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

The second week of the fortnight was passing much quicker than the first week. By a most happy inspiration Mavis had hit upon a means of filling the dull empty time. On Tuesday morning she told Mary that they would turn the master’s absence to good account by giving the house an unseasonal but complete spring cleaning, and ever since then they had both been hard at work.

The work gave exercise as well as occupation; it furnished a ready excuse for declining to go over and see Mrs. Petherick or to allow a visit from her; and, moreover, it had a satisfactory calming effect on one’s nerves. While Mavis was reviewing pots and pans, standing on the high step-ladder to unhook muslin curtains, and, most of all, while she was going through her husband’s winter underclothes in search of moths, it seemed to her that she was not only retaining but strengthening her hold on all these inanimate friends, and that they themselves were eloquently though dumbly protesting against the mere idea of forcible separation. When she sat down, hot and tired, in the midst of shrouded masses of furniture, to enjoy a picnic meal that Mary had set out on the one unoccupied corner of a crowded table, she was able to eat with hearty appetite; and yet, no matter how tired she might be by the end of the day, she could not sleep properly at night.

If she slept, a dream of trouble woke her. As she lay awake her trouble sometimes seemed greater than ever. It was as though the spring cleaning, which by day proved mentally beneficial, became deleterious during these long night watches. The neater, the cleaner, the brighter she made her home, the more terrible must be a sentence of perpetual banishment.

On Friday afternoon the work was nearly over. Kitchen utensils were like shining mirrors; the flowers of the best carpet were like real blossoms budding after rain; and Mavis on the step-ladder, with a smudged face, untidy hair, and grimy hands, had begun to reinstate the pictures handed to her by Mary, when Miss Yorke came knocking abruptly at the parlor door.

“A telegram, ma’am.”

“All right.”

Mavis had come down the ladder, and as she opened the yellow envelope she began to tremble.

“Answer paid, ma’am. Shall I wait?”

“No. I I’ll No, don’t wait.”

It was from Dale. She had sat down on the lowest step of the ladder, and was trembling violently. “Oh, how dreadful!” She muttered the words mechanically, without any attempt to express her actual thought. “How very dreadful!”

“What is it, ma’am? Bad news?”

“Oh, most dreadful. But perhaps a mistake. I’m to find out;” and she stared stupidly at the paper that was shaking in her fingers. Then, spreading it on her lap, she read the message aloud:

“Evening paper says fatal accident to Mr. Barradine. Is this
true? Wire Dale, Appledore Temperance Hotel, Stamford Street,
S.E.”

Then she jumped up, ran into the front room, and looked out of the window. A glance showed her that the village was in possession of some sensational tidings. There was a knot of people standing in front of the saddler’s, and another quite a little crowd in front of the butcher’s; all were talking excitedly, nodding their heads, and gesticulating.

She ran down-stairs and joined the group at the saddler’s.

“I never cared for the look of the horse,” Allen was saying sententiously. “And I might almost claim to have warned them no longer ago than last March. The stud-groom was riding him at a meet, and I said, ’Mr. Yeatman, you aren’t surely going to let Mr. Barradine risk his neck with hounds on that thing?’ ‘No,’ he said, ’Mr. Barradine has bought him for hacking.’ ‘Oh,’ I said, ’hacking and hunting are two things, of course, but ’”

Then somebody interrupted.

“Chestnut horse, wasn’t it?”

“Yes,” said Allen, “one of these thoroughbred weeds, without a back that you can fit with to anything bigger than a racing saddle; and I’ve always maintained the same thing. A bit of blood may do very well for young gentlemen, but to go and put a gentleman of Mr. Barradine’s years ”

“Mind you,” interposed a Roebuck stableman, “Mr. Barradine liked ’em gay. Mr. Barradine was a horseman!”

Mr. Barradine liked gay horses. Mr. Barradine was a horseman. That tremendous sound of the past tense answered the question that Mavis was breathlessly waiting to ask.

“Shocking bad business, isn’t it, Mrs. Dale?”

She did not reply; but nobody noticed her silence or agitation. They all went on talking; and she only thought: “He is dead. He is dead. He is dead.” She was temporarily tongue-tied, awestricken, full of a strange superstitious horror.

Presently Allen spoke to her again. “There’ll never be such another kind gentleman in our times, Mrs. Dale; nor one so open-handed. And it’s not only the gentry that’s going to mourn him. The pore hev lost a good friend.”

“Yes,” she whispered. “Indeed they have. Indeed they have.”

Miss Waddy came out of her absurd little post-card shop and kept saying, “Oh, dear!” She, like almost everybody else in the village except Mavis Dale and Mary, had known the news for hours; but she was greedy for the more and more particularized information that every newcomer brought with him along the road from Manninglea.

“How was the body taken to the Abbey?”

“Sent one of the carriages.”

“Oh, dear!”

They continued to talk; and Mavis, listening, for a few moments felt gladness, nothing but gladness. He had gone out of their lives forever. There could be no divorce. Now that he was dead, she would be forgiven. Then again she felt the horror of it. The thing was like an answer to her secret prayer or wish like the mysterious overwhelming consequence of her curse. It was as though in cursing him she had doomed him to destruction.

“They caught the horse last night, didn’t they?”

“Yes. Some chaps at Abbey Cross Roads see un go gallopin’ by, and followed un up Beacon Hill. Catched un in the quag by th’ old gravel pits.”

“Oh, dear!” said Miss Waddy.

Little by little Mavis pieced the story together. Mr. Barradine had been out riding late yesterday, and the riderless horse had given the alarm some time about nine o’clock in the evening. But, although a wide-spread search continued all through the night, the body was not found until past noon to-day.

They had found it at Kibworth Rocks. These rocks, situated in Hadleigh Wood, about two miles from the Abbey, were of curious formation a wide mass of jagged boulders cropping out unexpectedly from the sandy soil, some of them half hidden with bracken, while others, the bigger ones, rose brown and bare and strange. They provided a redoubtable fortress for foxes, and contained what was known as the biggest “earth” of the neighborhood. Not far off, the main ride passed through the wood, making a broad sunlit avenue between the gloomy pines; but no one without local knowledge would have suspected the existence of the rocky gorge or slope, because, although only at a little distance, it was quite invisible from the ride.

The body had been discovered lying in a narrow cleft, the head fearfully battered; and how Mr. Barradine came by his death was obvious. He had been riding through or near the rocks, and the horse, probably stumbling, had thrown him; and then, frightened and struggling away, had dragged him some considerable distance, until the rocks held him fast and tore him free.

What remained doubtful was how or why Mr. Barradine approached the rocks. Of course, his horse might have shied from the ride and taken him there before he could recover control of it; or, as perhaps was more probable, Mr. Barradine might have ridden from the safe and open track in order quietly to examine what was called the main earth, and, if fortunate, gratify himself with a glimpse of two or three lusty fox cubs playing outside the burrows.

However, as Mr. Allen sagely observed, such conjectures were at present idle. These and all other matters would be cleared up at the inquest.

“Oh, dear!” said Miss Waddy. “Will there have to be an inquest?”

“Certainly there will,” said Mr. Allen.

“Yes, that’s the law always,” said somebody else.

“Surely not,” said Miss Waddy, “in the case of such a well-known gentleman as Mr. Barradine.”

“It would be the same,” said Allen, “if it was the Prince of Wales, or the Archbishop of Canterbury. Coroner’s Court sits on everybody who doesn’t die in his bed certified by his doctor.”

“And it rained, too, last night,” said Miss Waddy.

“Yes, there was some heavy showers.”

“Fancy the poor gentleman lying out in the rain. Oh, dear!”

Mavis Dale left them talking and went back to the post office. In her agitation she had forgotten about the reply telegram to her husband. She got Mr. Ridgett to write the message her hands were trembling so that she could scarcely hold the pencil.

“Very sorry, I’m sure,” said Mr. Ridgett sympathetically. “This was the party you told me of the gentleman that was giving his support to Mr. Dale?”

“Yes.”

“Well, well very sad. How will you word it?”

“Please say ’Report true. Mr. Barradine killed by fall from his horse yesterday.’ And sign it ‘Mavis.’ No, sign it ‘Mav.’”

“Mav! Ma-v!” Mr. Ridgett looked round, smiling. “That’s hubby’s pet name for you, isn’t it? Upon my word, you two are a pair of love-birds.... There, off it goes. Good night, Mrs. Dale. I’m truly sorry that you’ve been deprived of such a friend.”

She went up-stairs to her bedroom, and did not come out of it that evening. For a long time she sat on the bed sobbing and shivering. She was glad really, and she knew that she was glad, and yet all the blood in her body seemed to be running coldly because of unreasoning superstitious fear. It was as though she had seen a ghost, and as though the ghost, while imparting to her a piece of surprisingly good news, had at the same time almost frightened her out of her wits. It is so wicked, so impiously wicked to wish for the death of a fellow creature. But what are wishes? Common sense revolts from the supposition that thoughts can kill. Why, if they could, half the population of the world would succumb beneath the impalpable weapons wielded by the other half. It is only toward nightfall, when rooms begin to grow dark, and the deepening shadows give queer shapes to furniture, curtains, and other familiar objects, that one can be foolish enough to entertain such fancies.

She told Mary to bring the candles, and to run out and buy a night-light. Then Mary helped her to undress and to get to bed; and she slept dreamlessly. The feeling after all was one of unutterable relief. Mr. Barradine was! Never again would her flesh shrink at the sight of him; never again could those lascivious hands touch her.

Next day, between dinner-time and tea-time, while she was giving final touches to the well-cleaned parlor, she heard her husband’s voice just outside the door. He had come up-stairs very quietly and was speaking to Mary on the landing.

“Will, Will!” With a cry of delight, Mavis rushed out to welcome him. “Oh, thank goodness, you’ve come home.” She boldly took his arm, drew him into the parlor and shut the door again. “Will aren’t you going to kiss me?”

“No.” And he disengaged himself and moved away from her. “No, I can not kiss you.”

“Oh, Will. Do try to forget and forgive.” She stood stretching out her hands toward him imploringly, with eyebrows raised, and lips quavering.

“I can never forget,” he said, after a moment’s pause.

Then she tried to make him say that things would eventually come all right, that if he could not pardon her and take her to his heart now, he would do so some time or another. He listened to her pleadings impassively, stolidly; his attitude was stiffly dignified, and it seemed to her that, whatever his real frame of mind might be, he had determined to hide it by maintaining an impenetrably solemn tone and manner.

“Will, you’ve come home, and I’m grateful for it. But but I do think you’re cruel to me. Especially considering what’s happened, I did hope you’d begin to think kinder to me.”

“Mavis,” he said solemnly, “it is the finger of God.” And he repeated the phrase slowly, with a solemnity that was almost pompous. “It is the finger of God. If that man had not chanced to die in this sudden and startling way, I could never have come home to you. It was the decision I had arrived at before I read of his accident in the paper. Otherwise you’d ‘a’ never set eyes on me. Now all I can say is, you and I must trust to the future. It will be my endeavor not to look back, and I ask you equally to look forward.”

She was certain that this was a set speech prepared beforehand. She knew so well the faintly unnatural note in his voice when he was reciting sentences that he had learned by rote: she who had helped in so many rehearsals before his public utterances could not be mistaken. However, she had to be contented with it. And, stilted and stiff as it was, it certainly seemed to imply that she need not relinquish hope.

He added something, in the same ponderous style, about the probability of its being advisable to put private inclinations on one side and attend the funeral of the deceased in his public capacity of postmaster. This mark of respect would be expected from him, and people would wonder if he did not pay it. Then he left the parlor, and again spoke to Mary.

Mavis, listening, heard him give orders that an unused camp bedstead should be brought down from the clerk’s room and made up in the kitchen. He told Mary that he wished to sleep by himself because he felt twinges of rheumatism and was afraid of disturbing the mistress if the pain came on during the night. And Mavis noticed that all the time that he was talking to Mary his voice sounded perfectly natural.

Then he went down-stairs, speaking again when he was half-way down.

“How goes it, Miss Yorke? Is Mr. Ridgett in the office?”

And this time it was absolutely his old voice rather loud, rather authoritative, but really quite cheerful.

Thinking of his manner to her and his manner to others, she believed that she could now understand all that he intended. She was to be held in disgrace perhaps for a long time, but appearances were to be kept up. No breath of scandal was to tarnish the reputation of the Rodchurch postmaster; the curious world must not be allowed the very slightest peep behind the scenes of his private life; and she, without explicit instructions, was to assist in preventing any one even poor humble Mary from guessing that as husband and wife they were not as heretofore on the best possible terms.

Down below in the sorting-room Dale greeted Mr. Ridgett very heartily.

“Here I am. May I venture to come in a minute? I’m only a visitor till Monday, you know.” And he told Ridgett how he had taken a liberty in returning before the stipulated date; but he had written to headquarters explaining the circumstances, and he had no doubt they would approve. “There’s the funeral, you know. Though I suppose that won’t be till Tuesday or even Wednesday. But there’s the inquest. And I felt it like a duty to attend that too.”

“Yes, I suppose this is a bit of a blow to you knowing him so long. Your good lady was mightily upset.”

“So she had cause to be,” said Dale gravely.

“He’d always shown himself a real friend?”

“The best friend anybody ever had,” said Dale with impressive earnestness. Then, going, he returned to speak in a confidential whisper close to Mr. Ridgett’s ear. “It was he who did the trick for me up there. But for him, I was to be hoofed out of this, as sure as eggs.”

“Really! Well, I’ll tell you frankly, I’m not surprised to hear it. Ever since the little Missis came home with the happy tale, I’ve been wondering what miracle pulled you through so grand with them.”

Then Dale went out and down the street, talking to everybody he met.

The village received him with tranquil indifference. No one congratulated him. The greater excitement had obliterated all memory of the less: not a soul seemed to recollect the famous controversy, the postmaster’s campaign against detractors, his long absence or his brilliant success. Kibworth Rocks, the drawn blinds of the Abbey House, the decorations of the Abbey Church these were the only things that Rodchurch could now think of, or talk about.

The inquest, held on Monday in one of the state rooms at the Abbey, brought to light no new facts that were of the least importance. All sorts of people gave evidence, but no one had anything to say that was really worth saying. Mr. Allen, it appeared, had “acted foolish” and been reproved by the Coroner, first for irrelevance and then for impertinence.

Allen had attempted to persuade the Court that the prime cause of the accident was simply this, that poor Mr. Barradine’s saddle was made by a London firm instead of by him Allen. He pooh-poohed the stud-groom’s statement that Mr. Barradine had an ineradicable objection to patent detachable stirrups, and maintained that he would have been able, in five minutes’ quiet conversation, to prevail on the deceased gentleman to adopt a certain device which was known to Allen but to nobody else in the trade; and then he attempted to read a written paper in which he advocated the superiority to the modern plain flap of the ancient padded knee-roll as a means of rendering the seat more secure for forehand stumbles.

“It was laughable but for the occasion to hear him spouting out his nonsense, until Doctor Hollis told him straight he wouldn’t put up with it any longer.”

Dale gave this account of the proceedings to Mavis and to Mr. Ridgett, who had come up to take high tea on the eve of his departure just as he had done on the day of his arrival.

“But I admit,” said Dale, conscientiously, “there was one bit of sense in Allen’s remarks. He convinced me against trusting to these blood animals. They’re too quick, and they’re never sure. The grooms an’ all spoke up to Mr. Barradine’s knowledge of his ridin’ gen’rally; but it stands to reason, when you’re past sixty your grip on a horse isn’t the same thing as what it once was. Say, your mount gets bounding this way, that way;” and with his body and hands he indicated the rapid lateral movements of a horse shying and plunging. “Well, it’s only the grip that can save you. You aren’t going to keep in your saddle by mere balance and it’s balance that old gentlemen rely on best part of the time.”

Mavis listened wonderingly and admiringly. When her husband spoke of the dead man, his voice was grave, calm and kindly. No one on earth could have detected that while the man lived, he had been regarded with anything but affection. She thought of that epithet that people so often echo Death the Leveler. Could one hope that already, although Will might not know it, might not be willing to know it, death had taken from him all or nearly all of his anger and resentment? If it was only just acting the stubborn effort to keep up appearances it was marvelous. Then she sighed. She had remembered that Will never did things by halves.

She felt almost gay, certainly quite light-hearted, when driving out with him to the funeral. It was such a glorious day, not a bit too hot, with a west wind sweeping unseen through the limpid sky; and the whole landscape seeming animated, everywhere the sound of wheels, the roads full of people all going one way. She simulated gravity, even sadness, as they passed the dark pines near Hadleigh Wood; but in truth she was quite undisturbed by her proximity to the fateful spot. It seemed to her that with the murmur of the wheels, the movement of the air, the progressive excitement of every minute, all the tragic or gloomy element of life was rolling far away from her.

The scene presented at the Abbey struck her as magnificent. She had never seen so many private carriages assembled together, and she would not have guessed that the whole county of Hampshire contained so many policemen. There were soldiers also members of some volunteer or yeomanry corps of which the deceased was honorary colonel. Their brilliant uniforms shone out dazzlingly on a background of black dresses and coats.

Naturally there was not space in the church for all this vast concourse. The nobility, gentry, and other ticket-holders were admitted first, and then there came an unmannerly rush which the constables checked with difficulty. Mavis and Dale were just inside the door; and Mr. Silcox close by, whispering, and pointing out several lords and ladies near the chancel steps. The service was long but very beautiful, with giant candles burning by the draped bier, organ music that seemed to swell and rumble in the pit of one’s stomach, and light voices of singing boys that made one vibrate as if one had been turned into glass all stirring one to a quite meaningless regret, not for the man who lay deaf and dumb and blind beneath the velvet pall, but because of vague thoughts about children who die young and have wings to hover over those they loved down here below. And, oh, the increasing heat of the church, the oppressive crush, the heavy odors of flowers and crape and perspiration! When at last one emerged, and the open air touched one’s forehead, it was like coming out of an oven into a cold bath.

Then the remains were consigned to the family vault in the small graveyard behind the church the crowd filling every vista, the bells tolling, and the soldiers discharging a cannon and making one jump at each regularly timed discharge. Mavis, turning her eyes in all directions, looked at everything with intense interest at the gentlefolk, now inextricably mixed up with the tenantry and the mob; at her husband, standing so black and solemn, with a face that might have belonged to a marble statue; at the puff of smoke that crept upward when the gun went bang, at the sunlight on the church tower, at the birds flying so high and so joyous above its battlements. And all at once she saw Aunt Petherick the blackest mourner there, with crape veils trailing to the ground, a red face down which the tears streamed in rivers; sobbing so that the sobs sounded like the most violent hiccoughs; really almost as much noise as the soldiers’ gun.

Will had seen her too. Mavis noticed his stony glance at Auntie, when the crowd began to move again.

While he was slowly making his way toward the stables, she got hold of Mrs. Petherick and had a little chat with her. Auntie had now entirely recovered from her recent hysterical storm; the redness of her face was passing off, and its expression was one of anxiety, rather than of grief.

“My dear girl,” she said, “I don’t yet know what this will mean to me. You know, he promised the house for my life but he wouldn’t give me a lease. I’ve nothing to show not so much as a letter. I may be turned out neck and crop.”

“Oh, Auntie, I should think his wishes would be respected.”

“How’m I to prove his wishes?” said Mrs. Petherick, quite testily. “It’ll be wish my foot, for all the lawyers’ll care.”

“Oh, Auntie!”

“You know, he faithfully promised to provide for me. And now the talk is he never made a will at all. You can’t believe the talk. But, oh, it’s awful to me. The suspense! It’ll break my heart to give up North Ride.”

“Auntie,” said Mavis presently; “if you chance upon Will, don’t speak to him.”

“Why not?”

She whispered the answer. “He found out about him and me.”

“Oh, did he? How did he take it?”

“Awfully badly.”

But Mrs. Petherick did not seem to care twopence about the domestic trouble of Mavis and Will. Her thoughts were engrossed by her own affairs.

“Mavis, I do think this: that if there’s a will found, I shall be in it. He wasn’t a liar, whatever he was.”

That night there seemed to be a tremendous lot of drunkenness in Rodchurch, and when the Gauntlet Inn closed you could hear the shouting as far off as the post office. But next day the village was quietly drowsy as of old: it had got over its excitement.

Weeks passed, and for Mavis time began to glide. All things in the post office itself had resumed their ordinary course, and she felt instinctively that up-stairs, as well as down-stairs, a normal order would rule again before very long. Outwardly she and Dale were just what they used to be. They were not, however, really living as husband and wife. She suffered, but made no complaint. All would come right.