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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Miller Of Old Church - Book 1 - Chapter 3. In Which Mr. Gay Arrives At His Journey's End
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The Miller Of Old Church - Book 1 - Chapter 3. In Which Mr. Gay Arrives At His Journey's End Post by :mondd Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :May 2012 Read :3102

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The Miller Of Old Church - Book 1 - Chapter 3. In Which Mr. Gay Arrives At His Journey's End

BOOK I CHAPTER III. IN WHICH MR. GAY ARRIVES AT HIS JOURNEY'S END

Broad and low, with the gabled pediment of the porch showing through boughs of oaks, and a flight of bats wheeling over the ivied roof, the house appeared to Gay beyond a slight swell in the meadows. The grove of oaks, changing from dark red to russet, was divided by a short walk, bordered by clipped box, which led to the stone steps and to two discoloured marble urns on which broken-nosed Cupids were sporting. As he was about to slip his reins over the back of an iron chair on the lawn, a shriek in a high pitched negro voice pierced his ears from a half shuttered dormer-window in the east wing.

"Fo' de Lawd, hit's de ha'nt er ole marster! Yessuh--Yessuh,--I'se a-comin'--I'se a-comin'."

The next instant the window slammed with a bang, and the sound of flying footsteps echoed through the darkened interior of the house.

"Open the door, you fool! I'm not a ghost!" shouted Gay, but the only response came in an hysterical babble of moans from the negro quarters somewhere in the rear and in the soft whir in his face of a leatherwing bat as it wheeled low in the twilight. There was no smoke in the chimneys, and the square old house, with its hooded roof and its vacant windows, assumed a sinister and inhospitable look against the background of oaks. His mother and his aunt, he concluded, were doubtless away for their winter's shopping, so lifting his horse's head from the grass, he passed between the marble urns and the clipped box, and followed a path, deep in leaves, which led from the west wing of the house to the outside kitchen beyond a paved square at the back. Half intelligible words floated to him as he approached, and from an old pear-tree near the door there was a flutter of wings where a brood of white turkeys settled to roost. Beyond the bole of the tree a small negro in short skirts was "shooin'" a large rooster into the henhouse, but at the muffled fall of Gay's horse's hoofs on the dead leaves, she turned with a choking sound, and fled to the shelter of the kitchen at her back.

"My time's done come, but I ain't-a-gwine! I ain't-a-gwine!" wailed the chorus within. "Ole marster's done come ter fotch me, but I ain't-a-gwine! O Lawd, I ain't-a-gwine! O Jesus, I ain't-a-gwine!"

"You fools, hold your tongues!" stormed the young man, losing his temper. "Send somebody out here to take my horse or I'll give you something to shout over in earnest."

The shrieks trembled high for an instant, and then died out in a despairing moan, while the blanched face of an old servant appeared in the doorway.

"Is hit you er yo' ha'nt, Marse Jonathan?" he inquired humbly.

"Come here, you doddering idiot, and take my horse."

But half reassured the negro came a step or two forward, and made a feeble clutch at the reins, which dropped from his grasp when the roosting turkeys stirred uneasily on the bough above.

"I'se de butler, marster, en I ain never sot foot in de stable sence de days er ole miss."

"Where's my mother?"

"Miss Angela, she's done gone up ter town en Miss Kesiah she's done gone erlong wid 'er."

"Is the house closed?"

"Naw, suh, hit ain closed, but Miss Molly she's got de keys up yonder at de house er de overseer."

"Well, send somebody with a grain of sense out here, and I'll look up Miss Molly."

At this the butler vanished promptly into the kitchen, and a minute later a half-grown mulatto boy relieved Gay of his horse, while he pointed to a path through an old apple orchard that led to the cottage of the overseer. As the young man passed under the gnarled boughs to a short flagged walk before the small, whitewashed house in which "Miss Molly" lived, he wondered idly if the lady who kept the keys would prove to be the amazing little person he had seen some hours earlier perched on the load of fodder in the ox-cart. The question was settled almost before it was asked, for a band of lamplight streamed suddenly from the door of the cottage, and in the centre of it appeared the figure of a girl in a white dress, with red stockings showing under her short skirts, and a red ribbon filleting the thick brown curls on her forehead. From her movements he judged that she was mixing a bowl of soft food for the old hound at her feet, and he waited until she had called the dog inside for his supper, before he went forward and spoke her name in his pleasant voice.

At the sound she turned with a start, and he saw her vivid little face, with the wonderful eyes, go white for a minute.

"So you are Mr. Jonathan? I thought so," she said at last, "but grandfather told me you sent no word of your coming."

She spoke quickly, with a refinement of accent which puzzled him until he remembered the malicious hints Solomon Hatch had let fall at the tavern. That she was, in reality, of his blood and the child of his uncle, he had not doubted since the moment she had smiled at him from her seat on the oxcart. How much was known, he now wondered. Had his uncle provided for her? Was his mother--was his Aunt Kesiah--aware of the truth?

"She missed my letter, I suppose," he replied. "Has she been long away?"

"Only a week. She is expected home day after to-morrow."

"Then I shall beg you to open the house for me."

She had turned back to the old hound, and was bending over to place his bowl of bread and milk on the hearth. A log fire, in which a few pine branches stood out illuminated like boughs of flame, filled the big stone fireplace, which was crudely whitewashed to resemble the low walls of the room. A kettle hung on an iron crane before the blaze, and the singing of the water made a cheerful noise amid a silence which struck Gay suddenly as hostile. When the girl raised her head he saw that her face had grown hard and cold, and that the expression of her eyes had changed to one of indignant surprise. The charming coquetry had fled from her look, yet her evident aversion piqued him into a half smiling, half serious interest. He wondered if she would marry that fine looking rustic, the miller, and if the riotous Gay blood in her veins would flow placidly in her mother's class? Had she, too, inherited, if not the name, yet the weaknesses of an older race? Was she, like himself, cursed with swift fancies and swifter disillusionments? How frail she was, and how brilliant! How innocent and how bitter!

He turned away, ostensibly to examine a print on the wall, and while his back was toward her, he felt that her gaze stabbed him like the thrust of a knife. Wheeling quickly about, he met her look, but to his amazement, she continued to stare back at him with the expression of indignant surprise still in her face. How she hated him and, by Jove, how she _could hate! She reminded him of a little wild brown animal as she stood there with her teeth showing between her parted red lips and her eyes flashing defiance. The next minute he found himself asking if she could ever grow gentle--could ever soften enough to allow herself to be stroked? He remembered Solomon Hatch's remark that "she was onmerciful to an entire sex," and in spite of his effort at composure, a laugh sprang to his lips.

In the centre of the room a table was laid, and going over to it, she busied herself with the cups and saucers as though she were anxious to put a disagreeable presence out of her thoughts.

"May I share your supper?" he asked, and waited, not without amusement, for her answer.

"I'm sorry there isn't any for you at the big house," she answered politely. "If you will sit down, I'll tell Delily to bring in some batter bread."

"And you?"

"I'll have mine with grandfather. He's out in the barn giving medicine to the red cow."

While she spoke Delily entered with a plate of cornbread and a pot of coffee, and a minute later Reuben Merryweather paused on the threshold to shake off a sprinkling of bran from his hair and beard. He was a bent, mild looking old man, with a wooden leg which made a stumping noise when he walked, and a pair of wistful brown eyes, like those of an aged hound that has been worn out by hard service. Past seventy now, his youth had been trained to a different civilization, and there was a touching gentleness in his face, as if he expressed still the mental attitude of a class which had existed merely as a support or a foil to the order above it. Without spirit to resent, he, with his fellows, had endured the greatest evils of slavery. With the curse of free labour on the land, there had been no incentive for toil, no hire for the labourer. Like an incubus the system had lain over them, stifling all energy, checking all progress, retarding all prosperity save the prosperity of the great land-owners. Then the soil had changed hands, and where the plough had broken the earth, the seeds of a democracy had germinated and put forth from the very blood of the battlefields. In the upward pressure of class, he had seen the stability of custom yield at last to the impetus of an energy that was not racial but individual. Yet from the transition he had remained always a little apart. Reverence had become for him a habit of mind, and he had learned that respect could outlive even a belief in the thing upon which it was founded. Mr. Jonathan and he had been soldiers together. His old commander still entered his thoughts to the rattle of musketry and the roar of cannon, and a single sublime action at Malvern Hill had served in the mind of the soldier to spread a legendary glamour over a life which held hardly another incident that was worthy of remembrance.

At his entrance Molly melted from her hostile attitude, and while she hung on the old man's breast, Gay noticed, with surprise, that she was made up of enchanting curves and delicious softness. Her sharpened features grew rounder, and her thin red lips lost their hardness of outline. When she raised her head after a minute, he saw that the light in her eyes adorned and enriched her. By Jove, he had never imagined that she could change and colour like that!

"You are late, grandfather," said the girl, "I was coming to look for you with a lantern."

"The red cow kept me," answered the old man, adding as he held out his hand to Gay, "So you've come at last, Mr. Jonathan. Your mother will be pleased."

"I was sorry to find her absent," replied Gay, "and I was just asking your granddaughter if she would permit me to join you at supper?"

"To be sure--to be sure," responded Reuben, with a cheerfulness which struck Gay as singularly pathetic. "After supper Molly will go over with Patsey and see that you are made comfortable."

The old hound, blind and toothless, fawned at his knees, and leaning over, he caressed it with a knotted and trembling hand.

"Has Spot had his supper, Molly?"

"Yes, grandfather. He can eat only soft bread and gravy." At her voice the hound groped toward her, and stooping, she laid her soft, flushed cheek on his head.

"Well, sit down, suh, sit down," said Reuben, speaking timidly as if he were not sure he had chosen the right word. "If you'll tell Delily, honey, Mr. Jonathan will have his supper."

"On condition that you let me share yours, Mr. Merryweather," insisted Gay, in his genial tone. "If you're going to make company of me, I shall go hungry until to-morrow."

From a wooden safe in the corner Molly brought a plate and a cup, and made a place for the young man at the end of the red-and-white cloth on the table. Then she turned away, without speaking, and sat down behind the tin coffeepot, which emitted a fragrant steam.

"Cream and sugar?" she inquired presently, meeting his eyes over the glass lamp which stood midway between them.

Gay had been talking to Reuben about the roads--"jolly bad roads," he called them, "wasn't it possible to make them decent for riding?" Looking up at the girl's question, he answered absently, "two lumps. Cream? Yes, please, a little," and then continued to stare at her with a vague and impersonal wonder. She was half savage, of course, with red hands, and bad manners and dressed like a boy that had got into skirts for a joke--but, by George, there was something about her that bit into the fancy. Not a beauty like his Europa of the pasture (who was, when it came to that?)--but a fascinating little beggar, with a quality of sudden surprises that he could describe by no word except "iridescent." He liked the high arch of her brows; but her nose wasn't good and her lips were too thin except when she smiled. When she smiled! It was her smile, after all, that made her seem a thing of softness and bloom born to be kissed.

Reuben ate his food rapidly, pouring his coffee into the saucer, and drinking it in loud gulps that began presently to make Gay feel decidedly nervous. Once the young man inadvertently glanced toward him, and turning away the instant afterwards, he found the girl's eyes watching him with a defiant and threatening look. Her passionate defence of Reuben reminded Gay of a nesting bird under the eye of the hunter. She did not plead, she dared--actually dared him to criticise the old man even in his thoughts!

That Molly herself was half educated and possessed some smattering of culture, it was easy to see. She was less rustic in her speech than his Europa, and there was the look of breeding, or of blood, in the fine poise of her head, in her small shapely hands, which he remembered were a distinguishing mark of the Gays.

"Mr. Mullen came for you in his cart," said Reuben, glancing from one to the other of his hearers with his gentle and humble look. "I told him you must have forgotten as you'd ridden down to the low grounds."

"No, I didn't forget," replied Molly, indifferent apparently to the restraint of Gay's presence, "I did it on purpose." Meeting the young man's amused and enquiring expression, she added defiantly, "There are plenty of girls that are always ready to go with him and it's because I'm not that he wants me."

"He's not the only one, to judge from what I heard at the ordinary."

She shrugged her shoulders--an odd gesture for a rustic coquette--while a frown overshadowed her features.

"They're all alike," she retorted scornfully. "If you go over to the mill you'll probably find Abel Revercomb sulking and brow-beating his mother because I smiled at you this afternoon. And I did it only to plague him!"

"Molly's a good girl," said Reuben, rather as if he expected the assertion to be disputed, "but she was taught to despise folks when she was a baby--wasn't you, pretty?"

"Not you--never you, grandfather."

The intimate nature of the conversation grated upon Gay not a little. There was something splendidly barbaric about the girl, and yet the mixture of her childishness and her cynicism affected him unpleasantly rather than otherwise. His ideal woman--the woman of the early Victorian period--was submissive and clinging. He was perfectly assured that she would have borne her wrongs, and even her mother's wrongs, with humility. Meekness had always seemed to him the becoming mental and facial expression for the sex; and that a woman should resent appeared almost as indelicate as that she should propose.

When supper was over, and Reuben had settled to his pipe, with the old hound at his feet, Molly took down a bunch of keys from a nail in the wall, and lit a lantern with a taper which she selected from a china vase on the mantelpiece. Once outside she walked a little ahead of Gay and the yellow blaze of the lantern flitted like a luminous bird over the flagged walk bordered by gooseberry bushes. Between the stones, which were hollowed by the tread of generations, nature had embroidered the bare places with delicate patterns of moss.

At the kitchen the girl stopped to summon Patsey, the maid, who was discovered roasting an apple at the end of a long string before the logs.

"I am going to the big house. Come and make up the bed in the blue room," Gay heard through the door.

"Yes'm, Miss Molly, I'se a-comin' in jes a minute."

"And bring plenty of lightwood. He will probably want a fire."

With this she appeared again on the outside, crossed the paved square to the house, and selecting a large key, unlocked the door, which grated on its hinges as Gay pushed it open. Following her into the hall, he stood back while she lit a row of tallow candles, in old silver sconces, which extended up the broad mahogany staircase to the upper landing. One by one as she applied the taper, the candles flashed out in a misty circle, and then rising in a clear flame, shone on her upraised hand and on the brilliant red of her lips and cheeks.

"That is your mother's room," she said, pointing to a closed door, "and this is yours. Patsey will make a fire."

"It's rather gloomy, isn't it?"

"Shall I bring you wine? I have the key to the cellar."

"Brandy, if you please. The place feels as if it had been shut up for a century."

"It was your uncle's room. Do you mind sleeping here? It's the easiest to get ready."

"Not with a fire--and I may have a lamp, I suppose?"

At his question Patsey appeared with an armful of resinous pine, and a few minutes later, a cheerful blaze was chasing the shadows up the great brick chimney. When Molly returned with the brandy, Gay was leaning against the mantelpiece idly burning a bunch of dried cat-tails he had taken from a blue-and-white china vase.

"It's a gloomy old business, isn't it?" he observed, glancing from the high canopied bed with its hangings of faded damask to an engraving of the Marriage of Pocahontas between the dormer-windows. "If there are ghosts about, I suppose I'd better prepare to face them."

"Only in the west wing, the darkies say, but I think they are bats. As for those in the haunt's walk, I never believed in them. Patsey is bringing your brandy. Can I do anything else for you?"

"Only tell me," he burst out, "why in thunder the whole county hates me?"

She laughed shortly. "I can't tell you--wait and find out."

Here audacity half angered, half paralyzed him.

"What a vixen you are!" he observed presently with grudging respect.

The crimson flooded her face, and he watched her teeth gleam dangerously, as if she were bracing herself for a retort. The impulse to torment her was strong in him, and he yielded to it much as a boy might have teased a small captive animal of the woods.

"With such a temper you ought to have been an ugly woman," he said, "but you're so pretty I'm strongly inclined to kiss you."

"If you do, I'll strike you," she gasped.

The virgin in her showed fierce and passionate, not shy and fleeting. That she was by instinct savagely pure, he could tell by the look of her.

"I believe it so perfectly that I've no intention of trying," he rejoined.

"I'm not half so pretty as my mother was," she said after a pause.

Her loyalty to the unfortunate Janet touched him to sympathy. "Don't quarrel with me, Molly," he pleaded, "for I mean to be friends with you."

As he uttered the words, he was conscious of a pleasant feeling of self-approbation while his nature vibrated to the lofty impulse. This sensation was so gratifying while it lasted that his manner assumed a certain austerity as one who had determined to be virtuous at any cost. Morally he was on stilts for the moment, and the sense of elevation was as novel as it was insecure.

"I know you are a good girl, Molly," he observed staidly, "that is why I am so anxious to be your friend."

"Is there nothing more that I can do for you?" she inquired, with frigid reserve, as she took up the lantern.

"Yes, one thing--you can shake hands."

The expression of indignant surprise appeared again in her face, and she fell back a step, shaking her head stubbornly as she did so.

"I'd rather not--if you don't mind," she answered.

"But if I do mind--and I do."

"Still I'd rather not."

"Do you really dislike me as much as you dislike the miller?"

"More."

"Or the rector?"

"Oh, far more. You are a Gay."

"Yes, I am a Gay," he might have retorted, "and you, my pretty savage, are very much a Gay, also."

Swinging the lantern in her hand, she moved to the door, as if she were anxious to put an end to a conversation which had become suddenly too intimate. On the threshold she looked back, and remarked in a precise, authoritative voice:

"There are blankets in the bottom drawer if you find you haven't covering enough."

"I shall remember--there are blankets in the bottom drawer."

"Patsey will bring hot water at eight and Uncle Abednego will give you breakfast in the dining-room."

"Then I'm not to have it with you?"

"With me? Oh, I live with grandfather. I never come to the big house except when Mrs. Gay is in town."

"Do you see nothing, then, of my mother when she is at home?"

"Sometimes I help her to make raspberry vinegar or preserves. If you hear a noise in the night it is only the acorns dropping on the roof. There are so many oaks. Good night, Mr. Jonathan."

"Good night," he returned, "I wish you'd shake hands,"--but she had vanished.

The room was cosy and warm now--and flinging himself into a chair with deep arms that stood on the hearth, he lit his cigar and sipped drowsily the glass of brandy she had left on a silver tray on the table. The ceiling was ridiculously high--what a waste of good bricks and mortar!--the room was ridiculously large! On the smooth white walls reddish shadows moved in a fantastic procession, and from the big chintz-covered lounge the monstrous blue poppies leaped out of the firelight. The high canopy over the bed was draped with prim folds of damask, and the coverlet was of some quaint crocheted work that hung in fringed ends to the floor. Here again from the threadbare velvet carpet the blue poppies stared back at him.

An acorn dropped on the roof, and in spite of Molly's warning, he started and glanced toward the window, where a frosted pattern of ivy showed like a delicate lacework on the small greenish panes. Another dropped; then another. Gradually he began to listen for the sound and to miss it when there came a long silence. One might easily imagine it to be the tapping of ghostly fingers--of the fingers of pretty Janet Merryweather--some quarter of a century earlier. Her daughter was hardly more than twenty now, he supposed, and he wondered how long the mad idyllic period had lasted before her birth? Turning to the books on the table, he opened one and a yellowed fragment of paper fluttered to the floor at his feet. When he stooped after it, he saw that there was a single word on it traced faintly in his uncle's hand: "To-morrow."

And then, being a person whose imagination dealt with the obvious, he undressed, blew out the light, and fell peacefully asleep to the dropping of acorns.

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