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

Very early in the morning he told Mavis that he felt sure they ought to send Norah away on a holiday for the good of her health.

“This hot weather has been a severe test for all of us,” he said; “and of course what I should consider equally advisable would be to send you and the children along with her, but I suppose ”

“What, me go away just when you’re going to cut the grass!”

“Very well,” he said, “I won’t urge it. But as to Norah, that’s a decision I’ve come to; so please don’t question it. She’s been working too hard ”

“Did she complain to you yesterday, when you lectured her?”

“No. Not a word. An’ she’ll prob’ly resist the idea. But she must be overruled, because my mind is made up. So now the only question that remains is where are you to send her? What about that place for servants resting at Bournemouth, the place Mrs. Norton collects subscriptions for?”

“Yes, I might ask Mrs. Norton if she could spare us a ticket.”

“No, send the girl as a paying guest. I don’t grudge any reasonable expense. Or again there’s Mrs. Creech’s daughter-in-law, over at S’thaampton Water.”

“Oh, there’s half a dozen people I could think of ”

“All right,” he said; “but I want it done now, straight away. And look here, Mav. Take this thing off my shoulders, and don’t let me be bothered. I shouldn’t have decided it, if I didn’t know it was right. I’ve a long and difficult day before me. You just hop into the gig, and Tom’ll drive you round to see Mrs. Norton or anybody else. Only let me hear by dinner-time that the arrangement is made.”

“You shall,” said Mavis cheerfully.

“Thank you, Mav. You’re always a trump. You never fail one.”

What had seemed an insuperable difficulty was thus in a moment accomplished. His quietly authoritative tone had made Mavis accept the thing not only easily but without a doubt or question, and he thought remorsefully that, except for his sneaking, cowardly delay, all this might have occurred a month ago. He felt a distinct lightening of the trouble as he went back into his own room, and then the weight of it fell upon him again. He had succeeded so far as Mavis was concerned; but how about Norah?

He stood meditating in front of the looking-glass before he began to shave. When he picked up the shaving-brush, he noticed that his hand was trembling not much, yet quite visibly. It never used to do that, and he looked at it with disgust. It seemed to him like an old man’s hand.

Then he began to study his face in the glass. No one would have guessed that this was a man who had been praying all night. The whole face showed those signs of fatigue that come after base pleasures, after riotous waste of energy, after long hours of debauch. It seemed to him that his gray hair was finer of texture than it ought to be, hanging straight and thin, with no strength in it; that his eyes were too dim, that the flesh underneath them had puffed out loosely, and that his lower lip was drooping slackly and he shuddered in disgust. It seemed to him that his face changed and grew uglier as he looked at it. It was becoming like an old man’s face he had seen years ago.

In spite of the slight shakiness of his hand he managed to shave himself without a cut, and he was just about to wash the soap away when he heard a sound of lamentation on the lower floor. It was Norah loudly bewailing herself. Mavis had gone down-stairs and published his sentence of banishment.

Suppose that the girl betrayed their secret. Suppose that she was even now telling his wife what had happened in the wood. Well, he must go down to them and flatly deny whatever Norah said. But he tingled and grew hot with a most miserable shame; his heart quailed at the mere notion of the sickening, disgraceful character of such a scene he, the highly respected Mr. Dale, the good upright religious man, being accused by a little servant girl and having to rebut her accusations in the presence of his wife.

He dipped his head in the basin, and even when under the cold water the tips of his ears seemed as if they were on fire. He must go down-stairs the moment he had cooled his face; but he would go as some wretched schoolboy goes to the headmaster’s room when he guesses that his unforgivable beastliness has been discovered, and that first a thrashing and then expulsion are awaiting him.

Some of the lying words that he must utter suggested themselves. “Oh, Norah, this is a poor return you are making for all my kindness. Aren’t you ashamed to stand there and tell such ungrateful false-hoods. Ma lass, your cheek surprises me. I wonder you can look me in the face.”

But it would be Mavis, and not Norah, who would look him in the face and she would read the truth there. She would see it staring at her in his shifting eyes, his slack lip, and his weak frown. Her first glance at him would be loyal and frank, just an eager flash of love and confidence, seeming to say, “Be quick, Will, and put your foot on this viper that we’ve both of us warmed, and that is trying to bite me;” then she would turn pale, avert her head, and drop upon a chair. And for why? Because she had seen the nauseating truth, and her heart was almost broken.

Then he suddenly understood that there was no real danger of all this. It was only his own sense of guilt that unnerved him. Nothing had happened in the wood. If he behaved quietly and sensibly, he would be altogether safe, and Mavis would never guess. Truly all that he had to conceal was that he had been stopped on the very brink of his sin, that but for a startling interference, an almost miraculous interference, the wicked thoughts would infallibly have found their outlet in wicked deeds.

If Norah said he took her on his knees and kissed her, Mavis would think nothing of it would not even think it undignified; would merely take as one more evidence of his kindly nature the fact that, instead of upbraiding the silly child, he had embraced her. If the girl howled and said she did not want to go because she was fond of him, Mavis would think nothing of that either. Mavis knew it already, and had never thought anything of it.

Therefore if he did not betray himself, the girl could not betray him. All that was required of him was just to maintain an ordinary air of ingenuousness. He had done enough acting in his life to be at home when dissimulating. He must do a little more successful acting now.

After a minute or so he went down-stairs, and was outwardly staid and calm, looking as he had looked on hundreds of mornings: the good kind father of a household, whose only care is the happiness and welfare of those who are dependent on him.

Directly he entered the breakfast-room Norah ran sobbing to him and clung to his hand.

“She is sending me away. Oh, don’t let her do it. You promised you wouldn’t. Oh, why do you let her do it?”

“This is my plan, Norah,” he said gently; “not Mrs. Dale’s. I wish it and I ask you not to make a fuss.”

“I’ve told her,” said Mavis, “that it’s only for her own good; and that she’ll be back here in a fortnight or three weeks. But she seems to think we want to be rid of her forever.”

“No, no,” said Dale. “Nothing of the sort. It’s merely for the good of your health and not in any way as a punishment for your having been rather disobedient.”

“Why, I’m sure,” said Mavis cheerfully, “most girls would jump for joy at the chance. You’ll enjoy yourself, and have all a happy time.”

“No, I shan’t,” Norah cried. “I shall be miserable;” and she looked up at Dale despairingly. “Do you promise I’m really and truly to come back?”

“Of course I do. And it’s all on the cards that Mrs. Dale and Rachel and Bill may follow you before your holiday is over.”

“Oh, I doubt that,” said Mavis.

“No,” cried Norah, “when I’m gone you’ll turn against me, and forget me. I shall never see you again, and I shall die. I can’t bear it.” And she began to sob wildly.

Then Dale, standing big and firm, although each sob tore at his entrails, pacified and reassured the girl. He said that she must not be “fullish,” she must be “good and sensible,” she must fall in with the views of those “older and wiser” than herself; finally, after his arguments and admonitions, he laid his hand on her bowed head as if silently giving a patriarchal blessing; and Mavis watched and admired, and loved him for his noble generosity in taking so much trouble about the poor little waif that had no real claim on him.

“There,” she said, “dry your eyes, Norah. Mr. Dale has told you he wishes it, and that ought to be enough for you.”

And then Norah said she would do what Mr. Dale wished, even if she died in doing it.

“Oh, stuff, stuff,” said Mavis, laughing cheerily. “I never heard such talk. Now come along with me, and get the breakfast things;” and she took Norah down the steps into the kitchen.

Norah came back to lay the cloth presently, and would have rushed into Dale’s arms, if he had not motioned to her to keep away, and laid a finger on his lips warningly. But he could not prevent her from whispering to him across the table.

“Will you come and see me, wherever it is?”

“Perhaps.”

“Come and see me without her. Come all for me, by yourself.”

Dale did more work in that one morning than he had done for months. The wet season had naturally postponed the hay-making, but negligence was postponing it still further; now at last he gave all necessary orders. But it was only his own grass that he had to deal with. Letting everything drift, he had not made any of the usual arrangements with his neighbors; this year he would not have to ride grandly round and watch dozens of men and women laboring for him; and there would be no farmers’ banquet or speeches or cigar-smoking.

When he came in to dinner he found Mavis all hot and red, but pleased with herself after her bustling activities. The whole business was settled. Norah was to go as a paying guest to that place at Bournemouth, and Mavis would drive her over to Rodchurch Road and put her into the four-fifteen train. At the station they would meet a girl called Nellie Evans, whom by a happy chance Mrs. Norton was despatching to-day; and so the two girls could travel together, and prevent each other from being a fool when they changed trains at the junction; and altogether nothing could have turned out better or nicer.

Mavis, babbling contentedly all through dinner, harped on the niceness both of people and things. Mrs. Norton, and indeed everybody else, had been so nice about it. All Rodchurch had seemed anxious to assist Mr. and Mrs. Dale in contriving their little maid’s holiday. “And it is nice,” said Mavis simply, “to be treated like that.” Mrs. Norton had taken her all round the vicarage garden, and she had never seen it looking nicer. “Although the flowers aren’t anything to boast of, any more than ours are.”

“And what do you think? Here’s a bit of news you’ll be sorry to hear, though it mayn’t surprise you.” Then Mavis related how it had been necessary to procure some sort of trunk to hold Norah’s things, because there wasn’t a single presentable bit of luggage in the house, and she had discovered exactly what she wanted something that was not immoderate, appearing solid, yet not heavy at the new shop that had recently been opened at the bottom of the village near the Gauntlet Inn. First, however, she had gone to their old friend the saddler’s, wanting to see if she could buy the box there. But Mr. Allen’s shop was empty, woe-begone, dirty with cobwebs, dead flies, and mud on the window; and Mr. Allen himself was ill in bed, being nursed hand and foot, and fed like a baby, by poor Mrs. Allen. He had been stricken down by some dreadful form of rheumatism, and three doctors had said the same thing that he had brought this calamity upon himself by his ridiculous, ceaseless tramping after the hounds.

Dale nodded and smiled, or made his face appropriately grave, while Mavis prattled to him; but truly his mind was occupied only by Norah. She came in and out of the room, looking pale and limp and resigned; she knew all about the trunk, and that it was up-stairs and that already the mistress and Ethel had begun to pack it; she was submitting to destiny, but out of her soft blue eyes there shot a glance now and then that made him quiver with pain.

He went out of the house the moment dinner was finished, and kept moving about, now in the office, now in the yard, never still. Then, when he was pottering round and round the office for the fiftieth time in two hours, he heard a footstep, and Norah came to whisper and cling to him, to make him kiss her again; to penetrate him with her ineffable sweetness; to plant the seeds of inextinguishable desire in the last few cells and fibers of his brain that as yet she had not reached.

“I don’t ast you to stand in th’ road when we drive away. I’d rather not. Say good-by to me now, when there’s nobody watchin’.”

Then he had to take her in his arms once more; and they stood close to the door, far from the window, pressed heart to heart, mute, throbbing.

“I’m kissing you,” she whispered presently, “but you’re not kissing me. Kiss me.”

And he obeyed her.

“No,” she whispered. “Different from that. Kiss me like you did yesterday.”

“Very well,” he said hoarsely. “This is the good-by kiss. This is good-by.” And once again he felt the swift lambent ecstasy of a love that he had never till now guessed at; a joy beyond words, beyond dreams, beyond belief. “Now, you must go;” and he slowly released himself, and held her at arm’s length. “That was our good-by. Good-by, my Norah my darling good-by.” Then he went to the table in front of the window, and sat down.

She came a little way from the door, and spoke to him before going out and along the passage.

“I shan’t mind now however miserable I am because I know it’s all right. An’ I promise to be good, an’ do all I’m told, an’ always be your own Norah.”

Then she left him the gray-haired respected Mr. Dale of Vine-Pits Farm, sitting in his office window for all the world to see; looking livid, shaky, old; and feeling like a Christian missionary in some far-off heathen land, who, having preached to the gang of pirates into whose hands he had fallen, lies now at the roadside with all his inside torn away, and waits for birds with beaks or beasts with claws to come and finish him.

Before the horse was put into the wagonette and the trunk brought down-stairs, Dale had left the house and gone some distance along the road in the direction of the Barradine Arms. Even if Norah had not said that he need not be there at the moment of departure, he would have been unable to remain. He could not stand by and see her piteous face, her slender figure, her forlorn gestures, while they carried her off the poor little weak thing sent away from hearth and home, cast out among strangers because any spot on the earth, however bare or hard, had become a better shelter for her than the place that should have been sacredly secure.

He walked heavily, with a leaden heart and leaden feet; his eyes downcast, not glancing at the dark trees on one side or the bright fields on, the other. But after passing the first of the woodland paths and before coming to the second, he looked up. He had heard the sound of many footsteps and the murmur of many voices. All those blue-cloaked orphans, two and two, an endless procession, were advancing toward him.

Never had the sight and the sound of them been so horribly distasteful to him. They were still a long way off, and he thought he could dodge them, at any rate avoid meeting them face to face, if he hurried on to the second footpath and dived into the wood there. But then it seemed as if he had stupidly miscalculated the distance, or that his legs were failing him, or that the girls came sweeping down the road at an impossibly rapid pace; so that they were right upon him just as he reached the stile. He drew aside, and, feeling that it was too late now to turn his back, watched them as they passed.

The mistresses must have issued a sudden order of silence, for they all went by without so much as a whisper. There were fifty of them, but they seemed to be thousands. Dressed in their light blue summer cloaks, golden-haired, brown-haired, a very few black-haired, they passed two by two, with the little ones first, and bigger and bigger girls behind an ascending scale of size, so that he had the illusion of seeing a girl grow up under his eyes, change in a minute instead of in years from the small sexless imp that is like an amusing toy, to the full-breasted creature that is so nearly a woman as to be dangerous to herself and to everybody else.

Not one of them spoke, but all of them, little and big, looked at him very shyly, and yet with intense interest. He stood staring after them, and presently their tuneful young voices sounded again, filled the air with virginal music. He swung his leg over the stile, and went along the path through the trees where he had followed Norah yesterday.

He had not intended to leave the highroad, but it was as if that dead man’s girls had driven him into the wood to get away from their shyly questioning eyes. He might meet them again if he stayed out there. In here he could be alone with his thoughts.

To-day there was plenty of sunlight, and instead of turning off the path he went straight on to the main ride. This too was bright with sunshine, a splendid broad avenue that was shut close on either side by the thickly planted firs; the mossy track seeming soft as a bed, and the sky like an immensely high canopy of delicate blue gauze. A heron crossed quickly but easily, making only three flaps of its powerful wings before it disappeared; there was an unceasing hum of insects; and two wood-cutters came by and wished Dale good afternoon and touched their weather-stained hats.

“Good afternoon,” he said, in a friendly tone. “A bit cooler and pleasanter to-day, isn’t it?”

“You’re right, sir. ’Bout time too.”

Then he walked on, alone with his thoughts again, along the wide sunlit ride toward Kibworth Rocks; and a phrase kept echoing in his ears, sounding as if he said it aloud. “It is the finger of God. It is the finger of God.” He was quoting himself really, because he had once used that phrase in a pompously effective manner. Could one repeat it as effectively in regard to what happened near here yesterday? Could one dare to say that the finger of God interposed, touching his blood with ice, making his muscles relax, forcing him to loosen his hold on the delicious morsel that like a beast of prey he was about to devour and enjoy.

He walked with hunched shoulders and lowered head, but there was great resolution, even an odd sort of swaggering defiance in his gait. He stopped short, raised his head, and looked about him at a certain point of the ride. Here he was very near to the open glade where he met Norah; but he was nearer still to the strewn boulders, jagged ridges, and hollow clefts of Kibworth Rocks. If he left the ride, he would see them, brown and gray, glittering in the sunshine.

And he thought again of those fifty orphans or waifs. Why weren’t they here to bow and do honor to him who had been the friend of girls in life and who was the guardian angel of girls in death? This was the hallowed spot, the benefactor’s resting-place till devout hands raised him and priests sang over him, the rocky shrine of their patron saint.

Dale grunted, shook himself, and went off the ride in the opposite direction to tread the moss that had been crushed by Norah’s footsteps, to push against the branches that had touched her shoulders, to see the dead flowers that had dropped from her hands. He found a shriveled sprig or two of her woodland posy, and carried them to the fallen beech tree.

She was gone now already a long way from him at the railway station, with ticket bought, and box labeled, waiting for the train to take her still farther from him. Only a heron could fly fast enough to get to her now before the train possessed her. And he quoted himself again, really saying the words aloud this time. “Good-by my darling good-by, good-by.”

That was what he meant when he gave her the last kiss. He had said so. He had called it the last kiss. But she poor lamb thought it was the last kiss till next time; that it was good-by for three weeks, not good-by forever. He must never see her again. There could be no two ways about that decision. He mustn’t palter, or trifle, or shilly-shally about that iron certainty. But how without Heaven’s unceasing aid would he have strength to keep such a vow?

And sitting on the tree, and thinking for a little while about himself rather than about her, he endeavored to survey his situation in the logical clear-sighted way that had once been customary with him. To what a blank no-thoroughfare he had brought himself. What a damnable mess he had made of his peaceful, happy home.

Of course he had known for a long time what was the matter with him. His disgust with himself at the revelation of his own weakness dated from a long time ago; but the progress of his passing from perfectly pure and normal thoughts about the girl to cravings that he struggled with as morbid impurities was so subtle that it defied analysis. At first when he put his hand on her head, or patted her shoulder, every thought behind the fatherly gesture was itself fatherly; and then, without anything to startle one by a recognition of change, the time had come when he felt a slight thrill in touching her, when he was always seeking occasions or excuses for doing it, when the wider the contact the more massive was his satisfaction. Her white neck, her round fore-arms, her thin wrists, irresistibly attracted a caress. He could not keep his hands off her and it distressed and worried him whenever he saw anybody else doing quite innocently what he did with an unavowable purpose. Perhaps this was the real cause of his dislike for the new pastor. After Mr. Furnival’s initial appearance at the chapel, they all three walked a little way together, and the good-looking young man paid Norah compliments about her singing, and held her hand and patted it. Nothing could have been more innoxious, more completely ministerial; and yet Dale had felt that he would like to take the clerical gentleman by the collar of his black coat and the seat of his gray trousers, and send him sprawling over a quick-set hedge into a ploughed field.

He knew then the nature of the poison that had crept insidiously into his blood and was beginning to spread and rage with deadly power. He fought against it bravely, he fought against it despairingly. He hoped that chance would cure him, he prayed that heaven would cleanse him.

He would not believe that his ruin was irretrievable. That would be too monstrous and absurd. Because, except for this expanding trouble, everything inside him, all the main component parts that made up the vast and still solid thinking organism which had been labeled for external observers by the name of William Dale, remained quite unchanged. His religious faith stood absolutely firm, was strengthened rather than shaken; he regarded his wife with exactly the same affection; he loved his children as much as, more than ever; only this astounding dreadful new thing was added to him: he worshiped Norah.

In his struggles to free himself from the new mental growth, he had turned to his children. Instinct seemed to say that from them and through them should come an influence sufficiently potent to resist temptation, however tremendous. He felt so proud of the boy. Billy was never afraid of him, looked at him so firmly even when threatened, holding up the pink and white face, with its soft unformed features and yet a determined set to the chin and mouth already a real little man. Dale took his son’s hand in his, took Billy with him into the granary, the hay loft, or across the fields, cut bits of willow and showed how to make a whistle, took a hedge sparrow’s nest and blew the eggs; and the boy was proud and happy in such noble society, but he could not exorcise the evil spell for his grand companion.

Nor could Rachel give freedom. Dale embraced his daughter with the truest paternal fervor, pumping up sweet clean love from deep unsullied wells, thinking honestly and as of old so long as she stood by his side. At such moments he forced himself to imagine a man playing the fool with Rachel, and immediately there came a full normal explosion of parental rage; and he knew, without the possibility of doubt, that such a man had better never have been born than encounter Rachel’s father. But these imaginations could not help him. Thoughts about Rachel and thoughts about Norah, which once had mingled, were now like two rivers running side by side but never meeting.

Again, what had rendered the fight hopeless was his recognition of the overwhelming fact that the spell was mutual. It was not only that he wanted her, Norah wanted him. There lay the sweetly venomous throb of the poison. In her eyes he was not old; his gray hair did not appall her, his rugged frame did not repel her. All night and all day, during months, yes, during years, she had told him: “You are not old; you need not be old; I can make you young.”

He thought, as he had thought again and again, of her artlessness, her ignorance, and her total absence of compunction. It seemed so wonderful. She drifted toward him as the petal of a flower comes on running water, as corn seeds blow through the air, as anything small and light obeying a natural law. She did not in the least understand social conventions. She was not troubled with one thought of right or wrong; she neither meditated nor remembered. How wonderful. The ten commandments and the catechism that she knew by heart, all the hymns she had sung and all the sermons she had heard, did not exert the faintest restraining influence. They had no real meaning for her probably, and she could not therefore bring them into relation with concrete facts. In her innocence, in her virginal simplicity, she would keep the book of life close sealed until he opened it roughly for her at its ugliest page.

He, or somebody else!

Suddenly he threw away the faded wood-blossoms, sprang up from the tree, and paced to and fro. A wave of revolt came sweeping through and through him. Was he not making mountains out of mole-hills?

If he could trample down all this sentimental fiddle-de-dee, what was the plain English of the case so far as she was concerned? Unbidden, innumerable circumstances stored from local knowledge offered themselves as guides for argument. Take any girl of that class well, what are her chances? Why, you are lucky if you keep ’em straight until the time comes to send ’em out into domestic service; their parents scarcely expect it, barely seem to desire it. But after that time, when they get among strangers and there’s nobody with an eye on them, they fall as victims if you choose to call it so to the first marauder to the young master, the nephew home for his Christmas holidays, or the man who comes to tune the piano. If not himself, it would be somebody else.

And he thought. “Blast it all, am I a man or a mouse? Who’s to judge me, or stan’ in my way, if I do what I please? Suppose it’s found out, well, it must be smoothed over, covered up, and put behind the fireplace. I shan’t be Number One that’s bin th’ same road!” and he remembered how lightly other married men, his neighbors, country farmers, or town tradesmen, amused themselves with their servants, and how their middle-aged wives just had to grin and bear it. “An’ Mavis,” he thought, “can do the same. Heavens an’ earth, I’ve got an answer ready if she tries to make a fuss, or wants to take the dinner-bell and go round as public crier an answer that ought to flatten her as if a traction engine had bin over her. ’My lass, who began it? Bring out your slate and put it alongside mine, an’ we’ll see which looks dirtiest, all said and done.’” While he was thinking in this manner, his face became very ugly, with hard deep lines in it, and about the mouth that cruel pouting expression once seen by Mavis.

He came back to the tree; and sat down, letting his hands hang loose, his head droop, and his shoulders contract. The fire had gone cold again.

Now he felt only disgust and horror. Norah’s ignorance and disregard of moral precepts, or readiness to yield to the snares of unlicensed joy, were summed up in the better and truer word innocence. The greater her weakness, the greater his wickedness. If he could not save her from others, he could save her from himself. Then if she fell, it would at least be a natural fall. It would not be a foul betrayal of youth by age; it would not be the sort of degraded crime that makes angels weep, and ordinary people change into judges and executioners.

When a man has reached a certain time of life he must not crave for forbidden delights, he must not permit himself to be eaten up with new desire, he must not risk destroying a girl’s soul for the gratification of his own body. If he does, he commits the unpardonable sin. And there is no excuse for him.

The Devil’s reasonings to which a few minutes ago he had listened greedily were specious, futile, utterly false. That sort of argument might do for other men might do for every other man in the wide world but it would not do for him, William Dale. Its acceptance would knock the very ground from under his feet.

For, if there could be any excuse, why had he killed Everard Barradine?