Possession (Roche, February 1923)/Part 2/Chapter 6

Possession by Mazo de la Roche
Sweet Apples on a Rustic Seat

CHAPTER VISweet Apples on a Rustic Seat

1.

The next morning Fawnie came to breakfast—wearing a flowered organdie dress that she had bought at Brancepeth a fortnight before. It had become soiled, and much crushed in the lap from holding the baby. The fasteners that held the neck had come off, and she had secured it with a large safety pin. These were the defects that caught Edmund's eye; he scarcely noticed the beautiful red and brown of her cheeks, or the exquisitely clear markings of her eyelids and lashes.

But Derek did not seem to mind, nor did he show annoyance when she dipped the spoon with which she had been eating thimble-berries into the sugar basin and gave it to the child to suck. Fawnie was inclined to show her authority over Phœbe. In a soft, liquid voice she ordered one thing after another from the kitchen, and, when Phœbe angrily set a plate of toast on the table, at the very end of the meal, she said softly.

"Don't you make so much noise, Phœbe. You act like you'd never had no training." And turning to Edmund, she added, "I been trainin' that girl steady for two months."

Edmund raised his eyebrows. "She seems a good sort," he said, "and good servants are hard to get."

"No, they're not," Fawnie replied, getting more sugar for the baby. "I know where I kin get a good girl any day, and not saucy neither. But I won't have an Indian. They're too lazy. Wasn't I glad when Durek sent all them Indians flyin' off our place! He was so mad I thought he was goin' to get his gun an' shoot them. I wish he had."

"What about your fruit?" asked Edmund, turning to Derek. "How shall you get it picked?"

"I'm just going to let the thimbleberries go," said Derek, passively. "The apples and pears can be sold to a dealer outright, who will bring his own men to pick them."

"What a pity to lose your berries, though. They look a tremendous crop, too."

"They are. The ground is black with them, and the canes bending beneath the weight, but it can't be helped."

"We'd sooner waste them than keep those Sharroes an' Jammery about," put in Fawnie.

Edmund got up from the table with relief. The baby was beginning to hiccough and drool. Fawnie carried him outdoors and laid him on a pillow on the grass. Jock, the collie, came at once and lay down beside him. Edmund stared for a moment at the child's downy fair head, then with a sigh, he turned on his heel and went into the parlour. He sat down before the piano and began to play the waltz from "The Merry Widow" with languid, appealing stress.

Fawnie followed him, and stood against his back, gazing with fascination at the movements of his hands, her body gently swaying with the rhythm. "Oh, I like that piece," she breathed. "Is it a hymn? It don' sound jus' like a hymn, and yet it's too slow for a jig. Say, Ted" (she had, at once, acquired the familiar nickname), "when you play like that it makes me feel like as if my blood was dancin' in my body."

He looked up at her curiously. "Your blood dancing, eh, Fawnie? Fast and wild? or slow and sweet?"

"Slow, an' heavy, an' sweet, like the music. Tum-te, tum-tum; tum-te, tum-tum, like that. Ain't it comical?"

"Very. Altogether I think you're a comical girl, Fawnie. I begin to understand."

"Understan' what? I know. Why Durek loves me." Her arms stole about his neck and her head drooped toward his. He felt the supple fingers interlaced beneath his chin. It seemed that he could not free himself—for a moment at least—but must softly thump out the languid waltz, his eyes half-shut, his head against her breast. Then, before he made the attempt, her cheek was pressed to his, and her lips had touched him, somewhere near the mouth.

He turned his head in her arms and looked towards the door. Derek had come in.

"Oh, Lord," cried Edmund, freeing himself. "This is only a joke, Derek."

Derek caught Fawnie by the arm and jerked her savagely away from his brother. "Never do that again," he said.

She hunched her shoulders like a child, half-laughing, half-crying.

"She didn't mean anything," said Edmund, his face scarlet. "She was just thanking me for the music."

"I'll thank you for any music you make," replied Derek, also flushed. "Come along, let us go out."

They passed Fawnie without looking at her, and went out of doors.

The air was still; the sunlight dim and ruddy with the haze of distant forest fires. Tiny yellow leaves fluttered from the locust trees and lay like little gold coins upon the grass. The baby blinked up at the two young men, narrowing his eyes, and stretching his lips in a smile.

"Why, he's laughing," said Edmund. "I didn't know they laughed at that age. What's the joke?"

"He sees me. He thinks I'm funny for some reason. When he flaps his hands that way he wants to be taken up." Derek picked him up and looked over his downy head at Edmund with a mixture of fatherly pride and sheepishness. "Just look at those legs."

The brothers bent over the fat, kicking limbs of the youngster, trying to forget the encounter of a few minutes ago, yet both feeling some constraint.

Fawnie's brown fingers appeared between the slats of the shutters on the window next them. "Please hand me in my baby," she said in a very small voice. "I got to nurse him."

"Open the shutter, then," replied Derek. "I can't put him between the slats."

"I am afraid to open the shutters."

"Why?"

"Because you will hit me."

"Nonsense. If you want the baby, open them."

Cautiously she unlatched a shutter, pushed it a little way open, and put her hands through the opening. Derek laid the baby in them. She drew the child quickly to her and closed the shutters, but they had a glimpse of her smile and her sliding velvet eyes.

"She's just a child," said Derek to Edmund.

"I think she's awfully sly," said Edmund in a tone of profound concern.

2.

They walked through the cherry orchard where black currant bushes set among the trees brushed against them as they passed, yielding their peculiar teasing scent. They crossed a field of stubble, where the turkey hens were grazing and the gobbler circling about them with his wattles flaming as though it were spring, and entered the apple orchard.

"It appears to be a splendid crop," remarked Edmund, looking up at the red and green and yellow fruit hanging so abundantly among the leaves.

"It is," replied Derek, "and I shall need the money to make up for the loss of my thimbleberries."

"It's a lovely place," Edmund said, dropping to the grass in a sunny space. "What a view! From here those white sheep on the bluff against the blue of the lake—and that glimpse of the herd down by the creek—I'm just going to light my pipe and enjoy the whole thing. You can scarcely imagine a more perfect spot for one's first smoke in the morning—a serene view, pure air, the sound of those turkey hens gurgling to each other, now and then an apple falling. . . . Do you know, Derek, at this moment, I feel almost reconciled to this astounding marriage of yours."

"Don't let the reconciliation be too complete," returned Derek, smiling down at him with meaning.

Edmund closed his eyes and emitted a cloud of smoke that hung like a grey-blue scarf on the quiet air. An apple fell from the tree above him. Derek picked it up and saw that it was one of the sweet apples that Grace Jerrold had said she liked best, the day of Solomon Sharroe's funeral. He walked around the tree selecting the finest, which he dropped into his cap.

"Why don't you sit down and smoke?" asked his brother. "What are you doing?"

"I must go back to where Hugh is ploughing. I want to speak to him. I shan't be long."

He had made up his mind to take the apples to a rustic seat that had been built on the fringe of the Durras woods for Grace. He knew she spent a part of every fine day there, and no one would touch the apples if they were on her seat. His walk became eager with the pleasure of doing something for her. He wondered what he should do if she were already there and they met face to face.

But she was not there. He arranged the apples in a compact group on the seat, and, after looking at them meditatively a moment went to interview Hugh.

When he returned to the orchard Edmund was half asleep, but he roused himself and asked, "Everything all right?"

"Oh, yes!" said Derek, sitting down beside him. "Hugh is getting on well. He is a good man. The only good man I have now. Snailem is a fool. Old Peek and the boys from Mistwell are makeshifts. Next spring I must try to get plenty of competent help. It means success, and the lack of it failure."

Edmund turned to him suddenly. "Have you heard that Mr. Jerrold is in difficulties? That he is having a sale on the twelfth?"

"He has a sale of surplus stock twice a year."

"This is a sale of everything—stock, implements, house, furniture, the whole farm. Had you heard nothing?"

Derek looked at him aghast. "I hadn't heard a word about it. Who told you?"

"Grace, yesterday. She's fearfully cut up, naturally. But plucky, you know."

Derek sat in silence a moment, then he asked, "Are they going to move?"

"No; they are keeping a gardener's cottage, and they will have a cow, and a horse, and their dogs, of course. But what a change!"

"I have been swallowed up by my own little tempest lately, and so I've known nothing of the storm and stress my neighbours are passing through. I am very sorry. I like him tremendously—and she"—he turned suddenly to Edmund—"How is it between you two?" he asked. "May I know?"

"Oh, nothing is settled. But it must be soon. While I'm very sorry about this disaster of theirs, it has given me courage to rush matters a bit."

Derek nodded. His mind was wandering, as it had a habit of doing lately. He was thinking of those sweet apples on the rustic seat, and wondering whether she had found them yet, whether she could care for a little thing like that in troubled days like these. She seemed far away from him, yet always on the fringe of his thoughts. She was like a loved person of whom one dreams, yet whose face one cannot clearly see.

3.

Edmund, strolling through the woods of Durras, hoping to meet Grace, came across the rustic seat, and sat down. He wondered how those seven smooth, yellow apples came there. They looked as though they were waiting for someone. He decided to wait with them.

Birds, free from family cares, sang all about him, making a happy, careless jargon of song that was delightful. A black squirrel, with an enormous brush, clung head downward on a tree nearby and rated him fluently for his intrusion. He picked up one of the apples and began to eat it.

He was in a mood of happy confidence, and when he saw Grace approaching he felt that good fortune was with him that day indeed. He tossed the remainder of the apple under the seat and sprang forward to meet her.

"I am a lucky fellow," he said. "I've been wanting so much to meet you this morning, and here you are, and here are birds to greet you, and a secluded seat, and apples—golden apples—by the Rood!"

He was excited, and he did not try to conceal his excitement. That was not his way. Rather he encouraged himself in his emotions as though he were a spectator who said, "Go it old fellow!" He kept her hand and led her to the seat.

"Oh," she exclaimed, "How nice of you to bring me those sweet apples! No other tree produces quite the same flavour."

"I did not know that that particular tree had any special virtue," said Edmund, wondering where the devil the apples had come from, "but I'm glad they are your favourites. Won't you have one now?"

"Thank you. It is rather soon after breakfast. I shall put them carefully in my work-bag and carry them home, and devour them all greedily in my own room."

She opened a flowered chintz bag and dropped the apples one by one into it. The movements of her gentle, yet firm, hands thrilled the young man even more than the sweetness of her lowered face.

"I wish," he said, "that I could give you a pleasure more lasting."

She raised her eyes to his face. "Oh, it is a lasting pleasure to have you so thoughtful for me—so kind—in every way."

"But I don't want to be thoughtful," he broke out. "I don't want to be kind. I want to love you—to make you love me. I can't offer myself as an ideal husband. I'm self-willed—I'm thoughtless—but I love you. I haven't looked at another woman since I met you last Christmas."

"Please wait—" she interrupted—"let me speak."

"No. Not till you've heard me out. Oh, don't refuse me, Grace. I may not have it in me to make you placidly happy, but who wants to be placid! I think we could have a joyous, exciting life together. Old Halifax isn't bad. And you'd have the sea to make up for this lake you love."

She clutched the flowered bag and returned his brilliant dark gaze with a look of almost motherly solicitude.

"Poor boy—to care for me like that. Because I can't—"

"Now don't say you can't! Think it over." He had caught her hand and held it.

"No. Thinking would not change me. I don't care for you in that way."

"You love someone else!"

"I don't think I want to marry anyone. I expect I love my father too much."

"But that's not fair. He has had a woman's best love already. I—" his voice broke—"have no one to love me."

"Oh, but you will," she comforted, "for you are really very lovable."

"Then why don't you love me?"

"I do. But not in that way."

"Do you love Derek?"

She rose, and looked down at him angrily. "You know you have no right to ask that."

"You do love him then!"

"I love you both—as friends."

"If I thought"—his eyes flamed accusingly into hers—"if I thought you loved Derek, I'd throw myself into the lake."

"Ah, now you make me glad I do not love you—too well."

"Why?"

"Because you are acting in such a pettish, childish way."

"Pettish—childish—" he repeated, with a short, infuriated laugh. "Go on! I can bear it."

"You must see for yourself that we're not suited to each other. Why, we are quarrelling already."

"Only because you are so cruel."

"And you are so unreasonable. . . ."

Sgaith had followed her, and now began furiously to dig a hole between them, as they stood facing each other. Impartially she threw earth over the feet of both, as she circled, with her wicked forepaws as a pivot.

"Sgaith thinks we're very silly," said Grace. "She's digging a hole to crawl into for very shame."

"She's digging a grave for my hopes," said Edmund:

And so they parted, Grace with her little bag of apples, Edmund with a heavy heart, and Sgaith with earth on her nose.

4.

Edmund found Derek.

"Well, that's over," he said. "I asked her and—she won't have me."

Derek was combing the wild, thick mane of a Welsh pony. He parted it carefully before he replied, "I'm awfully sorry for you, old man."

"I'm sorry for myself." He sat down on a stool just outside the stall. The pony, peering round at him through her fringe of hair, lifted her small hind foot tentatively.

"That's right," said Edmund, shifting his stool a little. "Kick me when I'm down."

"Oh, she's just playful," said Derek.

"Yes, the female of the species is a playful lot." He spoke with grim jocularity. "Everything is play to her. They're all alike. Even the little brute Sgaith. She dug a hole and threw dirt on me just after I'd been rejected."

Derek burst into sudden laughter; then he asked seriously. "Do you think it's final?"

"I think she meant it. But I'm going to get after her again before I leave."

There was silence for a time except for the swish of the curry-comb and Derek's soft whistle. Then he asked, as though for something to say, "Where were you?"

"On that rustic seat."

"Oh . . . stand still, girl. . . . Were there. . . ."

"Were there what?"

"Any apples—on the seat?"

"Yes, yellow sweet ones. Did you put them there?" Suspicion leaped into his eyes.

"Yes, I knew she liked that kind."

"She thought I had brought them."

"That's all right."

Silence once more. Then Edmund,

"You don't suppose it's Ramsey, do you, Derek?"

Derek turned and faced him, comb in hand.

"Ramsey! What put him in your head?"

"Oh, I don't know. . . . The way he hustled you into that marriage, now. . . . I've thought of that. . . . Just as though he wanted to make sure you were out of the way."

"I wouldn't believe that of Ramsey. He's absolutely straight. No, Grace doesn't love anyone but her father. . . . Whoa, pet. Now, you're as sleek as a chestnut."