THE MILLER OF OLD CHURCH
by Ellen Glasgow
To my sister Cary Glasgow McCormack In loving acknowledgment of help and sympathy through the years
I. At Bottom's Ordinary II. In Which Destiny Wears the Comic Mask III. In Which Mr. Gay Arrives at His Journey's End IV. The Revercombs V. The Mill VI. Treats of the Ladies' Sphere VII. Gay Rushes Into a Quarrel and Secures a Kiss VIII. Shows Two Sides of a Quarrel IX. In Which Molly Flirts X. The Reverend Orlando Mullen Preaches a Sermon XI. A Flight and an Encounter XII. The Dream and the Real XIII. By the Mill-race XIV. Shows the Weakness in Strength XV. Shows the Tyranny of Weakness XVI. The Coming of Spring XVII. The Shade of Mr. Jonathan XVIII. The Shade of Reuben XIX. Treats of Contradictions XX. Life's Ironies XXI. In Which Pity Masquerades as Reason
I. In which Youth Shows a Little Seasoned II. The Desire of the Moth III Abel Hears Gossip and Sees a Vision IV. His Day of Freedom V. The Shaping of Molly VI. In Which Hearts Go Astray VII. A New Beginning to an Old Tragedy VIII. A Great Passion in a Humble Place IX. A Meeting in the Pasture X. Tangled Threads XI. The Ride to Piping Tree XII. One of Love's Victims XIII. What Life Teaches XIV. The Turn of the Wheel XV. Gay Discovers Himself XVI. The End
Author's Note: The scene of this story is not the place of the same name in Virginia.
THE MILLER OF OLD CHURCH
AT BOTTOM'S ORDINARY
It was past four o'clock on a sunny October day, when a stranger, who had ridden over the "corduroy" road between Applegate and Old Church, dismounted near the cross-roads before the small public house known to its frequenters as Bottom's Ordinary. Standing where the three roads meet at the old turnpike-gate of the county, the square brick building, which had declined through several generations from a chapel into a tavern, had grown at last to resemble the smeared face of a clown under a steeple hat which was worn slightly awry. Originally covered with stucco, the walls had peeled year by year until the dull red of the bricks showed like blotches of paint under a thick coating of powder. Over the wide door two little oblong windows, holding four damaged panes, blinked rakishly from a mat of ivy, which spread from the rotting eaves to the shingled roof, where the slim wooden spire bent under the weight of creeper and innumerable nesting sparrows in spring. After pointing heavenward for half a century, the steeple appeared to have swerved suddenly from its purpose, and to invite now the attention of the wayfarer to the bar beneath. This cheerful room which sprouted, like some grotesque wing, from the right side of the chapel, marked not only a utilitarian triumph in architecture, but served, on market days to attract a larger congregation of the righteous than had ever stood up to sing the doxology in the adjoining place of worship. Good and bad prospects were weighed here, weddings discussed, births and deaths recorded in ever-green memories, and here, also, were reputations demolished and the owners of them hustled with scant ceremony away to perdition.
From the open door of the bar on this particular October day, there streamed the ruddy blaze of a fire newly kindled from knots of resinous pine. Against this pleasant background might be discerned now and then the shapeless silhouette of Betsey Bottom, the innkeeper, a soft and capable soul, who, in attaching William Ming some ten years before, had successfully extinguished his identity without materially impairing her own. Bottom's Ordinary had always been ruled by a woman, and it would continue to be so, please God, however loudly a mere Ming might protest to the contrary. In the eyes of her neighbours, a female, right or wrong, was always a female, and this obvious fact, beyond and above any natural two-sided jars of wedlock, sufficed in itself to establish Mrs. Ming as a conjugal martyr. Being an amiable body—peaceably disposed to every living creature, with the exception of William—she had hastened to the door to reprimand him for some trivial neglect of the grey mule, when her glance lighted upon the stranger, who had come a few minutes earlier by the Applegate road. As he was a fine looking man of full habit and some thirty years, her eyes lingered an instant on his face before she turned with the news to her slatternly negro maid who was sousing the floor with a bucket of soapsuds.
"Thar's nobody on earth out thar but young Mr. Jonathan Gay come back to Jordan's Journey," she said. "I declar I'd know a Gay by his eyes if I war to meet him in so unlikely a place as Kingdom Come. He's talkin' to old Adam Doolittle now," she added, for the information of the maid, who, being of a curious habit of mind, had raised herself on her knees and was craning her neck toward the door, "I can see his lips movin', but he speaks so low I can't make out what he says."
"Lemme git dar a minute, Miss Betsey, I'se got moughty sharp years, I is."
"They're no sharper than mine, I reckon, and I couldn't hear if I stood an' listened forever. It's about the road most likely, for I see old Adam a-pintin'."
For a minute after dismounting the stranger looked dubiously at the mottled face of the tavern. On his head the sunlight shone through the boughs of a giant mulberry tree near the well, and beyond this the Virginian forest, brilliant with its autumnal colours of red and copper, stretched to the village of Applegate, some ten or twelve miles to the north.
Starting southward from the cross-roads, the character of the country underwent so sudden a transformation that it looked as if man, having contended here unsuccessfully with nature, had signed an ignominious truce beneath the crumbling gateposts of the turnpike. Passing beyond them a few steps out of the forest, one found a low hill, on which the reaped corn stood in stacks like weapons of a vanished army, while across the sunken road, the abandoned fields, overgrown with broomsedge and life-everlasting, spread for several miles between "worm fences" which were half buried in brushwood. To the eyes of the stranger, fresh from the trim landscapes of England, there was an aspect of desolation in the neglected roads, in the deserted fields, and in the dim grey marshes that showed beyond the low banks of the river.
In the effort to shake off the depression this loneliness had brought on his spirits, he turned to an ancient countryman, wearing overalls of blue jeans, who dozed comfortably on the circular bench beneath the mulberry tree.
"Is there a nearer way to Jordan's Journey, or must I follow the turnpike?" he asked.
"Hey? Young Adam, are you thar, suh?"
Young Adam, a dejected looking youth of fifty years, with a pair of short-sighted eyes that glanced over his shoulder as if in fear of pursuit, shuffled round the trough of the well, and sat down on the bench at his parent's side.
"He wants to know, pa, if thar's a short cut from the ornary over to Jordan's Journey," he repeated.
Old Adam, who had sucked patiently at the stem of his pipe during the explanation, withdrew it at the end, and thrust out his lower lip as a child does that has stopped crying before it intended to.
"You can take a turn to the right at the blazed pine a half a mile on," he replied, "but thar's the bars to be pulled down an' put up agin."
"I jest come along thar, an' the bars was down," said young Adam.
"Well, they hadn't ought to have been," retorted old Adam, indignantly. "Bars is bars whether they be public or private, an' the man that pulls 'em down without puttin' 'em up agin, is a man that you'll find to be loose moraled in other matters."
"It's the truth as sure as you speak it, Mr. Doolittle," said a wiry, knocked-kneed farmer, with a hatchet-shaped face, who had sidled up to the group. "It warn't no longer than yesterday that I was sayin' the same words to the new minister, or rector as he tries to get us to call him, about false doctrine an' evil practice. 'The difference between sprinklin' and immersion ain't jest the difference between a few drips on the head an' goin' all under, Mr. Mullen,' I said, 'but 'tis the whole difference between the natur that's bent moral an' the natur that ain't.' It follows as clear an' logical as night follows day—now, I ax you, don't it, Mr. Doolittle—that a man that's gone wrong on immersion can't be trusted to keep his hands off the women?"
"I ain't sayin' all that, Solomon Hatch," responded old Adam, in a charitable tone, "seein' that I've never made up my own mind quite clear on those two p'ints—but I do say, be he immersed or sprinkled, that the man who took down them bars without puttin' 'em up ain't a man to be trusted."
"'Twarn't a man, 'twas a gal," put in young Adam, "I seed Molly Merryweather goin' toward the low grounds as I come up."
"Then it's most likely to have been she," commented Solomon, "for she is a light-minded one, as is proper an' becomin' in a child of sin."
The stranger looked up with a laugh from the moss-grown cattle trough beside which he was standing, and his eyes—of a peculiar dark blue—glanced merrily into the bleared ones of old Adam.
"I ain't so blind yet as not to know a Gay when I see one," said the labourer, with a sly chuckle. "If I hadn't closed the eyes of old Mr. Jonathan when he was found dead over yonder by the Poplar Spring, I'd as soon as not take my Bible oath that he'd come young agin an' was ridin' along back to Jordan's Journey."
"Do you believe down here that my uncle killed himself?" asked the young man, with a furtive displeasure in his voice, as if he alluded to a disagreeable subject in response to some pressure of duty.
"'Tis as it may be, suh, I can't answer for that. To this day if you get Solomon Hatch or Betsey Bottom, (axin' her pardon for puttin' her last), started on the subject they'll contend till they're blue in the face that 'twas naught done but pure murder. However, I'm too old at my time of life to take up with any opinion that ain't pleasant to think on, an', when all's said an' done, pure murder ain't a peaceable, comfortable kind of thing to believe in when thar's only one Justice of the Peace an' he bed-ridden since Christmas. When you ax me to pin my faith on any p'int, be it for this world or the next, my first question consarnin' it is whether that particular p'int happens to be pleasant. 'Tis that little small argyment of mine that has confounded Mr. Mullen more than once, when he meets me on equal ground outside the pulpit. 'Mebbe 'tis an' mebbe 'tisn't,' as I remarked sociably to him about the matter of eternal damnation, 'but you can't deny, can you, suh, bein' outside the pulpit an' bound to speak the truth like the rest of us, that you sleep a long sight easier in yo' bed when you say to yo'self that mebbe 'tisn't?'"
"You see pa's old, an' he won't harbour any belief at his time of life that don't let him rest comfortable," remarked young Adam, in an apologetic aside. "It's that weakness of his that keeps him from bein' a thorough goin' good Christian."
"That strange young clergyman has stirred us all up about the doctrines," said Solomon Hatch. "He's opened Old Church agin, an' he works terrible hard to make us feel that we'd rather be sprinkled on the head than go under all over. A nice-mannered man he is, with a pretty face, an' some folks hold it to be a pity that we can't change our ideas about baptism and become Episcopals in our hearts, jest to oblige him. The women have, mostly, bein' an accommodatin' sex in the main, with the exception of Mrs. Mallory, the blacksmith's mother, who declars she'd rather give up eternal damnation any day than immersion."
"I ain't goin' so fur as that," rejoined old Adam, "an' mo'over, when it comes to the p'int, I've never found any uncommon comfort in either conviction in time of trouble. I go to Mr. Mullen's church regular every Sunday, seein' the Baptist one is ten miles off an' the road heavy, but in my opinion he's a bit too zealous to turn over the notions of the prophets an' set up his own. He's at the age when a man knows everything on earth an' generally knows it wrong."
"You see pa had been settin' on the anxious bench for forty years," explained young Adam, "an' when Mr. Mullen came, he took it away from under him, so to speak, while he was still settin' on it."
"'Twas my proper place," said old Adam resentfully, "when it comes to crops or the weather I am firm fixed enough in my belief, but in matters of religion I hold with the onsartain."
"Only his powerful belief in the Devil an' all his works keeps him from bein' a heathen," observed young Adam in awe-stricken pride. "Even Mr. Mullen can't move him, he's so terrible set."
"Well, he ain't my Redeemer, though doubtless he'd be cast down if he was to hear as I'd said so," chuckled the elder. "The over earnest, like the women folk, are better not handled at all or handled techily. I'm near blind as it is, but ain't that the man yonder leadin' his horse out of the Applegate road?"
"'Taint the rector, but the miller," responded his son. "He's bringin' over Mrs. Bottom's sack of meal on the back of his grey mare."
"Ah, he's one of the folks that's gone over neck an' crop to the Episcopals," said Solomon Hatch. "His folks have been Presbyterians over at Piping Tree sence the time of Noah, but he recites the Creed now as loud as he used to sing the doxology. I declar his voice boomed out so in my ears last Sunday that I was obleeged to put up my hands to keep 'em from splittin'. Have you ever marked, Mr. Doolittle, havin' had the experience of ninety years, that when a man once takes up with a heresy, he shouts a heap louder than them that was born an' baptised in it? It seems as if they can't desert the ancient ways without defying 'em as well."
"'Tis so, 'tis so," admitted old Adam, wagging his head, "but Abel Revercomb was al'ays the sort that could measure nothin' less than a bushel. The pity with big-natured folk is that they plough up a mountain and trip at last over a pea-vine!"
From the gloom and brightness of the Applegate road there emerged the large figure of a young man, who led a handsome grey mare by the halter. As he moved against the coloured screen of the leaves something of the beauty of the desolate landscape showed in his face—the look of almost autumnal sadness that one finds, occasionally, in the eyes of the imaginative rustic. He wore a pair of sheepskin leggins into which the ends of his corduroy trousers were stuffed slightly below the knees. His head was bare, and from the open neck of his blue flannel shirt, faded from many washings, the muscles in his throat stood out like cords in the red-brown flesh. From his uncovered dark hair to his heavy boots, he was powdered with the white dust of his mill, the smell of which floated to the group under the mulberry tree as he passed up the walk to the tavern.
"I lay he seed Molly Merryweather comin' up from the low grounds," remarked Solomon, when the young man had moved out of earshot.
"Thar's truth spoken for once, if only by accident," retorted old Adam. "Yonder comes Reuben Merryweather's wagon now, laden with fodder. Is thar anybody settin' on it, young Adam? My eyes is too po' to make out."
"Molly Merryweather, who else?" responded the younger.
The wagon approached slowly, piled high with fodder and drawn by a pair of old oxen. In the centre of the load a girl was sitting, with a pink sunbonnet on her shoulders, and the light wind, which drove in gusts from the river, blowing the bunch of clustering brown curls on her neck. She was a small vivid creature, with a sunburned colour and changeable blue eyes that shone almost green in the sunlight.
"Terr'ble light minded as you can tell to look at her," said Solomon Hatch, "she's soft enough, so my wife says, where sick folks an' children an' animals are consarned, but she acts as if men war born without common feelin's of natur an' didn't come inside the Commandments. It's beyond me how a kind-hearted woman can be so unmerciful to an entire sex."
"Had it been otherwise 'twould have been downright disproof of God's providence and the bond of matrimony," responded old Adam.
"True, true, Mr. Doolittle," admitted Solomon, somewhat abashed. "Thar ain't any in these parts as can equal you on the Scriptures, as I've said over an' over agin. It's good luck for the Almighty that He has got you on His side, so to speak, to help Him confound His enemies."
"Thar're two sides to that, I reckon, seein' I confound not only His enemies, but His sarvents. Sech is the shot an' shell of my logic that the righteous fall before it as fast as the wicked—faster even I might say if I war speakin' particular. Have you marked how skeery Mr. Mullen has growed about meetin' my eyes over the rail of the pulpit? Why, 'twas only yesterday that I brought my guns to bear on the resurrection of the body, an' blowed it to atoms in his presence. 'Now thar's Reuben Merryweather who buried one leg at Manassas, Mr. Mullen,' I said as pleasant an' natchel as if I warn't about to confound him, 'an' what I'd like to have made clear an' easy to me, suh, is what use the Almighty is goin' to make of that odd leg on the Day of Jedgment? Will he add a new one onto Reuben,' I axed, 'when, as plain as logic will have it, it won't be a resurrection, but a creation, or will he start that leg a-trampin' by itself all the way from Manassas to jine the other at Old Church?' The parson had been holdin' pretty free all the mornin' with nobody daring to contradict him, and a man more taken aback by the power of logic my sight never lit on. 'Spare me, Mr. Doolittle,' was all he said, never a word mo'. 'Spare me, Mr. Doolittle.'"
"Ah, a tough customer you are," commented Solomon, "an' what answer did you make to that, suh?"
Old Adam's pipe returned to his mouth, and he puffed slowly a minute. "'Twas a cry for mercy, Solomon, so I spared him," he responded.
The wagon had reached the well, and without stopping, the large white-and-red oxen moved on into the turnpike. Bending from her high seat, Molly Merryweather smiled at the miller, who made a single stride toward her. Then her glance passed to the stranger, and for an instant she held his gaze with a pair of eyes that appeared to reflect his in shape, setting and colour. In the man's face there showed perplexity, admiration, ironic amusement; in the girl's there was a glimmer of the smile with which she had challenged the adoring look of the miller.
The flush left the features of young Revercomb, and he turned back, with a scowl on his forehead, while old Adam cackled softly over the stem of his pipe.
"Wiles come as natchel to women as wickedness to men, young Adam," he said. "The time to beware of 'em is in yo' youth befo' they've bewitched yo'. Why, 'tis only since I've turned ninety that I've trusted myself to think upon the sex with freedom."
"I'm bewarin'," replied his son, "but when Molly Merryweather widens her eyes and bites her underlip, it ain't in the natur of man or beast to stand out agin her. Why, if it had been anybody else but the rector I could have sworn I saw him squeezin' her hand when he let down the bars for her last Sunday."
"It's well knowed that when he goes to upbraid her for makin' eyes at him durin' the 'Have mercy on me,' he takes a mortal long time about the business," responded Solomon, "but, good Lord, 'tain't fur me to wish it different, seein' it only bears out all I've argured about false doctrines an' evil practice. From the sprinklin' of the head thar's but a single step downward to the holdin' of hands."
"Well, I'm a weak man like the rest of you," rejoined young Adam, "an' though I'm sound on the doctrines—in practice I sometimes backslide. I'm thankful, however, it's the lesser sin an' don't set so heavy on the stomach."
"Ah, it's the light women like Molly Merryweather that draws the eyes of the young," lamented old Adam.
"A pretty bit of vanity, is she?" inquired the stranger lightly, and fell back the next instant before the vigorous form of the miller, who swung round upon him with the smothered retort, "That's a lie!" The boyish face of the young countryman had paled under his sunburn and he spoke with the suppressed passion of a man who is not easily angered and who responds to the pressure of some absorbing emotion.
"Lord, Lord, Abel, Mr. Jonathan warn't meanin' no particular disrespect, not mo' was I," quavered old Adam.
"You're too pipin' hot, miller," interposed Solomon. "They warn't meanin' any harm to you nor to the gal either. With half the county courtin' her it ain't to be expected that she'd go as sober as a grey mare, is it?"
"Well, they're wastin' their time," retorted the miller, "for she marries me, thank God, this coming April."
Turning away the next instant, he vaulted astride the bare back of the mare, and started at a gallop in the direction of the turnpike.
"I'll be blessed if that little gal of Reuben Merryweather's ain't his religion," commented young Adam.
"An' he's of the opinion that he's going to marry her this comin' spring," cackled Solomon. "Well, I could be namin' two or three others of the same mind, if I'd take the trouble. It's all sensible enough to lambaste the women when they don't pick up every virtue that we throw away, but what's to be expected of 'em, I ax, when all the men sence Adam have been praisin' the sober kind of gal while they was runnin' arter the silly? Thar're some among 'em, I reckon, as have reasoned out to themselves that a man's pursuit speaks louder in the years, arter all, than his praise. Now, thar's a fine, promisin' farmer, like the miller gone runnin' loose, mo's the pity."
"A kind heart at bottom," said old Adam, "but he's got a deal of larnin' to do befo' he'll rest content to bide along quietly in the same world with human natur."
"Oh, he's like the Revercombs from the beginnin'," protested Solomon, "slow an' peaceable an' silent until you rouse 'em, but when they're once roused, they're roused beyond God or devil."
"Is this young Cain or Abel the head of the family?" inquired the stranger.
"Bless you, no, Mr. Jonathan, he ain't the head—for thar's his brother Abner still livin'—but, head or tail, he's the only part that counts, when it comes to that. Until the boy grew up an' took hold of things, the Revercombs warn't nothin' mo' than slack fisted, out-at-heel po' white trash, as the niggers say, though the old man, Abel's grandfather, al'ays lays claim to bein' connected with the real Revercombs, higher up in the State—However that may be, befo' the war thar warn't no place for sech as them, an' 'tis only since times have changed an' the bottom begun to press up to the top that anybody has heerd of 'em. Abel went to school somehow by hook or crook an' got a good bit of book larnin', they say, an' then he came back here an' went to turnin' up every stone an' stick on the place. He ploughed an' he sowed an' he reaped till he'd saved up enough to buy that piece of low ground betwixt his house and the grist-mill. Then Ebenezer Timberlake died of the dropsy an' the first thing folks knew, Abel had moved over and turned miller. All the grain that's raised about here now goes to his mill, an' they say he'll be throwin' out the old and puttin' in new-fangled machinery befo' the year is up. He's the foremost man in these parts, suh, unless you war to come to Jordan's Journey to live like yo' uncle."
"To live like my uncle," repeated the young man, with an ironic intonation that escaped the ears of old Adam. "But what of the miller's little sweetheart with the short hair and the divine smile? Whose daughter is she?"
Old Adam's thin lips flattened until a single loosened tooth midway of his lower gum wagged impishly back and forth. His face, sunburned and frosted like the hardened rind of some winter fruit, revealed the prominent bones of the skull under the sunken flesh. One of his gnarled old hands, trembling and red, clutched the clay bowl of his pipe; the other, with the callous skin of the palm showing under the bent fingers, rested half open on the leather patch that covered the knee of his overalls. A picture of toilworn age, of the inevitable end of all mortal labour, he had sat for hours in the faint sunshine, smiling with his sunken, babyish mouth at the brood of white turkeys that crowded about the well.
"Well, she's Reuben Merryweather's granddaughter, suh," replied Solomon in the place of the elder. "He was overseer at Jordan's Journey, you know, durin' the old gentleman's lifetime, after the last Jordan died and the place was bought by yo' uncle. Ah, 'twas different, suh, when the Jordans war livin'!"
Some furtive malice in his tone caused the stranger to turn sharply upon him.
"The girl's mother—who was she?" he asked.
"Janet Merryweather, the prettiest gal that ever set foot on these roads. Ah, 'twas a sad story, was hers, an' the less said about it, the soonest forgotten. Thar was some folks, the miller among 'em, that dropped dead out with the old minister—that was befo' Mr. Mullen's time—for not wantin' her to be laid in the churchyard. A hard case, doubtless, but a pious man such as I likes to feel sartain that however much he may have fooled along with sinful women in this world, only the most respectable of thar sex will rise around him at the Jedgment."
"And the father?" inquired the stranger, with a sound as if he drew in his breath sharply.
"Accordin' to the Law an' the Prophets she hadn't any. That may be goin' agin natur, suh, but 'tis stickin' close to Holy Writ an' the wisdom of God."
To this the young man's only response was a sudden angry aversion that showed in his face. Then lifting his horse's head from the trodden grass by the well, he sprang into the saddle, and started, as the miller had done, over the three roads into the turnpike. Remembering as he passed the gate posts that he had spoken no parting word to the group under the mulberry tree, he raised himself in his stirrups, and called back "Good day to you. Many thanks," in his pleasant voice.
IN WHICH DESTINY WEARS THE COMIC MASK
Putting his horse to a canter, Mr. Jonathan Gay rode through the old gate into the turnpike. His still indignant look was fixed on the heavy wheelruts ahead, while his handsome though fleshy figure inclined slightly forward in the saddle after a foreign fashion. Seen close at hand his face, which was impressive at a distance, lost a certain distinction of contour, as though the marks of experience had blurred, rather than accentuated, the original type. The bones of forehead and nose still showed classic in outline, but in moulding the mouth and chin nature had not adhered closely to the aristocratic structure beneath. The flesh sagged a little in places; the brow was a trifle too heavy, the jaw a trifle too prominent, the lips under the short dark moustache were a trifle too full. Yet in spite of this coarseness of finish, his face was well coloured, attractive, and full of generous, if whimsical, humour. A judge of men would have seen in it proof that Mr. Gay's character consisted less in a body of organized tendencies than in a procession of impulses.
White with dust the turnpike crawled straight ahead between blood-red clumps of sumach and bramble on which the faint sunlight still shone. At intervals, where the dripping from over-hanging boughs had worn the road into dangerous hollows, boles of young saplings had been placed cross-wise in a corduroy pattern, and above them clouds of small belated butterflies drifted in the wind like blown yellow rose leaves. On the right the thin corn shocks looked as if they were sculptured in bronze, and amid them there appeared presently the bent figure of a harvester, outlined in dull blue against a sky of burnt orange. From the low grounds beside the river a mist floated up, clinging in fleecy shreds to the short grass that grew in and out of the bare stubble. The aspect of melancholy, which was depressing even in the broad glare of noon, became almost intolerable under the waning light of the afterglow. Miles of loneliness stretched on either side of the turnpike, which trailed, without fork or bend, into the flat distance beyond the great pine at the bars.
For the twentieth time since he had left the tavern, Mr. Gay, whose habit it was to appear whimsical when he felt despondent, declared to himself that he'd be damned if the game was worth half what the candle was likely to cost him. Having arrived, without notable misadventure, at the age of thirty, he had already reduced experience to a series of episodes and had embraced the casual less as a pastime than as a philosophy.
"If the worst comes to the worst—hang it!—I suppose I may hunt a Molly Cotton-tail," he grumbled, bringing his horse's gait down to an amble. "There ought to be good hounds about, judging from the hang-dog look of the natives. Why in thunder did the old boy want to bury himself and his heirs forever in this god-forsaken land's end, and what in the deuce have mother and Aunt Kesiah done with themselves down here for the last twenty years? Two thousand acres? Damn it! I'd rather have six feet on the good English soil! Came to get rid of one woman, did he?—and tumbled into a pretty puddle with another as soon as he got here. By George, it's in the bone and it is obliged to come out in the blood. A Gay will go on ogling the sex, I suppose, as long as he is able to totter back from the edge of the grave."
As he approached the blazed pine, a spot of darkness, which he had at first mistaken for a small tree, detached itself from the surrounding shadows, and assumed gradually a human shape. His immediate impression was that the shape was a woman and that she was young. With his next breath he became aware that she was also beautiful. In the fading light her silhouette stood out as distinctly against the mellow background of the sky, as did the great pine which marked the almost obliterated path over the fields. Her dress was the ordinary calico one, of some dull purplish shade, worn by the wives and daughters of the neighbouring farmers; and on her bare white arm, with its upturned sleeve, she carried a small split basket half filled with persimmons. She was of an almost pure Saxon type—tall, broad-shouldered, deep-bosomed, with a skin the colour of new milk, and soft ashen hair parted smoothly over her ears and coiled in a large, loose knot at the back of her head. As he reached her she smiled faintly and a little brown mole at the corner of her mouth played charmingly up and down. After the first minute, Gay found himself fascinated by this single imperfection in her otherwise flawless features. More than her beauty he felt that it stirred his blood and aroused in him the physical tenderness which he associated always with some vague chivalrous impulse.
She moved slightly when he dismounted beside her, and a number of small splotches of black circling around her resolved themselves into a bodyguard of little negroes, clad in checked pinafores, with the scant locks wrapped tightly with crimson cotton.
"May I let down the bars for you?" he asked, turning to look into her face with a smile, "and do you take your collection of piccaninnies along for protection or for amusement?"
"Grandma doesn't like me to go out alone, sir—so many dreadful things happen," she answered gently, with an utter absence of humour. "I can't take anybody who is at work, so I let the little darkies come. Mary Jo is the oldest and she's only six."
"Is your home near here?"
"I live at the mill. It's a mile farther on, but there is a short cut."
"Then you are related to the miller, Mr. Revercomb—that fine looking chap I met at the ordinary?"
"He is my uncle. I am Blossom Revercomb," she answered.
"Blossom? It's a pretty name."
Her gaze dwelt on him calmly for and instant, with the faintest quiver of her full white lids, which appeared to weigh heavily on her rather prominent eyes of a pale periwinkle blue.
"My real name is Keren-happuch," she said at last, after a struggle with herself, "grandma bein' a great Scripture reader, chose it when I was born—but they call me Blossom, for short."
"And am I permitted, Miss Keren-happuch, to call you Blossom?"
Again she hesitated, pondering gravely.
"Mary Jo, if you unwrap your hair your mother will whip you," she said suddenly, and went on without a perceptible change of tone, "Keren-happuch is an ugly name, and I don't like it—though grandma says we oughtn't to think any of the Bible names ugly, not even Gog. She is quite an authority on Scripture, is grandma, and she can repeat the first chapter in Chronicles backward, which the minister couldn't do when he tried."
"I'd like to hear the name that would sound ugly on your lips, Miss Keren-happuch."
If the sons of farmers had sought to enchant her ears with similar strains, there was no hint of it in the smiling eyes she lifted to his. The serenity of her look added, he thought, to her resemblance to some pagan goddess—not to Artemis nor to Aphrodite, but to some creature compounded equally of earth and sky. Io perhaps, or Europa? By Jove he had it at last—the Europa of Veronese!
"There'll have to be a big frost before the persimmons get sweet," she observed in a voice that was remarkably deep and full for a woman. With the faint light on her classic head and her milky skin, he found a delicious piquancy in the remark. Had she gossiped, had she even laughed, the effect would have been disastrous. Europa, he was vaguely aware, would hardly have condescended to coquetry. Her speech, like her glance, would be brief, simple, direct.
"Tell me about the people here," he asked after a pause, in which he plucked idly at the red-topped orchard grass through which they were passing. Behind them the six little negroes walked primly in single file, Mary Jo in the lead and a chocolate-coloured atom of two toddling at the tail of the procession. From time to time shrill squeaks went up from the rear when a startled partridge whirred over the pasture or a bare brown foot came down on a toad or a grasshopper.
As she made no reply, he added in a more intimate tone, "I am Jonathan Gay, of Jordan's Journey, as I suppose you know."
"The old gentleman's nephew?" she said, while she drew slightly away from him. "Mary Jo, did you tell Tobias's mammy that he was coming along?"
"Nawm, I ain done tole nobody caze dar ain nobody done ax me."
"But I said that you were not to bring him without letting Mahaly know. You remember what a whipping she gave him the last time he came!"
At this a dismal howl burst from Tobias. "I ain't-a-gwine-ter-git-a-whuppin'!"
"Lawd, Miss Blossom, hit cyarn' hut Tobias ez hit ud hut de res'er us," replied Mary Jo, with fine philosophy, "case dar ain but two years er 'im ter whup."
"I ain't-a-gwine-ter-git-a-whuppin'!" sang Tobias in a passionate refrain.
"Now that's just it," said Gay, feeling as though he should like to throttle the procession of piccaninnies. "What I can't understand is why the people about here—those I met at Bottom's Ordinary, for instance, seem to have disliked me even before I came."
Without surprise or embarrassment, she changed the basket from her right to her left arm, and this simple movement had the effect of placing him at a distance, though apparently by accident.
"That's because of the old gentleman, I reckon," she answered, "my folks all hated him, I don't know why."
"But can you guess? You see I really want to understand. I've been away since I was eight years old and I have only the haziest memories."
The question brought them into a sudden intimacy, as if his impulsive appeal to her had established a relation which had not existed the minute before. He liked the look of her strong shoulders, of her deep bosom rising in creamy white to her throat; and the quiver of her red lower lip when she talked, aroused in him a swift and facile emotion. The melancholy of the landscape, reacting on the dangerous softness of his mood, bent his nature toward her like a flame driven by the wind. Around them the red-topped orchard grass faded to pale rose in the twilight, and beyond the crumbling rail fence miles of feathery broomsedge swept to the pines that stood straight and black against the western horizon. Impressions of the hour and the scene, of colour and sound, were blended in the allurement which Nature proffered him, for her own ends, through the woman beside him. Not Blossom Revercomb, but the great Mother beguiled him. The forces that moved in the wind, in the waving broomsedge, and in the call of the whip-poor-will, stirred in his pulses as they stirred in the objects around him. That fugitive attraction of the body, which Nature has shielded at the cost of finer attributes, leaped upon him like a presence that had waited in earth and sky. Loftier aspirations vanished before it. Not his philosophy but the accident of a woman's face worked for destiny.
"I never knew just how it was," she answered slowly as if weighing her words, "but your uncle wasn't one of our folks, you know. He bought the place the year before the war broke out, and there was always some mystery about him and about the life he led—never speaking to anybody if he could help it, always keeping himself shut up when he could. He hadn't a good name in these parts, and the house hasn't a good name either, for the darkies say it is ha'nted and that old Mrs. Jordan—'ole Miss' they called her—still comes back out of her grave to rebuke the ha'nt of Mr. Jonathan. There is a path leading from the back porch to the poplar spring where none of them will go for water after nightfall. Uncle Abednego swears that he met his old master there one night when he went down to fill a bucket and that a woman was with him. It all comes, I reckon, of Mr. Jonathan having been found dead at the spring, and you know how the darkies catch onto any silly fancy about the dead walking. I don't believe much in ha'nts myself, though great-grandma has seen many a one in her day, and all the servants at Jordan's Journey will never rest quiet. I've always wondered if your mother and Miss Kesiah were ever frightened by the stories the darkies tell?" For a moment she paused, and then added softly, "It was all so different, they say, when the Jordans were living."
Again the phrase which had begun to irritate him! Who were these dead and gone Jordans whose beneficent memory still inhabited the house they had built?
"I don't think my mother would care for such stories," he replied after a minute. "She has never mentioned them in her letters."
"Of course nobody really puts faith in them, but I never pass the spring, if I can help it, after the sun has gone down. It makes me feel so dreadfully creepy."
"The root of this gossip, I suppose, lies in the general dislike of my uncle?"
"Perhaps—I'm not sure," she responded, and he felt that her rustic simplicity possessed a charm above the amenities of culture. "The old clergyman—that was before Mr. Mullen's day—when we all went to the church over at Piping Tree—used to say that the mercy of God would have to exceed his if He was ever going to redeem him. I remember hearing him tell grandma when I was a child that there were a few particulars in which he couldn't answer with certainty for God, and that old Mr. Jonathan Gay was one of 'em. 'God Almighty will have to find His own way in this matter,' he used to declare, 'for I wash my hands of it.' I'm sorry, sir," she finished contritely, "I forgot he was your own blood relation."
In the spirit of this contrition, she changed the basket back again to her left arm; and perceiving his advantage, Gay acted upon it with his accustomed alacrity.
"Don't apologize, please, I am glad I have this from your lips—not from a stranger's."
Under the spell of her beauty, he was aware of a pleasurable sensation, as though the pale rose of the orchard grass had gone to his head and coloured his vision. There was a thrill in feeling her large, soft arm brushing his sleeve, in watching the rise and fall of her bosom under her tight calico dress.
"I shall always know that we were friends—good friends, from the first," he resumed after a minute.
"You are very kind, sir," she answered, "this is my path over the stile and it is growin' late—Tobias's mother will surely give him a whippin'. I hope you don't mind my havin' gathered these persimmons on your land," she concluded, with an honesty which was relieved from crudeness by her physical dignity, "they are hardly fit to eat because there has been so little frost yet."
"Well, I'm sorry for that, Miss Keren-happuch, or shall it be Blossom?"
"I like Blossom better," she answered shyly, lifting her scant calico skirt with one hand as she mounted the stile.
"Then good night, lovely Blossom," he called gaily while he turned back into the bridle path which led like a frayed white seam over the pasture.
IN WHICH MR. GAY ARRIVES AT HIS JOURNEY'S END
Broad and low, with the gabled pediment of the porch showing through boughs of oaks, and a flight of bats wheeling over the ivied roof, the house appeared to Gay beyond a slight swell in the meadows. The grove of oaks, changing from dark red to russet, was divided by a short walk, bordered by clipped box, which led to the stone steps and to two discoloured marble urns on which broken-nosed Cupids were sporting. As he was about to slip his reins over the back of an iron chair on the lawn, a shriek in a high pitched negro voice pierced his ears from a half shuttered dormer-window in the east wing.
"Fo' de Lawd, hit's de ha'nt er ole marster! Yessuh—Yessuh,—I'se a-comin'—I'se a-comin'."
The next instant the window slammed with a bang, and the sound of flying footsteps echoed through the darkened interior of the house.
"Open the door, you fool! I'm not a ghost!" shouted Gay, but the only response came in an hysterical babble of moans from the negro quarters somewhere in the rear and in the soft whir in his face of a leatherwing bat as it wheeled low in the twilight. There was no smoke in the chimneys, and the square old house, with its hooded roof and its vacant windows, assumed a sinister and inhospitable look against the background of oaks. His mother and his aunt, he concluded, were doubtless away for their winter's shopping, so lifting his horse's head from the grass, he passed between the marble urns and the clipped box, and followed a path, deep in leaves, which led from the west wing of the house to the outside kitchen beyond a paved square at the back. Half intelligible words floated to him as he approached, and from an old pear-tree near the door there was a flutter of wings where a brood of white turkeys settled to roost. Beyond the bole of the tree a small negro in short skirts was "shooin'" a large rooster into the henhouse, but at the muffled fall of Gay's horse's hoofs on the dead leaves, she turned with a choking sound, and fled to the shelter of the kitchen at her back.
"My time's done come, but I ain't-a-gwine! I ain't-a-gwine!" wailed the chorus within. "Ole marster's done come ter fotch me, but I ain't-a-gwine! O Lawd, I ain't-a-gwine! O Jesus, I ain't-a-gwine!"
"You fools, hold your tongues!" stormed the young man, losing his temper. "Send somebody out here to take my horse or I'll give you something to shout over in earnest."
The shrieks trembled high for an instant, and then died out in a despairing moan, while the blanched face of an old servant appeared in the doorway.
"Is hit you er yo' ha'nt, Marse Jonathan?" he inquired humbly.
"Come here, you doddering idiot, and take my horse."
But half reassured the negro came a step or two forward, and made a feeble clutch at the reins, which dropped from his grasp when the roosting turkeys stirred uneasily on the bough above.
"I'se de butler, marster, en I ain never sot foot in de stable sence de days er ole miss."
"Where's my mother?"
"Miss Angela, she's done gone up ter town en Miss Kesiah she's done gone erlong wid 'er."
"Is the house closed?"
"Naw, suh, hit ain closed, but Miss Molly she's got de keys up yonder at de house er de overseer."
"Well, send somebody with a grain of sense out here, and I'll look up Miss Molly."
At this the butler vanished promptly into the kitchen, and a minute later a half-grown mulatto boy relieved Gay of his horse, while he pointed to a path through an old apple orchard that led to the cottage of the overseer. As the young man passed under the gnarled boughs to a short flagged walk before the small, whitewashed house in which "Miss Molly" lived, he wondered idly if the lady who kept the keys would prove to be the amazing little person he had seen some hours earlier perched on the load of fodder in the ox-cart. The question was settled almost before it was asked, for a band of lamplight streamed suddenly from the door of the cottage, and in the centre of it appeared the figure of a girl in a white dress, with red stockings showing under her short skirts, and a red ribbon filleting the thick brown curls on her forehead. From her movements he judged that she was mixing a bowl of soft food for the old hound at her feet, and he waited until she had called the dog inside for his supper, before he went forward and spoke her name in his pleasant voice.
At the sound she turned with a start, and he saw her vivid little face, with the wonderful eyes, go white for a minute.
"So you are Mr. Jonathan? I thought so," she said at last, "but grandfather told me you sent no word of your coming."
She spoke quickly, with a refinement of accent which puzzled him until he remembered the malicious hints Solomon Hatch had let fall at the tavern. That she was, in reality, of his blood and the child of his uncle, he had not doubted since the moment she had smiled at him from her seat on the oxcart. How much was known, he now wondered. Had his uncle provided for her? Was his mother—was his Aunt Kesiah—aware of the truth?
"She missed my letter, I suppose," he replied. "Has she been long away?"
"Only a week. She is expected home day after to-morrow."
"Then I shall beg you to open the house for me."
She had turned back to the old hound, and was bending over to place his bowl of bread and milk on the hearth. A log fire, in which a few pine branches stood out illuminated like boughs of flame, filled the big stone fireplace, which was crudely whitewashed to resemble the low walls of the room. A kettle hung on an iron crane before the blaze, and the singing of the water made a cheerful noise amid a silence which struck Gay suddenly as hostile. When the girl raised her head he saw that her face had grown hard and cold, and that the expression of her eyes had changed to one of indignant surprise. The charming coquetry had fled from her look, yet her evident aversion piqued him into a half smiling, half serious interest. He wondered if she would marry that fine looking rustic, the miller, and if the riotous Gay blood in her veins would flow placidly in her mother's class? Had she, too, inherited, if not the name, yet the weaknesses of an older race? Was she, like himself, cursed with swift fancies and swifter disillusionments? How frail she was, and how brilliant! How innocent and how bitter!
He turned away, ostensibly to examine a print on the wall, and while his back was toward her, he felt that her gaze stabbed him like the thrust of a knife. Wheeling quickly about, he met her look, but to his amazement, she continued to stare back at him with the expression of indignant surprise still in her face. How she hated him and, by Jove, how she could hate! She reminded him of a little wild brown animal as she stood there with her teeth showing between her parted red lips and her eyes flashing defiance. The next minute he found himself asking if she could ever grow gentle—could ever soften enough to allow herself to be stroked? He remembered Solomon Hatch's remark that "she was onmerciful to an entire sex," and in spite of his effort at composure, a laugh sprang to his lips.
In the centre of the room a table was laid, and going over to it, she busied herself with the cups and saucers as though she were anxious to put a disagreeable presence out of her thoughts.
"May I share your supper?" he asked, and waited, not without amusement, for her answer.
"I'm sorry there isn't any for you at the big house," she answered politely. "If you will sit down, I'll tell Delily to bring in some batter bread."
"I'll have mine with grandfather. He's out in the barn giving medicine to the red cow."
While she spoke Delily entered with a plate of cornbread and a pot of coffee, and a minute later Reuben Merryweather paused on the threshold to shake off a sprinkling of bran from his hair and beard. He was a bent, mild looking old man, with a wooden leg which made a stumping noise when he walked, and a pair of wistful brown eyes, like those of an aged hound that has been worn out by hard service. Past seventy now, his youth had been trained to a different civilization, and there was a touching gentleness in his face, as if he expressed still the mental attitude of a class which had existed merely as a support or a foil to the order above it. Without spirit to resent, he, with his fellows, had endured the greatest evils of slavery. With the curse of free labour on the land, there had been no incentive for toil, no hire for the labourer. Like an incubus the system had lain over them, stifling all energy, checking all progress, retarding all prosperity save the prosperity of the great land-owners. Then the soil had changed hands, and where the plough had broken the earth, the seeds of a democracy had germinated and put forth from the very blood of the battlefields. In the upward pressure of class, he had seen the stability of custom yield at last to the impetus of an energy that was not racial but individual. Yet from the transition he had remained always a little apart. Reverence had become for him a habit of mind, and he had learned that respect could outlive even a belief in the thing upon which it was founded. Mr. Jonathan and he had been soldiers together. His old commander still entered his thoughts to the rattle of musketry and the roar of cannon, and a single sublime action at Malvern Hill had served in the mind of the soldier to spread a legendary glamour over a life which held hardly another incident that was worthy of remembrance.
At his entrance Molly melted from her hostile attitude, and while she hung on the old man's breast, Gay noticed, with surprise, that she was made up of enchanting curves and delicious softness. Her sharpened features grew rounder, and her thin red lips lost their hardness of outline. When she raised her head after a minute, he saw that the light in her eyes adorned and enriched her. By Jove, he had never imagined that she could change and colour like that!
"You are late, grandfather," said the girl, "I was coming to look for you with a lantern."
"The red cow kept me," answered the old man, adding as he held out his hand to Gay, "So you've come at last, Mr. Jonathan. Your mother will be pleased."
"I was sorry to find her absent," replied Gay, "and I was just asking your granddaughter if she would permit me to join you at supper?"
"To be sure—to be sure," responded Reuben, with a cheerfulness which struck Gay as singularly pathetic. "After supper Molly will go over with Patsey and see that you are made comfortable."
The old hound, blind and toothless, fawned at his knees, and leaning over, he caressed it with a knotted and trembling hand.
"Has Spot had his supper, Molly?"
"Yes, grandfather. He can eat only soft bread and gravy." At her voice the hound groped toward her, and stooping, she laid her soft, flushed cheek on his head.
"Well, sit down, suh, sit down," said Reuben, speaking timidly as if he were not sure he had chosen the right word. "If you'll tell Delily, honey, Mr. Jonathan will have his supper."
"On condition that you let me share yours, Mr. Merryweather," insisted Gay, in his genial tone. "If you're going to make company of me, I shall go hungry until to-morrow."
From a wooden safe in the corner Molly brought a plate and a cup, and made a place for the young man at the end of the red-and-white cloth on the table. Then she turned away, without speaking, and sat down behind the tin coffeepot, which emitted a fragrant steam.
"Cream and sugar?" she inquired presently, meeting his eyes over the glass lamp which stood midway between them.
Gay had been talking to Reuben about the roads—"jolly bad roads," he called them, "wasn't it possible to make them decent for riding?" Looking up at the girl's question, he answered absently, "two lumps. Cream? Yes, please, a little," and then continued to stare at her with a vague and impersonal wonder. She was half savage, of course, with red hands, and bad manners and dressed like a boy that had got into skirts for a joke—but, by George, there was something about her that bit into the fancy. Not a beauty like his Europa of the pasture (who was, when it came to that?)—but a fascinating little beggar, with a quality of sudden surprises that he could describe by no word except "iridescent." He liked the high arch of her brows; but her nose wasn't good and her lips were too thin except when she smiled. When she smiled! It was her smile, after all, that made her seem a thing of softness and bloom born to be kissed.
Reuben ate his food rapidly, pouring his coffee into the saucer, and drinking it in loud gulps that began presently to make Gay feel decidedly nervous. Once the young man inadvertently glanced toward him, and turning away the instant afterwards, he found the girl's eyes watching him with a defiant and threatening look. Her passionate defence of Reuben reminded Gay of a nesting bird under the eye of the hunter. She did not plead, she dared—actually dared him to criticise the old man even in his thoughts!
That Molly herself was half educated and possessed some smattering of culture, it was easy to see. She was less rustic in her speech than his Europa, and there was the look of breeding, or of blood, in the fine poise of her head, in her small shapely hands, which he remembered were a distinguishing mark of the Gays.
"Mr. Mullen came for you in his cart," said Reuben, glancing from one to the other of his hearers with his gentle and humble look. "I told him you must have forgotten as you'd ridden down to the low grounds."
"No, I didn't forget," replied Molly, indifferent apparently to the restraint of Gay's presence, "I did it on purpose." Meeting the young man's amused and enquiring expression, she added defiantly, "There are plenty of girls that are always ready to go with him and it's because I'm not that he wants me."
"He's not the only one, to judge from what I heard at the ordinary."
She shrugged her shoulders—an odd gesture for a rustic coquette—while a frown overshadowed her features.
"They're all alike," she retorted scornfully. "If you go over to the mill you'll probably find Abel Revercomb sulking and brow-beating his mother because I smiled at you this afternoon. And I did it only to plague him!"
"Molly's a good girl," said Reuben, rather as if he expected the assertion to be disputed, "but she was taught to despise folks when she was a baby—wasn't you, pretty?"
"Not you—never you, grandfather."
The intimate nature of the conversation grated upon Gay not a little. There was something splendidly barbaric about the girl, and yet the mixture of her childishness and her cynicism affected him unpleasantly rather than otherwise. His ideal woman—the woman of the early Victorian period—was submissive and clinging. He was perfectly assured that she would have borne her wrongs, and even her mother's wrongs, with humility. Meekness had always seemed to him the becoming mental and facial expression for the sex; and that a woman should resent appeared almost as indelicate as that she should propose.
When supper was over, and Reuben had settled to his pipe, with the old hound at his feet, Molly took down a bunch of keys from a nail in the wall, and lit a lantern with a taper which she selected from a china vase on the mantelpiece. Once outside she walked a little ahead of Gay and the yellow blaze of the lantern flitted like a luminous bird over the flagged walk bordered by gooseberry bushes. Between the stones, which were hollowed by the tread of generations, nature had embroidered the bare places with delicate patterns of moss.
At the kitchen the girl stopped to summon Patsey, the maid, who was discovered roasting an apple at the end of a long string before the logs.
"I am going to the big house. Come and make up the bed in the blue room," Gay heard through the door.
"Yes'm, Miss Molly, I'se a-comin' in jes a minute."
"And bring plenty of lightwood. He will probably want a fire."
With this she appeared again on the outside, crossed the paved square to the house, and selecting a large key, unlocked the door, which grated on its hinges as Gay pushed it open. Following her into the hall, he stood back while she lit a row of tallow candles, in old silver sconces, which extended up the broad mahogany staircase to the upper landing. One by one as she applied the taper, the candles flashed out in a misty circle, and then rising in a clear flame, shone on her upraised hand and on the brilliant red of her lips and cheeks.
"That is your mother's room," she said, pointing to a closed door, "and this is yours. Patsey will make a fire."
"It's rather gloomy, isn't it?"
"Shall I bring you wine? I have the key to the cellar."
"Brandy, if you please. The place feels as if it had been shut up for a century."
"It was your uncle's room. Do you mind sleeping here? It's the easiest to get ready."
"Not with a fire—and I may have a lamp, I suppose?"
At his question Patsey appeared with an armful of resinous pine, and a few minutes later, a cheerful blaze was chasing the shadows up the great brick chimney. When Molly returned with the brandy, Gay was leaning against the mantelpiece idly burning a bunch of dried cat-tails he had taken from a blue-and-white china vase.
"It's a gloomy old business, isn't it?" he observed, glancing from the high canopied bed with its hangings of faded damask to an engraving of the Marriage of Pocahontas between the dormer-windows. "If there are ghosts about, I suppose I'd better prepare to face them."
"Only in the west wing, the darkies say, but I think they are bats. As for those in the haunt's walk, I never believed in them. Patsey is bringing your brandy. Can I do anything else for you?"
"Only tell me," he burst out, "why in thunder the whole county hates me?"
She laughed shortly. "I can't tell you—wait and find out."
Here audacity half angered, half paralyzed him.
"What a vixen you are!" he observed presently with grudging respect.
The crimson flooded her face, and he watched her teeth gleam dangerously, as if she were bracing herself for a retort. The impulse to torment her was strong in him, and he yielded to it much as a boy might have teased a small captive animal of the woods.
"With such a temper you ought to have been an ugly woman," he said, "but you're so pretty I'm strongly inclined to kiss you."
"If you do, I'll strike you," she gasped.
The virgin in her showed fierce and passionate, not shy and fleeting. That she was by instinct savagely pure, he could tell by the look of her.
"I believe it so perfectly that I've no intention of trying," he rejoined.
"I'm not half so pretty as my mother was," she said after a pause.
Her loyalty to the unfortunate Janet touched him to sympathy. "Don't quarrel with me, Molly," he pleaded, "for I mean to be friends with you."
As he uttered the words, he was conscious of a pleasant feeling of self-approbation while his nature vibrated to the lofty impulse. This sensation was so gratifying while it lasted that his manner assumed a certain austerity as one who had determined to be virtuous at any cost. Morally he was on stilts for the moment, and the sense of elevation was as novel as it was insecure.
"I know you are a good girl, Molly," he observed staidly, "that is why I am so anxious to be your friend."
"Is there nothing more that I can do for you?" she inquired, with frigid reserve, as she took up the lantern.
"Yes, one thing—you can shake hands."
The expression of indignant surprise appeared again in her face, and she fell back a step, shaking her head stubbornly as she did so.
"I'd rather not—if you don't mind," she answered.
"But if I do mind—and I do."
"Still I'd rather not."
"Do you really dislike me as much as you dislike the miller?"
"Or the rector?"
"Oh, far more. You are a Gay."
"Yes, I am a Gay," he might have retorted, "and you, my pretty savage, are very much a Gay, also."
Swinging the lantern in her hand, she moved to the door, as if she were anxious to put an end to a conversation which had become suddenly too intimate. On the threshold she looked back, and remarked in a precise, authoritative voice:
"There are blankets in the bottom drawer if you find you haven't covering enough."
"I shall remember—there are blankets in the bottom drawer."
"Patsey will bring hot water at eight and Uncle Abednego will give you breakfast in the dining-room."
"Then I'm not to have it with you?"
"With me? Oh, I live with grandfather. I never come to the big house except when Mrs. Gay is in town."
"Do you see nothing, then, of my mother when she is at home?"
"Sometimes I help her to make raspberry vinegar or preserves. If you hear a noise in the night it is only the acorns dropping on the roof. There are so many oaks. Good night, Mr. Jonathan."
"Good night," he returned, "I wish you'd shake hands,"—but she had vanished.
The room was cosy and warm now—and flinging himself into a chair with deep arms that stood on the hearth, he lit his cigar and sipped drowsily the glass of brandy she had left on a silver tray on the table. The ceiling was ridiculously high—what a waste of good bricks and mortar!—the room was ridiculously large! On the smooth white walls reddish shadows moved in a fantastic procession, and from the big chintz-covered lounge the monstrous blue poppies leaped out of the firelight. The high canopy over the bed was draped with prim folds of damask, and the coverlet was of some quaint crocheted work that hung in fringed ends to the floor. Here again from the threadbare velvet carpet the blue poppies stared back at him.
An acorn dropped on the roof, and in spite of Molly's warning, he started and glanced toward the window, where a frosted pattern of ivy showed like a delicate lacework on the small greenish panes. Another dropped; then another. Gradually he began to listen for the sound and to miss it when there came a long silence. One might easily imagine it to be the tapping of ghostly fingers—of the fingers of pretty Janet Merryweather—some quarter of a century earlier. Her daughter was hardly more than twenty now, he supposed, and he wondered how long the mad idyllic period had lasted before her birth? Turning to the books on the table, he opened one and a yellowed fragment of paper fluttered to the floor at his feet. When he stooped after it, he saw that there was a single word on it traced faintly in his uncle's hand: "To-morrow."
And then, being a person whose imagination dealt with the obvious, he undressed, blew out the light, and fell peacefully asleep to the dropping of acorns.
On the morning after the meeting at Bottom's Ordinary, Abel Revercomb came out on the porch of the little house in which he lived, and looked across the steep rocky road to the mill-race which ran above a silver stream known as Sycamore Creek. The grist-mill, a primitive log building, worked after ancient methods, had stood for a hundred years or more beside a crooked sycamore tree, which grew mid-way of the stream and shaded the wheel and the shingled roof from the blue sky above. The old wooden race, on which the young green mosses shone like a coating of fresh paint on a faded surface, ran for a short distance over the brook, where the broad yellow leaves drifted down to the deep pond below. Across the slippery poplar log, which divided the mill from the road and the house occupied by the miller, there was a stretch of good corn land, where the corn stood in shocks after the harvest, and beyond this the feathery bloom of the broomsedge ran to the luminous band of marshes on the far horizon.
From the open door before which the miller was standing, there came the clatter of breakfast dishes and the sound of Scripture text quoted in the voice of his mother. Above his head several strings of red pepper hung drying, and these rustled in the wind with a grating noise that seemed an accompaniment to the speaker in the kitchen.
"The Lord said that, an' I reckon He knew His own mind when He was speakin' it," remarked Sarah Revercomb as she put down the coffeepot.
"I declare there's mother at it again," observed Abel to himself with a frown—for it was Sarah's fate that an excess of virtue should have wrought all the evil of a positive vice. From the days of her infancy, when she had displayed in the cradle a power of self-denial at which her pastor had marvelled, she had continued to sacrifice her inclinations in a manner which had rendered unendurable the lives around her. Her parents had succumbed to it; her husband had died of it; her children had resigned themselves to it or rebelled against it according to the quality of their moral fibre. All her life she had laboured to make people happy, and the result of this exalted determination was a cowed and resentful family.
"Yo' buckwheat cakes will be stone cold if you don't come along in, Abel," she called now from the kitchen. "You've been lookin' kind of sallow these last days, so I've got a spoonful of molasses and sulphur laid right by yo' plate."
"For heaven's sake, take it away," he retorted irritably. "I don't need it."
"I reckon I can tell by the look of you better than you can by the feelin'," rejoined Sarah grimly, "an' if you know what's good for you, you'll come and swallow it right down."
"I'll be hanged if I do!" exclaimed Abel without moving, and his tone implied that the ceaseless nagging had got at last on his nerves. He was a robust, well-built, red-brown young fellow, who smelt always of freshly ground meal, as though his body, from long usage, had grown to exhale the cleanly odour of the trade he followed. His hair was thick, dark and powdered usually with mill-dust. His eyes, of a clear bright hazel, deep-set and piercing, expressed a violence of nature which his firm, thin-lipped mouth, bare of beard or moustache, appeared to deny. A certain tenacity—a suggestion of stubbornness in the jaw, gave the final hint to his character, and revealed that temperamental intolerance of others of the rustic who has risen out of his class. An opinion once embraced acquired the authority of a revelation; a passion once yielded to was transformed into a principle. Impulsive, generous, undisciplined, he represented, after all, but the reaction from the spirit of racial submission which was embodied in Reuben Merryweather. Tradition had bound Reuben in thongs of steel; Abel was conscious only of his liberated intelligence—of a passionate desire to test to the fullest the certainty of that liberation. As the elder had suffered beneath the weight of the established order, so the younger showed the disturbing effects of a freedom which had resulted from a too rapid change in economic conditions rather than from the more gradual evolution of class. When political responsibility was thrust on the plainer people instead of sought by them, it was but natural that the process of adjustment should appear rough rather than smooth. The land which had belonged to the few became after the war within reach of the many. At first the lower classes had held back, paralyzed by the burden of slavery. The soil, impoverished, wasted, untilled, rested under the shadow of the old names—the old customs. This mole-like blindness of the poorer whites persisted still for a quarter of a century; and the awakening was possible only after the newer authority was but a shadow; the past reverence but a delusion. When the black labourer worked, not freely, but for hire, the wages of the white labourer went up as by magic. To rise under the old system had been so impossible that Abel's ancestors had got out of the habit of trying. The beneficent charity of the great landowners had exhausted the small incentive that might have remained—and to give had been so much the prerogative of a single class, that to receive had become a part of the privileges of another. In that pleasant idyllic period the one act which went unhonoured and unrewarded was the act of toil. So in the odour of shiftlessness Abel's father had died; so after ninety years his grandparents still sat by the hearth to which his mother had called him.
The house, an oblong frame building, newly shingled, was set back from the road in a straggling orchard of pear-trees, which bore a hard green fruit too sour to be used except in the form of preserves. Small shanties, including a woodhouse, a henhouse, and a smokehouse for drying bacon and hams, flanked the kitchen garden at the rear, while in front a short, gravelled path, bordered by portulaca, led to the paling gate at the branch road which ran into the turnpike a mile or so farther on. In Abel's dreams another house was already rising in the fair green meadow beyond the mill-race. He had consecrated a strip of giant pine to this purpose, and often, while he lingered in the door of his mill, he felt himself battling against the desire to take down his axe and strike his first blow toward the building of Molly's home. His mother might nag at him about Molly now, but let them be married, he told himself, with sanguine masculine assurance, and both women would reconcile themselves to a situation that neither could amend. Before the immediate ache of his longing for the girl, all other considerations evaporated to thin air. He would rather be unhappy with her, he thought passionately, than give her up!
"Abel, if you don't stop mopin' out thar an' come along in, I'll clear off the dishes!" called his mother again in her rasping voice which sounded as if she were choking in a perpetual spasm of moral indignation.
Jerking his shoulders slightly in an unspoken protest, Abel turned and entered the kitchen, where Sarah Revercomb—tall, spare and commanding—was preparing two bowls of mush for the aged people, who could eat only soft food and complained bitterly while eating that. She was a woman of some sixty years, with a stern handsome face under harsh bands of yellowish gray hair, and a mouth that sank in at one corner where her upper teeth had been drawn. Her figure was erect and flat as a lath, and this flatness was accentuated by the extreme scantiness of her drab calico dress. In her youth she had been beautiful in a hard, obvious fashion, and her eyes would have been still fine except for their bitter and hostile expression.
At the table there were Abner Revercomb, some ten or twelve years older than Abel, and Archie, the youngest child, whom Sarah adored and bullied. Blossom was busy about something in the cupboard, and on either side of the stove the old people sat with their small, suspicious eyes fixed on the pan of mush which Sarah was dividing with a large wooden spoon into two equal portions. Each feared that the other would receive the larger share, and each watched anxiously to see into which bowl the last spoonful would fall. For a week they had not spoken. Their old age was racked by a sharp and furious jealousy, which was quite exclusive and not less exacting than their earlier passion of love.
With a finishing swirl of the big wooden spoon, the last drops of mush fell into grandfather's bowl, while a sly and injured look appeared instantly on the face of his wife. She was not hungry, but it annoyed her unspeakably that she should not be given the larger portion of food. Her rheumatism was severer than her husband's, and it seemed to her that this alone should have entitled her to the greater share of attention. There was a fierce contempt in her manner when she alluded to his age or to his infirmities, for although he was three years her elder, he was still chirpy and cheerful, with many summers, as she said resentfully, left in him yet.
"Breakfast is ready, grannies," remarked Sarah, who had allowed her coffee to grow cold while she looked after the others; "are you ready to eat?"
Grandmother's sly little eyes slanted over her hooked nose in the direction of the two bowls which her daughter-in-law was about to sprinkle with sugar. An idea entered her old head which made her chuckle with pleasure, and when her mush had been covered, she croaked out suddenly that she would take her breakfast unsweetened. "I'm too bad to take sugar—give that to him—he has a stomach to stand it," she said. Though her mouth watered for sweets, by this trick she had outwitted grandfather, and she felt that it was better than sugar.
The kitchen was a large, comfortable room, with strings of red peppers hanging from the ceiling, and boards of sliced apples drying on upturned flour barrels near the door. The bright homespun carpet left a strip of bare plank by the stove, and on this stood two hampers of black walnuts ready for storing. A few coloured prints, culled from garden magazines, were tacked on the wall, and these, without exception, represented blossoms of a miraculous splendour and size. In Sarah's straitened and intolerant soul a single passion had budded and expanded into fulfillment. Stern to all mortal things, to flowers alone she softened and grew gentle. From the front steps to the back, the kitchen was filled with them. Boxes, upturned flour barrels, corners of china-shelves and window-sills, showed bowers of luxuriant leaf and blossom. Her calla lilies had long been famous in the county; they had taken first prizes at innumerable fairs, and whenever there was a wedding or a funeral in the neighbourhood, the tall green stalks were clipped bare of bloom. Many were the dead hands that had been laid in the earth clasping her lilies. This thought had been for years the chief solace in her life, and she was accustomed to refer to it in the heat of religious debates, as though it offered infallible proof of her contention. After calla lilies, fuchias and tuberoses did best in her hands, and she had nursed rare night blooming cereus for seven years in the hope that it would arrive at perfection the following June. Her marriage had been a disappointment to her, for her husband, a pleasant, good-looking fellow, had turned out an idler; her children, with the exception of Archie, the youngest, had never filled the vacancy in her life; but in her devotion to flowers there was something of the ecstasy and all of the self-abandonment she had missed in her human relations.
As he sat down at the table, the miller nodded carelessly to his brothers, who, having finished their bacon and cornbread, were waiting patiently until the buckwheat cakes should be ready. The coloured servant was never allowed to cook because, as Sarah said, "she could not abide niggers' ways," and Blossom, standing before the stove, with her apron held up to shield her face, was turning the deliciously browning cakes with a tin cake lifter.
"Ain't they done yet, daughter?" asked Abner in his amiable drawling voice. He was a silent, brooding man, heavily built, with a coarse reddish beard, stained with tobacco juice, which hung over his chest. Since the death of his wife, Blossom's mother, some fifteen years before, he had become more gloomy, more silent, more obstinately unapproachable. He was one who appeared to dwell always in the shadow of a great grief, and this made him generally respected by his neighbours though he was seldom sought. People said of him that he was "a solid man and trustworthy," but they kept out of his way unless there was road mending or a sale of timber to be arranged.
Blossom tossed the buckwheat cakes into a plate and brought them to her father, who helped himself with his knife. When she passed them to Abel, who was feeding his favorite hound puppy, Moses, with bacon, he shook his head and drew back.
"Give them to mother, Blossom, she never eats a bite of breakfast," he said. He was the only one of Sarah's sons who ever considered her, but she was apt to regard this as a sign of weakness and to resent it with contumely.
"I ain't hungry," she replied grimly, "an' I reckon I'd rather you'd say less about my comfort, Abel, and do mo'. Buckwheat cakes don't come well from a son that flies into his mother's face on the matter of eternal damnation."
Without replying, Abel helped himself to the cakes she had refused and reached for the jug of molasses. Sarah was in one of her nagging moods, he knew, and she disturbed him but little. The delight and the desire of first love was upon him, and he was thinking rapturously of the big pine that would go to the building of Molly's house.
Grandmother, who wanted syrup, began to cry softly because she must eat her tasteless mush. "He's got the stomach to stand it," she repeated bitterly, while her tears fell into her bowl.
"What is it, granny? Will you try a bite of buckwheat?" inquired Sarah solicitously. She had never failed in her duty to her husband's parents, and this virtue also, she was inclined to use as a weapon of offense to her children.
"Give it to him—he's got teeth left to chaw on," whimpered grandmother, and her old chest heaved with bitterness because grandfather, who was three years the elder, still retained two jaw teeth on one side of his mouth.
A yellow-and-white cat, after vainly purring against grandmother's stool, had jumped on the window-sill in pursuit of a belated wasp, and Sarah, rushing to the rescue of her flowers, cuffed the animal soundly and placed her in grandfather's lap. He was a lover of cats—a harmless fancy which was a source of unceasing annoyance to his wife.
"Abel, I wish you'd mend that leak in the smokehouse after breakfast," remarked Sarah, in an aggressive tone that meant battle. "Two shingles are gone an' thare four more that want patchin'."
"I can't, I've got work to do at the mill," replied Abel, as he rose from his chair. "Solomon Hatch sent me his corn to grind and he's coming over to get the sacks."
"Well, I reckon I'm worth as much as Solomon Hatch, a little pasty faced critter like that," rejoined Sarah.
"Why can't Archie do it? What is he good for?"
"I'm going hunting with Jim Halloween," returned Archie sullenly, "he's got some young dogs he wants to break in to rabbit running."
"I might have known thar warn't nobody to do what I ask 'em," observed Sarah in the voice and manner of a martyr. "It's rabbits or girls, one or the other, and if it ain't an old hare it's some light-moraled critter like Molly Merryweather."
Abel's face had changed to a dull red and his eyes blazed.
"Say anything against Molly, mother, an' I'll never speak to you again!" he cried out angrily.
"Thar, thar, ma, you an' Abel are too pepper tongued to get into a quarrel," remarked Abner, the silent, who seldom spoke except for the promotion of peace. "I'll mend the roof for you whenever you want it."
"I reckon I've got as much right to use my tongue as anybody else has," retorted Sarah, indignant because a solution had been found and her grievance was annulled. "If a girl ain't a fast one that gets as good as engaged to half the young men in the county, then I'd like to know who is, that's all?"
Then, as Abel called sharply to his fox-hound puppy and flung himself from the room, she turned away and went to sprinkle her calla lilies. There was an agony in her breast, though she would have bitten out her tongue sooner than have confessed it. Her strength lay in the fact that never in her life had she admitted even to herself, that she had been in the wrong.
Outside, a high wind was driving the fallen leaves in swirls and eddies, and as Abel crossed the road to the mill, he smelt the sharp autumn scent of the rotting mould under the trees. Frost still sparkled on the bright green grasses that had overgrown the sides of the mill-race, and the poplar log over the stream was as wet as though the dancing shallows had skimmed it. Over the motionless wheel the sycamore shed its broad yellow leaves into the brook, where they fluttered downward with a noise that was like the wind in the tree-tops.
Inserting a key into the rusty lock, which was much too large for it, Abel opened the door, and counted Solomon Hatch's sacks of grist, which stood in a row beside a raised platform where an old mill-stone was lying. Other sacks belonging to other farmers were arranged in an orderly group in one corner, and his eye passed to them in a businesslike appraisement of their contents. According to an established custom of toll, the eighth part of the grain belonged to the miller; and this had enabled him to send his own meal to the city markets, where there was an increasing demand for the coarse, water-ground sort. Some day he purposed to turn out the old worn-out machinery and supply its place with modern inventions, but as yet this ambition was remote, and the mill, worked after the process of an earlier century, had raised his position to one of comparative comfort and respectability. He was known to be a man of character and ambition. Already his name had been mentioned as a possible future representative of the labouring classes in the Virginia assembly. "There is no better proof of the grit that is in the plain people than the rise of Abel Revercomb out of Abner, his father," some one had said of him. And from the day when he had picked his first blackberries for old Mr. Jonathan and tied his earnings in a stocking foot as the beginning of a fund for schooling, the story of his life had been one of struggle and of endurance. Transition had been the part of the generation before him. In him the democratic impulse was no longer fitful and uncertain, but had expanded into a stable and indestructible purpose.
Before starting the wheel, which he did by thrusting his arm through the window and lifting the gate on the mill-race, Abel took up a broom, made of sedges bound crudely together, and swept the smooth bare floor, which was polished like that of a ballroom by the sacks of meal that had been dragged back and forth over the boards. From the rafters above, long pale cobwebs were blown gently in the draught between the door and window, and when the mill had started, the whole building reverberated to the slow revolutions of the wheel outside.
The miller had poured Solomon Hatch's grist into the hopper, and was about to turn the wooden crank at the side, when a shadow fell over the threshold, and Archie Revercomb appeared, with a gun on his shoulder and several fox-hounds at his heels.
"You'll have to get Abner to help you dress that mill-rock, Abel," he said, "I'm off for the morning. That's a good pup of yours, but he's old enough to begin learning."
With the inherited idleness of the Revercombs, he combined the headstrong impulses and dogged obstinacy of his mother's stock, yet because of his personal charm, these faults were not only tolerated but even admired by his family.
"You're always off in the mornings when there's work to be done," replied Abel, "but for heaven's sake, bring home a string of hares to put ma into a better humour. She whets her tongue on me and I'll be hanged if it's right."
"She never used to do it till you went over to Mr. Mullen's church and fell in love with Molly Merryweather. Great Scott, I'm glad I don't stand in either of your shoes when it comes to that. Life's too short to pay for your religion or your sweetheart every day you live."
"It would have been the same anyway—she's put out with me about nothing. I had a right to go to Old Church if I wanted to, and what on earth has she got against Mr. Mullen anyway, except that he couldn't recite the first chapter in Chronicles? What kind of religion does that take I'd like to know?"
The meal poured softly out of the valve into the trough beneath, and lifting a wooden scoop he bent over and scattered the pile in the centre. A white dust had settled on his hair and clothes, and this accentuated the glow in his face and gave to his whole appearance a picturesque and slightly theatrical cast.
"If it hadn't been Molly, it would have been some one else," he added impulsively. "Ma would be sure to hate any woman she thought I'd fallen in love with. It's born in her to be contrary just as it is in that hopvine out yonder that you can't train up straight."
"All the same, if I were going through fire and water for a girl, I'd be pretty sure to choose one that would make it worth my while at the end. I wouldn't put up with all that hectoring for the sake of anybody that was as sweet to half a dozen other fellows as she was to me."
Abel's face darkened threateningly under his silvered hair.
"If you are trying to hint anything against Molly, you'd as well stop in the beginning," he said. "It isn't right—I'll be hanged if it is!—that every man in the county should be down on a little thing like that, no bigger than a child. It wasn't her fault, was it, if her father played false with her mother?"
"Oh, I'm not blaming her, am I? As far as that goes all the women like her well enough, and so do all the dogs and the children. The trouble seems to be, doesn't it, merely that the men like her too much? She's got a way with her, there's no question about that."
"Why in thunder do you want to blacken her character?"
"I wasn't blackenin' her character. I merely meant that she was a flirt, and you know that as well as I do—better, I shouldn't wonder."
"It's the way she was brought up. Her mother was crazy for ten years before she died, and she taught Molly all that foolishness about the meanness of men."
"Oh, well, it's all right," said Archie carelessly, "only look out that you don't go too near the fire and get scorched."
Whistling to the hounds that were nosing among some empty barrels in a dark corner, he shouldered his gun more firmly and went off to his hunt.
After he had gone, the miller stood for a long while, watching the meal pour from the valve. A bit of chaff had settled on his lashes, but without moving his hand to brush it away, he shook his head once or twice with the gesture of an animal that is stung by a wasp. "Why do they keep at me about her?" he asked passionately. "Is it true that she is only playing with me as she plays with the others?"—but the pain was too keen, and turning away with a sigh, he rested his elbows on the sill of the window and looked out at the moving wheel under the gauzy shadows. The sound of the water as it rushed through the mill-race into the buckets and then fell from the buckets into the whirlpool beneath, was loud in his ears while his quick glance, passing over the drifting yellow leaves of the sycamore, discerned a spot of vivid red in the cornlands beyond. The throbbing of his pulses rather than the assurance of his eyes told him that Molly was approaching; and as the bit of colour drew nearer amid the stubble, he recognized the jacket of crimson wool that the girl wore as a wrap on chill autumn mornings. On her head there was a small knitted cap matching the jacket, and this resting on her riotous brown curls, lent a touch of boyish gallantry to her slender figure. Like most women of mobile features and ardent temperament, her beauty depended so largely upon her mood that Abel had seen her change from positive plainness to amazing loveliness in the space of a minute. Her small round face, with its wonderful eyes, dimpled now over the crimson jacket.
"Abel!" she called softly, and paused with one foot on the log while the water sparkled beneath her. Ten minutes before he had vowed to himself that she had used him badly and he would hold off until she made sufficient amends; but in forming this resolution, he had reckoned without the probable intervention of Molly.
"I thought—as long as I was going by—that I'd stop and speak to you," she said.
He shook his head, unsoftened as yet by her presence. "You didn't treat me fair yesterday, Molly," he answered.
"Oh, I wanted to tell you about that. I quite meant to go with you—only it went out of my head."
"That's a pretty excuse, isn't it, to offer a man?"
"Well, you aren't the only one I've offered it to," she dimpled enchantingly, "the rector had to be satisfied with it as well. He asked me, too, and when I forgot I'd promised you, I said I'd go with him to see old Abigail. Then I forgot that, too," she added with a penitent sigh, "and went down to the low grounds."
"You managed to come up in time to meet Mr. Jonathan at the cross-roads," he commented with bitterness.
A less daring adventurer than Molly would have hesitated at his tone and grown cautious, but a certain blithe indifference to the consequences of her actions was a part of her lawless inheritance from the Gays.
"I think him very good-looking, don't you?" she inquired sweetly.
"Good-looking? I should think not—a fat fop like that."
"Is he fat? I didn't notice it—but, of course, I didn't mean that he was good-looking in your way, Abel."
The small flowerlike shadows trembled across her face, and beneath her feet the waves churned a creamy foam that danced under her like light. His eyes warmed to her, yet he held back, gripped by a passion of jealousy. For the first time he felt that he was brought face to face with a rival who might prove to have the advantage.
"I am coming over!" called Molly suddenly, and a minute later she stood in the square sunshine that entered the mill door.
Had he preserved then his manner of distant courtesy, it is probable that she would have melted, for it was not in her temperament to draw back while her prey showed an inclination for flight. But it was his nature to warm too readily and to cool too late, a habit of constitution which causes, usually, a tragedy in matters of sex.
"You oughtn't to treat me so, Molly!" he exclaimed reproachfully, and made a step toward her.
"I couldn't help forgetting, could I? It was your place to remind me."
Thrust, to his surprise, upon the defensive he reached for her hand, which was withdrawn after it had lain an instant in his.
"Well, it was my fault, then," he said with a generosity that did him small service. "The next time I'll remind you every minute."
She smiled radiantly as he looked at her, and he felt that her indiscretions, her lack of constancy, her unkindness even, were but the sportive and innocent freaks of a child. In his rustic sincerity he was forever at the point of condemning her and forever relenting before the appealing sweetness of her look. He told himself twenty times a day that she flirted outrageously with him, though he still refused to admit that in her heart she was to blame for her flirting. A broad and charitable distinction divided always the thing that she was from the thing that she did. It was as if his love discerned in her a quality of soul of which she was still unconscious.
"Molly," he burst out almost fiercely, "will you marry me?"
The smile was still in her eyes, but a slight frown contracted her forehead.
"I've told you a hundred times that I shall never marry anybody," she answered, "but that if I ever did—-"
"Then you'd marry me."
"Well, if I were obliged to marry somebody, I'd rather marry you than anybody else."
"So you do like me a little?"
"Yes, I suppose I like you a little—but all men are the same—mother used always to tell me so."
Poor distraught Janet Merryweather! There were times when he was seized with a fierce impatience of her, for it seemed to him that her ghost stood, like the angel with the drawn sword, before the closed gates of his paradise. He remembered her as a passionate frail creature, with accusing eyes that had never lost the expression with which they had met and passed through some hour of despair and disillusionment.
"But how could she judge, Molly? How could she judge?" he pleaded "She was ill, she wasn't herself, you must know it. All men are not alike. Didn't I fight her battles more than once, when you were a child?"
"I know, I know," she answered gratefully, "and I love you for it. That's why I don't mind telling you what I've never told a single one of the others. I haven't any heart, Abel, that's the truth. It's all play to me, and I like the game sometimes and sometimes I hate it. Yet, whether I like it or hate it, I always go on because I can't help it. Your mother once said I had a devil that drives me on and perhaps she was right—it may be that devil that drives me on and won't let me stop even when I'm tired, and it all bores me. The rector thinks that I'll marry him and turn pious and take to Dorcas societies, and Jim Halloween thinks I'll marry him and grow thrifty and take to turkey raising—and you believe in the bottom of your heart that in the end I'll fall into your arms and find happiness with your mother. But you're wrong—all—all—and I shan't do any of the things you expect of me. I am going to stay here as long as grandfather lives, so I can take care of him, and then I'll run off somewhere to the city and trim hats for a living. When I was at school in Applegate I trimmed hats for all of the pupils."
"Oh, Molly, Molly, I'll not give you up! Some day you'll see things differently."
"Never—never. Now, I've warned you and it isn't my fault if you keep on after this."
"But you do like me a little, haven't you said so?"
Her frown deepened.
"Yes, I do like you—a little."
"Then I'll keep on hoping, anyhow."
Her smile came back, but this time it had grown mocking.
"No, you mustn't hope," she answered, "at least," she corrected provokingly, "you mustn't hope—too hard."
"I'll hope as hard as the devil, darling—and, Molly, if you marry me, you know, you won't have to live with my mother."
"I like that, even though I'm not going to marry you."
"Come here," he drew her toward the door, "and I'll show you where our house will stand. Do you see that green rise of ground over the meadow?"
"Yes, I see it," her tone was gentler.
"I've chosen that site for a home," he went on, "and I'm saving a good strip of pine—you can see it over there against the horizon. I've half a mind to take down my axe and cut down the biggest of the trees this afternoon!"
If his ardour touched her there was no sign of it in the movement with which she withdrew herself from his grasp.
"You'd better finish your grinding. There isn't the least bit of a hurry," she returned with a smile.
"If you'll go with me, Molly, you may take your choice and I'll cut the tree down for you."
"But I can't, Abel, because I've promised Mr. Mullen to visit his mother."
The glow faded from his eyes and a look like that of an animal under the lash took its place.
"Come with me, not with him, Molly, you owe me that much," he entreated.
"But he's such a good man, and he preaches such beautiful sermons."
"He does—I know he does, but I love you a thousand times better."
"Oh, he loves me because I am pretty and hard to win—just as you do," she retorted. "If I lost my hair or my teeth how many of you, do you think, would care for me to-morrow?"
"I should—before God I'd love you just as I do now," he answered with passion.
A half mocking, half tender sound broke from her lips.
"Then why don't you—every one of you, fall head over ears in love with Judy Hatch?" she inquired.
"I don't because I loved you first, and I can't change, however badly you treat me. I'm sometimes tempted to think, Molly, that mother is right, and you are possessed of a devil."
"Your mother is a hard woman, and I pity the wife you bring home to her."
The softness had gone out of her voice at the mention of Sarah's name, and she had grown defiant and reckless.
"I don't think you are just to my mother, Molly," he said after a moment, "she has a kind heart at bottom, and when she nags at you it is most often for your good."