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

Norah was a treasure to them, and she seemed always to be improving. She had done with school now, but she evinced a commendable yearning for further cultivation, buying copy-books with her pocket-money, imitating Dale’s clerkly hand; so that already at a pinch she was able to help in the office work. But proud as she felt when permitted to copy out accounts or circular letters, her pride did not spoil her for household labor. In fact she worked so stanchly at scrubbing, scouring, and so forth, as well as looking after the children, that for a long while Mavis did not detect how poor old Mrs. Goudie was failing, and leaving nearly all her duties to be performed by others. Moreover, in spite of having issued from the untidy hovel of those rammucky Veales, she showed an innate love of cleanliness and order, assiduously brushing her black hair and scrupulously washing her white skin.

Only very rarely she gave a little trouble, and then both Dale and his wife attributed this naughtiness to the Veale origin, finding the explanation of a certain wildness in that strain of gipsy blood which, as was popularly supposed, ran down her pedigree. She disgraced herself when the circus menagerie passed the gates of Vine-Pits. She stood firm with the rest of them watching the great painted vans go by, and the droves of horses, and the tiny ponies; but when the elephants came she broke away. The size, the weirdness, the shuffling footsteps of these beasts made her beside herself. A lot of ragged children with great wicked-looking hobbledehoys from the Cross Roads, were trotting after the elephants; and Norah, joining this disreputable band, trotted also. She went all the way to Rodchurch, saw the immense tent set up on the Common, and probably crept inside to see the entertainment. She did not return for six hours, not till after dark.

Another thing that made Mavis anxious and angry was Norah’s ineradicable love of the woods. She never deserted work, but, if allowed any time to herself, she would go stealing off into Hadleigh Wood to pick flowers or bring back birds’ eggs for the children. She knew perfectly well that she was to keep to the road or the field tracks, but the sylvan depths seemed to call her and she could not resist the call.

Once when Norah had been troublesome in this respect, Mavis was so angry that she threatened her with corporal punishment.

“Look here, my lass,” said Mavis, unconsciously founding herself on the manner of her husband when administering rebuke, “if you can’t obey what I tell you, I shall ask Mr. Dale to chastise you yes, my lass, to give you a lesson you won’t forget in a hurry.” Norah hung her head and pouted. Then she looked up and spoke firmly.

“He wouldn’t do it. He’s too kind.”

“Oh, yes, he would. Don’t you make a mistake about that.”

“He wouldn’t.” Norah’s eyes flashed; she stamped her foot, and turned on Mavis quite fiercely. “He’s so good that he wouldn’t hurt a fly, much less beat a girl. You’ve no right to say it behind his back what you know isn’t true.”

“Be off to your work this instant,” said Mavis, stamping also, “or I’ll whip you myself.” And she pursued Norah to the kitchen. “You dare to sauce me like that again as long as you live!”

Before the evening was over, Norah, completely contrite, begged to be forgiven for her rudeness; and Mavis was only too ready both to forgive and to forget. She had felt quite shocked and upset by the girl’s tantrums.

It was almost immediately after this that Norah said she wished to be a Baptist, and to go to chapel with Mr. Dale.

“Do you think,” asked Dale, when informed of Norah’s petition, “that it is genuine? Or is it just curiosity?”

“I think it’s genuine,” said Mavis. “But no doubt she is influenced by the fact that you go there. I do believe she’d wish to go anywhere or do anything that you did.”

Dale questioned Norah seriously.

“Why do you wish it? Speak to me with freedom, my dear.”

“I do want to be good, sir.” And Norah burst into tears. “Oh, I do want to be good.”

“Then come with me,” said Dale.

Henceforth they two went to worship together every Sunday, and Mavis once or twice felt a twinge of regret that she herself had not been able to abandon the established church and join the Baptists with her husband. But that she could not do. The chapel was too ugly, its eastward wall too bare, its faith too painfully simple and matter-of-fact.

She took great pains with Norah’s Sunday costume, dressing her better than before, anxious that the girl should do them credit when seen with Dale in a public place; and Norah, all in her best, following after her master as he made his long strides down the road, trotted like a faithful little dog. She sat beside him in one of the front benches, breathing hard, and following the text with her finger, while Mr. Osborn read the Bible; and she blended her birdlike trills with Dale’s strong bass when they both stood up to sing the hymns. Dale liked the note of her voice, took pleasure in observing her piety, and thoroughly enjoyed expounding any difficulties in the sermon while they walked home to dinner or to supper.

If Dale stood outside the chapel talking to elders of the flock, Norah modestly withdrew to a little distance; or if he met people on the road and stopped to chat, she went on ahead, waiting respectfully, and only returning to his side when he walked on again alone. He always kept his eye on her, and saw that she was not being accosted unpleasantly by any undesirable acquaintance.

Once, when Dale had stopped thus to talk to Mr. Maghull, there were two field-laborers leaning against a gate and discussing people as they passed. Neither of them was a Baptist. One was a stupid old man, and his would-be-funny chatter, at which the other kept guffawing, bothered Dale in his serious conversation with Mr. Maghull.

“Be that little Norrer Veale?”

“I dunno.”

“I do think that’s little Norrer Veale, but I ben’t sure.”

“Yes, it is,” said Dale, turning and speaking sharply. “What about her?”

“Lord, how she’s coming on,” said the old man. “She’s an advertisement to your larder, sir;” and he stared at the girl. “Fillin’ out into all a piece o’ goods, ben’t un?” Then he laughed, in peasant style. “Give her another year or two and she’ll be a blink to set some un o’ fire pretty quick, if she gets hedge-row walkin’.”

Dale felt annoyed by this rustic criticism, but he knew that there was substantial truth in it. Norah was developing rapidly, and showed distinct comeliness. As he walked after her he noticed her figure. It was still very slender, but it had roundnesses that would soon become rounder, and graceful curves that would swell with an ampler grace every month till she reached full growth. He was pleased when he thought of the good food that she had received in return for her good work. He thought, too, that he must tell Mavis to be watchful and careful, a real guardian, when this childlike bud burst into womanhood.

He felt a glow of indignation at the mere idea of harm coming to her while she was under their care. Hands off, there. Any louts who attempted tricks would have him, William Dale, to reckon with.

For years Dale had been a bad sleeper, but now he was a good sleeper; and Mavis traced this change directly to the calming effect of his religion. There could be no question that the improvement dated from that night on which he was baptized. Since then he had not once been troubled with bad dreams, and habitually he slept so soundly that he required a lot of rousing in the morning. Another change, among those slight differences that she fancied she observed in him, was his abstraction when reading. Formerly he used to seem particularly alert and vigorous whenever he sat with an open book before him; his whole air was that of lively expectation; the features worked; he was waiting for a passage that he did not agree with. Nowadays he seemed to read in a completely receptive spirit, without questioning, without doubting; and his face reflected the quiet confidence that he was adopting with regard to the author. He never looked up, or stopped to read out anything that struck him; he had withdrawn himself from every-day life and given himself to the world of the book; you had to speak two or three times, and quite loudly, before you could drag him back to material facts.

Still another change, and one that affected them both, Mavis did not altogether attribute to the revival of her husband’s religious belief; but she thought that this had accelerated its progress and confirmed its finality. It had begun after the birth of her second child. Then it was that the love between husband and wife purified itself still further; and the refining process had continued; they had passed onward and upward until the beautiful new feelings seemed firmly established, and, without a word spoken, all the old passion had been allowed to fade. It was quite another joy now when they kissed or lay locked in each other’s arms: they were a father and a mother, a brother and sister, comrades but no longer lovers.

She was surprised once or twice to find how calmly and contentedly she thought about all this; without the least regret for something that was and had ceased to be; and without a vestige of the confusion of ideas which makes women in their ripening years cling to all belonging or seeming to belong to vanished youth, and to suffer under the loss of anything they possessed then, even though a better thing has come to them in its place. She was a woman completing her destined course; and so that the cycle-curve swept on unbroken, she would be as happy on the downward sweep as when the sweep was rising.

But in these days, in spite of her mental tranquillity, she could not sleep well at night; she tossed and turned, muttered and started, as if the dreams and restlessness that had gone out of Will had found their way into her. For this reason they generally occupied different beds, and sometimes different rooms.

Throughout this period while Mrs. Dale’s bodily health was not on its normal level of excellence, Norah showed magnificent grit and altogether proved worth her weight in gold.

Dale always remembered the night when she came to his room, and, after much beating on the door and calling him by name, at last succeeded in waking him. Mavis, who had unfortunately caught cold the day before, was now taken with violent colic, and suffering such pain that she could not restrain her groans and screams. Ethel, the new maid, was scared out of her wits by the sight of her afflicted mistress; Dale himself was alarmed; neither of them could do anything. But Norah did it all. She had sprung out of bed just as she was, rushed to the scene of disorder, snatched up the mistress’ keys, then had procured and administered brandy. Then she rushed down-stairs again, lighted the fire, and began to boil water and to get flannel for hot compresses.

Dale came down to the kitchen presently, and said that his wife was feeling easier; the brandy had done her good. Then, the anxiety having lessened, his attention was held by Norah’s scanty attire. She was in her night-dress and nothing more, and even this garment was not sufficiently fastened; her black hair was tumbling loose about her shoulders, and she pattered here and there across the stone floor on her bare feet.

He began to chide her, rather irritably. “You little fool, do you want to catch a chill as well so’s to make two invalids instead of one? Here, put on my jacket.”

“Oh, no, Mr. Dale.”

“Do as I tell you. Besides, it well, it isn’t seemly to be running about half naked.”

Norah flushed red in the candle-light, and clutched at her night-dress. Then she hastily put on Dale’s jacket, which swamped her, going far down below her hips and making her seem a wonderfully strange figure.

Next morning, when she was bringing him his breakfast, he talked to her of what had “passed a few hours ago.”

“Norah, my dear, I’m sorry I spoke sharply to you just when you were doing all that you possibly could for us. But, you know, I didn’t mean it a bit unkind.”

“Oh, no, sir,” said Norah, shyly.

It’s only that I’m always a stickler for etiquette and that sort of thing. I do so like what I call seemly conduct.”

“Yes, sir. I was ashamed the moment you spoke;” and Norah blushed again. “But truly I hadn’t thought, sir. If I’d given it a thought, I’d never have done it.”

“No, you didn’t think. And there’s nothing on earth for you to be ashamed of. Far be it from me to put thoughts into your innocent little noddle which needn’t come there yet a while. You’ll understand and it’ll just be instinct to you then that what’s right for children is a bit odd and startling for those who’re older. Now don’t think any more about it.”

“I don’t want to, sir if you say so;” and Norah smiled comfortably once more.

She made and laid his early breakfast for him every morning until Mavis was well enough to come down to do it herself, and Dale had never been better waited on or seen a daintier way of arranging a table. She always gave him a napkin, which was an unusual luxury, and she folded it in fantastic shapes; moreover, undeterred by the notions of economy or caution natural in a proprietor, she brought out pieces of the bettermost china that were rarely used by Mavis; she set one of the smallest and very best afternoon tea-cloths in such a manner that it looked like a diamond instead of a square, and on this, as central decoration, she placed a blue bowl full of flowers. Then, too, she had requisitioned the silver-plated cake basket for the newly-baked bannocks. The silver basket gave a touch of splendor that really made the table seem as if its proper situation was a grand London restaurant or a nobleman’s mansion.

“You want to spoil me, Norah,” said Dale, watching her. Then he laughed. “But, my dear, all these pretty trickings and ornamentations are fairly wasted on me.”

“No, they aren’t,” said Norah, breathing hard, seeming to purr with pleasure. “They can’t be wasted, if you’ve noticed them, Mr. Dale;” and as she lifted her head, she shook back the dark curling hair from her forehead. “P’raps they’d be wasted if you didn’t know they were there.”

“Oh, we rough old chaps don’t require such prettiness about them.”

Norah displayed her small white teeth in a broadening smile; then she looked at the revered master thoughtfully.

“Why do you say you’re old? You aren’t really old, Mr. Dale.”

“Oh, aren’t I? I wonder what you call old, lassie.”

“I call father old, and Mr. Bates and Mrs. Goudie.”

“Well, I mayn’t be as old as them as they; but I think I’m like the walnut tree out there. I still stand up straight, but I fear me I’ve seen my best days.... There! What are you up to now?”

She was lugging and pushing the great porter’s chair from its corner.

“I don’t want that.”

“It’s your chair, so why shouldn’t you sit in it at breakfast as well as supper?” She brought it to the table, and looked at him over the back of it shyly, yet with a kind of defiance much as his own children looked at him when they had made up their minds to be cheeky. “It’s quite an old man’s chair, sir so it’ll suit you nicely.”

He sat in the chair, amused by her impudence, but holding up his finger with mock reproof. She had run to the kitchen door, and she stood there for a moment laughing merrily. “Oh, you do look all a gran’father in that chair, Mr. Dale. You do, indeed.”

Next moment she was singing at her work outside in the kitchen. Then there came a silence; her shadow passed the window, and he guessed that she was taking a circuitous route to the room up-stairs where the children and Ethel were busily engaged in toilet operations. Rather than risk disturbing him at his breakfast by coming through here, she had gone right round the house and in again at the front door. She was always like that always thinking of other people’s comfort, never sparing her own labor.

Then he heard her voice at a distance somewhere near the cowhouse. She had not gone up-stairs after all; she had gone out there on dairy business. Soon she came singing back singing, he thought, as blithely as a lark; just as sweetly and tunefully as any bird one could name.

Other people as well as Dale noticed the freshness and unforced music of Norah’s singing, and it was not long before she received an invitation to sing among the regularly trained young women at the chapel.

On the morning when she left Dale’s side to take her place upon the platform she was woefully nervous. Dale too had been anxious, but directly he heard her voice and he knew it so well that he at once distinguished it amid all the other voices that made up the platform chorus he felt perfectly reassured. Her nervousness had not put her out of tune: she was acquitting herself admirably.

They walked home together in a high state of gratification; and he hastened to tell Mavis that the little maid had achieved a success, and that Mr. Osborn had paid her a compliment at the door before everybody. Mavis was delighted. She ran to give kisses of congratulation, and she said that on her very next visit to Old Manninglea she would buy some stuff to make Norah a pretty new dress, which they would set to work on as soon as the evenings began to lengthen again.

A considerable time elapsed before this kind intention became an accomplished fact; but in due course the dress was ready to wear, and Norah looked very nice when wearing it. As to color, it was of so lively a blue that it would permit no shadows even in its deepest folds; it was just a close-fitting brightness that made the girl seem to have shot up in a night to a form of much greater height and increased slenderness. Her hat was made of yellow straw, with a wreath of artificial daisies round the crown. When the tempered sunshine fell upon her as she stood up to sing, she looked like something composed of vivid color, light, and life like a flower glowing in a garden, a kingfisher hovering over a stream, a rainbow trembling on the crest of a hill. Dale, watching her, thought that in comparison the other maidens on the platform were positively plain.

He told Mavis afterward that he felt certain the dress had been admired, adding that Norah’s general appearance did her the utmost credit. And that Sunday they both talked seriously about Norah’s future.

“You know,” said Dale, “I feel it as a responsibility on us.”

“So do I,” said Mavis.

“Having taken it up, we must go through with it to the end. I mean, we must always stand her friends and more than that, her guardians.”

“Of course.”

“In a sense,” he went on, didactically, “we may have made a mistake in bringing her forward to the extent we’ve done.”

“How so, Will?”

“I mean, if one wished to argue selfish which of course I don’t wish well, the selfish view would be not to have drawn her out but rather keep her down a bit.”

“Oh, she’d be miserable if she didn’t feel to be one of ourselves and you always said let’s treat her that way.”

“I know; and I don’t go back on it. I was only stating the case of selfish policy, for the sake of argument. It’s like this. The more useful you teach her to be, the more we’re going to miss her when she leaves us.”

“She’ll never leave us.”

“Won’t she be thinking of taking service in some gentleman’s family when you’ve perfected her, and rendered her really capable of filling a situation?”

“Oh, no, she’d never want to go away from Vine-Pits.”

“Is that so? Well, of course I regard that as another feather in her cap. I’m glad to think she’s properly devoted to you.”

“It isn’t me,” said Mavis. “It’s you she’s devoted to. It’s been the same all along. I told you from the first that child just worshiped you. It’s Mr. Dale. Mr. Dale is the cry with Norah always. She looks on me as very small potatoes,” and Mavis laughed. “I don’t mind. It’s how I look on myself.”

Dale patted his wife’s hand, and smiled. “Rubbish! But look here, Mav;” and he spoke very thoughtfully.

“I don’t wish ever to trade on Norah’s gratitude. It may be, when the time comes, we shall have to decide for her. It may be that she’ll do better for herself in the long run by going than by staying. If so, we mustn’t be the barrier in her way. We must push her out into the world, even if she can’t see the point of it. But all that lies far ahead. We needn’t worry about it yet a while.... How old is Norah now?”

“Seventeen.”

“No? Do you mean to say she has been with us five years?”

“Yes. Every bit of five years.”

“Then how old is Rachel?”

“Eleven.”

“And Billy?”

“Five and more.”

“My goodness, Mav,” and Dale sighed, “how time goes.” Then he rose from his chair, stretched himself, and sighed again. “How time is going!”