CHAPTER IAn Earring Upon the Ear of the Guilty
The Sharroe family had promised to pick fruit at Grimstone that summer. They were expected any day; and it was high time they came, for under every strawberry leaf red berries winked ripely, growing redder hour by hour. The weather had become hot and dry; a strong wind blew the sandy dust in clouds from the driveway all day till sundown, when it fell, leaving the air heavy and oppressive.
Vale was in his bedroom, washing, and brushing his hair before going to Durras to spend the evening. He heard the sound of voices, and cries of children on the road, and went to the window, hoping that it might be the Sharroes. That wayward family was indeed turning in at the gate. No imposing figure of Solomon Sharroe led them now, but his squatty wife carrying an immense bundle; and there was Fawnie, and Jammery; and Esther and Maggie with their husbands; and Charley and Bobby; and Beulah and Alma (each bearing a baby in her arms) and, last of all, the idiot boy, riding on the back of a brother scarce larger than himself.
Poor, ignorant, innocent children! He had intended having a new cottage built for them this season, but they must once more make shift with the old shack. And little Fawnie. . . . He wondered whether she would want a hen to set this year. He remembered her little, round, coffee-coloured neck, and her even teeth, like so many pearls. And those small, supple, berry-stained hands. "You are a little baggage, Fawnie," he had said to her, in his moment of chagrin. "You mean I act like I was white," she had answered.
He went slowly from his room to the passage and took his straw hat from the rack. He whistled for a half-grown Irish terrier pup that Mr. Jerrold had given him, but the puppy did not come. He went to the kitchen to look for him, fearing that Phœbe was feeding him a second supper.
As he expected, the puppy was there, his sides drawn together, his legs apart, as he wolfed the greasy contents of a bowl. "Phœbe! Phœbe!" expostulated Derek, "How often have I told you not to let that little brute gorge himself!"
"I can't help it," said Phœbe, "the creature gives me no peace till I do."
There was a chuckling sound at the door and Derek saw the round faces of Beulah and Alma pressed against the screen.
"Phœbe," said Beulah, grinning, "kin I have a point of milk?"
"Oh," cried Phœbe, impatiently, "you and your points of milk! The moment you arrive, I'm running to the milk jug, or the paraffin jar, or the butter crock. Where's your money?" Beulah showed a few blackened coppers, and Phœbe went to the cellar, still scolding.
Beulah cautiously opened the door and put her rough black head inside. "Say," she whispered, "my Maw wants to see you—up at the shack—I was to say, come now."
"What does she want me for? Tell her to come here if she wants to see me."
"She don' want the old woman and Phœbe to hear. She says there'll be a lot of trouble if you don' come."
"Very well," said Derek, "but if she thinks I will pay any more for the picking she's mistaken."
Phœbe brought the milk and Derek set out through the orchard with the children. It was dusk, and a lantern had been lighted in the old part of the shack. A red shaft of light through the open door pierced the dimness of the orchard like the gleam of a baleful eye. Under the trees the air was intensely sultry. As Derek drew near, the two little girls suddenly darted away from his side, so that he approached alone. At the same instant several dark figures passed out of the shack and appeared to go around to the addition.
When Derek stood in the doorway, only the old squaw, Fawnie, Esther, and Jammery were inside. Fawnie was standing under the lantern. In the red glow her cheeks had the bloom of a dark, ripe peach. Her lips were pressed together in an inscrutable smile. Esther and Jammery stood with bent heads, but the old woman turned a look of thunderous fury on Derek.
"Look here, Mr. Vale," she said, in a thick voice, "I want you to take that woman o' yours away out o' here. I won't stand her around me any longer."
Derek stared at her in astonishment. "What woman?" he said, sharply. "What do you mean?"
"That woman there," she replied jerking her head towards Fawnie. "That woman that's got a baby born of yours last April. You get her out o' here or I'll kill her."
Derek turned to Esther—she had always seemed a sensible girl. "Is your mother crazy?" he asked.
Esther answered composedly, "No, she ain't crazy, she's just mad. Fawnie's got a little boy belongin' to you and Maw says she won't have any white babies livin' with her."
Derek looked at her directly, ignoring the old squaw. "Well, she has Alma. She's half white. She's yours, isn't she?"
"Yes, but I was married to her paw, all right. He got killed one winter—loggin'."
"Alma!" shouted the mother. "Let me at that girl! I'll kill her yet, with her white face like dough! She looks down on her old grandmaw. She thinks I'm like the dirt under her feet. She'd like to wipe her feet on me. She'd like to spit on me. I'll take an axe and chop her head off yet. Jus' let me at that girl. . . . Fawnie, you show Mr. Vale the papoose that you got of his."
Fawnie, still with her inscrutable smile, turned to one of the bunks and picked up a rolled shawl. She opened it and showed something that slept curled up like a mouse. Derek saw that the down on its head gleamed like silver in the lantern light.
Fawnie smiled at it adoringly. "My little baby," she said. "My own little baby." She seemed singularly undisturbed by the storm about her. It appeared that they might do with her what they wished, if only she be allowed to keep her plaything. With a violent gesture the mother snatched it from her and thrust it into Derek's arms. "Here!" she shouted, "take your brat—and take Fawnie, too—or I'll kill 'em!" Derek would have dropped the child, but Jammery took it from him lightly, and, with an imploring look at the old squaw, said: "Please don't make so much noise. Let me go out with Mr. Vale, and talk things over quietly. You come too, Fawnie."
"You take them out and don't bring them back," said Mrs. Sharroe.
Thankful to escape from the insufferable odors of the shack, Derek drew a deep breath of the night air. Fawnie, Jammery, the child in his arms, and he, moved some distance into the orchard. The puppy, with short, sharp cries, started off in pursuit of something in the dark.
"Honestly," said Jammery, under his breath, "I think you'll have to take her away till the old woman cools down. She's pretty dangerous. It isn't just what she says—sue does things. You'd hardly believe the way she can act, Mr. Vale. Honestly, she ought to be locked up when she gets these spells. Would you mind showing Mr. Vale your shoulders, Fawnie? If I light a match, I think he can get an idea . . . just loosen your dress."
He struck a light, and Derek, as one in a dream, peered at the girl's shoulder off which she had drawn her loose cotton blouse. "Ah, they scarcely show in this light at all," murmured Jammery, "but move your fingers over them. Feel." He took Derek's hand in his and laid it on her back. Derek, moving his fingers, felt one hot welt after another on the tender flesh. "By God!" he exclaimed, "I'll make that old woman suffer for this. I'll have her arrested."
"No, no," said Jammery, "don't do that. Think of the way she'd talk. She'd tell how you ruined the girl. Everything will be all right if you just keep Fawnie and the baby out of her sight for a few days."
"Very well," said Derek, "I'll take them down to the house now. There's plenty of room. But you tell the old squaw that I won't stand anything more from her. She's got .to behave or to jail she goes. And you may be certain I'll never have her here another year."
"No, of course, not. But Fawnie's a good girl. She'll never make you sorry you protected her. It's art awful thing for a young girl to get walloped like that, so soon after childbirth."
"Stop talking about it," said Derek. It hurt him even to think of such barbarity. "Come along, Fawnie. Poor little child."
When they emerged from the orchard, Derek tried to see Fawnie's face but he could not. Yet he had the impression that she was still smiling in the darkness. He could make out the curve of her arms about the baby. He still felt like one in a dream. All this seemed most unreal, and, suddenly, he remembered that July night, a year ago, and the same dark girl whose face he could not see. And here were they two once more—and a third—the silver-haired being in the shawl—born, one might say, of that flash of lightning that had shown them the coign in the cliff.
A steamer was sweeping past; she showed a row of illuminated windows, and a brighter light at the bow. A bell clanged as she passed. . . . Now they were beneath the heavy aching scent of the locust flowers.
"Fawnie," said Derek, "we'll go in at the front door, so the men won't see you."
"The front door," she repeated, in a tone of awe. "Right in at the front door."
A hanging lamp burned in the hall. He hesitated a moment and then took her arm and guided her up the stairs. He had decided that he would give her the bedroom that had been got ready for Edmund at Christmas. There she could keep herself and her baby in seclusion for a few days, till the old squaw should quiet down. He would give Fawnie a little allowance, which would put her in quite a different position in her mother's household.
He lighted two candles that stood on the dressing-table. Their reflection flashed out in the looking-glass: his strong figure in white, his fair face flushed, little knots of perplexity between his brows; she, dusky, receptive, immobile, holding her baby to her breast.
He felt the allure of her presence in that remembered quiver of the nerves, but, pushing the sensation from him, he said.
"Now, I'm going to send Mrs. Machin to you. She'll fix you up for the night."
"No, I won't have her," with a stubborn shake of the head. "I'm scared of her, Durek. Just leave me here and I'll lay on the bed as nice as anything. I won't have that ole woman scoldin' me. I've had enough scoldin'."
"Very well. But I'll get her to give me some sheets and you can make your own bed."
"Sheets! My goodness"—her lips curved into a smile—"I would like sheets—and a white piller-case."
"Well," said Mrs. Machin, when he had told her as much of the story as he thought was good for her to know, "so you expect me to wait on an Indian girl and her bastard brat, eh? Give 'em my best sheets, eh? And towels with rick-rack on the ends? What do you take me for, Mr. Vale? A simpleton?" Mrs. Machin was making the porridge for breakfast, and now she stirred it with all her might, and whacked the wooden porridge stick that was nearly as old as she, on the side of the porridge pot. "What do you take me for, Mr. Vale?" she repeated. "A simpleton to let a dirty Indian into one of my bedrooms? How should I get rid of her again—"
"I'll see to that."
"You've seen to about enough," she retorted grimly. "You haven't told me who that child belongs to, but I know what everybody'll say. They'll say it's yours. Now the Vales have always been respectable. Grimstone is the grandest old place in the countryside, and would you go and disgrace us all?"
"My God," said Derek, "would you send that poor child back to her crazy mother to be beaten again, perhaps killed?"
"Why did she wait till she was coming here to beat her? Why did she bring her back here at all? Just because she thought you was easy prey. Leave me to deal with them Indians, Mr. Vale. I understand 'em, through and through, from their dirty black hair to their sneaky, flat feet. You leave 'em to me."
"Mrs. Machin," said Derek, firmly, "I am going to protect that young girl. Get me some sheets for her bed."
"I won't do nothing of the sort," she repeated, attacking the porridge with renewed spite. "If she sleeps here, she sleeps on the mattress or the floor. It don't matter to me."
"Very well. I'll get the sheets myself," He left her angrily, and strode through the house and up the stairway. He pulled open a heavy drawer in an old chest of drawers that stood at the top of the stairs. He knew that the bed linen was kept there. He had barely extracted a pair of sheets and was searching for pillow cases when Mrs. Machin came panting up the stairs behind him. She carried a lamp in her hand which she set down heavily on the chest.
"Here," she said, thickly, "if it's got to be done, I'll do it. I won't have you messin' about in my linen." She took the sheets from him roughly, and, after examining them with a groan, gave him two of coarser material, and a patched pillow case.
With a curt "thanks," Derek left her and went to Fawnie's door. He tapped.
The door opened a little way. He saw that Fawnie had laid the baby on the bed, and had opened the small drawers on either side of the looking-glass, doubtless in the hope of discovering hidden finery.
"Here are sheets," he said. "There is a quilt on the bed. Now make it up quickly, like a good girl, and be off to sleep. You're safe."
"And make the most of this night, in a proper bed," interposed Mrs. Machin, "for it's likely the last you'll ever have."
The two women faced each other for a moment, as might a cynical old cat and an enquiring, yet self-possessed, little animal of the forest.
Derek hurriedly went downstairs, fearful of a scene. But there was none. He heard the door softly close, then Mrs. Machin's slowly retreating footsteps. He did not go to Durras, as he had intended but, descending the steps to the shore, walked up and down the hard sand, for a long time, smoking.
He saw the light extinguished in the room upstairs. Even yet the whole thing seemed a preposterous dream. That child. . . . Well, he had no doubt about it. Still, it was not the child, but Fawnie, who occupied his thoughts. He saw her in the shack, in the glow of the lantern, her lips folded together in that inscrutable, slightly derisive smile, as though the rest had been puppets gesticulating about her. Then her composure before Mrs. Machin. It was really fine; though, Heaven only knew how her heart may have been tapping on her side. What was there about her? Some odd barbaric charm. Even old Solomon had seen it, known that she was not like the others. "Her man will have to pick for the two of them," he had said. She was a being for love alone—yet love was not the word—it was ridiculous—simply she must be cared for. She was Oriental, like some strange, sweet fruit that allured, even though one knew it were poison.
What would Grace Jerrold think of his bringing Fawnie into his house, protecting her? She would understand; she would sympathize. But the child—she must never know of that; he grew hot all over at the very thought of her knowing it. Anyway, the night was insufferable, no wonder he was hot. Not the faintest ripple disturbed the sombre ebony of the lake. He longed for a storm to clear the air. Awful weather on the strawberries. Thank God, he would have plenty of pickers tomorrow. Fresh crates were needed. He must order them. . . .
It was late when he went into the house. The oil lamp was still burning on the dresser at the head of the stairs. Mrs. Machin evidently had forgotten it. He began to ascend slowly to put it out, but had only mounted a few steps when he perceived that she herself was sitting in a straight-backed chair by the dresser knitting at a grey stocking.
"Whatever are you doing up so late?" he asked, dreading the answer.
"Well," she said, her needles clicking with precision, "now that yon girl has got into one of our bedrooms I'm going to see to it that she stays there."
"You don't mean to say you are going to sit there all night?"
"It looks like it, don't it?" she snapped.
There was nothing more to be said, so Derek went to his room.