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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Miller Of Old Church - Book 1 - Chapter 4. The Revercombs
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The Miller Of Old Church - Book 1 - Chapter 4. The Revercombs Post by :mondd Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :May 2012 Read :2980

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The Miller Of Old Church - Book 1 - Chapter 4. The Revercombs


On the morning after the meeting at Bottom's Ordinary, Abel Revercomb came out on the porch of the little house in which he lived, and looked across the steep rocky road to the mill-race which ran above a silver stream known as Sycamore Creek. The grist-mill, a primitive log building, worked after ancient methods, had stood for a hundred years or more beside a crooked sycamore tree, which grew mid-way of the stream and shaded the wheel and the shingled roof from the blue sky above. The old wooden race, on which the young green mosses shone like a coating of fresh paint on a faded surface, ran for a short distance over the brook, where the broad yellow leaves drifted down to the deep pond below. Across the slippery poplar log, which divided the mill from the road and the house occupied by the miller, there was a stretch of good corn land, where the corn stood in shocks after the harvest, and beyond this the feathery bloom of the broomsedge ran to the luminous band of marshes on the far horizon.

From the open door before which the miller was standing, there came the clatter of breakfast dishes and the sound of Scripture text quoted in the voice of his mother. Above his head several strings of red pepper hung drying, and these rustled in the wind with a grating noise that seemed an accompaniment to the speaker in the kitchen.

"The Lord said that, an' I reckon He knew His own mind when He was speakin' it," remarked Sarah Revercomb as she put down the coffeepot.

"I declare there's mother at it again," observed Abel to himself with a frown--for it was Sarah's fate that an excess of virtue should have wrought all the evil of a positive vice. From the days of her infancy, when she had displayed in the cradle a power of self-denial at which her pastor had marvelled, she had continued to sacrifice her inclinations in a manner which had rendered unendurable the lives around her. Her parents had succumbed to it; her husband had died of it; her children had resigned themselves to it or rebelled against it according to the quality of their moral fibre. All her life she had laboured to make people happy, and the result of this exalted determination was a cowed and resentful family.

"Yo' buckwheat cakes will be stone cold if you don't come along in, Abel," she called now from the kitchen. "You've been lookin' kind of sallow these last days, so I've got a spoonful of molasses and sulphur laid right by yo' plate."

"For heaven's sake, take it away," he retorted irritably. "I don't need it."

"I reckon I can tell by the look of you better than you can by the feelin'," rejoined Sarah grimly, "an' if you know what's good for you, you'll come and swallow it right down."

"I'll be hanged if I do!" exclaimed Abel without moving, and his tone implied that the ceaseless nagging had got at last on his nerves. He was a robust, well-built, red-brown young fellow, who smelt always of freshly ground meal, as though his body, from long usage, had grown to exhale the cleanly odour of the trade he followed. His hair was thick, dark and powdered usually with mill-dust. His eyes, of a clear bright hazel, deep-set and piercing, expressed a violence of nature which his firm, thin-lipped mouth, bare of beard or moustache, appeared to deny. A certain tenacity--a suggestion of stubbornness in the jaw, gave the final hint to his character, and revealed that temperamental intolerance of others of the rustic who has risen out of his class. An opinion once embraced acquired the authority of a revelation; a passion once yielded to was transformed into a principle. Impulsive, generous, undisciplined, he represented, after all, but the reaction from the spirit of racial submission which was embodied in Reuben Merryweather. Tradition had bound Reuben in thongs of steel; Abel was conscious only of his liberated intelligence--of a passionate desire to test to the fullest the certainty of that liberation. As the elder had suffered beneath the weight of the established order, so the younger showed the disturbing effects of a freedom which had resulted from a too rapid change in economic conditions rather than from the more gradual evolution of class. When political responsibility was thrust on the plainer people instead of sought by them, it was but natural that the process of adjustment should appear rough rather than smooth. The land which had belonged to the few became after the war within reach of the many. At first the lower classes had held back, paralyzed by the burden of slavery. The soil, impoverished, wasted, untilled, rested under the shadow of the old names--the old customs. This mole-like blindness of the poorer whites persisted still for a quarter of a century; and the awakening was possible only after the newer authority was but a shadow; the past reverence but a delusion. When the black labourer worked, not freely, but for hire, the wages of the white labourer went up as by magic. To rise under the old system had been so impossible that Abel's ancestors had got out of the habit of trying. The beneficent charity of the great landowners had exhausted the small incentive that might have remained--and to give had been so much the prerogative of a single class, that to receive had become a part of the privileges of another. In that pleasant idyllic period the one act which went unhonoured and unrewarded was the act of toil. So in the odour of shiftlessness Abel's father had died; so after ninety years his grandparents still sat by the hearth to which his mother had called him.

The house, an oblong frame building, newly shingled, was set back from the road in a straggling orchard of pear-trees, which bore a hard green fruit too sour to be used except in the form of preserves. Small shanties, including a woodhouse, a henhouse, and a smokehouse for drying bacon and hams, flanked the kitchen garden at the rear, while in front a short, gravelled path, bordered by portulaca, led to the paling gate at the branch road which ran into the turnpike a mile or so farther on. In Abel's dreams another house was already rising in the fair green meadow beyond the mill-race. He had consecrated a strip of giant pine to this purpose, and often, while he lingered in the door of his mill, he felt himself battling against the desire to take down his axe and strike his first blow toward the building of Molly's home. His mother might nag at him about Molly now, but let them be married, he told himself, with sanguine masculine assurance, and both women would reconcile themselves to a situation that neither could amend. Before the immediate ache of his longing for the girl, all other considerations evaporated to thin air. He would rather be unhappy with her, he thought passionately, than give her up!

"Abel, if you don't stop mopin' out thar an' come along in, I'll clear off the dishes!" called his mother again in her rasping voice which sounded as if she were choking in a perpetual spasm of moral indignation.

Jerking his shoulders slightly in an unspoken protest, Abel turned and entered the kitchen, where Sarah Revercomb--tall, spare and commanding--was preparing two bowls of mush for the aged people, who could eat only soft food and complained bitterly while eating that. She was a woman of some sixty years, with a stern handsome face under harsh bands of yellowish gray hair, and a mouth that sank in at one corner where her upper teeth had been drawn. Her figure was erect and flat as a lath, and this flatness was accentuated by the extreme scantiness of her drab calico dress. In her youth she had been beautiful in a hard, obvious fashion, and her eyes would have been still fine except for their bitter and hostile expression.

At the table there were Abner Revercomb, some ten or twelve years older than Abel, and Archie, the youngest child, whom Sarah adored and bullied. Blossom was busy about something in the cupboard, and on either side of the stove the old people sat with their small, suspicious eyes fixed on the pan of mush which Sarah was dividing with a large wooden spoon into two equal portions. Each feared that the other would receive the larger share, and each watched anxiously to see into which bowl the last spoonful would fall. For a week they had not spoken. Their old age was racked by a sharp and furious jealousy, which was quite exclusive and not less exacting than their earlier passion of love.

With a finishing swirl of the big wooden spoon, the last drops of mush fell into grandfather's bowl, while a sly and injured look appeared instantly on the face of his wife. She was not hungry, but it annoyed her unspeakably that she should not be given the larger portion of food. Her rheumatism was severer than her husband's, and it seemed to her that this alone should have entitled her to the greater share of attention. There was a fierce contempt in her manner when she alluded to his age or to his infirmities, for although he was three years her elder, he was still chirpy and cheerful, with many summers, as she said resentfully, left in him yet.

"Breakfast is ready, grannies," remarked Sarah, who had allowed her coffee to grow cold while she looked after the others; "are you ready to eat?"

Grandmother's sly little eyes slanted over her hooked nose in the direction of the two bowls which her daughter-in-law was about to sprinkle with sugar. An idea entered her old head which made her chuckle with pleasure, and when her mush had been covered, she croaked out suddenly that she would take her breakfast unsweetened. "I'm too bad to take sugar--give that to him--he has a stomach to stand it," she said. Though her mouth watered for sweets, by this trick she had outwitted grandfather, and she felt that it was better than sugar.

The kitchen was a large, comfortable room, with strings of red peppers hanging from the ceiling, and boards of sliced apples drying on upturned flour barrels near the door. The bright homespun carpet left a strip of bare plank by the stove, and on this stood two hampers of black walnuts ready for storing. A few coloured prints, culled from garden magazines, were tacked on the wall, and these, without exception, represented blossoms of a miraculous splendour and size. In Sarah's straitened and intolerant soul a single passion had budded and expanded into fulfillment. Stern to all mortal things, to flowers alone she softened and grew gentle. From the front steps to the back, the kitchen was filled with them. Boxes, upturned flour barrels, corners of china-shelves and window-sills, showed bowers of luxuriant leaf and blossom. Her calla lilies had long been famous in the county; they had taken first prizes at innumerable fairs, and whenever there was a wedding or a funeral in the neighbourhood, the tall green stalks were clipped bare of bloom. Many were the dead hands that had been laid in the earth clasping her lilies. This thought had been for years the chief solace in her life, and she was accustomed to refer to it in the heat of religious debates, as though it offered infallible proof of her contention. After calla lilies, fuchias and tuberoses did best in her hands, and she had nursed rare night blooming cereus for seven years in the hope that it would arrive at perfection the following June. Her marriage had been a disappointment to her, for her husband, a pleasant, good-looking fellow, had turned out an idler; her children, with the exception of Archie, the youngest, had never filled the vacancy in her life; but in her devotion to flowers there was something of the ecstasy and all of the self-abandonment she had missed in her human relations.

As he sat down at the table, the miller nodded carelessly to his brothers, who, having finished their bacon and cornbread, were waiting patiently until the buckwheat cakes should be ready. The coloured servant was never allowed to cook because, as Sarah said, "she could not abide niggers' ways," and Blossom, standing before the stove, with her apron held up to shield her face, was turning the deliciously browning cakes with a tin cake lifter.

"Ain't they done yet, daughter?" asked Abner in his amiable drawling voice. He was a silent, brooding man, heavily built, with a coarse reddish beard, stained with tobacco juice, which hung over his chest. Since the death of his wife, Blossom's mother, some fifteen years before, he had become more gloomy, more silent, more obstinately unapproachable. He was one who appeared to dwell always in the shadow of a great grief, and this made him generally respected by his neighbours though he was seldom sought. People said of him that he was "a solid man and trustworthy," but they kept out of his way unless there was road mending or a sale of timber to be arranged.

Blossom tossed the buckwheat cakes into a plate and brought them to her father, who helped himself with his knife. When she passed them to Abel, who was feeding his favorite hound puppy, Moses, with bacon, he shook his head and drew back.

"Give them to mother, Blossom, she never eats a bite of breakfast," he said. He was the only one of Sarah's sons who ever considered her, but she was apt to regard this as a sign of weakness and to resent it with contumely.

"I ain't hungry," she replied grimly, "an' I reckon I'd rather you'd say less about my comfort, Abel, and do mo'. Buckwheat cakes don't come well from a son that flies into his mother's face on the matter of eternal damnation."

Without replying, Abel helped himself to the cakes she had refused and reached for the jug of molasses. Sarah was in one of her nagging moods, he knew, and she disturbed him but little. The delight and the desire of first love was upon him, and he was thinking rapturously of the big pine that would go to the building of Molly's house.

Grandmother, who wanted syrup, began to cry softly because she must eat her tasteless mush. "He's got the stomach to stand it," she repeated bitterly, while her tears fell into her bowl.

"What is it, granny? Will you try a bite of buckwheat?" inquired Sarah solicitously. She had never failed in her duty to her husband's parents, and this virtue also, she was inclined to use as a weapon of offense to her children.

"Give it to him--he's got teeth left to chaw on," whimpered grandmother, and her old chest heaved with bitterness because grandfather, who was three years the elder, still retained two jaw teeth on one side of his mouth.

A yellow-and-white cat, after vainly purring against grandmother's stool, had jumped on the window-sill in pursuit of a belated wasp, and Sarah, rushing to the rescue of her flowers, cuffed the animal soundly and placed her in grandfather's lap. He was a lover of cats--a harmless fancy which was a source of unceasing annoyance to his wife.

"Abel, I wish you'd mend that leak in the smokehouse after breakfast," remarked Sarah, in an aggressive tone that meant battle. "Two shingles are gone an' thare four more that want patchin'."

"I can't, I've got work to do at the mill," replied Abel, as he rose from his chair. "Solomon Hatch sent me his corn to grind and he's coming over to get the sacks."

"Well, I reckon I'm worth as much as Solomon Hatch, a little pasty faced critter like that," rejoined Sarah.

"Why can't Archie do it? What is he good for?"

"I'm going hunting with Jim Halloween," returned Archie sullenly, "he's got some young dogs he wants to break in to rabbit running."

"I might have known thar warn't nobody to do what I ask 'em," observed Sarah in the voice and manner of a martyr. "It's rabbits or girls, one or the other, and if it ain't an old hare it's some light-moraled critter like Molly Merryweather."

Abel's face had changed to a dull red and his eyes blazed.

"Say anything against Molly, mother, an' I'll never speak to you again!" he cried out angrily.

"Thar, thar, ma, you an' Abel are too pepper tongued to get into a quarrel," remarked Abner, the silent, who seldom spoke except for the promotion of peace. "I'll mend the roof for you whenever you want it."

"I reckon I've got as much right to use my tongue as anybody else has," retorted Sarah, indignant because a solution had been found and her grievance was annulled. "If a girl ain't a fast one that gets as good as engaged to half the young men in the county, then I'd like to know who is, that's all?"

Then, as Abel called sharply to his fox-hound puppy and flung himself from the room, she turned away and went to sprinkle her calla lilies. There was an agony in her breast, though she would have bitten out her tongue sooner than have confessed it. Her strength lay in the fact that never in her life had she admitted even to herself, that she had been in the wrong.

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