Possession (Roche, February 1923)/Part 1/Chapter 4

Possession by Mazo de la Roche
Sale at Durras—Gretta van Lowe

CHAPTER IVSale at Durras—Gretta van Lowe

1.

Every spring Mr. Jerrold held a sale of his surplus cattle, and those interested in Holstein breeding came long distances to be present. It was the principal event of the year in the neighbourhood of Brancepeth and Mistwell. Waggonettes, dogcarts, and motors were sent to meet the morning trains, and a substantial lunch was set out in Hobbs's house for those who had made long journeys. There was also a steady stream of farmers' vehicles up to the time of the sale, and for two days after it there was the business of driving or carting away the purchased stock.

The morning broke cloudy and cold. Jagged lines of foam curled across a steel grey lake. Farmers driving by had their collars turned up to their ears. Jock, the collie, raced up and down the road barking ceaselessly. Derek decided to take Windmill with him for company. He would have liked to give the four men a half holiday that they might all go, but he was afraid of Mrs. Machin. There was no doubt about it, he was afraid of her.

There she stood on the flagstones outside the kitchen door, the wind blowing her apron in snowy folds about her stiff black person, her lips twisted in a smile of contempt for the hurrying passersby.

"Fools," she said. "Tumblin' over themselves to pay fancy prices fur cows that's no better than any other cows only they're fed up till their bags is fit to bust. You stop crammin' the high-priced feed down 'em and they soon stop their fancy milkin'. Them Jerrolds make me sick. I can tell you, your uncle had no use for him."

"Why?"

"Well, fur one thing he pays higher wages than anyone hereabouts can afford, and that makes it hard fur the farmers to get good help. Then, when he first come here, he asked old Mr. Vale's advice about his small fruit, and your uncle went over and advised him just what to do and when to do it. But after a couple o' seasons' worry with pickers my fine gentleman flew in a temper and had it all ploughed under and swore he wouldn't have a berry on the place. Your uncle had no respect fur him after that. . . . . place. Phœbe! have ye naught to do but stand gapin' at them ninnys goin' by? Get back to your churn, and be quick about it."

2.

Tiers of seats were raised about the auctioneer's stand for the accommodation of the crowd. These were well filled when Derek and Windmill arrived, so they had to be content with places at the back. From there they looked down over a lively scene. Horses and vehicles of all sorts were tied to trees and fences on the outskirts of the crowd; late comers were hurrying to secure what positions they could; Hobbs was shouting orders to stablemen who were already leading out the heavy, slow-moving animals; the auctioneer and his assistant were consulting over a list. Mr. Jerrold sat on his grey horse near the stand, an expression of mingled pride and amusement on his face.

The auctioneer was loquacious, animated; he punctuated the sales by racy anecdotes; the prices paid filled Derek with surprise. More and more as the afternoon wore on he longed to possess one of these peerless, soft-eyed creatures as the foundation of a new and lucrative herd. Windmill continually urged him to buy, saying that he only wished he had the chance. The auctioneer drew attention to the line of the back, the shape of the udder and teats, the milk-vein of the animal before him. The calf at her side, he affirmed, was the sweetest thing that had ever come under his hammer. The mother had a record of 640 pounds of butter from 17,610 pounds of milk. He was shocked at the languid bidding.

Truly it was getting late, and many were leaving to catch their trains. Derek felt that it was an auspicious time to bid. After a short struggle between himself and an unseen, husky-voiced competitor, the pair were knocked down to him, and the auctioneer congratulated him on the excellence of his judgment. Mr. Jerrold met him as he was leaving and said he had done something he would never repent. He was delighted that Gretta would be next door where he could watch her progress, for she was one of his favourites.

Windmill remained to get the cow, and as Derek walked briskly home, he felt a new sense of elation and proprietorship in Grimstone.

Mrs. Machin was laying tea-towels on the gooseberry bushes in the kitchen garden, and she turned enquiringly toward him as though to ask how the sale had gone. For some reason he did not wish to tell her of his purchase just then. He passed her and went on to the stream, on whose grassy bank he could see Hugh McKay shearing sheep. Gunn, Newbigging, and Phœbe were looking on, now and then giving a helping hand.

The sheep lay as though dead, her pale tongue lolling, her legs stiff; only her thick, white eyelashes flickered above her yellow eyes as she felt the shears pass over her body.

"Ah, Rosebud," said Hugh, comfortingly, "you're no sae bad as you think you are."

"It's a fine fleece. Ain't it, Mr. Vale?" said Phœbe.

"Wonderful. Be careful not to nip her, Hugh."

McKay laughed. "I never cut a sheep in my life, sir. And there's the fleece all complete in one piece for ye. Get up, Rosebud. Are ye wantin' to lie all day?"

She sprang suddenly to her feet and ran bleating to her twin lambs, who stared in stupefication, scarce recognizing their dingy, rotund mother in this skipping, snow-white creature. They nosed her for a moment and then, ferociously, began to suck.

There was a guffaw from Newbigging, Gunn, and Phœbe, but McKay smiled tenderly at his handiwork.

"We'll be hæin' a new wee lamb afore the morn," he whispered to Vale.

"Really?" Derek looked speculatively over the little flock.

"It's Nonesopretty, over yon. I like the new lambs awful well. I wish ye'd get more sheep, Mr. Vale. This is a paltry few. I could do with five times as many."

"I bought a cow and calf at the sale," said Derek.

Phœbe overheard. "A cow from Jerrold's!" she cried. "Mrs. Machin will be in a fine taking. She hates them Holsteins. She says the milk's so poor you could see a silver coin lying in the bottom of a pail of it."

"I did not buy the cow to please her," said Derek sternly.

Nothing abashed, Phœbe chattered on. McKay caught another sheep and began shearing it. Presently they saw Windmill driving Gretta van Lowe through the gateway, her thick-legged milk-white calf gambolling at her side. Windmill drove her gently with an air of importance. As she came up to the group by the stream they closed about her, admiring her fine proportions and looking into her large, sad face. Newbigging caught the calf by the head and held him still.

"He's as big as a year-old Jersey heifer already," exclaimed Windmill proudly. "Stop your sheep shearing and look at him, Hugh."

"I've no time to spare. I'll go down to the byre and see them later."

"Here comes Mrs. Machin!"

She was approaching them at a slow, solemn gait. She did not speak but, throwing a look of bitter scorn at the cow, passed on into the barn, slamming the door behind her. She did not look in Vale's direction for weeks.

3.

The next morning Vale was about early. On the way to the stables he met Hugh McKay coming to the house carrying a newborn lamb.

"I telled ye we'd be hæn a wee lamb the morn," he said, beaming with happiness. "I thought I'd tak it to the kitchen to warm it. It's a weak one."

"You are a woolly little fellow," said Derek, stroking it. "How is Gretta, Hugh?"

"Ah, she'll no let down her milk nor taste her mash. She's homesick for the fine byre yonder. She'll do no guid."

Derek hurried to see her, full of anxiety.

Gretta van Lowe stood solemnly alone in the cow stable. The stalls must have been built for smaller cattle; her flanks projected far into the passage. An untouched pail of mash stood before her.

"Why isn't she out with the other cows?" Derek asked Gunn who was cleaning the stable.

"They all tuk after her and butted her," he replied, grinning. "There's none of them like her. They dinna like the colour o' her."

"Rubbish. Well, turn her into the yard where she'll get the sun. She'll never thrive in this dark hole. Where's the calf?"

"In the meadow wi' the ither calves. He's fine."

Majestically Gretta left the byre and lay down in the yard.

She never reëntered. When night came she refused so stubbornly to go in with the other cows, that it was held wise to humour her. Each day after that she seemed to decline in spirits and strength. The veterinary was sent for and prescribed, but it was of no avail. Her milk became unfit for use. It was plain that she was going to die. Nothing would induce her to enter the stable, and Derek began to hate the sight of the large black and white mound in the stable-yard. He was glad when he saw her, at last, heaved on to a stone-boat and hauled to the woods for burial.

Mrs. Machin became affable.

"The vet said it was ulcer of the stomach, didn't he?" she asked.

"Yes."

"Is Mr. Jerrold goin' to make you pay for her?"

"Just for the calf."

"Oh, well, you can easily get a good price for him, Mr. Vale."

"I'm not going to sell him," said Derek, testily. "It's my farm, and if I want an odd bull or so for a pet, I suppose I can have it."

Because he thought every one was against the young bull, it became his favorite creature on the farm.

4.

Derek had written to his brother to send him his canoe which he had left in Halifax. It arrived one evening in June, and the Scotchmen, who had never seen one before, carried it to the stream, Derek following with Mrs. Machin and Phœbe, eager to see him set out.

"There isn't money enough in Canada to pairsuade me to go oarin' in yon skittish thing," said Newbigging, as the canoe slid into the water. "I've knocked aboot in vessels of all sorts, but I draw the line at eggshells."

"I'd go in a minute," said Phœbe, with a look at Vale.

"You'll do nothing of the sort," said Mrs. Machin. "And don't be impident."

At the same moment Hugh McKay pinched her, and Windmill frowned and shook his head.

Derek was already paddling down the stream, enjoying the pleasant feeling that the canoe was conscious of him and responded eagerly to him. All but Mrs. Machin ran before him to the little bridge where they collected to watch him pass beneath. He was getting very fond of them, he thought, as he looked up at their excited, sunburned faces.

"Mr. Vale! Ye can paddle your ain canoe, noo," called Gunn after him.

"Take me next time, Mr. Vale!" cried Phœbe; and shrieked again at a second, severer pinch from Hugh.

He was alone save for a little group of fishing boats in the distance, and a flock of gulls that flew high above him, angelic creatures that beat their silvery wings against the rosy sky.

He paddled close to the shore in the direction of Durras, half hoping to be seen by the Jerrolds. When he guessed that he was opposite their gates he laid his dripping paddle athwart and lit a cigarette.

Scarcely had an ash formed when the figure of Grace Jerrold appeared on the bank above him. Outlined against the sky, and dressed in white, she seemed akin to the shining gulls, and, like them, more of the air than of earth.

She called, "How happy you look! Is it as nice as the North West Arm of the Harbour?"

"Oh, yes. But I miss the tang of salt in the air. Won't you come for a paddle?"

"How should I get down?"

"Fly. You look as though you might. Just spread your wings and gently float down to this blue cushion in front of me."

"I'd like to, but my father and I are going for a walk. I am waiting for him."

"To-morrow then?"

"I'm sorry. To-morrow I am going away on a visit. It will be several weeks. But when I come back—"

"Very well. The canoe shall be freshly varnished and the tennis court got ready."

Mr. Jerrold joined his daughter and the two stood looking down at Vale as he paddled away.

"How well he paddles."

"I can paddle just as well," said her father. "I shall go out with him sometimes while you are away, dear."

"Oh, please don't, William! You are much too heavy for a canoe. Promise me, or I sha'n't have a minute's peace."

"But I can swim like a fish, Gay."

"I know. But I don't want you two out in a canoe. You're both too reckless."

"Vale reckless?"

"Oh, yes. I think there's a headlong look in his eyes."

"And what sort of look is there in mine?" he asked, bending them on her.

"A look like a wild eagle. Will you promise?"

"Yes, darling. May I have him to dinner then? Or are you afraid we should overeat?"

"Yes, have him to dinner. Look, he is almost out of sight."

They turned to walk, holding each other's hands. The sun was gone and the clear, pale moon was gaining colour every moment. The gulls, too, had disappeared, and in their place a flock of cliff swallows darted about, silent as bats.