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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Miller Of Old Church - Book 1 - Chapter 21. In Which Pity Masquerades As Reason
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The Miller Of Old Church - Book 1 - Chapter 21. In Which Pity Masquerades As Reason Post by :FreeBiz Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :May 2012 Read :801

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The Miller Of Old Church - Book 1 - Chapter 21. In Which Pity Masquerades As Reason

BOOK I CHAPTER XXI. IN WHICH PITY MASQUERADES AS REASON

As Abel crossed the poplar log he said to himself, "I shall not think of Her again"; when he reached the end of the willows he said, "I must not think of Her again"; and at the beginning of the kitchen garden, he changed this to, "I will not think of Her again."

The scent of hyacinths, which floated from a row blooming on either side of the white paling gate, whipped his senses into revolt, and he quickened his steps in a vain effort to escape from the tormenting fragrance. Yet even while he fled from his pain he knew in his heart that he did not desire the strength to turn and renounce it--that to banish the image of Molly from his thoughts was to drive the bloom from the meadow, the perfume from the air, the sunlight from the orchard. Spring became as desolate as winter when it was robbed of the thought of her.

By the house a late pear-tree was in blossom, and the sunshine, falling obliquely across it, awoke a white fire in its branches, as if piles of new fallen snow had warmed suddenly to a reflected flame. Beneath it Sarah Revercomb was sowing portulaca seeds in a rockery she had made over a decaying stump. Her back was strained with bending, but not once had she stopped to gaze at the glorified pear-tree overhead. All her life she had distinguished carefully between the aristocracy and the common herd of blossoms, and not all the magic gilding of the spring sunshine could delude her into regarding the useful product of a fruit-tree as a flower.

"I don't see why you want to go wearin' yo' Sunday clothes every day, Abel," she observed as he was about to pass her.

"Why shouldn't I?" he retorted with the defiance of despair.

Something in his voice caused the woman who had borne him to raise herself from her stooping posture, and stare at him with an amazed and incredulous expression, as if she were asking herself when and where she could have given him birth. In her mental vision, which saw only one thing at a time, but saw that thing with great distinctness, the idea of love slowly presented itself as the cause of such a reversal of the natural order as a Sunday suit on week days. Her conceptions of life were derived so closely from facts, or from a logic as inexorable as facts, that she was conscious of a baffled and exasperated sensation when she was confronted by anything intangible which would not, as she put it in her own mind, "get out of her way." It was natural enough, she knew, that a material object or condition should possess the power to block one's progress or even to change the normal current of one's existence. Such things had happened a dozen times at least in her limited experience. But when a mere emotion assumed the importance and the reality of a solid body, she was seized by the indignant astonishment with which a mathematician might regard the differential calculus if it ceased suddenly to behave as he expected it to do. She had always controlled her own feeling with severity, and it was beyond the power of her imagination to conceive a possible excuse--unless it was a disordered liver--for another person's inability to do the same. Besides, as she had often asked herself, what was the use of not controlling your feelings when you came to think about it?

"Thar ain't a bit of use in yo' goin' on this way over that girl, Abel," she said presently, as an annotation to his last remark, "you'd better jest start along about yo' work, an' put her right straight out of yo' mind. I al'ays knew thar warn't a particle of sense in it."

There was sound reason in her advice, and he did not attempt to dispute it. The unfortunate part was, however, that in the very soundness of her reason lay its point of offence. Philosophy was dealing again in her high handed fashion with emotion, and emotion, in its turn, was treating philosophy with an absence of that respectful consideration to which she was entitled. Abel knew quite as well as Sarah that there wasn't "a particle of sense" in his thinking of Molly; but the possession of this knowledge did not interfere in the least with either the intensity or the persistence of his thought of her. His mind seemed to have as much control over the passion that raged in his heart as an admonishing apostle of peace has over a mob that is headed toward destruction. At the moment he felt that the last straw--the one burden more that he could not bear--was to be told to follow what he admitted to be the only clear and rational course. Turning away from her without a reply, he rushed through the open gate and across the road and the poplar log into the friendly shelter of his mill.

"What he needs is to wear himself out and to settle down into a sort of quiet despair," thought Sarah as she looked after him. Then lifting her trowel, she returned with a sigh to the sowing of portulaca seeds in her rockery.

In the twilight of the mill, where he was hunted through the door by the scent of flowers, he went over to the shelf of books in a corner, and taking down the volumes one by one, turned their leaves with a trembling and eager hand, as though he were seeking some thought so strong, so steadying, that once having secured it, the rush of his passion would beat in vain against its impregnable barrier. But the books, like Sarah, treated life in the grand manner and with the fine detachment of philosophy. He could get no assistance from them, because they only told him that he would be happier if he acted always as a rational being, and this did not help him. They told him, also, in what seemed a burst of unanimity, that human nature would be better and happier if it were not human nature, but something else. Some of the writers believed that this result might be attained by making many laws and some of them were of the opinion that the way to it was to undo a majority of the laws that were already made. All admitted that the world was very badly off and that something must be done, and done very quickly, to relieve it--but the trouble was that each writer's remedy was different from every other writer's, and yet each writer's was the imperative, the essential one. There was a single point on which they agreed, and that was that human nature would be better and happier if it were different. But poor human nature, having known this ever since it left the tree-tops, went on, just the same, being all the time the thing that it was obliged to be.

"There's no help for me here," said Abel, and moving away from the shelf, he leaned his arms in the window, and looked out on the dripping wheel and the crooked sycamore, which was decorated with little round greenish balls of flowers. On the hot agony in his heart the languorous Southern spring laid a cooling and delicate touch. Beneath the throb of his pain he felt the stirring of formless, indefinite longings, half spiritual, half physical, which seemed older and more universal than his immediate suffering.

For six weeks the canker gnawed at his heart, and he gave no sign of its presence. Then relief came to him for a few hours one day when he drifted into a local meeting in Applegate and entered into a discussion of politics. At the end he spoke for twenty minutes, and when his speech was over, he told himself that at last he had found something that might take the place of love in his life. The game of politics showed itself to him in all the exciting allurement of a passion.

A gentle mannered old clergyman, with a dream-haunted face and the patient waiting attitude of one who had watched for miracles for fifty years, spoke to him when the meeting was breaking up, and after a brief conversation, invited him to address a club of workingmen on the following Friday. Though the old clergyman had spent half a century in a futile endeavour to persuade every man to love his neighbour as himself, and thereby save society the worry and the expense of its criminal code, he still hoped on with the divine far-sighted hope of the visionary--hoped not because he saw anything particularly encouraging in his immediate outlook, but because it was his nature to hope and he would probably have continued to do so had Fate been so unjust as to consign him to an Inferno. He was one of those in whom goodness is a natural instinct, and whose existence, even in a more or less inglorious obscurity, leavens the entire lump of humanity. Mr. Mullen, who regarded him with the active suspicion with which he viewed all living examples of Christian charity, spoke of him condescendingly as a "man of impracticable ideas"--a phrase which introduced his index prohibitory of opinions. But the old clergyman, having attained a serviceable sense of humour, as well as a heavenly fortitude, went on quietly doing good after the fashion in which he was made. In his impracticable way he had solved the problem of life by an indiscriminate application of the Golden Rule. This solution had appeared to him so simple and yet so complete, that he had spent fifty years, with but moderate success, in persuading others to adopt it. At the end he was not what Mr. Mullen would have called a "shining light," in the Church, yet his bread cast upon the waters had returned to him in quantities, which, though small and moist, were sufficient, with stringent economy, to keep body and soul together. One of these quantities he discerned now in the eager young countryman, whose face accompanied him through a trying day, and helped to brighten his self-sacrificing labours.

To Abel, driving home some hours later in his gig, the old clergyman was present less as a mental image, than as a vague yet impelling influence for good. The impression was still in his thoughts, when he overtook Judy Hatch a mile or two before reaching the crossroads, and stopped to ask her to drive with him as far as her cottage. At sight of her wan and haggard face, he felt again that impulse of pity, which seemed while it lasted to appease the violence of his suffering.

"I haven't seen you to speak to for a long time," he observed, as she mounted over the wheel to her place at his side.

"Not since that day by the brook," she answered, and flinched as if a raw wound had been touched.

Though she did not look at him, he was conscious, through some subtle undercurrent of feeling, that her spirit was drenched with the young summer, with the pulsing of life of the June forest and the scent of wild grape and honeysuckle which filled the air. Her face was lifted to the fluted leaves of a sycamore, from which the song of a thrush rippled like running water, and which gave her, if he had only known it, a likeness to one of the minor saints in a primitive Italian painting. So little, however, did her passion use her body as its medium that, after glancing casually at her parted lips, he decided that she was probably counting the eggs she had set to hatch in her hen-house, and hesitated to interrupt the absorbing business of her calculations. Mentally, he regarded her with the ungrudging respect which a man of any sort instinctively yields to a woman who obviously disdains to ensnare his judgment in the mesh of his senses. The palpitations of her spirit were communicated to him in so elusive a process, that, even while he felt the stir of his pulses, he was not aware that it was due in any measure to the woman at his side. If she had been pretty--if she had been even attractively plain--it would hardly have occurred to him that her intense and breathless expression was associated with the hatching of chickens; but, like other philosophers of whom he had never heard, it was impossible for him to distinguish the qualities of the thing-in-itself from the qualities of the phenomenon beneath his eyes. Had he winnowed his superficial impressions the underlying thought would probably have been: "No woman with a bosom as flat as that can have any nonsense about her." From the first moment of their meeting he had never doubted that it was this lack of "nonsense" which had attracted him. He liked her evident indifference to his opinion of her, and he liked, too, her listless silence, when she sat, with clasped hands, gazing straight ahead through the shadowy colonnade of the woods. Not once had her troubled look wandered from the moist dead leaves on the ground, to the misty edges of the forest, where small wild flowers thronged in a pale procession of pipsissewa, ladies' tresses, and Enchanter's nightshade.

"Did you know that the Gays are in Europe?" asked Judy turning her eyes on his face for the first time.

His heart gave a throb and was quiet.

"No, I hadn't heard it," he replied in an arid voice.

"They say it's more than likely Molly will marry Mr. Jonathan. He's waitin' on her."

Reaching for the whip, Abel touched the mare lightly on her glossy flank. After that single pang his suffering had left him--for six weeks of sleepless nights and tormented days had exhausted his endurance and reduced him to a condition of emotional lassitude. In his brief reaction from spiritual revolt into a state of apathetic submission, he approached his mother's permanent austerity of mind as closely as he was ever likely to do in the whole of his experience. The mere possibility of a fresh awakening of feeling filled him with aversion. At the moment he had as profound a distrust as Sarah of the immaterial elements; and looking ahead, he saw his future stretching before him as firm and flat as the turnpike which he was approaching. Delight and despair were equally distasteful to him. He shrank as instinctively from the thought of love as a man shrinks from re-opening an old wound which is still sensitive to the touch, though it has ceased to ache. And so prone is human nature to affirm its inherent belief in the eternity of the present, that he was assured, not only that this was the most desirable point of view he had ever reached, but that it was entirely out of the question that he should ever travel beyond it to another. Forgetting the many times when he had revolted from advice merely because it was "sensible," he began calmly to arrange his life in accordance with that law of practical expediency against which a month ago he had so hotly rebelled.

As they drove out of the woods, and turned into the sunken road beyond the ordinary which led in the direction of Solomon Hatch's farm, he withdrew his gaze from the head of his mare and looked attentively at his companion.

"I hope you are having an easier time, Judy," he said.

Her eyes brimmed. "You are the only person who cares about that, Abel."

"Why shouldn't I care? You are the best and the cleverest girl I know," he returned.

Her gratitude fanned his sympathy, which was beginning to smoulder, and he felt again the pleasant sense of being in the position of benefactor rather than of the benefited. His eyes rested without shrinking on her sallow face, with the faint bluish tinge to the eyelids, and on her scant drab coloured hair, which was combed smoothly back from her forehead--and while he looked his pity clothed itself in the softer and gentler aspect of reason. "She ought to be happy," he thought. "It's a shame they should lead her such a life! It's a shame some good man doesn't fall in love with her and marry her. She's really not so plain, after all. I've seen many women who were worse looking than she is." Unknown to him, an illusion was gradually shedding colour and warmth on his vision of her. Mentally, he had endowed her with all the sober and saner virtues to which his present mood was committed--though he had, in reality, no better reason for so doing than the fact that she evidently esteemed him and that she was deserving of pity. The discordant forces of passion no longer disturbed the calm and orderly processes of his mind, and he told himself that he saw clearly, because he saw stark images of facts, stripped not only of the glamour of light and shade, but even of the body of flesh and blood. Life spread before him like a geometrical figure, constructed of perfect circles and absolutely conformable to the rules and the principles of mathematics. That these perfect circles should ever run wild and become a square was clearly unthinkable. Because his nature was not quiescent it was impossible for him to conceive of it in motion.

And all the while, in that silence, which seemed so harmless while it was, in reality, so dangerous, the repressed yet violent force in Judy wrought on his mood in which bare sense and bare thought were unprotected by any covering of the love which had clothed them as far back as he could remember. That breathless, palpitating appeal for happiness--an appeal which is as separate from beauty as the body of flesh is separate from the garment it wears--was drawing him slowly yet inevitably toward the woman at his side. Her silence--charged as it was with the intoxicating spirit of June--had served the purpose of life as neither words nor gestures could have done. It had reconciled him to her presence in the very moment that made him conscious of the strength of his pity.

Presently, as they drove through the burned out clearing, she spoke again.

"I wonder why you are always so good to me, Abel?"

He liked the honest sound of the words, and he did not know that before uttering them she had debated in her heart whether it was worth while to marry Abel since she could not marry Mr. Mullen. Marriage, having few illusions for her, possessed, perhaps for that reason, the greater practical value. She was unhappy with her stepmother in a negative way, but so impervious had she become to casual annoyances, that she hardly weighed the disadvantages of her home against the probable relinquishment of Mrs. Mullen's washing day after her marriage to Abel. Her soul was crushed like a trapped creature in the iron grip of a hopeless passion, and her insensibility to the lesser troubles of life was but the insensibility of such a creature to the stings of the insects swarming around its head. The outcome of her drive with Abel aroused only a dull curiosity in her mind. Some years ago, in the days before Mr. Mullen, she would probably have fallen a helpless victim to the miller had his eyes wandered for an instant in her direction. But those days and that probability were now over forever.

Unfortunately, however, it is not given to a man to look into the soul of a woman except through the inscrutable veil of his own personality. Had Abel pierced that purple calico dress and witnessed the pathetic struggle in Judy's bosom, his next words would hardly have been uttered.

"I wish I could do something to make you happier, Judy."

She looked at him with mysterious, brooding eyes, and he was conscious again of the attraction, as subtile and as penetrating as a perfume, which she exhaled in the stillness, and which vanished as soon as she broke the quivering intensity of the silence. That this attraction was merely the unconscious vibration of her passion for another man, which shed its essence in solitude as naturally as a flower sheds its scent, did not occur to him. Without his newly awakened pity it could not have moved him. With it he felt that he was powerless to resist its appeal.

"Why shouldn't I be good to you, Judy?" he repeated.

Tears overflowed her eyes at his words. Looking at her, he saw her not as she was, but as he desired that she should be; and this desire, he knew, sprang from his loneliness and from his need of giving sympathy to some one outside of himself. The illusion that surrounded her bore no resemblance to the illusion of love--yet it was akin to it in the swiftness and the completeness with which it was born. If any one had told him an hour ago that he was on the verge of marriage to Judy, he would have scoffed at the idea--he who was the heartbroken lover of Molly! Yet this sudden protecting pity was so strong that he found himself playing with the thought of marriage, as one plays in lofty moments with the idea of a not altogether unpleasant self-abnegation. He did not love Judy, but he was conscious of an overwhelming desire to make Judy happy--and like all desires which are conceived in a fog of uncertainty, its ultimate form depended less upon himself than it did upon the outward pressure of circumstances.

"I sometimes think it's more than anybody can stand to go on living as I do," said Judy, breaking the silence, "to slave an' slave an' never to get so much as a word of thanks for it."

For a moment he said nothing. Then turning he looked hard into her humid eyes, and what he saw there made him bend over and take her hand.

"Do you think I could make you happier, Judy?" he asked.

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