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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Miller Of Old Church - Book 2. The Cross-Roads - Chapter 5. The Shaping Of Molly
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The Miller Of Old Church - Book 2. The Cross-Roads - Chapter 5. The Shaping Of Molly Post by :FreeBiz Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :May 2012 Read :3268

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The Miller Of Old Church - Book 2. The Cross-Roads - Chapter 5. The Shaping Of Molly


Leaning back in the uncomfortable plush-covered chair in the train to Richmond, Molly watched the flat landscape glide past, while she thought a little wistfully of the morning she had made this same trip dressed in one of Mrs. Gay's gowns. On her knees Mrs. Gay's canary, extinguished beneath the black silk cover to his cage, uttered from time to time a feeble pipe of inquiry, and on the rack above her head Mrs. Gay's tea basket rattled loudly in a sudden lurch of the train. Since the hour in which she had left the overseer's cottage and moved into the "big house" at Jordan's Journey, the appealing little lady had been the dominant influence in her life--an influence so soft and yet so overpowering that she had at times a sensation of being smothered in scented swansdown. For several months after leaving Old Church her education had absorbed her energies, and she had found time merely to gasp occasionally in the oppressive sweetness of the atmosphere which Mrs. Gay's personality diffused. Everything was strange then, and her desire for strangeness, for unfamiliar impressions, had amounted to a passion. She had been very anxious, too, very much afraid lest she should make a mistake. When she had entered the hotel dining-room in New York she had felt as if she were walking on ploughed ground, and the red velvet carpet had seemed to rise and sink under her feet. That first night had been exquisite torture to her, and so, she surmised through some intuitive understanding, had it been to Kesiah. For weeks after that time of embarrassment, she had watched herself carefully--watched every instant--and in the end she had triumphed. With her growing ease, her old impulsiveness had returned to her, and with the wonderful adaptability of the Southern woman, she had soon ceased to feel a sense of discomfort in her changed surroundings. The instinct of class she had never had, and this lack of social reverence had helped her not a little in her ascent of the ladder. It is difficult to suffer from a distinction which one does not admit--and her perfect unconsciousness of inferiority to Mrs. Gay had placed her, without her being aware of it, in the position of an equal.

With her hands clasped on the cage of the canary, she gazed thoughtfully at Kesiah, who was sitting a little in front of her, with her eyeglasses on her nose and the daily paper opened before her. Gay was to meet them in Richmond, and as Molly remembered this now, she realized that her feeling about their meeting had changed during the last few hours. She liked Gay--she responded to his physical charm, to the indefinable air of adventure which hangs sometimes about men who have lived hard without wasting their surplus vitality--but in spite of the strong attraction he possessed for her, she knew that in her heart she had never thoroughly believed in him. Unconsciously to herself she had measured his stature against Abel's and he had come short of her standard.

"Molly," asked Mrs. Gay, turning her head suddenly, "did you write Jonathan to expect us by this train?"

"Yes, Aunt Angela, he knows we are coming. Shall I lower the shade? Is the sunlight too strong on you?"

"A little," murmured Mrs. Gay in a tone of resigned sweetness and the conversation was over.

At the sound of Molly's voice an old lady, travelling South with a trained nurse, turned in her chair, and looked at the girl as she might have looked at a fruit for which she longed, but which she had been forbidden to touch. Her face, under an elaborate bonnet trimmed with artificial purple wistaria, was withered and crossed with lines, and her poor old hands were so knotted from gout that she could hardly lift the tea-cup from the small table which had been fastened in front of her. Yet for one instant, as she gazed on Molly's girlish freshness, her youth stirred feebly somewhere in the dregs of her memory, and her eyes grew deprecating and piteous, as though her soul were saying, "I know I have missed it, but it isn't my fault---"

The tea-cup trembled in her hand, and her old lips fumbled pathetically for her bit of toast, while across from her, with only the narrow aisle of the car between, youth incarnate sat weaving its separate dream of a universe.

"Yes, two hours earlier," ran Molly's thoughts, "I looked forward to the meeting with Jonathan, and now, in so short a time, I have grown to dread it." She tried to think of his pleasant, well-coloured face, of his whimsical, caressing smile, but in the niche where his image should have stood, she saw Abel in his country clothes, with his red-brown throat rising out of his blue shirt and his brilliant eyes under the dark hair on his forehead. Then suddenly memory played her a ridiculous trick, for she remembered that his hair grew in a close clipped circular wave, like the hair which has been bound by a fillet on the head of a child.

"I wonder why he wouldn't speak to me?" she thought, with a pang. "I wonder if he has really got over caring?" She had always thought of Abel as a possession more absolutely her own than even Mr. Jonathan's provision. When she had said so passionately that she wanted to be free, she had not meant that at any minute she chose, Abel would not be ready and willing to fly back into bondage. That Abel, after all these years, should actually have ceased to care for her--should have refused even to speak to her! It was absurd--it was vindictive--it was unchristian! She had half a mind to get Mr. Mullen to talk to him. Then her heart throbbed when she remembered the touch of his hand, the look in his eyes, the thirst of his lips seeking hers. That was only six months ago--such a very little while--and now he had rushed away from the sight of her! She thought of their parting, when she had said that she wanted to see the world, and he had offered at once to release her. Since then she had seen the world until she was tired of it. At times she had been terribly homesick for Old Church, and she had never been happy except when Gay had taken her to see pictures or into wonderful parks. Always the thought had lain hidden in her mind that some day, when she could stand it no longer, she would go back and wear her red jacket and run free in the fields with Abel again. Her very selfishness had seemed natural to her because Abel had always been there, like the air and the sky and the broomsedge; he was a part of the scene, and she found it impossible to detach him from his surroundings.

At the station in Richmond, Gay met them, and for the first few minutes his mother absorbed his attention. Molly had not seen him for six weeks, and she noticed that he had grown fleshier and that this lent an additional heaviness to his shaven chin. Even his charming smile could not disguise the slight coarseness of feature, with which he was beginning already to pay for his pleasures. By the time he was forty, he would be quite stout and "lumpy," she thought.

There was much excitement about collecting Mrs. Gay's packages, and the drive to the hotel was filled with anxious inquiries from Kesiah, who was always nervous and fussy when she travelled.

"Molly, did you see my umbrella put in?"

"Yes, Aunt Kesiah, it is here in the corner by Jonathan."

"I forgot to notice Angela's medicine case. Did you see that it wasn't overlooked?"

"Yes, Patsey has it."

Then came a solicitous exhibition of filial affection on the part of Gay, and at last, to Molly's relief, they arrived at the new, brilliantly lighted hotel, and were led through stifling corridors, carpeted in red, to their rooms on the second floor in the front of the building. As she passed over the velvet carpets, Molly had again the sensation that she was walking over ploughed ground; and when she had escaped from Mrs. Gay's sitting-room, on the pretext of dressing for dinner, she threw open the window, and leaned out of the close atmosphere into the freshness of the November evening. This was what she had once looked upon as pleasure--or at least as exciting amusement--to move continually from one hot and over furnished hotel to another, to fuss about missing packages, to see crowds of strange faces passing before her, all fat and overfed and all, somehow, looking exactly alike.

A wave of homesickness for the white roads and the golden broomsedge of Old Church swept over her. She wanted the open fields, and more than all, far more than all, she wanted Abel! It was her fault--she had made her choice--no one else was to blame for it. And, then, though she had made her choice and no one else was to blame for it, she felt that she almost hated old Mr. Jonathan, as she still called him in her thoughts, because he had left her his money. At the bottom of her heart, there was the perfectly unreasonable suspicion that he had arranged the whole thing out of spite.

In the sitting-room, meanwhile, which Kesiah's bedroom separated from Molly's, Mrs. Gay was lying on a couch beside a table on which stood a cut-glass bowl of purple orchids sent to her by her son. She was looking a little pale, but this pallor was not unbecoming since it enhanced the expression of appealing melancholy in her eyes. To look at her was to recognize that life had crushed her, and yet that her soul exhaled an intense sweetness in the midst of its suffering.

Jonathan had just gone down to buy the evening papers; in the next room she could hear Kesiah at the unpacking; so she was left for a moment alone with her imagination. The fatigue of the trip had affected her nerves, and she sank, while she lay there in her travelling gown, which she had not yet removed, into one of those spells of spiritual discontent which followed inevitably any unusual physical discomfort. She thought, not resentfully but sadly, that Kesiah managed to grow even more obstinate with years, that Jonathan must have tired of her or he would never have forgotten the list of medicines she had sent him, that Molly took Kesiah away from the sickroom entirely too often. From these reflections she drifted naturally into an emotion of self pity, and the thought occurred to her, as it did invariably in such hours of depression, that her world had never been large enough for the full exercise and appreciation of her highest qualities. If she had only lived in a richer century amid more congenial surroundings! Who could tell what her usefulness might have been had not destiny continually thwarted her aspirations? Before the idea of this thwarted usefulness, which was always vaguely associated with the moral regeneration of distinguished historic sinners of the opposite sex, like Lord Byron or Alfred de Musset, she began to feel that she had been not only neglected, but wasted in the atmosphere in which she had been placed.

Jonathan's entrance, with the evening papers in his hand, broke the thread of her reverie, and as he sat down in a chair by her side, she wondered if he had inherited her "nature" and if he, also, cherished in his soul the same spiritual yearnings? Her wonder was, however, entirely unnecessary, for Jonathan had very little imagination, and would never have wasted his time yearning over a sinner whom he had never seen.

"I stopped a minute to get into my evening clothes," he said, in the cheerful voice of one who is a stranger to aspirations of soul. "I thought Molly would be dressed by this time. She is usually so quick."

"Yes, she is usually very quick," replied Mrs. Gay gently, while she gathered all the forces of her character, which were slightly disorganized by her recent indulgence in pensive musings, to do battle against an idea which she had striven repeatedly of late to banish from her thoughts. "I wish, dear Jonathan," she added, "that you would speak a few words to Molly. You have such influence with her, and I am sure I don't wonder."

"I'll speak them with pleasure, mother. Just drop me a hint as to what they are to be about."

"She's a sweet, unselfish girl, we all know that, but there are times, dear, especially when strangers are present, when she appears a little--well, a little crude--you know what I mean?"

"I fancy I know, but I don't see just what we are to do about it. You might as well attempt to reshape Molly's nose as her character. Let's admit that both might be improved and then give up the job. She's got charm--there's no doubt of that. I believe even if she were plain she'd be almost as attractive. Why, I've seen her when she was very nearly plain sometimes, and she hasn't been a whit less fascinating than when she's looking her prettiest. It's the infinite variety and all that, you know. Her soul does it, I suppose."

"Yes, she must have charm," replied Mrs. Gay, ignoring what he had said about "soul" because she felt a vague dislike to hearing a word applied indiscriminately to others which had become, as it were, associated with herself. "I can't analyze it, however, for she hasn't a single really perfect feature except her eyes."

"But such eyes! In the sunlight they are nearer the colour of a humming-birds wing than anything I know of."

"I suppose they are rather unusual, but, after all a fine pair of eyes can't make exactly a--well, a lady, Jonathan."

"The deuce!" he ejaculated, and then added quickly, "What has she done now, mother?"

One of Mrs. Gay's first principles of diplomacy was that an unpleasant fact treated as non-existent, was deprived in a measure of its power for evil. By the application of this principle, she had extinguished her brother-in-law's passion for Janet Merryweather, and she hoped that it would prove equally effective in blighting her son's incipient fancy for Molly. She looked upon Jonathan's infatuation as a mere sinister shadow as yet, but she was shrewd enough to suspect that the shadow would be converted into substance at the first hint of her recognition that it was impending. Indirect influence alone remained to her, and she surmised that her ultimate triumph would depend upon the perfection of her indirectness. When it came to the game of strategy, Jonathan, being of an open nature, was no match for his mother. He was inclined by temperament to accept things at their face value--particularly women--and not to worry about them unless they interfered with his appetite. When he lost his desire for his meals, then he began, somewhat to his surprise, to consider them seriously.

"Of course I feel just as you do about it," remarked Mrs. Gay, after a weighty silence. "I'm fond of her and I see her good points--but there's something about her--I suppose it's the strain of Merryweather blood, or the fact of her being born in such unfortunate circumstances--" Her manner grew severer. "But--whatever the cause, it shows itself in a kind of social defiance that would always keep her from being just--oh, well, you know---"

"She's bright enough, mother, she's quick enough, and she's pretty enough, isn't she?"

"She would be, Jonathan, if her defiance did not come from pure wilfulness. But she says and does the most unconventional things simply for the pleasure of shocking people. It isn't that she doesn't know, it's that she doesn't care."

"But she'll get to care--all women do, if you give them time." His tone implied that the whole sex was comprised in an elementary branch of psychology which he had mastered with the help of a few simple rules of analogy.

"Well, she may, dear, but I doubt it. She is as absolutely without class instinct as an anarchist, I believe. When she lived in the overseer's cottage she never looked up and now that she has come out of it, she never looks down. We've told her repeatedly that she mustn't talk to strangers about that part of her life, but it isn't the least bit of use. Only a few days ago I heard her telling Judge Grayson that nobody appeared to do any 'courting' in New York."

To her amazement he burst into a laugh.

"By Jove, I suppose she misses it," he returned, "but what about that fellow she picked up in the North who hung around her last summer?"

"Oh, there have been plenty of them hanging about her. Molly is the kind, you know, that will have lovers wherever you put her." There was a faint condescension in her voice, for she herself preferred adorers to lovers.

"But she hasn't seemed to care about them," he said. "I believe she has grown tired of flirting."

"I'm sure she doesn't flirt with them, and I think it's all because she is pining for somebody she left at Old Church--the miller or the rector or somebody we've never even heard of."

"What's that?" he started a little, and she saw at once that, although she had used her most delicate weapon, he had flinched from the first touch of the blade. "I'm positive she hadn't a real fancy for anybody down there," he added, as he relapsed into his attitude of indifference.

"I know she says so, Jonathan, but there are other ways of telling."

"Oh, there's no truth in that--it's all nonsense," he said irritably.

Then a door creaked in the hall, there was a rustle of silken skirts on the carpet, and Molly, having dried her tears, came in, pliant, blushing, and eager to please them both.

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