Possession (Roche, February 1923)/Part 2/Chapter 3

CHAPTER III"For such persons—"

1.

There was no sign of a break in the weather. The sun that had dropped behind the orchard in a hot turbulence of colour last night, rose from the lake, as from a brazen pool, like a warrior refreshed. The fruit was drying; the sand was like hot metal under the feet; even the fowls clustered together in the shade with parted beaks.

Derek saw with satisfaction that the pickers were hard at work. As he waited for his breakfast, he calculated on the back of an envelope what the proceeds of yesterday's shipment would be. He thought he was not doing badly. Snailem had told him that Chard had not shipped as much. He was determined that Mrs. Machin should hear good accounts of the fruit. She had the idea, he knew, that things would go to smash without her. He had refused hot food, and Phœbe brought him a bowl of strawberries and thick cream. Cream flowed freely those days at Grimstone; Vale wondered sometimes where the next churning of butter was to come from. Phœbe creaked in and out waiting on him. She wore red knitted slippers and white cotton stockings that wrinkled about her thick ankles. Her cheeks vied with the strawberries and cream in freshness and colour.

As Derek divided the strawberries with his spoon, disclosing the sweet pink hearts of them which rapidly were smothered in cream, he heard Fawnie's voice, singing to her child. "It must be hot upstairs," he thought, "under the roof," and he had a desire to see Fawnie eating strawberries at the table beside him. He went, napkin in hand to the foot of the stairs.

"Fawnie," he called, "Won't you come down and have some strawberries with me? I've twice too many."

"Yes. I'll come this minute. I'm hungry. But this fonny little child he don' want to go to sleep. His eyes is as bright as bright."

"Lay him on the bed."

"Yes, I will. Now you go to sleep, Abner, like a good little boy."

"What was it you called him?" Vale asked, as she came down the stairs.

"Abner. Don' you think that is a nice name?"

"No. I think it is a milksop name. Call him something picturesque—colourful."

"Durek, then?"

"Lord, no. I'll think up a name while we eat our strawberries."

Fawnie was in love with the idea of sitting at table with Derek. She clapped her hands, and ran around the table twice, like a little brown bird fluttering about a bough, before she settled in her chair. Then she said, with hands flat on the tablecloth on either side of her plate:

"I must not spill crumbs, nor slop tea on this nice white cloth, or you'll kill me, won't you Durek?"

"I surely will. Now have some buttered toast, Fawnie, or perhaps you like scones."

"I'll have toast. We never have toast. Just Maw's bread that she bakes in the fryin' pan."

She helped herself to toast. Phœbe had buttered it so thickly that the butter oozed through to the other side. Fawnie set her teeth in it, laughing over it with narrowed eyes at Derek.

"What you going to call our baby?" she demanded with her mouth full.

"I have it. Buckskin. That's a jolly name. It means something. Suits a little Indian boy. Makes you think of Nipigon, Timagami, wild things, and the smell of gunpowder and wood smoke. Abner makes you think of hair oil, creaky boots, and Sunday-school leaflets, eh?"

Fawnie stared at him with the expression of an intelligent child. "I understand," she said. "But I think he'll be an awful bad little boy if we call him Buckskin. . . . Buckskin Vale, h'm . . ." She stopped eating and stared straight before her, as though savouring the name.

Phœbe, coming in with a jug of hot water to replenish the pot, started in amazement at seeing Fawnie seated at the table with Vale. Catching her toe on the doorsill she stumbled into the room slopping the water as she came. A drop fell on Jock's long feathered tail that projected from under the table and he fled howling out of doors. Derek looked up crossly at her, and Fawnie said:

"Say, you're awful stupid this morning, Phœbe. Haven't you ever seen a lady and gentleman eatin' hot toast before?"

"A gentleman must have a margin, if it's ever so, as I said to Hughie," declared Phœbe, addressing Vale, "but the margin's getting wider and wider."

"''Tis not so wide as a church door nor so deep as a well but 'twill suffice'," boomed Snailem from the kitchen. "Which is from Shakespeare as always hits the mark."

A pleasant voice came from outside. The owner of it was sympathizing deeply with Jock who wriggled on his belly towards someone who approached. Vale leaned back in his chair to look through the open door. He saw Mr. Ramsey pushing his bicycle over the flagstones. He stared. Stupefied, at the advancing figure which in grey Norfolk suit and white straw sailor hat, stood for Church, and order, and the accepted sacraments.

Phœbe stared, too, in gaping consternation. As Mr. Ramsey, having stood his wheel against the rail of the verandah, filled the doorway with his well-knit figure, she went towards him, hot water kettle in hand.

"Oh, sir," she cried, "I hope as you haven't come here to talk about columbines and such! Because Mr. Vale reely don't deserve it. If ever there was a well-meaning young man it's him, and, as I said to Hughie, a gentleman must have a margin if it's ever so." She would have proceeded, even more recklessly, but a dribble of scalding water from the kettle she held fell on her woolen slipper and brought her up with an exclamation of pain.

"Phœbe," said Derek, desperately, "please go to the kitchen and shut the door after you."

Phœbe, feeling that she was in disgrace, hurried from the room, and, tripping once more over the doorsill, was precipitated into the kitchen. Snailem caught her, and carefully closed the door upon them.

Mr. Ramsey turned with a cheerful smile to Derek. "Quite a character, that girl," he said. "Most amusing. I was positive she was going to baptize me with that boiling water. . . . How nice and cool you are here. It's frightful out of doors."

"Won't you sit down?" said Derek, regaining his outward composure, "and have some breakfast? You're out early." He looked at Fawnie anxiously, and she, meeting his eyes, divined that he would be rid of her. With an odd dignity, she stood up in her narrow blue dress, and said in her low voice, "I guess I take my tea and scone upstairs and finish it there, eh?"

"Thanks, Fawnie," said Derek; and Mr. Ramsey with an amused little bow opened the door into the hallway and smiled at her as she passed through.

"Won't you have some breakfast?" repeated Derek, feeling that by eating, the evil moment might be delayed.

"Thank you, no. I had breakfast at Hickson's. I went there early to give the Communion to old Mr. Hickson who is dangerously ill. And afterwards I had my breakfast." Derek saw then that he carried a small black bag.

Mr. Ramsey stared at the remains of the breakfast in silence for a moment, then he turned his deep-set grey eyes on Derek's face with a look of intense scrutiny. "So that is the girl," he said with a new harsh note in his voice.

"What do you mean by calling her 'the girl,' as though I had done something tremendous and irrevocable?" demanded Derek resentfully.

"Well, haven't you?" returned Mr. Ramsey, on a deep note. "It is rather tremendous, isn't it, to bring a young girl into your house under such circumstances? Rather irrevocable to bring a son into the world?"

Derek strode up and down the room, and at last paused before the china greyhound on the chimney-piece, and looked into its immobile face. "Such things have been done before," he said.

"Not often. Can you recall a case among your acquaintances? And never without consequences."

"Look here," interrupted Derek. "Did you come here as a friend, or not?"

"Absolutely as a friend." Mr. Ramsey came and stood beside him. "A friend above all things. Not to rebuke nor to give advice, but to help, if possible."

"Well, sir," said Derek, looking at him steadily, "Put yourself in my place."

Mr. Ramsey flushed a little. "Yes," he said drily.

"What could I do? There was that poor young thing beaten into welts by an old hag—was threatened even worse things. I brought her here simply to save her skin. The child had to come too. Then my housekeeper got wild, talked about my criminal actions to the world in general, and left me. Next thing Chard and the minister from Mistwell came and insulted me—ordered me to put the girl out—or marry her. Would you have been baited by them? Then that affair last night—a bunch of rowdies—would any decent fellow submit to their bullying?"

"It is true that your position has been frightfully difficult. You must not think, my dear fellow, that I am insensible to that. What I have come for this morning is to help you, if possible, to a better understanding with yourself, and with those who hold your friendship as something very dear."

"Do you mean the Jerrolds?"

"Yes, and myself, of course."

"Have you spoken of this to them?"

"Mr. Jerrold and I have talked it over. He is laid up with lumbago, you know. I should have shunned the subject with Miss Jerrold, but she brought it up herself as I was leaving yesterday."

Derek picked up the china greyhound and turned it in his hand, waiting for the Vicar to go on.

"She was very much upset," said Mr. Ramsey, in a low voice.

"Yes. I suppose she would be. I suppose she'll never want to speak to me again, eh?" His hand shook a little as he carefully set the dog on the oval mark its base had made in the dust film on the mantelpiece.

"I shouldn't like to think that. I do think that she has every hope that you will make what restitution you can."

Vale stared at him uncomprehending, and the Vicar went on, "She said to me that she was positive you would do the right thing by the girl."

"Provide for her?"

"In the only way possible."

"Come now, Mr. Ramsey," said Vale with heat, "you don't expect me to believe that Grace Jerrold thinks I should marry Fawnie."

"I think she hopes intensely that you will."

Derek struck the mantelpiece with his closed hand. "It's the most preposterous thing I ever heard of. Because I made a fool of myself—a beast if you like—once, she expects me to pay for it for the rest of my life. All men are fools—beasts sometimes. Perhaps not actually, but in thought. No one knows about them. Every one knows of this, and I am willing to face the consequences. But that does not mean I am willing to tie myself to an ignorant Indian girl."

"I suppose she was thinking about your son. I confess that is what troubles me, too."

"Good God! I will provide for him! But marry her. . . . Oh, I know how you look at it. . . . I was strictly brought up. . . . I know the phrase—the woman you wronged—I take the blame—but marry her!" The blood rushed to his head at the mere thought of such a marriage; at the thought, too, of Grace Jerrold discussing his wrongdoing with the Vicar. What a horrible mess he had got into! How was he to get out? He did not know what way to turn. Mrs. Machin, Chard, the minister, the Mistwell folk, the Jerrolds, Mr. Ramsey, they were all banded together to bait him. He felt bewildered. His eyes looked strange as he faced the Vicar.

"Don't get excited, my dear fellow. Remember I am here to help you. I want you to realize the elemental truths of the affair. Even if you give the girl money and send her away with the child, what will become of him? Try to picture his life—the life of your own flesh and blood. He is no common Indian. He has the blood of your mother—your father—your uncle who gave you this place. If you supplied his mother with money, do you suppose her family would ever let her be? She would be their prey. Your son would be knocked about by some low halfbreed, probably. Think of him as a ragged, dirty, ignorant youth coming to pick berries some day at Grimstone, the home of his fathers. As for the girl—Fawnie, is it?—she is pretty, intelligent, a direct descendant of Tecumseh, I believe, and she cannot be repulsive to you or you would not have been eating your breakfast so happily with her as I came in." Mr. Ramsey's clean-shaven lips parted in a slightly derisive smile.

Derek flushed deeply. More than ever, he felt cut, bewildered. Now he could not bear the Vicar's keen eyes. He went to the door and looked out on the blinding surface of the lake. A wave of heat like the breath of a furnace beat in upon him. He glanced at the thermometer hanging in the shade on the verandah. The mercury touched 102 degrees. No wonder he felt bewildered. He put his hand to his head. Strange pains were tormenting the back of his neck. He could not think. And yet thoughts were gnawing at his brain like rats gnawing to get free of a trap. There seemed to be no air to breathe. A black schooner was passing, trailing a streamer of sooty black smoke. . . . He was roused by the sound of a shuffling step on the flags. It was old Mrs. Sharroe. She gave him an imperturbably hostile stare as she passed. He thought of gentle Fawnie at her mercy. Of his son, poor little beggar, at her mercy. He remembered the feel of those welts on Fawnie's shoulders and turned sick with repugnance. He wheeled back into the room and could scarcely make out Mr. Ramsey's figure, still standing by the fireplace, for the strange jigging in his eyes. He was afraid that Mr. Ramsey would begin talking again. Anything seemed better than more talk. Words beat so on a fellow's brain. Like the heat, only worse. . . . We'll have done with all this talk, then, he thought and he said heavily:

"All right. I'll marry her—since everybody thinks I should."

He could never rightly remember that drive to Mistwell to buy the license. He knew that a motor had passed them once and covered them with dust, and he remembered the glare of a red and yellow sign by the roadside advertising fur coats and wraps. The man who sold him the license had seemed but half awake. He had yawned in open boredom as he asked questions and filled in blanks. Only Mr. Ramsey seemed cool, alert, masterful.

He talked cheerfully and kindly to Derek on the way homeward, and before parting advised him almost in the tone of a doctor to take care not to expose himself to the heat, but to keep quiet and cool until he should return in the afternoon to perform the ceremony.

2.

He looked at the table after the Vicar had gone and wondered what meal it was that he had been eating a while ago. He took up the teapot and poured himself a little tea. It was tepid and bitter, not what he wanted. From the cupboard under the stairs he got a bottle of Scotch whiskey and half filled a tumbler, adding cold water from the pump outside. He drank it slowly and his brain felt clearer, but he wanted to be alone to think—if possible.

He went to the parlour and stretched himself on the sofa, his burning head pressed against the unfriendly beaded cushion. But, instead of thinking he became drowsy and slept. In his dreams the air was full of yells and hoots, and the beating of tin pans.

He was awakened by the pain in the back of his neck. He had been dreaming something about the Indians. Oh, yes, they had been going to hang him from a tree in the orchard. Jammery had just placed the rope about his neck. Mr. Ramsey had been there in his surplice, reading the burial service, and a mob of Mistwell fellows were making a frightful row. He felt dazed. Then, suddenly, he remembered everything.

No one would expect him to keep such a promise. He had hardly known what he was saying. He made up his mind that he would go straight to Mr. Jerrold and talk it over with him. And, if he met Grace, he would speak frankly to her, as she had spoken to Mr. Ramsey. He pictured himself putting the matter before her plainly, almost brutally, yet withal throwing himself upon her mercy, making her feel that she above all others, could save him from the disaster.

He got his hat and went out by the front door. The road was deserted except for a speckled hen who was taking a dust bath with tempestuous energy, just outside the gate. She ceased for a moment as he passed and gazed up at him with a hard yellow eye. She lay on her side, every feather on end, and one scaly leg stiffly extended in the dust. Fearing some passing motor car might kill her, Derek pushed her gently with his foot and sent her, dishevelled and angry, through the gateway.

As he passed over the bridge he noticed that the stream had gone almost dry. Out of the shiny ooze of the pool grotesque spotted lilies seemed to stare up at him with little yellow eyes like the hen's. The sloping field beyond the stream was a shimmering sea of oats, their bluish stalks bending and whispering under a faint hot breeze.

He hesitated, listening to that drowsy, sibilant music, and did not notice the approach of a vehicle until it was almost upon him. Looking up, as the driver turned his horses aside, he looked straight into the face of Grace Jerrold.

She was alone save for the groom who sat on the seat before her. She was in a thin white dress and held a green silk parasol above her bright uncovered head.

Derek started forward, shamefaced, yet eager. He thought, instantly, he would climb in beside her and pour out the whole miserable business into her ears. The driver drew up his horses, and looked over his shoulder, expecting an order to stop. But, instead, she gave him a little nod to go on, and, after one sorrowful look into the expectant eyes raised to hers, turned her face away, and stared across the lake.

The carriage passed. Now the glistening green parasol hid her from view. She had dropped it on her shoulder, either to hide herself from the contamination of his gaze, or from faintness perhaps. It did not matter. She had cut him. He scarcely seemed able to take that in as he stood in the dust of the wheels.

All he wanted now was to get home, to escape from the glare of the road into the dim shade of the parlour. There he would sit until Mr. Ramsey's return. He had said he would be back about three. He would sit there quietly till Mr. Ramsey came, and then he would tell him of his unchangeable decision not to marry the girl.

He began quickly to retrace his steps. Two little girls in clumsy pinafores met him and whispered together behind their hands. Then they began to laugh hysterically, and ran past him clutching each other. When he reached his own gate, the hen was exactly where he had first found her, taking a second dust bath.

In the house all was quiet. He shut himself in the parlour with the bottle of Scotch, and, when Phœbe called him to dinner, he said he had a headache and did not want to be disturbed. Upstairs Fawnie sang the same song over and over to her baby.

3.

"But my dear fellow," said Mr. Ramsey, anxiously, "you look very flushed. I hope you have not been exerting in the heat."

"Sitting here all day."

"Then I am afraid you're not quite well. But it's enough to make anyone ill. I'm sure I have sweated five pounds off pedalling those seven miles from Brancepeth three times to-day." But he still looked quite fresh. And he spoke with cheerful matter-of-factness.

"Is Miss Fawnie ready?" he asked.

"Who the devil? Oh, yes—Miss Fawnie. I've not told her yet," Derek replied stupidly.

"Not told her? Oh, my dear fellow! Do you want me to? Shall I?" His tone was that of one who indulges a petulant child.

"No. The fact is—" What was the fact? For the life of him he could not tell. The one fact he seemed able to grasp was that Grace had turned her face from him that morning in the road. All else seemed a stupid bungle from which he was too tired to extricate himself.

"Do you want me to tell her?" repeated Mr. Ramsey.

"No. I'll go. I don't care. Tell her if you like."

"Very well. I'll leave you the ring. You remember you asked me to buy it? A very nice one, I think. I'll make the service as short as I can, since you are not well. Upstairs is she? I hear her voice. She sings very sweetly."

Derek heard him decisively mount the stairs, then came the sound of a knock, followed by his vibrant, pleasant speech with Fawnie. Shortly he descended and put his head in at the parlour door. "It's all right," he said. "She will be down directly. Wanted to change her blouse. May I go in your room, Derek, old fellow—" It was his first use of the Christian name—"to slip my surplice on? Thanks, very much. I'll be with you directly. Nice little ring, isn't it? Narrow, yet heavy."

Derek dropped the ring stolidly into the pocket of his jacket. His eyes were on Jock, who had just come in from out of doors. He was panting jerkily, and Derek thought—"I must have him clipped. But by someone who knows. I don't want his fine coat all jagged up."

The Vicar had called Phœbe and Hugh McKay as witnesses, and they now came in, standing shyly at the far end of the room. They seemed overcome by the turn things had taken. Phœbe had exchanged her woolen slippers for shiny buttoned boots, which pinched her cruelly as she stood, balancing from one foot to the other.

Derek got slowly to his feet as Mr. Ramsey, like some impressive vessel in full sail, entered in his surplice. Fawnie, frightened, yet elated, followed him. She had once seen a wedding in the English Church at Brancepeth, and was determined to be as orthodox in her attire as that other bride married by Mr. Ramsey. Desperately eager to wear a veil, her eyes had fallen on the fine white net curtains Mrs. Machin had recently hung at the window. Quick as thought she had mounted a chair and unfastened the brass pins of one curtain. No fair bride, arranging the folds of the Brussels lace veil her grandmother had worn beneath a chaplet of pearls, could have been thrilled by a pride more delicious than that felt by Fawnie as she glimpsed the dark glow of her eyes and the pouting red of her lips behind the starched white net.

She looked so pretty as she came into the parlour, that Derek was roused for a moment from his lethargy and smiled at her. Mr. Ramsey looked at the veil dubiously, then his brow cleared, and, with a tolerant smile he motioned them to their place before him. Jock sniffed the billowing surplice, but obeyed Hugh's deep-voiced injunction, "Sit ye doon, Jock."

Mr. Ramsey opened his prayer-book and began the service in a hurried, muffled voice, soothing to the ear. Derek John took Fawnie Pearl by the right hand, and promised, rather unintelligibly, to have and to hold her from that day forward, for better for worse. Fawnie Pearl took Derek John by his right hand, and promised in her husky little voice (not understanding a word of it) to have and to hold him, to love, cherish, and obey him, from that day forward, till death did them part. Then Derek, without flurry or confusion, produced the ring and put it on the taper third finger of the too supple brown hand, and they were man and wife. Jock stretched himself and yawned. Hugh drew a deep sigh, and Mr. Ramsey wished them great joy.

But Buckskin, upstairs, broke into angry cries, as though protesting against the union of those two fond strangers who had given him being.

4.

Derek and Fawnie were sitting side by side on the sofa in the parlour. They were alone. Late sunlight was slanting between the chinks in the shutters. A solemn hush hung over the house. The atmosphere created by Mr. Ramsey's cassock and surplice still brooded there.

"My goodness," said Fawnie, thinking aloud. "He looked terr'ble nice in them wraps, almost like God. And he had a big ring with a shiny black stone—and I couldn't tell a word he said. I never saw anyone as much like God. But I don' like his big ring half as well as my nice ring." She turned her graceful little hand before his face. He noticed that she wore a gold bangle bracelet.

"You have a bracelet, too," he observed. "Where did you get that, Fawnie?"

She quickly hid her wrist in the folds of her dress and broke into a chuckling laugh. "I'll tell you some day. Not now. I'll tell you sometime when I want to make you laugh. But not now. Now I jus' want to sit still and get used to things. I'm pretty near scared o' this big room, and the pianner, and all the pictures starin' at me. Who's that fonny woman with the lace cap and mittens?"

"My great-grandmother."

"Is it put on with paint?"

"Yes. An oil painting."

"Oh. Where was it made?"

"In Devon."

"Is that near Halifax?"

"No. It's in England."

"I know where England is. It's up at a place where the king lives."

"Yes."

"I don' like the way she stares at us, do you?"

"Not exactly."

"What do you s'pose she's thinkin'?"

"Nothing very pleasant."

"No, nothing very pleasant. She's mad, I think, and jealous of me sittin' here in my yaller dress with a gold ring, and a gold bracelet, and a white veil, with a nice young man beside me. She wishes she could hop right out of that picture and tear us apart, eh?"

"Shouldn't be surprised."

"But you can't do it, ole lady, so jus' be good or I'll turn your face to the wall. . . . Put your head on my shoulder, Durek, you lock awful sleepy."