Possession (Roche, February 1923)/Part 1/Chapter 11

CHAPTER XIThe Rill in the Wood

1.

When spring came Derek had the new red sleigh stored away under canvas. He heaved a deep sigh as he gave the order, for there had been no snow all winter, and the sleigh had never been out of the carriage house. Still, it had been a pleasant winter, days when there was always something of interest on the farm, long evenings spent before the fireside at Durras. His relations with Grace Jerrold had become happy again, though not quite so happy as before Edmund's visit. Still, sometimes there were little flashes of atoning tenderness between them, when her gentle, ironic smile would become almost maternal.

At Grimstone things went very well, though there was occasionally some roughness of temper in the men thrown together so constantly, with little amusement, except what they made for themselves. Windmill came in for a good deal of chaff because of his attentions to Miss Carss. They were often seen walking on the bluffs in the moonlight, his arm about her shapely waist, and her long scarf streaming in the wind.

Phœbe lost a front tooth in February, broken off while biting a hard russet apple. Not at all abashed by the loss, she smiled, it seemed, more broadly than ever, as though she were rather proud of the gap. It was evident that she was secure in Hugh's love and admiration; as a matter of truth, no man could look on the milk and roses of Phœbe's cheeks or the subtle curves of her smooth arms and neck without admiration.

It was a forward spring, and all hands were needed for the rush of farm work. Derek, therefore, was exasperated, even hurt, when Gunn came to him one morning in April and announced that he had engaged to work for Chard. He wished to leave that night.

"Well, Gunn, it is very annoying," said Derek, "after my keeping you in comparative idleness all winter, to have you leave me just when you would be of some use."

"Comparative idleness!" cried Gunn. "Idleness! What about all them drains we dug, and the care of the stock? Do ye ca' that idleness?"

"Two men could easily have done what the four of you did. Do you suppose for a minute, that I should have kept you sitting beside the stove all winter if I had known you would leave in the spring?"

"Well, I'm goin' anyway." His small black eyes were sulky.

"What the devil's the matter? Is Chard paying you more?"

"It's no money. It's environment. I dinna like the environment here. For one thing, I'm sick to death o' Mrs. Machin's cookin'. She maks our porridge so stiff ye could stumble over it, and she gie's us clout puddin's nearly every day. She doesn't gie us what you get on your table at all. Mrs. Chaird is a fine cook. She bakes pies and cakes every morning. Their Dick tells me he's treated just like one o' the family. Another thing. Newbigging and I can't get on togither and never shall. And I'm awfu' sick o' watchin' Phœbe and Hughie spoon, and o' Windmill and his upstairt ways."

"It is time you went. But, you know, I have the power to hold you for a month's notice, Gunn."

Gunn grinned. "I dinna think I'd be much guid if I was held," he said.

"Well, you're no prize at your best," said Derek. "You can go."

Shortly afterwards Gunn carried his tin box through the gate. That afternoon, walking through his orchard, Derek saw him at work hoeing among Chard's gooseberry bushes, Chard by his side. "Chard will get the last squeak out of him, and I wish him luck," thought Derek.

2.

Windmill and Newbigging were spraying the orchard. Windmill held the hose while Newbigging pumped the machine. A glittering green rainbow of the evil-smelling Bordeaux mixture curved above the freshly budded trees. Newbigging sang a sailor's chanty as he pumped. His mind seemed full of the sea those spring days, and Derek feared that some day he, too, would get restless and leave. In spite of Mrs. Machin's protest, he raised the wages of the remaining men.

He climbed the low fence at the end of the orchard and, passing the acres of pruned beny canes, entered the lane. He intended to inspect a field of fall wheat at the back of the farm, now submerged by recent rains.

At the edge of the wood he heard his name called, and saw Mr. Jerrold striding towards him across the grass meadow. His dogs were as always at his heels. He came up and rested his arm on the fence. He began to talk with, what seemed to Vale, rather forced cheerfulness, of the prospect of early crops. Presently he said, looking into Derek's eyes with sudden seriousness:

"I wonder if you could lend me some money."

"Rather," said Derek, quickly, trying not to seem taken aback. "How much?"

"I know you're surprised at my asking, Vale, but things have gone very badly with me the past year. I have notes to meet. Expenses are devilishly high. It takes a pile of money just to pay the men's wages. Of course, last year was exceptional. Everything went against me. It will probably never happen again. As a matter of fact, I can see the day approaching when Durras will flourish and repay me all the money I have put in it. In the meantime—" he gave his confident smile—"I thank God I have a good friend who comes to my assistance."

"Mr. Jerrold," said Derek, "I wish you would get rid of Hobbs. I don't think he is the best man for this place. He talks impressively, and he understands his work, I grant, but he spends a great deal of time on the road driving that fast white horse, or boasting about his achievements at the Duke of York. Mrs. Machin says—oh, well, you needn't laugh, she's a pretty shrewd old head—she says that you could do with far fewer men; and you told me yourself that a carload of your apples went to waste last year, and you lost Count Robert because Hobbs didn't send for the vet in time. I hope you don't mind my talking like this."

A shadow flitted over Mr. Jerrold's vigorous, sanguine face. "No, no. I don't mind a bit. It's true, too, what you say. But, look here, Vale, are you under the impression that Hobbs is a poor man? That seems a ridiculous question . . . the truth is . . . oh, Lord! I've borrowed money from the man. An uncle died in the Old Country two years ago. Left him rich. I haven't borrowed a little. I've borrowed a lot." He stood shamefaced, like a boy who has made confession, hitting his leg with the stick he carried.

Derek was aghast. "Why did Hobbs stay on then—after the fortune was left him?"

"I don't know. Said he liked the job. Hopes some day perhaps—well, he's a fool. I'll pay him off very soon and fire him. I'm tired of him; though in some ways I don't see how I shall replace him."

"Well, I am very glad you came to me," said Derek. "How much do you want?"

He was surprised at the largeness of the sum mentioned by Mr. Jerrold, but he promised to write a cheque for it that day.

3.

A little stream, nothing more than a rill, nosed its way delicately among the ferns and brambles of the Grimstone wood, and, after curving about a bank of violets, slipped under the boundary fence into Durras, hurried over a sloping meadow and was lost in the creek.

When Mr. Jerrold and he had parted Derek strolled musingly along the bank of the rill, his mind dwelling, now on Mr. Jerrold's ill fortune, now, half-consciously, upon a certain melancholy unrest within himself. He was absentminded, erratic, changeable, and he wondered vaguely why. He had set out to inspect the fall wheat, and now he did not care whether it were submerged or not. He was much more interested in the fate of an empty bird's nest, doubtless torn from its branch by some boy, robbed of its eggs, and thrown in the little stream. It bobbed and jigged like some ludicrous old boat; its progress was stayed by a few spears of grass; it was free again, and caught in a tiny eddy, whirled and danced as though it had never held five throbbing little hearts within its woven curve.

The white turkey-hen came from under an elderberry bush, trailing her slender feet, and craning her neck to peer at the bird's nest. She gave Derek a gloomy yet not unfriendly glance. "She feels like I do," thought Derek, "and Newbigging is the same. There's a vagabond streak in all three of us." She swept back into the shadow of the bush and sank wearily and yet mysteriously to her nest. Derek followed her and looked down. "You know," he said, "I'm perfectly aware of what you're up to. And it's no use. You never bring anything out. I don't believe there's anything to bring. That empty nest was an omen for you. Better give up trying and just be ornamental." She looked out at him, her head delicately poised, with the cold, aloof regard of a snake.

A meadow lark rose from its nest in the meadow beyond. Turning his eyes to watch its flight Derek saw Grace Jerrold kneeling bareheaded by the rill. Her face was half-hidden, but her posture suggested sadness. She sad, too, on this mirthful day of spring! As he looked, she raised her hand from the moist grass and held it to her eyes. She was quietly crying. Again she laid her hand on the grass—a gentle white hand, he thought, like a flower. He wanted very much to comfort her. But how to speak—how to pass comfort through this damnable barbed wire fence! His eyes fell on the bird's nest. He snatched it up. It should bear the cargo of his comfort past that barbed barrier. He took a small note book from his pocket, tore out a leaf, and wrote, very carefully, so that one might read it easily through tears—"Please don't cry." He folded it, laid it in the nest, now a useless derelict no longer, and set it carefully in the middle of the rill just under the fence. He loosed it. For a space it floated languidly against a spray of watercress, then a masterful current took it in hand, and hurried it quickly on its mission. The rill broadened where Grace knelt and Derek feared for a moment that his note would be rushed past her unseen, but the instant the nest appeared before her, the white hand that had been raised to wipe another tear, darted out and swept it ashore. She opened the note. She read. She sprang to her feet and faced him. He could see then that her white cheeks were dabbled with tears.

"You looked like a Greek girl," he said, to make light of the situation, "kneeling to pray to the deity of the stream."

"Offering my tears," she said, with a little smile, coming towards him. She still held the nest as though it were a treasure. Derek suddenly remembered his conversation with Fawnie among the raspberry canes about a goldfinch's nest.

"Can I help?" he asked.

"That's the trouble. I'm crying because father has asked you to help. I begged him not to. But he has. When I saw you two talking—and your expressions—I knew."

"You know too," he said, gently, "that it gives me real pleasure to help your father. And it will make it easier for me to ask his help some day. Think how gladly he would give it."

"Oh, but you don't understand! Things are going very badly with us. Of course, William will repay you this loan, but—he is so optimistic, and he does not foresee great difficulties arising—as I do. But don't let us talk of it any more. Tell me where you found the nest. You know, that was rather a sweet thing you did. I sha'n't forget it."

He noticed then that she was wearing a white skirt and a close-fitting green jersey. Her bronze hair was loosened from its usual smoothness by the wind. He thought she looked the very spirit of spring.

"Tell me," she said, suddenly, "if you had it to do over again would you come to Grimstone as you did? Or should you sell it and stick to Halifax and your profession?"

"I should come if it were only for the sake of being near you." His heart began to beat quickly as he heard his own words. He was moved by an exquisite desire to take her into his arms, to press the feminine softness of the silk jersey against his rough tweed coat, to smell the perfume of that sunny bronze hair. Yet there stood the fence!

She saw the look in his eyes. He felt that she read him. They both laughed. Was she laughing with him or at him? Though he laughed he had a feeling of chagrin. He felt angry with her. Angrier still when he fancied she looked relieved as the figure of Hobbs approached on his white horse.

Hobbs touched his hat. He said, "I'm sorry to inform you, Mr. Vale, that those Welsh ponies of yours have broken down the fence by our wheat fields. Your horses and cows are in there now. I'm just sending some men up to turn them out. Sorry to interrupt you."