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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Miller Of Old Church - Book 1 - Chapter 2. In Which Destiny Wears The Comic Mask
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The Miller Of Old Church - Book 1 - Chapter 2. In Which Destiny Wears The Comic Mask Post by :mondd Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :May 2012 Read :791

Click below to download : The Miller Of Old Church - Book 1 - Chapter 2. In Which Destiny Wears The Comic Mask (Format : PDF)

The Miller Of Old Church - Book 1 - Chapter 2. In Which Destiny Wears The Comic Mask

BOOK I CHAPTER II. IN WHICH DESTINY WEARS THE COMIC MASK

Putting his horse to a canter, Mr. Jonathan Gay rode through the old gate into the turnpike. His still indignant look was fixed on the heavy wheelruts ahead, while his handsome though fleshy figure inclined slightly forward in the saddle after a foreign fashion. Seen close at hand his face, which was impressive at a distance, lost a certain distinction of contour, as though the marks of experience had blurred, rather than accentuated, the original type. The bones of forehead and nose still showed classic in outline, but in moulding the mouth and chin nature had not adhered closely to the aristocratic structure beneath. The flesh sagged a little in places; the brow was a trifle too heavy, the jaw a trifle too prominent, the lips under the short dark moustache were a trifle too full. Yet in spite of this coarseness of finish, his face was well coloured, attractive, and full of generous, if whimsical, humour. A judge of men would have seen in it proof that Mr. Gay's character consisted less in a body of organized tendencies than in a procession of impulses.

White with dust the turnpike crawled straight ahead between blood-red clumps of sumach and bramble on which the faint sunlight still shone. At intervals, where the dripping from over-hanging boughs had worn the road into dangerous hollows, boles of young saplings had been placed cross-wise in a corduroy pattern, and above them clouds of small belated butterflies drifted in the wind like blown yellow rose leaves. On the right the thin corn shocks looked as if they were sculptured in bronze, and amid them there appeared presently the bent figure of a harvester, outlined in dull blue against a sky of burnt orange. From the low grounds beside the river a mist floated up, clinging in fleecy shreds to the short grass that grew in and out of the bare stubble. The aspect of melancholy, which was depressing even in the broad glare of noon, became almost intolerable under the waning light of the afterglow. Miles of loneliness stretched on either side of the turnpike, which trailed, without fork or bend, into the flat distance beyond the great pine at the bars.

For the twentieth time since he had left the tavern, Mr. Gay, whose habit it was to appear whimsical when he felt despondent, declared to himself that he'd be damned if the game was worth half what the candle was likely to cost him. Having arrived, without notable misadventure, at the age of thirty, he had already reduced experience to a series of episodes and had embraced the casual less as a pastime than as a philosophy.

"If the worst comes to the worst--hang it!--I suppose I may hunt a Molly Cotton-tail," he grumbled, bringing his horse's gait down to an amble. "There ought to be good hounds about, judging from the hang-dog look of the natives. Why in thunder did the old boy want to bury himself and his heirs forever in this god-forsaken land's end, and what in the deuce have mother and Aunt Kesiah done with themselves down here for the last twenty years? Two thousand acres? Damn it! I'd rather have six feet on the good English soil! Came to get rid of one woman, did he?--and tumbled into a pretty puddle with another as soon as he got here. By George, it's in the bone and it is obliged to come out in the blood. A Gay will go on ogling the sex, I suppose, as long as he is able to totter back from the edge of the grave."

As he approached the blazed pine, a spot of darkness, which he had at first mistaken for a small tree, detached itself from the surrounding shadows, and assumed gradually a human shape. His immediate impression was that the shape was a woman and that she was young. With his next breath he became aware that she was also beautiful. In the fading light her silhouette stood out as distinctly against the mellow background of the sky, as did the great pine which marked the almost obliterated path over the fields. Her dress was the ordinary calico one, of some dull purplish shade, worn by the wives and daughters of the neighbouring farmers; and on her bare white arm, with its upturned sleeve, she carried a small split basket half filled with persimmons. She was of an almost pure Saxon type--tall, broad-shouldered, deep-bosomed, with a skin the colour of new milk, and soft ashen hair parted smoothly over her ears and coiled in a large, loose knot at the back of her head. As he reached her she smiled faintly and a little brown mole at the corner of her mouth played charmingly up and down. After the first minute, Gay found himself fascinated by this single imperfection in her otherwise flawless features. More than her beauty he felt that it stirred his blood and aroused in him the physical tenderness which he associated always with some vague chivalrous impulse.

She moved slightly when he dismounted beside her, and a number of small splotches of black circling around her resolved themselves into a bodyguard of little negroes, clad in checked pinafores, with the scant locks wrapped tightly with crimson cotton.

"May I let down the bars for you?" he asked, turning to look into her face with a smile, "and do you take your collection of piccaninnies along for protection or for amusement?"

"Grandma doesn't like me to go out alone, sir--so many dreadful things happen," she answered gently, with an utter absence of humour. "I can't take anybody who is at work, so I let the little darkies come. Mary Jo is the oldest and she's only six."

"Is your home near here?"

"I live at the mill. It's a mile farther on, but there is a short cut."

"Then you are related to the miller, Mr. Revercomb--that fine looking chap I met at the ordinary?"

"He is my uncle. I am Blossom Revercomb," she answered.

"Blossom? It's a pretty name."

Her gaze dwelt on him calmly for and instant, with the faintest quiver of her full white lids, which appeared to weigh heavily on her rather prominent eyes of a pale periwinkle blue.

"My real name is Keren-happuch," she said at last, after a struggle with herself, "grandma bein' a great Scripture reader, chose it when I was born--but they call me Blossom, for short."

"And am I permitted, Miss Keren-happuch, to call you Blossom?"

Again she hesitated, pondering gravely.

"Mary Jo, if you unwrap your hair your mother will whip you," she said suddenly, and went on without a perceptible change of tone, "Keren-happuch is an ugly name, and I don't like it--though grandma says we oughtn't to think any of the Bible names ugly, not even Gog. She is quite an authority on Scripture, is grandma, and she can repeat the first chapter in Chronicles backward, which the minister couldn't do when he tried."

"I'd like to hear the name that would sound ugly on your lips, Miss Keren-happuch."

If the sons of farmers had sought to enchant her ears with similar strains, there was no hint of it in the smiling eyes she lifted to his. The serenity of her look added, he thought, to her resemblance to some pagan goddess--not to Artemis nor to Aphrodite, but to some creature compounded equally of earth and sky. Io perhaps, or Europa? By Jove he had it at last--the Europa of Veronese!

"There'll have to be a big frost before the persimmons get sweet," she observed in a voice that was remarkably deep and full for a woman. With the faint light on her classic head and her milky skin, he found a delicious piquancy in the remark. Had she gossiped, had she even laughed, the effect would have been disastrous. Europa, he was vaguely aware, would hardly have condescended to coquetry. Her speech, like her glance, would be brief, simple, direct.

"Tell me about the people here," he asked after a pause, in which he plucked idly at the red-topped orchard grass through which they were passing. Behind them the six little negroes walked primly in single file, Mary Jo in the lead and a chocolate-coloured atom of two toddling at the tail of the procession. From time to time shrill squeaks went up from the rear when a startled partridge whirred over the pasture or a bare brown foot came down on a toad or a grasshopper.

As she made no reply, he added in a more intimate tone, "I am Jonathan Gay, of Jordan's Journey, as I suppose you know."

"The old gentleman's nephew?" she said, while she drew slightly away from him. "Mary Jo, did you tell Tobias's mammy that he was coming along?"

"Nawm, I ain done tole nobody caze dar ain nobody done ax me."

"But I said that you were not to bring him without letting Mahaly know. You remember what a whipping she gave him the last time he came!"

At this a dismal howl burst from Tobias. "I ain't-a-gwine-ter-git-a-whuppin'!"

"Lawd, Miss Blossom, hit cyarn' hut Tobias ez hit ud hut de res'er us," replied Mary Jo, with fine philosophy, "case dar ain but two years er 'im ter whup."

"I ain't-a-gwine-ter-git-a-whuppin'!" sang Tobias in a passionate refrain.

"Now that's just it," said Gay, feeling as though he should like to throttle the procession of piccaninnies. "What I can't understand is why the people about here--those I met at Bottom's Ordinary, for instance, seem to have disliked me even before I came."

Without surprise or embarrassment, she changed the basket from her right to her left arm, and this simple movement had the effect of placing him at a distance, though apparently by accident.

"That's because of the old gentleman, I reckon," she answered, "my folks all hated him, I don't know why."

"But can you guess? You see I really want to understand. I've been away since I was eight years old and I have only the haziest memories."

The question brought them into a sudden intimacy, as if his impulsive appeal to her had established a relation which had not existed the minute before. He liked the look of her strong shoulders, of her deep bosom rising in creamy white to her throat; and the quiver of her red lower lip when she talked, aroused in him a swift and facile emotion. The melancholy of the landscape, reacting on the dangerous softness of his mood, bent his nature toward her like a flame driven by the wind. Around them the red-topped orchard grass faded to pale rose in the twilight, and beyond the crumbling rail fence miles of feathery broomsedge swept to the pines that stood straight and black against the western horizon. Impressions of the hour and the scene, of colour and sound, were blended in the allurement which Nature proffered him, for her own ends, through the woman beside him. Not Blossom Revercomb, but the great Mother beguiled him. The forces that moved in the wind, in the waving broomsedge, and in the call of the whip-poor-will, stirred in his pulses as they stirred in the objects around him. That fugitive attraction of the body, which Nature has shielded at the cost of finer attributes, leaped upon him like a presence that had waited in earth and sky. Loftier aspirations vanished before it. Not his philosophy but the accident of a woman's face worked for destiny.

"I never knew just how it was," she answered slowly as if weighing her words, "but your uncle wasn't one of our folks, you know. He bought the place the year before the war broke out, and there was always some mystery about him and about the life he led--never speaking to anybody if he could help it, always keeping himself shut up when he could. He hadn't a good name in these parts, and the house hasn't a good name either, for the darkies say it is ha'nted and that old Mrs. Jordan--'ole Miss' they called her--still comes back out of her grave to rebuke the ha'nt of Mr. Jonathan. There is a path leading from the back porch to the poplar spring where none of them will go for water after nightfall. Uncle Abednego swears that he met his old master there one night when he went down to fill a bucket and that a woman was with him. It all comes, I reckon, of Mr. Jonathan having been found dead at the spring, and you know how the darkies catch onto any silly fancy about the dead walking. I don't believe much in ha'nts myself, though great-grandma has seen many a one in her day, and all the servants at Jordan's Journey will never rest quiet. I've always wondered if your mother and Miss Kesiah were ever frightened by the stories the darkies tell?" For a moment she paused, and then added softly, "It was all so different, they say, when the Jordans were living."

Again the phrase which had begun to irritate him! Who were these dead and gone Jordans whose beneficent memory still inhabited the house they had built?

"I don't think my mother would care for such stories," he replied after a minute. "She has never mentioned them in her letters."

"Of course nobody really puts faith in them, but I never pass the spring, if I can help it, after the sun has gone down. It makes me feel so dreadfully creepy."

"The root of this gossip, I suppose, lies in the general dislike of my uncle?"

"Perhaps--I'm not sure," she responded, and he felt that her rustic simplicity possessed a charm above the amenities of culture. "The old clergyman--that was before Mr. Mullen's day--when we all went to the church over at Piping Tree--used to say that the mercy of God would have to exceed his if He was ever going to redeem him. I remember hearing him tell grandma when I was a child that there were a few particulars in which he couldn't answer with certainty for God, and that old Mr. Jonathan Gay was one of 'em. 'God Almighty will have to find His own way in this matter,' he used to declare, 'for I wash my hands of it.' I'm sorry, sir," she finished contritely, "I forgot he was your own blood relation."

In the spirit of this contrition, she changed the basket back again to her left arm; and perceiving his advantage, Gay acted upon it with his accustomed alacrity.

"Don't apologize, please, I am glad I have this from your lips--not from a stranger's."

Under the spell of her beauty, he was aware of a pleasurable sensation, as though the pale rose of the orchard grass had gone to his head and coloured his vision. There was a thrill in feeling her large, soft arm brushing his sleeve, in watching the rise and fall of her bosom under her tight calico dress.

"I shall always know that we were friends--good friends, from the first," he resumed after a minute.

"You are very kind, sir," she answered, "this is my path over the stile and it is growin' late--Tobias's mother will surely give him a whippin'. I hope you don't mind my havin' gathered these persimmons on your land," she concluded, with an honesty which was relieved from crudeness by her physical dignity, "they are hardly fit to eat because there has been so little frost yet."

"Well, I'm sorry for that, Miss Keren-happuch, or shall it be Blossom?"

"I like Blossom better," she answered shyly, lifting her scant calico skirt with one hand as she mounted the stile.

"Then good night, lovely Blossom," he called gaily while he turned back into the bridle path which led like a frayed white seam over the pasture.

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