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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Miller Of Old Church - Book 1 - Chapter 13. By The Mill-Race
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The Miller Of Old Church - Book 1 - Chapter 13. By The Mill-Race Post by :mondd Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :May 2012 Read :622

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The Miller Of Old Church - Book 1 - Chapter 13. By The Mill-Race


A warm, though hazy, sun followed the sharp night, and only the blackened and damaged plants in the yard bore witness to the frost, which had melted to the semblance of rain on the grass. On the dappled boughs of the sycamore by the mill-race several bronze leaves hung limp and motionless, as if they were attached by silken threads to the stems, and the coating of moss on the revolving wheel shone like green enamel on a groundwork of ebony. The white mist, which had wrapped the landscape at dawn, still lay in the hollows of the pasture, from which it floated up as the day advanced to dissolve in shining moisture upon the hillside. There was a keen autumn tang in the air--a mingling of rotting leaves, of crushed winesaps, of drying sassafras. As Abel passed from the house to the mill, his gaze rested on a golden hickory tree near the road, where a grey squirrel sported merrily under the branches. Like most of his neighbours, he had drawn his weather predictions from the habits of the wild creatures, and had decided that it would be an open winter because the squirrels had left the larger part of the nuts ungarnered.

At the door of the mill, as he turned the big rusty key in the lock, he told himself doggedly that since he was not to have Molly, the only sensible thing was to surrender the thought of her. While he started a blaze in the stove, and swept the floor with the broomsedge broom he kept for the purpose, he forced his mind to dwell on the sacks of grist that stood ready for grinding. The fox-hound puppy, Moses, had followed him from the house, and sat now over the threshold watching a robin that hopped warily in the band of sunlight. The robin was in search of a few grains of buckwheat which had dropped from a measure, and the puppy had determined that, although he was unable to eat the buckwheat himself, he would endeavor to prevent the robin from doing so. So intent was he upon this resolve, that he forgot to bark at an old negro, who drove up presently in an ancient gig, the harness of which was tied on a decrepit mule with pieces of rope. The negro had left some corn to be ground, and as he took his sack of meal from the miller, he let fall a few lamentations on the general forlorn state of human nature.

"Dish yer livin' is moughty hard, marster, but I reckon we'se all got ter come ter hit."

"Well, you manage to raise a little good corn anyway, so you ought to be thankful instead of complaining."

"Dar ain' nuttin' 'tall ter be thankful fur in dat, suh, case de Lawd He ain' had no mo' ter do wid dat ar co'n den ole Marse Hawtrey way over yonder at Pipin' Tree. I jes' ris dat ar con' wid my own han' right down de road at my f'ont do', an' po'd de water on hit outer de pump at my back un. I'se monst'ous glad ter praise de Lawd fur what He done done, but I ain' gwine ter gin 'im credit fur de wuk er my own fis' en foot."

"Are you going by Jordan's Journey, uncle? I'd like to send Reuben Merryweather's buckwheat to him."

"Naw, boss, I ain't a-gwine by dar, caze dat ar Jerdan's Jerney ain got a good name ter my years. I ain't a-feard er ha'nts by daylight, but I'se monst'ous feared er badness day er nightime, en hit sutney do pear ter me like de badness er ole Marse Jonathan done got in de a'r er dat ar Jerdan's Jerney. Hit's ha'nted by badness, dat's what 'tis, en dar ain nobody cep'n Gawd A'mought Hisse'f dat kin lay badness."

He went out, stooping under the weight of his bag, and picking up a grey turkey's wing from the ledge, Abel began brushing out the valve of the mill, in which the meal had grown heavy from dampness.

"The truth is, Moses," he remarked, "you are a fool to want what you can't have in life." The puppy looked up at him inquiringly, its long ears flapping about its soft foolish face. "But I reckon we're all fools, when it comes to that."

When the grinding was over for the day, he shut down the mill, and calling Moses to heel, went out on the old mill-race, where the upper gate was locked by a crude wooden spar known as the "key." He was standing under the sycamore, with this implement in his hand, when he discerned the figure of Molly approaching slowly amid the feathery white pollen which lay in patches of delicate bloom over the sorrel waste of the broomsedge. Without moving he waited until she had crossed the log and stood looking up at him from the near side of the stream.

"Abel, are you still angry with me?" she asked, smiling.

Dropping the key into the lock, he walked slowly to the end of the mill-race, and descended the short steps to the hillside.

"No, I'm not angry--at least I don't think I am--but I've taken your advice and given you up."

"But, Abel---"

"I suppose you meant to take Mr. Mullen all the time that you were making a fool of me. He's a better man for you, probably, than I am."

"Do you really think that?" she asked in a tone of surprise. "Would you like to see me married to him?"

He hesitated an instant and then answered: "I honestly believe that it is the best thing for you to do."

Instead of producing the effect he had foreseen his advice brought a luminous moisture to her eyes.

"I suppose you think it would do me good to be preached to three times a day?" she rejoined.

"Well, I believe it wouldn't hurt you, Molly," he responded with a smile.

His attitude of renouncement drew her suddenly nearer.

"It wasn't about Mr. Mullen that I came to talk to you--there is something else."

"Surely you aren't thinking of Jim Halloween?"

"No, no, it isn't a man. Why do you seem to think that the beginning and middle and end of my existence is a man? There are times when I find even a turkey more interesting."

"It is about a turkey, then, that you have come to see me?"

"Oh, no, it's a man, after all, but not a lover--he's Mr. Chamberlayne, the lawyer, from Applegate. Yesterday when he was spending the day at the big house, he came over to see me."

"Had he never seen you before?"

"Of course, when I was little--and later he took me to school in Applegate. I was to stay there until I was twenty-one you know, but I ran away the second year because grandfather fell ill with pneumonia and there was no one to look after him. You remember that, don't you?"

"Yes, I remember. I picked you up on the road and brought you home in my gig. There was a heavy snow storm."

"It seems that I was meant to be educated as a lady. Old Mr. Jonathan left a letter about it."

"He did?--damn him! Why didn't he save himself the trouble by acting decently in the beginning?"

"That was because of Mrs. Gay--he had promised her, when he thought she was dying, some dreadful thing. And after that he was afraid--afraid of her all his life. Isn't it terrible that such a saintly person should have caused so much sin?"

"But what was she to him that he should have been such a coward about her?"

"Oh, he loved her more than anything on earth--for he loved my mother only a little while. When Mrs. Gay first came to live with him, she was so beautiful and so delicate, that she looked as if a wind would blow her away--so soft that she could smother a person like a mass of feathers. He felt after that that he had entangled himself, and it was only at the last when he was dying that he had any remorse. With all his wickedness there was a terrible kind of religion in him--like a rock that is buried under the earth--and he wanted to save his soul alive before he passed on to judgment. As if _that did any good--or he _could make amends either to me or to God."

"I rather hope he was as unsuccessful in the last case as in the first. But, tell me, Molly, how does it affect you?"

"Not at all--not at all--if he has left me money, I shall not touch it. He wasn't thinking of mother, but of his own soul at the end, and can you tell me that God would wipe out all his dreadful past just because of one instant's fear?"

Her passion, so unlike the meekness of Janet Merryweather, made him look at her wonderingly, and yet with a sympathy that kept him dumb. It took the spirit of a Gay to match a Gay, he thought, not without bitterness.

"But why does Mr. Chamberlayne come to you now?" he asked, when he had regained his voice.

"It is Mrs. Gay--it has always been Mrs. Gay ever since Mr. Jonathan first saw her. She smothered his soul with her softness, and wound him about her little finger when she appeared all the time too weak to lift her hand. That's just the kind Mr. Mullen preaches about in his sermons--the kind that rules without your knowing it. But if she'd been bold and bad instead of soft and good, she couldn't have done half the harm!"

"And Miss Kesiah?" he asked, "had she nothing to do with it?"

"She? Oh, her sister has drained her--there isn't an ounce of red blood left in her veins. Mr. Jonathan never liked her because she is homely, and she had no influence over him. Mrs. Gay ruled him."

"I always thought her so lovely and gentle," he said regretfully, "she seems to me so much more womanly than Miss Kesiah."

"I suppose she is as far as her face goes, and that's what people judge by. If you part your hair and look a certain way nothing that you can do will keep them from thinking you an angel. When I smile at Mr. Mullen in church it convinces him that I like visiting the sick."

"How can you laugh at him, Molly, if you are going to marry him?"

"Have you positively decided," she inquired, "that I am going to marry him?"

"Wasn't that what you meant when you threw me over?"

She shook her head, "No, it wasn't what I meant--but since you've made up your mind, I suppose there's no use for me to say a word?"

"On the whole I don't think there is--for your words are not honest ones."

"Then why do you judge me by them, Abel?" she asked very softly.

"Because a man must judge by something and I can't look into your heart. But if I'm not to be your lover," he added, "I'll not be your plaything. It's now or never."

"Why, Abel!" she exclaimed in mock astonishment.

"It's the last time I shall ever ask you--Molly, will you marry me?"

"You've forgotten poor Mr. Mullen."

"Hang Mr. Mullen! I shall ask you just three times, and the third time will be the last--Now, Molly will you marry me? That's the second."

"But it's so sudden, Abel."

"If ten years can't prepare you, ten minutes will be no better. Here goes the third and last, Molly---"

"Abel, how _can you be so silly?"

"That's not an answer--will you---"

"Do you mean if I don't promise now, I'll never have the chance again?"

"I've told you--listen---"

"Oh, wait a minute. Please, go slowly."

"--Marry me?"

"Abel, I don't believe you love me!" she said, and began to sob.

"Answer me and I'll show you."

"I didn't think you'd be so cruel--when---"

"When? Remember I've stopped playing, Molly."

"When you know I'm simply dying for you," she responded.

He smiled at her without moving. "Then answer my question, and there's no drawing back this time remember."

"The question you asked me? Repeat it, please."

"I've said it three times already, and that's enough."

"Must I put it into words? Oh Abel, can't you see it?"

Lifting her chin, he laughed softly as he stooped and kissed her. "I've seen it several times before, darling. Now I want it put into words--just plain ones."

"Then, Mr. Abel Revercomb," she returned demurely, "I should like very much to marry you, if you have no objection."

The next instant her mockery fled, and in one of those spells of sadness, which seemed so alien to her, and yet so much a part of her, she clung to him, sobbing.

"Abel, I love you so, be good to me," she entreated.

"Good to you!" he exclaimed, crushing her to him.

"Oh, those dreadful days since we quarrelled!"

"Why did you do it, darling, since you suffered as well as I?"

"I can't tell--there's something in me like that, I don't know what it is--but we'll quarrel again after this, I suppose."

"Then we deserve to be punished and I hope we shall be."

"How will that help? It's just life and we can't make it different." She drew gently away from him, while a clairvoyance wiser than her years saddened her features. "I wonder if love ever lasts?" she whispered half to herself.

But there was no room in his more practical mind for the question. "Ours will, sweetheart--how can you doubt it? Haven't I loved you for the last ten years, not counting the odd days?"

"And in all those years you kissed me once, while in the last five minutes you've kissed me--how many times? You are wasteful, Abel."

"And you're a dreadful little witch--not a woman."

"I suppose I am, and a nice girl wouldn't talk like this. I'm not the wife you're wanting, Abel."

"The first and last and only one, my darling."

"Judy Hatch would suit you better if she wasn't in love with the rector."

"Confound Judy Hatch! I'll stop your mouth with kisses if you mention her again."

At this she clung to him, laughing and crying in a sudden passion of fear.

"Hold me fast, Abel, and don't let me go, whatever happens," she said.

When he had parted from her at the fence which divided his land from Gay's near the Poplar Spring, he watched her little figure climb the Haunt's Walk and then disappear into the leafless shrubbery at the back of the house. While he looked after her it seemed to him that the wan November day grew radiant with colour, and that spring blossomed suddenly, out of season, upon the landscape. His hour was upon him when he turned and retraced his steps over the silver brook and up the gradual slope, where the sun shone on the bare soil and revealed each separate clod of earth as if it were seen under a microscope. All nature was at one with him. He felt the flowing of his blood so joyously that he wondered why the sap did not rise and mount upward in the trees.

In the yard Sarah was directing a negro boy, who was spreading a second layer of manure over her more delicate plants. As Abel closed the gate, she looked up, and the expression of his face held her eyes while he came toward her.

"What has happened, Abel? You look like Moses when he came down from the mountain."

"It was all wrong--what I told you last night, mother. Molly is going to marry me."

"You mean she's gone an' changed her mind jest as you'd begun to git along without her. I declar', I don't know what has got into you to show so little sperit. If you were the man I took you to be, you'd up an' let her see quick enough that you don't ax twice in the same quarter."

"Oh, all that's over now--she's going to marry me."

"You needn't shout so. I ain't deaf. Samson, sprinkle another spadeful of manure on that bridal-wreath bush over thar by the porch."

"Won't you say you're pleased?"

"I ain't pleased, Abel, an' I ain't going to lie about it. When I git down on my knees to-night, I'll pray harder than I ever prayed in my life that you'll come to yo' senses an' see what a laughing-stock that gal has made of you."

"Then I wish I hadn't told you."

"Well, I'd have knowed it anyhow--it's burstin' out of you. Where're you goin' now? The time's gittin' on toward dinner."

"For my axe. I want to cut a little timber."

"What on earth are you goin' to cut timber at this hour for?"

"Oh, I feel like it, that's all. I want to try my strength."

Going into the kitchen, he came out a minute later with his axe on his shoulder. As he crossed the log over the mill-stream, the spotted fox-hound puppy waddled after him, and several startled rabbits peered out from a clump of sassafras by the "worm" fence. Over the fence went Abel, and under it, on his fat little belly, went Moses, the puppy. In the meadow the life-everlasting shed a fragrant pollen in the sunshine, and a few crippled grasshoppers deluded themselves into the belief that the summer still lingered. Once the puppy tripped over a love-vine, and getting his front paws painfully entangled yelped sharply for assistance. Picking him up, Abel carried him in his arms to the pine wood, where he place him on a bed of needles in a hollow.

Through the slender boles of the trees, the sunlight fell in bars on the carpet of pine-cones. The scent of the living forest was in his nostrils, and when he threw back his head, it seemed to him that the blue sky was resting upon the tree-tops. Taking off his coat, he felt the edge of his blade, while he leaned against the great pine he had marked out for sacrifice. In the midst of the wood he saw the walls of his house rising--saw the sun on the threshold--the smoke mount from the chimney. The dream in his brain was the dream of the race in its beginning--for he saw the home and in the centre of the home he saw a woman and in the arms of the woman he saw a child. Though the man would change, the dream was indestructible, and would flow on from the future into the future. The end it served was not individual, but racial--for it belonged not to the soul of the lover, but to the integral structure of life.

Moving suddenly, as if in response to a joyous impulse, he drew away from the tree, and lifting his axe swung it out into the sunlight. For an instant there was silence. Then a shiver shook the pine from its roots upward, the boughs rocked in the blue sky, and a bird flying out of them sailed slowly into the west.

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