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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Miller Of Old Church - Book 1 - Chapter 6. Treats Of The Ladies' Sphere
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The Miller Of Old Church - Book 1 - Chapter 6. Treats Of The Ladies' Sphere Post by :mondd Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :May 2012 Read :872

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The Miller Of Old Church - Book 1 - Chapter 6. Treats Of The Ladies' Sphere

BOOK I CHAPTER VI. TREATS OF THE LADIES' SPHERE

As the carriage rolled up the drive, there was a flutter of servants between the white columns, and Abednego, the old butler, pushed aside the pink-turbaned maids and came down to assist his mistress to alight.

"Take the bird cage, Abednego, I've bought a new canary," said Mrs. Gay. "Here, hold my satchel, Nancy, and give Patsey the wraps and umbrellas."

She spoke in a sweet, helpless voice, and this helplessness was expressed in every lovely line of her figure. The most casual observer would have discerned that she had surrendered all rights in order to grasp more effectively at all the privileges. She was clinging and small and delicate and her eyes, her features, her plaintive gestures, united in an irresistible appeal to emotions.

"Where is Jonathan?" she asked, "I hoped he would welcome me."

"So I do, dearest mother--so I do," replied the young man, running hurriedly down the steps and then slipping his arm about her. "You came a minute or two earlier than I expected you, or I should have met you in the drive."

Half supporting, half carrying her, he led the way into the house and placed her on a sofa in the long drawing-room.

"I am afraid the journey has been too much for you," he said tenderly. "Shall I tell Abednego to bring you a glass of wine."

"Kesiah will mix me an egg and a spoonful of sherry, dear, she knows just how much is good for me."

Kesiah, still grasping her small black bag, went into the dining-room and returned, bearing a beaten egg, which she handed to her sister. In her walk there was the rigid austerity of a saint who has adopted saintliness not from inclination, but from the force of a necessity against which rebellion has been in vain. Her plain, prominent features wore, from habit, a look of sullen martyrdom that belied her natural kindness of heart; and even her false brown front was arranged in little hard, flat curls, as though an artificial ugliness were less reprehensible in her sight than an artificial beauty.

In the midst of the long room flooded with sunshine, the little lady reclined on her couch and sipped gently from the glass Kesiah had handed her. The tapestried furniture was all in soft rose, a little faded from age, and above the high white wainscoting on the plastered walls, this same delicate colour was reflected in the rich brocaded gowns in the family portraits. In the air there was the faint sweet scent of cedar logs that burned on the old andirons.

"So you came all the way home to see your poor useless mother," murmured Mrs. Gay, shielding her cheek from the firelight with a peacock hand-screen.

"I wanted to see for myself how you stand it down here--and, by Jove, it's worse even than I imagined! How the deuce have you managed to drag out twenty years in a wilderness like this among a tribe of barbarians?"

"It is a great comfort to me, dear, to think that I came here on your uncle's account and that I am only following his wishes in making the place my home. He loved the perfect quiet and restfulness of it."

"Quiet! With that population of roosters making the dawn hideous! I'd choose the quiet of Piccadilly before that of a barnyard."

"You aren't used to country noises yet, and I suppose at first they are trying."

"Do you drive? Do you walk? How do you amuse yourself?"

"One doesn't have amusement when one is a hopeless invalid; one has only medicines. No, the roads are too heavy for driving except for a month or two in the summer. I can't walk of course, because of my heart, and as there has been no man on the place for ten years, I do not feel that it is safe for Kesiah to go off the lawn by herself. Once she got into quite a dreadful state about her liver and lack of exercise--(poor dear mother used to say that the difference between the liver of a lady and that of another person, was that one required no exercise and the other did)--but Kesiah, who is the best creature in the world, is very eccentric in some ways, and she imagines that her health suffers when she is kept in the house for several years. Once she got into a temper and walked a mile or two on the road, but when she returned I was in such a state of nervousness that she promised me never to leave the lawn again unless a gentleman was with her."

"What an angel you must be to have suffered so much and complained so little!" he exclaimed with fervour, kissing her hand.

Her eyes, which reminded him of dying violets, drooped over him above the peacock feathers she waved gently before her.

"Poor Kesiah, it is hard on her, too," she observed, "and I sometimes think she is unjust enough to blame me in her heart."

"But she doesn't feel things as you do, one can tell that to look at her."

"She isn't so sensitive and silly, you dear boy, but my poor nerves are responsible for that, you must remember. If Kesiah had been a man she would have been an artist, and it was really a pity that she happened to be born a woman. When she was young she had a perfect mania for drawing, and it used to distress mother so much. A famous portrait painter--I can't recall his name though I am sure it began with S--saw one of her sketches by accident and insisted that we ought to send her to Paris to study. Kesiah was wild to go at the time, but of course it was out of the question that a Virginia lady should go off by herself and paint perfectly nude people in a foreign city. There was a dreadful scene, I remember, and Kesiah even wrote to Uncle William Burwell and asked him to come down and win mother over. He came immediately, for he was the kindest soul, but, of course after he understood, he decided against it. Why on earth should a girl want to go streaking across the water to study art, he asked, when she had a home she could stay in and men folk who could look after her? They both told her she made herself ridiculous when she talked of ambition, and as they wouldn't promise her a penny to live on, she was obliged in the end to give up the idea. She nursed mother very faithfully, I must say, as long as she lived, never leaving her a minute night or day for the last year of her illness. Don't misjudge poor Kesiah, Jonathan, she has a good heart at bottom, though she has always been a little soured on account of her disappointment."

"Oh, she was cut out for an old maid, one can see that," rejoined Gay, only half interested in the history of his aunt, for he seldom exerted his imagination except under pressure of his desires, "and, by the way, mother, what kind of man was my Uncle Jonathan?"

"The dearest creature, my son, heaven alone knows what his loss meant to me! Such consideration! Such generosity! Such delicacy! He and Kesiah never got on well, and this was the greatest distress to me."

"Did you ever hear any queer stories about him? Was he--well--ah, wild, would you say?"

"Wild? Jonathan, I am surprised at you! Why, during the twenty years that I knew him he never let fall so much as a single indelicate word in my presence."

"I don't mean that exactly--but what about his relations with the women around here?"

She flinched as if his words had struck her a blow.

"Dear Jonathan, your poor uncle would never have asked such a question."

Above the mantel there was an oil portrait of the elder Jonathan at the age of three, painted astride the back of an animal that disported the shape of a lion under the outward covering of a lamb.

"Ah, that's just it," commented Gay, while his inquiring look hung on the picture. After a minute of uncertainty, his curiosity triumphed over his discretion and he put, in an apologetic tone, an equally indelicate question. "What about old Reuben Merryweather's granddaughter? Has she been provided for?"

For an instant Mrs. Gay looked at him with shining, reproachful eyes under a loosened curl of fair hair which was threaded with sliver. Those eyes, very blue, very innocent, seemed saying to him, "Oh, be careful, I am so sensitive. Remember that I am a poor frail creature, and do not hurt me. Let me remain still in my charmed circle where I have always lived, and where no unpleasant reality has ever entered." The quaint peacock screen, brought from China by old Jonathan, cast a shadow on her cheek, which was flushed to the colour of a faded rose leaf.

"Yes, the girl is an orphan, it is very sad," she replied, and her tone added, "but what can I do about it? I am a woman and should know nothing of such matters!"

"Was she mentioned in my uncles's will, do you remember?"

His handsome, well-coloured face had taken a sudden firmness of outline, and even the sagging flesh of his chin appeared to harden with the resolve of the moment. Across his forehead, under the fine dark hair which had worn thin on the temples, three frowning wrinkles leaped out as if in response to some inward pressure.

"There was something--I can't remember just what it was--Mr. Chamberlayne will tell you about it when he comes down to-morrow to talk over business with Kesiah. They keep all such things away from me out of consideration for my heart. But I've never doubted for an instant that your uncle did everything that was just and generous in the matter. He sent the girl to a good school in Applegate, I remember, and there was a bequest of some sort, I believe--something that she comes into on her twenty-first birthday."

"She isn't twenty-one then, is she?"

"I don't know, Jonathan, I really can't remember."

"Perhaps Aunt Kesiah can tell me something about her?"

"Oh, she can and she will--but Kesiah is so violent in all her opinions! I had to ask her never to mention Brother Jonathan's name to me because she made me quite ill once by some dreadful hints she let fall about him."

She leaned back wearily as if the conversation had exhausted her, while the peacock firescreen slipped from her hand and dropped on the white fur rug at her feet.

"If you'll call Kesiah, Jonathan, I'll go upstairs for a rest," she said gently, yet with a veiled reproach. "The journey tired me, but I forgot it in the pleasure of seeing you."

All contrition at once, he hastily summoned Kesiah from the storeroom, and between them, with several solicitous maids in attendance, they carried the fragile little lady up to her chamber, where a fire of resinous pine was burning in the big colonial fireplace.

An hour afterwards, when Kesiah had seen her sister peacefully dozing, she went, for the first time since her return, into her own bedroom, and stood looking down on the hearth, where the servants had forgotten to light the sticks that were laid cross-wise on the andirons. It was the habit of those about her to forget her existence, except when she was needed to render service, and after more than fifty years of such omissions, she had ceased, even in her thought, to pass judgment upon them. In her youth she had rebelled fiercely--rebelled against nature, against the universe, against the fundamental injustice that divided her sister's lot from her own. Generations existed only to win love or to bestow it. Inheritance, training, temperament, all combined to develop the racial instinct within her, yet something stronger than these--some external shaping of clay--had unfitted her for the purpose for which she was designed. And since, in the eyes of her generation, any self-expression from a woman, which was not associated with sex, was an affront to convention, that single gift of hers was doomed to wither away in the hot-house air that surrounded her. A man would have struck for freedom, and have made a career for himself in the open world, but her nature was rooted deep in the rich and heavy soil from which she had tried to detach it. Years after her first fight, on the day of her mother's death, she had suffered a brief revival of youth; and then she had pulled in vain at the obstinate tendrils that held her to the spot in which she had grown. She was no longer penniless, she was no longer needed, but she was crushed. The power of revolt was the gift of youth. Middle-age could put forth only a feeble and ineffectual resistance--words without passion, acts without abandonment. At times she still felt the old burning sense of injustice, the old resentment against life, but this passed quickly now, and she grew quiet as soon as her eyes fell on the flat, spare figure, a little bent in the chest, which her mirror revealed to her. The period was full of woman's advancement--a peaceful revolution had triumphed around her--yet she had taken no part in it, and the knowledge left her unmoved. She had read countless novels that acclaimed hysterically the wrongs of her sex, but beneath the hysterics she had perceived the fact that the newer woman who grasped successfully the right to live, was as her elder sister who had petitioned merely for the privilege to love. The modern heroine could still charm even after she had ceased to desire to. Neither in the new fiction nor in the old was there a place for the unhappy woman who desired to charm but could not; she remained what she had always been--a tragic perversion of nature which romance and realism conspired to ignore. Women in novels had revolted against life as passionately as she--but one and all they had revolted in graceful attitudes and with abundant braids of hair. A false front not only extinguished sentiment--it put an end to rebellion.

"Miss Kesiah, dar's Marse Reuben in de hall en he sez he'd be moughty glad ef'n you'd step down en speak a wud wid 'im."

"In a moment, Abednego. I must take off my things."

Withdrawing the short jet-headed pins from her bonnet with a hurried movement, she stabbed them into the hard round pincushion on her bureau, and after throwing a knitted cape over her shoulders, went down the wide staircase to where Reuben awaited her in the hall. As she walked she groped slightly and peered ahead of her with her nervous, short-sighted gaze.

At the foot of the staircase, the old man was standing in a patient attitude, resting upon his wooden leg, which was slightly in advance of his sound one. His fine bearded face might have been the face of a scholar, except for its roughened skin and the wistful, dog-like look in the eyes.

In response to Kesiah's greeting, he explained that he had come at once to acknowledge the gift of the overcoat and to "pay his respects."

"I am glad you like it," she answered, and because her heart was swelling with kindness, she stammered and grew confused while the anxious frown deepened between her eyebrows. A morbid horror of making herself ridiculous prevented her always from making herself understood.

"It will be very useful to me, ma'am, when I am out of doors in bad weather," he replied, wondering if he had offended her by his visit.

"We got it for that purpose," and becoming more embarrassed, she added hastily, "How is the red cow, Mr. Merryweather?"

"She mends slowly, ma'am. I am givin' her bran mash twice a day and keepin' her in the barn. Have you noticed the hogs? They're a fine lot this year and we'll get some good hams at the killin'."

"No, I hadn't looked at them, but I've been struck with the corn you've brought up recently from the low grounds."

For a minute or two they discussed the crops, both painfully ill at ease and uncertain whether to keep up the conversation or to let it trail off into silence. Then at the first laboured pause, Reuben repeated his message to Mrs. Gay and stamped slowly out of the back door into the arms of Jonathan, who was about to enter.

"Halloo! So it's you!" exclaimed the young man in the genial tone which seemed at once to dispel Kesiah's embarrassment. "I've wanted to talk with you for two days, but I shan't detain you now for I happen to know that your granddaughter is hunting for you already. I'll come up to-morrow and chat awhile in the barn."

Reuben bowed and passed on, a little flattered by the other's intimate tone, while Gay followed Kesiah into the drawing-room, and put a question to her which had perplexed him since the night of his arrival.

"Aunt Kesiah, was old Reuben Merryweather on friendly terms with my uncle?"

She started and looked at him with a nervous twitching of her eyelids.

"I think so, Jonathan, at least they appeared to be. Old Reuben was born on the place when the Jordans still lived here, and I am sure your uncle felt that it would be unjust to remove him. Then they fought through the war together and were both dangerously wounded in the same charge."

He gazed at her a moment in silence, narrowing his intense blue eyes which were so like the eyes of Reuben's granddaughter.

"Did my uncle show any particular interest in the girl?" he inquired, and added a little bitterly, "It's not fair to me that I shouldn't know just where I am standing."

"Yes, he did show a particular interest in her and was anxious that she should be educated above her station. She was even sent off to a boarding-school in Applegate, but she ran away during the middle of the second session and came home. Her grandfather was ill with pneumonia, and she is sincerely devoted to him, I believe."

"Was there any mention of her in Uncle Jonathan's will?"

"None whatever. He left instructions with Mr. Chamberlayne, however, which are to be made known next April on Molly's twenty-first birthday. It is all rather mysterious, but we only know that he owned considerable property in the far West, which he left away from us and in trust to his lawyer. I suppose he thought your mother would not be alive when the girl came of age; for the doctors had agreed that she had only a few years to live at the utmost."

"What in the devil did my poor mother have to do with it?"

She hesitated an instant, positively scowling in her perplexity.

"Only that I think--I believe your Uncle Jonathan would have married the girl's mother--Janet Merryweather--but for your mother's influence."

"How in the deuce! You mean he feared the effect on her?"

"He broke it to her once--his intention, I mean--and for several days afterwards we quite despaired of her life. It was then that she made him promise--he was quite distracted with remorse for he adored Angela--that he would never allude to it again while she was alive. We thought then that it would be only for a short while, but she has outlived him ten years in spite of her heart disease. One can never rely on doctors, you know."

"But what became of the girl--of Janet Merryweather, I mean?"

"That was the sad part, though it happened so long ago--twenty years--that people have almost forgotten. It seems that your uncle had been desperate about her for a time--before Angela came to live with him--and Janet counted rather recklessly upon his keeping his word and marrying her as he had promised. When her trouble came she went quite out of her mind--perfectly harmless, I believe, and with lucid intervals in which she suffered from terrible melancholia. Her child inherits many of her characteristics, I am told, though I've never heard any harm of the girl except that she flirts with all the clowns in the neighbourhood."

"Uncle Jonathan appears to have been too ready with his promises, but, I suppose, he thought there was a difference between his obligation to Janet Merryweather and to his brother's widow?"

"There was a difference, of course. Janet Merryweather could hardly have had Angela's sensitive feelings--or at least it's a comfort to think that, even if it happens not to be true. Before the war one hardly ever heard of that class, mother used to say, it was so humble and unpresuming--but in the last twenty-five or thirty years it has overrun everything and most of the land about here has passed into its possession."

She checked herself breathlessly, surprised and indignant that she should have expressed her feelings so openly.

"Yes, I dare say," returned Jonathan--"The miller Revercomb is a good example, I imagine, of just the thing you are speaking of--a kind of new plant that has sprung up like fire-weed out of the ashes. Less than half a century produced him, but he's here to stay, of that I am positive. After all, why shouldn't he, when we get down to the question? He--or the stock he represents, of course--is already getting hold of the soil and his descendants will run the State financially as well as politically, I suppose. We can't hold on, the rest of us--we're losing grip--and in the end it will be pure pluck that counts wherever it comes from."

"Ah, it's just that--pluck--but put the miller in the crucible and you'll find how little pure gold there is to him. It is not in prosperity, but in poverty that the qualities of race come to the surface, and this remarkable miller of yours would probably be crushed by a weight to which poor little Mrs. Bland at the post-office--she was one of the real Carters, you know--would hardly bend her head."

"Perhaps you're right," he answered, and laughed shortly under his breath, "but in that case how would you fix the racial characteristics of that little firebrand, Molly Merryweather?"

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