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

Outwardly his religion sat lightly on him, but inwardly it was solid and real. He took to reading aloud one chapter of the Gospel every night, and soon made a habit of adding a brief extempore prayer for the benefit of Mary, Norah Veale, and Mrs. Goudie, who regularly came from the kitchen to hear him. His reading and praying formed, of course, a marked innovation; but beyond it there were very few perceptible changes that could be traced to the fresh phase of mind into which he had now entered. And these few changes were traced or perceived by only one person, his wife.

Mavis saw with satisfaction that the gentlefolk did not seemed to be huffed. Orders came in from several of those old-fashioned people who had hitherto held aloof, but who perhaps were at present generous enough to think that if you don’t go to church, the next best thing is to go to chapel. The Baptists were not therefore standing in his way: they had caused no check to his success.

He bought all the corn and hay which the neighboring farms could spare to sell, so that what others had grown and cut for miles round was carted straight into his rick-yard. During the hay harvest he appeared especially grand, riding about the fields on his horse, grave and watchful, really like a prince with vassals hard at work for him as far as the eye could see. On the last day he entertained the farmers to dinner in the best parlor, and afterward they all stood in the front garden, smoking cigars and praising Mrs. Dale’s roses and carnations.

Mavis too gave parties; but she as a rule exercised her hospitality at the back of the house, where the little court and the petitioners’ bench near the kitchen door were more fully occupied than ever. Here took place the annual summer tea-party for the cottage women, when Mavis was quite like some squire’s wife, being courtesied to, receiving votes of thanks, and taking innocent pleasure in the proudness of her position. A far bigger and more difficult affair was when she invited all the children from the Orphanage. Long trestle tables for the girls were set out on the grass paths of the kitchen garden, with a separate and more stately table for the matrons and governesses; urns had been borrowed, seats hired, mountains of food and fruit got ready; and nevertheless the heart of Mavis almost failed her when the two-and-two procession of blue-coated orphans began to arrive. It seemed endless, an army, and she felt that she had attempted something too big for her resources. However, everything went off splendidly. The orphans whooped for joy as they broke their formation and spread out, through the garden, far into the meadows. Out there they looked like large bluebells; and at tea, when their cloaks had been removed and their brown frocks showed, they looked like locusts. Locusts could scarcely have eaten more. After tea Dale’s men came from the yard and brought the piano out of the house, and Mrs. Dale played with stiff fingers while Norah Veale, Rachel, and the orphans danced on the flags and up and down the grass paths. The poor little orphans stayed late, and left regretfully. They said it had been the treat of their lives.

But the most interesting party and the one that Mavis enjoyed most came upon her unexpectedly.

One week Mr. Druitt the higgler failed to pay his usual visit, and there was conjecture in the Vine-Pits kitchen as to the reason of his absence. He had never before allowed a week to pass without a call. Mavis asked Mary if he had written to her explaining his absence; and Mary said no, and that she felt very anxious.

But next week he turned up, gay, jovial, looking ten years younger. He stood just inside the kitchen door, smiled at all, and winked most archly at Mary.

“See this, Mary?” And he pointed to the band of black crape on his arm. “Know what that means, Mary?” Then he turned to Mavis. “I call her Mary now, because I can do it with a clear conscience, ma’am. I buried Mrs. Druitt yesterday.”

This meant a marriage feast for Mary; nor would the higgler permit of the least delay in its preparation. He was ardent to taste the felicity that had been so long postponed, and refused to listen to any appeals that might be addressed to his sense of propriety, the respect due to the departed, and so forth. Dale, inclined to say he would not put up with Druitt’s nonsense, was overborne; chiefly because Mary, having been greatly scared by a facetious remark of her lover, at once took his part in the dispute. He had said, when she pleaded with him for a reasonable breathing-space, that he knew of as many other red-cheeked maids as there were morris-apples at akering-time. Mary then bustled with her trousseau, of which the cost was defrayed by the Dales.

The charm of that party was its homelike, almost patriarchal character. A Saturday had been chosen to suit everybody’s convenience, and the fickle June weather was kind to them. One long table was set out on the flags, in the shade of the house wall, close to the kitchen and the hot dishes; and the meal, which was substantial and lavish, lasted from about half-past three till five o’clock. Dale sat at the head of the table with his wife and the newly married couple; then there were a coachman and his daughter, and the higgler’s best man; then Norah Veale and the children, and further off Mrs. Goudie, the dairymaid, and all the men from the yard. Mr. Bates had been asked, but he would not come. Abe Veale came unasked, to Nora’s shame and indignation.

“I thought,” he said, “as Norrer’s true farder, and owing my life to him who is her adapted farder, and so well beknown to Miss Parsons, that I wouldn’t be otherwise than welcome.”

“You are welcome,” said Dale quietly. “Be seated.” And Norah felt intensely grateful to Dale and intensely disgusted with her parent.

They ate and drank and laughed; and Norah was sweet with the children, taking them away before they had gorged themselves. Outside the shadow of the wall one had the vivid beauty of flowers, the perfume of fruit, and the lively play of the sunlight; with glimpses through the foliage of smooth meadow, sloped arable, and distant heath; the firm ground beneath them, the open sky above them, and all around them the contented atmosphere of home. All these things together confirmed Mavis in the feeling that she had reached the apotheosis of her party-giving.

At the bottom of the table there was of course slight excess. The fun down there became rather broad. And old Mrs. Goudie made jokes which she reserved solely for weddings, and which she had better have kept to herself even then.

Dale proposed the bride’s health, and spoke in the dignified easy style of a man who is accustomed to addressing large audiences, but who is tactfully able to reduce the compass of his voice and the weight of his manner for friendly informal gatherings. He was only heavy and not a bit too heavy when he thanked Mary for the kindness she had always shown to him and his. Then he pointed to the gold locket that was his wedding present, and said that when she wore that round her neck, as she was wearing it now, “it reposed on a loyal, faithful heart.” This caused Mary to weep.

The opening of the higgler’s speech was in deplorable taste all about widowers making the best husbands. He said, “Widowers know what to expect; so they ain’t disappointed. And if they’ve suffered in their first venture, it’s an easy job for Number Two to please ’em;” and he winked to right and left. Mavis and Dale were looking uncomfortable. Fortunately, however, the speech improved toward the end of it.

“All I ask of Mary is to look nice and that she can’t help doing, bless her bonny face; to speak nice and that she can do if she tries, and copies Mrs. Dale; and to act nice and in that she’ll have an example under her eyes, for I mean to act uncommon nice to her.”

When, winking and bowing, he resumed his seat by Mary’s side, the applause from the bottom of the table was vociferous. “Brayvo. He hev a said it smart. Never ’eard it better worded. Well done, Mr. Druitt.”

Half the flowers had lost their color in the extending shadow of the house before Mr. and Mrs. Druitt drove away. The higgler’s pony groaned between the shafts of a cart that was much too big for him; rice and old shoes struck the wheels; Mrs. Goudie made her last joke; the men at the yard gate shouted; Norah and the children ran a little way along the road and then the party was over.

After a few days Mr. Druitt called exactly as usual to offer good bacon. “Mornin’, ma’am. Mary sends her love, and the message that she’s as happy as the day is long.”

“And I hope,” said Mavis, “that you are happy too, Mr. Druitt.”

“Mrs. Dale,” he said, “I don’t reco’nize myself. When I think of the past and the present ”

Mavis stopped him. He was of course going to disparage Number One, and she felt that to be so horrid of him.