Read CHAPTER VIII of The Devil's Garden, free online book, by W. B. Maxwell, on ReadCentral.com.

Mavis had bought a cheap blue veil to protect her face, and being, moreover, fortunate enough to find an empty compartment in the through coach to Rodchurch Road, she did not suffer during the journey from too curious observation of strangers. She was going home, exactly as if nothing had happened. Her husband had said that she was to go, and what else could she do but obey him?

When the station omnibus pulled up outside the post office, Mr. Ridgett caught sight of her, and gallantly came to assist her in alighting. Evidently he noticed nothing strange about her appearance. She at once announced the good news that Dale had not only been reinstated, but given a couple of weeks’ holiday; and Ridgett, genuinely delighted, squeezed both her hands.

“That’s something like. Here, let me carry this upstairs for you.”

“No, thank you, please don’t trouble. I can manage.”

Mr. Allen, the saddler, had come across from his shop, and she told him the good news too. Mr. Allen hurried down the street to tell others. Soon the whole village knew that Mr. Dale had triumphed, and that the Postmaster-General was granting him leave of absence as a special mark of favor.

Mary clapped her hands on hearing the good news, and was rapturously pleased at seeing her mistress home again; but she immediately required explanations.

“Oh, lor, mum, whatever have you done to yourself?”

“I have had an accident,” said Mrs. Dale. “I fell down and it has given me a bad headache. I don’t want any tea. I shall go to bed early, and try to get a good sleep.”

And in truth, she was longing to sleep. After the terrible ordeal of yesterday sleep seemed to be the one good thing left in the world for her. But, notwithstanding supreme fatigue, sleep would not come.

Throughout that first night, and again on succeeding nights, she struggled beneath a suffocating burden of anxiety. In the daylight she had been able to think of herself, but in the darkness she could think only of her husband. She was haunted by the expression of his face, by the tone of his voice, when he had asked her if she supposed that existence was any longer valuable to him, and the sudden instinctive apprehension that she had felt then now grew so strong that she fought against it vainly.

He intended to commit suicide. At first she had thought of all those London bridges, with the dark rivers swirling through their arches and eddying round their piers; then she became sure that he would not drown himself. He was a vigorous swimmer such a death would be impossible to him. No, he would poison himself, or shoot himself, or hang himself. Perhaps even now it was all over.

In his presence it had seemed impossible to disobey him. Whatever he commanded she must do. But what pitiful weakness! Why, with instinct prompting her, had she not resisted him, refused to let him leave her, stayed with him in spite of blows, and been there to snatch the cup or the rope from his hands, to thrust herself between the pistol and his body?

By day she recognized that her anxiety was unreasoning, based on her own emotions, or at least not logically derived from her knowledge of his character. Of course he had taken the discovery of her secret far worse than she had ever conceived as possible, when timorously thinking of untoward hazards that one day or another might lead to disclosure. But, even then, fully allowing for the effect of his extreme excitement, would he, so brave and self-reliant a creature, be guilty of an act that is in its essence cowardly?

She thought of his courage. He was as brave a man as ever breathed, and yet you could not describe him as reckless or foolhardy. He was wise enough to be chary of exposing himself to useless risks. So much so that he had more than once surprised her by keeping quite calm when she had expected and dreaded perilous energy. Especially she remembered a day out on the Manninglea road when a runaway horse with an empty cart came galloping toward them, and Dale, instead of attempting to stop it, put his arm round her waist and hastily drew her well out of the way. In another hundred yards the runaway went crashing off the road, fell, and smashed the cart into smithereens.

“Tally-ho! Gone to ground,” cried Dale cheerily. “There’s a nice little bill for Mr. Baker to pay.” And then he told her that one of the most dangerous things a pedestrian can do is to interfere with a bolting horse when there’s a vehicle behind it. “Mind you,” he added, “I’d have had a try at bringing it to anchor if there’d been anybody in the cart. That would have been another pair of shoes. What you’re justified in doing for a fellow human being you aren’t justified in doing to save a few pounds, shillings and pence.”

She clung to this thought of his innate common sense. And there was comfort and hope, too, in another thought. He was a naturally religious man, if not an orthodoxly religious one. The church service bored him; he only attended it from motives of policy; but, nevertheless, when you got him inside the sacred edifice, his behavior was perfect, and you could not watch him on his knees or hear him say “Christ have mercy upon us, O Lord Christ have mercy on us,” without being convinced that he did truly believe in an omnipotent God and the punishments or rewards that await us on the other side of the grave. Surely the man who bowed his head like that at the name of Jesus would not, could not, be the man to take his own life merely because it had become an unhappy life.

The hope that lay in such thoughts as these helped her to support the strain of three long waiting days and four long sleepless nights. Then on the fourth day, Saturday, the strain was relieved.

“Mrs. Dale,” said Ridgett, speaking to her from the bottom of the stairs, “would you be disposed for a little stroll before tea?”

“No, thank you, Mr. Ridgett.”

“Have pity on a lonely stranger, and change your mind,” said Mr. Ridgett, smiling up at her.

“No, really not but thank you for offering it.”

“You know, it isn’t right the way you shut yourself up this lovely weather.”

“I I have not been feeling quite myself, Mr. Ridgett.”

“No, so your maid told me. But, still, I am afraid it’s the way to make yourself worse, never going out of doors;” and Mr. Ridgett laughed amiably. “I won’t press you that is, I won’t press you to honor me with your company; but I do respectfully press my advice to get out a bit. You know I feel a responsibility to look after you in the absence of your lord and master.”

“Thank you.”

“By the way, I had a note from him this morning.”

“From Mr. Dale?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, had you? Where ” Mavis gripped the baluster rail so tightly that the slender wooden uprights rattled. She had nearly asked a question which would have betrayed the fact that she did not know her husband’s address. “Did he write from his lodgings?”

“No, he wrote from a public library. Lambeth yes, the Lambeth Library.”

“What did he say?”

“Only confirmed your report that he wouldn’t be back till the twenty-eighth.” Mr. Ridgett laughed again. “And told me that the clocks ought to be wound up Thursday, and he hoped we hadn’t let them run down. We hadn’t, you know.”

Mavis was inexpressibly relieved; and yet that night she did not sleep any better than on the preceding nights. The worst anxiety had gone, but so much that was distressing in her situation remained. Since Will was alive now, he would continue to live. And that little circumstance of his remembering about the clocks was full of promise that is, promise concerning himself. It implied that he meant to go on much as usual. He would come back, and be postmaster as in the past. But what would he do with her?

Would he go for a divorce? Publish her shame? Perhaps, even if he were willing to spare her, he would not forego the chance of dragging down Mr. Barradine. Feeling as strongly as he did and since the world began, surely no one in such circumstances had ever felt quite so strongly he would seize upon the overthrow of Mr. Barradine’s reputation as the obvious means of obtaining his own revenge. Then she thought of what such a scandal would mean to a gentleman of Mr. Barradine’s state and status. Mr. Barradine would move heaven and earth to avert it. He might even get Will spirited away, never to be found again! One was always reading in the newspaper of mysterious, inexplicable disappearances. New fears almost as bad as the old fear began to shake her again.

Of this there could be no question. Mr. Barradine would pay a very large sum of money to avoid the threatened disgrace. And in the midst of her acute apprehension and distress the plain matter-of-fact idea presented itself: that if Dale were not rendered irresponsible by jealous ire, one might hope that he would eventually fall in with Mr. Barradine’s views that he ought, for everybody’s sake, to take his damages, more damages than he would ever get in a court of law, and then let bygones be bygones.

While dressing of a morning she used to examine the bruises on her neck, her arms, and her legs. After passing through the stage of blackness and purpleness, their discoloration had spread out into faint violet and yellow; now already this was beginning to fade; and it seemed that as the ugly marks of his hands disappeared from her skin, the memory of all the causes that had brought them there began itself to weaken. Certainly the despairing anguish that she had felt, the submission to his unpardoning wrath, the tacit agreement that the discovery gave him license to do anything he liked with her, not only then but throughout the future all this pertained to a state of mind which could be coldly recollected, but which could not be warmly revived.

How he had knocked her about! Standing before the toilet-glass and looking at her bruises musingly, she tried to remember in what part of the room, and at which period of the long volcanic discussion, each one had been received. All the neck marks could be accounted for on the bed, when he was holding her down and shaking her; that graze above the knee, outside the right thigh had come when she rolled over by the chest of drawers. Raising her eyes in order to see if the lip and eyebrow continued to mend satisfactorily, she was surprised by the general expression of her face. Positively she was smiling. The smile vanished at once, but it had been there a gentle, melancholy, yet proud little smile. And reflecting, she understood that deep in her thoughts there was truly pride whenever she dwelt upon her husband’s violence. It did prove so conclusively how immense was his love.

Jealousy is of course the inevitable accompaniment of love; and while it is active everything else is pushed aside, postponed, or forgotten. And she smiled again, as she thought what queer creatures men are, how extravagantly different from women. She had never understood them, and possibly never would do so. For instance, how strange that old Will should not for a moment have been softened by a recognition of her success in extricating him from his difficulty! One might have expected that gratitude would almost counterbalance anger. But, no, not for a fraction of a second could he think that, although what she had done might be wrong, it had been done with the most unselfish intention and had proved very efficacious.

Then, not in the least expecting that she was about to cry, she burst into tears.

She had remembered his voice and his look when he said something about honor and dishonor, and about working for her till he dropped. Noble and splendid love had spoken in that such love as few women are lucky enough to get. Oh, surely if he loved her like that, he could not leave off loving her altogether, and never, never, want his Mav again.

Sadness and desolation overcame her. She was alone in their dear, dear home, disgraced, abandoned, heart-broken; and her thoughts for a little while were all prayers. With each one of them she prayed her husband to go on loving her; to come back and bruise her limbs, to punish her with fierce glances and cutting words, to subject her to systematic penitential discipline, if only at the end of it all she might have his love again.

She sat crying most bitterly; and then, when at last she dried her eyes, and went down-stairs to gratify Mary by pretending to eat some breakfast, a supremely commonplace and yet poignantly sad reflection brought another flood of tears. What wretched little chances can produce the most tragically terrific upheavals! Had she not bought a return railway ticket, the whole disaster might have been averted. But for that horrible square inch of pink cardboard, all would have been well, her ordeal would not have been suffered in vain. The wickedly strong intoxicant had of course begun the mischief by making her blurt out those imbecile words that first set Will on the rampage; but it was the knowledge of the telltale ticket, close at hand, unguarded, certain to be found if looked for, that had unnerved her so completely. Otherwise, as she now believed, she could have held her own under his rapid fire of questions. She could have laughed off his accusations as absurd or, at the worst, she could have gained time to think of plausible explanations. But the ticket simply paralyzed her.

And she had known that she was running a risk when she made up her mind to keep it. She bought it without any thought at all a stupid thing to do, considering that the cost was the same as two single fares. Not so stupid, however, as the thrifty idea that if she and Will traveled home in different trains, she might after all use her return half. Oh, fatal economy! In scheming to avoid the loss of five shillings she had wrecked all her peace and comfort.

On this Sunday she would have liked to go to church, but a dread of loquacious and inquisitive neighbors kept her a prisoner in the house.

On Monday morning she almost determined to go out for a walk but her courage again failed her. Until noon the village street was dull and lifeless, with only one or two people visible at a time, and yet she dared not go down and walk through it. Were she to show herself, all the idle shopkeepers would issue from their shops, to congratulate her on the postmaster’s victory, to inquire where he was spending his holiday and why she hadn’t gone for the holiday with him.

Nearly all day she sat by the window of the front room, staring at the trite and familiar scene, and encouraging her thoughts to wander away from her misery whenever they would consent to do so. A butcher’s boy leaned his bicycle against the curbstone in so careless a fashion that it immediately fell down; Mr. Bates the corn merchant passed by with an empty wagon; then Mr. Norton the vicar appeared, going from house to house, distributing handbills of special services. And she wondered if he and his wife had ever had a hidden domestic storm in their outwardly tranquil existence. Mrs. Norton must have been quite pretty once, and perhaps at that period she caused Mr. Norton anxieties. But if she had ever needed forgiveness for some indiscretion or other, she had obviously obtained it; and again the thought came strong and clear that people who hold conspicuous positions such as vicars, tax-collectors, postmasters, and so on owe a duty to the world as well as to themselves. They must hush things up, and preserve appearances: they can not wash their dirty linen in public.

After twelve o’clock there was much more to look at. The children came shouting out of school, laborers passed to and fro on their way to dinner, and with horns loudly blowing, three heavily-laden chars-a-bancs arrived one after another from Rodhaven. The tourists filled the street, and for about two hours the aspect of things was lively and bustling. Then the horns sounded again, the huge vehicles lumbered away, and the whole village relapsed into drowsiness and inertia. Literally nothing to look at now.

But before tea time that afternoon she saw something in the street that held her breathlessly attentive as long as it remained there. It was Mr. Barradine, riding slowly toward her between the churchyard and the Roebuck stables. She shrank back behind the muslin curtain of her window, and, watching him, passed through an extraordinarily rapid sequence of emotions.

The horse was a chestnut, and it stepped lightly and springily. As she thought of how and when she had last seen its rider, she felt a sensation that was like helplessness, shame, and fear all mingled. It was as though her whole body, muscles, flesh and nerves, quailed and grew weak at the mere sight of him; as though inherited instincts were controlling her, and would always control her whenever she was in his presence; as though she the descendant of serfs must infallibly submit to the descendant of lords must forever fear the man who had been her master even when he was her lover. Rationally she hated him for the harm that he had done her, but instinctively she feared him for the further harm that he might yet have power to do.

And together with the hatred and the fear, there was a pitiful sneaking admiration. He looked so grand and unruffled so old, and yet sitting the skittish, high-mettled horse so firmly; so feeble, and yet full of such an absolute confidence in his power to rule and subordinate, accustomed for forty years to the unfailing subjection of such things as servants, horses, and women. Her heart bumped against her stays, and her face became red and then white, when she thought that he intended to stop at the post office and ask for her. But he rode on gave one glance up toward the windows from which she shrank still further, and rode by, right down the street, with the horse swishing its long tail and seeming to dance in a light amble.

Then, as soon as he disappeared, the spell was broken.

In all that she had confessed to her husband she had been sincere; but hers was a simple and easy going nature, and exaltation could not be long sustained. After excitement she returned rapidly to a passive and unimaginative level; and now, quietly brooding, she could not do otherwise than justify herself for all that had happened.

At the end of everything she felt a deep-seated conviction that she was in truth blameless. She was not a bad woman. Therefore it would be wicked to treat her as a sinner and an outcast. Sinners did wrong because they enjoyed the sin; but she had never been vicious, or even selfishly anxious for pleasure. Pleasure! She had never cared for that sort of thing. Girls of her own age used to talk to her about it, and what they said was almost incomprehensible. She had never had such feelings, however faintly.

No, her only fault had been in giving way to the people who had charge of her, and who were too strong to be resisted. Just at first she had been flattered and pleased when Mr. Barradine had begun to take notice of her patting her, and holding her hand, and saying he admired her hair; but she had not in the least known where all this was leading. What she told Will was substantially correct as to the beginning but of course her eyes had been opened before anything definite occurred. Then she had told Auntie that she was afraid; and then it was that Auntie ought to have saved her, and didn’t. Far from it. Auntie, who in early days had been severe enough, now became all smiles, treating her deferentially, saying: “If you play your cards properly you’ll set us all up as large as towers. Don’t lose your head. For goodness’ sake, don’t be wild and foolish, and go offending him so that instead of coming back again he’ll look elsewhere.”

Then later, when she had, as it were, sacrificed herself on the family altar, she was indignant at finding that he had nevertheless looked elsewhere. There were others and she said she would never forgive him. Yet she did forgive him. Finally, there came the outrage of his stopping at the Cottage with somebody else. Her aunt had sent her out of the way, but she heard of it; and this time she determined to be done with Mr. Barradine. And yet again she forgave him.

Then she discovered, without any explanations, that he had done with her. He was paternal and kind, but she had become just nobody; and her aunt was very angry, saying that she had played her cards badly instead of well. That was about the time that Dale had been two years at Portsmouth. She liked Dale from the first because he was honest and good, and because he seemed to offer her an escape from an extremely difficult position. But if she had been a nasty girl, she would not have made such a marriage; instead of being anxious to secure respectability, however humble, she would have followed Auntie’s suggestions and looked out for another protector instead of for a husband. And she had wanted to tell Dale the whole truth; but there again she had been overruled. Auntie forbade her to utter a whisper or hint of it; she said that Mr. Barradine would never pardon such a betrayal of his confidence, whereas if a properly discreet silence were preserved he would give the bride a suitable wedding present, as well as push the fortunes of the bridegroom. “Besides,” said Aunt Petherick, “a nice hash you’ll make of it if you go and label yourself damaged goods before you’re fairly started. Why, it would be just giving Dale the whip-hand over you for the rest of your days.” Looking back at it all, Mavis felt that this argument was irrefutable.

After marriage she began to love Will most truly and devotedly but not for his embraces, which did not even stir her pulses, which only made her tenderly happy that she could make him happy. Now after eleven years her feeling toward him was all unselfish and beautiful, a gentle and deep affection, without a taint of anything that one would not call really lady-like. The passion and boisterousness were all on his side.

And thinking of things that she had never told Will, she wondered if this calmness of temperament, or perhaps unusual failure in response, was but another fatal consequence of the Barradine slavery. If so, what cause she had to hate and curse him! The episode with him was simply an irksomeness: it had frozen her instead of warming her, checked her expansion, and perhaps, breaking the cycle of normal development, made her imperfect as a woman.

Perhaps this was the real reason why she had remained childless. She represented completed womanhood in this respect at least, that she desired to be a mother. The possession of children was the one thing that made her envious of other women. The idea of having a child of her own made her almost faint with longing a baby to nurse, a little burden to wheel about in a perambulator, a companion to prattle to her all day while Will was busy down-stairs. If the hope of such joy had been taken from her by Mr. Barradine, oh, how immeasureably great was her cause for hatred!

She sat staring at the distant point where he and his horse had just now vanished, and for a little while her thoughts were like curses. Any attributes of grandeur were transitory illusions; he was wholly mean and base: he was the embodied principle of evil that had spoiled the past and that still threatened the future. She wished that he might eventually suffer as much as he had made her suffer. She wished that he might be racked with rheumatism, burned up with gout, tortured with every conceivable painful disease. She wished him dead and crumbling to dust in his coffin.

After tea she came back to the window and stayed there till nightfall.

Little by little the street became dim and vague. Two or three futile oil lamps were lighted, and the shop fronts shone brightly, but all the rest grew dark, like a river or a canal instead of a street. One heard voices, and then people showed themselves momentarily as they passed through the lamplight.

While she watched them passing, her thoughts drifted into generalized sadness.

The shutters went up at the saddler’s, and she saw Mr. Allen for a moment a long, thin man, looking too tall for the frame of the lamplit doorway. Mr. Allen used to have a fine business but he was spoiling it by his folly. It had been his custom to go to neighboring meets of hounds and ask the young gentlemen if the saddles he had made for them were satisfactory, insinuate his fingers between saddle-tree and hunter’s withers to see if there was plenty of room, and generally render himself obsequiously agreeable. That was good for trade. But then the hunting gradually fascinated him, and he followed on foot throughout the season, halloaing hounds to wrong foxes, standing on banks and frightening horses, being a nuisance to the gentlemen, and coming home to boast that although he was fifty he had walked twenty-seven miles in the day. And his trade was all going or gone, and he not seeming to care. His wife let lodgings to make up a bit. Very sad.

Candle-light showed in a window of the house next door to the saddler’s, and Mavis thought of these neighbors two sisters, old maids who had a very, very little money of their own and who endeavored to add to what was barely enough for necessities by selling butterfly nets, children’s fishing-rods, stamp albums, and picture post-cards. Two years ago the elder sister tumbled down-stairs and injured her spine; and since then she had been bedridden, lying in the upper room at the back of the house, with nothing to amuse her but a view of the graveyard behind the church. Mavis had been to see her one day this summer, had sat by the bed, and read her a chapter out of the New Testament and then the weekly instalment of a novel in the Rodhaven District Courier. Extremely sad.

Then livid-faced, matty-haired Emily Frayne passed by, carrying a brown-paper parcel. This poor overworked girl was the only daughter of Frayne the tailor, who was a confirmed drunkard. All day long she was kept toiling like a slave, cutting out, beginning and finishing gaiters, breeches, and stable-jackets, doing all the work that was ever done at Frayne’s; and at night she went round trying to get orders, delivering the goods that she had completed, and being forced to support the impudence and familiarity of coachmen and grooms, who chucked her under the chin and said they’d give her a kiss for her pains because they weren’t flush enough to stand her a drink. All painfully sad.

There was a dreadful lot of tippling at Rodchurch: in fact, one might say that drink was the prevailing fault of the village. The vicar publicly touched on the matter in his sermons, and privately he often said that Mr. Cope, the fat landlord of The Gauntlet Inn, was greatly to blame. The tradesmen had a little club at the Gauntlet, where Cope employed a horrid brazen barmaid who sometimes sang comic songs to the club members. Mrs. Cope felt strongly about the barmaid, and quite took the vicar’s side in the dispute the day that Cope came out of the tap-room and was so rude and abusive to the reverend gentleman. Mrs. Cope said she’d be glad if Mr. Norton brought her husband to book before the magistrates and got his license taken away.

Dale openly expressed contempt for this boozing Gauntlet club, refused to take up his membership when elected, and had received a complimentary letter from the vicar thanking him for the fine example he had set for others. No, dear old Will, though he liked his glass of beer as well as anybody, would often go a whole week on tea and coffee; and she thought what a merit his sobriety had been. Merely considered as economy, it was a blessing. It is always the drink, and never the food, that runs away with one’s household money.

Mr. Silcox the tobacconist hurried through the lamplight, unquestionably on his way to the Gauntlet. Silcox was a chattering foolish creature who had lost his own and his widowed mother’s savings in a ridiculous commercial enterprise a promptly bankrupt theater company over at Rodhaven and it was thought that the workhouse would be the end for him and Mrs. Silcox. But early this summer people had been startled by hearing that the Courier had appointed Silcox as their reporter; and local critics were of opinion that Silcox had taken very kindly to literature, and that he was shaping well, and might perhaps retrieve the past in making name and fortune. Dale, who used to chaff Silcox rather heavily, was at present quite polite to him. It had always been Will’s policy to stand well with the press, and there was no doubt that during the recent controversy Silcox had endeavored to render aid with his pen.

Lamplight moving now a cart coming down. Mavis, peering out, saw that it was old Mr. Bates again, in a gig this time, going home to his pretty little farm two miles off on the Hadleigh Road. Fancy his being still at it so late, only finishing the day’s work long after so many younger men had done. Mr. Bates was reputed rich a highly respected person; but the sorrow of his old age was a bad, bad son. Richard Bates raced, and habitually ran after women that is, when he possessed the use of his legs and was able to run. But he was a heavy drinker, and it was no unusual thing for the helpers at the Roebuck stables to have to get out a conveyance at closing time and drive Richard, speechless, motionless, to Vine-Pits Farm. He never went to the Gauntlet, but always to the Roebuck beginning the evening in the hotel billiard-room, trying to swagger it out at pool with the solicitor and the doctor, then drifting to the stable bar, and finishing the evening there, or outside in the open yard. One could imagine the feelings of the old father, waiting up all alone, knowing from experience what the sound of wheels implied after ten o’clock. Will said once that he believed Mr. Bates was glad Mrs. Bates hadn’t been spared to see it.

And Mavis, moving at last from the window, thought that she was not the only sad inhabitant of Rodchurch. There is a cruel lot of sorrow in most people’s lives.