Possession (Roche, February 1923)/Part 2/Chapter 11

CHAPTER XILove among the Hummocks

1.

Hobbs got his knee put out in the New Year while playing hockey with a team composed of his own workmen against the Mistwell players. He was confined to his room for five weeks and Derek spent an hour or two every day with him, smoking, talking endlessly about cattle breeding and poultry raising, and playing chess, for which it turned out Hobbs had a passion.

Of his other passion—that concerning Miss Pearsall—he talked little and haltingly, but Derek gathered that he was acquiring her as a suitable mistress for Durras, one who would give a tone to the place that he never could. Derek found this rather pathetic, and he pitied Hobbs. He should not have liked to be tied up to Miss Pearsall himself and he wished Hobbs would not do it, but the man was determined that Durras should not lack tone. "The one drawback is," he confided, "that I shall have to go to church on Sundays, and that's my special day for loafing about the stables. In the stables I'm happy and cheerful, but put me in church and I'm a lost man."

Derek still kept up the fiction of Fawnie's illness. Well, she wasn't exactly sick, he said, but she had a delicate chest, couldn't stand the cold. Hobbs was sympathetic. "Your wife is what I call a raving beauty," he said. "As far as women go, just as women, well—if a fellow has the nerve—there's a woman for you."

The worst was when Mr. Jerrold brought some jelly to the door that Grace had made for Fawnie—jelly that enclosed a cluster of California grapes. Derek was miserable. Full of shame he strode up and down the room, eyeing the jelly as it quivered on the dark blue plate. "This will never do, Buckskin," he groaned. "This will have to stop. I've simply got to tell. There's no getting out of it. Buckskin—d'you hear? I've got to tell that you and I are just batching it."

He and Buckskin ate the jelly.

2.

One morning Bill Rain asked Derek to go up to the shack. His father was anxious to see him. Derek found the sick man lying on the floor behind the stove. A quilt was wrapped about him and his stockinged feet projected into the middle of the room.

He had grown terribly emaciated, a bright fever spot burned on either cheek, his hollow eyes sparkled with pain and hatred.

"My old woman and my son don't mind if I die here," he said. "I been tellin' them for weeks to fetch you up to see me. I got to get to the hospital at Yeoland for an operation or I die here. You see that, Mr. Vale. You pay my way and I work for you when I am well—yes—my fingers to the bone—yes—till I fall in my tracks. I'm a strong man, I tell you, no poor rat like that Bill—but this pain's killin' me. Oh, send me to the hospital, Mr. Vale, and I work for you till your farm's the finest in the country. Oh, this awful pain!"

"Don't worry any more," soothed Vale. "I'll send Bill with you today. You'll be all right." Outside he said to Bill sternly: "Why didn't you let me know your father was in this state? I thought he was getting better."

"Well, maw and me kept thinkin' he would git better, but he's worse. He's like a crazy man sometimes. He keeps his stick beside him and gives us some awful cracks, and yells at the little girls enough to ruin their wits."

"You must take him to the hospital today. He should have gone long ago."

It was arranged that Derek and Lottie should attend to the stock and do the milking for the three days that were required for Bill's journey to Yeoland where the hospital was, and where, nearby, the Rains had some relations.

Derek was glad when the fruit waggon, on the bottom of which Bill had made a bed of straw for his father, passed into the road. He felt that some blame was attached to himself for not having enquired more closely into Rain's condition.

Bill returned on the third day and told how his father had suffered on the journey and was now lying in the hospital awaiting an operation. But he was cheerful, he said, and full of gratitude to his benefactor.

His benefactor! Vale groaned. He who had let him lie and rot all winter.

3.

In a fortnight (it was now late in February) a letter came from Yeoland to the Rains. Lottie and Bill brought it to Vale to read to them. The lamp had just been lighted, and, as he bent forward in the circle of lamplight to read, he was struck by the pathos of the two waiting figures by the door—Bill clutching his cap, Lottie her shawl, attentive, anxious, dark, humble.

Rain was dead all right. The cold, dry letter of the matron said so. They must come at once if they wanted the body. (That poor, lank, huddled body in the cart! it came between Vale and the letter.) He read it aloud, trying somehow to soften it.

Lottie and Bill stared at the floor. "Dear, oh dear," Lottie said softly. Bill said: "Well, paw's dead. I thought he'd be gittin' well by now." They were silent then, thinking deeply.

"I'm very sorry," said Derek. "What shall you do?"

"I'd like to go over to Yeoland and look after him," replied Lottie. "She said he was dead, did she?" . . . .

The next morning she set out with the three little girls. They were all in black.

"My maw she made them little dresses out of two black skirts a lady gave her," explained Bill proudly. "She sat up all night to do it. I wish paw could see them." He sighed deeply and went about his work.

4.

That day a gale blew from the east. They were in for heavy weather, Bill said. Gulls, in ever increasing numbers, drifted above the foam-splashed waves that hammered on the bluffs like rowdies at a door. Spray dashed against the windows of Grimstone; foam clogged the mouth of the creek like lather.

Happy, wayward, fantastic creatures, the gulls! Exultant, crying, eager, voracious! Buckskin beat his fists on the window and laughed at them. How they swept and rose and fell, this one shooting upward like a flame, that one just kissing the rim of a wave with his breast! Wonderful gulls! Heartless, cruel, merry gulls!

All day there was no sun. Heavy purple clouds were draped like curtains above the green uneasy lake. In the afternoon sleet began to fall. To fall? No. To drive, to hiss, to spit, to cut like a whip! Derek thought his cheeks would bleed before he reached the barn. Coming back, he crooked his arm across his face and ran, his feet crunching in the granulated depth of it. The storm grew worse and worse.

When night came, he was too restless to read. He walked up and down through the empty rooms, feeling singularly alone in the world. Buckskin, lucky Buckskin, slept. Derek looked at the familiar pictures, at the thin, aloof, china greyhound on the mantel. It was against the greyhound that Jammery's note had been propped. How long ago that seemed. How alone he was!

At last he went to bed. But he could not sleep. The house rocked. The four-poster swayed under him. He had never known such a storm. And, as he lay listening, the confused uproar resolved into definite, terrible episodes.

It seemed that he could hear the clash of two armies, who met with ring of steel and roar of lusty throats, fighting up and down the road. And, mingled with the wild uproar, came the keening of women crouched above their dead. . . . And, ere their wailing ceased, the clamor of a brazen band burst forth. Oh, the deafening discords of the horns! The thunder of the drums! And, in the far distance the women still wailing. But what had come to the clashing armies? There was no more shouting nor hurrahing. Only the stamp and pad of thousands of flying feet. They were madly running. Running! Oh the footsteps! Crunching, padding in the snow. Footsteps everywhere. The women had ceased their keening to listen. The footsteps were coming in at the gate. Hammering on the flagstones. Kicking at the door. They would have the door down yet. Terrifying, deafening uproar.

Now the footsteps were gone. The keening women gone. The bandsmen that had fallen into panic gone. Only a deep-toned humming of some far-off organ remained, singing through the hissing sleet, filling the night with melody.

To this accompaniment it seemed that the Spirit of the lake rose out of the foam, strode up the cliff, and then before the homely stone house did battle with the Spirit of Grimstone for possession of the land. Derek pictured the Spirit of the lake—long-armed, with streaming hair and blazing eyes; the Spirit of Grimstone—massive, brown, earthy. They laughed and shouted on the cliffs, half in rage, half in ferocious play. Derek laughed to hear them fighting for the land while he lay snug in bed. And Buckskin, in his sleep, laughed too.

5.

Derek did not realize that he had slept, and yet, there was the ruddy sunrise staining the wall and he had never seen the dawn. Where was the wind now? Utter silence and piercing cold. When he raised his head the breath from his nostrils made a little cloud above the quilt. The window was completely covered by downy frost flushed pink by the sun. Sharp cracking sounds came from the old house. He jumped out of bed. His boots which he had taken off wet the night before were frozen to the floor. He jerked them up and pulled them on. Lord, how cold they were! Hurriedly he got into his clothes, put the boy into his three little garments (what a blue bit of a nose!) and carried him to the kitchen. Here the coal fire still burned and one did not feel quite so frozen. He fastened Buckskin into his high chair and made the porridge. While it cooked he went outside, to see what sort of world the storm had left behind.

It was as though a curtain had risen to show him some strange stage scene set in the polar region. No wonder his brain had been filled with wild fancies last night. The storm had done its damnedest, and left behind this white, silent, sinister passivity—all its passion frozen into a glittering picture for remembrance.

The lake was a seething cauldron. From its rocking waves rose endless spirals and columns of vapour, twisting, writhing together, struck into a thousand radiant tints by the shafts of the sun. The red sun itself mounted with speed into the melting glories of the sky, like a fiery ball hurled upward from below by giants at play.

The lashing and freezing of the spray had formed for a quarter of a mile from the shore hundreds of hummocks from five to twenty feet high of matchless purity, blue white in the shadow.

Derek was exhilarated, excited, by the splendour of the scene. After he had given Bill a hand with the work, he set out to explore this new polar region at his door. He went down the road and crossed the bridge where icicles jutted out horizontally from the framework like frozen fingers pointing to Grimstone. He wandered among the hummocks out to the water's edge, winding his way in and out, staring down into ragged caverns where the black water pressed and sucked.

"I might be the only soul on earth," he thought; and then he saw that he was not alone, for a figure had suddenly risen on one of the highest peaks and stood there like a statue gazing outward over the lake.

It was Grace Jerrold.

A flood of emotion shook him. To meet her alone like this! As though it were at the world's end. He and she. He slid and scrambled down his hummock and started towards her. She heard him coming and turned her head, but she remained on the peak of the hummock looking down at him unsmilingly.

"Shall I come up?" he asked when he had reached the bottom of the slope.

She shook her head but did not speak.

"Not come up? Grace. Have I done something new?"

"Oh, no. But"—she paused as though she could not go on.

"But what?"

"It is not good for us—for me—I mean, to be here together. I feel too much. Why should I pretend otherwise?"

"I say, Grace, don't pretend with me. Be yourself—your darling self! We love each other. Well, can't we face that love together—even cherish it, a little, on a morning like this?"

Her fair face flushed, her eyes became a deeper blue as she answered, "Face it, perhaps, but not cherish it."

He moved a step closer and then said, with a tragic flourish of his hand towards Grimstone: "Do you see that house, Grace? A lonely looking house, eh! Well, I live alone there—except for the baby. Fawnie left me over two months ago."

She uttered a low cry and held out her hands. "Oh! Derek. I'm coming down, catch me!" She slipped and ran down the sloping side of the hummock, and when his arms had caught her and supported her she said again: "Poor, poor Derek! But why did she leave you?"

"She ran away with Jammery."

"With Jammery. An Indian! How horrible!"

"Not to her."

"But—after you."

"Apparently I didn't satisfy her." He still held her arm, and they began slowly to follow an icy path among the hummocks.

"Are you cold, dearest?" he asked. She shook her head, and said, "I'm all bundled in fur, don't you see?"

He saw indeed the etherealised beauty of her face in the brilliant light. He became aware that she wore a grey squirrel coat and a little grey squirrel toque with a knot of red berries on the brim.

"You are so utterly adorable," he said, "that I never know what you wear. I am only conscious of your nearness and dearness. Now don't be angry, please." He could not help it. He slipped his hand into her muff beside hers, and his fingers closed about her slender wrist.

"I'm not angry," she said, pretending not to notice his hand in the muff. "That is what makes you such a dangerous sort of man. A woman cannot be angry with you for more than a few moments. I think it's those boyish appealing eyes, and something about your mouth. But it's really terrible. One feels angry and then, in a flash the tables are turned and one is sorry, feels oneself cruel, and condones. Really, I think that is a dangerous sort of man, don't you?"

"Not a bit. Just a poor blundering idiot, floundering from one morass into another. Never meaning any real harm—upon my soul, Gay, no real harm, even at my worst. But I've actually no strength of character, I think—I've time to think these days—I know Edmund thinks so, too. He's as much as said so."

"Edmund!" Her tone said, How dare Edmund judge Derek! "What does Edmund know of trouble?"

"Nothing at all. He doesn't want to know anything, so he keeps out of it."

They had walked along a level plateau of ice and from it mounted a hummock that overhung the water. Down the glassy curve of it they watched the crashing of the malachite waves, now impotent to destroy what they had so recently created.

"You know," Derek went on, "the only decent thing about me is that I'm faithful. I mean—oh, Lord, I never can express myself—I mean that when any person—or thing—belongs to me once—once I possess it and care for it—it's always mine. Nothing can change that. For instance, there's a bit of you that's mine—that you gave me that morning in the stable—nothing can take that from me. I'll cherish it always. And look here"—his face reddened "There's Fawnie, too. Only so different. I wish I could explain. But I was thinking once about a flower—a sort of lily thing that comes up in the stream in August, by the bridge there. Its roots are in the mud, its stalk and leaves in the dark water, but its flower opens in the pure air, and turns to the sun and breeze. Well, that's like my love for you. It's the flower of me. The bloom. All that's best in me rushes up to it, and still my roots are in the soil and my stalk and leaves in the dark. What a comparison!" He laughed with a tremor in his voice.

"I understand, and it makes me very happy," said Grace, and her eyes met his with a look of ardent resignation.

Reckless, passionate words came rushing to his lips. He thought: "For heaven's sake, exert some self-control now . . . . show that strength of character you're always howling about. Don't kiss her!" And, even as he was thinking, he put his arms about her, and held her to his breast. So they kissed hopelessly, longingly, and yet with joy under the compassionate splendour of the sky.

Afterward they stood quietly, two lonely figures, her head resting on his shoulder, his lips against the bright, winglike sweep of her hair, and she said, half-laughing, half-crying, "Oh, you poor darling, you need me so!"

"If only I could have you for my very own," he cried. "If only I could!"