THE DEVIL'S GARDEN
W. B. MAXWELL
Author of In Cotton Wool, Mrs. Thompson, Seymour Charlton, etc.
Indianapolis The Bobbs-Merrill Company Publishers
THE DEVIL'S GARDEN
The Devil playeth in a man's mind like a wanton child in a garden, bringing his filth to choke each open path, uprooting the tender plants, and trampling the buds that should have blown for the Master.
The village postmaster stood staring at an official envelope that had just been shaken out of a mailbag upon the sorting-table. It was addressed to himself; and for a few moments his heart beat quicker, with sharp, clean percussions, as if it were trying to imitate the sounds made by the two clerks as they plied their stampers on the blocks. Perhaps this envelope contained his fate.
Soon the stamping was finished; the sorting went on steadily and methodically; before long the letters and parcels were neatly arranged in compartments near the postmen's bags. The first delivery of the day was ready to go forth to the awakening world.
"All through, Mr. Dale."
The postmaster struck a bell, and glanced at the clock. Five fifty-six. Up to time, as usual.
"Now then, my lads, off with you."
The postmen had come into the sorting-room, and were packing their bags and slinging their parcels.
"Sharp's the word."
Picking up his unopened letter, the postmaster went through the public office, stood on the outer threshold, and looked up and down the street.
To his left the ground sloped downward through a narrowing perspective of house-fronts and roof cornices to faint white mist, in which one could see some cattle moving vaguely, and beyond which, if one knew that it was there, one might just discern a wide space of common land stretching away boldly until the dark barrier of woods stopped it short. To his right the ground lay level, with the road enlarging itself to a dusty bay in front of the Roebuck Inn, turning by the churchyard wall, forking between two gardened houses of gentlefolk, and losing itself suddenly in the same white mist that closed the other vista. Over the veiling whiteness, over the red roofs, and high above the church tower, the sky of a glorious July morning rose unstained to measureless arches of blue.
As always in this early hour of the day, the postmaster thought of his own importance. The village seemed still half asleep—blinds down wherever he looked—lazy, money-greedy tradesmen not yet alive to their selfish enterprises—only the poor laborers of the soil already at work; and nevertheless here was he, William Dale, up and about, carrying on the continuous business of the state.
But how long would he be permitted to feel like this? Could it be possible that the end of his importance was near at hand?
On Her Majesty's Service! He opened the envelope, unfolded the folio sheet of paper that it contained, began to read—and immediately all the blood in his body seemed to rush to his head.
"I am to inform you that you are temporarily suspended." And in the pompous language of headquarters he was further informed that the person appointed to take over control would arrive at Rodchurch Road Station by the eleven o'clock train; that he himself was to come to London on the morrow, and immediately call at the G.P.O.; where, on the afternoon of that day or the morning of a subsequent day, he would be given an opportunity of stating his case in person, "agreeable to his request."
Why had they suspended him? Surely it would have been more usual if they had allowed him to leave the office in charge of his chief clerk, or if they had given charge of it to a competent person from Rodhaven, and not sent a traveler from London? The traveling inspector is the bird of evil presage: he hovers over the houses of doomed men.
William Dale ran his hand round the collarless neck of his shirt, and felt the perspiration that had suddenly moistened his skin.
He was a big man of thirty-five; a type of the strong-limbed, quick-witted peasant, who is by nature active as a squirrel and industrious as a beaver; and who, if once fired with ambition, soon learns to direct all his energies to a chosen end, and infallibly wins his way from the cart-tracks and the muck-wagons to office stools and black coats. Not yet dressed for the day, in his loose serge jacket and unbraced trousers, he looked what was termed locally "a rum customer if you had to tackle un." His dark hair bristled stiffly, his short mustache wanted a lot of combing, a russet stubble covered chin and neck; but the broad forehead and blue eyes gave a suggestion of power and intelligence to an aspect that might otherwise have seemed simply forbidding.
"Good marnin', sir."
One of the helpers at the Roebuck stables had come slouching past.
"Good mornin', Samuel."
It was still music to the ears of the postmaster when people addressed him as "Sir." Especially if, like that fellow, they had known him as a boy. But he thought now that perhaps many who spoke to him thus deferentially in truth desired his downfall.
Quite possible. One never knows. He himself wished them well, in his heart was fond of them all, and craved their regard; although he was too proud to be always seeking it, or even going half-way to meet it.
And he thought, tolerantly, that you can not have everything in this world. Your successful man is rarely a popular man. He had had the success in full measure—if it pleased them, let the envious ones go on envying him his elevated station, his domestic comfort, and his pretty wife.
As he thought of his wife all his reflections grew tender. She was probably still fast asleep; and when, presently, he went up-stairs to the private part of the house, he was careful not to disturb her.
His official clothes lay waiting for him on a chair in the kitchen. They had been brushed and folded by Mary, the servant, who sprang to attention at the appearance of her master, brought him shaving-water, arranged the square of looking-glass conveniently, assisted with the white collar and black tie, and generally proved herself an efficient valet.
She ventured to ask a question when Mr. Dale was about to leave the kitchen.
"Any news, sir?"
"News!" Mr. Dale echoed the word sternly. "What news should there be—anyway, what news that concerns you?
"I beg pardon, sir." Buxom, red-cheeked Mary lowered her eyes, and by voice and attitude expressed the confusion proper to a subordinate who has taken a liberty in addressing a superior. "I'm sorry, sir. But I on'y ast."
"All right," said Dale, less sternly. "You just attend to your own job, my girl."
He went down into the office, and did not come up again until an hour and a half later, when breakfast was ready and waiting. He stood near the window for a few moments, meditatively looking about him. The sunlight made the metal cover of the hot dish shine like beautifully polished silver; it flashed on the rims of white teacups, and, playing some prismatic trick with the glass sugar basin, sent a stream of rainbow tints across the two rolls and the two boiled eggs. An appetizing meal—and as comfortable, yes, as luxurious a room as any one could ask for. Through the open door and across the landing, he had a peep into the other room. In that room there were books, a piano, a sofa, hand-painted pictures in gold frames—the things that you expect to see only in the homes of gentlemen.
"Sorry I'm late, Will."
"Don't mention it, Mavis."
Mrs. Dale had come through the doorway, and his whole face brightened, softened, grew more comely. Yes, he thought, a home fit for a gentleman, and a wife fit for a king.
"They've told me to go up and see them to-morrow;" and he moved to the table. "Come on. I'm sharp-set."
"Did they write in a satisfactory way?"
"Oh, yes. Sit down, my dear, and give me my tea."
He had said that he felt hungry, but he ate without appetite. The roll was crisp and warm, the bacon had been cooked to a turn, the tea was neither too strong nor too weak; and yet nothing tasted quite right.
"Will," said his wife, toward the end of the meal, "I can see you aren't really satisfied with their answer. Do tell me;" and she stretched her hand across the table with a gesture that expressed prettily enough both appeal and sympathy.
She was a naturally graceful woman, tall and slim, with reddish brown hair, dark eyebrows, and a white skin; and she carried her thirty-two years so easily that, though the searching sunlight bore full upon her, she looked almost a young girl.
Dale took her hand, squeezed it, and then, with an affectation of carelessness, laughed jovially. "They've appointed a deputy to take charge here during my absence."
"Oh, Will!" Mrs. Dale's dark eyebrows rose, and her brown eyes grew round and big; in a moment all the faint glow of color had left her pale cheeks, and her intonation expressed alarm and regret.
"It riled me a bit at first," said Dale firmly. "However, it's no consequence—really."
"But, Will, that means—" She hesitated, and her lips trembled before she uttered the dreadful word—"That means—suspended!"
"Yes—pro tem. Don't fret yourself, Mav. I tell you it's all right."
"But, Will, this does change the look of things. This is serious—now." And once more she hesitated. "Will, let me write again to Mr. Barradine."
"No," said Dale, with great determination.
"May I get Auntie to write to him? She said she knows for sure he'd help us."
"Well, he said so himself, didn't he?"
"Yes. Anything in his power!"
Dale reflected for a moment, and when he spoke again his tone was less firm.
"In his power! Of course Mr. Barradine is a powerful gentleman. That stands to reason; but all the same—Let's have a look at his letter."
"I haven't got his letter, Will."
"Haven't got his letter? What did you do with it?
"I tore it up."
"Tore it up!" Dale stared at his wife in surprise, and spoke rather irritably. "What did you do that for?"
"You seemed angry at my taking on myself to write to him without permission—so I didn't wish the letter lying about to remind you of what I'd done."
"You acted foolish in destroying document'ry evidence," said Dale, sternly and warmly. But then immediately he stifled his irritation. "Don't you see, lassie, I'd 'a' liked to know the precise way he worded it. I'm practised to all the turns of the best sort o' correspondence, and I'd 'a' known in a twinkling whether he meant anything or nothing."
"He said he'd be glad to do what was in his power. Really he said no more."
"Very good. We'll leave it at that. He has done more than enough for us already, and I don't hold with bothering gentlemen in and out of season. Besides, this is a bit in which I don't want his help, nor nobody else's. This is between me and them."
He pushed away his uneaten food, stood up, and squared his big shoulders.
"Yes, but, Will dear—you, you won't be hasty when you get before them."
Dale frowned, then laughed. "Mav, trust your old boy, and don't fret." He came round the table, and laid his hand on his wife's shoulder. "My sweetheart, I'm sorry, for your sake, that this little upset should have occurred. But don't you fret. I'm coming out on top. Maybe, this is like touch-and-go. I don't say it isn't. But I know my vaarlue—and I mean to let them know it, if they don't know it already. Look at my record! Who's goin' to pick a hole in it?"
"There's times when a man's got to show pluck—to stan' to's guns, and assert hisself for what he's worth. And that's what I'm going to do in the General Post Office of all England." As he said this the blood showed redly, and every line of his face deepened and hardened. "You keep a stout heart. This isn't going to shake William Dale off of his perch."
"No?" And she looked up at him with widely-opened eyes.
"No." He gave her shoulder a final pat, and laughed noisily. "No, it'll set me firmer on the road to promotion than what I've ever been. When I get back here again, I shall be like the monkey—best part up the palm-tree, and nothing dangerous between him and the nuts."
All that day Dale was busy installing the deputy.
"You find us fairly in order," he said, with a pride that did not pretend to conceal itself. "Nothing you wouldn't call shipshape?"
"Apple-pie order," said Mr. Ridgett. "Absolutely O.K."
Mr. Ridgett was a small sandy man of fifty, who obviously wished to make himself as agreeable as might be possible in rather difficult circumstances. During the afternoon he listened with an air of interested attention while Dale told him at considerable length the series of events that had led up to this crisis.
"For your proper understanding," said the postmaster, "I'll ask you once more to cast your eye over the position of the instruments;" and he marched Mr. Ridgett from the sorting-room to the public office, and showed him the gross error that had been committed in placing the whole telegraphic apparatus right at the front, close to the window, merely screened from the public eye and the public ear by glass partition-work, instead of placing it all at the back, out of everybody's way. "I told them it was wrong from the first—when they were refitting the office, at the time of the extensions. My experience at Portsmouth had taught me the danger."
It seemed that one evening, about three weeks ago, a certain soldier on leave had been lounging against the counter, close to the glass screen. On the other side of the screen the apparatus was clicking merrily while Miss Yorke, the telegraph clerk, despatched a message. And all at once the soldier, who was well versed in the code, began to recite the message aloud. The postmaster peremptorily ordered him to stand away from the counter. An altercation ensued, and the soldier became so impudent that the postmaster threatened to put him outside the door. "Oh," said the soldier, "it'd take a many such as you to put me out."
"Did he say so? Really now!" And Mr. Ridgett looked at Dale critically. "I take it he was a heavyweight, eh?"
"He gave me my work," said Dale; "and I was all three minutes at it. But out he went."
"Really now!" and Mr. Ridgett smiled.
"I had stopped Miss Yorke from operating. And I started her again within four minutes. That was the time, and no more, the message was delayed. That was the time it took me to renew the service with the confidence and secrecy provided by Her Majesty's Regulations. And I ask you, how else could I have acted? Was I to allow a telegram consigned to my care to be blabbed out word for word to all the world?"
"Were there many people in the office just then?"
"Two. But that makes no difference. If it had been only one—or half a one—it couldn't be permitted."
"And was the message itself of a particularly private or important nature?"
"Not as it happens. But the principle was the same."
As it appeared from Dale's narration, the soldier was at first willing to accept his licking in a sportsmanlike spirit, was indeed quite ready to admit that he had been the offending party; but injudicious friends—secret enemies of Dale perhaps—had egged him on to take out a summons for assault. When, however, Dale appeared before the magistrates, the soldier had changed his mind again—he did not appear, he allowed the charge to fall to the ground. And there the matter might have ended, ought to have ended, but for the fact that the local Member of Parliament suddenly made a ridiculous fuss—said it was a monstrous and intolerable state of affairs that soldiers of the Queen should be knocked about by her civil servants—wrote letters to other Members of Parliament, to Government secretaries, to newspapers. Then the excitement that had been smoldering burst forth with explosive force, shaking the village, the county, the universe.
Dale, at handy grips with his superior officers, stood firm, declined to budge an inch from his position; he was right, and nothing would ever make him say he was wrong.
"Ah, well," said Mr. Ridgett, "if that's the way you looked at it. But I don't quite follow how it got lifted out of their hands at Rodhaven, and brought before us."
"I demanded it," said Dale proudly. "I wasn't going to be messed about any further by a pack of funking old women—for that's what they are, at Rodhaven. And I wasn't going to have it hushed over—nor write any such letter as they asked."
"Oh, they suggested—"
"They suggested," said Dale, swelling with indignation, "that I should write regret that I had perhaps acted indiscreet but only through over-zeal."
"Oh! And you didn't see your way to—"
"Not me. Take a black mark, and let my record go. No, thank you. I sent up my formal request to be heard at headquarters. I appealed to Caesar."
Mr. Ridgett smiled good-naturedly. "Why, you're quite a classical scholar, Mr. Dale. You have your Latin quotations all pat."
"I'm a self-educated man," said Dale. "I begun at the bottom, and I've been trying to improve myself all the way to where I've risen to."
Once or twice he sought tentatively to obtain from Mr. Ridgett the moral support that even the strongest people derive from being assured that they are entirely in the right. But Mr. Ridgett, who had been sympathetic from the moment of his arrival, and who throughout the hours had been becoming more and more friendly, did not entirely respond to these hinted invitations.
"If you tell me to speak frankly," he said at last, "I should have a doubt that you've made this one false step. You haven't kept everything in proportion."
"How do you mean?"
"Well, I mean it strikes me—quite unbiased, you know—that you've let Number One overshadow the situation. You've drawn it all too personal to yourself."
"I don't see that," said Dale, forcibly, almost hotly. "It's the principle I stand for—pretty near as much as for myself."
"Ah, yes, just so," said Mr. Ridgett. "And now I'm going to ask you to help me find a bedroom somewhere handy, and put me up to knowing where I'd best get my meals;" and he laughed cheerfully. "Don't think I'm establishing myself—but one may as well be comfortable, if one can. And I do give you this tip. You're in for what we used to call the devil's dance up there. Caesar is a slow mover. I mean, it won't be 'Step this way, Mr. Dale. Walk in this minute.' They'll keep you on the dance. I should take all you're likely to want for a week—at the least."
Dale made arrangements for the future comfort of the visitor, and hospitably insisted that he should take his first substantial meal up-stairs.
"It's served at seven sharp," said Dale; "and we make it a meat tea; but you aren't restricted to non-alcolic bev'rages."
"Oh, tea is more than good enough for me, thank you."
"Mavis," said Dale, introducing his guest, "this is Mr. Ridgett, who is so kind as to honor us without ceremony." And, as if to demonstrate the absence of ceremony, he put his arm round his wife's waist and kissed her.
Mr. Ridgett smiled, and opened conversation in a very pleasant easy fashion.
"From the look of things," he said facetiously, "I hazard the guess that you two aren't long home from the honeymoon."
"You're off the line there," said Dale. "We're quite an old Darby and Joan."
"Really!" And Mr. Ridgett's smile, as he regarded Mrs. Dale, expressed admiration and surprise. "Appearances are deceitful. And how long may you have been running in double harness?"
"Eleven years," said Dale.
"Never! Any children?"
"No," said Mrs. Dale.
"No," said her husband. "We haven't been blessed that way—not as yet."
"I note the addition. Not as yet! Very neatly put." Mr. Ridgett laughed, and bowed gallantly to Mrs. Dale. "Plenty of time for any amount of blessings."
Then they all sat down to the table.
During the course of the meal, and again when it was over, they spoke of the business that lay before Dale on the morrow.
"I've ventured to tell your husband that perhaps he has been taking it all too seriously."
"Oh, has he? I'm so glad to hear you say it." And Mavis Dale, with her elbows on the table, leaned forward and watched the deputy's face intently.
"Too much of the personal equation."
"What I say is, little accidents happen to all of us—but they blow over."
Mavis Dale drew in her breath, and her eyebrows contracted. "Mr. Ridgett! The way you say that, shows you really think it's serious for him."
"Oh, I don't in the least read it up as ruin and all the rest of it. It's just a check. In Mr. Dale's place, I should be philosophical. I should say, 'This is going to put me back a bit, but nothing else.'"
Dale shrugged his shoulders and snorted. Mrs. Dale's eyebrows had drawn so close together that they almost touched; her eyes appeared darker, smaller, more opaque. Mr. Ridgett continued talking in a tone of light facetiousness that seemed to cover a certain deprecating earnestness.
"Yes, that would be my point of view—quite general, philosophical. I should say to myself, 'Old chap, if you're in for a jolly good wigging, why, just take it. If you're to be offered a little humble pie to eat—well, eat it.'"
"I won't," cried Dale, loudly; and he struck the table with his clenched fist. "I'm not goin' to crawl on my belly any more. I've done it in my time, when perhaps I felt myself wrong. But I won't do it now when I'm right—no, so help me, God, I won't."
It was as if all restraints had been burst by the notion of such injustice.
"Ah, well," said Ridgett, looking uncomfortable, "then I must withdraw the suggestion."
Mavis Dale was trembling. Her husband's noisy outburst seemed to have shaken her nerves; the downward lines formed themselves at the corners of her mouth; and her eyelids fluttered as if she were on the verge of tears. "Will," she murmured, "you—you ought to listen, if it's good advice. Mr. Ridgett knows the ropes—he, he has experience—and he means you well."
"Indeed I do," said Ridgett cordially.
"And I thank you for it, sir," said Dale. "And now—" He mastered his emotions and was calm and polite again, as became a host. "Now, what about two or three whiffs?"
"If madam permits."
"Mav don't mind. She's smoke-dried."
All three remained sitting at the table. The two men smoked their pipes reflectively, and spoke only at intervals, while Mavis sank into the motionless silence of a deep reverie. The golden sunlight came no more into the room; bright colors of oleograph pictures, hearth-rug, and window-curtains imperceptibly faded; the whole world seemed to be growing quiet and cool and gray. The sounds of voices and the rumble of passing wheels rose so drowsily from the street that they did not disturb one's sense of peace.
All at once Mavis roused herself, or rather, seemed to be roused involuntarily by some inward sensation—perhaps an ugly and unexpected turn that her thoughts had suddenly taken. She gave a little shiver, looked across the table at the visitor as if surprised at his presence, and then began to talk to him volubly.
"Do you know this part of the world? It's a pretty country—especially the forest side. Lots of artists and photographers come here on purpose to take the views."
For a little while she and Mr. Ridgett chatted gaily together; and Dale observed, not without satisfaction, that the deputy patently admired Mavis. "Yes," he thought, "it must be an eye-opener for him or anybody else to come up those stairs and find a postmaster's wife with all the education and manners of a lady, and as pretty as a bunch of primroses into the bargain."
And indeed little Mr. Ridgett was fully susceptible to Mavis' varied charms. He liked her complexion—so unusually white; he liked her hair—such a lot of it; he liked the mobility of her lips, the fineness and straightness of her nose; and he also greatly liked the broad black ribbon that was tied round her slender neck. The simple decoration seemed curiously in harmony with something childlike pertaining to its wearer. He did not attempt to analyze this characteristic, but he felt it plainly—something that drew its components from voice, expression, gesture, and that as a whole carried to one a message of extreme youth.
And how fond of her husband! The anxiety for his welfare that she had shown just now quite touched a soft spot in Mr. Ridgett's dryly official heart.
"You know," said Dale, interrupting the conversation, and speaking as though the subject that occupied his own mind was still under debate, "they can't pretend but what I warned them. I said it's madness to go and put the instruments anywhere but the place I've marked on the plan. If they'd listened to my words then—"
"Ah, there you are again," said Mr. Ridgett. "The personal equation!"
"Where's the personality of it?"
"I'll tell you. London isn't Rodchurch. What you said—how many years ago?—isn't going to govern the judgment of people who never heard you say it."
"It ought to have gone on record. It is on record over at Rodhaven."
"London isn't Rodhaven either."
Then once again the talk became serious; and once again Ridgett saw in Mrs. Dale's white face, trembling fingers, and narrowed eyes, the deadly anxiety that she was suffering. With that face opposite to one, it would have been monstrously cruel not to offer the wisest and best considered advice that one could anyhow produce.
"Here's verb. sap," he said solemnly. "Ultimatum, and ne plus ultra. I'm giving you Latin for Latin, Mr. Dale. I understand your attitude, and I appreciate its bearing; but I say to you, the best causes sometimes need the best advocates."
"Yes!" Mavis drew in her breath with a little gasp.
"If any of the gentry down here would speak up for you, send you a few testimonials—well, I should get them to do it. You see, from what you tell me of the case, you've your Member of Parliament against you. It would be useful to counteract—"
Then Mavis eagerly explained that the biggest man of the neighborhood had promised to give his support to her husband. This great personage was the Right Honorable Everard Barradine, an ex-Cabinet Minister and a large landed proprietor, who lived over at the Abbey House, on the edge of Manninglea Chase, five miles away. Mr. Barradine had always borne a good heart to her and hers.
"Capital!" said Mr. Ridgett, visibly brightening. "A friend at court—what's the proverb? It's not for me to let fall any remarks about wire-pulling. But naturally there's a freemasonry among the bigwigs. You take my tip, and use Mr. Barradine's interest for all it's worth."
"Well," said Dale, "he has given a promise—of a sort—and I shan't bother him further."
After that the talk became light again. As if the strain of her anxiety was more than Mavis Dale could bear for long at a time, she plunged into frivolous discussion, telling Mr. Ridgett of the splendors and beauties of the Abbey House. It was a show-place. Its gardens surpassed belief; royal persons came hundreds of miles to look at them. And the wild historic woodland of Manninglea Chase was famous, it was said, all over Europe. Talking thus, she seemed as gay and careless as a child of ten.
Mr. Ridgett, puffing his pipe luxuriously, contemplated her animated face with undisguised admiration; and presently Dale felt irritated by the admiring scrutiny.
That was what always happened. At first he felt pleased that people should admire his wife; but if they seemed to admire her the least little shade too much, he became angry. In the lanes, in church, anywhere, he froze too attentive glances of admiring males with a most portentous scowl. It was not that he entertained the faintest doubt of her loyalty and devotion, or of her power to protect herself from improper assiduities; but he loved her so passionately that his blood began to boil at the mere thought of anybody's having the audacity to court her favor. Instinctively, on such occasions, words formed themselves in his mind and clamored for utterance on his lips. "You take care, my fine fellow;" "Hands off, please;" "Let me catch you trying it"—and so on: only thought-counters secretly used by himself, and never issued in the currency of spoken words.
Now the internal warmth was just sufficient to make him push back his chair and break up the party. "Mavis," he said, rather grimly, "we mustn't detain Mr. Ridgett from his duties." Then he forced a laugh. "I'm nobody; and so it doesn't matter how long I sit over my supper. But we've to remember that Mr. Ridgett is the postmaster of Rodchurch."
He went to bed early; but he knew that he would not sleep until the mail-cart had gone.
His wife was sleeping peacefully. He could feel the warmth of her body close against him; her breath, drawn so lightly and regularly, just touched his face; and he edged away cautiously, seeking space in which to turn without disturbing her. At immeasurably long periods the church clock chimed the quarters. That last chime must have been the quarter after eleven.
Every now and then there came a sound that told him of the things that were happening on the ground floor; and in the intervals of silence he began to suffer from an oppressive sense of unreality. This disruption of the routine of life was so strange as to seem incredible. They were making up the two big bags for the up mail and the down mail; and he was lying here like a state prisoner, of no account for the time being, while below him his realm remained actively working.
As midnight approached, an increasing anxiety possessed him. The horse and cart had been standing under the window for what appeared to be hours, and yet they would not bring out the bags. What in the name of reason were they waiting for now? Then at last he detected the movement of shuffling footsteps; he heard voices—Ridgett's voice among the others; a wheel grated against the curbstone, and the cart rolled away. The sounds of the church clock chiming twelve mingled with the reverberations made by the horse's hoofs as the cart passed between the garden walls. Thank goodness, anyhow, they had got it off to its time.
With a sigh, he turned on his back and stared at the darkness that hid the ceiling. Ah! A profuse perspiration had broken out on his neck and chest. To give himself more air he pulled down the too generous supply of bed clothes, and in imagination he followed the cart.
It was progressing slowly and steadily along the five miles of road to the railway junction. Would Perkins, the driver, break the regulations to-night and pick up somebody for a ride with the sacred bags? Such a gross breach of duty would render Perkins, or his employer, liable to a heavy penalty; and again and again Dale had reminded him of the risks attending misbehavior. But unwatched men grow bold. This would be a night to bring temptation in the way of Perkins. Some villager—workman, field-laborer, wood-cutter—tramping the road would perhaps ask for a lift. "What cheer, mate! I'm for the night-mail. Give us a lift's far as junction, and I'll stan' the price of a pint to you."
A glance up and down the empty road—and then "Jump in. Wunnerful weather we're having, aren't us?" So much for the wise regulation! Most wise regulation, if one understand it properly. For when once you begin tampering with the inviolable nature of a mail-cart, where are you to stop? Suppose your chance passenger proves to be not an honest subject, but a malefactor—one of a gang. "Take that, ye swab." A clump on the side of his head, and the driver is sent endways from the box-seat; the cart gallops on to where the, rest of the gang lurk waiting for it; strong arms, long legs, and the monstrous deed is consummated. Her Majesty's bags have been stolen.
Though so dark in this bedroom, there would be light enough out there. There was no moon; but the summer night, as he knew, would never deepen to real obscurity. It would keep all of a piece till dawn, like a sort of gray dusk, heavy and impenetrable beneath the trees, but quite transparent on the heath and in the glades; and then it would become all silvery and trembling; the wet bracken would glisten faintly, high branches of beech trees would glow startlingly, each needle on top of the lofty firs would change to a tiny sword of fire—just as he had seen happen so often years ago, when as an undisciplined lad he lay out in the woods for his pleasure.
Now! The church clock had struck one. Barring accidents, the cart was at its goal; and in imagination he saw the junction as clearly as if he had been standing at Perkins' elbow. There was the train for London already arrived—steam rising in a straight jet from the engine, guard and porter with lanterns, and a flood of orange light streaming from the open doors of the noble Post Office coach. Perkins hands in his up bag, receives a bag in exchange, and half his task is done. Forty minutes to wait before he can perform the other half of it. Then, having passed over the metals with the cart, he will attend to the down train; hand in his other bag, receive the London bag; and, as soon as the people in the signal-box will release the crossing-gates, he may come home.
Dale knew now that he would not sleep until the cart returned.
When the church clock struck the half-hour after two, he lay straining his ears to catch the sound of the horse's hoofs. Finally it came to him, immensely remote, a rhythmic plod, plod, plod. Then in a few more minutes the cart was at rest under his window again; they were taking in the bags; bolts shot into their fastenings, a key turned in a lock, and the clerk went back to bed at the top of the house. All was over now. Nothing more would happen until the other clerk came down in a couple of hours' time, until the bags were opened, until Ridgett came yawning from his hired bedroom at the saddler's across the street, and the new day's work began. And Dale would be shut out of the work—a director who might not even assist, a master superseded, a general under arrest in the midst of his army.
He gulped and grew hot. "By Jupiter! I'll have to tell them what I think of them up there, and please the pigs!"
Then he remembered the pleadings of his wife. She had implored him to keep a tight hold of himself; and in fairness to her he must exercise discretion. She and he were one. With extraordinary tenderness he mentally framed the words that by custom he employed when speaking of her. "She is the wife of my boosum."
For a little while he calmed himself by thinking only of her. Then, tossing and turning and perspiring again, he began to think of his whole life, seeing it as a pageant full of wonder and pathos. Holy Jupiter! how hard it had been at its opening! Everything against him—just a lout among the woodside louts, an orphan baited and lathered by a boozy stepfather, a tortured animal that ran into the thickets for safety, a thing with scarce a value or promise inside it except the little flame of courage that blows could not extinguish! And yet out of this raw material he had built up the potent, complex, highly-dowered organism known to the world as Mr. Dale of Rodchurch. There was the pride and glory—from such a start to have reached so magnificent a position. But he could not have done it—not all of it—without Mavis.
It would be unkind to wake this dear bedfellow merely because he himself could not sleep. He clasped his hands behind his head, and by a prolonged effort of will remained motionless. But insomnia was exciting every nerve in his body; each memory seemed to light up the entire labyrinth of his brain; each sense-message came inward like a bomb-shell, reaching with its explosion the highest as well as the deepest centers, discharging circuits of swift fire through every area of associated ideas, and so completely shattering the normal congruity between impressions and recognitions that the slight drag of the sheet across his raised toes was sufficient to make him feel again the pressure of thick boots that he had worn years ago when he tramped as new postman on the Manninglea Road.
And each thing that he thought of he saw—hawthorn blossom like snow on the hedgerows, red rhododendrons as vivid as Chinese lanterns in the gloom of the dark copse, the green moss of the rides, the white paint of the gates. The farthest point of his round was Mr. Barradine's mansion, and he used to arrive there just before eight o'clock. With the thought came the luminous pictures, and he saw again, as clearly as fifteen years ago, the splendor of the Abbey House—that is, all one can see of it as one approaches its vast servants' offices. Here, solidly real, were the archway, the first and the second courtyard, grouped gables and irregular roof ridges, the belfry tower and its gilded vane; men washing a carriage, a horse drinking at the fountain trough, a dog lying on a sunlit patch of cobble-stones and lazily snapping at flies; a glimpse, through iron scroll work, of terrace balustrades, yellow gravel, and lemon-trees in tubs; the oak doors of laundries, drying-rooms, and so forth.
It was here, outside the laundry, that he saw Mavis for the first time; and although the sleeves of her print dress were rolled up and she was carrying a metal skimming dish, something ineffably refined and superior in her deportment led him to believe that she was some lesser member of the august Barradine family, and not one of its hired dependents. He touched his peaked cap, and did not even venture to say "Good morning, miss."
Then he found out about her. She was not quite so grand as all that. You might say she was a young lady right enough, if you merely counted manners and education; but she had been born far below the level of gentility. She belonged to the Petherick lot; and, living with her aunt at North Ride Cottage, she came every day to the Abbey to do some light and delicate work in Mr. Barradine's model dairy. The fact that she had lost both her parents interested and pleased Dale: orphanhood seemed to contain the embryonic germs of a mutual sympathy.
He used to speak to her now whenever he saw her. One day they stood talking in the copse, and he showed her their distorted reflections on the curves of her shining cream-dish. She laughed; and that day he was late on his round.
Then somehow he got to a heavy sort of chaff about the letters. She said she liked receiving letters, and she never received enough of them. He used to say, "Good morning, miss. My mate started off with a tremendous heavy bag to-day. I expect the most of it was for you. You'll find 'em when you get home this evening—shoals of 'em."
Walking fast on his round he rehearsed such little speeches, and if she made an unanticipated answer he was baffled and confused. He suffered from an extreme shyness when face to face with her.
Then all at once his overwhelming admiration gave him a hot flow of language. Beginning the old cumbrous facetiousness about her correspondence, he blurted out the true thoughts that he had begun to entertain.
"You didn't ought to want for letters, miss, and you wouldn't—not if I was your letter-writer. I'd send you a valentine every day of the year."
As he spoke, he looked at her with burning eyes. He was astonished, almost terrified by his hardiness; and what he detected of its effect on her threw him into an indescribable state of emotion.
Rough and coarse he might be, and yet not truly disagreeable to her fine senses; his freckled face and massive shoulders did not repel her; no instinct of the lovely princess turned sick at these advances of the wild man of the woods. Under his scrutiny she showed a sort of fluttered helplessness, a mingling of beauty and weakness that sent fiery messages thrilling through and through him, a pale tremor, a soft glow, a troubled but not offended frown; and from beneath all these surface manifestations the undeveloped woman in her seemed to speak to the matured manhood in him—seemed to say without words, "Oh, dear me, what is this? I hope you haven't taken a real fancy to my whiteness and slenderness and tremulousness; because if you have, you are so big and so strong that I know you'll get me in the end."
That was the crucial moment of his marvelous life. After that all his dreams fused and became one. He felt as if from soft metal he had changed into hard metal. And, moreover, the stimulus of love seemed to induce a vast intellectual growth; things that had been difficult of comprehension became lucidly clear; prejudices and ignorances fell away from him of their own accord. A shut world had suddenly become an open world.
As a grown man he returned to the benches of evening school. He learned to write his beautiful copper-plate hand, and knocked the bottom out of arithmetic and geography. Then came sheer erudition—the nature of chemical elements, stars in their courses, kings of England with their Magna Chartas and habeas corpuses. Nor content even then, he must needs grapple with Roman emperors and Greek republics, and master the fabled lore concerning gods and goddesses, cloven-footed satyrs, and naked nymphs of the grove. But he understood that, in spite of all this culture, in spite, too, of his greater care for costume and his increased employment of soap and water, Mavis was still enormously above him. The aunt, a smooth-tongued little woman whom for a long time he regarded as implacably hostile to his suit, made him measure the height of the dividing space every time that he called at North Ride Cottage. Plainly trying to crush him with the respectability both of herself and of her surroundings, she showed off all the presents from the Abbey—the china and glass ornaments, the piano; the photographs of Mr. Barradine on horseback, of the late Lady Evelyn Barradine in her pony-carriage, of Mr. Barradine's guests with guns waiting to shoot pheasants. And she conducted him into and out of the two choicely upholstered rooms which on certain occasions Mr. Barradine deigned to occupy for a night or a couple of nights—for instance, when the Abbey House was being painted and he fled the smell of paint, when the Abbey House was closed and he came down from London to see his agent on business, when he wanted to make an early start at the cub-hunting and he couldn't trust the servants of the Abbey House to rouse him if he slept there.
"Last time of all," and Mrs. Petherick rubbed her hands together and smiled insinuatingly, "he paid me the pretty compliment of saying that I made him more comfortable than he ever is in his own house. I said, 'If we can't let you feel at home here, it's something new among the Pethericks.'"
It seemed that the bond between the humble family and the great one had existed for several generations. It was a tradition that the Pethericks should serve the Barradines. Mavis' grandfather had been second coachman at the Abbey; her aunt's husband had been valet to Mr. Everard and made the grand tour of Europe with him; aunt herself was of the Petherick blood, and had been a housemaid at the Abbey. It also seemed to be a tradition that the acknowledgment made by the Barradines for this fidelity of the Pethericks should be boundless in its extent.
Aunt spoke of the Right Honorable Everard as though she held him like a purse in her pocket, and Dale at one period had some queer thoughts about this old widow of a dead servant for whom so much had been done and who yet expected so much more. She said Mr. Barradine had charged himself with the musical training of another niece, and he would probably not hesitate to send Mavis to Vienna for the best masters, should she presently display any natural talent. Her cousin Ruby sang like an angel from the age of ten; but Mavis so far exhibited more inclination for instrumental music.
"She'll belie her name, though, if she doesn't pipe up some day, won't she?"
When Dale secured his appointment at Portsmouth, he and Mavis were not engaged. She said, "Auntie simply won't hear of it."
"Not now," he said. "But later, when I've made my way, she'll come round. Mav, will you wait for me?
"Oh, I don't know," said Mavis. "I can't give any promise. I must do whatever Auntie tells me. I can't go against her wishes."
Yet somehow he felt sure that she would be his. A thousand slimy, humbugging old aunts should not keep them apart. From Portsmouth he wrote a letter to his sweetheart on every day of the year for three years—except on those days of joyous leave when he could get away and talk to her instead of writing to her. At the end of the three years the postmastership at Rodchurch became vacant, and he boldly applied for the place.
His life just then was almost too glorious to be true. All difficulties and dangers seemed to melt away in a sort of warm haze of rapture. Mrs. Petherick no longer opposed the marriage; Mr. Barradine, at the zenith of political power, exerted his influence; the postmastership was obtained. To top up, Dale made the not unpleasing discovery that Mavis was an heiress as well as an orphan. She had two hundred pounds of her very own, "which came in uncommon handy for the furnishing."
And his education did not cease with wedlock. Mavis was always improving him, especially in regard to diction. He was pleased to think that he made very few slips nowadays—an "h" elided here and there; the vowels still rather broad, more particularly the Hampshire "a"; and one or two unchanged words, such as "boosum." But these microscopic faults were of no consequence, and Mav had stopped teasing him about them. She only warned him of what he knew was Gospel truth—that the little failures were more frequent under hurry or excitement, and that when deeply moved he had a tendency to lapse badly toward the ancient peasant lingo.
Nothing to worry about, however. It merely indicated that he must never speak on important matters without due preparation. He would be all right up there, knowing to a syllable what he wished to say; and he thought with swelling pride of comparatively recent public speeches and the praise that he had received from them. After the Parish meeting last January the Rodhaven District Courier had said, "With a few happy remarks Mr. Dale adverted again to the fallacy of plunging the village into the expense of a costly fire-engine without first ascertaining the reliability of the water supply." His very words, almost verbatim "Happy remarks!" A magistrate on the bench could not have been better reported or more handsomely praised.
The reviewing of these manifold bounties of Providence had produced a sedative effect; but now he grew restless once more. He felt that twinge of doubt, the pin-prick of illogical fear which during the last eighteen hours had again and again pierced his armor of self-confidence. Suppose things went against him! No, that would be too monstrous; that would mean no justice left in England, the whole fabric of society gone rotten and crumbling to dust.
The spaces between the blinds and window-frames were white instead of gray; the sun had risen; presently the whole room was visible.
Mavis' little face showed pink and warm as a baby's above the bed clothes. And a sudden longing for caresses took possession of her husband. To wake her, fold her in his arms, and then, pacified by the embrace, perhaps obtain a few hours' sound sleep? For some moments his desire was almost irresistible. But it would be selfish thus to break her tranquil repose—poor little tired bird.
He noiselessly slipped from the bed, huddled on some clothes, washed his face in cold water at the kitchen sink, and let himself out of the house. The open air refreshed him almost as much as sleep could have done. He walked nearly five miles and back on the Manninglea Road, and would not even glance at the busy sorting-room when he came in again.
Mavis accompanied him to Rodchurch Road Station, and saw him off by the nine o'clock train. He looked very dignified in his newest bowler hat and black frock-coat, with a light overcoat on one arm and his wife's gloved hand on the other; and as he walked up and down the platform he endeavored to ignore the fact that he was an object of universal attention.
When buying his ticket he had let fall a guarded word or two about the nature of his errand, and from the booking-office the news had flown up and down both sides of the station, round the yard, and even into the signal cabins. "See Mr. Dale?" "Mr. Dale!" "There's Mr. Dale, going to London for an interview with the Postmaster-General."
Mr. Melling, the Baptist minister, took off his hat and bowed gravely; Mrs. Norton, the vicar's wife, smilingly stopped Mavis and spoke as if she had been addressing a social equal; then they received greetings from old Mr. Bates, the corn merchant, and from young Richard Bates, his swaggering good-for-nothing son. And then, as passengers gathered more thickly, it became quite like a public reception. "Ma'arnin', sir." "Good day, Mr. Dale." "I hope I see you well, sir."
Mavis got him away from all this company just before the train came in, and made a last appeal to him. Would he recollect what the deputy had said about eating that ugly dish which is commonly known as humble pie?
But at the mention of Mr. Ridgett's advice Dale displayed a slight flare of irascibility.
"Let Mr. Ridgett mind his own business," he said shortly, "and not bother himself about mine. And look here," he added. "I am not trusting that gentleman any further than I see him."
"I think you're wrong there, Will."
"I know human nature." His face had flushed, and he spoke admonitorily. "I don't need to tell you to be circumspect during my absence—but you may have a little trouble in keeping Mr. R. in his proper place. You'll be quick to twig if he supposes the chance has come to pester you. These London customers—whatever their age—think when they get along with a pretty woman—"
"Oh, Will, don't be absurd;" and she looked at him wistfully, and spoke sadly. "I'm not so attractive as you think me. I may be the same to your eyes—but not to others. It's very doubtful if anybody would want me now—except those who knew me when I was young."
Then after a moment's reflection she said that, if he consented, she proposed to relieve his mind of any silly jealous fancies about Mr. Ridgett by going over to stay with her aunt at North Ride.
"I should be anxious and miserable here, Will, while you were away—whereas with her I could occupy my thoughts."
He immediately consented to the arrangement. An excellent idea. She might go that very afternoon, and safely promise to stay three days. He would write to North Ride and keep her informed as to his movements.
"Good-by, my sweetheart. God bless you."
"Good luck, Will. Good luck, my dear one."
The devil's dance had begun.
They kept him waiting. Days passed; but his hour of crisis postponed itself, and all things combined to enervate him. Above all, the callous immensity of London oppressed his mind. His case, that had been so important down there in the village, was absolutely of no account up here in the city. Not a single sympathizer among these millions of hurrying human beings.
The General Post Office was itself a town within a town—a mighty labyrinth that made the imagination ache. To find one's way through a fractional block of it, to see a thronged corner of any of its yards, to hear even at a distance the stone thunder made by the smallest stampede of its red carts, irresistibly evoked a realization of one's nothingness. Never would he have believed it possible that the local should thus shrink in presence of the central.
He had taken a bedroom on the top floor of a cheap lodging-house near the Euston Road, and every night as he climbed the dimly-lit staircase he knew that he was toiling upward toward a fit of depression. The house was almost empty of lodgers; no one noticed when he went out or came in; at each flight of the stairs his sense of solitude increased.
He had never before lived in a building that contained so many stories, and at first he was troubled by the great height above the ground; but now he could stand at his open window and look down without giddiness. Wonder used to fill his mind as he stared out toward the southeast at the stupendous field of roofs, chimneys, and towers; at the sparkling powder of street-lamps; at the astounding yellow haze that extended across the horizon, illuminating the sky nearly to the zenith, and seemingly like the onset of a terrific conflagration which only he of all the thousands who were threatened had as yet observed. Even this bit of London, the comparatively small part of the overwhelming whole now visible to his eyes, must be as big as Manninglea Chase. And beyond his half circle of vision, behind him, on either hand, the forest of houses stretched away almost to infinity. The thought of it was as crushing as that of interstellar distances, of the pathless void into which God threw a handful of dust and then quietly ordained that each speck should be a sun and the pivot of a solar system.
He turned from the window to look at the dark little room, groped his way to the chest of drawers, and lighted a candle. Its flame sputtered, then settled and burned unwaveringly. Here in London the nights seemed as stuffy as the days; there was no life or freshness, no movement of the air; it was as if the warm breath of the crowd rose upward and nothing less than a balloon would allow one to escape from its taint. But he noticed that even at this slight elevation he had got free from the noise of the traffic. It would continue—a crashing roar—for hours, and yet it was now scarcely perceptible. Listening attentively he heard it—just a crackling murmur, a curious muffled rhythm, as of drums beaten by an army of drummers marching far away.
When he got into bed and blew out his candle, the rectangle of the window became brighter. After a little while he fancied that he could distinguish two or three stars shining very faintly in the patch of sky above the sashes; and again thinking of remoteness, immensity, infinity, he experienced a curious physical sensation of contracting bulk, as though all his body had grown and was steadily growing smaller. Very strong this sensation, and, unless one wrestled with it firmly, translating itself in the mental sphere as a vaguely distressful notion that one was nothing but a tiny insect at war with the entire universe.
Day after day he spent his time in the same manner at the G.P.O.—asking questions of clerks, lounging in stone corridors, sitting on wooden benches, thinking that the hour was coming and finding that it did not come. He was one of a weary regiment of people waiting for interviews. Clerks behind counters of inquiry offices hunted him up in pigeon-holes, looked for him in files and on skewers. "Oh, yes, let's see. You say you're the man from Rodchurch! That's north or midlands, isn't it? You must ask in Room 45.... What say? Down south, is it? Then you're quite right to ask here. No, we haven't heard any more about it since yesterday."
At the end of each fruitless day he emerged from the vast place of postponement feeling exhausted, dazed, stupefied. The sunlight made him blink. He stood holding his hat so as to shade his eyes.
Then after a few minutes, as he plodded along Queen Victoria Street, his confusion passed away, and he observed things with a clear understanding. It was a lovely evening really and truly, and these ponderous omnibuses were all carrying people home because the day's work was done. The streets were clean and bright; and there was plenty of gayness and joy—for them as could grab a share of it. He noticed fine private carriages drawn up round corners, waiting for prosperous tradesmen; young men with tennis-bats in their hands, taking prodigiously long strides, eager to get a game of play before dusk; girls who went by twos and threes, chattering, laughing, making funny short quick steps of it, like as if on the dance to reach sweethearts and green lanes. A man selling a mechanical toy—sort of a tin frog that jumped so soon as you put it down—made him smile indulgently.
Outside the Mansion House Station the traffic stopped dead all of a moment, and directly the wheels ceased rattling one heard the cheerful music of a soldiers' band close upon one. It was the Bank Guard—Coldstreams—marching proudly. The officer in charge seemed very proud; with drawn sword, his broad red back bulging above his sash, and the enormous bearskin narrowing to his shoulders and hiding his neck.
The wheels rolled again; the music, floating, fading, died beneath the horses' feet; and Dale stood gaping at a board over the entrance of the railway station. Places served by this District Company had pleasant-sounding suburban names—such as Kew Gardens, Richmond, Wimbledon. Reading the names, he felt a sick nostalgic yearning for the wind that blows through fir-trees, for the dust that falls on highroads, for the village street and the friendly nod—for home.
He ate some food at an eating-house near Blackfriars, and then wandered aimlessly for hours. The broad river, with its dull brown flood breaking in oily wavelets against the embankment wall, exercised a fascination. He admired the Temple, watched some shadows on a lawn, and wondered if the pigeons by the cab-rank ever went to bed, or if, changing their natural habits to suit their town-life, they had become night birds like the owls. The trains passing to and fro in the iron cage called Hungerford Bridge interested him; and as he approached the Houses of Parliament, he was stirred by memories of his historical reading.
The stately pile had become almost black against the western sky by the time that he drew near to it, and its majestic extent, with the lamplight gleaming from innumerable windows, gave him a quite personal satisfaction. It represented all that was grandest in the tale of his country. The freedom of the subject had been born on this hallowed spot; here had been thrown down those cruel barriers by which the rich and powerful penned and confined the poor and humble as cattle or slaves; by this and because of this, the people's meeting-place, men like himself had been enabled to aspire and to achieve. He was aware of a moisture in his eyes and a lump in his throat while he meditated thus; and then suddenly his eyes grew hot and dry again, and his larynx opened. His thought had taken a rapid turn from the general to the particular. It was a pity that an interfering ass like their member should have the right to come in and out here, record his vote, and spout his nonsense with the best of them.
The metal tongue of Big Ben startled him, a booming voice that might have been that of Time itself, telling the tardy sunlight and the encroaching dusk that it was nine o'clock. Under a lamp-post Dale brought out his silver watch, and carefully set it.
"I suppose they keep Greenwich," he thought, "same as we do;" and an apprehensive doubt presented itself. Would his clerk have the sense to see to it, that the clocks down there were duly wound? Ridgett, of course, could not be expected to know that they were always wound on Thursdays.
St. James' followed Westminster in his tour of inspection, and then, after that amazing street of clubs, he soon found himself in the white glare, the kaleidoscopic movement, and the concentrated excitement of Piccadilly Circus. Then he sauntered through Leicester Square and began to drift northward. The gas torches outside places of entertainment had arrested his slow progress. One of the music-halls in the Square appeared to him as iniquitously gorgeous, and he gazed through the wide entrance at the vestibule hall, and staircase. The whole thing was as fine as one might have expected inside Buckingham Palace or the Mansion House—crimson curtains, marble steps, golden balusters, and flunkeys wearing velvet breeches and silk stockings. It grieved him momentarily to discover that two giant commissionnaires were both foreigners. He heard them address each other with a rapid guttural jabber. "Should 'a' thought there's large-sized men enough in England, if you troubled to look for 'em."
To this point he had amused himself sufficiently; but each night as he turned his face toward the Euston Road, his spirits sank and the same queer mixture of bodily and mental discomfort attacked him. It began with the slightly bitter thought of being "out of it." He looked disapprovingly at pallid and puffed young swells gliding past in cabs; at the humbler folk who hurried by without seeming to be aware of his existence, who bumped into him and never said "Pardon!"; at the painted women of the narrower pavements—more foreigners half of them—who leered and murmured.
"Where's the police?" He asked himself the question indignantly and contemptuously. "Can't they see what's going on under their noses? Or don't they wish to see it? Or have they been paid not to see it? Funny thing if every respectable married man is to be bothered like this—three times in fifty yards!"
These incessant solicitations affected his nerves. So much so, indeed, that he cursed the impudence of one woman and called her a rude name. She did not seem to mind. While he was still in the generous afterglow produced by a bit of plain-speaking, another one had taken her place.
With head high and shoulders squared he marched on, subject for some distance to a purely nervous irritation, together with a disagreeably potent memory of powdered cheeks, reddened lips, and a searching perfume.
Then he thought of his wife, and instantly he had so vivid a presentation of her image that it obliterated all newer visual records. What a lady she looked when bidding him farewell at the station. He had watched her till the train carried him out of sight—a slender graceful figure; pale face and sad eyes; a fluttering handkerchief and a waved parasol; then nothing at all, except a sudden sense of emptiness in his heart.
And once more he mused with gratitude on the things that Mavis had done for him. He thought of how she had saved him from the ugly imaginations of his youth. How marvelously she had purified and elevated him! He used to be afraid of himself, of all the potentialities for evil that one takes with one across the threshold of manhood.
The fantastic dread which recurred to his memory now, as he turned from Dean Street into Oxford Street, had been started when he first heard the legendary tale of Hadleigh Wood. It was said that seventy or a hundred years ago some louts had caught girls bathing in the stream and violated them. The legend declared that one of the offenders was executed and the rest were sent to prison for life. Perhaps it was all a myth, but it helped to give the upper wood a bad name; and out of these fabled materials William had built his fancy—dread and desire combining—a wish that, when he pushed the branches apart, he might see a lass bathing; and a fear that he would not be able to resist an impulse to plunge into the water and carry her off. As he walked through the shade cast by summer foliage, with a hot whisper of nascent virility tormenting his senses, the fancy was almost strong enough to be a hallucination. He could imagine that he saw female garments on the bank, petticoats fallen in a circle, boots and stockings hard by; he could hear the splashing of water on the other side of the holly bushes; he could feel the weight of the nude form slung across his shoulder as he galloped into the gloom with his prey. And later, under the increasing stress of his adolescence, he used to have a dread of realities—a conviction that he could not trust himself. He thought at this period not of legends, but of facts—of things that truly happened; of the brutality of hayfields; of a man full of beer dealing roughly with a woman-laborer who unluckily came in his way alone and defenceless at nightfall.
From all this kind of vague peril his wife had saved him. When in the course of his education he read of nymphs and satyrs, and was startled by what seemed a highly elaborated version of his own crude imaginings, he had already, through the influence of Mavis, attained to states of mind that rendered such suggestions powerless to stir his pulses or warm his blood; and now, as he recognized with proud satisfaction, he had reached a stage of development wherein the improper advances of a thousand houris would evoke merely indignation and repugnance. It was not a matter that one could boast about to anybody except one's self; but he wondered if Mr. Ridgett, or several other customers who might remain nameless, could say as much.
Thanks to Mav! Yes, he ought always let himself be guided by her.
And then, by a natural transition of ideas, he thought of that other great instinct of untutored man—the fighting instinct. When a person is rising in the social scale he should learn to govern that also. Although the nobs themselves do it when pushed to it, scrapping is not respectable. It is common. Nevertheless there must be exceptions to every rule: anger when justified by its provocation is not, can not be reprehensible.
But dimly he understood that with him cerebral excitement, when it reached a certain pitch, overflowed too rapidly into action. Whereas the gentry, after their centuries of repressive training, could always control themselves. They could fight, but they could wait for the appropriate moment. If you stung them with an insult, they resolved to avenge themselves—but not necessarily then and there; and their resolve deepened in every instant of delay, so that when the fighting hour struck, their heads worked with their arms, and they fought better than the hasty peasants.
And then he thought of the various advantages still possessed by gentlefolk. How unfairly easy is the struggle of life made for them, in spite of all the talk about equality; how difficult it still is for the humbly-born, in spite of Magna Chartas, habeas corpuses, and Houses of Commons! Finishing his long ramble, he remembered the biggest and grandest gentleman of his acquaintance, and wondered bitterly if the Right Honorable Everard Barradine had done so much as to raise a little finger on his behalf.
Five days had passed, and as yet not a single official at St. Martin's-le-Grand had learnt to know him by sight. Every morning he was forced to repeat the whole process of self-introduction.
"Dale? Rodchurch, Hants. Let's see. What name did you say? Dale! Superseded—eh?"
But on the sixth morning somebody knew all about him. It was quite a superior sort of clerk, who announced that Mr. Dale and all that concerned Mr. Dale had been transferred to other hands, in another part of the building. Dale gathered that something had happened to his case; it was as though, after lying dormant so long, it had unexpectedly come to life; and in less than ten minutes he was given a definite appointment. The interview would take place at noon on the day after to-morrow.
To-day was Saturday. The long quiescent Sunday must be endured—and then he would stand in the presence of supreme authority.
By the end of that Sunday his enervation was complete. The want of exercise, the want of fresh air, the want of Mavis, had been steadily weakening him, and now his anticipations as to the morrow produced a feverish excitement.
Throughout the day he rehearsed his speeches. He was still assuming—had always taken for granted—that the personage addressed would be the Postmaster-General, and he was sure of the correct mode of address. "Your Grace, I desire to respectfully state my position."... That was the start all right; but how did it go on? Again and again, before recovering the hang of it, he was confronted with a blank wall of forgetfulness.
And there was the bold flight that he had determined on for wind-up. This had come as an inspiration, down there at Rodchurch over a fortnight ago, and had been cherished ever since. "Your Grace, taking the liberty under this head of speaking as man to man, I ask: If you had been situated as I was, wouldn't you have done as I done?" That was to be the wind-up, and it had rung in his mind like a trumpet call, bold yet irresistible—"Duke you may be, but if also a man, act as a man, and see fair play." Now, however, the prime virtue of it seemed to be lessened: it was all muddled, unstimulating, and flat of tone.
How damnable if some insane nervousness should make him mix things up! Strong as his case was, it might be spoiled by ineffective argument. But was his case strong? Again the cruel twinge of doubt.
The parquetry all around the square of carpet was so smooth that Dale had slipped a foot and nearly come down when he entered the room and bowed to his judges; and now he moved with extreme caution when they told him to withdraw to the window.
There were three seated at the table, and none of the three was the Postmaster-General. Two of them were obviously bigwigs—so big, at any rate, that his fate lay in their hands; and the other one was a secretary—not the General Secretary—not even a gentleman, if one could draw any inference from his deferential tone and the casual manner in which the others addressed him. He was a sandy person—not unlike Ridgett, but rather older and much fatter.
Once a quiet young gentleman—a real gentleman, although apparently acting just as a clerk—had been in and out of the room. He had given Dale a half smile, and it had been welcome as a ray of sunlight on the darkest day of winter. Instinct told Dale that this nice young man sympathized with him, as certainly as it told him that his judges were unsympathetic.
He stood now in the deep bay window, as far as possible from the table, pretending not to listen while straining every nerve to catch the words that were being spoken over there. His blood was hurrying thickly, his heart beat laboriously, his collar stuck clammily to his perspiring neck. His sense of bodily fatigue was as great as if he had run a mile race; and yet one might say that the interview had scarcely begun. What would he be like before it was over? He summoned all his courage in order to go through with it gamely.
... "You can't have this sort of thing." The words had reached him distinctly—spoken by the one they called Sir John; and the one that Sir John called "Colonel" said with equal distinctness, "Certainly not."
Dale's heart beat more easily. As he hoped and believed, they must be talking of the soldier. Then the heart-beats came heavy again. Were they talking of him and not of the soldier? He caught a few other broken phrases of enigmatic import—such as "storm in teacup," "trouble caused," "no complaints"—and then the voices were lowered, and he heard no more of the conversation at the table.
Presently he saw that the secretary was producing a fresh file of papers, and at the same moment, quite inexplicably, his attention wandered. He had brought out a handkerchief, and while with a slow mechanical movement he rubbed the palms of his hands, he noticed and thought about the furniture and decoration of the room. Clock, map, and calendar; some busts on top of a bookless bookcase; red turkey carpet, the treacherous parquetry, and these stiff-looking chairs—really that was all. The emptiness and tidiness surprised him, and he began to wonder what the Postmaster-General's room was like. Surely there would be richer furniture and more litter of business there. Then, with a little nervous jerk, as of his internal machinery starting again after a breakdown, he felt how utterly absurd it was to be thinking about chairs and desks at such a moment. He must pull himself together, or he was going to make an ass of himself.
"Now, if you please." They were calling him to the table. He slowly marched across to them, and stood with folded hands.
"Well now, Mr. Dale." The Colonel was speaking, while Sir John read some letters handed to him by the secretary. "We have gone into this matter very carefully, and I may tell you at once that we have come to certain conclusions."
"Yes, sir." Dale found himself obliged to clear his throat before uttering the two words. His voice had grown husky since he last spoke.
"You have caused us a lot of trouble—really an immense amount of trouble."
Dale looked at the Colonel unflinchingly, and his voice was all right this time. "Trouble, sir, is a thing we can't none of us get away from—not even in private affairs, much less in public affairs."
"No; but there is what is called taking trouble, and there is what is called making trouble."
"And the best public servants, Mr. Dale"—this was Sir John, who had unexpectedly raised his eyes—"are those who take most and make least;" and he lowered his eyes and went on reading the documents.
"First," said the Colonel, "there is your correspondence with the staff at Rodhaven. Here it is. We have gone through it carefully—and there's plenty of it. Well, the plain fact is, it has not impressed us favorably—that is, so far as you are concerned."
"Sorry to hear it, sir."
"No, I must say that the tone of your letters does not appear to be quite what it should be."
"Indeed, sir. I thought I followed the usual forms."
"That may be. It is not the form, but the spirit. There is an arrogance—a determination not to brook censure."
"No censure was offered, sir."
"No, but your tone implied that you would not in any circumstances accept it."
"Only because I knew I hadn't merited it, sir."
"But don't you see that subordination becomes impossible when each officer—"
Sir John interrupted his colleague.
"Mr. Dale, perhaps short words will be more comprehensible to you than long ones."
Dale flushed, and spoke hurriedly.
"I'm not without education, sir—as my record shows. I won the Rowland Hill Fourth Class Annual and the Divisional Prize for English composition."
Sir John and the Colonel exchanged a significant glance; and Dale, making a clumsy bow, went on very submissively. "However you are good enough to word it, sir, I shall endeavor to understand."
"Then," said Sir John, with a sudden crispness and severity, "the opinion I have derived from the correspondence is that you were altogether too uppish. You had got too big for your boots."
"Sorry that should be your opinion, sir."
"It is the opinion of my colleague too," said Sir John sharply. "The impudence of a little Jack in office. I'm the king of the castle."
"I employed no such expression, sir."
"No, but you couldn't keep your temper in writing to your superiors, any more than you could in managing the ordinary business of your office.
"Who makes the allegation?" Unconsciously Dale had raised his voice to a high pitch. "That's what I ask. Let's have facts, not allegations, sir."
"Or," said Sir John, calmly and gravely, "any more than you can keep your temper now;" and he leaned back in his chair and looked at Dale with fixed attention.
Dale's face was red. He opened and shut his mouth as if taking gulps of air.
Sir John smiled, and continued very quietly and courteously. "You must forgive me, Mr. Dale, if by my bruskness and apparent lack of consideration I put you to a little test. But it seemed necessary. You see, as to Rodhaven, the gravamen of their charge against you—"
"Charge!" Dale's voice had dropped to a whisper. "Do they lodge a charge against me, sir—in spite of my record?"
"Their report is of course strictly confidential, and it is not perhaps my duty to inform you as to its details."
"I thought if a person's accused, he should at least know his indictment, sir."
Sir John smiled, and nudged the Colonel's elbow. "Then, Mr. Dale, it merely amounts to this. They say you are unquestionably an efficient servant, but that your efficiency—at any rate, in the position you have held of late—has been marred by what seem to be faults of temperament. They believe—and we believe—that you honestly try to do your best; but, well, you do not succeed."
"I'd be glad to know where I've failed, sir. Mr. Ridgett, he said he found everything in apple-pie order. That was Mr. Ridgett's very own word."
"Who is Mr. Ridgett?"
"Your inspector, sir—what you sent to take over."
"Ah, yes. But he no doubt referred to the office itself. What I am referring to is a much wider question—the necessity of avoiding friction with the public. We have to remember that we are the servants of the public, and not its masters. Now in country districts—You were at Portsmouth, weren't you, before you went to Rodchurch?"
"Well, of course, in the poorer parts of big towns like Portsmouth, one has rather a rough crowd to deal with; good manners may not be required; a dictatorial method is not so much resented. But in a country village, in a residential neighborhood, where high and low are accustomed to live in amity—well, I must say candidly, a postmaster who adopts bullying tactics, and is always losing his temper—"
"Sir," said Dale earnestly, "I do assure you I am not a bully, nor one who is always losing his temper."
"Yet you gave me the impression of irascibility just now, when I drew you."
Dale inwardly cursed his stupidity in having allowed himself to be drawn. He had made a mistake that might prove fatal. He felt that the whole point of the affair was being lost sight of; they seemed to have drifted away into a discussion of good and bad manners, while he wanted to get back to the great issue of right and wrong, justice or injustice. And he understood the ever-increasing danger of being condemned on the minor count, with the cause itself, the great fundamental principle, remaining unweighed.
"No one," he said, humbly but firmly, "regrets it more than I do, gentlemen, if I spoke up too hot. But, sir," and he bowed to Sir John, "you were wishing to nettle me, and there's no question that for the moment I was nettled."
All three judges smiled; and Dale, accepting the smiles as a happy augury, went on with greater confidence.
"I'm sure I apologize. And I ask you not to turn it to more than its proper consequence—or to make the conclusion that I'm that way as a rule. With all respect, I'd ask you to think that this means a great deal to me—a very great deal; and that it has dragged on until—naturally—it begins to prey on one's mind. I am like to that extent shaken and off my balance; but I beg, as no more than is due, gentlemen, that you won't take me for quite the man up here, where all's strange, to what I am down there, where I'm in my element and on my own ground. And I would further submit, under the head of all parties at Rodhaven, that there may be a bit of malice behind their report."
"What malice could there possibly be? They appear to have shown an inclination to pass over the whole matter."
"Only if I took a black mark, sir. That's where the shoe pinched with me, sir—and perhaps with them too. They mayn't have been best pleased when I asked to have your decision over theirs."
Then the Colonel spoke instead of Sir John.
"But apart from Rodhaven, we have evidence against you from the village. Your neighbors, Mr. Dale, complain more forcibly than anybody else."
"Is that so?" Dale felt as if he had received a wickedly violent blow in the dark. "Of course," and he moved his hands spasmodically—"Of course I've long expected I'd enemies." Then he snorted. "But I suppose, sir, you're alluding now to a certain Member of Parliament whose name I needn't mention."
"Yes, I allude to him, and to others—to several others."
"If some have spoken against me, there's a many more would have spoken for me."
"But they have not done so," said the Colonel dryly.
For a moment Dale's mental distress was so acute that his ideas seemed to blend in one vast confused whirl. Some answer was imperatively necessary, and no answer could evolve itself. Hesitation would be interpreted as the sign of a guilty conscience. And in this dreadful arrest of his faculties, the sense of bodily fatigue accentuated itself till it seemed that it would absolutely crush him.
"Gentlemen, as I was venturing to say—" Really the pause had been imperceptible: "From the vicar downwards, there's many would have spoke to my credit—if I'd asked them. And I did not ask them—and for why?"
"Because," said Dale, with a brave effort, "I relied implicitly on the fair play that would be meted out here. From the hour I knew I was to be heard at headquarters, I said this is now between me and headquarters, and I don't require any one—be it the highest in the land—coming between us."
"Ah, I understand," said the Colonel, with great politeness.
"Such was my confident feeling, sir—my full confidence that, having heard me, you'd bear me out as doing my duty, and no more nor no less than my duty."
Yet, even as he said so, his whole brain seemed as if fumes from some horrid corrosive acid were creeping through and through it. In truth, all his confidence had gone, and only his courage remained. These men were hostile to him; they had prejudged him; their deadly politeness and their airs of suave impartiality could not conceal their abominable intentions. He had trusted them, and they were going to show themselves unworthy of trust.
"Gentlemen," he said the word very loudly, and again there came the check to the sequence of his ideas. In another whirl of thought he remembered those courtyards at the Abbey House, the loyal service of his wife's family, the great personage who might have spoken up for him. Oh, why hadn't he allowed Mavis to write a second time imploring aid? "Gentlemen—" He echoed the word twice, and then was able to go on. "My desire has ever bin to conduct the service smooth and expeditious, and in strict accordance with the regulations—more particularly as set out in the manual, which I can truly ass-ass-assev'rate that I read more constant and careful than what I do the Bible."
He knew that the crisis was close upon him. Now or never he must speak the words that should convince and prevail; and instinct told him that he would speak in vain. Nevertheless, he succeeded in stimulating himself adequately for the last great effort. He would fight game and he would die game.