure of Molly's fingers was still on his hand, and he saw her face looking up at him, gentle and beseeching, as she had looked when she offered her lips to his kiss. Above the yearning of his heart there rose now the decision of his judgment--and this had surrendered her to Mr. Mullen! Some rigid strain of morality, inherited from Sarah and therefore continually at war with her, caused him to torture himself into a mental recognition that her choice was for the best.

"That man never walked that had sense enough to pick out a wife," rejoined Sarah. "To think of a great hulkin' fellow like you losin' yo' sense over a half mad will-o'-the-wisp that don't even come of decent people. If she hadn't had eyes as big as saucers, do you reckon you'd ever have turned twice to look at her?"

"For God's sake don't talk about her--she's not going to marry me," he responded, and the admission of the truth he had so often repeated in his own mind caused a pang of disbelief.

"I'd like to know why she ain't?" snorted Sarah indignantly, "does she think she's goin' to get a better catch in this neighbourhood?"

"Oh, it's all one. She doesn't want to, that is enough."

"Well, she's a fool if she doesn't want to, an' I'll say it to her face. If thar's a better lookin' man around here, I'd like to see him, or a better worker. What have the Merryweathers to be so set up about, I'd like to know? And that gal without even a father to her name that she can call her own!"

"You mustn't--I won't stand it any longer."

"Well, it's for yo' good, I reckon. If yo' own mother can't take yo' side, I'd like to know who's goin' to do it?"

"I don't want anybody to take my side. She's got a right not to marry me."

"I ain't saying' she ain't, an' it's a mighty good thing for you that she's sech a plum fool as not to want to. 'Twould be the worst news I'd ever heard if she'd been minded to have you. I'd move heaven an' earth to keep you from marryin' her, an' if the good Lord has done it instead of me, I'm thankful enough to Him for His trouble."

Rising from the table, Abel pushed his untasted food aside with a gesture of loathing. A week ago he had been interested in the minor details of life; to-night he felt that they bored him profoundly.

"If you knew what you were saying you'd hold your tongue," he retorted angrily.

"Ain't you goin' to eat yo' supper?" inquired Sarah anxiously, "that herrin' is real nice and brown."

"I don't want anything. I'm not hungry."

"Mebbe you'd like one of the brandied peaches I'm savin' for Christmas?"

"No, I'm dead beat. I'll go up to sleep pretty soon."

"Do you want a fire? I can lay one in a minute."

He shook his head, not impatiently, but as one to whom brandied peaches and wood fires are matters of complete indifference.

"I've got to see about something in the stable first. Then I'll go to bed."

Taking down a lantern from a nail by the door, he went out, as was his nightly habit, to look at his grey mare Hannah. When he came in again and stumbled up the narrow staircase to his room, he found that Sarah had been before him and kindled a blaze from resinous pine on the two bricks in the fireplace. At the sound of his step, she entered with an armful of pine boughs, which she tossed to the flames.

"I reckon the cracklin' will make you feel mo' comfortable," she observed. "Thar ain't anything like a lightwood fire to drive away the misery."

"It does sound friendly," he responded.

For a moment she hesitated, groping apparently for some topic of conversation which would divert his mind from one subject that engrossed him.

"Archie's just come in," she remarked at last, "an' he walked up with old Uncle Toby, who said he'd seen a ha'nt in the dusk over at Poplar Spring. I don't see how Mrs. Gay an' Miss Kesiah can endure to live thar."

"Oh, they're just darkies' tales--nobody believes in them any more than in conjuring and witches."

"That's true, I reckon, but I shouldn't like to live over thar all the same. They say old Mr. Jonathan comes out of his grave and walks whenever one of 'em is to be buried or married."

"Nobody's dead that I've heard of, and I don't suppose either Mr. Jonathan or Miss Kesiah are thinking of getting married."

"Well, I s'pose so--but I'm might glad he ain't taken the notion to walk around here. I don't believe in ha'nts, but I ain't got no use for 'em."

She went out, closing the door after her; and dropping into a chair by the fire, he buried his face in his hands, while he vowed in his heart that he would stop thinking of Molly.

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