E-text prepared by Al Haines
A SPINNER IN THE SUN
I. "THE FIRE WAS KIND" II. MISS MEHITABLE III. THE PEARLS IV. "FROM THE DEPTHS OF HIS LOVE" V. ARAMINTA VI. PIPES O' PAN VII. THE HONOUR OF THE SPOKEN WORD VIII. PIPER TOM IX. HOUSECLEANING X. RALPH'S FIRST CASE XI. THE LOOSE LINK XII. A GREY KITTEN XIII. THE RIVER COMES INTO ITS OWN XIV. A LITTLE HOUR OF TRIUMPH XV. THE STATE OF ARAMINTA'S SOUL XVI. THE MARCH OF THE DAYS XVII. LOVED BY A DOG XVIII. UNDINE XIX. IN THE SHADOW OF THE CYPRESS XX. THE SECRET OF THE VEIL XXI. THE POPPIES CLAIM THEIR OWN XXII. FORGIVENESS XXIII. UNDINE FINDS HER SOUL XXIV. TELLING AUNT HITTY XXV. REDEEMED XXVI. THE LIFTING OF THE VEIL
A Spinner in the Sun
"The Fire was Kind"
The little house was waiting, as it had waited for many years. Grey and weather-worn, it leaned toward the sheltering hillside as though to gather from the kindly earth some support and comfort for old age. Five-and-twenty Winters had broken its spirit, five-and-twenty Springs had not brought back the heart of it, that had once gone out, with dancing feet and singing, and had returned no more.
For a quarter of a century, the garden had lain desolate. Summers came and went, but only a few straggling blooms made their way above the mass of weeds. In early Autumn, thistles and milkweed took possession of the place, the mournful purple of their flowering hiding the garden beneath trappings of woe. And at night, when the Autumn moon shone dimly, frail ghosts of dead flowers were set free from the thistles and milkweed. The wind of Indian Summer, itself a ghost, convoyed them about the garden, but they never went beyond it. Each year the panoply of purple spread farther, more surely hiding the brave blooms beneath.
Far down the path, beside the broken gate, a majestic cypress cast portentous gloom. Across from it, and quite hiding the ruin of the gate, was a rose-bush, which, every June, put forth one perfect white rose. Love had come through the gate and Love had gone out again, but this one flower was left behind.
Brambles grew about the doorstep, and the hinges of the door were deep in rust. No friendly light gleamed at night from the lattice, a beacon to the wayfarer or a message of cheer to the disheartened, since the little house was alone. The secret spinners had hung a drapery of cobwebs before the desolate windows, as though to veil the loneliness from passers-by. No fire warmed the solitary hearth, no gay and careless laughter betrayed the sleeping echoes into answer. Within the house were only dreams, which never had come true.
A bit of sewing yet lay upon the marble-topped table in the sitting-room, and an embroidery frame, holding still a square of fine linen, had fallen from a chair. An open book was propped against the back of the chair, and a low rocker, facing it, was swerved sharply aside. The evidence of daily occupation, suddenly interrupted, was all there—a quiet content, overlaid by a dumb, creeping paralysis.
The March wind blew fiercely through the night and the little house leaned yet more toward the sheltering hill. Afar, in the village, a train rumbled into the station; the midnight train from the city by which the people of Rushton regulated their watches and clocks. Strangely enough, it stopped, and more than one good man, turning uneasily upon his pillow, wondered if the world might have come to its end.
Half an hour afterward, a lone figure ascended the steep road which led to the house. A woman, fearless of the night, because Life had already done its worst to her, stumbled up the stony, overgrown way. The moon shone fitfully among the flying clouds, and she guided herself by its uncertain gleams, pausing now and then, in complete darkness, to wait for more light.
Ghost-like, a long white chiffon veil trailed behind her, too securely fastened to her hat to be blown away. Even in the night, she watched furtively and listened for approaching footsteps, one hand holding the end of her veil in such a way that she might quickly hide her face.
Outside the gate she paused, irresolute. At the last moment, it seemed as if she could never enter the house again. A light snow had fallen upon the dead garden, covering its scarred face with white. Miss Evelina noted quickly that her garden, too, was hidden as by chiffon.
A gust of wind made her shiver—or was it the veiled garden? Nerving herself to her necessity, she took up her satchel and went up the path as one might walk, with bared feet, up a ladder of swords. Each step that took her nearer the house hurt her the more, but she was not of those who cry out when hurt. She set her lips more firmly together and continued upon her self-appointed way.
When she reached the house, she already had the key in her uncertain fingers. The rusty lock yielded at length and the door opened noisily. Her heart surged painfully as she entered the musty darkness. It was so that Miss Evelina came home, after five-and-twenty years.
The thousand noises of an empty house greeted her discordantly. A rattling window was answered by a creaking stair, a rafter groaned dismally, and the scurrying feet of mice pattered across a distant floor.
Fumbling in her satchel, Miss Evelina drew out a candle and a box of matches. Presently there was light in the little house—a faint glimmering light, which flickered, when the wind shook the walls, and twinkled again bravely when it ceased.
She took off her wraps, and, through force of habit, pinned the multitudinous folds of her veil to her hair, forgetting that at midnight, and in her own house, there were none to see her face.
Then she made a fire, for the body must be warmed, though the heart is dead, and the soul stricken dumb. She had brought with her a box containing a small canister of tea, and she soon had ready a cup of it, so strong that it was bitter.
With her feet upon the hearth and the single candle flickering upon the mantel shelf, she sat in the lonely house and sipped her tea. Her well-worn black gown clung closely to her figure, and the white chiffon veil, thrown back, did not wholly hide her abundant hair. The horror of one night had whitened Miss Evelina's brown hair at twenty, for the sorrows of Youth are unmercifully keen.
"I have come back," she thought. "I have come back through that door. I went out of it, laughing, at twenty. At forty-five, I have come back, heart-broken, and I have lived.
"Why did I not die?" she questioned, for the thousandth time. "If there had been a God in Heaven, surely I must have died."
The flames leaped merrily in the fireplace and the discordant noises of the house resolved themselves into vague harmony. A cricket, safely ensconced for the Winter in a crevice of the hearth, awoke in the unaccustomed warmth, piping a shrill and cheery welcome, but Miss Evelina sat abstractedly, staring into the fire.
After all, there had never been anything but happiness in the house—the misery had been outside. Peace and quiet content had dwelt there securely, but the memory of it brought no balm now.
As though it were yesterday, the black walnut chair, covered with haircloth, stood primly against the wall. Miss Evelina had always hated the chair, and here, after twenty-five years, it confronted her again. She mused, ironically, upon the permanence of things usually considered transient and temporary. Her mother's sewing was still upon the marble-topped table, but the hands that held it were long since mingled with the dust. Her own embroidery had apparently but just fallen from the chair, and the dream that had led to its fashioning—was only a dream, from which she awoke to enduring agony. With swift hatred, she turned her back upon the embroidery frame, and hid her face in her hands.
Time, as time, had ceased to exist for her. She suffered until suffering brought its own far anodyne—the inability to sustain it further,—then she slept, from sheer weariness. Before dawn, usually, she awoke, sufficiently rested to suffer again. When she felt faint, she ate, scarcely knowing what she ate, for food was as dust and ashes in her mouth.
In the bag that hung from her belt was a vial of laudanum, renewed from time to time as she feared its strength was waning. She had been taught that it was wicked to take one's own life, and that God was always kind. Not having experienced the kindness, she began to doubt the existence of God, and was immediately face to face with the idea that it could not be wrong to die if one was too miserable to live. Her mind revolved perpetually in this circle and came continually back to a compromise. She would live one more day, and then she would free herself. There was always a to-morrow when she should be free, but it never came.
The fire died down and the candle had but a few minutes more to burn. It was the hour of the night when life is at its lowest—when souls pass out into the great Beyond. Miss Evelina took the vial from her reticule and uncorked it. The bitter, pungent odour came as sweet incense to her nostrils. No one knew she had come. No one would ever enter her door again. She might die peacefully in her own house, and no one would know until the walls crumbled to dust—perhaps not even then. And Miss Evelina had a horror of a grave.
She drew a long breath of the bitterness. The silken leaves of the poppies—flowers of sleep—had been crushed into this. The lees must be drained from the Cup of Life before the Cup could be set aside. Every one came to this, sooner or later. Why not choose? Why not drain the Cup now? When it had all been bitter, why hesitate to drink the lees?
The monstrous and incredible passion of the race was slowly creeping upon her. Her eyes gleamed and her cheeks burned. The hunger for death at her own hands and on her own terms possessed her frail body to the full. "If there had been a God in Heaven," she said, aloud, "surely I must have died!"
The words startled her and her hand shook so that some of the laudanum was spilled. It was long since she had heard her own voice in more than a monosyllabic answer to some necessary question. Inscrutably veiled in many folds of chiffon, she held herself apart from the world, and the world, carelessly kind, had left her wholly to herself.
Slowly, she put the cork tightly into the vial and slipped it back into her bag. "Tomorrow," she sighed; "to-morrow I shall set myself free."
The fire flickered and without warning the candle went out, in a gust of wind which shook the house to its foundations. Stray currents of air had come through the crevices of the rattling windows and kept up an imperfect ventilation. She took another candle from her satchel, put it into a candlestick of blackened brass, and slowly ascended the stairs.
She went to her own room, though her feet failed her at the threshold and she sank helplessly to the floor. Too weak to stand, she made her way on her knees to her bed, leaving the candle in the hall, just outside her door. As she had suspected, it was hardest of all to enter this room.
A pink and white gown of dimity, yellowed, and grimed with dust, yet lay upon her bed. Cobwebs were woven over the lace that trimmed the neck and sleeves. Out of the fearful shadows, mute reminders of a lost joy mocked her from every corner of the room.
She knelt there until some measure of strength came back to her, and, with it, a mad fancy. "To-night," she said to herself, "I will be brave. For once I will play a part, since to-morrow I shall be free. To-night, it shall be as though nothing had happened—as though I were to be married to-morrow and not to—to Death!"
She laughed wildly, and, even to her own ears, it had a fantastic, unearthly sound. The empty rooms took up the echo and made merry with it, the sound dying at last into a silence like that of the tomb.
She brought in the candle, took the dimity gown from the bed, and shook it to remove the dust. In her hands it fell apart, broken, because it was too frail to tear. She laid it on a chair, folding it carefully, then took the dusty bedding from her bed and carried it into the hall, dust and all. In an oaken chest in a corner of her room was her store of linen, hemmed exquisitely and embroidered with the initials: "E. G."
She began to move about feverishly, fearing that her resolution might fail. The key of the chest was in a drawer in her dresser, hidden beneath a pile of yellowed garments. Her hands, so long nerveless, were alive and sentient now. When she opened the chest, the scent of lavender and rosemary, long since dead, struck her like a blow.
The room swam before her, yet Miss Evelina dragged forth her linen sheets and pillow-slips, musty, but clean, and made her bed. Once or twice, her veil slipped down over her face, and she impatiently pushed it back. The candle, burning low, warned her that she must make haste,
In one of the smaller drawers of her dresser was a nightgown of sheerest linen, wonderfully stitched by her own hands. She hesitated a moment, then opened the drawer.
Tiny bags of sweet herbs fell from the folds as she shook it out. It was yellowed and musty and as frail as a bit of fine lace, but it did not tear in her hands. "I will wear it," she thought, grimly, "as I planned to do, long ago."
At last she stood before her mirror, the ivory-tinted lace falling away from her neck and shoulders. Her neck was white and firm, but her right shoulder was deeply, hideously scarred. "Burned body and burned soul," she muttered, "and this my wedding night!"
For the first time in her life, she pitied herself, not knowing that self-pity is the first step toward relief from overpowering sorrow. When detachment is possible, the long, slow healing has faintly, but surely, begun.
She unpinned her veil, took down her heavy white hair, and braided it. There was no gleam of silver, even in the light—it was as lustreless as a field of snow upon a dark day. That done, she stood there, staring at herself in the mirror, and living over, remorselessly, the one day that, like a lightning stroke, had blasted her life.
Her veil slipped, unheeded, from her dresser to the floor. Leaning forward, she studied her face, that she had once loved, then swiftly learned to hate. Even on the street, closely veiled, she would not look at a shop window, lest she might see herself reflected in the plate glass, and she had kept the mirror, in her room covered with a cloth,
Since the day she left the hospital, where they all had been so kind to her, no human being, save herself, had seen her face. She had prayed for death, but had not been more than slightly ill, upborne, as she was, by a great grief which sustained her as surely as an ascetic is kept alive by the passion of his faith. She hungered now for the sight of her face as she hungered for death, and held the flaring candle aloft that she might see better.
Then a wave of impassioned self-pity swept her like flame. "The fire was kind," she said, stubbornly, as though to defend herself from it. "It showed me the truth."
She leaned yet closer to the glass, holding the dripping candle on high. "The fire was kind," she insisted again. Then the floodgates opened, and for the first time in all the sorrowful years, she felt the hot tears streaming over her face. Her hand shook, but she held her candle tightly and leaned so close to the mirror that her white hair brushed its cracked surface.
"The fire was kind," sobbed Miss Evelina. "Oh, but the fire was kind!"
The slanting sunbeams of late afternoon crept through the cobwebbed window, and Miss Evelina stirred uneasily in her sleep. The mocking dream vanished and she awoke to feel, as always, the iron, icy hand that unmercifully clutched her heart. The room was cold and she shivered as she lay beneath her insufficient covering.
At length she rose, and dressed mechanically, avoiding the mirror, and pinning her veil securely to her hair. She went downstairs slowly, clinging to the railing from sheer weakness. She was as frail and ghostly as some disembodied spirit of Grief.
Soon, she had a fire. As the warmth increased, she opened the rear door of the house to dispel the musty atmosphere. The March wind blew strong and clear through the lonely rooms, stirring the dust before it and swaying the cobwebs. Suddenly, Miss Evelina heard a footstep outside and instinctively drew down her veil.
Before she could close the door, a woman, with a shawl over her head, appeared on the threshold, peered curiously into the house, then unhesitatingly entered.
"For the land's sake!" cried a cheery voice. "You scared me most to death! I saw the smoke coming from the chimney and thought the house was afire, so I come over to see."
Miss Evelina stiffened, and made no reply.
"I don't know who you are," said the woman again, mildly defiant, "but this is Evelina Grey's house."
"And I," answered Miss Evelina, almost inaudibly, "am Evelina Grey."
"For the land's sake!" cried the visitor again. "Don't you remember me? Why, Evelina, you and I used to go to school together. You——"
She stopped, abruptly. The fact of the veiled face confronted her stubbornly. She ransacked her memory for a forgotten catastrophe, a quarter of a century back. Impenetrably, a wall was reared between them.
"I—I'm afraid I don't remember," stammered Miss Evelina, in a low voice, hoping that the intruder would go.
"I used to be Mehitable Smith, and that's what I am still, having been spared marriage. Mehitable is my name, but folks calls me Hitty—Miss Hitty," she added, with a slight accent on the "Miss."
"Oh," answered Miss Evelina, "I remember," though she did not remember at all.
"Well, I'm glad you've come back," went on the guest, politely. Altogether in the manner of one invited to do so, she removed her shawl and sat down, furtively eyeing Miss Evelina, yet affecting to look carelessly about the house.
She was a woman of fifty or more, brisk and active of body and kindly, though inquisitive, of countenance. Her dark hair, scarcely touched with grey, was parted smoothly in the exact centre and plastered down on both sides, as one guessed, by a brush and cold water. Her black eyes were bright and keen, and her gold-bowed spectacles were habitually worn half-way down her nose. Her mouth and chin were indicative of great firmness—those whose misfortune it was to differ from Miss Hitty were accustomed to call it obstinacy. People of plainer speech said it was "mulishness."
Her gown was dark calico, stiffly starched, and made according to the durable and comfortable pattern of her school-days. "All in one piece," Miss Hitty was wont to say. "Then when I bend over, as folks that does housework has to bend over, occasionally, I don't come apart in the back. For my part, I never could see sense in wearing clothes that's held by a safety-pin in the back instead of good, firm cloth, and, moreover, a belt that either slides around or pinches where it ain't pleasant to be pinched, ain't my notion of comfort. Apron strings is bad enough, for you have to have 'em tight to keep from slipping." Miss Hitty had never worn corsets, and had the straight, slender figure of a boy.
The situation became awkward. Miss Evelina still stood in the middle of the room, her veiled face slightly averted. The impenetrable shelter of chiffon awed Miss Mehitable, but she was not a woman to give up easily when embarked upon the quest for knowledge. Some unusual state of mind kept her from asking a direct question about the veil, and meanwhile she continually racked her memory.
Miss Evelina's white, slender hands opened and closed nervously. Miss Hitty set her feet squarely on the floor, and tucked her immaculate white apron closely about her knees. "When did you come?" she demanded finally, with the air of the attorney for the prosecution.
"Last night," murmured Miss Evelina.
"On that late train?"
"I heard it stop, but I never sensed it was you. Seemed to me I heard somebody go by, too, but I was too sleepy to get up and see. I thought I must be dreaming, but I was sure I heard somebody on the walk. If I'd known it was you, I'd have made you stop at my house for the rest of the night, instead of coming up here alone."
"Very kind," said Miss Evelina, after an uncomfortable pause.
"You might as well set down," remarked Miss Hitty, with a new gentleness of manner. "I'm going to set a spell."
Miss Evelina sat, helplessly, in the hair-cloth chair which she hated, and turned her veiled face yet farther away from her guest. Seeing that her hostess did not intend to talk, Miss Hitty began a conversation, if anything wholly one-sided may be so termed.
"I live in the same place," she said. "Ma died seventeen years ago on the eighteenth of next April, and left the house and the income for me. There was enough to take care of two, and so I took my sister's child, Araminta, to bring up. You know my poor sister got married. She ought to have known better, but she didn't. She just put her head into the noose, and it slipped up on her, as I told her it would, both before and after the ceremony. Having seen all the trouble men make in the world, I sh'd think women would know enough to keep away from 'em, but they don't—that is, some women don't." Miss Hitty smoothed her stiff white apron with an air of conscious virtue.
"Araminta was only a year old when her ma got enough of marrying and went to her reward in Heaven. What she 'd been through would have tried the patience of a saint, and Barbara wasn't no saint. None of the Smith family have ever grown wings here on earth, but it's my belief that we'll all be awarded our proper plumage in Heaven.
"He—" the pronoun was sufficiently definite to indicate Araminta's hapless father—"was always tracking dirt into the clean kitchen, and he had an appetite like a horse. Barbara would make a cake to set away for company, and he'd gobble it all up at one meal just as if 't was a doughnut. She was forever cooking and washing dishes and sweeping up after him. When he come into the house, she'd run for the broom and dustpan, and follow him around, sweeping up, and if you'll believe me, the brute scolded her for it. He actually said once, in my presence, that if he'd known how neat she was, he didn't believe he'd have married her. That shows what men are—if it needs showing. It's no wonder poor Barbara died. I hope there ain't any brooms in Heaven and that she's havin' a good rest now.
"Araminta's goin' on nineteen, and she's a sensible girl, if I do say it as shouldn't. She's never spoke to a man except to say 'yes' and 'no.' I've taught her to steer clear of 'em, and even when she was only seven years old, she'd run if she saw one coming. She knows they 're pizen and I don't believe I'll ever have any cause to worry about Minty.
"I've got the minister boarding with me," pursued Miss Hitty, undaunted, and cheerfully taking a fresh start. "Ministers don't count, and I must say that, for a man, Mr. Thorpe is very little trouble. He wipes his feet sometimes for as much as five minutes when he's coming in, and mostly, when it's pleasant weather, he's out. When he's in, he usually stays in his room, except at meals. He don't eat much more 'n a canary, and likes what he eats, and don't need hardly any pickin' up after, though a week ago last Saturday he left a collar layin' on the bureau instead of putting it into his bag.
"I left it right where 't was, and Sunday morning he put it where it belonged. He's never been married and he's learned to pick up after himself. I wouldn't have had him, on Araminta's account, only that there wasn't no other place for him to stay, and it was put to me by the elders as being my Christian duty. I wouldn't have took him, otherwise, and we've never had an unmarried minister before.
"Besides, Mr. Thorpe ain't pleasing the congregation, and I don't know that he'll stay long. He's been here six months and three Sundays over, and I've been to every single service, church and Sunday-school and prayer-meeting, and he ain't never said one word about hell. It's all of the joys of Heaven and a sure reward in the hereafter for everybody that's done what they think is right—nothing much, mind you, about what is right. Why, when Mr. Brewster was preaching for us, some of the sinners would get up and run right out of the church when he got started on hell and the lost souls writhin' in the flames. That was a minister worth having.
"But Mr. Thorpe, now, he doesn't seem to have no sense of the duties of his position. Week before last, I heard of his walkin' along the river with Andy Rogers—arm in arm, if you'll believe me, with the worst drunkard and chicken thief in town. The very idea of a minister associatin' with sinners! Mr. Brewster would never have done that. Why, Andy was one of them that run out of the church the day the minister give us that movin' sermon on hell, and he ain't never dared to show his face in a place of worship since.
"As I said, I don't think Mr. Thorpe 'll be with us long, for the vestry and the congregation is getting dissatisfied. There ain't been any open talk, except in the Ladies' Aid Society, but public opinion is settin' pretty strongly in that direction." Miss Hitty dropped her final g's when she got thoroughly interested in her subject and at times became deeply involved in grammatical complications.
"Us older ones, that's strong in the faith, ain't likely to be injured by it, I suppose, but there's always the young ones to be considered, and it's highly important for Araminta to have the right kind of influence. Of course Mr. Thorpe don't talk on religious subjects at home, and I ain't let Araminta go to church the last two Sundays. Meanwhile, I've talked hell to her stronger 'n common.
"But, upon my soul, I don't know what Rushton is comin' to. A month or so ago, there was an outlandish, heathen character come here that beats anything I've ever heard tell of. His name is Tom Barnaby and he's set up a store on the edge of town, in the front parlour of Widow Simon's house. She's went and rented it to him, and she says he pays his rent regular.
"He wears leather leggings and a hat with a red feather stuck in it, and he's gone into competition with Mrs. Allen, who's kept the dry-goods here for the last twenty years.
"Of course," she went on, a little wistfully, "I've always patronised Mrs. Allen, and I always shall. They do say Barnaby's goods is a great deal cheaper, but I'd feel it my duty to buy of a woman, anyhow, even though she has been married. She's been a widow for so long, it's most the same as if she'd never been married at ail.
"Barnaby lives with a dog and does for himself, but he's hardly ever in his store. People go there to buy things and find the door propped open with a brick, and a sign says to come in and take what you want. The price of everything is marked good and plain, and another sign says to put the money in the drawer and make your own change. The blacksmith was at him for doing business so shiftless, and Barnaby laughed and said that if anybody wanted anything he had bad enough to steal it, whoever it was, he was good and welcome to it. That just shows how crazy he is. Most of the time he's roaming around the country, with his yellow dog at his heels, making outlandish noises on some kind of a flute. He can't play a tune, but he keeps trying. Folks around here call him Piper Tom.
"Of course I wouldn't want Mrs. Allen to know, but I've thought that sometime when he was away and there was nobody there to see, I'd just step in for a few minutes and take a look at his goods. Elmiry Jones says his calico is beautiful, and that for her part, she's going to trade there instead of at Allen's. I suppose it is a temptation. I might do it myself, if 't want for my principles."
The speaker paused for breath, but Miss Evelina still sat silently in her chair. "What was it?" thought Miss Hitty. "I was here, and I knew at the time, but what happened? How did I come to forget? I must be getting old!"
She searched her memory without result. Her house was situated at the crossroads, and, being on higher ground, commanded a good view of the village below. Gradually, her dooryard had become a sort of clearing house for neighbourhood gossip. Travellers going and coming stopped at Miss Hitty's to drink from the moss-grown well, give their bit of news, and receive, in return, the scandal of the countryside. Had it not been for the faithful and industrious Miss Mehitable, the town might have needed a daily paper.
"Strange I can't think," she said to herself. "I don't doubt it'll come to me, though. Something happened to Evelina, and she went away, and her mother went with her to take care of her, and then her mother died, all at once, of heart failure. It happened the same week old Mis' Hicks had a doctor from the city for an operation, and the Millerses barn was struck by lightning and burnt up, and so I s'pose it's no wonder I've sorter lost track of it."
Miss Evelina's veiled face was wholly averted now, and Miss Hitty studied her shrewdly. She noted that the black gown was well-worn, and had, indeed, been patched in several places. The shoes which tapped impatiently on the floor were undeniably shabby, though they had been carefully blacked. Against the unrelieved sombreness of her gown. Miss Evelina's hands were singularly frail and transparent. Every line of her body was eloquent of weakness and well-nigh insupportable grief.
"Well," said Miss Hitty, again, though she felt that the words were flat; "I'm glad you've come back. It seems like old times for us to be settin' here, talkin', and—" here she laughed shrilly—"we've both been spared marriage."
A small, slender hand clutched convulsively at the arm of the haircloth chair, but Miss Evelina did not speak.
"I see," went on Miss Hitty, not unkindly, "that you're still in mourning for your mother. You mustn't take it so hard. Sometimes folks get to feeling so sorry about something that they can't never get over it, and they keep on going round and round all the time like a squirrel in a wheel, and keep on getting weaker till it gets to be a kind of disease there ain't no cure for. Leastwise, that's what Doctor Dexter says."
"Doctor Dexter!" With a cry, Miss Evelina sprang to her feet, her hands tightly pressed to her heart.
"The same," nodded Miss Hitty, overjoyed to discover that at last her hostess was interested. "Doctor Anthony Dexter, our old schoolmate, as had just graduated when you lived here before. He went away for a year and then he came back, bringing a pretty young wife. She's dead, but he has a son, Ralph, who's away studying to be a doctor. He'll graduate this Spring and then he's coming here to help his father with his practice. Doctor Dexter's getting old, like the rest of us, and he don't like the night work. Some folks is inconsiderate enough to get sick in the night. They orter have regular hours for it, same as a doctor has hours for business. Things would fit better.
"Well, I must be going, for I left soup on the stove, and Araminta's likely as not to let it burn. I'm going to send your supper over to you, and next week, if the weather's favourable, we'll clean this house. Goodness knows it needs it. I'd just as soon send over all your meals till you get settled—'t wouldn't be any trouble. Or, you can come over to my house if you wouldn't mind eating with the minister. It seems queer to set down to the table with a man, and not altogether natural, but I'm beginning to get used to it, and it gives us the advantage of a blessing, and, anyway, ministers don't count. Come over when you can. Goodbye!"
With a rustle of stiffly starched garments Miss Mehitable took her departure, carefully closing the door and avoiding the appearance of haste. This was an effort, for every fibre of her being ached to get back to the clearing house, where she might speculate upon Evelina's return. It was her desire, also, to hunt up the oldest inhabitant before nightfall and correct her pitiful lapse of memory.
At the same time, she was planning to send Araminta over with a nice hot supper, for Miss Evelina seemed to be far from strong, and, even to one lacking in discernment, acutely unhappy.
Down the road she went, her head bowed in deep and fruitless thought. Swiftly, as in a lightning flash, and without premonition, she remembered.
"Evelina was burnt," she said to herself, triumphantly, "over to Doctor Dexter's, and they took her on the train to the hospital. I guess she wears that veil all the time."
Then Miss Hitty stopped at her own gate, catching her breath quickly. "She must have been burnt awful," she thought. "Poor soul!" she murmured, her sharp eyes softening with tears. "Poor soul!"
A rap at the door roused Miss Evelina from a deadly stupor which seemed stabbed through with daggers of pain. She sat quite still, determined not to open the door. Presently, she heard the sound of retreating footsteps, and was reassured. Then she saw a bit of folded paper which had been slipped under the door, and, mechanically, she picked it up.
"Here's your supper," the note read, briefly. "When you get done, leave the tray outside. I'll come and get it. I would like to have you come over if you want to.—Mehitable Smith."
Touched by the unexpected kindness, Miss Evelina took in the tray. There was a bowl of soup, steaming hot, a baked potato, a bit of thin steak, fried, in country fashion, two crisp, buttered rolls, and a pot of tea. Faint and sick of heart, she pushed it aside, then in simple justice to Miss Hitty, tasted of the soup. A little later, she put the tray out on the doorstep again, having eaten as she had not eaten for months.
She considered the chain of circumstances that had led her back to Rushton. First, the knowledge that Doctor Dexter had left the place for good. She had heard of that, long ago, but, until now, no one had told her that he had returned. She had thought it impossible for him ever to return—even to think of it again,
Otherwise—here the thread of her thought snapped, and she clutched at the vial of laudanum which, as always, was in the bag at her belt. She perceived that the way of escape was closed to her. Broken in spirit though she was, she was yet too proud to die like a dog at Anthony Dexter's door, even after five-and-twenty years.
Bitterest need alone had driven her to take the step which she so keenly regretted now. The death of her mother, hastened by misfortune, had left her with a small but certain income, paid regularly from two separate sources. One source had failed without warning, and her slender legacy was cut literally in two. Upon the remaining half she must eke out the rest of her existence, if she continued to exist at all. It was absolutely necessary for her to come back to the one shelter which she could call her own.
Weary, despairing, and still in the merciless grip of her obsession, she had come—only to find that Anthony Dexter had long since preceded her. A year afterward, Miss Hitty said, he had come back, with a pretty young wife. And he had a son.
The new knowledge hurt, and Evelina had fancied that she could be hurt no more, that she had reached the uttermost limits of pain. By a singular irony, the last refuge was denied her at the very moment of her greatest temptation to avail herself of it. Long hours of thought led her invariably to the one possible conclusion—to avoid every one, keep wholly to herself, and, by starvation, if need be, save enough of her insignificant pittance to take her far away. And after that—freedom.
Since the night of full realisation which had turned her brown hair to a dull white she had thought of death in but one way—escape. Set free from the insufferable bondage of earthly existence. Miss Evelina dreamed of peace as a prisoner in a dungeon may dream of green fields. To sleep and wake no more, never to feel again the cold hand upon her heart that tore persistently at the inmost fibres of it, to forget——
Miss Evelina took the vial from her bag and uncorked it. The incense of the poppies crept subtly through the room, mingling inextricably with the mustiness and the dust. The grey cobwebs swayed at the windows, sunset touching them to iridescence. Conscious that she was the most desolate and lonely thing in all the desolate house, Miss Evelina buried her face in her hands.
The poppies breathed from the vial. In her distorted fancy, she saw vast plains of them, shimmering in the sun—scarlet like the lips of a girl, pink as the flush of dawn upon the eastern sky, blood-red as the passionate heart that never dreamed of betrayal.
The sun was shining on the field of poppies and Miss Evelina walked among them, her face unveiled. Golden masses of bloom were spread at her feet, starred here and there by stately blossoms as white as the blown snow. Her ragged garments touched the silken petals, her worn shoes crushed them, bud and blossom alike. Always, the numbing, sleepy odour came from the field. Dew was on the petals of the flowers; their deep cups gathered it and held it, never to be surrendered, since the dew of the poppies was tears.
Like some evil genius rising from the bottle, the Spirit of the Poppies seemed to incarnate itself in the vapour. A woman with a face of deadly white arose to meet Miss Evelina, with outspread arms. In her eyes was Lethe, in her hands was the gift of forgetfulness. She brought pardon for all that was past and to come, eternal healing, unfathomable oblivion. "Come," the drowsy voice seemed to say. "I have waited long and yet you do not come. The peace that passeth all understanding is mine to give and yours to take. Come—only come! Come! Come!"
Miss Evelina laughed bitterly. Never in all the years gone by had the Spirit of the Poppies pleaded with her thus. Now, at the hour when surrender meant the complete triumph of her enemy, the ghostly figure came to offer her the last and supreme gift.
The afterglow yet lingered in the west. The grey of a March twilight was in the valley, but it was still late afternoon on the summit of the hill. Miss Evelina drew her veil about her and went out into the garden, the vial in her hand.
Where was it that she had planted the poppies? Through the mass of undergrowth and brambles, she made scant headway. Thorns pressed forward rudely as if to stab the intruder. Vines, closely matted, forbade her to pass, yet she kept on until she reached the western slope of the garden.
Here, unshaded, and in the full blaze of the Summer sun, the poppies had spread their brilliant pageantry. In all the village there had been no such poppies as grew in Evelina's garden. Now they were dead and only the overgrown stubble was left.
"Dust to dust, earth to earth, and ashes to ashes." The solemn words of the burial service were chanted in her consciousness as she lifted the vial high and emptied it. She held it steadily until the last drop was drained from it. The poppies had given it and to the poppies she had returned it. She put the cork into the empty vial and flung it far away from her, then turned back to the house.
There was a sound of wheels upon the road. Miss Evelina hastened her steps, but the dense undergrowth made walking difficult. Praying that she might not be seen, she turned her head.
Anthony Dexter, in the doctor's carriage, was travelling at a leisurely pace. As he passed the old house, he glanced at it mechanically, from sheer force of habit. Long ago, it had ceased to have any definite meaning for him. Once he had even stripped every white rose from the neglected bush at the gate, to take to his wife, who, that day, for the first time, had held their son in her arms.
Motionless in the wreck of the garden, a veiled figure stood with averted face. Doctor Dexter looked keenly for an instant in the fast gathering twilight, then whipped up his horse, and was swiftly out of sight. Against his better judgment, he was shaken in mind and body. Could he have seen a ghost? Nonsense! He was tired, he had overworked, he had had an hallucination. His cool, calm, professional sense fought with the insistent idea. It was well that Ralph was coming to relieve his old father of a part of his burden.
Meanwhile, Miss Evelina, her frail body quivering as though under the lash, crept back into the house. With the sure intuition of a woman, she knew who had driven by in the first darkness. That he should dare! That he should actually trespass upon her road; take the insolent liberty of looking at her house!
"A pretty young wife," Miss Hitty had said. Yes, doubtless a pretty one. Anthony Dexter delighted in the beauty of a woman in the same impersonal way that another man would regard a picture. And a son. A straight, tall young fellow, doubtless, with eyes like his father's—eyes that a woman would trust, not dreaming of the false heart and craven soul. Why had she been brought here to suffer this last insult, this last humiliation? Weakly, as many a woman before her, Miss Evelina groped in the maze of Life, searching for some clue to its blind mystery.
Was it possible that she had not suffered enough? If five-and-twenty years of sodden misery were not sufficient for one who had done no wrong, what punishment would be meted out to a sinner by a God who was always kind? Miss Evelina's lips curled scornfully. She had taken what he should have borne—Anthony Dexter had gone scot free.
"The man sins and the woman pays." The cynical saying, which, after all, is not wholly untrue, took shape in her thought and said itself—aloud. Yet it was not altogether impossible that he might yet be made to pay—could be—
Her cheeks burned and her hands closed tightly. What if she were the chosen instrument? What if she had been sent here, after all the dead, miserable years, for some purpose which hitherto she had not guessed?
What if she, herself, with her veiled face, were to be the tardy avenger of her own wrong? Her soul stirred in its despair as the dead might stir in the winding sheet. Out of her sodden grief, could she ever emerge—alive?
"The fire was kind," said Miss Evelina, in a whisper. "It showed me the truth. The fire was kind and God is kind. He has brought me here to pay my debt—in full."
She began to consider what she might do that would hurt Anthony Dexter and make him suffer as she had suffered for half a lifetime. If he had forgotten, she would make him remember—ah, yes, he must remember before he could be hurt. But what could she do? What had he given her aside from the misery that she hungered to give back to him?
The pearls! Miss Evelina lighted her candle and hurried upstairs.
In her dower chest, beneath the piles of heavy, yellowed linen, was a small jewel case. She knelt before the chest, gasping, and thrust her questioning fingers down through the linen to the solid oak. With a little cry, she rose to her feet, the jewel case in her hand.
The purple velvet was crushed, the satin was yellowed, but the string of pearls was there—yellowed, too, by the slow passage of the years. One or two of them were black. A slip of paper fluttered out as she opened the case, and she caught it as it fell. The paper was yellow and brittle and the ink had faded, but the words were still there, written in Anthony Dexter's clear, bold hand; "First from the depths of the sea, and then from the depths of my love."
"Depths!" muttered Miss Evelina, from between her clenched teeth.
Once the necklace had been beautiful—a single strand of large, perfectly matched pearls. The gold of the clasp was dull, but the diamond gleamed like the eye of some evil thing. She wound the necklace twice about her wrist, then shuddered, for it was cold and smooth and sinuous, like a snake.
She coiled the discoloured necklace carefully upon its yellowed satin bed, laid the folded slip of paper over it, and closed it with a snap. To-morrow—no, this very night, Anthony Dexter should have the pearls, that had come first from the depths of the sea, and then from the depths of his love.
No hand but hers should give them back, for she saw it written in the scheme of vengeance that she herself should, mutely, make him pay. She felt a new strength of body and a fresh clearness of mind as, with grim patience, she set herself to wait.
The clocks in the house were all still. Miss Evelina's watch had long ago been sold. There was no town clock in the village, but the train upon which she had come was due shortly after midnight. She knew every step of the way by dark as well as by daylight, but the night was clear and there would be the light of the dying moon,
Her own clouded skies were clearing. Dimly she began to perceive herself as a part of things, not set aside helplessly to suffer eternally, but in some sort of relation to the rest of the world.
On the Sunday before the catastrophe, Miss Evelina had been to church, and even yet, she remembered fragments of the sermon. "God often uses people to carry out His plans," the minister had said. At the time, it had not particularly impressed her, and she had never gone to church again. If she had listened further, she might have heard the minister say that the devil was wont to do the same thing.
Minute by minute, the hours passed. Miss Evelina's heart was beating painfully, but, all unknowingly, she had entered upon a new phase. She had turned in the winding sheet of her own weaving, and her hands were clutching at the binding fabric.
At last, the train came in. It did not stop, but thundered through the sleeping village, shrieking as it went. The sound died into a distant rumble, then merged into the stillness of the night. Miss Evelina rose from her chair, put on her wraps, slipped the jewel case into her bag, and went out, closely veiled.
The light of the waning moon was dim and, veiled as she was, she felt rather than saw the way. Steadfastly, she went down the steep road, avoiding the sidewalk, for she remembered that Miss Mehitable's ears were keen. Past the crossroads, to the right, down into the village, across the tracks, then sharply to the left—the way was the same, but the wayfarer was sadly changed.
She went unemotionally, seeing herself a divinely appointed instrument of vengeance. Something outside her obsession had its clutch upon her also, but it was new, and she did not guess that it was fully as hideous.
Doctor Dexter's house was near the corner on a shaded street. At the gate. Miss Evelina paused and, with her veil lifted, carefully scrutinised the house for a possible light. She feared that some one might be stirring, late as it was, but the old housekeeper always went to bed promptly at nine, and on this particular night, Anthony Dexter had gone to his room at ten, making sleep sure by a drug.
With hushed steps, Miss Evelina went furtively up to the house on the bare earth beside the brick pavement. She was in a panic of fear, but something beyond her control urged her on. Reaching the steps, she hesitated, baffled for the moment, then sank to her knees. Slowly she crept to the threshold, placed the jewel case so that it would fall inward when the door was opened, and started back. Instinct bade her hurry, but reason made her cautious. She forced herself to walk slowly and to muffle the latch of the gate with her skirts as she had done when she came in.
It seemed an hour before she crossed the tracks again, at the deserted point she had chosen, but, in reality, it was only a few minutes. At last she reached home, utterly exhausted by the strain she had put upon herself. She had seen no one, heard no footstep save her own; she had gone and returned as mysteriously as the night itself.
When she slept, she dreamed of the poppy bed on the western slope of the garden. It was twilight, and she stood there with a vial of laudanum in one hand and a necklace of discoloured pearls in the other. She poured the laudanum upon the earth and a great black poppy with a deadly fragrance sprang up at her feet. Then Anthony Dexter drove up in a carriage and took the pearls away from her. She could not see him clearly, because his face was veiled, like her own.
The odour of the black poppy made her faint and she went into the house to escape from it, but the scent of it clung to her garments and hands and could not be washed away.
"From the Depths of his Love"
At seven o'clock, precisely, Anthony Dexter's old housekeeper rang the rising bell. Drowsy with the soporific he had taken, the doctor did not at once respond to the summons. In fact, the breakfast bell had rung before he was fully awake.
He dressed leisurely, and was haunted by a vague feeling that something unpleasant had happened. At length he remembered that just before dusk, in the garden of Evelina Grey's old house, he had seen a ghost—a ghost who confronted him mutely with a thing he had long since forgotten.
"It was subjective, purely," mused Anthony Dexter. "I have been working too hard." His reason was fully satisfied with the plausible explanation, but he was not a man who was likely to have an hallucination of any sort.
He was strong and straight of body, finely muscular, and did not look over forty, though it was more than eight years ago that he had reached the fortieth milestone. His hair was thinning a little at the temples and the rest of it was touched generously with grey. His features were regular and his skin clear. A full beard, closely cropped, hid the weakness of his chin, but did not entirely conceal those fine lines about the mouth which mean cruelty.
Someway, in looking at him, one got the impression of a machine, well-nigh perfect of its kind. His dark eyes were sharp and penetrating. Once they had been sympathetic, but he had outgrown that. His hands were large, white, and well-kept, his fingers knotted, and blunt at the tips. He had, pre-eminently, the hand of the surgeon, capable of swiftness and strength, and yet of delicacy. It was not a hand that would tremble easily; it was powerful and, in a way, brutal.
He was thoroughly self-satisfied, as well he might be, for the entire countryside admitted his skill, and even in the operating rooms of the hospitals in the city not far distant. Doctor Dexter's name was well known. He had thought seriously, at times, of seeking a wider field, but he liked the country and the open air, and his practice would give Ralph the opportunity he needed. At his father's death, the young physician would fail heir to a practice which had taken many years of hard work to build up.
At the thought of Ralph, the man's face softened a trifle and his keen eyes became a little less keen. The boy's picture was before him upon his chiffonier. Ralph was twenty-three now and would finish in a few weeks at a famous medical school—Doctor Dexter's own alma mater. He had not been at home since he entered the school, having undertaken to do in three years the work which usually required four.
He wrote frequently, however, and Doctor Dexter invariably went to the post-office himself on the days Ralph's letters were expected. He had the entire correspondence on file and whiled away many a lonely evening by reading and re-reading the breezy epistles. The last one was in his pocket now.
"To think, Father," Ralph had written, "in three weeks more or less, I shall be at home with my sheepskin and a fine new shingle with 'Dr. Ralph Dexter' painted on it, all ready to hang up on the front of the house beside yours. I'll be glad to get out of the grind for a while, I can tell you that. I've worked as His Satanic Majesty undoubtedly does when he receives word that a fresh batch of Mormons has hit the trail for the good-intentions pavement. Decensus facilis Averni. That's about all the Latin I've got left.
"At first, I suppose, there won't be much for me to do. I'll have to win the confidence of the community by listening to the old ladies' symptoms three or four hours a day, regularly. Finally, they'll let me vaccinate the kids and the rest will be pitifully easy. Kids always like me, for some occult reason, and if the children cry for me, it won't be long till I've got your whole blooming job away from you. Never mind, though, dad—I'll be generous and whack up, as you've always done with me."
Remembering the boyishness of it, Anthony Dexter smiled a little and took another satisfying look at the pictured face before him. Ralph's eyes were as his father's had been—frank and friendly and clear, with no hint of suspicion. His chin was firm and his mouth determined, but the corners of it turned up decidedly, and the upper lip was short. The unprejudiced observer would have seen merely an honest, intelligent, manly young fellow, who looked as if he might be good company. Anthony Dexter saw all this—and a great deal more.
It was his pride that he was unemotional. By rigid self-discipline, he had wholly mastered himself. His detachment from his kind was at first spasmodic, then exceptionally complete. Excepting Ralph, his relation to the world was that of an unimpassioned critic. He was so sure of his own ground that he thought he considered Ralph impersonally, also.
Over a nature which, at the beginning, was warmly human, Doctor Dexter had laid this glacial mask. He did what he had to do with neatness and dispatch. If an operation was necessary, he said so at once, not troubling himself to approach the subject gradually. If there was doubt as to the outcome, he would cheerfully advise the patient to make a will first, but there was seldom doubt, for those white, blunt fingers were very sure. He believed in the clean-cut, sudden stroke, and conducted his life upon that basis.
Without so much as the quiver of an eyelash, Anthony Dexter could tell a man that within an hour his wife would be dead. He could predict the death of a child, almost to the minute, without a change in his mask-like expression, and feel a faint throb of professional pride when his prediction was precisely fulfilled. The people feared him, respected him, and admired his skill, but no one loved him except his son.
Among all his acquaintances, there was none who called him friend except Austin Thorpe, the old minister who had but lately come to town. This, in itself, was no distinction, for Thorpe was the friend of every man, woman, child, and animal in the village. No two men could have been more unlike, but friendship, like love, is often a matter of chemical affinity, wherein opposites rush together in obedience to a hidden law.
The broadly human creed of the minister included every living thing, and the man himself interested Doctor Dexter in much the same way that a new slide for his microscope might interest him. They exchanged visits frequently when the duties of both permitted, and the Doctor reflected that, when Ralph came, Thorpe would be lonely.
The Dexter house was an old one but it had been kept in good repair. From time to time, wings had been added to the original structure, until now it sprawled lazily in every direction. One wing, at the right of the house, contained the Doctor's medical library, office, reception room, and laboratory. Doors were arranged in metropolitan fashion, so that patients might go out of the office without meeting any one. The laboratory, at the back of the wing, was well fitted with modern appliances for original research, and had, too, its own outside door.
When Ralph came home, the other wing, at the left of the house, was to be arranged in like manner for him if he so desired. Doctor Dexter had some rough drawings under consideration, but wanted Ralph to order the plans in accordance with his own ideas.
The breakfast bell rang again, and Doctor Dexter went downstairs. The servant met him in the hall. "Breakfast is waiting, sir," she said.
"All right," returned the Doctor, absently. "I'll be there in a moment."
He opened the door for a breath of fresh air, and immediately perceived the small, purple velvet box at his feet. He picked it up, wonderingly, and opened it.
Inside were the discoloured pearls on their bed of yellowed satin, and the ivory-tinted slip of paper on which he had written, so long ago, in his clear, boyish hand: "First, from the depths of the sea, and then from the depths of my love."
Being unemotional, he experienced nothing at first, save natural surprise. He stood there, staring into vacancy, idly fingering the pearls. By some evil magic of the moment, the hour seemed set back a full quarter of a century. As though it were yesterday, he saw Evelina before him.
She had been a girl of extraordinary beauty and charm. He had travelled far and seen many, but there had been none like Evelina. How he had loved her, in those dead yesterdays, and how she had loved him! The poignant sweetness of it came back, changed by some fatal alchemy into bitterness.
Anthony Dexter had seen enough of the world to recognise cowardice when he saw it, even in himself. His books had taught him that the mind could hold but one thought at a time, and, persistently, he had displaced the unpleasant ones which constantly strove for the right of possession.
Hard work and new love and daily wearying of the body to the point of exhaustion had banished those phantoms of earlier years, save in his dreams. At night, the soul claims its own—its right to suffer for its secret sins, its shirking, its betrayals.
It is not pleasant for a man to be branded, in his own consciousness, a coward. Refusal to admit it by day does not change the hour of the night when life is at its lowest ebb, and, sleepless, man faces himself as he is.
The necklace slipped snakily over his hand—one of those white, firm hands which could guide the knife so well—and Anthony Dexter shuddered. He flung the box far from him into the shrubbery, went back into the house, and slammed the door.
He sat down at the table, but could not eat. The Past had come from its grave, veiled, like the ghost in the garden that he had seen yesterday.
It was not an hallucination, then. Only one person in the world could have laid those discoloured pearls at his door in the dead of night. The black figure in the garden, with the chiffon fluttering about its head, was Evelina Grey—or what was left of her.
"Why?" he questioned uneasily of himself. "Why?" He had repeatedly told himself that any other man, in his position, would do as he had done, yet it was as though some one had slipped a stiletto under his armour and found a vulnerable spot.
Before his mental vision hovered two women. One was a girl of twenty, laughing, exquisitely lovely. The other was a bent and broken woman in black, whose veil concealed the dreadful hideousness of her face.
"Pshaw!" grumbled Doctor Dexter, aloud. "I've overworked, that's all."
He determined to vanquish the spectre that had reared itself before him, not perceiving that Remorse incarnate, in the shape of Evelina, had come back to haunt him until his dying day.
"Araminta," said Miss Mehitable, "go and get your sewing and do your stent."
"Yes, Aunt Hitty," answered the girl, obediently.
Each year, Araminta made a new patchwork quilt. Seven were neatly folded and put away in an old trunk in the attic. The eighth was progressing well, but the young seamstress was becoming sated with quilts. She had never been to school, but Miss Mehitable had taught her all she knew. Unkind critics might have intimated that Araminta had not been taught much, but she could sew nicely, keep house neatly, and write a stilted letter in a queer, old-fashioned hand almost exactly like Miss Mehitable's.
That valiant dame saw no practical use in further knowledge. She was concerned with no books except the Bible and the ancient ledger in which, with painstaking exactness, she kept her household accounts. She deemed it wise, moreover, that Araminta should not know too much.
From a drawer in the high, black-walnut bureau in the upper hall, Araminta drew forth an assortment of red, white, and blue cotton squares and diamonds. This was to be a "patriotic" quilt, made after a famous old pattern which Miss Hitty had selfishly refused to give to any one else, though she had often been asked for it by contemporary ladies of similar interests.
The younger generation was inclined to scout at quilt-making, and needlework heresy was rampant in the neighbourhood. Tatting, crocheting, and knitting were on the wane. An "advanced" woman who had once spent a Summer in the village had spread abroad the delights of Battenberg and raised embroidery. At all of these, Miss Hitty sniffed contemptuously.
"Quilt makin' was good enough for their mas and their grandmas," she said scornfully, "and I reckon it's good enough for anybody else. I've no patience with such things."
Araminta knew that. She had never forgotten the vial of wrath which broke upon her luckless head the day she had timorously suggested making lace as a pleasing change from unending quilts.
She sat now, in a low rocker by the window, with one foot upon a wobbly stool. A marvellous cover, of Aunt Hitty's making, which dated back to her frivolous and girlish days, was underneath. Nobody ever saw it, however, and the gaudy woollen roses blushed unseen. A white linen cover, severely plain, was put upon the footstool every Wednesday and every Saturday, year in and year out.
Unlike most good housewives, Miss Mehitable used her parlour every day in the week. She was obliged to, in fact, for it was the only room in her house, except Mr. Thorpe's, which commanded an unobstructed view of the crossroads. A cover of brown denim protected the carpet, and the chairs were shrouded in shapeless habiliments of cambric and calico. For the rest, however, the room was mildly cheerful, and had a habitable look which was distinctly uncommon in village parlours.
There was a fireplace, which was dusted and scrubbed at intervals, but never, under any circumstances, profaned by a fire. It was curtained by a gay remnant of figured plush, however, so nobody missed the fire. White and gold china vases stood on the mantel, and a little china dog, who would never have dared to bark had he been alive, so chaste and humble of countenance was he, sat forever between the two vases, keeping faithful guard over Miss Mehitable's treasures.
The silver coffin plates of the Smiths, matted with black, and deeply framed, occupied the place of honour over the mantel. On the marble-topped table in the exact centre of the room was a basket of wax flowers and fruit, covered by a bell-shaped glass shade. Miss Hitty's album and her Bible were placed near it with mathematical precision. On the opposite wall was a hair wreath, made from the shorn locks of departed Smiths by Miss Hitty's mother. The proud possessor felt a covert reproach in the fact that she herself was unable to make hair wreaths. It was a talent for which she had great admiration.
Araminta rocked back and forth in her low chair by the window. She hummed a bit of "Sweet Bye and Bye" to herself, for hymns were the only songs she knew. She could play some of them, with one hand, on the melodeon in the corner, but she dared not touch the yellow keys of the venerated instrument except when Miss Hitty was out.
The sunlight shone lovingly on Araminta's brown hair, tightly combed back, braided, and pinned up, but rippling riotously, none the less. Her deep, thoughtful eyes were grey and her nose turned up coquettishly. To a guardian of greater penetration, Araminta's mouth would have given deep concern. It was a demure, rosy mouth, warning and tantalising by turns. Mischievous little dimples lurked in the corners of it, and even Aunt Hitty was not proof against the magic of Araminta's smile. The girl's face had the creamy softness of a white rose petal, but her cheeks bloomed with the flush of health and she had a most disconcerting trick of blushing. With Spartan thoroughness, Miss Mehitable constantly strove to cure Araminta of this distressing fault, but as yet she had not succeeded.
The pretty child had grown into an exquisitely lovely woman, to her stern guardian's secret uneasiness. "It's goin' to be harder to keep Minty right than 't would be if she was plain," mused Miss Hitty, "but t guess I'll be given strength to do it. I've done well by her so far."
"In the Sweet Bye and Bye," sang Araminta, in a piping, girlish soprano, "we shall meet on that beautiful shore."
"Maybe we shall and maybe we sha'n't," said Miss Hitty, grimly. "Some folks 'll never see the beautiful shore. They'll go to the bad place."
Araminta lifted her great, grey, questioning eyes. "Why?" she asked, simply.
"Because they've been bad," answered Miss Hitty, defiantly.
"But if they didn't know any better?" queried Araminta, threading her needle. "Would they go to the bad place just because they didn't know?"
Miss Mehitable squirmed in her chair, for never before had Araminta spoken thus. "There's no excuse for their not knowin'," she said, sharply.
"Perhaps not," sighed Araminta, "but it seems dreadful to think of people being burned up just for ignorance. Do you think I'll be burned up, Aunt Hitty?" she continued, anxiously. "There's so many things I don't know!"
Miss Mehitable set herself firmly to her task. "Araminta Lee," she said, harshly, "don't get to bothering about what you don't know. That's the sure way to perdition. I've told you time and time again what's right for you to believe and what's right for you to do. You walk in that path and turn neither to the right nor the left, and you won't have no trouble—here or anywheres else."
"Yes, Aunt Hitty," said the girl, dutifully. "It must be awful to be burned."
Miss Mehitable looked about her furtively, then drew her chair closer to Araminta's. "That brings to my mind something I wanted to speak to you about, and I don't know but what this is as good a chance as any. You know where I told you to go the other day with the tray, and to set it down at the back door, and rap, and run?"
"Yes." Araminta's eyes were wide open now. She had wondered much at her mysterious errand, but had not dared to ask questions.
"Well," continued Aunt Hitty, after an aggravating pause, "the woman that lives in that house has been burnt."
Araminta gasped. "Oh, Aunt Hitty, was she bad? What did she do and how did she get burned before she was dead?"
Miss Mehitable brushed aside the question as though it were an annoying fly. "I don't want it talked of," she said, severely. "Evelina Grey was a friend of mine, and she is yet. If there's anything on earth I despise, it's a gossip. People who haven't anything better to do than to go around prying into other folks's affairs are better off dead, I take it. My mother never permitted me to gossip, and I've held true to her teachin'." Aunt Hitty smoothed her skirts with superior virtue and tied a knot in her thread.
"How did she get burned?" asked Araminta, eagerly.
"Gossip," said Miss Mehitable, sententiously, "does a lot of harm and makes a lot of folks miserable. It's a good thing to keep away from, and if I ever hear of your gossiping about anybody, I'll shut you up in your room for two weeks and keep you on bread and water."
Araminta trembled. "What is gossiping, Aunt Hitty?" she asked in a timid, awe-struck tone.
"Talking about folks," explained Miss Hitty. "Tellin' things about 'em they wouldn't tell themselves."
It occurred to Araminta that much of the conversation at the crossroads might appropriately be classed under that head, but, of course, Aunt Hitty knew what she was talking about. She remembered the last quilting Aunt Hitty had given, when the Ladies' Aid Society had been invited, en masse, to finish off the quilt Araminta's rebellious fingers had just completed. One of the ladies had been obliged to leave earlier than the rest, and——
"I don't believe," thought Araminta, "that Mrs. Gardner would have told how her son ran away from home, nor that she didn't dust her bed slats except at house-cleaning time, nor that they ate things other people would give to the pigs."
"I expect there'll be a lot of questions asked about Evelina," observed Miss Mehitable, breaking in rudely upon Araminta's train of thought, "as soon 's folks finds out she's come back to live here, and that she has to wear a veil all the time, even when she doesn't wear her hat. What I'm telling you for is to show you what happens to women that haven't sense enough to keep away from men. If Evelina 'd kept away from Doctor Dexter, she wouldn't have got burnt."
"Did Doctor Dexter burn her?" asked Araminta, breathlessly. "I thought it was God."
At the psychological moment, Doctor Dexter drove by, bowing to Miss Mehitable as he passed. Araminta had observed that this particular event always flustered her aunt.
"Maybe, it was God and maybe it was Doctor Dexter," answered Miss Mehitable, quickly. "That's something there don't nobody know except Evelina and Doctor Dexter, and it's not for me to ask either one of 'em, though I don't doubt some of the sewin' society 'll make an errand to Evelina's to find out. I've got to keep 'em off 'n her, if I can, and that's a big job for one woman to tackle.
"Anyhow, she got burnt and got burnt awful, and it was at his house that it happened. It was shameless, the way Evelina carried on. Why, if you'll believe me, she'd actually go to his house when there wa'n't no need of it—nobody sick, nor no medicine to be bought, nor anything. Some said they was goin' to be married."
The scorn which Miss Mehitable managed to throw into the word "married" indicated that the state was the crowning ignominy of the race. The girl's cheek flamed into crimson, for her own mother had been married, and everybody knew it. Sometimes the deep disgrace seemed almost too much for Araminta to endure.
"That's what comes of it," explained Miss Hitty, patiently, as a teacher might point to a demonstration clearly made out on a blackboard for an eager class. "If she'd stayed at home as a girl should stay, and hadn't gone to Doctor Dexter's, she wouldn't have got burnt. Anybody can see that.
"There was so much goin' on at the time that I sorter lost track of everything, otherwise I'd have known more about it, but I guess I know as much as anybody ever knew. Evelina was to Doctor Dexter's—shameless hussy that she was—and she got burnt. She was there all the afternoon and they took her to the hospital in the city on the night train and she stayed there until she was well, but she never came back here until just now. Her mother went with her to take care of her and before Evelina came out of the hospital, her mother keeled over and died. Sarah Grey always had a weak heart and a weak head to match it. If she hadn't have had, she'd have brought up Evelina different,
"Neither of 'em was ever in the house again. Neither one ever came back, even for their clothes. They had plenty of money, then, and they just bought new ones. When the word come that Evelina was burnt, Sarah Grey just put on her hat and locked her doors and run up to Doctor Dexter's. Nobody ever heard from them again until Jim Gardner's second cousin on his father's side sent a paper with Sarah Grey's obituary in it. And now, after twenty-five years, Evelina's come back.
"The poor soul's just sittin' there, in all the dust and cobwebs. When I get time, I aim to go over there and clean up the house for her—'t ain't decent for a body to live like that. I'll take you with me, to help scrub, and what I'm telling you all this for is so 's you won't ask any questions, nor act as if you thought it was queer for a woman to wear a white veil all the time. You'll have to act as if nothing was out of the way at all, and not look at her any more than you can help. Just pretend it's the style to wear a veil pinned to your hair all the time, and you've been wearin' one right along and have forgot and left it to home. Do you understand me?"
"Yes, Aunt Hitty."
"And when people come here to find out about it, you're not to say anything. Leave it all to me. 'T ain't necessary for you to lie, but you can keep your mouth shut. And I hope you see now what it means to a woman to walk straight on her own path that the Lord has laid out for her, and to let men alone. They're pizen, every one of 'em."
Nun-like, Araminta sat in her chair and sewed steadily at her dainty seam, but, none the less, she was deeply stirred with pity for women who so forgot themselves—who had not Aunt Hitty's superior wisdom. At the end of the prayer which Miss Mehitable had taught the child, and which the woman still repeated in her nightly devotions, was this eloquent passage:
"And, Oh Lord, keep me from the contamination of marriage. For Thy sake. Amen."
"Araminta," said Aunt Hitty, severely, "cover up your foot!" Modestly, Araminta drew down her skirt. One foot was on the immaculate footstool and her ankle was exposed to view—a lovely ankle, in spite of the broad-soled, common-sense shoes which she always wore.
"How often have I told you to keep your ankles covered ?" demanded Miss Mehitable. "Suppose the minister had come in suddenly! Suppose—upon my word! Speakin' of angels—if there ain't the minister now!"
The Reverend Austin Thorpe came slowly up the brick-bordered path, his head bowed in thought. He was painfully near-sighted, but he refused to wear glasses. On the doorstep he paused and wiped his feet upon the corn-husk mat until even Miss Mehitable, beaming at him through the window, thought he was overdoing it. Unconsciously, she took credit to herself for the minister's neatness.
Stepping carefully, lest he profane the hall carpet by wandering off the rug, the minister entered the parlour, having first taken off his coat and hat and hung them upon their appointed hooks in the hall. It was cold, and the cheery warmth of the room beckoned him in. He did not know that he tried Miss Hitty by trespassing, so to speak, upon her preserves. She would have been better pleased if he remained in his room when he was not at the table or out, but, to do him justice, the reverend gentleman did not often offend her thus.
Araminta, blushing, took her foot from the footstool and pulled feverishly at her skirts. As Mr. Thorpe entered the room, she did not look up, but kept her eyes modestly upon her work.
"There ain't no need to tear out the gathers," Miss Hitty said, in a warning undertone, referring to Aramlnta's skirts. "Why, Mr. Thorpe! How you surprised me! Come in and set a spell," she added, grudgingly.
Steering well away from the centre-table with its highly prized ornament, Thorpe gained the chair in which, if he did not lean against the tidy, he was permitted to sit. He held himself bolt upright and warmed his hands at the stove. "It is good to be out," he said, cheerfully, "and good to come in again. A day like this makes one appreciate the blessing of a home."
Miss Hitty watched the white-haired, inoffensive old man with the keen scrutiny of an eagle guarding its nest. He did not lean upon the tidy, nor rest his elbows upon the crocheted mats which protected the arms of the chair. In short, he conducted himself as a gentleman should when in the parlour of a lady.
His blue, near-sighted eyes rested approvingly upon Araminta. "How the child grows!" he said, with a friendly smile upon his kindly old face. "Soon we shall have a young lady on our hands."
Araminta coloured and bent more closely to her sewing.
"I hope I'm not annoying you?" questioned the minister, after an interval.
"Not at all," said Miss Mehitable, politely.
"I wanted to ask about some one," pursued the Reverend Mr. Thorpe. "It seems that there is a new tenant in the old house on the hill that has been empty for so long—the one the village people say is haunted. It seems a woman is living there, quite alone; and she always wears a veil, on account of some—some disfigurement."
Miss Hitty's false teeth clicked, sharply, but there was no other sound except the clock, which, in the pause, struck four. "I thought—" continued the minister, with a rising inflection.
Hitherto, he had found his hostess of invaluable assistance in his parish work. It had been necessary to mention only the name. As upon the turning of a faucet a stream of information gushed forth from the fountain of her knowledge. Age, date and place of birth, ancestry on both sides three generations back, with complete and illuminating biographical details of ancestry and individual; education, financial standing, manner of living, illnesses in the family, including dates and durations of said illnesses, accidents, if any, medical attendance, marriages, births, deaths, opinions, reverses, present locations and various careers of descendants, list of misfortunes, festivities, entertainments, church affiliation past and present, political leanings, and a vast amount of other personal data had been immediately forthcoming. Tagged to it, like the postscript of a woman's letter, was Miss Hitty's own concise, permanent, neatly labelled opinion of the family or individual, the latter thrown in without extra charge.
"Perhaps you didn't know," remarked the minister, "that such a woman had come." His tone was inquiring. It seemed to him that something must be wrong if she did not know.
"Minty," said Miss Hitty, abruptly, "leave the room!"
Araminta rose, gathered up her patchwork, and went out, carefully closing the door. It was only in moments of great tenderness that her aunt called her "Minty."
The light footsteps died away upon the stairs. Tactlessly, the minister persisted. "Don't you know?" he asked.
Miss Mehitable turned upon him. "If I did," she replied, hotly, "I wouldn't tell any prying, gossiping man. I never knew before it was part of a minister's business to meddle in folks' private affairs. You'd better be writing your sermon and studyin' up on hell."
"I—I—" stammered the minister, taken wholly by surprise, "I only hoped to give her the consolation of the church."
"Consolation nothing!" snorted Miss Hitty. "Let her alone!" She went out of the room and slammed the door furiously, leaving the Reverend Austin Thorpe overcome with deep and lasting amazement.
Pipes o' Pan
Sleet had fallen in the night, but at sunrise, the storm ceased. Miss Evelina had gone to sleep, lulled into a sense of security by the icy fingers tapping at her cobwebbed window pane. She awoke in a transfigured world. Every branch and twig was encased in crystal, upon which the sun was dazzling. Jewels, poised in midair, twinkled with the colours of the rainbow. On the tip of the cypress at the gate was a ruby, a sapphire gleamed from the rose-bush, and everywhere were diamonds and pearls.
Frosty vapour veiled the spaces between the trees and javelins of sunlight pierced it here and there. Beyond, there were glimpses of blue sky, and drops of water, falling from the trees, made a musical, cadence upon the earth beneath.
Miss Evelina opened her window still more. The air was peculiarly soft and sweet. It had the fragrance of opening buds and growing things and still had not lost the tang of the frost.
She drew a long breath of it and straightway was uplifted, though seemingly against her will. Spring was stirring at the heart of the world, sending new currents of sap into the veins of the trees, new aspirations into dead roots and fibres, fresh hopes of bloom into every sleeping rose. Life incarnate knocked at the wintry tomb; eager, unseen hands were rolling away the stone. The tide of the year was rising, soon to break into the wonder of green boughs and violets, shimmering wings and singing winds.
The cold hand that clutched her heart took a firmer hold. With acute self-pity, she perceived her isolation. Of all the world, she alone was set apart; branded, scarred, locked in a prison house that had no door. The one release was denied her until she could get away.
Poverty had driven her back. Circumstances outside her control had pushed her through the door she had thought never to enter again. Through all the five-and-twenty years, she had thought of the house with a shudder, peopling it with a thousand terrors, not knowing that there was no terror save her own fear.
Sorrow had put its chains upon her suddenly, at a time when she had not the strength to break the bond. At first she had struggled; then ceased. Since then, her faculties had been in suspense, as it were. She had forgotten laughter, veiled herself from joy, and walked hand in hand with the grisly phantom of her own conjuring.
Behind the shelter of her veil she had mutely prayed for peace—she dared not ask for more. And peace had never come. Her crowning humiliation would be to meet Anthony Dexter face to face—to know him, and to have him know her. Not knowing where he was, she had travelled far to avoid him. Now, seeking the last refuge, the one place on earth where he could not be, she found herself separated from him by less than a mile. More than that, she had gone to his house, as she had gone on the fateful day a quarter of a century ago. She had taken back the pearls, and had not died in doing it. Strangely enough, it had given her a vague relief.
Miss Evelina's mind had paused at twenty; she had not grown. The acute suffering of Youth was still upon her, a woman of forty-five. It was as though a clock had gone on ticking and the hands had never moved; the dial of her being was held at that dread hour, while her broken heart beat on.
She had not discovered that secret compensation which clings to the commonest affairs of life. One sees before him a mountain of toil, an apparently endless drudgery from which there is no escape. Having once begun it, an interest appears unexpectedly; new forces ally themselves with the fumbling hands. Misfortunes come, "not singly, but in battalions." After the first shock of realisation, one perceives through the darkness that the strength to bear them has come also, like some good angel.
A lover shudders at the thought of Death, yet knows that some day, on the road they walk together, the Grey Angel with the white poppies will surely take one of them by the hand. The road winds through shadows, past many strange and difficult places, and wrecks are strewn all along the way. They laugh at the storms that beat upon them, take no reck of bruised feet nor stumbling, for, behold, they are together, and in that one word lies all.
Sometimes, in the mist ahead, which, as they enter it, is seen to be wholly of tears, the road forks blindly, and there is nothing but night ahead for each. The Grey Angel with the unfathomable eyes approaches slowly, with no sound save the hushed murmur of wings. The dread white poppies are in his outstretched hand—the great, nodding white poppies which have come from the dank places and have never known the sun.
There is no possible denial. At first, one knows only that the faithful hand has grown cold, then, that it has unclasped. In the intolerable darkness, one fares forth alone on the other fork of the road, too stricken for tears.
At length there is a change. Memories troop from the shadow to whisper consolation, to say that Death himself is powerless against Love, when a heart is deep enough to hold a grave. The clouds lift, and through the night comes some stray gleam of dawn. No longer cold, the dear hand nestles once more into the one that held it so long. Not as an uncertain presence but as a loved reality, that other abides with him still.
Shut out forever from the possibility of estrangement, for there is always that drop of bitterness in the cup of Life and Love; eternally beyond the reach of misunderstanding or change, spared the pitfalls and disasters of the way ahead, blinded no longer by the mists of earth, but immortally and unchangeably his, that other fares with him, though unseen, upon the selfsame road.
From the broken night comes singing, for the white poppies have also brought balm. Step by step, his Sorrow has become his friend, and at the last, when the old feet are weary and the steep road has grown still more steep, the Grey Angel comes once more.
Past the mist of tears in which he once was shrouded, the face of the Grey Angel is seen to be wondrously kind. By his mysterious alchemy, he has crystallised the doubtful waters, which once were in the cup of Life and Love, into a jewel which has no flaw. He has kept the child forever a child, caught the maiden at the noon of her beauty to enshrine her thus for always in the heart that loved her most; made the true and loving comrade a comrade always, though on the highways of the vast Unknown.
It is seen now that the road has many windings and that, unconsciously, the wayfarer has turned back. Eagerly the trembling hands reach forward to take the white poppies, and the tired eyes close as though the silken petals had already fluttered downward on the lids, for, radiant past all believing, the Grey Angel still holds the Best Beloved by the hand, and the roads that long ago had forked in darkness, have come together, in more than mortal dawn, at the selfsame place.
Upon the beauty of the crystalline March morning, the memory of the Winter sorrow still lay. The bare, brown earth was not wholly hidden by the mantle of sleet and snow, yet there was some intangible Easter close at hand. Miss Evelina felt it, stricken though she was.
From a distant thicket came a robin's cheery call, a glimmer of blue wings flashed across the desolate garden, a south wind stirred the bending, icy branches to a tinkling music, and she knew that Spring had come to all but her.
Some indefinite impulse sent her outdoors. Closely veiled, she started off down the road, looking neither to the right nor the left. Miss Hitty saw her pass, but graciously forbore to call to her; Araminta looked up enquiringly from her sewing, but the question died on her lips.
Down through the village she went, across the tracks, and up to the river road. It had been a favourite walk of hers in her girlhood. Then she had gone with a quick, light step; now she went slowly, like one grown old.
Yet, all unconsciously, life was quickening in her pulses; the old magic of Spring was stirring in her, too. Dark and deep, the waters of the river rolled dreamily by, waiting for the impulse which should send the shallows singing to the sea, and stir the depths to a low, murmurous symphony.
Upon the left, as she walked, the road was bordered with elms and maples, stretching far back to the hills. The woods were full of unsuspected ravines and hollows, queer winding paths, great rocks, and tiny streams. The children had called it the enchanted forest, and played that a fairy prince and princess dwelt therein.
The childhood memories came back to Evelina with a pang. She stopped to wipe away the tears beneath her veil, to choke back a sob that tightened her throat. Suddenly, she felt a presentiment of oncoming evil, a rushing destiny that could not be swerved aside. Frightened, she turned to go back; then stopped again.
From above, on the upper part of the road, came the tread of horse's feet and the murmur of wheels. Her face paled to marble, her feet refused to move. The heart within her stood portentously still. With downcast eyes she stood there, petrified, motionless, like a woman carved in stone and clothed in black, veiled impenetrably in chiffon.
At a furious pace, Anthony Dexter dashed by, his face as white as her chiffon. She had known unerringly who was coming; and had felt the searing consciousness of his single glance before, with a muttered oath, he had lashed his horse to a gallop. This, then, was the last; there was nothing more.
The sound of the wheels died away in the distance. He had the pearls, he had seen her, he knew that she had come back. And still she lived.
Clear and high, like a bugle call, a strain of wild music came from the enchanted forest. Evelina threw back her head, gasping for breath; her sluggish feet stirred forward. Some forgotten valour of her spirit leaped to answer the summons, as a soldier, wounded unto death, turns to follow the singing trumpets that lead the charge.
Strangely soft and tender, the strain came again, less militant, less challenging. Swiftly upon its echo breathed another, hinting of peace. Shaken to her inmost soul by agony, she took heed of the music with the precise consciousness one gives to trifles at moments of unendurable stress. Blindly she turned into the forest.
"What was it?" she asked herself, repeatedly, wondering that she could even hear at a time like this. A bird? No, there was never a bird to sing like that. Almost it might be Pan himself with his syrinx, walking abroad on the first day of Spring.
The fancy appealed to her strongly, her swirling senses having become exquisitely acute. "Pipes o' Pan," she whispered, "I will find and follow you." To see the face of Pan meant death, according to the old Greek legend, but death was something of which she was not afraid.
Lyric, tremulous, softly appealing, the music came again. The bare boughs bent with their chiming crystal, and a twig fell at her feet, Sunlight starred the misty distance with pearl; shining branches swayed to meet her as she passed.
Farther in the wood, she turned, unconsciously in pursuit of that will-o'-the-wisp of sound. Here and there out of the silence, it came to startle her; to fill her with strange forebodings which were not wholly of pain.
Some subliminal self guided her, for heart and soul were merged in a quivering ecstasy of torture which throbbed and thundered and overflowed. "He saw me! He saw me! He saw me! He knew me! He knew me! He knew me!" In a triple rhythm the words vibrated back and forth unceasingly, as though upon a weaver's shuttle.
For nearly an hour she went blindly in search of the music, pausing now and then to listen intently, at times disheartened enough to turn back. She had a mad fancy that Death was calling her, from some far height, because Anthony Dexter had passed her on the road.
Now trumpet-like and commanding, now tender and appealing, the mystic music danced about her capriciously. Her feet grew weary, but the blood and the love of life had begun to move in her, too, when her whole nature was unspeakably stirred. She paused and leaned against a tree, to listen for the pipes o' Pan. But all was silent; the white stillness of the enchanted forest was like that of another world. With a sigh, she turned to the left, reflecting that a long walk straight through the woods would bring her out on the other road at a point near her own home.
Exquisitely faint and tender, the call rang out again. It was like some far flute of April blown in a March dawn. "Oh, pipes o' Pan," breathed Evelina, behind her shielding veil; "I pray you find me! I pray you, give me joy—or death!"
Swiftly the music answered, like a trumpet chanting from a height. Scarcely knowing what she did, she began to climb the hill. It was a more difficult way, but a nearer one, for just beyond the hill was her house.
Half-way up the ascent, the hill sloped back. There was a small level place where one might rest before going on to the summit. It was not more than a little nook, surrounded by pines. As she came to it, there was a frightened chirp, and a flock of birds fluttered up from her feet, leaving a generous supply of crumbs and grain spread upon the earth.
Against a great tree leaned a man, so brown and shaggy in his short coat that he seemed like part of the tree trunk. He was of medium height, wore high leather gaiters, and a grey felt hat with a long red quill thrust rakishly through the band. His face was round and rosy and the kindest eyes in the world twinkled at Evelina from beneath his bushy eyebrows. At his feet, quietly happy, was a bright-eyed, yellow mongrel with a stubby tail which wagged violently as Evelina approached. Slung over the man's shoulder by a cord was a silver-mounted flute.
From his elevated position, he must have seen her when she entered the wood, and had glimpses of her at intervals ever since. It was evident that he thoroughly enjoyed the musical hide-and-seek he had forced her to play while he was feeding the birds. His eyes laughed and there were mischievous dimples in his round, rosy cheeks.
"Oh," cried Evelina, in a tone of dull disappointment.
"I called you," said the Piper, gently, "and you came."
She turned on her heel and walked swiftly away. She went downhill with more haste than dignity, turned to her right, and struck out through the woods for the main road.
The Piper watched her until she was lost among the trees. The birds came back for their crumbs and grain and he stood patiently until his feathered pensioners had finished and flown away, chirping with satisfaction. Then he stooped to pat the yellow mongrel.
"Laddie," he said, "I'm thinking there's no more gypsying for us just now. To-morrow, we will not pack our shop upon our back and march on, as we had thought to do. Some one needs us here, eh, Laddie?"
The dog capered about his master's feet as if he understood and fully agreed. He was a pitiful sort, even for a mongrel. One of his legs had been broken and unskilfully set, so he did not run quite like other dogs.
"'T isn't a very good leg, Laddie," the Piper observed, "but I'm thinking 't is better than none. Anyway, I did my best with it, and now we'll push on a bit. It's our turn to follow, and we 're fain, Laddie, you and I, to see where she lives."
Bidding the dog stay at heel, the Piper followed Miss Evelina's track. By dint of rapid walking, he reached the main road shortly after she did. Keeping a respectful distance, and walking at the side of the road, he watched her as she went home. From the safe shelter of a clump of alders just below Miss Mehitable's he saw the veiled figure enter the broken gate.
"'T is the old house, Laddie," he said to the dog; "the very one we were thinking of taking ourselves. Come on, now; we'll be going. Down, sir! Home!"
"The Honour of the Spoken Word"
Anthony Dexter sat in his library, alone, as usual. Under the lamp, Ralph's letters were spread out before him, but he was not reading. Indeed, he knew every line of them by heart, but he could not keep his mind upon the letters.
Between his eyes and the written pages there came persistently a veiled figure, clothed shabbily in sombre black. Continually he fancied the horror the veil concealed; continually, out of the past, his cowardice and his shirking arose to confront him.
A photograph of his wife, who had died soon after Ralph was born, had been taken from the drawer. "A pretty, sweet woman," he mused. "A good wife and a good mother." He told himself again that he had loved her—that he loved her still.
Yet behind his thought was sure knowledge. The woman who had entered the secret fastnesses of his soul, and before whom he had trembled, was the one whom he had seen in the dead garden, frail as a ghost, and again on the road that morning.
Dimly, and now for the first time, there came to his perception that recognition of his mate which each man carries in his secret heart when he has found his mate at all. Past the anguish that lay between them like a two-edged sword, and through the mists of the estranging years, Evelina had come back to claim her own.