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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Miller Of Old Church - Book 2. The Cross-Roads - Chapter 4. His Day Of Freedom
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The Miller Of Old Church - Book 2. The Cross-Roads - Chapter 4. His Day Of Freedom Post by :FreeBiz Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :May 2012 Read :2058

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The Miller Of Old Church - Book 2. The Cross-Roads - Chapter 4. His Day Of Freedom


He crossed the courtyard, and turned mechanically into a street which led in the opposite direction from the road to Old Church. A crowd of men, gathered in the doorway of the post-office, called to him to join them, and he answered in a voice that sounded remote and cheerful in his own ears.

"If you want to whip the bosses in these parts there's a man for you," he heard one of them remark, and knew that they were discussing his political chances. Quickening his steps, he walked rapidly to the end of the street, passed the scattered negro hovels, surrounded by blighted sunflowers, and turned into a road which ran between fields of dusty stubble into a stretch of brown and desolate country.

Suddenly, as though a screw had loosened in his brain, he felt his passion slip the control of his will and beat down, one by one, the orderly procession of reasons that had risen against it. A sense of exhilaration, of joy so fierce that it was akin to pain, took possession of him. "I won't go back!" he said defiantly, "I won't go back!" And with the words his longing for Molly was swallowed up in the tumultuous consciousness of his release. It was as if he had burst his bonds by a single effort of strength, and was stretching his cramped limbs in the open. The idea of escape from captivity was so strong, that he looked neither to right or left of him, but kept his gaze fixed on the road straight ahead, as a man does who saves his energy for the final break from his pursuers. At the moment he would have bartered his soul in exchange for the unholy, the nameless rapture of the vagabond and the gipsy, of all the neglected and the despised of civilization. Duty, love, ambition--all these were nothing beside the perfect, the incommunicable passion of the open road!

It is a mood that comes once to every man--to some men more frequently--a mood in which the prehistoric memory of the soul is stirred, and an intolerable longing arises for the ancient nomadic freedom of the race; when the senses surfeited by civilization cry out for the strong meat of the jungle--for the scent of the raw, dark earth and for the gleam of the yellow moonlight on the wet, rustling leaves. This longing may come but once in adolescence, or many times until the frost of age has withered the senses. It may come amid the showery warmth and the roving fragrance of an April day, or beside the shining, brown, leaf-strewn brooks of November. But let it come to a man when it will, and that man renounces, in spite of himself, his little leaden gods of prosperity, and in his heart, beneath the woven garment of custom, he exchanges his birthright of respectability for a mess of Romany pottage. Under the luminous sweep and rush of this vision, Abel laughed suddenly at the thought of his marriage to Judy. Obstacles which had appeared insurmountable at sunrise, showed now as unsubstantial and evanescent as shadows.

"I won't go back!" he repeated exultantly, "I won't go back!"

"You're talkin' to yo'self, mister," said a voice at his side, and looking down he saw a small barefooted boy, in overalls, with a bag of striped purple calico hanging from one shoulder.

"You've been talkin' to yo'self all along the road," the boy repeated with zest.

"Have I? What are you up to?"

"I've been chinquapinin'. Ma, she thinks I'm at school, but I ain't." He looked up wickedly, bubbling over with the shameless joys of truancy. "Thar's a lot of chinquapin bushes over yonder in Cobblestone's wood an' they're chock full of nuts."

"And they're in your bag now, I suppose?"

"I've got a peck of 'em, an' I'm goin' to make me a chain as long as--that. It'll be a watch chain, an' I've made a watch out of a walnut. It can't keep time, of course," he added, "'cep'n for that it's really a sho' nough watch." His small freckled face, overhung by a mat of carroty hair, was wreathed in a contagious, an intoxicating smile--the smile of one who has bought happiness at the price of duty, and whose enjoyment is sweetened by the secret knowledge that he has successfully eluded the Stern Daughter of the Voice of God. Instinctively, Abel was aware that the savour was not in the chinquapins, but in the disobedience, and his heart warmed to the boy with the freckled face.

"Are you going home now?" he asked.

"You bet I ain't. I've got my snack ma fixed for me." He unrolled a brown paper package and revealed two thin slices of bread with a fishing hook stuck in one corner. "Thar's apple-butter between 'em," he added, rolling his tongue, and a minute later, "Ma'd whip me jest the same, an' I'd ruther be whipped for a whole day than for a half. Besides," he burst out as though the mental image convulsed him with delight, "if I went home I'd have to help her tote the water for the washin'."

"But what are you going to do with yourself?"

"I'm goin' huntin' with a gravel shooter, an' I'm goin' fishin' with a willow pole, an' I'm goin' to find all the old hare traps, an' I'm goin' to see 'em make hog's meat over at Bryarly's an' I'm goin' to the cider pressin' down here at Cobblestone's. She ain't goin' to ketch me till I've had my day!" he concluded with a whoop of ecstasy. Startled by the sound, a rabbit sprang from a clump of sassafras, and the boy was over the fence, on a rush of happy bare feet, in pursuit of it.

The road curved abruptly into a short wood, filled with dwarfed holly trees, which were sown thickly with a shower of scarlet berries--and while Abel walked through it, his visions thronged beside him like the painted and artificial troupe of a carnival. He saw Molly coming to him, separating him from Judy, surrendering her warm flesh and blood to his arms. "I won't go back!" he said, still defiantly, "I'll love Molly if I pay for it to the last day I live." With a terrible exultation he felt that he was willing to pay for it--to pay any price, even the price of his honour. His passion rushed like flame through his blood, scorching, blackening, devouring.

Beyond the wood, the winding ash-coloured road dipped into a hollow, and when he reached the brow of the low hill ahead, a west wind, which had risen suddenly from the river, caught up with his footsteps and raced on like a wild thing at his side. He could hear it sighing plaintively in the bared trees he had left, or driving the hurtled leaves like a flock of frightened partridges over the sumach and sassafras, and then lashing itself into a frenzy as it chased over a level of broomsedge. Always it sang of freedom--of the savage desire and thirst for freedom--of the ineffable, the supreme ecstasy of freedom! And always while he listened to it, while he felt the dead leaves stinging his flesh, he told himself passionately that he "would not go back--that he would not marry to-morrow!"

For hours he stalked with the wind. Then, turning out of the road, he flung himself down on the broomsedge and lay for other hours gazing over the autumn landscape to the softly luminous band on the far horizon. Somewhere in a darkened corner of his brain there was the resolve that he would not return until, like the freckled faced, barefooted boy, he had "had his day."

At nine o'clock that night he entered an inn in the town of Briarwood, twenty miles north of Applegate, and sitting down at one of the tables, ordered something to eat. His limbs ached, not from the walk in the wind, but from the passion that had whipped his body like a destroying fire. He felt still the burning throb of the sore that it had left. Apart from this dull agony he could feel nothing--he could desire nothing--he could remember nothing. Everything was over except the instinct that told him that he was empty and must be fed.

While he sat there, with his aching forehead bowed in his hands, there came a light touch on his shoulder, and looking up he saw the Reverend Orlando Mullen, standing at his side like an embodiment of all the things from which he had fled. For an instant he could only stare blindly back at him. Then something which had opened in his soul, closed softly, as if it were a shell of custom, and he knew that he was again a prisoner. With the sight of that conventional figure, the scattered instincts of habit and of respectability--of all the qualities for which the race stood and against which the individual had rebelled--all these rallied anew to the battlefield from which they had been routed by his insurgent emotions.

"I suppose you're waiting, like myself, for the nine-forty-five train?"

"Yes, I'm waiting for the train."

"Business brought you so far away?"

"Yes, business brought me." Lifting his glass of beer, he drained it slowly under Mr. Mullen's friendly and curious eyes.

"It looks as if we should have a perfect day for the wedding," remarked the rector, after a pause. "Like you, I was called off on an urgent matter, but fortunately, it only means losing a little sleep."

Then the whistle of the train blew, and ten minutes later, Abel followed the young clergyman into the single coach and sat down in a vacant seat at his side.

It was two o'clock when at last he drove into the back gate at the mill, and unhitching his mare, turned her out into the pasture. As he crossed the road to the house, he lifted his eyes mechanically to the sky, and saw that the stars shone soft and near as if they were watching over a night of love.

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