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

Another charwoman had now been engaged; and Mrs. Goudie, retiring on a small pension from the Dales, came to Vine-Pits only to pay her respects or now and then to appear as the least greedy and most deserving petitioner of all those who sat on the bench or stood waiting at the back door. Coming thus for a dole of tea, she asked Norah to inform Mr. Dale that young Bates as he was still called had again been seen in the neighborhood. As usual, he had come and gone furtively.

Dale, duly receiving the message, frowned and shook his head ominously. He had never been able to get hold of young Bates, although Mrs. Goudie had reported several of these sinister reappearances, and probably nothing could have been gained by an interview with such a heartless scoundrel. So long as old Bates was weak enough to give, young Bates would be cruel enough to go on taking; and from the aspect of things it appeared that the too generous father would before long be altogether denuded. He was getting shabbier and shabbier in his apparel; his poor old face looked pinched and thin, and the talk was that he lived on starvation rations. It all seemed horrible to Dale a thing that should not be permitted; and yet what could one do?

He thought about it all next day, and it was more or less occupying his mind at dusk when he sat with Norah in the office clearing up for the night.

“There, my dear, that’ll do. You’ll only hurt your eyes.”

“It’s all right, Mr. Dale. I can see well enough just to finish.”

Dale was sitting at the table in the window and Norah stood at his desk beside the high stool, copying rows of figures out of a huge day-book. He turned his head and watched her for a minute or so in silence. Her dusky black hair was like a crown over her stooping face; her left elbow and hand lay on the desk; and the moving pen in her other hand pointed straight at the right shoulder, exactly as Dale had taught her to point it when she first began to imitate his copper-plate writing. She had been an apt pupil, and there was no mistake about the help she gave him nowadays. At the beginning he used to pretend a little, saying that her aid lightened his labors, merely to encourage and please her.

“Now stop, lassie. This is what Mr. Osborn terms blind man’s holiday. Shut the book.”

“I should have liked to finish,” said Norah.

Nevertheless she obeyed him, closing the book and putting her papers in a drawer.

“Look here, if you must be busy to the last moment, come over here nearer the light and address these envelopes for me and I’ll have a pipe.”

Norah came meekly to the window and took the chair that Dale had vacated for her. Standing close behind the chair and looking down upon her, he noticed the deft way in which her hands gathered the loose envelopes and stacked them; the shapeliness of her arms and shoulders; and the ivory whiteness of her cheek. It was the fading light that produced this effect, because she was not by any means a pale girl. Her skin, although white enough, had warm tones in it, and under it still warmer tones a brownish glow, like a sunburn that had been transmitted by nomad ancestors who baked themselves under fierce southern skies centuries ago. The gipsy blood showed to that extent in her complexion, and to a greater extent in her hair.

And suddenly he thought of what Mavis had been as a girl. She had a white skin if you please; much whiter than Norah’s; but she was like this girl in many respects, was Mavis when he first saw her. She and Norah were as like as two peas out of one pod in the matter of looking fragile and yet firm, as gracefully delicate of form as it is possible to be without arousing any suspicion of debility or unhealthiness. The back of Mavis’ stooping neck used to be exactly like this girl’s a smooth, round stem, without a crease or a speck on it, a solid, healthy neck, and yet so slender that his great hand would almost girdle it.

“Aren’t I doing right?” Norah looked up quickly. “I’m copying the addresses off the letters.”

“No, you’re doing quite right.” Dale put his hands in his pockets and moved away to the high stool. “What made you think you were doing wrong?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I always get nervous when you watch me and don’t say anything.”

“Then we’ll talk. There, I’ll wait till you’re through, and then we’ll talk a bit.”

“I am through now,” said Norah in a minute. “Shall I put the stamps on?”

“No, don’t trouble. I’ll do it myself and post ’em at the pillar.”

He had seated himself on the stool and had brought out his pipe. He looked at its bowl reflectively, and then began to talk to Norah about the children.

“Don’t you think, Norah, that we ought to be putting Billy out to school?”

Mavis so far had acted as governess, with Norah to assist, and between them they had taught both children to read and write; but this home tuition could not go on indefinitely, and Dale thought that the time had already come when larger and bolder steps must be taken toward achieving that liberal education which he had solemnly promised his son and heir. He was always reading advertisements of attractive seaside schools, where the boy could secure home comforts, the rudiments of sound religious faith, as well as a good grounding in the humanities. Mavis, however, would not yet hear of a separation from her darling. She pleaded that he was such a little fellow still; she prayed Will not to hurry.

“Tell me what you think about it, Norah quite candidly.”

Norah had hesitated about replying; but she now said that she really thought Dale need not be in a hurry. Billy was so clever that when he did get to school he would learn faster than other boys; and she added that his departure from home would be “a dreadful wrinch for Mrs. Dale.”

“But it will be a wrench for her whenever it happens. In life one has to prepare one’s self for wrenches That, I fancy, is the better way of pronouncing the word. Yes, wrench after wrench, Norah that’s life; until the last great wrench comes and, well, that isn’t life.... Who was that passed the window?”

Norah turned her bright young face to the window and peered out.

“It’s Mr. Bates, sir. How funny he looks!”

“What d’you mean funny?”

“Walking so slow, and leaning on his great stick as if he was a pilgrim.”

Dale had jumped off his stool; and he ran out to the road and begged the old man to come in.

“Certainly, William,” said Mr. Bates.

He had cut himself a long staff from some woodland holly-tree, a rough prop that reached shoulder high, and on this he leaned heavily as soon as he stopped walking. He looked very old and very shaky.

“Good evening, Miss Veale,” he said courteously as he entered the office.

“Oh, you mustn’t call her Miss Veale. She’s Norah one of us, you know.” And as he spoke, Dale laid his hand on the back of Norah’s neck to prevent her from rising. “She’s our multum in parvo making herself so useful to the wife and me that we can’t think what we should ever do without her. Bide where you are a moment, Norah.”

Dale established his visitor on a chair that faced the rapidly waning light, and addressed him again with increased deference.

“If you can spare a few minutes, there’s a thing I’d like to speak to you about, Mr. Bates.”

“I can spare all the minutes between now and morning,” said Mr. Bates cordially, “if I can be of the least service to you, William.”

As much now as in the beginning of the enterprise Bates held himself at the younger man’s disposal, indeed liked nothing better than to give information and counsel whenever his prosperous successor was of a mind to accept either.

“I won’t keep you as long as that,” said Dale, smiling; “but will you give us the pleasure of your company at supper?”

“You’re very kind, William, but I don’t think I can.”

“Do, Mr. Bates. The wife will be as pleased as me as I.”

The old fellow looked up at Dale hesitatingly; and Dale, looking down at his clean-shaven cheeks, bushy white eyebrows, and the long wisps of white hair brushed across his bald head, felt a great reverence. He would not look at the threadbare shabbiness of the gray cloth suit, or at the queer tints given by time and weather to the black felt hat that was being balanced on two shrunken knees.

“I, ah, don’t think I’ll present myself before Mrs. Dale ah, without more preparation than this. Besides, would it not put her out?”

“No, indeed. Quite unceremonious taking us exactly as you find us pot-luck.”

“Then be it so. You are very good. Thank you, William.”

“Thank you, Mr. Bates.” Dale seized upon the visitor’s hat and stick. “Now you may cut along, Norah, and tell Mrs. Dale that Mr. Bates is kind enough to stay supper without ceremony.”

Norah glided across the office to the inner door, and, going out, asked if she should bring a lamp.

“Yes, bring the lamp in ten minutes not before. There’s light enough for two such old friends to chat together;” and Dale waited until she had shut the door. “Now, sir, this is kind and friendly. Give me your hand, Mr. Bates. I’d like to hold it in mine, while I say these few prelim’nary words.”

“Yes, William?” The old man had immediately offered his hand, and he looked up with a puzzled and anxious expression.

“I merely wish to assure you, Mr. Bates, very sincerely, that if you at this moment could see right into my heart, you’d plainly see my respect, and what is more, my true affection for you, sir.”

“I believe it, William.”

“And it has always been a source of comfort to me to think that you, sir, have entertained a most kindly feeling to me, sir.”

Mr. Bates had averted his eyes, and he moved his feet restlessly, his demeanor seeming to indicate that he regretted having accepted the supper invitation and was perhaps desirous of withdrawing his acceptance.

“I hope,” Dale went on, “I haven’t been presumptuous in my estimate of your feeling, sir.”

“No.” And the old man looked up again. His eyes, his whole face had grown soft, and the tone of his voice was firm, yet rather low and very sweet. “No, William, my feeling for you began in taking note of your sharpness combined with your steady ways, and it has ended in love.”

“That’s a large word, Mr. Bates.”

“It’s no larger than the truth.”

“Then I say ‘Thank you, sir, for the honor you have done me.’” Dale pressed the old chap’s hand, dropped it, and returned to the high stool. “And now, after what has passed between us two, man to man, you’ll credit me with no disrespectfulness if I make bold to let fall certain remarks.”

Bates nodded his white head and stared at the floor.

“There’s a thing, sir, that I particularly want to say. It is about yourself, sir ”

“Go on, William,” said Mr. Bates, “and get it over. I know what you’re after, of course something about Richard. Well, I’ll take it from you. I wouldn’t take it from any one else.”

“D’you remember all you used to advise me about the danger of rats, telling me to fight ’em as if it was the devil himself, horns and tail, and not just so many stinking little avaricious rodents? You said, one rat was sufficient to mess me up.”

Mr. Bates nodded.

“And you knew what you were talking about no one better. And for why? Because it was your own story you were telling me, in the form of a parable.”

“You’re wrong there, William.”

“Not a bit. You’d had one rat but, by Jupiter, he was a whooping big ’un, and he’d eaten your grain, and messed you up he’d ruined your business, and well-nigh broken your heart, and practically done for you.”

“Have you finished?” asked Mr. Bates, with dignity.

“Yes, sir almost;” and Dale in the most earnest manner besought his old friend to resist any further attacks from that wicked son. “I do implore you, sir, not to be weak and fullish. Don’t take him to your boosum. He’s a rat still an’ he’ll gnaw and devour the little that’s left to you, so sure as I sit here.”

But it was all no use, as he could easily see. Mr. Bates raised his eyes, moved his feet, and then spoke gently but proudly.

“I thank you, William, for your well-meant intentions. I have listened to what you wished to say. Now shall we talk of something else?”

“Yes but with just this one proviso added. Will you remember that I am your banker, for the full half of what the banker’s worth? If the pinch comes, draw on me.”

“I thank you again, William. But I shan’t need help.”

“I think you will.”

“Then to speak quite truly, I couldn’t take help, William, I really couldn’t.”

“Why not? Think of all you’ve done for me. Don’t deny me the pleasure of doing something for you.”

“I’ll consider, William. Please let it rest there.”

Dale could say no more and they both sat silent for a little while. Then old Bates spoke again.

“William,” he said, “if you’ll excuse me, I really won’t stay. You have to tell the truth agitated me.”

“Indeed I’m sorry, sir. But don’t punish me by going.”

“I am not quite up to merry-making.”

Just then Norah arrived, carrying the lamp, and Dale turned to her for aid.

“Norah, speak for me. Mr. Bates says he won’t stay. Tell him how disappointed we shall be.”

“Oh, do stay, Mr. Bates,” said Norah. “It’ll be such a disappointment to Mr. Dale.”

“Some other evening, Miss ah, Norah. But you must excuse me this time.”

And, having picked up his hat and stick, Mr. Bates bade them good night.

Dale and Norah went out into the road and watched him as he walked away.

“There, Norah;” and Dale, slipping his arm within hers, drew her closer to his side. “Look with all your eyes. You’ll never see a better man than that.”

They watched him till he disappeared in the gathering darkness; and he seemed just like a pilgrim with his staff, slowly approaching the end of a cruelly long journey.