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Again 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!
It happened on the boat coming down from New York; he asked me then to marry him and I said, yes. I said yes; and I am a lucky girl. Roy is everything anybody would want in a husband; he's handsome and gallant, he's worldly and intelligent and dignified and sophisticated all at once. He's got plenty of money, so mine doesn't make any difference; it only means that because he was my father's friend I know him better, I feel more faith and trust in him, I think my father would have wanted me to be his wife. The island is beautiful and so is the house. Aurelia has been kindness itself; she's kept house for her brother always and she says she'll continue to do so if I want her to, but only if I want her to. They have given me the warmest welcome, the kindliest and most sympathetic refuge a girl in grief and loneliness ever had. So this is to be my home, darling; and you needn't worry about your orphaned niece ever, because Aurelia and Roy are so good to me. And Roy and I are to be married next Wednesday.
Well, she couldn't say all that.
She'd say only that it was to be a quiet wedding, of course, so soon after her father's death; but there was no reason to wait; so Roy said and he was right. And it was a sensible, rational kind of marriage. They were the best of friends; Roy loved Beadon Gates and Beadon Island and she would soon grow to love it too. How could anyone not love so beautiful a place!
She went across to the balustrade and stood for a moment, leaning against it, her hands on the cool coral rock, looking out over Beadon Island.
The central mill was going. A wisp of smoke from it hovered over the Shaw place, Middle Road. A long two miles by road, which was winding and irregular, it was a short mile, perhaps, across the tree tops; so short that she could smell the bubbling liquid sugar in the vats, blended with the half-sweet, half-acid odor of molasses and rum and trash, the waste stacks of cane pulp. For three months out of the year they had told her the sweetish smell lay in a sort of a cloud upon the island, suggesting caramels, suggesting some sort of fermentation, suggesting nothing but itself. It was not unpleasant; it meant the central mill, which all the island used, was going. Beadon Island was small; with the exception of its banana crops, its subsistence and life, as well as the air it breathed, was sugar.
She'd go back now into her room and finish her letter.
It was a large room with a green-tiled floor and high ceiling. The great pearwood armoire almost touched the ceiling; the bed had an enormous canopy from which mosquito netting fell like the garment of a rather limp and unfashionable wraith. But the long chairs, the tables, even her writing table were wicker and looked light and airy. She sat down at the table but again as she began to write a multitude of things she wanted to say crowded into her mind. Aurelia has sent for my trousseau; my wedding dress has come and been fitted; it's white with lace and a pink hat. I'm going to see the lawyer about business things, my will and all that, soon; to say it's a pink hat and white dress doesn't give you the faintest smallest picture of how elegant either of them is. The dress has a long full skirt and a tight basque-like top and the hat is just silk roses or something and lots of pale pink tulle and really delectable, darling, and I'll wear Mother's pearls. I've sent to the lawyers for them. They ought to be here by now. I hope they are not lost, and I didn't write sooner because life has been so full and, besides, I knew you'd approve. But I wish you could be here.
She bent over the white note paper and wrote.
"Or perhaps it will not be such a surprise; perhaps you knew all along that this would happen. Since you can't come anyway and there was no reason to wait we decided to be married very soon—next Wednesday, in fact."
Next Wednesday. Next Wednesday, and this was Saturday. Again a wave of incredulity touched her; she bent quickly over the paper and went on:
"It will be a small wedding, of course; as I told you there are not many people here—the Vicar and his wife, the doctor, that's Dr. Riordan who sees to everybody; Lydia Bassett ..."
She paused, staring at the white paper, seeing Lydia; thinking, that's Mrs. Bassett; she's a widow; she's an old friend of Roy's and Aurelia's; she comes to the house often; she's very beautiful with her triangular face and red mouth and coppery hair and vigorous graceful body; she doesn't like me; she didn't like me from the first; but she's very polite; too polite. Lydia Bassett.
She wrote: "The Shaws will be there, too. That is, Miss Hermione Shaw, who owns and operates Middle Road plantation adjoining Roy's plantation, and her nephew, Jim Shaw."
She hesitated again, and added slowly: "It's a small group of neighbors and friends; they dine together, play bridge together; there are two other plantations on the island but the owners of one are in England and the other is run by a trust with a resident factor. Oh, yes, and Major Fenby will be there; he is Hermione's factor, a retired army officer and a dear; and the magistrate who lives in the village, Seabury Jenkins. And of course the house servants, who all seem pleased, and Roy's overseer, Smithson. And perhaps the bank manager and his wife; I don't know them. Darling, this just about comprises our island society! But I like it and so would you; and it is a sensible marriage...."
Excerpted from House of Storm by Mignon G. Eberhart. Copyright © 1949 Mignon G. Eberhart. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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