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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Miller Of Old Church - Book 2. The Cross-Roads - Chapter 1. In Which Youth Shows A Little Seasoned
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The Miller Of Old Church - Book 2. The Cross-Roads - Chapter 1. In Which Youth Shows A Little Seasoned Post by :FreeBiz Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :May 2012 Read :1648

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The Miller Of Old Church - Book 2. The Cross-Roads - Chapter 1. In Which Youth Shows A Little Seasoned


Some six months after Abel's parting from Molly, he might have been seen crossing the lawn at Jordan's Journey on a windy November morning, and even to a superficial observer it would have been evident that certain subtle modifications had been at work in his soul. Disappointed love had achieved this result with a thoroughness which victorious love could not have surpassed. Because he had lost Molly, he had resolved, in his returning sanity, that he would make of himself the man who might have won Molly had she known him in his completeness. And in the act of resolving, his character had begun to ripen into the mellowness of maturity.

The day was bleak, and something of this external bleakness was reflected in the look which he raised to the ivy draped dormer-windows in the hooded roof. Small greyish clouds were scudding low above the western horizon, and the sorrel waste of broomsedge was rolling high as a sea. The birds, as they skimmed over this billowy expanse, appeared blown, despite their efforts, on the wind that swept in gusts out of the west. On the lawn at Jordan's Journey the fallen leaves were dancing madly like a carnival in rough carousal. Watching them it was easy to imagine that they found some frenzied joy in this dance of death--the end to which they had moved from the young green of the bud through the opulent abundance of the summer. The air was alive with their sighing. They rustled softly under foot as Abel walked up the drive, and then, whipped by a strong gust, fled in purple and wine-coloured multitudes to the shelter of the box hedges, or, rising in flight above the naked boughs, beat against the closed shutters before they came to rest against the square brick chimneys on the roof.

Beneath the trees a solitary old negro was spreading manure over the grass, hauling it in a wheelbarrow from a pile somewhere in the barnyard. Back and forth he passed, scattering the fine manure from his spade until the wheelbarrow was empty, when he replenished it in the barnyard and returned to his sprinkling. All the while he smoked steadily a long corncob pipe, and to watch him at his task, was to receive an impression that the hauling of manure was sufficient to fill one's life with dignity and contentment. The work appeared no longer a menial employment but a sober and serious share of the great problem of production.

"That's the way I intend to go about the work of my mill," thought Abel, as he watched him. "When you do it like that it really makes very little difference what you are doing. It all comes to good." A minute before his thought had been on the new roller mill he had recently bought and was now working in his primitive little building, which he had slightly remodelled. The next thing to go, he supposed, would be the old wooden wheel, with its brilliant enamel of moss, and within five years he hoped to complete the reconstruction of his machinery on lines that were scientific rather than picturesque. His water power was good, and by the time he could afford an entire modern equipment, he would probably have all the grain at his door that he was ready to handle. Then he began to wonder, as he had often done of late, if the work of the farm and the mill might be left safely to Abner and Archie when he went up to Richmond to the General Assembly, in the event of his future election? Already he had achieved a modest local fame as a speaker--for his voice expressed the gradual political awakening of his class. Though he was in advance of his age, it was evident, even to the drowsy-eyed, that he was moving in the direction whither lagging progress was bound. In the last eighteen months he had devoured the books of the political economists, and he had sucked in theories of social philosophy as a child sucks in milk. That the business of the politician is not to reshape theories, but to readjust conditions he was ready to admit, yet impelled by a strong religious conviction, by a belief in the determining power of a practical Christianity, he was sharing the slowly expanding dream of his century--the dream of a poverty enriched by knowledge, of a social regeneration that would follow an enlightened and instructed proletariat. Ripples from the thought waves of the world had reached him in the dusty corners of his mill at Old Church. Since no man thinketh to himself, he could no more have escaped the mental impulsion of his time than he could have arrested his embryonic development from the invertebrate to the vertebrate. His mind being open, ideas had entered, and having entered, they proceeded immediately to take active possession. He was serving a distant Utopia of industrial democracy as ardently as a lover serves his mistress.

As for his actual mistress, she had become not only visionary, but enskied. Some months ago, while his wound was still fresh, he had not suffered his thoughts to dwell on her because of the violence of the pain. Pride as well as common sense, he had told himself during the first weeks of his loss, demanded that he should banish her image from his mind. Though he had never, even in his first anger, called her "a light woman," he had come perilously near the feeling that she had grazed the skirts of impropriety with a recklessness which no sober minded son of Sarah Revercomb could countenance for a minute. His very success as a miller depended upon an integrity of character which permitted no compromise with the fundamental moralities. Youth is the period of harsh judgments, and a man seldom learns until he reaches thirty that human nature is made up not of simples, but of compounds. What Abel had never divined was that Molly, like himself, might approach the angelic in one mood and fall short of the merely human in another--that she, also, was capable of moments of sublimation and of hours of recusancy. There were the ashes of a poet in her soul as in his, and to contain the ashes of a poet one must have been first the crucible for purifying flames.

But it was six months ago that he had condemned her, and since then the subtle modifications had worked in his habit of thought. As the soreness passed from his heart, he had nursed the scar much as a crusader might have cherished a wound out of the Holy Wars. From the actual conditions of life in which he had loved her, he now beheld her caught up into the zone of ideal and impossible beauty. Through the outer covering of her flesh he could see her soul shine, as the stars shone through the web of purple twilight on the marshes. From his earlier craving for possession, his love had grown, through frustration and disappointment, into a simpler passion for service.

"Well, one has to find out things," he said to himself on this November morning, while he watched the old negro at his work. Some red leaves whirled into his face, and the wind, lifting the dark hair from his forehead, showed three heavy furrows between his knitted brows. He appeared a little older, a little braver, a little wiser, yet there was about him still the look of superb physical vitality which had been the result of a youth spent in the open fields.

"Howdy, Uncle Boaz," he said to the old negro, who approached with his wheelbarrow. "Your folks have all gone away for good haven't they?"

"Hit looks dat ar way, marster, hit sutney do look dat ar way."

"Well, you keep good grass here all the same."

"Dar ain' but one way ter do hit, suh, en dat's ter dung hit," replied Uncle Boaz, and he remarked a minute afterwards, as he put down the lowered handles of the wheel barrow, and stood prodding the ashes in his pipe, "I'se gwinter vote fur you, Marse Abel, I sholy is---"

"Thank you, Uncle Boaz!"

"En I'se got a sack er co'n I'd be moughty bleeged ter git ground up fur hominy meal---"

With a laugh Abel passed on through the side-garden, and entered the leafless shrubbery that bordered the Haunt's Walk. The old negro had disturbed his dream, which had been of Molly in her red stockings, with the red ribbon binding her curls. Then he thought of Spot, the aged hound--"That dog must have lived to be seventeen years old," he said aloud in the effort to smother the sharp pang at his heart, "I remember how fond old Reuben was of him even as a puppy. He would never let him run hares with anybody except himself." It was seventeen years ago that Spot was a puppy and he a boy--and now the one was dust with old Reuben, and the other had settled down so effectually that he was going to marry Judy in a fortnight. At least Judy was a good woman--nobody had ever said a word against her--and she would make him a good wife. That, after all, was what a farmer must think of--a good, saving wife, without any foolishness about her, who would be thrifty and lend a hand at his work when he needed it. All the rest was nonsense when once a man married. Dreams were all very well in their way, but realities and not dreams, after all, were things he must live with. Looking ahead he saw his future stretching smooth and firm, like the flat white turnpike that dragged its solid length into the distance. On that road there was no place for the absurdity of red stockings! And so, in the absence of all elation, only the grim sense of duty in the doing soothed him as he made his way to Solomon Hatch's cottage.

On the back porch he found Judy deftly taking butter out of the churn, and watched her while she worked the soft lumps with a wooden paddle in a large yellow bowl. Though he would have been the last to suspect it--for passion like temptation appeared to him to beset the beautiful alone--Judy, in her homely way, was also a crucible, and the little earthern pot of her body was near to bursting at the moment from the violence of the flames within. She had just seen a black coated figure in a red gig spin by on the road, and for one blissful minute, she had permitted herself a flight of fancy, in which she was the bride, not of Abel Revercomb, but of Orlando Mullen. To sit in that red wheeled gig, touching the sleeve of his black coat! To stitch the frayed seams in is silk waistcoat! To iron his surplices as only she could iron when the divine fury seized her! To visit his poor and afflicted! To lift her swooning gaze every Sunday, with a sense of possession, to that pulpit! For a minute only the rapture lasted, and all the time, she went on placidly making butter in the large yellow bowl. She was in the mood to commit sublime follies and magnificent indiscretions. For the sake of a drive in that red wheeled gig she would have foresworn Abel at the altar. For the ecstasy of ironing those surplices she would have remained a spinster forever.

"That's nice butter, Judy," remarked her lover, and believed that he had paid her a tribute peculiarly suited to the complexion of her soul.

His gaze followed the drab sweep of her hair, which was combed straight back from her forehead. Her eyes were looking heavenward while she worked, yet they caught no beam, no colour from her celestial visions. Small hectic blotches burned in the centre of her cheeks, and her thin lips were pressed tightly together as though she bit back a cry. Sometimes she would remain dumb for an hour in his presence, while her thoughts soared like birds in the blue region of dreams. She indulged her imagination in grotesque but intoxicating reveries, in which she passed nobly and with honour through a series of thrillingly romantic adventures; and, in fact, only ten minutes before Abel's arrival, she had beheld herself and the young clergyman undergoing a rapturous, if slightly unreal, martyrdom, as missionaries to the Chinese.

Her dreams dropped suddenly, with broken wings, in their flight, for her stepmother, a small sickly woman, with a twisted smile, looked out through the dining-room window, and remarked facetiously:

"You all don't look much like a co'tin couple to my eyes."

"I've been admiring her butter," replied Abel, who was always unduly regardful of his English in the presence of Mrs. Hatch.

"She's a good hand at butter when she chooses to be, but she has her ups and downs like the rest of us."

"All of us have them, I suppose," he rejoined, and Mrs. Hatch drew in her head.

"I never imagined that you got put out, Judy," he said, forgetting the tears that had led him to his sacrifice; "you always seem so quiet and sober."

She glanced up, for there was a sound of wheels on the road, and Mr. Mullen drove by again, sitting very erect, and uncovering, with a graceful bend, to some one who was visible at the front. Her face flushed suddenly to the colour of the brickdust, and she felt that the confusion in her soul must fill the universe with noise. Quiet and sober, indeed, if he could only have heard it!

But Abel was busy with his own problems, while his gaze followed Mr. Mullen's vanishing back, which had, even from a distance, a look of slight yet earnest endeavour. He still liked the young rector for his sincerity and his uprightness, but he had found, on the whole, that he could approach his God more comfortably when the straight and narrow shadow of the clergyman did not come between.

"Aren't you going to pat it any more?" he asked presently, returning to his consideration of the butter.

Picking up a square linen cloth, Judy dipped it into a basin of brine, and, after wringing it out, carefully folded it over the yellow bowl.

"All the buttermilk is out of it," she answered, and thought of the unfinished pair of purple slippers laid away in tissue paper upstairs in her bureau drawer. As a married woman could she, with virtue, continue to embroider slippers in pansies for her rector? These had been laid aside on the day of her engagement to Abel, but she yearned now to riot in purple shades with her needle. While she listened with a detached mind to Abel's practical plans for the future, her only interest in the details lay in the fact that they would, in a measure, insure the possibility of a yearly offering of slippers. And while they looked into each other's eyes, neither suspected for a moment the existence of a secret chamber in the other's soul. All appeared plain and simple on the surface, and Judy, as well as Abel, was honestly of the opinion that she understood perfectly the situation and that the passionate refusal of her heart was the only element that threatened the conventional security of appearances.

She was in the morbid condition of mind when the capacity for feeling seems concentrated on a single centre of pain. Her soul revolved in a circle, and outside of its narrow orbit there was only the arid flatness which surrounds any moment of vivid experience. The velvet slippers, which might have been worn by the young clergyman, possessed a vital and romantic interest in her thoughts, but the mill and the machinery of which Abel was speaking showed to her merely as sordid and mechanical details of existence.

Looking at her suddenly, he realized that she had heard nothing of what he was saying. If he had looked deeper still he would have seen the tragedy of her lovely little soul spinning the web of its perishing illusion. Of all the martyrdoms allotted to love's victims, she was enduring the bitterest, which is the martyrdom of frustration. Yet because she appeared dull and undesirable on the surface, he had declined, with the rest of Old Church, to regard her emotions any less casually than he regarded her complexion.

"Well, I ought to be a proud man to have you, Judy," he remarked, and rose to his feet.

"I hope neither of us will ever regret it," she returned.

"Not if I can help it," he said, and, putting his arm around her, he drew her to him and kissed her lips. It was the second time he had kissed her, and on the first occasion she had burst into hysterical weeping. He did not know that it was the only caress she had ever received, and that she had wept because it had fallen so far short of what her imagination had deluded her into expecting. Now, though she had herself well in hand and gave no visible sign of her disappointment, there was a fierce, though unspoken, protest in her heart. "To think that after all the nights I've lain awake an' wondered what 'twas like, it should turn out to be so terrible flat," she said bitterly to herself.

"It's just a fortnight off now, Judy," he remarked gently, if not tenderly.

"I hope your mother will get on with me, Abel."

"She sets great store by you now. You're pious, and she likes that even though you do go to the Episcopal church. I heard her say yesterday that it was a rare thing to see a girl find as much comfort in her religion as you do."

"You'll never want to come between me and my church work, will you, Abel? I do most of the Foreign Mission work, you know, an' I teach in Sunday school and I visit the sick every Friday."

"Come between? Why, it makes me proud of you! When I asked Mr. Mullen about marrying us, he said: 'She's been as good as a right hand to me ever since I came here, Revercomb.'"

"Tell me over again. What were his words exactly?"

"'She's been as good as a right hand to me, Revercomb,' that was what he said, and he added, 'She's the salt of the earth, that's the only way to describe her.' And now, goodbye, Judy, I must be going back to work."

Without glancing round, he went at his rapid stride down the narrow walk to the whitewashed gate, which hung loose on broken hinges. In the road he came face to face with Jonathan Gay, who was riding leisurely in the direction of Jordan's Journey.

"How are you, Revercomb? All well?"

"Yes, all well, thank you." Turning in his tracks, he gazed thoughtfully after the rider for a moment.

"I wonder why he came out of his way instead of keeping to the turnpike?" he thought, and a minute later, "that's the third time he's come back since the family left Jordan's Journey."

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