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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Miller Of Old Church - Book 1 - Chapter 20. Life's Ironies
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The Miller Of Old Church - Book 1 - Chapter 20. Life's Ironies Post by :FreeBiz Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :May 2012 Read :2857

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The Miller Of Old Church - Book 1 - Chapter 20. Life's Ironies


When he came down to breakfast next morning, Abel heard of Reuben's death from his mother.

"Well, you can't tell who's goin' to be the next," she concluded grimly, as she poured the coffee.

In spite of her austere manner and her philosophical platitude, Sarah was more moved in her heart than she had dared to confess. From the moment that she had heard of Reuben's death--when she had gone over with some of her mourning to offer Molly--she had ceased to think of him as an old man, and her mind had dwelt upon him as one who had been ruthlessly cut off in his prime--as he might have been had the end come some thirty or forty years before. Memory, that great miracle worker, had contrived to produce this illusion; and all Sarah's hard common sense could not prevent her feeling an indignant pity because Reuben's possibilities of happiness had been unfulfilled. Trouble after trouble and never anything to make up for them, and then to go this way while he was resting! "It's like that," she thought bitterly to herself, alluding to life. "It's like that!" And it seemed to her suddenly that the whole of existence was but a continual demonstration of the strong religious dogmas on which her house of faith had been reared. When you looked around you, she thought, with triumph, there wasn't any explanation of the seeming injustice except original sin. There was a strange comfort in this conviction, as though it represented the single reality to which she could cling amid the mutable deceptions of life. "Thar wouldn't be any sense in it if 'twarn't for that," she would sometimes say to herself, as one who draws strength from a secret source of refreshment.

In Abel the news of Reuben's death awoke a different emotion, and his first thought was of Molly. He longed to comfort her in his arms, and the memory of the quarrel of yesterday and even of the kiss that led to it seemed to increase rather than diminish this longing.

Rising from his untasted breakfast, he hurriedly swallowed a cup of coffee and took up his hat.

"I am going to see Molly, mother; would you like to send a message?"

Blossom, who was gazing out of the window with her eyes full of dreams, turned at his words.

"Give her my love, Abel," she said.

"Tell her he was a good man and had fewer sins to his account than most of us," added Sarah.

"Did you know, Abel, that old Mr. Jonathan left her ten thousand dollars a year as long as she lives with the Gays?" asked Blossom, coming over to where he stood.

He stared at her in amazement. "Where on earth did you hear that?" he asked.

A flush reddened her face.

"Somebody told me. I forget just who it was," she replied.

"When did it happen? How long have you known it?"

But she was on her guard now, wrapped in that soft, pale reticence which was the spiritual aspect of her beauty.

"It may have been only one of the darkies' stories. I didn't pay much attention to it," she answered, and busied herself about the geraniums in the window.

"Oh, you can't put any faith in the darkies' tales," rejoined Abel, and after leaving a message with his mother for a farmer with whom he had an appointment, he hastened out of the house and over the fields in the direction of Reuben Merryweather's cottage. Here, where he had expected to find Molly, Kesiah met him, with some long black things over her arm, and a frown of anxious sympathy on her face.

"The child is broken-hearted," she said with dignity, for a funeral was one of the few occasions upon which she felt that she appeared to advantage. "I don't think she can see you--but I'll go in and ask, if you wish it."

She went in, returning a minute later, with the black things still over her arm, and a deeper frown on her forehead.

"No--I'm sorry, but she doesn't wish to see any one. You know, the old hound died the same night, and that has added to her sorrow."

"Perhaps if I come back later?"

"Perhaps; I am not sure. As soon as the funeral is over she will come to us. You have heard, I suppose, of the change in--in her circumstances?"

"Then it is true? I heard it, but I didn't believe it."

Molly had fled suddenly into remoteness--not Reuben's death, but Mr. Jonathan's "provision," had swept her away from him. Like other mortals in other crises of experience, she was aware of a helpless, a rebellious, realization of the power, not of fate, but of money. No other accident of fortune could have detached her so completely from the surroundings in which he had known her. Though he told himself that to think of wealth as a thing to separate them was to show a sordid brutality of soul, he revolted the next instant from the idea that his love should demand so great a sacrifice. Like the majority of men who have risen to comparative comfort out of bitter poverty, he had at the same time a profound contempt and an inordinate respect for the tangible fact of money--a contempt for the mere value of the dollar and a respect for the ability to take stands of which that mystic figure was the symbol. Sarah's hard common sense, overlaid as it was by an embroidery of sentiments and emotions, still constituted the basic quality in his character, and Sarah would have been the last woman in the world to think lightly of renouncing--or of inviting another to renounce--an income of ten thousand dollars a year. _He might dream that love would bring happiness, but she was reasonably assured that money would bring comfort. Between the dream and the assurance there would have been, in Sarah's mind at least, small room left for choice. He had known few women, and for one dreadful minute he asked himself, passionately, if Molly and his mother could be alike?

Unconsciously to himself his voice when he spoke again had lost its ring of conviction.

"Perhaps I may see her later?" he repeated.

"The funeral will be to-morrow. You will be there?"

"Yes, I'll be there," he replied; and then because there was nothing further for him to say, he bowed over his hat, and went down the flagged walk to the orchard, where the bluebirds were still singing. His misery appeared to him colossal--of a size that overshadowed not only the spring landscape, but life itself. He tried to remember a time when he was happy, but this was beyond the stretch of his imagination at the moment, and it seemed to him that he had plodded on year after year with a leaden weight oppressing his heart.

"I might have known it would be like this," he was thinking. "First, I wanted the mill, so I'd lie awake at night about it, and then when I got it all the machinery was worn out. It's always that way and always will be, I reckon." And it appeared to him that this terrible law of incompleteness lay like a blight over the over the whole field of human endeavour. He saw Molly, fair and fitting as she had been yesterday after the quarrel, and he told himself passionately that he wanted her too much ever to win her. On the ground by the brook he saw the spray of last year's golden-rod, and the sight brought her back to him with a vividness that set his pulses drumming. In his heart he cursed Mr. Jonathan's atonement more fervently than he had ever cursed his sin.

The next day he went to Reuben's funeral, with his mother and Blossom at his side, walking slowly across the moist fields, in which the vivid green of the spring showed like patches of velvet on a garment of dingy cloth. In front of him his mother moved stiffly in her widow's weeds, which she still wore on occasions of ceremony, and in spite of her sincere sorrow for Reuben she cast a sharp eye more than once on the hem of her alpaca skirt, which showed a brown stain where she had allowed it to drag in a forgetful moment. Only Archie was absent, but that was merely because he had driven over to bring one of the Halloween girls in Abel's gig. Sarah had heard him whistling in the stable at daybreak, and looking out of the window a little later she had seen him oiling the wheels of the vehicle. It had been decided at supper the evening before that the family as a unit should pay its respects to Reuben. From Sarah, comforting herself behind her widow's weeds with the doctrine of original sin, to Archie, eager to give his sweetheart a drive, one and all had been moved by a genuine impulse to dignify as far as lay in their power the ceremonial of decay. Even Abner, the silent, had remarked that he'd "never heard a word said against Reuben Merryweather in his life." And now at the end of that life the neighbours had gathered amid the ridges of green graves in the churchyard to bear witness to the removal of a good man from a place in which he had been honoured.

During the service Abel kept his eyes on Molly, who came leaning on Gay's arm, and wearing what appeared to him a stifling amount of fashionable mourning. He was too ignorant in such matters to discern that the fashion was one of an earlier date, or that the mourning had been hastily gathered from cedar chests by Kesiah. The impression he seized and carried away was one of elegance and remoteness; and the little lonely figure in the midst of the green ridges bore no relation in his mind to the girl in the red jacket, who had responded so ardently to his kiss. The sunlight falling in flecks through the network of locust boughs deepened the sense of unreality with which he watched her.

"It's a good service as such ready-made things go," observed Sarah as they went homeward, "but it seems to me that a man as upright as Reuben was is entitled to a sermon bein' preached about him when he's laid in his grave. What's the difference between the good man and the bad, if you're goin' to say the same words over the one and the other? I ain't a friend to flattery, but it can't hurt a man to have a few compliments paid him in the churchyard, and when all's said an' done, 'lookin' for the general Resurrection' can't be construed into a personal compliment to Reuben."

"When a man has been as pious as that he hasn't any use for compliments, livin' or dead," rejoined Abner.

"Well, I ain't contendin'," replied his mother. "The Lord knows thar ain't any of his kind left, the mo' 's the pity! Things have changed sence Reuben an' I was young, an' the very language Abel an' Blossom speak is different from ours. I reckon if old Mr. Jonathan was to ride along these roads to-day thar wouldn't be anybody, unless it was a nigger, to open the gate for him."

"You bet there wouldn't!" exclaimed Abel with fervour.

Abner, walking at Sarah's side, wore the unnerved and anxious expression of a man who is conscious that he is wearing his Sunday suit when it has grown too small to contain him. His agony was so evident that Blossom, observing it in the midst of her sentimental disturbances, remarked affectionately that he looked as if he "were tired to death."

"I've got the church fidgets in my legs," he said. "I reckon I'll get into my everyday suit an' finish that piece of ploughin'. Are you goin' back to the mill, Abel?"

"No, I've shut down for the day," Abel replied. The funeral had turned his mind into its Sunday habit of thought and he was determined that his present state of misery should extend reverently until the evening. From some instinct, which he did not attempt to explain, it appeared more respectful to Reuben to sit idle for the rest of the day than to follow Abner's example and go out and finish his work.

The next morning he decided to write Molly a letter, and as the ordinary paper his mother kept at the house seemed unsuitable for delivery at Jordan's Journey, he walked down to the store to purchase a few sheets from Mrs. Bottoms.

"Nothing common and cheap," he said, "but the very best you have in the store--such as they use in the city."

Suspecting his purpose, she produced at once a turquoise coloured box, from which she extracted an envelope that was ornamented on the flap with a white dove holding a true lover's knot in his beak.

"This is the very thing you're lookin' for," she observed, in the tone of one who is conscious of being an authority in that sphere to which God has called her, "the latest style in Applegate."

Picking up the envelope he held it doubtfully toward the light in the doorway.

"Are you sure it isn't a little--a little loud?" he inquired wistfully.

"Loud? Dear me, to think of you callin' a dove an' a blue ribbon bow loud! Ain't that jest like a man? They can't be expected to have taste in sech matters. No, it ain't loud!" she replied with more direct condescension. "It's the latest thing from Applegate--the girls are all crazy about it--jest the little artistic trifle that catches a woman's eye."

In the end, under the sting of her rebuke, though but half convinced, he concluded the purchase and went out, bearing the box of ornamented paper under his arm. An hour later, after the letter was written, misgivings besieged him anew, and he stood holding the envelope at arm's length, while he frowned dubiously at the emblematic dove on the flap.

"It doesn't look just right to me," he said under his breath, "but Mrs. Bottom ought to know, and I reckon she does."

The letter went, and the next afternoon he followed it in person to Jordan's Journey. Gay was coming down the walk when he reached the lawn, and after a moment's hesitation they stopped to exchange a few remarks about the weather.

"There's something I want to explain to you, Revercomb," said Jonathan, wheeling back abruptly after they had parted. "Molly has become a member of our household, you see; so my relation to her is really that of a cousin. She's a staunch little soul--I've a tremendous admiration for her--but there has never been the slightest sentiment between us, you understand."

"Yes, I understand," replied Abel, and fell silent.

There was a certain magnanimity, he recognized, in Gay's effort to put things right even while he must have preferred in his heart to have them remain in the wrong. As Molly's cousin it was hardly probable that he should care to hasten her marriage to a country miller.

"Well, I wanted you to know, that was all," said Gay in a friendly tone. "You'll find Molly in the side-garden, so I wouldn't trouble to knock if I were you."

He went on, swinging with an easy stride between the hedges of box, while Abel, passing the right wing in obedience to the directions, found Molly walking up and down in a small grassy path, which was sprinkled with snowdrops. The "side-garden" was a ruined, over-grown square, planted in miniature box, which the elder Gay had laid out after one of his visits to Italy. Now, with its dwindling maze and its unpruned rose-bushes, it resembled a picture which has been blotted out until the original intention of the artist is no longer discernible. Yet the place was exquisite still. Spring had passed over it with her magical touch, and she had decorated the spot she could no longer restore. The scent of box filled the air, and little new green leaves had put out on the dusky windings of the maze.

As Abel approached, Molly was moving slowly away from him, her long black skirt, which had been made to fit Mrs. Gay, trailing over the snowdrops in the path. When she turned at the end of the walk, there was the faintest hesitancy in her manner before she came forward with a smile and an outstretched hand. In some subtle way she had changed--he felt it before she reached him--before she uttered a word. He had never seen her in a long dress until to-day; and in putting on Mrs. Gay's gown she seemed to have clothed herself in that lady's appealing and pensive manner. The black skirt, flowing between them on the grass, divided them more completely than the memory of their quarrel. He was chilled because it made her appear reserved and distant; she was embarrassed because she had not yet learned to walk in a train, and while it pleased and flattered her with a sense of dignity, it also caused her to feel awkward and unnatural in her movements, as if she were not "playing up" successfully to the part that had been assigned her. She had learned a good deal in three days, and she was still a little confused by the endeavour to understand all of her lessons. Sincere as her sorrow was for Reuben, her youth and a certain quickness of observation had kept her mindful of every change through which she had passed, of every detail which distinguished life at the "big house" from life in the overseer's cottage. She had learned, for instance, the necessity, in such circumstances, of eating as if it were an utterly indifferent matter, and yet of coming to one's meals dressed as elaborately as if one were on one's way to church. Kesiah had taught her much; but from Gay, with his abundant kindliness, his self-possession, his good clothes, she had learned incomparably more. Kesiah had shown her the external differences in "things," while Gay had opened her eyes to the external differences that might count in men. Until she knew Gay she had believed that the cultivation of one's appearance was a matter that concerned women alone. Now, when moved by some unfortunate impulse of respect for her mourning, Abel showed himself before her in his Sunday clothes, she was conscious of a shock which she would never have felt in the old days in the overseer's cottage. In his working dress, with his fine throat bared by his blue shirt, there was a splendid vitality about her lover beside which Jonathan appeared flabby and over-weighted with flesh. But dressed in imitation of the work of Gay's London tailor, the miller lost the distinction which nature had given him without acquiring the one conferred by society.

"You got my letter, Molly?" he asked--and the question was unfortunate, for it reminded her not only of the letter, but of Gay's innocent jest about the dove on the envelope. She had been ashamed at the instant, and she was ashamed now when she remembered it, for there is nothing so contagious as an active regard for the petty social values of life. In three days she had not only begun to lose her own crudeness--she had attained to a certain small criticism of the crudeness of Abel. Already the difference between the two men was irritating her, yet she was still unconscious as to the the exact particular in which this difference lay. Her vision had perceived the broad distinction of class, though it was untrained as yet to detect minute variations of manner. She knew instinctively that Gay looked a man of the world and Abel a rustic, but this did not shake in the least the knowledge that it was Abel, not Gay, whom she loved.

"Yes, I got your letter," she answered, and then she added very softly: "Abel, I've always known I was not good enough for you."

Her tone, not her words, checked his advance, and he stood staring at her in perplexity. It was this expression of dumb questioning which had so often reminded her of the look in the eyes of Reuben's hound, and as she met it now, she flinched a little from the thought of the pain she was inflicting.

"I'm not good and faithful, Abel; I'm not patient, I'm not thrifty, I'm not anything your wife ought to be."

"You're all I'm wanting, anyway, Molly," he replied quietly, but without moving toward her.

"I feel--I am quite sure we could not be happy together," she went on, hurriedly, as if in fear that he might interrupt her before she had finished.

"Do you mean that you want to be free?" he asked after a minute.

"I don't know, but I don't want to marry anybody. All the feeling I had went out of me when grandfather died--I've been benumbed ever since--and I don't want to feel ever again, that's the worst of it."

"Is this because of the quarrel?"

"Oh, know--you know, I was always like this. I'm a thing of freedom--I can't be caged, and so we'd go on quarrelling and kissing, kissing and quarrelling, until I went out of my mind. You'd want to make me over and I'd want to make you over, like two foolish children fighting at play."

It was true what she had said, and he realized it, even though he protested against it. She was a thing of freedom as much as one of the swallows that flashed by in the sunlight.

"And you don't want to marry me? You want to be free--to be rich?"

"It isn't the money--but I don't want to marry."

"Have you ever loved me, I wonder?" he asked a little bitterly.

For an instant she hesitated, trying in some fierce self-reproach to be honest. "I thought so once, and I suppose I'll think so again," she answered. "The truth is I've loved you some days, and some days I haven't. I've never believed much in it, you know--I wasn't that kind of woman. It always meant so much less to me than to others."

It was true again, he admitted it. She had never been--and he had always known it--"that kind of woman." She had safely mocked at sex only because she had never felt its significance. From the depths of his misery, he told himself, while he faced her, that she would be perfect if she were only a little different--if she were only "that kind of woman." She possessed a thousand virtues, he was aware; she was generous, honourable according to her lights, loyal, brave, charitable, and unselfish. But it is the woman of a single virtue, not a thousand, that a man exalts.

"Yes, I suppose it always meant less to you than to others," he repeated dully.

"It wasn't my fault--why do you blame me?" she responded quickly. "Men hold a woman to blame when she doesn't love, however ill they may use her as soon as she does it. Oh, I know you're not that sort--you needn't explain it. You are different, and this is why I am half loving you even now. Last night when I awoke and heard a mockingbird in the cedars, I told myself that I could never be happy away from you. But when the light came, I wanted to see the world, and I forgot you. I'm only twenty-one. I'm too young to tie myself down forever."

"My mother married when she was sixteen," he replied, partly because he could think of nothing else to say at the moment, partly because he honestly entertained the masculine conviction that the precedent in some way constituted an argument.

"And a sensible marriage it was!" retorted Molly with scorn. "She's had a hard enough lot and you know it." In her earnestness she had almost assumed the position of Sarah's champion.

"Yes, I reckon it is," he returned, wounded to the quick. "I've no right to ask you to exchange what they offer you for a life like my mother's."

Fulness of emotion lent dignity to his words, but if he had shown indifference instead of tenderness, it would probably have served him better. She was so sure of Abel--so ready to accept as a matter of course the fact that she could rely on him.

"So you want it to be all over between us?" he asked.

"I don't want to be tied--I don't think I ought to be." Her tone was firm, but she plucked nervously at a bit of crape on the sleeve of Mrs. Gay's gown.

"Perhaps you're right," he replied quietly. He had spoken in a stiff and constrained manner, with little show of his suffering, yet all the while he felt that a band of iron was fastened across his brain, and the physical effect of this pressure was almost unendurable. He wanted to ease his swollen heart by some passionate outburst, but an obstinate instinct, which was beyond his control, prevented his making a ridiculous display of his emotion. The desire to curse aloud, to hurl defiant things at a personal deity, was battling within him, but instead of yielding to it he merely repeated:

"I reckon you're right--it wouldn't be fair to you in the end."

"I hope you haven't any hard feeling toward me," she said presently, sweetly commonplace.

"Oh no, I haven't any hard feeling. Good-bye, Molly."

"Good-bye, Abel."

Turning away from her, he walked rapidly back along the short grassy path over the snowdrops. As she watched him, a lump rose in her throat, and she asked herself what would happen if she were to call after him, and when he looked round, run straight into his arms? She wanted to run into his arms, but her knowledge of herself told her that once there she would not want to stay. The sense of bondage would follow--on his part the man's effort to dominate; on hers the woman's struggle for the integrity of personality. As long as he did not possess her she knew that emotion would remain paramount over judgment--that the longing to win her would triumph over the desire to improve what he had won. But once surrendered, the very strength and singleness of his love would bring her to cage. The swallow flights and the freedom of the sky would be over, and she would either beat her wings hopelessly against the bars, or learn to eat from his hand, to sing presently at his whistle. Had passion urged her, this hesitancy would have been impossible. Then she would either have seen none of these things, or, having seen them, she would have dared greatly. She was too cool, too clear-sighted, perhaps, for a heroine of romance. The single virtue that has fed vampire-like on the blood of the others, the abject attitude of the heart, the moral chicanery of sex--she would have none of these things.

"I am very fond of him, but I want to live--to live," she said, raising her arms with a free movement to the sky, while she looked after his figure. "Poor Abel," she added after a moment, "he will never get over it."

Then, while the sigh of compassion was still on her lips, she was arrested by a scene which occurred in the sunny meadow. From the brook a woman's form had risen like a startled rabbit at Abel's approach, wavering against the background of willows, as if uncertain whether to advance or to retreat. The next instant, as though in obedience to some mental change, it came quickly forward and faced the miller with an upward movement of the hands to shelter a weeping face.

"I believe--I really believe it is Judy Hatch," said Molly to herself, and there was a faint displeasure in her voice. "I wonder what she is doing in the willows?"

Judy Hatch it was, and at sight of Abel she had sprung up in terror from the edge of the brook, poised for flight like a wild thing before the gun of the hunter. He saw that her eyes were red and swollen from weeping, her face puckered and distorted. The pain in his own heart was so acute that for a moment he felt a sensation of relief in finding that he was not alone in his agony--that the universal portion of suffering had not been allotted entirely to himself, as he had imagined. Had she smiled, he would have brushed past her in silence, but because of her agitated and despairing look, he called her name, and when she turned toward him in bewilderment, held out his hand. It was a small accident that brought them together--nothing more than the fact that she had stooped to bathe her eyes in the stream before going on to the turnpike.

"Don't go, Judy; you're in trouble, I see, and so am I," he said with bitterness.

"Oh, Mr. Revercomb!" she blurted out. "I didn't want anybody to catch me in such a pass!"

"I'm not anybody, Judy; I'm a poor devil that was born without sense enough to plough his furrow straight."

She was a plain woman, but a pretty one would have sent him off in a panic over the meadow. He had had his lesson from a pretty woman, and the immediate effect of it was to foster the delusion that there was a mysterious affinity between ugliness and virtue.

"Tell me what it is, Judy. Can I help you?" he said kindly.

"It's nothin'. I am always in trouble," she answered, sobbing outright behind her sunbonnet. "Between pa and my stepmother, there isn't a spot on earth I can rest in."

She looked at him and he knew immediately, from her look, that neither Solomon Hatch nor his second wife was responsible for Judy's unhappiness. For a mocking instant it occurred to him that she might have cherished a secret and perfectly hopeless passion for himself. That she might be cherishing this passion for another, he did not consider at the moment--though the truth was that her divinity inhabited not a mill, but a church, and was, therefore, she felt, trebly unapproachable. But her worship was increased by this very hopelessness, this elevation. It pleased her that the object of her adoration should bend always above her--that in her dreams he should preach a perpetual sermon and wear an imperishable surplice.

"Well, I'm sorry for you," said Abel; "I'm sorry for you." And indeed he was. "You're a good, pious, virtuous girl--just the sort of a girl a man would want for his wife."

"I try to be good and I don't see why I should be so--so unhappy," sobbed Judy. "There ain't a better hand for raisin' chickens and flowers and young lambs in the county."

Again she looked up at him through her tears, and the fool that lies at the bottom of all generous hearts rose instantly to her bait. As he had once been the sport of his desire, so he was to become now the sport of his pity.

"Any man ought to be proud to have you for his wife, Judy," he said.

"Ought they, Abel?" she replied passionately, with the vision of the Reverend Orlando rising in serene detachment before her.

For a moment he gazed down at her without speaking. It was pleasant to feel pity; it was more than pleasant to receive gratitude in return. On the raw wound in his heart something that was almost like a cooling balm had been poured.

"God knows I'm sorry for you, Judy," he repeated; "we're both in the same boat, so I ought to be. Come to me if I can ever help you, and you'll find you may count on my word."

"I--I'll remember, Abel," she answered tearfully, but her thoughts were of a certain pair of purple velvet slippers, begun in rivalry of Blossom's black ones, which she was embroidering in pansies.

As he turned away from her into the crowd of silver willows beside the brook, she stood looking after him with the abstracted gaze of one who dwells not in the world of objects, but in the exalted realm of visions.

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