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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Miller Of Old Church - Book 2. The Cross-Roads - Chapter 3. Abel Hears Gossip And Sees A Vision
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The Miller Of Old Church - Book 2. The Cross-Roads - Chapter 3. Abel Hears Gossip And Sees A Vision Post by :FreeBiz Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :May 2012 Read :1185

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The Miller Of Old Church - Book 2. The Cross-Roads - Chapter 3. Abel Hears Gossip And Sees A Vision


Two nights before the wedding a corn shucking was held in the barn at Bottom's Ordinary--a usually successful form of entertainment, by which the strenuous labours of a score of able-bodied men were secured at the cost of a keg of cider and a kettle of squirrel stew. In the centre of the barn, which was dimly lighted by a row of smoky, strong-smelling kerosene-oil lanterns, suspended on pegs from the wall, there was a huge wooden bin, into which the golden ears were tossed, as they were stripped of the husks, by a circle of guests, ranging in years from old Adam at the head to the youngest son of Tim Mallory, an inquisitive urchin of nine, who made himself useful by passing the diminishing pitcher of cider. It was a frosty night, and the faces of the huskers showed very red above the knitted woollen comforters which wrapped their throats. Before each man there was a small pile of corn, still in the blade, and this was replenished when it began to dwindle by a band of workers in the moonlight beyond the open windows. In his effort to keep warm somebody had started a hymn, which was vigorously accompanied by a beating of numbed feet on the scattered husks on the floor. Above the volume of sound old Adam's quavering falsetto could be heard piping on like a cracked and discordant flute.

"O-ver thar, O-ver thar,
Th-ar's a la-nd of pure de-light.
O-ver th-ar,
We will la-y our bur-den do-wn.
An' re-ceive our gol-den cro-wn.
In that la-nd of pure de-light
O-ver th-ar."

"That's a cold hymn, an' unsuitable to the weather," remarked Tim Mallory at the end of the verse. "If you ask me, I'd say thar was mo' immediate comfort in singin' about the redness of hell-fire, an' how mortal close we're comin' to it."

"We don't want no impiousness at this here shuckin', Tim," observed William Ming, who occupied the position of host in Betsey's absence about the more important matter of supper. "You fill up with cider an' go at that thar pile befo' you."

"Then pass it on," replied Mallory, reaching for the jug of cider, which travelled in a regular orbit from old Adam's right hand round the circle to the neighbour on his left, who chanced to be Solomon Hatch.

"Speakin' of impiousness," remarked that sour-faced little man, "have you all heard the tales about Reuben Merryweather's gal sence she's had her windfall? Why, to see the way she trails her skirt, you'd think she was the real child of her father." Then rushing hurriedly to generalization at Abel's entrance, he added in a louder tone--"Ah, it's a sad pass for things to come to, an' the beginnin' of the end of public morality, when a gal that's born of a mischance can come to act as if a man was responsible for her. It ain't nothin' mo' nor less than flyin' in the face of the law, which reads different, an' if it keeps up, the women folks will be settin' up the same rights as men to all the instincts of natur'."

Old Adam--the pride and wonder of the neighbourhood because he could still walk his half mile with the help of his son and still drink his share of cider with the help of nobody--bent over the heap of corn before him, and selecting an ear, divested it of the husks with a twirling, sleight-of-hand movement.

"They're losing virtue fast enough," he observed, throwing the naked ear into the bin and reaching for another. "Why, when I was young thar warn't nothin' in the way of meanness that a good woman wouldn't put up with. They'd shut thar eyes to Hagars, white or black, rather than lose the respect of men by seemin' to be aware of any immodesty."

"Ah, the times have changed now!" sighed Solomon Hatch, "but thar's one thing sho' to my mind, an' that is, that if a woman thinks she's goin' to attract men by pryin' an' peekin' into immorality an' settin' it straight ag'in, she's gone clean out of her head. Thar's got to be indecency in the world because thar al'ays has been. But a man sets a heap mo' sto' by his wife if she ain't too inquirin' upon the subject."

"True, true, Solomon," said old Adam, "I for one was al'ays set against teachin' women to read for fear they'd come to know things. Thar's a deal of evil that gits into print, an' if you ain't acquainted with yo' letters thar's less temptation to nose arter it. Reuben Merryweather would have his daughter Janet taught, though I urged strongly against it--holdin' that she could learn about sins an' immoralities even in Holy Writ. Who knows if she'd ever have gone wrong if she hadn't learned to read printed words?"

"Well, I'm glad print is too difficult for me," observed young Adam. "The pains I take to spell out the words would stand greatly in the way of my enj'yin' any immorality if I was to stumble across it. What part of Scripture, pa, is it that deals with sech doin's?"

"They crop up powerful thick in Kings, son, but I've found 'em when I looked sharp in Leviticus."

"If you are goin' to talk free, men, you can go to yo' own homes to do it," remarked Betsey, who was accustomed to appear at unexpected moments in order to impress them with the necessity of earning their supper. "This ain't no place for loose speakin'," she added, solemnly eyeing young Adam, who, having a weak memory, was striving to fix the names of Kings and Leviticus in his mind by repeating them slowly to himself.

"Axin' yo' pardon, Mrs. Bottom, we didn't know a lady was in hearin' or we'd never have made so bold," said old Adam. "Stop workin' yo' lips, son, an' hand Mrs. Bottom a cheer."

"What's all this talk anyway about Molly Merryweather an' Mr. Jonathan?" she demanded. "Abel, have you heard anything about it?"

The men glanced at each other with uneasy eyes, while they worked nervously at the shucking, for the question had been in the air from the moment of Abel's entrance, though none of them had been bold enough to speak it aloud. And now a woman, with characteristic feminine recklessness, had uttered the thought which had been revolving in each mind for ten minutes--yet nothing had happened!

Old Adam, pausing for the first time in his work, glanced with ungrudging respect at the short, lumpy figure in the black calico dress. Her face was still comely, and there was the mild mulishness in her expression that is seen in the countenances of many amiable yet obstinate persons.

"No, I haven't heard," replied Abel, and he added a moment later, "What do they say?"

"Well, Mr. Halloween had it from a man in Applegate who had it from a man in Petersburg who had it from a man in Richmond."

"Had what?"

"That Mr. Jonathan had been waitin' on her steady for some months, an' 'twas mo' likely than not to end in marriage. She's a good girl, is Molly. I ain't got no use for a woman that don't stand up for her sex in the face of men."

"True, true," admitted her hearers solemnly, one after another, for none among them had ever dared to defy the source of so many benefactions.

"Thar're some that thinks morals ain't meant for any but women," she pursued, "but I ain't one of 'em, as William Ming can testify, that holds to that view. Viciousness is viciousness whether it be male or female, and Mr. Mullen himself in the pulpit couldn't convince me that it don't take two to make an impropriety."

"True, true," they repeated, belying themselves under coercion in the accents of the chorus in a Greek drama. "'Tis true, ma'am, as you speak it."

"Thar were some mean enough to side against the po' innocent from the hour of her birth," she continued oracularly, while she looked severely at Solomon, who nodded in response, "an' these same folks have been preachin' over her an' pintin' at her ever sence she larned to crawl out of the cradle. But thar never was a kinder heart or a quicker hand in trouble than Molly's, an' if she did play fast and loose with the men, was it any worse, I'd like to know, than they deserve?"

"Thar's truth in what you say, ma'am, thar's a deal of truth in it," they agreed, nodding dejected craven heads over their pipes. Like all born politicians, their eye was for the main chance rather than for the argument, and they found it easier to forswear a conviction than to forego a comfort.

"Well, I'm roastin' a young possum along with the squirrel stew, so you'd better work up an appetite," she said in a mollified tone at at the end of her lecture, as though she were desirous of infusing a more ardent spirit into them before her departure.

When the barn door closed behind her, a sigh of relief, half stifled through fear of detection, passed round the group.

"Thar goes a woman in a thousand," observed old Adam, edging nearer the bin.

"In a million--let's make it a million," urged Solomon Hatch.

"If they were all like that the world would be different, Mr. Doolittle," remarked Jim Halloween.

"Ah, yes, it would be different," agreed old Adam, and he sighed again.

"Thar'd be strict walkin' among us, I reckon," said his son.

"An' a chalk line the same as we draw for the sex," added Solomon Hatch.

"Sin would be scarce then an' life earnest," remarked William Ming, who had alluded to Betsey in the most distant terms ever since he had married her.

"We'd abide by the letter like the women, not by the spirit as we do," reflected Solomon.

They sighed for the third time more heavily, and the dried husks on the floor around the bin rattled as though a strong wind had entered.

"But she's one in a million, Mr. Doolittle," protested Solomon, after a pause, and his tone had grown cheerful.

"Yes, I reckon it's a million. Thar ain't mo' than one in a million of that rare sort," responded old Adam, falling to work with a zest.

"Was that ar young possum she spoke of the one yo' dawg Bess treed day befo' yesterday, William?" inquired Jim Halloween, whose hopes were centred upon the reward of his labours.

"Naw! that was an old un," replied William. "But thar never was a better possum dawg than that Bess of ours. I declar, she's got so much sense that she'll tree anything that grins at her, whether it's nigger or possum. Ain't that so, old gal?" he inquired of the spotted hound on a bed of husks at his side. "It wan't no longer than last week that she kept that little nigger of Uncle Boaz's up a persimmon tree for mo'n an hour."

"Thar's some niggers that look so much like possums when they git up in persimmon branches that it takes a sharp eye to tell the difference," observed Tim Mallory.

"Well, I'm partial to possum," remarked old Adam. "When all's said, thar ain't a better meat to the taste as long as it's plump an' juicy. Will you hand on that jug of cider, Tim? It's wonderful the way corn shuckin' manages to parch the throat an' whet the appetite."

The miller, who had declined Betsey's feast of possum, went out as soon as he had finished his pipe, and turned into the sunken road that led to Solomon Hatch's. In the little "best room," which was opened only for "courtings" or funerals, he found Judy seated under a dim lamp with a basket of darning in her lap.

"I was over at Mrs. Mullen's this morning," she explained, "an' she told me her eyesight was failing, so I offered to do her darnin'."

Slipping a small round gourd into the toe of a man's black sock, she examined it attentively, with her needle poised in the lamplight. Then bending her head slightly sideways, she surveyed her stitches from another angle, while she smoothed the darn with short caressing strokes over the gourd. He thought how capable and helpful she was, and from the cheerful energy with which she plied her needle, he judged that it gave her pleasure merely to be of use. What he did not suspect was that her wedding garments had been thrust aside as of less importance than Mrs. Mullen's basket of darning. She was just the girl for a farmer's wife, he told himself as he watched her--plain and sensible, the kind that would make a good mother and a good manager. And all the time a voice in the back of his brain was repeating distinctly. "They say it will end in a marriage--they say it will end in a marriage." But this voice seemed to come from a distance, and to have no connection either with his thought or with his life. It was independent of his will, and while it was speaking, he went on calmly thinking of Judy's children and of how well and properly she would bring them up.

"I went over again to look at the steer to-day," he said, after a moment. "There's a Jersey cow, too, I think of buying."

She nodded, pausing in her work, yet keeping her gaze fixed on the point of her needle. If he had looked at her darning, he would have seen that it was woven of exquisite and elaborate stitches--such stitches as went into ecclesiastical embroideries in the Middle Ages.

"They're the best kind for butter," she observed, and carefully ran her needle crosswise in and out of the threads.

Conversation was always desultory between them, and when it flagged, as it did now, they could sit for hours in the composed and unembarrassed silence of persons who meet upon the firm basis of mutual assistance in practical matters. Their relation was founded upon the simple law of racial continuance, which is as indifferent to the individual as it is to the abstract, apotheosis of passion.

"I'm going to Applegate to-morrow to order a new mill-stone," he said at last, when he rose. "Is there anything you would like me to get for you?"

She reflected a moment. "I need a quarter of a yard of braid to finish the green dress I am making. Could you match it?"

"I'll try if you'll give me a sample."

Laying her work aside for the first time, she hunted amid a number of coloured spools in her basket, and brought to light a bit of silver braid, which she handed to him.

"Was Mr. Mullen at your house to-day, Abel?" she asked suddenly, turning her face from the lamp.

"Yes, he comes to see Blossom now, but she doesn't appear to care for him. I thought she did once, didn't you?"

"Yes, I thought she did, but that was when he was in love with Molly, wasn't it?"

For an instant he gazed at the bit of braid, as though his soul were intent upon unravelling the intricate pattern.

"I wonder whether it is that we get a thing when we stop wanting it or that we merely stop wanting it when we get it?" he demanded passionately of fate.

But Judy had no mind for dubious philosophies. The thing she wanted she knew she should never get and she knew as well that, in all likelihood, she should never stop wanting it. Only a passionate soul in a commonplace body could have squandered itself with such superb prodigality.

"I don't know," she answered wearily, "I've never noticed much either what people get or what they want."

"Well, Blossom wanted Mr. Mullen once and now he wants Blossom. I wish mother didn't have so poor an opinion of him."

She flushed and looked up quickly, for in her heart she felt that she hated Sarah Revercomb. A disgust for her coming marriage swept over her. Then she told herself stubbornly that everybody married sooner or later, and that anyway her stepmother would never forgive her if she broke off with Abel.

"She doesn't even go to his church. I don't see what right she has to find fault with him," she said.

"That's her way, you know. You can't make her over. She pretends he doesn't know his Scripture and when he comes to see Blossom, she asks him all sorts of ridiculous questions just to embarrass him. Yesterday she told him she couldn't call to mind the difference in cubits between the length and the breadth of Solomon's temple, and would he please save her the trouble of going to the Bible to find out?"

"Does she want him to stop coming?" inquired Judy, breathlessly.

"I don't know what she wants, but I wish Blossom would marry him, don't you?"

"Don't I?" she repeated, and her basket of spools fell to the floor, where they scattered on the square rag carpet of log-cabin pattern. As they were gathering them up, their heads touched by accident, and he kissed her gravely. For a moment she thought, while she gazed into his brilliant eyes, "Abel is really very handsome, after all." Then folding her work carefully, she stuck her needle through the darn and placed the basket on a shelf between a bible with gilt clasps and a wreath of pressed flowers under a glass case. "He couldn't have got anybody to fill in those holes better," she said to herself, and the reflection was not without a balm for her aching heart.

At dawn next morning Abel passed again, driving in the direction of the Applegate road. The day was breaking clear and still, and over the autumnal pageantry in the abandoned fields, innumerable silver cobwebs shone iridescent in the sunrise. Squirrels were already awake, busily harvesting, and here and there a rabbit bobbed up from beneath a shelter of sassafras. Overhead the leaves on a giant chestnut tree hung as heavily as though they were cut out of copper, and beyond a sharp twist in the corduroy road, a branch of sweet gum curved like a bent flame on the edge of the twilight dimness of the forest. The scarlet of the leaves reminded him of the colour of Molly's jacket, and immediately the voice somewhere in his brain repeated, "They say it will end in marriage." The words awoke in him a violent and unreasonable resentment. He could think of his own marriage quite calmly, as something that did not bear directly upon his ideal of Molly; but the conception of her as Gay's wife, struck a blow at the image he had enskied and then schooled himself into worshipping from a distance. He was willing to relinquish her as too fair and flitting for mortal embraces, but the thought that another man should possess that elusive loveliness was like the thrust of hot iron into his wound. That Molly loved Gay he could not believe. That she was willing to marry him without loving him, was a suggestion which appeared to him little short of an insult. True, he did not love Judy to whom he was to be married to-morrow, but that was a case so entirely and utterly different that there could be no comparison! He was doing it because he was sorry for Judy and it was the only way he could help her. Besides, had not Molly urged such a step upon him repeatedly as the fulfillment of his obvious destiny?

The reasons were all there. He had them labelled and assorted in his mind, ready for instant reference should they be required. Sleepless nights had gone to the preparation of them, and yet--and yet--in his heart he knew, beyond contradiction, that he was wedding Judy because his pity had once made a fool of him. He had acted from the loftiest motives when he had asked her to marry him, and twenty-four hours later he would have given ten years of his life to have been able to eliminate those lofty motives from his character. To go back on her was, of course, out of the question. In the history of Old Church no man--with the exception of two drunkards and old Mr. Jonathan Gay--had ever gone back on a woman. With girls it was different, since they, being sentimentally above the proneness to error as well as practically below the liability for maintenance, might play fast and loose wherever their fleeting fancy alighted. But in the case of his unhappy sex an honourable inclination once yielded to, was established forever. His sacrifice was sanctioned by custom. There was no escape since it was tradition that held him by the throat.

His business in Applegate, which included a careful matching of Judy's braid, took up the entire morning; and it was dinner time before he turned back to the little inn, known as Raleigh's Tavern, at which the farmers usually stopped for meals. Here, after washing his hands in a basin on the back porch, he hastily smoothed his hair, and passed into the small paved court in front of the tavern. As he approached the doorway, the figure of a young woman in a black dress, which he felt instinctively did not "belong" to Applegate, came down the short steps, and paused an instant to caress a large dog that was lying in the sunshine near the entrance. The next minute, while he fell back, hat in hand, behind a pile of boxes in the yard, he heard his name called in a familiar voice, and lifting his eyes found himself face to face with Molly.

"Abel, aren't you going to speak to me?" she asked, and moving a step toward him, held out both hands with an impulsive gesture.

As his hand met hers, he withdrew it quickly as though he were stung by the touch of her soft fingers. Every nerve in his body leaped suddenly to life, and the moment was so vivid while he faced her, that he felt half convinced that all the long months since their parting had dissolved in shadows. The border line between the dream and actuality was obliterated. It seemed to him not only impossible, but absurd that he should ever have believed himself engaged to Judy Hatch--that he should be going to marry her to-morrow! All that side of his life had no closer relation to his real self than it had to the self of old Adam Doolittle. While he had planned it he had been a corpse not a living man, but at the sound of Molly's voice, at the clasp of her fingers, at the touching, expectant brightness in her eyes, the resurrection had happened. Judy was a corpse preparing to wed a corpse that had become alive--and the mating of death with life was abhorrent to him in his illumination.

"We are on our way to Richmond," explained Molly, very gently, "and we are waiting to change trains. Oh, Abel, I have wanted so much to see you!"

It was the old Molly, in truth--Molly in her softest, in her most dangerous, in her divinest mood. While he gazed at her he could make no answer because an emotion that was half self-reproach, half furious longing, choked back his words, and had he opened his lips it would have been to utter some foolish inarticulate arraignment of destiny. In the confusion of his senses, he did not notice that she had altered, but the next day he remembered that her face looked smaller and more delicate, like a tinted egg-shell he had once seen, and that her eyes in consequence were wondrously, were almost startlingly, large. All that he was conscious of when he turned and rushed from her after that one look, was that the old agony of his loss had resurged afresh in his heart.

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