18. Let Us Be Open As The Day
Eleanor notices after that night Carol becomes nervous and irritable.
His absences are more frequent, but whereever he goes he takes the dog with him for protection.
Though only a rough-haired terrier, it seems to guard him; yet the constant recurrence of apparently reasonless growls and barks startles and annoys him.
Eleanor often sits with Elizabeth Katchin when Quinton is out, and wonders what she would do without the companionship of this one white woman.
That day she is walking up the hill towards her friend's hut, when she meets young Tombo, who rushes up and seizes her skirts.
"Oh, do come!" he cries, dragging her along; "something awful bad is going on at home. There is a stranger at our door crying just dreadful; and mother's red in the face, sayin' no end of angry words, stampin', fumin', and wringing her hands. The stranger wanted to see me and speak; but mother just hustled me out at the back, and tells me to go and play beans in the jungle. But the boys are not there. Quartey M'Ba is takin' care of his father, who's dead drunk with Zoo, and little Rangusaw Mymoodelayer is workin' with his uncle. It's sure to be all right if you come, Mrs. Quinton. Mother 'll calm down when she sees who I've brought."
He runs eagerly before her, while Eleanor, utterly at a loss to comprehend the nature of the trouble, approaches Elizabeth's homestead in some trepidation.
"I'll have none of you," Mrs. Kachin's hard voice is heard exclaiming. "Did I not write it plain in black and white? Didn't I repeat it three times over on the same page, twice underlined? Am I not old enough to speak for myself, to know my own will? Begone, or I'll tell you some home truths which were best not uttered from my lips."
"Oh, little Beth, little Beth!" moans a pleading voice, "the child I nursed and loved. Can it be you that speaks so hard, that turns me from the door? Let me see the child before I go--the sturdy dark boy who was born to you. Beth, have some pity, some mercy on my misery! It has cost me nearly my little all to come out to you, for I thought your heart would soften when you saw your mother's face."
She breaks off into bitter sobbing and sinks on the step.
Eleanor stands like one paralysed listening to the quarrel, while Tombo hides behind her skirts, clinging to her fearfully.
Her face flushes with shame for Elizabeth, and pity for this stricken woman. Her eyes flash scorn on Mrs. Kachin, as she turns and raises the stranger from her attitude of humility and degradation.
"Your daughter's virtue and pride are things to be despised, accursed," she says, "when bound in such an armour of harshness and cruelty."
The weeping woman lifts her head, and her eyes meet Eleanor's.
The two start involuntarily. The scene of a railway carriage rushes suddenly before their vision, the fragments of a torn photograph, the name on the label of Eleanor's dressing bag.
"Mrs. Roche!" gasps the stranger.
That word here. It stuns, petrifies her! The very sound of it is as a blow.
A flock of four or five hornbills fly above their heads, making their noises like an express train through the air. As they fade from sight Eleanor fancies the train has stopped at the little platform of Copthorne.
The shrill cry of the jungle fowl, crowing like bantams on the old farmland at home, seem to repeat the word "Roche, Roche!
"What can I do?" asks the woman wildly, grasping Eleanor's arm. "I am here, and Beth has cast me out, I have nowhere to lay my head."
"Come with me," says Eleanor slowly, deliberately, looking from the faded features of the withered woman to Mrs. Kachin's contracted mouth. "I will give you rest and shelter."
"You will regret it if you take her under your roof!" cries Elizabeth, slamming the door.
"May the good Samaritans of this world do the same for you, Mrs. Roche, when you are in trouble," says the weary wanderer, as Eleanor leads her faltering footsteps down the hill.
She is too excited by the strange coincidence of this, their second meeting, to wonder whether she is binding a burden on her back, or offering a refuge thoughtlessly without consulting Carol. She only looks pityingly at the towzled hair and drawn face of her guest, pressing her hand sympathetically as they enter the verandah together. "I am not Mrs. Roche here," falters Eleanor; "you must call me Mrs. Quinton."
The woman looks searchingly, sadly, into Eleanor's eyes.
"I see," she answers slowly.
"And your name?" asks Eleanor.
"Palfrey Blum. I am Mrs. Blum."
What an odd introduction, what a puzzling fate.
Carol is deeply annoyed at his return to discover the guest.
"What on earth you want to bring that hideous creature with a head of hay here for I can't imagine," he exclaims. "You must shunt her as soon as possible, Eleanor; I can't have you picking up waifs and strays, and turning our home into a sort of infirmary."
"I don't know what to do, it is a most pitiable story."
"Oh! dash the story!" interpolates Carol. "I shouldn't mind if she were not so confoundedly ugly."
"I could not help it, darling," says Eleanor tearfully. "I did not think you would object."
"Well, now she is here, what are you going to do with her?"
"I don't know."
Carol stalks up and down the room with his hands in his pockets.
Eleanor's spirits sink.
"I will see what I can do, dearest," she says at last.
Carol turns, seeing her beautiful eyes moist and sorrowful.
He gathers her into his arms and kisses her suddenly.
"Get rid of the old ghost," he whispers. "I can't endure to see a relic of faded beauty standing decayed before my eyes. A woman has no right to grow old, it is an unpardonable offence, and takes away one's appetite having to look at her at meals."
"How unchristian you are, Carol!" she says, smiling under his caress.
The following morning Mrs. Blum seems refreshed, and looks less careworn after her night's sleep.
"There is one thing I desire more than all else on earth," she confides to Eleanor, "and that is to hold my grandson in my arms, and kiss him once."
"I have been again to Elizabeth, but she will not listen to me. Perhaps I might get the boy to you without her knowledge, or big Tombo may possibly bring him. There were tears in his eyes to-day when I was pleading with Elizabeth."
"Ah! Big Tombo is not so bitter against me as his wife. He is a good man, and charitable."
So Eleanor watches for Mr. Kachin to pass down the path to the valley below, where the rice is cultivated.
When she sees him she runs out. He stops and bows. Eleanor gives him her hand.
"Ah, Mrs. Quinton," he says, "we are deeply indebted to you for your kindness to poor Mrs. Blum. Even my wife in her righteous indignation owns that. I should personally be very glad to do anything I could for her, only Elizabeth is so determined. Can you advise me?"
Eleanor thinks a moment.
"She must be sent back again, I suppose. She regrets bitterly having come."
"Has she any money?"
"Oh, yes, but hardly enough to take her home; she relied on living with you and Elizabeth. I shall help her all I can, and perhaps you will also."
Big Tombo works hard, and he has a good store of hoardings laid by. He is an intensely generous man, and but for his wife's watchfulness would give away all that he has to others.
Eleanor inspires him to make an offer.
"I will pay her fare to England," he says. "It will save Elizabeth the pain of coming in contact with her. After all, she is my mother-in-law. It is the least that I can do."
"You are most good and kind," replies Eleanor, "and she would be deeply grateful if you came in now and told her this yourself. She feels her daughter's slight acutely."
Big Tombo bows assent.
Big Tombo bows assent.
The beautiful Mrs. Quinton's word is law.
Mrs. Blum trembles with emotion as her eyes fall upon him. She listens to what he says with tears in her eyes and a blessing in her heart.
"You are a good son," she says, taking his great brown hands between her withered palms, and pressing them to her lips. "I love you for your care of Elizabeth--for the happy home in which she lives. When she speaks of me harshly tell her to think of me as one dead. We reverence the names of those who are underground, even though we despise them during their lives. I shall never forget what you have done for me."
Her voice is choked with emotion.
"If--if you don't mind," she falters, "I should like to look once on your child before I go."
Tombo bends his head. He has not the heart to refuse her.
That afternoon, he sends the boy, without Elizabeth's knowledge, to carry some bananas to Eleanor.
"Come in, my dear," she says kindly, as the little boy presents the fruit. "There is a lady who wishes to see you."
She takes his small hand and leads him into the room.
Mrs. Blum rushes forward with a cry, and flinging her arms round the child's neck, kisses him again and again.
Then perching him on her knee, she looks at him intently, murmuring: "Beth's boy! Beth's son!"
"You are the lady who got scolded," says Tombo gravely. "Why was my mother so angry with you?"
"It is not polite to ask questions," puts in Eleanor hastily.
"But she ought not to be cross," continues Tombo, "because you must be good, you're white, like Mrs. Quinton, and mother never rows her. Who are you?" placing his tiny fingers against her cheek, and stroking it gently.
"I am your granny, dear, and you will never see me again. But you must think of me sometimes, and remember that I loved you."
She strains him to her heart passionately.
"You're crying!" says Tombo. "That's naughty. Oh! don't cry," shaking her in a sudden frenzy of fear. "Granny, Granny!"
Children always dread to see their elders give way to any emotion, and the little fellow's terror brings back Mrs. Blum's composure.
"There, darling, see, I am smiling," she says, her faded eyes lighting up through a mist of tears.
"I think it is very nice to have a Granny, and I want to keep her always."
"That is impossible, dearest. You must be a good boy, and not ask mother questions."
Eleanor brings him sweets and cakes, which he readily devours, sharing them with the dog, who jumps up, startling Mrs. Blum, on whose knees young Tombo is seated.
"You must trot home soon," says Eleanor, glancing nervously at the time, and fearing every moment lest Elizabeth should sweep in like a tragedy queen, and snatch her offspring from Mrs. Blum's arms.
"Yes, soon," sighs his grandmother, holding him as if she will never let him go. She detaches a small gold locket from her chain, in which is a lock of Elizabeth's hair.
"You may keep this darling," she murmurs, "to remember Granny by."
She looks tenderly at the pale, flaxen lock of hair, which grew on little Beth's baby forehead.
"Don't lose it, Tombo, for it is very precious--one of Granny's dearest treasures. Mother will recognise it and know the hair inside. Tell her you must keep it always, because she played with it as a little girl."
The boy gazes in awe at the locket.
"Didn't it cost a lot of money?" he asks.
Mrs. Blum smiles at the remark.
"You are an odd child," she says, placing him on the ground.
"Have you nothing you can give Granny?" whispers Eleanor in his ear.
Tombo draws a small whistle from his pocket and carries it with an air of triumph to Mrs. Blum.
"This is for you, Granny. It is all my own, so don't be afraid. Quartey M'Ba gave it to me for a dead 'minah' I found in the jungle."
She takes the little whistle tremblingly.
"Granny will wear it on her chain," she says, "in the place of her locket, she will keep it quite as carefully."
Then she kisses the child, and pushes him from her, covering her face with her hands that she may not see him go.
Eleanor leads Tombo away, and watches him run down the hill--he is clasping the gold locket safely in both hands.
Mrs. Blum has departed blessing Eleanor, and pouring such overwhelming gratitude into her ears that solitude is a welcome relief.
"Poor soul," she thinks. "Shall I ever come to that
A step is heard on the verandah, the rustle of a dress, and Elizabeth Kachin stands before her.
She is paler than of yore, her eyes a trifle softer. The hard lips part in greeting, she takes Eleanor by both hands.
"You are a good woman," she says, with an admiring glance. "I cannot tell you how high your great charity has placed you in my esteem and regard. To think you actually laid aside all your natural feelings of repulsion and harboured such a woman out of charity."
"Merely an act of plain humanity," replies Eleanor.
"Nevertheless, I could not do it, even to my own mother. To be in contact with what is sinful is abhorrent to me. Still, I am not blind to your great kindness and self-sacrifice. Tombo and I both wish to thank you."
Eleanor's heart swells at the words--to be thought good, noble, charitable. What a blessed thing it is! She realises how deeply she still values public opinion, which she has cast to the winds in her reckless love for Carol. Elizabeth, by her words of praise, endears herself to Eleanor, in spite of her late behaviour to the poor outcast. It is well to be looked up to and to be believed in. Then the galling thought creeps into her elated brain:
"You have no right to this approbation. Elizabeth is a just woman, clothed in that pitiless virtue which tramples down the weak. You are deceiving her and accepting what is not your due. You may be foolish, wild, mistaken, Eleanor; you may have ruined your husband and yourself; but you are not
She realises in a moment all it will cost her to lose her friend's respect, to see the look of scorn in Elizabeth's eye, and watch her turn away as from one polluted.
For the moment it seems too hard, but Eleanor pulls herself together and sets her teeth.
She walks across to the door with a steady step, her slim young figure drawn up to its full height, her head tossed back, her cheeks aflame.
Elizabeth watches in mute surprise. Then Eleanor breaks the silence, flings open the door, and cries with outstretched hand pointing to the hill:
; I, too, am a wicked woman!"