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

Extreme heat came that year with the opening of July, and the atmosphere at night seemed as oppressive as in the day.

After an unusually wet June the foliage was rich and dense, but flowers were few and poor except the roses, which had prospered greatly. Throughout the daylight hours trees close at hand looked solid, as if composed of some unbending green material; while those a little way off were rather firm, presenting the appearance of trees during heavy rain. Indeed that was the appearance of the whole scene a country-side being drenched and rendered vague by a heavy downpour; but it was sheer heat that was descending, with never an atom of moisture in it.

The shadows beneath the trees were absolutely black, impenetrable; a dark cave under each ring of leaves. Then toward nightfall this shadow grew lighter and lighter, until it was a transparent grayness into which one could see quite clearly. Thus a girl and a man sitting under a hedgerow elm five or six hundred yards away were distinct objects, although perhaps themselves unaware that they had gradually lost their shelter and become conspicuous.

Dale, crossing his fields and staring at these two figures, for a moment fancied that one of them was Norah. Yet that would have been an impossibility, because he had just left her behind him at the house; and she could not have swum round in a great half-circle, through the drowsy air, to confront him at a distant point where he did not expect to see her. But the heat made one stupid and slow-witted. This man and woman were farmer Creech’s people, and they had come sauntering along the edge of uncut grass to make lazy love to each other. Dale turned aside to avoid disturbing them.

As he returned toward the house presently, he thought of Norah’s unwonted pallor. Poor child, the heat seemed to be trying her more than anybody. And he thought of how wan and limp and sad she looked early this morning, when he had again sent her out of his office and flatly refused to let her do any more writing or tidying for him. Even her red lips had gone pale; she dropped her head; her white eyelids and black lashes fluttered as she looked up at him piteously, seeming to ask: “What have I done that you treat me like this, oh, my cruel master?” He had driven his hands deep into his pockets, had shrugged his shoulders, and spoken almost roughly telling her to go about her business, and not bother. He thought if he gave her time to do it, she might cry again; and he did not want to see any more of her tears.

But off and on throughout the day he had watched her when she did not in the least know that she was being observed. Just after breakfast he had watched her as she scrubbed the kitchen floor, and had noticed the pretty lines of her figure in these sprawling attitudes her ankles, stockings, and the upturned soles of her buckle-shoes.

He was watching her when she came up from the dairy with the pail that held Mavis’ afternoon supply of milk, and he noticed her stretched arm, bare to the elbow, and the other arm balancing, the tilted body helping also to maintain equilibrium. Almost more than she could manage why didn’t that broad-backed thick-legged lump of a dairy-maid carry the house-pail? He would have liked to go out and carry the pail himself; but that was one of the many things which he must carefully refrain from doing.

And all day long, though he saw her so often, he never once heard her sing. She made no song over her work, as used to be her habit. He wondered if Mavis was not working her too hard in this terribly exhausting weather. He wondered also if he would ever be able to say quite naturally what he had for so long wished to say and felt he ought to say that Norah must be given a holiday, that she must be sent somewhere at a considerable distance and stay there in charge of kind and respectable people for an indefinite period. Mavis might consider the suggestion so strange; and it might be impossible to explain that, strange as it seemed, it was nevertheless full of wisdom a suggestion that should be acted upon without an instant’s delay.

The supper table had been brought out into the open air, and it stood upon the flagged path, where they had spread their hospitable feast for the higgler’s wedding. Norah was coming in and out of the kitchen, and Dale sat watching her as she arranged knives, forks, and glasses. Both the children were to be of the party; and they might stay up as late as they pleased, because as it was too hot to sleep in their beds, it did not matter how long the young people remained out of them. They were now roaming about the orchard with Mavis, hunting for a coolness that did not exist anywhere except in one’s memory, and their voices sounded at intervals languidly.

More and more color was now perceptible; distances were extending; lines of meager flowers, crimson and blue as well as white, showed in a border of the kitchen garden; and the sky, seeming to lift and brighten, was a faint orange above the horizon and a most delicate rose tint toward the zenith so that till half-past eight, or later, one had the illusion that the night was going to be more brightly lighted than the day.

Nobody had much appetite for supper, but they all sat a long while at the table, glad to rest if they could not eat, hoping that when they moved from their chairs they would find the temperature lower within the house walls than outside them. Mavis gave little oppressed sighs as she fanned her jolly round face and broad matronly chest with a copy of the Courier. Ethel, who to-night seemed an extraordinarily cumbrous awkward creature, flumped the dishes down on the table and shuffled away on her big flat feet. Norah glided to and fro, now here, now there, pouring out milk and water for the children, and ducking prettily when a bat came close to her white face and black hair.

“What, Norah,” said Mavis, laughing, “you a country girl, and afraid of a flitter-mouse!”

“Yes,” said Billy, “she’s afraid of the flitty-mouse. Isn’t she a coward? You are a coward, Norah.”

And then the laugh was turned against Billy; for the bat passing again and lower than before, Billy himself ducked and crouched automatically.

“Who’s the coward now, young sir?”

“I don’t mind anything that has wings,” said Rachel. “It’s what goes creeping and crawling that I’m afraid of.”

“I don’t mind ear-wigs,” said Billy defiantly.

And Dale, while he talked without interest and ate without appetite, watched Norah. She had changed her gown an hour ago, and obviously when changing had discarded the burden of under-petticoats; this other gown hung close and yet limp about her limbs, modeling itself to each slim length and shapely curve; and he thought it made her look like the statue of a Grecian hand-maiden-such as he had seen many years before in illustrations of learned books. When she stood near him, he noticed nothing but the blackness of her hair or the whiteness of her cheeks; and then he thought she looked somehow wild and fantastic, like a person that one can see only in dreams. But whether she was near him or at a little distance, so long as she remained in sight, he was unintermittently conscious that the essential charm that she shed forth could be traced directly to her youth.

“Good night, daddy.”

“Good night, Rachel.”

His daughter had kissed him, and she stood between his knees while he patted her and caressed her. She too was young and fresh and sweet-smelling; and yet the touch of her purified one. So long as he was holding her, it seemed to him that a father’s love is so great and so pure that there can not be any other love in the world.

But a minute afterward, when his own girl had gone and the other girl was again before his eyes, all the impure unworthy unpermissible desires came rushing back upon him.

They lighted lamps in the kitchen presently, and he sat staring at the open doorway, alone now, after the table had been cleared. The doorway seemed like an empty picture-frame. But each time that Norah came and stood there looking out for a moment, the picture was in its frame. With the light behind her, she was just a thin black figure; and he thought how slight, how weak and small a thing to possess such tremendous, almost irresistible power over him.

Next evening, between tea-time and supper-time, Norah absented herself without leave. Mavis did not miss her at first. Then she thought that very probably the girl was wandering about with the children, or gossiping with the maid at the dairy; but then old Mrs. Goudie, who had come to pay a call at the back door, said she had met Norah and had a chat with her “up th’ road.” On being further examined, Mrs. Goudie said that Norah, after bidding her good night, had got over the stile at the second footpath into Hadleigh Wood.

Mavis at once became angry and suspicious again, and she went to her husband to report this act of rebellion. The office was empty, but she found him at the yard. He was in his shirt-sleeves, sitting on a corn-bin, and he seemed to be greatly troubled by what she told him that she wished him to do. She asked him to go into the wood himself and spy out Norah quietly, and see if she was really alone there.

“Oh, I don’t much like this job, Mav. Besides, it’s to hunt for a needle in a bundle of hay. How do I know which way the lass has gone?”

“I’m telling you she went in at the second path. She won’t have gone far. Probably you’ll come upon her this side of the rides along by the stream, very likely.”

But Dale still showed reluctance to undertake the detective mission.

“Then I must go,” said Mavis. “I can’t put up with this sort of thing, and I mean to stop it. She must be made to understand once for all ”

“Very well,” said Dale; and he got off the corn-bin and picked up his jacket.

“She’ll pay more heed to you than she would to me. But, one word, Will. If you catch her with a young man don’t go and lose your temper with him. Don’t bother about him. Just bring the young minx straight home.”

“An’ suppose there’s no young man.”

“Bring her back just the same, and lecture her all the way on her disobedience and the trouble and annoyance she is giving us. Tell her we’re not going to stand any more of it.”

“Very well.”

He walked along the road at a fairly brisk pace until he came to the second stile, and then he stood hesitatingly. The firs grew thick here, and the shadows that they cast were dark and opaque, encroaching on the pathway, making it a narrow strip of dim light that would lead one into the mysterious and gloomy depths of the wood.

He crossed the stile, and went along the path very slowly, pausing now and then to listen. There was not a sound; the whole wood was as silent as the grave.

Presently the fir-trees on each side of him opened out a little, and here and there beeches and ashes appeared; then the path passed through a glade, the shadows receded, and he had a sensation of being more free and able to breathe better. If he kept on by the path he would soon come to the main ride, that long widely cut avenue which goes close to Kibworth Rocks and gives access to the other straight cuts leading to the Abbey park. He left the path and struck across through the trees, making a line that would take him soon to the wildest part of the ancient Chase, and that, if he pursued it far enough, would eventually bring him out on the big ride near the rocks.

The dark stiff firs gave place to solemnly magnificent beeches; glade succeeded glade; thickets of holly and hawthorn dense as a savage jungle tried to baffle one’s approach to lawnlike spaces where the grass grew finely as in a garden, and the white stems of the high trees looked like pillars of a splendid church; the stream ran silently and secretly, not flashing when it swept out under the sky, or murmuring when it slid down tiny cascades beneath the branches.

Dale was following the stream, whether it showed itself or hid itself, and could have found his way blindfold. He knew the wood by night as well as he knew it by day.

He stopped on the edge of the biggest of all the glades, looked about him cautiously, advanced slowly, and stopped again to wipe the perspiration from his forehead. He was very near to the main ride now; straight ahead of him, say two hundred yards away, on the other side of the invisible ride lay the invisible rocks.

One of the beech-trees had fallen, and been left as it fell two months ago. Most of its tender young foliage had shriveled and died, but on branches near its upturned roots a few leaves were bright and green, still drawing life from the ruined trunk. Dale stood by the fallen tree, looking out across the glade. It was all silent and beautiful, with that curious effect of increasing light which made the distances clearer every moment, gave more color to the earth and a more tender glow to the sky.

Then he saw her, a long way off, coming from the direction of the ride through the trees; and he felt the pressure of blood pumping into his head, the weight on his lungs, the laboring pain of his heart, that a man might feel just before he sinks to the ground in an apoplectic fit.

She was all alone, sauntering toward him with her hands full of flowers. She had no hat, and she was wearing the same loose frock that she wore last night.

With the gesture that had become habitual to him, Dale put his hands in his pockets those wicked hands that no prison could much longer hold, that would defy control, that seemed now to be stretched forth across all the intervening space to touch the face and limbs they hungered for. He moved away from the shadow by the fallen tree, stepped out into the open, went slowly to meet her, and his longing was intolerably acute. He was sick and mad with longing: he wanted her as a man dying of thirst wants the water that will save his life.

“Oh, Mr. Dale, how you hev made me jump!”

At sight of him she dropped the flowers and raised one of her hands to press it against her breast. She had been so startled that she still breathed fast, almost pantingly; but her lips were smiling, and her eyes shone with pleasure.

“Now look here, Norah; this won’t do no, really this won’t do.” He had taken his hands out of his pockets and clasped them behind his back. He too was breathing fast, though he spoke deliberately and rather thickly. “No, all this sort of thing won’t do; it can’t be allowed;” and he laid his right hand on her shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” she said, watching his face intently.

“You mustn’t go and moon about by yourself, like this. You know you mustn’t, don’t you?”

“Yes, I know. But I couldn’t stay indoors.”

He had slid his hand downward, and was holding her arm above the elbow. “It is very disobedient. Often and often Mrs. Dale has told you that you mustn’t come here.”

“I know,” she said humbly.

“So now, you see, I am sent to fetch you and to tell you that you mustn’t do it.” He was struggling hard to speak in his ordinary tone of voice, but failing. And his imitation of his usual fatherly manner, as he held her arm and led her along, was clumsy and laborious. He stopped moving when they reached the prostrate beech-tree, but continued to talk to her, saying the same things again and again. “Norah, it can not be allowed. You mustn’t be disobedient. We can’t allow it.”

They lingered by the tree, she looking at him all the time, and he scarcely ever looking at her, but glancing about him furtively. Then they sat down side by side on one of the great branches, and as if unconsciously he began to caress her.

“Is Mrs. Dale very angry with me?”

“Yes, Norah, she is angry. You can’t be surprised at that.”

“Not so angry that she won’t never forgive me?”

“Oh, no, she’s not so angry as all that.”

“But she isn’t fond of me, as she used to be.”

“Yes, of course she is, Norah.” His arm was round her waist, and he lifted her upon his lap, and held her there. “We are both very fond of you.”

You are,” she whispered. “I know that.... I should die if you ever turned so as not to care for me;” and she nestled against him.

“Norah.”

With a last assumption of the fatherly manner he stooped and kissed her forehead. Then she raised her lips to his, and they kissed slowly.

“Norah,” he muttered. “Oh, Norah.”

He felt as though almost swooning from delight. It was a rapture that he had never known a voluptuous joy that yet brought with it complete appeasement to nerves and pulses.

“Norah, Norah;” and he continued to kiss her lips and mutter her name.

All thought had gone. It was as though all that was trouble and pain inside him had melted into sweet streams of delight streams of fire; but a magical flame that soothes and restores, instead of burning and destroying. He went on fondling her, glorying in her freshness, her immature grace, her youthful beauty. And she was silent and passive, yielding to his gentle movements, pressing close if he held her to him, relaxing the pressure and becoming limp if he wished to see her face and held her from him, making him understand by messages through every sense channel that she was his absolutely.

Then after a while she began to talk in the pretty birdlike whisper that enchanted and enthralled him.

“Why didn’t she want me to come here really?”

“She she thought you came to meet some lad.”

“Oh, no;” and she gave a little laugh, and pressed against him. “It’s the truth, what I’ve always answered to her. I came because I couldn’t help it. Shall I tell you all my secrets secrets I’ve never told any one?”

“Yes.”

“Ever since I was a child quite small I hev always thought something wondersome would happen to me in Hadleigh Wood.”

“Why should you think that?”

He had sat up stiffly, and while she clung whispering at his breast he looked out over her head, glancing his eyes in all directions. Straight in front of him across the glade, the great beeches were gray and ghostly, and beyond them in the strip that concealed the ride it seemed that the shadows had suddenly thickened and blackened.

“I’ll tell you. But you tell me something first. Does Mrs. Dale think this place is haunted?”

He changed his attitude abruptly, put his hands on her shoulders and held her away from him, so that he could see her face.

“What was it you asked me?”

“Does she fancy the wood is haunted?”

“No, why?”

“I believe she does.”

“Rubbish. Why should she?”

“They used to say it was. Granny used to say so. She gave me some dreadful whippings for coming here. Poor Granny was just like Mrs. Dale about it always saying it wasn’t right for me to come here.”

Dale had settled the girl on his knees so that she sat now without any support from him. His hands had dropped to the rough surface of the tree; and he spoke in his ordinary voice.

“Look here, Norah, never mind for a moment what your Granny said. Tell me what it was that my wife said.”

“When do you mean? Last time she was angry?”

“I mean, whatever she said and whenever she said it about ghosts or hauntings.”

“Oh, a long time ago. It was to Mrs. Goudie.”

“I expect you misunderstood her. But I’d like to know what first put such nonsense into your head that Mrs. Dale thought the wood was haunted. Can’t you remember exactly what she did say?”

“She said something about the gentleman’s being killed here, and she wondered at the people coming a Sundays like they used to.”

“Was that all?”

“No, she said something about it would serve them right for their pains if they saw the gentleman’s ghost.”

Dale grunted. “That was just her joke. There are no such things as ghosts.”

“Aren’t there?” Norah laughed softly and happily, and snuggled down again with her face against his jacket. “You aren’t a ghost though you made me jump, yes, you did. But I wasn’t afraid of you.”

“Hush,” he muttered. “Norah, don’t go on don’t.” His hands were still on the tree, rigidly fixed there, and he sat bolt upright, staring out over her head.

“Why not? You said I might tell my secrets. I wasn’t afraid. I thought ’Oh, aren’t I glad I done what Mrs. Dale told me not to and come into my wondersome, wondersome wood, and drawn you after me!’”

“Norah, stop.”

“Why? You’re glad too, aren’t you? I know you are. I knew it when you came walking so tall and so quiet; an’ I thought ’This is it what I always hoped for wonders to happen to me in Hadleigh Wood.’ But I was afraid of the wood once more afraid than Granny knew. I wouldn’t tell her.”

“What d’you mean? What wouldn’t you tell her?”

“What I’d seen here.”

“What had you seen?”

“I kep’ it as my great secret but I’ll tell you, because you’ve found out all my secrets, now, haven’t you?”

“Well, let’s hear it.”

“I saw a man hiding, crawling, ready to spring out on me.”

“Oh. When was that?”

“Ages and ages ago, when I was almost a baby.”

“Heft yourself, Norah. I want to get up, an’ stretch ma legs.”

The gentle soothing fire had faded an invincible coldness crept on slow-moving blood from his heart to his brain. The girl was safe now. He would not injure her to-night. He got up, and stood looking down at her.

“Well,” he said quietly, “let’s hear some more. What sort of a man was it?”

“A wild man with water dripping off him. He had crept out of the river.”

“Do you mean a sort of ghost or demon?”

“I didn’t know.”

“Not like an ordinary man not like any other man you’ve ever seen?”

“Oh, no. All wild fierce and dreadful. Not standing upright more like an animal in the shape of a man.”

“But surely you told your Granny, or somebody?”

“No. I’ve never told a soul except you.”

“An’ you say you were scared, though?”

“Oh, I was, rarely scared.”

“Then you must have told your Granny, or one of ’em. You’ve forgotten, but I expect you told people at the time.”

“I didn’t. I didn’t dare to at first. I thought he’d come after me, if I did. I was afraid.”

Dale grunted again. “An’ d’you mean to say you’d the grit in you to come back here all the same, after that?”

“Not for a little while. Then I did. I was all a twitter, so frightened still, but I was fascinated for to do it too just to see.”

“But you never saw him again.”

“No, and then I began to think it was all a fancy. D’you think it was a fancy, and not real?”

“My dear girl, no;” and Dale shrugged his shoulders. “You prob’ly saw some poor devil of a tramp who had slept here, and was getting on the move after his night’s rest.” Then he took a step away from the tree, and spoke curtly. “Come. We must go home.”

Norah sprang off the tree, hurried to his side, and, with her hands linked about his arm, looked up at him anxiously.

“Yes, but it’s all right, isn’t it? You’re not angry with me not turning against me?”

“No, it’s all right.”

“Then, don’t let’s go. Let’s stay here a little longer”

“No, we must go or Mrs. Dale will be coming to fetch us;” and he began to walk briskly. “And look here, Norah. I shall inform her I found you here by yourself, and I have lectured you at full length, and you’ve said you’ll be good for the future. So don’t answer back if she speaks sharp.”

“Oh, I don’t mind what she says now;” and Norah laughed happily as she trotted after him through the trees.

That evening he sat outside on the bench long after the supper table had been taken away and the kitchen door closed. Quite late, when Mavis spoke to him from an upper window, he said he must have one more pipe before he turned in.

Norah had been singing in the kitchen while she washed the plates; then he had heard her humming softly in the sitting-room; now she had gone up-stairs and was silent. The thoughts and sensations that had been suddenly and strangely inhibited a few hours ago came into play again, warmed his blood once more, repossessed his brain. Soon he was impotent to struggle against them. As he sat huddled and motionless, he revived each memory and wilfully renewed its delight. The brick walls, the timber beams, the flooring boards, and plastered partitions could not divide her from him; though hidden at a distance, she shed emanations, fiery atoms, darting sparks, that infallibly reached him: when he closed his eyes in order not to see the empty space before him, she herself was here. He could feel again the light weight of her body upon his knees, her hair brushed against his chin, her face gave itself to his lips.

Then more remote memories came to join the recent memories, deepening the spell that subjugated him. He thought of her crying when he teased her about love and marriage, and when her poor little innocent heart was bursting because of his pretense of not understanding that she craved for no love but his. And he thought of how she had looked in the middle of the night when he covered her with his jacket, and she stood before him trembling and blushing, with her hair all tumbling loose. That had been one of the mental pictures which he could not even make dim, much less obliterate.

He groaned, got up from the bench, and walked very slowly round the kitchen and behind the house. The first breath of air that he had noticed for days was stirring the leaves, and he saw the new moon like a golden sickle poised above the broken summit of a hayrick. It was a serenely beautiful nights with an atmosphere undoubtedly cooler than any they had had of late; he looked at the peaceful fields, and the fruit trees and the barn roof, all so gently, imperceptibly touched by the young and tender moonbeams; and he thought that the thin yellow crescent was being watched by thousands and thousands of eyes, that men were turning their money, and wishing for luck, for fame, or for satisfied love. But he only of all men might not wish for the desire of his heart, and to him only the moon could bring nothing but pain.

He went through the kitchen garden, and stood under an apple tree staring back at the window of her room. And still older memories sprang up and grew strong, so that they might attack and overcome and utterly undo him. The wild bad fancies of his adolescence came thronging upon him. Imagination and fact entangled themselves; the past and the present fused, and became one vast throbbing distress. He thought if he crept beneath the window and called to her, she would answer his call. If he told her to do so, she would come out in her night-dress she would walk bare-footed through the fields, and plunge with him into the wonderful wood. If he told her to do it, she would go into the stream, and dance and splash realizing that old dream the white-bodied nymph of the wood for him to leap at and carry off into the gloom. He wrenched himself round, and made his way rapidly from the garden to the meadow. He could not support his thoughts. The proximity of the girl was driving him mad.

All through the little meadow and again in the wider fields the air had a soft fragrance; the sky was high and quite clear, with a few stars; the whole earth, for as much as he could see of it, seemed to be sleeping in a deep delightful peace. Beyond his fences there were the neighbors’ farms, and then there were the heath, the hills; and beyond these, other counties, other countries, the rest of the turning globe, the universe it turned in and once again he had that feeling of infinite smallness, the insect unfairly matched against a solar system, the speck of dust whirled as the biggest stars are whirled, inexorably.

At the confines of his land he leaned upon a gate, groaning and praying.

“O Christ Jesus, Redeemer of mankind, why hast Thou deserted me? O God the Father, Lord and Judge, why dost Thou torment me so?”