Authors: Mignon G. Eberhart
A MYSTERIOUSPRESS.COM BOOK
GAIN THE HOUSE WAS
listening and the passive patient strength of its audience lapped into the room, surrounded her, flooded between her and the letter she was writing. Nonie put down her pen and listened too; surely this time there would be some betraying creak or rustle, some evidence of human ears.
It was about three o’clock of a hot, tropical afternoon, with the trade winds blowing across the island, rattling the palm trees and whispering among the wide rustling leaves of the bananas; the sun poured down, the great hurricane shutters were closed against the heat and light. It was the siesta hour, so everyone else in the house was drowsing, yielding to heat and custom. At such times, Nonie had already discovered, when human alertness and authority were in abeyance, the island, the tropics, the sun, the lush green growth, the murmur of the sea came into possession, reclaiming their own.
The house itself, however, seemed never unaware, never quite subservient to the people within, or the tropics without; it always watched, and listened.
Or so it seemed to Nonie now, and had seemed so during almost the entire three weeks of her stay within it—ever since, in fact, she had come to the green and lovely island, in the middle of the blue and purple Caribbean—Beadon Island, which was now to be her home.
It was sheer fancy, the uneasiness of a child in a strange place, to feel that the house—well, listened. Put like that, it was not only childish, it was absurd and more than a little unfair to Roy and to Aurelia; Royal Beadon, who was to be her husband, Aurelia Beadon, who was to be her sister, both of whom had come so promptly to her aid when she needed help, who had welcomed her so warmly and kindly to their home. Her home soon, Roy had said, for always.
So she would conquer that formless uneasiness. She would not rise and go to the door, certain of finding someone outside, something besides the long narrow corridor and the open dim doorways of other rooms, unused for the most part and shuttered, so only the pale counterpanes, the dark glimmer of old mahogany bed posts, the dim light patches of rugs and pillows outlined themselves vaguely among the shadows.
Actually the house was very quiet. There were sounds but they were identifiable sounds to which now she was accustomed. Always, there was the sound of the sea; she was never quite unaware of that. On clear days the winds blew, rattling the stiff Spanish bayonets and the palms and the bamboos, stirring the glossy thickets of mangroves, waving the uncut cane pieces like prairie grass. The central sugar mill for the island lay on the other side of Middle Road plantation, which adjoined Roy’s plantation; on a quiet day there was the distant hum and stamp of machinery. And just at that instant, waking from its own dreamy inertia, a bugle bird set up its clear little trumpet from somewhere in the garden.
The shutters had been closed before noon so the room in which Nonie sat was shadowy and she had turned on the green-shaded table lamp on her writing table so there was a pool of light around her and upon the white note paper. The house, the long, weatherbeaten, shuttered and verandaed white house, with its great high-ceilinged rooms, its windows overlooking sea and sand and deep blue mountains; its French carpets and Victorian mahogany and Spanish-tiled floors, its portraits of Beadons in stock collars and black broadcloth and velvet and great gilt frames; its aged odors of old wood and stone, of sea air and moist burgeoning earth, of furniture and lavender and cooking and, at that season, a faint smell of raw, boiling sugar. … The whole house lay still and tranquil with soft greenish gloom within and the bright afternoon sun without.
So there was nobody listening.
Consequently there was nothing to be afraid of.
She turned back to her letter and then thought—afraid? Afraid of what?
Afraid of nothing, of course; it was an absurd word even to enter her thoughts. Strangeness was one thing; fear was another and fear was for nightmares. Fear was not for blue and golden seas, for a green and lovely island, for the home that even now enfolded her, for the care and protection, the peace and love and kindness that surrounded her. Fear especially was not for the new life upon which already, in a very real sense, she was launched like a voyage of good omen, well begun.
The palms outside the shuttered window, outside the balcony, clashed together; the small green slats which were set in narrow panels within the heavy, folding shutters had been turned open so a breath of air stirred through the shadowy room. Outside in the garden the bugle bird sang again. Nonie went back to her letter.
“ … and of course the whole island is given over mainly to sugar plantations. There are only a few landowners; the Beadon place, of course, Middle Road adjoining it (that is owned by the Shaws), and one or two others. It’s a very small island on the map but it seems larger, naturally, when you live on it. There’s a tiny village, called Beadon Rock, and all through the island there are little clusters of cottages where the laborers and field hands and their families live; colored people who have lived on the island for generations. The cottages are pretty, very neat with their flowers and vines. None of the house servants lives in the house; it is the custom here. But every plantation has its cluster of cottages; here at Beadon Gates they are on the other side of a big acreage of sugar cane—what is called a cane piece, still, although Roy says it’s an old-fashioned term.
“Roy’s place as you know is called Beadon Gates and is very beautiful; or rather I should say was very beautiful. During the war, of course, not much was done and the tropics seem to take over very quickly; Roy says the machinery is all but obsolete, but that’s because of the war and the difficulty of replacing it. And nothing lasts long in the tropics; even in the short time since I came I can see that there is something devastating and destructive about the climate and the sea air.”
She paused. How to explain to anyone, let alone Aunt Nona, whose world was bounded by limits which were defined and well-accustomed, the indefinable quality of strength of the tropics, the way everything grew hungrily as if vines and trees and tangled shrubbery were joined in a secret pact to take over all man-made obstructions? The lush, rapid green growth, the warm moist air, the fine salt spray that could, on occasion, cover everything, all of it seemed stealthily banded to resist such things as houses and walls. So iron hinges grew rusty and would not clean, brass corroded and would not brighten, mirrors were blotted with misty shadows that would not rub off; so wood rotted unperceived, and machinery fell into mysterious disrepair overnight; so shutters began to sag and wooden doors warped and drawers would not open and slight damp patches furtively distempered the plaster.
She had been struck with a sense of that quiet and stealthy power the day she arrived, with her first glimpse of Beadon Gates plantation and the big, rambling, yet stately Beadon house. She had already seen pictures of the place. Roy had had them. Her father, who had known the house years ago, had held the pictures in his unsteady fingers, and looked at them approvingly. Had he then guessed, with the prescience of approaching death, that it was to be a safe and happy harbor for the daughter he knew then he was going to leave? The house was gracious and gracefully proportioned, tropical amidst its gardens and vines, its shuttered French windows and wide veranda. The photographs had not shown an intangible look, not so much of age, to which the house was well entitled, but of desuetude. Which, of course, was wrong; except for his occasional visits to New York, it had always been Roy’s home and Aurelia’s.
And to be sure, it was only when one lived at the plantation that one began to see those small obstinate marks, not of neglect—no one could have more pride in their home than Roy and Aurelia Beadon—but of, well, of heat and wind and rain and rust … of, in brief, the tropics.
She must get on with her letter; she must, indeed, get to the real reason for writing that letter which was not to tell Aunt Nona about Beadon Island, but that she, Nonie, was going to live there for the rest of her life. That almost by the time Aunt Nona, in California, received the letter Nonie would be Mrs. Royal Beadon. She took up her pen again, wrote …
“And now, darling, I have a surprise for you. Roy and I are going to be married,” and paused.
Perhaps it would not be such a surprise! She remembered Aunt Nona’s telegram: “Urge you accept invitation Beadon Island Best possible thing for you just now would be long visit Caribbean Do appreciate Roy’s kindness Give him my greetings and gratitude all he has done for us this sad time Your affectionate Aunt.”
Aunt Nona was of the age and generation which made matches for its young. Sick herself, unable to make the long journey across the continent to be with her brother-in-law at the time of his illness and death, and to give Nonie the support and comfort of her kinswoman’s presence, had she nevertheless done what she could to bring about just such a solution? “Urge you accept invitation Beadon Island.”
Nonie smiled, thinking of the gentle, kindly and implacably conventional little aunt she saw so seldom and loved so much. No, it would not surprise Aunt Nona who had already, almost in so many words, given this marriage her blessing.
The marriage? Her marriage. On Wednesday.
The room seemed suddenly too shadowy; closed in and breathless; she rose abruptly and went to the window where she unlatched the heavy shutters, and opened one half, folding it back upon itself, and then the other, latching each into place. They, like the house, had been originally built to withstand winds and sand, hurricanes and sun. The faded green paint came off in soft green smudges on her hands. Air and light poured into the room.
A shallow balcony was outside, with purple bougainvillaea twining luxuriously around its coral rock balustrade. The sea lay on the other side of the house. Roy’s room faced that way with its wide windows opening upon the sun deck which was the first-floor veranda roof, and Aurelia’s lay at the end of the corridor, also overlooking the sea. Nonie’s room was the largest guest room and from its balcony there was a view of green lawns and scarlet hibiscus and yellow cannas, and the winding white driveway that led out of sight between thick green hedges toward the entrance gates. Beyond the near-by greens there was a glimpse of misty blue hills and beyond them, on the horizon, a rim of hazy light marking the meeting of sky and sea.
The light and air dispelled the shut-in feeling of the room. She stood for a moment, looking out over the blue hills and green valleys and thinking of her unfinished letter. Phrases went through her mind—perhaps it will not be such a surprise, darling; perhaps you guessed it all along. Perhaps you had this very plan in your dear little, tight little, practical little Victorian mind; long visit Caribbean, indeed. A long visit to the Beadons, you meant, you darling; long enough for a marriage to come of it; but it didn’t need a long visit, dear little aunt!