The more Derek watched Fawnie, the more he thought of her as the completest human being he had ever known. Her days were a circle of unthinking happiness, from the moment when she put her baby to her breast in the morning, to the time when she warmed her bare feet before the open fire, before she went to bed. She could not write; she could not read. Derek, after a few attempts at lessons, when her docility and utter lack of receptiveness almost put him asleep, gave it up. Why disturb that happy serenity? Her ignorance was astonishing. The king lived "up at a place called England"—some village, doubtless, about the Georgian Bay. She had heard that rich people had no chance of going to Heaven, but "us poor folk can pass right through." Then, remembering that she herself was now rich, she said she didn't mind. The poor might have it all to themselves.
She warned Derek that American hordes were liable at any time to advance on them from Niagara. It was well to be on the watch. This did not worry her in the least, but merely added to the zest of her days. As a matter of fact, she did not worry about anything. She just lived. That alone kept her happy and busy.
She would spend hours sitting in her little gilt chair before the pier glass, arranging, with meticulous care, the convolutions of burnished hair that enfolded her placid brow. She was always cheerful, she was usually good-tempered, yet Derek had glimpses of primitive cruelty within. He had seen her knock a rabbit on the head with a stick and smile at its whimpering. She had told him, showing all her little teeth, how ermines were trapped by the licking of frosty steel—held to the trap by their tongues. Wasn't that fonny? Yet she would sit on the floor by Jock, the collie, and stroke him till he was hypnotized.
Derek loved to watch her. He became more and more contented. And yet—he was never ten minutes alone without beginning to dream about Grace Jerrold. He would picture what his life might have been had he married her. He could not forget her. He thought it strange that he should be living in comparative content with one woman, while his mind dwelt with another.
One foggy morning in mid-December Derek was confronted in the lane by the figure of a man who stepped suddenly from the shelter of a little clump of cedars. It was Jammery.
"Good morning, Mr. Vale," he said in his soft voice. "I guess you're surprised to see me, eh?"
"Yes, I am. The last I heard of you was from Bob Gunn at The Duke of York."
Jammery's brow darkened. "Yes, they refused me a drink for being an Indian, which was hardly fair for, as I've told you I can't even speak their language. I may have a dash of the bow and arrow in me, but it's far enough away. It was Bob who testified I was an Indian, curse him." Though he had frowned, his voice was gentle as ever.
Derek walked on down the lane. The sod was wet and spongy, for the snow had melted, and the creek, swollen by snow and rain, rushed in coffee-coloured torrents between its steep red banks. Jammery kept abreast of Derek and raised his voice above the roar of the water.
"How's Fawnie, Mr. Vale?"
"And the baby?"
"He's well, too."
"I suppose you're quite settled down together?"
"I hope Fawnie has got rid of her Indian ways."
They had reached the gate leading into the paddock, and with his hand on it Vale turned sharply to Jammery in a sudden temper.
"Now," he said, "Be off. I've had enough of you."
"Don't get annoyed, Mr. Vale. I didn't mean anything harmful. You're so passionate, I'm afraid to say what I came to say. It's a proposal I came a long way to make."
"I don't care to hear it."
"But you may thank me for it afterwards."
"Well, go ahead," said Derek, his curiosity aroused.
"You won't lay hands on me if it angers you?"
"I won't promise that. You'd better go while you're safe."
"No. I'll say what I came for, but you must remember I mean no harm—to her or to you."
Derek regarded him steadily but made no reply.
"It's about Fawnie," Jammery went on nervously. "I've heard it said that marrying her has ruined your life, that none of your neighbours have anything to do with you, that you can't keep any help, and that the farm is going to rack and ruin."
"Well, what would you do about it if—it were the case?"
"I'd propose—" he drew nearer, while modulations of greed, boldness, and watchfulness flitted like shadows across his thin, strangely handsome face, "to relieve you of Fawnie—to take her away—and keep her safely where she'd never trouble you—you could get a divorce—and be free—as though nothing had happened."
"Oh," said Derek, sarcastically. "And am I to pay you well for this? Where do you come in?"
"I don't ask a cent," he cried with vehemence. "You think Indians care for nothing but money! Don't you think we can love? It would be all I'd ask—just having Fawnie! She's no wife for you. You're no husband for her. She's like an animal trapped in your fine house yonder." His eyes burned with scorn; he pressed his supple hand against his heart as though its throbbing hurt him.
"Why," asked Derek, "if you were so fond of her, did you scheme to get her married to me?"
"It was because I was so fond of her. I wanted to see her a lady. And I'd nothing to do with her having your child, did I? That started things going. . . . The old woman thought they could all sponge on you. The girl was crazy to marry you. I didn't know then what it would be like to live away from her."
"Had you never thought of marrying her yourself?"
"Not me. I knew too well what the old woman was. She'd have never let me out of her clutches. Mr. Vale, she's the worst old devil that ever lived, and Beulah is going to be just like her. Now Esther and Fawnie are like the old man. There was something noble about him, a regular old chief he was." Silence fell between the two men, broken only by the volleying of the stream as it rushed under the bridge and into the lake. The fog closed upon them more heavily; a hoarse whistle from some ploughing steamer vibrated across the lake. Jammery drummed nervously on the gate with his fingres.
"You wouldn't believe," he said, "how I've loved that girl. I didn't seem to realize it when she was always in my sight. But since she's gone—why, I've lost flesh; I've gone to skin and bone." It was true that the fellow was starved looking. "She's one of those women, I guess, that a man can't never forget. There's some like that. Sweet to love and yet—they make you what they want to—they eat into your heart like the consumption into your lungs. They're like a disease, and nothing but having them'll cure you. . . . I always think Fawnie's like a lily. . . . You'd say a dark lily. . . . Maybe . . . one of those gold-coloured ones with the heavy scent. . . ."
Derek was amused, yet irritated; and the air was chill. Again the hoarse voice of the steamer sounded. He shivered, passed through the gate, and closed it after him. Then he hesitated and turned back to Jammery.
"Look here," he said. "What about that beating. Was that a put-up game?"
"Just to excite you," replied Jammery, with the shadow of a smile. "The bleating of the kid excites the tiger. The old woman bribed Fawnie to take it. It was done the night before. The girl laid down on a bunk and never made a sound. I had to get out. I couldn't bear to hear the blows."
"You and the mother are a pretty pair of scoundrels," said Derek, "that's all I can say. And I advise you to get out of here while the going's good." He extended his arm towards the road.
Jammery drew back from the advancing hand as though he feared a blow, then after one searching look into Derek's face he turned away along the bank of the creek. When he reached the path that bordered it and led to the road, he shouted back something that Derek could not hear because of the roar of the water, and raised his hand toward heaven. A moment later he had disappeared into the fog.
That night as they sat before a glowing fire Derek saw Fawnie in a new light. He saw her as one of the conspirators who had schemed to entrap him. He felt no resentment, only wonder that he could have been so deceived, and, as the dancing firelight sharpened and distorted her features and made the bands of hair about her brow gleam like the silken folds of snakes, he felt a sort of terror of her. What had she done to his life? What would she do?
As she raised her hand in a slow gesture to smooth her hair, the bracelet on her rounded arm caught the light. He said: "Once you promised me that some time you would tell me how you came by that bracelet. Tell me now."
The velvet eyes slid slyly under the fringe of inky lashes that threw a pointed shadow on her cheek. "I said I would tell you some time when I want to make you laugh. I don' want to make you laugh to-night. I want to make you lov' me." Gently she turned to the bracelet on her arm.
"Very well," replied Derek. "If you will not tell me, I shall tell you."
"Yes?" The pencilled eyebrows were raised until they met the drooping band of hair.
"Your mother gave it to you to ease the pain of a beating—that was to excite me."
She winced a little at the remembrance of the beating, but she said with serenity.
"That was fonny, wasn't it?" She took a cigarette from a little taborette that stood between them, and leaned towards him for a light. Their eyes met but an inch or two apart and he sought to fathom the depths of those dark-fringed pools flecked with dancing light.
Emitting the fragile blue smoke through her nostrils, she said slowly: "And now I tell you, darling, how you come to find that out. Jammery, he told you."
"Has he been here?" A pulse began to beat sharply in Derek's throat. He wished he had thrown the scoundrel into the road.
"Yes, Durek. And, as a matter of fac', I gave him some cold meat and a cup of tea. Poor Jammery! He looks very bad. His heart is certainly broke."
Derek leaned forward, his face dark with anger, and grasped her knee. "By the Lord Harry, girl," he said, roughly, "if ever you let that fellow into the house again, I'll thrash you myself, and I'll give you no bracelet to help you bear the pain."
Fawnie took his hand from her knee and raised it to her forehead. "You have given me a ring already," she whispered. "And, as a matter of fac', if you beat me I will lov' you more than ever. Isn't that fonny?"
The following week Hobbs had as a guest the most prominent Holstein breeder in the Province. He invited Derek to spend an evening with them; and they had cigars in a little office he had fitted up for himself in a corner of the house where Derek had never been. It was hard to believe that this echoing half-empty house was the one where he had spent such happy hours with the Jerrolds.
Yet he enjoyed the evening, since it broke the monotony of things. The Holstein breeder talked well, and Hobbs was less assertive in his presence. Derek was invited to return the next afternoon to inspect the cattle with the great man. He spent an interesting afternoon, and set out for home feeling elated over some excellent hints he had got. The breeder was to come over the next day to look over his stock. He was interested in what he had heard of the young prize-winning bull.
Lake and land were sunk in damp oblivion. A chill air rose from the muddy road to mingle with the steady drenching mist. A homespun longing to get back to Fawnie and the boy urged Derek cheerfully through the wet. He was surprised to see no light in the house. Fawnie disliked the twilight, and usually lighted the lamps when the first shadow fell.
When he reached the gate he heard the child crying, not the lusty cry of temper, nor the peevish cry of sleepiness, but an outraged, rhythmic wail that subsided now and then into an exhausted gurgle. Derek, with a sudden fear at his heart—Fawnie might be ill or hurt—hurried to the door. Inside it was dark, and the child on hearing the door open held his breath, so Derek did not at once discover where he lay.
He went to the kitchen, struck a match and took a lamp from the lamp shelf. With it lighted he returned to the dining room. The child lay on the settle near the fireplace, but the fire was low and the room cold.
The baby began to crow and kick with joy at seeing him, but Derek paid no attention to him, and with the lamp held high he went down the step into the front of the house. He stood irresolutely in the hallway a moment, and then called, "Fawnie!" loudly. There was no sound in answer except the labored ticking of the old clock whose blank white face stared at him from the end of the hall. He called again, now angrily, "Fawnie! Fawnie!"
He went through the drawing-room, his bedroom. At the foot of the stairs he called again. . . . The child was giving short, despairing yells. He returned to the dining room, set the lamp on the table, and picked up the baby and kissed it. With a gesture of affection, that it had only lately acquired, it clasped its little arms about his neck and pressed close to him. Its wet face snuggled against his cheek.
"Poor little fellow," he said, kissing it again and again. "Was he left all alone?"
On the mantel leaning against the china greyhound a half sheet of note-paper caught his eye. He took it to the light and with the child on his arm bent forward to read: Mister Vale.
Just a line to say that Fawnie has decided as you are no husband for her she has decided to get out of here which is like a trap and her a poor thing trapped. You thot you were through with me didn't you but you weren't. She says to give baby milk warmed out of the bottle and some sugar and biscuits, etc. Any old thing you like I don't care please do not try to find us for if you do by god I'll run a nife into Fawnie before you can get her.
The baby clutched at the paper laughing, then he reached for the flame of the lamp. Derek moved away from the table and, seating himself on the settle, he re-read the note.
One thing came clearly out of the sprawling jumble of words: Fawnie had run away with Jammery.
She had left her baby. The unnatural little devil. He was alone with the baby. What in God's name should he do? Why hadn't he wrung Jammery's neck that day by the creek? He had felt like it. Why had he allowed himself to be hoodwinked into such a marriage? Talk about traps . . . he was the trapped one. . . . If he only had his hands on Jammery! He struck the arm of the settle with his clenched fist.
He could not imagine the house without her. Here he was alone—alone. Except for an eight months' old baby. It hungry, too. It was yelling again and cramming its fist in its mouth. Had she had it in her mind to leave him when she had bought that feeding bottle a fortnight ago and begun to teach the child to drink from it? God only knew what she had in her mind—that devious, calculating, rapacious mind of hers. How he hated her!
He thought of her little satiny brown neck—he would like to squeeze it till her eyes would start—those melting, shining, animal eyes.
The child made its mouth enormous and stiffened its body. He gave it a sharp shake. Damned little half-breed! He had a mind to throw it into the road after its mother. He grinned at the thought and shook it again. It ceased crying and looked up in his face with heartbroken astonishment, its mouth down at the corners, its round fists, wet with slobber, raised appealingly. Its eyelids were puffed with crying.
Derek's heart was touched. He got up with a sigh. "I wonder where that bottle is," he said aloud.
He found it on the kitchen table and beside it a jug of milk. He lifted a lid of the range and examined the fire. It was not a bad fire; he dug the coals with a poker and opened the draughts. The child, sitting on his arm, looked on hopefully.
It sat perfectly still when he put it on the table, while he heated some milk in a saucepan, sweetened it, tasted it, and filled the bottle; but it twitched with excitement when he took it up again and held the rubber nipple to its mouth. Its bare feet, he noticed, were icy cold.
He drew a chair before the oven and sat down with the baby on his knee, holding the little feet to the warmth. Jock, with a loud, troubled yawn, came and sat close beside.
As the baby felt the warmth of the oven, the comfort of Derek's supporting arm, and the yielding nipple in his mouth, he heaved a sigh of weary contentment and rolled his eyes up towards his father's face and kept them there, as though he wished never to lose sight of him again.
"You—and me, Buckskin—and old Jock—the three of us, eh?" murmured Derek. "And a night as black as pitch. I wish them luck, that pair. Curse him for a whining scoundrel. . . . And the girl, to go off and leave you like this, and me." He caught himself up, for an ache like a gripping hand caught him by the throat and his nose stung. Good God! he wasn't going to cry. Well—it would make a man cry to see a baby left like this.
He put his lips against the fair downy head and kept them there.