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

A lassitude descended upon him. Things that had always seemed easy began to seem difficult; little bits of extra work that used to be full of pleasure now brought a fatigue that he felt he must evade; interests that he had allowed to widen without limit all at once contracted and shrank to nothing.

He surprised Mavis by telling her that he had resigned his membership of the District Council. During the last winter he had retired from the fire brigade, and Mavis thoroughly approved of this retirement; but she thought it rather a pity that he should cease to be a councilor. She had always liked the sound of his official designation. Councilor Dale sounded so very grand.

The fire brigade had proved a disappointment to him. Since its enrollment he and his men had often been useful at minor conflagrations, of ricks, cottage thatch, and kitchen flues; but they had never been given a chance of really distinguishing themselves. They had saved no lives, nor met with any perilous risks. However, the captain’s retirement was made the occasion of showing the regard and respect in which Mr. Dale was held by the whole neighborhood. Secretly subscriptions had been collected for the purpose of giving Mr. Dale a testimonial, and at a very large meeting in the Rodchurch Schoolroom, it was presented by one of the most important local gentlemen. “Mr. Dale,” said Sir Reginald, “our worthy vicar has mentioned the fact that I have come here to-night at some slight personal inconvenience; but I can assure you that if the inconvenience had been very much greater I should have come all the same.” (Considerable cheering.) “And in handing you this inscribed watch and accompanying chain, I desire to assure you on behalf of all here” and so on. Dale, for his part, said that “had he guessed this testimonial was on foot, he might have been tempted to burk it, because he could not have conscientiously countenanced it. But now accepting it, although he did not desire it, he felt quite overcome by it. Nevertheless he would ever value it.” (Loud and prolonged cheers.) The record of all these proceedings, faithfully set forth in the Rodhaven District Courier, formed the proudest and finest snippet in Mavis’ bulging scrap album; and brought moisture to her eyes each time that she examined it anew.

“I was never more pleased,” she said, “than when I knew you wouldn’t ever have to wear your fire helmet again; but now I’m wondering if you won’t miss the Council.”

“No, Mav, I shan’t miss it.”

“One thing I’m sure of they’ll miss you.”

“They’ll get on very well without me, my dear.” And then he told her that he was not quite the man he had been. “I’m not so greedy nowadays for every opportunity of spouting out my opinions; and I’ve come to think one’s private work is enough, without putting public work on top of it. You’ll understand, I don’t mean that I want to fold my hands and sit quiet for the rest of my days. But I do seem to feel the need of taking things a little lighter than I used to do.”

This explanation was more than sufficient for Mavis; she sympathetically praised him for his wisdom in dropping the silly old useless Council.

But it was later this evening, or perhaps one evening a little afterward, when something he said set her thoughts moving so fast that they rushed on from sympathy to apprehensive anxiety.

He spoke with unusual kindness about her family, and asked if she had suffered any real discomfort because of his having forbidden intercourse with all the Petherick relations. She said “No.” Then he said he had been actuated by the best intentions; and he further added that all his experience of the world led him to believe that one got on a great deal better by one’s self than if chocked up with uncles and cousins and aunts. “So I should hope, Mav, that you’d never now feel the wish to mend what I took the decision of breaking. I mean, especially as your people have mostly scattered and gone from these parts, that you’d never, however you were situated, wish to hunt them all out and bring them back to your doors again.” Mavis dutifully and honestly said that her own experience had led her to similar conclusions. She thought that relatives were often more trouble than they were worth, and she promised never to attempt a regathering of the scattered Petherick clan.

“You know,” he said, “if anything happened to me, you’d be all right. I have made my will long ago. There’s a copy of it in there,” and he pointed to the lower part of the bureau; “while th’ instrument itself lies snug in Mr. Cleaver’s safe, over at Manninglea.”

“Oh, for goodness’ sake, don’t speak of it. I can’t bear even to hear the word.” And then, taking alarm, she said he must be feeling really ill, or such things as wills would never have come into his head. “Tell me the truth, dear. Tell me what you do feel truly.” And she asked him all sorts of questions about his health, begging him to consult a doctor without a day’s delay.

“Only a bit tired, Mav and that’s what I never used to feel.”

“No, you never did. And I don’t at all understand it.”

“It’s quite natural, my dear.”

“Not natural to you.”

Then he took her hand, pressed it affectionately, and laughed in his old jolly way. “My dear, it’s nothing just an excuse for slacking off now and then. Remember, Mav, I am not a chicken. I shall be fifty before th’ end of this year.”

He convinced her that there was no cause for her anxiety; and only too happy not to have to be anxious, she thought no more of this strange thing that her untiring Will now sometimes knew what tiredness meant.

But his lassitude increased. He uttered no further hints about it to anybody; he endeavored to conceal it; he refused to admit its extent even to himself. On certain days to think made him weary, to be active and bustling was an impossibility. Instinct seemed to whisper that he was passing through still another phase, that presently he would be all right again just as vigorous and energetic as in the past; and that meanwhile he should not flog and spur himself, but just rest patiently until all his force returned to him.

Since to do anything was a severe effort, he had better do nothing. He ceased to bother about Billy’s schooling. He postponed making his harvest arrangements; he forgot to answer a letter asking for an estimate, and one Thursday he omitted to wind the clocks. He tried to let his beard grow, in order to escape the trouble of shaving. It grew during three days; but the effect was so disfiguring a stiff stubble of gray, hiding his fine strong chin, and spreading high on his bronzed cheeks that Norah and Mavis implored him to desist. Even Ethel the housemaid ventured to say how very glad she felt when he shaved again.

The month of May was hot and enervating; the month of June was wet and depressing. Day after day the rain beat threateningly against the windows, and night after night it dripped with a melancholy patter from the eaves. On three successive Sundays Dale considered the rain an adequate excuse for not going to chapel. He and Norah had a very short informal service within sound and within smell of the roast beef that was being cooked close by in the kitchen, and afterward he meditatively read the Bible to himself while Norah laid the cloth for dinner.

He had said that he did not want to fold his hands and sit quiet for the remainder of his existence; but that was precisely what he desired to do for the moment. He allowed Norah to relieve him of more and more of his office duties, and he idly watched her as she stood bending her neck over the tall desk or sat stooping her back and squaring her elbows at the writing-table. And still sitting himself, he would maintain long desultory conversations with her about nothing in particular when, having completed the tasks that he had entrusted to her, she moved here and there about the office tidying up for the night.

Thus on an evening toward the end of June he talked to her about love and the married state. It had been raining all day long, and though no rain fell at the moment, one felt that more was coming. The air was saturated with moisture; heavy odors of sodden vegetation crept through the open window; and one saw a mist like steam beginning to rise from the fields beyond the roadway. Mr. Furnival, the new pastor, had just passed by; and it was his appearance that started the conversation.

“He is a conscientious talented young man,” said Dale; “and with experience he will ripen. At present he seems to me deficient in sympathy.”

“Yes, so he does,” said Norah, as she opened the desk drawer.

“He hasn’t the knack of putting himself in the place of other people. There’s something cold and cheerless in his preaching I don’t say as if he didn’t feel it all himself, but as if he hadn’t yet caught the knack of imparting his feelings to others.”

“No more he has,” said Norah, putting away her papers.

“Between you and me and the post,” said Dale, “I don’t like him.”

“No more do I.”

“What! Don’t you like Mr. Furnival either?”

Norah shook her head and said “No” emphatically.

“But he is handsome, Norah. I call him undoubtedly a handsome man. And they tell me that the girls are falling in love with him.”

Norah laughed, and said that, if Mr. Dale had been correctly informed, she was sorry for the taste of the girls.

“Then you don’t admire his looks, Norah?”

“It rather surprises me, because I should have thought he was just the sort of person to attract and fascinate the other sex a bachelor too, without ties, able to take advantage of any success in that line that came his way. I mean, of course, by offering marriage to the party who fancied him.”

Norah said again that she thought nothing of Mr. Furnival’s alleged handsomeness. She considered him a namby-pamby.

“You are young still. Perhaps I oughtn’t to talk like this putting nonsense in your head. But it’ll come there sure enough of its own accord. Your turn will come. You’ll fall in love one day, Norah.”

Norah, putting the big account-books back on the shelf over the desk, did not answer.

“You’ve never fallen in love yet, have you?”

Norah would not answer.

“Ah, well.” Dale got up from his chair, and stretched himself. “But you’ll have to marry some day, you know.”

“Oh, no, I shan’t.”

“Oh, yes, my dear, you will. That’s a thing there’s no harm for girls to think of, because it’s what they’ve got to prepare themselves for.” And Dale delivered a serious little homily on the duties and pleasures of wedlock, and concluded by telling Norah that when she had chosen an honest proper sort of young fellow, neither himself nor Mrs. Dale would stand in the way of her future happiness. “Yes, my dear, you’ll leave us then; and we shall miss you greatly both of us will miss you very greatly, but we shan’t either of us consider that. And you mustn’t consider it yourself. It’s nature quite proper and correct that under those circumstances you should leave us.”

“Never,” said Norah. “Never unless you send me away;” and stooping her head on her arms, she began to cry.

“Oh, my dear, don’t cry,” said Dale bruskly. “What in the name of reason is there to cry about?”

“Then say you won’t send me away,” sobbed Norah. “Promise me you won’t do that.”

“Of course I won’t,” said Dale, in the same brusk tone. “That is, unless I’m morally certain that ”

“No, no never.”

“Oh, don’t be silly. Dry your eyes, and be sensible;” and Dale, plunging his hands in his pockets, hurried out of the office.

He walked as far as the Baptist Chapel, and straight back again; and before he got home he made a solemn resolution to rouse himself from the idle lethargic state into which he felt himself slipping deeper and deeper. Thinking about business and other matters, he decided now that the odd weariness which he had been experiencing must be struggled with, and not submitted to. There was no sense in calmly accepting such a mental and bodily condition. It might be different if there was anything organically wrong with him; but he was really as strong and fit as ever only a bit tired; but he thought with scorn of the folly of allowing dark days and foul weather to influence one’s spirits or one’s capacity for effort. That sort of rubbish is well enough for rich old maids who go about the world with a maid, a hot-water bottle, and a poll parrot; but it is degrading and undignified in a successful business man who has a wife and two children to work for, whether the sun shines or the sky is overcast.

At supper he told Mavis that he was going to make a long round of it next day, starting early, and riding far to pay several calls that were overdue. He added that he would not require Norah’s assistance in the office, either to-morrow or for some time to come.

“I fear me,” he said, “that I’ve been selfish, and abused the privilege of taking her away to act as secretary, and thereby thrown more on you.”

“Not a bit,” said Mavis. “Take her just as long as she makes herself useful.”

“She has done fine,” said Dale, “and lifted a lot off my shoulders. But now I feel I’m all clear, and I restore her to her proper place and duties.”

Mavis, if aware of the fact, would have thought it curious that Dale had spoken to Norah of falling in love, because she herself was at this time worried by thoughts of such possibilities with regard to the girl. She noticed various changes in Norah’s manner and deportment. Norah, although Dale said she worked well enough for him in the office, showed a perceptible slackness at her household tasks. She seemed to have lost interest, especially in all kitchen work; she was often careless in dusting and cleaning the parlor, and had done one or two very clumsy things such as breaking tea-cups when washing up as if her wits had gone wool-gathering instead of being concentrated on the job in hand. Her temper, too, was not so even and agreeable as it ought to have been. She was distinctly irritable once or twice to the children, when they were trying to play with her as of old, and not, as she declared, wilfully teasing her. And once or twice when she was reproved, there had come some nasty little flashes of rebellion.

Mavis, seeking any reason for this slight deterioration of conduct and steadiness, wondered if Norah by chance had a little secret love affair up her sleeve. That would account for everything. But if so, who could it be who was upsetting her? Girls, even at what matrons call the silly age, can not give scope to their silliness without opportunities; and there were no visitors to the house, and certainly none of the men in the yard, who could conceivably be carrying on with her.

Then the suspicions of Mavis were aroused by discovering that Norah was at her old tricks again. If you sent her as messenger of charity to one of the cottages, and more still if you gave her an hour or two for herself, she went stealing off into the forbidden woods. She had been seen doing it twice, and, as Mavis suspected, had done it often without being seen. She knew that she wasn’t allowed to do it. There was the plain house-rule that neither she nor Ethel were ever to leave the roads when they were out alone. Yet she broke the rule; and Mavis now suspected that she did not break this rule in order to pick wild flowers and look at green leaves but to meet a sweetheart.

Mavis, thinking about it, was at once angry and apprehensive. A fine thing for all of them, if the little fool came to trouble and disgrace that way. She would not immediately bother Dale about it; but she promptly tackled Norah, roundly accused her of improper behavior, expressed a firm conviction that she was playing the fool with some young man, and threatened to lay the whole matter before the master.

“D’you understand, Norah? We won’t put up with it not for a moment. We’re not going to let you make yourself the talk of the place and bring us to shame into the bargain.”

Norah, alternately flushing and turning pale, defended herself with vigor. She was indignant not with the threats, but with the suspicion. She swore that she had never for one instant thought of a young man, much less spoken to or made appointments with a young man; and that she had broken the house-rule simply because she found it almost impossible to keep it. She had always loved wandering about under the trees: she used to go there all alone as a baby, and she thought it unreasonable that she might not go there alone as a grown-up person.

Norah’s indignant tone suggested complete innocence, and Mavis felt relieved in mind, but yet not quite sure whether the girl was really telling the truth.

She indirectly returned to the charge on the following Sunday, when Norah was about to start for her afternoon out.

“Norah, I want a word with you.”

The girl came back along the flagged path to the kitchen door.

“It’s just this, Norah. You’ll please to remember what I’ve told you, and act accordingly.”

Norah turned her head and answered over her shoulder, rather sullenly, as Mavis thought.

“All right. I remember.”

“Don’t answer me like that,” said Mavis sharply. “And please to remember your manners, and look at people when you speak to them.”

“All right,” said Norah again, and, as Mavis judged, very sullenly this time.

“Look you here, young lady,” she said, with increasing warmth. “I’m not going to stand any of your nonsense and of that I give you fair warning. Now you just answer me in a seemly manner and tell me exactly where you are going this afternoon, or I’ll send you straight back into the house to take off your finery and not go out at all.”

Dale, close by in the little sitting-room, heard his wife’s voice raised thus angrily, closed the book that was lying open on his knees, and came to the window.

“What’s wrong, Mav?”

“It’s Norah offering me her sauce, and I won’t put up with it.”

Dale, with the book in his hand, came out through the kitchen, and stood by Mavis on the stone flags.

“Norah,” he said seriously, “you must always be good, and do whatever Mrs. Dale tells you.”

“Yes, but that’s just what she doesn’t do;” and Mavis explained that, in spite of repeated orders, Norah had several times gone mooning off into the woods all by herself. “So now I’m reminding her, and asking where she means to go this afternoon.”

Norah, with her eyes on the flags, said that she would go to Rodchurch.

“Very good,” said Mavis. “Then now you’ve answered, you may go.”

When Norah had disappeared round the corner of the house, Mavis talked to her husband apologetically and confidentially.

“Will, dear, I’m sorry I disturbed you when you were reading;” and glancing at the book in his hand, she felt ashamed of her recent warmth. “I couldn’t help blowing her up, and I’ll tell you why.” Then she spoke of the necessity of keeping a sharp eye and a firm hand on a girl of Norah’s age and attractions; and she further mentioned her suspicion, now almost entirely allayed, of some secret carryings-on.

“Oh, I don’t think there’s anything of that sort,” said Dale. “No, I may say I’m morally sure Norah isn’t deceiving you there.”

“I’m glad you think so. Yes, it’s what I think myself. I should have bowled her out if there’d been anything going on. But, Will, there’s other dangers for her worse dangers.”

“What dangers, Mavis?”

“Well, all the lads naturally are looking at her. Norah has come on faster than you may have noticed. I don’t want her to mix herself up with any of those louts that hang about the Cross Roads.”

“No.”

“And she’ll come across them for certain if she gets trapesing through the trees like she does. There’s her brothers would bring them together. Besides, it isn’t safe at her age. You know yourself what’s always been said of it.”

“Quite so,” said Dale. “You are wise, Mavis very wise to be watchful and careful.”

Then he returned to the sitting-room, settled himself again in the porter’s chair, and reopened his book at the place where he had been interrupted.

It was the New Testament; and just now, while reading the twenty-first chapter of Saint Matthew, he had enjoyed a clear vision of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. Making his picture from materials supplied by an article in the People’s Encyclopedia, he seemed to be able to see the ancient city and its exotic life as the Redeemer and the disciples must have seen it on that memorable day. Here were the narrow streets and the crowded market-places; the towers and domes; the strangely garbed traders, laden camels, gorgeous Roman soldiers, brown-faced priests, black-bodied slaves; sunlit hills high above one, distant faintly blue mountains far ahead of one a thronged labyrinth of shadow and light, of noise and confusion, of pomp and squalor.

But the picture was gone, the dream was broken, the hope was darkened. He tried to bring it all back again, and failed utterly. He could not think of Christ riding into Jerusalem; he could only think of Norah walking along the road to Rodchurch.