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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Miller Of Old Church - Book 1 - Chapter 5. The Mill
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The Miller Of Old Church - Book 1 - Chapter 5. The Mill Post by :mondd Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :May 2012 Read :2937

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The Miller Of Old Church - Book 1 - Chapter 5. The Mill

BOOK I CHAPTER V. THE MILL

Outside, a high wind was driving the fallen leaves in swirls and eddies, and as Abel crossed the road to the mill, he smelt the sharp autumn scent of the rotting mould under the trees. Frost still sparkled on the bright green grasses that had overgrown the sides of the mill-race, and the poplar log over the stream was as wet as though the dancing shallows had skimmed it. Over the motionless wheel the sycamore shed its broad yellow leaves into the brook, where they fluttered downward with a noise that was like the wind in the tree-tops.

Inserting a key into the rusty lock, which was much too large for it, Abel opened the door, and counted Solomon Hatch's sacks of grist, which stood in a row beside a raised platform where an old mill-stone was lying. Other sacks belonging to other farmers were arranged in an orderly group in one corner, and his eye passed to them in a businesslike appraisement of their contents. According to an established custom of toll, the eighth part of the grain belonged to the miller; and this had enabled him to send his own meal to the city markets, where there was an increasing demand for the coarse, water-ground sort. Some day he purposed to turn out the old worn-out machinery and supply its place with modern inventions, but as yet this ambition was remote, and the mill, worked after the process of an earlier century, had raised his position to one of comparative comfort and respectability. He was known to be a man of character and ambition. Already his name had been mentioned as a possible future representative of the labouring classes in the Virginia assembly. "There is no better proof of the grit that is in the plain people than the rise of Abel Revercomb out of Abner, his father," some one had said of him. And from the day when he had picked his first blackberries for old Mr. Jonathan and tied his earnings in a stocking foot as the beginning of a fund for schooling, the story of his life had been one of struggle and of endurance. Transition had been the part of the generation before him. In him the democratic impulse was no longer fitful and uncertain, but had expanded into a stable and indestructible purpose.

Before starting the wheel, which he did by thrusting his arm through the window and lifting the gate on the mill-race, Abel took up a broom, made of sedges bound crudely together, and swept the smooth bare floor, which was polished like that of a ballroom by the sacks of meal that had been dragged back and forth over the boards. From the rafters above, long pale cobwebs were blown gently in the draught between the door and window, and when the mill had started, the whole building reverberated to the slow revolutions of the wheel outside.

The miller had poured Solomon Hatch's grist into the hopper, and was about to turn the wooden crank at the side, when a shadow fell over the threshold, and Archie Revercomb appeared, with a gun on his shoulder and several fox-hounds at his heels.

"You'll have to get Abner to help you dress that mill-rock, Abel," he said, "I'm off for the morning. That's a good pup of yours, but he's old enough to begin learning."

With the inherited idleness of the Revercombs, he combined the headstrong impulses and dogged obstinacy of his mother's stock, yet because of his personal charm, these faults were not only tolerated but even admired by his family.

"You're always off in the mornings when there's work to be done," replied Abel, "but for heaven's sake, bring home a string of hares to put ma into a better humour. She whets her tongue on me and I'll be hanged if it's right."

"She never used to do it till you went over to Mr. Mullen's church and fell in love with Molly Merryweather. Great Scott, I'm glad I don't stand in either of your shoes when it comes to that. Life's too short to pay for your religion or your sweetheart every day you live."

"It would have been the same anyway--she's put out with me about nothing. I had a right to go to Old Church if I wanted to, and what on earth has she got against Mr. Mullen anyway, except that he couldn't recite the first chapter in Chronicles? What kind of religion does that take I'd like to know?"

The meal poured softly out of the valve into the trough beneath, and lifting a wooden scoop he bent over and scattered the pile in the centre. A white dust had settled on his hair and clothes, and this accentuated the glow in his face and gave to his whole appearance a picturesque and slightly theatrical cast.

"If it hadn't been Molly, it would have been some one else," he added impulsively. "Ma would be sure to hate any woman she thought I'd fallen in love with. It's born in her to be contrary just as it is in that hopvine out yonder that you can't train up straight."

"All the same, if I were going through fire and water for a girl, I'd be pretty sure to choose one that would make it worth my while at the end. I wouldn't put up with all that hectoring for the sake of anybody that was as sweet to half a dozen other fellows as she was to me."

Abel's face darkened threateningly under his silvered hair.

"If you are trying to hint anything against Molly, you'd as well stop in the beginning," he said. "It isn't right--I'll be hanged if it is!--that every man in the county should be down on a little thing like that, no bigger than a child. It wasn't her fault, was it, if her father played false with her mother?"

"Oh, I'm not blaming her, am I? As far as that goes all the women like her well enough, and so do all the dogs and the children. The trouble seems to be, doesn't it, merely that the men like her too much? She's got a way with her, there's no question about that."

"Why in thunder do you want to blacken her character?"

"I wasn't blackenin' her character. I merely meant that she was a flirt, and you know that as well as I do--better, I shouldn't wonder."

"It's the way she was brought up. Her mother was crazy for ten years before she died, and she taught Molly all that foolishness about the meanness of men."

"Oh, well, it's all right," said Archie carelessly, "only look out that you don't go too near the fire and get scorched."

Whistling to the hounds that were nosing among some empty barrels in a dark corner, he shouldered his gun more firmly and went off to his hunt.

After he had gone, the miller stood for a long while, watching the meal pour from the valve. A bit of chaff had settled on his lashes, but without moving his hand to brush it away, he shook his head once or twice with the gesture of an animal that is stung by a wasp. "Why do they keep at me about her?" he asked passionately. "Is it true that she is only playing with me as she plays with the others?"--but the pain was too keen, and turning away with a sigh, he rested his elbows on the sill of the window and looked out at the moving wheel under the gauzy shadows. The sound of the water as it rushed through the mill-race into the buckets and then fell from the buckets into the whirlpool beneath, was loud in his ears while his quick glance, passing over the drifting yellow leaves of the sycamore, discerned a spot of vivid red in the cornlands beyond. The throbbing of his pulses rather than the assurance of his eyes told him that Molly was approaching; and as the bit of colour drew nearer amid the stubble, he recognized the jacket of crimson wool that the girl wore as a wrap on chill autumn mornings. On her head there was a small knitted cap matching the jacket, and this resting on her riotous brown curls, lent a touch of boyish gallantry to her slender figure. Like most women of mobile features and ardent temperament, her beauty depended so largely upon her mood that Abel had seen her change from positive plainness to amazing loveliness in the space of a minute. Her small round face, with its wonderful eyes, dimpled now over the crimson jacket.

"Abel!" she called softly, and paused with one foot on the log while the water sparkled beneath her. Ten minutes before he had vowed to himself that she had used him badly and he would hold off until she made sufficient amends; but in forming this resolution, he had reckoned without the probable intervention of Molly.

"I thought--as long as I was going by--that I'd stop and speak to you," she said.

He shook his head, unsoftened as yet by her presence. "You didn't treat me fair yesterday, Molly," he answered.

"Oh, I wanted to tell you about that. I quite meant to go with you--only it went out of my head."

"That's a pretty excuse, isn't it, to offer a man?"

"Well, you aren't the only one I've offered it to," she dimpled enchantingly, "the rector had to be satisfied with it as well. He asked me, too, and when I forgot I'd promised you, I said I'd go with him to see old Abigail. Then I forgot that, too," she added with a penitent sigh, "and went down to the low grounds."

"You managed to come up in time to meet Mr. Jonathan at the cross-roads," he commented with bitterness.

A less daring adventurer than Molly would have hesitated at his tone and grown cautious, but a certain blithe indifference to the consequences of her actions was a part of her lawless inheritance from the Gays.

"I think him very good-looking, don't you?" she inquired sweetly.

"Good-looking? I should think not--a fat fop like that."

"Is he fat? I didn't notice it--but, of course, I didn't mean that he was good-looking in your way, Abel."

The small flowerlike shadows trembled across her face, and beneath her feet the waves churned a creamy foam that danced under her like light. His eyes warmed to her, yet he held back, gripped by a passion of jealousy. For the first time he felt that he was brought face to face with a rival who might prove to have the advantage.

"I am coming over!" called Molly suddenly, and a minute later she stood in the square sunshine that entered the mill door.

Had he preserved then his manner of distant courtesy, it is probable that she would have melted, for it was not in her temperament to draw back while her prey showed an inclination for flight. But it was his nature to warm too readily and to cool too late, a habit of constitution which causes, usually, a tragedy in matters of sex.

"You oughtn't to treat me so, Molly!" he exclaimed reproachfully, and made a step toward her.

"I couldn't help forgetting, could I? It was your place to remind me."

Thrust, to his surprise, upon the defensive he reached for her hand, which was withdrawn after it had lain an instant in his.

"Well, it was my fault, then," he said with a generosity that did him small service. "The next time I'll remind you every minute."

She smiled radiantly as he looked at her, and he felt that her indiscretions, her lack of constancy, her unkindness even, were but the sportive and innocent freaks of a child. In his rustic sincerity he was forever at the point of condemning her and forever relenting before the appealing sweetness of her look. He told himself twenty times a day that she flirted outrageously with him, though he still refused to admit that in her heart she was to blame for her flirting. A broad and charitable distinction divided always the thing that she was from the thing that she did. It was as if his love discerned in her a quality of soul of which she was still unconscious.

"Molly," he burst out almost fiercely, "will you marry me?"

The smile was still in her eyes, but a slight frown contracted her forehead.

"I've told you a hundred times that I shall never marry anybody," she answered, "but that if I ever did---"

"Then you'd marry me."

"Well, if I were obliged to marry _somebody_, I'd rather marry you than anybody else."

"So you do like me a little?"

"Yes, I suppose I like you a little--but all men are the same--mother used always to tell me so."

Poor distraught Janet Merryweather! There were times when he was seized with a fierce impatience of her, for it seemed to him that her ghost stood, like the angel with the drawn sword, before the closed gates of his paradise. He remembered her as a passionate frail creature, with accusing eyes that had never lost the expression with which they had met and passed through some hour of despair and disillusionment.

"But how could she judge, Molly? How could she judge?" he pleaded "She was ill, she wasn't herself, you must know it. All men are not alike. Didn't I fight her battles more than once, when you were a child?"

"I know, I know," she answered gratefully, "and I love you for it. That's why I don't mind telling you what I've never told a single one of the others. I haven't any heart, Abel, that's the truth. It's all play to me, and I like the game sometimes and sometimes I hate it. Yet, whether I like it or hate it, I always go on because I can't help it. Your mother once said I had a devil that drives me on and perhaps she was right--it may be that devil that drives me on and won't let me stop even when I'm tired, and it all bores me. The rector thinks that I'll marry him and turn pious and take to Dorcas societies, and Jim Halloween thinks I'll marry him and grow thrifty and take to turkey raising--and you believe in the bottom of your heart that in the end I'll fall into your arms and find happiness with your mother. But you're wrong--all--all--and I shan't do any of the things you expect of me. I am going to stay here as long as grandfather lives, so I can take care of him, and then I'll run off somewhere to the city and trim hats for a living. When I was at school in Applegate I trimmed hats for all of the pupils."

"Oh, Molly, Molly, I'll not give you up! Some day you'll see things differently."

"Never--never. Now, I've warned you and it isn't my fault if you keep on after this."

"But you do like me a little, haven't you said so?"

Her frown deepened.

"Yes, I do like you--a little."

"Then I'll keep on hoping, anyhow."

Her smile came back, but this time it had grown mocking.

"No, you mustn't hope," she answered, "at least," she corrected provokingly, "you mustn't hope--too hard."

"I'll hope as hard as the devil, darling--and, Molly, if you marry me, you know, you won't have to live with my mother."

"I like that, even though I'm not going to marry you."

"Come here," he drew her toward the door, "and I'll show you where our house will stand. Do you see that green rise of ground over the meadow?"

"Yes, I see it," her tone was gentler.

"I've chosen that site for a home," he went on, "and I'm saving a good strip of pine--you can see it over there against the horizon. I've half a mind to take down my axe and cut down the biggest of the trees this afternoon!"

If his ardour touched her there was no sign of it in the movement with which she withdrew herself from his grasp.

"You'd better finish your grinding. There isn't the least bit of a hurry," she returned with a smile.

"If you'll go with me, Molly, you may take your choice and I'll cut the tree down for you."

"But I can't, Abel, because I've promised Mr. Mullen to visit his mother."

The glow faded from his eyes and a look like that of an animal under the lash took its place.

"Come with me, not with him, Molly, you owe me that much," he entreated.

"But he's such a good man, and he preaches such beautiful sermons."

"He does--I know he does, but I love you a thousand times better."

"Oh, he loves me because I am pretty and hard to win--just as you do," she retorted. "If I lost my hair or my teeth how many of you, do you think, would care for me to-morrow?"

"I should--before God I'd love you just as I do now," he answered with passion.

A half mocking, half tender sound broke from her lips.

"Then why don't you--every one of you, fall head over ears in love with Judy Hatch?" she inquired.

"I don't because I loved you first, and I can't change, however badly you treat me. I'm sometimes tempted to think, Molly, that mother is right, and you are possessed of a devil."

"Your mother is a hard woman, and I pity the wife you bring home to her."

The softness had gone out of her voice at the mention of Sarah's name, and she had grown defiant and reckless.

"I don't think you are just to my mother, Molly," he said after a moment, "she has a kind heart at bottom, and when she nags at you it is most often for your good."

"I suppose it was for my mother's good that she kept her from going to church and made the old minister preach a sermon against her?"

"That's an old story--you were only a month old. Can't you forget it?"

"I'll never forget it--not even at the Day of Judgment. I don't care how I'm punished."

Her violence, which seemed to him sinful and unreasonable, reduced him to a silence that goaded her to a further expression of anger. While she spoke he watched her eyes shine green in the sunlight, and he told himself that despite her passionate loyalty to her mother, the blood of the Gays ran thicker in her veins than that of the Merryweathers. Her impulsiveness, her pride, her lack of self-control, all these marked her kinship not to Reuben Merryweather, but to Jonathan Gay. The qualities against which she rebelled cried aloud in her rebellion. The inheritance she abhorred endowed her with the capacity for that abhorrence. While she accused the Gays, she stood revealed a Gay in every tone, in every phrase, in every gesture.

"It isn't you, Molly, that speaks like that," he said, "it's something in you." She had tried his patience almost to breaking, yet in the very strain and suffering she put upon him, she had, all unconsciously to them both, strengthened the bond by which she held him.

"If I'd known you were going to preach, I shouldn't have stopped to speak to you," she rejoined coldly. "I'd rather hear Mr. Mullen."

He stood the attack without flinching, his hazel eyes full of an angry light and the sunburnt colour in his face paling a little. Then when she had finished, he turned slowly away and began tightening the feed strap of the mill.

For a minute Molly paused on the threshold in the band of sunlight. "For God's sake speak, Abel," she said at last, "what pleasure do you think I find in being spiteful when you won't strike back?"

"I'll never strike back; you may keep up your tirading forever."

"I wouldn't have said it if I'd known you'd take it so quietly."

"Quietly? Did you expect me to pick you up and throw you into the hopper?"

"I shouldn't have cared--it would have been better than your expression at this minute. It's all your fault anyway, for not falling in love with Judy Hatch, as I told you to."

"Don't worry. Perhaps I shall in the end. Your tantrums would wear the patience of a Job out at last. It seems that you can't help despising a man just as soon as he happens to love you."

"I wonder if that's true?" she said a little sadly, turning away from him until her eyes rested on the green rise of ground over the meadow, "I've seen men like that as soon as they were sure of their wives, and I've hated them for it."

"What I can't understand," he pursued, not without bitterness, "is why in thunder a man or a woman who isn't married should put up with it for an instant?"

At his words she left the door and came slowly back to his side, where he bent over the meal trough.

"The truth is that I like you better than anyone in the world, except grandfather," she said, "but I hate love-making. When I see that look in a man's face and feel the touch of his hands upon me I want to strike out and kill. My mother was that way before I was born, and I drank it in with her milk, I suppose."

"I know it isn't you fault, Molly, and yet, and yet---"

She sighed, half pitying his suffering, half impatient of his obtuseness. As he turned away, her gaze rested on his sunburnt neck, rising from the collar of his blue flannel shirt, and she saw that his hair ended in a short, boyish ripple that was powdered with mill-dust. A sudden tenderness for him as for a child or an animal pierced her like a knife.

"I shouldn't mind your kissing me just once, if you'd like to, Abel," she said.

A little later, when he had helped her over the stile and she was returning home through the cornlands, she asked herself with passionate self-reproach why she had yielded to pity? She had felt sorry for Abel, and because she had felt sorry she had allowed him to kiss her. "Only I meant him to do it gently and soberly," she thought, "and he was so rough and fierce that he frightened me. I suppose most girls like that kind of thing, but I don't, and I shan't, if I live to be a hundred. I've got no belief in it--I've got no belief in anything, that is the trouble. I'm twisted out of shape, like the crooked sycamore by the mill-race."

A sigh passed her lips, and, as if in answer to the sound, there came the rumble of approaching wheels in the turnpike. As she climbed the low rail fence which divided the corn-lands from the highway, she met the old family carriage from Jordan's Journey returning with the two ladies on the rear seat. The younger, a still pretty woman of fifty years, with shining violet eyes that seemed always apologizing for their owner's physical weakness, leaned out and asked the girl, in a tone of gentle patronage, if she would ride with the driver?

"Thank you, Mrs. Gay, it's only a quarter of a mile and I don't mind the walk."

"We've brought an overcoat--Kesiah and I--a good thick one, for your grandfather. It worried us last winter that he went so lightly clad during the snow storms."

Molly's face changed, and her eyes sparkled with pleasure.

"Oh, thank you, thank you!" she exclaimed, losing her manner of distant politeness. "I've been trying to persuade him to buy one, but he hates to spend money on himself."

Kesiah, who had leaned back during the conversation, with the scowling look she wore when her heart was moved, nodded grimly while she felt in the black travelling bag she carried for Mrs. Gay's salts. She was one of those unfortunate women of a past generation, who, in offering no allurement to the masculine eye, appeared to defeat the single end for which woman was formed. As her very right to existence lay in her possible power to attract, the denial of that power by nature, or the frustration of it by circumstances, had deprived her, almost from the cradle, of her only authoritative reason for being. Her small, short-sighted eyes, below a false front which revealed rather than obscured her bare temples, flitted from object to object as though in the vain pursuit of some outside justification of her indelicacy in having permitted herself to be born.

"Samson tells me that my son has come, Molly," said Mrs. Gay, in a flutter of emotion. "Have you had a glimpse of him yet?"

The girl nodded. "He took supper at our house the night he got here."

"It was such a surprise. Was he looking well?"

"Very well, I thought, but it was the first time I had seen him, you know."

"Ah, I forgot. Are you sure you won't get in, child? Well, drive on, Samson, and be very careful of that bird cage."

Samson drove on at the command, and Molly, plodding obstinately after the carriage, was enveloped shortly in the cloud of dust that floated after the wheels.

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